These Are Hard Times to Fall in Love

Lesley Jenike

“In the same way that Hegel, after seeing Napoleon riding through Jena, wrote that it was as if he saw the World Spirit riding on a horse, you are nothing less than the critical awareness of us all, sitting in prison.”

           — Slavoj Žižek to Nadezhda Tolokonnikova

It’s really a matter of seeing differently, isn’t it? During his lecture at a small Midwestern art school, the visiting New York Times art critic said once, on his walk home from work through a Latino neighborhood in the Bronx, he happened upon a woman standing mesmerized by a plastic — or was it plaster, he wasn’t sure — statue of the Virgin in someone’s tiny plot of grass for a front lawn. You know, a typical Virgin. He watched the woman’s mouth move but he couldn’t hear what she was saying; he only knew she smiled when she turned and walked away. So he stopped at the same house after the woman had gone and looked at the same Virgin. She was as you remember her: head cocked slightly downward, the bent arms’ invitation subtle, number of folds in her robes indivisible by any other number. She will not meet your gaze. It’s almost as if she both loves and is ashamed of you, as it is with so many mothers. The New York Times art critic knew that, because the woman before him had taken the time to stop and look, and because he had taken the time to stop and look, they’d both, perhaps unknowingly, deemed the Virgin art. He was, at the time, bewildered by the idea that someone’s yard decoration, a factory-made hearth goddess, hollow on the inside, could be art. To be fair, everyone needs parameters, but in his mind, the New York Times art critic had drawn a widening spell around the world of objects. Would there ever be an end to all this art? The question terrified him.

It was a few days before the lecture when a student in my poetry class said to me, You can go outside, see something, and know for sure someone else has already seen the same thing. I liked the idea, even though it hurt to think about. But it’s really a matter of seeing differently, I said. Then, in the car on the way home from campus, I thought about the unexpected profundity of his language: outside, and something, and someone else. The usual smudge of street and buildings and people I passed became everything as something and outside as something to be aspire to, as if we are all inescapably inside. Think about it: we both enter a garden. You see the coxcomb. I see the coxcomb. Who saw it first doesn’t matter. We are one in the coxcomb (in Swahili mfungu). Hegel saw Napoleon ride into town on his horse Marengo simultaneous to others seeing him, or maybe even later than others saw, since Napoleon’s mother, I would imagine, saw Napoleon first. What matters is the seeing. A man, a horse: these are things outside, someone else, everything.

Even now, alone in her Siberian prison cell, Nadya Tolonko thinks, in pleasure, of the figure of a horse in a pasture. The pasture is green. It is summer. The horse grazes and, above it, a flying bittern just out of its marsh swells in air. She thinks about the woman (for it’s been scientifically proven now that it was a woman) who painted with her hands — or a snapped, burnt limb — the contours of a horse’s neck thousands of years ago on a cave wall. Nadya closes her eyes and sees her little girl. Nadya closes her eyes and sees horses. I close my eyes and see horses. We’re seeing horses together, Nadya, and everywhere now as I open my eyes are worlds and spirits and horses. They are outside and everything. The rest, in their prisons, can keep.

about the author
prev
next