A large room with bare white walls. But there were spotlights turned toward the walls. They lit an emptiness from which pictures seemed to have been banished forever. The only thing in a frame was the world outside — on the other side of glass and plain white blinds. There was little else to distract the eyes, only a few sofas that could be moved around easily. So it became a room for conversation.
That day, as they sat talking in it, the room had been darkened. And there were images on the wall — but projected images, nothing but shadows and light. The images followed one another at a pace that matched the pace of their talk. He was looking at her year’s work, in the sequence they were shot. So, the year passed before their eyes in a succession of apparently unconnected moments. The thread running through the images was the passing of time: what happened is this, this, and then this. It was a chronicle without an end, held together, not by a plot devised by the chronicler, but by the magic hand of chance itself. In it, children in a pool gave way to a Japanese garden, which turned into the shadow of a dancer, who became a strange cloud of smoke.
Suddenly, their conversation was halted by a particular image. He saw a big old house with a tall tree in front of it. Under the tree on the street was a gathering of people who seemed to have poured out of the house. They were all standing around a long vehicle parked in front of it. Most of this vehicle was made of glass, and someone was laid out inside — a woman, whose face was not very clear. His eyes had been moving from one detail to another, looking without seeing, from the treetop, down the house-front, to the people on the street. But something began to stir in him as he came to the woman lying inside. It was a word, and it took a while to move up from the guts to the lips. “It’s...a hearse?” His friend did not answer, nor did she hurry on to the next image. His eyes lingered on the picture. Then, one by one, he recognized the faces: father, sister, lover.
Recognition, like everything else, happens in time. But it is also a break in time, freezing the moment as the eye, mind and heart resist and defer the knowing. As he looked again at what now he knew to be his own house, he realized that he was also looking at the scene of his own absence. He had been away when his mother had died. But his friend had been there at the time. What he did not know was that she happened to have her camera with her when she went to his house on hearing the news. He was in another city, thousands of miles away, and he remembered, as he looked at the photograph, how she had called him from his house, while it was all happening there in his absence, to say that the hearse that had come to take his mother away had “MONA LISA” written on it in large black letters. They had both laughed on the phone imagining how his mother, too, would have found it terribly funny. He also remembered how, as a child, he would sometimes walk across the street to the house opposite theirs, and take a look at his own house from the neighbour’s first-floor veranda, and how his house, together with their lives in it, would begin to look mysterious and alien as he gazed from that other vantage-point. That was exactly from where her photograph of his mother’s departure had been taken.
He thought later about how many different subjective and objective positions in time and space had converged in the making of that photograph, in the viewing of it, and in the shock of seeing, feeling and knowing that followed the viewing. It made him recall a phrase he had come across once in a book by Marc Augé — “the anthropology of the near”. The phrase made him think about photography’s relationship with the private, the familiar, the intimate. An experience of loss (not untouched with guilt), which might have remained too close to the bone for contemplation or conversation, had to be displaced and diffracted across the distances between three cities, two pairs of eyes and several layers of time, in order to be realized, briefly, as an image — realized, confronted and understood, before the image went back to its rightful place again, between what came before and after.
I remember the awkwardness of switching to email in the mid-Nineties, when I was a student in England. For a while, my letter-writing stopped completely. Then, with a great deal of effort, I started writing again to friends who had email, keeping the aerogrammes for my parents, who did not have a computer. Yet, as I struggled to relax into the informality of correspondence on email, defrosting academic stiffness, a wholly new way of writing — somewhere between letter-writing and reflective journal-keeping — began to evolve for me, which I started enjoying wholeheartedly. The way I write publicly today, both in academia and for these pages, goes back to this ‘email style’. Often, when I get into some sort of a writer’s block, I open a Gmail window, choose a correspondent who might be the ideal reader for that piece, and start writing ‘to’ him or her — and the block disappears. (This person never gets to know, eventually, that the piece was originally ‘addressed’ to him or her.) Perhaps the epistolary novel of the future would be simply a password to a writer’s inbox. What a fascinating set of solutions, and problems, that would create for the ethics, aesthetics and afterlife of fiction-writing and life-writing!
After email, came the smartphone. I had my initial, knee-jerk, Luddite reaction to the smartness of it. But I am now rapidly getting addicted to what it might do to correspondence — especially the possibility of fusing image and text, or sending only an image, or, even more fun, turning text into image. I was reading Thomas Bernhard’s magnificent novel, Wittgenstein’s Nephew, the other day, and something I read and marked in my copy reminded me of a friend who lives, literally, on the other side of the world from me.
So I took a bad phone-shot of this beautiful passage and sent it to him from my phone: “The truth is I am happy only when I am sitting in the car, between the place I have just left and the place I am driving to. I am happy only when I am traveling; when I arrive, no matter where, I am suddenly the unhappiest person imaginable. Basically I am one of those people who cannot bear to be anywhere and are happy only between places. Years ago I believed that such a fatal condition would soon lead inevitably to total madness, which I dreaded all my life, but in fact it preserved me from it. My friend Paul suffered from the same disease: for many years he was always traveling, simply in order to get away from one place and go to another, but he never succeeded in finding happiness on arrival.”
This is what my antipodal friend wrote back, on email, after he received it: “You know, since a few years this euphoria of leaving is almost gone. I’ve been searching for it, trying to go to the most remote areas of Africa, walking in the wild...Nothing... Wherever I go, I feel the all-pervading fog of globalization. So claustrophobic— not having the possibility to really leave. We can only try to find shelter in our dreams. There is a wonderful line in Pasolini’s Decameron, ‘Perché realizzare un’ opera quando è così bello sognarla soltanto? Why realize a work of art when dreaming about it is so much sweeter?’ Isn’t this the deep reason why we do not like to arrive somewhere? When I was seven years old I took some old bread and some dry fruit, put them in a small bag and left home just with the idea to wonder [sic] around. In the late night the police, alerted by my parents, found me quietly sleeping and dreaming of the next day’s adventures inside a dried fountain in a park...”