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Notes on the Melody of Things

 

Translated from the German by Damion Searls; forthcoming in Fall 2009 as The Inner Sky: Poems, Notes, Dreams (David R. Godine, Publisher).

I.   We are right at the start, do you see.

As though before everything. With
a thousand and one dreams behind us and
no act.

II.   I can imagine no knowledge holier
than this:
that you must become a beginner.
Someone who writes the first word after a
centuries-long
dash.

III.   That occurs to me: when I observe: that we still always paint people against a gold background, like the Italian Primitives. People stand before something indefinite—sometimes gold, sometimes gray. Sometimes they stand in the light, and often with an unfathomable darkness behind them.

IV.   That makes sense. To know people we have to isolate them. But after experiencing them for a long time we have to put these isolated observations back into a relationship with each other, and follow their broader gestures with a fully ripened gaze.

V.    Compare a painting with a gold background from the trecento to one of the countless later compositions of the Italian old masters, where the figures find themselves in a Santa Conversazione in front of a radiant landscape in the light air of Umbria. The gold background isolates each figure; the landscape shines behind them like a common soul from which they draw their smiles and their love.

VI.    Then think about life itself. Remember that people have many, puffed-up gestures and unbelievably grand words. If only they spent a little time being as rich and peaceful as the beautiful saints of Marco Basaiti, then you would be able to find behind them too the landscape they have in common.

VII.   There are, in fact, moments when a person stands out from his grandeur in clarity and silence before you. These are rare festive pleasures that you never forget. You love this person from then on. In other words, you work to retrace with your own tender hands the outlines of the personality that you came to know in this hour.

VIII.    Art does the same thing. For art is a farther reaching, more immodest love. It is God’s love. It cannot stop with an individual, who is only the portal of life itself: it must move through that individual. It cannot tire. To fulfill its destiny, it has to appear where everyone is—a someone. Then it bestows its gifts on this someone, and boundless riches come over everyone.

IX.    How far art really is from this calling we can see in the theater, for theater does say, or try to say, how it sees life itself: not the individual’s life in its ideal stillness but the movement and interaction of many individuals. In the process, though, it simply puts people next to each other, as in the trecento, and leaves it up to them to get to know each other in front of the background of gray or gold.

X.    So that becomes how it is. They try to reach each other with words and gestures. They almost tear their arms out of their sockets, because the reach of their gesticulations is much too short. They never stop trying to throw syllables at each other, but they are extraordinarily bad at this game: they cannot catch. And so time passes, while they stoop over and hunt around for the ball—just like in life.

XI.   This art has accomplished nothing, except to show us the confusion in which most of us find ourselves already. It has frightened us, rather than making us quiet and peaceful. It has shown us that we all live on different islands, only the islands are not far enough apart for us to stay solitary and untroubled. Someone on one island can pester someone on another, or terrorize him, or hunt him with spears—the only thing no one can do to anyone else is help him.

XII.   There is only one way to journey from isle to isle: dangerous leaps in which more than one’s feet are endangered. The result is an eternal hopping back and forth, with accidents and absurdities, for it sometimes happens that two people jump toward each other at the same time so that they encounter each other only in midair and after taking all that trouble they are just as far apart, one from the other, as they were before changing places.

XIII.   This is by no means strange, because in actual fact the bridges to each other we cross so beautifully and festively are not in us, but rather behind us, exactly as in the landscapes of Fra Bartolomeo or Leonardo. Life truly does gather to a point in individual personalities. But from peak to peak the footpath runs through broad valleys.

XIV.   When two or three people come together, that does not automatically mean they are with each other. They are like marionettes whose strings lie in different hands. Only when one hand guides them all do they have something in common, which can compel them to bow to the ground or start clobbering each other. Their power resides there too, in the reigning hand that holds the ends of all the strings.

XV.   They find each other only in the common hour, in the common storm, in the one room where they encounter each other. Only when a background lies behind them do they start to interact with each other. After all, they have to have a single home to appeal to. They have to show each other their valid credentials at the same time, the passports they carry with them, all containing all the signs and seals of the same prince.

XVI.   Whether it be the singing of a lamp or the voice of a storm, whether it be the breath of an evening or the groan of the ocean — whatever surrounds you, a broad melody always wakes behind you, woven out of a thousand voices, where there is room for your own solo only here and there. To know when you need to join in: that is the secret of your solitude: just as the art of true interactions with others is to let yourself fall away from high words into a single common melody.

XVII.   If the saints of Marco Basaiti had had anything to confide to each other aside from their holy proximity side by side, they would not reach out their thin, soft hands up at the front of the pictures they live in. They would pull back, growing smaller and smaller, and, deep in the listening countryside, approach each other across the tiny bridges.

XVIII.   We in front are exactly the same. Sanctifying desires. Our fulfillments take place deep in the radiant backgrounds. There, in the background, is motion, and will. There play out the histories; we are only the dark headlines. There is our reconciliation and our leavetaking, our consolation and sorrow. There, we are, while here in the foreground we only come and go.

XIX.    Remember the people with whom you found yourself without there being a common hour enveloping you. For example, relatives who see each other at the deathbed of someone they truly loved. One lives in this deep memory, the other in that. Their words pass each other by, knowing nothing of each other. Their hands miss each other at first, in the confusion. —Until the pain behind them broadens out. They sit down, sink their foreheads, and say nothing. It rustles above them like a forest. They are close to each other, as never before.

XX.    In other cases, when there is no difficult, heavy pain to make people equally silent, one of them hears more of the powerful melody of the background, the other hears less. Many no longer hear it at all. They are like trees that have forgotten their roots and now think that the rustling of their branches is their power and their life. Many people don’t have time to hear it. They are impatient with every hour enveloping them. These poor, homeless people have lost the meaning of existence. They strike the keyboard of their days and play the same, monotonous, lost note over and over again.

XXI.   If, then, we want to be initiates of life, we must keep two things in mind:

First, the great melody, in which things and scents, feelings and pasts, twilights and desires, all play their parts; —

and second: the individual voices which augment and complete this full chorus.

And to lay the foundation for a work of art—that is, an image of deeper life, of our more than daily, always possible experience—we have to put both voices, the voice of this hour and the voice of a group of people within that hour, into a proper relationship and reconcile them.

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