Issue 211, Winter 2014
November 23, 2010, 7:20 p.m. I’m feeling low. The feeling fades when I write, and that’s why I write, to escape from myself. Even if I write about me. Something happens when my thoughts meet words and sentences, a space opens up, a space beyond any thought or sentence.
But each time I look up from the screen and meet my own gaze in the window, something inside me falls apart. I hate myself. But this is all I have, and I owe it to my children to look after myself. For their sake I need to be here as long as I can. Besides, the hatred is not a constant, it flares up, and once it flares up it can be diverted. By writing, but also by seeing. Because wherever we look, what we see belongs to the world. Each time we open our eyes, there it is, the world. Each time we shift our gaze, we see it from another angle. Outside in the courtyard, ten minutes ago: everything covered in a thick layer of snow. The large bushes looked like fossils. All life was absent. The trees, the only things big enough to rise up through the white, were leafless, black, and stiff. I could tell it was snowing by the flakes drifting through the conical beams of the street lamps, but in the garden, where darkness had descended over the snow, where only the ground shone white at the very bottom of the darkness, I couldn’t see a single snowflake in the air.
Snow on the moon.
Wasn’t that some illusion.
One of the most beautiful passages in Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks concerns the moon. He sees oceans and forests upon it. That thought has appealed to me ever since I first read it, why I don’t know. I often have that reaction to Leonardo. It must be the innocence that attracts me. Or not the innocence—the purity. Yes, the purity of that gaze. What he sees, he is seeing for the first time. In the centuries before him, corpses had rarely been opened up, and certainly were not studied in such detail. His pictures are always connecting the large with the small, the microcosm with the macrocosm, the body with the world.
Rivers of veins, ropes of sinew, caverns of eyes.
The mighty fires of the soul.
November 24, 1:06 A.M. Someone has written on the beams and the windowsills of the house in which I write. The man who sold us this property said they found writing in lots of places, but that they had got rid of it. They missed a few inscriptions, one of which can be found on the beam above my head. It reads, “Days that weary you for a lifetime.”
Today has been one of those days.
But underneath the windowsill, on a spot you can see if you lie down on the bed beside the wall, it says, “Epiphany.”
So many nooks and crannies, walls and beams in these three houses, there are bound to be other messages. The walls speak. Someday I will look the place over and see what they say.
“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here” is inscribed on the gates of hell in Dante’s Divine Comedy, this masterpiece of verticality. I read it the first time as a twenty-year-old student at the university, and what appealed to me most were the dragons and lizards, the demons and monsters, and the physical world in which they all moved, all this boiling pitch and reeking mud, the stench of sulfur and smoke, and all these bodies being beaten, burned, bitten, scalded, cut up, and dismembered, because hell is above all corporeal. Everywhere Dante goes, he sees bodies in motion, and among the sounds he hears, it is the sound of the body that dominates: at the beginning of the work, as he stands at the edge of hell looking down into the abyss, wails, laments, angry cries, high, hoarse voices, and the sound of clapping hands rise up through the impenetrable darkness like clouds of sand caught up in a whirlwind. It was these visual and sensual aspects of hell that seized my imagination, and I read The Divine Comedy more or less the same way I read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. One scene in particular stood out. It’s one of the best known, though I didn’t know that at the time. It takes place right at the end of the descent through hell, in canto 32. A frozen lake stretches out in the darkness in front of Dante and Virgil. There, forever trapped in the ice, the worst sinners are to be found. Only their heads rise up above the frozen water. They can’t move, their skin is blue with cold, their teeth chatter, even the tears in their eyes turn to ice. The mouth bears witness to the cold, Dante writes, the eyes to the sadness of the heart. But if their bodies are immobile, something still stirs within them, because as Dante and Virgil pass, two of the heads are overcome by anger and butt foreheads together like goats. And it is as if this aggression is contagious, or as if the nearness to absolute evil has an influence on them, because as they walk farther, Dante manages to step on another head; it growls at him, at which Dante stops, and a brawl follows. Dante demands to know the sinner’s name and is refused. In a sudden fit of rage, Dante bends down and starts tearing hair from the head, which is completely defenseless and stuck in the ice. Only when some of the others nearby call out to see what the matter is, and so reveal his name, does Dante leave him in peace. He continues on his way with Virgil as though nothing happened.