Breath and Belief, Part I | Tomoé Hill
Guest Column #019
It was with some astonishment that, in editing this long essay by Tomoé Hill, I discovered Substack posts have word limits.
This is the only reason I will be publishing this piece in two parts.
A sign, to an unbeliever, is coincidence; one in a string of occurrences to take up or leave to be claimed by someone else. Meaning, it could be said, is the search for signs that fit us, neatly or otherwise, into the world. When we open our eyes to these signs, they seem to be everywhere: scattered, piling on top of each other for us to spot, sift through and connect with, like the attic fragments of a distant, deceased relation’s life.
But signs also follow events, anti-chronology a reminder that one must look backwards as well as forwards at life in order to glean logic from it. To understand time in narrative one must also reject its linearity; embracing the chaos that often reveals a sense of place and belonging not always found within our known ideas of order. As Giorgio Agamben says in Taste, “the universe signified long before people began to know what it signified”, and it is a telling trait of humankind that we generally do not look for signs until we have questions, rather than archive what crosses our path for future examination. We only ask them when the signs we have relied on no longer fulfill or satisfy our situations. Trapped as we are in our neat temporal compartments, we forget that answers, as well as meaning—for there can always be one without the other—exist on an almost limitless plane, and that it is only ourselves who are responsible for creating the boundaries which deny possibility.
To ask is to observe, and vice versa; suddenly we found ourselves in a time where this wholly consumed our living and breathing thoughts, a flux where everything changed but us. Instead of resulting in a sense of constancy, the change made us realise our precariousness, and the more we looked for new signs to continue to anchor us in our familiarities, the more there were none. What had been irrelevant was now of the utmost relevance, but even to pick through the detritus of forgotten signs one could not bring about the change desired so urgently. For myself, I think of a moment from over four years ago in the empty Tuscan countryside, swathes of fire-blackened scorched earth blotted the grey-green, alien—what had once been described to me as almost lunar—landscape between islands of elongated cypresses, in their different sizes looking as if they were huddled together for companionship; a topography of loneliness. A bird of prey exited the sky, plucked a snake from the tall dry grass with mechanically precise talons and then flew off, the entirety of the act performed in a single unbroken movement. I laughed in disbelief then, but I now found myself replaying the scene. I turned it over in my mind in an attempt to fit it, puzzle-like, into the present as an act of supernatural instead of mundane nature, forgetting that they are connected.
It seems strange to say once upon a time we could not breathe, as if this were a fairytale, which it is not, but nevertheless has the same elements at its core. Some of us had our breath taken from us in ways more violent than others, but most of us understood what it was to feel a degree of breathlessness, if not our own, then that of others. Most tales have a wedge of truth, a warning wrapped in fantasy, the mythologisation of the real so that it may echo through time. What remains is often the fantasy, for it is less painful to recall and requires no questioning of ourselves or what has been. It remains to be seen if we can remember our breathlessness as it really was—as humanity goes on, it writes itself increasingly as myth to deny its own reality; not just distant histories, but the more immediate past as well. But as any child knows, the erasing of a blackboard means an assumption of recollection in order to move on to and contextualise what’s written next. Somewhere between childhood and adulthood we learned we had the ability to drink from the waters of Lethe and wipe our collective memories; writing and art have long testified to this great forgetting. Yet it has also been impossible to erase it completely, for it has a way of clinging to individual memory. One has a way of finding another and another one until we end up with a tapestry of sorrows, unravelled pain woven together again, urging us to read and remember our stories entirely. This must be the work of the persistent unconscious: after all, Persephone returned from the underworld and into the daylight of consciousness.
