While organizing the files of a certain Professor M last week, I came across a dusty piece of parchment, folded elaborately in such a way that it resembled a flattened leaflet of origami. It was only because I glimpsed the edges of scrawled ink along some of the pointed folds that I was able to discern that it was, in fact, a document to be read. Thinking that perhaps it might contain some of the Professor’s musings to be considered for publication in the forthcoming collection that I was assisting in editing, I carefully unfolded the parchment. Crouched in between two filing cabinets in the dusty office, I retrieved my reading glasses from my pocket and adjusted them across the bridge of my nose.
The document read as follows:
Ah glorious days of when I would write, and the words would just flow from my pen as if they were thoughts themselves, or rather, written, my mechanical activity preceded thought, my hand crafted it, the pen a burin in the medium of grey matter that I molded like a luxurious, molten wax. Neurons: sparks of electric energy created from the friction of the scratching of that pen across the surface of whatever canvas or paper I chose, which, according to this reality was the very material of the world. I remember living in such a world, before everything became dull, before the blank paper bore holes into my eyes and entered through the empty spaces, curling up inside my body cavity like a parasite
Nowadays I just sit here, perched in this chair while my hip joints scream for relief. The days are sometimes tolerable; after all, I’ve plenty of work to occupy my time, and most of it is interesting to me anyways. And yet, I can’t shake the sense that something is stuck inside of me, because I can’t operate like I used to, sail along the currents of thoughts and concepts. There are only glimpses of it when I am falling asleep, and my mind cavorts and contrives innumerable strange visions and combinations of words that leave me aghast. So much so, in fact, that in many of my dreams the most beautiful themes, images, songs, and poems are attributed to others, and when I wake up, if I remember any of them, I feel like I am a fraudulent plagiarist. You see, it is because in my day to day living, I’ve revoked my license for imagination, opting instead for humility in hopes that I will not further endanger my soul or that of my beloved.
What if I were to try it now, accessing this state of mind, this escape into pure creativity that produces for me and me alone the most wondrous conceptions, flavors, and emotions? Would it not be of benefit to share some of this with the world? Or am I so arrogant as to assume that my own world is better than that of others, that their own individual realms are impoverished with comparison to mine? It is impossible to know.
And then there is the worse option to consider: that my ideas are not that interesting after all, and that they only appear this way to me as a sort of psychological mechanism so that I do not fully enter into despair, but only just skim it.
And this in this missive, to any readers real or imagined, please accept my deepest apologies. It is a product of my own arrogance and vanity, when really, I have far too much to learn about the world to be writing about it. My glory days were my mental infancy, and to that world, I must return as a cloaked visitor, so as not to destroy it.
-M, dated 6 January 1948
I sat to ponder for several minutes the meaning of this document. I considered first the date. 6 January 1948. The feast of the Epiphany. How old would Professor M have been at that time? Certainly not beyond the age of 23, my present age. I couldn’t help but consider his romantic attachments. I did not know when Professor M had been married at that time; I only knew that he’d had multiple wives of various backgrounds. The first wife, I recall, was a Russian who’d defected from the Soviet Union during the war. Had she been with him when he wrote this?
I made a mental note to review what biographical details that I had of Professor M when I had the chance, and continued about my work without giving much thought to it.
It was not until two weeks later that the recollection of this strange document looped itself inside my thoughts once more. I’d been at home that evening, sipping my customary glass of wine. I can’t say that I am much of a connoisseur, but from time to time I’d enjoy a few glasses, reflecting on my life.
At this time in my life, I didn’t have much in particular to think about. I lived alone in my small, one-bedroom apartment. I’d leased it furnished, glad that I didn’t have to go through the trouble of looking for affordable furniture to haul up the three flights of stairs to my place. My small apartment, with its brown, corduroy couch and Queen-sized bed, made me feel less alone somehow, on good days. In reality, though, I was more alone than I’d ever been in my life.
I was a graduate student in an American University. As the only female in my department, I felt as if I was working towards something greater than myself, that in seeking this opportunity to expand my mind, I was also somehow going to open the door for other women who might not otherwise apply themselves to the discipline required of Philosophy.
I should also be honest; yes, I do think that these grand illusions were, in part at least, motivating my work. But if can speak truthfully, I was really just a vain student. You see, I’d been raised by two very successful people. My father himself was a professor of some renown, and my mother was a celebrated concert pianist. To say that I’d come from a high achieving family was a little bit of an understatement.
Consequently, I felt quite a bit of pressure to do something great myself. My early ventures into music had proven to me that I’d not inherited my mother’s prodigious gift. Nonetheless, I had remained hopeful that my academic prowess would provide an avenue for development. Thus, when I was only 14 years old, I set about doing everything I could to prepare myself for the vocation of Philosophy. By age 18, I’d already read every major important work in post-Kantian ethics. I spent every minute of every hour perfecting my knowledge; I memorized bibliographies, consulted all available resources, learned four foreign languages in addition to the three that I already spoke fluently. If you’d asked anyone around me, they would certify my genius. After all, isn’t it rare to have mastered so much material at such a young age?
And yet, five years later, I found myself with a great emptiness as I marched along my path. True, I was doing well in my graduate program. In contrast, many of my peers struggled to make it through their oral exams. I would overhear their complaints in our lounge. In past years, I couldn’t relate at all to their struggles. What was so hard about studying? Yes, obviously committing oneself to graduate work requires a bit of sacrifice, but in the grand scheme of things, could you really even call it a sacrifice? They complained about the long hours, about the harsh things their professors said to them, of the general sense that there was no promise of long-term employment. I never said anything in protest of these statements. And besides, no one ever spoke to me directly, mostly because they all knew that none of their problems really applied to me as a woman. Even if I had been uniquely talented, I was still just a girl to them, and not worthy of consideration. And yet, if I did overhear anything, I’d mime sympathy, and glide out of the room.
Ultimately, I just thought that their problems were not problems, but rather just excuses for their poor level of insight. I really did think that I was so much more developed than they were in every way. And who could really argue with me? I’d been the only person in the entire history of the program that had passed orals with a perfect score. If anyone had asked my advice at that time, which no one did, I think I simply might’ve said that they should reconsider their line of work or just put in more effort. That was it.
It wasn’t until recently that I’ve called into question these earlier assumptions. I’ll leave it to the reader to determine the cause of my misfortune. It was like a big black shadow had swooped down on me as I began work on my dissertation’s third chapter, a chapter that dealt with the aesthetic preoccupations of Marx in his earlier works and their relationship to Schelling. I’d always loved Schelling and had been looking forward to writing this chapter for quite some time. In fact, I’d delivered some lectures on Schelling at a few conferences last year that were all very well received. There was no reason why this section should present me with any trouble whatsoever.
But there is another thing I should mention. I started this chapter around the same time that I accepted the editing project for Professor M. This involved reviewing and editing his manuscripts.
To say I’d idolized him was really not sufficient. In fact, he’d been the entire reason that I’d applied to this program in the first place. I simply loved his work and had been delighted to find that he was just as luminous in person as he had appeared to be in his academic texts, many of which I’d reread over and over again in my youth in the same way that one might reread a favorite novel. To put it another way, there was simply no other person that even came close in my mind to comparing with this man, whom I’d fashioned into my own, private idol.
During my time at the university, he was already advancing in years, though he continued to teach a few classes here and there. I would visit Professor M every week to discuss what I’d been reading. Our conversations ranged a number of topics. Of course, our mutual interest in philosophy was an important theme in these conversations, but over the years I came to find that Professor M had a vibrant imagination and a deep affection for the Old Masters.
I also intuited from our conversations that Professor M had led a tumultuous personal life. He’d begun teaching during the war. Though he’d been born in the United States, his parents were Dutch immigrants, and many of his family members had died in death camps. Whenever we spoke about this subject, he didn’t offer much for me to go on. Our discussions here would turn to the subject of Pieter Bruegel the Elder. He had a number of monographs in his vast personal library, and at these times he’d take to locating them on the shelves, hauling them down, and flipping through the color plates with me for an hour or so.
