I love mornings just before the sun rises. The strange gray, the long shadows. Shadows have bothered me of late. To see them is to see other shadows, to imagine two distended figures against a deep red curtain. Two shadows all stretched like a moving El Greco painting.
I blink and sit and try to forget. I have papers to write.
My friend tried to tell me something important. I remember because I remember her face. Thin features tight and intense, set in brittle ferocity. And I wish I could remember what she said – I got lost looking at shadows again.
It all started when I caught myself in a window. (I dislike seeing my reflection.) I saw myself double-distorted in the glass, split in pieces at my side and folded up ahead. I saw this and thought, “What would it be like to hold something in the mirror, and not in my hands?” Rilke has a verse something like that, about an almost-lover not quite found.
I find you at the crossroad—
you were only just gone,
and the looking-glasses in the retail shops sometimes
still flicker with you and give to me, frightened,
your sudden image.
(Excerpt, Rainer Maria Rilke, “Du im Voraus,” translation mine)
I dislike seeing my reflection.
It all started with Rilke and the reflection. And I could not stop thinking. Then the shadows began to move.The window faded from my mind (having served its task). I saw two figures move toward each other, and I understood that to anticipate was not really to have.
I cannot say I loved, for who can say
I was kill’d yesterday
(Excerpt, John Donne, “The Paradox”)
I stretch and climb out of bed and try to forget. I have papers to write.
I wonder if it is possible to think in images. Through a series of images. Not one thought and then another, but a whole picture-play. The two figures that haunt me are a man and a woman now, clear in my mind, and they are trained in ballet. It is a sad dance, and the bright lights pale them into ghosts. Croisé: he bends, arms outstretched. Effacé: her face is turned away. They never quite touch, even when they move close; when he lifts her—those smooth, miraculous movements of ballet—her hands float above his jaw. A sad dance. (I hate dancing.)
Another confused discussion with a friend. I cannot quite make him understand—I cannot now remember what I wanted him to understand. And anyway, I capitulated. As always. I cannot make myself understand.
I sit in silence in the library, laptop open, defeat heavy like a shroud. The two dancers never touch, never really touch, but their shadows do. I shake my head. I have papers to write.
I used to write all in poems. Then I learned how to go dead inside. Or anyway, that’s what it feels like.
I have papers to write. Still those figures move, cut sharp against the lights. The whole image unsettles me. I know it all to mean something terrible, though God knows what. They bend close. The air is charged: I comprehend the erotic current. (I hate these things. I know these things. Reflections and dancing and seduction.) I stand as an observer, and it would be hard to say I control the image. It would also be hard to say that I am not at the absolute height of control. (I know these things.)
I should not say, “I know. I do and do not know, much as I do and do not control. My friend’s face is pinched and pensive, and I admit I have no idea why. If I can perceive so much, shouldn’t I know? He seems to want me to understand. Shouldn’t I understand? I can only sit and nod as he speaks. This is a dim image of understanding.
And I try not to think of shadows.
There is an audience. A crowd to scrutinize the ballet and shadows. They watch with hungry eyes, intent and searching They perceive the union that the dancers almost (but do not) achieve. I should say, they imagine the union. This is lust.
Come with your dear and dreadful face through the passes of Sleep,
The terrible mask, and the face it masked—the face you did not keep?
You are neither two nor one—I would you were one or two,
For your awful self is embalmed in the fragrant self I knew
(Excerpt, Francis Thompson, “Memorat Memoria.”)
I observe the dark horror without expression, only shuddering when pulled from my reverie. (Someone has asked me a question they will need to repeat.)
The monstrosity grows, nurtured by my internal ruminations. I walk up and down the aisles, noting the crowd. I step alongside the dancers as they circle one another. Pas de deux. I wish music could console me, soothe the boundless angles of emptiness, but the orchestra plays with cold indifference. Music rises in glittering chords that will not mask my climbing terror. (This is lust.)
Class again. I attempt the usual mask, the theologian’s mask. It hides the tortured poet. (The shadows will not leave me.) This is the face I have been taught, the mental dislocation. When I make the mistake of using images, I am quick to translate. Quick to pretend. I can wrench myself all out of joint in a moment’s notice. But I am already a logician, and this is what few understand. I am a harsh mathematician of image and word. No one can be more precise with an image than me. This is my great arrogance. This is my great downfall. All my best arguments were once images, movements I bothered to translate.
I am perhaps mad, and I go on translating insanity to sanity.
With gritted teeth, repulsed, I contemplate the shadows. I did not want this. The horror. The constant rush of images, written or not. I understand now that the whole play of images is a kind of anti-sacrament: to see but never really to have. This is a godless ballet. I wrote once that Christian art would have to die; I did not realize I was describing myself. This is a godless ballet.
The audience sits in stillness, perlustrates, dissects with impassive gazes. And I – what am I to have generated this? The dancers curve close, pained in almost-embrace, breathing the same air. Lips parted. They hesitate. And the crowd watches, oh the crowd watches, lips parted. As the shadows meet.
I shiver, and would weep – if I were not in the middle of the street.
“O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark.”
(Excerpt, T.S. Eliot, “Four Quartets.”)
- Croisé means “crossed,” one of the directions of épaulement (rotation of the shoulders and head relative to the hips in a pose or step). It refers to when the dancer stands facing one of the corners of the stage; his/her body is placed at an oblique angle to the audience. The leg may be crossed to the front or to the back.
- Effacé means literally “erased” or “obscured”. It is one of the directions of épaulement in which the dancer stands at an oblique angle to the audience so that a part of the body is taken back and almost hidden from view.
- Pas de deux means “step of two.” A duet performed by a female and a male dancer.