Screaming across the sky towards Boston, I’m sitting in this cramped misery of a seat reading Nabokov’s The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. Early on, as the two brothers part, there is this sentence: “Suddenly for no earthly reason I felt immensely sorry for him and longed to say something real, something with wings and a heart, but the birds I wanted settled on my shoulders and head only later when I was alone and not in need of words.” If this puts to my mind also the line from Emily Dickinson—“These are days when the birds come back” (the only line of that poem I remember and really the only line of hers that’s really ever stayed with me)—it’s because I certainly know the feeling of being suddenly inundated with words that have no real purpose other than to assert themselves in cramped quarters, uninterested as they are in being interrupted by the constant bathroom breaks of my aisle-mates. And so here they are.
I’ve been meaning to write you for some time now. I’ve just finished an essay on the photographs on Breton’s Nadja and Sebald’s Vertigo, and it became apparent to me the degree to which I was writing it under the sign of your influence on me, suffused as it was with all its melancholic yearnings for the past, Benjaminian emblems and allegories, and so on and so on. I must confess my general distaste for writing on Benjamin, not the least reason being that it’s difficult to cart these five (six, if you count The Origin of Tragic Drama) massive hardcover books (with The Arcades Project these books must weigh twenty pounds) to the coffeeshops where I prefer to work (so easily distracted at home)—invariably you will need that one paragraph out of a thousand convolutes, but never know in advance which one you’ll need.
But that’s only a minor quibble. As easy as it is to toss around words like “aura” and “allegory,” “melancholy” and “mourning,” and all that, I’ve become frustrated with all of the research on photography that I’ve done, in that it seems that you cannot write about photography unless you too are also fleeing the Nazis and contemplating suicide. I’ve no doubt that there are photographs which affect us with that recognition of death which has become the cliché of that kind of criticism, but the insistence that this is some kind of ontological feature misses the point entirely, it seems to me. The people I know who plaster refrigerators and bedroom walls with snapshots do not, I think, surround themselves with death (though I admit, if I were to have one photograph of you, it would be the last one taken from your going-away party before you left for China, the summation of all that debauchery in which you lay leaning against the wall wrapped in packing tape and looking not unlike Laura Palmer). Academics are so lugubrious. I would prefer, all things considered, to read Benjamin not as the voice of truth but as an essayist.
In fact, it becomes increasingly difficult to write about Benjamin for me because the only thing I really care to think about—the moment I find myself coming back to again and again, and obsession is not too far off—is a moment which has absolutely no value to academic criticism but which seems to me the most incredible moment, is that day—which I can only imagine—when Benjamin entrusts his corpus (and why not say it?, his corpse) to Georges Bataille for safe-keeping in La Bibliotheque Nationale. There is something to me in this moment too indescribably poignant and layered—I don’t know, I don’t even have the adjectives for it—but as if all of the twentieth century could be summed up in this moment (I can think of only one or two other things which affect me in this way—Melville’s letter to Hawthorne in June of 1850, where he describes the two of them drinking champagne in heaven, “I will not believe in a Temperance heaven,” and worries about being forever known as the writer who lived among cannibals being one other such moment, Mishima’s suicide another). I’ve mentioned before my stupid idea for a novel, in which Bataille trails Benjamin to Port Bou and ritually sacrifices him there, but I must confess it is this earlier moment, the exchange of the two attaché cases for Bataille’s safe-keeping, which fascinates me to no end. What I can only imagine as a moment of extreme emotion and sadness, with the threat of annihilation so close at hand. It’s impossible for me, in reading either of these two writers, not to see their works as tinged with some kind of ectoplasmic residue of this meeting, so that it springs to mind every time I try to work through “Little History of Photography” or some such nonsense.
The other thing, while I’m at it, that’s come back a lot lately is that photograph of Kafka as a boy, with his enormous head and eye like a character in a Japanese anime. When Benjamin wrote Berlin Childhood, he described a photo of himself holding a hat, though in truth it was Kafka holding the hat—the photo of Benjamin shows him holding a walking stick. In Sebald’s Vertigo this photo of Kafka comes back when Sebald sees twin boys who bear an uncanny resemblance to the photo. Of course, all three of these men died too soon, and all under the heavy hand of mechanized modernity. Knowing that vampires travel often through obsolete forms of technology, I wonder sometimes about that photo, if there’s not something malevolent in it, something which all three of these men had the misfortune of falling prey to. I must admit I now regard it warily.
