(image of Torqued Ellipse by Richard Serra)

“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in the rain. Time to die.

The line above comes from Blade Runner. It was quoted by Varnedoe in his final Mellon lecture, when he himself knew he was close to death.

I feel the need at this point to say very little, indeed, to speak in hushed tones, to give Gopnik’s words, the setting and reverence they, and their subject matter, deserve.

The Last of the Metrozoids
by Adam Gopnik
Part IX

If this story were the made-for-television movie that every story about early death threatens to become, we would have arranged one fiery game between the Giant Metrozoids and another team, a bigger, faster, slightly evil team, and the Metrozoids would win it for their coach. It didn’t happen like that. Not that the Metrozoids didn’t want a game. As their self-confidence increased, they kept urging us to find another team of eight-year-olds that they could test themselves against. I was all for it, but Kirk, I sensed, was not. Whenever the boys raised the possibility, he would say diffidently, “Let’s wait till the fall,” knowing, of course, that the fall, his fall, would never come.

I understood the hold he had on the Metrozoids. But when I thought about his hesitation, I started to understand the hold that the Metrozoids had on him. I had once said something fatuous to him about enjoying tonight’s sunset, whatever tomorrow would bring, and he had replied that when you know you are dying, you cannot simply “live in the moment.” You loved a fine sunset because it slipped so easily into a history, your’s and the world’s; part of the pleasure lay in knowing that it was one in a stream of sunsets you had loved, each good, some better, one or two perfect, moving forward in an open series. Once you knew that this one could be the last, it filled you with a sense of dread; what was the point of collecting paintings in a museum you knew was doomed to burn down?

But there were pleasures in life that were meaningful in themselves, that did not depend on their place in an ongoing story, now interrupted. These pleasures were not “aesthetic” thrills – not the hang gliding you had never done or the trip to Maui you had never taken – but things that existed outside the passage of time, things that were beyond comparison or, rather, beside comparison, off to one side of it. He loved the Metrozoid practices, I came to see, because for him they weren’t really practicing. The game would never come, and the game didn’t matter. What mattered was doing it.

At the last practice of the school year, the boys ran their plays and scrimmaged, and the familiar forms of football, of protection and pass routes and coverages, were all there, almost magically emerging from the chaos of eight-year-olds in motion. At the end, the boys came running up to him, and he stood in place and low-fived each one of them. “See you in September,” the kids cried, and Kirk let the small hands slap his broad one and smiled. “We’ll work again in the fall,” he said, and I knew he meant that someone would.

That Sunday he did something that surprised me. It was the last lecture of the Mellons, and he talked about death. Until then I had never heard him mention it in public. He had dealt with it by refusing to describe it – from Kirk, the ultimate insult. Now, in this last lecture, he turned on the audience and quoted a line from a favorite movie, Blade Runner, in which the android leader says, “Time to die,”, and at te very end Kirk showed them one of his favorite works, a Richard Serra Torqued Ellipse, and he showed them how the work itself, in the physical experiences it offered – inside and out, safe and precarious, cold and warm – made all the case that needed to be made for the complexity, the emotional urgency, of abstract art. Then he began to talk about his faith. “But what kind of faith?” he asked. “Not a faith in absolutes. Not a religious kind of faith. A faith only in possibility, a faith not that we will know something, finally, but a faith in not knowing, a faith in our ignorance, a faith in our being confounded and dumbfounded, as something fertile with possible meaning and growth…Because it can be done, it will be done. And now I am done.” The applause, when it came, was stadium applause, and it went on a long time.

(Part X, the final one, tomorrow)

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