words. music. pictures. scheherazade.
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”)
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
Last Friday night at home, working off the buzz I’d inherited from the four beers I’d guzzled during my company’s happy hour (literally a one hour-long affair, spread on the credenza near the hallway), I logged into my twitter to tweet about a dream I had the night before in which I wrote a tidy tome analyzing Paul Celan’s poems using sabermetrics (the results of my book proved that - post VOPR, UZR and adjusted OPS via dream logic - Celan was more than a little overrated, which made me a pariah with both the literati and baseball statisticians). Just before logging out, however, I saw @arachnomaria's link to Cavafy's stunning poem, "Myres: Alexandria in 340 A.D.," translated by Daniel Mendelsohn. The poem, I guess, can ostensibly be taken as an elegy, except there’s nothing much elegiac about it on the surface.
In the poem, a youth named Myres has died. He was a Christian in Alexandria during a period when the city, after Constantine’s rule, was undergoing a tidal religious transformation - in the beginning of the fourth century, Alexandria was predominantly pagan; there were laws and injunctions which persecuted Christians for their faith unto death. Then, during and after Constantine, Alexandria increasingly and en masse converted to Christianity, until it was the pagans who became marginalized, culminating in the destruction of the Serapeum led by Theophilus. (I have to note and strongly recommend: Daniel Mendelsohn’s annotations to his Cavafy translation, by the way, serve as excellent guide to Cavafy’s series of poems set in Alexandria of this era.)
In Cavafy’s poem, the “I” is a pagan friend or lover (?) of Myres, and the final stanza is a stunning testament of mourning which summons the personally emotional, metaphysical and religio-political sense of loss, all at once with chilling realism. By the closing lines of the poem, “I” is observing the diligent rituals of Christian funeral rites, listening to the priests talk of Myres’ soul -
And all of a sudden I was seized by a queer
impression. Vaguely, I had the feeling that
Myres was going far away from me;
had a feeling that he, a Christian, was being united
with his own, and that I was becoming
a stranger to him, very much a stranger; I sensed besides
a certain doubt coming over me: perhaps I had been fooled
by my passion, had always been a stranger to him.—
I flew out of their horrible house,
and quickly left before their Christianity
could get hold of, could alter, the memory of Myres.
This poem is bar none the best non-Christian Christian poem ever. The perspective is profoundly pagan, but that stark realization of “I,” that it may be the Christian faith which will ultimately estrange “I” from the memory of Myres… There’s a deliberate and brilliant blurring of boundaries between the pagan and the Christian - the perspective of the poem repudiates Christianity, but the ultimate confession does not deny Christianity’s darkly real hold on the “I” of the poem, over the memory of Myres, and finally ends up fundamentally coloring his entire relationship with Myres, threatening his lasting remembrance of him.
The sense of mourning, as expressed by Cavafy, is multivalent. In historical context, this voice seems all the more sad and desperate, backed up against the wall. This diary entry from Roland Barthes’ The Mourning Diary flashes across my mind for some reason now (tr. Richard Howard) -
Mourning: indisposition, a situation with no possible blackmail.
It’s just a hopeless fight to preserve the memory of the lost, which, in the end, has to do with our stupid desire to bring back those whom we’ve lost with futile rites and gestures: a syncretic and universalist foolishness, equally Christian and pagan at once. Cavafy expresses this very foolishness of our rituals and desires in another poem called “Cleitus’s Illness” set in Alexandria of the same era. In this poem, an old housemaid tries to bring Cleitus, a privileged Christian youth, back from the verge of death and to health by chanting litanies to a pagan idol she once worshiped as a girl, in a Christian home of her master, no less. Here’s how the poem ends -
She secretly takes some cakes, and wine, and honey.
She brings them before the idol. She chants as many
litanies as she recalls: the bits from either end, the middles. The foolish
doesn’t realize that it matters little to the black demon
whether a Christian is or isn’t cured.
Yet, it is because of this foolish endeavor that the maidservant has our sympathies, that she moves us. All the more moving because no matter the futility of her vigilance, there is still a sense of life in her petition. Cavafy. Just one day before the entry on mourning which I quoted above, Barthes made another entry on mourning -
(Images, top to bottom: by Alexey Titarenko, Roland Barthes’ handwriting from a “Mourning Diary” entry, a detail from Ghirlandaio’s Portrait of Giovanna Tornabuonni)
Would love to check out the Gordon Matta-Clark exhibt at David Zwirner Gallery, which Peter Schjeldahl wrote about in last week’s The New Yorker.
I don’t know much about Gordon Matta-Clark’s biography, except that he died in 1978, from pancreatic cancer - he was only 35 years old. He practiced what some refer to as “Anarchitecture” - he and a group of “anarchitects” would take various condemned buildings, structures and houses in NYC/NJ areas and basically punch holes and slice gaping bisecting lines and geometric shapes through them. See below, a b&w photo of “Splitting” -
and from the interior -
I first saw some of these images in the early 90s, when I was really way too young and easily impressionable, and Gordon Matta-Clark, along with Ban Jas Ader, Joseph Beuys, Martin Kippenberger, represented somewhat of a personal, idiosyncratic pantheon for me when it came to art. I thought about their work just as much as I thought about Babel or Sebald or Akhmatova… it’s quite possible that I was never as much in love with art as I had been back then. Actually, it’s quite true -
When people talk about Matta-Clark’s work, they tend to use terms like “guerilla,” “anarchy,” you know… cutting edge, avant-garde… but what drew me to Matta-Clark is the insistence on stripping things down to the elemental forms, which I found classical in impulse, almost Platonically striving.
I wrote about the nature vs. artifice contrast in the crystal image in Sebald’s work, and so it is, too, here: how ironic is it that Matta-Clark’s Anarchitecture was just as much about the effects and filtration of light and other natural elements as it was about demolishing/re-making manbuilt structures and ruins -
Poetry. Cavafy expresses it better with “Ionic” -
That we’ve broken their statues,
that we’ve driven them out of their temples,
doesn’t mean at all that the gods are dead.
O land of Ionia, they’re still in love with you,
their souls still keep your memory.
When an August dawn wakes over you,
your atmosphere is potent with their life,
and sometimes a young ethereal figure,
indistinct, in rapid flight,
wings across your hills.
(tr. Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard)