words. music. pictures. scheherazade.
A whisper of a line in W.H. Auden’s “New Year Letter” -
White childhood moving like a sigh.
Here’s a childhood memory of mine that’s more a groan than a sigh: standing there as an awkward 11 year-old in the sea of other awkward adolescents and pre-teens on the campus of Cal State Dominguez Hills. It must have been a few days prior to the New Year’s Day or just thereafter. My hair was held down neatly by pomade, parted on the left side in some golden ratio determined by my mom to guarantee my success at my first piano competition. The mission forced upon me was to play Bach among other peers who were also playing Bach. Three place-winners of this fugal battle royale would receive plastic trophies of varying sizes. What a monstrous idea. Even better, I was certainly the least accomplished pianist in the group, as I began my lessons just 1 year prior. I routinely ditched my lessons to play street baseball with my friends, regardless of my mom’s threats of physical abuse.
My suspicions were confirmed as I sat in my seat listening to these preternaturally nimble-fingered phenoms go through the contrapuntal thickets of Bach’s thornier stuff. No doubt they stood heads and shoulders above me: my piece was Bach’s Sinfonia No. 2 in C-minor BWV 788, a “beginner” piece. Before I knew it, I was up next. My dad, who was seated next to me, adjusted my cobalt blue clip-on tie from TJ Maxx which had, embarrassingly enough, daisies silk-screened on it. Unconsciously, my fingers tapped out the opening notes of the Sinfonia on my thighs, but my conscious mind was practicing and reciting Lysander’s lines from the Act 2 of The Midsummer Night’s Dream as he enters the night forest with Hermia and entreats her to lie down with him -
Earlier this year, when I was digging through the archives of Rosalyn Tureck in Boston University’s libraries, I saw a clipping of an article with Tureck’s heavy marks and underlining. It was an English translation of a German article from Spitta -
When at the beginning of 1723, he revised the Inventionen and Sinfonien, and wrought them into the form of an independent volume, he gave it the following title: “An honest guide by which the lovers of the clavier, but particularly those who desire to learn, are shown a plain way, not only (firstly) to learn to play neatly in two parts, but also, in further progress (secondly), to play correctly and well in three obligato parts; and at the same time, not only to acquire good ideas, but also to work them out themselves, and finally, to acquire a cantabile style of playing. (Bold mine)
If you’re like me and you first became acquainted with Bach’s keyboard works through the prism of Glenn Gould’s extreme pointilism and hyper-articulation, the ultimate instruction by Bach - that the Inventions and Sinfonias were to serve as a guide for students to acquire a cantabile style at the keyboard - should seem striking to you. Although I hadn’t known Bach’s injunction to play his Sinfonias cantabile, singing, when it was finally my turn to sit begrudgingly at the bench in front of the ivory keyboard, something must have clicked internally. Without cognizance, I found the singing voices in the simple interplay of Bach’s Sinfonia in C-minor, and recognized the music as a longing. Mine. The opening lines from “Songs of Longing,” which Rilke wrote to his married lover and correspondent, Lou Andreas-Salomé, in May of 1897, after they spent their first night together -
I am a way of preparing you
When I came to the U.S. as a 10 year old, the year I started my piano lessons, I didn’t speak English at all. Probably due in part to my obsessive reading but most likely due to my general cheekiness with people, I learned the language at a pretty good clip. Still, there were moments when I could not or did not want to engage with others. In those moments, I remember either reading, or daydreaming. And when I daydreamed, it was about Jennifer, a blond California girl who just possessed a… seraphic prettiness about her. She sat next to me in 5th grade and helped me with English homework. When I sprained my wrist and couldn’t write, she would take my dictation and write for me. I fell for her hard, my first ever crush. Out of the childish gravity of my feelings and the general awkwardness and shyness I began to feel toward her, I began to withdraw from Jennifer.
Then came 6th grade, when the class was putting on a production of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream at the end of the year. Jennifer was gunning for the role of Hermia. I scanned the play to read only Hermia’s part and learned that Lysander was Hermia’s lover. Not to mention that in the script version that our class was using, there was a scene in which Lysander and Hermia held each other “for a long time.” Language barrier or not, I memorized Lysander’s lines, without sleeping. Probably touched by my obtuse dedication, our teacher Mr. Gordon decided that he needed a Lysander with a Korean accent that year. Stars were aligned and Jennifer also got the role of Hermia. When Jennifer and I hugged during rehearsal, I almost passed out from bliss, nervousness, excitement. There was no need for enchantment nor a potion from Puck. This was love.
A few weeks ago, while writing an email to a friend, my thoughts and words wandered and somehow settled on Plato’s Cratylus, when Socrates is discussing the words that the Greeks use to connote ‘longing’ or ‘desire.’ Socrates says that the word for longing - himeros (ἵμερος) - is given to the stream (ῥοῦς) which draws the soul because it flows with a rush - hiemenos (ἱέμενος) - with a desire for things and draws the soul with the impulse of its flow. The word for yearning - pothos (πόθος) - pertains to the object of desire that is not present but is absent and elsewhere - allothi pou (ἄλλοθι που). Hence: himeros, when you are with me; pothos, when you are elsewhere. In the Iliad, himeros can denote sexual desire, but also this impulse to dance, cry, etc. whereas pothos is expressive of a longing for a missing person, thing.
There is no way I could have understood, by head, these variegated, subtle meanings of longing as a kid. Yet, now looking back, I must have at least intuited what longing could mean, when I found the singing in Bach’s Sinfonia No. 2 in C-minor to be full of its ache. I seem to remember this Sinfonia to have been written shortly after the death of his first wife, with whom Bach is said to have had a loving relationship. Regardless, when I sat and played this Sinfonia finally, in front of that bored group of kids and parents, what I found in its singing cantabile lines, or at least daydreamed it as such, was not as much Bach’s pothos expressed in musical terms, but my own blunt and unbearable yearning for one who would certainly be absent and elsewhere for the rest of my life. And it seems to me now that this was not just a yearning for Jennifer, who naturally drifted away from me with the dissolute years, but some kind of a permanent state of human existence. If not everyone’s, then at least mine. That yes, you are and always will be ἄλλοθι που but unlike a play, there is no way out of the forest, no magic potion to wake from the ἱέμενος of this dream life, a supernal joke.
(All beautiful images, by Kazha Imura)
Walk eastbound from the Central Park on E. 97th Street and you see a Russian Orthodox church called St. Nicholas on your left, just past Madison. An improbable piece of old-world Russia tucked between typically nondescript apartment buildings, cupolas with gold crosses and all. Czar Nicholas II donated the first 5,000 rubles, and they commissioned an architect named John Bergesen to build the church. When they laid the cornerstone in May of 1901, it bore a silver plaque praising Nicholas II. The construction finished in 1903, the year the Bolsheviks formed a party under Lenin. In 1904, the Russo-Japanese War began and within a year, the Russians would be defeated, a demoralizing blow to the Czarist regime. In February of 1905, a month following the “Bloody Sunday" in St. Petersburg, Russian nihilists sent a fake pipe bomb to the St. Nicholas Church to protest the church having been built with funding by Nicholas II and the Czarist bureaucracy. Fast forward to 1917 when Czar Nicholas II was abdicated, and the following year, when Nicholas II and the family of Romanovs were executed in Yekaterinberg: by then, the communists were well on their way to reshape St. Nicholas Church on E. 97th to befit the atheist state.
The morning of September 11, 2001: I was in the Butler Library of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, talking to a friend about Dashiell Hammet when a girl with a ponytail stumbled through the door and announced that a plane had crashed into the Pentagon. The TV screens in the library flickered on, but the mind reeled when it unexpectedly encountered the World Trade Center towers in flames and ashes instead of the Pentagon. Days passed although they hardly seemed to pass at all, then took a more personal, devastating turn in a few weeks when I received a grim news that my friend JW died in an apartment fire near Columbia University; he had taken the LSAT earlier in the day and was celebrating. In drunken stupor, he didn’t wake up when the fire caused by cigarettes that weren’t put out engulfed his room in flames and smoke, died from asphyxiation.
My friends and I came up to New York for JW’s funeral, stayed at a girl’s house in Fort Lee. We drove down to Weehawken before going to JW’s funeral in Queens to get a better look at Lower Manhattan across the Hudson. We stepped out to smoke cigarettes. What filled me with more dread than the sight of the entire Lower Manhattan shrouded in an unmoving billow of black smoke was my friend C’s black Honda Prelude slowly but perceptibly turning ashen gray. No doubt portending the very ashes of death falling and accumulating inside each of us: discrete and measurable, marking its claim on even the most private, intimate things we hold dear, by each obsolescent second fleeing into the next -
Since the brother of death daily haunts us with dying memento's, and time that grows old it self, bids us hope no long duration: Diuturnity is a dream and folly of expectation.
