Doctor DeGroot was puzzled. “Most of my patients are professionals: accountants, engineers, attorneys, business executives. One’s a mathematician. Something they all seem to share in common–other than having cancer, I mean–is that they think there must be a solution to their situation. I’m their doctor, so they expect me to provide it.”
“Why do you think that is?”
“I’m not sure, but I think a lot has to do with their professions. They’re solution-oriented people. They get paid to provide answers. Cancer is a problem. So there must be a solution. They want clear-cut answers. They don’t like ambiguity. But you, in contrast, seem to be comfortable with it. Why is that?”
Doctor DeGroot was right, but I didn’t have an answer to the question. “You’ve been my patient for almost six years now. Your cancer doesn’t seem to be growing, but still… Unlike most guys your age, you’ve never asked for a solution. I’ve been looking at the paintings on your website. A lot of ambiguity there. Like the one called, This Morning Long Ago.”
We looked at the triptych on her laptop. I said that the painting began as an experiment. The protagonist, as in several other works, was a young woman. What would happen, I wondered, if the painting showed events in her life as fragments, and not necessarily in chronological order?
‘”Well, that’s what I mean,” she said. “On the left side of the painting you see a girl and a destroyed house. Some railroad tracks. Behind her, there’s a man in a brown coat carrying a suitcase. But what’s going on? Is he stalking her? Or maybe they’re both together, escaping from something, or someone, and she’s urging him to hurry up?”
“In the middle frame it looks like a woman is brushing her hair on the veranda of the house. Is she the same girl grown up, or a different woman? Why is she in the house in the first place? And what does the title, This Morning Long Ago, have to do with any of this?”
“The image on the right certainly doesn’t give us any answers. A woman–the same one?– is brushing her hair. There’s a storm inside the house and the man’s coat on the wall and the suitcase on the floor are being covered by snow. Inside three empty rooms? People who look for meaning in this must feel pretty frustrated.”
She nodded and laughed when I said the painting would probably be too ambiguous to satisfy her other patients. And I admitted that I was content with the lack of explanation in the work–and the lack of it in many of my other paintings as well. Then I remembered a poem by Rolf Jacobsen (1907-1994) that I had copied in my sketchbook. “OK, Doc, this poem has a title, but I’m not going to tell you what it is, because I think it’s a better poem–more mysterious–without the title.”
Here it is, translated from the Norwegian by Robert Bly:
I am the bird that flutters against your window in the morning,
and your closest friend, whom you can never know,
and blossoms that light up for the blind.
I am the glacier shining over the woods, so pale,
and bronze voices from the cathedral tower.
The thought that suddenly hits you in the middle of the day
and makes you feel so fantastically happy.
I am the one you have loved for many years.
I walk beside you all day and look intently at you
and put my mouth against your heart
though you’re not aware of it.
I am your third arm, your second
shadow, the white one,
whom you cannot accept,
and who can never forget you.
I showed her a later version of the third panel.” Oh, this one is much better. Your original version was so dreary in comparison.”
“But the new painting is just as ambiguous, isn’t it?”
“Of course,” she smiled. “You know–speaking of ambiguity–the title of Jacobsen’s poem wasn’t hard to find. But as soon as I saw it I wished I hadn’t. It’s a better poem without the title. That’s why I like your paintings. Sometimes ambiguity, mystery, not knowing the answer, is more satisfying.”
We talked for a few minutes more; it was our last conversation. At the end of June, Doctor DeGroot retired from her practice and moved to Idaho, “to spend the rest of my days with the woman I love.”
I miss her. My new doctor is fine; he knows his work. Too bad he shows no interest in either art or ambiguity.
2 thoughts to “This Morning Long Ago”
Umberto Eco’s “Opera Aperta” comes to mind in your discussion with the doctor about ambiguity. A work of art, music , literature, can be open or closed in how it is executed and how it is perceived. The open work invites multiple perceptions/interpretations, even for the same viewer/listener/reader on different occasions and under differing circumstances. A closed work admits only one understanding and, I suppose, is similar to political close-mindedness and orthodoxy: uninteresting, boring, but also threatening and dangerous.
This painting, on the other hand, draws many and varied associations among the images themselves and in me as I contemplate the work. There is an eternal return present in the triptych, the threefold nature of the work, the dreamlike quality of many of the images, the age of the building, the railroad tracks leading to somewhere, nowhere, anywhere and back again. Nature insinuated in the mountains, human intervention in the carefully lined trees, and the inevitable wearing down of human creations over time as nature reclaims its world, all of these and many more associations: innocence in the morning task of combing hair, guilt, perhaps, in the departure of the couple. Are they together like Adam and Eve in Masaccio’s “Expulsion from Eden,” or are they fleeing, or parting from each other? And the title of the work, the wonderfully ambiguous, almost impossible “This Morning Long Ago.” Almost impossible, but not so at all because there it is right in front of me, the palpable reality of the painting and the undeniable title.
The Open Work invites multiplicity of perception and interpretation that never really solidify into a single meaning. Perhaps ambiguity, not variety, is the spice of life. This is a work that invites the viewer to come back over and over again, the “Eternal Return” in yet another form.
Too bad obligate problem solvers can’t taste ambiguity’s deliciousness. Abraham Maslow pointed out that comfort with ambiguity is a hallmark of sanity, and you got it, Bro.