June 26, 2008

Winter Memories in Blinded Summer

More than most photographs, the specter-laden images of Alexey Titarenko are made by what slips past, barely apprehended, maybe wholly unseen. Looking at some of his pictures of Russia, Cuba, Venice, one senses that the dust or snow is suspended like a patina, some gorgeous gauze of memory; a protective coating that announces proudly that things do not change. But in most there is the movement, the long look that plays with the play of the eye and mind. Those frames are filled with whispers of light, as if some of the strands detected are what await memory's work of return, the mind's ability to conjure ghosts for the sake of dialog and the others are perceptions of what will never yield to the demands to perceive. We live, breathe, and think, and are always losing so much of what passes.

It makes sense, then, these winter scenes seen out of season:

"Just as little as the eye can see at its blind spot, where the nerve enters the retina, is what has just been experienced perceived by any sense. This blind spot in the soul, this darkness of the lived moment, must nevertheless be thoroughly distinguished from the darkness of forgotten or past events. When past material is increasingly covered by night, this night can be lifted, memory helps out, sources and finds can be excavated, in fact historically past material, even if only patchily, is especially objectifiable precisely for contemplative consciousness. The darkness of the lived moment, on the other hand, stays in its sleeping-chamber. . . . Together with its content, the lived moment itself remains essentially invisible, and in fact all the more securely, the more energetically attention is directed toward it: at this root, in the lived In-itself, in punctual immediacy, all world is still dark."
--Ernst Bloch, Principle of Hope

June 17, 2008

The Weight of Smoke

Paul Auster's film Smoke opens with a parable of time, action, and memory: the writer Paul Benjamin enters a Brooklyn tobacco shop and while buying his tins of Schimmelpennicks cuts through the banter of the loitering regulars with the story of Sir Walter Raleigh's introduction of smoking to the court of Queen Elizabeth. He finishes with Raleigh's proof that he could determine the weight of smoke:

You mean, weigh smoke?

Exactly. Weigh smoke.

You can't do that. It's like weighing air.

I admit it's strange. Almost like weighing someone's soul. But Sir Walter was a clever guy. First, he took an unsmoked cigar and put it on a balance and weighed it. Then he lit up and smoked the cigar, carefully tapping the ashes into the balance pan. When he was finished, he put the butt into the pan with the ashes and weighed what was there. Then he subtracted that number from the original weight of the unsmoked cigar. The difference . . . was the weight of the smoke.

Expenditure makes the measure. Apprehension in what is absented. Like weighing someone's soul. The weight is found in the residue of accumulated effect, less the living, disappeared action; the inhale and exhale of time.

This idea of what remains is the spirit of Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization, a sparse collection of word artifacts that are assembled to take the measure of the cataclysms that came in crematoria and fire bomb.

When Louis Menand tried to review the book he became fixated on the afterword, in which Baker reasons that the best actions of the period, morally, were those of pacifistic resistance. The substance of the book, however, is not in the author's afterword, but in the remnants through which Baker takes the measure of the war. The sparsity of the prose, the fragmented approach, and as Baker himself emphasizes, the strategic use of white space, constitute a crucial rhythm of reading; a re-creation of the tap-tap of the figural cigar as the war was approached, the tap-tap of Churchill's fine dining while people were starved. In other words, to speak historically, which Menand insists upon, safe-guards the righteous thought by positing only the strategies of states against the eventual, grand necessity of allied victory:

These were the imperfect states that history produced to oppose a genocidal, imperialistic totalitarianism. Why did these states resort to violence? Isn’t the obvious answer “Because appeasement had failed”?

Baker, on the other hand, offers the chance to remember that the decisions taken to use starvation as a weapon, and to annihilate civilian populations for purposes in fact detrimental to that "victory," are made in living environments of contested ideologies and the battle of possibilities. To write of "imperfect states that history produced" is to confuse levels of authorship, to deny that so much abundant life and word and attempts to resist power went up in smoke before the historian came to cut apart the cooled corpse.

June 15, 2008

June 4, 2008


From the beautiful day's making of Wood s Lot:

"A Commonplace Day" by
Thomas Hardy

The day is turning ghost,
And scuttles from the kalendar in fits and furtively,
To join the anonymous host
Of those that throng oblivion; ceding his place, maybe,
To one of like degree.

I part the fire-gnawed logs,
Rake forth the embers, spoil the busy flames, and lay the ends
Upon the shining dogs;
Further and further from the nooks the twilight's stride extends,
And beamless black impends.

Nothing of tiniest worth
Have I wrought, pondered, planned; no one thing asking blame or praise,
Since the pale corpse-like birth
Of this diurnal unit, bearing blanks in all its rays -
Dullest of dull-hued Days!

Wanly upon the panes
The rain slides as have slid since morn my colourless thoughts; and yet
Here, while Day's presence wanes,
And over him the sepulchre-lid is slowly lowered and set,
He wakens my regret.

Regret--though nothing dear
That I wot of, was toward in the wide world at his prime,
Or bloomed elsewhere than here,
To die with his decease, and leave a memory sweet, sublime,
Or mark him out in Time . . .

--Yet, maybe, in some soul,
In some spot undiscerned on sea or land, some impulse rose,
Or some intent upstole
Of that enkindling ardency from whose maturer glows
The world's amendment flows;

But which, benumbed at birth
By momentary chance or wile, has missed its hope to be
Embodied on the earth;
And undervoicings of this loss to man's futurity
May wake regret in me.

June 2, 2008

There, in the waning light

Encountering a particular space that once held the greatest intimacies and the most undefined forces: the landscape where one grew up; a landscape, in this case, where the landscape meant livelihoods and seasonal shifts and crop changes; where the openness meant encounters that were almost always mediated by the car and driving; where the sensibilities were unknowingly taking shape.

This time the car is a rental. It is appropriate. This return is as tourist. It is not just that the land belongs to others. It is that the landscape as possession has passed, so that passing through brings the concentrated hour, or two, of borrowing; taking up the land's light and shapes for the sake of remembering palely the old sense of connection, the time when the turns in the country roads were taken with unthinking reflex and intuitive ease, when habit made true memory unnecessary. And this work of memory that dictates the navigations -- around the old town plaza, to the house that ancestors built just after the Bear Flag revolt, along certain backroads that once led to the houses of girlfriends -- also makes the present details all the more present. For while in this kind of transit, a return and something absolutely present and new, those details are filled with the clarity that comes from stripping away habits of non-seeing, of not having to hunger and hold to that which remains, dying there, in the waning light.

"The identification of immediate with past experience, the recurrence of past action or reaction in the present, amounts to a participation between ideal and the real, imagination and direct apprehension, symbol and substance. Such participation frees the essential reality that is denied to the contemplative as to the active life. What is common to present and past is more is more essential than either taken separately."
--Samuel Beckett, Proust