One day in Paris, as we made our way downtown from the Palace Royale metro stop, Andi, Hilary and I came upon a strings ensemble of men and women seated in a round in one of those silvery street squares you find in front of a cafe with streets leading in and out of roads overlooked by the city's colossal limestone masterbuildings. A cello hum led into rapidly vibrating violins, striking up a magnificent, sublime dance of desire and disquiet. The three of us had already stopped in our tracks, dazzled, and we stood. L'Amour Sorcier it was called, I noticed looking over the shoulder of one player.

The light cast itself across the busy street between walls and onto the players, illuminating the bow of a violinist as he leaned into his instrument, this way and that. It was one of those moments when one revels in the rarity of the circumstances, finding it almost impossible to be alive in this time and place, here where symphonies play on sunny Paris avenues. But then it seemed to flee from my eyes and ears as soon as it began; barely graspable the way birds fly off when you try to chase them. A violinist slid his bow across one final note.

There was was applause. We nodded at each other and began to mosey down the sidewalk. Should we go find lunch? I noticed Hilary still held her sketchbook with paper handouts sticking out, reminding me of the poem that our professor John had read that morning after we'd looked at Monet's water lillies at the Marmottan. The Ninth Elegy by Rainer Maria Rilke: Hil had even read a section out loud when we were on the Metro, it so poignantly describing what we'd been experiencing at art school over the past few months, particularly during this five-day museum tour where we'd spent so much time just looking. And how much power there was in that, it had left me without words. Rembrandt's self-portraits, Cezanne's mountain and Monet's Camille still lingered in my consciousness, and though we'd discussed them for hours, the mysteries of their existence always moved me more than I could ever articulate.

Behind us the strings ensemble drew their bows in a slower, more measured tune. Wait a minute, would Hilary read Rilke's poem? I asked. Yes, she answered, absolutely loving the idea. We whipped back around and stood in a kind of reverence as she began. Words, cello and violin, light on the city noise and passing car. This and everything, all at once.

She read from the third verse:

"But because truly being here is so much; because everything here apparently needs us, this fleeting world, which in some strange way keeps calling to us. Us, the most fleeting of all. Once for each thing. Just once, no more. And we too, just once. And never again. But to have this once, completely, even if only once: to have been one with the earth, seems beyond undoing.

And so we keep pressing on, trying to achieve it, trying to hold it firmly in our simple hands, in our overcrowded gaze, in our speechless heart. Trying to become it. Whom can we give it to? We would hold on to it all, forever...Ah, but what can we take along into that other realm? Not the art of looking, which is learned so slowly, and nothing that happened here. Nothing. The sufferings, then. And above all, the heaviness, the long experience of love- just what is wholly unsayable. But later, among the stars, what good is it- they are better as they are- unsayable.

For when the traveler returns from the mountain-slopes into the valley, he brings, not a handful of earth, unsayable to others, but instead some word he has gained, some pure word, the yellow and blue gentian. Perhaps we are here in order to say: house, bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit-tree, window, at most: column, tower...But to say them, you must understand, oh to say them more intensely than the things themselves ever dreamed of existing. Isn't it the secret intent of this taciturn earth, when it forces lovers together, that inside their boundless emotion all things may shudder with joy? Threshold: what it means for two lovers to be wearing down, imperceptibly, the ancient threshold of their door- and they too, after the many who came before them and before those to come...lightly.

Here is the sayable, here is the homeland...

And the last verse:

"Look, I am living. On what? Neither childhood nor future grows any smaller...superabundant being wells up in my heart."

The music kept on and we stood. It was cold out, I could see my breath.

We exchanged that look of awe usually reserved for those moments in the museums when a work of art was more than words could calculatedly express. It crossed my mind how I wished I'd had my camera, but I shut the thought out, glad that I gave those glorious five minutes all my attention. We began to walk on toward the cheap cafes and I tried to put some words to qualify the experience. Hilary described it as a spiritual. I thought it was beautiful, sure, it was unbelievable. But what really could be said, after that, but silence?

A few months ago I posted a quote of Van Gogh, that "Il s'agit de saisir ce qui ne passe pas dans ce qui passe," "It comes down to seizing what does not pass away in what passes away," and I was reminded of those words as we continued down the sidewalk. There’s a magic to what passes minute to minute, in the concrete lives of people and cities and things,  somehow imparted with a spirit that remains through the flood of seconds and hours and days and years and through all the frightening change that occurs in the meantime. This could not be more true in the context of travel, when the novelties of culture come and go like lucky pennies on the sidewalk, disappearing into the pocketbook of memory. But the more I snap at life through the lens of my my digital camera, the more I try to take and own each passing experience, the more I ignore that which lasts, that absolute wonder that one may get a glimpse of in a greek sculpture or in Monet's Nympheas, or in a cathedral or in the face of a friend or in the song of a Paris orchestra.

"Just wait until we go to Paris," John had said before we left of the museum tour. "You're going to see things, I mean really see them."

What had I seen, after all?  I had seen in the museums how Art brings us closer to the deep holy mystery of life and here I could see it outside in Paris, in all the chaos of the city. I learned how one must look, and keep looking: to approach painting, like life, with a spirit of inquiry. I had seen in the museums how an 8-by-11 inch square could become a fully constituted being with the application of oily colored goo, and here I saw how this little earth, sans bellowing voices from the clouds, could bear the inspiration for masterworks.

Rilke refers to "the unsayable" as the only thing we can take with us "into that other realm" which I suspect has something to do with the need to seize "ce qui ne passe pas," or "that which does not pass." We find ourselves in the sayable, in words like these or in pictures and music notes. They shape, vivify and emphasize the "unsayable;" the white empty page, the light, the stillness that lasts.

Early on in the semester John said a phrase which I haven't been able to forget since. We were on a field trip in the Vaucluse mountains studying the "quality with out a name," and from a wooded path we found our way into an old shepherd's cottage built of stones circling upward to a center, which filled the room with light like a pin-hole camera.

"Listen. You can almost hear the silence."




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