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The Möbius Strip of Remembering and Forgetting: Teju Cole on How the Paradox of Photography Captures the Central Anxiety of Existence

“Photography is at the nerve center of our paradoxical memorial impulses: we need it there for how it helps us frame our losses, but we can also sense it crowding in on ongoing experience, imposing closure on what should still be open.”

The Möbius Strip of Remembering and Forgetting: Teju Cole on How the Paradox of Photography Captures the Central Anxiety of Existence

“The life that you live in order to photograph it is already, at the outset, a commemoration of itself,” Italo Calvino wrote in 1970 as he reflected on photography and the art of presence. That same decade, Susan Sontag considered how photography mediates life’s relationship with death, that ultimate commemoration, observing: “We no longer study the art of dying, a regular discipline and hygiene in older cultures; but all eyes, at rest, contain that knowledge. The body knows. And the camera shows, inexorably.” A year later, she would go on to expand on these ideas in her timeless treatise on photography, exploring its function not only as commemoration but as “aesthetic consumerism” — an insight which time has proven astoundingly prescient as we confront the insatiable voraciousness of visual culture in the age of the social web.

Nearly half a century later, the Nigerian-American writer, art historian, and photographer Teju Cole — perhaps Sontag’s closest contemporary counterpart — examines this dual role of photography as commemoration and consumerism in an essay titled “Memories of Things Unseen,” found in the altogether spectacular Known and Strange Things: Essays (public library).

Teju Cole (Photography: Martin Lengemann)
Teju Cole (Photography: Martin Lengemann)

Cole writes:

Photography is inescapably a memorial art. It selects, out of the flow of time, a moment to be preserved, with the moments before and after falling away like sheer cliffs. At a dinner party earlier this year, I was in conversation with someone who asked me to define photography. I suggested that it is about retention: not only the ability to make an image directly out of the interaction between light and the tangible world but also the possibility of saving that image. A shadow thrown onto a wall is not photography. But if the wall is photosensitive and the shadow remains after the body has moved on, that is photography. Human creativity, since the beginning of art, has found ways to double the visible world. What photography did was to give the world a way to double its own appearance: the photograph results directly from what is, from the light that travels from a body through an aperture onto a surface.

But when the photograph outlives the body — when people die, scenes change, trees grow or are chopped down — it becomes a memorial. And when the thing photographed is a work of art or architecture that has been destroyed, this effect is amplified even further. A painting, sculpture, or temple, as a record of both human skill and emotion, is already a site of memory; when its only remaining trace is a photograph, that photograph becomes a memorial to a memory. Such a photograph is shadowed by its vanished ancestor.

But memory itself is an imperfect memorial: The events of our lives are similarly shadowed by the photographs of those events. Who hasn’t looked at an early childhood photograph of oneself, predating the age of conscious remembering, and not felt the mirage of a memory in beholding that moment? In those instances, what we remember is what was captured, which releases in us a believable conjecture about what was, and the conjecture becomes calcified into an unremembered memory.

The same Möbius strip of representation and remembrance, Cole suggests, exists in our collective memory. He recounts a visit to the Metropolitan Museum’s collection of works from the ancient Middle East, just as the news media were reporting on the accelerating destruction of artifacts in Syria and Iraq. (That the “news” as we know it is an overwhelmingly photography-driven industry, selling the immediacy of the present using what is invariably in the past as its chief currency, is a paradox so self-evident that it need not be belabored.) Cole writes:

Next to a selection of second- and third-century Syrian gravestones (many of them fresh with the pain of loss and inscribed with the names of the dead and the word “Alas!”), there was an old photograph reproduced from a book of the Temple of Bel, an important archaeological complex in Palmyra. About a week later, the iconoclastic fanatics of ISIS blew up this very temple. The photograph was unchanged; it was still there on the wall of Room 406 at the Met, but it was now filled up with the loss of what it depicted. The Roman-era columns of the temple still stand in rows in the grainy image — ravaged by time, but standing. In life, they’re gone.

