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By Joseph Grim Feinberg


The Montréal Review, March 2011


"A very Minor Member of the British Royal Family" by Sam Dargan, 2010, oil on board, 17.5 x 12.5 inches. (From Thank God For Dynamite exhibition at Heskin Contemporary Gallery, NYC)




When Robert A. was born, his parents decided to introduce him early to all the wonders of life. Before he learned to walk he had already ascended steep mountains, traversed flat deserts, and floated along choppy seas, held tightly to his nurse Miss Cauling's breast. As soon as he could speak, the words came out in some twenty tongues at once.

When Robert entered school, he was dividing his time equally among the four major continents, which he supplemented by a brief stay on the Antarctic coast, where Miss Cauling (now his governess) provided for his education in the absence of an established school. When he reached the age of ten he had lived in every existing country, as well as several that would only later come into existence (perhaps as a result, he later joked to his friends, of his erstwhile presence there).

By his high school graduations (he had several, for the sake of comparison), he had finally ventured all the way to each of the earth's poles, and to the very tops of every high mountain, and to the very middle of every great desert and sea. He had rushed through the streets of every worldly city and had lain amidst the rising rows of every provincial province's fields. He had tasted the loves of women with every color of hair, and he had even visited (for comparison) the embrace of a hundred different whores.

Before entering the university, where he would later spend years dallying with cigarettes and poetry along the most decrepit cement hallways of the poorest institutions in the world, only to go on to receive degrees cum laude from Bologna and Chicago (having quit Harvard and Oxford out of boredom just before), he took time off to toil in an oilfield where the black slime mixed with sweat upon the Amazon's red dirt, brown snakes, false cinnamon, and vines. It was there he joined the Central Union, where his leadership of a regional general strike would give birth to the Upheaval, whose visions of transcendence and raining gold would soon set the world ablaze. He was smuggled out of the country just one step ahead of the Paramilitaries and one step behind the Federal Police, who never thought to turn around. He crossed the Caribbean in a cargo hold full of forbidden spices, and when he finally pried his container's door open, he peered out from atop a truck bed pulling itself along the endless asphalt of an endless suburb in an endless country, where he spent the subsequent weeks wearing the well-steamed suit of a fast-food associate continually emerging from the kitchen's boiling air.

Once he had finished his formal studies (he continued to educate himself by reading through every country's national encyclopedia and greatest literary works), he joined, in gradual succession, every organized sporting league. He purchased several companies and experimented with them, expanding one ruthlessly into every market, running another into the ground with ridiculous inventions that no sane shopper would buy. In all cases he achieved his principal object, which was to sit at the top of the tallest buildings of the world, gazing through their tintless glass, charting in his mind all there was to do below.

He trod every street and entered every building, partook of every offered meal, met every seller of wares and agitator of ideas, wet his feet in every bathhouse, marched in every parade, wept at every funeral, and, in every festival, danced and sang-until finally, at an age when other men feel their blood and loins and wandering feet begin to quicken at the thought of their lives half-through, Robert, instead, began to slow down.

One day he was sitting quietly in the dining room of his suburban home (having long since left behind his sky-scraping office glass), nervously tapping his index finger upon a coconut-wood table. He tapped, looked carelessly at the paintings crammed onto his walls, modern European masterpieces beside the troubled work of unknown suicides, next to Japanese prints, beneath vast and bright coastscapes purchased in the markets of tropical towns. He turned toward the door and called to the only other person who still lived with him since he sent away his tiresome eighth wife the year before: "Miss Cauling!" She came. "Make me a bowl of chocolate gelato with blueberries." He paused. "Blend it with mayonnaise, and spread sweet mustard on top." She nodded and left the room.

A minute or so later she came back with the requested meal. Robert ate it slowly. When the bowl was empty, he laid the spoon and bowl carefully on the table, and he waited. Without noticing, again he tapped his finger on the wood. Perhaps ten seconds passed before he spoke again. "Miss Cauling." She nodded. "Make me another bowl of chocolate gelato with blueberries." He paused. "Blend it with mayonnaise." Another pause. "And mustard." Now he stopped and seemed to search for something in his mind. At last said. "And cover it with hot chile sauce." Miss Cauling left and returned so quickly with the requested creation that she might have already had it prepared.

Robert ate this helping still more slowly than the one before. When there was only a little bit left, he waited nearly a minute between bringing spoonfuls of the already-melted substance to his mouth. Before the final spoonful he sat for almost five whole minutes, staring at the almost-empty bowl. Then, with one deliberate motion, he filled his lifted up his spoon, plunged it into the bowl, and raised the full utensil to his open mouth, where it hovered tenuously for a moment, dripping on his shorts and, from there, down to the floor. Then he moved his head forward and closed his lips around the cold metal, and with a swallow it was done.

