In love not with scenery but with distance, light is a stranger in this universe, a traveler passing through at 186,000 miles per second. On its way elsewhere, it flashes off the ruffled surfaces of lakes and the snow-settled slopes of mountains. It vaults in shards off the glassy highrises of cities and in handfuls off the windows of remote farmhouses. It retreats, at its absurd velocity, from the mirrored eyes of nocturnal animals back into night. Mostly, however, it hurtles by unobstructed and, even less fortunate than the shark, remains in motion forever. Unlike sound, it has no fear of the vacuum. Masquerading sometimes as a particle, sometimes as a wave, it passes through the void as if it were truly empty.
It doesn’t occur to us, as we turn a page of the morning paper or smile across the room at one another or stop to admire the cut clarity of a diamond, that light’s foremost desire, from the instant of its creation—whether in the fused heart of a star, the sulfurous head of a match, or the glowing filament of a bulb—is to escape. While physicists preoccupy lifetimes mapping the details of its movement, measuring its various properties, and assigning it a place in their theories, its vanishing presence is perhaps most appreciated by painters who, over the centuries, have devoted themselves to reproducing its effects on canvas.
Even before the sun has lifted into view, light begins to shift the mood and cast of a city. With the grit-black of the sky receding a grain at a time, this is the hour when a painter might be unpacking his brushes and setting up an easel on a bank of a river. Each solid thing—the copper façade of the train station, the trees guarded by square fences of iron, the fire escapes zigzagging across the faces of tenements, the tenements themselves—slides away from the placental dark in which each of them shares an unbroken existence. From dawn to midday to the onset of night again, nothing changes but the light and yet, as any painter can affirm, a hundred cities have flickered in and out of existence.
This might also have been the hour of mourning in 1879 when, after an all-night vigil at the bedside of his wife, Claude Monet realized that not even Camille’s death could quell his obsession with light and its infinitely varying hues. Kneeling beside her body, he stared with burning eyes as sunlight found itself unwittingly caught in the trap of the bedroom. He watched Camille’s face assume unfamiliar and unforeseen aspects. His eye was entranced by her tragic temple as he would later refer to it, by the color degradation that death had just left on the motionless face, by the blues and grays that deepened like creeping shadows.
That, Monet concluded, is what I had come to.
No better than a pendulum whose arc was determined by Newton’s laws, he was merely a collection of reflexes set in motion by the colors of his dead wife’s face. Appalled at himself, at how thoroughly he’d become rooted in pigment, in the smell of the oily paints and the coarse surface of the canvas, he likened himself to an animal turning round a millstone.
Does it come as any surprise that he painted her on her deathbed? Although a bonnet covered her head, although she was bundled in bedding and veiled with a gossamer shroud, her husband insisted on cocooning her in color as well. Sun enters his portrait from an unseen window on Camille’s left, flaring some of the bedding into yellow, while she herself, her eyebrows raised almost inquisitively, is submerged in the somber blues and grays that had taken hold of Monet’s retina. Unnaturally, his vision is undistorted by the lensing effect of tears. Museum docents and art critics point to this portrait, Camille sur son lit de mort, and speak of it as another frame in Monet’s lifelong study of what lay between his eye and what he despaired of ever adequately rendering in paint.
Light and its shifts attracted Monet the way a magnetic field might draw an iron soul; light as tempered by degrees of shadow on a milieu of objects; light divided by time. Did it matter to Monet whether light was particle or wave? Did it matter to him that neither he nor anyone else ever actually saw an object, that the eye is capable only of gathering the light fleeing innumerable surfaces? The likely answer in both cases is no. Instinctively, however, Monet may have felt that the emptiness he struggled with every day—always there no matter how much paint he squeezed from tubes—would have been unbearable if it were not for the reliable visits of a radiant stranger.
Vincent Czyz is the author of Adrift in a Vanishing City, a collection of short fiction. He is also the recipient of the 1994 W. Faulkner-W. Wisdom Prize for Fiction and two fellowships from the NJ Council on the Arts. The 2011 Truman Capote Fellow at Rutgers, his short stories have appeared in Shenandoah, AGNI, The Massachusetts Review, The Georgetown Review, Camera Obscura, Louisiana Literature, Southern Indiana Review, andWasafiri.