The Grand Illusion
He looks at the painting each day. Each day for years. It's still beautiful, he thinks. Which is why it's on the wall—this part of him, like the clothes we wear to declare who we are to an indifferent world. And yeah, he painted it, but it's beyond vanity. It's “I Was Here” scratched on the wall. And don't we all want this in one way or another? For some, it's their kids. Others, their job. For him, his soul—this inner man released onto the canvas that's both himself and everyman. Or everyperson, in this politically correct age. What did Bernard Shaw say? “He who writes about his own life writes about everyone's life.” What art is about, our common shared experience. Our struggle amidst the Great Unknowing. That no matter how hard we seek the answers, we'll still come up short. And perhaps it’s a paradox—the more you seek, the less you'll find. But the journey is the thing! The odyssey towards truth is its own truth, and the answers, irrelevant. And beyond irrelevant to untruth—another paradox. Like that Zen phrase he's had on the refrigerator forever, next to that Hemingway quote and The Birth of Venus: “Do not echo those who’ve gone before. Seek what they sought.” And this has given him comfort in his loneliness. That he's connected on some vast continuum, and in his own seeking, he's part of these kindreds. We have no control over when we make our appearance onstage, as much as we try and be the Dramatist. And we strut and fret for that hour or two, signifying nothing as the curtain comes down. No bows, no curtain call. What we leave behind is our gaze into the horizon, into that last row, and that maybe someone else will look that way.
But today as he looks at the painting, he sees something different, something he's never before entertained. The Buddhists or the Hindus (he can’t remember which one) assert that this is all Illusion, this so-called life. All is Maya. And this means that whatever significance we ascribe to earthly things is those scales falling from the eyes. Vainglory gives way to illumination. And he can buy this philosophy, as the artists—the good ones, at least—are impelled by something deeper, something more. Something ineffable and eternal and fragile as flame. But today, a new thought appears. What if all that we see is completely subjective to ourselves alone? Meaning, what one sees is not what anyone else sees. At all. When he looks in the mirror, he sees the familiar reflection. Amended, of course, by the years, but the recognition is there. And he's even done a few self-portraits. But what if what he sees exists in his mind alone? (And what if no one else will ever see it?) Like the Mona Lisa, he can describe it in detail. He can paint a copy and show it to someone else, but there's no guarantee they'll see it as he does, at all. Maybe they see a hedgerow or a hedgehog or a houseplant or a hallucination. But when they describe it to him, he hears it through his perspective. It echoes the Mona Lisa, and the world remains intact.
He walks to the mirror. What he sees is a man (young-ish), handsome (sort of), in command of himself (so he thinks). But they see someone else. Someone old, wrinkled, decrepit, diffident, unfortunate, on his way to being forgotten. In fact, he's forgotten seconds after being seen. Then, the question arises again: what if we can never see the same things or hear the same things as anyone else? But our curse is to think that we can.
(This is from Kunundrum's upcoming book, UTOPIA—short stories, poems, & essays.)