Thomas Cole, Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, 1828
From the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston:
In his 1835 Essay on American Scenery, Cole would describe the beauties of the American wilderness and its capacity to reveal God’s creation as a metaphoric Eden. He considered European scenery to reflect the ravages of civilization, for which primeval forests had been felled, rugged mountains had been smoothed, and impetuous rivers had been turned from their courses. In contrast, Cole believed the American wilderness to embody a state of divine grace and lamented that the signs of progress were rapidly encroaching. In his Expulsion, Cole vividly portrays both Paradise and a hostile world replete with the consequences of earthly knowledge. These opposing realms meet near the center of the canvas. The profusion of flora and fauna evokes the beauty and harmony of Eden; outside the portal to Paradise, Adam and Eve are cast into an abyss marked by blasted trees, desolate rocks, and an ominous wolf.
Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire: The Savage State, The Arcadian or Pastoral State, The Consummation of Empire, Destruction, Desolation, 1833-36
With The Course of Empire, Thomas Cole achieved what he described as a “higher style of landscape,” one suffused with historical associations, moralistic narrative, and what the artist felt were universal truths about mankind and his abiding relationship with the natural world. In a letter to his patron Luman Reed, Cole wrote enthusiastically of an idea for his first large-scale allegorical series:A series of pictures might be painted that should illustrate the History of a natural scene, as well as be an Epitome of Man—showing the natural changes of Landscape & those effected by man in his progress from Barbarism to Civilization, to Luxury, the Vicious state or state of destruction and to the state of Ruin & Desolation.The philosophy of my subject is drawn from the history of the past, wherein we see how nations have risen from the Savage state to that of Power & Glory & then fallen & become extinct…
Reed accepted the artist’s proposal, and Cole worked on The Course of Empire for the next three years. The five paintings were specifically designed for a prominent spot in Reed’s third floor picture gallery in his New York City mansion at No. 13 Greenwich Street. They chart the course of human civilization, while at the same time progressing through different times of day and various weather conditions, reflecting man’s changing relationship to his environment. (via)
Thomas Cole, The Voyage of Life: Childhood, Youth, Manhood, Old Age, 1842
From the National Gallery of Art:
Cole’s renowned four–part series traces the journey of an archetypal hero along the “River of Life.” Confidently assuming control of his destiny and oblivious to the dangers that await him, the voyager boldly strives to reach an aerial castle, emblematic of the daydreams of “Youth” and its aspirations for glory and fame. As the traveler approaches his goal, the ever–more–turbulent stream deviates from its course and relentlessly carries him toward the next picture in the series, where nature’s fury, evil demons, and self–doubt will threaten his very existence. Only prayer, Cole suggests, can save the voyager from a dark and tragic fate.
From the innocence of childhood, to the flush of youthful overconfidence, through the trials and tribulations of middle age, to the hero’s triumphant salvation, The Voyage of Life seems intrinsically linked to the Christian doctrine of death and resurrection. Cole’s intrepid voyager also may be read as a personification of America, itself at an adolescent stage of development. The artist may have been issuing a dire warning to those caught up in the feverish quest for Manifest Destiny: that unbridled westward expansion and industrialization would have tragic consequences for both man and nature.
I miss you so much! I had a dream with you in it last night. It’s been so long since I’ve dreamed about you. It’s been so long since I’ve seen you. It struck me the other day that you are almost ten years older now than you were the last time I saw you. So am I, but my appearance hasn’t changed that much. It occured to me that I might not recognize you if I saw you in public.
I still think about running into you wherever I am. Whether I’m out shopping, or out at a restaurant or concert, I always look for you. Every time I see a burgandy colored Subaru driving by I look to see who’s driving it. You probably have a new car by now, so it’s silly, really - but it’s a habit now, so I probably won’t quit doing it any time soon.
