January 2013

Elizabeth Bachner

features

The End of the Affair: Reading ďMissing Out: In Praise of the Unlived LifeĒ

ďI'm going back to New York/ I wonít be back to stay. /If you see my old friends/Won't you tell them I'm still away.Ē I have a recurring feeling, not a feeling but an image, of a small, warmly-lit bakery on a winter street. The white holiday lights outside glitter. All of the people inside are beautiful, rosy, and happy. Everyone is talking and laughing. There are pink-iced cakes fresh from the oven, and for some reason Iím not allowed in. I have my nose pressed up against the window, Iím standing out in the snow, thereís nothing so horrible about my life outside the bakery. I have twelve dollars, I have arms and legs and a winter coat, Iím not un-beautiful or un-rosy, why donít I just move on to a different bakery?

I have a memory, not just an image but a real memory, of sitting inside a warm bakery at night. I canít remember whether I was in Budapest or Paris. There was a man standing outside, rich-looking, handsome, fortyish, sober. He was wearing a good trench coat. He was standing by a garbage can, and suddenly he started sobbing. Big heaving sobs. His legs buckled. I didnít know whether to go outside and try to comfort him, or whether that would be worse, a violation of his privacy. Weirdly, I canít remember what I did. Itís a faded memory, from years ago, I havenít been to Paris or to Budapest in years.

Iím in New York, back from a trip to far away. Itís nine in the morning. Iím listening to the song Young Blood Blues. ďI was crying for you/ Wherever you may be/ I was crying for you/ Because you once were me.Ē I donít want to be back here. I donít want to not be back here. Iíve been doing New York things that you canít do in Kathmandu -- buying lingerie marked 90% off at sample sales, having double shots of open-bar bourbon at parties filled with now-geriatric B-list celebrities, brushing my teeth with tap water. At the library, I get piles of books that Iíve put on hold -- Lonely Planet India, The Best American Travel Writing 2012, Discover Australia. I want to read Graham Greene books but somehow I didnít order any Graham Greene books, somehow I canít find any Graham Greene books in the stacks or on my shelves at home. I read Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner. Itís good but then itís over.

Iím always more excited to choose my piles of library books than to actually read them. I like planning things. I like planning trips, but then when I actually leave I donít do anything I planned, at all. Lonely Planet India is huge and daunting. I think about an American man I met in Boudhnath who told me that he would rather have both of his kidneys removed than live in New York City -- I said, ďReally, both?Ē But heís the kind of man who welds and hunts and builds houses and flies planes, heís fought in wars, he meant it about the kidneys. I e-mail him a photo of strawberries that cost $12.99 and ask him how things are in India. He writes, ďIndia is, well, India.Ē

I start reading Adam Phillips's Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life. ď[Literature] is escapist,Ē he writes, ďwhatever else it is, in its incessant descriptions of people trying to release themselves from something or other. It is not just, as Sartre saidÖ that Ďgeniusí is the word we use for people who get themselves out of impossible situations; but that literary geniuses, as well as people not so talented, write about people getting themselves out of impossible situations. If all novels, as Tony Tanner once suggested, are about adultery, then they are all about people getting out of something that has become unbearable... The triangle of main characters in The End of the Affair are all saying, Ďget me out of here,í and Ďhereí is their ineluctable human nature.Ē I havenít read The End of the Affair in years, I want to read it again right now, why donít I have it? I remember its first line: ďA story has no beginning or end.Ē

Iím escapist, whatever else I am, but Iím not bad at getting myself out of things. I just canít seem to get myself into something -- the book and the trip and the bed and the life that I want. Adam Phillips writes about that, too. About not getting it -- all the ways we stay clueless, frustrated, deprived, outside the window. ďIt can be humiliating not to get it,Ē he writes, ďindeed, I want to suggest that humiliation is always a form of not getting it, and that humiliation sheds a unique and horrifying light on what not getting it might be about.Ē

I walk past a restaurant with my friend. Itís twilight or maybe nighttime, and the sidewalk is decorated with arches of white Christmas lights. Theyíre so beautiful, it makes the restaurant seem like it would be magic -- like it would be a portal to another time and place, a time and place where everything is inexpensive and charming and good, where thereís a little jazz band and the wine is unlabeled and you donít have to order anything, they just bring it all to the table -- piles of cheeses and olives, the delicious chilled wine. My friend takes two pictures of the lit-up sidewalk, but he doesnít go into the restaurant with me. Later I look up the menu. Itís true there are olives, wines, cheeses. Itís in the West Village, itís probably filled with people who go out to restaurants in the West Village. Iíll probably never go there. It probably isnít magic, at all.

