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She wrote to me: The Therme opens out like Duccio’s Raising of Lazarus. But this is the moment just before the miracle, or the moment after the miracle. The crowd has dispersed. Remember, you once asked me about the role of thresholds in my work? You saw it before I did.
She wrote: I was crossing the Aare when I read the following words in an obsolete edition of the Blue Guide Switzerland: “Crossing the Aare, Goldswil is traversed, dominated by the Romanesque tower of a ruined church (note grotesque figure), and then Ringgenberg, where the 17C church is embedded in a medieval castle perched above the dark blue lake, formerly reputed for the beauty of some of its oarswomen.”
On the day I crossed, the lake was turquoise. There were no oarswomen. The valleys here are constructed from the glacial equivalent of the lost wax process and as such share the melancholy of ancient bronze sculpture: the shape in both cases comes directly from absence. The form produced by deep time. This is not a nation, like some others, formed by shipwreck. The tragic myth here is of blizzards or ascents gone wrong. I crossed on a perfect summer’s day. Ellen pointed out a village on the shore. Many died here a few years ago, she said. They never saw the avalanche coming.
She wrote: They say, “Look up or you’ll miss it.” But sometimes, it’s a matter of looking down. There is a mountain facing the picture of a mountain. There’s a woman whose story is not in her face, but on the back of her neck. There’s a city at your feet, and this is the real city.
She wrote to me: There is the object and there is the image of the object. Between the two is a tension that is never resolved. God was the first conceptual artist, for he made man in his own image. A human being is a kind of photograph: made with light, a copy after something else. I’m trying to find the dignity in the copy. Not to find it; to see it.
She wrote: A hundred meters below the earth are magnets cooled to a temperature lower than anything else on earth or in outer space. Down there, I felt myself an inhabitant of something called “the universe,” as though I did not always already live in the universe. I felt my body was made up of something called atoms, and for one giddy moment even thought: what if it all suddenly falls apart?
We are mostly empty space, as the saying goes. I sensed the trillions of neutrinos passing through me, the way the reading of a poem can suddenly intensify one’s awareness of the reality of the room. Not only opposites attract.
She wrote: The horizon (the limit) is horizontal. Where water meets land on the distant shore, where water meets the sky, is a level line. The human animal, the animal that stands, is vertical. And, standing, the human animals seeks out or creates other vertices. In its field of vision are trees, towers, and houses. Beyond these two axes, between them, is the mountain. The mountain is both vertical and horizontal. From the level line, the vertical line, and the triangle, are formed the elementary geometry of the landscape. Every European language, beginning with Greek, agrees on the word for horizon: horisontti, Horizont, orizzonte, horyzont, horizonte, horizon, горизонт, horisont.
She wrote to me: Does the cityscape have its own grammar? Does it have discrete elements from which its own form of meaning is assembled? I spoke to you once about Lyotard. “The rebus is discourse disguised as visible object.” What is the discourse of the cityscape? These disparate objects that do not begin to speak to each other until someone raises a camera and presses the shutter: do they not bring to mind hieroglyphics, the origin of all our writing?
The weather here has begun to change. Last night it rained. A window banged against the windowsill. The dishes rattled. Each object seemed to be tuning itself, and they seemed to be taking turns. I was falling asleep when Ellen said, “The montage is a kind of rebus.”
She wrote: These days, I feel as though I see objects everywhere. What I mean is, I see them properly now, in the Proustian sense: “We think we no longer love the dead, because we don’t remember them, but if by chance we come across an old glove we burst into tears.” From time to time I even wear her clothes. Objects are facts made visible.
Here I also begin to understand the European mania for categorizing the world. I haunt the zoological and paleontological museums in Zürich, Lausanne, and Bern, alone sometimes, sometimes with Ellen. Sometimes only what has already been labeled and put in a case can be endured. Adrienne Rich wrote: “A year, ten years from now/ I’ll remember this—/ this sitting like drugged birds/ in a glass case—/ not why, only that we/ were here like this together.” At times I think I’m writing only to you, but at other times I remember how I used to write to Ellen.
She wrote: We are now living in the anthropocene. The human touch is on everything, and it is rarely gentle. How can the possibility of the consequences of how we live be endured? To raise the camera and press the shutter is a memorial act. Out here on the mountains, I cannot forget even the material cost of photography itself: the film, its chemicals, the developing, the paper. Only the light comes free. Did I tell you, or did you tell me, that Kodak used to be the leading consumer of silver worldwide?
She sent me this image and wrote: Perhaps what the sea is to the Greeks, the mountains are to the Swiss: both a home and a journey. The sea meets the sky at the horizon, but the mountain is its own horizon, beyond which one cannot see.
On the train to the Bernese Oberland, Ellen told me that the German word Heimweh originated in Swiss German. It was the word for that feeling of homesickness that assailed Swiss mercenaries who had traveled out in service of various European armies. Switzerland exported war and imported homesickness. Heimweh: listen to its sighing sound. The commanders of these foreign armies, to control their mercenaries’ longings, forbade them depictions of the high landscape they’d left behind. Our train was coming from Lausanne, and the Bernese Oberland was now rising around us. The green mountains of the Voralpen began to interrupt the level horizon. Emotions begin somewhere, in a place, and they have to be named one at a time, as Adam named the animals. Ellen is from the Bernese Oberland. She told me that to be homesick for a landscape is particularly Swiss. “The higher the mountains, the stronger the feelings,” she said. The arguments against the idea are obvious, but the arguments for it are more subtle. I like it. But as she said this I also thought: neutrality is not the same thing as pacifism.
