Thursday, September 13, 2012

“At the Ocean”

 For T.A.

And the conversations were always sad. ‘Do you like walking in New York City?’ And he did like it. “’I love walking in London,’ said Mrs. Dalloway. ‘Really it’s better than walking in the country.’”  It made him feel different and reminded him of his true size in relation to the rest of the world and the people in it; infinitesimally small but yet not entirely alone. He was right: ‘New York is different. It’s too much of a city.’ “For Heaven only knows why one loves it so, in the triumph and the jingle and strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June.” And that was a sign of agreement, which was as necessary as in war. He loved the past always, so colorful, emotions infinitely expanded; the only thing that was not available there. This endless growth, asphyxiating as it was accelerating; largesse of signposts and aluminum. Besides, he had never met anyone there and everyone was busy, there were no accidents. ‘It’s one of the reasons why I feel sad.’ And he couldn’t tell if he meant New York or him. Also, he didn’t want to know.

He had loved the long walks in the city by himself; one could be alone in it. “It was strange; it was still. Not a sound was to be heard above the traffic.” The presence of the waves, undulating as it was, tiptoeing around every imaginable achievement, with callous indifference. One felt so foreign, and this added the privilege of invisibility. Everything that had to seem miraculous was surprisingly orderly, unaltered by repetition and ultimately too visible, imperceptibly at risk. “She had a perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day.” He liked to go for walks, but there was no point in inviting him to the city. There are so many boundaries, and so many walls, and inside the walls, more walls. Bastions in which, one morning, I wake up condemned. Cities where I am isolated, quarantines, cages, “rest” homes.” He probably wouldn’t come. Those walks are better in other cities, listening to oneself, he thought, as he tried to walk in the opposite direction, so that he couldn’t find him.

‘What does your voice sound like?’ was the question that he found extraordinary. He had never heard it. But he was seeing him, yet couldn’t quite point a finger on what he was seeing but he knew full well that he couldn’t talk without seeing: “Not indeed in actual words; that is, he could not read the language yet; but it was plain enough, this beauty, this exquisite beauty.” There was nothing he wanted to have in that moment; everything seemed trivial and delicate, fragilemost, and the silences found their way into the voices as enormous blocks of concrete that could be removed only by feathers zigzagging through them. What could be had here anyway? You want to have. You want everything. But having is forbidden to human beings. Having everything.” Am I still taking you for dinner? The painting was perfect, that moment, a Last Supper, a feast, a vigil through the hours of the night, but the image was blurred and without texture; an abstract painting, headless, on a convex stretched canvas. “’Peter! Peter!’ cried Clarissa, following him out on to the landing. ‘My party to-night! Remember my party to-night!”

A singular moment of attention. Unrestrained.  Like a river, humongous, flattening basalt stones on the first dawn after the end of winter. “Outside the trees dragged their leaves like nets through the depth of the air; the sound of water was in the room and through the waves came the voices of birds singing.” Nothing else was needed. For the others, it could have been any other morning; a postman arrives with a letter and enquires about the well-being of the sender, somewhere else a postman delivers a letter to an anonymous mail box and the letter is never answered. Like that. One could take pleasure in such details. Arranging flowers, counting pennies, sorting papers. It’s like this. “What she liked was simply life.” Nothing can be so unsettling, so marvellous, so lustful. Why would you be interested in anything else? He had been told by an expert critic that contemporary art had to be boring, in order to be good. “And of course she enjoyed life immensely.” It felt wildly precarious, and there would be no need to say anything, if only one could stare, if only, for a single moment.

A dinner would would be fantastic, he thought. He was quivering at the same time and responded to the question with a nod, with a minuscule smile of the eyelid, reflected on the corner of the mouth. He also knew he would never be on time. “He almost cried out that he couldn’t attend because he was in Hell!” Maybe a letter would do, with an apology. But the golden rule was, never write letters to strangers, especially if you don’t know their address or can make sure that the letter would be delivered. Why was it so important to speak? Sometimes the conversations were more like humming, and yet it felt so infinitely impotent because of how realistic that language was, less is more, his friend has said. “For she had come to feel that it was the only thing worth saying – what one felt. Cleverness was silly. One must simply say what one felt.” He wanted to feel nothing else, in that moment. As a trained art historian, he thought that one should be able to take the whole painting in one stare, without reading. To the point of choking.

