I make fun of myself for wanting to be loved, but you won’t find a trace of that humor in my prose.
Writing, as if it were a more powerful sort of memory or mind than held by an individual, holds the loss of love, or a lack of attention or acknowledgment, to be one of the worst things that can happen to someone. You might say this is because writing itself is a plea to a reader; the very nature of words made permanent is a want of love and attention. That may be true, but this fragment from Sappho shows what else is involved:
We put the urn aboard ship Sappho (tr. Mary Barnard) We put the urn aboard ship with this inscription: This is the dust of little Timas who unmarried was led into Persephone’s dark bedroom And she being far from home, girls her age took new-edged blades to cut, in mourning for her, these curls of their soft hair
Young Timas never found a mate. Unmarried…[she] was led into Persephone’s dark bedroom: that’s the inscription given to her remains. It strongly implies that without being loved, she may not have had any idea what life itself is. The rest of the fragment seems to reinforce this theme. “Far from home,” she’s a guest of sorts. In an urn, she has been consumed, a sacrifice to who-knows-what.
Everyone sees Timas’ loss as a momentous tragedy, a worry that they too could share such a terrible fate. It does not radicalize them, though. No one becomes an “incel,” demanding they alone must have intimacy or the world must burn. Rather, they grieve together. Girls her age took new-edged blades to cut, in mourning for her, these curls of their soft hair. The loss of Timas reinforces a strange, mystic, tender solidarity. They are resolved that love is necessary; everyone deserves it; it must be freely given in due time. The last is the sticking point, as it seems incredibly cruel to be alive for any moment and not feel fully loved. But being loved is so valuable that Timas, though unmarried, is obviously loved, loved so much that those around her wished she had found that much more. She should have lived so that her marriage could be celebrated, whenever it may have been. Extend that logic, and if Timas had remained single for her whole life, she would be justly celebrated as beyond common notions of love.
The fragments, perhaps, mention Timas again. Sappho dreamt about love and beauty, picturing Aphrodite—or was she Timas?
Cyprian, in my dream Sappho (tr. Mary Barnard) Cyprian, in my dream The folds of a purple kerchief shadowed your cheeks – the one Timas one time sent, a timid gift, all the way from Phocaea
Like it or not, friendship and love blur. Sappho thinks she was sent “a timid gift,” implying that she believes Timas should have been more forthright with her desire. But Sappho says she saw Aphrodite herself wearing that gift. Sappho loves the idea of being loved, so much so she’s falling in love with the one she hopes desires her. Whether she fully realizes what is occurring…well, I don’t know that any of us have that level of self-consciousness.
Nowadays a number of us keep a strict separation between friends and lovers. I know at least one person who repeatedly labels others “friends.” I’m not clear on what this is supposed to accomplish, as friendship itself is an enormous commitment. You have to want to benefit your friends, not just be funny or share silly stories. You have to celebrate their growth, not just their achievement. Friendship done right expands: more people want to be friends with you, more people want to hear from you, and your corresponding responsibilities grow. Being emotionally available, being willing to be vulnerable, being willing to communicate and listen is maybe the gravest responsibility. Friendly love, above all, reminds you that love of any sort or degree isn’t really a game. It’s hard work, and it’s why true lovers must be excellent friends—they help anchor each other’s reality.
In light of Timas’ death, I wonder if the memory that can sustain one is of a love one believes could have been had. Love has the “folds of a purple kerchief,” one might say. To take a few examples: friends and lovers overlap, the love that sustains a family comes from romance, and even life and death fold upon each other, becoming unrecognizable.
In July, I drove from Dallas to Oklahoma City to see a friend. As soon as the car touched open highway, the feeling of freedom was unlike anything I had felt in a long time. Stretches of Texas were dust and truck rentals by the roadside, a sandbox of toy cars punctuated by the occasional Applebee’s. I searched the radio but only found the stations from Dallas fading away.
