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From Lonely to Alone: One Sentence from the Definitive Edition of Anne Frank’s Diary

8 Mar

Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. The Definitive Edition. Edited by Otto H. Frank and Mirjam Pressler. Translated by Susan Massotty. (New York: Everyman’s Library/Alfred A. Knopf, 2010).

“The best remedy for those who are frightened, lonely or unhappy,” Anne Frank tells us in her diary, “is to go outside, somewhere they can be alone, alone with the sky, nature and God” (p. 163). To retrace the words of Anne’s sentence is to travel a path from lonely to alone and arrive nonetheless healed. It’s one of the many striking moments of therapeutic longing that can be found in The Diary. And heartbreaking too, of course — for when Anne finally did manage to go outside, after more than two years of confinement, she was decidedly not alone. In fact, from the time of her arrest on August 4, 1944 to the time of her death from typhus and starvation in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp sometime in the winter of 1944–45, Anne Frank was probably never completely alone for one single moment. Nor even in death did Anne manage to fulfill the remedy that she had prescribed for herself one Wednesday morning in an Amsterdam attic: After Anne died, her body was dumped in a mass grave where even her unprivate bones could decay without particularity or uniqueness.

The phrase “I don’t want to die alone” has become almost a cliché in our culture. The announcement likely carries with it memories of darkly humorous conversations among friends (“Whenever I take that horse pill, I imagine choking and dying alone” — or a million similar riffs). The television show Six Feet Under made something of a career out of this type of narrative. Every episode began with an ironic way to die — not always alone — but versions of dying alone certainly played a principal role in the show’s opening teasers. And although we live surrounded by people — millions more every year — the demon of isolation remains vivid in our imaginations. The more we invent ways to “connect” — think Twitter and Facebook of course, but think also of and “spontaneous crowd” events — the more stubborn isolation’s specter seems to prove. Anne’s distinction between lonely and alone is a distinction that has a particular resonance in our time: The more we touch-pad ourselves together every second of the day the more we can feel the oppositional quality of the two words. Perhaps young Mark Zuckerberg constructed a large chunk of the platform upon which we now live out our lives, but I’d give it all back in a second if Mr. Social Network could just program the monster of loneliness into extinction.

And to read The Diary is also to understand a kind of privilege inherent in “I don’t want to die alone”–type announcements. We live our lives, most of us at least, with the blessings of aloneness: we can walk alone; we can think alone; we can read and write alone. And then we have the privilege of being able to end this privacy and seek the pleasures of company. To be fully human is to enjoy the differences between public and private spaces — between social modes and solitary ones. Anne’s confinement makes her pine not for the girl she once was, who had “five admirers on every street corner” (p. 171), but rather for the pleasures of being alone in an open space, for a solitary walk under the gray skies of Holland.

Last Sunday evening I walked from my apartment, where I live alone, to a housewarming party that some friends of mine were hosting. A completely unremarkable journey and yet to walk even a moderate distance (three miles in this case) is to pass through an evocative gallery of human activity. Unlike a car trip, a long walk gives us time to stitch together the variety of spaces through which we travel. (Train trips are often romanticized using similar reasoning. The late Tony Judt, for example, wrote beautifully and urgently about the glories of rail travel.)

And what of my unremarkable trip? What particularities did I notice as I moved through the world in the course of an hour’s walk? About ten minutes into my walk, I stopped at a home-furnishings store to buy a gift card for the new homeowners. The store’s perfumed candle-smells lingered in my nose long after I had exited. Later, I passed two different dance studios. In the first, a ball-room class — music-less for me as I watched for a moment from the street. Behind the glass wall, a dozen or so older couples waltzing, or almost waltzing, or merely linked in a vaguely dance-like embrace, smiling and moving their knees slightly, the actual motion of the dance, I’d like to think, happening perfectly somewhere in their imaginations. In the second studio, a girl in black tights, alone. A portable, 80s-style boom box was balanced on a folding metal chair. The girl pushed a button on the tape deck and started moving. She danced awkwardly but with a focused determination.

Earlier in my walk, I had passed a woman whom I had seen many times before: a short, heavy, Black woman with an abnormally childlike, squeaky voice. She seemed to own only one outfit: purple nursing scrubs. She’d ask me for change and I would seldom give it — for no good reason other than I was put off by her manner, the oddity of her voice. But on this Sunday evening, she stood — almost frozen really, an empty Styrofoam coffee cup in her hands — outside a Mexican restaurant. She was dressed in jeans and a blue top — her nursing costume had been replaced. The woman’s back was to me and I didn’t hear her voice as I walked by.

