On the Slope of the Waves
“Tutti coloro che se ne vanno, ti lasciano sempre addosso un po di sè? E questo il segreto della memoria?” [All those who leave, always leave a little of themselves in you, is that then the secret of memory?] That is the question posed by director Ferzan Özpetek in his film from 2003 “La finestra di fronte” [Facing windows] in a letter addressed by a fictional character to a long by-gone friend, at end of which we are left with nothing but a certain empathy about this open-ended question. What is the secret of the memory then? Why is the memory so important that a message, any message, would be completely lost without it? Hannah Arendt wrote in 1929: “It is memory and not expectation (the expectation of death as in Heidegger) which gives unity and wholeness to human existence… Remembrance in man discovers the two-fold before of human existence… This is the reason why the return to one’s origin can at the same time be understood as an anticipating reference to one’s end”. While this does not reveal the secret of memory, it points in the direction of why are messages of others important in the construction of life – living a little in order to die and dying a little in order to live – and how the messages are always delivered a little too late – even the messages from above and beyond, death always catches us unprepared. Here you can imagine Ingeborg Bachmann’s Malina anxiously writing letters and immediately thereafter disposing of them, angry at the thought that they would never be delivered on the same day. What kind of world is this in which messages, like philosophy and prophecy, can never arrive on time? What kind of world is this in which we want to live and speak, be heard? Michael Cunningham brings this question to life in his novel “The Hours”: “Still, she loves the world for being rude and indestructible, and she knows others people must love it too, poor as well as rich, though no one speaks specifically of the reasons. Why else do we struggle go to on living, no matter how compromised, no matter how harmed? Even if we’re further gone than Richard; even if we’re fleshless, blazing with lesions, shitting in the sheets; still we want desperately to live. It has to do with all this, she thinks”. The same perplexity of Clarissa Vaughan, Cunningham’s fictional persona, does not leave us when we are faced with the facts of this world, we are harmed by language itself and need to withdraw not just to understand and analyze facts but to create alternative versions that might allow us to go on living unmolested. That is how we transform the world into a recollection of images, postcards and photographs – not even a collection because collecting would imply that we are able to choose the finest pieces and not as it is often the case, end up stuck with advertisements, inebriated geographies and news in lieu of reminders of our earthly experiences. We leave the comfort but also the immense obligations of the home and begin wandering in the hotel of the world, checking out at our convenience when the turbulence becomes uncomfortable to handle; all what we have for a reminder of our life on earth is the remainder of the post cards and photographs that we carry instead of suitcases and sometimes in lieu of a passport itself. The postal system of world history in which messages are exchanged not only across cities but also across the most distant ages, between gods and philosophers, between writers and heretics, between lovers and soldiers, between rulers and fallen divinities; that postal system out of which we have derived religion, literature, thought and the arts is a slow but necessary device to protect our secrecy. We would be immediately burnt and torched completely by the unmediated encounter with the words, with the loudly speaking facts of the worlds. Yet even in our intimate cities of refuge there is little we can do to protect ourselves from acts of hearing and speaking, either of the indirect kind (art) or the direct kind (politics). Socrates advises to become a φυλακή, a guardian or sentinel of truth by protecting this truth, keeping ourselves from reading and writing at all and avoiding thus the pains begot by knowledge. The Gospel of Matthew informs us that even in spite of the vigilantes and sentinels the apostles were visited by God himself while imprisoned so that even a ban on acts of reading and writing should not suffice; the act of seeing itself as the Greek σκοπια suggests, means that upon seeing we are also accepting as a fact the existence of what we’re seeing – the lesson of St. Paul in his epistle to the Corinthians. Reality and language intersect in the post card as a token of the broken memory, as a fragment of something that in itself has no beginning and no ends, being unsure on whether it is life or death where it begins or ends, which one is the gift? To visualize the intersection it is necessary to use more than reason or faith and to see with the two eyes of Ibn al-‘Arabi - ذو العينين - doing enough justice to both the eternal transience and the mortal worldliness of things. Seeing with two eyes is not the old philosophical duality but the ability to see the one and same thing twice. The writing or the experience are universally lonely if the message is not sent from one end to another, it is in the message, the postcard, the image, where the lens is amplified and the word leaves the flesh to become one with the world. The composer Hans Werner Henze responded to Ingeborg Bachmann’s masterful postcard “Malina” by saying that “I’m very touched by the richness, great sadness and despair in your first symphony, which is in fact Mahler’s eleventh”. How could one live with the fact of having written an unwritten symphony? “Nichts mehr wird kommen” [Nothing else will come] responded Ingeborg Bachmann in a poem sent to Henze in 1968. Do such ends of history exist at all? How do we unwillingly leave the realm of words and turn into musical winds? Do we cross invisible lines after which poetry and art can be no more? What is that memory which art sets free and that makes the aesthetic experience so universal? It seems as if what happens is that fragments of the world show such incredible resistance to being forgotten – unlike the world itself that survives on a dynamic of oblivion and instinct. To understand the postcards and the messages from the past as forms without a soul of its own deteriorates into what Ibrahim Kalin warns: “It does not enable to find a home in a world of homeless minds, uprooted traditions and soulless masses”, there must be something else that pushes the boundaries of the mere archiving and organizing information into the creative act of messaging each other across times and spaces – as though a Copernic voyage. It is nothing but the discontent with mere survival and the pressing demand to live in a better world – as exemplified in the story-telling of Özpetek’s films – what presents the vast vaults of the memory as an open book in the eternal and internal postal service of Western art. The memory of art is always a commitment to freedom, either located in an infinitely remote past or in the distant future, but never simply a reflection of the present, conscious or unconscious. The departure point is always a “via negativa” as that of theology: We are always ought to begin with what we don’t know, and even when we stand in front of a mirror we still don’t know. The intensity of the living is made manifest in the message for there’s no insurance against life, it is impossible to live without the risk, without the danger, without the sinister panic and guilt of mere existence. There’s no possible φυλακή to protect you against the slope of the waves, only blindness and silence. Insofar as you’re committed to speaking, the life of art and the message of the postcard is nothing but hunger for freedom - the kind of vertiginous freedom that leads great men to virtue and average men to vice.
By Arie Amaya – Akkermans/ Dedicated to Maikel Nabil Sanad, political prisoner at El Marg Prison – Egypt, since March 28th 2011