My Favorite Spot. Thank you, John Safer.

I have found a favorite spot. It is 1552 steps from my house, about 9/10ths of a mile door to chair. It is in a quiet quadrangle surrounded by Harvard Law School dormitories. For the past two weeks I have walked from my house to the quadrangle. I sit on a wire mesh chair beside a wire mesh table that is one of four sets strategically placed beside a canopy that offers protection should the weather turn wet. So far every day has been fair or, if cloudy, with barely a suggestion of rain.

I like two things about my favorite spot. The first is that apparently it is no one else's.  I’m sure that will change once the students return. But just now it is as free of people as a private beach in the dead of winter.

The Axe
The second thing I like about my favorite spot is a statue by John Safer. It stands a few feet away from my chair. I had not known of this sculptor before coming here. I googled him. I found a page with pictures of his work. The price list page explained that the objects depicted ranged from $6,000 to $3,000,000!

The sculpture that I look at every day was Safer’s first public commission. It was a gift of the class of ’49. It was moved to this somewhat out of the way spot from its original location to accommodate  law school expansion. Since Safer was involved in the relocation, I assume he approved of placing it on the outskirts of Harvard property. I wonder why. It seems to me to be too important a piece to hide under a bushel.

I didn't always think that. When I first sat in my wire mesh chair across from it, the piece struck me as overly opaque with its three angular blobs sitting stolidly on a platform. Nothing in particular about them jumped out at me until one day, as I got up to leave, I caught a glimpse of the profile of the tallest blob. Of course! I exclaimed to myself. How slow not to have seen it before. I savor that moment. It is the way one feels when one is learning a foreign language. In the beginning everything is just a meaningless stream of sounds. Then, suddenly, you hear words and the spaces between them, even though the spaces aren’t really there.

What did it for me was the shape of the tallest blob. It was an executioner’s axe.
The Executioner's Block
The Executioner
Suddenly, the other blobs ceased to be blobs and became sharply focused images. The middle sized one was the hooded head of the executioner. And the massive blob was the executioner’s block. That’s why Safer called it Judgment. Now when I go to my favorite spot, I am not contemplating a shapeless mystery. I am rereading a familiar text, like a favorite bedtime story. 

Even so there is something a bit odd about the installation. Perhaps the class of ’49 had a macabre sense of humor. Or maybe they shared with the sculptor a dark view of the legal profession. Judgment, after all, doesn’t have to be harsh. Think, for example, of the Judgment of Solomon where the death of a child was averted by the wisdom of the king. But this statue brooks no such merciful denouments. There is the axe. There is the axeman. There is the block from which the head will fall. No matter how you slice it, the presence of this sculpture in this quadrangle is a hostile act.

Judgment by John Safer '49
I wonder what the students who live in these rooms think about this meditation on their chosen careers. What do they see when they look out of their windows at the three blobs in the quadrangle? Do they even see it? Perhaps they take it for granted that there is a symmetry between justice and legality. Perhaps the sculptor wanted to call that into question.

After all, he was a graduate of this very school of law, class of '49.