(Art) Well of Enigmas

Below: The first image is “Forty-Two Kids” (1907) by American painter George Bellows. The second is 10,000-year-old art from the “Cave of Swimmers” in Gilf Kebir on the Egyptian-Sudanese border, discovered in 1933.

George Bellows (American, 1882-1925) - Forty-Two Kids, 1907Cave of Swimmers, Gilf Kebir

Over the weekend, one of my nieces left food in the trash and this morning I awoke to a miniature invasion. A horde of red-eyed fruit flies huddled around the lip of the wine glass I had left near the sink, as if laying at the feet of a lover.

In cold and dark, humans similarly huddle around the light and warmth of a fire. But when we are not so oppressed, when we are free, people on all continents and in all times gather spontaneously around wells, springs, waterfalls, lakes, ponds, rivers, and watering holes, even when there are closer sources of food and water.

The ocean, seemingly boundless, is undrinkable and repels us with its waves and storms. Standing before it is like standing before an uncaring god, or the deep mystery of the universe, which is Other.

But fresh water is the source of life. We emerge from it. Each of us was born from a tiny pool inside our mother, which of course is the cultural origin of baptism and holy cleansing, which offers a kind of rebirth.

Fresh water is both still and in motion: we can see our reflection even on its rippled surface. In that, it is both inviting and dangerous, for it is impossible to know what dangers lurk underneath.

Vivienne, the Lady of the Lake, was Merlin’s undoing. Like an insect to the candle flame, the old wizard could not escape his fascination with all things magical and otherworldly and so wound up entombed within.

That danger compels us. We get drunk on holiday and dive from high rocks. Children launch themselves from rope swings to land, enveloped, back in the womb.

I suppose that’s why there’s something saccharine and sterile about chlorine pools and their plastic verge and why young children hover at the edge of the pond before taking their very first step. From the source of life also comes the crocodile, which pulls us back to it — crossing the Ganges or the River Styx.

Mirror, portal, prison, font of life, and eternal rest — we stand round it, entranced.


cover image: “Swimming Hole” by Jonathan Wateridge (British, b.1972)