Anyway, there are the thoughts that occupy me as I sit scrunched in this chair, perennially jostled by the overweight stewards perambulating about. Here’s hoping that your daughter, for all her joy and exuberance and beauty (and she truly is wonderful, magnificent—again, adjectives betray me, but she certainly enthralled me in the short hour I spent with her) will soon give you some time to write, as no doubt there are birds circling above you as well, waiting to land.
The Harvard Museum of Natural History, in addition to the whale skeletons, badly disintegrating taxidermy rhinos and emperor penguins, and its coelacanth encased in formaldehyde (the coelacanth is a prehistoric fish long believed to be extinct that was found, miraculously off the shores of Africa within the past few decades, the object of worship of the local tribe), contains a room filled with stunning glass replicas of over three hundred botanical specimens. The glass models were hand-blown, sculpted and painted at the end of the nineteenth century by father and son Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, of Dresden. Ranging from grass stems to rice to Maple leaves and daisies, the collection spans the botanical world, and the Blaschkas, who were given a list of specimens to replicate and seeds from which to cultivate their subject, also traveled extensively through the Americas to see their subjects firsthand. Among the descriptions of the plants on little placards that the museum provides, are descriptions of the carnivorous pitcher plant, whose existence in nutrient poor areas forces it to rely on insects for nitrogen, and the capologon orchid. The latter attracts bees by a leaf which falsely appears to have pollen, and the weight of the bee landing on the flower causes a separate leaf to spring forward onto the bee, slapping the orchid’s pollen onto its back while gathering any pollen the bee is carrying. Reading just these descriptions alone (the museum’s curators seem to favor this kind of plant), one might come to the conclusion that the world of plants is entirely one of deception and trickery, false appearances which mislead and imperil their prey.
I bought several postcards of the glass plants so skillfully rendered by the Blaschkas, but the problem, of course, with photographic reproduction is that it is impossible to see, in the photographs, the tiny imperfections which reveal that these plants are not real and are, in fact, highly accomplished fakes. This being the case, the photographs on the postcards do not look like exceptionally rendered dissimulations of nature by the hands of two eminent master craftsmen, but instead, actual plants of a rather mundane quality: perfectly real, perfectly ordinary. After all, the difference between the glass plant and the real plant, the reason why the glass models were originally commissioned, is the real plant’s inevitable decay, its impermanence. But it is precisely this impermanence which is arrested by the camera, so that it is impossible to tell, from the photographs on these postcards, whether they are the permanent images of the fleeting beauty of nature, or the permanent images of man’s monuments to that fleeting beauty.
Shortly before I left on this trip, I managed to track down a copy of the 1913 film, The Student of Prague, in a bargain bin of a corporate bookstore in the San Fernando Valley. I don’t know if you know it, but it was the film (so I’ve heard) that influenced Otto Rank in his writing of The Double, which in turn was so important to Freud’s depiction of the uncanny. More recently, Sebald expressed (in more than one place) a feeling that Kafka would have felt a kinship to this film, had he seen it. The extraordinary exterior shots in the film, Sebald writes in Vertigo, his first novel, would doubtless have sufficed to move Dr. K. deeply, most of all perhaps the fate of the eponymous hero, Balduin, the finest swordsman in all Prague, since in him he would have recognized a kind of doppelganger, just as Balduin recognizes his other self in the dark-coated brother whom he could never and nowhere escape. In one of the very first scenes, Balduin confronts his own image in the mirror, and presently, to his horror, that unreal figure steps out of the frame, and henceforth follows him as the ghostly shadow of his own restlessness. Would this sort of scenario not have struck Dr. K. as the description of a struggle in which, as in the contest he himself had set against the backdrop of the Laurenziburg, the principal character and his opponent are in the most intimate and self-destructive of relationships, such that, when the hero is driven into a corner by his companion he is forced to declare: I am betrothed, I admit it.
