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Old Souls and Modern Art

Old Souls and Modern Art

For two weeks prior to my birthday, I’m a dismal, maudlin watering pot. I’m overcome with nostalgia for times past, people lost, and places that no longer exist. And it’s not just as I grow older: it’s been this way since I was a child. At ten years old I was weary with the years that had accumulated to heavy double digits; at five years old I regretted the fading of my toddler memories. At less than one year old, my mother would take me to the grocery store where shoppers would stop to compliment the little baby with the red hair, and I’d stare back at them with uncanny intensity. The shoppers, I’ve been told, would murmur excuses and continue down the aisle, back to their relatively trouble-free lives. My grandmother took it upon herself to declare that I was what’s known as an “old soul”.

Now, the thing with old souls is that we’re not just filled with nostalgia for this life, we’re filled with nostalgia for nothing less than all of history. It’s heavy; it’s a burden; and it’s nothing we can lay down. Harold Bloom once told me with those soulful eyes of his that it seemed to him that he held at least 2000 years of the Jewish race in him. He awoke at dawn every morning, had his gefilte fish, and let the accumulation of a culture’s worth of wisdom pour out from him onto the pages of the green, cloth-bound record books he used for writing. Sterling Professor of the Humanities at Yale University and author of dozens of books, he knew what he was doing and why he was doing it.

It’s not so easy for the rest of us. The world was already underappreciative of melancholy and reflection during his lifetime, and the pace at which modern life is diminishing the role of old souls is startling. Even in academia. Even in the arts.

“The great poems, plays, novels, stories teach us how to go on living, even submerged under forty fathoms of bother and distress. If you live ninety years you will be a battered survivor. Your own mistakes, accidents, failures and otherness beat you down. Rise up at dawn and read something that matters as soon as you can.”

I have this quote by Harold framed and placed by my bed, so that these lines are the “something that matters” I read when I wake up (not at dawn…and no fish for breakfast, thank you). And then I sit down to paint. And I attempt to paint something that matters in the way Harold intended, but it’s of course tricky because it’s not reading and it’s not writing; there are no words used to try to capture that ineffable sense of meaning and mattering.

I feel—perhaps you feel it too, if you’re an old soul—this pull into the past, when books were prettily bound, and furniture was finely crafted, and clothes were few but flattering, and letters were hand-written, and houses had roaring fireplaces, and poetry was memorized, and recipes were handed down, and sweaters were knitted, and hair was braided with ribbons, and marriages were lifelong, and music was nice to listen to, and work was honest, and clocks needed winding, and, most importantly, tea was religiously observed at 4 o’clock. I would like to live like this:

Now, I’m not naive, and I know that there was also sock darning and consumption and entailed estates and social rigidity and an unfortunate lack of ceramic-coated pans, tampons, AC, penicillin, magic erasers, SUVs, refrigeration, etc., etc.

I guess what I’m doing—I guess what matters to me—is to bring some of the good parts of the past with us into the now, to indulge in the nostalgia just enough to remember an old style of meaning and make it modern. Recently, I’ve been painting miniature portraits in a style that’s part old-fashioned and part contemporary, on antique small plates and lost saucers. If you look closely, some of them are wearing miniature portrait and miniature lover’s eye brooches.

The stories of these imaginary painted heroines are hinted at in their titles:

  • Jane Secretly Published a Book of Sonnets Under the Pseudonym 'Calliope'

  • Apollonia Was Secretly Engaged (and More)

  • At That Moment, Veronica Understood Her True Worth

  • Of Necessity, Prudence Had Turned Waiting Into an Art

  • Bess Once Had Tea with the King

  • Clementine Sewed Lines of Verse into the Hems of Her Petticoats

  • Gwendolyn Drank Three Cups of Wine Punch, Danced the Waltz Twice, Kissed the Boy Once, and Repented the Next Morning

It’s nowhere near the serious literary criticism I was trained to do, but I found that I needed that lightness, that frivolity, and that modern mood to save me from the persistent melancholy of the old soul.

If you’re an old soul too, let me know in the comments how you indulge it, and how you counterbalance it!