All work: gouache and ink on paper (2010)
I recently came across a brittle album of small black and white photographs from my grandmother’s youth. Many of the prints, from the early 20th c., were marred, unmarked, and jumbled, others out of focus and under or overexposed — all of this rendering identities and locations uncertain. I was struck by the beauty of the glaring white spots, obscuring what otherwise might have been captured — a sign of the early technology and the amateur use of it, yet so appropriately like the aporias of memory and history. This reservoir of forgotten images, and its spotty testimony, conceals as much as it reveals. Barring passage while directing the way, the impassable path back — through our memory, through another’s memory, which we inherit — is somehow bridged repeatedly, in our bodies, our postures, our speech, our predilections, our humor. This leap, in fact so common, takes place imperceptibly — or rather, is undetected despite its conspicuousness (and it’s the most obvious we often least discern).
Several years ago I read Milan Kundera's Immortality, which is largely about a hand wave, a repeatable gesture that takes on a life of its own. It brought to mind my grandmother's distinctive wave: a flapping of the wrist from the elbow, up and down, fingers limply pointing straight forward — laughable, not elegant like the characters' in Immortality. This unmistakable motion, belonging to whomever before her and taken up now by others, signaled for me the relevance of the peculiar form of "immortality" Kundera explores. He suggests the repeatability of a gesture, having an essence of its own, calls into question the inimitability of the human: “Without the slightest doubt, there are far fewer gestures in the world than there are individuals. That finding leads us to a shocking conclusion: a gesture is more individual than an individual. We could put that in the form of an aphorism: many people, few gestures.”
But isn't it like language itself, or isn't it in fact language itself (if everything is writing, as Derrida says, if writing is more primordial than speech, if the gesture is already a mark, an incision — like Picasso drawing Centaurs in the air)? Every such repetition (like every borrowed word) is an interpretation, an event — which is to say: novel (and in each particular birth: unrepeatable). Even if the gesture lives (and it does), it is not by the rote programming of the great “computer” — and it doesn’t displace the person through numerical reduction. Rather, the life of a gesture shows us, if we’ll look for it, that we are not ourselves by ourselves, that we are not even our own. As a translation of Montale reads, “Clarity is the care of things that are obscure”* — and I take this as an apology for this time with these images.
*“Bring me the sunflower to transplant here,” trans. Edwin Morgan.