Tranquility Shot Through with Sorrow (Early Sunday Morning)
Early Sunday Morning. Every time I look at the print on the wall in my office I have the uncanny feeling that I am seeing a slightly different painting. The first impression is always one of a bright and peaceful morning. The stillness is palpable and the overwhelming emotion is one of tranquility. The calm silence is comforting in its familiarity and yet the scene is devoid of sentimentality. Upon closer inspection, underlying this almost ataraxic sense of solitude and quiet are ineluctable traces of dissolution and disquiet. The recrudescent past slowly encroaches and I can hear echoes of Beckett, “All of old. Nothing else ever. No future in this. Alas, yes.” 1
The past indeed pervades this scene. The eye is drawn to the melancholy barbershop pole, listing in stark evidence of the persistence and indifference of time. What is it about this pole that resonates so deeply? Is it metonymic of the inescapable fate faced by everyone and everything? One can begin to envision the days of the old neighborhood that will never return. Those days of grandeur, if they could be called that, have receded into the invisible dust of the past. Long gone are the innocent salad days of hopes and dreams that would never materialize, a lifetime of waiting for something that would never arrive. All that remains are the fetters of an unending present. Hopper’s paintings evoke the passage of time, of things irretrievably lost, the sadness of knowing that things will never be the same and that we are subject to the aleatory, capricious whims of destiny. The loneliness of the street is overwhelming. It has a knowledge that must be respected and secrets that remain best unrevealed. It is not just a scene of tranquility, it is one of “tranquility shot through with sorrow.” 2
The painting attempts to capture that which eludes representation. It opens up to reveal layers of depth and is replete with internal reflections and messages waiting to be deciphered by the viewer, who feels the subtle emotional weight of what is not seen. It is a painting of contrasts and alternating intensities. Beneath the solid façade of the building is the underlying fragility of the lives led inside. The initial impression of light is counterpoised by the darkly ominous vertical structure in the upper right-hand corner. There is the calmness with its irruptive unease simmering beneath the surface, the aforementioned comforting familiarity masking an undercurrent of alienation. There is the bright yellow in some of the windows juxtaposed with the dark, gaping, curtainless openings. It is these contrasts and the differences between initial impressions and the consequent alterations of them that lend the work its enigmatic air.
Time has briefly been held in abeyance. Although it is early Sunday morning this is not a time that can be measured in hours and days. This is what Tom McCarthy calls the “time-out-of-time” or the “recessional” 3. It is, as he says, the time of fiction, and the viewer is invited to imagine the lives being led behind those windows, lives of quiet desperation, with their all-too-fleeting moments of happiness. I imagine a man sitting on the edge of the bed, the oblique rays of sunlight cutting a path across the floor, while the serried dust motes dance a sad pavane. A half-empty whiskey bottle from the night before stands in silent observance on the table. This man has long ceased wondering how he has arrived at this destination or what other lives he might have lived. I am reminded of another fictional personage, the narrator of Emerald Blue, who reflects on Sunday afternoon as the “saddest time of the week”, the realization having set in once again that “you were no more than the person you were.” 4 In the next apartment I see a woman, perhaps not dissimilar to the woman in Hopper’s Morning in a City, waking to another lonely, unfulfilled day. She is standing there, looking vulnerable in the gloomy interior, not contemplating the scene of countless days wherein she can read the story of her life, but instead she is looking toward the wavering haze on a horizon that stretches out to infinity, imagining a journey to a place that might truly be hers, which she will never visit.
Last fall in London I saw one of Whistler’s Nocturnes of the Chelsea Bridge. I can no longer recall where I read that when asked how long it took him to paint his nocturnes, Whistler answered “all my life”. I looked at the seemingly infinite shades of blue and the sparse yellow flickers on the other side of the water, the forms and shapes in the distance atremble in the dim light across the silvery, dark expanse of water. Hopper came to mind and I wondered whether he might have given the same response for Early Sunday Morning.
Yesterday I looked at the painting again. Yes, it really is best described by the phrase “tranquility shot through with sorrow.” I thought about myself and the imperceptible passing of the years, as I imagined someone just out of view in front surreptitiously preparing to leave, reminding me of a phrase from Rilke’s elegies, although the coign of vantage was not a hill but this desolate street.
“As he who halts one final time, on a hill high enough to show off his whole valley, wavers and stops and lingers there, we too live our lives forever taking leave.” 5
1. These phrases are in the opening pages of Worstward Ho by Samuel Beckett in Nohow On : Three Novels by Beckett, (Grove Press, 1980).
2. This phrase is attributed to Victor Hugo by Peter Davidson in The Last of the Light : About Twilight, Reaktion Books, 2017
3. “Recessional – The Time of the Hammer” appears in Typewriters, Bombs and Jellyfish: Essays by Tom McCarthy, (New York Review of Books, 2017)
4. The story Emerald Blue appears in the collection Stream System by Gerald Murnane (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2018)
Kimmo Rosenthal has been teaching mathematics for over three decades. In the last half-dozen years he has turned his attention from mathematical research to writing. His work has appeared in Prime Number (nominated for a Pushcart Prize), EDGE, decomP, KYSO Flash, and The Fib Review.
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