Monthly Archives: November 2013

Geometry of Tears

In his influential essay “The Storyteller,” Walter Benjamin says “There is nothing that commends a story to memory more effectively than that chaste compactness which precludes psychological analysis.” A story that resists the claims of the analytical mind allows for a deeper “process of assimilation” by the listener, such that it is “integrated into his own experience” and he will be more apt to repeat the story and pass it on — which is of course essential to the story’s survival.

At first reading one might conclude that Benjamin is subtracting literature and storytelling from the cold grip of psychology, but he is actually describing a receptive state to verbal material that allows for the unconscious to go to work; after all, as Benjamin says, the “process of assimilation” is something “which takes place in depth” and in “a state of relaxation,” more specifically “mental Imagerelaxation.” It is specifically the preserving and passing on of stories that interests Benjamin here, analysis can always come later. Story and storage, then, are intimately linked: a story “preserves and concentrates its strength and is capable of releasing it even after a long time”– like dormant seeds, Benjamin says, locked up in a pyramid and still retaining their “germinative power.”

Gertrude Stein, a master of the striking vignette, provides a fine example of Benjamin’s “chaste compactness” in her memoir Paris France:

There was a girl in a café who was very fond of a dog who used to come there regularly with a 1024px-Sugarcubes_2man and she regularly gave him a lump of sugar, one day the man came in without the dog and said the dog was dead. The girl had the lump of sugar in her hand and when she heard the dog was dead tears came to her eyes and she ate the lump of sugar (Paris France, Liveright, 1970, p. 34).

Interestingly, Stein’s vignette resembles a joke; all it needs is a three-part structure and a clearer punch line. But of course it isn’t, and this illustrates a vital distinction: whereas a joke, as Freud says, catches the unconscious off guard and momentarily releases pent-up tensions, a story such as Benjamin describes will release its secrets much more slowly, if ever.

Stein’s vignette seems to suggest a moral, but if there is one, that moral remains latent and ambiguous. Why does the girl eat the sugar? To ease her sorrow? To take the place of the dead dog? Or out of mere mechanical habit, life going on in spite of all? We can’t know. The “and” in Stein’s phrase “and she ate the lump of sugar” seems a particularly fine instance of Benjamin’s narrative subtlety and restraint, as it coordinates the sentence without elucidating any motives. So the story charms us, rather than conveying any certain meaning, and among the story’s charms is the perfect contrast between the salt of the girl’s tears and the sugar crystals we imagine melting in her mouth. But isn’t it appropriate that sugar be bitter, if one considers for a second that French sugar is the product of colonial sweat and toil, and the legacy, like the pyramids, of a brutal history of slavery and social death?


Rose-Lynn Fisher, Tears of grief

Tears, then, stored away in perpetuity. I was reflecting on Stein’s instance of frozen and ambiguous mourning when I came across a recent story in the Smithsonian about Rose-Lynn Fisher’s photographs of tears under a microscope. Fisher’s project “The Topography of Tears” was born in a period of sadness and loss, and the artist used some of her own tears as subject matter, discovering remarkable abstract crystalline patterns she likened to aerial photographs of geological terrain. “Eventually,” she says, “I started wondering—would a tear of grief look any different than a tear of joy? And how would they compare to, say, an onion tear?”

Rose-Lynn Fisher, Tears of ending and beginning

Rose-Lynn Fisher, Tears of ending and beginning

Scientists tell us there are three categories of tears: the basal, which functions to lubricate the eye, the reflex, which responds to an environmental irritant, and the psychic. With respect to the latter, the Smithsonian helpfully informs us that “because the structures seen under the microscope are largely crystallized salt, the circumstances under which the tear dries can lead to radically dissimilar shapes and formations, so two psychic tears with the exact same chemical makeup can look very different up close.”

Or, as Benjamin might say, the pictures of tears display a “chaste compactness which precludes … analysis.”


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There’s a joke they tell in Vancouver, B.C. about Street View, Google’s ubiquitous map feature: people use it to find out what their neighbor’s house used to look like.

Maybe you had to be there. After all, people living in other places can’t readily picture this strange but all-too common occurrence in Vancouver: a house listed in the millions goes up for sale and is promptly sold; the residents move out or get evicted; and rather than repaint or remodel what is a perfectly livable home, the new owners simply have it demolished. The neighbor has gone out for coffee; he comes back and finds an empty lot next to his house, a mound of rubble and a growling backhoe. And so he checks Google Street View: what did that old house look like, again?

Runaway land prices and a tsunami of foreign money have turned Vancouver into a real estate casino. Mini-mansions replace character heritage homes and the city skyline changes from month to month. At night the glittering condo towers become crossword puzzles; the black gaps, they say, mean absentee investors. Meanwhile in the back alleys you hear a perpetual clinking and clattering as indigents root through the recycling bins. The good citizens of Vancouver pride themselves on recycling, and to discourage needless waste the city recently cut garbage disposal service in half. But records show that 75% of the trash filling local landfills consists of demolished homes.

