On Love, Locks and Lockdown

It’s Friday and the wind is picking up. I can hear its ominous whisper rising and falling through the louvres, filling my apartment with an aural presence – half whistle half whine. What’s the weekend going to be like? Mindlessly, I pick up my mobile to check the weather forecast. The last vestiges of summer … Continued

Le Verrou (The Bolt) By Jean-Honoré Fragonard , 1777
Image source: The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=151002

It’s Friday and the wind is picking up. I can hear its ominous whisper rising and falling through the louvres, filling my apartment with an aural presence – half whistle half whine. What’s the weekend going to be like? Mindlessly, I pick up my mobile to check the weather forecast. The last vestiges of summer are being bandied about by conflicting currents that course through the agitated air. Hot and cool streams will crash before long. I wait for it to happen.

At times like this, as I stare out at the horizon, preparing for a distant spectacle of fire and rain, I feel strangely unique. I sometimes wonder if, as Douglas Coupland observed, feeling unique is actually an indication of being unique. I’m not sure.

But then of course this introspective banter is hardly ever the issue of a sound and spirited social life. It is the kind of mental activity that is brought about by hours spent in isolation. During the recent lockdown, for example, as I sat writing and reading opposite the entrance to my flat, I noticed I found the sight of my locked front door quite disturbing. Never before have I had the opportunity to contemplate a closed door for so long, and, the more I stared at it during this period of obligatory confinement, the more I understood how it could play dangerously with the mind, giving birth to all manner of gloomy emotions. It is a symbol of the divide between two worlds, two states of mind. Behind it, life carries on with its typical semblance of normality, growing gradually distant, impervious and inaccessible.

‘I sleep but my heart is awake’. I love this superimposition of two states of mind that is described in the Song of Songs, in my opinion the most erotic poem of all time. The symbol of a locked door is often present in this supremely beautiful text. Take this passage for example:

The Outcast (Despair), c. 1496, By Sandro Botticelli
Image source: The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=148130


‘My beloved thrust his hand through the latch opening./ My heart pounded for him./ I rose up to open for my beloved./ My hands dripped with myrrh,/ my fingers with liquid myrrh,/ on the handles of the lock./ I opened to my beloved;/ but my beloved left; and had gone away./ My heart went out when he spoke./ I looked for him, but I didn’t find him./ I called him, but he didn’t answer./ The watchmen who go about the city found me./ They beat me./ They bruised me./ The keepers of the walls took my cloak away from me./ I adjure you, daughters of Jerusalem,/ if you find my beloved,/ that you tell him that I am faint with love.’

I have an unfounded and superficial theory that Sandro Botticelli’s painting La Derelitta, one of his last works, today conserved in the collection of Palazzo Rospigliosi in Rome, is a rendering of this beautiful image which the author of the biblical poem painted in words. Mine is not a scholarly view or a researched one by any means. It is just an instinctive hunch. Based on biblical lines, historians have attributed the scene to an episode in the tragic story of Tamar. (‘And the servant brought her out and locked the door behind her. And Tamar dusted her head with ashes, and tore the colorful clothes she had on herself, and laid her hands on her head and went on and on screaming’). Others suggest it depicts Mordecai from the Book of Esther. I, on the other hand, have always had the wish to place the painting and the poem side by side, and I am grateful to Artpaper for this opportunity to do so. Here they are together: the best literary and pictorial representation of ‘saudade’ I know.

The painting, like the text, is a very sad one. The entire space of the picture is dreamlike and brutally trapped by a blank stone wall that is articulated with low relief pilasters. It contains a single opening, a deep arch that frames a closed door. Only between the pointed ironwork of the door and the arc of the arch is a small patch of blue sky visible. What unlocks the mystery of the painting is perhaps one very small detail: the door has no latch or lock. The separation is complete and irreversible, as though the desolate figure, seated on a step near the wall, has been ruthlessly dispossessed by the world. Head bowed and face hidden behind locks of hair, hands convulsively clutching, a terrifying sense of despair saturates the picture, a hopeless understanding that no return is possible.

Hope is cruel but sometimes it has its longed-for rewards. Waiting in hope to gain the favour of the object of one’s desire is painful, but the moment when that hope is unexpectedly realised must be counted among the most glorious experiences of a lifetime. So in order to banish the unhappy mood that Botticelli’s small painting might have provoked, here is another painting I admire where a door has been depicted that has been shut, this time purposely, and where detachment from the outside world consciously chosen.

It is called Le Verrou (The Bolt) by Jean-Honoreé Fragonard (1777), and is conserved in the Louvre. This too is a scene from another world, a fragment of life on a distant planet, happy and strange at the same time, a portrayal of the rare gentleness of life that is too personal and forbidden to experience openly, like a young boy secretly reading a poem by Verlaine. It is one of Fragonard’s ‘galant’ paintings, typical of the libertine mores of the period of the Enlightenment. It depicts the moment when, having reached the threshold of a bed chamber sumptuously decked out with rich curtains and cushions, a girl turns suddenly around and falls amorously into the arms of her future lover, while he, lustful in breeches and shirtsleeves and near-reaching his goal, extends his arm towards the bolt of the door, locking it to ensure that this delicious moment of sensual surrender is protracted as much as it possibly could. The light on the wall falls diagonally to emphasise the reach of the boy’s arm and to focus the drama on the lock and the desire for voluntary isolation.

So here’s the rub, as Hamlet might have said. In moments of intense joy or sorrow, the world, with its ordinary concerns and petty satisfactions, distances itself from us, as though disappearing behind a closed door. We are left alone with our individual fears and hopes and with no distractions, as in a lockdown. The answer, I guess, is blowing in the wind. But, to quote Coupland again, isn’t it this that gives us a sense of our uniqueness and convinces us that we have a soul?

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