A body in a bath; a truck on a body.

Getting hit by a car meant getting hit by the steel-and-rubber reality of my own destructibility, what it is to be a sack of crackable bone and snappable sinews. 

Knocked down by a pickup. Ha. The only thing that did any picking up that day was the ambulance.

On the stretcher, stowed in the back; siren screech, curling wire and mysterious beep; wheel squeak, disinfectant stink; probing fingers and x-ray machine.

I could have sworn this wasn’t a hospital drama when I read the script. I’d rehearsed other lines, a different scene…

But that car punctured the linen of my inner movie screen and let the story seep out at the seams, like the annoying silhouetted torso that pops up in the front row because they really have to use the facilities just when the film’s getting good.  

Life as theatre, as dream. 
Body as soft, susceptible fact. 

Two things, I think, that a particular 16th-century painting brings into contact, not via the brutish force of steel-and-rubber, but with the less thunderous vehicle of oil on wood. 

It’s a painting by –

by whom? No one knows exactly. Of whom? Probably (though not definitely) Gabrielle D’Estrées and one of her sisters. 

Crimson curtains part, a scene is set: women sit side by side, upright, unruffled. Downward slopes of shoulder, prolonged limbs tied off in bows of tiny fingers; mysterious pinch of the partner’s nipple.

But no silken chaise, no coquettish over-the-shoulder gaze. The women are caught in an act that acknowledges the banality of our enfleshed, embodied existence. They’re taking a bath.

Theatre meets fact, dream meets reality.

I watch my leg, ankle, foot turn inky shades of indigo, seeping slowly into radioactive greens and jaundiced yellows, like the remnants on a painter’s palette, or one of those heat-sensitive finger rings you can pick up at junk shops.

A mishap happened.

A hunk of steel on wheels knocked me down like a domino and set off this chameleonic colour-change.

A mishap – let’s come back to that word. Because that’s what this is, seen from the perspective of a distant star, or the grand scale of cosmic time. An infinitesimal blip in the indifference of the universe to its own existence.

Now I’m getting nihilistic.

The trouble is, I’ve got no Archimedean lever to pole-vault myself into the cosmos, no bird-hide in the sky where I can pinch the Earth between my thumb and forefinger like a snap-happy tourist with the Eiffel tower, no spaceship that will let me look down on the dust mote of my own problems.

“The cataclysmic inspiraling of a pair of black holes doomed to merge sends ripples through space-time.”
Image found here.

I need something at earth level, altogether more down to earth.

The sober eyes of Spanish writer and philosopher Miguel de Unamuno are handy here. Unamuno saw human suffering – much as did Nietzsche – not as something to be numbed or narcotised. It is, rather, a vital part of human beingness.

For Unamuno, we live fully only when fully conscious of life’s finite horizon, of our own mortality, of the frangibility of body and mind.

Miguel de Unamuno. Photograph found here.

While this might sound masochistic, or just plain sad, Unamuno’s point was a humane one: suffering – spiritual, physical – is the experience that makes us most capable of loving others who share in life’s suffering. It is what makes us most human.

This doesn’t mean morbidly refusing to take our painkillers, but rather, simply, accepting that certain kinds of suffering are beyond our control, and that we, through them, can become our most human selves.

There is, as there always is and forever will be, so much more to say about this intriguing piece of painterly heritage. Further reading for interested minds (and bodies): Will Fisher’s 1998 essay, ‘Gabrielle’s new clothes: Cultural valuations and evaluations’, Textual Practice, Vol.12, pp.251-267.

Pictures taken from my visit to the Louvre.


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