Where Are You Standing?

Perspective: Madame Recamier by David. René Magritte, 1949.

Once, after accompanying my wife to the train station, I got lost walking home. Fortunately, I had my phone with me; unfortunately, it was not a smartphone. I called my wife. “I’m lost,” I said. “Where are you standing?” she asked. I told her that I was in the middle of a block and didn’t recognize anything around me. “Keep walking,” she said, “in the way you were going, and tell me the name of the first cross-street you come to and the name of the street you’re on.” I did. She kept me on the phone, telling me when to go straight, turn right, or turn left until I came to an area from which I knew how to get home. We hung up. I called her again once I entered our house to let her know I’d made it back safely.

Beginning with the question, where are you standing, my wife was able to get me home. She could visualize where I was, as though she were walking beside me. This is a physical, a material, example, of course. Perspective, however, knowing where you are standing, is equally important, I believe, from an immaterial viewpoint. It was God’s question when, while walking in the garden in the cool of the day, he called to Adam, “Where are you?”

In his picture “Perspective: Madame Recamier by David,” the Belgian Surrealist artist, René Magritte, is doing something similar using art instead of words. Compare his 1949 painting with the original “Madame Recamier” by Jacques-Louis David, completed in 1800. It’s not necessary to belabor Magritte’s point. We understand it.

Madame Recamier. Jacques-Louis David, 1800.

Every morning, during Morning Prayer, I am presented with a series of questions designed to help me understand who I am, and who God is, where I, as a human, stand in relationship to God.

What are we? What is our life? What is our kindness? What is our righteousness? What is our strength? What is our might? What can we say to You, Lord our God and God of our fathers? Are not all the mighty men as nothing before You, the men of renown as though they had never been, the wise as if without knowledge, and the men of understanding as if devoid of intelligence?

Siddur Tehillat Hashem, Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, 2017, p 15.

One of the unfortunate things that can happen to people wedded to only one world-view, to only one weltanschauung, is that they are often unaware that an idea they hold dear is expressed beautifully from a different viewpoint, in a way that may enhance their understanding, add richness to their life. All perspectives are limited; the more you acquire, the better your view. The English Romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, created, I believe, a marvelous mirror for Romantics in his poem “Ozymandias” that corresponds to the Morning Prayer excerpt which I cited above.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert… near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings;
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ozymandias

Vincent Price made an excellent recording of the poem which you can listen to here.

All the best!

Author: Gershon Ben-Avraham

Gershon Ben-Avraham is an American-Israeli writer. He lives in Beersheba, Israel, on the edge of the Negev Desert. He and his wife share their lives with a gentle blue-merle long-haired collie. Ben-Avraham earned an MA in Philosophy (Aesthetics) from Temple University. His short story, “Yoineh Bodek,” (Image) received “Special Mention” in the Pushcart Prize XLlV: Best of the Small Presses 2020 Edition. Kelsay Books published his chapbook “God’s Memory” in 2021. חב"ד‎

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