Self-Portrait as Self-Knowledge

My family and I recently saw an exhibition of Edvard Munch’s work at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.  You know Munch, even if you’re not an art lover.  He painted The Scream, which you’ve seen parodied so many ways you might not even recognize the original.  In case it doesn’t leap immediately to your mind’s eye, I present something like the original on a tee shirt, and two parodies to jog your memory.

So that guy.  I always thought he was so dark and creepy, I didn’t really like him. I am quite a sunshiny optimist, really. But an exhibition is a funny thing—it presents a scope of a person’s life like a biography or a long night of storytelling—and by the time I left, I was a hardcore Munch fan.

The first thing I saw was a room full of self-portraits, which was brilliant on the curator’s part, because there’s nothing so personal and public at the same time as a self-portrait. Several of them at once create a flow of time, of stages in a life, in a way that makes one feel like you’ve known this guy forever. You have a sense of who this guy was. He was young; he was middle-aged; he grew old.

Once you’ve seen the artist through his own eyes, you’re ready to see the rest. What the portraits taught me was how he became the creator of The Scream. There were paintings of sick beds (he lost his sister and mother to tuberculosis when he was young) and paintings of houses with lurid skies. You could feel them almost as much as you could see them. The blurbs telling us of his traumatic loss and battles with mental and physical illnesses were almost superfluous.

I came away from this experience thinking my assessment of Munch as dark and creepy had been woefully hasty and superficial. Instead, I was struck by the fact that he was just a man, struggling to live his life like anyone else. I felt his humanity. In the fishbowl of an exhibition, surrounded by images of Munch’s difficult life, I was deeply moved by his fervor to document it—to strip it down to its raw, real elements, and convey them to others. And I got it, man. I felt. Sometimes it was horrible; sometimes it was heartbreaking, but he kept painting. There is heroism in that.
And in the struggle to tell his story, there was intense beauty we can all experience and identify with. In his pile of self-portraits, there was an urgency to figure himself out. We all struggle with knowing who we are and who we want to become (witness all the thousands of internet quizzes that promise to tell us which Muppet or Middle-Earth race we most closesly resemble); Munch was just really persistent in trying.

That seems a worthwhile goal, though—figuring ourselves out. Whether we paint or write or psychoanalyze ourselves, knowing is better than not knowing ourselves. It’s worth it to take stock of where we are and where we’ve been, so we can determine where we want to go next. And after this closer look at Munch’s work, part of me will wonder at every stage, how would I paint this in to my self-portrait? 

(In addition to my panoply of Screams, I collect here Self-Portrait with Cigarette 1895, Self-Portrait After the Spanish Flu 1909, Self-Portrait with Bottles 1938, and Self-Portrait Between the Clock and the Bed 1938.)


"Because I think I am getting better!"

