Last week, I posted a short story on Wattpad called “The Enigma of Departure.” The story takes its title from the Italian metaphysical painter Giorgio de Chirico’s painting The Enigma of Arrival (left). I have been interested in de Chirico’s paintings, particularly his pittura metafisica period, for what I take as their metaphors about an alienated human condition within an urban, even wholly aestheticized space. The Enigma of Arrival is, as the title suggests, elusive: conjuring up images of expectation; an encroaching and vaguely menacing darkness; and cloaked and anonymous, faceless figures amid architectural symbols that feel portentous or ominous, without any clear identification of what, if anything, they portend. To me, de Chirico’s work of this period has a melancholic and valedictory feel, as though we’d at last stumbled upon a scene where something significant had occurred that might have changed us or altered the trajectory of our lives but which had concluded a few hours before we arrived. This was the mood I aimed to capture in “The Enigma of Departure.”
The short story began as an exercise in the use and variation of an extended metaphor about space and time. I wanted to constrain my characterization of any protagonists within the framework of spatial and temporal metaphors, much as the individuals within the frame of a work of art are similarly held in space and time. I drew upon (left) Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks (and numerous film noir tropes) for some of the spatio-temporal metaphors that Josh’s girlfriend calls forth. Like de Chirico’s world, Hopper’s vision in this painting is of disconnected and faceless individuals stuck in an eerily becalmed and alienated urban landscape. Both Hopper and de Chirico provide their paintings with a great deal of stillness and silence and interiority, even though both depict an exterior and the individuals are observed at a dispassionate distance. I like that both paintings show that even a warm light need not necessarily lead to connection or comfort. When I thought of contemporary architectural urban space, I likewise thought of this scene (below): again, virtually devoid of animate life, expressive of arrival and departure, and yet also silence and solitariness.
I wanted to capture the same mood in “The Enigma of Departure.” The characters we read about should feel at once close to us and yet unknowable. Everyone in the short story is arriving too late (or at the incorrect conclusion) or choosing the wrong rendezvous, not merely metaphorically but also aesthetically, since Josh and his girlfriend occupy very different conceptual spaces (literally). It felt important to me as a representation of their utterly contradictory visions that Josh should be named and his girlfriend should remain anonymous—her irony and despair emerging through a close third-person narrative that maintained its distance through the governing metaphors, and which gave the reader the impression that she was observing herself going through the motions (sic) of grief. We are meant to see from the outset that she knows that, for all the attractiveness of his energy, Josh is an absurd figure, his freneticism and self-regard not merely representational of his youth but of his failure to take the time truly to be present to and with his girlfriend. That she is effectively unknown to us, the reader, mirrors how self-absorbed Josh is.
Her stillness and her attention to detail make her the target for Josh’s family’s casually devastating pronouncements and, more cruelly, the scapegoat for their grief. I wanted the reader to feel how unfair it was that she should be obliged to carry the weight of his death around with her, when she didn’t know Josh well and didn’t even imagine that their relationship would last. The reader should recognize how young she is to have been loaded down with so much, and yet to suspect that she knows how inconsequential, trite, and even preposterous were Josh and her post-adolescent sensibilities and the couple’s half-assed and clich
éd gestures toward a kind of grand amour.
To place so much emotional and narrative burden on an extended metaphor—albeit one with the potential for a knowing irony and deliberately euphuistic excess—is risky. “The Enigma of Departure” could be accused of being mannered and artificial, all style and no feeling. I’m aware that, as in a de Chirico, one could fill a canvas with symbols that carry a certain dream-like associative power (the sculpted torso, the pillar; in my case, the bridge and the open-topped automobiles moving along a road at night) to generate an artificial depth of meaning that might “fool” the viewer into supplying the vision with more weight and emotional power than it might “deserve.” However, as my quote marks indicate, I’m not convinced that one can determine what is merely gestural and fake and what is not—especially in the strange, haunted plazas of a de Chirico dreamscape or in the imagination of two characters who are so committed to the artifice of their romantic spaces.
And yet. . . . There is something magnificent and attractive about the foolishness of young love and its temporary absoluteness—about, one might even say, its commitment to filling the anonymity and lack of specificity of space and time with meaning and import. My hope is that the reader glimpses through the irony and narrative coolness—that in fact the irony and coolness for all their deflective qualities actually bring into focus—the woman’s need to be seen and to be free to dream of genuine togetherness and the romance of the journey.