A small print of a Georgia O’Keeffe painting hangs in my office. In the print, a ram’s skull seems to float in the center of a white space. O’Keeffe painted the skull with photorealistic shadow, as if it might be possible to reach in and stroke the curve of smooth horn, the slope of coarse bone, a texture difficult to differentiate — at least for an American three-quarters of a century afterward — from that of a skull in the Halloween aisle of a drugstore. To my fingers, that texture of bone now connotes cheap plastic.
I know this only because, as a kid, restless at my father’s office (he’s a surgeon) I used to toss around the human skull that sat on his desk, thinking it was plastic. It looked and it felt exactly like the head of the skeleton we’d bought to decorate our porch that fall, except that the porch bones glowed in the dark. This one didn’t. (I checked.) I had never considered that it might be a real skull from a once-living person: it was too small, and it even had a crease down the middle like the store-bought one where (I thought) the factory had melted the plastic halves together.
Later, years later, I would learn that it was not plastic, definitely not. Every time afterward, I would enter his office and my eyes would dart toward the skull, grinning its full set of teeth. It couldn’t not grin. It was difficult to sustain the gravity of the thought that this was, at one time, the skull of a living human, partly because, at some point, it had acquired a blue floral band-aid on the seams of its forehead, someone’s idea of a joke.
O’Keeffe’s invocation of death, however, is the skull not of a man, whose compulsory grin mocks the living, but of a ram. Or, rather, she calls it a ram. To my amateur eye, it looks more like a goat, a Catalina goat, whose skulls could be found in the New Mexico deserts in 1938, the year of the painting. But I’m not an expert, and O’Keeffe certainly was. Her work reveals rare sight. She saw the landscape in a way few can. She saw the process of decay, the passage of living remains through ages, in a way few have.
So if she calls it a ram, it’s a ram.
The asymmetry of the skull makes it look, at first, as if it’s missing its left eye. Of course, skulls don’t have eyes, only eye sockets. (I can’t help projecting life onto inanimate objects.) Time has chipped away at the socket, the ram dead for a while, perhaps longer than you or I have been alive, perhaps longer than Europeans have been squatting on the continent.
Death is, by one definition, a lifeless ray of time pointing into the future, infinite. Our minds, frail as they are and seeking convenience, tend to collapse this infinitude into a point — but this isn’t Death. Hardly. It’s not even the silhouette of death, cast onto the hard ground by the noon sun. That convenience has form. The sun can manipulate it, pulling it East, pushing it West. It is the sun’s plaything. Actual Death is formless, gushes before us, can leak behind, can rust the past, can crush the sun. Death is difficult to understand as an image. It’s difficult to understand without an image.
For example, at the end of Puccini’s La Boheme — I’m sorry to ruin the ending, if you didn’t already know — Mimi dies. It’s the last moment of the opera, and as soon as her body goes limp, the curtain falls. Fine for theatre, but as an image of experience, this performance of death is as different from death as cinnamon from cinnabar. The real concept of death, perhaps impossible to conceive, is the duration of eternity, without absolution.
Imagine with me if, at the end of La Boheme, instead of slumping over her couch and appearing moments later for the curtain call, the actress playing Mimi lay there indefinitely. The audience would grow tired of waiting for the curtain that never dropped and leave in bewilderment, the orchestra would pack up their instruments and head out, the theater would cancel the next few weeks of shows and, eventually, all future shows because it would still be running the same performance of La Boheme, for which the theater would graciously allow any audience member who had kept their ticket and had already left to return next week and view the progress of Mimi’s death at no extra cost. The spotlight bulbs would burn out, the curtain would catch fire, they would eventually tear the theater down except for one patch of stage on which the actress playing Mimi lay, the country would be invaded by greater powers, civilization would finally collapse into a handful of desperate bonfires around the world — and even so, this actress, somehow still alive after centuries, would CONTINUE TO LIE ON THE GROUND in a performance of death, the greatest and most under-appreciated performance of all time. This — this might begin to approximate an image of death, though of course, it would have to continue forever, and our persistent actress, the best actress the world has ever seen, whose quality of performance could be charted against time exponentially, would postpone applause for her performance until there were no more living things, let alone hands to clap, and the universe would consist entirely of one actress playing a dead Mimi, spinning in space.
As if addressing this contrast between the forever and a moment, O’Keeffe has placed next to the skull a blue morning glory blossom, opened to its fullest. Flowers are the trope — if not the cliché — of ephemerality, but the head-on angle, looking down into the blossom, creates an abstraction that resists cliché, in the way that the word stars wears out easily, but a high-resolution Hubble image of the Crab Nebula doesn’t, can’t. A yolkish center and spoke of sky-colored petals offer a twitch of color to a canvas otherwise desiccated.
Yes: this is life, and life is brief. That seems obvious.
Still, I’m held by two extraordinary choices by O’Keeffe, two choices that elevate the painting. First, the size and placement: the blossom is unrealistically large, yet despite its size, the flower is overpowered by the skull. The skull is center and stretches the length of the canvas. Marks it. The flower lies to the right. It’s as if the skull — bone-bleached, and washed of blood, meat, skin, sweat — were dreaming weakly of life.
Seen in this way, the blossom acts as a kind of thought-bubble, colorful and comic as the dreamscapes of Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland. McCay’s Sunday strip had depicted a boy, Nemo, roaming through the surreal terrain of his dreams only to wake, in the final panel, having fallen out of bed. Little Nemo had ended two decades prior to O’Keeffe’s painting, but its vivid imagery must have sat in the attic of the minds of Americans from New York to New Mexico.
