February 15, 2009

Within the Lining of the Heart

Standing on the edge of the Pacific Ocean is to see its force and know its immensity; dark gray undulations and white foam peaks, the constant shifts, the pattern of motion and invisible depth growing all the way to the horizon, all of it always familiar yet always in every second of light change and motion, new. But to wade into it, even just ankle deep, was something different. The wave would come in cold and thick, enveloping, making you part of the water and pushing away what counts as shore. Then as if after some exhale, the water returns to the ocean, pulling you with it. You hold your ground, claim your spot, dig your cold feet into the sand, only to find that it too dissolves under the movement. You are stuck and vulnerable, caught in the watery sand as another wave comes, which is constant, and it feels larger than before, as if the ocean were trying to find the necessary gravity to absorb whatever would resist it.

Under the pressure brought by the torrents of history, the feeling of being absorbed by a language, a way of being, and a grounding alien to one's own mode of cultivation is so amplified that the quiet adjustments and deflections, the slight forms of re-articulations and the almost imperceptible, except by accretion, variations on the performance of self give way to more dramatic gestures. And rather than for showing it is for knowing, within the lining of the heart, how one will claim presence in the world.

The Egyptian Jewish poet Edmond Jabes, who at an advanced age landed in France after being cast out of his native land, wrote lovingly of a certain practice known to belong to the Marranos of Spain. Against the tide of forced conversion these

"carried in a well-hidden pocket fitted into the lining of one of their wide sleeves -- usually the left -- a tiny book of commentaries on the Torah or with the prayers of their childhood.

Thus, while making a show of humble submission to the implacable masters' will, they could at any time stroke with their free hand, through the dense material that protected it from being seen, the book of their ancestors and reaffirm with their secret, but O how significant, gesture their loyalty to the words of their invisible and now also silent God."

In a prison in China in the 1970s revolution, the landscape painter Mu Xin was imprisoned and given paper on which to record a "self-criticism." Instead, he wrote out a kind of dialogue with those who were not there but who nonetheless informed his choice to survive hopelessness.

The scraps of paper were archived, it is said, in the cotton lining of his prison uniform, encasing him, armoring him for life. And surely more than the words themselves, and the ideas that incited him to write, he felt the paper he had written on as he turned or sat or twisted. He must have felt, like a current, that slight resistance to the body's movements there within the fabric, like an invisible aura.

Paintings by Mu Xin: "The Beach" and "Spring".