September 2010

Elizabeth Bachner

features

An Attempt at Exhausting a Place

“Halfway through the story of my life, I came to in a gloomy wood, because I’d wandered off the path, away from the light.” It was my birthday a couple of days ago. I’m probably halfway through it by now. My life story, I mean. My vacation between deaths. My adventure. Dante was probably about halfway through, too -- 35 or 36 -- in those first lines of The Inferno. Or he thought he had that long to go. Really he died in his fifties, which can happen to anyone. You can die when you are ten and be carried through the city in a tiny coffin.

“It’s hard to put into words what that wood was.” I spent my birthday in a beautiful restaurant in Soho with flickering light everywhere and a dark pool of floating flowers, eating an endless tasting menu that made me tired, drinking a passion fruit cocktail. Ten or fifteen years ago I felt like I had wandered off the path. Now I am trying to be open to surprises. It was my New Year’s resolution. I want to be open to surprises and maybe even create some. If you start looking around, surreality trumps reality every time. Except, I’m not really so sure where I am right now.

In my book pile everything is about reckoning with that night in the woods. I’ve got St. Augustine’s Confessions: “Now that my youth lay buried, bad and unspeakable, I had arrived at young manhood, the older in years, the deeper in futility.” I’ve got Dany Laferriere’s Heading South, which was made into a movie where Charlotte Rampling and Karen Young go to Haiti to have sex with young boys there. I saw the movie when I was newly single -- it depressed me and made me sad -- but the book has more in it, more that saves it, it reminds me a little of reading Laferriere’s An Aroma of Coffee years ago. I have Am I a Redundant Human Being?, written in 1929 by the Viennese actress Mela Hartwig, whose work has fallen into obscurity. It’s a funny, dangerously morose first-person saga of a masochistic, passive-aggressive, self-involved secretary named Aloisia Schmidt, whose defeatist attitude turns again and again into a self-fulfilling prophecy. I have Brett Easton Ellis’s Imperial Bedrooms, where the characters from Less than Zero are still doing what they were always doing, and even the ones who were supposed to die have never really died. I have Milton’s Paradise Lost. I have Notes from the Night: A Life After Dark, George Plimpton’s son’s tedious saga of failing to get laid in Manhattan nightclubs with his fratty friends.

I have The Heart of William James, a collection of some of his best essays about how to make life meaningful and worth something and not-redundant. In his late twenties, according to Robert Richardson’s introduction, James “was drifting, and had been for some time… He felt increasingly despondent…. (He) fell into near-suicidal despair, which was only further darkened by the tragic death of his cousin Minnie Temple… the real life model for Henry James’s Daisy Miller and Milly Theale.” At forty-eight, William James published “his first real work”: “While he had taken forever to grow up, his last years were, by contrast, crowded, active, fulfilling, and rewarding.”   

And also, I have the books I picked out of birthday restlessness: Lonely Planet Nepal, Lonely Planet Trans-Siberian Railway, Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, 1,001 Natural Wonders to See Before You Die, and Spell of the Tiger: The Man-Eaters of Sundarbans, which was written fifteen years ago by Sy Montgomery, an army brat who has traveled the world doing exciting things, and now lives in New Hampshire with her husband and a six-hundred-pound pig. In most of the world, the few tigers that are left don’t eat people -- it’s part of why there’s a belief in many parts of tropical Asia that tigers hold the souls of dead heroes. But in Sundarbans, tigers are nailing men all the time, ripping them out of boats by their spines, eating their soft bellies first, and the whole place has a scary atmosphere, wild and rough and tortured like Dante’s woods, so you’d shudder to think of it even years later. The best way to protect yourself is to call upon the forest goddess, Bonobibi, by floating some sweets out into the water on a giant leaf. There are gods in India that ride on tiger’s backs -- Shiva’s wife Durga; Aurkah, the commander of the thirty-three-year cycle; Shukra; and Jolishmatic, the goddess of miraculous drugs -- but it’s not like they really ride the tigers, exactly. In Hindu mythology, a vahana (vehicle) carries you the way a breeze carries perfume. I think it would be good to ride around on an elephant in this way. It would suck to be killed by a tiger, but it might be better than corking off from malaria while you were young and beautiful, like Daisy Miller. A loved one of mine is in Africa whacked out on Malarone. I don’t know what I am supposed to offer to Jolishmatic, here in Manhattan, sitting in Café Grumpy, listening to Billie Holiday, doing the easy Tuesday crossword. I’ve never heard of Aurkah or Jolishmatic before, other than in this book about tigers, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