(Sir Thomas Browne, fr. Hydriotaphia)
After the funeral, we all went to a Korean restaurant in Flushing for reception before driving back down. We ate and drank soju while a video footage from inside the towers played on the TV screen, the flat voice-over reporting that each deafening thud we could hear was the sound of the body of each jumper from the towers, landing on the roof of the plaza. An ajumma came out from the kitchen and said 지랄, flipped the cable channel to a Serie A soccer match, then to a Korean soap opera, before landing on some history show to which no one would pay heed. Except me: because otherwise, I would have had too much on my mind to worry over.
The history program on TV was about the massacre of the Romanovs in the Ipatiev House, specifically as it concerns Princess Anastasia, whether she died or somehow escaped the execution. When I got back to Baltimore, I went to a bookstore’s history section, and grabbed the first book that was about the Romanovs. The book had a narrative account of how the Romanovs were murdered, so vivid that it made me speculate whether the account may be largely fictive. There was a detailed list of the weapons and ammunition, along with the names of shooters who carried out the execution. Amidst the shooters’ names was a young solider named Soames, who did not play a consequential role, other than the fact that he was there following orders. According to the book’s account, it was difficult to kill the younger children and ladies, who didn’t die immediately upon being shot, and I wondered how a young no-name soldier like Soames must have felt, what he must have seen as Anastasia and other children stood in that room like halfway ghosts, withstanding the initial volley of bullets from the .28 caliber Browning and .32 Mauser rifles.
The St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church on E. 97th is named after - wait for it - Saint Nicholas of Myra. Myra used to be where Demre is now in Turkey’s southern coast, and Saint Nicholas is, yes, the source of the Santa Claus legend. Saint Nicholas was a Bishop of Myra during the 4th century, and was known as Nikolaos the Wonderworker for his secret gift-giving and many miracles. Among the many legends of Saint Nicholas, one particular favorite of mine goes something like this: Once upon a time. Three children gleaning in the fields. They begin playing and eventually lose track of time so that when the dusk falls and darkness descends, they wander into town. Hungry and tired, they knock on the door of a butcher’s shop, and ask the butcher if they may have something to eat and a place to sleep a while. The butcher invites them in with a smile, but as soon as they are inside, the evil butcher takes his cleaver and chops them into pieces. He puts the pieces of children in a large salting tub to pickle them. Seven years pass.
After seven years, Saint Nicholas happens to pass through the town. He knocks on the door of the butcher and asks if he can stay with him. The butcher, well aware of the saint’s renown, invites him in and asks whether he can offer him something to eat. Nicholas says that he’s interested in nothing, other than the contents of the salting tub which the butcher has hidden. The butcher runs away in shame and remorse, and Nicholas dips three of his fingers into the tub. The children recompose, miraculously awake. When asked where they were the past seven years, the first child says “I have been sleeping,” and the second child agrees. The third child says -
I have been in paradise.
In 250 AD, perhaps some fifty or sixty years before the children slept the seven-year sleep of paradise in the pickling tub of the butcher, Emperor Decius began a murderous persecution of Christians in Ephesus, a coastal city in the Asia Minor that is a bit to the northwest of Saint Nicholas’ Myra. In this time of persecution, there lived seven children, sons of the prominent elders of Ephesus. To escape the persecution, the children holed themselves up in a cave in Mount Ochlon, where they prayed to ready their souls for martyrdom. The soldiers of Decius arrived and blocked up the cave with boulders to bury them alive. These seven children fell asleep, but when they woke up, the legend has it that nearly two centuries had passed, 187 years to be precise. The youngest of the children, Iamblichus, ventured out to the city and discovered a great cross at the gate of Ephesus: the city was now under a flourishing and peaceful Christian reign of Theodosius the Younger.
This legend of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus is also well known in the Islamic tradition, as a version of it is told in the Qu’ran (Surah 18). Edward Gibbon recounts it eloquently in The Decline and the Fall of the Roman Empire (Chapter 33), and writers from different epochs, as varied as John Donne and Danilo Kiš, have referenced and recast the legend. But none of these accounts are as close to my heart as Cavafy’s unpublished poem, “The Seven Holy Children,” in which the poet captures in the last stanza: not the miraculous joy at this awakening and resurrection, but the pure exhaustion at the never-ending, noisy cycle of life, the enervating languor. Only this mysteriously innocent desire remains: to sleep again, eternally.
The shooting happened at the southern end of the Ipatiev House, in an empty room with vaulted ceilings and yellow pine-board walls on July 16th of 1918. One could hear the White Army approaching to capture Yekaterinberg, the report of artillery fire getting louder and closer. A soldier named Deryabil fled his post when told to round up the family; he was later found in Kostroma and executed.
Nicholas II entered the room first, holding his son Alexei in his arms. Both had on coarse shirts, military caps that looked ridiculous on them. The Czar’s wife Alexandra came in, leaning on her steel cane, followed by the sleepy duchesses and Anastasia. Alexandra sat by the arched window while Alexei and Anastasia sang a song, the girl harmonizing her brother’s melody with a soft and effortless precision.
Commandant Yurovsky ordered them to stand, a little past two in the morning, and declared that they were sentenced to death. Then fired the first bullet which hit Nicholas II in the chest. All fired at the Emperor. The bullet entered the left side of Alexandra’s skull and exited above her right ear, and the ladies huddled together in the southeastern corner of the room, screaming. Alexei was seated in a corner chair with his father’s blood splattered on his forehead. Nikulin emptied the entire cartridge clip on the boy. He crumpled to the floor, looked up briefly, dark pupils dilating wide, pooling fast with black ink of death. Olga, Tatiana and Anastasia didn’t die even though they were shot. They were forced down to their knees and shot directly behind their heads with revolvers. Anastasia was bayoneted, but the blade couldn’t penetrate her bodice, so Yurovsky pointed the muzzle of his Colt against her temple and fired. All gunfire stopped. All turned still. Anastasia surveyed the room and looked at her sleeping brother and sisters briefly, before her eyes also closed with beatific slowness, tired of this life and likely already of the next, whatever paradise might await -
But lo, all this was so very different
and they had so much to learn and to say,
that the Seven Holy Children soon were tired,
coming as they did from another world, from almost two centuries ago,
and in the middle of the conversation they grew drowsy –
and thereupon they closed their saintly eyes.
(from the final stanza of "The Seven Holy Children," by C.P. Cavafy, tr. by Daniel Mendelsohn)
(The second painting in the post: Gerhard Richter’s “September”)
Trouble is. When cancerous white blood cells colonize the normal cells in the bone marrow. Terrible leukocytes mise en abyme in bloodstream. Okay, so: a deathfugue, Schwarze Milch der Frühe. Hyper-CVAD rounds of chemo drugs via a catheter pierced through the right arm, snaked to the right atrium of the heart. Accompanying complications and sundry grim sideshows. Such as. The low ejection rate of the heart. Dropping sodium and hemoglobin levels. Eyes yellowing from the swollen liver. Pancreatitis. Depression which compels the spirit to reject the necessary blood transfusion with this blanched utterance to the attending nurse -
Let me just die.
Et cetera and besides. These clinically latinate words to designate both the agents of the cure and the disease. The muddy mind which then digresses and resurrects in cue a random thicket of reptilian nouns from childhood science classes. Organelles. Centrioles. Protozoans. Prokaryotes.
The first living cells - the earliest prokaryotic arrangement of nucleaic acid - were born of lightning and methane according to Lewis Thomas, one of my favorite essayists. Not a stretch to say, then, that the gazillion years of our cellular and evolutionary history can be elided. To be simply told as a story of how the living things have a tendency to fuse, live inside each other, establish connections. Which just as aptly may describe the process of stem cell/bone marrow transplant, the ultimate treatment for leukemia. Following the chemo-induced remission, the alien stem cells enter the body, graft and fuse to the host stem cells. To hope to live together, joined as one.
One Sunday about two years ago, I heard for the first time the attached Largo movement from Vivaldi’s Double Oboe Concerto in D-minor at the church I attend, where many professional musicians from NY Phil and elsewhere usually play during service. Instead of the orchestra, it was the single organ in the Hunter College’s auditorium hushed to sotto voce accompanying the two oboists, and all the lovelier for it. In the brief few minutes during which the two simple strands of the obbligato melody twined in 3/8 time, I absolutely lost track of where I was - who I was - and some secret, insoluble longing I kept inside me somehow got unlocked by this luminous song, seemed shared and understood, coterminous with the kindred longing of a legion of others in their hidden, solitary corners.
