Darkness and Light

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Nino Haratischwili’s book The Cat and the General is a difficult book. It talks about guilt, and the unhealthy death wish that can come with it. It’s also a long book, and might not satisfy the reader expecting satisfying exterior context. This books is about minds.

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The novel often appears to be talkative, giving too many irrelevant details, but these are just part of an undercurrent of themes that connect victims with perpetrators. One such pattern is that of Darkness and Light.

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After Sonja’s Death, Ada had begun to be afraid of the dark. She only wanted to sleep in bright light, holding a pillow in front of her eyes.

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“Why is there Darkness and Light”, he heard his daughter ask, then just five years old.

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— Because we couldn’t see the light without darkness, and the darkness not without light, he answered, and felt doubtful.

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— But why do I have to see darkness at all?

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Darkness is nothing but a disguise for the light!

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This dialogue between the general and his young daughter replicates a dialogue between Nura and her father, and is one of many parallels that live in the subtext of the book.

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The pictures here were taken during a recent visit to Turkey Run State Park. 

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Besides Light and Darkness, there is also the theme of wood and rock in these images, of growth and strength.

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Nekyia (1947)

In their gray was a memory of all the colors that didn’t exist anymore.

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The title Nekyia of this blog post refers to a Greek rite of necromancy, and it is also the title of a little book written by Hans Erich Nossack which appeared 1947 in Germany, just after the war. The quotes are from this book.

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It takes place in an unnamed city which has been drained of all color and which represents the negative space of our existence:

Don’t you realize that I am talking about the life span between death and birth? A span of which we know that it stretches across far wider spaces, and about which we remain silent only because it cannot be measured by numbers.

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The book thus reverses time. The narrator seeks his mother, in order to be born: 

It is possible that I had been forgotten to be born, and the people didn’t like to be reminded of it.

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During his search, the narrator meets different people from his past, among them his teacher:

“Why does he tremble?”, these eyes that held and probed into me asked. I didn’t realize that they meant me. “It is not fear,” answered my teacher next to me (…), “it is the trembling of the leaves at nightfall. It is the uncertainty of a being that doesn’t know his mother.” 

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So my motherless brother took me to my mother. How could I have guessed that he knew her?

His mother tells him the story of his past, a story of war and murder, borrowing from Aeschylus’s Oresteia. But the hardest part lies ahead: The separation from the mother without forgetting the past. 

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Is this too high a price to pay in order to have a chance for a future?

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Nossack’s publisher had wanted a love story to satisfy popular demand. Unable to satisfy the request, Nossack stayed silent for six years.

Most things we were quite certain of couldn’t withstand his piercing eyes. They just disappeared, at first leaving an ice cold emptiness around him.

Presents to Self (Solitaire IV)

A birthday in quarantine is a limited experience.

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Above is the 2020 Glenburn Moonshine Elite, the only Darjeeling that has made it to me this year so far. An amazing tea.

Below are some Pu-Erh cakes that will hopefully last a year.

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More food, for heart and brain:

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Of course there needs to be a puzzle. Let’s call it Quarantine. You have to go on an errand, visiting all twenty vertices of the map below (it will take a while to walk this, I hope).Errands 01

But there is a curfew. This means that you can only visit each of the twenty places once. If you are seen somewhere a second time, you become suspicious and will be eaten by a grue. You also need to end up where you started — sleeping in someone else’s home is suspicious.

Finally, traveling from place to place requires a special permit in the color of the edge along which you travel. So you will need to carry a few permits (being eaten by a grue is unpleasant). For instance, an orange permit will allow you to use any of the orange edges as often as you dare, but only those. There are six different colors, and hence six different permits.

Permits are expensive. What is the smallest number of permits that allows you to visit each place exactly once, returning to your starting point at the end?

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Erosion (Ohio I)

This blog post is about erosion as a design pattern, or about Terry Tempest Williams’s book of essays with the same name, or about the first stop at Caesar Creek State Park of my four day escape to Ohio, away from human interaction.

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We typically understand erosion as decay, as an increase in entropy, and we can observe it everywhere. This is one of the themes of Erosion, Williams’s very moving book. Erosion happens not only in geological matter, but everywhere: In the laws that should protect us, in our bodies, in our mental states.

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Resistance against this decay appears to be the essence of life. We lean against each other in support, until we break.

Caesar Creek State Park was a random pick for me on the way, and as such a disappointment. There is one long trail around the lake, which one cannot walk, because the bridge is under repair. What is a bridge that cannot be walked?

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But, as keenly observed in Erosion, there is another function of this decay: The creation of soil, of fertile ground for new growth.This becomes heartbreakingly intense in the chapter where Williams recounts the cremation of her brother after his suicide. This book is not an easy read, even for those of us who agree with Williams’s view of things.

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My return from the unwalkable bridge took me along the beach front of Caesar Creek Lake, which is not quite ready for building sand castles.

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But a closer look at the debris reveals that it is composed of older debris. Fossilesque, I would call that. Sometimes erosion takes a very long time.

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Read the book anyway. It will help you with your own, personal erosion. 

Marzahn mon amour

A neighbor and I exchanged books over the holidays (a forgotten art?). I gave her Christoph Ransmayr’s Arznei gegen die Sterblichkeit, and she returned the favor with Katja Oskamp’s Marzahn mon amour.

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Marzahn is a legendary suburb of Berlin I had never been to. The name triggered childhood memories of Frau Malzahn, the wonderful dragon in Ottfried Preußler’s even more wonderful Jim Knopf books.

