My kingdom for a word


Thirty years ago I was watching an Ancient Lives episode, Egyptologist John Romer‘s series from the early 1980’s. (The only television my wife and I seemed to watch back then were documentaries). Remarkable series, never seen one like it. He was standing in a tomb in the Valley of the Kings and behind him was this magnificent painting wall painting. The artist, he showed us, had painted the outline of the figure of a man (or was it a god?) in one continuous sweeping stroke, twelve feet long. It wasn’t a straight line, but a lifelike line, curving, gently undulating, utterly ungeometric. Then he pointed out that all the paintings were like that, beginning as immensely long single strokes, perfect. All the artists painting the tombs did the same. In whatever schools they taught tomb painting back then, they taught this patient, focused technique. And, Romer said, we can’t do that now. Not with such ease. I watched a detailer draw a line across my car in a body shop once, one long continuous stroke. It was exquisite. One long, focused, flawless stroke. But could he have taken that brush, dipped it in paint, and swept across a wall in one long stroke, curving, undulating, unerring, a perfect outline of the figure to be filled in afterward? I’m not sure, but I doubt it. Our art is grounded in Greek sculpture and Roman mosaics, I think, infinite details, a zillion tiny steps creating a whole. I can’t imagine one of those Egyptian artists would dig Monet. Theirs was a world of long, graceful, fluid lines. One endless, perfect, living stroke. And thirty years later I’m looking for an adjective that described that stroke. Or described the look of that stroke. I needed to compare a picture to a melody played on the trumpet. Nothing bebop and pointillistic, but a long graceful richly hued melody. Like the theme from Chinatown. I was looking at a still of Faye Dunaway, it was softly black and white, the light was low, her expression haunted, and it struck me that the still–a portrait, really–looked like the trumpet playing the theme sounded. So I began to write that and halfway through the sentence suddenly needed a term that described those long seamless ancient Egyptian strokes. Because that is what her outline was, that’s what would nail it descriptively. An adjective that could apply to both a painting of Ra and a photo of Faye Dunaway. I needed that adjective. I began with soft but it wasn’t soft. It wasn’t firm either. It was —–. I was stuck. There isn’t one. There’s no such word. And no wonder, the very concept of the impression made on us by seeing a shape made by one long stroke like that doesn’t exist. And if it weren’t for John Romer it never would have occurred to me that such a thing even existed, and I wouldn’t have wasted an hour trying to look for a fucking adjective describing it. Hell, I couldn’t even describe it here, this is a mess, I’m flailing about trying to describe something that can’t be described in English. Romer had the visual, he followed the line with his finger and loving camera. We could see it on the screen, and visuals, even after four thousand years of writing and a hundred thousand years of speech comes nowhere near the effectiveness of the eye. Even something as rich in vocabulary and concepts as English, packed as it is with the borrowed lexicons of several languages and bits and pieces of a hundred others, is struck dumb by things it doesn’t even know exists. That skill John Romer marveled at defies my ability to describe without elaborate description. So the Chinatown piece sits unfinished, awaiting one non-existent word, and instead out gushed this. My kingdom for a word.