Bettines letzte Liebschaften shows the now 50-ish Bettina von Arnim — once made famous by her youthful correspondence with Goethe and now an established cultural figure — traveling several hundred miles through a snow-storm to meet her youthful poet-correspondent, in hope of consummating the heretofore epistolographical affair. Once tete-a-tete in his quarters, the poet begins to duck, evade and change the subject, and when he is finally openly pinned down to declare himself, denies volubly that he finds her too old (not an ageist, he) but claims that his erstwhile passion died in response to reports of Bettina’s similar attempts made recently on two other youthful poets. She admits she has made such attempts, but says they are over and claims now to live only for him – to no avail. Take aways (as they say in college):
1. Youthful poets are happy to “do a Bettina” – i.e. establish their fame by way of amorous correspondence with senior high profile poets/poetesses – but their eagerness for literary achievement may not necessarily extend to acts of physical self-sacrifice. And:
2. Fiftyish established poetesses (and poets) – when he wrote it, Dieter Kuehn – no, not the East German footballer who is the only German of that name with an English wikipedia entry – was fiftyish himself – become desperate enough to follow every lead, several at once. Time is running out, there isn’t enough of it left to do them sequentially.
Last night I dreamt that I returned home from Asia and came straight from the airport to your hotel room downtown
Last night I dreamt that I returned home from Asia and came straight from the airport to your hotel room downtown. You were there with your husband. You both looked young and happy. There was an easy-going, contended familiarity between you. I talked to your husband mainly and he spoke mainly about you — warmly and tenderly: it was clear he was in love. Later, the three of us strolled through the city, stopping at fountains and old jewelry shops and then we climbed up to my quarter. There was a street fiesta in progress, a saint this or that, all restaurants were full, there were crowds in the streets, people grilling fish out and dancing on the cobble-stones. We climbed the stairs up to my apartment, my door stood wide ajar, there was a crowd of revelers inside, people I have never seen were throwing back the contents of my wine cellar, blasting music on the sound system, kissing in the corridor, and no one minded us at all. We climbed to the second story, where the panoramic windows are. They had been thrown wide open. The breeze blowing off the sea struck us in the face. For a long time the three of us stood there in silence, looking at the city below and out towards the sea.
Jojin Ajari Haha no Shu is an eleventh century diary written by an eighty-four year old woman. It was written for a single purpose: that of venting the author’s grievance – indeed, incrimination – against her sixty-some year old son, a highly regarded abbot, for having left Japan on a religious mission to China, an act which the author interprets as his willful abandonment of her.
She is economically comfortable and well taken care of, so the abandonment isn’t economic but emotional: “My whole life depends on seeing him every morning and every night”, she says, “and he, knowing this, has deserted me. Words fail me.”
The writing is filled with bitter indignation, and the author seems not to care what weapon she uses to prove that her son’s behavior is unspeakably cruel. Her suffering appears to verge on the hysterical and she thrashes helplessly between the desire for imminent death and staying alive until her son’s return from China (which, in the end, never transpires: Jojin the Ajari will die abroad). One has the feeling that the author’s chief hope is that her son will read the diary upon his return and be struck with crippling remorse as a result; and that she’s only unsure whether she prefers to stay alive until that moment, so as to gather the fruit of the remorse, or to die beforehand so as to leave her son with unatonable guilt.
The extenuating circumstance – that the author was widowed early and left alone to care for two infant sons – seems to extenuate but little: can her son really be expected to serve as her sole source of joy and happiness sixty years after her tragic widowhood? Does the fact that he is the sole source of joy for her place a moral responsibility on him? And what of her other son, who, apparently, not only remained in Japan, but was caring and loving and visited her frequently? Why is his solicitude not enough?
If there is something good to be said about the mother, it is that she doesn’t seem to have turned her bitterness into acts of blind cruelty: she did not conspire to turn the whole family against her son, for instance, as disappointed mothers often do; but then, she’s eighty four, which probably means that her ability to manipulate others is curtailed; and the family itself is perhaps too small to orchestrate much of an ostracism of Jojin — besides herself, there’s only the other priest-son. We can’t be sure that she wouldn’t have done it, if she could. Often, virtue is a matter of insufficient opportunity.
Jojin seems to have avoided his mother for some time before his departure: we hear his excuse that “meetings in this world are of little importance when compared with the true joy of long, uninterrupted meetings in eternity.” Incessant labor aimed at gaining admission to paradise for her and himself (as well as many other people) is his excuse for not proffering the usual manifestations of solicitude, but, one guesses that his mother’s solicitude for him tired and embarrassed him and that he paid such manifestations as he did reluctantly and with dread; and that if he did pray for her admission to paradise it was for her admission to a part of it well insulated from that to which he himself hoped to be admitted.
Indeed, as much as it is a record of the tragedy of a mother who loves her son too much, Haha no Shu is also a record of the misery of a son who is loved too much.
Much literature, perhaps most, is written to express the misery of unrequited love from the point of view of the person whose emotions are not requited. The situation is full of pathos and justly deserves compassion. But unrequited love can be a misery for the loved ones, too. After all, what have they done to deserve the solicitude, the anger and the incrimination of those who love them?
