When I first took up painting still lifes, it was Cezanne’s apples and oranges that were my ideal and inspiration. They were an A-B-C for me: they radiate assurance, boldness, confidence and courage. Wouldn’t you think, looking at Cezanne’s every painting, that here was a man who was absolutely certain of everything? Especially of his art?
So when I came upon this poem by Stephen Dobyns, quoting from Cezanne’s own letters, I was shocked:
by Stephen Dobyns
“I have begun to think,” he wrote in a late letter,
“that one cannot help others at all.” This
from a man who once called friendship the highest
virtue. And in another he wrote: “Will I ever
attain the end for which I have striven so long?”
His greatest aspiration was certainty
yet his doubts made him blame himself wrongly,
perceiving each painting a disaster. These swings
between boldness and mistrust, intimacy and isolation
led him to stay at home, keep himself concealed,
becoming a sort of hermit, whose passion for the world
directed every brushstroke, changed each creation
into an expression of tenderness, which he dismissed
writing: “a vague sense of apprehension persists.”
Like Cezanne, I long for certainty. Waiting patiently for the unknown to be revealed is more painful than actual bad news. I often think I’ve lived my life with “a vague sense of apprehension”. And yet! Look at Cezanne’s paintings! The juiciness of thick paint, the energy of slashing strokes, of curving strokes, every stroke a miracle of affirmation! None betraying the fear and apprehension he privately admits. He goes on painting.
So, when assaulted by illness, as the Hub and I have been, I pluck up courage with two hands and think, We go on. Past fear and apprehension —to live life as juicily as possible. We guard our energy for strokes to shape our lives into something as beautiful as possible. There is a haunting line from the liturgy of the Eucharist: And therefore, let us keep the feast.
And so we go on.
(“Cezanne’s Seclusion” by Stephen Dobyns, from Body Traffic. © Penguin, 1990.)