I spent the afternoon in the Rodin Sculpture Garden at Stanford a few days ago. Courtesy of Gerald Cantor, there are twenty Rodin bronzes displayed in a charming garden reminiscent of the crushed stone promenades of the Tuileries. They are all just sitting out, open to the sun and the moon and the touch of anyone who wants to place her hands on the graceful and powerful nudes to try to imagine how the artist created such beauty.
On a bench near me, three young men sat sketching the statutes (inspiring my scribble). Families and couples came and went. A large group of young school children wearing identical yellow t-shirts played among the sculptures, touching the bronzes, flitting on and off a low landscaping wall like canaries.
It’s amazing to me that we have such a gift. I’ve been there dozens of times, mostly with Meg, mostly in the moonlight, and I’ve never seen even a candy wrapper on the ground. There are no guards to speak of. The garden is open to everyone, all the time, day and night. In this world of graffiti tags on every public place, such completely accessible pristine beauty is something of a miracle.
I always learn something when I go there. I never tire of contemplating The Gates of Hell, for instance. Whatever your religious views (or not), the downfall of man is a fascinating subject. Here’s what I learned on my last visit:
1. Rodin was an ass man. I knew that, but I was especially taken by the feeling this time. Beautiful smooth curves for the women, powerful haunches for the men.
2. Kids are lucky. Those yellow-breasted schoolchildren were completely absorbed in the experience of being there together. Nothing existed for them but their group in that time and place.
The older one gets, the harder it is to recapture that feeling. Sex produces it, but it’s hard to sustain that for a whole afternoon in a crowded garden. Alcohol (and no doubt other substances) produces something like it, but not the real thing, something synthetic that is more like alert dreaming, a kind of self-conscious unselfconsciousness.
Watching those children, I did not feel the loss of their heedless innocence so much as the loss of my mother, who died four years ago. I’ve been wondering lately why I miss her so much. We were close near the end of her life, but not unusually so. My father was the one I idolized. When he died, forty years ago, I missed him but somehow not as much as I miss Mom now. Why is that?
My grandparents lived to be almost a hundred. Even after Dad’s death, his father and my mother’s father were there for me, along with my mom and both my grandmothers. By the time Mom died, though, she was the last of those who came before me. The last of those I knew would save me from myself. The last of those I could call out to as I jumped from the base of a Rodin sculpture I shouldn’t be climbing and say, “Watch this!”