In this time of breathlessness, it seemed as if the reminders of breathing and its difficulties were everywhere. Being asthmatic, I had no doubt that, like new lovers who suddenly see signs of each other in the most ordinary things, this pause in our lives would cast its shadow over everything. There seemed to be little to do in those first unbelieving months but watch the bare trees through the window and envision my own bronchi and bronchioles constricting. When Joseph Brodsky notes in Watermark that “metaphor is incurable”, he wasn’t wrong, asthma being an illness where one lives defined by its varied metaphors. Having asthma means you know what it is to not breathe, while wondering what it would be like to breathe as others do. It was true that I was afraid to take in what I felt was unnecessary air, as if this parsimony would somehow create a surplus in my body, to be released if and when the worst should befall me. That led, as such behaviour often does, to a miserliness: as I became unwilling to breathe the new strange air, I began to fear the outside; not just the new invisible unknown it held, but that I might also misinterpret what I found there, with maybe irreversible ramifications. This unknown was fundamentally no different prior to this time, but the event had the effect of reverting some part of myself to a more figurative logic, despite realising its superstitious aspects.
I grew up in a house of mixed belief. On one side there was nothing, or rather, there were traces of discarded Western religiosity that presented as scepticism and cynicism from years of observing what was seen as its hypocrisies. My mother’s religious upbringing was Shinto, and what was scattered unobtrusively around the house, such as the omamori pouches filled with unseen wishes and prayers and the black decorative masks of the seven lucky gods or kami representing, amongst other things, luck, prosperity, wisdom, protection—Ebisu; Daikoku; Bishamon; Benten; Fukurokuju; Hotei; Jurōjin—that hung in the entrance hall, appeared to me to be more enchanted and connected with the minutiae of the world. Regardless of their attributed meaning, I treated all such objects and symbols from that side of the family as if they held some unearthly power, from the kokeshi, and daruma dolls, weightless, cloudlike piles of lilac, aqua, pink, and lime pastel silk obi for tying around the kimono, to a miniature gold and silver fan suspended in a lucite cube. Even at the young age I started to sense this, these things signified the opposite of whatever the feeling was from my father’s discarded beliefs and their accompanying objects. And as much as I was a stubborn, questioning child, dissatisfied with answers that required the passivity of a certain kind of faith, I secretly clung to the mysteries of those gods, going into the hall to silently wish from them luck or strength.
The mythologies and stories of my mother’s culture taught me that there was a reverence to be had regarding the various signs that presented themselves in nature and the unnatural; such respect would yield contentment greater than the more material thanks it often came with. The one thing I wished for the most that the gods could never bestow was breath, but they gave me its equivalent in observation and thought. What I could not accomplish with my lungs, I was to be able to take in deeply in other ways.
It is said that it is in the early hours of the morning that one’s breathing is at its lowest ebb. This is the time of warnings: a stray cough or a tightening that signals an irregularity to heed. But it was at that very ebb in the pandemic, when the numbers dropped at the end of the summer and when, for a moment, it felt like we could breathe—however briefly—that I found myself in the unlikeliest of places, Venice. This is not to say I was not afraid. That new fear of breathing and uncontrollable space was still with me. Nor does it matter what circumstances brought me there, only that one day we packed and sealed ourselves into the car with a supply of clothes, masks, gloves, sanitisers, pandemic travel documents, and my totem, inhalers. What overrode my self-imprisonment was the familiar feeling of complete physical tension, returning me to those emergency room gurneys and the soft hiss of the nebuliser. What I wanted was to emerge into the daylit world again and absorb an excess of its air.
I have never been what people would consider grossly irresponsible; not in the sense of risking myself or others, only in the matter of the usual indiscretions of youth and indifference, which are less about responsibility and more about testing the elasticity of the boundaries of how one fits into the world. Responsibility is often the bedfellow to a degree of fear, and it is not incorrect to say that life as an asthmatic comes with a burden of self-responsibility, so much so that one wishes for a respite from it as much as from lack of lung capacity. It would also be true that sometimes the testing of those boundaries showed me that parts of my life were inextricably bound to my breathing. There were simply things I could not do if I were to consider breathing of a naturally higher priority. That lack of breath I often felt as something physically pressing against me, for attempting to desperately suck in air that does not replenish or revive forces your body into resisting itself; while you pull in, it pulls away. As with other afflictions where the mental desires for one’s body cannot be fulfilled, the self becomes divided: forever in conflict with itself, to the point that it makes one backwardly long to be an automaton, always able to carry out its physical requirements, rather than a flesh-and-blood person. Pinocchio only wished to be a real boy because he did not realise that the body is—sooner or later—a collection of failing parts.
