July 30, 2008

Expectation, Escape, and Equivalence

The temptations of a Moitessier, the sailor who refused completion of "the course," who took the race for a finish and turned it into a celebration of process; who steered away from the pre-determined destination that would be crowded with an expectant public ready to devour, and measure, and mark his experience like their very own Lindbergh. Moitessier abandoned all that, and much more, and chose instead his own way through the "oblivion" of the ocean and globe. That was 1968. No wonder the tiny street-theater "revolutions" by the students in some cities, no wonder the race-raging violence in others, when the choices seemed so murderously and stupidly dull and deadly on the (one) land, so fantastic, so absurd, so ego-driven on those alternate waters. Few can set sail, become Ishmael still aloft atop the mast of the devoured ship.

A century before, a French worker named Claude Genoux crossed the Atlantic. He left Marseilles and found the world. Not the romantic dream of oblivion, but the hard lines of global trade; the earth's matrix of markets and possibilities. Genoux sees enough, sees poetically enough, to know that there is no escape from the markets and no dimming of the dream of flight. The wander is all, and all is equivalent within it. As Jacques Ranciere describes his odyssey in Short Voyages:

"What he found was the boredom, the suffering and joy, the labour without poetry and the pleasures without refinement that the happenstance and wanderings of proletarian existences always come back to and always seek to escape. At the end of these adventures marked by equivalences -- a law of poetry, tourism, and commodities -- he has recognized the foundation of the universal equivalence: enclosure within the circle of the brutal efforts and pleasures of voiceless labour. A proletarian's hell that he seeks to flee all the way to the end of the world, where he finds it again exemplified int he figure of the free sailor on the high seas and the adventurous whale hunter. . . .

If he writes, he does so to pass from one condition to another, from someone who loads the paper to someone who lays out the pages, even someone who writes them. And he will not stop writing. Just as he refused to die in a bed in the hospice for aged workmen. Forty years after his return from the South Seas, once again a bootblack by trade, he will take off for a walk in the forest of Fountainbleau. Which is where, a few days later, his body will be found."

July 26, 2008

Swept Away

All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned . . .

July 6, 2008


The death, when it came, announced in a phone call, was already, as it was always going to be, far away.

It had happened the night before; likely in the deep quiet between midnight and dawn, in an apartment complex on the edge of a distant nondescript town where in the stillness of street lamps and cul-de-sacs, with maybe only the sound of the air-conditioner and the oxygen machine to be heard, she worked to stand up, and then up on her own feet, died. It was, by all signs, a catastrophic instant. A stroke. Knocked from within. One feels it, sensing it must have come like a hammer that cracks the body forward, how they found her. Maybe, though, it came as nothing more than an exhale from without. The air-conditioner hummed. All around, in the cell-like apartments, in the town, beyond, everything lived on, without a ripple of difference.

The doctors had long ago promised that the system of breath and blood would collapse. Her life would thus end. While it went on, too little oxygen, too much strain on the body, every part suffering, weakening, slowly; month upon month. An equanimity while inhabiting such failure and its torments is almost impossible to imagine, but it was there, and still there, one prays, in the instant that was less than an instant of knowing, without fear.

The loss is so multiform that it doesn't seem to be any loss at all. There is an uncanny dispersion of memory, a kaleidoscope of images and affective moments that tumble through the days now, nothing solid, nothing gripping, nothing that can make some substantial grief, like a line of Yeats, or the weight of a casket to be buried.

What is harder to figure is the loss of your existence as their child, the small thing they held, and which in the repeated stories seemed to be something contained and definite, but was also surely somewhere beyond the language and scripted anecdotes. It was instead your very presence and being that made up a reservoir of feeling that could never find form, and so was only ever reflected in their being.

* * * *

When she painted or drew, she painted or drew mostly from images at hand, from forms given -- old photographs, master works, found images. Nothing was ever sustained as a serious project, but there was a consistent ability, even with the weakening eyes and frail hands: joyous things made in response to what was already made, whether the miniature versions of Van Goghs that went into doll houses or an ink drawing from a portrait by Paul Strand. The lines could come quick as an impulse but there was above all else, an insistent precision of hard lines and exacting reproductions that became translations. This is the expression, I think, of living without prejudice, with great capacities for forgiveness and for allowing what was to be.

We never sat over a big book of Gerhard Richter and yet such a dream scene has been the sustaining way in these days after death. And it feels now imagined, like some imprinted. To think of working through the pages one by one has become the act of mourning. Surely she would have appreciated the boldness of the abstracts, the audacious colors and peeling layers. The others, though, of families, still-lives, outlaws, figures, would have resonated. She would have recognized and reveled in, though, as I imagine it now, the series upon series of shadowy realisms. In the after-effect pictures, some crisp, some blurred, the best like polaroids scraped by rough-handling or from having been left unattended in a dusty heap, she would have seen something kindred in the so-different style: the repeated gesture of refashioning what was already itself just an image. Hands and eye grasping for what it is that memory cannot hold to form, what photographs point toward but falsify, the real that runs aground the swift pursuits of wish and desire.

She would have loved the essential force of transience inscribed, what passeth show held and re-made, turned into a newness to see and behold.