Saturday, 21 May 2016

Trompe l'oeil

Yesterday I strolled through our local precinct on the way to the Post Office. Outside a pub sat a couple of fellas, chatting. Certain features in the appearance of one of them were difficult not to notice. On his head he wore an Australian-style wide-brimmed hat held in place by a lanyard chin-strap. Moving downwards, he was sporting a tent-like red football shirt that covered a vast circumference. I couldn’t help being put in mind of medieval glass which time and gravity have contrived to draw down until it is spilling over the lower edge of the window-frame. His body seemed, thus, to have spilled downwards from his shoulders and outwards until he was a well-defined bell shape. I perceived small, dark eyes under the brim of the hat. A pint of lager from which a few draughts had already been taken stood on the table in front of him. It was 9.30am.

In spite of his obvious physical burden the man was animated and taking part in a warm interchange with his partner at the table. All seemed amiability. I passed them, entered the Post Office and, on passing by them on my way back, heard the man mention that he intended to do his shopping on-line the following day.

What occurred to me was that there were two ways of looking at this man. There was evidence of lively personality and, for much of the time during which the two men were in view, this represented to me what the man was. He was undeniably a living human person and that was all that should have mattered. However, another part of me was unable to avoid the conjecture that he was a medical disaster waiting to unfold. I speculated that, were I medically trained, this would have been the prime impression I’d have taken away. What was interesting to me was how the presence of personality somehow veiled his predicament and hid my thoughts about his mortality. As long as he was personally present, his form, somehow, didn’t matter. He deserved attention, respect and dignity because a personal presence was there.

But the relationship between that personal presence and the fact of his corporeal entity seemed to be discreetly concealed by a mental sleight of hand in my mind worked simply by the distracting fact of the presence of personality. To what extent did the continued sustaining of that personality depend on the health of the massive body beneath it? To look at him with dispassionate medical eyes with their inevitably keen sense of human mortality would have seen him no differently from how a vet might view a mange-ridden dog not long for this world.

It says something about the mystery of human nature that the same living portrait can be viewed in two such different ways. Somehow we seem to accede willfully to an element of trompe l’oeil in operation whereby we find it politic and comfortable to avoid the contemplation of our mortality preferring to concentrate on the personal as though it is endowed with the opposite quality.

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