The lasting and unforgettable beauty of that moment’s experience was this spontaneous and unwanted recognition - that the possibility of living on a completely isolated and autonomous island of the Self is just a myth.
What is stoicism? According to Montaigne in his well-known, Horace-peppered essay, “To Philosophize Is to Learn How to Die," it involves taking the mask off Death’s face, to recognize it as something that is and has always been familiar to us since time immemorial, and hence to be lived with in constant company, never to be feared. The aforementioned Lewis Thomas gives a modern spin to the same notion in his essay, "Death in the Open" -
We will have to give up the notion that death is a catastrophe, or detestable, or avoidable, or even strange… Everything that comes alive seems to be in trade for something that dies, cell for cell. There might be some comfort in the recognition of synchrony, in the information that we all go down together, in the best of company.
Brave and equanimous thoughts. But easier said and believed while sipping on a brandy by the evening fire listening to the Mahler 9. Not when one is enduring the pain of a lumbar puncture to have chemo delivered to the spinal cord.
To witness firsthand someone in pain. To understand truly that for those in pain, death is not the ultimate end. David Hume -
… [pain] is an ultimate end, and is never referred to any other object.
Yet to have the desire to live, even if in the few days out of the hospital awaiting the next round of chemo. To realize, either through Vivaldi or the cell-grafting involved in a stem cell transplant, that any cell on this miserable planet, given the chance and brought to touch with a foreign cell, will compulsively fuse with it, to live as one. That by extension, as long as one is alive, one may have the grateful option to reach out from isolation and touch the other. That to be a stoic is to desire to live in this messy fusion, however unreluctantly. Fernando Pessoa, on November 12, 1928 -
Let my fate deny me everything except
To see it, for I, an unstrict
Stoic, wish to delight in every letter
Of the sentence engraved by Destiny.
I went up to Boston two months ago to scavenge through the Rosalyn Tureck archives kept at the Boston University’s Howard Gottlieb Center. Checked in at a self-consciously hip hotel facing the historic Granary Burying Ground, which, despite its small lot, held thousands of graves. From my hotel window, the jagged rows of tombstones looked like misshapen, gappy teeth of a deep-sea creature. I dedicated a good part of each morning at the cemetery poring over the graves, such as those of the Hurds, a family of goldsmiths and engravers whose four men died between 1777 and 1784: just about every other year, a death.
Engrossed over tombstones in the morning, then lost in the correspondences and memos of a dead person in the afternoon, I was already death-tilted when a friend from work called me one evening to let me know that B., a colleague in his late 20s who’d left to pursue an M.B.A. at Columbia, died in Boston the weekend prior. It was a freak accident, she said, he somehow fell on his head in a South End neighborhood. A resident found him at 6 a.m., his body pitched forward, a pool of dark blood Rorschach’d around his head. Autopsy revealed no foul play, only terrible misfortune.
Staring dumb at the Tureck catalog the next morning, I couldn’t believe the bastard’s crap luck. A few years ago, I fell on my head and suffered a skull fracture following a bar fight. A blood clot formed in my brain; I was in a coma for three days, but somehow pulled through okay, a minor miracle. So, why did goddess τύχη, who was kind enough to visit me, fail to lay her hand over B., who, by most accounts and testimony was a person more deserving of Life than me? Then: just as I was about to give up my day’s work on Tureck’s papers, I saw something bizarre listed on the catalog with no call number: an urn supposedly containing Rosalyn Tureck’s ashes.
My research assistant was reluctant to bring out Tureck’s urn. When asked where the urn was kept, he said it was in the director’s office closet case, as specified in her will. No idea why she wanted to stay in someone’s dusty office closet, ad infinitum, but the assistant eventually brought out the urn. The urn was pink, with edges embroidered in gold. Lotuses, flowering: white. Deeply bursting red petals in counterpoise. On the lid: lilacs, maybe, or chrysanthemums? I lifted the urn, and its heft left no doubt in my mind that there was a cremated person sleeping in it. I rapped my knuckles on its side, and there was a dull report, a dead sound, that made me recall a passage in Sir Thomas Browne’s Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, in which Browne describes certain urns as “smooth and dully sounding,” which made him doubt whether the urns were truly burnt or merely baked in the oven or by the sun.
Too many writers past and present are obsequiously reverent of the dead. Not Thomas Browne. In the penultimate chapter of Hydriotaphia, he writes -
The departed spirits know things past and to come, yet are ignorant of things present. Agamemnon foretels what should happen unto Ulysses, yet ignorantly enquires what is become of his own Son.
Even while alive as a mortal, Agamemnon was hardly cunning, although brave… such as when he took Briseis from Achilles, prompting the wrathful Achilles to almost withdraw from battle and return to his homeland, Phthia.
Phthia? I thought to myself as I let my finger trace a meaningless symbol over Rosalyn Tureck’s pink urn: the departed spirits are ignorant of things present, Browne claims, and how cannily so does this apply to your sad state, foolish woman, where is your Phthia to return to? The library was closing and the assistant returned to stuff Tureck’s urn back in the director’s closet. For all I know and why not: this last line of Tibellus’ poem about a poet’s funeral from the last chapter of Browne’s Hydriotaphia could have been echoed by Tureck’s ashes -
Sic ego componi versus in ossa velim.
(Thus, now turned to bone, I want to be buried.)
I am certain of this, given a dream that Rosalyn Tureck once had which she deemed significant enough to have recorded it in the middle of the night on hotel stationery, her soul’s desire to escape confinement and gasp into the open. I transcribe it here, verbatim -
I dreamed of a copying machine that was large and would descend as an elevator into the deep cavern in the floor when finished copying. I thought what would happen if a person - me - were caught in it and descended below - it did - I got caught in it and managed to keep a space open as it was completing its descent - ending with the atmosphere of my being able to be rescued due to the open space.
Phthia in dreams, then? In Plato’s Crito: Crito visits Socrates to convince him to allow his friends to bribe his jailers so that he can escape death. Socrates, in equanimity instead, relates this dream to Crito -
I take witness of this a dream I had a little earlier during this night… a beautiful and comely woman dressed in white approached me. She called me and said: “Socrates, may you arrive at fertile Phthia on the third day.”
More so than likening Socrates to Achilles, Plato’s probably punning on the word, Phthia (phthora means destruction, death). No matter: when I returned from my Boston trip and had an occasion to contemplate Socrates’ dream, it was not Achilles’ or Socrates’ ship to Phthia, but the beautiful woman in white in Socrates’ dream who remained incandescent in my mind, whose presence felt uncannily familiar to me. Because let me tell you about a dream I had.
The dream begins in the city of Dae-gu in Korea, in the 80s. But all the streets are lit by gas light, and in the distance of a landscape blanched of color is Gewandhaus in flames, meaning I may very well be in Leipzig. Either way, the City is under martial law. I have a job: to kill every single starling in the city before they migrate south (yes, I had been re-reading Bernhard’s Gargoyles around the time of this dream). No reason is given, just a standing order. Obviously I fail daily, and every evening, they lock me in a boxlike room with no furniture in solitary confinement. I am told by my guard that I must repent everyday, and this command makes sense to me to the bone. There is a single black light bulb hanging from the ceiling. When I turn it on, the world turns into its skeletal image like a surreal reversion of a photo image to its darkroom negative. They impose a fast at night and it’s been years since I’ve had a dinner.
One night, I turn on the light bulb. But instead of the usual silence, I hear the door unlatch with a scarcely audible click. A girl slips in, barefoot. She’s only wearing a man’s white dress shirt which glows radiant beneath the black light, long bare legs. Although I can’t make out her face in the darkness and there lingers a faint but insoluble scent of death about her, I don’t feel any fear. And: this gaunt and chthonic beauty to her, as though she’s somnambulated out of a Schiele drawing or a Baudelaire stanza. I sense a long heat inside her and her beauty seems to me sensuous, so much so that it occurs to my dream logic that her sensuousness seems even past the idea of beauty, past any received notion of έρως. My chest feels hollow and dry because I want to possess her.
I tuck her brown hair behind her ears to see her face and am startled to gaze into the eyes of someone I think I may recognize, although I cannot yet decipher who it is. The pupils of her eyes pool green by one moment, blue the next, and her thin eyebrows align in a ghostly parallel to her sensuous lips. We kiss, I tear open her shirt to touch her body and the room shudders like a lover.
