Ya. A. Yu.
You know, I discovered an answer this April to the question, “What’s arts & culture good for?” A practical one. Survival. Seems to me, every person has their doubts and trails of thought; in any case I often do, yes, quite often – that all these St. Petersburgs of the spirit, these Romes of the flesh, are needed no longer for anybody but the humanities students, to have their disparagement be varied and prolonged.
I’m talking to you here. Alyosha! It’s shaping up! I couldn’t call forth any of this for the whole of the last six months. These last six months, I was totally empty.
I lived in a feather pillow, deep inside it. For six months straight. (There’s some mysticism even in lengths of time!) And so I lived there, within. Separating me and the world, me and myself, was a mass of disheveled feathers. The chicken sort! I became a chicken myself. Fit for noodle soup. Didn’t want anything else. Didn’t want anything. The concept of want didn’t exist.
Yet you kept calling. You thought it remained? And kept showing up under my window; oh, it was touching. And every time I peeked past a curtain edge, inconspicuously I’m sure, your flashlight blinked in my direction… But then it all blended into my apathy.
But I was talking about world culture. Alyosha, it saved me. You can’t even imagine how pervasive it is, London is dripping with it. And really, what else is it for?
Londoners in April, down to the very last one, are clad in white, pink and light blue. They believe it to be summer already. That, in April, these childlike pastels best fit their grey Victorian houses and red (Elizabethan, yes?) omnibuses. And they’re absolutely right. They also have exclusively red telephone booths and exclusively red mailboxes. Don’t smirk, that’s not world culture yet, but, you know, it’s getting there. Draped in grey, the city of tight street-canyons—marked up by red, dot-like hyphen-omnibuses—constantly sends you messages. An urbanistic Solaris, if you will. Only, please, don’t ask me: “and what’s it all about?” Alyosha, you never change.
My parents had sent me to London. I want you to know this. They gave me everything they’d saved up for their own vacation.
I’m not straining my words. But if I come down, as you once described it, to honesty, then I’d begin here: how wonderful, fantastic, well-bred—though not gently born, no point denying this, but well-bred—they are. Mother has such a proper Greek profile, such light skin – a gem! She had a Czech great-grandfather. And, legend has it, a great-great-grandmother from a royal Georgian family. Father’s side is even more interesting: a Jewish mother and half-German-quarter-Dutch father (we shed Jungers and became Jurkins) from my grandfather’s communistic zeal: during the Spanish war, when all the fascists supported Francoist rule, he rejected being German, and this foresightful step saved his whole family from getting sent to Siberia – a couple of years later, during World War II). That’s where father, and consequently I, got his cornflower-blue eyes and black wavy locks (to this day fighting off grey). I have a feeling female lab assistants still fall in love with him. And what great big hands he has, artistic, alive – probably traced back to some violinist great-great-grandfather!.. In my first childhood, these hands would adeptly extract three ping-pong balls out of his mouth. Not one, but three. And with equal skill, they would conjure my childhood fantasies – by the light of a red lamp in a dark room, forth from the water, rising up out of smooth blank pages. I was long convinced that this was a magic trick akin to the one with the balls. I would bring him a piece of paper, “Make me.” This would entertain guests endlessly when they happened to witness it. Slurred voices would try to explain to me, “He’s already made you!” I wasn’t one to argue, so I’d plead, “Then make mama… Please?” Guests would double over. I’d hide my head in father’s lap, my head fitting under his two palms. Protected so, I wasn’t scared of anything. Alyosha, I remember it so clearly!
And so! London city – the capital of Great Britain.
The island kingdom, the motherland of all that is ghostly.
Ah, to be a ghost in London. What a godsend. You stroll, explore, wander, get lost. Disappear into one passage and suddenly discover yourself in another, entirely different. I was sent to visit a friend of my father’s, who would sit at his trade mission post for days on end. He’d compensate for this come evening: taking pictures of me in front of the Tower, in front of the Buckingham gates, on the bridge over the River Thames, along with Parliament and the Big Ben. I was convinced: I would not come through on these photos. Ghosts don’t appear in reflections.
