The Writing on Our Wall

Rembrandt, Belshazzar’s Feast c. 1636 Oil on canvas National Gallery, London. Image: WGA

“We are leaving the EU and there will not be a second referendum”  (UK Treasury, 17 October 2017)

The handwriting on the wall that spoiled Belschazzar’s party and was interpreted by the Jewish prophet Daniel for the terrified, incompetent king of Babylon, translates roughly as:

Mene: God has numbered the days of your reign and brought it to an end.
Tekel: You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting.
Peres: Your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians
(Holy Bible, Daniel 5:26–28)

More than an angry god, more than truth and justice, more than the costs of redecorating the wall, the average person fears owning up to a stupid mistake. Our elected representatives owe it to us to be bigger than their individual selves.

REVERSE BREXIT
SAVE US ALL

Our days are numbered.

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No Bed for the Cat


Peter Paul Rubens, Annunciation, c. 1628 Oil on canvas, Rubens House, Antwerp.
Image: WGA

It is the same astonishing moment as a thousand times before and after – the same winged and muscular messenger, with the same soft feminine face, the same long golden hair, wearing a yellow tunic, accompanied by a dove and flying babies, interrupting a girl reading while a cat sleeps in the corner – but in a different place, light years away.

This is no baby shower, like the time before. This time the stranger does not bring the pure white flowers of virginity to present to the girl from a deferential distance. There are already flowers in a bulbous glass vase on a round table, red and pink roses unfurling petals the colour of flesh, a red tulip like a licking tongue. The dive-bombing cherubs are about to pelt garlands of more roses, a lover’s gift, on the girl’s head.

It’s not the same girl, or she has changed. She reads the same book, but she is not self-composed like the girl kneeling in a room in Urbino, over twenty years earlier. There is no view of a white castle, the room is dark and the floor is made of wooden nailed planks.

There is no sign of the patriarchal puppeteer in the sky. There is no formality, no inhibition, only the visitor’s knowing smile as he alights, his left hand almost close enough to touch her, and her gasp of expectation. Even the watching cherubs are louche.

This time she is aroused by the visitor’s physical presence and does not attempt to hide her feelings. Illuminated by a beam of light, she rises to meet his passion with her own, her lips parted and her uplifted eyes rolling in trance-like ecstasy. Her longing is mixed with reproach. She is worried about consequences.

She is Psyche in love with Eros, who has flown in through her open window. He is beautiful and persuasive. His power will change her life.

She is not sure she wants him yet.

(Keats, Ode to Psyche, 1819)

It’s not the same cat, either. This one is a tabby, coiled tight in its own sensual world, indifferent to human desires, lying on the hard wooden floor beside a work basket because the girl has forgotten to make a cushioned bed for its sleep.

 

The Cat’s Dream

Federico Fiori Barocci, Annunciation
1592-96 Oil on canvas, Santa Maria degli Angeli, Perugia. Image: WGA

A cat sleeps on a cushion in the corner of a room while a fourteen year-old virgin receives her pregnancy results from a beautiful, transgender visitor, who presents Madonna lilies as a baby shower gift. She smiles sweetly, and lowers her eyes modestly, grateful but not surprised. She accepts the news in the composed manner of a young prima donna receiving the bouquet that her talent deserves.

The visitor has only just arrived, interrupting the girl reading a small, pocket-sized book, which she lays aside instantly, without closing the pages or rising to her feet. The girl reads a lot. She has few possessions apart from her expensively bound books. She reveres their contents, kneeling while she reads. Her room is sparsely furnished, functional; only the voluptuous folds of the dark red drape loosely knotted over the window relieve the cell-like austerity. She cares about the cat’s comfort as much as her own. She has hung her hat and shawl neatly on a hook. The polished stone tiled floor is clean.

Nothing else is normal, and yet the scene is familiar. The visitor, who kneels before the girl as if she is a queen, has wings, and is accompanied by two over-excited flying babies, clapping their hands and gurgling with joy on either side of a hovering dove. The window drape looks like a stage curtain, framing a view of a white turreted castle on a hill, guarding a city beyond, a landscape in fairyland.

