Moby killed a small brown bird. I would call it nondescript except that it would certainly be known to any backyard birder. He came into my studio with it dangling limply from his mouth and when I picked him up to throw him out before he could defile the body he growled at me, unconvincingly, like the tiny tiger he is.
He lacks the capacity to understand why I am angry at him, or even to know that I am. He has done something perfectly, instinctually natural to him, and there is nothing to be upset about except our own culpability: that we allow him to go outside, where he has the opportunity to kill other, smaller creatures. It does not make me feel any better that the (for us) untenable alternative was having a house soaked in the piss of a petulant cat.
I couldn’t bear to move the body at first. I hoped against all logic that perhaps with time to rest, it would magically reanimate and flutter off. I kept painting, periodically spying around the corner of my canvas to see if perhaps that wing had shifted over a bit? or was that a tiny tremble of breath at all?
It did not come back to life.
Its body was shockingly weightless when I steeled myself to pick it up at the end of the day, a few straws wrapped in tissue paper; feathers mussed, slightly, by my cat’s lethal jaws and paws, a tiny clod of dirt caked on the underside of its beak. It had been so freshly alive, so newly departed when Moby brought it in, that it didn’t seem like a corpse exactly; I felt the consciousness of a unique living creature, only just turned off. Its eyes were closed, almost formally.
‘Children often say things that seem extraordinary to us precisely because the big questions are not yet “famously tricky” for them. Oliver is obsessed with death at the moment and he’s also only six. He can’t bear it, it hasn’t become part of How it Is; it’s still a scandal, a catastrophic design flaw; it ruins everything. We’ve got used to the face of death — although the experience is irreducibly strange. He hasn’t found the trick of putting a hood on the executioner, of hiding the experience with the fact. He still sees it as pure experience. I found him crying over a dead fly lying on the windowsill. He asked me why things have to die and all I could offer him was tautology: because nothing lasts for ever.’
— At Last, Edward St. Aubyn
I know it is immature, a child’s view of death, but like little Oliver I still retain a strong and similar feeling that death is a “scandal, a catastrophic design flaw.”
One of my earliest memories is of sitting in the backseat of a car being parked by one of my parents, and being mutely horror-struck by the realization that when I died people would still go on about such mundane business, driving around in their cars, looking for parking spots, backing into them, putting coins into the meter, all as though something unthinkable had not occurred; and with the unapologetic egotism of a child, I felt an existential affront that the world would not cease to go on without me—me, for whom it had been created!—to witness it.
I was, and remain, indignant.
The worst part of my local avian tragedy is the fear that this was not just a random bird, but a bird I had come to think of as my daily companion in the backyard, the bird that has been warbling away atop the spiky protection of the neighbor’s holly tree all summer. I remember thinking that his song was lovely, and being happy he had such a redoubtable fortress to sing it safely in. I suppose I may impute his death by the absence of his song in the coming days.
This is the second bird Moby has killed. (It may be time to fit him for a catbib.) A year and a half ago, I made this painting to commemorate his first victim.
I am starting another painting to commemorate the second. It seems the very least I can do.
The series of ordinary household objects has continued, although I am (ahem) quite behind in posting them to this blog. This was finished a year or so ago. I don’t hate the finished version (at the bottom), but in retrospect, I mourn the beautiful looseness of the first version.
I do wish I hadn’t nailed this particular butterfly to the wall in the quest for a greater precision, and looking at it again, while it kind of hurts, is reminding me to stop sooner next time, a lesson I only seem to learn at the rate of one millimeter per year.
The work is the death mask of its conception.
— Walter Benjamin
But there’s no reason to cry. If it’s true that first-rate novels are rare, it’s also true that what we call the literary canon is really the history of the second-rate, the legacy of honourable failures. Any writer should be proud to join that list just as any reader should count themselves lucky to read them. The literature we love amounts to the fractured shards of an attempt, not the monument of fulfilment. The art is in the attempt, and this matter of understanding-that-which-is-outside-of-ourselves using only what we have inside ourselves amounts to some of the hardest intellectual and emotional work you’ll ever do. It is a writer’s duty. It is also a reader’s duty. Did I mention that yet?”
— Zadie Smith, “Fail Better“
At times, whatever he might say, he was surely lost in a cloud of unknowing; but at least it was a peaceful cloud at present and sailing through a milky sea towards a possible though unlikely ecstasy at an indefinite remove was, if not the fullness of life, then something like its shadow.
— Patrick O’Brien, HMS Surprise
The problem with nonfiction these days is that everybody wants—this idea of a personal vision is very important. “Where do you stand?” I find all that pretty tiresome. I’m not ever saying anything unusual, you know? I’m just trying to think about general things just a bit more specifically. I’m not claiming to any unusual emotions, tastes, opinions—I have a very average taste in most things. It’s not that. It’s just trying to express, as precisely as you can, these perfectly average things.
Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand — but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied.
Assay and correction, approximation and refinement, venture and return.
— Lawrence Weschler, “Cameraworks: Staring Down a Paralyzed Cyclops,” True to Life: Twenty-Five Years of Conversations with David Hockney
Work. Be relentless. All over the world, people are working harder than you.
I used to struggle like mad with my art, lose sleep over it, lament over “ruining” pieces and so on. Painting became easy the day I decided it should be easy. It was really that simple.