Tue 26 Jul 2011
it is everywhere, Norway and the horn of Africa and Amy Winehouse.
we are such fragile creatures, in the end. we scrabble, empty-handed, to connect. we fall like paper dolls, and we are dismayed to discover – over and over again – that death is always with us.
the ancient Stoic Seneca wrote an essay called To Marcia, On Consolation. in it he proposes that Marcia, who has lost a child, float far far up and away and imagine the world just before her entry into it. he offers her what Foucault calls “the right to a view”; the threshhold perspective from which she can see her whole journey laid out from the gods’ eye view.
in rude paraphrase, Seneca says to her, You will see stars and planets and jagged lightning, mountains and towns, the ocean, sea monsters. you will see nothing that has not tempted human audacity. but there is trial. he talks of plagues and shipwrecks, bad weather, war.…And the premature loss of those close to you, and death, maybe gentle or maybe full of pain and torture. Seneca says to Marcia, Consider and weigh carefully your choice; once you have entered this life of marvels, you must pass through these things to leave it. It is up to you to accept it on these conditions.(1)
i accept. i have stood on Marcia’s threshhold: i have chosen acceptance. but Seneca, in the art of consolation, you’re a bit of an ass.
you Stoics were trying to discipline the dismay, i think. as a guide to action, you have a point. we should not turn away from death, nor be shocked when it comes knocking too near us.
but the gods’ eye view is a sham, a trompe l’oeil. in the end, when we stare loss in the face, we look through our own eyes.
there is no language to talk of all the death in the world.
to grieve someone or something is to mark its individuality, its particularity. you cannot honour anything from a thousand miles up.
we sat with Daniel under the trees the other night.
his friend Carmel is dying. Carmel officiated at the marriage of Daniel and his wife Sundi, six years ago now. Sundi lost her mother when she was a teenager: it was Carmel, a nun, her mother’s friend, who stepped up and in where she could. now Carmel has cancer. now Carmel and Sundi are both a thousand miles away, or three. i am not good at distance. Carmel is seventy years old, or thereabouts. age is only a form of distance.
Daniel became our friend half a world away.
since Daniel moved here at the end of May, he has sat in our yard a lot of evenings. he has chopped down trees with Dave on our cottage lot. they have gone out to listen to music. they have argued, and laughed. it is a gift to have an old friend around.
this is Dave looking at Daniel.
i have only known one other Carmel in my life: Dave’s aunt, his father’s eldest sister, the matriarch, second mother to the clan. they must have been born in nearly the same year, a country apart. no connection except the random friendship of Daniel and Dave and i, and a name.
Dave’s aunt Carmel was diagnosed with cancer at the end of June. liver and pancreas, the fastest. beyond treatment. she fell into a coma Sunday night. we got the news this morning that she is gone.
if i tell you that she had the loveliest singing voice and that her eyes crinkled, it is not to flout Seneca’s counsel. accept, yes. but each of us only comes this way once. our views of each other are singular windows, one-shot deals.
Diane Arbus has been dead forty years today, by her own hand.
this article paints her harshly, as a voyeur and exploiter of sorts, intruding on the power relations between her and the outsiders who were her subjects. the author claims that Arbus makes us viewers complicit in a predatory act, held in sway when “our better instincts tell us to look away.”
my better instincts disagree.
Diane Arbus’ subjects were often circus geeks, drag queens, nudists, people with mental and physical disabilities: people excluded from the privileged halls of portraiture. she was their friend, for the most part, and i think it shows. she photographed them in their specificity, their one-time-only-ness: they stare back at the camera like a challenge, and leap, for me, from the screen and page, from the mundane worlds containing them.
her photos have a carnivalesque quality, it’s true. yet each subject is intensely, immensely human: it is the backdrop – the so-called ‘normal world’ and our belief in it – that Arbus skewers.
if it is unseemly and invasive to look on difference, then we back away, floating up and up until we see through the gods’ eye view, where all is blurry and less raw.
but i would rather live in Arbus’ world than Seneca’s.
and so i sit in my yard and take pictures of my friend of and my partner, while we talk of two women named Carmel, who were here.
(1). Foucault, M. (2001). The hermeneutics of the subject. New York, NY: Picador. p. 283-284.