In Light of Darkness

Monday, July 16, 2012

Whenever I pass the Restaurant Sarajevo in the 2700 block of West Lawrence in Chicago I think of two things. First, I recall the summer evening several years ago when I observed a wedding party standing on the sidewalk outside the restaurant. The beautiful bride was young, blonde, and lithe. She wore a strapless white gown. Her wedding veil, tossed back from her face, fell gracefully over her shoulders. The others in the group stood around her as if she were the center of some loose bouquet of summer flowers. The lights of the restaurant glowed in the evening’s late dusk, and the image continues to shimmer in my mind with loveliness.

I thought the beauty of the moment was similar to paintings by the German artist Gerhard Richter, but when I view these thinking about the bridal party they fail miserably to equal that vision. There was, despite the romance of the moment, a brightness to it—the white dress, the arrival of evening and the pleasant lamplight within, everyone smiling. Richter’s paintings, in contrast, often contain a certain blurriness.

In his poem “I Know A Man,” Robert Creeley says;

As I sd to my
friend, because I am
always talking, John, I

sd, which was not his
name, the darkness sur-
rounds us, what

can we do against
it, … . .

It is the word against, well actually it is the word surrounds, that first interests me in those lines, the joke of breaking the word in two to get at the idea of surrounding. I think Creeley breaks that word up so that we understand not only that the darkness is some sort of border but that it can enclose us within itself, which is frightening. We could be encircled, imprisoned.

But really it is the word against. Because I would have written “what can we do about it,” meaning the darkness. But Creeley says “against it”—what can we do in opposition to the darkness? His query and desire are more active, aggressive. When I think about this in the context of the wedding party, I understand that the wedding party stands against the darkness. This is its power for me.

I suppose the question that arises naturally from this is, what is meant by darkness? In the context of Creeley’s poem I note that it is not dark but darkness that, while potentially awful, seems also like something that might still be dealt with. It’s out there, but if we have a plan, well then maybe we’ll be all right.

Here’s what says about the word:

1. the state or quality of being dark: The room was in total darkness.

2. absence or deficiency of light: the darkness of night.

3. wickedness or evil: Satan, the prince of darkness.

4. obscurity; concealment: The darkness of the metaphor destroyed its effectiveness.

5. lack of knowledge or enlightenment: heathen darkness.

So we’ve got deficiency of light, or to extrapolate a little bit, an inability to see, the devil (the prince of it, he is), concealment, which for me means lying or being lied to, and a lack of knowledge, to which I’m going to add a lack of understanding. We can’t see, we don’t understand, we don’t know whom to trust, we don’t know what’s going on, and there’s a bad guy out there.

I’m reminded of former secretary of state Donald Rumsfeld’s famous response during a press briefing regarding the lack of evidence linking Iraq and weapons of mass destruction. I’ll note that I believe this was said in defense of the idea that even without concrete evidence of WMDs we should assume the worst. He said, “There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don't know.”

Let’s let that stew and shift our gaze back to Gerhard Richter’s work. Woman Descending a Staircase is described in a catalogue as “glossy” and “glamorous,” which were not words that came to me when thinking about the bridal party. Despite their seductive-sounding slipperiness, these words are cold and modern, shiny and reflective. They can only be about themselves, not against other things. But this is not an essay on beauty—at least I don’t think it is.

The difference may be that when one thinks about painting, words like figuration and abstraction come into play. These are cold, clinical-sounding words. It may also be that the event, a marriage, and the location, the Restaurant Sarajevo, weighted my experience unfairly. Although unfairly isn’t the correct word.

It is possible to view Woman Descending a Staircase with objectivity, to discuss it in terms of technique, skill. It is harder to observe a wedding party, the culmination of romantic courtship, outside a restaurant named for a city that experienced the longest siege in modern history, resulting in tremendous loss of life and destruction, and not feel some mixture of heartbreak and hope. At least it is for me.

Gerhard Richter’s work Woman Descending a Staircase is not to be confused with Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. In a way, the difference between these two works could be described simply by saying that in Richter’s work the woman is clothed, in Duchamp’s, she is not. In Richter’s work, which looks something like a blurred black-and-white photograph, he has accepted artifice and so glossy and glamorous are appropriate terms of description. I’d go further and say that since his desire is to create a painting that looks like a photo, he has embraced artifice.

Duchamp is up to other things, his woman more Eve than Jackie O. When this work was rejected by the committee of the Salon des Indépendants exhibition in Paris in 1913, it was in part because “a nude never descends—it reclines.”

(Any woman who has ever hurriedly ironed a blouse for work or vacuumed before unexpected guests knows that many things can be accomplished in a state of undress.)

