The Underground Lady [Page Thirty-Nine]

A long familiarity with an illness gives one a pretty good sense of where one’s weaknesses lie, and also a pretty good idea of how the end will come.  A chronic illness—because it is the same illness progressing over time, with the same symptoms either deepening or expanding, branching out to undermine one’s health in every way—presents the sufferer with the same problems, the same obstacles, again and again.  For example, I have a long record of terrible infections in my ear canals and bronchia, one symptom of an underlying chronic condition.  And although my general health seems good today, when the underlying illness reaches a certain point, I am certain, I will die of pneumonia.  This may be years from now, decades even, and yet, I know.  Unlike most people, I know precisely how I will die.  This is a strange sort of knowledge, and it lends one a strange wisdom:  Do what you want and do it today, do it all, but don’t begin unduly long projects, and say what you mean to say without hesitation.  For the healthy, this is noise.

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In some very poor communities, especially where ethnic and religious ties are very strong, and where the community has remained relatively insulated from the world around it for a long time, strange practices persist, barely hinted at in public (largely because they have become general assumptions held by all), and hardly noticeable to the outsider except as a strange tendency or local tic.  For instance, it was common in one poor urban neighborhood where I lived for a while, for the residents to “borrow” each other’s cars without asking.  The keys were almost always left in the ignition, since the vehicles owned by the local inhabitants were brokedown, rattletrap machines that no thief would have given a second look.  People would simply get in and drive off, accomplish whatever errand they had to, and then return to the same spot, leaving the keys for the owner or the next casual user.  This would seem appalling to most middle class people, or impossible—and both these responses show a lot about them.

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The belief in the power of the larger, dominant culture to determine the substance, shape and tone of life, is limited.  In America and Europe, the dominant culture reflects itself back onto its believers through the mediatized mind, and with each repetition, and intensification, it retreats further into itself, further into a fantasy of absolute power that is more and more unreal.  One realizes this, upon finding oneself in the type of poor neighborhood mentioned above, where the residents are perfectly aware of the reaction that would be forthcoming from a non-participant in their culture.  Here, according to the desperately self-referential logic of the “majority,” everything is upside down, and a person who held the dominant mindset, nurtured and developed along strictly status quo lines, would feel lost—not threatened, simply, left alone.  Of course, such people are alone from the start.  They insist upon it.

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There was a place I used to go to with friends.  It was far out on the border of the city, beyond a line of factories no longer occupied, beside unused train tracks that had been overgrown and that ended in sparse woods.   Here there were leftovers of giant walls, made of masonry, half ton blocks, mostly torn down, with chunks the size of small boulders scattered on the ground.  Wires and the gnarled ends of rebar piping stuck out from the crooked sides of the standing pieces, cut-outs arranged in a vague pattern from which one could guess the shape of the former structure.  Some of these sections even had doors still in them which led through to the fields and forests.   We’d go there in the late afternoon, in summer, and run between the ruins, like the set of an ancient amphitheater, and everything would be yellow from the waning sun.  (Sometimes we’d smoke hash before we went, so the effect would be more convincing.)  And we’d call out each other’s names, and the echoes would call back to us.  This place is gone now, or rather it’s still where it always was, I’m certain, but I’ve moved on to another city, in another country, and I can’t remember exactly where it was.  I haven’t been there in a long time, and I forget the way, and I’m beginning to think that I dreamt it.

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The Underground Lady says, “The memory is a tricky thing.  We invest places with our emotions, and they haunt us like dreams.”  

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We should see the world as it is.  It is not human.  Robbe-Grillet is right when he talks about the description of a “village huddled in a valley”:

“Such a spectacle, for them [lovers of this type of prose], never remains entirely external.  It always implies, more or less, a gift received by man: the things around him are like the fairies in the tale, each of whom brought as a gift to the newborn child one of the traits of his future character.” **

Furthermore, he says, this represents an aspect of the superstition of fate, since these objects, imbued with human qualities, were there before me, and yet I encounter part of my essence in them, waiting for me.  And so it must be mine—the entire material universe—but also, at the same time, there is nothing I can change in it.  This is a teleology of things, the last link in a circle some close around themselves, and so cut themselves off entirely from the materiality of the real.

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Robbe-Grillet’s advice:

“We must work with the means at hand.  The sense of sight remains…our best weapon, especially if it keeps exclusively to outlines.  As for its ‘subjectivity’…how is its value diminished thereby? … The relative subjectivity of my sense of sight serves me precisely to define my situation in the world.  I simply keep myself from helping to make this situation a servitude.”  **

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** Alain Robbe-Grillet, For a New Novel (translated by Richard Howard).  Emphasis is the author’s.

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