Fellini’s “Roma” is filled with many magical and poignant scenes. One that particularly resonates with me is the scene in which excavation for a new subway extension has been stopped because workers have discovered an underground chamber containing miraculously preserved Roman wall paintings from twenty centuries earlier.
An expert is called in. She turns on her flashlight and gasps in awe to see the murals in all of their vibrant beauty. A moment later, a gust of wind comes through the newly opened chamber, blowing the ancient paint right off the walls like dust. In seconds, the magnificent artwork, only just now glimpsed, vanishes forever before her horrified eyes.
It has occurred to me that this theme, of a sublime work of art only briefly glimpsed before it is lost forever, recurs in various ways throughout literature. One of my favorite examples is from one of the Isaac Asimov short robot stories, in which the robot servant of a pianist, wishing to please his master, sits down at the piano to play a piece the musician had been struggling with.
The robot ends up playing the piece with enormous subtlety and feeling. When it is finished the musician is weeping from the beauty of the robot’s performance, which was by far the greatest and most moving piano performance that the musician has ever heard. The robot explains that the performance was simply a matter of studying the mapping from emotion to sound that is employed by humans through music, and recreating that mapping.
The musician begs the robot to play another piece, but the robot declines, explaining that it will never again play the piano. Its reasoning? It has computed that the existence of a machine able to play music with such depth of feeling would be harmful to humans, by causing them to doubt the importance of their own musical intuitions and emotions. To protect its human masters, the robot has calculated that it must never again demonstrate such facility with emulating human emotion.
When he is told this news, the musician is devastated. He has just heard the most beautiful musical performance of his life, and he is being told that he can never hear such a performance again. In a sense he is just like the woman in Fellini’s “Roma”. Their very act of observing perfect beauty – a kind of forbidden perfect beauty – leads to its loss.
Perhaps both scenes are so poignant because they are metaphors for life itself. Beauty, art, music, emotional connection – all of the magnificent experiences in life – are at the mercy of a sudden gust of wind, of being blown away like dust. Life, with all its many treasures, contains the seeds of its own destruction, and so its enjoyment must inevitably be bittersweet.