I wish that you were still here or that I at least had your address so that I could email you or write you a letter and actually send it. I’m worried about my brother. He’s so angry at everything. He’s had a really hard time since he got out of school and couldn’t find a job for years. He’s getting ready to finish grad school now, and I am worried he won’t be able to find a job this time either. I worry he’ll hurt himself, or someone else. He blames everyone else for his circumstances, and doesn’t understand that this economic shit is affecting everyone equally. Well, maybe he does understand that, but he feels indignant that it is that way. I don’t know what to do to help him.
I keep dreaming about shaking uncontrollably. In my dream last night I was shaking violently and couldn’t breathe. I was walking around some huge building which was supposedly a hospital. I was distraught and having difficulty talking. I was hospitalized in some psychiatric ward, but I wanted to be there. I didn’t want to talk to anyone because I kept thinking that I would be able to stay there longer if I could just put off talking to anyone. You worked there. Your office was downstairs. I knew you were there, but I hadn’t seen you in a long time. I was avoiding you. Things were getting worse for me. I was shaking more violently and was having lots of difficulty breathing. Walking had become difficult, too. I realized I needed your help. I was so scared you wouldn’t be there - that you would already have left the hospital. I was scared because I didn’t know what else to do other than to find you. I made my way down these flights and flights of stairs to the bottom floor. I pushed through a couple doors on the way to your office. Your door was ajar, which made my heart leap. I took a deep breath and slowly peeked around the corner into your office, and you were sitting there at your desk, looking away from me and working. You looked up and smiled and asked me how I was. I looked down at the floor and tried to tell you that I was not doing well and that I was scared because the shaking and breathing difficulties were getting worse. I felt embarrassed for some reason. I felt ashamed. I couldn’t look up at you, but I felt some relief because I knew you could help me.
I don’t remember anything after that. Sometime before that I had dreamed that I was trapped in some waterpark ride-like thing. It was similar to a log flume, but I was locked into a car in this water flue. Someone had torn off my shirt, so I was topless. I was huddled over, covering myself; but I couldn’t stop the ride or get off. The flue thing went on and on, through a drive-through lane at a fast food restaurant, to this fancy catered party that had just ended. One of the people working there gave me a uniform shirt to put on and let me eat some of the leftover food from the party. Somehow I got out of the little car-like enclosure I had been locked in. I wanted to shower, and there was a shower there, but the shower curtain had been replaced with a clear plastic sheet, so there was no privacy. I looked all over for a different shower curtain that was opaque but couldn’t find one. Finally I found a shower curtain in a housekeeping cabinet that was nearby. That’s the last part I can remember of that one.
Anyway, I miss you. And I’m tired of dreaming about shaking and not being able to breathe. I hate dreaming about being afraid.
I hope that you’re having a good holiday season this year. Maybe you get to spend xmas with your family. My family gets along pretty well now for short periods of time. Holidays aren’t so dreaded anymore. Plus, S. is coming with me to my folks’ house on Xmas, and they love her so that generally goes well.
Did I mention that I miss you? I do.
“The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.”
~Carl Sagan from Cosmos
Hear more about the cosmos in Cosmic Origami and What We Don’t Know
photo by C. Edward Brice
I had a dream about you a few weeks ago. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since then. I mean, I’ve been obsessing about it. It’s driving me crazy. Every time I see you online I want to tell you about it. I have to keep reminding myself that you weren’t really there - that it was all just in my head and never really happened. I have to remember that it would probably freak you out to hear about it. But at the same time, I feel compelled to tell you. I have wanted to since the moment I woke up that day. I realize that you don’t know me very well. I don’t want you to think I’m crazy, or creepy, or weird. I don’t want to be inappropriate, but I can’t help but wish that you knew about what’s going on in my head.
As fucked up as it sounds, writing you like this was the best way I could think of to deal with this dilemma. I heard something once about how every sound that’s ever made exists out in the universe somewhere for the rest of eternity. The sound waves continue on forever. I would like to think that our emotional and mental energies function something like that. Maybe by articulating the things I wish I could tell you but can’t, I will release the energy out into the universe - into the collective consciousness - and on some level perhaps you will have an awareness of what I’d like to share with you.