Beyond the Red River, you drive over a hill, and your eyes open to rolling green hills with small buildings in the distance—here a church, there a town hall. You drive through the Arbuckles, an ancient set of mountains. They are so old they fell over on their side, and something about the area feels lush, full of life. A giant wind farm dominated part of my view on 35, and for a second I thought what woolly mammoths grazing were like.
When I arrived at Oklahoma City, I promptly went to the Museum of Art. I wasn’t prepared at all for Kehinde Wiley’s “Jacob de Graeff:”
Gerard Ter Borch’s “Jacob de Graeff” also sports a cane, but stands against a dark background. His garments hold rich, silver details; I’m not terribly convinced by the hair of the subject, but I can only see what the photograph of the painting lets me. Mr. de Graeff does not look terribly patient in his official pose, as he knows he’s more important than you. He has the clothes to prove it. He has those clothes because his family made a fortune from slavery.
Wiley’s “Jacob de Graeff” is Brincel Kape’li Wiggins, Jr., a rapper who goes by the stage name Kapeli. Kapeli, if you’re reading this, please send me a page I can link to—you’ve been lionized in fine art, but it shouldn’t take great art for us to pay attention to each other. Your work, whatever it may be, deserves an audience. An artist took his time to muse on every detail of another artist; the least we can do is listen to both.
For now, I want to spend some time on Wiley’s painting. Instead of a dark background setting off silver, there are floral motifs. They assume a tight order around the painting, but break that order when they near Kapeli. The yellow flowers reach over him to add their adornment. They complement the red in his pocket perfectly.
Kapeli has put together quite the outfit. He’s got a jacket that looks a purple-blue to me, white pants, a t-shirt with a gray design, and a black hat and shoes. In short: he’s wearing neutrals, displaying his fashion sense, his knowledge of what works. He does not rely on an outfit meant to convey any authority from the state. He certainly does not need a dark background and dark clothes so that the metals he’s wearing shine. His clothes play with different textures. The white pants are wrinkled but complement what might be a smooth, soft jacket. His watch is silver and reminds us of the original Jacob de Graeff, except that his watch, oversized as it is, is functional.
If portraits are about the status of one’s family, Kapeli’s cap, proclaiming “Ferguson,” tells us everything we need to know. It’s literally on his mind. But there’s no worry or defiance, no anger or collapse in his gaze or stance. The cane Kapeli holds is a prop—it merely accentuates the fact he’s standing, looking at you, trying to see who you are. He’s not displaying his authority as much as searching. But there definitely is an air of authority.
For this viewer, Wiley seems to be asking this: What does it mean to be an aristocrat? Does it mean you profit from slavery and assume a leading position in a wealthy, powerful country, like the original Jacob de Graeff (and a lot of other people we know nowadays)? That doesn’t seem right in any sense. What makes you best, what makes you worthy to rule, has to lie in your capacities. Kapeli’s looking you over: are you a threat or a friend? He knows how to dress, making the most from stuff that might have been bought at a thrift store. He’s got a great watch, and it works for him as an ornament and a means of measuring time. As the cap shows, he’s got a place he cares about and real moral concerns.
Kapeli’s right in front of you, a testament to merit triumphing over noble birth. Yet it’s not a testament many Americans recognize. There were a number of patrons I watched who glanced at this painting once, muttered something under their breath, and moved on. I’ve been speaking a lot about being ignored, neglected, and not even acknowledged recently because I can count the years where the number of people who were there for me could be counted on one hand. I realize that I’m lucky to have had that. I also know that it’s completely unacceptable: no one should be purposely ignored or unwelcome so others can feel power. Love doesn’t just have folds, it depends on folds. Only with folds are there multiple surfaces, dimensions, a world. What I feel most people want is a simple answer to life itself: that everything they do is justified, that they’re right no matter what, that the world would be better off if it only echoed them. The tragedy of Ferguson is that one group had all the power for years and only used it to oppress the residents, keeping the spirit of Jim Crow alive for decades. They had their echo. Racism is a voice that only hears itself speak and will allow no other. It’s a blank sheet of paper that cannot imagine the possibilities of origami.