Past Masters: Gauguin's Tahitian Journal
The following excerpt is from the illustrated South Seas Edition of Noa Noa by Paul Gauguin (Greenberg, Publisher, Inc., New York, no date, translated from the French by O. F. Theis):
On one side was the sea; on the other, the mountain, a deeply fissured mountain; an enormous cleft closed by a huge mango leaning against the rocks.
Between the mountain and the sea stood my hut, made of the wood of bourao tree. Close to the hut in which I dwelled was another, the faré amu (hut for eating).
It is morning.
On the sea close to the strand I see a pirogue [a canoe made by hollowing out a large log], and in the pirogue a half-naked woman. On the shore is a man, also undressed. Beside the man is a diseased cocoanut-tree with shriveled leaves. It resembles a huge parrot with golden tails hanging down, and holding in his claws a huge cluster of cocoanuts. With a harmonious gesture the man raises a heavy ax in his two hands. It leaves above a blue impression against the silvery sky, and below a rosy incision in the dead tree, where for an inflammatory moment the ardor stored up day by day throughout centuries will come to life again.
On the purple soil long serpentine leaves of a metallic yellow make me think of a mysterious sacred writing of the ancient Orient. They distinctly form the sacred word of Oceanian origin, ATUA (God), the Taäta or Takata or Tathagata, who ruled throughout all the Indies. And there came to my mind like a mystic counsel, in harmony with my beautiful solitude and my beautiful poverty the words of the sage:
In the eyes of Tathagata, the magnificence and splendor of kings and their ministers are no more than spittle and dust;
In his eyes purity and impurity are like the dance of the six nagas;
In his eyes the seeking for the sight of the Buddha is like unto flowers.
In the pirogue the woman was putting some nets in order.
The blue line of the sea was frequently broken by the green of the wave-crests falling on the breakwater of coral.
It is evening.
I have gone to smoke a cigarette on the sands at the edge of the sea.
The sun, rapidly sinking on the horizon, is already half concealed behind the island of Morea which lay to my right. The conflict of light made the mountains stand out sharply and strangely in black against the violet glow of the sky. They were like ancient battlemented castles.
Is it any wonder that before this natural architecture visions of feudal magnificence pursue me? The summit, over there, has the form of a gigantic helmet-crest. The billows around it, which sound like the noise of an immense crowd, will never reach it. Amid the splendor of the ruins the crest stands alone, a protector or witness, a neighbor of the heavens. I felt a secret look plunge from the head up there into waters which had once engulfed the sinful race of the living, and in the vast fissure which might have been the mouth I felt the hovering of a smile of irony or pity over the waters where the past sleeps. . . .
Night falls quickly. Morea sleeps.
Copyright 2003, Gallery Walk, Brattleboro, Vermont