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Art by Binh Danh

(Artwork using light and chlorophyll, by Binh Danh, 2004)

The moment before total light, and total darkness has about it a fragiity. The best art and the best writing possess it. As my philosophy mentor once said, fragility is a necessary condition for something in the future to arise. But humans are wired to stockpile, safeguard, and barricade against fragility, especially in a Western culture that promotes an elimination of all that is inconclusive or ambiguous. It appears to be a minor miracle when the next moment manages to squeeze through our futile clamps on the future. On the unknown.

(I can learn much by watching my son change irreparably into his future self — a constant, gentle sadness for his past appearances, abilities, size, mannerisms that no longer exist.)

So we look to art and writing — the theatre where we can enjoy bloody spectacles without having our own lives be sliced and stained. We can even eat snacks while in a vicarious embodiment of an actor or protagonist valiantly facing whatever violently unanticipated plot-turn served up by cunning artist or writer.

But sometimes, the masterful artist or writer pulls the curtain up and reveals the theatre itself. Bruce Wilshire writes in his book on theatre: “It is art which is most obviously art that puts us in closest and most revealing contact with the heart of our reality: our ability to give presence to the absent or to the nonexistent.” Wilshire is speaking of the same mechanism by which paintings illuminate the presence of an object when it reveals it to be painterly. And when words reveal themselves to be word-like. Wilshire feels this is a path towards truly knowing ourselves.

I can think of no other than Paul Celan, whose poetry beautifully crafts language at the same time reveals its fragility. His words teeter between the most profound of meanings and meaninglessness. One inch this way, and his poems would be static and predictable declarations. One inch the other way and it would be jibberish. His skilled balancing act results in a present-moment awareness of words, and maybe if we let it, results also in an awareness that we are at our best when we are the most fragile. We are the freest, most alive, when we dance the high beam knowing the great depths below on each side of us.

The beam was set impossibly high for Paul Celan. During his life, his poetry was not famous, nor lucrative. Although a polyglot, he wrote in the language that denied him the right to exist, the same language belonging to those who killed his mother and father and imprisoned him in a concentration camp. One day, he underlined the words from Holderlin’s biography, “Sometimes this genius goes dark and sinks down into the bitter well of his heart” and then drowned himself (one recalls Virginia Woolf), in the river Seine. He left the rest of the Holderlin sentence unmarked: “but mostly his apocalyptic star glitters wondrously.” Wondrously indeed does Celan’s work glitter.

To reveal language as language-like while it illuminates beyond it — to do so in German — was existential for Paul Celan. In the meanwhile, I merely (and happily, I have not the constitution for more) read the memoirs, poems — the thoughts — of the dead like Celan. Wilshire says we “engage artistically in myths in order to come to grips with the myths we live unthematically every day. To be is to exist in the presence of the absent.” Nowhere is this more acutely felt than when these posthumous thoughts are alive in my mind as I read them, as if I re-animate the corpse who thought them and wrote them down. And yet they are just words. Like the words here that you may have allowed an entrance for. But we put the book down, click off a screen, and move on. One has to. Today, afterall, is Tuesday. Well, just for a few more minutes, anyway.

“Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions — trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday.” –Virginia Woolf