This piece is part of a specially commissioned portfolio in which three contemporary novelists look at the ways personal and historic memory shape the present. In another entry, César Aira recalls his childhood in Coronel Pringles, Argentina, and the cruelty of his hometown's self-designated cultural curator: his mother. And 50 years after the summer of 1969, the American writer Lucy Ives considers guilt and fiction-making, and what it meant to survive a decade of such dashed promise.
Memento Mori – My First Film
Photographs by Heike Geissler
This is a film. I’d better say this at the outset so you don’t assume it is a text. The film is titled Memento mori. From the credits alone, you can tell I do not know all that much about film. This stems from the fact that I don’t watch films for intellectual stimulation, dramatic structure, contextual coherence, to experience a cultural event, entertainment or enriching ideas, so much as for a simple distraction from my thoughts, from the day’s events, from politics, from populism, from populists, from getting older, from liars, from instrumentalization, from sexual assault, from the simmering and the threatening, from verbal attacks, from false attributions, from suspicions, from fears, from power hunger, from bad memories, from hierarchies, from ghosts, from people dying in the Mediterranean, from swimming in the Mediterranean, from military budgets, from the arms trade, from illness, from needing money, from the fear of flying, from the desire to consume, from convention, from body images, from role models, from inauspicious prognoses, from a low bank balance, from the everyday, from boredom, from sluggishness, from obtuseness, from boldness, from brutality, from plentitude, from pushing, from yelling, from falling, from murderers, from despots, from certain proponents and certain opponents, from anxiety. Whenever I can, I go with the lightest entertainment and anticipate a happy ending. For example, right now, while showing you my film, I’m watching Notting Hill (1999). Julia Roberts says: Come and sit with me. And Hugh Grant says: Have you seen my glasses? I presume that one can handle a number of wounds, and would like to concur with Ingeborg Bachmann when she commands: Rise up and walk! None of your bones is broken.1 And I answer: How should I get up? All of my bones are broken.
I leave my remains everywhere I go. Whenever I arrive somewhere, I discover that I am already lying there.
This is a film about:
a) A resolute gesture of resistence, a consistent, decent but nevertheless impossibleto-
I say into the camera: There’s not a lot there: lying, lying down. That’s all. As I’m telling only you, and not the entire audience watching the film: This is all I have. This is all I have left. This is (not) the whole truth. Or allow me to come up with a figure more suited to these words. For instance, the peasant girl from Thrace that Plato mentioned, and whom I first heard about from Hannah Arendt: that girl who, ‘watching the “wise man” glance upward in order to observe the stars only to fall in the well’, laughed at the fact ‘that someone who wants to know the sky should be so ignorant of what lies at his feet.’2 And so, in close-up, she says: There’s not a lot there: lying, lying down. That’s all. That’s all I have. That’s all I have left. Then she laughs and turns around. And you believe her or you don’t, and anyway you don’t believe her at all to begin with.
I’m almost dead. Of course, it’s not that bad and at the same time it couldn’t be worse. I am a state of the world. You can’t see that I’m almost dead. Who can see? In any event, I’m finished. This kind of death does not primarily affect the body, at least not irrevocably, like true death. As I said, you can’t see and perhaps you don’t notice it either. As far as this death is concerned, it’s not one I am experiencing alone; nor is it absolute either, but partial. I wouldn’t put up an extensive argument, such as I, however, am dead, whether you believe it or not. I’m not really one for arguing; I can’t argue any more. I just talk out loud a bit, sometimes, saying:
wounds blah blah
demolished nerve endings blah blah
porous skins blah blah
persistent fear blah blah
It began two-and-a-half years ago in Santa Maria Antiqua, a church in Rome which had been hidden for centuries beneath earth and debris before being excavated and renovated. I’d entered with a large group, which I became immediately separated from. I fell to the ground by a sarcophagus and I stayed there, lying on the eternally old, uneven floor. I wanted to stay until I understood it all, until I understood, for example, Time. While I lay there, I wandered, following the archaeologist’s explanations, and saw the face of Maria Regina light up from a frantic beamer, then return to her apparently original state before fading out.