Bedridden after surgery, I have been reading a Kawabata, my 5th or 6th, and toying with the idea of writing one myself. The idea is Huellean (Pawel Huelle wrote a prequel to Magic Mountain, see here), but Kawabata’s Spartan brevity does not allow for prequels — Kawabata writes like a stone-cutter carves: by removing material rather than adding it. Not one excess word is the rule. Therefore, any addition to a Kawabata, such as a prequel, is an anathema. A Kawabata must be free-standing, a separate novel in its own right.
The plot is easy enough: all one needs to do is follow the tried and true: a cultured, thinking man of about fifty undertakes a solitary pilgrimage to a cultural destination — something obscure and very high-brow; there he meets an accomplished young woman; the meeting occasions memories of past events; some inconclusive conversations follow, some of them about art, which may or may not lead to physical intimacy; the man returns to his former life with a sense of resignation while reflecting on the desolation wrought by time. 10 chapters, 150 pages. No more than three weeks of work: just the time I need to recover.
The project requires 1) a scheme, 2) two decisions, and 3) the resolution of one difficulty.
1) The scheme must be classical: in Kawabata it’s usually the seasons; times of day; or festivals. But it could perhaps be the three acts of a play, say, or the stages of a tea-ceremony. In Ray’s Kanchenjunga it is the weather: clear skies, clouds gather, dense fog, fog lifts, clouds part, bright sunlight — within this cycle of weather, the plot thickens and — is resolved. Perhaps, if I located my Kawabata in Europe, a Roman scheme could be used: the three theological virtues, say, or the four elements, or the seven good deeds. This must not be too contrived, though: many such attempts have failed on account of being too heavy handed: the scheme must be present, all encompassing, yet natural and unobtrusive. If it must be explained, it has failed. Perhaps it’s best to stick to weather.
2) The two decisions are:
i) First, choice of cultural destination. Somehow Nikko’s on my mind, in winter, in snow. One winter day, in heavy snow, over twenty years ago, I got lost on my climb through the dense ancient forest that covers up the mountain up to the lake. I fell in deep snow up to my arms, a troop of monkeys passed overhead, it began to grow dark, I began to fear for my life. It is a good setting for philosophical reflections — and — think about it — the mountain, the snow, the falling dark, the imminence of death — what a powerful literary symbol, very Magic Mountain-like.
Yet, I should probably avoid a Japanese destination: the point is not to copy Kawabata: a Kawabata cannot be a pastiche of itself; it cannot be a masquerade. It has to be something true, authentic, my own. Besides, moving the location to Europe would have an added bebenfit: it just might allow me to — Rameau-like — “hide art with art” (i.e. conceal the fact that my novel is in fact a Kawabata).
So, perhaps I ought to make my destination– Würzburg. Many years ago I passed through there. I arrived in the morning and departed by dusk. (There’s the scheme!) It was a beautiful autumn day — and a dramatic moment in my life, a kind of Scylla-and-Charybdis passage from slavery into exile — I was on my way to the refugee camp, on a 24 hour transit visa from Sweden to Austria, where I would give up my old passport and officially break with my masters — in exchange for nothing but the right to throw myself upon the mercy of the free world. Nine tense months’ wait later, the free world would accept me and I would breathe out: I wouldnot have to crawl back, tail between my legs, to my old masters, swearing loyalty evermore and begging them not to whip their runaway slave to death. Of course, that day in Würzburg I hadn’t known yet that the free world would accept me. The moment was pregnant with hope and fear and amazement at my own daring.
I waited for my train to Vienna in the park. I remember leaving its autumnal beauty at dusk with great sadness in my heart — I had not had enough time to get to know it — as the watchman strode through the paths ringing energetically a large hand-bell to announce the imminent closing of the wrought iron gates.
I didn’t know then about the Tiepolo. Many years later I tried to go to Würzburg to see the Treppenhaus, and to walk again in the park, but friends who were to come along didn’t turn up, my train was late, I didn’t make the connection. Yes, I should go back there again. Why not make it into my Kawabata.
The second decision to be made would be:
ii) The encounter.
The difficulty here would be to choose one from all the memorable encounters I have had with beautiful, interesting women. Perhaps instead of one, I could describe two; or, rather, one but double: an encounter I had several months after my divorce. In the lobby of my hotel in Phnom Penh I met and lunched with two western women, two days in a row, one after the other, one a Latin-American brunette, the other a Scandinavian blonde. They were both exceptionally beautiful, intelligent, sensitive, educated women, gushing with youth and health, and they both obviously enjoyed my company, perhaps because I could regale them with enthusiastic talk about Cambodian sculpture and dance-drama in a way in which no light-weight youngster half my age ever could; perhaps because I was being my Old World self: courteous, polite, considerate; but perhaps also because… I was safe: it was all strictly uncle-like. It was such a great pleasure for all that. It made me feel that I wasn’t all dead yet.
