In the film, Atonement, the costumes and sets remind one how much was lost in the war, and how much the English sacrificed to win. I loved how water divides and united the characters. The lovers Cecilia and Robbie die in different tunnels—the soldier stands at the shore he thinks divides him from his love, but she is floating in the same water, when the London tunnel she’s come to as a bomb shelter floods. As a young girl, Briony wants to know that Robbie will save her from drowning. Later, she wishes she could save him or her sister. Briony atones by making them live on in her head. Robbie saves Briony from drowning, then yells at her. He rescues the twins lost at night in the wild and is arrested on his return for child abuse, because of Briony’s confused accusation. Robbie makes mistakes, too: his passion for Briony’s sister causes her to break the vase, and he mails the obscene letter, wrongly choosing to entrust it to the child Briony. The one act of lovemaking in the book also breaks things—Briony’s faith and the barriers between class. Is love selfish and violent? In youth, yes, but the war is a purifying fire. Perhaps Cecilia should have tested Robbie, to see if he could save her. But no one can save loved ones in the war; one can only try to save anyone one comes upon. The scene of the sisters in the hospital is echoed in the slaughtered girls that Robbie stumbles upon. The characters put aside selfish desire and devote themselves to selfless service.
The octopus has three hearts. One only lives six months; after sex, it involuntarily self-destructs. It is so adept at learning tricks, running mazes and solving problems that scientists list it as exempt from experiments that cause pain. They call it an honorary vertebrate. The octopus changes color to match the reef and stones it passes. The mimic octopus imitates the poisonous lionfish and sea snake. It can slip down a one=inch hole. The creature not only takes on the color of the rock, but the bits of algae clinging to it—and it transforms its skin into the texture of the object around it. The Riddler of the ocean. The octopus is like one’s dream life, where things change quickly, and are not always what they seem. Falling asleep, one dives into a lake where time pools. One finds oneself back in torn-down homes, old schools, and one can’t seem to graduate. One scientist said that we think the world is made of solid objects, but there are none—there isn’t even something remotely resembling solid in this world. Every night in my dreams, I wander so far off that I have no idea how to get back to reality. But there is no going back in time.
In Richard Price’s new novel, Lush Life, everyone is acting except the victim’s father, and the central character, Eric. Eric gives up trying to be someone other than himself, and the father fails to make anything of his son’s death—it undoes him, so both men free-fall through the novel. Eric doesn’t fit into anyone’s scenario—that flummoxes the cops, who construct a crime line in which he, the victim, becomes the killer.
There are so many scenes happening on the same stage of the Lower East Side—the ghosts Eric sees from the past, the hipster scene in which young people try to construct a scene in which they make a difference. . The Chinese lie to protect themselves from retributions and extradition. The kids from the projects trying to play tough, taking street names like stage names. The cop, Yolanda, makes up stories of her own youth to get young boys to open up and tell their stories. Manny, her partner, tries to teach the hapless father to play act, to save his son, but Manny no longer has faith that he can play the father to his own drug-dealing sons. The tragedies of the sons break through the illusions of paternal power.
“If you speak the truth,” Oscar Wilde said, “sooner or later you will be found out.” Odds are, you’ll be found dead.
Rick Moody’s memoir, The Black Veil, draws on Hawthorne’s story, “The Minister’s Black Veil.” We want to see what we feel will disturb us, what others hide. But it’s the veil that disturbs, not what lies beneath it. Under the veil likes a perfectly ordinary face. The veil haunts, and people beg for the minister to remove it. But who doesn’t veil their true nature, the face they see in the mirror, from others? And who is bold enough to lift the veil from another’s face. In Hawthorne’s story, and in Moody’s memoir, no one dares. Are there things that can only be seen through a veil?
Poe defines art as the reproduction of what the senses perceive in nature through the veil of the soul.