And the Parthenon ruins in the British museum – they are, after all, too ruined; they do not collect, do not build, but conversely bring you apart into a million pieces. And these deceased kings, queens, princes, carriers of royal blood, resting calmly in their sarcophagi – Westminster Abbey is full of them – well, it’s not really them, of course, but their copies – marble or wooden, but painted so naively, so realistically. You walk around, tripping over the corners of centuries that hold fast. Corners, more corners – until you’re all cornered out. They matter, but you – you are a ghost once more. You know, how real their Elizabeth I is? Profile like an eagle with a stare so imperious, so sharp, piercing despite closed eyelids. And in the chapel opposite her (could it be by chance?) Mary, Queen of Scots, snow marble, wise, ovine… She, who wrote at the age of 17, being only 17:
Car mon pis et mon mieux
(Since the best and worst in me are the places most deserted.)
As in me, darling Alyosha; in me as well!
I think there was something unspoken gathering in these few days, almost like it dictated the mood. The incompleteness of works of art became a prominent theme. The wheels in my brain were turning, after all.
Listen here! This is important. Unfinished ‘20s Turner is akin to the finished piece of the ‘40s. Then that means that he simply wasn’t ready for the revelation that is impressionism in the ‘20s. What about unfinished Degas? His “Combing the Hair” is a giant flaming-orange canvas covering half a wall! Because the lengthy hair of the heroine sets ablaze everything around her. Picasso would’ve counted that an utterly finished work! It’s a genius painting. A senior man admiring it next to me—dressed shabbily, clearly a painter himself—was practically in an ecstatic trance. He tugged at his grey hair. Retreated, came back. Became totally still. Pressed his thin fingers to his temples. An elegant senior lady, likely the wife, joined him from a neighboring room. But he just gave a tight shake of his head; when she left, he was transfixed once more, carried away by the orange flame, once again thoroughly confused by it: how, but how was this made?
You see? Everything that’s deemed unfinished by the previous century (or even decade) – blurry outlines, uncharted themes, the story submerged in light vibrations – and our story too, darling Alyosha, that’s what I’m getting at after all, only seems incomplete.
You just need the right distance. And, of course, a new mythology. Yes, I believe you must always be changing something within yourself. To survive. Culture-shmulture survives precisely by such means.
I just realized the mystical power of the anniversary! If people have spent a full year together (or nearly a full year, no matter), then they’ve already been through it all. Through winter. With kisses in the teeth-chattering cold. How else would they learn that first to frost over are the tips of his mustache, then her fringe, then his cowlick, and finally both sets of eyelashes freeze stuck?.. And what about spring? No beginning, no edge… That first night, you had said that it will only get better and better for us. I didn’t believe you: there wasn’t room for better! And yet, you were right. Better, better, and yet better. We’ve peaked, darling Alyosha! We had our best! We went about, like drunk gods. Equal only to each other. And all around us was aflutter, fluttering along us: gods – we projected it in every move! – and icicles formed atop your balcony, for a whole month, defying all weather logic; and swallows began to nest atop mine, for the first time ever. And when you dozed off at the computer, I’d make you coffee and it would runneth over – after all, I was standing by it, and so it overflowed, like I could not be contained by my physical vessel. And how true—captured not by concrete, city life, picnics—was our summer! Ten whole days at the cottage! Max let us use his place; well, not his place, but the cottage of a former stepfather – which meant we agreed to weeding a spacious third of an acre. We didn’t manage it. But it was a cottage, something I’d never had growing up! And it was ours! Guarded by a tall fence and locked all ten days: gods are not meant to be impeded in their will in any way. Green grasshoppers sitting on the path, in a single leap would disappear into the grass. And buttercups among the flora, injured, cut down, cast aside by the lawnmower for the umpteenth time, would flower immediately, three centimeters from the ground. Standing proud on their short stems, holding ground, mistakenly thinking they’re crucial, rather than silly. And we read them Barthes’ A Lovers’ Discourse: Fragments, from whatever page we happened to turn to. Speech would loop, mixing with breath – the pages told a story much too relatable. And to the buttercups, too. Hornets would clutch them, drawn to them. And they’d fall over to the ground, together, on a stem barely three centimeters long – a very amusing sight. And we’d proclaim and promise each other that our first communal purchase would be a video camera. No, but first a dog. “Dachshund.” “No, English Setter!” “But, dachshund!” “But! Setter!” “Dachshund is basically a setter, just having lived under a couch.” We stumble onto a whole colony of baby frogs on our stroll by the pond! All of a sudden, they decide that right then is the perfect time to cross the asphalt path. A relocation of nations. I tiptoe. Complete attention there, below, at tips of my feet. I know that, of course, statistically, they’re meant to die – precisely in the volume they come. But spare me from being the cause of their death! I patter along. You, on the other hand, take four leaps – as if across a gaping void. You slip. “Killer! They dead?” You’re already on the ground, you’re in pain, rubbing the back of your foot: “Yanka, go home!”1 (You had no worst curse). A banana peel underfoot. But in your eyes – your puppy fear, the one I’m so fond of: is she mad? You know, when you appear in my dreams now – half a year completely without dreams, none! – that’s the look you give me.