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But this has nothing to do with Marzahn mon amour, nor do the pictures above, which show Alt-Marzahn, miraculously preserved among the Plattenbauten, the prefab buildings that provided a cheap solution to the growing housing problem of the former German Democratic Republic.

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Here is one of them, proudly announcing cosmetic studio at the entrance as if the entire building is that studio.

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And this is what the book is about: People living in these prefab houses, and being taken care of temporarily by the narrator, who works as a pedicurist in a cosmetic studio just like the one above (this one?).

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We learn to like them, the people and the buildings, maybe because they all have decided to cope with their large and small miseries by taking care of themselves, even if only symbolically.

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Most remarkable, however, is the insight of the narrator: That by stepping apparently down (in her case from struggling author to a pedicurist) one can in fact find happiness, and then by the way, write a charming little book. 

Absence (10mm II)

Hisham Matar’s autobiographic book The Return talks about his father’s absence.

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The image above show the Voided Void at the end of the Axis of Holocaust in Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin. 

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Matar quotes Aristoteles: The theory that the void exists involves the existence of place: for one would define void as place bereft of body.

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Right now, the museum is being prepared for a new standard exhibition, and hence almost completely void.

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Matar continues to reflect about Aristoteles. He adds: He says nothing of time here, and time is surely part of it all, of how we try to accommodate the absence. […]. Only time can hope to fill the void. The body of my father is gone, but his place is here and occupied by something that cannot just be called memory.

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A second accessible void in the Libeskind building is the Memory Void, containing Menashe Kadishman’s installation Shalekhet (Fallen Leaves).

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Matar concludes this reflection: What is extraordinary is that, given everything that has happened, the natural alignment of the heart remains towards the light.

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Arrivals and Departures

This is an unusual post, marking arrivals and departures.

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Even worse, the sea creatures on display appear to have nothing to do with that theme. Let me explain. One of the arrivals is that of my daughter arriving at the critical age of 18, and one of the departures is hers to college in California. This provides a first link: The pictures are from the Monterey Aquarium, which we visited last year.

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When I see these astonishing creatures, I am inevitably reminded of Denis Villeneuve’s film Arrival, a rare example of an adaptation that works independently and as well in its own way as the source, here Ted Chiang’s The Story of Your Life. The departure I will associate with this is that of the composer of the wondrous film score, Jóhann Jóhannsson, who left us last year, too early.

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Arrival and departure sound like beginning and end, joy and sadness. This is treacherous, because each departure is a departure to a new arrival elsewhere. Arrival and departure are like a single contraction of one of these jellyfish. What you perceive depends of where you are: inside or outside.

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More important than arrival and departure are the stories that are framed in between, the mysterious creatures that propel our lives forward or bring it to a halt.

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I am looking forward to hear more.

The Flow of Time (Utah 2009 IV)

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What if we had the opportunity to thaw, say 100 years after our death, and, for possibly only a limited time, contemplate and re-valuate our life and its historical context? Would we seek revenge or make amends?

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The flow of time is a tricky thing. Can we stop or even reverse it?

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This already is an intriguing topic, but Evgenij Vodolazkin in his novel The Aviator aims deeper: How does life gain meaning? Does it come from isolated actions of singular importance, or from repeating seemingly insignificant chores?

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Sometimes the timelines of several people can fuse in order to tell a story. 

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Warmly recommended.

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Once Upon a Time…

This post is about a dying species, the physical book. While book sales are stagnating at best, the number of published books is exploding, meaning that fewer copies of each book are printed. How many of these will survive say a century?

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The lucky ones end up in the stacks of large university libraries like the Wells Library shown here. It’s like with animals: In the wild, their life expectancy is much lower than in a zoo.

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I grew up in five minute walking distance to a local, privately owned book store. In 15 minute biking distance were two public libraries. These days, privately owned book stores are nearly extinct, and the chains that helped kill them are struggling. Easily obtainable books in print are either classics or bestsellers.

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If you want that one exotic book that a friend recommended, you probably need a large library (and be able to read in another language). But they are struggling, too: Space is precious, demand low.

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So the aisles are emptied, the books extradited to special auxiliary library facilities, from where you can request them. The happy hours of browsing are gone.

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The Spider

When I was in third grade, my father brought home a beautiful 2 volume edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories, illustrated by Alfred Kubin.

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The genre name Horror Story describes very unsatisfactorily what Poe accomoplishes. The conventional horror story utilizes a simple scheme: It wins our trust by first presenting a plausible scenario, and then abuses this trust in order to get away with less plausible events.

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In Poe’s best stories, this is not the case. The horror story is happening in the protagonist’s mind, and we become afraid that this same horror might as well infest our own brains.

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There are a few European stories that achieve the same effect, and one of them is Hanns Heinz Ewers’ story The Spider, from 1915. In it, the tenant of a small apartment starts to play a game with a woman in a window across the street: They make movements with their hands, which the other is supposed to copy. The narrator, whose diary we read, is at first surprised how quickly his neighbor can repeat his own movements, until he realizes that he is in fact, against his own will, only repeating the movements of the neighbor.

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This realization comes too late, obviously. No good horror story can end well. The same is true for Hanns Heinz Ewers himself, unfortunately. Despite having understood the machinations of manipulation, he fell under the spell of  a much larger spider, even though he didn’t share their racial ideology, had conflicting sexual preferences, and his books were banned.

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