|n a short story Delmore Schwartz (1913-1966) wrote about “an extraordinary, inexplicable, and even terrifying event.” Overnight a snowfall had created incredible statues of distinct forms throughout Manhattan. By morning the snow had hardened like rock, so the statues couldn’t be easily removed or damaged.
People were amazed. “Hence it was that the whole day after the snowfall became an unofficial holiday. All private concerns were ignored, all official tasks absentmindedly attended to, all other things put aside while everyone discussed, analyzed, and sought an explanation of the remarkable statues of snow.”
Among those particularly touched was a young bachelor, Faber Gottschalk, a dentist who hated his work. “To seek out decay, and pus, to do this day after day, to have this in the forefront of one’s consciousness—these central aspects of his profession he disliked, did not get used to, and would never regard with anything but aversion.” As a result, he “constantly evaded what immediately presented itself to him.”
Except for the statues. Enthralled, Faber cancelled all appointments “until further notice” and spent the day walking the city and admiring the statues. That night in his apartment he mused over them, realizing that they brought him a pleasure and happiness he hadn’t found anywhere else.
Day after day, life went on as before in the city, almost. “At certain moments, everything stopped and was motionless, as at a red light on a great avenue; and in this motionless period, complete attention was given to the statues, as when a noble man’s death is regarded.”
No one, though, was more moved than Faber Gottschalk, who “alone had surrendered the being of his past life utterly, ceased to practice his profession, and went through the conscious day throughout New York in an effort to see all the statues.” Though unable to express it in words, Faber found in those snow sculptures a unique sense of meaning, of purpose, of transcendence.
Then, without warning, “a tireless and foul rain” fell and, to everyone’s surprise, destroyed the statues. The papers noted the incident the next morning, and then no more. Everything—the problems, the enmities, the stresses and strains—immediately resumed, as if never having been interrupted to begin with.
Schwartz ended his story like this: “A particularly brutal murder was committed in Brooklyn, the sports pages carried much news about ice sports at winter resorts, a boy of seventeen, scion of a very rich family, disappeared from his home and was found after two weeks in Iceland, Faber Gottschalk jumped or fell in front of an onrushing subway train, and only a few were sufficiently disturbed to keep in mind, with the help of photographs, the holy time when statues had presented their marvelous forms everywhere in the city of New York.”
This story (“The Statues”) is a metaphor for the human desire and need for transcendence, for purpose, for hope beyond ourselves. After all, what are we but small packets
of flesh carrying around within us our own fecal matter and (not far away) our own minds. And what are our minds but a couple of pounds of carbon-based organic material closer in composition to a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken than to a hard drive. What can such a small, self-contained packet of meat mean in contrast to the infinity that surrounds it?
To live only for ourselves, to live for something no bigger than ourselves when there’s so much all around us and beyond us is like being locked away for life in solitary confinement amid a large city that you can feel vibrating through the walls.
Faber reached out beyond himself and found something in the statues, these “sacred mysteries” as he called them—only to have a rain wipe everything away.
His fate reminds me of Jesus’ words: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures
on earth, where moth and rust destroy,
and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Matt. 6:19, 20).
What make this story more haunting is that Delmore Schwartz himself was a tormented soul who died insane and in solitude in a Manhattan flophouse.