His favorite was Bruegel’s The Adoration of the Kings in the Snow from 1567. It’s very famous, and you may be familiar with it.
Just glancing at it, you wouldn’t know that it has a religious theme. Rather, it appears to be a cold, wintery scene from Flemish everyday life, and in some ways that’s part of it. Extraordinarily, the artist relegated the scene of Christ’s adoration to the margins. You can barely make out the three magi as they bow low before the manger, beholding for the first time, the messiah who would unite all nations and bring about the resolution to the whole of salvific history.
And what of the nation here depicted? It is much like the one you and I occupy, but the whole teleological trajectory of the world has shifted, and nobody notices it. I think that a lot of people are attracted to Bruegel for this reason. I remember a famous poem by Auden that unspools the genius that characterizes his painting:
…even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree…
But there was something about this painting that went beyond even these astute observations, and Professor M felt it. I can’t put it into words, exactly. Was it the Flemish winter? The falling snow, like ash, obscuring the vision of that ordinary life, so yearned for? The promise of a savior?
I only know that whatever it was that he felt, it deeply moved him, and witnessing him react to this image affected me so greatly that even to recall it brings tears to my eyes.
During all of my time at graduate school nothing nurtured me more than my time spent with him. He would thoughtfully listen to everything I had to say, slowly considering my words. Many times, I was just so eager to impress him that I surely embarrassed myself, but he took these with such grace that an outside observer wouldn’t have realized it. Frequently, I brought manuscripts of short musings that I’d written, asking for his thoughts. And each time, he’d read through them carefully, making notes in the margins along with suggestions for further readings. Often, he would just hand me a stack of books to take home. I still have a number of them sitting on my shelves, and I can’t quite bear to part with them, even though I am sure that they would do more good in his library than in mine. But to me they are the closest I will ever come to having a part of him.
I felt that Professor M was the only person in the world who could ever understand me. And yet, I knew that he did not feel the same way about me. After all, he’d had many intellectual admirers, many of whom would have had much more important things to say to him. He was a celebrated professor after all, and in no need of my companionship.
You might have perceived by now, and you would be correct, that I was deeply in love with him. Never mind that he was 40 years my senior, old, gray, and stooped. None of that mattered. I was mad with passion for him, though I’d try my best to conceal it. Being the perspicacious man that he was, there is no doubt that he knew it too, but he never held it against me.
Besides, he was married. His current wife–his fourth–is a wealthy heiress who has gained some fame for her best-selling cookbooks. I don’t know much about their relationship, but it is safe to say that they must not have been particularly close for reasons that will become evident shortly. What I could glean from our conversations was this: his wife lived in another town, in upstate New York, where she owned a specialty food store. Each weekend he’d travel back home and enjoy gourmet meals and baked goods that she’d spend days preparing for him. I’m sure they owned a handsome home, and maybe even a boat, I’d imagined. They probably got on well with the neighbors, and frequently spent evenings drinking expensive single-malt by the fire.
Or maybe I’ve not understood him at all. Or worse, I am willfully misrepresenting him here to cover my own shame. In all of my imaginings, one thing is consistent: his life without me. What could his world look like, when for myself, I can’t picture my own life in his absence?
Imagining these scenarios has helped me over the years to keep my passion at bay. If I hadn’t done so, I’m not entirely sure that I could have restrained myself.
Thus, when I was asked to participate in this large editing project, I was thrilled. Yet, as I’d soon find out, this marked the beginning of my life’s greatest personal tragedy.
Professor M had recently decided to take a sabbatical. He was going to London, he said, to help with a project at Oxford College. It was to be the culmination of something he’d been working on for a very long time, and this journey was much needed to see that everything came together as he’d hoped. He didn’t tell me much about the project before he left, but he assured me that he would be eager to hear my opinion on the results when everything had finished.
I remember before he left we’d had one final meeting in his office. There, he’d told me about the project to edit the manuscripts. My role would be to collect and organize some documents and provide them to the editorial board for review. I might also be engaged in some of the actual editing should they need any help. Even if all I was doing was really just secretarial work, it felt like a grave responsibility to which I was to dedicate myself fully. I could barely contain my enthusiasm. After all, I would have died if it meant securing the success of any project associated with his name. That was how devoted I was.
As he explained the general purpose of the project, he showed me around his office and indicated where I could find a variety of files, correspondence, and notes.
“I know that the committee has already determined what is going to be included in the published edition, but you can have access to anything here. Who knows, maybe you’ll find something that can be of help to your dissertation. Please feel free to read anything that is in these files.”
When he placed the key to his office in my hand, I shuddered with pleasure. I began to sweat profusely in my oversize sweater, my pulse elevating up into my throat like a great whale rising to the surface of the ocean. My mouth went dry and I waited several moments before feeling stable enough to respond, praying that he would not notice my agitation.
“Thank you. I really look forward to helping on this project. You’ve no idea how honored I am.”
“I think you’ll do a fine job,” he replied warmly. He placed his hand on my shoulder, and gazed at me with deep eyes that burned cold beneath milky pools of cataract jelly. I felt the weight of something descend from my upper story to my bowels, like a large shelf of ice sloughing off the side of an enormous Patagonian glacier.
A week later, he’d left for London, and I returned to my typewriter to conduct the rough workings of my dissertation’s third chapter.
At this point, everything came crashing down. I couldn’t seem to write a word, no matter how hard I tried. Every morning, I’d wake up early, make my breakfast—coffee and toast—and head off to the library to work. Nothing had changed with regards to my health. In fact, I felt quite strong physically, and my doctor assured me that I was well. I went about my same writing routines as I always have. I am a very disciplined person and, as I’ve already mentioned, I never had any problem getting words on paper before. And yet I here I found myself sitting for hours at my desk spinning off in disorganized thoughts, staring blankly ahead or picking at the dry ends of my hair.
It felt throughout this whole time that I was merely dreaming awake and not really living. When I looked at my surroundings, I’d have been able to tell you where I was—the library, or my office—but I was really just wading through vast mud puddles, trudging through frosted winter scenes, across paths strewn with excrement and straw, rotted animal carcasses and stinking fruit.
I saw myself as if from the edges of a picture plane, my image roughly described in agile brushwork. There I was, in the upper left of the composition, huddled under my thick overcoat, trying to stave off the cold. But my lips were blue and my eyesight precluded by the thick clumps of falling snow. The roads a mess of dog shit, slop, and ice, and everything around me stinking so terribly of oil paint.
There were times when I felt so nauseous that I had to rush to an alley way in between two dilapidated structures and dry heave, my knees crushing into the small pebbles that lay scattered across a swamp of refuse and slush. Bile, black and bituminous, coated my tongue like a mould that I couldn’t remove, no matter how hard I tried. My mouth dried open like that as the paint set while I sputtered lame coughs into the wind.
The only time of day when I felt at ease through all of this were those moments when I went to work in Professor M’s office. There I had discovered a first draft of Professor M’s first monograph, which, as it turns out, had an entirely different chapter that had not been included in the original edition. When I notified the editors of this discovery, they were quite surprised. They agreed to include it in the new compilation.
And yet, for some reason, I couldn’t muster the same sense of purpose and apply it to my own writing. After all these years of achievement, and I found myself stalled on the easiest part of my project. Wouldn’t my classmates kill to be in my position? And they could barely string together an intelligible sentence, yet even now I saw them progressing in their work, surpassing me, in fact. One might say that I’d been flattened. I was bitter, distant. I felt low, like a collapsed subterranean pipe. And the more I thought about it the more and more my world shrank within the strictures of the cold, 2D scene in which I found myself.
When I came to think about this strange document that Professor M had composed all those years ago, I decided upon the obvious fact that there must be some message in there, meant for me and me alone. When an obsessive person latches upon such a notion, all of life’s signs and images become imbued with further meanings, and even the planetary motions seem to organize themselves around the object of the obsessive’s devotion.
