Friends, enemies, and our redemptive instinct

Perhaps at the moment of murdering Goliath, David fathomed the extent of his desire, had understood the true scale of his own passion, and that something about this had unsettled him. Perhaps the moment he ended his opponent’s life, David was overcome by the temptation, now forever thwarted, to try to see things through Goliath’s eyes. Perhaps at that moment David understood the fault: that, because of the adamance of our beliefs and pas-sions, each one of us must live restricted by his or her own perspective. And that this has something to do with re-demption, that our redemptive instinct is found in our unequivocal sympathy for our enemy, and that to be a man is to live in the constant unresolvable tension of these two poles.

Away from the extremes of enemies, a similar desire exists between friends and lovers, perhaps more intensely between old friends and old lovers. Maybe my desire to see the green beside the Sant’Andrea al Quirinale or Loren-zetti’s fresco or Caravaggio’s painting or life itself through Diana’s eyes is the expression of my hunger to achieve, in the words of my Tripoli friend, “complete conquest” over her and to resolve, once and for all, the mystery of her consciousness; but perhaps it is not that at all, but rather the expression of my redemptive instinct, my unequivocal sympathy for her, my desire to be inked by her and therefore momentarily escape the confines of my own exis-tence. Only love and art can do this: only inside a book or in front of a painting can one truly be let into another’s perspective. It has always struck me as a paradox how in the solitary arts there is something intimately communal. And it suddenly became doubtful to me as we lay in Rome, as indeed it was now standing in the Sala dei Nove in Siena, whether I would have written anything or could ever write anything if I had never loved. Implicit in the act of creation is praise, of discovering and naming the world, of acknowledging it, of saying it exists. The French artist Henri Cartier-Bresson had once described taking a photograph as saying “yes,” not the “yes” of approval but that of acknowledgment. In the end, as it is in the beginning, love and art are an expression of faith. How else to function with the limited knowledge we have? Asked if he was a pessimist, the English playwright Edward Bond replied: “Why am I talking to you if it is not a gesture of hope.” Lorenzetti’s Allegory, Caravaggio’s David and indeed the entire history of art can be read as that: a gesture of hope and also of desire, a playing out of the human spirit’s secret ambition to connect with the beloved, to see the world through her eyes, to traverse that tragic private distance between intention and utterance, so that, finally, we might be truly comprehended, and to do this not in order to advocate a position but rather to be truly seen, to be recog-nized, not to be mistaken for someone else, to go on changing while remaining identifiable by those who know us best.

A Month in Siena, Hisham Matar
Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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