This ages a child prematurely: at some point you realise that entire segments of a typical childhood are no longer for you. This realisation is what led me to become, beyond all other things, a voracious reader. Where one cannot have constant friends—most healthy children cannot understand this self-imposed restraint—because the very meaning of early friendship is running, excitement, and being carried away in laughter to the point of what will be, for you, a week’s worth of illness; books become friends and confidantes. Reading functions as a metronome for breathing that teaches control over one’s body. It is both every bit as lonely and yet not as lonely as it seems. Most children have an innate sense of resiliency and self-preservation that manifests itself by merely creating other paths in life when one is no longer accessible; this is what I did, and what I continued to do as I grew up. Even as an adult, I remain quiet, mostly unwilling and unable to show excess emotion.
This is the legacy of asthma: a constant, possessive guarding of the self in order to preserve breath, a poverty of the lungs that shows its scars not only there, but also in our hearts when we try to interact with the world. Being so used to keeping our own company, such interactions become similar to miming, where our voices are lost, sometimes literally. Asthma has a way of altering and breaking the voice so that one moment it is raw and unnatural, as if possessed; the next, a hoarse whisper like sandpaper, finally broken down to near-silence after its initial rasp. But in our heads, they still thunder and echo with the messages we desperately wish to convey. Such muteness is rewarded with suspicion: if the mouth opens but cannot utter, then the would-be speaker is seen as withholding and withdrawing. In the end, our frustrated gestures are so weak that it is only those who know us intimately in our minds, as well as in our more superficial selves, that are able to translate our minute expressions with the expertise of someone deciphering worn lettered stones or hieroglyphs. And so we find ourselves mostly in the company of books and our own scant breath, a meditation on mortality that comes too early and shapes our thoughts and actions all too young.
Breathing is an unusual identity marker: vital yet ignored, to the point that people refuse to believe in your affliction. I have been told numerous times that asthma is purely psychosomatic and that inhalers are only placebos by those who do not know of nights attempting to sleep sitting up, or exhaling into your palm to roughly estimate the seriousness of an attack. When I was older and understood its meaning, I would sometimes—and occasionally still do—breathe onto a mirror with grim humour instead. Having death as a playmate is not always serious; if anything, one grows more at ease with gently making fun of its proximity because, like an intimate friend, your conversation is constant. But perhaps it is because asthma’s signs present quietly that its deniers cannot grasp the infinite patience that’s needed when sitting in an emergency room holding a nebuliser to your mouth. We are used to seeing people vocalise their pain, sometimes loudly, but asthma’s danger is that sometimes one is literally unable to express air or voice. Once settled on a gurney, it becomes both a time for reflection and a retreat from the self: breathe in, breathe out, focusing on nothing but that rhythm for a half hour or more, waiting for infinitesimal change, the gradual opening of the airways. In the following days of recovery, your sore body wrung out from being cramped with anxiety and lack of oxygen, powerful steroid pills to keep your lungs open, the relief of a full breath; the subsequent coming down and depression that it will always be less than that of others—that you will never know what it is like to fill and fill your lungs, dizzy with a surfeit of air that does not come administered, adulterated, from a tube.
There is a strange moment that occurs just on the cusp of the treatment working, a confused nervous excitement where your shortness of breath signals the brain with a new possibility. This could be the transcendence of illness or a belated reaction by your body to its lack, but for the rest of your life it becomes hardwired to fear, an almost-sexual grappling between the unknown and the possible. This peculiar threshold acts as a filter for how you view the world; a medicinal vision that allows you to believe—if only for a moment—that you can breathe in humanity, saturating your blood with its colours and meaning forever after watching it pulsate and flow through your veins.