So says Sebald. I must confess I am a little skeptical in regards to his conjectures about Kafka; in the same work he also suggests that “The Hunter Gracchus” is a metaphor for Kafka’s own search for love, which I flatly reject. My own feelings about The Student of Prague were not nearly as profound; with a somewhat jaundiced eye, I could not even come closer to imagining that shudder of the uncanny that Rank, Freud, and possibly even Kafka might have felt whenever Balduin was confronted by his mirror image. I did notice this, though: because the special effect of the double was accomplished through double exposure, whenever Balduin’s double was about to appear, the film became noticeably darker as it was suddenly over-exposed. This ability to alter the light seemed as significant, to me, as the double’s ability to mirror Balduin in the first place. But to me the most striking scene was an utterly innocuous one: early on, Balduin’s object of desire, a Baroness or Countess unhappily betrothed to her cousin, is preparing to go on a hunt. The room in which she is getting ready features a back wall which is painted with an elaborate trompe l’oeil scene of a forest, and it is on this wall which is the door that opens up to the outside and through which she disappears at the end of the scene. Because of the deteriorated quality of the film, and the poor remastering of my copy, it’s impossible to distinguish between the trompe l’oeil forest on the wall and the actual forest she eventually steps into. Amidst the film’s numerous special effects, this shot, which seemed to me utterly unintended, struck me as the most uncanny, and the one I returned to this morning in the Harvard Natural History Museum, viewing the glass flowers which were themselves, of course, ensconced safely under glass.
The Boston Subway (i.e., the T) goes through a narrow tunnel between Harvard Square and the Kendall stop, and it is here that I saw one of the more unique pieces of advertising. On the wall of the tunnels were printed the individual frames of a car commercial, so that as we flew by there appeared a dimly lit and flickering SUV, climbing hills and crossing rivers, a strange inversion of the motion picture in which it was we—not the filmstrip—moving at twenty-four frames a second. As any good analog technology, the image was imprecise and carried with the aura of technologies of old, a feeling utterly at odds with its subject: a car which no doubt many feel to be the pinnacle of American society and achievement (especially as it is a domestication of military technology and is thus the perfect symbol for America), the new HUMMER.
Another ad we saw on the T was a series for Time magazine, in which a black and white photo of some celebrity is overcoded by the graphic image for the magazine, the famous red border with the magazine’s name, arranged in such a way as to make a comment on the celebrity. For example, a photo of Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston, with a line of little red Time squares down the middle, indicating their separation; a photo of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles, with a three-tiered wedding cake made from Time squares; one of Martha Stewart, with a row of Time squares across the middle of the photo, the central square swung open to indicate her release from prison; George W. Bush, with Time squares arranged in a cross over his face; and finally (though this was the first one I had seen and the hardest to understand at first), Osama bin Laden, with two columns of Time squares I later deduced to be the World Trade Centers.
Trundling through the underworld of Boston, with nothing else to look at (the Hummer ad long behind us), I suppose I fell to analyzing these Time images too closely, and trying to read them for what they were. In other words, is it fair to say, based on these images, that Time magazine is the reason for Brad and Jennifer’s split, or that Time magazine is the prison which held Martha? Is time magazine the god that George W. Bush prays to? The image of bin Laden, of course, was by far the most offensive to me, replicating, as so many other media outlets have done, the desire to turn September 11 into some simple sign, a commodity to be traded (and did I, as I made my way from Texas in the days following the attacks, buy a copy of Time magazine, seeking to understand why this had happened? Yes, I did, and I remember the end of the issue called not for mourning but for righteous American anger). The equation between celebrity gossip and the singular tragedy of this decade (excepting Iraq, which, I would think, is basically a continuation of the same tragedy) smacks of a smugness which suggests to me our country’s inability to properly grieve for the dead of that day, just as we are continually unable to grieve for the dead of Iraq and Afghanistan and even our own soldiers. I’ve felt for some time that we are a truly melancholic nation, constantly repressing our inability to mourn. Isn’t this (and you probably know better than I do about these things, since I’m such a poor and superficial student) why we’re so obsessed with vengeance, why all our most popular films and stories are always about an acceptable reason for revenge? Both revenge and melancholy come from that inability to mourn; we’ve both read our Laurence Rickels, which suggests that it’s only a matter of time before the dead of September 11 come back as vampires. I’ve long maintained that the figure of America post-September 11 is Leonard Shelby, from Memento, refusing to mourn in favor of a desire for vengeance which, regardless of its justification, has become pathological. Perhaps another figure to add would be Sarah Winchester, whose inability to come to grips with the ghosts of American violence led her to a pathological desire for construction and progress. Someday I’ll write that book, I suppose.
