This weekend I sat at an outdoor picnic table with a woman who, in commenting on the grossness of trying to eat while pigeons hovered, said, “Two things I canít stand: pigeons and gypsies.”
I didnít say anything, and even now, forty-eight hours later, I feel dirty with shame.
I didnít say anything, in part, because I did not know where to begin saying things.
But also. I didnít say anything because I had already, in the course of the afternoon, asked her to explain the thinking by which she expected everyone to understand that a Chinese repair job is shorthand for a cheap repair job. I had already, in the course of the afternoon, turned away and gone silent for a full and painful five minutes, when she made a snide remark about the two women who were walking down Via dei Servi, holding hands and leaning ever so slightly into each other, in that way that lovers do everywhere, when they are happy with the world and with each other.
I was afraid that if I said something, then this, finally, would ruin the afternoon for everyone. That it would maybe even strain the friendship. (And yes, I know what youíre thinking, and I am grappling with those questions too.)
Why am I telling you all this? Not to make excuses. There are no excuses that are good enough, for this kind of silence.
Maybe Iím hoping itís to remember for next time, how dirty the shame feels.
[Santo Spirito, Firenze]
[martedž 18 settembre 2018 ore 13:14:00] [¶]
Before Todo Modo closed for August, I let myself get carried away. Among the spoils: Understanding a Photograph, by John Berger. The introduction is by Geoff Dyer (who selected the essays in the book, though Berger was still alive at the time, so I imagine he was involved too, somehow...). And while it is, of course, very much about Bergerís ways of seeing and Bergerís ways of looking (and his ways of writing about both), there are some things that Dyer says—almost in passing but not quite—that feel like good things to think about, when it comes to essays, essaying, trying, thinking, trying to think.
Like when heís talking about Barthes, Benjamin, Berger, and Sontag, and how photography, for all four, was an area of special interest, but not a specialism:
They approached photography not with the authority of curators or historians of the medium but as essayists, writers. Their writings on the subject were less the product of accumulated knowledge than active records of how knowledge and understanding had been acquired or was in the process of being acquired.
Later he says that many of the best essays are also journeys, epistemological journeys that take us beyond the moment depicted [or the subject discussed] — and sometimes back again.
Except I think heís wrong about two things there.
One, the best essays are not also journeys. They are journeys. It is the journey (of trying, of thinking, of trying to think) that feels to me like the essence of what makes an essay. Itís in the very DNA of the word: the Middle French essai (to try) came from the Late Latin exagium (the act of weighing), which in turn came from the Latin ex- + agere.
Agere as in to drive, to ride, to be in motion.
Berger knew this of course—that it was about journeys, about rides and motion and modes of transport—not only in his essays, but in fiction too. Less than a page later, Dyer remembers him telling us (from And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos), that ‘the traffic between storytelling and metaphysics is continuous.’
And two, the best essays are not necessarily epistemological journeys. Maybe Iím chafing at the word epistemological because of the way it smells slightly to me, of that sanctimonious disdain with which the “personal” in “personal essay” is sometimes regarded. (Jia Tolentino, Iím looking at you. For starters anyway.)
Maybe too, and alongside, itís because Iím thinking of something a friend wrote this week (in describing a series of workshops sheís doing, on unlocking stories from the body), about how the thing we know so well as knowledge becomes embodied, becomes gnosis. I had to look up gnosis, and I didnít get very far—just far enough for some things to reverberate for me. Like the fact that you have, in Italian and French and Spanish, and even in German, one word for the kind of knowledge that is intellectual or theoretical, and another word for the kind of knowledge that is personal or experiential.
Je sais et je connais. Tu sai e tu conosci.
What does this reverberate with? Among other things, with so many Friday afternoons, when Elvira tells me Iím too rational, and that I think too much with my brain rather than my heart. Every time I want to say: But what if emotions are rational too? What if weíre wrong about this huge distinction we make between the metaphoric heart and mind? Just like we were wrong about the left brain and the right brain? Every time I want to say all that, and then I feel like my Italian isnít quite up to it.
Feel, think, know.
It reverberates too, with some things from a podcast Iíve been listening to a lot (funnily enough, on the way to and from so many of those Friday afternoons), of a panel discussion with four women who happen to excel in just those kinds of essays—the ones that are not necessarily, and not only, epistemological.
Here, for example, is Eula Biss:
...I think what I enjoy in the work of all these authors is the body being claimed as an intellectual space or a space where you jump from that space into an intellectual problem, and the body is a problem in different ways in these different works. But I feel like in all these works there is a resistance to this old dichotomy between the body and the mind, or the female and male. And weíve got all these sets of polarities... [...] But yeah, I guess thatís whatís exciting, is seeing the body entered as a place to think.
And here too, is Leslie Jamison:
...itís strange to me when people pull out the body as one of my subjects because itís always felt so much stranger to me, the idea that you wouldnít write about the body or that the body somehow wouldnít be present in the work. I think thatís a harder thing for me to imagine, just because, as you were saying, that distinction between the mind and body has never felt... Thatís just never resonated with my sense of what it means to be or be in the world. So I think it just never has felt like a conscious choice; it just felt like the only way to access truth was somehow to treat that boundary as porous.
And Biss again:
...you know, you donít get to have a mind without a body. This was very apparent to me when I was, like, bleeding to death on the delivery table. The body goes; the mind goes. Thatís so...to me I donít feel like itís fair to pull those things apart. You need one for the other.
Eventually, I come back to Dyer, and find him quoting (because of course, what would a piece of writing by Geoff Dyer be, if not at some level, a way to bring up you-know-who...) from the poem “Thought” by D.H. Lawrence. This is the poem:
Thought, I love thought.
But not the jiggling and twisting of already existent ideas
I despise that self-important game.
Thought is the welling up of unknown life into consciousness,
Thought is the testing of statements on the touchstone of the conscience,
Thought is gazing on to the face of life, and reading what can be read,
Thought is pondering over experience, and coming to a conclusion.
Thought is not a trick, or an exercise, or a set of dodges,
Thought is a man in his wholeness wholly attending.
Suddenly I think of Sontag. What was that pithy thing she said once, about attention? I go looking, find it:
Iím often asked if there is something I think writers ought to do, and recently in an interview I heard myself say: “Several things. Love words, agonize over sentences. And pay attention to the world.”
In Italian, it is the verb badare that means to pay attention. Alongside, it has some other meanings. To attend to something; to watch over or take care of it. To dedicate oneself attentively to something. To take care to do something. To consider attentively.
To give importance to something or someone.
[Santo Spirito, Firenze]
[sabato 01 settembre 2018 ore 17:08:23] [¶]