The shower of gold on Pennsylvania Avenue, in the shadow of the Capitol, had nothing to do with the cupidity of politicians and the slicks who run them. It was to be found at the National Gallery, where one of Titian’s greatest pictures was visiting again from Naples. (It was included in the stupendous Titian show in 1991.) Commissioned by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, the legendary patron of the arts, and completed in 1546, the painting depicts the seduction of Danaë by Jupiter, which is to say, by money. Her father Acrisius, the king of Argos, imprisoned her in a tower after an oracle told him that he would die at the hands of her son, but Jupiter infiltrated her confinement in the form of a hail of coins and impregnated her with Perseus—“the child begotten on Danaë in the golden rain,” as Ovid wrote. In the Naples picture, Danaë reclines languidly on a bed of white in an alcove high above a distant landscape over which a setting sun is giving way to night. A golden cloud hovers above her, from which the coins are expelled onto her welcoming body. She is wearing only a few baubles, and looks blissful in the sincerity of her nakedness. Her right leg is bent at the knee, concealing the coins’ intimate destination, and a cloth is draped over her rather massive thigh. Her left hand is similarly concealed, and may be a participant in her pleasure, while the fingers of her right hand grasp the sheets as if in a gathering intensity. Her face, dreamily absorbed in her sensations, turns toward the cloud and is reddened by its shadow. A large cupid stands at her feet and turns to leave, its bow released, its objective attained.
The delicacy of this otherwise monumental figure, the luster of her flesh, the lyrical ease of her sexual hospitality, is overwhelming. If there are echoes of statuary in her pose, the statue has melted. Here is a gentle storm, not a Bernini-like rapture. Michelangelo is reported to have seen the painting in Titian’s studio in Rome and to have complained about its draftsmanship; but I expect his reservations were owed to more than the disagreement between Rome and Venice about the procedures of painting. The difference was also temperamental: This flesh was too untormented for him. Of course the tenderness of Titian’s image is somewhat disrupted by its subject, which looks a lot like harlotry. Danaë is quite literally taken by money. The bluntness of the painting’s sexuality was noted in its time, and some scholars believe that the woman in Titian’s picture is a courtesan. Cupidity, indeed. But as you stand before the canvas, you discover the inadequacy of a merely historical interpretation. The outlandish myth that inspired the work, and the circumstances of the work’s making, recede before its wondrous sensual impact. If Titian’s model was a whore named Angela, then a whore was transfigured. She is more than Angela now. For all her physical exposure, she leaves the impression mainly of a womanly inwardness. The eroticism of the scene is wholly her achievement. Her luminosity is not derived from the vulgar effusion of gold. The god is nothing compared with the mortal.
I report on the painting because I am in its debt. The sight of it was swift transit to another planet. This planet, after all, currently stinks. Its brutality and its anarchy are plain to even the most indifferent observer. We are living in a new golden age of the problem of evil, which is more than a policy problem. The multiplying atrocities of the twenty-first century should retire any lingering assurance about the linear nature of moral and social progress. There is nothing anachronistic about the rapes and the beheadings and the massacres, about the ethnic cleansings and the genocidal campaigns and the plagues, about the refugee populations wandering across deserts and seas, about the persecution of heretics and apostates and infidels: they are all regular features of human events, and no number of smartphones will annul the characteristic darkness. Crimes against humanity are human crimes. They will never be anachronisms. The confidence that they will wither away under the pressure of reason and law and technology, that they are doomed because they are on the wrong side of history, is a kind of intellectual disarmament. History’s right sides are always contemporaneous with history’s wrong sides; history will tolerate anything. What determines the balance at any time is human agency, and the ideas that guide the exercise of human power. There is nothing arrogant about this presumption. It is a matter of the most elementary responsibility. People are murdering and uprooting and enslaving people, and other people must stop them. But it will never be stopped once and for all.
Standing before Titian’s nude, in other words, I was briefly carried away from all this. Was this escapism? Not unless history is to be given the final word on the entirety of life. What the painting did, in this season of nauseous reflection on cruelty and breakdown, was remind me of the rest. It recovered a dimension of experience that has nothing to do with the news. In the presence of beauty, who remembers who the president is? I remember thinking two thoughts. The first was that the realms we inhabit cannot be tidily mediated, or unified into a perfect whole—conscience and sensibility, politics and desire. Instead we shift and shuttle between them, the seriousness of our engagement with each a brake upon promiscuity, correcting emphases and reviving possibilities, making an existence out of commitments and feelings that do not go together but are all elements of a significant life. It is an existence of recurring depths and alternating incompletenesses, and it is a rich one. My second thought was that I was tired of hearing about the right side of history, not only because nobody around here any longer knows the sordid career of this secular doctrine of prophecy, but also because there are moments when I wish to be not on the right side of history and not on the wrong side of history but on no side of history at all.