|Van Gogh Roses (1890) at the National Gallery in D.C.|
Beauty is mercy in times of sorrow. A goodly part of me doesn't even want to describe how, just wants to leave this untouched and alone already - but my prose is going to blunder in, shoulder past the aesthetics, and stand there and try to understand this. Why we smile at flowers. Why we bow down to them, curious or eager for their scent. Why we put them in the center of things. Why sometimes we hold them in our arms. Why we want to capture them in art. Why the Little Prince would have done anything in the universe for his rose. Very living lively things that can only sustain so much depth (look to how much more seriously one can speak of trees or rocks; consider the flat discursive space of iconography which reduces the lily to a sign for virginity). And yet every last one of us would notice if there were fresh cut flowers in the room - initiating their own little cycles of beauty and death. (But that was actually another good thing: when the roses faded and it was time to throw them away, that was a specific time (of all-enveloping mourning, of pointed sadness) that had passed.) If there were flowers when we walked in, every last one of us would notice and be gladdened, even if fleetingly gladdened.
Mercy starts in the etymology of gift (9th century), itself with roots in exchange and markets (Lat. mercedem). Mercy is merciful because it bespeaks a relationship right away. You are not alone. Mercy is a tipping point: it is not a solution to your woes, it doesn't explain or fix things. It is not a philosophy, though I think it could be an ethics. This is why it is found in embraces, gazes, and flowers - simple, fleeting things that aren't going to resolve anything, but instead will alight on your sorrow and spare you from that sorrow for just a little while. It is also something Southerners say when It (life, the heat, what you just said) is just too much. "Spare me" - a lovely phrase that can be turned sarcastic by angst and exasperation. Peel that back and you get the most serious element of mercy: to be spared. When people "cry out" for mercy, they are asking to be spared (yes, an Old English word), to be safe from harm, for this fear and panic, this feeling of being at war with something in the world, to stop. I've been reading Rebecca Solnit's book A Field Guide to Getting Lost in preparation for the return to Brittany. In it, she present the etymology of "lost" as Old Norse: "los, meaning the disbanding of an army." (7) I think that this comes up now because mercy comes when you feel lost. Mercy comes at moments of loss. She goes on: "this origin suggest soldiers falling out of formation to go home, a truce with the wide world." How did the pilot at the beginning of the Little Prince come to be lost? And so these thoughts, the beginning of this post, realizing I've written about mercy before in these pages but oh so long ago and so differently it now seems, while standing there in front of Van Gogh's very present, very material, very brave roses - making me think of my father and his mercy, in his mercy. And Eleanor, meanwhile, wanting to know more about Tahiti and when are we going to the Air and Space Museum and what's next.