I lay, and I lie in this church and that was unforeseen.
This is a film about:
c) Cultural earthing: the attempt to become one with the ground and with pictures and columns and halls and buses and trains and streets. I look forward to the penetration of time and strata and to presence as a plane, as historical occasion, as vault, as insulation material, as pigment, as ornament, as trace. Lying there, I become all past and future events and developments and watch all the ways that they can be helped or hindered.
I soak up earth and environs and or soak into earth and environs.
I am lying on the backseat of my best friend’s car. I will never move from here again. With the top down, I let myself be driven down all the rural roads between Leipzig and Munich and, lying and dead, we talk about installments and how we’re agents for each other: I hers, she mine. And how deep in the nights our most peaceful intentions disappear and we wish death on certain people, here and there, isolated cases, how we devote ourselves to believing, so that we’ll be able to undo a few things.
I lie in my children’s backpacks. Do you see how bent over my children are when they walk to school in the mornings? I’m not too heavy, but they shouldn’t have to carry me. I whisper to my children how much I like a work of art from 1989 by Gary Simmons: an untitled blackboard with black chalk. The blackboard – not even ten centimetres high and two metres wide – appears to be useless, as though whatever would be written there would remain illegible forever. Even with white chalk, the results would hardly be different. The board is too small for any kind of lesson. Everyone would have to huddle together in front of it just to read what was written. Having reached the edge of the board, to write something new you’d have to wipe away what had just been written. I tell my children: don’t forget to greet your teachers of Jacques Rancière and say: There is stultification wherever one intelligence is subordinated to another.
I am lying down in the square I am watching, between two sculptures and maybe someone can see me, maybe not. In spring and autumn, workers from the city’s department of parks and recreation come to gather the rubbish from between all the plants, sometimes removing shrubbery and old leaves.
I am lying down where the head of a man slammed into the kerb as he fell backwards out of the bus, drunk or pushed or both.
I am lying down that Monday when everyone was writing #MeToo, but I have nothing else to say about that.
I say: I’m leaving out the important parts. I cannot say the important things. I cannot, even if in all honesty now I should, identify any guilty parties, for the guilty defeated me. This is a film about being defeated.
So what happened?
______ blah blah
_____ blah blah
______ blah blah
_______________ blah blah
This film is a blockbuster. This film is a big hit.
Now I’m going to tell you a joke:
Little Fritz goes around the corner.
I am not on the forest floor anymore, overwhelmed as I was by the variety of trees.
I am in Huntington Gardens, lying on the path in front of a cactus which is two metres tall, whose lower half seems dried out and dead. At the top, new green shoots are sprouting. Initials have been carved into the cactus, as well as a signature I cannot decipher.
I am lying down next to the woman from across the way who, because of her restless legs, walks in circles at night throughout her kitchen. I am lying down in Manny Farber’s painting Passive Is the Ticket (1984) because nothing could be more fitting, though it might not fit at all. In any event, I am lying down between green asparagus spears, which form a disintegrating or reassembling ‘H’. I am lying down forever, until it’s time to stand back up.
I am lying down in the flat-bed truck of Eduardo, who early one Sunday morning in Los Angeles drove me to the airport because my Lyft didn’t show. I am lying down and know that, in a year’s time, he will have paid off his car, that dream from Toyota, that nightmare, I mean, ecologically speaking, but that dream for Eduardo, who with his dream once a month drives down to Mexico and, the rest of the time, in LA, cleans windows. I see the skies of LA and am lying in between buckets, ropes, a toolbox and know every wall.