As I retraced the loose set of dates I’d pulled together over the past few weeks of researching in his personal files, I realized that he had written this piece right after his first marriage ended. Irina Gavrilova, her name had been. They’d only been married a few years. I was unable to verify what exactly precipitated the demise of their relationship, I only knew that she’d suddenly been hospitalized. Soon after her discharge, she had disappeared from his life.
What had happened to her?
Having convinced myself that resolving this question was a matter of my own survival, I scoured his office for any contact information for his former colleagues who might be able to give me some answers. I needed to be cured of my curse and begin writing again.
An old friend of his at UC Berkeley had been able to confirm for me that Professor M’s early marriage had ended with Irina’s departure in the winter of 1947. That was really all that he told me. I think that most of our conversation revolved around the plot of some obscure novel. The colleague had insisted that the author intended for us to infer the death of the protagonist, even though it was only vaguely referenced. I disagreed, contending that the author meant us to understand that the protagonist had gone on living; he’d only dislocated himself from the drama of the narrative. The colleague had no rejoinder for this argument.
Other efforts to contact friends and family members proved unfruitful. No one had any idea why Irina had left, nor could they recall whether Professor M had been particularly upset by the circumstances. I perused as many records as I could lay my hands on, but sadly was unable to turn up much besides a few photographs of the couple together. What I did learn was this: she had been beautiful: with low, dark eyes, a high forehead, and long, luscious hair.
So, I decided that the answer to my problems were to be found in his first published work, released in 1949. Returning to the unpublished manuscript and the missing chapter, I only discovered one clue, in the form of a quote from Karl Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 and its footnote. I’ll share it here with you:
Assume man to be man and his relationship to the world to be a human one: then you can exchange love only for love, trust for trust, etc. If you want to enjoy art, you must be an artistically-cultivated person…Every one of your relations to man and to nature must be a specific expression, corresponding to the object of your will, of your real individual life. If you love without evoking love in return—that is, if your loving as loving does not produce reciprocal love; if through a living expression of yourself as a loving person you do not make yourself a loved person, then your love is impotent—a misfortune.
I have read this passage over and over again. For a long time, I wasn’t quite sure what I’d found so significant here, but ultimately, what I think Marx was saying is that Love Sucks.
I realized that I would never see Professor M again.
I abandoned my dissertation all together and moved to New Hampshire. I took up with a handsome man for whom I have no feelings. He makes sculptures out of trash and is a member of a farm co-operative. We go to art shows together and he explains things like the Lacanian gaze and feminism to me. I suppose you’d say my life is pretty good, even if on the inside, I know that everything is finished.
In some small, Flemish Bethlehem, Professor M hustles down a narrow side street towards his office where he will transcribe reports from the New World for publication. I will bump into him on my way to the market, but I will not notice.
As the snow falls silently on our dirty little world, a child is born that will promise to clean it all up. But for now, only three wise men know anything about this, and they aren’t going to share their secrets.
Sonya Wohletz is a bat that was born in a golden cave in New Mexico. She transformed into a human a few decades ago and flew to the Pacific Northwest to roost. Now that she enjoys the use of opposable thumbs, she writes fiction, poetry, and paints.
 The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, 105. Professor M writes: Note here the affective dimensions of human exchange. Without love, man (and philosophy itself) is impotent.
Part 4 of Some Thoughts on Love and Memory
During her illness, my mother spoke to me about her own mother’s death. She remembered that her mother had not wanted to be cremated because she was afraid that the fire would burn her soul. I never knew my grandmother, but it seemed like such a vulnerable thing to express—her wish to be buried intact, entrusting my mother with her body when she would no longer be able to exert her will. This ineffable, yet insistence of the body, both before birth and after death, fixates our ritual preoccupations, makes our grief (and our joys, pleasures) real.
It occurs to me that I never knew my grandmother but as a disembodied personality, an incomplete alloy of what few things I’ve been told about her. I carry this collaged image within me.
In what way shall we ritualize the ones we’ve lost, even when we are not allowed to see them on through their passing or have not been able to accompany them to their final resting place?
In times of despair, I’ve imagined things. Little girls, with their hair in fancy braids, something that grandmothers have the time to do. Me, braiding my own hair, feeling my grandmother’s fingers on my scalp. Matching yellow dresses for my grandmother and mother, another one, sewn for me—three of us together in an Easter picture, smiling. I smell the familiar desert spring and the cold shock of breeze.
My grandmother is shrouded in a warm mist; silent. I don’t know whether she was loud or quiet (my mother attested to the latter in the rare moments she spoke of her. Another relative told me that she remembered my grandmother’s laugh in the kitchen when she came to visit sisters—her red painted fingernails, elegantly structuring the cigarette in the round). I only have black and white images—full lips, arched eyebrows, elegant and irreproachable. In a formal portrait that used to sit on my mother’s vanity: thick, dark hair, something heavy and soft inside of her. Early photos after her marriage to my grandfather—on the beach in Florida, long-limbed, familiar bearing of the shoulders, beach grass on the horizon—she, gazing at something beyond the lens, sullen and sharp.
I came to know her through these and through my mother, who carried within her a multitude of images, both intelligible and unintelligible. My grandmother had been the one who had given my mother her childhood Southern accent—for which she received speech therapy in Illinois, for the teachers didn’t like the way she said “yell-a” instead of “yellow”. She also cut my mother’s perfect Shirley Temple curls and made her wear a short page-boy cut, for which was resentful. Once in college, she grew her hair long in Pre-Raphaelite fashion. I saw a picture of the two of them together during those times, my mother with her long sea of dark, my grandmother with a pillbox hat, on a sunny front lawn. These images implied certain things, but they could not replace an actual knowledge of, or intimacy with, the grandmother I missed.
But knowing her final wishes, and her deepest fear—that her soul would be destroyed by flame—illustrates something quite profound about her beliefs. It is the only real token I have of her, the only way I have been able to feel her voice—and I do—in an elegant, accented Southern lilt. Cigarette smoke curling behind her ears. The insistence on the sacrality of the body—even when the soul departed—and its inherent function in eternal life after death, suggests to me that my grandmother was a woman for whom objective materialism held no meaning.
Typically, the treatment of the body upon death is an important ritual feature connected with religious faith. For Catholics, the necessity of full body burial connects to the belief in a second coming—the raising up of the dead. The everlasting life of the soul. Following similar theological reasoning, Mary is thought to have been assumed into heaven, body and soul intact. This was possible in her extraordinary case because she was without sin. In Orthodox iconography artists depict this event, referred to as the Dormition, through a patterned composition that places earthly Mary—recognizable as an adult woman, reclined on her bed. She is surrounded by the apostles. Above her bed stands her son, holding in his arms an infant Mary, as a representation of her everlasting soul. This is a curious, though potent, reversal of the Theotokos iconography with which we may be more familiar—Mary the mother, holding the infant Christ in her arms.
In the Orthodox world, Dormition iconography is commonplace, derived from various legends and apocryphal texts; in Catholic iconography, however, it is more rarely portrayed. More often, the event of the Assumption serves as the focus of paintings and sculptures celebrating her triumphant entrée into heaven, though examples of devotion to the cult of the Dormition or “Transit” did become popular among certain religious communities. One of my favorite examples is a large sculptural group housed at a Quiteñan Carmelite museum. A theatrical display of lifelike sculptures, the Dormition becomes a fixed event wherein the viewer participates as a witness in the Virgin’s passing. Here, wooden bodies come to life through the ritual recitation of a novena to memorialize the event. Material and spirit are fused in both the participants and the images through symbolic activation. The mechanism is cyclical and linguistic, but it is also physically charged, reliant on the real presence through images. Before us, Mary lays peacefully on an ornate, Rococo-style bed, suggestive of a colonial elite household. Surrounded by her saintly entourage, she “sleeps,” waiting to be brought, body and soul, to heaven, three days later. The faithful will wait and pray with her; her body will not be corrupted. As an image, she is never disappointing. Consider, in contrast, the problem of Father Zosima from The Brothers Karamazov. Images achieve what organic matter cannot.