One last thing about the subways which deserves comment. As with many metropolitan subways, each station has its own theme and artwork (which calls to mind our own dérive down the red line from four years ago, your half of which I still to this day haven’t had the pleasure of reading). The Porter Square station is the one which caught my attention. Having just finished all this work on Nadja, fresh in my mind was the scene in which Breton was transfixed by a woman’s glove, but suddenly horrified when she offers to remove it for him. Instead, she returns the next day with a bronze cast of a woman’s glove she happens to have. So I was thrilled, shocked and delighted to see, affixed to the escalators of the Porter station, a heap of bronze gloves, of all kinds and sizes, as if they were caught mid-motion tumbling down that long slope (Nicole took a picture; I can send it to you on our return). When I recently watched that mid-90’s film Nadja in which David Lynch has a stunning cameo, the only overt trace I found to Breton’s book was the Christmas tree on which hangs a lady’s glove as an ornament which I felt had to be deliberate (that movie also is a vampire movie, which makes me feel as though I am somehow under the sign of vampires lately). If you remember the Breton book at all, he talks of spending hours holding the bronze glove, comparing its weight against the real glove of the woman he had never touched, whose weight, he admits, must have been nothing at all. I couldn’t help but think of that as we glided past the bronze gloves of the Boston subway, since they were not the erotic fetishized woman’s gloves but sturdy and decayed winter gloves that belonged to, I thought, the homeless who had no doubt once occupied that station and had been since driven out through whatever city beautification project had also commissioned the artwork, so that the weight of these gloves (infinite, since they were bolted down to the escalator) must be compared with the ghostly and weightless figures who have been pushed from the public spaces of the world.
A few months ago Nicole saw a film entitled Los Angeles Plays Itself (maybe you know it), which is a sort of survey of how Hollywood appears in its own films. Among other things, she told me, Hollywood (according to this film) repeatedly depicts modern architecture as the site of “evil.” Los Angeles Plays Itself apparently has a montage of films in which villains are shown always in lavish modern architecture—though I must confess the only example I could think of was from Lethal Weapon 2, in which the bad guys are repeatedly described as inhabiting “a house on stilts,” which Mel Gibson in the penultimate scene destroys by attaching a winch to one of the stilts and yanking out its support.
Walking through Manhattan, I’ve come to the conclusion that when New York plays itself, it is often art deco which stands in for evil. Thinking of such stellar films as Ghostbusters, The Devil’s Advocate, and the numerous films that have made use of the Chrysler Building—Matthew Barney’s mind-numbing Cremaster 3 and Q: The Winged Serpent. (the latter, if you haven’t seen it, is a thoroughly entertaining horror movie from Larry Cohen about the Aztez God Quetzalcoatl living at the top of the Chrysler Building biting the heads off of sunbathers and construction workers. It would be a delightful parody of Barney’s insufferably long art film if it didn’t predate Cremaster by 25 years) So as I walk through Manhattan I leer at the beautiful art deco skyscrapers imagining what campy horror lies enslaved in their stone, just biding its time.
I’m writing this in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where Nicole and I have come to see the Max Ernst retrospective. I suppose surrealist painting is a little clichéd now, but I do dearly love Ernst, who never got the same exposure as Dali and Magritte (Nicole was generally unimpressed by the paintings, though she claimed to like the collages and the drawings). I think at one point I sent you a few lines from Sebald’s After Nature, in which in describing the work of Matias Grunewald, he describes a feeling of the haphazardness of nature, in which things are not made by any design—nature as a senseless botcher, I think is his term. This seems to me fairly applicable to Ernst as well, in which animal and body parts are thrown together in a way that to me doesn’t suggest the dream state surrealists were always aiming for, but the physical world and its confusion and rage towards the way it has been put together. One painting entitled The Fireside Angel particularly suggests this to me: a figure who is a mishmash of plant parts, rags, and animal pieces, bearing what appears to be the skull of a hawk for a head, supposedly represents fascism (according to the accompanying text), but to me suggested a horrified Nature, enraged at the state its found itself in, much like those fairytales in which dolls and automatons are brought cruelly to life before they’re finished.