I say very quietly: We were discussing civil rights for animals and thinking about how it would be and could be and how it could be possible when, all of a sudden, in the middle of our discussion, something descended upon us, and of course it wasn’t all of a sudden, we saw it coming, the whole time we saw it coming and we knew, and we could have sworn on it, and we don’t believe that it could be said that someone ever had a more refined feeling for changes, noticed them earlier than others. We only believed that we wanted to see what was coming, and that others did not want to see what was coming, and just wanted to act as if something were truly descending upon us. We won’t say what descended upon us, for all of a sudden it just doesn’t work any more, because at the moment it’s just vague, because all wounds are named after so many others and the naming of damages just doesn’t work any more.
I say into the camera: I don’t know how to get from A to B, or I do. Or how does it go?
I am lying in front of a hotel. A dark corner full of bollards and unkept planters, a hotel that doesn’t care about its courtyard. I definitively don’t know where to go. Five men are standing close to me in front of a TV bus. Inside the bus is a woman sitting at a well-lit editing suite, working on a piece. At first, I think the men are a security detail and wonder why there are so many. And, at the same time, I don’t. The men circle the bus, press their faces against the glass, coming very close indeed to the woman who continues to work unperturbed. She is sitting in her circle of light, and it’s like being in some of those churches when you toss ina coin and a light snaps on and you can see Caravaggio’s Madonna di Loreto (1604) until the light goes out. The men are standing before this diorama, which is the reality of a working woman, and saying: This is where the lies come from; this is where the news is faked.
I am reclining within the idea that I could doze through 20 years, wake up and notice everything I missed.
Here I am just lying around. I am lying down in the brown-bear diorama to the side of the standing bear. I say to him how much I like bears and that I always have to think of that Russian fairy tale whose title I’ve forgotten. In that fairy tale, a female bear saves a young boy and helps him survive a few weeks until he is strong enough to make his way through the woods and back to his village. Years later, the two meet again. They recognize each other immediately and embrace. Ewww, the boy says, his head still next to the female bear’s head: You stink. The female bear turns and goes, without reacting to the boy’s calls.
I am at the feet of the Native American who is walking next to Franklin D. Roosevelt, who is sitting on a horse, as if he were seeking protection from Roosevelt, as if he were there to protect Roosevelt, but also as if he had been forced to move closer to the horse and that’s where I am lying, and still.
Please do not imagine Roosevelt from the front. In this film, you only see the statue from behind.
A reconsideration, my girlfriend cries out. Yes, I agree. A reconsideration and an updating and rewriting.
This film is:
d) A collaboration, a continuation, a continuing-to-write, not a stop. Only a grabbing of all the threads, which were good, which still have to be somewhere, which are indeed somewhere.
I am lying down close to all the people who apologize for everything possible, for every tiny injury they might have inflicted, for any confusion they might have caused, who carry their oversized empathy into the world and have compassion for everyone, more or less.
I turn my face to the camera and say: Our honest faces will become our weapons, will be distractions, challenges. We choose the weapons of night for the day.
Here the film is interrupted for a moment. The DHL courier has rung and I want to give him a bit of time. It should be a longer moment, he should have an eternal moment. The DHL courier, working for DHL Delivery, DHL’s lesser-paying subsidiary, looks sad today; it’s like I am looking into him but only sensing and I demand a magic trick, namely, immediate extraction, in other words, the immediate relocation of the courier into a different world of work or, better, immediately into a world without the usual back-breaking and tongue-twisting work. And I announce: a spontaneous fiction, an imagined rescue or at least a considerable improvement in the DHL courier’s work conditions. I also announce: the working of this fiction as a documentation of the true case of the DHL courier for whom there was rescue. With that, a choir calls out: This isn’t a mockumentary, this is real.
I am still speaking with the highest hopes, from a handstand, from a rollover in the direction of um um um, I mean, I have no other way of speaking, otherwise I just speak like those who are aggrieved to death, who are deeply disappointed, from impossibility, from exhaustion, from defeatism. I am indeed an annihilated army; I am indeed a choking, wheezing choir. In other words, the way realism functions, in other words like the realistic glance, um um um.
