The Museum of Desire (A Short Story)

John Berger is a novelist, storyteller, poet, screenwriter and art critic. He is the author of numerous works of fiction and nonfiction, including "To the Wedding," the "Into their Labours" trilogy, "About Looking," "Ways of Seeing" and "G.," for which he won the Booker Prize

The house stands on one side of a square in which there are tall poplars. The house, built just before the French Revolution, is older than the trees. It contains a collection of furniture, paintings, porcelain, armor, which, for over a century, has been open to the public as a museum. The entry is free, there are no tickets, anybody can enter.

The rooms on the ground floor and up the grand staircase, on the first floor, are the same as they were when the famous collector first opened his house to the nation. As you walk through them, something of the 18th century settles lightly on your skin like powder. Like 18th-century talc.

Many of the paintings on display feature young women and shot game, both subjects testifying to the passion of pursuit. Every wall is covered with oil paintings hung close together. The outside walls are thick. No sound from the city outside penetrates.

In a small room on the ground floor, which was previously a stable for horses, and is now full of showcases of armor and muskets, I imagined I heard the sound of a horse blowing through its nostrils. Then I tried to imagine choosing and buying a horse. It must be like owning nothing else. Better than owning a painting. I also imagined stealing one. Perhaps it would have been more complicated, if one kept the horse, than adultery? Commonplace questions to which we'll never know the answer. Meanwhile I wandered from gallery to gallery.

A chandelier in painted porcelain, the candles held aloft by an elephant's trunk, the elephant wearing green, the porcelain made and painted in the royal factory in Sevres, first bought by Madame Pompadour. Absolute monarchy meant that every creature in the world was a potential servant, and one of the most persistent services demanded was Decoration.

At the other end of the same gallery was a bedroom commode which belonged to Louis XV. The inlay is in rosewood, the rococo decorations in polished bronze. Unthinkingly I laid my notebook on it. The gallery attendant politely picked it up and handed it back to me, shaking his head.

Most of the visitors, like me, were foreigners, more elderly than young, and all of them slightly on tiptoe, hoping to find something indiscreet. Such museums turn everyone into inquisitive gossips with long noses. If we dared, and could, we'd look into every drawer.

In the Dutch part of the collection, we passed drunken peasants, a. woman reading a letter, a birthday party, a brothel scene, a Rembrandt, and a canvas by one of his pupils. The latter intrigued me immediately. I moved on and then quickly came back to look at it several times.

This pupil of Rembrandt was called Wilhem Drost. He was probably born in Leyden. In the Louvre in Paris there is a Bathsheba painted by him which echoes Rembrandt's painting of the same subject painted in the same year. Little else today is known about him.

The canvas that intrigued me showed a woman, three-quarter face, looking slightly to her right, toward the spectator. She was about 30 years old, she wore a hair clip decorated with tiny pearls in her swept-up hair, and a decollete and dark dress, which her right hand was touching lightly under her right breast.

I decided to do a drawing of her in my notebook. A poor drawing, even if it caught a little of her expression. It allowed me, however, to take something tangible away with me. There were no photographs available, and I did not want her expression, her posture, above all her message, to be lost in some vague generalization. Perhaps she had never been more herself than at the moment when she sat for and inspired this portrait. The poor drawing is here on the table now as I write.

The painted portrait plays a trick, one of the oldest in the world. (Bathsheba was obliged to play it: the trick of appearing to address a stranger, while thinking of somebody else.) For an instant the spectator may suppose that the gestures and smile of the woman in Amsterdam are addressed to him. Yet obviously this is not the case.

She was not looking at any spectator. She was looking hard at a man she desired, imagining him as her lover. And this man could only have been Drost. The only thing we know for certain about Drost is that he was desired precisely by this woman.