He had been unarguably a good painter, others had said, when he was younger, but he now considered those achievements of triffling importance. “It was her warmth; her vitality – she would paint, she would write.” Painting hadn’t made him a good artist, but rather, a good seer. He had never painted George for example, because the vision was already unaltered and perfect; he no longer read his letters either, there were other things he remembered, about which he didn’t permit himself to talk about. All the canvases stood there, half finished, and there were other things that occupied him now. “Writing is good; it’s what never ends. The simplest, most secure other circulates inside me.” He was interested in the conversations, in all what couldn’t be easily remembered, in things that they couldn’t have, not even in New York, in things that burnt. “We welcome, the world seemed to say; we accept; we create. Beauty, the world seemed to say.” He liked dinners. There were others thing too. “She made old Joseph tell her the names of the stars, which he liked doing very seriously. She stood there: she listened. She heard the names of the stars.”

Perhaps he wasn’t paying any attention, he thought, but how would he know? All what he wanted is for him to see him in the exact same way, the writer, would. To see him in the possibility. I want to see: everything. No Promised Land I won’t reach someday. Seeing what you will (n)ever have. Maybe I have written to see; to have what I never would have had; so that having would be the privilege not of the hand that takes and encloses, of the gullet, of the gut; but of the hand that points out, of the fingers that see, that design, from the tips of the fingers that transcribe by the sweet dictates of the vision.” There are people who believe in great things regardless of circumstances, he said. It made him both bold and smothered, smoothed out on the contours. It felt like the truest thing ever said. He didn’t have particular liking for moral seriousness and always prefered to speak in uprorious paradoxes, yet this was the closest to art that he had ever been. ‘Funny how we write our sentences, as if they are ultimatums’. That part of seeing was important too: seeing what will never be had. Art is also about that. But art is not life. He thought too.

Moments are always easy to see, easier than things. That’s why he no longer liked the paintings. What he was looking for – and unable to detect because of his obsession with precission of eye – was signs. In the beginning, I adored. What I adored was human. Not persons; not totalities, not defined and named beings. But signs.” George was like this; he knew all the signs and had no need to speak about them. That was the secret. The unspeakable. It didn’t require much artistic talent, just an extra storage room in the soul; what wasn’t a guarantee of constance. One needed faith to make up for that.  “And the sign withdrew. Vanished. While I burned on and consumed myself wholly.” And yet he could still see, like a painter, because he had learnt to see from a distance, and the signs became checkpoints, available every day of the year. The real problem wasn’t just things, though, but faces, the most difficult thing to see. To see the face, to remember it, it was to live with the terror too. “But there was nothing. They were alone in the room. It was a dream, she would tell him and so quiet him at last, but sometimes she was frightened too.”

‘Tell me something, before I sleep’. That was the most terrible request, not only because his stories always end in disappointment or vagueness, but also because he couldn’t understand how people still slept. “Writing: a way of leaving no space for death, of pushing back forgetfulness, of never letting oneself be surprised by the abyss. Of never becoming resigned, consoled, never turning over in bed to face the wall and drift asleep again as if nothing had happened; as if nothing could happen.” He had known fear, long before he had known faith, that is why he frightened at the idea of sleep. What if a letter arrived? Or simply just one word? Or if he could finally learn to see signs? Was is not worth the trouble? The exhaustion? Losing the humming even, was an unbearable thought. “’Clarissa!’ he cried. ‘Clarissa!’ But she never came back. It was over. He went away that night. He never saw her again.” That was a horrible mistake; beauty is always returned to. Painters know this well.

Nothing could be lost this way, not even an invitation for dinner, not even the opportunity to set the table. “Still, the sun was hot. Still, one got over things. Still, life had a way of adding day to day.” He had also been told that perhaps he was sweeter than he thought, and less indifferent, and that made him feel defenseless, but for the first time, he basked in this knowledge. It was like a long walk. It was the long walk. “He had never felt so happy in the whole of his life! Without a word they made it up. They walked down to the lake. He had twenty minutes of perfect happiness.” There are many ways to avoid risk, to avoid disappointment, to avoid charm, to avoid lust. Perhaps going for dinner isn’t one of them. And he wanted to learn the face. “’I will come,’ said Peter, but he sat for a moment. What is this terror? What is this ecstasy? He thought to himself. What is it that fills me with extraordinary excitement? It is Clarissa, he said. For there she was.” And there they were.

‘I want to know if you are real. I want to touch your cheeks and make sure they’re not rubber.’ There was no response. He taught him his first painting lesson, how to paint at the ocean: “There’s a recipe. To really paint the sea, you have to see it everyday, at every hour and in the same place, to come to know the life in this location.”

[Passages from Virginia Woolf taken from "Mrs. Dalloway", Aziloth Books, 2010. Passages from Helene Cixous taken from "Coming to Writing & Other Essays", Harvard University Press, 1992]

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