The Institute for Digital Archaeology, a joint project of Harvard and Oxford Universities, uses sophisticated imaging techniques to aid conservation, epigraphy, archaeology, and art history. One of the institute’s current efforts, the Million Image Database project, involves photographing artifacts that are at risk of being destroyed for military or religious reasons, a bleak necessity in a world in which the beauty or importance of an object does not guarantee its safety. The goal of the project is to distribute up to five thousand modified cameras, to professionals and to amateurs, and use them to capture a million 3-D images. Already, more than a thousand cameras have been distributed, and the 3-D data from them are being received (though the directors of the project, to protect their associates on the ground, are leaving a lag of several months before they make the images publicly available). In the event of some of the objects being destroyed, the detailed visual record could be enough to facilitate a reconstruction. Photography is used to ward off total oblivion.

The camera obscura, one of the 100 ideas that changed photography

And yet photography, after all, is a technology — both of thing and of thought — and like any technology, it is animated by a dual capacity for good and evil. Parallel to this constructive use of photography as reconstruction of collective memory, Cole points to its destructive counterpart — its use in monitoring and manipulation, a kind of “aesthetic control” to Sontag’s “aesthetic consumerism.” He writes:

Our own appearances and faces are now stored and saved in hundreds, thousands, of photographs: photographs made by ourselves, photographs made by others. Our faces are becoming not only unforgettable but inescapable. There is so much documentation of each life, each scene and event, that the effect of this incessant visual notation becomes difficult to distinguish from surveillance. And in fact, much of the intent behind the collection of these images is indeed surveillance: the government retains our images in order to fight terrorism, and corporations harvest everything they can about us in order to sell us things.

But the most disquieting aspect of this perpetual photographic documentation is that we have reached a point where these images of us will long outlive us and might, in theory, last forever. “All eternity is in the moment,” but when the moment ceases to be ephemeral and instead lasts forever, it ceases to exist. Paradoxically, rather than furnishing a greater gateway to eternity, eradicating the moment extinguishes eternity altogether. When everything is eternal, nothing is eternal.

Eadweard Muybridge: Sequenced image of a rotating sulky wheel with self-portrait
Sequenced image of a rotating sulky wheel with self-portrait by Eadweard Muybridge, who changed modern consciousness by freezing the flow of existence.

Cole illustrates our confused relationship to temporality with a sobering anecdote of a self-annihilating exchange with a friend via SnapChat, one of our few deliberately ephemeral technologies:

The voiding of the record on Snapchat was startling. But it was also a relief. Our real selves remained, but the photographs were no longer there, and something about this felt like a sequence more preferable to the other way around, where the image lives on and the model is irretrievable. But just as nothing can be permanently retained, nothing is ever really gone. Somewhere out there, perhaps in the Cloud or in some clandestine server, is the optical afterimage of our interaction: the faces, the shoes, the texts. In these all-seeing days, the traffic between memory and forgetting becomes untrackable. Photography is at the nerve center of our paradoxical memorial impulses: we need it there for how it helps us frame our losses, but we can also sense it crowding in on ongoing experience, imposing closure on what should still be open.

I’m reminded of Sarah Manguso’s magnificent meditation on time and memory, in which she crystallized the paradox: “Perhaps all anxiety might derive from a fixation on moments — an inability to accept life as ongoing.” I take from Cole — an inference that no doubt suffers the typical bedevilments of interpretation — that the camera lens has become the supreme focal point of that existential anxiety, through which we exorcise the ultimate fixation on freezing the flow of existence. To commemorate life in the act of living it seems to be the human condition — or the human curse.

Complement the wholly terrific Known and Strange Things with Sontag on selfies, selfhood, and how the camera helps us navigate complexity and this animated history of photography, from the camera obscura to the camera phone, then revisit Israel Rosenfield’s trailblazing exploration of consciousness, memory, and how our sense of self arises.

BP

Pinocchio: An Alternative Origin Story Exploring the Grandest Questions of Existence

A lyrical illustrated cosmogony serenading the ephemeral and the eternal.

