I want to share a secret with you. But you cannot tell anyone...
This episode looks at Night by Aristide Maillol from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, accession number 1950.100.
There is a secret that…
I am going to tell you.
I’m going to tell you because you are here with me, letting me sit next to you and for that…
I guess I think I can trust you.
I don’t guess. I don’t think. I trust you.
But you can’t tell anyone.
I wish there were parts of this story I could amend, parts I could tell differently, but it’s all true. And if I changed a word of it, you would know.
So here it is… The secret we must begin with:
I don’t really love the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City. I certainly don’t hate it. It has so many beautiful things and any institution that has taken so much time to collect so many beautiful things can’t be all bad. But as a place for that collection…
There’s no straight line through the Met, no clear pathway that takes you from the oldest object to the newest or along some narrative journey. If I wasn’t so sure, I’d say the walls of the Met might move and shift when no one is looking, like some staircases in a magical school. I’ve gotten thoroughly bewildered on more than one occasion, finding myself to have gone in some big loop without having ever turned a corner.
I still go there every chance I get. I wander for hours and hours, from room to room, just hoping that this time I wander into the room with her.
On one particular visit to the city with some friends (one of my earliest trips to the Met, if I remember correctly) when we found that we had wandered into this room filled with large lifelike sculptures, archers and angels and monsters and men, all frozen in poses to suggest some great struggle. We wove in an out of their battle, careful to doge their venomous stares. Thetis glides in on a wave to bring weapons to Achilles. Heracles draws his bow to fire on some god unseen. And the Burghers wander in circles, arguing about how this deific battle will affect Calais, and getting nowhere. A martyr has already fallen and Summer stands proudly illuminating it all. And in the back of the room, by the window wall that looks out over Central Park, the only thing reminding me where we really are, stands Carpeaux, hard at work, just trying to get something done amidst the clatter of battle. But he’s not the only one near the back of the room. Just across from Carpeaux is…
She sits there, legs pulled up to her chest, arms resting on her knees, head resting on her arms. Admittedly, I wasn’t the one who noticed her that first time. That honor goes to V. I am not always the best at listening, and I was caught up in the battle when V pulled me over. The plaque had been scraped up, but we could still make out her name. Night.
And I have to say, I’m kind of glad that we only stood there for a moment. We moved on quick enough that a full impression couldn’t even be formed. I had that image, that striking posture, and a name. I knew nothing else of her, and we left.
Now, dislike the Met as I may, there are few hells hotter than a bar in the middle of Midtown on a burning summers night. Yet, as these things go, we so often find our bodies in some furnace, while our minds are frozen on a moment from earlier. And what should be my frozen moment but Night. Her name echoed against my mind and I turned upon the question of her posture over and over, until it wasn’t the heat that was unbearable, but the cold. And if you hadn’t figured out that I’m not a real New Yorker from that Midtown comment, I next ran outside, abandoning my party, hopped on a Citi Bike, and careened through Time Square to Columbus Circle, my first labyrinth, across the hills and dales of Central Park, my second labyrinth, and threw my bike down by the grand steps on 5th Avenue of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, my third labyrinth.
When you buy a ticket to the Met, a thing you have to do when you’re not a real New Yorker, that sticker gets you into the museum all day long. And so it was that a gentle summer’s breeze might push me up those stairs, past the stanchion guards and into the twisting corridors once more.
There were almost no people, but I suppose that’s about right for 8:00 on a Saturday night. The museum was set to close in just an hour, and I hadn’t any time to lose. I had no idea where I was going, had no idea where she was except that she was here.
Just as it was ticking to half past, I saw her, or rather I saw Thetis and followed that wave to the back of the room, to the window which now reflected the room like a black mirror. No Central Park any more. Just the battle within. I crouched low on the ground, crawled even, hands and knees, over to her side, and looked up to see where her unmoving face had been carved. Every detail accounted for, but not on display. I suddenly felt a pit in my stomach, as if I’d seen something that was not for me to see, taken something without asking. I quickly shuffled across the floor and sat 6 feet away, legs pulled up to my chest, arms resting on my knees, head alternating between looking up at her and resting on my arms.
The question of her pose became my form. My being matched hers if but to know what had caused the Night to curl up so. I sat. I looked. But I did not know the answer until finally I listened.
Can you hear that too? That gentle, grating crackling. That is the real reason I do not like the Met. There, 60 feet above us: a giant industrial spot light beating down upon the back of Night, keeping her face hidden. Keeping Night illuminated. No wonder Summer leaps for joy. But who would put such shackles on Night? Who would imprison them in a cage like this?
The guard comes by and tells me I’ve got ten minutes and I need to start heading out of the museum. I stand up and give them a nod. But I’m not ready to go yet. As the guard ventures back into the labyrinth, I look around, and find a spot behind the Carpeaux at Work. I tuck myself down as small as I can and make sure I cannot be seen from any of the entrances. I do not make a peep.
