Saturday, August 23, 2008

Infinite Variety

When I was in graduate school and took the obligatory Shakespeare course, each student had to select one of the plays to concentrate upon. I chose Anthony and Cleopatra. I still love this play, for many reasons. One of the reasons I love it so is because of the shimmering phrases various characters utter to describe Cleopatra.

In an early scene, Enobarbus, who is Anthony's lieutenant, says of Cleopatra:

Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety; other women cloy
The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies. . .

Anthony and Cleopatra, Act II, scene ii, lines 271-274

That phrase--infinite variety--applies to one person in the context of the play, but I can't help but think of this phrase and apply it to all humanity.

Today, my husband and I sat at our customary Saturday morning breakfast in our local diner. I was casually looking around, and suddenly said--I am constantly amazed at the infinite variety of the human face. My husband--who is a seasoned people watcher--agreed. He remarked that he recently spent time sitting and watching the parade of people that passed by him while he was at a conference.

People's faces. Think about it--the raw materials are relatively limited. Two eyes, two ears, one nose, one mouth--all assembled within the frame of a face, but within those limitations, so many variations. I find it just plain astounding.

It reminds me of two questions our daughter asked when she was a growing girl. She was pondering infinite variety in these questions. One time she asked me if there was any place in the United States that had never had a human walk upon it. What a wonderful (and unanswerable) question.

She topped that question when she asked one day whether or not we would run out of music. I wasn't quite sure what she meant, so she explained--there are only so many musical notes, and only so many ways of putting them together. When will we run out of new songs? Rather like my wondering about the endless variety of human faces.

One of my favorite painters is Thomas Eakins. I have read quite a bit about him, including his somewhat misanthropic life. He was not a warm and fuzzy person. One of the things that made him particularly controversial was his insistence on studying the human body, and on painting full nudes. The prudishness of America found his penchant for nudes, well, scandalous.

Eakins was known as a portraitist, although he was out-shone by his contemporary John Singer Sargeant who was widely regarded as the best portrait painter of his era. When I look at Sargeant's portraits, however, there is something cloying and too sweet about them. Oh, they are charming enough, but there is no humanity in them. They are just pretty paintings.

Eakins knew how to paint a portrait in such a way that all the infinite variety of humanity is caught therein. Years ago, I saw Eakins' painting of his wife, an artist in her own right, Susan Hannah MacDowell, which was on display in the then newly opened Hirshhorn Gallery. I loved the painting on first viewing it, and still love it. This painting is a PORTRAIT.

So much humanity in this lovely face. In her eyes there is a knowing weariness; she has seen much. There is triumph, there is resignation. There is beauty, there is decay. Infinite variety indeed.


Lynne said...

What a remarkable portrait. I am drawn to her eyes and her mouth. The "Knowing weariness" is so visible and I can see the resignation in her expression too. I also see a longing and I wonder what she yearns for.

I am too am awed at the infinite diversity of human life and also of the natural world. It's amazing and I'm grateful.

This is an interesting and thought-provoking post.

Anonymous said...

Lovely portrait and lovely wonderings from you and your daughter. Thank you.

Beverly said...

I love this post, KGMom.

Thanks for inquiring about Fay. She did pass us by here on the west coast where I am. We've had a fair amount of rain, but no wind, and no flooding. The east coast really got hit hard.

I guess you'll be making your trek to State College next weekend. I'll be driving down to Sarasota to watch the game with the faithful. I watched College Game Day on ESPN this morning, and all they could talk about was Ohio State and how good they're going to be. Oh well...

JeanMac said...

What a post - you bring out the "thinker" in me!Powerful. Thank you.

Beth said...

That was such a thought provoking and interesting post--you must be a great teacher. I like the thought of infinite variety--something to strive for.

Ruth said...

I do love people watching even more than watching flowers and birds. The portrait is exceptional.

troutbirder said...

Very interesting blog. I've enjoyed every post!

possumlady said...

Like others have said, very thought-provoking post! Love the portrait. In fact, the National Portrait Gallery is one of my favorite museums in DC. They just opened up again after a major renovation. You've just given me an idea for what to do next week during my fun week off!

Tossing Pebbles in the Stream said...

Lovely reflection on our human infinite variety. In other words, our infinite uniqueness.