The Salon committee had other problems, art problems, with Nude Descending a Staircase. The Duchamp painting is a multitude of planes and angles—gone are the sensual lines and soft curved shapes of old. Nothing reclines and the eye finds nowhere to rest. The image is fractured and in some ways seemingly un-whole in the old way of nudes, and for that matter human beings. The nude is active, it is acting, but it is also dissonant, and something about the image clatters.

I appreciate Duchamp because I think he had a restless mind. The body of work, which includes this painting, is disparate, not painting after painting of water lilies but sculpture, painting, objects, readymades, jokes, collage. If Claude Monet (of the water lilies) thought he could get at something if he went at it over and over, Duchamp thought he could do the same if he produced it in as many forms as possible. Duchamp says an apple is a piece of fruit, so is a peach, so is a pineapple, so is a mango, so is an orange.

It’s not a rose is a rose is a rose. Maybe this is incorrect. In addition to the fracturing inherent in war, there is at the intersection of Duchamp and Gertrude Stein an interest in presenting the everyday as art, an art based on perceived indifference to the thing that is the art. This elevation of the everyday is in some ways the downfall of civilization. If everything is art, then what is of value? How do we know what is darkness and what are we working against?

Something else to ponder, I guess.

Creeley’s poem suggests that what we should do against the darkness is buy a “goddamn big car (and) drive,” at which point his friend John cautions him saying, “for christ’s sake look out where yr going.”

Good lookin’ out, John.

The second thing that comes to mind when I pass the Restaurant Sarajevo is the writer Aleksander Hemon. Born in Sarajevo, he has lived in Chicago and written about it in several books. In The Question of Bruno, he mentions a statue of Abraham Lincoln that is also on Lawrence Avenue, where it intersects with Lincoln about eight blocks from the Restaurant Sarajevo. His protagonist passes this statue during a manic car ride.

I have stood waiting for the bus in proximity to that statue on many occasions. It has a two-step base convenient for sitting if one doesn’t mind the bird shit, the debris, and the sneaking feeling that it’s probably been the inspiration for a late-night piss or two. People stand here waiting. They read newspapers, eat things that do not require utensils or a table. It can be brutally hot or bitterly cold here in the city. Even when temperate, it is hard not to be aware of one’s surroundings. It is always, always dirty here. Behind the Lincoln statue sits a Walgreens, beige concrete and advertising red. There is nothing here that shimmers.

The other morning I watched the end of a movie called Zotz! It starred Tom Poston as a man who discovered a ring with magic properties. In the film, the Russians get wind of this and chaos and hilarity ensue. It seems mostly that the magic ring slows down the actions of others. When Tom Poston is being chased by the Soviets, he shouts, “Zotz!” and his pursuers move toward him in such slow motion that he’s easily able to escape. Cornered on the roof of a building, he jumps off, the Zotz! ring slowing his fall so that he lands on his feet, unharmed. In the end, the ring rolls down a sewer grate and is never seen again. Tom Poston is congratulated by a general for saving the country from communism. Then he and his wife, whom he refers to as Mrs. Jones, go to view the Lincoln Memorial, where he says something about what’s really important, and the movie ends with the image of that Lincoln’s craggy face. I found all this pretty entertaining.

The Lincoln Memorial in Washington sits on a very impressive base and is much larger, grander, and cleaner than the one on Lawrence Avenue in Chicago. It’s funny to think that we try to create the same experience on different scales. I’m thinking here of tiny models of the Statue of Liberty or snow globes that hold the Empire State Building in perpetual winter. Anyway, the Lincoln Memorial has a lot of important names attached to its creation, names that herald our status as a nation of immigrants. It was built with materials specifically gathered from different states and regions of the Union. There is nothing renegade or new about its design, it pushes no boundaries. It is completely understandable for what it is and what it represents. If you have stood before it, you have probably felt the stir of patriotism and had your picture taken. The Lincoln Memorial has come to play a part in the national psyche; its white granite self pushes against the darkness and is therefore a successful piece of public art.

But I’m fond of the statue of Lincoln in my neighborhood. Here, he stands. He holds a sheaf of papers and his hat in his left hand. His right hand rests on top of a book on a podium. I suppose the intended effect is that he’s a man of letters, but it looks as if he’s got so much going on that he has to carry his hat and his papers and his books. He seems of the people waiting for the bus, those who stand holding straining plastic bags, backpacks, their children’s hands, the paper, their phones, their bus cards.

I am reminded of Aleksander Hemon when passing the Restaurant Sarajevo, but my thinking here always falters. I admire his work but I don’t pretend to wholly understand it. I will say that I believe he speaks eloquently to the fragility of happiness. But mostly what I think about when I think about him is how he may have stood here at the intersection of Lincoln and Lawrence Avenue waiting for a bus, maybe holding his books and his papers and his hat—the intersection of Lawrence and Lincoln being a pretty good place to ponder the fragility of happiness while you’re waiting to get home.