For Muslims, the dead are also treated with ritual reverence; the family members clean the body, wrap it in cloth, and bury it directly in the earth. But whereas the Christian tradition represents an anxiety over the incorruptible body (particularly relevant in hagiographies, the perfectly preserved corpse), the Muslim tradition acknowledges a primal cyclical relationship between body and earth. Place is important; body becomes place. Place and memory become fused, as they have been for my partner’s brother, who is buried in a quiet cemetery in Meşrutiyet village, peeking through the brambles to the Black sea down below. In the winter it is cold and grey here; with the spring, bright leaves burst through terse bark. The flowers come, the plants in the cemetery awaken from the deep night and the living speak to them there, glass of tea in hand. There is no need for images. In fact, images would only distract from the unmediated nature by which our human bodies commune with the earth.
Humans have always responded to tragedy, both personal and communal, with ritual—a cultural mechanism by which we acknowledge our problems and physically enact measures pleasing to the gods. Alternatively, in the absence of a belief in or love for supernatural deities, we take steps to reduce perceived threats and consequences for bad behavior and imbalance. For the individual that suffers from crippling anxiety, this metaphysical transaction can be observed in obsessive practices or in therapeutic measures meant to ameliorate uncomfortable sensations. For the rationalist living in the age of COVID-19, adhering to public health protocols (social distancing, frequent cleansing) can be said to reflect the ritualistic impulse in the age of science. And while these activities have an observable, measurable effect on health outcomes, at their core, I believe they preserve the DNA of the symbolic order through which we have managed to collectively order our experience in a bizarre, magical universe.
When it comes to the ritual approach to death, however, we are somewhat at more of a loss. Public health concerns have disrupted the nuanced approach to grief. In New Orleans, for example, where funeral processions, second-lines, and public gatherings replete with music and dancing, are suspended as the city suffers from the highest infection rate in the US. Culture has been an important site of healing through generations of hardship for New Orleanians. It is hard to imagine the city without its music, its parades, its collective grief in full color. Other regions around the world are reporting disruptions in the grieving process as well: Shiva, the mourning period in the Jewish tradition, has been suspended or transferred to disembodied Zoom meetings in Israel. The bereaved are left with an image of ritual rather than the physicality of ritual itself. The same is true in Muslim countries, where the body washing for COVID-19 victims has been disallowed. Funerals have either been banned or limited to few participants. The whole world grieves, but now, more than ever, it grieves through images.
Technology has enabled many of us to transmigrate certain ritualistic practices to what we might call an analogue ritual channel, but for many, it will not suffice. Live images, streamed images, transcribed and encrypted images flood our world view. Necessity, it seems, has suspended the orthodox insistence on the truth of presence. We will take what we can get, even collectively code a new auratic understanding of the images we ingest daily by whatever means we can. It is a strange diet, to be sure, but it also illuminates the ways in which technology has fundamentally changed our relationship to images and ritual over time.
For those for whom the realm of the digital represents no symbolic challenges, the efforts to enforce social distancing—even in the event of grief—are not a deep affront to humanity. However, for many, these disruptions represent a real, spiritual threat—with devastating consequences. The scientist in me scoffs at the mega-church gatherings that continue to occur here with regularity, flouting the official mandates. How could people be so irresponsible? Don’t they understand that they are endangering themselves and others selfishly? At the same time, the anthropologist in me understands the need for ritual, particularly in times of distress. Humans, without ritual, are rendered vulnerable, because eliminating ritual threatens to collapse the process by which we meaningfully orient our behaviors and symbolic representations for the collective good.
If a ritual, however, undermines the very purpose of this process, then the ritual loses its efficacy and must adapt to meet changing demands. This is by no means a simple negotiation.
Organized religion in particular tends to be very resistant to change. Tradition is often cited as a legitimate reason for continuing to practice behaviors and beliefs even when they are at odds with environmental and social concerns. Among the many explanations we could cite, perhaps the most fundamental is the threat that change poses to set epistemological systems. If the meaningful order is called into question, the whole structure may appear fragile—internal weaknesses exposed, contradictions—the irrationality of collective behavior laid bare.
This is where the disconnect between so-called secular culture and religious culture lies. Both are ritualistic to the same degree, I submit, because ritual is a fundamental human need. However, one group openly admits it, and, in fact, institutionalizes its symbolic orientation through a detailed codification of ritual. The other only tacitly admits it under certain circumstances, while ostensibly projecting an unwavering commitment to an idea of objectivity untethered from cultural practice. This, in some ways, provides the potential for positive change to reflect current needs and understanding; however, in some ways it denies its participation in a very fundamental human need—that is, a shared practice of ritual.
This crisis has presented us with the unequaled opportunity to acknowledge our need for ritual—whether spiritual, atheist, agnostic, health-wise, or other. Incredibly, we are learning ways to provide outlets in ways that are both safe and satisfying at a rapid pace. This, to me, demonstrates the great adaptability of human culture as well as the innate role that empathy plays in our survival. That is not to say, however, that we do not face challenges. The time has come for a truly universal grieving ritual.
For those that grieve and who are never able to ritualistically fulfill the demands of that grief, we are all called to grieve with you.
A final, disembodied image as I zoom out: from above—mass graves neatly lined up: grey earth, brown earth. The first reports from Iran terrified me. Now, they seem commonplace. Order superimposed in the chaotic matrix of nature. Our friends and family members will be laid to rest here. The living will carry on and bear the images of those lives forward.
Part 3 of Some Thoughts on Love and Memory
Someone very important to me said that Love is just something people say to start and end conversations. I took this to mean that, ultimately, the word has been rendered meaningless, bearing no relation to the curves, valleys, and sinkholes of our shared emotional landscapes. With this revelation I was shocked back into the sense that I had, once again (for this wasn’t the first time), strayed in a dark wood. A ghost with no language, my mouth full of acerbic, cerulean sky.
I was the kind of person from a family whose members dutifully uttered “I love yous” at the end of each phone call, at each parting. And while, perhaps, the verbal act itself did little to express the truth of our feelings, I intuited that the word coded feelings of familiarity. A secret wink, letting me know that, somehow, and in spite of my flaws, I belonged among them. I don’t know if I understood their meaning accurately. In lieu of the difficult task of actually exploring how I felt, I thus came to rely on furtive tokens, on symbols, that I interpreted according to some bizarre logic as a reassurance of safety. Perhaps I even took the loneliness for what it was, at least, for me: a normal state of being.
So much so, that on into adulthood, I find myself at a loss when it comes to identifying my emotions, understanding them, or being able to communicate them in any meaningful way. They seem distant to me, at times, and then, from nowhere they consume me like contagion. There seems to be no continuity. What I do know is that when I allow them to overtake me, nothing good results. I therefore mostly avoid them whenever possible, and, like my parents, carry on with my routines as a means of locating myself in the world, in my body. I wake, I bathe, make coffee—another one—and dress myself, packing some little victuals to look forward to around mid-morning in between emails and meetings. I gaze out the window and see a brilliant steel sun on the northern water and yearn for the borderlands far to the south. I can see myself dressed in black and silver, peering out to blue from within the confines of an old adobe structure. I am alone, and then—I dissolve.
Water washes over me in an alluvial plain, a cyclical study in red and tan and grey. The banks flood, the silt settles. Bits of detritus, branches, waste. One day I dry in the sun and become a desert, a stone, a sheer cliff, a red rock canyon, a deep slit on the dry plain where thunderstorms wash out dead spirits in the summer afternoons, again.
Shift of focus—I am upright, human, somehow. The paths I trace tread deeper into the purple shadow of pumice walls. I deftly pass through the steps in my mind to a time when my mother was dying and my dogs were young. I think: there was beauty to be grateful for, even then.
Thoughts track sideways around basalt stones, dark and heavy.