I’m not really so sure where I am right now, or how to put it into words. There’s this phrase that keeps sticking in my head -- “an attempt at exhausting a place” -- taken from the title of the tiny Georges Perec book, An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris. I’ve read this weird book four times in the summer of 2010. It was 1974, a few months after I was born here in America (“American girls are the best!” says Winterbourne, happily, as he sees Daisy Miller for the first time, hatless, in her frilly white dress with knots of pale ribbon.) The chain-smoking, 48-year-old Georges Perec spent a gloomy three-day weekend in various cafes in Place Saint-Sulpice, trying to record everything that happened, all the things we usually take for granted -- fluid traffic, sleeping pigeons with their feet tucked up, bits of wind, his own moments of menace, “obsessive fear,” and “unsatisfied curiosity.” His plan was to unveil l’infra-ordinaire, the infraordinary, “what happens when nothing happens,” the strange, minute details of experience that drive us and shape our lives. I think I’ve been trying to exhaust a place, too, but I don’t know what that place is.

Perec died at only forty-five years old, and it’s hard to decide which of his literary experiments was the most interesting -- the e-less A Void? The subsequent Les Revenentes, in which e was the only vowel used? His father died when he was four, probably from gunshot wounds, his mother died in a concentration camp, probably Auschwitz. His memoir, W, or the Memory of a Childhood, takes place partly on an imaginary island. He designed crossword puzzles. Some of his work, according to his translator Marc Lowenthal, is untranslatable, especially Je me souviens, “a collection of brief remembrances of things and people that are indecipherable to anyone not French and not of his generation.” His mammoth novel, Life: A User’s Manual, visits a neighborhood in Paris that has never existed in real life. But it’s this odd, miniature book of hyperreality, of over-existence, that fascinates me as I travel through this summer. It starts out factual, rational, but it can’t help turning into a poem, turning into an addiction, turning into some trippy literature, turning into inevitable metaphor, turning into too much exposure.

“There are people who read while walking, not a lot, but a few. A green Mehari. A baby in a blue carriage lets out a brief squawking. It looks like a bird: blue eyes, fixed, profoundly interested by what they take in. A meter man with a bad cough puts a parking ticket on a green Morris. A man wearing a Russian astrakhan fur hat. Then another. A little boy wearing an English school cap; he crosses, making sure that he steps only on the stripes of the crosswalk.” And here, 18 October 1974, 3:20pm, Perec seems suddenly obsessed with hats, satchels, umbrellas -- what people wear or carry -- to the exclusion of other details. And then it is 4:45. “I want to clear my head. To read Le Monde. Take my business elsewhere. Pause.”

There’s something so heavy, so endless, about this project. The project of looking at what’s actually around. It’s an exercise in world-weariness, or maybe it’s just hitting me that way, because -- though I still flirt -- I’m not exactly as fresh as Daisy Miller anymore. According to Faye Hammill’s new study, Sophistication, it is the intense awareness of the overlooked but constant factors that shape our lives that makes the sophisticate. The sophisticate accepts “complex structures of class, power and reputation” and “the need for… a careful negotiation of public spaces,” while poor lovely Daisy dashes into life unstrategically, in broad daylight, enjoying the bareheaded moment. It’s not exactly that she’s oblivious (“Well, he looks at us as one of the old lions or tigers may have looked at the Christian martyrs!” Winterbourne hears Daisy exclaiming in her American accent) -- it’s just that she doesn’t orchestrate everything, or live it out in its exhausting, burdensome social context. Maybe there’s still a bit of Daisy in me, not that I want to be punished with Roman fever.

I have some memory of William James saying something about how genius is the art of perceiving the world in a nonhabitual way. But in his essay, “Concerning Fechner,” he uses Bain’s definition, genius as “the power of seeing analogies.” I’m not sure if it’s that. Perec’s paradoxical, genius trick in An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris is that, by recording reality, real space, real time -- by thinning it into a strange little volume, a physical object of words and pages -- he has managed to erase it.

Still in Canto One, in his gloomy wood, Dante drags his tired body up to a dreaded mountain pass that no one has ever survived before. A leopard springs up, barring his path, confining him “as in a prison yard.” When morning comes, a lion shows up, roaring so loud that “the air around him tremble(s) at the volume.” Then there’s a wolf, “her body sunk and bowed with hunger.” Dante doesn’t run into any tigers, not then. Instead he runs into Virgil. Virgil came up at a time when “good Augustus reigned” and “bogus pagan gods were all we knew.” I wonder if any of those gods smelled of elephant, or wildcat.  

Dante wants to know, How can I get out of here? And Virgil tells him, “You need to go another road… if ever you’re to bid this place good riddance.” Huh, well, it wouldn’t have exactly taken rocket science or genius to figure that out. Dante has a real, surreal, infraordinary adventure. Then later, before it’s all over, he writes a book.     

Note: quotes from The Inferno are from the translation by Ciaran Carson.