July 2011

Elizabeth Bachner

features

Crying All Over My Dress

A couple of weeks ago, I went to see Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert at the Frick. I love how St. Francis kicks off his sandals and leaves his book behind in his study before he turns to meet his divinities. The painting is full of secret animals, and the exciting part is that the mortal world -- the shepherds and sheep and rolling hills and rocks good for climbing and turreted town and trees -- looks just as enticing as the heavens. You imagine travelling musicians in the distance, and love affairs, and colorful textiles like the ones sold by St. Francis’s rich father, and acrobats, and carnivals, and feasts. I don’t know anything about Catholicism or Renaissance painting, but I wonder what book St. Francis was reading. A guide to life, a guide to death, a guide to solitude, a guide to love? Maybe he wasn’t reading, but writing the book. After the Bellini, I went to Central Park and napped by the model sailboats. I opened my book at random -- The Tao of Perfect Happiness -- and came to a section on dreams:

How do I know that loving life is not a delusion? How do I know that hating death is not like having lost your way and not knowing the way home? Lady Li was the daughter of the border guard of Ai. When the Duke of Jin first took her captive, she cried till her dress was soaked. But after she reached his palace, shared his luxurious bed, and ate his delicious meats, she felt sorry for her tears.

Along the same lines, how do I know that the dead do not feel sorry for their former craving for life? You dream of enjoying a fun party and wake up crying the next morning. You dream of crying sorry tears and wake up to go off hunting… In the same way, there may be a great awakening, after which we shall know that life is actually a great dream. Yet so many people remain ignorant, thinking that they are awake, brightly insisting that they know what is what, assuming one is a leader, the other a servant -- how thick is that!

That was the perfect Sunday, in every way -- the aquamarine-skied painting, the wise book, a street fair falafel packed with extra tabouli. There were accordion players everywhere, the park was dappled with sun, I met a mystical scholar who wanted to talk with me about The Tao of Perfect Happiness in the coffee shop. Walking down a pretty section of West 20th Street, I saw a man muttering to himself beside a discarded toilet. He was repeating the words “eye shadow, eye shadow,” over and over again, and I had the thought that this man was the center of the universe -- or, the center of some universe -- just like I am. I was feeling smug and jaunty, bursting with health, beauty, and revelations. But I was also a little bit annoyed with myself for being so smug and so jaunty, even right then.

Now I’m fussy and irritable. I have piles of books that I chose for myself, expecting to love them, and I hate all of them and I’m bored. I’ve just had four wisdom teeth out and I feel like a defanged snake or a declawed cat. I read things I’ve already read before, so I know they’ll sate me. I reread Joseph Roth’s Job, because a lot of bad things happen in that book. I read Marguerite Duras’s essay on writing, which is one of my favorite things lately, sad and true. I open The Tao of Perfect Happiness to a random page again, not for wisdom but just for something to read in the bathroom, and inside is some kind of totally unfamiliar insect, skinny and strange. It seems to have a very wrong number of legs, forty or fifty. I try to get it out the window, but I end up killing it along the way, and I feel horribly guilty -- what if the insect was the creature who’s important in the world, and I am the mistake? I think about the cockroach in Clarice Lispector’s The Passion According to G.H. I wish I had that to reread. I don’t own my favorite books, I have to get them at the library. Underneath the strange, now-murdered insect is the text: “Anyone questioned about the Tao who gives you an answer doesn’t really understand it.” I used to think my perfect fairy tale character was The Princess and the Pea, keenly sensitive to pointy objects under my (metaphorical) bedding. The Princess always seemed really obnoxious to me -- why would the Prince want to marry a girl who was going to whine about the tiny things that others manage to ignore? But now I think I might be more like Lady Li. Thinking I know what’s what. Crying all over my dress.   

“I don’t know what a book is,” writes Marguerite Duras. “No one knows. But we know when there is one. And when there’s nothing, one knows it the way one knows one is not yet dead.”

