"Child of Unreason" by Anne Whitehouse


Dreary and dull is late autumn in New England. In cold billows and gusts of wind, winter arrives ahead of its official entrance, in drenching rainstorms where every living thing scatters for cover. The oaks, which have held their leaves longest, relinquish them at last, and now all the world is shorn and exposed. Dusk falls early; by mid-afternoon, the sun is already sinking towards the edges of the sky.

On such a Saturday afternoon in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the early seventies, I stood at a window in one of the back galleries of the Fogg Art Museum. I was a part-time security guard, hired on the weekends to watch the visitors and safeguard the museum's treasures. I wore a blue jacket, was kept on my feet, and told people not to touch. But sometimes when the museum was closing, after I had cleared the galleries and extinguished the lights, I would linger behind in the darkness of the Greek and Roman sculpture gallery and lightly bring my fingertip to the flaring, proud shoulder of Meleager. A Roman copy in marble of a fourth-century Greek original, Meleager was a model of male beauty, a head, and torso just over life-size. It gave me a thrill to touch him, against prohibition, in secret and in darkness.



No one caught me. I dashed out of the room.

There are as many ways of looking as reasons to look. As I spent more time with the paintings and sculptures, there were some I came to love more and some less. My perceptions intrigued me as a record of what lasted for me.

If most precious to me were my moments of quiet musing, the museum served me also as a theatre of life, where I observed the passing visitors as they observed the works of art.

There was another aspect to my afternoons as well, which was my interactions with the other guards, who were almost all Harvard retirees now living on a pension and picking up a few dollars, just as I was, by looking after the Fogg on the weekends. Their different personalities provided me with a kind of theatre, too. They often tried to create an impression for my benefit--or rather, for our benefit.

For I had a friend on the job with me. She was a classicist and a Medieval and Renaissance scholar. I was a history student and a poet. We were both similar and dissimilar. We had the same name but spelled it differently; she was Lucy and I was Lucie. Many of the same things delighted us. George, a guard, made us laugh when he told us that an Italian work entitled "Construction of the Temple of Jerusalem," depicting men at work on a masonry wall, was really about styles in skirt lengths--"Mini, midi, and maxi," he explained, indicating the tunics and robes of the men. He had a dry wit, and we were an appreciative audience, who responded in the right places and repeated this iconography for our own pleasure to visiting friends.

Frank's humor was racier. He was an Irishman of around seventy, with a pink, seamless face and inscrutable blue eyes, who regularly carried a pack of playing cards and a counterfeit bill, both ornamented with pictures of naked ladies, which he liked to try to shock us with. He gestured to us to come with him to an unobserved corner. While he stared at his pictures in undisguised wonderment, Lucy and I smothered laughs. We thought Frank assumed we were more innocent than we were.

We were naturally not allowed to read while on duty, but sometimes we carried folded sheets of paper with copied-out poems of Baudelaire in our pockets, which, in the course of the afternoon, we would commit to memory. "I'Idéal" was one of Lucy's favorites:


...Ce qu'il faut à ce coeur profond comme un abîme,

c'est vous, Lady Macbeth, âme puissante au crime...


She recited it to me in a low, thrilling voice, while we were on our break. We took tea together in the Naumberg Room, a chamber closed off to the public, with an adjoining kitchen that was used for conferences and receptions. It was the living room of Aaron and Nettie Naumberg's New York apartment, which had been bequeathed to Harvard and installed in the Fogg--walls of dark heavy wood paneling hung with Italian and Spanish paintings, each surmounted with a display light. George, with his usual, understated flourish, had demonstrated to us the secret panel under the stairs to the landing. The dusty alcove behind it yielded nothing exciting--a few folding chairs and extra dishes in a cardboard box.

We sipped our tea in the worn and gloomy grandeur of the Naumberg Room and luxuriated in the feeling that we were hiding out from the world. Lady Macbeth, recast in Baudelaire's French, was a myth of evil and very far away. Our own innocence had been registered to us earlier that very afternoon by Frank's latest installment of show-and-tell. He had ushered us into a broom closet with him and opened a case he had smuggled in there. Lying on the plush was a pair of pistols. Excitedly he told us--it was hard