And Silvia Bovenschen says: Sometimes I have the feeling that boys have a protective layer of skin, something that protects them from the threatening political and economic developments of the age.3 And I am quoting the lines which have moved me the most as of late: In the unseasonable heat of winter, we’ve been avoiding the news – or trying to regulate our intake. If we don’t it’s everything all the time.4 And Bovenschen says we owe one another sight, we must not look away – not from the headlines, not from the abyss of others; we must want to see everything for, if not, we deprive the world and others, our neighbours and those furthest away, of love.
Having just come to mind at this point, I must say: I am only looking, for a few moments at least, because Bovenschen led me to believe that I have to look. C. says that, as a young girl, she thought she could solve all of life’s problems just by thinking about them.
I am lying down there where there used to be a huge forest, its petrified remains dragged just a few metres away to the museum. I am lying down and would like to lie in the way, to retrospectively have been in the way. I could, of course, move beyond it, being this impediment, which at the same time passes as a threshold.
I am lying down at the intersection of two roads, close to a square where Margarete will walk by. Margarete, a delicate woman who, despite her advanced age, always has something girlish about her, who spends the whole day walking around the neighbourhood, who at some point stopped in front of me, looked as if she wanted help and, like all of these stories, she told me about her husband, about that husband who was called to war, more precisely, World War II, who wrote her from there one more time and then died. Ever since the unmarried Margarete, hurrying forever here and there, has carried a plain little box around. She pulls it out, opens it up like a coffin for a puppet. Lying in the little box is her husband’s passport picture. At the top-right corner, a mourning border is drawn in black pen. Margarete cries whenever she tells the story. I, by the way, do not cry any longer; now I am more like a stone and no giant will ever squeeze a single drop of water out of me.
I lie down like a demonstrator and ask: which demonstration are you coming from? He says: From this one. I say: I’m coming from that one. He says: You know, we’re doing it for you as well. I say: You’re mistaken.
I say: Fill an empty stage with consolation, with consolation that might truly console, a consolation that will save consolation’s reputation so that consolation can emancipate itself. You will wrack your brains. But, perhaps you’ll get lucky and the fact that the film is now starting again will help you to solve this problem. Perhaps we’re a good team.
I lie down in the way of the young woman in the banking district and wait for her to ask me for money, but, thin as she is, she steps over me, through me, and walks away. So, I stand back up and then lie back down in front of her legs and follow her till I am lying in front of her tent.
I lie down on the protective grating of all demonstrations. I lie there as presence, as burden, as product. I lie there as the result of the demonstrations and the disappointed hope for stagings where reality prevails. Reality is a performance I want to call off.
I am lying down next to that woman who stopped mid-walk. She’s been standing there for half an hour and does not respond to my questions. I am lying down at her feet.
This film is:
e) A promise, you just don’t notice it yet.
Go to Hell says the T-shirt of a man whose legs are pushing up against the protective grating. I am under the exhaust pipe of a neighbour’s car. Every morning, when I walk my kids to school, I read the bumpers stickers and wonder how they might be covered up with a different message that the owner wouldn’t notice and, as a result, would tag him with new, unfamiliar labels. I am lying down at the breaking points of the continent and at flashpoints. Apart from that, I lie down pretty well and sleep like a babe.
This is a film about:
f) Love, and I am doing everything I can so you won’t confuse love with what it’s confused to be.
This film, in any event, comes down to love. Perhaps that will only become clear a little after it ends. But I think you can catch that earlier.
I am on a pleasantly cool stone floor in Rome. The October sun shines through the window onto my tired feet. I am crawling across the floor, following the WiFi. I keep refreshing the site and refuse to give up on the livestream of the Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh hearing. On computer, on my stomach, she says: The multiple attempts to escape and the final ability to do so, and I arrange my hair to look like hers, I mess up my hair to look like hers, I pull a strand of hair beneath my glasses, let it curl; this is all I can do.
