BRECHT, TOKYO AND MT. VESUVIUS

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In 1956 Bertolt Brecht sent his written contribution to a debate about the theatre taking place in the city of Darmstadt, Germany. In his clear-cut style and well-defined images, he warned the listening congregation (we are assuming somebody else read his words) that if they wanted to talk to today’s people they needed to present today’s problems in relation to their solutions, the world as a world that can be changed. “Years ago,” the voice (not his) continued, “in a newspaper I saw a photograph of the city of Tokyo destroyed by an earthquake. Most of the houses had collapsed, but a few modern buildings were standing, unscathed. ‘Steel stood’ was written over the image.” The voice then invited them to compare this description with Pliny’s description of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, concluding that it seemed obvious which one “our modern playwrights should avoid.” (Alas, we can only imagine the reaction of the passionately debating congregation. In 1956.) “We can no longer present man to man as a victim, as the passive object of an unknown and immutable environment.” The voice finally spoke in stone, “If we put ourselves in the position of the ball, the laws of motion become inconceivable.” (In 1956, of course.)

THE LOCAL SUPERMARKET CONSPIRACY

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What we know, however, is uncertain. In relatively lower-income neighborhoods people talk to each other while standing in line (one meter apart) at the local supermarket; one cracks a joke and the conversations, like a dance, begin; in richer areas no one says a word, almost afraid to talk, the situation must feel odder to them, some of them have clearly never even been to the local supermarket. However, why do we have this? China! in the low, gray clouds in the sky this morning – they want to level the world’s economy!; the US, always interfering!; there’s France, Germany, and the never-old, although quite new historically, European Union. The immigrants because they weren’t getting sick (xenophobia); the Chinese with their restaurants and damaged products (sinophobia); the succession of historical plagues, 1720, 1820, 1920, 2020, the latter option having almost entertained me till the social-media poster was worried about our lives in 2120, like we will all survive for the great catastrophe and at that point, really, you, post-writer, world, all of us, either know too much or know nothing at all.

THE NAZIS AND THE PIG

The Nazis were here, towards the end of the war (nobody knew it was towards the end of it.) They requisitioned the biggest house and made it their HQ, and they were looking for food. She was saying that she could hear them at night marching up and down the street, making sure no one – no one! – made a run for the border (here, the village borders on the neutral country.) In her courtyard near the farms they let the chickens loose and pushed them towards the wooded area near the stream. They’d also been raising a pig. They hid it, alive, under layers of dirt in the farm’s organic dump where the Nazis couldn’t find it. And they didn’t. (At some point later on the enemy left. Withdrew. And the friends who had escaped returned. And they could all slaughter the pig they had gone to incredible lengths – life and death! – to save.)

THE LIVES OF STRANGERS

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The lady had a name; an age. I didn’t know them. She was married, by the look of it, when she got on, to the man who helped her up and then to her seat. Suddenly: her perfume. Sometimes you get to know the most intimate details in the lives of strangers. It’s early morning now – before the bus ride – the hair disarranged from the night’s sleep, the makeup brush unstable on the rim of the sink, tiny bits of powder all over. Her eyes, hurt a bit by the light above the mirror, keep a fitful watch on the happenings outside. This face cream will smooth and hide the wrinkles, this spray will shape and volume the hair. Coffee’s ready. In the small apartment some clothes are hanging near the heat to dry. She opens the fridge, she opens a cupboard. A cookie, maybe two. Looks out, through the fogged-up windows, to the whole day ahead.

28 October 1916

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28 October 1916

Dear Paula,

I know I said I would write tomorrow. And in a way, today is tomorrow. Of yet another day. I could also pretend your letter did not reach me till yesterday, or that I posted this some months ago and be sure it would take some months exactly to reach you. Some months and a couple of days. Lies. In the meantime, work has begun in the old convent and I am personally supervising the restoration of a fresco. I’m a self-taught fresco painter. The angels smile at me, and those that seemed wrathful I have changed to cheerful. Because I can. You know I don’t believe.

They have won, though, as I’ve stayed and not left, and I’ve started appreciating the overcast days when the moss-covered walls of… I will do something about those walls, too. I just don’t know when I’ll start.