At one time I lived in Brooklyn, and for some reason got it into my head that I lived in proximity to the writer Norman Mailer. I spent a lot of time imagining that we might cross paths and that I would dazzle him with my intellect. It never happened except in my mind, where we met repeatedly and I was as I imagined I would be.

Once I went to hear a successful writer read. He said he sent the first drafts of his very long books straight to his editor, unrevised. I thought, bullshit. On another occasion I sat at a table with a well-known feminist poet. She was, well, bitchy. Another famous writer/educator presented as a grumpy, older man more concerned with making travel connections than imparting wisdom. See where I’m going? What could I say to Aleksander Hemon that would maintain the illusion that we are both wonderful people? No offense to Mr. Hemon, who is, from what I’ve heard, charming.

The British actor Gary Oldman recounted to an interviewer in somewhat derisive language how, after a screening of a film in which he played the lead, a woman complimented him on his socks. He’d have preferred she made reference to his film work.

I sympathize with the woman. One time in grade school I had a crush on a boy. My mother told me she’d heard from his mother that his dog had died and that he’d been very sad. I practiced and practiced speaking to him about this. By the time I got up my courage and did so, weeks had passed and he looked at me without responding. This is sort of how I imagine it would go with Hemon.

I have little to show for my own creative efforts, and no defense for how disparate the work is, how irregular the output and how minimal the success. I have a restless mind, which is better than saying I am unfocused and lazy. But I am uninterested in pursuing the long inquiry; for me the disparateness is the inquiry. I am doing something against the darkness; it just isn’t much. Mostly I sit around worrying. This doesn’t seem like something to be shouted over bus fumes in the presence of a more successful writer and in the shadow of the Great Emancipator.

So instead of saying, “Sasha Hemon, your work speaks to the sacred in each of us and is a mantle against the darkness,” I’d be more likely to say something like “Nice dog,” or “Wow, argyle, just like I imagined.” To which, really, for most people the response would be at best a rather annoyed “What?”

Here I have to stop, out of my loyalty to dogs and relate the following. I’m with my dog, Adrienne. I could tell you a lot about her. I could fill pages with her as she filled my consciousness. She was my mother and my child. Anyway, we’re walking down the alley. I am convinced that people who walk in alleys are not the same as people who walk on sidewalks. People who walk in alleys are looking for something that is not available on the public and right-thinking sidewalks. For Adrienne, it’s chicken bones. Me, I’m just tagging along.

A woman walks towards us. Passing, she asks, “How old is your dog?” I tell her. She says, “My dog died.” I say, “I’m sorry.” We all stand awkwardly for a moment. She does not pet my dog, which is what most people would do. Then she says, “It hurts.” And then we keep walking in our opposite directions, me with my dog, her, without.

Riding the bus from Lincoln west on Lawrence, one passes any number of interesting buildings and shops representative of the lively and varied culture to be found here on the northwest side of the city. There are hookah bars, Mexican bakeries, Korean ones, places where you can buy a Jennifer Mink blanket, other places where you can purchase tarps, tires, hummus, a dress for a quinceañera, toothpaste from China, or an Egg McMuffin. You can buy shoes at a place called Sexy Girls of the Hollywood or clothes at Chica’s Secret, have your car serviced at a place that for over twenty years has had a sign saying they work on “Foreing and Domestic cars,” get fried chicken or falafel or Kobe beef, or watch girls strip at the Admiral Theater.

One night, after a long, late shift at the major retailer for whom I work, I rode the bus up Lawrence. The Seoul Pharmacy was open, the buildings on either side of it low and dark. The fluorescent fixtures in the pharmacy gave the place an otherworldly quality, a clean green glow. It appeared to float above the sidewalk. The people inside seemed to move slowly, like astronauts or people charmed by a Zotz! ring.

I don’t think I’d ever noted the Seoul Pharmacy before that evening when it floated past me or I floated past it. It was weeks before I could even locate the store again, though I looked. When I saw it again in daylight, it was pedestrian, a bland green and gray, nothing like what I had come to remember. In my mind that other, the Seoul Pharmacy Spaceship, exists like the lovely bride outside the restaurant, like the statue of Lincoln, like Aleksander Hemon, like Duchamp, Creeley, Mailer, the Zotz! ring. I don’t pretend to have the answer to the question “what can we do against the darkness and all the unknown unknowns," but I take some satisfaction in knowing I didn’t make any of this up.

Sunday, July 1, 2012