3) But the difficulty, which lies in the memory bit, may well be insurmountable. While I sympathize greatly with the mood of kokai — saudade – regret – zal — see this post on the aesthetic of regret; and relish it in art, poetry and music; I do not actually think with longing of any of my past affairs. There is nothing of the past that I miss. For all my inclination to feel sorry for myself, I am, I suppose, as everyone should be: always happier today than ever we have been. I simply cannot imagine who my hero could long for!
This is not to say that I do not have regrets or longings; but they are for places — like Nikko; or for art — like the Würzburg Tiepolo; or for activities — like riding my orange 125 cm in cold driving rain on winding roads along the Thai-Burmese border. To long for lovers seems obviously childish — after all, any attempt to find happiness in another person must misfire if you cannot find it in yourself.
A part of me welcomes this idea as a challenge: yes, let us write a Kawabata to make just this philosophical point: that people do not matter, things do. Let’s have a Kawabata with a hero who longs for places or art, not women. But, then doubts assail me: to long for things and places — instead of people — seems… unKawabatan. And… unnovelistic. Has anyone ever heard of a novel without a love interest? Is such a thing even possible?
Pieter De Hooch is perhaps best known for this painting. But the National Gallery show entitled Close Examination — a show dedicated to identification of forgeries and alterations — discusses an interesting case of another painting of his, one otherwise easy to miss perhaps in the mass of Dutch genre scenes at the gallery: this one, dated to about 1655:
It’s dull, nearly monochrome colors, undistinguished interior, and indifferent subject matter — A Man with Dead Birds, and Other Figures, in a Stable — serve as a kind of… camouflage. Only a custodian’s eye could be expected to dwell upon it at any length; but when doing so, it just might notice that the game have been painted in a manner somewhat different from the rest of the painting. Inspired by precisely this observation, an x-ray of the picture revealed a mystery: a ghostly image of an underpainting of a wounded man, lying parallel to the surface of the painting, with his knee bent: in the original design, the man in the center of the picture was in fact dressing the wounded man’s knee. At some later time, the wounded man was painted out; and covered up by game.
The exhibition notes suggest that the overpainting may have been done by Ignatius Van Regemorter, who purchased this painting at an auction in 1825. Van Regemorter was a picture dealer and he is known to have thus “corrected” a number of old paintings in his possession in order to make them more marketable.
The mystery, to me, is how this particular change could have been expected to have done so: the presence of the wounded man explains everything: both the woman’s intense stare (his wife? his sister?) and the menacing figure in the back (his co-conspirator? his second? a man at arms here to carry out an arrest?): there is a tense drama here — rare — and striking — in a Dutch painting. On the contrary, the change from wounded man to dead animals made the painting dull and — difficult to understand. (What is the woman doing here? And the man in the back?) Was Van Regemorter seeking to dullify the picture in expectation of better sales as a result?
This mystery made a big impression on me. One half of my brain — the Anglo-Saxon half — thought of the painting as a possible motif in some sort of crime mystery, the overpainting hiding a vital clue to solving the crime. But my mind’s other half — the East European one — thought instantly of revolutions, assassins, anarchist plots. In fact, several similar objects have once existed in my family’s archive: portraits of armed men whose uniforms and insignia have been carefully painted out so as not to offend the victorious enemies; photographs of revolutionaries of 1863 cropped to cut off the flags so that the men might appear an ordinary hunting party. Etc. We all knew just what was missing. And, of course, the missing part was what the object in question was all about.
Raised in conspiracy, I am forever smelling hidden meanings and dark plots. This frame of mind is useful: I can for example decipher messages in modern Chinese art my Anglo-Saxon friends cannot. I remember discussing Yellow Earth with some Anglo-Saxon Chinese scholars. In it, there is a scene in which a man bicycles through a forest, hears strange, menacing noises, comes to a stop and looks around him in terror. “What a superb scene”, gushed my Anglo-Saxon friends. “Existential fears. Mystery of the forest!” “Nonsense”, I told them. “Gulgag”. (I.e. the noise was that of political-prisoner-slaves felling trees in the forest). Raised on free speech and tell-it-how it is films, my interlocutors did not realize that under dictatorship some touchy subjects can only be talked about by way of metaphor; let alone know how to identify and interpret such a metaphor.
It could be said, perhaps, that bad government sharpens your wits; and that a couple centuries of fairly benign government has, on the contrary, dulled — simplified — the Anglo-Saxon mind. Or, perhaps, I should say, it has made it virtuous: “Let your speech be yes, yes; no, no”, says the Gospel, and my Anglo-Saxon friends are, by and large, yes-yes-no-no people. That is good for business and makes for a relatively problem free life.
But it makes for a damn boring love life: how does one fall in love with a woman who does not know how to send sufficiently mixed messages so as to appear — mysterious? Mysteries are really the great spice of life: they make life interesting. And unmysterious life obliges us to resort to lousy, flat substitutes — crime novels and crossword puzzles.
Check out the exhibition site for other examples of art mysteries: a great play-ground for suspicious, convoluted minds.