János Pilinszky, “Van Gogh’s Prayer”

It aggravates me that I still don’t know what to do when confronted with van Gogh. I still want to say too much too soon, but I’ve learned to look until I’m lost in a painting, then look and get lost again. That feels like progress, but what to do with progress which merely speculates about methods and thoughts, which cannot resolve into articulate impressions?

I should be so talented to write poems about art — skip straight to the spiritual, stumble into longing, try to paint the paintings. János Pilinszky’s “Van Gogh’s Prayer” does all these things, refusing to fail:

Van Gogh's Prayer (from Poetry)
János Pilinszky (tr. George Gömöri & Clive Wilmer)

A battle lost in the cornfields
and in the sky a victory.
Birds, the sun and birds again.
By night, what will be left of me?

By night, only a row of lamps,
a wall of yellow clay that shines,
and down the garden, through the trees,
like candles in a row, the panes;

there I dwelt once and dwell no longer—
I can't live where I once lived, though
the roof there used to cover me.
Lord, you covered me long ago.

A battle lost in the cornfields — Pilinszky’s van Gogh begins depicting loss in this world, but the scope of his vision can’t help but see larger forces at work. At the least, losses stand relative to wins, for in the sky a victory. “Battle” and “victory” indicate historical, human cycles. The sky continually bears witness to our murder of each other, from war to peace to war again. But this, in turn, points to cycles which are entirely natural: Birds, the sun and birds again. Can any of this mean anything for van Gogh? He seems hopelessly out of place no matter what. Earthly loss is not just death, for most of us have legacies which will evaporate after we stop breathing. For now, daylight, oil, and canvas only enable a cry. By night, what will be left of me?

He turns to another picture, trying to make sense of night. By night, only a row of lamps, / a wall of yellow clay that shines. A row of lamps enlightens a wall, makes its make and texture known and beautiful. But this temporarily cuts off his vision entirely. At least before, he could stare into the infinite blue of the sky. Still. Painting the night, he sees down the garden, through the trees, like candles in a row, the panes. Finally, some depth with the possibility of meaning. Down the garden, through the trees, in the midst of nature he glimpses windows, set like a row of candles. By means of a natural path, beyond surmountable obstacles, he sees what is peculiarly human. It feels only a glimpse, a tease, but there is something.

The trouble with trying to attain wisdom through one’s own sight is that it depends on a degree of covering. Van Gogh understands what he painted at night intimately. It was his home, as there I dwelt once and dwell no longer. He knows what happened behind the panes once, but now even home is closed to him. In this case, that he paints the home from the outside might indicate that the conflict of the painter is not so much between the image of a thing and its actual existence, but whether he even has a place within the world he imagines. His self-knowledge is the problem, for experience is different from what we think, say, and do. It’s not just what happens to us at a given time, either. To truly learn anything is to invite homelessness. I can’t live where I once lived, though the roof there used to cover me. The windows of home, though, stand like candles. What little he knows acts as a light, but it only reveals an ever greater mystery. Lord, you covered me long ago — the fear and trembling of the first stanza have become wonder. Yes, there are morbid overtones, but they serve this mystery: Why do I exist at all?

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