Two swans, wreathed in elegant blue mist, play sensuously with a golden ribbon. The ribbon is the same color as their beaks. They tug on it, one leaning forward, the other back. Oh, but they are only painted on the side of a ceramic mug, and how senseless the game becomes on the white surface stained with drops of coffee.
Birds congregating on ledges and under dead trees have yet to notice the city’s moans, their little hearts submerged in chirping atonality. A note sounds in the head of God.
A reflection survives the wavering distortion of a window warped by age and makes its way up to me like fumes from the gutter. It is a beautiful face, that of a pale young woman, floating somewhere between my eyes and the gradation of a burgundy rooftop weeping with dew. It vanishes. A pigeon falls from the rain gutters. Dripping, twelve-tone water.
Then: the deep, gong-like bell that washes over creation, subduing even the crows, to announce unearthly victory while the city’s bones creak like wet wood.
“If God lived on earth, people would break his windows.”
Reading and Not Reading in Roßau
1. A lack of facility while writing is often connected with a coterminous defect in one’s reading.
2. Journals and diaries are necessary evils, especially when one finds oneself in a new place. A new city crushes you with stimulus and if you do not open up and accept it, you become a recluse. But what comes with this affirmative state of acceptance, of openness to the world of difference surrounding you, is a state of paralysis that is its negative corollary. Acceptance and paralysis have the same sense, and one goes a very short distance back and forth between them. What comes of this paralysis (also seemingly what causes it) is a wealth of undifferentiated data, of impressions not yet reflected into thoughts, of smells and sights that mean as much to you as the jumble of words pouring out of a cafe door. They have no reference. They slop around in a morass of other severed notes and letters. The outlines are submerged, blurred. The job of a diary, or a journal, is to begin the work of sifting through the signs, setting this one here, that one there, in hopes that things may become clearer if enough of them are pulled out and hung up to dry. That particular street (e.g.) has no actuality until you have remembered the white scratches covering its cobblestones from thousands and thousands of horse-shoe strikes over the years; the little boy and his smiling mother sitting in the back of the carriage, moving jauntily; the stony faces of old Viennese buildings, brutal, iron criminals standing in line shoulder to shoulder for a rushed hearing. Remembrance is always creative, but it also destroys something, namely the stupefying potential for creativity and creation that before might have expressed itself in serene acceptance, but oscillates mercilessly into paralysis, a stillness that is anything but serene.
3. Good moods: You never know what is going to happen to you during the day. You have an empty skeleton of an idea, and sometimes what you get is actually less than that skeleton, just a few dry bones that may not even be human. But oftentimes the skeleton gets some meat on its bones, even a few organs, nerves, blood vessels, and if you are lucky, an eye or some gold teeth.
4. Kunsthistorisches Museum. Bruegel, Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Rubens, Giorgione, “Tizian,” Cranach, Tintoretto, Bosch, et al. The totality of it left me cold. Only The Tower of Babel and some of Bruegel’s street scenes, one or two of Rubens’ (who usually does nothing for me), and the self-portraits of Rembrandt stirred something real. The building itself, a neo-baroque palace of a museum built in the late 19th century was very imposing and maybe beautiful, but it did not help these works of art breathe – many of which are actually great and probably dying for air. It suppressed them so that they all looked as out of place as the people wandering through the halls. There was no natural light. Only the paintings in which a pair of eyes really looked out of the scene or out of the canvas broke the spell and made one feel that there was life in the room, trying at all costs not to die or fall asleep. There was a Rafael, and now that I think about it, a Titian, that successfully did this too. Rembrandt, in his painter’s smock, cut through everything; one would think that that self-portrait is the painting they should most like to hide from view in a palace. It makes everything ornamental and extravagant look silly and unsure. There was a whole floor of Egyptian relics and the entire Kunsthammer floor, along with an old comic room, that I skipped after seeing the Rembrandt. I didn’t care anymore. A similar feeling to being in the Louvre years ago, which I couldn’t stand.
A. The way Titian paints eyes. They have little pin-pricks of starlight in them that shine, giving the bodies and clothes of the people a proud earthiness.