Another memory: my brother told me a story that when he was young, he remembers our mother looking across the mesas, proclaiming the beauty of what she saw. My brother didn’t understand, for how could the earth be beautiful? The lesson: Beauty has nothing to do with the earth, and I am humbled by all that I don’t understand. Even so, the earth still has for me a sense of generosity. Others have been less lucky.
The nihilist in me absconds back to its wooded sanctuary. The child in me grieves. My ancient self seeks the desert grave where my mother lies buried, alone, yet among the others. In the history books: a genocide becomes a fantasy, and human lives become signs for ideas. Powerlessness overcomes me. Routines arrive with a warm familiarity, a soft hand.
Is this experience unique to me? I doubt it. The preponderance of memes, self-help books, regimens, calls to “self-love,” wellness, and rooting out the “narcissists” in our lives only lays bare the degree to which a large number of us, at least those among the consumers of social media, desire to better understand social relationships, or what constitutes emotional health. Negativity, conflict, sadness, failure—all of these are rendered to some extent taboo—save for when they are expressed through a specific context. By this, I refer the kinds of moral dialogues, sites of truth-values, that have become available and sensible through political discourse. In this register, not only is anger, outrage, sadness, grief, and disgust permitted, but they seem to be the very substance of communication. Politics, ideologies—the viscous medium through which emotions attain form. Whereas negative emotions are effectively expunged from the realm of the personal through efficient “self-care,” they are instead experienced through a constructed sense of some united, moral identity. If a person persistently experiences uncomfortable or intense emotions on the individual level, however, they are pathologized.
From an anthropological perspective, this pattern of beliefs and behaviors is interesting. We could describe it as a sort of schism between the personal and the social whereby both are rendered fuzzy around the edges—in some cases, unintelligible. It feels confusing. On one hand, the dominant sensibility presumes that emotions are an innately individual experience, that our personalities are somehow experienced through them.
We are mandated, above all, to cultivate licit emotions with the same assiduity that we would complete a task list. Embrace joy, we are told (or worse “lean in to Joy!”) I can only call to mind Bernini’s Saint Teresa, collapsing in ecstasy. Oh! That I were a saint! Emotions, according to these dictates, become more akin to commodified goods, sites of performative privilege—especially if they can be framed as transcendent, spiritual. And even if the emotions are presented as packaged little achievements we can nominally possess, there persists the parallel belief that emotions are unmediated sensations that arise through experience. They are, thus, at once an object of desire while also appearing to have a degree of subjectivity, sharing a causal relationship with human activity. Do we attain emotions through activity (a sort of labor), or are the emotions themselves an essential part of being? If they are both, what is the relationship between activity and being?
Despite the unclear ontological status that emotions occupy, as we enter adulthood, we are thought to develop the capacity to self-reflect and understand how our emotions function. This represents a development whereby we are meant to become responsible for our feelings, particularly our emotional reactions to every-day life experiences, including tragedies and crises.
I don’t mean to argue against this notion; there is plenty of literature that supports it. For instance, thoughts (another can of worms) do reportedly have an impact on the way we experience emotion, and changing thought patterns are shown to result in changes in emotional states. These theories can also be observed in the course of pyscho-therapeutic treatment. Certain modalities, most notably dialectical behavioral therapy, center on the seeming paradox wherein we are, in many ways, at the mercy of our emotions but can also develop the skills to more successfully navigate them for the purpose of effective communication and behavioral rehabilitation. In DBT, the focus is not—as in Freudian psychology—on unconscious desires and primal conflicts; but rather on skills that can be honed and practiced over time. As with other habits—lifting weights, eating healthy—the thinking goes, one can effectively model a new way of being in the world and being with oneself. It is a challenging but hopeful process.
Yet, there are tensions. Accepting the ambiguity of emotions calls into question many of the culturally accepted narratives regarding emotions and personality, many of which re-affirm dysfunctional patterns. It appears antithetical, for example, to consider emotions as unmediated sensations containing factual information when examined through the lens, of say, PTSD, wherein emotional dysregulation results from conditioned learning. Here, emotions are not innately linked to the inherent good or bad of the present experience, but are rather interpreted as patterned responses (to events, social dynamics) that can be, with patient guidance, softened over time. How can my feelings be at once, valid, deeply personal, and life-changing, while also being in some ways fixed to a set of circumstances that have nothing to do with me directly? In exploring this paradox, I submit that emotions are the site at which the perceived boundaries between the individual and the world effectively dissolve.
In a related way, personality is somehow conceived of as innate or fixed—an expression of being, an a priori principle. Understood in this light, emotions become the language or unique signature of a personality. If you experience emotional disturbances or are otherwise pathologized, the problem becomes greater, for how are you to “fix” your emotions if you are characteristically deficient? Typically, individual therapy, medications, are applied directly. However, many therapists know that a large part of the equation to healing is encouraging family members and friends to cooperate in the process. The site of relationships and social bonds, it would seem, is therefore the true site of behavioral health and disease. From this perspective, we can assign a more social and cultural dimension to personality.
Learning to operate differently in a world that can’t decide how it feels about feelings is rife with problems. We set our own traps. We think that if we make the uncomfortable emotions go away, we can “be” happy. The ways in which we identify these supposed enemies, however, takes place in a communal context, wherein moral feelings are acknowledged as shared: between classes, racial identities, gender identities, and other social categories, each of which feeds into the larger system of political discourse. Everyone is angry, morally outraged, disgusted, and frustrated, but each identifies the cause of his or her negative feelings according to a shared system, a specific code. This affective aspirational movement creates a feedback loop, wherein we displace emotion, or confuse its origin, and must scavenge to obtain information about our personal identities in order to understand how we feel about ourselves and others.
The experience of individual emotion and personality, thus, is part of a moral process by which we acknowledge or strive for ideological belonging. Put another way, it constitutes a search for love, belonging. For the person experiencing “disordered” emotions, there is only, on one hand, the potential for dysfunction, whereby personal agency is somehow erased, or there is a pull towards self-rejection. Without a proper outlet, feeling oneself in the world can be traumatic. On a social level—disastrous.
Humans have evolved to live and work together for a common good in a social setting. Physiologically speaking, we are relatively weak and ill-suited to survive in our environment, with its hots, colds, storms, fires and floods. As Clifford Geertz observed, it was through the tools of language and culture that we have secured our health and safety across generations. Emotions, I believe, are inseparable from culture; they are both sites of life-force and of trauma. If the culture is unwell, then no amount of self-healing, self-care, rooting out the “toxic” people from your life, or eating kale is going to do much of any good. At its worst, this only perpetrates narcissism, selfishness, ignorance, and a deeply problematic understanding of the communicable nature of personality and emotion.
How many people are lonely out there, trying to work against their pain, which they claim as their own, through yoga and skincare regimens and the law of attraction? In the meantime: family structures disintegrate, we become fearful of our neighbors, phobic to foreign influences, and retreat further into our own fantasies.
As I reflect on my own, interminable loneliness, I can think only of the red desert, dry air, my mother’s ashes, buried in a plot at the Rosario cemetery in Santa Fe, and the stringent blue sky, which I can love with a more perfect grace.
Part 2 of Some Thoughts on Love and Memory
Historiographically, the Renaissance has been conceived of as the rebirth of reason and liberation of thought, inviting a newly defined sense of subjectivity. Hundreds of years later, in response to the ripple effects of colonialism, the rise of fascism, and the outbreak of world wars, thinkers and artists called the state of civilization into question, giving birth to what we nominally understand to be Modernism. It could be said that one of the major philosophical tasks of the era was the intensive interrogation of the Renaissance worldview.
If the Renaissance represented the emerging sense of man as an individual capable of exerting his own will through material means, then Otto Dix’s Self Portrait as Mars from 1915 rehearses a striking response, filtered through an existentialist prism. Gazing out over his left shoulder from beneath his helmet, the structure of a grave, angular face gathers amidst clashing primary hues of red, yellow, blue, black, and white that suggest the underlying bone structure, muscle, and fascia. The figure merges with its surroundings—or are they memories, visions? In geometric suggestion: teeth, a horse, architectural fragments, fences, bullet holes. Adhering to the idiomatic gestures of Italian Futurism and Cubism, the result is jarring—a blaring icon, a confident amalgam of chaos and death. Embodying here the pagan god of war, Dix seems to amplify the awesome power of the individual psyche. He paints himself from without, a god upon the earth.