ďWe make our lives pleasurable, and therefore bearable, by picturing them as they might be,Ē writes Phillips. ďIt is less obvious though what these compelling fantasy lives -- lives of, as it were, a more complete satisfaction -- are a self-cure for. Our solutions tell us what our problems are; our fantasy lives are not -- or not necessarily -- alternatives to, or refuges from, these real lives but an essential part of themÖ There is nothing more obscure than the relationship between the lived and the unlived life. (Each member of a couple, for example, is always having a relationship, wittingly or unwittingly, with their partnerís unlived lives, their initial and initiating relationship is between what they assume are their potential selves.) So we may need to think of ourselves as always living a double life, the one that we wish for and the one that we practice; the one that never happens and the one that keeps happening.Ē

I open Lonely Planet India again. Thereís an inset describing something called the Pin-Parvati valley trek, a ďstrenuous but rewardingĒ six to nine day trek that crosses a snowbound pass and ends in the Pin Valley in Spiti. Iíve never heard of the Pin Valley or Spiti -- I donít know where in India these places might be. I donít recognize the other place names on the page -- Kasol, Manikaran. This sounds promising. But then I see the other inset, headed, ďWarning: Deadly Vacations.Ē Apparently tourists who go to the Kullu or Parvati valleys are always disappearing. Some of them get all tangled up in the local drug trade and make the wrong people angry. Others just get lost or fatally injured in the rugged, confusing mountain terrain. You have to go with a guide, says Lonely Planet. But I like to go without a guide. According to some sources, tomorrow is the end of the world. And then all these sources talk about how of course it isnít really the end of the world, how itís all metaphor and energy-waves, how things will ďshift,Ē but weíll still all be here anyway. Walking down the street and buying unaffordable fruits, starving and stealing and crying. I start thinking, what if the world really ends tomorrow? And then this would be the last day of my life, of any of my lives, of the lives that never happen and the lives that keep happening.

Iím reading the last lines of the poems in Yannis Ritsosís Diaries of Exile. He would write a poem almost every day between 1948 and 1950, in the camps where he was incarcerated for his involvement in the Greek resistance. He would play the mandolin for the other prisoners. Every last line is a perfect last line, a right last line to end everything. December 4: ďThe door is open. I canít leave.Ē Some of the poems are one line, both a last line and a first line and then a last line again, living or ending together in the same trapped, or freed, moment. January 23. ďAt last/the mirror shows you/your severed hands/though you have no hands to applaud/your victory.Ē January 24. ďI rested my mouth on your memory/I sat a vigil for pain and pleasure/ between the four candles/of snuffed lines.Ē The poems get darker in the third diary, or am I just reading them better? More forced marches, more exile, more death -- suffering, bread thrown in the ocean.

Itís not only that I forget about war and starvation and forced exile. In my fury with my nose pressed up against the bakery window like that, I forget about my friends. I forget that they have nightmares, or stomach ailments from stress, or unprocessed issues about loved ones whoíve died. Theyíve fought in wars, even, or been violated in dark places until they have fears that wonít go away. They need comfort, too. I donít have anywhere to rest my mouth. Itís just me alone on the winter sidewalk, staring at all those cakes that I want. I wonder if Iím too busy wanting pink icing to love anyone. I want so much to reread The End of the Affair -- why donít I have it? Thereís something comforting about the thought that this is the end of the world, the final day. What would I do? I would reread the novel that Graham Greene published a decade after his London home was bombed during the Blitz. I would decide again where its story started or ended. I would think about its version of God. I would go out to that restaurant in the West Village with the arced lights, not with my friend but with some other friend, or not with my friend but alone. Maybe inside it would suddenly be 1951 again, here in New York, and inside it would be cozier than anywhere Iíve ever been before, and there would be good wine and good food and a jazz band, and everyone would love each other. Outside there wouldnít be anyone weeping on the street. Just those lights.