Pinocchio: An Alternative Origin Story Exploring the Grandest Questions of Existence

“Myths are made for the imagination to breathe life into them,” Albert Camus wrote. Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer, observed a century earlier as she contemplated the nature of the imagination and its three core faculties: “Imagination is the Discovering Faculty, pre-eminently… that which penetrates into the unseen worlds around us.”

This “discovering faculty” of the imagination, which breathes life into both the most captivating myths and the deepest layers of reality, is what animated Italian artist Alessandro Sanna one winter afternoon when he glimpsed a most unusual tree branch from the window of a moving train — a branch that looked like a sensitive human silhouette, mid-fall or mid-embrace.

As Sanna cradled the enchanting image in his mind and began sketching it, he realized that something about the “body language” of the branch reminded him of a small, delicate, terminally ill child he’d gotten to know during his visits to Turin’s Pediatric Hospital. In beholding this common ground of tender fragility, Sanna’s imagination leapt to a foundational myth of his nation’s storytelling — the Pinocchio story.

In the astonishingly beautiful and tenderhearted Pinocchio: The Origin Story (public library), Sanna imagines an alternative prequel to the beloved story, a wordless genesis myth of the wood that became Pinocchio, radiating a larger cosmogony of life, death, and the transcendent continuity between the two.

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A fitting follow-up to The River — Sanna’s exquisite visual memoir of life on the Po River in Northern Italy, reflecting on the seasonality of human existence — this imaginative masterwork dances with the cosmic unknowns that eclipse human life and the human mind with their enormity: questions like what life is, how it began, and what happens when it ends.

Origin myths have been our oldest sensemaking mechanism for wresting meaning out of these as-yet-unanswered, perhaps unanswerable questions. But rather than an argument with science and our secular sensibility, Sanna’s lyrical celebration of myth embodies Margaret Mead’s insistence on the importance of poetic truth in the age of facts.

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The tree is an organic choice for this unusual cosmogony — after all, trees have inspired centuries of folk tales around the world; a 17th-century English gardener marveled at how they “speak to the mind, and tell us many things, and teach us many good lessons” and Hermann Hesse called them “the most penetrating of preachers.”

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It is both a pity and a strange comfort that Sanna’s luminous, buoyant watercolors and his masterful subtlety of scale don’t fully translate onto this screen — his analog and deeply humane art is of a different order, almost of a different time, and yet woven of the timeless and the eternal.

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The story begins with a comet that crashes onto earth, bringing with it the seed of life. Out of it a tree grows. Lightning strikes it, severing a small branch that comes alive and begins roaming the earth.

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As the branch-body encounters the world and its creatures, it lives and dies and lives again — in the bellies of beasts, in the bellowing depths of the ocean, in the moon-kissed valleys of the earth — until it crawls out of the primordial seas of existence as the promise of a new tree.

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Reminiscent in spirit to the Japanese pop-up masterpiece Little Tree, though dramatically different both conceptually and aesthetically, Sanna’s modern myth explores the commonest story of all — the shared journey of existence and its counterpoint — with uncommon imaginative elegance.

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Pinocchio: The Origin Story, inarticulably beautiful in its analog entirety, comes from Brooklyn-based Enchanted Lion, modern mythmaker of such inspired treasures as The Lion and the Bird, Cry, Heart, But Never Break, and Louis I, King of the Sheep.

Complement it with this illustrated celebration of ancient Indian origin myths and its contemporary Western counterpart, A Graphic Cosmogony, then revisit Sanna’s beguiling previous book, The River.

BP

A Cross-Cultural Bridge of Kinship and Mutual Appreciation: The Moving Correspondence of Albert Camus and Boris Pasternak

“It is false to say that frontiers do not exist. They do exist, temporarily. But at the same time there exists a force of creativity and truth uniting us all, in humility and in pride at the same time.”

A Cross-Cultural Bridge of Kinship and Mutual Appreciation: The Moving Correspondence of Albert Camus and Boris Pasternak

Months after Albert Camus (November 7, 1913–January 4, 1960) received the 1957 Nobel Prize in Literature — which prompted him to send a beautiful letter of gratitude to his childhood teacher — he wrote to the great Soviet poet and translator Boris Pasternak (February 10, 1890–May 30, 1960). Camus had grown enchanted with Pasternak’s work for the very reasons — intellectual elegance, critical thinking, an independent socialist-hued spirit — that had made the Soviet government keep a censorious eye on the Russian writer and progressively threaten his civil liberties.