When I open my eyes, we are waist deep in water and are, in mediis rebus, locked into each other, making love. There’s a red neon Domino Sugar sign, Federal Hill to the south: Baltimore. Her white shirt billows and grows in luminescence, a strange jellyfish, and in this peculiar sea, our minds and bodies blur, equalize to the point that I am not sure who is male and who is female, but only: intense androgynous ecstasy. So in this way she takes me under the water as our bodies fasten and unfasten into and out of each other, when I notice that there’s a strange nova of phosphorescent algae. As we draw near and enter its galaxy, each speck of the glowing light, each green star, seeps through my teeth, into my mouth, then into my body, becomes oxygen in me, makes my body light up. I close my eyes. I’m sorry, I say. You and your dumb contrition, she says before she unlocks from me and disappears. Descartes, from Fifth Meditation -
nam certe, quamvis somniarem, si quid intellectui meo sit evidens, illud omnino est verum.
(for even though I might be dreaming, if there is anything which is evident to my intellect, then it is wholly true.)
When I woke up, it was deep in the night, nearer to dawn than to the midnight moon. I poured myself a drink. Then, strangely compelled, turned on the crappy Casio keyboard I have in my apartment, and played, half drunk but feeling serene, Arvo Pärt’s Für Alina, my right foot on the sustain pedal throughout the short piece, letting all the notes blend into a gentle dissonance, Ruhig, erhaben, in sich hineinhorchend, thinking of what the dream could have meant. Only this much was obvious: I did not want to move beyond the dream, wanted to stay. Days later, from Plato’s Cratylus, I could find this, the dream’s inscape -
… anyone can see that ‘mneme’ (‘memory’) means a staying (mone) in the soul, not a motion…
Six o’clock, one Monday evening in Ibiza, 1932. Walter Benjamin, on an empty promenade in the eventide silence: notices the foliage of the trees before turning his gaze onto a ship in the waterway called Ciudad de Valencia, which calls into his mind this rhetorical question Horace poses in Ode 2.16: What exile fleeing from his native land would ever flee his own mind? -
Patriae quis exsul
Horace’s notion, that one cannot leave oneself behind by moving elsewhere, seems questionable to Benjamin. Traveling is a purification, claims Benjamin in “Spain, 1932,” an opportunity to develop new passions and, why not, undergo metamorphosis. He had left Germany back in April, a nightmarish land in economic and political insurrection. He was reading Stendhal’s Charterhouse of Parma and Trotsky’s autobiography. He flirted with women. He was an exile. The early moon quietly haunted the eastern horizon.
Montaigne contemplates the very same Horace lines in his essay, “Of Solitude,” but is shrewder than Benjamin is when it comes to man’s capacity to change. Montaigne mentions that when someone commented to Socrates that a certain man had grown no better by his travels, Socrates quipped, “I should think not, he took himself along with him.” Montaigne’s view aligns with Horace’s rather than Benjamin’s when he comments -
If a man does not first unburden his soul of the load that weighs upon it, movement will cause it to be crushed still more, as in a ship the cargo is less cumbersome when it is settled.
Our illness grips us by the soul, and the soul cannot escape from itself, continues Montaigne, before quoting Horace from Book 1.14 of the Epistles: The soul’s at fault, which never escapes itself -
in culpa est animus, qui se non effugit umquam.
In the circumstantial context of Benjamin’s biography, Montaigne’s take on Horace would prove to have been realistic and Benjamin’s, naive. His travel to Ibiza doesn’t provide Benjamin with an opportunity for metamorphosis; he is unable to “unburden his soul of the load that weighs upon it,” as Montaigne puts it. In a letter to Gershom Scholem in July 1932, Benjamin complains of profound fatigue, along with his horror at the situation back home in Germany. He planned to leave Ibiza for Nice, to commit suicide in a hotel there.
Benjamin arrives at Hôtel du Petit Parc in Nice. He writes out his will, naming Scholem as his executor. For inscrutable reasons, however, Benjamin does not carry out his suicide plans, although eight years later in 1940, he ends his life by overdosing on morphine in Hotel de Francia of Port Bou.
Yet, on that particular night in Nice, what could have altered Benjamin’s resolve to kill himself? A small silver coin of a moon seen out the window, perhaps, in his loony state of mind. In the sense of the French word, lunatique (as Benjamin once noted in the margins of a clipping about German Baroque book collections): according to the moods of the moon. No doubt he must have felt a plaything of chance. Of a goddess, τύχη.
τύχη: a foolish belief that you could still exist in my life in countless ways. From David Lewis’ On the Plurality of Worlds -
We can imagine the impossible, provided we do not imagine it in perfect detail and all at once.
For example, we were once watching a documentary program on TV, something on the favelas of Rio. Don’t remember the rest of the program, but I can’t forget this scene: a train shooting out of the dark Rebouças tunnel, into the open vista of Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas. The verdant Corcovado loomed over the kidney-shaped lake on our crap TV screen, and I despaired selfishly why I shouldn’t see such a landscape in real life: why this reality instead. Probably the very moment when I decided to leave you, for another possible world. But only had I known -
Another possible world is too far away. (Saul Kripke)
When the documentary program became less scenic and we both lost interest, you said, Tell me a story. What kind of story? Anything, dummy, as long as it’s far-fetched and unlikely to happen in real life.
Animae dimidium meae, writes Horace in one of the odes: half of my own soul. Which necessarily implies that, as creatures governed by feeling and love, our souls were perhaps never whole to begin with, nor are they likely to be ever. Aristophanes already knew this, of course, in Plato’s Symposium.
Just a few days after I left you, a girl named G (whom you despised) asked if I wanted to drop ecstasy with her. Met her at the Renaissance Harborplace Hotel piano bar overlooking the Inner Harbor, put the bitter pills on our tongues. The pianist played something with a haphazard bossa nova beat; the sound of the drummer’s brush caressing the snare’s surface was the hushed, easy rustle of the night’s page turning.
The pendant bulbs hanging from the hotel bar’s ceiling began to sway slowly, and G asked me why I left you. I told her I hadn’t and when, as if on cue, the candles on tabletops oozed in sinister amber light to the music, her hands silently swifted over the white table linen toward my own like shadows of night planes. G locked her fingers into mine, her eyes pooling with sudden wildness and pity. She bit her lip. I drove my thumbs into the middle of her moist palms and admired how white and libidinous G’s neck looked as her head rolled back. Ecstasy?
ἔκστασις: as if strangers to ourselves, succumbent to a pleasure that was larger and more uninhibited than anything either of us ever deserved or put claim to.
The night passed, an exhilarated breath. From the chair, I watched G’s naked sleeping body, lovely on the white linen. But her body nonetheless looked to me as unfamiliar as a body can look to a person who has spent the night touching, making love to it. It was still dark when I heard something uncanny: a distant church bell whose muted ring sounded quite different from the usual ring of other church bells tolling the hour. The bell sounded a few notes in a brief but somehow byzantine arrangement of an F-major triad, and it felt as though I had been transported to a foreign land without my cognizance.
When I pulled back the curtains to look at the harbor, I noticed a ship which I couldn’t recognize as one of the usual historic ships docked at the Inner Harbor for tourists. It had three masts, drawn sails. A dread started to build within me as I thought you might have been on that ship waiting out the night, on Argo. The first stunning time I knew by heart that you and I would never meet again once Argo left harbor, animae dimidium meae -
There are ships sailing to many points, but not a single one goes where life is not painful, nor is there any port of call where it is possible to forget. (Fernando Pessoa, from The Book of Disquiet)
How long has it been since you departed on that ship, decades? Centuries? How come back then, I did not have the presence of mind to borrow this closing line from Horace’s Ode 1.14, O Navis, referent -
Vites aequora Cycladas.
to warn you: avoid the shining waves of the Cyclades in the Aegean Sea, under the terrible dominion of Venus?
(All images by the astounding flowerville, copyrighted. Do not use without approaching her for permission)
At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be many surprises in Michael Haneke’s choice of music in his film, Amour (Teju Cole’s review, if you haven’t yet seen the film). Sporadically used in mesmeric bursts are fragments from late music by Beethoven and Schubert; in a film which has one perpetual foot across the threshold of death’s door throughout most of its duration, it seems a very logical, even canny, choice.
The film opens with the fortissimo double octaves of the C-minor Impromptu from Schubert’s Opus 90 before cutting away abruptly in the midst. Later, when Georges daydreams Anne at the piano, she is playing the seraphic opening bars of the G-flat Impromptu from the same Opus 90 (you can listen to a rare performance by Vladimir Sofronitsky in my previous post). The Opus 90 Impromptus were composed in 1827, along with Winterreise, String Quintet in C and the last three piano sonatas among other astounding works (in my mind, no other composer has had a better year). During this year, Schubert sensed that he was near death, often feverish and unable to swallow food: he died in November of the following year.