Anne Truitt’s last book, Prospect, is an interesting title for a final volume, with its suggestion of beginnings. Maybe only in this book of looking back can she see the plan. Or maybe she realizes she is about to become a field, like the color fields she worked in. And we are going to mine her. I am so grateful for her generosity. “Heraclitus postulated that two great laws order the universe: the Logos, the law that nothing changes, and the Flux, the law that everything is always changing. He conceived of these laws as at once opposite and identical, as the convex and concave sides of a curving line are at once opposite and identical.” She speaks of finding a sense of distance in moments of complete absorption in her work, as if she hovered in the space between these two forces. Honesty is generosity. “Purity of aspiration seems necessary to inspiration,” Truitt says in Daybook, which I’m reading now. Some artists wallow in bad behavior, with the excuse that they need the depths from which to create art. Others philander, pursuing one trend after another. But Truitt works to refine her personal life through thoughtfulness. Her columns stand for her finely honed vision of the essence of life and art. Truitt writes, “The work of others may suggest techniques or even solutions. But the essential struggle [of the artist] is private . . . It is of necessity a solitary and lonely endeavor to explore one’s own sensibility, to discover how it works and to implement honestly its manifestations.” That last phrase alone presents an endless task. Creating art that delivers the experience of our epiphanies is like translating from a language no one knows. One has to decipher the unvoiced language of one’s soul and then find a way to convey it in paint or words. Truitt also offers her experience of looking for her lost children in a garden that’s closing—a scene that reminds one of the loss of paradise. She finds her lost children have been returned home by a policeman. She takes from this the idea of looking outside of the problem for the solution. When she loses her art studio, she decides to see it as a new freedom, and turns from sculpture to painting. She calls it the principle of reverse solution. Loss and separation give us the freedom to move beyond former limits, to find new material, ideas and life.
I’m reading the Dictionary of Imaginary Places, gathered from world literature and myth. One entry is Ibansk, a town invented by the modern Russian writer Zinoviev. All its inhabitants are named Ivan. The great monument to the leader has keeled over and will soon fall into the river—the artist “has been dealt with appropriately.” This passage describes the conundrums of the soviet state, in which figures disappeared from historical photographs, and towns and regions disappeared from state maps: “The history of Ibansk is made up of events which almost failed to happen, which almost happened but at the last moment somehow did not, which were expected but never happened, which were not expected but did happen, which happened in the wrong way at the wrong time in the wrong place, which happened but are not acknowledged to have happened, which happened but are not accepted as having happened.” I'm reminded of a haunting book, "The Commissar Vanishes," which shows how soviet archivists removed those Stalin executed or exiled as enemies. Sometimes historical photographs are published repeatedly, but with more and more figures removed each time, until Stalin stands alone with Lenin. Sometimes these overworked retouchers failed to remove the shadows of the dead, or a hand placed on another figure's shoulder. Then in the next version, that person with the shoulder disappears, though the hand of the first condemned man may remain, suspended in empty air.
Van Gogh wrote to his brother, “It is fiendishly difficult not to feel anything, not to be affected when those bloody idiots say ‘does he paint for money?’ . . . One doesn’t really care a rap, but it gets one one’s nerves all the same, just like listening to off-key singing or being pursued by a malicious barrel organ. Don’t you find that to be true of the barrel organ, and that it always seems to have picked on you in particular? For wherever it goes, it’s the same old tune . . . . When people say something or other to me, I shall finish their sentences even before they are out—in the same way as I treat someone I know to be in the habit of extending his finger to me instead of his hand (I tried the trick on a venerable colleague of my father’s yesterday)—I too have a single finger ready and, with an absolutely straight face, carefully touch his with it . . . in such a way that the man cannot take exception, yet realizes that I am giving as good as I damned well got.”