Then came autumn. And I loved it so, to whisper to your plants (well, they were your landlord’s), as if secret from you: “There’s a seed within me too. And it’s growing! Don’t believe me? Really-truly! It’s a winter one!” To then see the corner of a smile and know, you’re here, not fully focused on your computer. You really got it confused. You got us both confused. And now you had to be responsible for the both of us. And the balloons you started bringing home instead of flowers – a couple of small ones inside a big one – how delightful it was, Alyosha! (Super-duper! Thank you for everything!) And how I suddenly understood about father’s childhood magic tricks – about toys appearing out of his mouth, about my appearing on a blank piece of paper – about the wonder of existence out of nothing, out of darkness, out of emptiness – and this wonder was now within me, throughout me, it was me…
There. And now for our nineteenth lecture, as Professor Verevochkin liked to say, a new theme develops. Let’s chart it from the abstract.
The theme of authenticity. Why, to evoke catharsis, Globe Theatre mustn’t be authentic, but a painting of van Eyck does?
First of all, Globe Theatre has undergone restoration; and, second of all, it wasn’t even restored on the same ground that it stood during the times of Shakespeare (though nearby), white, round, raised above the stairs behind the black gates and so untouchable – and yet, I’d felt compelled to reach out and lay my palms on it, the way one presses into saints, to the Kaaba, to the Wailing Wall – but what of it, what could I ask of it? To “revert” to Juliet? I sat on the parapet. Thames murmuring behind me. The sun (April’s the sunniest English month, you know) hiding behind cranes and skyscrapers-in-the-making on that other coast, the main one, and casting this one in watercolor. It was white no longer, Globe Theatre but all shades of pastel yellows, pinks, purples. Warm, totally submerged in reflexes – it was reflexive, and that’s what made authentic. And everything that’s authentic has this magical quality that attracts you to it – all of you, no hesitation. And I was suddenly caught up in remembering Verevochkin’s introductory lecture to Shakespeare, delivered on this very spot. About fate, which Shakespeare writes as universal to all, his heroes aren’t singled out to face the spotlight, each is connected to the rest by the common fate – precisely because it all arises from the very same stream. Romeo and Juliette were fated to death from the start because they arose from two families, reciprocating hate… I’m simplifying, grossly so. This transcendental stream, in Shakespeare’s world, takes its roots not in humanity, but in the tragic fashioning of the entire world, the entire universe – it only surfaces in the human world. Darling Alyosha, this is crucial. Another path leading back to us! Listen carefully. I can tell you now: we live in a different era; we have lost the pulse of the stream, we’ve even forgotten of the notion of the stream…
“A thought spoken aloud is a lie” and that’s all, folks, that’s all we need from it! The catastrophe of those living in the 21st century, unfortunately (or fortunately after all?), is dealing with simply this: connotation and denotation do not connect. Or better yet phrase: their double suicide (because it’s terrible living without the other!) Indeed the contemporary Romeo and Juliette, I realized standing there, quite suddenly. And all this is archetypal: grandmothers, grandfathers, bloodline, biological determinism – that’s why it resurfaces in me now – in the emptied universe! At the very least, I interpret my life in this manner.
