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Excerpt from The Opposite of Art, Chapter 14:
As he had beneath the Sistine ceiling, Ridler paced the sidewalk. Back and forth beside the looming ramparts, he paced. All the years swirled through his mind, the cost of jungles, beaches, filthy alleys and bazaars, tortured and exploded, hungry, parched, lonely and alone, and of course Suzanna. Suzanna lost forever. He had surrendered everything to paint the Glory, trying it a thousand times, a thousand ways, miles of paint, gallons of it flowing across canvas by the acre. What were these imposters’ feeble efforts compared to sacrifice like his?
“I’ll show them,” he muttered, dropping to his knees and opening his backpack. “I’ll show them.”
Removing his kit he spilled his pastels out onto the sidewalk. Still muttering, he selected a piece of chalk and began to sketch. His arm swung broadly over the pavement, a giant motion from the shoulder. Line after sweeping, monumental line arched across the slates around him. He was no mere artist. He was an athlete, a zealot and a warrior. He was no propagandist. He was a partisan, a dogmatist in possession of all truth. He alone could show the Glory to the world, and he alone would do it.
Driven by his rage and his disdain, Ridler lost all consciousness of his surroundings. He did not see the crowd gathering about him as his colors rose from the pavement to the ancient ramparts of the Holy See. He did not hear their whispers, nor their gasps and exclamations as the image swelled and spread. He climbed the wall with only fingertips and the narrow edges of his boots, clinging to the bricks stacked earthy and steadfast for generations. Halfway up he released his hold and drifted. Gripping colored chalk in both of his hands, he drew with unerring beauty and precision on his left and right at once, a whirlwind of pristine intention, filling empty voids as if he was a witch conjuring a portal to a future or a past. He almost had it now. This time he would hold it fast. He would draw back the veil. He would reveal the Glory. He would not let it go. He would master everything.
Ridler drew among a cloud of witnesses. No carabinieri stepped forward from that growing crowd to protest on behalf of public property. On the contrary, the police in their white belts and chest straps stood entranced along with bankers and tourists, priests and beggars. Dozens of them turned to hundreds; hundreds turned to thousands. From the street and sidewalk, from the windows, balconies, and rooftops, all of Rome observed in breathless silence.
It never crossed the artist’s mind that he might run out of colors. Again and again he pulled more pastels from his pack, never realizing it had become a cornucopia, endlessly fertile, providing everything required. Nothing was withheld. The sun itself beyond the angry clouds did not betray him. On the contrary, it remained aloft long past the normal hour, granting the suspension of time. Even gravity and space surrendered, all created things in all directions bowing in submission to his genius.
In the end it seemed the only limit was himself, for when he stopped it was his own decision. Hands and arms and clothing choked with color, Ridler sat back on his haunches. At that very moment the sun began to move again above the clouds, but it took a while to regain its usual velocity. And like the fading of the day, Ridler’s own return was gradual, a slow recognition of the image spread out all around him. Shadows gathering, he gazed upon the work.
It covered half a block along the sidewalk. It climbed forty feet up the wall. It was of course his grandest effort, superior to anything that Rome had ever seen. Thousands knelt around the fringes, hands clasped at their chins, palms turned up toward heaven. Their whispered prayers combined and interlaced in midair, flowing hot across his face. Their adoration of the image plucked him to his feet as if he were a puppet pulled by strings. He disappeared into them, staggering with painful joints, fleeing yet another failure, for he was well aware that this was merely one more flawed beginning. As he had so many times before, he had reached the end of Ridler without capturing the Glory.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Opposite of Art includes discussion questions and a Q&A with author Athol Dickson. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Topics and Questions for Discussion
1. Why does Ridler so desperately want to paint “the Glory”? Why does he find it so difficult? When does he first begin to truly understand the answer to these questions himself?
2. What is Gemma’s motivation throughout most of the story? How is it similar to Ridler’s motivation? What do the similarities imply about human nature?
3. Given the events that shaped Lacuna in his childhood and the nature of his crimes, what do you think of his situation in the end?
4. Was Suzanna right to break it off with Ridler? Was she right to wait for him so long, and so passively?
5. Who is Esperanza?
6. What does the novel have to say about religion?
7. What does the novel have to say about the nature of God and our relationship with God?
8. What does the novel have to say about the nature of art? The purpose of art? The source of art?
9. What are some of the novel’s most powerful symbols, what gives them their power, what do they stand for, and what do they imply about the things they stand for?
10. What do the words lacuna, esperanza, and graves mean? What does the word reflect in the character and the novel’s symbolism?
A Conversation with Athol Dickson
What inspired you to write The Opposite of Art?
At its most fundamental level, all great art is an attempt to communicate truths beyond words. Even the classic novels are considered great because of something deeper than mere words. God is the most fundamental ineffable truth, yet very few artists have tried to communicate their impression of God directly in their work. We usually address ourselves to God’s glory instead; the evidence and attributes God leaves behind as he moves across the universe. Only a few have addressed themselves to God directly, and they almost universally anthropomorphize their conception of the divine, usually rendering God as an old man with a long beard. It seems strange to me that more artists don’t try to render God himself, directly, and in thinking about that I began to wonder what might happen if a great artist—perhaps the greatest artist of his generation—were to devote a lifetime to capturing the spirit of God in his work.
How was the process of writing this book different from your previous books?
