The Sphinx and the Dutch Treat

The Best American Poetry Blog
November 10, 2009

The protagonist in David Markson’s staggeringly brilliant novel, “Wittgenstein’s Mistress” believes she is the last person on Earth. Fortunately for us, that gives her plenty of time to ruminate on art and philosophy. She spends much of it rattling around in abandoned museums, sometimes burning paintings for heat. And she shares: anecdotes, supposed encounters, verbal swatches of art history, religion and the history of philosophy.

In one extraordinarily funny passage, our anonymous heroine–this intellectual post-Apocalypse Survivor™–imagines an encounter between Rembrandt and Spinoza in Amsterdam, circa 1656.

“…it is probably safe to assume that Rembrandt and Spinoza surely would have at least passed one the street now and again.
Or even run into each other quite frequently, if only at some neighborhood shop or other.
And certainly they would have exchanged amenities as well, after a time.
Good morning, Rembrandt. Good morning to you, Spinoza.
I was extremely sorry to hear about your bankruptcy, Rembrandt. I was extremely sorry to hear about your excommunication, Spinoza.
Do have a good day, Rembrandt. Do have the same, Spinoza.
All of this would have been said in Dutch, incidentally.
I mention that simply because it is known that Rembrandt did not speak any other language except Dutch.
Even if Spinoza may have preferred Latin. Or Jewish.”

There is so much wry learnedness and—to me at least—laugh-out-loud understatement packed in here. But what I love most about what Markson makes of this imagined encounter is the sudden, heightened sense we get of absurdity: Amsterdam was a pretty small town in the 17th century. Two giants of Western civilization happened to live—each in a moment of striking adversity—within a few blocks of one another in the Jewish Quarter of a very N.J. city. This is the best they can do? This is how great the distance would be for these great men to travel over the landscape stretched out between their different moral imaginations—even if they really almost lived next door?

That we would have to imagine Rembrandt and Spinoza bumping into one another—that no one really has ever reconstructed such a scene before, that there’s no document of them ever meeting—shows just how little evidence ever remains of anyone’s living, breathing, thinking and feeling. So much of who we are disappears as we’re living it. Forget what people centuries later might want to reconstruct of the lives of historical figures, people we think we might actually know quite well, perhaps through the ubiquity of reproduction of their art or the ready availability of their correspondence or biographies and portraits and other evidence from the fossil record of personality.

And, yet, the paradox: we turn to fictions to flesh all this out, and even then, we have so little to rely on to construct anything like believability out of our narrative plastic surgeries on the vague images of the past. Markson’s comic, almost slapstick episode of ineptitude in the awkwardness of Rembrandt meeting Spinoza is a perfect-pitch acknowledgment of the problem. He employs a hyper-intellectual, deeply-learned narrator to stage a dumb show: What would two geniuses say to one another? It’s like a joke two Beckett characters might start imagining the answer to—and then forget the subject for something less.

I was thinking about this imagined scene when I went to the Met today to see a small show anchored around “The Milkmaid” by Vermeer—whom historians called “The Sphinx of Delft” because he had disappeared from art history for almost three centuries. Now, he’d only be an hour away by train from Amsterdam and awkward introductions to his contemporaries, Rembrandt and Spinoza.

But I’m saving that for tomorrow, when I’ll also be introducing Mr. Vermeer to Robert Frank. For that, he just needs to take the elevator up two floors to the Gilman Galleries and the 50th anniversary show of Frank’s “The Americans.”

And speaking of 50th anniversaries, how about this lovely serendipity? Exactly 50 years ago next week, The New Yorker ran a poem I love about Vermeer by Charles Tomlinson. It’s called “At Delft.” It’s in his wonderful, erudite book, “Seeing Is Believing.” I’m not so sure that’s true, but …

Come back to the Five and Dime, Charlie T., Charlie T.! Or at least meet us at the Met tomorrow.


In Memory of Johann Vermeer

by Charles Tomlinson

The clocks begin, civicly simultaneous,
And the day’s admitted. It shines to show
How promptness is poverty, unless
Poetry is the result of it. The chimes
Stumble asunder, intricate and dense,
Then mass at the hour, their stroke
In turn a reminder—for if one dances,
One does so to a measure. And this
Is a staid but dancing town, each street
Its neighbor’s parallel, each house
A displacement in that mathematic, yet
Built of a common brick. Within,
The key is changed; the variant recurs
In the invariable tessellation of washed floors,
As cool as the stuffs are warm, as ordered
As they are opulent. White earthenware,
A salver stippled at its lip by light,
The light itself, diffused and indiscriminate
On face and floor, usher us in,
The guests of objects: as in a landscape
All that is human here stands clarified
By all that accompanies and bounds. The clocks
Chime muted underneath domestic calm.

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