On Steep Waves
“All those who leave, always leave a little of themselves in you… Is that then the secret of memory?” It is the question asked by director Ferzan Özpetek in his film “Facing windows” (2003) – What can we learn from that question? Why is it that the memory is so important? Why would the message, any message, would be completely lost without it? Hannah Arendt wrote in 1929: “It is memory and not expectation (the expectation of death as in Heidegger) which gives unity and wholeness to human existence… Remembrance in man discovers the two-fold before of human existence… This is the reason why the return to one’s origin can at the same time be understood as an anticipating reference to one’s end”.
The secret of the memory is not revealed to us there but our voyage begins with the question of the message –What is it? What is it that we do when we speak? What happens when we live a little in order to die and die a little in order to live? Words, images, thought… What are they? Gifts of life? Gifts of death? Why are messages always, like letters and postcards, delivered a little too late? Even the messages from above and beyond come as belated greetings – for we are always caught unprepared for death. Here you picture Ingeborg Bachmann’s “Malina” as she anxiously wrote letters and immediately thereafter disposed of them, angry at the thought that they would never be delivered on the same day. What is there in the delivery of a message? Is it the world?
What kind of world is this in which messages, like philosophy and prophecy, can never arrive on time? What kind of world is this in which we want to live and speak, even be heard? Michael Cunningham brings this question to life in his novel “The Hours”: “Still, she loves the world for being rude and indestructible, and she knows others people must love it too, poor as well as rich, though no one speaks specifically of the reasons. Why else do we struggle go to on living, no matter how compromised, no matter how harmed? Even if we’re further gone than Richard; even if we’re fleshless, blazing with lesions, shitting in the sheets; still we want desperately to live. It has to do with all this, she thinks”. The same perplexity of Clarissa Vaughan, Cunningham’s fictional persona is what stays when we realize all what time has left engraved in us – the faces and the proper names.
But the facts of the world remain as it is - we are harmed and transformed by them. We need to withdraw not only in order to understand and analyze, but also to create alternative versions with which we may be able to live unmolested. That is how we transform the world into a recollection of images, postcards and photographs – not even a collection because collecting would imply that we are able to choose the finest pieces and not as it is often the case, end up walled and carpeted with advertisements, inebriated geographies and absurd topologies in lieu of earthly experiences. Philosophy is the recollection of world history, in the words of Hegel.
We leave the comfort but also the immense responsibility of the home and begin wandering in the world as if through an anonymous hotel, checking out at our earliest convenience when the turbulence becomes uncomfortable to handle; all what we have for a reminder of our life on earth is the remainder of the post cards and photographs that we carry instead of suitcases or passport. The postal system of world history in which messages are exchanged not only across cities but also across the most distant ages, between gods and philosophers, between writers and heretics, between lovers and soldiers, between rulers and fallen divinities; that postal system out of which we have derived religion, literature, thought and the arts is a slow but necessary device to protect our secrecy. If we were to have unmediated encounters with the words and the loudly speaking facts of the worlds, we would be burned down and torched so completely. Yet even in our intimate cities of refuge there is little we can do to protect ourselves from acts of hearing and speaking, either of the indirect kind (art) or the direct kind (politics). King Solomon and Socrates have warned us about the bear trap of knowledge, yet it is not only in reading and writing that the memory is set free – the act of seeing itself suggests as well the acceptance of what we are seeing as facts; there is nowhere to run.
Reality and language intersect in the postcard as a token of the broken memory, as a fragment of something that in itself has no beginning and no end, what is the gift then? To visualize the intersection it is necessary to resort to more than reason and faith; we must learn to see with the two eyes of Ibn al-‘Arabi - ذو العين – doing enough justice to transcendence-cum-immanence: Both the eternal transience and the mortal worldliness of things. How lonely it is to live or to write or to remember if the message is not delivered – It is in the message, the postcard, the image, where the lens is amplified and the word leaves the flesh to become one with the world.
The composer Hans Werner Henze responded to Ingeborg Bachmann’s “Malina” and her despair over the belated message of the letter by saying that “I’m very touched by the richness, great sadness and despair in your first symphony, which is in fact Mahler’s eleventh”. How could one live with the fact of having written an unwritten symphony? “Nothing else will come” responded Ingeborg Bachmann in a poem sent to Henze in 1968. Do such ends of history exist at all? Do we cross invisible lines after which poetry and art can be no more? It seems as if what happens is that fragments of the world show such incredible resistance to being forgotten – unlike the world itself that survives on a dynamic of oblivion and instinct.
To understand the postcards and the messages from the past as forms without a soul of its own deteriorates into what Ibrahim Kalin warns: “It does not enable to find a home in a world of homeless minds, uprooted traditions and soulless masse; there must be something else that pushes the boundaries of the archive into a telescope of mnemographies, act of delivering messages across times and spaces – as though a Copernic voyage. The message is more than the visible – why would we want to live if it is not for facing windows? Peering into distant silent worlds? Into distant worlds that remind us of the natural sounds of love and war? One can conjure up images of Susan Sontag directing ‘Waiting for Godot’ during the siege of Sarajevo and jotting down the Bosnian text into the English lines and memorizing a play in a language she doesn’t know. Isn’t that hunger to deliver a message?
“Live dangerously and you live right” in words of the great Goethe. The intensity of the living is made manifest there: There’s no insurance against life, it is impossible to live without the risk, without the danger, without sinister panic and guilt. We rather navigate in the open sea at the expense of a boat perhaps sunken or drunken; it is always preferable to the eternal ennui of Paradise – Adam and Eve followed commandments but did not remember things! The postcard is not a vault but a telescope, we are allowed to peer through only for a fraction of a second and we are not permitted to keep anything. What we experience on the steep waves of the ocean before shipwreck is that any attempt to communicate, to deliver a message, is nothing but hunger for freedom – vertiginous freedom. When Tim Hetherington shot his “Diary” in 2010, an experimental film recording a decade of his photojournalism work covering the most restless corners of the world, he was only offering us a pornographic tour through the naked limbs of contemporary history; little did he know then that after his death in February – murdered by mortar shell fires fired by Gaddafi’s forces in Libya – we would see now through his diary how desperate he was to live. And so are we. That is why we fluctuate through oceans of disrupted messages, seeking in our origin, our end – like Postcards.
By Arie Amaya – Akkermans/ Dedicated to Maikel Nabil Sanad, political prisoner at El Marg Prison – Egypt, since March 28th 2011