A few weeks ago, shortly before my dream, I saw a beautiful picture that you posted on Facebook of you with your children. I was struck in particular by how comfortable and happy your daughter seemed, standing beside of you. She leaned against you, and smiled, and she looked perfectly content and secure. Of course I realize that I’m projecting my own assumptions onto this picture. I know that your family has had its own struggles, as do all families, I suppose. I don’t mean to seem completely oblivious of this imperfection; I have no illusions that your family is some modern day embodiment of the Waltons. It was just that your daughter looked so happy to be with you, and so at ease.
I’ve never felt that way leaning against my father. We don’t really speak anymore. Even when we were seeing each other periodically, I never felt at ease being affectionate with him. He’d be horrified to hear me say that, I’m sure. Or angry. But his overly-intimate behavior when he was drinking (and his inappropriate behavior when he wasn’t drinking) justify those feelings, I think. Anyway - I didn’t start this letter with the intention of writing about my dad - I just wanted to give you some background information so you could better understand the significance of this dream I had. Suffice it to say, my dad and I are not close, and I always feel kind of creeped out when he hugs me.
[On a side note: I don’t know why it is so ridiculously fucking hard for me to write some of this stuff out, knowing that no one will ever see it who has any clue who I am or who you are. It’s hard for me to even form the words in my head, though. The thoughts themselves are painful. Maybe if I write it all out I can stop thinking about it. I hope so.]
So, I had this dream. You have to understand, I have nightmares almost every night. Some months it’s worse than others. I haven’t woken up screaming or gasping in a while, so there’s that to be grateful for. Typically I’m dreaming about pretty horrific things though. Just use your imagination to fill in the details. But I had this one dream that you were in, and it wasn’t horrible at all. It was stupid, I guess. And really brief. But it was SO vivid. It felt so real. They say there’s not much difference neurologically between the experiences we have when we are dreaming and the ones we have when we are awake. Generally I hope that’s not true. However, every time I think about that specific dream, the experience feels so real that I have to remind myself it didn’t actually happen.
In the dream, I was upset. I was terrified of something - and shaking. I was trembling uncontrollably, and was so scared. [Gag - did I mention I hate writing this shit out?] But you were there, which was different, because I don’t dream about many people I actually know. And in the dream, you hugged me. Like, in this really nice, gentle, protective way. And I kept trying to breathe. Well, I do this thing where I hold my breath when I’m anxious - so mostly I was just trying to exhale. But you gave me this hug, like I would hug a little child. And eventually I wasn’t shaking anymore…and I felt like nothing I’d ever experienced before.
I felt very vulnerable, but I didn’t feel threatened or defensive because I didn’t feel like I had to be ready to protect myself at any moment. I just felt calmer, and settled enough that I could breathe, and… safe, I guess. I don’t generally feel safe - ever. At night I lie in bed and wait for masked gunmen to enter my house and rape and murder me. During the day I’m expecting some crazy person with an automatic weapon to come around the corner in the grocery store, or school or wherever. I don’t trust anyone to watch out for my physical safety, really, in any situation, no matter who they are - especially not men. (S. is the exception to that rule now.) For years I was convinced that the people who were closest to me secretly wanted to harm me, and that the only reason males ever even acknowledged me was because they wanted me to sleep with them. (That sounds really arrogant as I am typing it, but it doesn’t have anything to do with sexual attraction, so let’s get that cleared up.)
The feelings I had in the dream are almost impossible to articulate. I wanted to cry because I felt such enormous relief and comfort. It was like I could finally stop running for a minute and catch my breath. I wasn’t scared of you. I didn’t feel afraid of you, or like you had ulterior motives, or anything like that. At the same time, I was overwhelmed by this sense of unworthiness - because I didn’t understand why you were being so kind to me. I felt broken and raw, but for a moment, it didn’t matter. I felt valued, sort of - like it mattered to you that I was upset. That you saw how damaged I was, and you were willing to embrace me anyway. And…that was it. It sounds so creepy and almost pornographic to me as I write about it, but it wasn’t like that at all. I wish I could explain it better.