More soon, I believe. Be well, if you can.

THE DAY MY DOG DIED – PANEL 1

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The day my dog died, I (temporarily) lost my faith in atheism. I struggled with the notion that where she is now there’s none of us to be with her – but there isn’t such a place! – and on I cried knowing she was lonely, like us around the house feeling it empty, and I whispered, laying my hand on the warm earth after travelling miles to see her resting place in the backyard near the persimmon tree, on the edge of a little valley so that opening the shutters in the morning on the terrace we, the living, will say “Hi, Lucky” as if she’s running up from the garden, wait a few seconds, no, she’s not, I whispered “Don’t be afraid of loneliness.” and wished for only one other moment, one day, when I’m gone too – so unreal – that I can see her eyes again and we’ll go for a walk.

The Day My Dog Died (Panel 2)

IRRESPONSIBLE WRITING FROM THE 1960s

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Irresponsible writing from the 1960s.

… and [he; nice fellow, overworked and underpaid] lit the first of the ten cigarettes that he smoked every day. When he had smoked the cigarette down to its filter, he put it out and emptied the ashtray into the wastebasket.

A contemporary adaptation.

… and, cautiously, on the sly, [he; no excuse for whatever his misfortunes might be], lit the first of what were now ten cigarettes a day. Down from eighteen. Good. No, actually, because it had been more than a year! When he had smoked each one out trying not to get too close to the filter, he would crush the butt into the ashtray, the veins and bones in his hands showing, and would then empty the ashtray into the wastebasket with a bang, a cloud of dusty smoke wafting up in the air and, at times, into his nostrils. He’d sneeze then in a panic. “Shit!”

THE BLOCK WAS DEAFENED BY THE CRASH

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The block was deafened by the crash. No sign language though, “Are you fucking blind? Can you drive, for Christ’s sake?!”

Venomous lava, spewing, the burning oil of the broken car on the smashed windows.

The man doing this, the man throwing fists in the air, the man whose car had been hit. The woman – no driver’s license? – fainted at the wheel, seat belt fastened.

“Call an ambulance!” The echo of one was rushing thither from many a block away.

It was all like an imposing winding staircase, the spiral of which depressed my impotence and inaction. Today a shiny magnolia flower blossomed in an early March morning; tomorrow a silent scream and a prayer would go up so that what we didn’t want to happen wouldn’t. I had the fragile soul. I was the chapters of a book read at full speed, fingers cut while turning the pages. I cleansed myself by going out and soiling my life.

My feet, in the blood and/or burning oil, slightly, pretending to get closer and help, stamped their print on the gray asphalt to say I had been there.

22. March 1, 1915

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1 March 1915

The belfry has been reduced to: “Isn’t that tree trunk big! Wait, it’s a belfry.” It is the abandoned convent that stands by the path through the woods. I was padding along the path behind a vision. I wasn’t walking. And I paid an imaginary visit to the empty frescoes and the gutted columns. The saints were smiling because they wanted me to stay on. It is a show, after all, and they know it. In the little time it took me to break in through the non-existent stained glass windows, they arranged a glorious tribute to their golden god and urged me to do something about the walls, and the columns, and the crypt. I don’t know if I want to.

The white clouds eating up each other in the blue sky today help.

What’s our world coming to, dear Paula?

I will write more on this tomorrow.

“ANTINOUS HAS BEEN SNATCHED AWAY FROM LIFE, CAESAR.”

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They told him in awed hesitant poetry. “Antinous has been snatched away from life, Caesar.” The imperial majesty of Scarecrow Hadrian crushed to a void stupor before his bird-like people. He demanded facts (Antinous. Drowned. In the Nile) and wide-eyed he saw: the air bubbles in the muddy water; the senators’ long, wrinkled but sinewy hands keeping his boy’s curly black hair down; the plotters being sentenced to death and their leaders killed last, that they may see their friends drop like flies, one by one, and live in terror what was left of their days.

[… no other distance …]

The Emperor ordered that a city should be built named after Antinous; He decreed that – moonlight toward Egypt – that constellation up there should take the name of Antinous; He proclaimed that – at daybreak, the coast of Africa still not in sight – Antinous should be made a God.