Claiming once that he had been drawn to art because he loved the smell of paint, Dix prefigured something fundamental about modern art’s engagement with materiality, though he preferred to communicate allegorically. In his youth he found confidence through the writings of Nietzsche and through his own artistic instinct. This kept him busy in the trenches throughout the first World War, where he produced hundreds of works. In spite of the harsh realities he and his comrades endured, he seems to have been enervated by the challenges. Strange to think that later, in the Interwar period, his work would track a more humble path. During the Nazi regime he was driven from his teaching post in Dresden and relegated to the realm of the degenerates (Entarte), where his work was upheld as an example of the cultural degradation of Germany. Framed as a moral threat, the exhibition’s curators, under the direction of Alfred Rosenberg, invited ridicule and rejection from a public that turned out in droves to see Dix’s works hung beside a host of other talented, “entarte” painters: Emile Nolde, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Max Beckmann, among the displayed.
Around the same time that Dix and his contemporaries were working in Germany, researchers were also expanding their understanding of images as epistemological vehicles. Among these, Aby Warburg is perhaps the most famous, having constructed a unique research library that enabled his search to uncover the persistence of pagan forms in Western Art. What Dix intuited as an artist and from direct experience, Warburg triangulated through the reproduction of images.
In Panel C of his final work, the Atlas Mnemosyne, Warburg articulated his own vision of the bellicose deity in a series of programmatic images, arranged in two rows, simply affixed to a black ground. On the top row from left to right, the following: 1) The identification of the planetary orbits with the five platonic solids, from the Mysterium cosmographicum by Johannes Kepler, 1621; 2) the planetary orbits, according to the modern model from Brockhaus’ Konversations-Lexikon, 14th ed., 1905; 3) The children of Mars, from a 15th-century German Codex. On the bottom row, from left to right: 4) The orbit of mars according to Kepler’s observations from Astronomia Nova, 1609; 5a) The Graf Zeppelin over the Japanese coast encountering a coastal observation plane, 1929; 5b) Another view of the Graf Zeppelin, 1929; 5c) The Graf Zeppelin over New York, 1929. Given the dates of the newspaper clippings included, it is my guess that this panel was compiled towards the end of Warburg’s life in the same year. That the origin of each image is German or northern European (in particular, the textual reference to Hamburg, Warburg’s hometown, in the final image) should not be construed as coincidental.
This constellation evokes the style of news reporting in Berlin in the 1920s, wherein images came to stand in for textual explanation. Echoing likewise the Dada propensity for aggregated forms, the images in this plate suggest the evolution of pagan mythology towards scientific discovery and progress. The movement or transference of forms towards the final three images—the Graf Zeppelin—hearken to the first successful airborne circumnavigation of the globe, as Claudia Wedepohl argues. Yet, I also wonder if this image brought to mind the zeppelins that were deployed as bombers during the first World War. Interestingly, in Warburg’s atlas, the Zeppelin appears from a number of perspectives, rendering the formal qualities of this strange, airborne object as somehow abstract. In one image, the Zeppelin is seen as if from the air, elegantly elongated at a slight declination. Formally, the vessel is an oblong ellipse of flat white; only the observing airplane, which flies at a harmonious angle just beneath this form, contextualizes the air ship’s position. In the second image, the Zeppelin is seen only partially, and from underneath. From this perspective, its enormity, its leaden darkness, have an oppressive aspect. The horizon, in a similar tone, balances the composition. The final picture of the Zeppelin, on the other hand, renders the object graphically—superimposed across the title of the periodical, Hamburger Illustrietre. Underneath the Zeppelin, the words: “Telegraphierte Bilder” or “Telegraphed Pictures”.
As one moves through the images, the perspective shift implies a similar transformation in perceptual technologies. First, we visually read the 3D model giving form to Kepler’s mathematical calculations revealing Mars’ elliptical orbit. Warburg identified this discovery as the breakthrough to modern science. Math, translatable as image, both represented institutional power while it also held within it the possibility of rebellion and progress. These same mathematical models (another from Kepler, and yet another from 1905) appear rendered graphically in 2D, in a gesture that makes use of and acknowledges the limitations of the printed medium by which knowledge is transmitted.
Comparatively, the illustration from the calendar book of a Carthusian monk from 1475 seem arcane and fantastical. Here the order is hierarchical, on a vertical axis, with Mars pictured as a knight, his children below engaged in battle on the temporal plane.
Interestingly, this image is the only one that makes explicit use of the human figure—in motion during battle. The human activity implied through the appearance of Zeppelin and its real-world consequences in global politics, on the other hand, illuminates the way in which advances or evolutions in conceptual understandings of celestial bodies perform a symbolic erasure through the elimination of the human individual from his imagined reality. An uncomfortable sensation results from the suggestion that the planetary body, Mars, as it was experienced in antiquity and through the Renaissance, had found its way into modernity as a manifestation of mastery and triumph on one hand and aggressivity and destruction on the other. As Otto Dix had once remarked in his journal while on the front lines, “even war must be regarded as impersonal”.
Warburg had worked in “picture press campaigns” during the Reformation in response to the devastations of World War I, remarking that, “the horror-fantasy of the ongoing war will be inconceivable without a picture-historical analysis of the belief in monsters”. What, or who, were the monsters? The answers, it might seem, could be found in the archive of the everyday.
As Horst Bredekamp observes, Warburg began to expand his research beyond the strictures of the fine art object to include images from contemporary life. Method and research thus seemed to merge with a novel artistic process, as exemplified by artists like Kurt Schwitters and Pablo Picasso, who drew together disparate articles and fragments to produce novel artifacts. In a world inundated with images, new meaning could be excavated and re-conveyed in a way that gave expression to an underlying structure. This is not dissimilar to Claude Levi-Strauss’s approach to anthropology, which argued for a transmission of forms and myths across cultural space. For Levi-Strauss, images (as formal manifestations of mythical discourse) had a concrete agency in locating humans within a cosmological framework. And while the French anthropologist would evince a colonialist anxiety about what constituted “primitive” versus “modern,” Warburg sought to emphasize how the modern and the antique were, ultimately, part of the same system.
This was before Hitler officially captured control of the German government, but fascism was already gaining its foothold in Warburg’s home country as well as in Italy, his adopted second home. In the same year that Warburg composed the Mars plate, Mussolini and Pope Pius XI signed the Lateran Treaty, in which the pope officially abdicated his temporal power through the creation of a new Vatican state as separate and distinct from Rome, the latter to which Mussolini would now lay claim. Warburg was present for that event. He collected a number of photos that he then purposed to illustrating his last collages (plates 78 and 79) for his Bilderatlas. Panel 78, entitled “Church and State. The religious power renounces its secular power” brings about a dramatic conclusion in which Renaissance monuments and images—Saint Peter’s Basilica, Bernini’s bronzes, Botticelli’s painting, Giotto and Rafael frescos—foreground and contextualize the symbolic moment. Here, as Charlotte Schoell-Glass argues, images are shown to exert their power chiefly in sacrificial rituals. Consider how the photo in Plate 78, where the attending officials are shown seated as they sign the accord, mirrors the image of the Last Supper during which Jesus gathered with his Apostles and initiated the tradition of the Eucharist.
