“Old movies / are / secondhand dreams,” writes Pablo Neruda, or rather, translates Margaret Sayers Peden, from “Son las antiguas cintas / los / sueños ya gastados.” Lately, I’ve had the feeling that I’ve been living a kind of secondhand life. Old movies — old books, old songs, old works of art — are more real to me than the reality of my own life. Fragments come to the surface as if they were churned up from a dark river running underneath experience like the twin spools of a cassette. Here there is a snatch of Sade or Debussy or some ominous electronic texture, there something bleak and sublime as out of Antonioni, here a line from Derek Walcott or Virginia Woolf, there patterns and immensities emerge like the infinity nets and mirror rooms of Yayoi Kusama.
Although this condition of mine — if you can call it that — has been exacerbated by the pandemic, it has always been there to one degree or another, a sort of background radiation. Walking behind Rand Hall from North to West Campus or West to North, looking at the light patterns of Leo Villareal’s Cosmos playing on the ceiling of the Johnson Museum, is inseparable in my memory from Louise Glück’s poem “October” (“didn’t the night end, wasn’t the earth / safe when it was planted / didn’t we plant the seeds, / weren’t we necessary to the earth”). April, to me, means the Carmina Burana, a sense of earthy, medieval joy, the bullock prancing and the buck farting and so on. I can’t untangle my suburban girlhood from the experience of discovering and reading Sylvia Plath (typical, I know, but after all, we did grow up in the same town and go to the same high school).
In his essay “Why Read the Classics?” Italo Calvino arrives at the conclusion that “All that can be done is for each one of us to invent our own ideal library of our classics.” This is an attractive alternative to the idea of a single shared, monolithic canon. But somehow, and especially for the disordered, fragmented times in which we are living, the image of a library seems too neat, too organized, too complete. All I have is a sort of mental commonplace book, a palimpsest, that tells me art and life are indistinguishable, that this dichotomy — like most dichotomies—is largely artificial.
For a long time, I worried about my way of living life through art, the desire, like Anselmus in Hoffmann’s “Golden Pot,” to live a “life in poetry, where the holy harmony of all things is revealed as the deepest secret of nature.” How could such a life be possible when the external situation is so increasingly, unceasingly urgent? When the voice of the world comes like a battering ram, pounding on the doors of the mind, telling us to take action, to “take arms against a sea of troubles,” to be practical, to grow up, effect change and so on?
In Spanish, “gastados” has the sense of “spent, worn out, wasted.” But this second-handedness of my life acts instead as a renewal, a deepening. It allows me to chart the landscape of the interior; if I am “out with lanterns, looking for myself,” it lights the dark passages and illuminates what reason and common sense cannot. It forms its own cosmos, creating order and harmony with its symbols, its images, its sounds, slowly but surely stitching the disparate threads of life into a richer fabric of wholeness. We are invented by our private mythologies.
T. S. Eliot, in a review defending Joyce’s Ulysses, speaks of myth as an ordering principle, a “way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.” I would like to take myth not in its narrowly constructed sense, but rather in the ways in which the strange unspeakableness of art, the ephemeral moods and colors and textures pervade the mundane and the quotidian.
“In a dream you saw a way to survive and you were full of joy” is one of Jenny Holzer’s popular texts. Perhaps that way is art.
Ramya Yandava is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. Ramya’s Rambles runs alternate Mondays this semester.