“Paul, I need some help getting this secretary moved into your house tonight.” I raised my eyebrows a bit as my brother-in-law spoke the words. Secretary? Didn’t he know that I had the Lovely Lady to take care of things like dictation and bookkeeping? Tongue in cheek, I replied, “I really don’t think there’s room in this house for two ladies, thanks!” He laughed and shot back, “Oh, you’ll want to find room for this beautiful old lady.” He was right. The aging Victorian lady moved in that night and has been resting comfortably in our living room since then.
I am, of course, speaking of an antique piece of furniture, a throwback to the dim, distant past when computers and smart phones could not even have existed in the imagination of the most forward looking dreamers. To communicate with the outside world, one would sit primly in front of the secretary, with the lid down to form a desk, dipping the nib of her pen in an inkwell and actually writing on paper. Invitations to dinner, notes that conveyed the sorrow of loss or the joy of new arrivals, letters to lovers…all were composed and completed from this ornate piece of furniture. One did not lounge on the settee while firing off a post to thousands of “friends” at a time, nor could you pick up a telephone and call across town, much less to the other side of the world. It was a simpler and slower time in history.
I love old things. They not only convey beauty, and the skill of the craftsman’s art, but they connect us to our past and the lives of our predecessors. When I run my hand over an old piece of furniture, or eat from an antique dish, or gaze at a century-old oil painting, I treasure the thought that I am just one of many people who have done exactly the same thing. I revel in the idea that generations before me, some other aging man sat and lost himself in the beauty of the artwork, or some young woman poured out the longing of her heart in a letter to her sweetheart, himself on another continent fighting a war from which he might not return. I don’t find that feeling as I wander through the huge marketplaces of today. Cold and faddish, most of the new furnishings I see will outlive their usefulness and interest within a few years, or a decade at the most. Then, relegated to some garbage heap, they will disentegrate into dust, when these old things I speak of are still treasured by generation after generation of my progeny. At least, I would like to think that will be true.
This evening, I sit and gaze at the old secretary in the living room, drinking in the timeless beauty of the carved decorations against the beautiful quarter-sawn oak and the curved-glass door to the bookcase, its shelves still empty, awaiting the day when either I or the Lovely Lady decide on the most efficacious use of the space. Perhaps, some of my old sets of books? Maybe it will be one of the antique tea sets from her childhood. That will be sorted out in time. But tonight, my gaze is drawn irresistibly upward to the lamp holder above the fold-down desk. Or, more specifically, to what is holding up the little shelf upon which a lighted oil lamp would have been set to drive away the dimness of the evening. Amidst the calm and creative beauty of the useful piece of furniture is one jarringly ugly, hand-carved object.
Can someone tell me why this gargoyle is here? Why in the midst of what can only be described as timeless beauty, do I find this ghastly shape, grinning at no one in particular, mouth open and eye fixed in the distance? I know, from my school days and learning about the old buildings and cathedrals in Europe, that the builders often placed these horrible shapes up high, around the parapets that kept people from falling off of the roofs. They were largely functional there, with gaping mouths that were connected to the roof gutters into which the rain water would flow in a downpour. The water pouring from the open mouth was funneled away from the building, to cascade to the ground below harmlessly, instead of damaging the structure. Even the name “gargoyle” comes from a similar word in many of the early European languages which pertain to the throat or “gullet”. (Our word “gargle” is from the same root.) It actually describes the function of the roof appendages on those old buildings. But the horrid shape? We have to go back centuries to find that connection. Put simply, the shapes were of hideous, mythical creatures which were intended to assure people as they entered a building, specifically a church, that all the gargoyles would prevent the evil spirits from entering the edifice and the congregants would find sanctuary inside.
But why is it on my antique secretary? I called it a gargoyle, but when there is no intention of moving water from one place to another, technically, the form is known simply as a “grotesque”. There is, of course, vague speculation about the designers of these old furniture pieces latching onto the idea of evil spirits driven away by the grotesques, so they casually included them in the design. I’m pretty certain that there are no evil spirits lurking in this furniture, so the grotesque isn’t a necessary part of the landscape for that purpose, but I’m going to leave it there. I’ll probably even point it out to visitors who admire the piece.
Why, you ask, would I make a point of drawing attention to this ugly little apparition? I think it’s a great reminder that we live in a tarnished world. We like to build our perfect, pretty little hideaways, intent on keeping the evil at bay. Sometimes, we even convince ourselves that it no longer exists in our corner of the world. The little grotesque on this beautiful work of art serves to demonstrate that there is no place that ugliness cannot rear its head, as long as we are on this side of Paradise. In the first garden, there was a snake. Our Savior had a Judas. Everywhere we go on this big ball of rock and water and soil, we will find great beauty, but also great evil. It doesn’t do for us to forget that, doesn’t pay for us to build imaginary sanctuaries against the world.
Each of us loves the beauty that is all around us. We forget though (all too often), that the ugliness tags along everywhere beauty goes. To acknowledge that the ugliness exists doesn’t make us love beauty any less, or take away from the beauty, but it does help us to be on our guard against the destruction that the ugliness can inflict. There is nothing to be gained by denying that the ugliness and evil are real. I’m reminded of my boyhood friend, a portly little guy, who did not want to run the required laps at gym class one day. Gary stopped behind a small sapling and, hiding his face in his hands against the slender trunk, said, “I’m going to stay here until this is over. If I can’t see them, they can’t see me.” As I ran past, I glanced back and laughed at his chubby body showing clearly on each side of the tiny tree. I leave you to work out whether his plan was effective. How much more effective will ours be, if we attempt to deny evil?
The gargoyle stays. I don’t celebrate it, but I will tolerate it, because of the lesson it teaches. Sometimes, we need to be reminded that things are not always as they should be.
And, we look expectantly to the day when they will be. Even so…
“Be very careful then, how you live–not as unwise, but as wise, making the most of every opportunity because the days are evil.”
“It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your reckoning, if you live near him.”
(From “The Hobbit” by J.R.R.Tolkien~British educator and author~1892-1973)
© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012. All Rights Reserved.