This becomes the explicit theme of the final Plate 79, entitled “Eating God. Bolsena. Botticelli. Paganism in the Church. Miracle of the bloody host. Transubstantiation. Italian criminals receiving extreme unction.” (Warburg’s colleague, Gertrude Bing, named all panels, in fidelity to the telegraphic impulse present therein.) The discursive range of meanings here is myriad; I will comment only on a few. Included in this constellation of images: a hara-kiri, or ritual suicide, clippings from the press, photographs of the procession that accompanied the signing of the treaty. Raphael’s fresco of the miraculous bleeding host, Botticelli’s last communion of Saint Jerome—both echoing again the Final Supper as well as the ritual act in which ritual power brokers the distinction between religion and politics, or rather, reconstitutes pagan symbolism in a modern context. One photograph, showing Pope Pius XI beneath a baldachin amidst the eucharistic procession, ontologically transforms the Bishop of Rome into a miraculous image, not unlike the portable, wooden sculptures that were (and are) frequently brought out in mass processions on feast days and in response to environmental crisis, plagues, and other social disturbances. Thus, Warburg gives witness to the consecration of fascism in Italy, accompanied by a renegotiation of the cosmic order.
Finally: the sacrament of extreme unction acts as a stand-in for the ritual violence through reference to a scene of Jewish host desecrators sentenced to death, a common theme in Christian art. State-sanctioned violence and sacrifice, transferred as they were in Christianity to the symbolic realm, generated the basis of a social and juridical code concerning belonging. Writ large, that allegory exerted immeasurable force on the present. The ancient beast, antisemitism, would once again drive political activities back into the human sphere where blood was still blood and flesh still flesh.
Whatever Warburg’s feelings about Europe’s future may have been, the final images he left behind are ominous. For, not only does Warburg register the beginning of a new political reality with the rise of fascism, he also gives witness to something more sinister; that is, he seems to prophesize just how complicit the spiritual order would be in the atrocities that would follow during World War II. He did not live to see that war.
Here he comes, that wicked Tezcatlipoca
With his rotting leg, those yellow teeth!
Creeping slyly through the jungle,
Crouched in humid rank of loam and thunder
Smooth eyeballs, so sharp and round and blue,
Polished clean with prickling dust—
Beneath the paper bands and knotted feathers of
That greasy black headdress.
I think I saw him sink
beneath the wide volcano thigh.
Is he coming here
To devour or did he come
Around to die? Wait.
The sky clears upon my
feldspar hill, blue reeds slicing
at the swamp. My cloak
Is blue just like the sun.
I cannot prize
it from my crust.
The wind is crying out
The merchants move below.
Red clay dissolves with light’s decay.
I am troubled by what I cannot know.
A turquoise spike
Into tired flesh of sun.
They spoke to me of omens,
A sick bird flew through my halls
A mirror fixed upon its breast—
And even then,
Only I could read my reflection.
The bloodied eagle,
Adorned with down and blue
stomach splayed with beating blade,
I need to lie inside your pain.
And so surrender to the earth
Her dirty, stinking filth.
Squatting low, legs wide apart,
We are coming forth.
I feel the slip
The warming shock of you,
Your pulse pushed
Flat against my palm.
I turn aside. I
When Venus darts strike
Down the plinth, the serpent
Comes to life.
Electric blades and mandibles
Erected at my flanks.
Night is cold
And I am ready.
From the wide deep vessel
You finally emerged. We drank
And ate together there,
The corn so soft and blue,
Chocolate boiled down with
Flesh and chile pods.
You showed me in your mirror
As we licked our wet fat lips,
Those fortunes yet to come
And those we had endured.
I could not see so clearly
For the concave belly lens,
It warped the image there—
The whispered voice–
The floating glare. I
Stare into its void.
It drifts above, suspended in midair-
The smell of burning books.
My cloak is turquoise
My legs are jade and chalk.
I wore them down upon the causeways
Surveying as I walked.
The city was proud and
Strong, those generations
Gold powdered prayers–
sun’s excrement, had
Settled there among
Hungry dogs came
to lap them up
While the lapidaries
A mosaic eye,
a pyrite disc, each ray
I strapped it tight across
my chest and sculpted
gods from amaranth.
His mirror smokes, I smell
His breath–it casts
An ancient sheen
Across the hollows of this
hill I call upon
The turquoise rain
The rain will come
The fire will die
And day-namers once again
In voices, pure and blue, as they tend
The dying mothers and dream out loud–
The sun is setting low.
Upon one blade of reed,
She spills her turquoise blood.
I cannot staunch the east.
Go, tell the priest,
You must tell him this at once:
To cover himself in dark pitch,
To bring me stingray bones.
(Once again, I will embrace the city
And descend from this hill top)
I heed not necessity,
Nor wish to do you well.
I cannot rest my wit on myth.
Nor play the battle call—
For it’s far too late to
Set that trap. And so, I vow to
honor thee—Together we’ll dissolve
This clotted enmity.
I beseech thee,
The bearded ones approach…)
Go, now, bring me thy
And bathe it thick with honey,
Coat it thickly thrice.
Together we’ll lick it cleanly off.
and watch the world begin again as
Shadows in darkened streets—
where even turquoise light cannot reach.
The city is quiet–its citizens
Are proud but quiet.
The enemy sweetly ascends–but
Our honey is much sweeter.
Let it slip silently
beneath our throats
this sickly thirst.
Sonya Wohletz is a bat that was born in a golden cave in New Mexico. She transformed into a human a few decades ago and flew to the Pacific Northwest to roost. Now that she enjoys the use of opposable thumbs, she writes fiction, poetry, and paints.
Part 1 of Some Thoughts on Love and Memory
Around the turn of the 20th century, two remarkable artists were working in Vienna whose contributions would bring to surface deep cultural tensions that had somehow remained buried and unresolved in the Western consciousness for thousands of years. One of the artists was a musician, a composer, and the director of the Vienna Court Opera; the other worked in applied arts and paintings. The composer’s 5th Symphony was conceived of in dedication to his love of (or rather his ineffable desire for) his wife. In a poem accompanying the piece, he wrote:
In which way I love you, my sunbeam,
I cannot tell you with words.
Only my longing, my love and my bliss,
Can I with anguish declare
I’ve frequently heard the piece on the radio, the adagietto, swathed in static and rain as I drive home at the end of the day. As the strings make their gentle, if diffident, entrance in the first bars, it is hard to draw out the melodic structure from the mass of sound, as if something had not quite been resolved in the composer’s mind. The effect is lovely, yet we can sense the lavender lack of resolution and evasive drive for satisfaction that moves underneath the sound waves. It is in equal parts an uneasy and comforting experience, an all-consuming nebula of feeling. Wagner smiles in the background. As with most things that are all-consuming, the idea of committing fully to these tides of tension and resolution is terrifying, having known what it felt like before.
Here is how it felt (or rather, how the experience summons itself in visions): a suspension of emotion caught inside some viscosity of blue liquid—impossibly difficult to submit oneself fully, though it is, of course, inevitable. Having been there before, in the music, I know for myself that it is better to submerge the senses all at once and allow it to swallow me, the terrible future contemplated as if from the soaring vantage point of some rocky outcropping on a windswept, Teutonic winter day. The freezing, yet tonic turquoise of the water below. In to it from the promontory, panting with shock, the electric heart whirring the oxygen along to the extremities in tiny little vehicles of fatted blood. Goosebumps sprout like a patterned illness.
This was before the war. And then it was over.
The music begins to reveal itself with more confidence, and with it descends a disorienting sensation that welcomes back a native warmth. The war was long ago, I remember, and the beauty, death’s premonition, somehow persisted.
Around the same time Gustav Mahler began work on this monument, Gustav Klimt was in the midst of a scandal following the unveiling of an unfinished work meant to adorn the ceiling of Vienna University’s Great Hall. The work in question, a dedicatory to the theme of Philosophy, was met with disgust. Where it was understood that the artist would display the apollonian restraint associated with the striving of intellect, he instead painted the simple madness, the turgid void of the human psyche.
Ascending towards the heavens on the left side of the composition: a stream of life—naked bodies, beautiful bodies, bodies twirling in the copulative act; at the top, children, partially obscured by the burly, Michaelangelo-esque figure of some male nude, his ropy back muscles confronting the viewer in suggestive, agile brushwork. A woman dangles just beneath this group, ivory white, her head thrown back in ecstasy as she grasps her full breasts. Unlike most of the other figures in this life stream, she is not engaged with anyone else, but rather suspended in mid-air, lost in sensation. I imagine her a tired mother like me, stripped bare of worldly concerns, tied in tight to the experience of her body, her milk, her skin. Deep green rapture.
