“Impossible, I realize, to enter another’s solitude. If it is true that we can ever come to know another human being, even to a small degree, it is only to the extent that he is willing to make himself known. A man will say: I am cold. Or else he will say nothing, and we will see him shivering. Either way, we will know that he is cold. But what of the man who says nothing and does not shiver? Where all is intractable, here all is hermetic and evasive, one can do no more than observe. But whether one can make sense of what he observes is another matter entirely”
― Paul Auster, The Invention of Solitude
In the midst of my regular and usually quite aimless meanderings online, searching for meaning on subjects I obsess over and research in my spare time, I was recently reminded of this talk entitled, This is Water, given by David Foster Wallace in 2005, addressing the graduating class at Kenyon College. DFW committed suicide in 2008 and it is impossible to read or listen to this talk now without thinking of what was to come when he originally delivered it.
In (This is Water) he argues, gorgeously, against “unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.” – From The New Yorker
He begins with a parable:
“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”
DFW goes on to say:
“The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude, but the fact is that in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance.”
As I read on, I was so moved, I decided to order the speech which has been reprinted in book form by the Hatchet Book Group.
Only once did David Foster Wallace give a public talk on his views on life, during a commencement address given in 2005 at Kenyon College. The speech is reprinted for the first time in book form in THIS IS WATER. How does one keep from going through their comfortable, prosperous adult life unconsciously? How do we get ourselves out of the foreground of our thoughts and achieve compassion? The speech captures Wallace’s electric intellect as well as his grace in attention to others. After his death, it became a treasured piece of writing reprinted in The Wall Street Journal and the London Times, commented on endlessly in blogs, and emailed from friend to friend.
Writing with his one-of-a-kind blend of causal humor, exacting intellect, and practical philosophy, David Foster Wallace probes the challenges of daily living and offers advice that renews us with every reading.
It’s a small and lovely book and I’ve been carrying it around for days. I especially like how DFW eloquently points out that we are not victims of some innate inclination for how we find meaning in our lives, or as he puts it, we are not “hardwired” in some specific way. Instead we are free to choose. It’s so easy to become trapped in the tedium of every day life and think that we are free.
“Learning how to think” really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think.
It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.
Because if you cannot or will not exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.” – David Foster Wallace
There’s so much more to discover… Google This is Water, and see for yourself.
After our opening at the Octagon Gallery in Westfield on Friday, we headed to Fredonia for dinner and drinks with friends. Deb’s friend Steve rode with Allen and me to make sure we didn’t get lost. Along the way we passed through Brocton, a tiny village within the town of Portland in Chautauqua County. It would have been easy to overlook Brocton all together if we’d been driving through during the day, but at night its old store fronts and abandoned businesses seem fantastically lit by a combination of rickety street lights and the stars in the sky.
I quickly snapped half a dozen mental images as we whizzed down E. Main Street which cuts Brocton in half along Rout 20. Just as we reached the end of the strip, Allen started insisting we turn around so I could take a picture of something he had seen. We circled around and I grabbed this shot. Allen felt the connection to my work would be interesting to me, and he was right. It’s an abandoned doll shop Called Pegg’s Enchanted Doll House and Hospital. I can’t wait to go back some night and take more pictures in Brocton.
My title, The Pencil of Nature, for this group of iPhone shots, pays playful tribute to the book of the same name by William Henry Fox Talbot, published in London between 1844 and 1846. These images started out as studies for another project shot using a DSLR, but as they accumulated, they took on a life of their own. The theme, which is revealed subtly in the image titles, is very much in line with my work on memory and loss, but the technology that frames the work has even more of a presence than usual. This is unavoidable, since Instagrams and their ilk remain rarely charted terrain in the world of fine art and so my use of them must enter my discussion of the work.
In the passage below from his original text, enamored of crediting nature and not the painter’s hand, Talbot muses about future photographic technologies. He seems to almost predict their many forthcoming incarnations, which we now know range from Calotypes to Instagrams, with countless points in between.
“They are impressed by Nature’s hand; and what they want as yet of delicacy and finish of execution arises chiefly from our want of sufficient knowledge of her laws. When we have learnt more, by experience, respecting the formation of such pictures, they will doubtless be brought much nearer to perfection; and though we may not be able to conjecture with any certainty what rank they may hereafter attain to as pictorial productions, they will surely find their own sphere of utility, both for completeness of detail and correctness of perspective.”
AL IS BACK! As promised, the head of house keeping at Magnolia Hotel in Omaha packaged him up and sent him on his way. He arrived at my door safe and sound inside a Priority Mail shipping box on Friday afternoon. I opened the box as soon as I got home from work. Just for fun, I photographed Al sitting with some other toys I have around the apartment as if they were his welcoming committee.
The doll in the picture was a gift from a childhood friend after her trip to Mexico when we were around twelve years old. I don’t have a lot of mementos from my childhood, but this doll is an important one. The frog is one of many of its ilk that subtly adorn my apartment. My mother collected frog figurines all her life and still does. It’s a tradition she continued after her mother and now, in varying degrees and not always voluntarily, my three sisters and I collect them as well. This sock frog is a favorite. Al’s story has me playfully imagining his adventures between Omaha and Buffalo since I left him behind. I enjoy being playful, even in adulthood, and I thank my lucky stars for the playful people in my life.