The few times that I ventured out of the house during those first six months, whether it was to take a walk or pick up an inhaler, I was met with some form of antagonism. Not because of me—though it was sometimes directed at me—but because of the state of things and an, if not new, then rejuvenated sense that there was now an audience for declaring this was somehow all a conspiracy. Never having been a conspiracist in the acknowledged sense (though it occurs to me that the ideal conspiracist is simply someone who embraces every possibility) or having had a particular interest in such things, it was now impossible not, there being not much else to observe outside besides increasingly imbalanced inequalities. Sometimes it was not just observational; wearing a mask while out on a walk, I was pointed out and mocked by a father with his family, all unmasked, as if I were somehow interpreting things incorrectly. Another time, waiting for a prescription to be filled, I stood back as the unmasked customer before me ranted about the links between the pandemic and the government plot to keep us all in our homes, before seguing inevitably and seamlessly into 9/11, a speech that must have been rehearsed as lovingly and carefully as an actor practising their first big role. In the essay “Reference and Repetition in Conspiracy Theory” for Covidian Æsthetics, the author, @ghostofchristo1, remarks that “the cognitive map of the conspiratorial takes what seem like random crises and disasters and renders them as components in a system of control, providing the comforting sense that someone—somewhere—is in charge.”
In a remarkable way I could see it all from their eyes as an opportunity to guide and protect, as roughly as it presented itself; the previously disdained now able to show the purity of their intent in a world lit by blacklight.
Meaning is the search for signs that fit us, neatly or otherwise, into the world. Suddenly, there were—if not swathes, then certainly enough to notice—people all around who had found theirs, determined to show others that this almost divine revelation was a universal truth. And in a way it is hard to deny; from the beginnings of record, the immediacy and vast reach of plagues and destruction have always brought on a kind of mass (even if relatively small) realisation. It may not be a correct one, in that it does not come to its predicted fruition, but it could be said that many of our realisations and mappings are incorrect without labelling them as extreme or crazy. The perspectives of human nature ensure that something or another can always be applied to somebody, and that one point is sure to find a line, straight or meandering, to its connection. Meaning is a sigh of relief or a sharp exhaling of confirmation; it is knowing that others share your breath, and if that air is strange, at least you are not.
The philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce said that “the absence of knowledge which is essential to the validity of any probable argument relates to some question which is determined by the argument itself. […] hence, the absence of knowledge is either whether besides the objects which, according to the premises, possess certain characters, any other objects possess them; or, whether besides the characters which, according to the premises, belong to certain objects, any other characters not necessarily involved in these belong to the same objects.” I am unsure if Peirce ever considered that such a statement would be both reduced and complicated by the projection of characters onto objects where there was seemingly none, or the inclusion of objects where they did not belong, but this behaviour must also pre-date any logic such as Peirce’s, making it—in a particularly human way—another perfectly valid form of logic.
We have all watched children attempt to fit actual objects into wrong-shaped holes, and some declare that an apple is an orange. They are not incorrect in their intuitions; an empty space is an unknown until an attempt is made to fill it, both apples and oranges are fruits. Most of us come to understand that our standard accepted logic requires far more specificity and nuance. But in times where there are yet no known specifics, and so nuance cannot be readily discerned, then in a way, it is understandable—if not excusable—that some go back to trying to fit something into the wrong space.