At some point in the museum, Nicole and I lost track of each other. Believing myself to be at fault, I set out searching for her, believing I could work through the rooms one by one to find her. However, it quickly became clear that the labyrinthine organization of the Met was thwarting any systematic attempt to find her. I started with the galleries closest to the Ernst exhibit where I’d lost her, the Impressionists, but moved from there to the galleries I thought most likely proved fruitless, I lost all sense of a methodical search, and began frantically searching through any and all galleries, panic-stricken that I might lose her entirely. In this way I saw much of the museum, albeit in a highly accelerated, distracted manner. As I worked my way through the galleries I saw a man painting a copy of some Renaissance nude; early on in the process, he had at that point only done the blacks and browns on the canvas, so that it appeared strangely as though he were painting a sepia-toned photograph of the work. As my anxiety deepened and I hurried faster through the endless rooms of paintings, the paintings I passed seemed more and more to reflect my own mental state. It wasn’t long before the glorious sky-scapes of heaven that Tiepolo populated with his naked beauties, Pollock’s vast canvases and even Seurat’s Circus all seemed to reflect the vertiginous abyss of art that had sucked me in, causing me to feel as though I was doomed like some Kafka figure to wander these halls forever.
Later, after our eventual reunion (Nicole had in fact only gone to the restroom, and was waiting for me outside the Ernst exhibit), I returned to one painting, which I passed in a frenzy, Georges de la Tour’s Penitent Magdalen. I don’t know if you know the painting, but it is quite reminiscent of Caravaggio with its strong contrast of light and dark and the way the figures seems to rise out of the pure darkness of black paint. The image is of a woman sitting with her hands crossed, resting on a skull, which she holds in her lamp. On the table is a candle, which is doubled by the mirror behind it. Magdalen is staring off somewhere behind the mirror, into the depths of the room. I had seen this painting once before when it was on loan in Los Angeles, with my father. He had been surprised to see it, and told me it had always moved him very deeply. As I did then, I stared into the painting today not so much because of the painting itself, but because this painting had so affected someone I loved so deeply, and I was compelled by this sudden mystery—that mystery being the gap that opens between you and loved ones in such moments, when you try to desperately to see through their eyes, so as to dispel any suspicions that this gap might be indicative of other things. Where is she looking in the painting? Why does she hold the skull on her lap, and whose skull is it? I suppose there are answers to those questions that critics have debated or agreed upon. I suppose my father has his own answers. But just as she is looking not at me but into the shadows, into a lacuna out of sight, of meaning, so was this painting to me a blind spot from which I could not take my eyes.
Making our way down Lexington Avenue, we were obliged to stop when the clouds that had been gathering all afternoon let loose with a summer rain. Ducking into the nearest café, we were greeted by a generally joyless cast of New Yorkers also trapped by this change in weather—in halter tops and shorts, they watched mournfully out the windows, looking as if they’d been cursed. We greedily devoured slices of pizza while we waited. Across the street, Nicole noticed a wonderful store, which I had her take a photo of, a clock repair shop with the legend, UNUSUAL CLOCKS written in faded and chipped white writing. And the window was indeed full of all sorts of beautiful clock faces in various states of disrepair, all crammed and jostled together against the glass like coins in a change jar (I don’t doubt that when I see the image Nicole took of this place, it may look different than what I am describing here, thus proving, as it were, my memory to be “false,” but I thoroughly reject such logic, and to me the memory which I preserve by writing to you of that window is as real as anything preserved by a digital camera). The sight of those clocks with their antique and auratic faces, made passing the time much more enjoyable, as I sat watching them and wondering what other sorts of configurations of time, not yet imagined by us, might be possible, and how might they be recorded on these frayed and distinguished faces.
