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Sunday, January 12, 2014

What to know. By John von Daler

               The apprentice had studied and worked for almost four years. His teacher, a sculptor of great fame and ability, had trained him in the secrets of their trade. At the age of sixteen, the boy now could fashion graceful statues that when finished reminded one of a wet piece of soap, smooth and shapely and allusive. He had followed every rule and command the old man had demanded of him. Now he was to sculpt his first major work.

                The older man wanted his pupil to achieve something startling and great; he knew the importance of starting with a great success. At the age of eighteen, he had himself caused the pulses of art critics to reach an unseemly tempo by fashioning an alluring Venus draped only in a tiny silk-like cloth he had nonchalantly placed somewhere between blatant obscenity and graceful innocence. More than one of the learned gentleman had circumambulated the small statue in the hopes that some breeze might accidentally blow away the delicate fabric. Alas, each hopeful observer had to admit that stone, however delicate, will always be stone.
                Now the master sculptor wanted to guide the young man in an equally astounding direction - but of course, he could not suggest the subject that had worked so well for him years before. At his studio one day he took a new tack and calling the boy aside, lowered his voice so that the hacking and hammering of the other pupils would cover his words.
                "Death. Work with death," he said. "You choose: Cain and Abel or St. George and the Dragon. Perhaps a dying Goliath to accompany all the many Davids. But death. That is the way to begin: with a magnificent but fatal blow from your own hammer. A coup de grĂ¢ce!"
                The boy did not answer more than with a timid thank-you. But the next days he pondered over his teacher's words. He did not discuss the subject even with his girlfriend of the last six weeks; they had enough to do just keeping up with their own declarations of love.
                But later, when the great man arrived in the studio after delivering finished works to two kings and a pope, he found that the young sculptor had cleared out his things and left. In his usual workspace, the young man had left just one rose on the floor. On it was a note.
                It read: I have decided to work with what I know.

                Standing in the dust of his own life's work, the old man held the note in his fist and looked at the empty room full of chips and unused stones. The young man had chosen another direction. He felt as if he had lost a son. Inside himself, in the empty space there, he heard his own voice echoing: After all, what do I know? What do I know? What do I know?

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