Ecstasy Is a Piano.
This particular time of year a memory from a few years ago keeps reappearing in my mind: I am a teacher, descending the stairs of the auditorium in the Seminary of the Southwest. The scrim has been lifted that separates the seating from the banquet area, and we are proceeding in to dine. As I queue in the buffet line, I hear a piano twinkling from an adjoining room I’m not sure exists. I move towards the sound, carrying my plate, absentmindedly, like a cartoon animal catching a scent.
The room is actually a high-ceilinged lounge, brightly lit, sparsely furnished. A student of mine is playing Debussy’s Clair de Lune from the Suite Bergamasque. She fumbles a little, but mostly presses through. Another student is nearby, barefoot, twirling in circles, arms outstretched like a person in awe. I am also in awe. “I love this song,” I whisper, in the expansive way of teachers. But I don’t want to interrupt her. I don’t even want to return to the banquet hall, but I do, kind of wafting away. This is a perfect moment.
I listen to Debussy a lot, and foolishly never really understood the connection between the Suite Bergamasque and my own life, yet I have lived in Bergamo, the demonym of the song style to which Veraline alludes in the poem that inspired the movement:
Your soul is a well-chosen landscape
Where roam charming masks and bergamasques
Playing the lute and dancing and seeming almost
Sad under their whimsical disguises.
It’s simply devastating. I lived in Bergamo with my old new husband, so young and green and vibrating with thirst and possibility. Bergamo was cold and unsentimental and the sky was grey. With time we learned to enjoy our memories there, but none of them felt anything like that. I was never swept away by the sounds of a drifting piano.
The other night I heard the song playing from my bedroom. Struck suddenly with emotion, with this memory of my former students and my former husband, I wept unexpectedly while sitting on the toilet.
There is no Debussy in Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name. But there is Ravel. There is also a piano prodigy in the form of Timothée Chalamet writhing on an attic mattress in copulative ecstasy with a peach. The moment of ecstasy he experiences is so prolonged and beautiful, and the viewer knows it is ecstasy by the magnitude of shame he experiences afterwards, when his lover has found him. He folds into his lap and weeps. Before there was someone to shatter the liberation of that ecstasy, he was without shame, without self-consciousness, maybe unselfaware. Ecstasy is a thin mirror that separates us from the rough breath of real life, and then fractures irreparably. This is why we spend forever trying to recreate it. The Ravel song that plays just before Elio and Oliver first kiss is “Une barque sur l'océan,” or “the boat on the ocean,” from Ravel’s Miroirs suite.
The majority of the film takes place in Lombardy, where Guadagnino himself lives. At the end of the film, the lovers are drunk in Bergamo on holiday, and Oliver dances with a strange woman on the street in front of the Bergamo Cathedral, in Cittá Alta. Elio vomits and later drinks out of a fountain. I have drunk out of the same fountain after too much vino rosso or birra scura. When my former husband and I saw this part of the film, it shook us to the core. We sobbed, openly and with impunity, until long after the screen darkened. In hindsight, it almost felt like an acknowledgement of something that had passed.
In Testaments Betrayed, Milan Kundera illustrates moments of ecstasy in his childhood by banging out improvisations on the piano. He says that the person experiencing the ecstatic “flees into the state of blindness and deafness where everything is forgotten, even oneself. Through ecstasy, emotion reaches its climax, and thereby at the same time its negation (its oblivion).” When we consider the purer ecstasy, the one unsullied by nightclub drugs and sexual connotation, we think of Bernini’s sculpture of Saint Teresa, forever upon the moment of holy penetration by the angel’s golden spear. And even this is too sexual. So we think of the two children in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, running around a meadow to catch glimpses of the Holy Virgin, surrounded by a crush of people whose energy of anticipation might merely be causing them to perform. The observers close in with an almost libindous, voyeuristic thirst. Every time they see the Holy Virgin, they kneel to pray emphatically. Is that oblivion? It depends on whether you believe the visions. Time and space suspend; a moment lasts an eternity even as one lives it; one is totally unselfconscious as if alone, fully immersed.