Actually, it was much the same process as all the others. I began with the idea of a great painter who wants to capture God on canvas, and then began to think in terms of settings, characters, and events that might support that idea. I asked questions. What motivates this person? What stands in his way? Why is he the way he is? What are his strengths and weaknesses? What do I like about him? What do I hate about him? As I asked these questions, the decisions I had to make to answer them began to fill in all the blanks, until eventually I had a story.
There are several people that help Ridler along the way and shape his faith and religious experience, including Bob Feldman, al-Wasiti, the rabbi Jonathon Klein, and Esperanza. How have others helped you to develop and further your own faith?
Some have helped me on my spiritual journey by the positive or negative example of how they lived their lives, some by making demands that forced me to look to God for strength or courage or patience or forgiveness, and some by granting those same things to me and, in so doing, giving me a glimpse of God’s own love.
Of the characters you created in The Opposite of Art, who do you sympathize with most?
It’s not possible to pick just one. I am all of them at different times. Sometimes I share Talbot Graves’s greed and lust for what he knows he should not have, and sometimes I share Emil Lacuna’s emotional and spiritual emptiness. I have great sympathy for Abu al-Wasiti, whose religion has been hijacked by evil, because my own has often suffered the same fate. I sometimes long for a different history, as Gemma does, and I sometimes demand access to the secrets of the universe on my own terms, as Ridler does.
Your writing incorporates inspirational themes into plot-driven stories of intrigue, suspense, and mystery. On your website, you write that your bookcase is full of suspense and mystery novels. Which authors have influenced your work the most?
Another difficult answer to narrow down. The list is very long. I learned most of what I know about writing dialogue from Ross Thomas and Elmore Leonard. From Flannery O’Connor I learned not to be afraid to write characters who feel larger than life, and not to try to make sense of everything. Thornton Wilder gave me permission to inject myself into the story now and then. Caleb Carr, E. L. Doctorow, and Umberto Eco taught me to appreciate the power of history in forming mysteries. I gained an appreciation for unexpected miracles from Gabriel García Marquez and Toni Morrison.
As one of the most celebrated artists of his day, Ridler seems to experience the world more intensely than other people: the colors are brighter and an everyday phenomenon like rain can become a transformative event. In your experience as a classically trained artist and architect, do you think artists really do experience the world differently than others?
An artist is different only in his ability to communicate part of his experience in ways that speak to others at a level beyond words. That doesn’t mean he experiences anything more powerfully. In fact, it may be that some people are too deeply involved in the richness of their lives to bother taking time to communicate what they’re living. For example, I think tourists at the Grand Canyon come in three basic types. First, there are those who aren’t really present because they’re too into themselves. We can ignore them. Second, there are those who are present in the moment to some extent, but feel a need to document the experience (usually with a snapshot). Finally, some are so completely present they lose track of themselves within the experience. So who really sees the canyon most intensely? The one who wants to take it in, or the one who’s willing to be taken in? Ridler may be a great artist, but he’s in the snapshot crowd. He would see the Grand Canyon as a challenge, something to be captured. He does see something almost everybody else misses, but what good does that do when he’s too prideful and cowardly to simply let it be?
The Opposite of Art required a very extensive knowledge of Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, and their religious texts. How did you prepare to write about each of these? Did you do your research before writing, or did it happen along the way?
Over the years I’ve read the Bible and Qur’an pretty extensively. I love Rumi’s poetry, I spent several years studying with rabbis at a Reform temple, and I practiced Zen Buddhism before I became a Christian. So I approached this story with all of those experiences in mind.
Ridler searches for the Glory in Turkey and in Israel in the face of hostile situations. With the ongoing conflict in the Middle East, why do you think it is important to continue to grow one’s faith during tumultuous times?
I wouldn’t put it quite that way—“it is important to continue to grow one’s faith during tumultuous times”—because that makes it sound like growing one’s faith is a proper goal in life. I don’t think faith is a goal; I think it’s a side effect. There’s an old Scottish saying: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” I believe that’s the true goal, and I believe it’s equally true at all times, regardless of one’s circumstances. Faith grows automatically when we focus on enjoying God, because that focus puts life in proper harmony. Faith grows even faster when we focus on enjoying God in the midst of adversity, because then we value the resulting harmony even more.
Ridler experiences God and finds hope in other people, while Gemma sees God in art. How do you personally find faith in everyday experiences?
I already mentioned several ways people have helped me along in my journey, but art has definitely also played a role. For example, I remember one time I was at the Kimbell Art Museum staring at a landscape by Monet, and I had the most extraordinary sense of being drawn into the scene. I was in a crowded room, and then suddenly I wasn’t. I was completely outside myself, much as Gemma is outside herself in a few scenes in The Opposite of Art. When I returned to self-awareness, the hairs on my neck and arms were standing on end. It was an utterly visceral reaction to the sense of communion I had experienced. Communion with Monet, and communion with Monet’s creation. I remember longing in that moment to enter real landscapes in that way, not just painted reproductions, and a sudden sense of joy that came immediately, because I remembered I could indeed experience the real world like that, in communion with Jesus. It was one of the most spiritually powerful moments I’ve ever experienced.
What are you working on next?
I’m trying to make sense of a crazy story called Digger in a Potter’s Field. It’s about a boy who somehow becomes lost in a world of magic and horror, and a father who refuses to believe his son has gone too far to save.