If you pause to examine his surroundings, you’ll notice he stands in a prison. But prisons come in many shapes, many forms, and many minds, and we must allow that each of us, bringing to the table our own creative sensibilities, will paint a different image of the man and his world on the blank canvas before us. Because our histories differ, and because the quality and depth of our imaginations must vary, let us begin the story by adding several universal details to our many diverse constructions.
First, this is not a modern prison. No cold concrete. No steel. No sterile hallways and sliding doors. Nor is it an ancient prison filled with the stench of rotting, unwashed thieves and murderers.
Instead, this man, whom we have neither met nor described, stands in a prison of aged stone, worn and weathered by time. If it helps, imagine the walls of a dungeon in a Renaissance castle, or what your mind perceives to be the walls in a dungeon of a Renaissance castle. Few among us know the exact dates of the Renaissance or can easily distinguish between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Fewer of us still know without question whether castle building was rampant in either period, or if, in fact, those castles had dungeons. But forget that for a moment and imagine a Renaissance castle, perched in the lowlands of Italy, clean but rustic, antique in the modern sense, far more charming than sinister, far more romantic than miserable. This is important, because, though he is thus imprisoned, we should remember the man is not terribly uncomfortable.
The second crucial detail is a painting on the wall. For a good part of every day, the man stares at it. He smiles. Like us, he conjures fantasies in his mind of the subject depicted.
What would you want that painting to be if you stood alone in this man’s prison? What single object or desire might hold your interest for a lifetime? Do not imagine lightly. This one thing will greet you every morning. It will be with you at random moments throughout the day. You will say goodnight to it before bed and dream of it while you sleep. Is there anything you know that, after years of besieging your thoughts and penetrating the thick outer walls of your defenses, might continue to steal away your breath and fill your heart with lust and tease your mind with brilliance and tickle your tongue with laughter? Have you ever imagined an idea so powerful, an object so peculiar, a person so magnetic?
For some of you it might be a flower, forever blooming with color and life, rich with the tones of nature and the hues of happiness, never wilting even as time scrapes the paint from its surface. For others it might be an abstract, neither real nor unreal, always subject to the interpretation of a moment, inspiring in its adaptability and timelessness. If we forget the technological distractions of our world, perhaps we can find pleasure in the simplest ideas.
For the man standing in his prison, the subject of the painting is an angel. Wings spread wide, chin high, she is the pinnacle of perfection as he desires it, just as she should be, for he, like each of us with our imaginary canvases, is an artist, and the painting is his.
The painting did not always hang on that wall. There was a time when his prison was dark and drab, wet with despair and pain, black with fear. Yet even the saddest among us desires light in some form. In the eerie depths of his tormented existence, he heard the whispered voice of an angel beyond his walls. Madness, he thought, had surely arrived. The voice whispered to him day after day, night after night, teasing his mind with visions of light and love and pleasure. Her voice, for indeed it was a her, explained to him how to escape. She offered graphic details and spoke the instructions with a commanding, informed tone. Everything he desired, she told him, could be his. Walls could be conquered, obstacles overcome, forbidden pleasures obtained, and happiness achieved. But it would not happen so long as he clung tightly to the chains of his disillusion.
With her blueprints in mind, this lonesome man plotted and schemed. When the time was right, he slammed the rusty iron chains against the wall until they crumbled. He ran his fingertips along the stone to find his way in darkness. The bars of his cell were spaced widely apart, and his self-image was emaciated enough to let him slip through the gaps and make his slow, plodding, awkward run to freedom.
The hills beyond the prison were green and fair and tall in every direction. The climb proved difficult. Sunlight blazed against his pale skin and he felt a warmth he had never known, neither in his prison nor in the life he remembered before it. The fields burst with color. Orchids and lilies in every direction, birds and bees to fill the sky. He tingled with anticipation, worried by the onslaught of sensation. Always the angel whispered to him, propelling him forward.
But let us pause in our tale to note the most unique detail of his current prison, the detail each of you has left out of your imagined construct, not because you are forgetful, but because you’ve been conditioned to imagine a prison in a certain way, with certain definable characteristics, namely four walls and no open exit. In this tale your preconceptions are flawed. Our man’s prison has but a single wall. A single wall on which he has hung his painting, a single wall standing between him and the fields of freedom, a single stacking of stone whose outward face looks to the hills in the east, the direction he fled on that day long ago, the day he escaped, the day he met his angel. It is a wall that keeps her from him, and him from her, and it is as strong and solid as he imagines it to be, and it is as weak and crumbling as he often pretends. We all imagine his prison differently, just as we construct our own prisons in unique ways, but if your personal prison is to look like his, it must have only one wall.
Of course, the prison had not always been so breezy. The day he fled to meet his angel, it had four solid walls and no door, was flanked by an army of nameless faces all pushing inward, ruled from above by a demon whose image blocked the sun and whose presence stole away the air, suffocating all life in his solitary world. But the angel feared no demon, and the angel helped him escape. It was to her he fled with anticipation.
When he reached the hill’s peak, she stood there waiting for him. Her voice was no longer a whisper but a glorious song that filled him with excitement, creativity, fear, maturity, lust, aggression, and too many sensations to name, if indeed names exist. Our tongues, sadly, do not possess the means to make the sounds necessary to describe the passions she inspired.