I was the first to arrive at the party — a disappointment, as I had managed, during the span of my journey, a daydream about my solitary walk being broken by the comforting noises of a party in full swing. Nevertheless the new house was beautiful and eventually filled up with friends and strangers and children, the younger children running around with stuffed pandas, while the slightly older ones argued about Phineas and Ferb and threatened to investigate patches of the new house from which they had been prohibited. What more could a man who lives alone desire? By the end, I sat exhausted on the cavernous white sofa and contented myself with blood-orange lemonade and the feeling that, because I had walked there, my own residence was now, in some perhaps insignificant but nevertheless organic way, connected to Jake and Sam’s new house.

What Anne longed for at the end of her lonelyalone sentence was, quite simply, absolutely everything: “the sky, nature and God.” There’s not much to imagine that isn’t under the aegis of one of those three categories. In syntactical terms, this everything becomes the way Anne balances the three words of desperation that occupy her first clause: “frightened, lonely, or unhappy.” After nearly 16 months of confinement with seven other people, the desire for a solitary observation of the world’s variety had taken root in Anne’s imagination. And more than 60 years after that confinement, the statement of a frustrated, energetic, petty, and thoughtful teenage girl can still be read as a powerful affirmation of the world that awaits us, for better and for worse, just beyond our doorsteps.


Ambiguous Rapture: Saint Cecilia at the Norton Simon

11 Feb

Entrance to the Norton Simon

WiP has been working on an essay about Guido Reni’s Saint Cecilia, a painting which can be found at the Norton Simon museum. As the essay came about specifically because of numerous walking trips to the Simon, it seems appropriate to post at least the first two sections of the piece. The essay is still very much under construction; it’s a slow hike, but it’s moving forward resolutely.

Local Masterpieces

I’ve walked to the Norton Simon museum to read and drink a beer and spend a few minutes with Saint Cecilia, the early Baroque masterpiece by the Bolognese artist Guido Reni. The Norton Simon is of course flush with the usual suspects — van Gogh, Degas, Rembrandt, Picasso — artists that are, in a way, part of our general landscape. We know their works from textbooks and restaurant walls, from college campus print sales, from and, from screensavers and stickers and fridge magnets.

But suddenly there it is, up on a wall in front of you, an arm’s reach away, the shock of the actual. You could blindfold the guard; you could add the oils from your fingertips to the oils of the painting. If we’re lucky, we react to this punch of the thing-itself by rising to the challenge. We set aside, for a blessedly calm moment, the cacophonies of our own lives. We concentrate until we’re able to see through the scrim of the artist’s commodified packaging — until we can stand alone with the artist’s creation to discover a familiar masterpiece anew.

Sadly, I’m not usually that lucky. Usually a childish mantra repeats idiotically in my head — a van Gogh, a van Gogh, an actual van Gogh — and I walk away with a vapid feeling of accomplishment (another ballerina statuette by Degas — check); and my heart on these occasions, I’m sorry to admit, remains firmly unmoved and no more the wiser.

However, to claim now that Saint Cecilia’s power over me derives primarily from my previous ignorance of its existence would only complete the second half of a particularly shallow equation: familiar is boring; new is good. To follow this equation is to imagine a museum patron puppy–dog, sniffing out every new art-bone or -dropping, licking its surfaces, moving on happily, the universe reduced to one question only: what’s next? Certainly, Saint Cecilia was a thing that I noticed immediately, a new thing over which my eyes enjoyed lingering. But quickly an inverse proportion took shape, a proportion familiar to any fan or scholar: as the newness wore off, my interest only intensified.

For me, Reni’s creation offers glimpses of a distinct yet uncatchable presence underneath the artist’s meticulous mixtures of linseed and turpentine, a presence conjured mysteriously by nothing more mysterious than materials and technique. And so I keep coming back to Saint Cecilia — on every visit to the Norton Simon, without fail. Not a friend exactly — the anthropomorphism feels too sentimental a description — but Reni’s painting does manage to move me consistently and complexly and that’s hardly a small thing either in this world.

Saint Cecilia (1606), by Guido Reni



How to adequately describe Cecilia’s red dress, both its color and fabric sumptuous yet somehow also completely devoid of ostentation? Are we to live, marooned, on an island of adjectives? Would it help to mention the diaphanous band of fabric cinched loosely above the saint’s waist? And the varying shades of gold that unite the painting — how exactly to reassemble them here on the page with any sense of satisfaction? I could begin above the painting’s focal point — the saint’s eye’s, that ambiguous, arresting look on her face — where we would find a gold-embroidered headscarf with golden tassels. The relative brightness of these golds echoes the faint halo that disappears in all but the most pristine of reproductions. Further down, the gold trim of a chemise modestly negates any possibility of cleavage. (We needn’t know one word of the saint’s legend to guess at Cecilia’s chastity.) And in the lower half of the picture we discover that our heavenly golds have come under the influence of brown: Find the scarf wrapped around the white ruffled sleeve that covers Cecilia’s left arm; notice the light yellowing the wood of the violin. These lower-half golds are darker and more subdued — golds of the earth and of the natural, mortal world.

