I just finished reading my second Arturo Perez-Reverte novel, The Flanders Panel. Perez-Reverte’s novels use many of the standard elements of the mystery genre, but are written in a rich style, beautiful even in translation, and explore the deep humanity of his complex characters. I’ve started a third Perez-Reverte novel, The Fencing Master, and one of the things I like most about these three novels is that they are all set in a specialized subculture–rare book collectors, art collectors, professional chess, fencing.
The protagonist of The Flanders Panel, a young woman who does restoration work on classic pieces of art for some of the biggest collectors and art houses in the world, uncovers a long hidden secret about a major Renaissance painting on which she is working. Her world begins to fall apart, and her life is threatened. Her response, as given by Perez-Reverte’s narrator, intrigues me:
“Was she really afraid? In other circumstances, the question would have been a good topic for academic discussion, in the pleasant company of friends, in a warm, comfortable room, in front of a fire, with a bottle of wine. Fear as the unexpected factor, fear as the sudden, shattering discovery of a reality which, though only revealed at that precise moment, has always been there. Fear as the crushing end to ignorance or as the disruption of a state of grace. Fear as sin.”
This paragraph, beautifully written, posits the powerful tension between two ways we experience reality–emotion and intellect. In this case, fear, the primitive fear of death, of violence, of pain, is the physical experience. This fear in the protagonist’s gut becomes anger, the desire for revenge, the fight for self preservation. But that same fear in her mind becomes metaphor–the “crushing end to ignorance,” the “disruption of a state of grace,” or, most surprising, “sin.”
We all respond to fear on the emotional level with “fight or flight.” We respond to fear on the intellectual level with metaphor–it becomes a bottomless chasm, a stampede of wild horses, or Hell. I wonder whether, as we evolved from pre-conscious beings to beings that are self-aware, our experience of fear began to operate on two levels. The paintings on the cave walls at Lascaux in southern France, over seventeen thousand years old, were metaphors for the visceral experience of hunting large and dangerous animals. Perhaps we make metaphors of our deepest fears so that we can live with them.
What does it mean for fear to be the “disruption of a state of grace,” to be “sin”? Do we live in the illusion of security, and is the illusion of security the state of grace that is disrupted by the threat of violence or death? If so, then “state of grace” is itself a metaphor, a metaphor of an illusion. All of us who have lived beyond our teenage years have come to understand that in this life there is no security, that everyone, from the pauper to the prince, is subject to sudden and unexpected dangers, to violence of various forms, to death. And yet most of us, from day to day, live as if this were not true. An odd way of looking at “grace”–the self-imposed ignorance of the fragile, the delicate, splintery nature of life, that is beyond our control.
Hard not to hear echoes of the story of the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve living in ignorance, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, The Fall as the sudden confrontation with nakedness and death. John Milton opens Paradise Lost with this: “Of Man’s First Disobedience, and the Fruit/ Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste/ Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,/ With loss of Eden . . . . Sing Heav’nly Muse.” Perez-Reverte’s The Flanders Panel becomes another version of that primordial story. A paradise lost. And Perez-Reverte? Sing, Heavenly Muse!