After mother's death, I spent years sorting through business. After sorting through a nine-foot stack of papers, I finally read a book she'd saved from her childhood Peter and Wendy, the novel Barrie wrote after the play, Peter Pan. “All children, except one, grow up,” Barrie begins his story of Peter Pan. Of course that one person is oneself. Peter’s last name, Pan, comes from the ancient Greek god whose name means “all.” We all have a childlike spirit, but as in the story, all of us age and lose touch with that spirit. Out of the stiff, old pages fell a thin slip on which my mother had penciled elaborate scores for a game between sisters some rainy afternoon in the 1920s. My mother kept meticulous score of her weekly bridge game until her last illness. No one grows old to their own mind, though it may seem they are old to everyone else. Barrie writes, “They soon know that they will grow up, and the way Wendy knew was this. One day when she was two years old she was playing in a garden, and she plucked another flower and ran with it to her mother. I suppose she must have looked rather delightful, for Mrs. Darling put her hand to her heart and cried, ‘Oh, why can’t you remain like this for ever!” This was all that passed between them on the subject, but henceforth Wendy knew that she must grow up. You always know after you are two. Two is the beginning of the end.’” My cousin Tom and his wife Patricia sent me silent films his father took in the 1920s. No one ever mentioned them—they must have been untouched for almost a hundred years. I watched with a sense of recognition my mother as a young child. She jumped from a rock I’ve walked down myself, near our homes. She sat next to her mother, then reached up to embrace and kiss. And as clearly as if she were sitting before me, I felt her spirit, her love that strove always to share happiness, or, lacking fortune, to create it by sharing the gesture. I was surprised at the surreal whimsy of Barrie’s writing, which seems so contemporary. He says that one’s mother goes through one’s thoughts when one sleeps like someone going through drawers. “I don’t know whether you have ever seen a map of a person’s mind . . .. A map of a child’s mind is confused, and keeps going around all the time.” Inside it is Neverland.”
In his poem,“The Monument,” Joseph Brodsky writes an argument for the erection of a monument, revealing only in the last word what it shall honor: the lie. All the monuments built in Brodsky’s Soviet town were lies to liars. What monument would I propose for NYC? A statue to the street people, who are always to be found around monuments, but never on them. The sight of the ragged drunk keeps many of us in our uncomfortable dress, running to the office after getting pressed into the train, while the homeless lounge on the benches, drinking vodka at 9 AM. We endure tough, tedious jobs that are beneath us so we won’t have to sit beneath monuments to dead men.
Leonardo da Vinci said to students seeking inspiration, “Look at the crack in the wall.” The line that the shifting earth inscribes, the short line written over a long time. Is the path our life inscribes like that, determined by the slight shifts we make in the world. We’re distracted by the wallpaper patterns that people keep slapping up, but the cracks underneath are the pattern of real things. Leonardo conveyed the depths of a persona. I suspect it’s not the depths of Mona Lisa we see, but the depths of Leonardo da Vinci. Dick Davis writes in his poem, “Leonardo” of how the painting began to crack in the artist’s lifetime:
I read Grace Paley's interview in the Paris Review, where she says, “The longest review I’ve ever had was an attack in Commentary magazine. Kind of virulent. My publisher doesn’t send me terrible things that people have said. I’m not the kind of a writer who gets into literary fights. I prefer political ones. As for my attitude towards other writers, I’m kind of short on disdain or contempt. That is, I don’t belong to the school of “I can only live if you die.” I tend to be interested in writers whose work is different from mine. Of course I’m saddened and angered equally by work made of contempt, hatred, misogyny, and too many adjectives.” The interviewer says people describe her as wise. She responds, “That’s because I’m old. When people get old they seem wise, but it’s only because they’ve got a little more experience, that’s all. I’m not so wise. Two things happen when you get older. You have more experience, so you either seem wiser, or you get totally foolish. There are only those two options. You choose one, probably the wrong one.” I think one is both foolish and wise continually. We all choose to lapse into idiocy in vast areas of life. The best we can do is to choose wisely. Not to be an idiot about health, welfare, spiritual and love life, friends. While focused on those I fall behind in keeping up with technology, society, and clutter, checking the car, magazines, chores, cleaning, moisturizing, answering emails.
Grace Paley said in one essay on writing, “Directive:” “Choose some mystery about your parents. If you feel before you start that you understand everything—he’s a sadist and she’s a masochist, drop the subject.” You don’t understand how little you understand.
“Eternal life does not make sense if we do not love our life. Eternal life makes no sense if we don’t live now. Eternal life is living here and now with all that we have,” Mark Bozzutti-Jones said in sermon yesterday. I keep thinking, “As soon as I get through these problems, I can start really living my life.” But the problems never end. They’re like the sea I swim in. How I move through them defines my life. When the problems run dry, I’ll just be washed up.