Personally, I align more with Kundera: Ecstasy is a piano.
I often joke that my secret fantasy career is to be a schlocky lounge singer. One who accompanies myself slouching over the piano, the posture of every character in any Steely Dan song. The first time I watched the Robert Altman film The Long Goodbye, there were only two moments that appealed to me transcendently: when Philip Marlowe visits that wood-paneled, thick-carpeted bar with an extensive flat-top grill menu and uses the phone, and when he appears at Roger Wade’s beach party, the camera tracking through a sunlit living room full of torpid hipsters vibing on one continuous jam of “The Long Goodbye” theme song. I want to stage that latter scene at my own party. Incidentally, it is also the moment before the mirror is shattered, when Roger is humiliatingly confronted by his vindictive doctor on the beach in front of all his guests. The ecstasy of the party is wiped out with a conversation. Roger himself is psychically destroyed; he never recovers and eventually succumbs to the ocean.
In 2006 I had been in Paris just a few days when the friend I was staying with took me for a walk. We ended up on a huge boulevard— one of the many that purists believe ruined the labyrinthine Parisian landscape— and he realized his friend lived nearby, so we decided to pop in for a visit. The friend buzzed us up, and it was this grand old apartment building with a sort of half-spiraling staircase, the kind cushioned with neatly folded red carpet on each tiny wooden stair as if it signaled luxury. At one point I paused on a landing between the second and third floors, slightly paralyzed. There was thunderous piano music reverberating from above, and it overwhelmed the senses. It’s true that Paris is one of those cities where everything feels a little too curated for the tourists’ enjoyment, but how could this not be? We entered the apartment, where indeed, a shy Croatian man was just finishing his performance. Even though I hadn’t witnessed the whole piece, present, in the room, his playing was a symbol of welcome I unknowingly needed. He left soon after, but my friend and I languished throughout the afternoon, drinking Aguardente de Medronhos, sitting around a table and talking about love. There was a bowl of fruit I didn’t recognize, rube that I was, and as I fondled one of the lanterns our host raised an eyebrow and said, “Gooseberries.” My mouth opened slightly in recognition. “Dogville, right?” he said, encouragingly. It was true. I’d been thinking of gooseberry bushes and their meticulous tending in the film Dogville. I had almost never felt more recognized, more at home. The oblivion was followed by warmth and acceptance, not shame and horror. It seemed so inconsequential and yet everything after that moment on the stairs was its consequence.
When my friends and I go on the cruise, I linger most often in the piano bar, sometimes to my detriment. The staple of the cruise ship pianist is so profound there’s even a joke about it from the gifted and duplicitous music teacher in The Romanoffs episode “Bright and High Circle.” My first year on the cruise, the piano man was gentle and grandfatherly, making references to Marx Brothers comedies and playing our deep cut Elton John requests. One night, after several martinis, I was sitting alone in the piano bar and asked if he knew the Hoagy Carmichael standard “Stardust,” which is my favorite song. Without vocals, without ceremony, he dug the opening chords into the keyboard with a violent flourish. I was transported and moved. I started sobbing uncontrollably, hardly making it through the end of the song. Afterwards he embraced me and asked me what was wrong. “I’m having a really hard time in my marriage,” I said. He kissed me on the cheek and told me it was going to be all right. Though terrifically sad, this was still a moment of ecstasy: Time paused, my entire life existed only within the universe of this moment, the dimly lit piano bar, absent of all customers besides me, in a place of total and truthful vulnerability in front of a complete stranger, a gesture of intimate human contact, a reflection of a dark and wounded part of me shining in the mirror that protects us just as ecstasy commences and the painful nuisance of the self falls away. I must get back to that; I am always going back for more of that, perhaps at the expense of my own honesty. After all, as with any intoxication, with any drug or distraction, I can hide behind the mirror, the whimsical disguise, until it breaks, and reveals to me where I really am.