B. Tintoretto’s fabric, specifically the red drapery and clothing. The blood of Christ in everything.
C. Bruegel’s coming after Bosch: sensitivity and acceptance. When looking at The Tower of Babel, which is already very imposing as a whole, I noticed the delicate placement of birds above the human complexities of the scene (builders, etc.). The birds give the Tower life and weight (an elephant balanced on the head of a pin). Also, the town in the middle left-hand portion. A detail I had never noticed before and wished I could get closer to, so obscure and interesting were the colors and dreamy outlines, though I’m sure that, even if my nose was pressed up against the canvas, it would look just as far away and inscrutable.
D. Rembrandt’s posture in his self-portraits automatically makes one straighten up. His portraits are like a cup of cool water poured on the soul.
5. Goethe writes as if he has all the time in the world. Because he trusts his beginnings, nothing that follows can be read as unnecessary or excessive.
6. Clouds have appeared. It was sunny and cool before, but now there is a chilly autumn wind. I get a jolt of excitement in my guts when I think that soon this weather will be the rule and not the exception (so strange that from the quasi-fixed perspective of people, weather is one exception falling upon another, and it is this succession of rules degrading into something slightly outside of themselves, into apparent exceptions, that makes up the whole cycle of rules itself…) When the rain comes, red ceiling tiles and the lead gray stones across from me shine the color of the clouds above them. This matted reflection, instead of throwing the sky back up to itself, brings the sky down into the structures and surfaces which reflect.
7. The age of a place can be heard in its church bells and in the response the birds give to their tolling (evenings).
8. It is surprising the degree to which one loses all understanding of non-verbal expression in a country where one does not speak the native language. E.g. I hear a woman scream in the rain like she is in danger. Is she not just getting wet while running down the street? I hear a man yell. He is either having a fun night or attempting to fight someone. Nothing is clear – not even the smiles of others can be read.
9. What if the time Proust was engaged in regaining was not the time he wrote about, but that time which he spent on the writing itself? (A naive idea, but the thought introduces an interesting distinction, if not an opposition, between retroactivity [first case] and reflexivity [second case], two concepts dealing with remembrance that are often conflated.)
10. Sometimes the first thing we say or write down on a subject becomes our position without our ever having meant to come to a position at all. This phenomenon is shown in the (re)telling of dreams, or anecdotes. If I describe something that happened to me in a short narrative, I will have a hard time telling someone about the same event in words other than those I used initially. So when you ask yourself why you like something, it might be best to admit that you don’t know why, unless you are prepared to go the route of overinterpretation, countering one thesis with another until you have opened up more possibilities than you could possibly ascribe to without flagrantly contradicting yourself.
11. My fear of sounding silly when asking questions in English and attempting bits of German here and there in between has turned into something else: the great pleasure of being laughed at by women. How could I have forgotten that this laughter not only crosses the borders of language with amnesty, but is amplified by that very gap which negates so much else?
12. A personal superstition: you get more done in an hour than in ten with regard to any kind of composition. I think of the things I have written that I don’t hate – they were knocked off in a few sittings. I think of the projects I spent months on – I don’t care if I ever see them again. It is not that work, or long work, is the enemy, but that when one finally hits the right tone, begins strongly, feels just right, keeps going, etc., then the work is facilitated and moves of its own accord, usually quickly. The real achievement is to be able to find these secret hours more often and to let them take control of your life.
13. Another superstition: I’m always thinking that in my reading, someday, I will come across a line, an epigraph or a line, that will set off the switch inside of me that keeps the book from being written. Think of the epigraph of Black Spring: “Can I be as I believe myself or as others believe me to be? Here is where these lines become confession in the presence of my unknown and unknowable me, unknown and unknowable for myself. Here is where I create the legend wherein I must bury myself.” I imagine Miller reading this line from Unamuno, knowing precisely how it functioned as a touchstone. Or; I cannot imagine him reading it and not knowing. And yet so many others before him read that line and connected it only with the lines that came before and after it, maybe with a few stray thoughts of their own. I wait for my line like a hungry man waits for the child to drop some food as they walk along, carefree. But this is almost as crazy as trying to read poetry in the cracks of the walls. The game of Borges’ librarians which teaches us that if we are searching for something hidden, it is not hidden out in the world but within ourselves. Still, it will show itself in the world.
14. A final superstition: I will trip and fall into the belief that in order to write, one must be also thinking of something – but this is a mystification. If I had to have something before me in order to write, then I would always have to be looking at pictures, whether ‘in my mind’ or in reality, in order to enunciate the simplest questions and statements. When really writing, one’s head is empty, or at the very least, a nice shade of gray.