There’s a lovely anecdote about Pablo Casals, the cellist, that I hope is based in reality, but that I love has taken on a life of its own, because I think it says something beautiful about humanity that we keep wanting to hear it.  The first version I saw was on Pinterest, a photograph of a newspaper clipping, unattributed in the clipping, and unattributed on the meme.  (Oh, the joys of the Internet—my inner English major cringes.)  But it was small and maybe not worth chasing down:  “The legendary cellist Pablo Casals was asked why he continued to practice at age 90.  ‘Because I think I’m making progress,’ he replied.”
I repinned this.  I love it.
Like Michelangelo’s famous “Ancora imparo” I am still learning, it gives us hope.  If the masters of this caliber still have things to learn, we, in our significantly lesser states of grace can rest easy.  It’s a process, and maybe we’re never done.  Ideally we’re never done, in fact; that way we can continue to learn and improve all our lives and nod at other people at their various places in this journey.  Some are ahead of us, some behind, but as long as we all keep moving, we’re all right where we should be.
This particular anecdote is even more charming to me because when I chose to write about it, the first thing I did (being such a responsible English major) was to try and track down that source.  Who had interviewed the master?  When?  What I found was a preponderance of reprinted vignettes, and a meme tradition.  The quote I offered is presented on the internet (and running with abandon all over Pinterest) in the same format as I found it—the newspaper clipping image—but also reprinted on lovely backgrounds with no regard for who said it, when, or in fact, who Casals is.  For the internet, this quote has become its own entity, and Casals needn’t even have existed, he makes such a good story.
But lots of people had realized he was a good story. My search took me to  (These people must have endless business, given the Internet’s slipshod handling of text.)  They found this quote in several places, actually, and even in several renditions.  First, it seems the artist may have said something similar in more than one interview.  The Quote Investigator team reports, “there is substantive evidence that Casals made a remark about making progress in 1944 when he was 67 or 68 years old as indicated by the 1946 citation. There is also good evidence that he made a similar remark circa 1957 when he was 80 years old” (  Then he may even have kept talking, or perhaps by then the charm of this story may have just taken on a life of its own.  In the quote I found, he was supposed to be 90.  It’s certainly possible he said it again. He lived to be 97; the last account of this quote puts him still saying the same thing at 95.  Either he continued to feel optimistic about his ability to learn and improve, or we can’t let the idea go, and keep telling the story, like a fish tale, with an older and older man. 
Why?  We want to believe that the master can continue to improve, no matter how old.  We need to.  Not only does it give us hope that even someone such as he has more to learn, so we (who have so much more to learn) are not alone, but the fact that he keeps getting older and older seems to suggest there is no end to this potential progress.  In an age of dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease, some manage not only to age well, but to keep improving, right in to extreme old age.  In fact, the Alzheimer’s Association suggests that continuing to learn, for instance a foreign language, or to play an instrument, is one of the best ways to stave off dementia (  
Pablo Casals has become a little Internet legend, popping up here and there, borrowed by various groups and websites to embody the possibility of perpetual improvement—a model of aging not just gracefully, but exceptionally, so that old age is no less pleasurable and satisfying than any other age; in fact, it may hold the deepest pleasures because we weren’t able to experience them before.  This is definitely a comfort, and a gift. 
“I am getting better” is practically a mantra for me at this point, and a manifesto of optimism.  But the most important thing the Casals quote teaches me is the importance of the moments along the way.  Casals is quoted saying he is improving with practice at 67, 81, 83, 90, and 95.  He is improving at all those points.  But at all those points he is also already a master.  What he knows is enough to impress everyone but himself.  They are all points of success, not just transitions to the next, better phase of himself.  The life of this quote is the satisfaction and happiness that come from the moments where we pause and take stock not of the motion of where we are going, but the stasis of where we are.  Right now.  Still.  (And still improving.)

Orpheus and Eurydice–a retelling from Ovid’s Metamorphoses

Once upon a time there was a man called Orpheus.  He was an artist—a poet, a singer, a lyre-player (which is sort of like a harpist without the drama).  His music was ethereal.  He was so talented, when he played his lyre and sang his songs, the trees lifted their roots and moved to be closer to him.  The rocks rolled over too, drawn by his melody and magic.  Of course animals gathered.  People were transfixed.  He was a World Singer: he cast spells on the world with his songs. The child of Calliope (the Muse of Epic poetry and the reason that “epic” means “great”) and Apollo (the God of Music and Light and Healing and Civilization and Just About Everything Light Can Symbolize), he seems like he should have been a god himself, but he was nevertheless wholly mortal.  And he was phenomenal.
Orpheus loved Eurydice.  He loved her with the kind of love they tell about in stories (like this one).  The day he married her was the happiest day of his life–and the saddest. When the ceremony was over, Eurydice, on her way to the celebration, stepped on a viper, and it bit her heel.  She died on the spot.  Orpheus was undone.
He more than mourned.  He wasted.  For months.
Then he mobilized and strategized.  He was not the kind of hero to challenge the gods.  Not the kind of hero to undertake a katabasis—underworld journeys were not his style.  His strength lay in his music, not his muscles.  He was no Hercules.  Still, his love fueled his imagination, bringing images to his eyes and songs to his lips, and he went to Hades to get her back.

