I am writing, like most folks on my street, a novel. Mine is for my cats. In one vein of the novel, a young Uruguayan novelist, living in Paris, sets about creating a Museum of Water. Books, music, architecture, paintings as well as esoteric totems and tools are placed on display in a small Belle Époque mansion. In another vein of the story an arsonist is afoot. Even cathedrals are burning. He or she eludes capture and seems to enjoy an incendiary carte blanche across France. The media takes this up as a metaphor for the implacable authoritarianism arising in Europe and the United States and now pervading the arts, finance, the courts and, one would say, religion, except that religion has always tended that way. Now, however, it’s gravely worse. Politicians are bought and placed for one purpose only; to bulldoze earth to the precipice of extinction. Zealots are getting impatient. Apocalyptic terrorists are itchy. Every day Ted Cruz is photographed praying in the Senate.
Back in the Museum of Water, in the old humanistic way, concerts, readings and lectures are given each evening. Acquisitions are celebrated. An early score of Debussy’s La Mer is cause not just for a performance by the celebrated French pianist, Hélène Grimaud, who herself not long ago had issued an album called Water (true), but for a weekend of talks and poetry and––as my daughter once called it––jewelry food and Veuve Clicquot.
No one planned for more than this, a fabulous, small, thematic museum. But a nucleus begins to form that people call, in time, The School of Water. Then, more simply yet, The School of Life. The novelist himself is an incandescent speaker. It’s never a school per se. Rather a place where thoughts eddy and ‘water’ composes an alternate faith to those of terror and proud boys and hell. Religion is reimagined, a moral township where water extinguishes fire. Where tolerance blooms and the mind greens like an April hillside in Madison County. Socrates sits on a milking stool.
Me, I love water on several counts. I grew up beside one of the world’s great rivers, tumbling, ten miles away, over one of the world’s great falls. I had a little boat that I rowed all over that river. Mist, ice and reflected moonlight were its other children. Moreover, my ancestors had a crazy idea that god wanted believers baptized in a river in a vurra particular manner. No other way would do. My nickname in school was Dunk. No kidding. I share my wife’s love of the sea. La mer. Thanks to Debussy, it almost feels like a French passion. We came within an inch of retiring to Maine just to wake each morning to a mist-frosted, luminous mirror of sea. I make paper, I suspect, because no medium would suffice that didn’t originate in water.
Art history, my other field, is not, of course, all about water. But there’s lots of water in it––symbol that it is of life and rebirth, hope and survival. Growing up among farmers, if anything could bring a crusty uncle to his knees, it was the sight of a gentle downpour just when it was needed on his fields.
Water is an emblem, a faith that we desperately need right now. On the worst of days we still must hope that tomorrow It’s Gonna Rain.
Hope you enjoy these images, all to be found, if you’re ever in Paris, in the small Museum of Water.
Hiroshige: Atake under a sudden downpour
John Frewderick Kensett: Shrewsbury NJ
Pat Steir: July waterfall