Of course, death, as far as we know, has no dreams. We dream, instead, of death dreaming of life. It is exactly this quality of imbuing an inconceivable concept with human attributes that makes McCay’s strip as profound as it is fantastic. In one, Time appears as an old man who walks Nemo down a corridor with metal filing cabinets, each engraved with a year. Though most of the years, at the time, were in the future — 1999, for example — they’re now in the past, and the corridor looks uncannily like a morgue. A corridor, I can imagine; the whole span of human history, I can’t.
When I attempt to imagine the forever of death, I re-locate it within my life. I imagine being forever, because I can’t imagine being dead forever. My own death is an eternity away, must be. I can’t signal the end because I don’t believe it’s coming. How could I? How, possibly, could I?
I see a bit of this disbelief in my wandering attention, as I sit down to write.
Really, I should say type. My fingers tick along the laptop keys in front of the postcard painting, but they’re often not writing. They’re searching, connecting, replying, refreshing, dragging, confirming correcting, updating, posting, chatting, scrolling, or spelling out the onomatopoetic sounds of laughter in an otherwise silent room, in response to something insignificant — a video of kittens mewing in unison, for instance. Actions of a prolapsed attention, of procrastination, maybe. But hardly writing.
As might seem obvious now, I keep the O’Keeffe print tacked within view of where I type as a memento mori. Theoretically, whenever my focus starts to melt — suddenly, I find myself watching every music video from 1987-1990 — the print would harden my attention and return me to whatever project I’m working on, to whatever essay I’m writing. But it hardly works. I’m asking myself to remember the duration of eternity, without absolution for just a quick moment, so that I can get back to work — absurd. If I were even able to do this, I might stop working altogether.
When I resist finishing work, it’s not because I don’t attempt to remember my mortality, not because I don’t enjoy the work or because it bores me, but because, to finish a piece, to complete an important task, to slide a line swiftly across an item on a list is a kind of death. Prolonging the completion of something — an essay, an email, an article — leaves it open and alive. It’s in process. In these moments, I am that Mimi, putting off the end of her performance not because she is committed to the forever but because she’s afraid to end it, afraid that when she bows, there will be no applause. Endure. What comes after? The white of that unknown sears the air.
The O’Keeffe print hangs there anyway. If it has any effect at all, it’s anxiety. I glance up at the postcard, to the ram’s skull that, as a ram, symbolizes the generative power of the sun, and, as a skull, symbolizes the dying light of the sun, and I hear, in the ticking of my laptop keys, the ticking of a clock.
* * *
I’ve just heard that someone I knew, someone who’s my age, young, has died suddenly. I didn’t know her well, but she was the best friend of a close friend of mine. She came to a dinner party I threw once. She was a musician, an artist, and, once, years ago now, after not having seen her for a while, I asked her how she was doing. She grabbed my wrist and said, “Eric, I’ve found my sound.” At the time, I found this annoying and self-aggrandizing, but frankly, I envied her. I wanted to find my sound. I wanted to bellow, as she did, into silence, to fill the empty page.
It feels like I knew her well.
When I hear that she’s died, I’m in the Newark airport, returning from Chicago. The grief is seismic: initial, forceful news from a phone call that signals the size of the coming impact. What follows are waves — evident waves — of acceptance, then fear (impermanence), recognition, of lacquered black questions. I lose it on the shuttle to the train.
On the platform, I look across the tracks at the opposite platform. Four corrugated cylinders bolster the concrete from underneath, and it reminds me of the similar cylinders drilled into bedrock along the Chicago River, where I had stood two days before. I had taken an architectural boat tour and learned the term for those cylinders, but when asked afterward what they were called, I couldn’t remember. They’re the structure of Chicago’s super-tall buildings, the reason why one hundred stories of glass resist the natural world, for decades. Two days ago, I had marveled at the cleverness of us, that we could build a structure so fantastical and alien by knowledge of engineering and physics. On the boat, we had rounded a bend in the Chicago River and seen, in the distance, a super-tall building under construction, little more than a group of those corrugated cylinders which had seemed to me, then, like muscled arms punching the sky, powerful and steadfast, joined together by horizontal planes that would become the floors of the skyscraper. The building was growing, the walls and windows would flesh out this gleaming giant.
Now, waiting for the train, the cylinders look to me more like naked spines wrapped in the corrugation of nerves, not waiting for flesh but stripped of it, receptors of pain, bare against the inhospitable blaze and frost of Chicago, yet still standing.
Suddenly, I remember the word: caissons. Somehow, the memory of this word is comforting. Caissons. To name the unknown.
I stand on the edge of the platform, careening my head over the side, and look down the tunnel in the direction I expect the train. Nothing. Swiftly, without sound, the train slides into the station from the other direction, narrowly missing my head.
* * *
I said there were two extraordinary choices by O’Keeffe.
The second is that the skull and flower appear, at first glance, to float in an empty void of white — the color the Chinese tradition associates with death — but that’s not quite right. Light shines on them from above. They hover before a wall that’s white, not empty space. The wall seems solid. The flower doesn’t reveal this. It’s the skull of the ram that casts a stark shadow.
Eric Dean Wilson is a writer in Brooklyn. He teaches at a number of undergraduate programs around the city.
More DOCTOR to DOCTOR.