Aged seventeen, I stood outside the Oriental Institute of Chicago on an art school trip. Despite the outward, masklike indifference of youth, my mind was in awe of the enormous—so large that on arrival it was built into the wall—lamassu, a creature with a human head, wings, and a bull’s body that had once adorned and protected the palace of Sargon II of Assyria. Having temporarily left behind the gods of my mother—a natural shedding of childhood when one embarks on trying to find meaning in oneself, independent of personal history—I wondered at an earlier world. The fantastic mythologies interwoven with the everyday, where the logic of the spectacular remained imposing and unreal, a reminder that we once harmoniously existed in a space and time with the mysterious and the unknowable as an accepted truth. Later, as my friends and I, posing as youth does, smoked—for a time, desperation for a certain normality and acceptance overrode the dangers of illness—our various Marlboro, gold-tipped Sobranie Cocktail, and Djarum Black cigarettes, we saw that across the way, in front of a chapel or church, was a group of people with signs proclaiming the end of the world. That day at the museum, the exact date of which I have forgotten, was in the fall of 1992.
I no longer remember if the end was due that day or the next, just that I regarded it with a kind of detached interest and noted the specific time, wondering more at the logistics of the endtimes than at the assumed nothingness of its actuality. It hardly seemed like flicking off a light-switch but something more complex, like the assembly of a box, one step necessarily leading to another and another before it could finally be sealed. I seem to recall—and this could apply to any one of the many similar predictions and failed events that the 90s were inexplicably littered with—that when it failed to happen, this was attributed to a miscalculation—a misreading of the signs. It only occurred to me years later that, to believers, it was the frisson of possible destruction driving fervour, rather than the promise of the end, that made them feel control. In its way, the idea of the end became sexualised in its supernature, a drawn-out arousal with no climax, each re-interpreting of signs an opportunity to prolong the pleasure of an impending mortality that flashed with the promise of permanence.
I felt a sort of ennui after the occurrence of a few of these, for despite not wanting the world to end, I nevertheless began to get caught up in a similar excitement for possible unknowns of that magnitude. I had no fragment of belief in all the signs that were being heralded, other than the curiosity I felt towards a life yet to be widely explored—which at that time had much of its focus on sex—but what I did find myself empathising with was the idea that what felt like an outside minority experience—even though it was major to the believer—could be shared and understood by others.
What began to surpass my current fear was the need to see if there was a world that was could still breathe in anything other than paranoid confirmation and the oxygen of its own, personal fears. As with my smoking indiscretion, the temptation of experience briefly seemed greater than its risks. It seemed—it still seems—ridiculous to somehow declare these times as apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic. This would appear to place me firmly within the group of pandemic deniers and conspiracists, but an apocalypse is not just about destruction, although we have come to understand it that way thanks to pop culture and because, as a society, we are not uniformly as religious as we once were. Apocalypse is more accurately revelation, and revelation is gnosis.
There is a fascination in observing that we have generally gone from times where knowledge is defined, in large part, by our deities and all-encompassing mythologies to (perhaps erroneously) thinking that we, without hubris, are the sole creators and possessors of it. This is driven partly by a realisation of the possible through capitalism, which is at its heart another belief system. To then have events like this one render what were cracks into near-tectonic shifts reveals, in full, perceptions of true and false knowledge; how we fall back on random signs and the fantastic to explain the world when the knowledge we have come to depend on does not make sense of it all. In Infinite Resignation, Eugene Thacker says that “every faith should have as its aim disbelief.” And so it seems that now is such a time. Disbelief rules: towards the governments of the world, of infinitesimal nature, the cause of our current state, of people—the facilitators of that state, of standard protocols and structures, of our relationships, shadowed by the creeping doubt of instability provoked by absence. What is this faith but chaos? And yet what persists is the idea of faith as necessarily anti-chaos, and so we cannot see that our disbelief is a sign itself, the first block in the building of whatever it is we desire to come after destruction.
