Psyche Gate

Last September, just before the Harris Museum in Preston closed for three years for renovations, I slipped in for a private rendezvous with a woman with whom I have secretly communed for many years. She never looks a day older. She says nothing, but imparts a great deal. I can’t see her any more, and maybe I never will again.

She caught my attention because I had caught her in the act. I had no idea who she was or what she was up to, but she was clearly up to something. She was going somewhere, though I wasn’t sure whether it was in or out. She didn’t seem entirely happy, but neither was she especially sad. She appeared inquisitive yet knowing, eager yet cautious, concealing yet revealing.

The portal that she peeped through looked classical and showed a glimpse of a portico not dissimilar to the neoclassical facade of the building in which I found her. She was inclining towards a garden with multiple blooms of potted white roses, while on her side of the gate, a rambling rose showed only a single flower, but one that curiously matched the colour of her translucent robe, and the head she held in her hand.

I always favour internal works of art, that is to say works that give all their signals from within, without the need to refer to adjoining labels, but I had to know more, so consulted the plaque. This was John William Waterhouse’s painting of Psyche Entering Cupid’s Gate, dating from 1903. Ah, well now it was clear; she was looking in.

I’d heard of Psyche, of course, and knew she was both a classical figure and a state of mind, in fact, or in theory, the state of mind. Her name became the totality of elements that form the mind, both conscious and unconscious. Hmm, thought I, that seems to fit. This is a person who knows what she is doing and is not entirely sure that she should be doing it, and yet, nevertheless, something deep inside is driving her.

Further reading revealed a little more. She was a woman with a problem.

Evidently, in the minds of ancient Greeks, I read, Cupid was sent by his jealous mother, the goddess Venus, to punish Psyche for her beauty. Instead, Cupid fell in love with Psyche but would only meet her after dark so she couldn’t identify him. Here, Psyche is trying to catch a glimpse of her secret lover in daylight. I was not so convinced by that plot device. Didn’t she have a candle? Or moonlight? Leave that aside, what she was about in daylight seems somewhat inconsequential to what she and he might have done by night, but this sunlit foray clearly both troubled and compelled her, and it was that disturbing compulsion that drew me in. We can all identify with that. Can’t we?

That portico in the background must be cupid’s pad, his temple perhaps, him being a god. It all looked somewhat lush, and he must have had a half-decent gardener. Erect evergreens, fertile shrubs, supine lawns and an elliptical pond. We can see too much, but can’t help looking.

So yes, Waterhouse has shown us the mythology made flesh, but also the flesh made psychology. Love is a disturbing bedfellow. It’s not enough to know it by night, we need to look again in the cold light of day, and we will, whether we mean to or not.

I hope the Harris only stays closed for another two and a half years at most, as promised. I need to consider Psyche in daylight again. I hope they put her back on show. I hope I’ll still be here and she’ll still be there. In one sense, at least, she will be. She’s not going anywhere.

Similarly . . .

Here’s the story of another troubled but compelled woman:

Click on the pic to read more, or take a look at: Untitled (Novel) Chapter One and trailer

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