ďMy best friend in this whole world/is a man whoís dead and gone./Now Iím bound to wander/with nothing but his song./And he walked out of this world/As lonely as he came/You can rest assured you wonít see my man again./Iíve got the young blood blues/Theyíre following me/ Iíve got the young blood blues/They just wonít let me be.Ē

That man I met in Boudhnath told me thereís a place you can go at the end of the world. If youíre there, up there, the rest of the world will fall away but then youíll still be there. I canít remember where the place was -- Shangri-la, Mt. Kailish, somewhere in India, Arizona, Chichen Itza, Macchu Pichu? Maybe it would work to just be up on one of the forgotten floors of the Flatiron building. Maybe you could be on the rooftop of the Met, or dancing in the Rainbow Room. What if Iím standing there on the sidewalk and the warm forbidden bakery disappears, but nothing changes for me, Iím still just standing there with my anger and my overcoat and my twelve dollars, and there isnít any world anymore?

I donít want to be back here. I donít want to not be back here. I donít have any Graham Greene books, so I start reading Narcopolis, by Jeet Thayil, a black and dazzling and hallucinatory novel about a man who leaves New York and goes back to Bombay. If the world ends tomorrow, which it wonít, Iíll never go to India. Iíll never reread The End of the Affair. Iíll never go back to the Boudhnath stupa in Kathmandu, with its white dome and Buddha eyes and its golden stairway leading up into nowhere or into infinity, depending on what you believe. At Boudhnath I was trying to study the Tibetan Book of the Dead with some lamas at a monastery. To keep studying, everyone had to take refuge, to become a Buddhist, and Iím not a Buddhist, I just really like studying, I really like old books, I love reading guidebooks but ultimately when I go to some strange place, some Pin or Parvati Valley, some world of mine or some other world, I like being guideless, maybe I even like being lost.

On the Boudhnath stupa thereís a golden sign that says, among other things, ďWhoever sees or hears about this wish-fulfilling gem stupa will be ensured an ultimate liberation is guaranteed and finally one's dream or wish comes true... whoever worships or prays in front of this stupa will definitely closes the doors of three lower realms according to (terma) the hidden treasure... thank you very much for your kind cooperation.Ē Iím not sure whether I made a wish on the stupa or told it my dreams. I was aware of the alien feeling of not needing or wanting anything, like the vertiginous hungers of New York were somewhere so deep inside me that they didnít exist. When I sat on the wooden meditation boards, I didnít prostrate myself because Iím not a Buddhist. Sometimes one of the stray temple dogs would curl beside me while I meditated. She was beautiful and crippled, dirty but not too hungry, you could tell from her belly that sheíd just given birth, this week or last week or some recent week. I couldnít accept that I was some higher life form than she was, that enlightenment was nearer for me. She was better at meditating than I was, not that meditation is something to be good at. Iím sure, not that I should be sure of anything, that she isnít going to die. That sheís already had her ultimate liberation, and maybe I have too, maybe all of us have. Sheíll be curled there after the world falls away, I know she will, beside the space where I used to put my happy, mala-clad body.

New York is, well, New York. Iím reading about Buddhist hells and lower realms. Iím reading about the hungry ghost realm, where the throat is as skinny as a needle and the belly is as vast as the sky. ďIn the distance,Ē writes Khandro Rinpoche in This Precious Life: Tibetan Buddhist Teachings on the Path to Enlightenment, ďwe see a lake filled with water and many different kinds of fruit and food, but weíre unable to move toward them. Nevertheless, we make an intense effort, struggling with all our might for hundreds of years. When we finally reach that body of water and wonderful food, the lake dries up and the food turns to dust.Ē Iím reading about the animal realm, ďan existence of great ignorance, fear, and pain,Ē and Iím thinking about myself and the smiling dog at the stupa and the ways Iíd forgotten that terrible bakery-window feeling, the feeling of ďif I were more adorable wouldnít he love me, if I were better wouldnít I get a piece of pink-iced cake, wouldnít I be happy, wouldnít I be inside?Ē At the stupa there was a wizened old lady with thick braids who would bring out a rusty bucket of water to share with the temple dogs. In a cold meditation room nearby, I got what was probably amoebic dysentery, even though I avoided all the water. The toilets -- Eastern and Western -- werenít designed right. I never knew which end everything was going to come out of, or when, and I took a blanket and moved into the freezing bathroom and hunched on the floor as close to the toilet as I could stay. I thought I might die. The thought of food was unbearable, but somehow I craved out-of-season strawberries, the kind you can buy in my home city even late at night, even when itís snowing. Within a few days, I was well.