I made the drawing, not only because I was thinking of Drost's story, but also because I was reminded of something of which one is not usually reminded in museums. To be so desired--if the desire is also reciprocal--renders the one who is desired fearless. No suit of armor from the galleries downstairs ever offered, when worn, a comparable sense of protection. To be desired is perhaps the closest anybody can reach in this life to feeling immortal.

While I was thinking something like this, I heard her voice. Not a voice from Amsterdam, a voice from the great staircase in the house. It was high-pitched yet melodious, precise yet rippling, as if about to dissolve into laughter. Laughter shone on it like light through a window onto satin. Most surprising of all, it was resolutely a voice speaking to a crowd of people; when it paused there was silence. I couldn't distinguish the words, so my curiosity forced me, without a moment's hesitation, to return to the staircase. Twenty or more people were slowly coming up it. Yet I couldn't make out who had been speaking. All of them were waiting for her to begin again.

"At the top of the staircase on the left you will see a three-tiered embroidery table, a woman's table, where she left her scissors and her needlework and her work could still be seen, which was better, don't you think, than hiding it away in a drawer? Locked drawers were for letters. This piece belonged to the Empress Josephine. The little oval blue plaques, which wink at you, are by Wedgwood."

I saw her for the first time. She was coming up the staircase alone. Everything she wore was black. Flat black shoes, black stockings, black skirt, black cardigan, a black band in her hair. She was the size of a large marionette, about four feet tall. Her pale hands hovered or flew through the air as she talked. She was elderly and I had the impression that her thinness was to do with slipping through time. Yet there was nothing skeletal about her. If she was like one of the departed, she was like a nymph. Around her neck, she wore a black ribbon with a card attached. On the card was printed the famous name of The Collection and, in smaller letters, her own name. Her first name was Amanda. She was so small that the card looked absurdly large, like a label pinned to a dress in a shop window, announcing a last-minute bargain.

"In the showcase over there, you can see a snuff box made of carnelian and gold. In those days young women as well as men took snuff. It cleared the head and sharpened the senses." She raised her chin, threw her head back and sniffed.

It is hard to describe her face. I studied it again and again and each time, it shifted like a page being turned in a book.

"This particular snuffbox has a secret drawer in which the owner kept a tiny gouache portrait, no larger than a postage stamp, of his mistress. Look at her smile. I would say it was she who gave him the snuff box. Carnelian is a red variety of agate, mined in Sicily. The color perhaps reminded her in some way of him. Most women you see, see men as either red or blue." She shrugged her frail shoulders. "The red ones are easier."

When she stopped talking, she did not look at the public but turned her back and walked on. Despite her smallness, she walked much faster than her followers. She was wearing a ring on her left thumb. I suspect that her black hair was a wig, for I'm sure she preferred wigs to rinses.

Our walk through the galleries began to resemble a walk through a wood. This was a question of how she placed us, herself and what she was talking about. She consistently prevented us from crowding around whatever she was explaining. She pointed out an item as if it were a deer to be glimpsed as it crossed our path between two distant trees. And wherever she directed our attention, she always kept herself elusively to the side, as if she had just stepped out from behind a tree. I had the impression that we turned in circles and that we passed the same spot two or three times. Once we passed a rainbow and once we came upon a statue under the trees, its marble turning a little green because of the shade and dampness.

"The statue depicts Friendship consoling Love," she murmured, "for Madame de Pompadour's relation with Louis XV is now platonic, which hasn't stopped her wearing--has it?--the most gorgeous dress."

One gilded timepiece after another chimed 2 downstairs: the beginning of the afternoon.