After going through the experience of very nearly losing Al and ultimately getting him back, I decided to do a little research on his origins. It turns out he was hand made in Germany by Volker and Sabine Senger who have been lovingly turning out sweet little animal toys like Al since 1985. They say this of their mission in toy making:
“We want our toy animals to create a bond with the child, so that they
can take on the role of a trusted companion, offering security and
helping development. We are delighted to know that children become
more creative through play with a small number of carefully selected toys.
We are also pleased that our animals can put a smile on the face of many adults, spiriting them back into childhood.”
A few years ago, on a trip around Upstate New York I had the pleasure of meeting a well known contemporary American philosopher, writer and translator. The encounter was brief and far more memorable for me than for him, I’m sure. There were many more introductions and mini adventures on that trip, including stopping at a charming toy store in Woodstock where, for the purpose of research for a photo project, I acquired this vintage looking toy horse. I jokingly named the horse after the philosopher who, for the sake of this post, I’ll simply call Al.
Al 2011, Hipstamatic
Over time, for various reasons, the horse has become a kind of “protector” to me. He usually sits on a chair in the bedroom as part of the decor. From time to time I pick him up in an attempt to channel warmth and luck from this object I’ve assigned the role of Talisman to. Recently, at the very last second as we were heading out the door for Omaha, I grabbed him up and stuffed him in my bag. Going home can be a mixed bag of pleasure and pain and I wanted a good luck charm for the trip. If such things are possible, then little Al did his job, because for the most part, it was a wonderful visit home.
Al sat silently in the hotel room for the duration of the trip. In the back of my mind, I imagined him sweetly sending strength to me as we enjoyed our time around the city I love and I quietly confronted feelings of homesickness and loss. At one point I moved him to the chair in front of a writing desk in the room. When it came time to pack up and go, the chair had been pushed under the desk and Al was out of sight. I neglected to include him among the clothes, shoes, and hair products in my bag. We rushed off to Caffeine Dreams for a spontaneous last cup of coffee with those who could make it, and Al was left behind. The airport was next, and unbeknownst to me, Al remained there in room 233 at the Magnolia Hotel all alone. I didn’t unpack right away so it wasn’t until a couple of days after our return to Buffalo that I discovered his absence. I felt silly and devastated all at once. It was just a silly object after all, but my heart pined away.
I called the hotel and after 2 full days of nerve racking back and forth while the head of housekeeping was on vacation, Al was finally found! I made the arrangements and if all goes well, he’ll be back safely in my hands sometime next week. This whole experience is strangely tied to a photographic project I’m working on now that’s inspired by the loss of a favorite toy when I was a child. Back then I imagined the lost toy coming to life and having adventures in the real world. I wonder, as I laugh a little at the thought, if Al will return with any insights into the mystery that is Omaha, NE, my home.
I was very disappointed when Instagram went down (Crashed) during my trip to Omaha. It happened right after the fireworks display at my aunt’s 90th birthday party. Omaha is such a great city and I was really looking forward to trying to capture, as closely as possible, something resembling the romanticized images of my home town that appear sometimes in my dreams. I often joke to my friends in Buffalo that Omaha is a perfect, wonderful, far off land that they should visit as soon as possible. Here are 4 more shots I was able to take prior to and immediately following the crash, before heading back to Buffalo. Venues pictured include, Film Streams, Homer’s Records, Fireworks at Ponca Hills Farm, Caffeine Dreams.
Dreams pass into the reality of action. From the actions stems the dream again; and this interdependence produces the highest form of living.
– Anais Nin
While we were in Manchester, Graeme took us to the beautiful Barton Arcade. I took some candid shots as we reflected on the days of Baudellaire and the flâneur, a literary type from nineteenth-century France portrayed in Baudellaire’s poetry as a man of leisure, an idler, an urban explorer and a connoisseur of the street. Allen lamented that the Barton Arcade seemed less grand than the arcades he imagines from Walter Benjamin’s beloved and unfinished Arcades Project (which is largely responsible for giving the meta concept of the flâneur scholarly importance). I guess this gives us an excuse to go searching, like modern day flâneurs, through the streets of Paris for something that resembles what Allen has in his imagination about Benjamin’s arcades – an impossible feat to be sure, but a journey that must be undertaken one day!
Fox at Edwards Shoes
Barton Arcade in Deansgate Manchester is a beautifully restored piece of Victorian architecture originally built of iron and glass in 1871. The arcade was restored in the 1980s and now showcases high-end shops, and numerous office suites. There are three tiers of balconies inside with ornamental balustrades adorning the U-shaped shopping arcade and two octagonal domes rising from glass pendentives. It is said to be the best example of this type of cast-iron and glass-roofed arcade anywhere in England.
Benjamin writes about the creation of arcades in the city of Paris as an architectural change rooted in the rise of capitalism. Arcades consisted of passageways through neighborhoods, which were covered with a glass roof and braced by marble panels resulting in a kind of interior-exterior for vending purposes.
These passages were “lined with the most elegant shops, so that such an arcade is a city, even a world in miniature. Within these arcades, the flâneur is capable of finding a remedy for the ever-threatening ennui. He is able to stroll at leisure; one might even go to the extreme of allowing a pet turtle to set his pace, observing the people, the building facades, the objects for sale–entertaining and enriching his mind with the secret language of the city (Baudelaire). I can hear Paris calling for us.