When Anne requests his pupil (played by Alexandre Tharaud) to play the G-minor Bagatelle from Beethoven’s Opus 126 in Amour, one can further understand Haneke’s rationale - the Spätstil glove fits: late style music for a late style film.
Yet: a kink. There’s a segment in the film in which Georges toys around with Busoni’s piano arrangement of Bach’s Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ BWV 639 which was composed originally for organ. On a superficial level, it makes sense as this chorale prelude is based on Johann Argicola’s hymn. A part of which, as below -
Den rechten Glauben, Herr, ich mein,
den wollest du mir geben,
dir zu leben,
meim Nächsten nütz zu sein,
True faith from Thee, my God, I seek,
The faith that loves Thee solely.
Keeps me lowly,
And prompt to aid the weak,
Still, difficult to avoid this contrast: the Bach-Busoni chorale prelude is resolutely not a late style composition, unlike the late Schubert and Beethoven used in Amour. Bach composed this in his 20s when he was a court organist in Weimar. He had yet to find his speed as a composer, and was much in awe of Dietrich Buxtehude when he composed the Orgelbüchlein.
All the more surprising that the snippet of Bach’s Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ seemed so perfect to me in the context of Amour, a perfect Bagatelle, and while wondering why, it occurred to me: Tarkovsky had used the piece sparingly to a great effect in Solaris. Allow me a conspiracy theory: Tarkovsky uses the original Bach composition of Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ for the organ whereas Haneke used the Busoni transcription of it for the piano. Can one speculate that Haneke is somehow paying a sly homage to Solaris?
Solaris, as many of you know, features a psychologist named Kris Kelvin who leaves for Solaris, a space station, where his late wife, Hari, appears to him in person (Hari had committed suicide on earth). I will spare you from a heaving godforsaken plot synopsis, but I always loved the film, especially when I was younger and reading a lot of Derek Parfit. Bach’s Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ plays only a few times in Solaris. It plays in the background when the opening credits roll. Its chastely lugubrious notes sound when Kris and Hari regard a Bruegelian winter landscape through a screen. But most memorably, Bach’s music plays when, in the brief moment, there is weightlessness in Solaris. Kris and Hari begin floating in air, as do certain other objects as if in a dream. And as they float, the viewer sees that there is a gallery of paintings surrounding the couple in suspension. The paintings are mostly (or all?) Bruegel landscapes and scenes, and as Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ plays, Tarkovsky’s camera zooms in and scans slowly across fragments from Bruegel’s canvases, paintings unbound by frames.
Very early on in Amour, when Georges and Anne return to their apartment from their pupil’s recital at Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, they find evidence that someone has tried to break into their apartment with a screwdriver. It is then that Georges shares a story with Anne, of certain people who have had their homes broken into by burglars. These burglars smashed through a wall, Georges tells Anne, then cut out all the paintings out from their frames and disappeared with these frameless pictures. This almost seems a casual, throwaway anecdote until a pivotal point in Amour, when Georges pleads with Anne (who’s by now lost her faculties to her illness) to take some tea, then becomes irascible and desperate, tries to force the liquid in her mouth. Anne spits it out, and Georges slaps her. Suddenly and violently. They can’t look at each other and the moment is devastating… but just then - the camera cuts to various landscape paintings in their apartment to linger its suddenly-tender gaze on them, so similar to the gaze in Tarkovsky’s Solaris: lovingly panning across the paintings. Without their frames. Stolen landscapes of their lives, lost to them in their own home.
Kris Kelvin in Solaris says this at one point in the film -
You love that which you can lose.
- meaning: loss is built in, from the very first moment we decide to love at all. In an essay on Solaris, Philip Lopate likens the film to Mizoguichi’s Ugetsu, in that both are stories about falling in love with ghosts. And so, by extension, one may make the same claim of Haneke’s Amour. The happiest moment in Amour, if one can call it that, occurs when Anne appears, postmortem, in front of a dazed Georges near the end of the film and chides him to put on a coat to follow her out the door, into a frameless and doubtlessly wide open landscape which is occluded from anyone’s view except hers and Georges’.
He says that he is a hunter turned into a butterfly. There is a gate (presumably heaven) toward which he flutters, but when he gets near he wakes to find himself back on his bier in the cabin of his ship… The butterfly is one of the most dramatic of metamorphic creatures, its transformations seemingly more divergent than any other. A caterpillar does not die; it becomes a wholly different being.
Gracchus tells the mayor of Riva that as such, he is always in motion, even though he is as still as a corpse. Davenport mentions that this motion is in Gracchus’s mind - psyche is Greek for “butterfly” as well as for “soul.”
Two years ago, right around this time, I was in a coma for three days. I fell on my head and sustained a skull fracture. It was a bar fight. Not much of a fight. I walked into a Mexican restaurant/bar near my neighborhood by myself, just to think about something and clear my head. There were 6-7 guys drinking outside. I don’t know how it got started, but before you knew it, I was out there throwing punches. Then I tripped over someone’s foot, fell over backwards.
The next thing I knew, I was in the ICU of New York Presbyterian. A nurse explained that I have a skull fracture; originally, an ambulance had taken me to the hospital near my area, but they couldn’t handle my complications, so I was ferried to the Presbyterian. There was a blood clot in my head so they were going to open my head up for surgery, but one doctor had suggested waiting overnight. Apparently, by miracle, the condition stabilized on its own, so no surgery was required, and they were just waiting for me to wake up. She told me that I was fortunate to live, that they have to watch me but I’d likely make a slow but full recovery. The nurse then asked me my name, who our president was, things like that. I thought about fooling with her and giving her funny answers circa Grover Cleveland administration but I refrained because I had a catheter sticking out of my penis: not a ripe moment for comedy. She asked me what day of the week it was. I said Sunday, obviously because I got in a fight with those guys the previous night. I was wrong: several days had passed without my cognizance and it was now Tuesday. Completely overwhelmed by surprise, my mind reeled and I caught myself thinking that I had to call [ ] to let her know where I was before she worried herself to death. Even though it’s been well over a decade since we parted.
Gracchus’s Conversion: from death to the heaven’s gate. From caterpillar to butterfly, in the chrysalis of his psyche. The last sighting of Gracchus in Sebald’s Vertigo is in the book’s last pages, as his incarnation as a butterfly. The narrator is looking at the black walls of the Liverpool Station, then:
And I could hardly believe my eyes, as the train was was waiting at a signal, to see a yellow brimstone butterfly flitting about from one purple flower to the other, first at the top, then at the bottom, now on the left, constantly moving.
How do we know that this butterfly is Gracchus? Because Sebald takes care to mention that the butterfly is constantly moving, just as Gracchus in Kafka’s tale tells the mayor of Riva that he is constantly in motion. Motion in the psyche. Not to mention that soon thereafter, the narrator dreams of seeing in the terrain on the Alps - glimmering fragments of quartz crystals.
On the hospital bed, disoriented and racked with a severe case of vertigo from the skull fracture, I thought of the night when I left [ ]. I snuck away to the Greyhound Station in Baltimore and got on the Los Angeles-bound night bus. The bus never stopped, always kept moving, except for the times when we had to switch buses at 4 a.m. in poorly lit, lonely outposts of America. On the bus, there were two young girls with candy-colored hair from California who had made the trip to D.C. to borrow money from one girl’s father. Despite their lack of success, they kindly shared their Percocet pills with me. I made small but meaningful talk with a guy named Thomas, recently released from prison, who was on his gleeful way to see his children in L.A. A garrulous and hectoring Korean War vet, on the way to Las Vegas for a poker convention, shared his Ritz crackers and Cheez-Whiz with me. And on the way, [ ] left me 36 messages on my cell. Some messages were angry, many were pleading. The last message was her, plainly sobbing.
Several years ago, which is once upon a time before I knew anything about Gracchus and his transmogrification into a butterfly, I had a dream in which I encountered a girl walking in my direction on a crosswalk near the Peabody Square in Baltimore, where the Washington Monument was swaying left and right like a stem of a metronome. There was an ivory-white halo of small butterflies shimmering above her head. Even during the dream, and in fact after waking from it, I told myself that it must have been [ ], kept uttering to myself it must have been, must have been, which only convinced me, ironically and in the end, that it couldn’t have been.
(Images in this post by: Masahisa Fukase, Bill Henson and Vladimir Nabokov)
Sven Birkerts has written a very personal essay on Sebald’s Vertigo for AGNI, for which I have Anthony to thank for prompting me there via - what else - twitter. The essay is unusual in that Birkerts begins with a disclaimer that most critics would hesitate to make: he hasn’t read most of Sebald’s work, despite the immediate connection that he’d made with The Rings of Saturn. One pleasure among many which Birkerts’ essay affords the reader is that it relates the experience of reading and loving Vertigo from the perspective of a neophyte to the work.