In terms of art history, in About Looking John Berger refers to the “primitive and the professional”, the former indicative of a more personal, even intuitive method. This seems equally applicable to our current processing of the world: the divisions, fear and animosity towards science when it shows its natural workings—that is, error and the constant amending of formulae and data in order to come to solutions that benefit the majority. Science has always been so, but when there is nothing to do but keep track of lost time, then the errors of modernity and technology are somehow unendurable and unacceptable. We have become a society that demands both immediacy and perceived perfection. When time is luxurious, what is successful for us and not others tends to be irrelevant (something we are seeing now—after the events I have written of here—with the imbalance and indifference towards global equitable vaccine distribution). But the subsequent attacks on modernity and governance, when it fails us, sometimes suggest the only remedy is to return to the reductive mythologies of nationalism and imperialism that forget each age’s difficulties, viewing their mysticisms with a nostalgic and utopian tunnel vision. That it is both polemic and binary is an enduring trait of general humanity’s unwillingness—or at this point, sheer inability—to discern the world through nuance.
So I was glad to be in that car one early morning with a charted destination, even if I did not know what I found on arrival would be something that I recognised. I had nothing really to compare a present Venice to, for even though I had been there once years ago, it was only for a few hours, and I was both in a pre-illness heat delirium and a denial of my newlywed status to take much notice of anything but a broad touristy crowdedness that obscured everything else. All I know is I must have arrived just outside St Mark’s Square, not in a vaporetto or one of the more glamorous water taxis, but in something much smaller and unofficial—which was to say, cheap—for I remember being vaguely sea-sick on top of everything else, unsure of whether to look at the city, the sky, or the grey-green-blue of the lagoon. The water is the colour of an uncut, unpolished aquamarine whose clarity has yet to be revealed; knowledge deliberately darkened but beckoning, nevertheless. Once on land, it seemed that people moved while standing still; it was as if walking resulted in going nowhere at all, an apt description for a certain type of tourism.
Because my recollections can be condensed with alarming brevity in a Perec-esque manner—1. I remember an illegal street vendor with his array of fake Louis Vuitton Stephen Sprouse collaboration bags laid out on a blanket; 2. I remember my new husband appalled at the cost of two coffees at Caffè Florian; 3. I remember, with fascination, the open display of porn videos on the counter of the petrol station just outside the city—it could be said I never visited Venice at all. It is not often that one gets to re-experience a place with the benefit of a sort of memory erasure, though its pain remained intact; as well as living a completely different life—that relationship having ended years before—and, given the radical shift in the world, a total mystery as to what I might find.
We had plotted a journey through countries whose numbers were at the time very low (and have not been experienced since). While it was inevitable that we had to go via France, where the numbers were high, stopping was unnecessary; we drove through it, on to Germany directly, the strangeness of which I felt acutely. My last trip anywhere had been to Paris in the late fall of 2019, having prior to that been restricted to remaining in the UK most of a year, due to being in the process of applying for citizenship. There were signs there as well, to be retrospectively applied to this new time. The evening protests by the gilet jaunes streets away across the bridges from where I had stayed, unaware and wrapped in velvet in a hotel where Wilde died and Borges once slept, on a street where Yves Klein introduced the world to his blue vision and then to the void on the Left Bank; but in the light of day, the only traces that remained were some bollards, drifting papers, and an increased police presence around government areas. In a gallery steps away, the disordered faces of Francis Bacon’s figures looked both outwards and inwards at unknown futures and present pasts.
Whatever the sort, restlessness begets restlessness, just as the unsuccessful sleeper only makes their attempts at peace with the night more violent. Now, I watched all the brown and white roadside signs go by, displaying what the particular region, city or commune was known for—chateaux, wine, forests, battlefields, the Éperlecques rocket bunker (the contradictions of pleasure, nature, and war: homogenous as they are separate, a reminder we perpetually exist in phases of restlessness, excitement, and violence, demanding to be entertained within each) as well as the familiar stops from previous trips. Everything, even the motorways, had a sense of stillness without rest. A traveller often travels simply for the journey’s sake, not always having a destination in mind. Liminality is enough to satisfy their desire, and sometimes the only reason for it. This was the uncanniness that hung over me. Necessity, not desire, now dictated our actions, and most lives of even modest privilege are made up of decisions based on that luxury more than necessity, even if the latter provides the basic structure that makes the former possible. In short, I was observing life without what makes a life.