For the briefest moment, not more than a fleeting fraction of a moment’s conception in the lifespan of a budding universe, she let him touch her. To anyone unaccustomed to touching an angel, and certainly to anyone who has spent recent years in a dark and heartless prison, the experience will always prove overwhelming. His fingertips traced the contours of her ethereality, burning with affection and lust and the sweet smell of goddessliness. And perhaps there is no such word as goddessliness, but as previously stated, there are too few words and nary an apt one for describing the bewilderment she instigated or the awe she struck in his numb mind and numbing limbs. He spun away into delirium, entranced, somehow touching her skin that wasn’t skin, her hair that wasn’t hair, her breasts, her legs, her fingers, her neck, the warm flesh of the immortal, the curves and contours that will forever be the muse of the artist’s brush. How his hands glided across her soft perfection, seared and singed as it might have been, radiating light and breathing fire, revealing a new world of imagination to a soul that had been too long begrudged of pleasure. Her light consumed him. Her tongue ravaged him. Her teeth gnawed and her otherworldliness delved into his mind, implanting itself forever. And when he fell, lost beneath the power of orgasmic revelation, he spun and twisted and somersaulted in a black euphoria down the sloping hill he had climbed to reach her. When he awoke, she was gone.
One does not simply replace an angel, nor duplicate her, nor forget her. Surely the world is full of angels, but to each of us there is seldom more than one, and for too many of us even one is more than we’re allotted. But this man had touched his angel, and now she was gone, and he was left at the base of that lofty hill to contemplate the predicament.
His prison, thankfully, had been shattered, destroyed, it seemed, by an invading army that left behind only a few small children and too many ghosts. He was free to do as he pleased, free to be whatever he imagined himself to be, free to live and achieve and explore. But for many months, he could think of nothing but the angel who had helped him escape, the angel who proved to be not just a simple means but rather a lofty goal. He would not be happy with escape if his freedom lacked the voice that had granted it to him.
And so he began his painting. If he could not be near his angel, he would make the memory of her his life’s work. He began with small portraits. So powerful was her sway, however, that he quickly sought a larger canvas. He painted her beauty as he knew it, and he knew it well, and the resulting image became, to him, the muse of all things. He turned to it every morning. He saw it when he closed his eyes. When he laughed, he sometimes expected a smile to emerge on her painted face. When he cried, her dark eyes emptied of everything but understanding. And when he dreamt, he imagined that she sometimes dreamt with him, though in his despair he doubted his small painting was ever alighted by her brilliant glow. While each of us might be lucky to discover his angel, only a fool can expect an angel to settle for his own mortal self and all the failings that mortality entails.
But our dear fool would not relent. He built a wall on which to hang his painting. He faced it toward her memory. Often he would sit in its shadow. This single wall did not, at first, a prison make, but it soon would. Free to roam in all directions but one, he quickly discovered he had little desire to roam anywhere. He painted other paintings and carried them off to other lands, but to everyone else they were meaningless. Some of the paintings received praise for their beauty, some were mocked for their sentimentality. Others were burned for their fanciful conceptions of a love that cannot be appreciated by those who have never discovered it. Nevertheless, he always returned to his wall unsatisfied with the opportunities elsewhere.
At this point in the story, there are no further details for us to imagine together. We can see him now in his one-walled prison. We know he stares at a painting. We know he is not uncomfortable, and we can guess that he’s not entirely happy. The other details each of us can furnish on our own. Some of you will shower him with agony, others with frustration, others with unbounded creativity. Some of you may find him romantic. Some will surely deem him delusional. Some will say he is not experiencing life, tucked away in his prison, and is therefore wasting an opportunity. We will each imagine his situation differently, and each of us will fill the man’s mind with our own perceptions and experience. Such is the nature of imagination. And it is not for this author to tell you how to inject your reality into his life.
Ah, but wait. Yes, wait. Indeed, we forgot that last crucial detail. And by we, I should say I, for I am the only one who can furnish it. Such an oversight must be forgiven, as it clouds the situation with uncertainty and may not be well received by our wet canvases.
Now that we have this man standing stoically in his prison, gazing at the memory of his angel hanging on a wall, how can we add the most important detail? How can we paint her presence into the world beyond his wall? For she is there. And he knows she is there. But how can we define an invisible angel? How can we show her voice talking to him once more? How can we illustrate the affection he hears in her words and cherishes in his thoughts? She is a force as powerful in his mind as all those plates of earth gliding across red, fiery, molten rock, slamming continents against each other in a planetary war. How do we show he is not actually staring at her painting but rather closely watching that single wall, contemplating the repercussions of tearing it down, hoping beyond hope that it will crumble but reconciled to the fact that it never will. How do we show so many emotions on a single canvas?
The answer, I fear, is yet another prison. We can never truly communicate to others everything we feel. We cannot show all there is to show. Art is all we have, but, as we’ve discovered here, art is lacking. Thus, we are imprisoned, like the man staring at his painting, waiting for our angels to return, for they are the souls who understand us, the beings who motivate and inspire. Without them, can we ever hope to escape?