She wrote: I would like to write to you someday about the essential mystery of families. I saw a case in the museum in Lausanne, a family tree. One squints before such things, trying to recognize the ancestors. Rich again: “Only/ a fact could be so dreamlike.” Don’t you imagine, sometimes, these millions and billions crowding the horizon behind you? Only a tiny handful of them have ended up in cases at museums, thank goodness. But they all lived, and most of them are now dead.
Appearances aside, can a person be, for someone else, a landscape?
She wrote to me: I have been thinking of that line of Anne Carson’s: “Who likes to look straight at real passion? Looks can kill. I would call ‘feminine’ this talent for veiling a truth in a truth.” On tram No. 15 to Bucheggplatz, a woman sat in the seat in front of mine. She was in her late 20s. Late afternoon light. Her hair was pulled up, and I could see her neck tattoo clearly. It was in two lines: a woman’s name and a date. I wrote both down.
Later, when I looked up the name, I found an old newspaper article. A woman of that name had died in a small town near Phoenix, Arizona in 2007, on that date. In the car that night, the article said, there had been two other people, both of whom survived the crash, and both of whom, at that time, like the woman who died, were in their early 20s. The survivors were a man, and another woman. Their names were given.
She wrote: I came here with two big cameras and one small one. But I could not find the language in them. One day, I happened to walk by Foto Ganz, on Bahnhofstrasse. I was not going to buy another camera. I didn’t need one. But why was the Yashica 270, with two lenses, priced lower than what it cost to develop one roll of film? I bought it out of curiosity. Ellen said, “You don’t need another camera!” But if you know how serendipity works, you’ll already know that I’ve taken the Yashica everywhere with me, and I have seen things with it—this cheap camera from the early 90s—that I was not able to see with more expensive machines.
She wrote: Did you tell me, or did I tell you, the story about the old lady who went to a lecture and heard the lecturer say that the universe was going to self-destruct in five billion years? In any case, on hearing this, the old lady fainted. As we descended into the earth at CERN, I told this story to Ellen. When they asked her why she was so upset at an event that was five billion years away, the old lady heaved a sigh of relief and said, “Oh, thank God. I thought he said five million years.”
This was the image she sent me. Under it, she wrote: I had closed my eyes for a moment. When I opened them, I saw the funnel of the ship. Behind it, the lake ringed by mountains. As I raised the camera, in a moment of synaesthesia, I heard the sound of the alpenhorn. But it was not synaesthetic. Like a dream given material reality, there really was an alpenhorn playing behind me. This is the photograph of that sound.
She wrote: When I’m out walking, and I’m the only one with a camera among these good burghers of Zürich on a weekday, and I center an image in my visual field, say, an image from a poster or a hoarding, I sometimes see it float out of the texture of the cityscape. It “pops out,” leaving behind its assigned purpose (as art or advertising) and spilling over into a play of surfaces. This sensation barely counts as true trompe l’oeil: no one is deceived: but somehow it gives a little kick to the seeing part of the brain, and I’m happy when I can catch it in a picture. And when it is not an image at all but actual objects sitting on a street? I see chairs, fire hydrants, shoes. I wish I could show you the thingness of things! The best I can do is to make images of them, remembering always that even an image is a thing.
Ellen said that given the eternal tension between things and images, idolatry, that most harshly punished of all sins, ought to be the most easily forgiven.
She sent me this photograph and wrote: One thing I had not noticed about travel, but which I see now, is the way it can lay out before you the raw materials of something you thought you loved. In Graubünden, I began to see what it was that had made Zumthor’s architecture. I saw his sources everywhere: in the local stone, the wood, the mountains, the water frothing in the river below, the air, in the heat of the baths. It was obvious, once it was seen, the way it is obvious that a person is shaped and continues to be shaped by all their living and their dead. Sometimes Ellen is talking to me, and sometimes, like all the dead, she’s just the afternoon light moving across the face of a mountain.
She wrote to me: In a successful work of architecture, the rooms open out to one another like a choral work in which one voice after the other adds to the harmony. Is the sense of hearing the most essential for an architect? Photographing certainly feels like close listening at times. But someday, I will write to you about the other physical senses, beyond the famous five.
She wrote: The work at CERN depends on violent collisions on the subatomic level, from which particles scatter and which sensors try to detect before the particles decay into other forms. It is easy to see the equipment involved—the supercollider is the largest machine ever built by human beings—but difficult to see what the result is. These supercooled magnets are like the words of an epic in a foreign language. The meaning is there but it is elusive.
The supercollider in section looks like a starburst, or like the head of Medusa. I took photographs of it, a hundred meters underground. My fear was that the radiation would make all the photos come out black. What a victory that would have been. But instead I had the opposite problem: the pictures came out too clear, like illustrations for CERN Courier. I can’t use them! And so, instead, I send you another rebus, a few feet away from the supercollider: handcart, plastic tape, broom closet. There is always something else happening to one side of the miracle.
She wrote to me: When I stop in the middle of a room or at the edge of a cliff, arrested by something I have seen (or by something by which I have been seen), I wonder what this image is which expresses a will in agreement with telluric desires. Why here? Why now? For whom is it being made?
At certain moments I have the feeling—usually simultaneous with the pressing of the shutter—that this or that image in particular is destined to outlive me, that it will be visible past my speaking. A photograph is an epitaph made of light.
Did you tell me, or did I tell you, of that line from Cixous? “What is interesting when you write is to imagine that your reader is not yet born…”