By Marcia Eaton
As many of you know, much of my work has dealt with the connections and lack of connections between aesthetic and ethical value. Upon retirement from the University of Minnesota, I decided to attempt to deal with these matters in a work of fiction. I have self-published the resulting novel and it is available on Amazon and Kindle. I am now struggling to find a literary agent – much more difficult, I’ve discovered, than getting a journal to accept my work!
Several aesthetic conundrums are addressed. The main theme of the novel deals with the moral and aesthetic decline of the protagonist. But along the way I also challenge the reader to consider if, when, and why making copies of works of art is a vice. I hope many of you will read and enjoy my novel. And I look forward to hearing from you at email@example.com.
SynopsisA couple on sabbatical from the University of Minnesota observes a puzzling scene in a restaurant in Padua, Italy. (The restaurant, The Crivelli, is named after a minor Renaissance artist who spent some time in Padua.) Subsequently a manuscript falls into their hands, and may offer clues as to what was actually happening. But possessing the manuscript may also be dangerous.
The manuscript consists of a memoir written by an Italian, Enrico Zollino, one of whose ancestors deserved a spot in Dante’s Inferno. Each chapter of this manuscript is headed with the description of a postcard depicting a work by Carlo Crivelli. The messages provide encryptions that challenge the reader and create several strands of the mystery. In the memoir, Zollino tries to explain to his son how he himself found himself descending into his own inferno.
The excerpt that follows explains how the memoir comes into the hands of Professor Conger via a friend that she runs into in Amsterdam.
The Rijksmuseum was featuring a special exhibit on still life paintings. Though not my favorite genre, I found more than enough to fill the hour thinking about how artists managed to capture the distinctive textures of lemons and peaches before I made my way to the large gallery where the museum’s crown jewel hangs. As usual, scores of visitors crowded into the space in front of Rembrandt’s ingenious “team picture,” as a friend had described it, quite aptly, I thought. Howard Pletcher was standing off to the side looking at one of the more pedestrian examples of the genre that flanks The Nightwatch and gives it such a comparative edge.
“Look at the way the man in the plumed hat is reflected in that andiron,” he remarked, after we embraced.
“Yes, wonderful, isn’t it?”
We strolled back through a long gallery. “That’s it,” I said with great relief, when I spied a Renaissance portrait. “I’ve been trying to think of who a woman I saw in a restaurant in Padua reminded me of. It’s her. I’ve always loved that picture.” But Howard had gotten ahead of me and didn’t hear my comment. I decided to share our restaurant conundrum with Howard as soon as I got a chance. But I never did. We made our way through the gift shop – always the most crowded space in that museum, in almost any museum, for that matter, and walked down the elegant staircase to the cafeteria.
“How long are you and Roger in town?”
“We’ve been here about three weeks. We have only two more days. We were in Italy for three months and Brussels seven months before that. Now the sabbatical is coming to its dreaded end.”
We sat at a small table, cups of dark Douwe Egberts in front of us.
“Was it productive?”
“I finished revising my volume on Jan Steen. Roger worked with the people in Italy and Belgium who seem to be the only other people in Europe who really understand what he’s doing, so he’s been happy as a clam. Now I’ve had enough time here to arrange for reproduction rights for some of the pictures I want to include in my book, so I’m feeling pretty good about things, too.”
“Sorry about Zollini’s son’s death. You said it was an accident.”
“Yes. He fell, apparently in the middle of the night, a couple of weeks ago. Quite a freak accident – hit a cabinet in his study at just the right, or rather wrong, angle. Broke his neck and evidently died instantly.”
“God, that’s awful. How old was he?”
“Did he have a family?”
“He was engaged---supposed to get married in November. But he lived alone---in a small house down a hill from this Mother’s villa. She’s distraught, of course. I stayed a few extra days to try to help out. She’s the one who discovered his body, unfortunately.”
“That’s really terrible.”
“Yes.” He looked at his watch and around the room and then pulled his chair closer to the table and leaned toward me.
“Did you by any chance read that article by George Steiner in The New Yorker maybe ten years ago – about Anthony Blount and his combining art history with spying?”
“No, I don’t think so,” I replied, surprised at the quick change of topic.
“Steiner couldn’t understand how someone who cared so much about art could get himself involved in treason. I’ve never forgotten how he put the question. I don’t remember the exact words, of course, but the question that really perplexed him was something like this.” He hesitated and swallowed as if trying to control his emotions. And again I was surprised – how could an old New Yorker article cause someone to choke up?
“How could a man who spent his days trying to teach students why it matters so much whether they’re looking at a real or fake Watteau, spend his nights passing intelligence secrets to Soviet agents?”
“The question that perplexes me is how anyone could spend a whole day on Watteau,” I replied.
Howard smiled, but remained serious. “Yes, yes, but don’t you think the issue is intriguing?”
