What Really Happened

“The kingdom of Han is not the most beautiful of kingdoms, and I am not the Emperor. The only empire which is worth reigning over is which you alone can enter, old Wang, by the road of One Thousand Curves and Ten Thousand Colors. You alone reign peacefully over mountains covered in snow that cannot melt, and over fields of daffodils that cannot die. And that is why, Wang-Fo, I have imagined a punishment for you, for you whose enchantment has given me the disgust of everything I own, and the desire for everything I shall never possess.” from ‘How Wang-Fo Was Saved’, by Marguerite Yourcenar, whose books (roving with Roman Emperors and alchemists) and thoughts I desperately desire here in Busan. But a day will come when I have time in great libraries to read.

I don’t know this story and I’ve only read a brief summary (from this nice page, which like so many pages I’ve read numerous times but completely (at least consciously) forgotten). An Emperor jealous and fearful of an painter’s creations locks him up in jail; his creations come to life and set him free. We can delight in the metaphors behind this idea, in the possible truth of what really happened—the painter never escaped his prison, and only fell into the caverns of his art, shutting his eyes to the damp darkness of the prison and opening them to the yellow daffodils sprouting up through the ice of unmelting mountains. That is a kind of rescue.

Still another possibility presents itself. The rescue is real, the blue flames of torches snap the shackles, an elephant bursts through the masonry of the walls, and the heroic painter rides off into the green hills while harpies swoop down at the guards. He only lets himself rest when the stars come out; the elephant sleeps and snores through its trunk, he lies on the prickling grass, the moon rises over the end of the world and glows faintly on the grass spears, which he watches with eyes that cannot blink. What endless color and detail, what perfection in these razor-sharp edges that cut the blood from his painter’s fingers, that bow down in reverence to the wind—how could he ever hope to duplicate them? At once the elephant vanishes as though blinked away by his own eyes. The painter is deprived of his power, he can no longer bring himself to create, he becomes a speechless beggar who wanders the world and delights in gazing at everything he can find.

Open sewers, sniffling noses, the curve of sunlight on the leaf of a palm tree, grains of grit pinched between thumb and forefinger, et cetera et cetera (this word is so much stronger when separated). It was a waste of time to imprison him. The Emperor should have just shown the painter a blade of glass, really shown it to him; the rest would have taken care of itself.

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