I keep trying to figure out what the book is in that Bellini painting. I’m finding descriptions of all the other symbols -- the fortressed city, the hermit’s skull. Some people think that St. Francis is receiving the stigmata from an angel. Others think he is singing to the divine, the canticle he wrote in the desert while recovering from illness. The book is, according to some website, a “holy book.” Is he reading or writing it? Solitude is a kind of writing, says Duras. And reading is the same as writing. Still, I want to look inside that book, even if the important thing about it is that St. Francis leaves it behind.

Sometimes that Bellini painting is called St. Francis in the Desert -- other times, St. Francis in Ecstasy. A child, according to Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death, has to “learn to abandon ecstasy” to become an adult, just as we each have to create boundaries and limits in our heads and hearts to be sane instead of schizoid, sane instead of psychotic. The child has to “do without awe, to leave fear and trembling behind. Only then can he act with a certain oblivious self-confidence, when he has naturalized his world. We say naturalized but we mean unnaturalized, falsified, with the truth obscured, the despair of the human condition hidden…” Becker wrote this book at age fifty, in the final stages of aggressive terminal cancer. Giovanni Bellini was around that same age when he finished his St. Francis painting. I wonder if, when I am fifty -- only thirteen and a half years from now -- I’ll make some masterwork about the human condition. I doubt it, but maybe in some thrilling but peaceful moment, I’ll turn away from my study and ecstasy will greet me again. Or it won’t, and I’ll just pack my book and my skull into a satchel and explore the wider world, the fortressed cities, the flame-proof laurel trees, the pastures of mellow sheep. I really like sheep.

Marguerite Duras writes about being alone in a house and watching a fly die. She hopes it will live, but it knows it will die. “That was the most terrifying thing. The most unexpected. It knew. And it accepted… I wanted to run away, and at the same time I told myself I had to look toward that noise on the ground, just so I could hear, for once, that flare-up of green wood, an ordinary fly dying… The death of that fly has become this displacement of literature. One writes without knowing it. One writes by watching as fly relinquish its life. One has a right to do that… Around us, everything is writing; that’s what we must finally perceive. Everything is writing. The fly on the wall is writing… The fly’s writing could fill an entire page… One day, perhaps, in the centuries to come, one might read this writing; it, too, will be deciphered, translated. And the immensity of an illegible poem will unfurl across the sky.”

The book in that Bellini painting is probably a book of Gospels. Stories of somebody else’s life or death. Stories of somebody else’s meeting with their own ecstasy.

“Writing,” says Duras, “is trying to know beforehand what one would write if one wrote, which one never knows until afterward; that is the most dangerous question one could ever ask oneself… Writing comes like the wind. It’s naked, it’s made of ink, it’s the thing written, and it passes like nothing else passes in life, nothing more, except life itself… An open book is also night. I don’t know why, but those words I just said made me cry. Write all the same, in spite of despair. No: with despair. I don’t know what to call that despair. Writing to one side of what precedes writing is always to ruin it. And yet we must accept this: ruining the failure means coming back toward another book. Toward another possibility of the same book.” And, “Writing goes very far… all the way to having it over with… One could also not write, forget a fly. Only watch it. See how it struggled in its turn, terribly and accounted for, in an unknown sky, made of nothing.”

According to The Tao of Perfect Happiness, “It is best to relax your heart-mind and just go along with things… There is nothing better than to fulfill your original destiny -- but boy, is it ever hard to do!” Marguerite Duras says, “If one had any idea what one was going to write, before doing it, before writing, one would never write. It wouldn’t be worth it anymore.” And here I am, not-writing, not-reading, fussing and trying to plan, whining at my friends in their lovely summer dresses who come by with DVDs and soups, thinking how if more people felt like Marguerite Duras there wouldn’t be this pile of boring, labored books that I hate, where you can tell the author plotted out what would happen in advance and plodded through it, immune to any raptures or surprises.

"Every book,” she says, “like every writer, has a difficult, unavoidable passage. And one must consciously decide to leave this mistake in the book for it to remain a true book, not a lie.” I can’t get my books out of my dreams, naked and made of ink, but maybe that’s where they belong -- unfurled across the sky, indecipherable, while I toss and turn on my pea.