(A3 Installation, by Pamela Belknap. More can be found here)
A Winter Evening, by Georg Trakl
Window with falling snow is arrayed,
Long tolls the vesper bell,
The house is provided well,
The table is for many laid.
Wandering ones, more than a few,
Come to the door on darksome courses.
Golden blooms the tree of graces
Drawing up the earth’s cool dew.
Wanderer quietly steps within;
Pain has turned the threshold to stone.
There lie, in limpid brightness shown,
Upon the table bread and wine.
This is going to be a difficult one, not just because it is about pain, but also because it involves Heidegger philosophizing about pain and this “Winter Evening” poem. And Heidegger’s thinking is very abstract, even if, and almost necessarily because, it hits on something so true about being.
Heidegger holds that pain is not just the experience of Trakl’s wanderer (and we are all wanderers). Instead, pain itself has turned the threshold to stone.
Last night, I was standing in front of these images that comprise my friend’s brilliant installation at her open studio event, and I could not help think about, and feel, this threshold.
Yes, there is a threshold between the two images from the A3 section of the New York Times, almost always of an “infinitely suffering thing” captured by some journalist, and that of the Tiffany jewelry advertisement, almost always of an ostentatious, absurdly valuable and useless piece of metal, plastic or stone. These images together (and the over 800 others Pamela has collected), bear evidence of our interminable extremes of human subsistence and materialist glut, and the endlessly and unjustly paradoxical nature of being human. They are painful.
Which side of Pamela’s image do we participate in? As I stood in front of this image, I heard the whisper of Heidegger telling me it was one and both at the same time.
Heidegger writes that pain can tear us asunder, separate us, in a way that can also join and draw together. It is pain found in the winter of Trakl’s scene, dividing “outside from inside, darkness from light, cold from warmth, hunger from nourishment, wandering from rest” – and in the case of Pamela’s artwork our participation in suffering and our painful attempt to elude it. It is pain that institutes the whole of it. The world grants these things as things, according to Heideggerian John Caputo, and “the joining of their intertwining is pain.”
Leonard Lawlor summarizes it more clearly: The fates we all are subject to cannot be simply planned and calculated; the harvest of wheat and grapes that make up Trakl’s table, of diamonds and precious metals even, are dependent on grace. “They are the fruits of the heaven and earth, gifts from the divinities to the mortals.” BUT, “grace can be withheld, and that is painful, even deadly.” Pain is the “grace of essential being in everything that comes to presence.” Without the threshold made stone by pain, it would all disappear — “like a line drawn in the dirt.”
Somehow, though, we catch these glimpses of the threshold disappearing altogether. It is the same unspeakable mechanism that allows for one to feel most alive at the moment of instability and despair, like Blanchot’s happiness at nearly being shot to death, and the freedom at the instant of Orpheus’ loss. It is also the astonishing wonder found in the moment of receiving or giving a gift — or of love. Of a genuine act to reach and give to a fellow human. It’s the tragedy inherent in Pamela’s A3.
Unexpected and not for anything – undivided and alive to everything.
(And it is not lost on me that even language, these words right here, cuts and divides, but at the same time gathers its skins towards itself into a scar.)
“Out of the meaningless practical shapes of all that is living or lifeless
Joined with the artist’s eye, new life, new form, new colour.
Out of the sea of sound the life of music,
Out of the slimy mud of words, out of the sleet and hail of verbal imprecisions,
Approximate thoughts and feelings, words that have taken the place of thoughts and feelings,
There spring the perfect order of speech, and the beauty of incantation.”
— T.S. Eliot, The Rock, 1934