Iím reading Yannis Ritsos again, February 19. Reading the poem is like being wherever he is, wherever he was: ďFrozen sun. It gives no warmth./Ten days of storm./The sick have no appetite./Everyone is sick./We throw a lot of bread into the sea./At least the gulls eat it./Talk stops quickly./Weíre left outside our voice./We hear and donít hear the waves./Under every word/is a dead person.Ē

Iím reading about The End of the Affair, since I donít have The End of the Affair itself to read. Iím reading the online menu of that glittering restaurant. Iím reading about India even though I might never go to India -- thinking about that travelerís acronym (Iíll Never Do It Again), thinking about tertons and terma and about what books are used for and about hungry ghosts and refugees and refuges, thinking about the end of the world, thinking about stories that start and die. Adam Phillips quotes a section from The End of the Affair where Bendix goes to the cremation of his ex-lover, Sarah, with a young girl, Sylvia:

Hate lay like boredom over the evening ahead. I had committed myself: without love I would have to go through the gestures of love. I felt the guilt before I had committed the crime, the crime of drawing the innocent into my own maze. The act of sex may be nothing, but when you reach my age you learn that at any time it may prove to be everything. I was safe, but who could tell to what neurosis in this child I might appeal? At the end of the evening I would make love clumsily, and my very clumsiness, even my impotence if I proved impotent, might do the trick, or I would make love expertly, and my experience too might involve her. I implored Sarah, Get me out of this, get me out of it, for her sake, not mineÖ I donít want to begin it all again and injure her. Iím incapable of love. Except of you, except of youÖ

Bendrix, says Phillips, ďis convinced that he knowsÖthe range of possibilities of what might happen. In his account Sylvia is a cipher; having met her once, a short time ago that day, he seems to know a great deal about her; or rather, generically about women and sexuality. And interestingly his omniscience here is all about his own omnipotence; if he makes love clumsily it might do the trick and if he makes love expertly Ďthat too might involve her.í There is no suggestion that she might change his plans, that who she happens to be might impinge upon the certainties of his fantasy.Ē

Iím feeling more like Sylvia today than like Sarah or Bendrix. I havenít made any pact with any gods, Iím not burning to death, but no one in that bakery wants me to come inside. Or, I donít know what they want. Maybe they havenít seen me or noticed me yet. Maybe Iím not really here, but just a fantasy of someone who is not-me. In some ways, my unlived life is plotless -- not a story at all. Do I go inside the bakery, and get hugged by the rosy-cheeked revelers? Do I get a mug of mulled wine and a round, iced cake? Do I get turned away again, and weep in my good coat by the garbage can, my knees buckling? Some girl inside sees me and she wants to help me, to take my arm and say in some broken version of my language, Are you alright?, but maybe she doesnít want to shame me, maybe she thinks I need privacy to cry about whatever Iím crying about, maybe she thinks that we both came here lonely and weíre both going to leave here lonely, too. Maybe I take my good legs and I find a different warm bakery, where the pastries taste like strawberries, and donít remember the other times in other nighttimes cities, times when I was sad or angry, times when I was locked outside, times when the door was open but I couldnít come in, or the door was open and I couldnít leave. Maybe Iíll be sick, sick like everyone, and I wonít have any appetite for the bakery -- Iíll just read a novel and not eat. Iíll read a novel that, like all novels, is about adultery. I canít remember what happens that night of the cremation, between Bendrix and Sylvia, because I donít have the book for some reason, even though Iíve had it before, even though I might have it again.