Thursday, August 06, 2009

The Gates of Fatherhood for a Surgeon

It sits on the terasse Rodin in the magnificent Musee d'Orsay. Huge, imposing, eerie and beautiful. Not simply a single sculpture, Porte de l'Enfer is a collection of large and small pieces thrown together in a multi-car pileup of literature, art, vision, and passion. (A very thorough view is here --gigapan)

I saw it for the first time in 1984 at the Dallas Museum of Art, where a bronze casting was placed on the sidewalk as an imposing reminder of what Dante's Inferno has in store for us. It was visually arresting, but not something I really had a handle on.

By the time I was next up close and personal to the Gates of Hell, I had the advantage of having read a little bit, both about Rodin and Dante. Staring at the huge hunk of plaster in the Musee d'Orsay in 1992, it had more meaning to me, and there was a depth to the piece of work that I did not appreciate before. The Thinker, sitting atop the gates, which had previously been a stand-alone sculpture in my mind, could represent any number of people --- is it Adam? Rodin himself? Satan, patiently waiting like a summer camp counselor for a new crop of kids dropped off by their parents?

Older now, bearing the experiences that a graying man will inexorably collect like dust bunnies in an empty house, I think I appreciate the intricacies, the stories, the humanity and inhumanity on display in the Gates of Hell. In other words, the knowledge I sought out and the personal experiences I own have allowed me to gain a better understanding of a complex piece of artwork.

This is hardly a new revelation --- the process of education is essentially built upon it. We rely on older and more experienced folks to teach us what they have learned, and the best teachers are those who have gained a deeper understanding of their subject over time. Yes, Father Bayhi, thirty years on I finally get it, and all of that Roman history you threw in during Latin class did sink in.

In a few weeks, the second of my children will traipse off to college, joining her sister. I couldn't be more proud, more excited, or in some respects more depressed and afraid. I have spent the last 21 years working on one side or the other of the Gates of Hell, sometimes acting as Virgil giving a grand tour of Dante's Inferno to those who will make it back to the land of the living, sometimes relegated to the role of Charon providing a final ferryboat ride. While at times this is exhilarating, it is also exhausting and emotionally taxing, and I fear that my daughters will be entering their college years with a view of me that is, well, less than cheerful. Will they see me as The Thinker, silently contemplating the unthinkable that inhabits the Gates which I cross so frequently? I certainly pray that will not be the case.

I hope instead that they will see a little bit of me in another Rodin sculpture --- that of Orpheus, known to the Greeks as the inventor of medicine and writing, as well as chief among poets and musicians.....I hope that I have been able to pass along a love for music and reading, and that maybe I know a thing or two about taking care of folks. In short, I hope that they see me as someone who still has something to offer as they mature.

As for how they think of SWIMBO and I, well, I'll once again hope they refer to Mr. Rodin: