After a lonely, trying day, a girl has to be allowed some indulgence. Something markedly unproductive. Something she does just for herself. I visit my European boyfriends. They live together and I try to get to their place once or twice a month. We hang out. Sometimes I take notes while they talk to each other. Sometimes I do my own thing. Sometimes I get cozy with one of them and we exchange intimacies. I never leave disappointed.
Last time, I sidled up to Degas and, though he was describing another woman, he sculpted such a beautiful image I couldn’t manage jealousy. She lay back in a round tub, bronzed, one ankle crossed over her thigh, one hand open over the side of the basin, her hair draped down her shoulder: her body like a clock of contemplation. The description is gestural, but it’s clear her focus is inward. Though her other hand grasps her foot, all motion seems to be internal—even the ripples of the water a testament to stillness. I feel some affinity to this woman—her introversion, particularly. I love her round tub, envy her willingness to linger.
Though I press him, Degas doesn’t directly reveal what he considers his subject: the woman's internal meditation or the meditation of a viewer considering her in thought. Though she is bathing, the real privacy we seem to be entering is that of her mind. She is utterly unashamed of herself for being caught in her thoughts and we are utterly un-shamed for being with her in that state.
We stare together at her nude body, and yet, this is no pornography. Though she is naked, we are unashamed. Though we absorb something from her, we do not consume—the interaction is consummation, an ongoing and self-nourishing act. Though the woman is not revealing herself to us, we may experience revelation. We gain, but she is giving nothing away. For being an erotic image, the piece is also free of desire. It may be sensual, but isn’t sexual.
We are not pursuing satisfaction, but may find it. All the ironies are instructive: the form of a naked, beautiful body addressing the subject of revealing the mind, our experience of the piece as a definition of contemplation—the ongoing, self-nourishing act in which, not seeking satisfaction, we may find it. Though Degas’s technique and material suggest reflection is often imprecise and murky—more so than report and hypothesis demand— the piece notes the worthiness of thought in time, the inherent dignity of reflecting.
Degas also reminds me that our cliché “sitting with it” is over-worn language but inherent wisdom. This woman’s body is of a piece with her thinking—her limbs and posture both express and enable her contemplation. I did not leave disappointed. The questions I carried with me from my lonely, trying day—whether we’re in something together or doing something to each other, why some days feel like an inhabitance of neighborhood and others of universe, what the work of my life will turn out to be and whether it is determined by gravity or will—were not answered.
But I did know just what to do when I returned home: Run a bath.
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