“Of course I do. I’ve often wondered how people who loved Kant and Bach could become Nazis. It’s the same basic question, don’t you think?”
He nodded. Then he looked around the cafeteria again and lowered his voice. “I have something that I think answers Steiner. Not about Blount, but about someone else who cared deeply about art and…” He paused.
“Still lacked a moral compass?”
“Not exactly. More a case of losing a moral compass.”
“It’s more than that. It may even be a little dangerous.” His voice had become almost a whisper. “I have a manuscript. I found it while I was helping Señora Zollino sort through some papers. It was in a large envelope addressed to William. Since I’m his heir, I put it in my bag.” He looked around again. “I just remembered it on the flight here – and read it.”
“Can I read it?”
“Perhaps one day. But first I have a great favor to ask of you.”
“The manuscript is in the cloak room. I’ve already made one copy and sent it to my office at the museum. After I saw you last night I made another copy in the business center at my hotel. I’d like to take it to the Post Office next door and, with your permission, mail it to you at your home address.”
“Why not to my office at the University?”
“I think it’s safer to send it to your house. I’ve become afraid that someone might try to take it from me. I know it sounds crazy, but I think I’m being followed. I could send it to your department address, but it’s too easy to lift things from department mailrooms.”
I began to think he was suffering from some sort of paranoia. Academics are certainly political animals and maneuvering behind doors about an agenda item for an upcoming department meeting can be intense. But the issues we fight about are never really dangerous. He read my mind.
“All right, maybe I’m being paranoid, but I would just feel better doing it this way. Is someone living in your house?”
“A Norweigian couple has been living there, but they’ve gone back to Oslo. A neighbor is looking after things ‘til we get back. She’s putting all the mail that looks like it matters in a box in my study.”
“I’ll just mark the envelope ‘personal’ then.” He sighed. “I’m undoubtedly imagining all of this. But I think when – if – you read it, you’ll understand why someone might want to get rid of the manuscript. At the very least, it could ruin some reputations.”
“Look, Howard, you certainly have my permission to send me a copy – wherever you think is best, or safest. But there’s one condition. You have to let me read it when I get home. After this conversation you can’t expect me to just destroy it, or give it back to you unread.”
“That’s fair. And after you’ve read it we’ll have dinner one night and talk about it.”
“Another condition – you have to do the cooking.”
“Right, and we agreed last night that Roger will bring the wine.” We stood up and kissed in the European style. “You sit back down and finish your coffee. I’m going to retrieve my things and go to the Post Office. Then I’m catching a cab to the airport. I’ll be in my hotel in Mayfair before dinner, if all goes well.”
“And when will you be back in Minneapolis?”
“Ten days or so.”
“Good. I’ll be back at my desk, worse luck, before that.”
Howard walked out of the cafeteria and crossed the entry hall to the cloak room. I sat back down and started to take a sip of my coffee, but put the cup down when I saw two large men get up from their table near the cafeteria entrance, stand briefly outside in the hall and then go in the direction of the museum’s entrance. For a fleeting moment I could have sworn that both men looked at me and said something to each other before they left. Now, I thought, I’m the one imagining things. Had I read the manuscript before my meeting with Howard, however, I would have been even more suspicious.
A final excerpt illustrates one of the passages in which I present the sort of thought experiment that we often introduce to students of aesthetics.
Unquestionably some of what we did was admirable, especially returning works to people (or their heirs) whose prized possessions had been taken from them, or pulled off walls of the homes of people who had been shipped off to God knows what kind of horror. However, for every work we helped to return there was another one that went elsewhere. Sometimes an item went to otherwise reputable museums whose directors---in the interests of amassing prestigious collections---were not always conscientious about checking its provenance. At least those works were made accessible to larger audiences than otherwise would have been able to see them. The sheer quantity of aesthetic pleasure in the world was undoubtedly increased, and that cannot be a bad thing. But often the items in question found their way into the private collections of individuals who had no right to them and who, often, were capable of very little in the way of genuine aesthetic response. It was hard for me to justify this to myself.
The worst thing ICRA did, however, was to become a kind of Gun for Hire in the art world. We didn’t commit any murders, at least not to my knowledge. But in order to raise funds for the various undertakings of our groups and others with which we were loosely associated, we did become part of a ring that oversaw the “redistribution” of art. We assisted and abetted art thieves, in other words. The sort of thing I had done for Billy’s Father was the norm. Some of the undertakings were devilishly clever. One of my favorites is this. In Florida there are countless mansions that are second, even third or fourth, homes of millionaires. They stand empty for all but a few weeks a year. A thief can go in, lift a masterpiece, have it copied, put the copy back in place of the original and make a fortune selling the original. The millionaire almost never even notices what’s happened.
2014 © Marcia Eaton