Homo Irrealis by André Aciman
My Rating: 5 of 5 Stars
I am the gap between what I am and what I am not.
Even before the essays – beautiful, wise, full yet strangely wistful – begin to sing, this quote of the maverick Fernando Pessoa finds place. And that rounds up the mood of the collection. Irrealis mood. And it might not have sounded louder in any tunnel of time than of right now; now, when our smallest of desires suffocate between the walls of a world we are no longer able to recognize.
Why do we feel a freefall of emotions seeing a stranger couple on the silver screen? Why should a piece of music imagined by someone else take us to a place that is both their’s and ours? How the touch of an unknown warrior triggers a pain in us that throbs with a shared intensity? Perhaps, it is these ambiguous spaces within which we live.
Ambiguity in art is nothing more than an invitation to think, to risk, to intuit what is perhaps in us as well, and was always in us, and may be more in us than in the work itself, or in the work because of us, or conversely, in us now because of the work. The inability to distinguish these strands is not incidental to art; it is art.
Meditating on a life that has seen displacement but also identity, upheaval but also healing, André Aciman talks about people who made the journey interesting, often granting him a patch of sunshine but also teasing his heart with the magic of early winter breeze – Claude Monet, Sigmund Freud, C P Cavafy, W G Sebald, John Sloan, Éric Rohmer, Fyodor Dostoevsky, James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Ludwig van Beethoven, Fernando Pessoa. In between the brief felicities of is and could have been, he made his life. And I felt, I could too. Because I don’t know a single day when I haven’t cast shadows on a place I wish to be. Because I am devoid of days when a conversation has not unfurled in my mind that could not find its real formation.
I realized, like a reaffirmation, that what books and notes, people and posterity document are as much my truth as those that find no record. And all the art in the world is my canvas to write that unrecorded part of my being.
In these times of anxiety, in Aciman’s ruminations, like a friend bumped into after a hiatus, I found much solace and joy. Should you need a friend, know this gentleman comes with my recommendation. What’s more? He might tell you a thing or two about me!
Because I found such dazzling beauty in this collection, I am sharing some for your sumptuous smothering:
Remanence is the retention of residual magnetism in an object long after the external magnetic force has been removed. Remanence is the memory of something that has vanished and left no trace of itself but that, like a missing limb, continues to exert its presence. The water is gone, but the dowsing rod responds to earth’s memory of water.
They continue to hover over the city like the ghost of unfledged desires that forgot to die and stayed alive without me, despite me. Each Rome I’ve known seems to drift or burrow into the next, but none goes away.
I spotted one store that sold a product you find in every gift shop in St. Petersburg: colorful, high-end matryoshka dolls. The painted wooden dolls of increasing size nested one inside the other provide a metaphor for everything here: one regime, one leader, one period nested in the other, or, as Dostoevsky is rumored to have said, one writer coming out of another’s overcoat pocket.
Beethoven will keep repeating and extending the process until it is reduced to its barest elements and he’s left with five notes, three notes, one note, no note, no breath. The fullness of the absence after the final notes is the whole point, and he’s fearless in making us hear it. And may be all art strives just for that, life without death. The greatest art – Beethoven’s soundless last note, Joyce’s snow, the Proustian sentence that enacts the paradox of time – peers squarely into the unfathomable: the mystery of not being there to know we’re already absent.