I can never keep Virgil and Beatrice straight. I blame Dante. Allegories can be so tiring. So, sitting under a tree in Princeton, enjoying a root beer float prepared at The Bent Spoon, I ponder the empty bottle before me. Virgil’s root beer. So good, it states, that I’ll swear it was made in Heaven. It is good, I must say, but didn’t Virgil lead Dante through the other place? You see, I’ve just spent a pleasant morning at Grounds for Sculpture, the outdoor museum set up by Seward Johnson, a sculptor that some accuse of kitsch. Others come by the busload to see what it’s all about. Johnson’s cast sculptures of people are so lifelike that it isn’t unusual to find yourself staring at an actual person sitting on a bench, wondering if they’re real or not. I spend a lot of time pondering reality, and this place makes that question explicit.
Descartes said “I think therefore I am,” but what if I am really the thought of another? How would I ever know? As I wonder around among the sculptures, a different face of reality shows itself. Many of Johnson’s pieces are sculptures based on paintings. To get behind the surface you have to imagine what the unshown side must’ve looked like. That which the original artist left out. Any art is a matter of perspective. Unseen realities—isn’t there something Dantesque about all this? Is Virgil the guide through Heaven, or is that Beatrice?
These statues, in quotidian poses, are so real. If they’re cast from actual persons, maybe they are. After all, this camera I carry is capable of capturing souls. And if you don’t make it through the first time around, there’s always Purgatory as a safety net. This bottle in my hand causes me confusion. Is my tipple divine or diabolical? How much difference is there between them, really? Princeton is a place that needs no one, after all, except those who have already made a success out of life. A place with expensive root beer on offer. A vice for which I’m willing to pay. Maybe life is a divine comedy after all.