The small spa town in Bavaria we had chosen for our overnight stay made me realise how unused I had become to personal interactions in such a short space of time, and how little I had spoken. I took in my surroundings with parched eyes, desperate to drink it in while repelling them at the same time, a sensory overload I did not know how to process. The town itself, viewed from the car and briefly outside the hotel doors, had a determined uncanniness. It presented us with uniformly pristine, chocolate-box houses with balcony scalloping and faintly white-capped mountains in the background, the overall effect as if the universe had decided that anything perceived must also inflict doubt.
What surprised me was that almost everyone was masked. Despite living near a major hospital in my London neighbourhood, most people went about unmasked even in shops. Here, before entering an establishment, the few that were not pulled out a mask without complaint. The hotel itself was uniform and unremarkable but I looked at everything as if it held some secret meaning: the silver-crowned frog—the hotel mascot—on the reception desk, the labyrinthine red and gold-carpeted unpeopled corridors, a darkened spa closed due to pandemic hygiene, even the complimentary morning breakfast form. Sensing my inability to place myself, the young nonbinary check-in person sympathetically made some corrections on it while I confirmed my choices in school German, the result being a breakfast more suited for six, as if they thought a surfeit of brötchen, cold meats, and eggs would comfort and reassimilate me. A story I’d read as a teenager wafted into recollection, something about passengers aboard a plane who had survived an unknown event landing at an empty airport. Their uncanniness was amplified on one of them taking a bite of a pastry or sandwich, finding it tasteless. I took my first bites with wariness, then felt a clichéd—but no less real—wave of relief at the normalcy of the food.
However strangely the world had presented itself until now, in some respects it remained the same: the myriad forms we’d printed to declare ourselves COVID-free and currently well for at least three countries were unneeded. There were no checks at all along the way, and even though we hadn’t known what to expect, at the very least I think we had envisioned some sort of makeshift stops. In the end, the only thing resembling a holdup was at one point in Austria, where road construction meant the manually stop-started traffic resulted in watching an almost absurdly relaxed scene of bell-adorned cows eating grass and wildflowers for half an hour. Crossing into Italy, the landscape changed. Suddenly the motorways were full again, the speeding Italians switching from lane to lane without signaling an agreeable, even endearing, sight. While they were not as packed as I’d seen them on previous trips, it was also enough to instill a false sense that the world had kept going undeterred.
Pulling off into the last rest stop before Venice, the light switch flicked off again. The enormous lot was empty bar one or two cars, and the building itself just as barren. An elaborate system of neon-stickered feet mapped the correct distanced path between the entry doors and through the aisles to the cashier’s desks. Even though there was no reason to heed it, I did, feeling ridiculous but wanting to acknowledge the gravity of its necessity, its order reminding me of the small things we are taught to do as children to teach a sense of place and structure. Upstairs in the empty toilets, I looked at the vast row of cubicles, hearing the sounds of doors opening and closing, the blast of hand dryers from years before. Looking in the mirror and then over to the others, infinitely reflecting nothing, I was struck by how before this time, things like ruin porn and urbexing were popular—our connoisseurial taste for destruction, so long as it was removed from our lived lives.
To my mind there is not much difference between that and 17th century tourism of London’s Bedlam (Bethlem Hospital) asylum, where even the great stone statues flanking the outside of the building representing “Raving and Melancholy Madness” warned of intrusion and invasion (mental or otherwise) instead of protection. As a species, we have an innate desire for observing—at a distance—varying degrees of horror wreaked by our own hands; a more perverse variation of the tapestry of sorrows and Persephone’s return because it needs to remember nothing. Without a sense of personal mortality or responsibility which only comes with experience, such things become both casual and illusory. Almost overnight, we had become a ruin of ourselves. This time we had no idea how to navigate its landscape of destruction because we were no longer tourists; detached from our non-mythological past, we had wiped out any useful context for our present.
