The solemn nothings that fill our everyday life blossom suddenly into bright possibilities —Helen Keller
Life is such an actual thing —Dennis Miller Bunker
Is it just me or is Dennis Miller Bunker’s painting Wild Asters more than beautiful (Fig. 1)? The blue stream rushes under us, grasses bending in the current, and the streamside bushes spray on either bank. The natural world is so near, we can hear and smell it—the trill of the water and the scent of the asters and grass and even of the sun. Bunker, painting en plein air, creates a visual onomatopoeia—the water and grasses swerve in fast wet strokes while the asters powder the air in dry fuzzy stars. The nearest plants burst in spikes like comic book exclamations. The level field explodes into view.
“I dream of doing a thing that is absolutely stupid,” Bunker wrote. “I mean what I say—absolutely stupid in everything but its impression of the truth.”3 He meant that he dreamt of painting a world seen as though for the first time, in all its newness and aliveness, before the inevitable disenchantments of naming and conceptualizing that make even the most sensuous perception just a remote picture. Bunker called that disenchantment “the crushing out of real life,” the creation only of “a scentless box where people move without passion, or desire, or anything that is true and real.”4 The alternative was to be stupid, and in Wild Asters Bunker nailed that stupidity.
Is it just me or is there something about Wild Asters that brings to mind Helen Keller? Bunker made the painting in the summer of 1889 in Medfield, Massachusetts, just south of Boston. Two years earlier, in April 1887, when she was six years old, Helen Keller rediscovered the world—rediscovered the language that allowed her to feel it and say it and hold it in her hands with a closeness and immediacy that people who actually can see and hear usually only dream of.
Keller was six when her teacher Annie Sullivan brought her to the pump behind the Keller family’s house in the northern Alabama town of Tuscumbia. Sullivan, a teacher who had come down to Alabama from Boston, had been with the Kellers through weeks of frustration, trying to teach rebellious Helen the concept of language. Deaf and dumb since a fevered illness she had contracted when nineteen months old, Helen had lived in a prison of silent darkness since that time, and now, even after the arrival of Sullivan, a special teacher from Samuel Gridley Howe’s school for the blind in Boston, Helen could not comprehend that Sullivan’s urgent tappings into her palm were words and that those words meant things in the world.
Until that day in April 1887. Then Sullivan let the water from the pump flow over Helen’s hand and at the same time spelled the word “water” into that hand. At that moment for Helen the two things became one—the actual water and the word water. And at that font, made famous by the scene in William Gibson’s Broadway play The Miracle Worker (1959) and in the Hollywood adaptation three years later (Fig. 3), both starring Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke, language became as sensuous to Helen Keller as the world: no difference between the rushing syllables and the living flow of the world.
No difference. “As we returned to the house,” Keller recalled in her autobiography, The Story of My Life (1903), “every object which I touched seemed to quiver with life.”5 And her mind, struck into lively awareness by Sullivan’s touch, flowed like the world it newly felt, owing in a Bunker-like way. “A child’s mind is like a shallow brook,” Keller wrote, “which ripples and dances merrily over the stony course of its education and reflects here a flower, there a bush, yonder a fleecy cloud.”6
The mind sees everything. The world lets itself be seen. The flow is “fed by mountain streams and hidden springs” that broaden “out into a deep river, capable of reflecting in its placid surface, billowy hills, the luminous shadows of trees and the blue heavens, as well as the sweet face of a little flower.”7 Every scene was beautiful. Every scene was lush with newness, “the joyous Now,” Keller called it.8 Every scene was stupid.
Is it just me or could only a sick soul paint a picture such as Bunker’s The Pool, Medfield (Fig. 5)? “Sick soul” is the term that the Harvard philosopher William James used to describe persons of special insight—people who have experienced depression, meaninglessness, and emptiness and still come out on the far side of that sadness. James used the term in his 1902 book The Varieties of Religious Experience, when he explored the melancholy spirit of the afflicted-gifted. Distrustful of ordinary “systematic healthy-mindedness,” which he viewed as an incomplete way of being in the world, James praised the depressed person who, “when saved, is saved by what seems to him a second birth, a deeper kind of conscious being than he could enjoy before.”9
Keller’s second birth is clear enough. Life flowed over her and through her and kissed her on the lips because she had been buried alive, and coming out of that experience allowed her to feel the fullness of the flowers and the pine needles and Niagara Falls. And even then, with her redemptive access to the world, she knew that sometimes “a sense of isolation enfolds me like a cold mist as I sit alone and wait at life’s shut gate.” She knew that “silence sits immense upon my soul.”10 And when we look at a painting like The Pool, Medfield and imagine it as what Helen Keller was experiencing in 1889—what in effect she was “seeing”—and what she would feel in the 1890s, when she summered in Wrentham, Massachusetts, only ten miles from Medfield, we feel that such beauty and immediacy could only have come at a cost. No field shimmers like that, no blue is blue like that, without some darkness that it has redeemed.
But for Bunker himself ? He would be one of those systematically healthy-minded types, right, to judge by this painting as it came from his hand (and not as we imagine it approximating the feeling of Helen Keller)? But Bunker was a sick soul. He sincerely doubted his own art. He felt it rarely if ever met his high standards. “One can but try and fail and fail,” he wrote.11 Bunker’s melancholy, according to his biographer, made his life “largely a sorrowful experience.”12
So did his presentiments of death. When Bunker died of meningitis at age twentynine in 1890, the year after he painted Wild Asters and The Pool, Medfield, the tragedy fulfilled his morbid feelings. “I shall never forget the noble seriousness with which he once talked to me of death, as something he had not been afraid to face in his thoughts,” wrote the novelist William Dean Howells in a note of condolence to Bunker’s widow, Eleanor.13 “It is a mistake to have only one life,” Bunker had written a few years earlier. “As for me I am only rehearsing in this one.”14
The swirling water at Medfield is so bright, it comes so directly toward us, that the feeling of beauty is nearly painful, terrifying even. As if the world should not hold such intensities. As if we should not look so directly at it, not when it burns with the brightness and sweetness that only a sick soul could see. In that field the luxuriance of one life is thrown away as practice for another one never to come. Life for Bunker was too glorious and yet not enough. It was all a mistake.