No stranger to unlikely friendships, Camus was reaching across the Iron Curtain, across language and culture and politics and age, with a largehearted offering of appreciation and encouragement to a man he had never met but who he felt deeply was a kindred spirit. Pasternak, almost a quarter century Camus’s senior, responded with a wonderfully generous mirroring of admiration.

Their correspondence, reminiscent of the virtuous cycle of mutual appreciation between Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse, is included in The Norton Book of Friendship (public library) — that forgotten 1991 treasure edited by Eudora Welty, which gave us Welty’s warm wisdom on friendship as an evolutionary mechanism for language.

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On June 9, 1958 — shortly after the French publication of Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago and mere months before Pasternak himself was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, which Russia’s humiliated Communist Party forced him to decline — Camus writes:

Dear Boris Pasternak,

René Char, who is my best friend, gave me your address because he knows the friendship and admiration that I have long felt for your work and the man whom one feels living within. I just wanted to send you a small text whose only importance is that of a far-off, but faithful, sign with regards to you. There are a few of us in France who know you, who share your life, in a certain way. I, who would be nothing without the Russian nineteenth century. I find in you once more the Russia that nourished me and gave me strength. It is false to say that frontiers do not exist. They do exist, temporarily. But at the same time there exists a force of creativity and truth uniting us all, in humility and in pride at the same time. I never felt this more than while reading you and that is why I would like to express my gratitude and my solidarity. I send warm wishes to you and yours, for your work and your great country. I shake your hand.

Albert Camus

Seventeen days later — a lapse likely due to the heavy surveillance of foreign correspondence in Soviet Russia — Pasternak sees Camus’s generosity and raises it in a beautiful letter he leaves unsigned, in case it falls into the hands of his government censors:

Dear Mr. Camus,

I can hardly believe my eyes, writing to you, Camus. A new page has opened in my life, that of having acquired the pretext, the right, the chance to tell you my delight and my gratitude for the special nuance in the play of today’s universal thought, [to tell you] that it is owing to you.

[…]

I rarely have the time to read what I like and what interests me. Kafka, Faulkner, still not read, wait for me to take them from the library shelf. Remembrance of Things Past” is broken off at the end of “Sodom and Gomorrah.” I exult. I congratulate you for writing a prose whose reading becomes a true journey: one visits the places you describe, one experiences the situations related, one feels them for the main characters… My new friendship, if I dare say so, with you … is an unspeakable happiness, and enchantment, a fairy tale. I catch the inconceivable breath of the garden at dawn. I want to surprise the mystery of the green eclipse of the dense foliage, and I think of René Char, who is all that. Or else I meditate on the absolute originality of art and on what is the task of art, rather than philosophy — seizing the essence of life and saying it palpably… And you are anxious about what can happen to me and you forget that no price is enough for this new kinship which is infinitely worth being lived and even suffered for. Thank you, thank you for everything.

"Boris Pasternak Writing," 1919, by Leonid Pasternak, Boris's father (Tate Museum)
“Boris Pasternak Writing,” 1919, by Leonid Pasternak, Boris’s father (Tate Museum)

When Pasternak died of lung cancer two years later — less than five months after Camus perished in a tragic car accident with an unused train ticket in his coat pocket — his funeral was announced via guerrilla postings on the Moscow subway and throngs of unflinching admirers risked trouble with the KGB and the Soviet Militia to travel to the service held at Pasternak’s country cottage.

Complement this particular fragment of the wholly heart-expanding Norton Book of Friendship with Isaac Asimov’s fan mail to young Carl Sagan, Charles Dickens’s letter of admiration to George Eliot, and teenage James Joyce’s touching letter to Ibsen, his great hero, then drink in Camus’s sympathetic wisdom on strength of character, the art of awareness, what it means to be a rebel, and happiness, unhappiness, and our self-imposed prisons.

BP

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