Nikolas came over for dinner on Friday. He arrived laden with gifts—wine and music and a handy pocket-sized notebook he had bought for me at the Musée du quai Branly. He must have guessed that I am an inveterate scribbler.
His gift started me thinking (again) about the act of recording, a notebook being of course just one of various ways of capturing thoughts, impressions, and snippets of conversations, of fixing an arresting but fleeting phrase or metaphor one has heard (like Nikolas’s own remark later that evening about how infidelity only becomes problematic when it leaches out into the space of a couple’s shared life).
Something about its portability and the miniature scale of the writing surface–and the fact one usually writes in it (a private act) in public places–makes it a medium par excellence for writing fast. The notebook is for notes after all, images and phrases, bits of dialogue, the bare skeleton of a story, for recording things like the scent of stale tobacco smoke in a crammed early morning trolley, a pair of brilliantly polished red high heel shoes worn by a theater usher, a cowboy-and-cattle chase between a motorcycle cop and a troupe of immigrant street vendors.Written fast and without the editorial censorship of careful writing, the notebook’s text becomes a codebook of sorts whose key is known only to the writer, written in an idiosyncratic shorthand of the imagination, interrupted by sketches and threaded with arrows that lead to callouts of text.
Nikolas’s gift was an opportune one, as I was running out of blank pages in my Moleskine notebook. One of the things I like about that notebook is its first page. “In case of loss, please return to…” followed by four blank lines for name and address, and then, “as a reward: $__ ”. I filled it out, not because I thought the notebook had any particular value but rather because I liked the idea that if I did lose it and someone found it, the promise of a reward might prick the finder’s curiosity enough to read through it… and perhaps to try to make sense of it. I doubt with much success.
I would have a similar if much smaller problem deciphering it if I found it a year later myself. Notebooks have a short shelf life. Because of the elliptical way in which they’re written they need to be worked on soon or they lose their potency. When I leaf through older journals I wrote I can’t always make out what I was trying to say. Sometimes I can’t even make out my own writing. (I wonder what Nikolas’s notebooks look like. I imagine they’re probably more orderly or readable than mine, if only because as a scientist he’s schooled in the discipline of accurately recording phenomena.)
The more elliptical the writing, the harder the act of reconstruction. It’s like walking into a classroom after a lecture has taken place and trying to imagine the contents of the lecture through the notes remaining on the chalkboard. Or like forensic expert arriving at the scene of a crime. Or like a maid cleaning up a hotel room in the morning. As she clears the smudged wine glasses and the two trays with room-service meals (one eaten, the other barely touched) and strips the rumpled sheets (which have not however been kicked off the bed), does she stop to think how the couple spent the night before? Did they quarrel? Did they make love, and if so, was it perfunctory or passionate? Was it their first time? I can’t imagine she isn’t at least a little curious. How often do we peer into a bedroom of someone we haven’t slept with?
Apropos chalkboards, the exhibition of Joseph Beuys: Hellenic references in his art now showing at the Hellenic American Union contains two very intriguing chalkboard drawings by the artist. Actually photo-etching on white Fabriano cardboard. (Part of the pleasure of the work is precisely the oxymoron of the ephemeral chalkboard and the conserved etching, of the private drawing and the public engagement with the artist’s audience and students.) Many of Beuys’s chalkboard drawings, like those of Rudolf Steiner (who exerted a profound influence on Beuys’s thinking), arose out of his engagement with his public and often formed part of his performance art. For Beuys the blackboard drawing, or to use Steiner’s word, Denkbild (thought-drawing) was both political agenda and a means of teaching and communicating with his audience.
One of the drawings on exhibition is entitled L’arte è una zanzara dalle mille ali (Art is a mosquito of a thousand wings). It depicts an antlered man and a pair (?) of horned animals, the hide of one of which seems to have been flayed, revealing what looks like a rack of flesh, from which a line leads to the word Leiden (suffering). At the top of the drawing is a small sun whose rays shower down through the drawing and are reflected back up from the ground. Interspersed through the drawing are a handful of words like Seele (soul) and Leben (life), and way up in the upper right-hand corner hovering over a simple box stand Vorfertigung (prefabrication) and Tod (death). The opening line from the Odyssey is to be found, as well as a line from Ovid’s Sorrows (I, 9, 5) — Donec eris felix, multos numerabis amicos (“as long as you are lucky, you will have many friends”, a bitterly ironic quote considering he wrote it in exile abandoned by his former friends).
There was an overabundance of “material” here with which I could reconstruct the messages Beuys wanted to convey or just wander off on my own, spurred on by ideas of recollection and storytelling (the line from Homer) or art as an expression of an unhappy world (quoted in Italian in the drawing), but it seemed like a lot of work. It’s not just the absence of Beuys as shaman that looms over any exhibition nowadays of the artist’s work, it is also the absence of Beuys as teacher. I wished I could have been there at the lecture.
Image: Photograph of Joseph Beuys teaching.