Ten minutes feels like three hours.
But then, finally…
The room is pitch black, save a small streak of moonlight that dances across the park and in through the window wall. I peer up over the pedestal, so, so carefully, to look again upon Night. As my head rises so does hers, and she looks around the room with a sense of peace. Her eyes meet mine and she nods, knowingly. I am not the first who has been caught by Night. Her arms unfold, slow, stiff. Her legs stretch down to the floor as she slowly rises up. She is not exuberant like Summer… she has a gravitas, a slowness in her movement that is majestic and earned. She walks over to the beam of moonlight and reaches out her hand. As her fingertips drag through the beam, just like yours or mine would through the water of a babbling river, she began to glow the most gentle blue you’ve ever seen. And then, though her lips never parted, she spoke…
Ancient night and the unruly salt
beat at the walls of my house.
The shadow is all one, the sky
throbs now along with the ocean,
and sky and shadow erupt
in the crash of their vast conflict.
All night long they struggle;
nobody knows the name
of the harsh light that keeps slowly opening
like a languid fruit.
So on the coast comes to light,
out of seething shadow, the harsh dawn,
gnawed at by the moving salt,
swept clean by the mass of night,
bloodstained in its sea-washed crater.
Antigua noche y sal desordenada
Golpean las paredes de mi casa:
Sola es la sombra, el cielo
Es ahora un latido del océano,
Y cielo y sombra estallan
Con fragor de combate desmedido:
Toda la noche luchan
Y nadie sabe el nombre
De la cruel claridad que se irá abriendo
Como una torpe fruta:
Así nace en la costa,
De la furiosa sombra, el alba dura,
Mordida por la sal en movimiento
Barrida por el peso de la noche,
Ensangrentada en su cráter marino
Like her name scratched out on the plaque, I could not tell you exactly what she said, but I knew exactly what was meant. She looked at me again, and beckoned me over, with a gentle smile. Her arms opened as if she knew… knew that for some reason I was so drawn to be held by her, as if that were the only thing I had ever wanted. I placed each step on the floor with a weight caused not by majesty but by awe and respect. I came face to face with her, knowing her gesture to be one of a hug but still unable to move. Some voice in the back of my head echoed out never to touch the art. But before I could think better of it, her hand was on my arm. I could feel it there but I could not feel it’s weight. I reciprocated slowly, reaching and arm around to her back. She pulled my in, and I felt her tears like moonbeams drip upon my cheek. She certainly felt mine as well.
We embraced for a very long moment, we stepped away, and we looked at each other. She wiped a tear from my cheek and I did the same. I wanted just to stand there with her, forever in the dark, without the weight of the light, that ceaseless hiss, beaming down upon us.
But even sculptures aren’t forever.
“Hey! You can’t be here!”
The guards flashlight shown bright and cut through the room. I looked beside me, where Night had stood not a moment before, and she was gone, back upon her pedestal, back in that same curled up pose. I did the only thing I could do…. I ran.
Through the labyrinthine museum, the guards shouts gnashing at my ankles. A twist, a turn, a twist, a turn, I knew not where I was going but only that I could not stop. Suddenly I was there, the big room with the front doors. I burst out onto fifth avenue, the Citi Bike still parked where I had left it. I hopped on and peddled as fast as I could, deep into the heart of Central Park. Of course, I was lucky enough to escape one labyrinth without a ball of twine. Two was one two many. I wove between trees and bridges and hills and sidewalks. I had not yet learned how to let the lampposts guide me. And so I went on and on in circles like the Burghers, till I found the darkest part of the park I could, far from the luminaries, and I lay down beneath a tree.
As my eyes closed, I felt a familiar hand against my arm. My eyes shot open and it was gone. They closed once more, and I knew not to open them again, as Night wrapped her arms around me, and I fell into the deepest, most comfortable sleep I had had in years.
When I woke up, I could hear the gentle burble of Bethesda Fountain, feel the stoney wall of its pool against my back, and see the first beams of light turning the tops of the trees into paintbrushes. I looked across the lake, and I swear I saw a figure entering into the trees, back towards the Met, but I knew better than to follow after. It was, after all, morning. I got on the Citi Bike, which at this point felt both like an old friend and a hefty credit card charge, and rode into the tunnel, across the park, and back into the city.
And so it is that, though I do not particularly love the Met, I find myself wandering it’s halls every time I am in New York, hoping, just hoping, that I might stumble upon the room with it’s eternal war. I don’t dare visit her at night again. I count myself lucky to have made it out of there alive once. And I don’t advise that you try to replicate my feat. It cannot be done. But if you are at the Met, and wandering around you find yourself in that room, with that eternal war, with her… whisper those lines to her, and you might just see the gentle, knowing smile of Night’s embrace.
The poem in this episode was The Night in Isla Negra by Pablo Neruda.
Leslie Gideon was the voice of Night. You can listen to all of their voice acting work and hire them for your project at their website.