15. If I came to Vienna to run away from America, friends, family and life, then why stop there? I can run away from Vienna too. The idea is not to run away but to hover, like Ulrich in The Man Without Qualities; except I touch the ground with my fingertips as much as I can, like an obsessive that must assure himself of the reality of the things in front of him – and then who laughs about doing so like an idiot.
16. In one of the windows across the street, someone has placed a photo of a woman smiling, facing out, pressed to the glass.
17. My friend who lived in Paris for six months and saw nothing, never a museum, never a monument, just stayed on his street, in his neighborhood: The Last Situationist.
18. There is so much about a long, undetermined window of time that is terrifying. There is nothing to indicate that it is not a waste.
19. Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship: I am struck by the wildness with which certain scenes in this book lead up and intertwine to finally produce a burst – not a dramatic or even a narrative climax, but a wealth of poetic, painterly images that give the ins-and-outs of the plot a far-away, unreal appearance, only for a moment, as the perspective hovers in these Vermeer-like spheres, and then descends again (slightly but significantly!) to the level of life. There is comedy, in the great human sense, for instance, in Mignon’s erratic handwriting and when Friedrich comes down the road with a bundle of sticks on his back, not to mention the old Harper. The images succeed one another rapidly without quite replacing each other. Like the stations of Spirit, each chapter seems to contain what came before it within itself – until it abruptly concludes.
20. An unspoken ambition remains a secret vanity.
21. Leopold Museum contra Kunsthistorisches Museum: the windows and the white walls let every painting speak for itself, instead of stupefying everything that dared step under its arches. There are no arches! Kokoschka, Schiele, a few Klimt which actually surprised me (I’ve never liked him as much as Schiele), and a few Gustave Courbet paintings that really were special. There was a Pillhofer exhibit on the lowest floor. I had mixed reactions and currently have a very neutral feeling about what I saw. His drawings and paintings were forgettable, but his sculpture was sometimes pretty striking, especially his nudes of women. There is one in particular that I’m thinking about that stood out from the rest. His transitional work from representation to abstraction was very cowardly, but his statues that actually leave the mimetic are interesting.
22. A very loose, unreliable, free translation of a Schiele poem taken from a postcard:
‘I am for myself – and for those to whom are given the drunken thirst for freedom – and for everyone too, because I love everyone too – love.
I am of the noblest – the noblest –
And of the return, the furthest gone.
I am human, I love death and love life.’
23. I dreamt I was reading a collected volume of St. Augustine (whom I have never read before). I was very surprised to find that his Confessions took up only 90 or 92 pages at the very beginning of the book. But the night before I had the dream I was looking through my copy of The Essential Goethe and was surprised that the selections at the end “On Philosophy and Science” only ran from pages 913 to 998 (or 1007, 998 being the beginning of the last selection, from Maxims and Reflections), 94 pages all the way to the end of the section. Seeing this relatively small number, I was disappointed that there were not more, but also excited by the idea that there were so many short pieces in the section to be read, probably fairly quickly. In my dream I felt similarly about the Confessions. I was disappointed to see that these 90+ pages were only an abridgement, partially because I wanted them to actually be short and quickly readable. The section in my Goethe, “On Philosophy and Science,” is at the very end of the book whereas the abridged Confessions was at the very beginning. The night before the dream I had been thinking of a person I recently met who blended certain rare qualities of both science and religion into one admirable character.
Places without Names
White Coffee Cup
One is always recalling things that never happened or existed in just that way: expressions (verbal or facial), insults, places and place-names, confessions, rooms and the objects within them. Where you remembered a tasteful black comb and a tidy box of matches, there were dying flies, pulped tissues and little specks of bloody dandruff. It has nothing to do with lies or your honesty. It is the truth grown into itself, the other side of the equation, without which reality, no matter how well it is recalled, would signify as much as a cough issuing from a perfectly healthy throat.