They heard him coming.  His music compelled everyone there to listen and react, to draw near him, to respond to him.  His song was so sad and so consuming, all who heard it wept.  Persephone was a fountain of tears from the moment he stepped off the ferry, rivers of tears streaming down her cheeks and dripping on to her dress.  The river Styx swelled with tears the dead shouldn’t have been able to cry.  The Furies, who had never wept before and who have never wept again, cried burning tears they could not control.  Hades relented.  He would give this Orpheus his wife; of course he would.  But he named one condition:  Orpheus must walk out of the Underworld ahead of Eurydice, leading her out, but without looking back to be sure she followed. If he looked back, she would go back to Hades, where she belonged, and Orpheus would never get back in to try a second time.
Of course he looked. He tried, honestly he tried, and he made it quite far, really.  He walked up a long staircase that wound around the curves and crevices of the rocky walls of hell, and he kept a slow, steady, rhythmic pace, so that she could certainly keep up.  He had to trust that she would follow, that she could follow.  He had to trust that nothing would grab her, that her injured foot didn’t slow her down, that the climb wasn’t exhausting, that Hades wasn’t lying.  That’s a lot to trust.  And his love made him vulnerable.  What if she had fallen behind?  This was his only chance.  Of course he looked.
When he did, she began slipping down, her near-solid form losing its substance and floating down the steps away from him.  He reached and tried to grasp her hand, but only closed a fist.  He shot his arms out to embrace her one last time, and there was nothing to embrace.  Her voice filtered up from the depths, saying she loved him, she forgave him, she would remember him.  She loved him.  And he lost her.  Twice.
Anger possessed him.  He swore he would never love another woman like that again, and he didn’t.  He couldn’t open himself up to that kind of pain again, and he couldn’t forget Eurydice anyway.  He kept the pain like a memento, and instead he turned to young boys to satisfy his body and his music to satiate his soul.  And he loved her.
The women of Thrace grew to hate him for his love.  It was irrational.  There were lots of lovely Thracian girls and women who should have been able to give him a good life.  He chose none of them.  His shunning women entirely and turning to boys was the last straw.  One hellish night during the Bacchanale, they turned on him.  They came for him with their wild, ivy-strewn hair and their tattered dresses, lifting a thyrsus in the air and shrieking.  “There he is!” they yelled, “the one who spurns our love!”  They swung their staffs, and Orpheus started playing.  They threw rocks, and the rocks fell at his feet, rolling gently toward him, looking oddly repentant.  The spears they threw changed direction in mid-air, avoiding him at the last second.
But more women came.  Throng after throng, and while the first ones fell in his power, the growing number of howling women eventually drowned out his song.  He sang louder, but more women arrived.  The last to arrive heard nothing but their sisters’ screeching, and they got near and ripped and tore at Orpheus.  Their sacred staffs were used as weapons–sacrilege and murder and madness all together.  They mauled him like a pack of savage predators.  They pulled him limb from limb, harp from hand.  They threw his head and his lyre in the river and exulted as they bobbed in the stream.  Orpheus was dead.  But his head kept singing, and the lyre made music on the waves.
And all Creation wept.
As his head tumbled near the shore, a snake opened its mouth and poised to strike.  Apollo, mourning father, froze the snake in stone; it gapes still.  Orpheus’s severed head kept singing.

Finally, though, his journey ended.  On the shores of the Styx, he crossed with purpose, leaning out over the side of the ferry, anxious to find his Eurydice.  She was there.  She smiled.  She took his hand and led him over the fields, and they walk there still, taking turns leading and following, neither worried that the other will fall behind.