Beneath these glorious bodies, a desiccated figure of a man, warped in sorrow, his skin hanging from his bones as he claws his head with demon-like talons, weeping in despair. Another grieving figure, diagonally elevated to the right—his female counterpart. Our ancestors.
Oh, man, take heed:
What does the deep midnight say?
I was asleep, asleep
From a deep dream I woke
The world is deep
Deeper than the day has known
Deep in its woe—
Desire—deeper still than a heartbreak
Woe speaks: Go die!
At the lowest edge of the painting, a mysterious woman peeks out amidst a fabulous swatch of dark hair, reminiscent of a Japanese ukiyo-e courtesan. Eyes lit, she recalls the image of Judith from one of the artist’s other well-known compositions. She sees us looking, trying to understand what she already knows, what she had to kill to know.
Finally, in the background, the evocative image of a Sphinx—the Symbolist representation of the cosmic riddle—emerges amidst stippled brushwork, face slack and peaceful.
Klimt was never able to fully execute this masterpiece. Having been accused of pornography and perverted excess, his vision of the philosophic impulse as a swirling of “atoms and elemental forces,” as the critic Ludwig Hevesi had characterized it, had not found purchase with the conservative tastes of government officials. They wanted beauty, but the tasteful sort, measured in part by the classicizing legacy of the Renaissance, understood as it was to be governed by reason, measure, decency, triumph, harmony. Strange to realize that these criticisms would much echo the same derisions directed towards interwar artists a few decades later in Germany as Hitler extended his aesthetic machine into the hearts and minds of his followers, determined to expunge the scourge of the so-called entarte (degenerate) from the cultural sphere. He himself had studied art in Vienna. And Vienna, save for the few (mostly Jewish) collectors that actually purchased his obsessively-ordered works, had rejected him.
In the 1930s Klimt’s Philosophy (as well as the accompanying works, Medicine and Jurisprudence, which were equally ridiculed for their avant garde qualities) came into the possession of a Jewish family before they were confiscated by Nazis. It is believed that the works were later deliberately destroyed by the Nazis during the retreat in 1945. Of Philosophy, only black and white photographs survive.
I think about pre-war Vienna, the opera, the Sphynx, Mahler’s symphony, the melting away of the last remnants of Habsburg glory. The Byzantine opulence of Holy Roman piety, sparkling surfaces marked out in gorgeous patterns, sighing with life. I suppose, in some ways, this represents, at least historiographically, a point in time where so many things converged or promised to converge, before the earth crumbled apart and the rotten corpses of the old conflicts between philosophy and cultic adoration, magic and reason, and god and man were somehow called forth, re-animated, and loosed in a wild and orgiastic stampede.
Perhaps these old ghosts somehow have this insipid quality of disguise, of mimicry. Claiming for themselves some imagined distance between subject and object, they lodge themselves in the folds of time and fatten themselves with lies and forgetting. The spaces around them inflate–grow vaster–and the ghosts more bloated, until the tissues that contain that fictive, sick space of cultural progress begin to collapse in on themselves once more. We find ourselves in the atemporal experience of magic, which we believed was somehow extirpated along the way towards modernity.
Philosophy—well, German Idealism, particularly—certainly seems to have guided itself along this direction, having negotiated some sort of peace treaty between thought and emotion, experience and truth, through the expedient of logic. In turn—designating art as a receptacle for that which could not fully be accounted for in logical terms. Yet this division was bound to fail. For logic has an unquenchable appetite for aesthetic and emotional experience.
In Mahler’s music I find the unmediated urge for a medium by which this experience could somehow unhinge itself from the yoke of that German methodical madness. His was a beckoning to the immediate demands of intimacy. It is no coincidence that now, years later, people can respond to his creation so strongly.
Whereas contemporary thinkers like Arthur Schopenhauer emphasized a growing concern with the generative impulse, the mechanism by which mankind secures its future, Mahler’s music, in some ways, overrides theoretical concerns and to an equal degree, the clinical take on reproduction. Love is the experience we have with other human beings, the memories, feelings, and disappointments that come to mind when we recall the image of a particular individual to mind. The smell of hair, embarrassment, and threadbare bedclothes. The woman who poses for the painting, bare-breasted, thick-thighed. For the madmen of the time, Love, as a dirty word for reproduction, was nothing but a tool and would become the fulcrum upon which world domination rested.
There is a tension there, in Vienna, before the world wars. It hasn’t been diffused. The world still burns its ghosts, smoke ascending from rows of votive candles, wax melting down between the cracks in the altar beneath which the unctuous liquid pools in that primordial place to commune with the next generation. Subject and object collapse; or, we see that they were never really separate. The madmen would claim that they are. The madmen would win out in the short-term, with the introduction of eugenics theory and the preoccupation with (and, consequently, inconsolable anxiety about) the supposed superiority of the make-believe Aryan race.
Mahler’s art is in some ways a soothing reminder that no matter what the world devises for us, there may be some safety in love. Can we afford to believe that, or is the burden of cultural trauma too overpowering?
With Klimt, I sense at work something perhaps even more profound, that is, the desire to dissolve the boundaries between the affective and the act of knowing. This, in many ways, represents a turn away from an ordered approach to the world, guided perhaps by the rich cultural conversation, helmed by Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud, that sought to unearth the primal chaos of the human psyche as a significant driving force of civilization. There is much to be said about their failures.
What Nietzsche problematically sought to achieve with his holographic prose, his return to the “origins” of Western Civilization through the Dionysian complex of pleasure, disaster, and chaos, Aby Warburg, an early 20th-century art historian, would elevate with his re-evaluation of the state of philosophy and art, exorcising the “I” of Nietzsche’s false ego. Regarded today by many as the originator of the modern approach to art history, Aby Warburg is somewhat of a mystery, according to Georges Didi-Huberman, a “dybbuk” (spirit, though I am sure that Didi-Huberman only implies the malicious nature of this ghostly imp for the fact that, no matter how hard he tries, he can’t expunge Warburg fully from his own approach to the matter of art history). Through Warburg, art history itself as a genre, a way of looking at the world, a method (or, as James Elkins argues, lack thereof) may permit some sort of expansive, somehow artless insight into the inner workings of the Western ethos on the eve of the world wars.
With his preoccupation with movement, the juncture between systems of thought—the cosmos, space, the human body—and the persistence of Pagan astrology throughout the Renaissance and beyond, Aby Warburg may have found much to appreciate in Klimt’s rejected works (though we don’t know if he ever saw them) and their insistence on a timeless sense of being. For Warburg, historiography was too concerned with chronology, and through images, he was able to express something about the persistence of human urges and impulses and the cycles by which we negotiate empathy and distance, chaos and order.
In his final work, Atlas Mnemosyne, which he undertook in 1924, leaving it unfinished at his death in 1929, Warburg compiled series of images meant to illustrate the atemporal, affective structure of image systems as he experienced them in his studies. Much has been said about these panels, each of which was thematically conceived, consisting of collaged images, photograph, and manuscripts. In many ways they lend themselves to a limitless range of interpretive possibilities. As sites of reflection and syntheses, they allow their creator (and their viewer) to lay bare the ways in which images are never singular, but rather participate in larger network of ideas that seem to collapse time and space.
One of the recurrent schematic keys to interpreting the aesthetic pathos is that of ascent and fall. In Warburg, these two polarities find expression through a number of themes: salvation and condemnation, progress and decay, triumph and defeat, the movement of celestial bodies.
Add to the pastiche the image of Klimt’s bodies in Philosophy. Do they rise, or fall with age? Is age the same thing as time? And where does the image locate us, as spectators, in this stream? Play it to the tune of Mahler, and press pause. Try to forget what happens next.