Toward the end of the essay, Birkerts is startled when he revisits the first section of Vertigo centering around Stendhal’s travels in Italy. He realizes - via Guy Davenport’s essay on Kafka’s “Hunter Gracchus” - that Sebald’s account of Stendhal and Mme. Gherardi’s encounter with two men carrying a bier ashore a port of Riva, draped with “a large, frayed flower-patterned silk cloth” under which lay a human body, is neither a scene from Sebald’s nor Stendhal’s imagination, but a doubling of the scene from Kafka’s “Hunter Gracchus.” Birkerts writes that even when he didn’t realize this, he could feel the “specific density of significance.” He muses -
The scene—it felt so deliberately placed—aroused my curiosity. Where would it lead? Why this vibration of the uncanny?
Birkerts leaves his questions tantalizingly unanswered, reminding the readers that what Sebald intended thematically with the Gracchus reference is not the subject of his current essay.
Sebald’s appropriation of Kafka’s Gracchus in Vertigo in the passage below, which so stunned Birkerts with its uncanny power -
Beyle [Stendhal] and Mme Gherardi… entered the small port of Riva… Beyle drew Mme Gherardi’s attention to an old boat, its mainmast fractured two-thirds of the way up, its buff-coloured swails hanging in the folds. It appeared to have made fast only a short time ago, and two men in dark silver-buttoned tunics were at that moment carrying a bier ashore on which, under a large, frayed, flower-patterned silk cloth, lay what was evidently a human form.
This scene recurs many times in Vertigo and throughout his other works in different manifestations. In the passage above, Sebald slyly embeds the opening scene from Kafka’s “Hunter Graccchus” within his account of Stendhal’s travels in Italy, specifically the journey from Bologna to Rome related to in De l’Amour during which Stendhal and Mme Gherardi enter the port of Riva.
It is not a mere coincidence that Sebald interjects the fictive Gracchus moment into Stendhal’s travelogue right before recounting Stendhal’s visit of the underground galleries of the Hallein salt mines with Mme Gherardi. One of the miners presents Mme Gherardi with a twig encrusted with thousands of crystals, and Stendhal notes that the rays of the sun makes the twig glitter in a dazzling show. From Vertigo –
The protracted crystallisation process, which had transformed the dead twig into a truly miraculous object, appeared to [Stendhal], by his own account, as an allegory for the growth of love in the salt mines of the soul. [bold mine]
And below is the corresponding passage from Chapter 2 of De l’Amour, when the two lovers retrieve the dead twig from the salt mines in Salzburg -
Two or three months later they pull it out covered with a shining deposit of crystals. The smallest twig, no bigger than a tom-tit’s claw, is studded with a galaxy of scintillating diamonds. The original branch is no longer recognizable… What I have called crystallization is a mental process which draws from everything that happens new proofs of the perfection of the loved one.
The process of crystallization, in other words, is the process of transformation from a dead twig (indifference) to glittering crystals (perfect love). The crucial point being that “the perfection of the loved one” is generated by our own mental faculties and volition. Stendhal extends his idea of crystallization to his theories on art and fiction in general; the crystallization of a work of literature happens through the observer-reader’s perfection of what he reads, the work of the writer. Art can only then be “crystallized,” when the writer and reader meet at a point of significance: the point which Birkerts astutely refers to in his essay as when he felt a “specific density of significance,” the appearance of Gracchus in Sebald’s Stendhal narrative.
Hence, to me, the rationale by which Sebald sneaks Gracchus into Stendhal’s narrative makes sense. “Hunter Gracchus” is about a man who is eternally roaming the seas, undead. As mentioned, it’s no coincidence that Sebald plants this “fiction” just before the description of the crystallization of the dead twig. Given this context, is it not likely that the story of Kafka’s Gracchus - literally undead - is crystallized in both Stendhalian sense – “perfected” in fiction by the reader and writer Sebald - and also in a Benjaminian sense, the desire of his Angel of History to “awaken the dead, make whole what has been smashed”?
I’ll spare you from bulletpoints listing where in Sebald’s fiction Gracchus appears, in Vertigo and elsewhere. But I do have to mention that Gracchus is resurrected in the section, Il ritorno in patria, in Vertigo, the most autobiographical section in which Sebald’s narrator returns to his childhood town of W. in 1987, after spending time in Verona (Sebald was from Wertach im Allgäu). One of the memories that the narrator relates is his childhood infatuation with a beautiful girl named Romana. One December evening - wait for it - when “a myriad minute crystals glittered in the snow” (!), the narrator says that he witnessed his Romana having sex with a man he refers to as Schlag the hunter in a woodshed. This Schlag, the Gracchus analogue, is later found dead at the bottom of the ravine later in the narrative, just as Gracchus had tripped and fell to his death in the Black Forest in Kafka’s tale. And when Schlag the hunter’s corpse is carried into town, it is on a woodcutters’ sledge. When the sledge appears, borne upon it was -
plainly the body of a man under a wine-coloured horse blanket.
which all but confirms Schlag as another Gracchus doppelgänger, a fictional crystal.
Of course. It should have been obvious that Sebald would weave the fiction of Gracchus into his own “true” childhood memories. As evidenced by the excerpt from Kafka’s diaries which Guy Davenport quotes in his essay on Hunter Gracchus, an old ship docks at the small port in Prague by which his sister was renting a place. When Kafka asks a workman on the harbor wall whose ship it was, the workman replies that it belongs to the Hunter Gracchus.
Highly unlikely that Sebald - a lifelong devotee of Kafka - would have missed the fact that Kafka took this real-life memory and conflated it into fiction. Rather, it seems that it was Sebald’s intention all along to plant “fiction” - Gracchus or otherwise - into what we normatively perceive as truths and reliable memories. The original German title of Vertigo is Schwindel. Gefühle. (Schwindel also means “fraud” or “a con trick”). The title betrays Sebald’s uneasiness with dealing with fiction as a vehicle to convey any kind of truth, an uneasiness that he never quite shook off until his untimely death. In an interview with Joseph Cuomo, published in The Emergence of Memory: Conversations with W.G. Sebald, Sebald identifies with Flaubert’s “fear of the false,” before sheepishly commenting -
Well, yes, writing, as I said before… you make something out of nothing. It is a con trick.
Yet this “con trick” is more nuanced, paradoxical. Schwindel, according to Sebald -
You have this string of lies, and by this detour you arrive at a form of truth which is more precise, one hopes, that something which is strictly provable.
A form of truth by way of a string of lies. Through fiction, especially given Stendhal’s theory of crystallization to which Sebald devotes a significant attention in Vertigo, there is literally a resurrection of something dead (a twig, a Gracchus doppelgänger) into something miraculously glittering. By art.
In fact, as Sebald’s narrator travels to his childhood hometown of W., he himself transforms into a Gracchus -
Outside, snowflakes were drifting past the small window, and presently it seemed to me as if I were in a boat on a voyage, crossing vast waters.
Finally, there’s a vague allusion to the Gracchus story earlier in Vertigo which is easy to miss, in All’estero section. At a terrace in a hotel in Limone, the narrator writes in his notebooks, fluidly, with a remarkable ease that astonishes him. Then the proprietress of the hotel asks if the narrator is a journalist or a writer. The narrator replies that neither description is quite right. When asked what he’s working on -
I replied that I did not know for certain myself, but had a growing suspicion that it might turn into a crime story, set in upper Italy, in Venice, Verona and Riva. The plot revolved around a series of unsolved murders and the reappearance of a person who had long been missing.
In many ways, this seems to me a transmuted but somehow aptly telegraphed summary, not just of Vertigo itself but of Sebald’s ethos of fiction in general. The “missing person” referred to in the passage above could variously be Gracchus, Schlag, or many others populating the enigmatic skies of Sebald’s fiction, not the least of whom is the writer himself: all of them will reappear, crystallized through the art of fiction, out of the dark mines of history by the author’s hand, by the reader’s gaze.
(Images in this post: stills from Frank Borzaga’s Street Angel, a photograph of Central Park in 1916, by Mikko Rantanen, by Anthony Goicolea, Garin Horner, etc.)