Is it just me or does Bunker’s portrait of the wealthy Bostonian George Augustus Gardner (Fig. 4), painted in 1888, seem so much like Wild Asters and The Pool, Medfield? Sure, it is very different, but it shares the landscapes’ immediacy. Have you ever felt so disarmingly close to a person in a portrait, so much in the same room with him, as you do when you see this painting? The tilt of Gardner’s head, the opening of his mouth to show the teeth, the set of his hands; the dramatic lighting that intensifes the flesh; the somewhat casual pose, with the right knee pointed at us—the whole gure almost disturbingly before our eyes, and before the painter too, just as field and blue water were to be.
And Keller also liked to keep such venerable men close. She liked to feel their faces and inhale the smell of leather book covers and printed pages and dust on the windowsills, as she did in the libraries of Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., Edward Everett Hale, and Alexander Graham Bell (see Figs. 6,7). Keller smelled them and held them and talked with them as she did to the owers or to the Greek sculptures of goddesses whose torsos and fluted gowns were seamed with the lush and physically overwhelming sensation of life. And she gave these abstract men of invention and brilliant calculations a sense of nearness that, for themselves, must have been a jolt of new life, fragrant and overpowering, not chalk, not blackboards, not the splattered ink of a musty theorem. “I felt tears on my hand,” Keller recalled of Holmes’s response during their first meeting.15
And yes in this dream of old and young crossing in the same room, flowing into and out of one another, who could not feel the shimmering life and sick soul rebounding through one another in the same giddy instant? George Augustus Gardner looks back at Bunker in a way that entombs the youthful painter in the older man’s face. Sitter and painter confront one another at close range, middle age and youth Dorian Gray–style. The structure of Gardner’s skull is visible in his at face—the deep supraorbital ridges, the big and rounded chin, the broad and smooth forehead. “The skull will grin in at the banquet,” James had written of the sick soul’s perceptions.16 Life and some other version of Life exchange stares, present in each other’s features.
Youth and age, son and father, doubles of one another, emerge under the painter’s hand when Bunker painted John Lowell Gardner, George Augustus Gardner’s son (Fig. 8). The painter is just a bystander, but not a bystander. He feels life in the stream that is not a stream of life, no such personification, but rather a blue flow of nearness where the world is fleetingly present, where it shimmers in flesh and bone, where it emerges so closely that you can see yourself, or something like yourself, glimmering there, to die for, Narcissus at the pool.
So it must just be me; but look at the tree that Bunker painted earlier in the 1880s—really, have you ever seen such a tree in your life (Fig. 9)? That was back when Bunker was still painting in the manner of Jean-Léon Gérôme, his instructor in Paris, and before he had discovered the impressionistic manner taught to him by John Singer Sargent that he was to employ by the Medfield stream.
But, man, what a tree, a tree so aware that it possesses the secret of its own presence. This tree does not simply “appear” to us as a twirling episode of vision. It knows how it appears and, like sap running through its veins, this knowledge is the instinct with which it strikes its pose. Only a painter who could perceive that the tree is itself without him—that it materializes all day long whether there is a painter there to paint it or not—could show the burst of a thing so tangible.
And what of Keller in her trees, as in photographs of her touching them or sitting in them alone or with Annie Sullivan (Fig. 2)? “All my early lessons have in them the breath of the woods—the fine, resinous odour of pine needles, blended with the perfume of wild grapes,” she wrote. “Seated in the gracious shade of a wild tulip tree, I learned to think that everything has a lesson and a suggestion.”17
Everything has a lesson and a suggestion. Yes, we learn from such trees. But we also do not learn. The world overwhelms what the words make known. We climb to the highest point but even the highest point knows “the roots, shut in the darksome earth.”18 The tree is the cup and seat and delicate throne of an absurd poise. Is it stupid, or just dumb? At the bottom left of his painting of the tree, aware of his brilliance, Bunker signs his initials: D.M.B.
ALEXANDER NEMEROV is the Carl and Marilynn Thoma Provostial Professor in the Arts and Humanities at Stanford University. His new book Soulmaker: The Times of Lewis Hine has recently been published by Princeton University Press.
1 Helen Keller, The Story of My Life (Bantam, New York, 2005 ed.), p. 95. 2 Dennis Miller Bunker to Eleanor Hardy, quoted in R. H. Ives Gammell, Dennis Miller Bunker (CowardMcCann, New York 1953), p. 44. 3 Ibid., p. 42. 4 Ibid. 5 Keller, The Story of My Life, p. 16. 6 Ibid., p 26. 7 Ibid., p 27. 8 Ibid., p 25. 9 William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1985), pp. 165, 157. 10 Keller, The Story of My Life, p. 94. 11 Bunker to Mrs. John Lowell Gard ner, quoted in Gammell, Dennis Miller Bunker, p. 29. 12 Gammell, Dennis Miller Bunker, p. 43. 13 William Dean Howells, quoted ibid.14 Miller to Hardy, quoted ibid., p. 45. 15 Keller, The Story of My Life, p. 98. 16 James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 141. 17 Keller, The Story of My Life, p. 23. 18 John Russell Lowell, “The Cathedral,” quoted in Keller, The Story of My Life, p. 87.