A young man walked for miles in the November air, his shoes skimming yellow leaves from the pavement. Helpless cracks in the sidewalk filled with the excess of his anxious gaze. Then, turning a corner, he bounded up a flight of stone steps into a cafe. His eyes became loose in their sockets and he ordered coffee from the old woman at the counter (her smiling eyes). He handed over some money and gently accepted his drink. He thought about the veins in the woman’s hands and how they had, for longer than he had been alive, quickened with persistent blood – how sad that our hands, big clumsy things compared to the little rivulets that endow them with life, cannot grasp and gesture forever but go on just as if they could, while the blood rushes on, full of an immutable, impossible faith. But the person the man had been hoping so dearly to see was not in the cafe, so he sat by a window and drank his coffee slowly, a light rain pouring into the fractures in the street outside, like blood being breathed into the veins of very large, tired hands.
If it has not happened already, there will come a day when the trains will run, but nobody will board them. White lights will hover over turnstiles and not one human reflection will disturb the liquid surfaces of the painted tile walls and columns. A train hurtles to a stop. The doors open and wait for a moment. They close and the train begins again. It hurtles through black tunnels. The platform is quiet, the stairs are empty, the connecting corridors are immaculate vectors of extension without content, pure for all their accumulated grime. Now and then, there is a sucking of displaced air and a muffled rumble. A sandwich wrapper and coffee cup lid slide across the ground toward the opening of a staircase and rustle downward, stopping at the foot of a gleaming, blue column. It feels as though the city above had been submerged in a deep flood that had inexplicably missed the descending entrance to the metro.
In a strange country where you do not speak the language with any skill, pay attention to how you walk down a street amongst the locals. Your steps, your posture, even your gaze and the way you hide your hands in your pockets – it is all done in your native tongue, it is an open confession, as if you had said ‘hello’ in the wrong dialect, at the wrong time, in the wrong tone of voice – as if you were counting to the number One over and over, without knowing why, for a thinned crowd of vicious faces.
A line remembered from a book one read a very long time ago: it stands out from hundreds of dim pages and millions of black serifs, as if illuminated softly in gold or hemmed by ancient dye: the harm memory must do to a book in order to remember a single good line, which, when one finally takes the book down to look for it, has disappeared like a flower in a rainstorm.
The words in the dictionary at your fingertips have all taken up masks, but their deep eyes still peer through holes cut flush with the lines of their faces… Speaking with an acquaintance on a street corner, you hear the smooth layers of Mask and Eye interchange and wink, each syllabic jab forming the playful, dual aspect of a 2-dimensional drawing made to represent a 3-dimensional form, but which insists on being both. Like a packing box gutted of the incidental, shapeless contents that gave it its basic structure and the momentary courage for depth, everything collapses – even words that were already flat.
A woman sat at her desk, which was pushed up to a window in her bedroom (it wasn’t really a bedroom because she lived in a studio, but the feeling she had in that small, ill-defined area was that of being in her bedroom). She always sat there in the morning for a few minutes before getting up and going to the counter to make herself an espresso with the automatic machine that had come with the studio when she had first rented it. She would take the espresso back with her to the desk, open the window and sit down. Sometimes, especially if she had not yet put on pants, she would put her legs up on the desk and lean back, so that the chair rested only on its two back legs. (She had a nervous habit, that showed itself when she was seated in public, at cafes or restaurants, of rocking one foot back on its heel before slowly bringing the front of the tensed foot back down, almost as if it were pressing an invisible pedal against the floor. She would become aware of the motion only when completing it, and if she made any effort not to repeat it, it seemed to press up into her whole body, causing her to lean back in her chair, balancing on the two back legs, until she slowly let the front two legs down again.) But this morning she sat at her desk and didn’t get up to make coffee, but kept sitting there and sitting there until it became much later in the day. The light in the windows shifted and she kept sitting, feeling, as if out of nothing, a very quiet play of emotion rising and falling within her, like an interior weather phenomenon connected to nothing, an undercurrent of affect that made it really impossible to get up, because she had never felt emotions like these before, not that they were strong, in fact they were very weak, but it was this weakness that was so perplexing, so that these quiet, weak emotions seemed to her as if they were not part of her or part of the world at all, but were only themselves, and that her having them was not something she could account for… – until finally, after what must have been hours, she started to shake and feel sick and had to force herself to stand and close the window.
If the street is a blood vessel and the square an artery, then the alley must be what gives the body of a city actual sensibility and an awareness of itself. So what about those cities and towns in America that have squeezed their alleys into merely virtual lines, irregular tessellations of paint, that mark a separation between property and nothing more? Well, they have lost something, not something vital, but something essential. They have lost an emptiness, a double movement that is never reducible to a simple gain. Without alleys, a city is merely a blood engorged mass, a blind, breathless organ, lacking the possibilities of life and mind that grow from dark spaces of exception.