Driving around Koreatown in L.A. last week, it occurred to me that I have almost zero sense of nostalgia about the place, but that the city makes me think of sex. The seediest and most dissolute years of my shitcan of a youth were spent in Los Angeles, especially in the two years I lived with my friend D in his apartment building called Gaylord while he and J were raking in money from dealing yay. And near the end of the previous century, shortly before I decided to go ascetic, I befriended a guy named H. I met him at my friend J's birthday party, which I remember to have been held at a top floor suite of the Wilshire Plaza Radisson, don't know if I have the right hotel. What I do remember with all certainty is that the party was sponsored by cocaine, cocaine and more cocaine, since J was a dealer. We pulverized rocks of it on the glass tabletop, hearts racing all night. The music sounded damn good. Girls were dancing. Clothes came off. Some of the party-goers went into bedrooms in two's and three's.
By the time morning arrived, most of the crowd had filtered out of the hotel suite. Some of us remained, talking, and that’s when I noticed a lanky guy sleeping on the couch: H. I wouldn’t have noticed him except a harsh ray of sunlight directly hit his face, and from my view on the floor, I could see that most of the middle cartilage, which separates the left from the right side of the nostrils of most normal human beings, was missing in H’s nose. It was clear that H had burnt it away from his coke habit, and I sat there, wondering at the single cavernous chamber inside his nose, lit up red by the sun. When he woke up, we hit it off well enough although we didn’t have much in common. But over the following month or two, I’d make a concerted effort into being his friend because I was fascinated by him. H was a heavy-lidded guy who spoke slowly, but with a plainspoken and open bluntness that strangely never sounded offensive or menacing. He had a sneaky sense of humor, too, and more than that, seemed completely unperturbed by any guilt or moral system. Nor was he intellectually curious about anything, as far as I could tell. In a word, I wanted to be H at that junction in my life.
H casually dealt cocaine, too, although I found out that he made most of his money running an escort service. Not sure if the girl I talked about previously had worked for him, but with the money he made from pimping, he owned several quite profitable liquor stores for which he hired other people to manage and run. He drove a white Acura NSX he bought secondhand, while most of us were go-karting around town in beat-up Civics and Integras.
But back to the morning after J’s coke bash. When H and I were in mid-conversation, a girl slipped into the hotel room so quietly that I didn’t even notice her presence until she was a couple of paces away. She had raven-black hair, greenish eyes, half-French and half-Colombian. H’s girlfriend: M… She came over and kissed H, and the instant she said hi to me in passing, looking at me with the briefest meaningless glance, I became stunned and heartsick with a desire for M.
A couple days ago on twitter, I posted a tweet asking whether anyone could recall ever reading really great descriptive sex-writing in a novel. I honestly couldn’t, perhaps because I could only remember ghastly passages like below, from John Updike’s Couples -
A luminous polleny pallor, the shadow of last summer’s bathing suit, set off her surprisingly luxuriant pudendum.
Updike on nipple-suckling -
He encircled her, fingered and licked her willing sipping tips, the pip within the slit, wisps.
More pubic hair purple prose -
Sun and spittle set a cloudy froth on her pubic hair: Piet pictured a kitten learning to drink milk from a saucer.
John-fucking-Updike. Seriously. Anyway, the pianist and composer Stephen Hough, whose great blog on Telegraph UK partially captures his wide-ranging intellectual curiosity and wit, saw my tweet and asked a question back -
@houghough: But is good sex writing good when it describes or when it arouses? Thus embarrassing in two different ways perhaps …
@noxrpm: I’d say both, writing that arouses aesthetically and erotically - and hence embarrassing both ways. =D
Then I took a moment to consider my response, and it didn’t take long for me to realize that my answer had a whiff of the false, not unlike Updike’s pudendal prose in Couples. I was wrong: any writing I find genuine aesthetic merit in its descriptive power would not be embarrassing to me at all. Unless I was caught reading it with my pants down.
Which left me with my original question unanswered, as to why it seemed so difficult to depict sex in words?
Spending more time in M’s presence was easy, as H and I hung out a lot together. Not that M paid me any mind - at bars or clubs, she was ever-smiling but simultaneously, ever-distant from everyone. I’d never heard her speak more than a clutter of words to someone at once, including to H; English was not her first language and when she spoke it, it was in a barely audible hush. Not that anything detracted from my attraction toward her. At trendy K-town bars on 6th Ave., I would tune out all chatter and surreptitiously follow the sloping line from her bare shoulders up to her lovely neck. Time slowed. I didn’t dare ask anyone whether M worked for H, but even if she had, that would not have mattered in my hopeless and irrational longing for her.
Then one night, our usual crew of friends went to a club in Hollywood where John Digweed was DJ-ing a set. H hated going to mega clubs, and he chose to stay back that night to smoke weed with a couple of potheads. M came along, to my delight, but she latched onto one of the girls and disappeared. I ground up a few ecstasy pills and sniffed up, found a corner near the speakers, away from the crowd gathered around platforms upon which the bikini’d go-go dancers with long waxen limbs were gyrating. The music was sick. One of my friends came by with a vial of GHB and I drank it down. Soon: melancholy melded into euphoria, and with every blink of my eye, an hour-block of time seemed to flee into the past. I felt happy and fucked up at once, but began intermittently losing consciousness, seated on the floor.
In the midst of that quicksand, I noticed that someone was holding me from behind. The hands moved, massaging my thighs, then up my back, before sensually and forcefully kneading my neck. I turned around to find M’s dilated nocturnal green eyes peering into mine. She bit my neck lightly, overrun with her MDMA euphoria, too, and squeezed me really tight. It felt as though her flesh was being molten into mine. Drugged up, M was a lot more forthcoming than she would normally have been. I asked her why she came over to me. You look like you keep a lot of things hidden, she said. Then she said, out of the blue -
Back in Montreal where I grew up, my stepfather turned me out to sex clients when I was 12 years old.
I turned around to look at her, and her eyes seemed to pool with substance darker than tears, something stronger than myself. I knew I was fucked up but still my mind felt clear. We held each other tight. Rocked back and forth, grinding into each other. Kissed for a long time. I want to have sex with you, I told her. Okay, she said.
While still thinking about sex in writing two days ago, a line from George Barker’s poem, "The True Confession of George Barker," stuck in my head like a devil’s koan -
My pleasure’s been to undress sin.
Fortunately, I had a friend to bounce my ideas around with, and she mentioned that sin, naked, would look like any other body. She was totally right, and it’s the reason why I find the line so compelling. Because not only can I identify with that impulse, to normalize sin, but I find that impulse even more twisted than sin itself. Such an interesting torque in Barker’s line.
Speaking of strange torques, my mind then turned to Aristophanes’ speech in Plato’s Symposium, something he says after the fabulist myth he relates about how there once was a time when man and woman were one being, then the gods - afraid of their power - cleft them into two halves. Leaving one half forever seeking the other, blah blah blah. Then Aristophanes has this to say about the intimacy of sex -
It’s obvious that the soul of every lover longs for something else; his soul cannot say what it is, but like an oracle it has a sense of what it wants, and like an oracle it hides behind a riddle.
Does this not have the ring of truth to it? The soul’s part in sex: what makes Eros so compelling is that we only have an ineffable sense of what our soul requires. But rather than uttering this desire, the soul stays hidden behind a riddle in making love. I’m going to willfully and horribly misappropriate Schiller’s famous quote, but in this warped selfish context, it seems as if Schiller responds to Aristophanes, centuries later -
If the soul speaks, alas, it is no longer the soul that speaks.
Is this the reason why it is so difficult to mediate the experience of sex in words? I can only speculate. But this all lends a lexical element to the act of making love which I find terribly attractive. Speaking without speaking.
M and I didn’t have sex right after that night. But we made arrangements to disappear from other people for a while, and met up a few weeks later in the hotel bar of Westin Bonaventure in Downtown L.A. We took pills again, and soon enough, the beautifully dimmed lights of the hotel bar began to glow with a special kind of incandescence. We went up to our sunken room, tipped the butler excessively so he could bring up fifty or so votive candles. She lost her black dress, then slipped underneath the comforter on top of me. For three days, we didn’t separate. Hopped up on MDMA and Adderall, I couldn’t physically come, so we made desperate love in a long stretch of longing. On the last day together, M sat on the ledge of the soaking tub and began to masturbate, looking at me without any guile, and it occurred to me that this would be the last day I would ever see her.
I thought: we will forget each other completely in a year and I won’t know where you are.
I thought: all things begin in their ending.
I thought: we should touch each other, make love.
So I moved toward her for the last time.
(All images by Bill Henson)
Peter Mendelsund, a pretty sick polymath who also happens to be the associate art director at Knopf, has a lengthy, thought-provoking post on how our visual imagination works when we read, whether we can visualize characters or things in a work of fiction with reliable specificity, but more crucially: whether it really matters at all that we do so.