Strangest of all, the ceiling has been removed from the room. The billowing curtain blends into clouds that separate to allow a gigantic elderly man with a long beard to peer down out of a hole in the sky. Golden light radiates behind him, crowded with faces of more chubby babies, made of the Sun, all pressing closer and closer to the girl in the room. He holds his hands palms down over the girl like a puppeteer pulling invisible strings.

The cat sleeps.

Rembrandt’s Cat

Rembrandt, The Holy Family with a Curtain, 1646
oil on wood, Staatliche Museen, Kassel. Image: WGA

Rembrandt, Maria met kind, met kat en slang (Virgin and Child with a Cat and Snake),
etching on paper, 1654. Rijksmuseum Amsterdam.
Image: Wikipedia

Lying in our hearts

Tired, wannabe Cassandra delegates living, influential, paid voices like this one (Patrick Cockburn in The Independent) to persuade friends and countrymen to get over the referendum and move on to saving all the living inhabitants, and future generations, of this shrinking island.

Defying and rejecting the result of last year’s opinion poll, changing our minds, admitting we were wrong – except in protesting that the EU needs monitoring and reform, just like all states, institutions and individuals on the planet – would be morally courageous, a collective act of heroism to save our children and their children, so why don’t we do it?

Horse Frightened by a Storm, watercolour by Eugene Delacroix, 1824. Image source: WGA

Does the Voice of the People only respond to the owner’s call?

In any other species, the self-preservation instinct would prevail – horses wouldn’t jump the Brexit fence, cats would turn their noses – so why do we carry on pretending we want to do it?

Or do we want Theresa to do our dirty work, and die with BREXIT lying in her heart?

Mary Tudor, queen of England and Ireland, by Antonis Mor, 1554. Image: Wikipedia
Though it is disputed that she said
“When I am dead and opened, you shall find ‘Calais’ lying in my heart”,
the implication that “Bloody Mary”, her conscience clear about
burning people alive, was tormented by guilt about the loss of
English empire in France, is touching.
In her rational Renaissance mind, the part uninfected by fanaticism, this dutiful woman who believed she was carrying out the Will of God,
knew we were stronger staying in Europe.
She was as devoted to the national interest as her more successful and popular half-sister, Elizabeth I.

Neither the 16th Century’s Will of God nor the 21st Century’s Will of The People are infallible; they are not sanctified by reason or ethics, they are bombast, slogans to sell shoddy policies and shameful desires.

Theresa is easily bullied and derided, she’s neither an orator nor a charmer, she is neither spontaneous nor profound, she does not please Leavers or Remainers, can’t trust anyone around her because they want her job, so we need her to be brave, braver than any British politician since Churchill, we need her to carry on containing Brexit in the national interest, until it stops completely.

The battle is ruining her health, we can all see that saving Britain could kill her, but sacrifice, not self-interest, should be the measure of anyone who would rule.

 

Egocentrism before the Selfie Age

Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle.”
Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865)

To love oneself is the beginning of a life-long romance.”
Oscar Wilde, An Ideal Husband (1895)

“And you? When will you begin that long journey into yourself?”
Jalaluddin Rumi (1207 – 1273)

romneyrussell
George Romney, Portrait of Lady Barbara Anne Russell née Whitworth
holding her son, Sir Henry Russell, “on one of the pier tables, playing with the looking glass”
(quoted from Sir Henry Russell’s memoir about the commission of the painting)

Oil on canvas, 1786/87. Last exhibited in ‘On Reflection’ at the National Gallery in 1998.

That tragic, ruthless glance… is a question of his salvation…..
All the rest is rhetoric, posturing, farce
Kierkegaard (1813 -1855)

One of the mirrors in the house, an old pier glass inside a gilded oval frame that had lost its lustre a generation ago,
had cracked from too much self-reflection.
The more often they looked, the less clearly they saw themselves.

Noelle Mackay, All the Rest (2017)