His expression, for several minutes, would have been difficult for anyone who did not know him to read. But Miss Cauling anticipated to the letter his next words: "I have done everything . . . there is . . . to be done . . . in the world." He sat motionless and waited. She nodded. Some time later, Robert repeated himself, "I have done everything . . . there is . . . to do . . . in this whole world." Another silence. "I have done everything in this world that can be done."


Earlier in his life he had looked forward eagerly to this moment, the triumph of his endeavors and proof of the wisdom of the upbringing his parents had arranged. But now he only found that he was bored.

He sat fixed in his chair, completely deprived of any desire to stand.

His many acquaintances and few friends noted the change in his character. He no longer smiled. He never traveled. Indeed, he hardly left his house. He spoke only rarely, even in his favorite languages, for he had nothing more to say. Soon he stopped eating dinner each day and instead went early to bed. Then he began to miss breakfast on account of his sleeping in so late. Sleep gave him no satisfaction either, however; it was only the simplest thing to do. And soon he even lost his ability to sleep. He would lie in bed from mid-afternoon to late morning, catching only a wink or two of sleep. He was not beset, like other, more fortunate insomniacs, and like he himself had once been, by a great outpouring of thoughts and plans. He merely looked up blankly up at the ceiling. When he soon lost all his will to eat, it was only due to the forceful exhortations of Miss Cauling that he stayed alive, eating three or four times a week. He grew thinner and weaker, but he did not notice. He did not care.

Though his acquaintances gossiped ignorantly about the cause of Robert's state, inventing exotic STDs or spy-ring poisonings as the probable cause, Robert's closer friends learned from Miss Cauling the explanation of his plight. Some of them decided to call on him and strike up friendly conversation, hoping that the recollection of their friendship would suffice to keep their friend's will to live alive. But their efforts came to nothing. Robert only smiled artificially and dozed off while they spoke. Other friends arranged for extravagant entertainment at his house. But it too was of no use. He had seen every Polynesian war dance, every scathing satire (including several about his own life), and every erotic reenactment of activities which, in any case, he had already done himself and did not need to observe.

They anxiously sought something which Robert had truly never done. He could swim across the Chesapeake Bay , someone suggested. Or he could hitchhike across Siberia . But no, he had done it all before. Another concerned friend proposed a walk through Baghdad wearing nothing but a poncho of alpaca wool. But even this, they were sad to learn, he had already done. The suggestions poured in, but none was of any use. To all appearances, it was true: he had done everything in the world there was to do.

Robert's physical and psychological condition grew worse each day and showed no signs of hope for improvement. He never left his bed, and soon he seemed little more than a barely-animate skeleton. It appeared to everyone that he could have little more than a week left to live.


But then he underwent a sudden change. When his friends visited him one day, they noticed something on his lips which they were, at first, at pains to identify. They wondered if some new physical ailment had deranged his muscles-until one of them realized: "He's smiling!" Another of them asked, "What is it, Robert? Tell us!" But he did not answer, nor even open his eyes. He only went on smiling.

The next day he ate a complete and healthy lunch. The day after that he ventured to have breakfast. A few days later he was eating three full meals a day. Color reentered his face, and a little bit of muscle re-formed between his skin and bones. He sat up when visitors came into his room.

His voice returned. He said, "I have thought of something new to do."

"What is it?" they asked.

He smiled even wider than before. "It will be known to all once it has been done."

In the succeeding days Robert made the preparations for his next great act in life. He left the house often, filling his limbs with exercise, and he continued to eat well. He soon looked almost like he had before that last bowl of gelato. His acquaintances were already rich with gossip about his mysterious convalescence, surely the work of some shamanic ritual he had once learned. His friends were only happy, though they could not convince him to reveal what he had planned, and they waited with a small but growing sense of trepidation.

Until one day the waiting was done. Miss Cauling called them to her master's house. She led them to the back porch, where, from behind, they saw Robert's resting form, slowly rocking on a creaking chair. They hurried around to see him, but they were disappointed by what they saw. A pistol lay in Robert's lap, and a bullet lay somewhere embedded in his brain.

Someone said, "But that . . . that . . . was there really nothing more to do?"


Illustration: Sam Dargan

Sam Dargan's work primarily deals with the disenfranchised. His characters are often isolated, outsiders, dealing with the situations and events they find themselves in with varying levels of success. The backdrops are hostile, lonely, often bleak, usually scarred with political graffiti, creating an environment ill at ease with itself.

Dargan's work is sparked by a range of material from newspaper reportage, to cinema, bringing in elements of political thought and action. Increasingly in the last year he has looked at historical events as a means of contextualizing his paintings. For example, The Paris Commune of 1871, the suffragette movement, the beginning of Anarchist thought, anything with an emphasis on defiance or insurrection, the heroic Utopian ideals that with the benefit of hindsight somewhere along the line lost their way.

Sam Dargan graduated from the Royal College of Art in 2002; he was nominated for the 2009 John Moores Painting Prize and in 2006 won The 16th Mostyn Prize. His work has been exhibited regularly throughout the UK and beyond and is in important international collections.

-- Heskin Contemporary


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