I believe in myself, in my close ones, in my ancestors, doing all they could, so that I would exist – committing to all sorts of truths and untruths. One of my great-grandfathers would smuggle sugar from the sugar factory, two teaspoons a day, for my little grandmother, so that she wouldn’t become demented, and you know how? He would pour sugar on the inside of his jacket, then for appearances’ sake he’d shake the sugar off, but some would get stuck nonetheless. This bit (up to two small teaspoons a day) he’d shake out at home, onto a clean sheet of linen. I too want banal happiness, Alyosha – with healthy kids, a warm house, a Setter – yes, the necessities. My setter will have your eyes, and that will be enough!
Ah yes, I was talking about catharsis – by Thames, back turned to the setting sun. I cried for the first time in the past half a year, six months, 180 days without you. My chest suddenly flared up in such anguish. The soul, as it turns out, darling Alyosha, is what feels pain. And it was such a cool experience! I was a ghost no longer. Setter – my own cottage – his eyes yours, and I thought, you could also label this tragic – a mini tragedy of sorts, domesticated, trained. A cool tragedy – since the others are unreachable to us now – so that life wasn’t all chocolates and roses.
And so! Finally, we get around to what you don’t know about our autumn. What I have to spell out for you, like an ignorant child. Don’t count on it. I refuse to do it. Like you – no explanations – symmetrically.
When your sister came from Ryazan, I called you, but you weren’t home. But Valentina suddenly cried out into the phone. Your mother had had a drastic weight loss, “but I’m scared of giving her up, but it’s become impossible to keep her at home.” Valya came to Moscow to arrange a consultation, “but the people here are so hard-hearted, such shameless crooks everywhere…” I asked her, “What’s the deterioration caused by?” – “Brought on by menopause, her usual deviations got much worse! A month of depression, a month of mania (really! second syllable stressed, rather than first). In depression – she loses the will to eat, loses the will to live. In mania – she flies all around town, buys everything she lays her eyes on, drains her pension in a day, pays no attention to where she steps in ecstasy; last mania episode left her with a broken leg!”
This, darling Alyosha, is all verbatim. You can ask Valentina herself. Then I headed to the library and dug into various medical texts. Bipolar disorder is a standard psychiatric illness. Significantly more likely in women (70% of cases). Like all psychiatric illnesses, most cases are hereditary. Probability of genetic transmission reaches 80%.
When Valentina left, I asked you (on a call; probably should have done it in person, but I couldn’t wait), I asked you, “Why did she come here?” You said, “Well, she has her own matters to attend to.” “She sounded upset.” And you said, “You sure? No, can’t be. You’re imagining things.”
And you switched to talking about how you’d developed an awesome database. And if they pay you on time, November festivities can be spent “as you wished,” escape to St. Petersburg. I asked, “What about helping out your mother?” You replied, “Yes, of course, she’s on disabilities after all.” Set! I probed on, “Oh, what grade?” I know your voice so well, Alyosha. It had always been like mine – light, sensitive, prodded a bit and it’ll jump… Yet here you became defensive, “Second… maybe third? I don’t recall!” – and without any transition – “What’s going on with our art house films? Jagter… no, what’s his name?” “Jarmusch, his name is Jarmusch. I already have the tape!”
Incredible, that this was all in the span of a week: my whispers to the begonias, yours-but-not-really, conversation with Valentina, and the culmination of it all (The Mousetrap) – your proposal. Hadn’t I told you, you needn’t come, just wait a while. And not only did you come, like an idiot, in a three-piece suit, carrying white roses, and a 2kg cake to boot! Mother, shocked senseless, went and got her little black dress on, so clashing at home that even a pearl necklace couldn’t salvage the situation! Father mulled it over a bit too, and dressed up in allegedly best (but really his only) gray suit and indeed his fanciest tie. Praise the gods, Grandma took one look at all this and hid away. She would say later, “Everyone was so well-dressed. I didn’t have anything like it!” Best scene of my life, Alyosha. Disposition. Mother already knows everything, she’s on my side. Her hand nervously moving the fake pearls about like on an abacus. Father’s completely happy, since he loves everyone who loves me, and clueless as to the rest. Grandma’s looming in the