We might pause then for a moment to note the violin’s peculiar position. Is Cecilia merely about to begin playing or is there something more ritualistic in the strange angle of her fiddle and bow? Is she making to the Lord an offering of her instrument? Or perhaps there’s even a third possibility (or at least a third possibility): Please, God, take this gift of yours away. I’ve had enough, thank you very much. It’s an ambiguity that mirrors the ambiguity of Cecilia’s rapturous gaze, just as the violin’s position of dominance in the bottom half of the frame reflects the overall dominance of the saint’s heaven-locked eyes.

And if ambiguity can be seen as a kind of positive multiplicity — an accretion of possible meanings that work together to express the mysterious complexity of being — then Reni’s brushwork itself could be said to travel an ambiguous, branching pathway. The halo’s perfect arc, as if compass-drawn, is a gesture toward an ideal, heavenly form. But this purity of line contrasts with the majority of the painting’s style. Reni’s brush strokes often provide crisp edges and meticulous detailing to the painting’s objects and yet always manage to maintain an overall flowing and entirely organic feel. Cecilia’s headdress, for example, exhibits, in addition to its delicate tassel work, the meticulous gold leaf details that are visible most clearly above the saint’s forehead, a last mortal stop between Cecilia’s gaze and the heavens. And yet, overall, the headdress is a twisting, almost living presence. It begins wrapped around Cecilia’s hair in a practical, workaday way — unfussy and modest. Does it disappear then just beyond Cecilia’s right eye only to reappear in a more somber-colored gold? Or is the scarf wrapped around the saint’s left arm a separate piece of accessorizing? In either case, the carefully constructed diagonal from right brow to left shoulder links the point of disappearance and the point of reemergence and allows a viewer to easily imagine the unseen line of fabric. This linkage heightens the organic quality of the headdress/scarf, which comes to rest finally by winding itself around Cecilia’s arm — a kind of pet serpent, tamed, perhaps even neutered, and yet still a serpent nonetheless. Even for a saint, temptation can never be fully extinguished. (Though whether Reni meant this winding scarf as a full-throated allusion, I’m not sure. Perhaps the painter was purposely riffing on images of The Fall that he had seen. After all, Eve’s left side is often illustrated as the side nearest to temptation: she picks the apple with her left hand; nearby, also to Eve’s left, the serpent hovers. But other paintings arrange the biblical scene differently — including Reni’s own Adam and Eve in Paradise, painted more than a decade after Saint Cecilia — and so it seems more appropriate to say that Reni was an artist of his time and, as such, must have absorbed the Genesis story deeply and through a variety of sources. This absorption then expresses itself — purposely or not — as Reni works on Saint Cecilia.)

And finally — finally being an operative word now — it seems necessary to mention the rich black nothingness that fills nearly half the canvas — not quite a warning this black, but certainly at least a reminder. Only the shadowy form of a pipe organ — a symbol of the recently uncatholicized Catholic Church — interrupts the background black. (To perceive a Catholic painting from the Baroque and Counter-Reformation eras involves an appreciation of the fiercely propagandistic framework under which the Church expected all of its artists to operate.) This uniformly black background was indeed common in Baroque portraiture, but Reni’s reminding-darkness achieves a more intense metaphorical power by insinuating itself into the material world of the painting: the bow’s strings blacken; the violin’s f-cut sound openings offer a glimpse of the instrument’s interior lightlessness; the instrument’s leather “comfort” strap becomes a snug curve of darkness around Cecilia’s left shoulder. And though, upon close inspection, the diaphanous band of fabric above Cecilia’s waist as well as the neck ribbon supporting a gold broach are actually a lively blue, this color proves to be yet another shifting ambiguity of the painting. Viewed at a distance of more than six or seven feet, the overwhelming blackness of the background subsumes the blue until all that remains is a subtle, dark shimmering. At even this modest distance, our finally washes in from its eternal void to occupy the diaphanous belt and the broach’s neck ribbon, which, along with various shadows and dark folds, work to balance out the gold costuming accents and give shape and meaning — both historical and figurative — to Cecilia’s clothing.

For me, the world of ekphrasis is a clumsy but loving world — loving in the way that a portion of love is a fine regarding, a close attention. Ekphrasis is the all-too-human attempt to transcribe visual into linguistic — which, in its wider sense, is what we always do with language. We subject the world to our description of it (to paraphrase nearly every philosopher who’s ever lived). But here in the stricter sense of the term — in the sense of an “intense pictorial description of … [an] art-object,” as The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory defines it — ekphrasis contains more than a measure of the devotional within it. And what, after all — think again of love, think again of faith — inspires devotion if not a mystery, an ambiguity, a presence that we feel keenly — distinctly and clearly even — and yet so often, time after time, stumble to explain?