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Rereading O. Henry’s ‘The Last Leaf’.

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On the healing power of art.

By CHRISTOPHER LANDRUM.

 

 

True belief is the belief that art communicates something that speaks something that all people understand and to which they can relate.

Victor Bruno, Fortnightly Review (March 2021)

 

RECENTLY I WAS fortunate enough to have my grandmother recommend a short story for me to read. From her kitchen window, over the course of this past winter, she had been watching a persimmon tree lose its leaves whenever she washed dishes. This had reminded her of “The Last Leaf,” which was first found in book form in The Trimmed Lamp and Other Stories (1907), by William Sidney Porter (“O. Henry”; 1862–1910), a writer whom we’ve always enjoyed for his light humor as well as the fact that he once resided (as I do now) in Austin, Texas.

“The Last Leaf” is about using art to heal. The plot is almost too short to summarize without spoiling, but essentially, three painters in Greenwich Village each come down with pneumonia. Sue recovers quickly, Johnsy (Sue’s flatmate and painting partner) engages in a long struggle with the illness, and the third (their friend Behrman, much older and unhealthier than the two women, but also a painter) dies after only a few days.

Johnsy believes she will die as soon as the last leaf falls from the tree she sees outside her window.

But the story mostly concerns Johnsy’s struggle. Her friends encourage her to be optimistic. Perhaps one day after her recovery, Sue suggests, Johnsy can go to Naples to paint. But Johnsy believes she will die as soon as the last leaf falls from the tree she sees outside her window. “I have done enough waiting. I have done enough thinking,” she says. “I want to go sailing down, down, like one of those leaves.”

Now when I read something, I can’t help but compare it to something else. Whether that comparison will be relevant or random, I usually won’t realize until much later (for I am but at the mercy of my own mind). And reading O. Henry’s short story reminded me of D. H. Lawrence’s novella of love, artistry and illness, The Ladybird (1922)––particularly with its line of “that curious flame of suffering which is forced to give a little outside attention, but which speaks only to itself.” This line seems to reprise, but in a much more serious tone, some of Johnsy’s sentiments. In Lawrence’s story, Lady Daphne regards her own hopes for her husband’s survival during the Great War as almost burdensome: “Never was anything more dull and bitter than Daphne’s affirmation of hope,” but in O. Henry, Sue-the-friend’s encouragement is interpreted as a dull affirmation by Johnsy-the-patient, who can only answer her friend back “coldly.”

ALTHOUGH IT IS painting—both the act of creation by an artist and the contemplated results by a viewer—which eventually helps Johnsy overcome her illness, her physician initially scoffs at the idea of art being therapeutic: “Paint! Not paint. Is there anything worth being troubled about?” He tells the other two painters that: “She has a chance, if she wants to live. If people don’t want to live, I can’t do much for them.” This detachment is somewhat similar (and contemporary) to a line from Shaw’s play The Doctors Dilemma (1906) where in the first act a doctor remarks, “I am never sick. Never had a day’s illness in my life. Thats what enables me to sympathize with my patients.”

But to sympathize with a patient, whether as a physician or a loved one, is not quite the same as the ability to sympathize with a painting. In Dostoyevsky’s Idiot (1868), a tubercular Prince Myshkin encounters a copy of Hans Holbein the Younger’s painting Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb (1521–22). The prince is so impressed by it, he becomes oblivious to the impending danger of a duel he must soon face. Years later, on a suicidal night, the prince retells to friends the story of examining the painting:

Looking at that picture, one has the impression of nature as some enormous, implacable, dumb beast, or more precisely, much more precisely, strange as it may seem—in the guise of a vast modern machine which has pointlessly seized, dismembered, and devoured, in its blind and insensible fashion, a great and priceless being, a being worth all of nature and all her laws, worth the entire earth—which indeed was perhaps created solely to prepare for the advent of that being! The picture is, as it were, the medium through which this notion of some dark, insolent, senselessly infinite force to which everything is subordinated is unwittingly conveyed. (III, vi)

My mind’s comparisons of these stories collide here (so bear with me): Though doomed by tuberculosis, Myshkin—in the moment of his encounter with the painting, as well as the retelling of that moment to others later in life—is able to find an avenue through which he can ponder, contemplate, and meditate on death. Whether it will come for him from the duel, his consumption, or even his possible suicide, his contemplations on the painting will not allow him to continue his naïve evasion of the inevitable. The painting cures his deception about death.

In Lawrence’s Ladybird, Count Dionys may not overcome death, but he can at least look beyond it to a place and time where “in the after-life the inheritance was his”—an inheritance which primarily includes the love of Lady Daphne, wife of his battlefield enemy. Dionys, in a kind of proleptic self-portraiture, imagines himself (indeed, mentally paints himself) becoming the “Egyptian King-God” he once was. But he may, by painting himself, also be deceiving himself about death. In O. Henry’s story, Johnsy is finally able to recover from pneumonia and ward off death through her acceptance of the deception of the painting. The painter and deceiver Behrman, however, succumbs to his own bout with pneumonia after painting the tree that saves his friend Johnsy. He therefore ends up a martyr of his own self-proclaimed masterpiece.