I am lying down next to Smugglerius, a sculpture of a man posed like the Ancient Roman marble statue of the Dying Gaul (c.230 BCE). I am lying at a little bit of distance and have turned my back to Smugglerius. Mary Beard points to a picture of the sculpture and says: For me, this image is important precisely because it is so unsettling. Unsettling because it is really hard to imagine there are generations of young art students who have been asked to draw the plastered cast of the body of a convicted criminal who’d been posed post mortem as a classical statue. That’s very hard, I think, to take in.
Mary Beard says: I hope you go away slightly disgusted.5
I am lying down on a stretch of grass in Capua, where the gladiator school was located, the one from which Spartacus and a number of other gladiators escaped. Perhaps the grass doesn’t know a thing, or perhaps the grass knows a bit, or perhaps the grass only knows what I long to know. Almost 20 years ago, I read the following line: The easiest thing to grow in the garden is tired. I still don’t know if that’s supposed to mean: The grass is tired. The idea that grass could be tired.
I lie on the floor in front of the painting A Maid Asleep (1656–57) by Johannes Vermeer. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, it is shown as the second of a series of depictions of women, which, from left to right, show servant girls suddenly becoming wealthy women. The painting hangs next to Rembrandt’s Hendrickje Stoffels (c.1654–56), named after the daughter of a soldier, Rembrandt’s housekeeper and, later, his wife. Between me and the Vermeer there is a young woman bent over her friend, who is staring at her smartphone. Her backpack, from which a green fleece pig is peeking out its head, is blocking the view onto precisely that part of the painting which shows the hallway. An earlier version of the painting is supposed to have contained a male figure, which Vermeer, in any event, painted over.
My first film ends at this point.
This is a film about a transition, and does (not) indeed make that clear.
The text begins here: Outside, the sun is shining and, at this point, I would really like to refer to what Annette Weisser once wrote: Because I am a reader and a writer, I imagine the coming revolution as a dance floor filled with all the people whose books I love and millions of others whose books I haven’t read yet, and we dance towards each other and continously regroup, and when somebody’s glasses come off, a circle will form immediately to protect both the glasses and the dancer. And, in the morning, nobody goes home but we take to the streets, and we will walk to the park, and we’ll sit in the grass and tell each other everything we know, think and feel. There will be sex, too. And, since there will be so many of us, this will take a long time. A lifetime.6
And I must inform you that I wanted to purchase a sweatshirt that was on sale from the Weekdays online shop, a sweatshirt with the words THERE IS NO PLAN B written on it, which I did not, in the end, purchase.
Translated by Alexander Booth
1 Ingeborg Bachmann, ‘The Thirtieth Year’, in The Thirtieth Year: Stories, 1987, Holmes & Meier, p. 55
2 Hannah Arendt, ‘Heidegger at Eighty’, in Thinking without a Banister: Essays in Understanding, 1953–1975, 2018, Jerome Kohn ed., Knopf, New York, p. 428
3 Silvia Bovenschen interviewed by Waltraud Schwab, taz, Berlin, 28 October 2017
4 ‘Now Less Than Never. The Intellectual Situation. A Diary’, n+1, Spring 2007, p. 1
5 Mary Beard, ‘The Classical Body: The Naked and the Nude’, talk at the American Academy in Rome, 25 September 2018
6 Annette Weisser, ‘Schools of Withdrawal, Schools of Exhaustion’, 2019, unpublished manuscript
This article first appeared in frieze issue 204 with the headline 'Memento Mori – My First Film'
Heike Geissler is an author based in Leipzig, Germany. Her book Seasonal Associate, translated by Katy Derbyshire, was published in English by Semiotext(e) in 2018 and in German by Volte (Spector Books) in 2014.
First published in Issue 204