Every residential street in Vancouver is like Pepys Road as described in John Lanchester’s new novel Capital: an address once home to folks of average means suddenly transformed into an enclave for the privileged: “If you already lived there, you were rich. If you wanted to move there, you had to be rich.”

As the houses had got more expensive, it was as if they had come alive, and had wishes and needs of their own. Vans from Berry Brothers and Rudd brought wine; there were two or DSCN7242_2three different vans of dog-walkers; there were florists, Amazon parcels, personal trainers, cleaners, plumbers, yoga teachers, and all day long, all of them going up to the houses like supplicants and then being swallowed up by them. There was laundry, there was dry cleaning, there were FedEx and UPS, there were dog beds, printer ribbons, garden chairs, vintage film posters, same-day DVD purchases, eBay coups, eBay whims and impulse buys, mail-order bicycles. … The houses were now like people, and rich people at that, imperious, with needs of their own that they were not shy about having serviced (13-14).

Lanchester’s descriptions in this passage slyly echo Das Kapital’s theory of commodity fetishism by showing how, as Marx famously put it, the “social relation between men” appears “in the fantastic form of a relation between things.” Likewise, revolution seems to be brewing in Lanchester’s Capital. The book opens with an ominous scene: a man with a video camera, like Google Street View gone guerilla, is sneaking pictures of every house along Pepys Road. Later, each resident finds an anonymous postcard in the mail showing a picture of his home. On the back is the identical typed message, “We Want What You Have.”

In London as in Vancouver, rising prices spell eviction for writers and artists. Meanwhile, older and established residents who suddenly find themselves residing in a posh enclave are left to square their de facto class status with their social affinities. Vancouver writer Caroline Adderson, appalled at the pace of home demolitions — 1,000 per year, at the current rate — hosts a Facebook page named Vancouver Vanishes that regularly posts images of endangered or demolished houses, from charming cottages to grand estates. Where a good picture can’t be had there’s an obliging screenshot from Google Street View. The site is a sobering record of rampant greed and heartless destruction. Many contributors to Adderson’s page are involved in grassroots action aimed at changing the policies of a city singularly devoted to developers, opportunists and extortionists, from transnational firms to enterprising local flippers. Housing rights activists, preservationists and community organizers know that older buildings foster the creative arts and innovative businesses. This was put into a succinct formula by Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities: “Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings” (Death and Life, 188). But Jacobs’ is a view explicitly opposed by Vancouver’s ruling class; former mayor Sam Sullivan was quoted last year as saying he wanted to “bury Jane Jacobs under concrete.”

Word has it that artists and writers are in fact abandoning Vancouver, unwilling or unable to buy into the city’s famously cramped and overpriced condos. Meanwhile, a local entrepreneur, sniffing out his niche, is developing “affordable” 100-square-foot free-standing dwellings. But Vancouver’s history of art and eviction goes back a long way. The city’s most distinguished resident writer, Malcolm Lowry, was forced from his home in 1954 and killed himself soon afterward. And while the author of Under the Volcano may have had more than one reason for taking his life, there is no doubt that the demolition of the home he called “paradise” was a blow he could never have recovered from. His poem “Lament in the Pacific Northwest” distills the writer’s heartbreak:

They are taking down the beautiful houses / once built with loving hands

But still the old bandstand stands where no band stands

With clawbars they have gone to work / on the poor lovely houses above the sands

At their callous work of eviction that / no human law countermands

Callously at their work of heartbreak / that no civic heart understands

Lowry's "Eridanus"

Lowry’s “Eridanus”

Lowry’s poetic and somewhat purplish story “The Forest Path to the Spring” re-lates the joyful times he spent with his wife Margerie Bonner living in a shack on the beach near Dollarton (price: $100), across the inlet from Vancouver. This humble dwelling is where the author lived from 1940 to 1954 and where he penned the final drafts of his most famous novel. A story bursting with love and joy, “The Forest Path” is also marked by the fear of eviction and bitter resentment of nearby real estate developments. The first words quoted in the story come from a tour boat’s megaphone pointing out the “squatters” on the shore. These intrusions of threatening reality are Vancouver’s unlovely signature on Lowry’s work.

The site of Lowry’s former beach shanty is now a park. A path in the woods will take you to the tree-lined shore where his home once stood. It’s a balmy autumn day. Large groups of families are picknicking on the grass. Never mind the nearby waterfront mansions and their private beaches where Dollar Road meets Lowry Lane; in a way the park seems like public space at its best. Then everyone’s head turns as a red Ferrari goes slowly by, engine quietly grumbling.

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