When I realized I was waking up from a dream, I lay in bed with my eyes closed as long as could, trying to prolong that feeling, so that I could remember it when I woke up. I thought I would cry when I had to open my eyes because my heart ached so badly. I felt heartsick for my dream world. I just wanted to go back and feel that way one more time. I thought about it all day. I kept re-imagining it in my mind so I wouldn’t forget the feeling.
At some point that day it dawned on me that maybe other people felt like that with their fathers. I have heard S. talk so much about her father and how much she adored him and felt safe with him. Every time I think of fathers I assume that they’re molesting their children or beating their wives or something. Anyways, I thought of her and how she felt about her dad, and how that must be how your daughter thinks about you. And that is so fucking cool.
It is so awesome that your daughter has that kind of relationship with you and that you are able to give your kids that sense of security. I mean, it’s such a profound gift that you are giving them - and it will stick with them for the rest of their lives as adults, too. My brother and I would have given anything to have had a dad like you when we were growing up. Hell, we still would. I can’t tell you how often my brother says he wishes he had some male in his life who he respected so he could ask him for advice. I never thought much of the absence of a father-figure, really. I didn’t think it affected me one way or the other. But now I think I might have been wrong.
Sometimes I wonder if I’m capable of loving other people. Sometimes I worry I might be unable to love anyone, really. But this dream made me realize that maybe it’s not that I can’t feel love for others, but it’s that I can’t receive it. In the dream, the feeling was sort of like the warmth of being wrapped in a blanket, but nurturing and safe too. And kind. I started wondering how it would be to feel that way in my awake life. I tried to think of people who I could talk with about it. I tried to tell S. but I felt like I couldn’t adequately explain the significance of the feeling in my dream. I felt like I was like Helen Keller or something, experiencing water as the word “water” for the first time, and as a consequence experiencing the entire world in a whole new way.
Since then, I have tried to distract myself from it so I will forget about it again, just because the memory makes me feel this achy grief. I feel so stupid and guilty for having the dream with you in it without your permission. OK that sounds dumb, but I wouldn’t want you to feel weird or creeped out that I had a dream like that about you. And maybe you’d be like, “Ugh - there’s no way I’d be doing that in real life,” in which case I’d feel so horrifically disgusted with myself I couldn’t bear it, so that’s another reason why I don’t want to tell you.
I am afraid that maybe there’s something wrong with me that people don’t feel that way towards me in my real life. Maybe there’s something inherently damaged in me that makes me unlovable. I know that S. loves me, but I mean in the familial, parental sense. I hope that’s not true. I would like to think that maybe I could feel that way again one day, even if it’s just in another dream.
The other night I was awake in bed at 3:00AM on my phone Googling “surrogate parents” and “surrogate family members.” I started reading this forum for people with family members who have borderline personality disorder. Some of the people in this forum had found adults to be like parental figures in their lives who they talked to and stuff. I want very badly to be like one of those people. I just think there’s something that repulses people about me. Maybe it’s not that, though. Maybe people have been giving me love and I’m just not able to feel loved, except in a dream.
Most of this letter has ended up having little to do with you personally. (It’s more about how fucked up I am, unfortunately.) I think that I just wanted to thank you, mainly. Maybe the whole thing was just a bunch of transference, but I don’t care. I’d like to think it wasn’t transference, that it couldn’t have been just anyone in that dream. So, I want to thank you for being one of the “good guys” (at least in my subconscious mind). Thank you for being a good father to your kids, and a good friend to S. She loves you very much. I’d like to think you wouldn’t be weirded out about my dream. I feel very grateful for the experience. I wish I could feel like that in real life. I wish I had a dad like you. I feel very privileged to know you.
Thank you again,