"Now we go," she said, holding her head high, "to another part of the wood, the painter has made it morning here, so all is fresh, and everyone is freshly dressed--including the young lady on the swing. No statues of Friendship, all the statues here are Cupids. The swing was put up in the spring. One of her slippers--you notice?--has already been kicked off! Intentionally? Unintentionally? Who can tell? As soon as a young lady, freshly dressed, sits herself there on the seat of the swing, such questions are hard to answer, no feet on the ground. The husband is pushing her from behind. Swing high, swing low. The lover is hidden in the bushes in front of her where she told him to be. Her dress--it's less elaborate, more casual, than Madame de Pompadour's and frankly I prefer it--is of satin with lace flounces. Do you know what they called the red of her dress? They called it peach, though personally I never saw a peach of that color, any more than I ever saw a peach blushing. The stockings are white cotton, a little roughish compared to the skin of the knees they cover. The garters, pink ones to match the slippers, are too small to go higher up the leg without pinching. Notice her hidden lover. The foot, which lost the slipper, is holding up the skirt and petticoats high--their lace and satin rustle softly in the slip-stream--and nobody, I promise you, nobody in those days wore underwear! His eyes are popping out of his head. As she intended him to do, he can see all."

Abruptly the words stopped, and she made a rustling noise with her tongue behind clenched teeth, as though she were pronouncing only the consonants of the words lace and satin without the vowels. Her eyes were closed. When she opened them, she said: "Lace is a kind of white writing which you can only read when there's skin behind it."

The guided tour was soon over, and before anybody could ask a question or thank her, she disappeared into an office behind the book counter.

When she came out, half an hour later, she had taken off the ribbon around her neck with its card, and put on a black overcoat. If she had stood beside me, she would have come up to my elbows, no more. In her face I could find nothing. It was blank, peacefully blank.

She walked briskly down the front steps of the house into the square where the poplars are. She was carrying an old flimsy Marks and Spencer's plastic bag which looked as if it might tear, because whatever was in it was too heavy.

In the bag were a cauliflower, a pair of resoled shoes and nine wrapped presents. The presents were all for the same person, and each one was numbered and tied up with the same golden twine. In the first was a sea shell, a small conch about the size of a child's fist, perhaps the size of her fist. I was never close enough to really measure. The shell was the color of silver-ish felt, veering toward peach. If one turned it to look inside, the peach was more vivid. The swirls of its brittle encrustations resembled the lace flounces on the dress of the woman on the swing, and its polished interior was as pale as skin habitually sheltered from the sun.

The second present was a bar of soap, bought at a Boots Chemist shop and labeled Arcadia. It smelled of a back you can touch but can't see because you're facing the front.

The third packet contained a candle which, when lit, smelt of black coffee. The price tag said .8 5 EURO. In the fourth was another candle, not made of wax this time but in a glass tumbler which looked as if it were full of sea water with sand and very small shells at the bottom. The wick appeared to be floating on the surface. A printed label stuck on to the glass said: Never leave a burning candle unattended.

The fifth present was a paper bag of a brand of sweets called wine gums. This brand has existed for a century. Probably they are the cheapest sweets in the world. Despite their very varied and acid colors, they all taste of pear drops. For me (but they were not for me) no other taste I know evokes so sharply my early childhood. Their flavor remains the flavor of pleasure itself, before I could tie my own shoe laces in double bows.

Her next present was a metal lantern in which one would put a candle before hanging it by a window or going out to open a gate. The color of its glass was a transparent but dark purplish blue. The color of certain notes played on a saxophone; the color of unlit methylated spirits at night.

The seventh was a radio cassette of St. Augustine nuns singing "O Filii et Filiae," a 13th-century plainsong written by Jean Tisserand. Her eighth was a box of graphite sticks and pencils. Soft. Medium. Hard. Traces made by the soft graphite are jet black like thick hair, and traces made by the hard are like hair turning gray. Graphite, as skins do, has its own oils. It is a very different substance from the burnt ash of charcoal. Its sheen when applied on paper is like the sheen on lips. With one of the graphite pencils she had written on a piece of paper which she put in the box: "On the last hour of the last day, one must remember this."

Her ninth present was a kind of embroidered pin cushion, very small, in the form of a heart. Its stuffing smelled of cinnamon and a perfume I do not know. A note, written in her handwriting, was wrapped around it. It read: "When a man is loved he leaves the chorus like long ago and becomes a king."

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