WHAT MAKES A true masterpiece? When looking at the Mona Lisa, does one see an old, bearded de Vinci rather than a mysterious, beautiful woman? If all portraits are self-portraits, as the fictitious London painter Basil Hallward declares in the opening chapter to The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), is all art autobiographical? In confessing his wish of never to publicly display his own masterpiece, Basil tells Lord Henry:

Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter. The sitter is merely the accident, the occasion. It is not he who is revealed by the painter; it is rather the painter who, on the coloured canvas, reveals himself. The reason I will not exhibit this picture is that I am afraid that I have shown in it the secret of my own soul.

Similar sentiments can be found in Samuel Butler’s novel The Way of All Flesh. Written from 1873–1884, but not published until 1903, the book contains a passage where the voice of Butler the author and that of the character of his narrator overlap into a single persona:

Every man’s work, whether it be literature or music or pictures or architecture or anything else, is always a portrait of himself, and the more he tries to conceal himself the more clearly will his character appear in spite of him. I may very likely be condemning myself, all the time that I am writing this book, for I know that whether I like it or no I am portraying myself more surely than I am portraying any of the characters whom I set before the reader. I am sorry that it is so, but I cannot help it. (XIV)

Tolstoy will tolerate none of this Victorian-era Anglo–Irish aesthetic, and, in the tenth chapter of What is Art? (1897), reduces it to this:

This is what modern artists say straight out: ‘I create and I understand myself; if others do not understand me, so much the worse for them’.”

While the Count of Polyana may have had the dandy son of a Dublin doctor particularly in mind in this disparagement of modern artists (Tolstoy calls out Wilde by name later in chapter seventeen), Basil, in the same above conversation, later affirms to Lord Henry: “An artist should create beautiful things, but should put nothing of his own life into them. We live in an age when men treat art as if it were meant to be a form of autobiography. We have lost the abstract sense of beauty.”

The mention by Basil regarding a lost “abstract sense of beauty” is not quite what Walter Benjamin later meant by the “aura” possessed by works of art that are able to abstain from mechanical reproduction (although, the absence of both abstract beauty and aura in modern art may constitute separate effects stemming from some common cause rooted in the Schiller–Weber concept of “disenchantment”). But I think for Wilde––but not for Basil, whom an elderly Tolstoy may’ve hastily confused him with––art is not autobiography, though criticism certainly is. Criticism is, says Wilde in the first part of The Critic as Artist, “the only civilised form of autobiography.” And though Oscar always sings, he does sometimes stray––but if Wilde is correct, Tolstoy’s criticism of Wilde may tell readers more about the autobiography of Tolstoy than any artistry to be found in Wilde. (Just as that last sentence probably says more about me than either of the “big name” authors.)

Johnsy believes the leaf never fell from the tree, because she only sees a picture of the tree, not the tree itself. But a “good” deception is like a successful surprise party.

THE “MEDICINE” THE painting provides the patient in “The Last Leaf” works only via successful deception. For Johnsy believes the leaf never fell from the tree, because she only sees a picture of the tree, not the tree itself. But a “good” deception is like a successful surprise party. This is why, as Wilde puts it, “All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling. To be natural is to be obvious, and to be obvious is to be inartistic,” (Critic as Artist II). Art thus imitates nature and provides infinite meaning for life; nature, however, cannot imitate art in hopes of providing any meaning to death. Or, as the narrator of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground (1864) instructs: “We must keep repeating to ourselves that, at no time and in no place, will nature ever ask for our permission; that we must accept it as it is and not as we paint it in our imaginations,” (VIII)….

At least that’s the way I’ve painted my interpretation of O. Henry’s story onto my own imagination. Grandmother may not have been thinking about any of those things or any of those authors while she washed dishes and watched the persimmon tree. She may’ve been thinking of her brother, who died several months after she recommended the story to me—thus making her the “last leaf,” as it were, among her sibling kin…. Or perhaps the tree and leaf and story reminded her of friends who have passed on or moved away (some of whose books I’ve graciously enough been given and have used for this very meditation)…. Or perhaps we were thinking of similar things, as a passage from Wittgenstein almost seems to suggest:

Religion teaches that the soul can exist when the body has disintegrated. Now do I understand what it teaches?—Of course I understand it—I can imagine various things in connection with it. After all, pictures of these things have been painted. And why should such a picture be only an imperfect rendering of the idea expressed? Why should it not do the same service as the spoken doctrine? And it is the service that counts.

—Philosophy of Psychology – A Fragment, no. 23 [formerly known as Philosophical Investigations Part II]

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