The first fallen leaves of September on green, unsuspecting grass; quiet points of contact in an image of nature too perfect even for laws of harmony and counterpoint; the light steps of muted semi-tones over a dewy surface without repetition or pretense to a key. And, yet…
A poet wants to get inside of a room that has no windows, no doors, not even a vent for air, and put a few words together, raise a sentence or two up from the ground (to the height of a little gnome!) until finally a window appears in the wall that looks out onto a world completely different from the one that must have been there before.
The church graveyard has always been a miraculous, heavenly place – but only for the person who, when confronted with the question of faith, does not know what to say. She has a dark flicker in her eye, a confession of what she would only like to say; she is silent from a sense of honesty, but in the midst of the graveyard, maybe even while a solemn church bell subdues the irregularities of sun and wind, or while the first drops of rain fall, she feels that she stands in the midst of an afterlife that can only ever be real to the living.
The oscillating disposition of the poet, the technique of the diarist, the eyes of the frog.
Overheard one evening: “That sugar spoon is the only dish I never wash and when I see it, stuck to the counter, stained golden-brown from so much use, I feel a ridiculous, almost superstitious disdain. I remember the long nights spent in my parents’ kitchen, staying up until four or five in the morning drinking cup after cup of coffee in youthful excitement, wishing that nighttime would last for as long as I remained awake, instead of, disregarding the state of its observer, gradually changing into morning – and that disdain turns to melancholy when I imagine how many beautiful, full nights have slipped through my fingers, whether from carelessness or the stupid need for sleep, nights that beg to be regarded as though they held a piece of eternity within them, broken up here and there by the clear ring of a spoon bumping against the inside of a mug, on the old countertop.”
I am often overcome by a sense of paralyzing wonder – but for what? And for whom? For these situations and people that I have no use for, which is to say, the only things in life that are exposed to the possibility of love.
There is an alley between two rather large streets, from which you can see the neighborhood directly to the North standing as if it were a lone village resting on the edge of a sea. But it borders a canal, not a sea, and if it is alone, it is only so virtually, for there are no hard and fast lines separating the neighborhood from the others, each very different, that surround it. The alley only looks like an alley when you are approaching its narrow opening, or when you are stepping onto the next main road, that is, when you are already outside of it. Within its confines however, the sky opens up and the rooftops sing with the cold light of Autumn, while what you thought was merely an alley turns into an alpine peak. People below, down on W____strasse, look small and humble. A man puts groceries into the back of his car; he might as well be a peasant in a Bruegel painting carrying a sack of potatoes, so great is the distance between the two of you. And there you see some children pushing around on scooters. One of them is a little blond boy. He has a serious expression and kicks around in spite of himself. The others laugh and for a moment the distance which was so great, between the height of the alley (did I mention the steep staircase which runs through it?) and the pool of people and life down below, closes. You remember being a serious little boy floating like a paper ship in the wake of other children. You remember feeling your own seriousness, like a lead blanket draped over your shoulders, that you did not have the strength to throw off because you were too small and couldn’t understand, but you wanted so badly to laugh and be silly as if there were no weight in the world but the lightness of your own clumsy feet… but the children disappear down the street and again the alley, the winding, tight staircase is quiet. A woman has been watching you from her window this whole time, discrete as a tree or a bench, and when you make eye contact with her she blushes and ducks inside her little window. Well, clouds have appeared – they appear when you look away for too long, and sometimes only a very short moment is too long – and the rooftops are dark, they no longer sing, only the horizon still glows with a far away light. It is time to go down the steps, one by one, dodging the leaves so as not to disturb the alarming quiet, to rejoin the neighborhood and walk North where it feels like you might find yourself at the mouth of a sea, in a harbor or a bay studded with ships and commerce and the sound of waves, but where you will only find a quiet canal and instead of a village, a neighborhood encircled by vague outlines. And when you have gone down into the streets and feel the sky narrow and the sounds of the city tactlessly rushing up to you from every direction, you look over your shoulder thinking that you might see the top of the staircase in the alley, but of course there is nothing there, the alley has already somehow sunken away into the other side of that great distance.