doorway, just-about falling, like in those sitcoms. I’m in my usual jean outfit. I love you, hate you, pity you, feel contempt for the lies, die without you, die staying by you… In the meantime, Father’s saying that personally he will, yes, undoubtedly, be happy. Mother steps on his foot under the table. The sudden pain causes him to knock over a plate, plate – glass, and red wine stains the tablecloth… I chime in, “A bad omen! Right, Ma?” And mother steps in. She says that, turns out (she just learned this today!), this year is deemed particularly unlucky by the Japanese horoscope for taking vows and it would be make good sense to wait (after all, it’s just a few months away). You look at me, my human setter. Tell them, your gaze pleads, tell them about the seed that’s taken root in you. Don’t they have a clue? Well, mother knows. But her and I are of one mind: four weeks isn’t serious, god knows what may happen?! Cake’s not even eaten. Father (reflexively?) challenges you to a game of chess. Something happens with your suit. It becomes clear to everyone in the room that it’s borrowed. It sinks into your shoulders – you shrink into it? I suddenly get up, and I say, mother’s right, and anyhow I’ve got an idea – to test our feelings with some time apart, if Alyosha doesn’t object, of course. Alyosha doesn’t object. Alyosha stands, mute. Alyosha seems to remember about the game. He moves his knight. He says, “But maybe, you know… that’s just… the way your toxicosis comes through?” Father has no moves left. He slaps his hand against the drying spot, like a child in a puddle. Sitcom! All that’s left is for the grandma with a temper of Georgian royalty to come in. Alas, all remain in their positions. Silence reigns. You, too, turn and leave in total silence. Father runs to open the door. Perhaps, give you a consoling word.
Your pleading eyes turn up at every step the next few days. All around the house. Even father’s portrait (Zverev’s work, no less) watches me with your eyes. Even the “O” of your name. Despair, your bottomless despair – and not the gracious offer of your hand and reckless flight-landing of your heart by mine – speaks, screams of your love. Such certainty for the first time in my life. And for several days, I truly don’t know: am I in the pits of hell, or on top of the world? I’m totally psyched, yeap.
And now we must return to the theme of authenticity. And to weave all the themes of our umpteenth lecture, as professor Verevochkin would advise us, together. I’m familiar with Van Eyck’s painting “Arnolfini Portrait” (National Gallery of London), you could say, since my toddler days. I was a fussy eater (breakfast oatmeal would be found, tucked away in my cheek, at lunch)… So, mother would feed me, while father would turn over album pages, like picture books. As it turns out, I preferred Klee, Miro (all in all, reasonable) and, for some reason, Flemish painters. And so, when the space of my inner ribcage—commonly known as a soul—would whine, shiver, tremble in front of van Eyck, I decided: by Judas, matters of beginnings and ends, coming together right here, right now, within me, from that breakfast oatmeal to this moment is framed by encounter, by this encounter… Later, when tears got in the way – not in the way of living; to the contrary, they contained within so much life, like rain – in the way of watching! – I had a thought: everything is much more banal, Mistress Arnolfini is pregnant, and that indicates a sore spot, pushed down, but I’m crying, so it must be sore… Because, you know, I began communicating with our sapling regularly after that visit to the library: I’d tell it – at bedtime, or on an empty stomach, or while eating – that it had been his, his own decision to claim this fate, that he needs to really listen to himself, and if his biology has no ambition, no drive, only the legacy of a Ryazan grandmother, then what good is it for us? What good does it serve him?
Maybe I would have had a miscarriage anyway, and my talking wouldn’t do a thing. How should I know? It had sprouted absurdly recently. Once the bloodletting had begun, it showed no signs of stopping. Mother checked me into a hospital where her acquaintance worked… The hospital was infested. Roaches, par for the course. But when I returned home, there was this spirit in the air, like when you’re a kid at a big parade – this encompassing sort of love. Mother made my favourite meat pie, covered me in kisses, saying, “And now we’re fine and dandy!” Grandma suddenly gave me a turquoise ring (family heirloom); and Father, as only my father can, first let me win a game of chess – it was tough going, he even fumbled with a few pieces for authenticity’s sake – and only afterwards hugged it out.