I’m at work right now, quote-unquote slogging through regulatory material which needs to be reviewed, so can’t summarize Peter’s post in finer detail. But in quick essence (Peter, don’t hate me for rushing through this!), Peter goes through a series of examples from Anna Karenina, The Sound and the Fury, Moby Dick, Madame Bovary, To the Lighthouse, etc., and notes various instances in which he cannot picture at all what a character or a place looks like.
Via contemplations on Wittgenstein and Barthes, among other things, Peter determines the following -
Good books incite us towards imagining - towards filling in an author’s suggestions.
But there is an important distinction: that this imagination on the part of the reader is not at all a striving to recreate an author’s ideals or original intentions, but instead a striving toward an opposite aim, if you will - not toward a recreation but toward a reduction -
Writers reduce when they write, and readers reduce when they read. The brain itself is built to reduce. Verisimilitude is not only a false idol, but also an unattainable goal…
Picturing stories is making reductions.
My quick thoughts before hopping back to my spreadsheet: it’s interesting that Peter applies a passage from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Grammar to his thoughts -
We do sometimes see memory pictures in our minds: but commonly they are only scattered through the memory like illustrations in a story book.
I also thought about Wittgenstein while reading Peter’s post, especially about the foreword from Philosophical Investigations, which in essence says that one can only make sense of the “scattered memory pictures” mentioned in the quote above, not through looking for a determined identity or essence, but through -
a complicated network of similarities overlapping and crisscrossing… as in spinning a thread we twist fibre on fibre.
It’s an intentional point of fact that Wittgenstein describes his Philosophical Investigations in pictorial terms when he calls it “an album” which should not cohere into “any single direction.”
Funny how Peter thinks about Wittgenstein while providing a litany of literary examples in which he cannot pictorially imagine what the character looks like: this is how Sebald’s narrator in Austerlitz describes what Austerlitz looks like -
Whenever I see a photograph of Wittgenstein somewhere or other, I feel more and more as if Austerlitz were gazing at me out of it, and when I look at Austerlitz it is as if I see in him the disconsolate philosopher…
Notice that Sebald’s description of Austerlitz is not really a description of a verisimilitude? But of Schwindelgefühle. (Okay, my conviction in that last statement aside, that was a pun obviously for the Sebald nerds: the German title for Sebald’s Vertigo is indeed Schwindel. Gefühle.)
I have to run now, but a few of you may recall my post about the photographer William Gedney I wrote a couple of years ago, about Gedney trying to paint - totally from his memory - a posterior view of a woman in a Vuillard painting he saw at an exhibition. Obviously, there isn’t a one-to-one correspondence in likeness between Vuillard’s woman and Gedney’s representation of her. But it’s funny how I discover Peter’s conclusion in his post - that verisimilitude in representation/imagination doesn’t matter - in my Gedney post, as well -
it wouldn’t make much of a difference to know which exact Vuillard he saw: we know that Gedney’s girl, painted from memory, can only be an approximation, at best, of the girl in the actual Vuillard painting he saw. However, if we did have the opportunity to compare Gedney’s girl next to Vuillard’s girl, we would no doubt recognize that Gedney’s girl is indeed the girl from the Vuillard, not as much from the verisimilitude of physical details, but from the same infinite care and compassion with which both men looked at the small, lovely busy-ness of the woman turned away: their sights on the same point on the same axis, as if they share a common nexus of memory.
Uncanny, right? But again, Wittgenstein says it better and more succinctly than either of us in Philosophical Investigations -
What makes my image of him into an image of him?
Not its looking like him.
(The first image is stolen from Peter’s post, the second is by Mikka Rantanen, the third is by Nicolas de Crecy, the fourth is taken from Austerlitz, and the last is from William Gedney’s sketchbook)
The slippery “I”: Walter Benjamin has this to say about the way with which Proust and Kafka use “I” (tr. Esther Leslie) -
When Proust, in his Recherche du temps perdu, and Kafka, in his diaries, use I, for both of them it is equally transparent, glassy. Its chambers have no local coloring; every reader can occupy it today and move out tomorrow… In these authors the subject adopts the protective coloring of the planet, which will turn grey in the coming catastrophes.
Benjamin scribbled his thoughts above on the drug prescription pad discarded by his doctor friend, Fritz Fränkel. Wonderful, the lugubrious notion expressed in the final sentence of his thoughts. I’d also add the “I” in Cavafy’s 4th Century Alexandria poems to the company of Proust and Kafka’s, as well as Sebald’s “I,” within whom other storytelling voices are nested…
Let me tell you a story. When I was a little kid in Korea, I used to play with this girl, who essentially bossed me around to do everything she wanted me to do. We only played house, doctor, etc., or rather, she forced me to play them - role playing games. Even as a kid, I knew that she was very pretty and grasped that I’d better inhabit the roles she’d ordered me to play with gusto if I wanted to please her.
I mention this girl because I was talking to my mom last week, and she reminded me of one day in my childhood past, when I went missing. She panicked and enlisted all the neighbors to look for me, even got the police involved. When my mom found me, I was at the girl’s house. At the very moment of discovery, my mom saw that the girl was helping me go pee on a tree in the yard, pretending that she was my mother in the darkness of dusk.
My mom had the occasion to bring her up in conversation with me, because she had recently talked on the phone with an old friend in Korea, and the friend mentioned by way of casual update that my girl friend died at an early age due to cancer a few years back, leaving behind a husband and a toddler daughter.
Benjamin highlights the ludic qualities in the I’s of Proust and Kafka, that every reader can occupy their I’s on a whim and move out equally capriciously. Perhaps that’s what we are doing fundamentally when we slip into Proust or Kafka’s I’s (and by extension, Cavafy’s and Sebald’s, et cetera): not so much reading by or through them, but slipping in and out, playing.
When my mom found me at the yard of the girl’s house those many years ago, would we not likely have been cloaked in the protective coloring of the planet, learning to inhabit other I’s and experiences, just playing games, before we sadly and eventually came to mind any pending catastrophes of this world? And so I learned to read I’s with her, I’d like to believe. In another fragment retrieved from Adorno’s archive, Benjamin wrote the lines below in his tiny script as opening lines of a poem, and I’m going to pretend that these Ariadnic lines were meant for my old friend all along (which also means they’re likewise meant for me) -
When I begin a song
And if I become aware of youIt is an illusion
readingmarksonreading tumblr is getting too good -
Pgs. 194 & 195 of David Markson’s copy of Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy by William Barrett:
Further on down the page: “Heidegger calls this field of Being Dasein. Dasein (which, in German, means literally Being-there) is his name for man.”
Then on the following page: “That Heidegger can say everything he wants to say about human existence without using either ‘man’ or ‘consciousness’ means that the gulf between subject and object, or between mind and body, that has been dug by modern philosophy need not exist if we do not make it.”
… then readingmarksonreading moves to Markson’s novels in which he sees traces of Heidegger, and this observation below on Markson’s Vanishing Point -
Just after tossing in the word “Dasein” in Vanishing Point, on pg. 160, Markson writes:
(Which were SS paramilitary death squads.)
… and so on, just a delightful running catalogue of David Markson’s notes in the margins of his books which readingmarksonreading has bought secondhand from The Strand, his thoughts criss-crossing from Markson’s marginalia to his novels, so forth.
As a form of writing: marginalia, small notes, lists and catalogues, diary entries, etc. Fragments, shards, ephemeralia: small in ambition, happiness in a corner, das Glück im Winkel. Walser's Microscripts comes to mind, deftly translated by Susan Bernofsky (I’ve two copies already but will be buying the paperback edition due out later this year, illustrated by Maira Kalman).
Who else? Walter Benjamin, who was also fond of pencil micrography, like Walser. In his letter to Jula Radt-Cohn on June 9, 1926 (tr. Esther Leslie) -
You will see that - starting about a week ago, I have once more entered a period of small writing, in which, even after long intervals, I always find some kind of home again, and into which I should like to entice you. If you perceive this little box as homely, then nothing should prevent you from becoming its Princess. (You do know the “New Melusine,” don’t you?)
"The New Melusine" is a story in Goethe’s William Meister’s Journeyman Years, in which a small, magical box contains a miniaturized world which is constantly under a threat of disappearance. A world constantly under a threat of disappearance… if you think of it: is any earthly world in its natural course ever not under such a threat? Doesn’t seem far-fetched by any means, if we follow this logic, to record our disappearing world with small writings. Benjamin again -
Memory does this: lets the things appear small, compresses them. Land of the sailor.
(Last image of Syrian refugees crossing into Turkey for sanctuary, by Moises Saman)