There is—and I am not sure why I think this or where it might originate—an idea that with such upheaval, the weather itself should reflect the state of the world. This was easy enough in London, where most days have some overcast or rainy aspect. Here, the sun shone without relent. While welcome on my skin, it only served to maintain a sense of disquiet, a psychological veiling that cast a greyish tint on everything. In an essay about nudes in art in Not-Knowing, Donald Barthelme, writing about photographer Deborah Turbeville, whose work is “often involved with the idea of lost time”, considers how the former creates an operatic drama when combined, as it is, with a frank but almost confrontational eroticism in both the model’s stances and settings. “It’s a drama […] with an implied horizon of violence not far off—drama with no predictable dénouement.”
Eroticism seems like a strange and improper word to describe the uneasiness I had so far experienced. But no matter where I looked, the life without life in this if not lost, then confused, period did imply violence—stretching past the present and into the future. Alongside it, there was an excitement. If it seems odd to say sexual, the word has always been synonymous with emotional, cerebral, and primal; in that sense, the physicality of “sexual” is actually a minor part.
We have always been excited by the possible—the coming together of signs, even their non-fulfillment—and to say that there are clear lines of demarcation between these aspects, well, perhaps that is the only part that’s truly strange. Turbeville’s images capture this, and regardless of whether her photographs are set indoors or out, the psychology of emotion that radiates from her model’s poses, settings, and impure colours—muddied scarlets, dirty creams and greys—influences our very imagining of the weather. Whatever the variation, a clouded sense of foreboding, the ambiguity of which may also be pleasurable, veils her images. In Overcoming the Problematics of Art, Yves Klein writes “when color is no longer pure, the drama can take on frightening proportions.” This disquiet, turbulence, fear, and excitement were all things I felt, knowing that another kind of unknown was to come.
In Curiosity, Alberto Manguel says “we make up stories in order to give a shape to our questions […] all stories are mirrors of what we believe we don’t yet know. […] in spite of being aware of this, we are more concerned with beginnings than with endings.” Most of us, being so used to the luxury of controlling our spaces, lives, and narratives (or at least believing we have the power to), know exactly how things end, even if we do not know the specifics. Now is an upheaval of that thinking. We have suddenly been presented with the same beginning, and for the first time in a long while—due to globalisation, the very first time that this has applied to every single one of us—we both have no control and no idea of what our endings might be. Beyond an obvious one that never seemed quite so obvious in its previous, “normal” narrative sense, we are also aware that this is happening to all of us.
We are used to a knowable unknown, and we find ourselves now faced with a true unknown unknown—Barthelme’s unpredictable dénouement. My attempt at creating a story of this time found its mid-point in, of all places, the Venice municipal carpark. A bland but brutal, unlovely structure that, though antithetical to any typical romantic imagining, it still served as a threshold of sorts: an entry into the unknown, a strange horizon of grey blocks melting into blue-green water, where I might find myself either drinking from the lagoon of forgetfulness or facing a reckoning for my wandering folly.
It could be said that this was never going to be about anything but signs and breathing. Once we take notice and start to organise the chaos of the myriad signs around us, a pattern or patterns begin to emerge. It is common enough to find the ones that unconsciously attract us more than others are the ones we have had, up to then, a personal connection with. Until this point, I was hyperaware of what breaths I took in and let out, monitoring my body the way Balzac’s Grandet père keeps a miser’s watch over his estates and family, while also knowing that this habit was, health-wise, a false economy, having no reserves of air like wheat or wine. As my partner found us a taxi at the edge of the water—this time, I was to go into the city without tourists at my elbows, sitting in the back of an almost vintage-looking glossy wooden boat—I felt a familiar tightness. Not because of the mask I wore, but startled, I realised that for a few moments I had stopped breathing altogether. The unreality of the world from my perch in London clashed with the unreality of the world here, and I looked at it with a mistrust in my own vision, a lack of faith in my next steps.
To be continued…