Although later I overheard their conversation. They were having dinner in the kitchen, watching a popular historic documentary, calmly assuming the TV drowned out their speech… Mother said, “Yanka’s a champ. Holding out so well after it all!” Father was listening to the host Parfenov; some soldiers ran off with equipment from another army base; he asked, mouth full of meat pie, “Huh? After what?” Mother said, “After that break of fates. I wouldn’t be able to handle such a thing.” Father finished chewing, “How is he doing? How’s Alyosha?” Voila, I remarked internally, male solidarity. “He’s a good kid. Though his family’s a bit simple. But a very good kid. I believe his luck will turn around.” Father stuffed another hefty piece of pie, speech became muffled. The gist was clear however – that you and I might still work things out. Mother interjected, “Don’t you know your child at all? The Jews and Arabs will sooner resolve their border conflict.” “What a delicious pie,” Father began saying (which meant, of course, that it was finished). “Clueless, yes, about my very own child. Thought I knew her. I was wrong. Indeed. Do we have anything else tasty?”
Well. It’s not like I was expecting deep reveries… But it’s just, it’s just… Oh well, no matter. They just wished, like all normal parents, that I stayed a child just a little longer. Parents are often like this. They look for your slammed doors and hot tears. Or, even better, that you hide your face right in their lap. So they could relate, stroke, soothe you.
How great was my story about that doctor, who I’d fallen love in with after two days in the ward? Come on, it was really something, no? Him a gynecologist, me his patient. I’m sorry, for it warped the truth, of course! But the story was crafted well. And you’ve got nothing to resent. It’s painful, sure, but nothing to hold against me, right? And most importantly – irreversibly, directly, instantaneously, like swinging an axe… at all that’s best and worst in me. In me! You’d lived on, visited, wandered, tormented yourself, fanned hope for some rekindling as you shone a flashlight at my window. And even when you began to drink your feelings, as Max relayed, you drank deep for two whole months, and still, that didn’t kill or burn down or shrivel anything inside you. Remember, our last day at the cottage, when we were fortune-telling on Barthes, and you got “In spite of everything, the subject insists on love”? That stayed with you, didn’t it; innocence untouched, unharmed, wasn’t it?
As for me – we couldn’t figure it out then, how this happened – but a chapter of the gift of crying had been turned over – now do you get it? – in the 12th century, one monk had embarked to a monastery in Brabant to obtain this gift of crying via the local monks’ prayers.
So. Now again for van Eyck’s painting. For the ‘me’ in the painting. Listen up!
We were told, by the (paid!) faculty on arts history, that the Arnolfini couple, supposedly, only projects an image of good fortune. The message in the painting is such that the house had come into disharmony. This is evidenced by the two pairs of shoes – one in the foreground, one in the back. These messily set pairs (the former toes together, the latter toes apart) teacher-lady happily highlighted with her red laser. Contemporaries of van Eyck, she went on, cracked the painting’s meaning readily: after all, Flemish traditions insist on shoes should be placed parallel.
Well, darling Alyosha, the sign by the painting (and I have no reason not to believe it) tells us a different story: Arnolfini couple welcomes guests. See! But there are no guests depicted in the painting. Even at no distance at all, they’re barely visible. The painting is, after all, fairly small. But the guests, the guests, as it turns out, are reflected in the mirror – in the small round mirror hanging on the back wall – two vague silhouettes. And there’s a Latin inscription, just above the mirror, penned in the pastel wall. And the inscription reads: “Johannes van Eyck was here / 1434”. Imagine that! You’re looking in the mirror and in the tiny, barely visible figure, you draw him out. He was here, he is here. But now you’re standing in front the very same mirror. And so, it is additionally your reflection. It’s opposite of the “ghosts don’t reflect in mirrors” rule. Instead: he was here, I am here. Such as I am. Here, now. Coming from the stream of year 2002. Yana Alexandrovna Jurkina, or Begicheva on my mother’s side. Junger by historical accuracy. Wishing for more fulfilling work (father’s London friend had promised to call their other friend in Moscow!), for a two-storey rural house, where we’d live as one big family: parents, both grandmothers, grandpa, my husband and I, our kids, and naturally, a setter with your eyes – responsible for all of them, together, individually, right now, for always. And you, I ask of you that you get a Siamese cat with cornflower-blue eyes and—go right ahead, I won’t stand in your way—name her Yana. And when she inevitably strays too far, you will come out and call out to the whole neighbourhood, “Yanka! Go home!”1 And the meaning and the implication will be tragic, they won’t correspond. And yet the cat will understand. Only the cat. And only me.
1 This is a play on the phrase “Yankee, go home!” – switching Yankee out for “Yanka,” a nickname for “Yana,” the narrator.