Updated: Aug 1, 2019
For T.A. and C.J.
In Lisbon for the Clinical Marathon, organized by the Free Association and treating the theme of “Mind the Gap,” and I have a morning on my own before the scientific meetings start that afternoon.
I take a taxi from the Alfama (a corruption of the Arabic al-hamma or “hot baths” or “springs”) where I’m staying in a small apartment on a narrow beco a step away from the Instituto Superior de Psicologia Aplicada to the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga. In particular, I’d like to see Bosch’s Temptation of Saint Anthony—Anthony being the patron saint of Lisbon where he is said to be born in 1195, that is, in the years between the implantation of Al-Andalus and the advances of the Christian Reconquista. On the morning I visit the museum, the room is nearly empty; other than myself, a guardian sits nearby.
The inner triptych portrays scenes in which the hermit is assailed by a plethora of temptations whose purpose is to demolish the underpinnings of his faith, lure him into sin, and betray his devotion to the Savoir. A cataclysmic battle is waged between evil and good in which Anthony’s soul is at stake. The two outer panels represent episodes from Christ’s Passion upon which Anthony’s trial and triumph is patterned. I gaze at the work, my eye wandering over details and my mind mulling over enigmatic signs, trying to piece it all together—or at least a small fragment of it. As I do so, I feel shaken by the concentration of violence, even while Anthony appears impassible in the face of multiple assault. After scrutinizing the painting for an hour or so, just as a group of tourists arrive, do I want to see anything more in the museum? Am I capable? And yet….
A brilliant paper by Howard Levine tracing the perilous psychic journey of patients ravished by the syndrome of the dead mother and how they might succeed in representing their experiences of loss and emptiness through the course of psychoanalytic treatment opens the marathon, which is followed by small group gatherings in which clinical cases are presented and discussed by participants. The meetings are held at the ISPA and getting to the right room is made somewhat bewildering by the several stairways and half-levels between the main floors. I ask myself if this inner Piranesiesque architecture intentionally echoes the winding stairways and byways in the Alfama outside. My own presentation happens to be scheduled for that very afternoon and Howard Levine leads the discussion. I’m struck by the creativity and insight of my colleagues, who manage to grasp the complexity of the clinical material I’ve been working over and get straight to the bottom of my patient’s underlying difficulties, as well as those related to my handling of him.
The afternoon goes by quickly. I’m fortunate to have a ticket to hear Mozart’s Requiem that evening at the Gulbenkian performed by the Foundation’s orchestra and choir. Mozart left the Requiem incomplete at his death in 1791, as Europe was reorganizing itself on revolutionary principles inflaming the drive to abolish Absolutism. Other composers were left to tie up the loose threads and patch together a conclusion but for me the work remains unfinished and I regret—such is the custom, as it would be this evening—that it is extended as such. What impression would it leave if the final notes were simply left off sounding—sustained, perhaps, as a pause, a fermata—up through its suspended conclusion?
I find an empty seat (it’s open seating) not too far from the stage and wait for the musicians and singers to take their places. My gaze falls on the front-end of the grand auditorium, which is constructed of glass and opens onto the garden.
Night falls as the first notes of Introitus are played and the choir cantillates, followed by the first soloist. I might close my eyes to listen more intently by turning inside but my attention is also held by the trees in the garden behind the auditorium. Their branches are swaying slowly under the impulsion of a soft wind like voices intermingled and green leaves on the branches glimmer with light shining on them. They remind me of the leaves in many of Patinir’s landscapes, very much like those in Saint Jerome in Prayer I also saw earlier in the morning.
I continue listening and watching but as I hear the subdued singing of “Lacrimosa dies illa” (“This tearful day”) set against the first and second violins dialoguing almost dutifully through mournful exchanges, my mind turns to something else. Mourning for whom, or for what?
Some believe that the dying Mozart was composing the work for himself, an interpretation that I can well accept, but I’m listening to it now and the date is June 6th, the day on which the Allied invasion of Normandy is commemorated. My thoughts fix themselves on those who battled to save as many as they could, and to those lost to the disaster.
The associative confluence of it all—the day’s events, this day in history, and this moment in the open-ended auditorium—is tremendous as I sense actual and impending conflict in the world. It’s high time I go back to the little studio in the Alfama to get some rest, perhaps to dream a little, and prepare for the following meetings with colleagues in the days to come.