The rain had a curious effect on the city. As you know, I am always happy when it rains, and being amongst the rain and its atmosphere buoys my spirits, and refreshes me. But there many we passed as we continued down Lexington who seemed utterly defeated, hollowed out by the rain, which seemed off to me, since no doubt these same New Yorkers have to endure far worse in the winter months. However, I don’t mean to suggest that everyone was so glum; many continued in utter defiance of the water, some with newly purchased umbrellas which the street vendors seemed to have produced from nowhere. Navigating the crowds of this city is always somewhat of a challenge for me, but it was made doubly so by those sudden meandering umbrellas, many of which were at the level of my neck and seemed eager to decapitate me like so many brightly colored buzzsaws. But among the strangest sights produced by the rain were several women I saw who, caught without umbrellas, refusing to allow their hair to be sullied, put on over their heads plastic shopping bags. Seeing these women from the back, I had no idea how they could see or breathe, as their entire heads were encased in white opaque plastic, and it seemed to me that they were perhaps victims of sex crimes or mafia hits, suddenly made to walk again amongst us, as if brought back to life by the rain.
Farther down Lexington Avenue, we came to the Citigroup Tower, which is as singular a piece of architecture as it is a fiasco. Built originally in 1977, it was built to the site of Saint Peter’s Church, and the developers were able to convince the church to tear down the building with the promise of building a new church that was integrated into the tower. The result was a strange structure in which the office tower is raised up on five-story columns, with the church nestled safely below. Soon after it opened, however, the architect learned that some shortcuts had been made in the construction, and over the next few years it became clear that the tower was extremely vulnerable and might be knocked down by extremely high winds. Though it was thoroughly renovated and now considered safe, the building gave me a sense of perpetual unease, as does any building (such as The Mandalay Bay in Vegas) that has miraculously escaped death. The church, a triangular structure in one corner that looked to me at first like a subway station, seems like a parasite growing out of the skyscraper, though in truth it’s more accurate to say that it is the other way around. The Citigroup Tower was recently named by the government as a potential terrorist target, and though we were invited to stay in the chapel for as long as we liked, we stayed for only a few minutes, feeling the unease that anyone must feel when in the presence of a man whose execution has been postponed twice.
Further down Lexington, while crossing the street, we passed a large chunk of brown matter in the street, made undefinable by the rain. It could have been a highly burled and polished piece of wood—the top of a table, maybe, or a piece of disintegrating cardboard, or the hide of some large and indistinct animal. Aside from surrounding it with traffic cones, no one had made any move to remove it.
Eventually we reached the Chrysler building, which remains to me the most beautiful skyscraper I have known, unbelievable in its magnitude. I suppose there are words to describe this building, but I’ll leave them to someone else; here I’ll just say that whenever I’m in New York I do my best to keep the Chrysler building in my line of sight, since I feel safest under its glance. We spent some time in the lobby, photographing the ceiling, which apparently is one of the largest paintings in the world. The problem with skyscrapers, however, is that one can never really feel like one has experienced them—even if you were allowed into all of the upper floors and private rooms, you could never (I think) truly ever inhabit the entire structure—just as you can never see a skyscraper in its entirety: from a distance, the street level is obscured, while at its base the top is distorted—so that such places must always remain enigmas.
We ended our trip down Lexington by backtracking to Grand Central Station, where I the Grand Concourse one can stand under the guardian constellations painted on the ceiling against a green sky—constellations which to many New Yorkers are visible no other place. Whenever I’m in Grand Central Station I can only think of Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King, and how it is possible on occasion for a writer or director, in a single shot or a single moment, to capture an entire city (at least for me)—I’m perpetually amazed at how Gilliam was able to encapsulate New York for me: the feeling that the entire city is involved in a complicated and romantic dance, the entire city except perhaps you, and your beloved, who struggle against the beauty of that moment in your own drowning isolation.
Colin Dickey is the author of Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius, and the co-editor (with Nicole Antebi and Robby Herbst) of Failure! Experiments in Social and Aesthetic Practices. His work has appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, Cabinet, TriQuarterly, and elsewhere. He lives in Los Angeles.