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Death and the Scholar


Some weeks ago I wrote about a small untitled painting I called “Death and the Scholar,” created some time before 1889 (the year artist August von Pettenkofen died); it may have been intended as a study for some larger work. With power disproportionate to its small size, I’ve wondered what story Pettenkofen intended to tell: might it have been based on a fable by Aesop or Grimm? Or a short story by the likes of Maupassant or O. Henry? I’m still looking.

Small things sometimes have such power. Lacking a simple answer (or even a complicated one, at this point), I wonder if a credible and creditable tale can be crafted to match its presence.

Across the desk in his paneled study, a scholar leans toward the standing figure of Death. Scythe in hand, firelight casts the Reaper’s shadow ominously across the opposite wall. Whatever their ultimate transaction, the scholar must be curious. Who does Death work for? Good or Evil? Or is he an independent contractor—the Blackwater of our destiny? For that matter, is “he” a “she”? And given the volume of work to be done, is there only one Reaper or are there many? Faced with my own mortality, I would be brimming with those and so many more questions.

Are the time, place and circumstance of our end fixed or does Death have some latitude fulfilling the task? Between his inquiries, the Scholar must be strategizing a bargain of some sort, probably not for himself, however. A wife? Daughter? A valued colleague? And if there were sufficient time to pass his notes to another, would they be believed?

I’d enjoy seeing the Reaper interviewed by Dick Cavett (though most of y’all are too young to remember who he was). Then we’d have some answers and I would know how to proceed.

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