[-empyre-] thinking about Shani
alafarge at uci.edu
Sun Feb 10 03:40:24 EST 2013
Thank you for introducing us in this continuing conversation. I realized, shortly after agreeing to co-host a week on this forum, that I really have no idea how to ‘do’ public mourning. All the deaths in my life up to this point have either been essentially private, or have stood at a certain psychic distance, so that engaging with their passing through standard rituals was sufficient even if painful. With Shani it is different, since she was a friend and now I am to write about her publicly in the newness and confusions of grief. I have been very moved by what has been shared by everyone else so far, in such kindness and clarity. But what I am most aware of as I read these postings—as we slowly, through her words and ours, collect or assemble a shared Shani—is how much of the Shani I knew remains outside the picture. I had lunch the other day with two of Shani’s other west coast friends, and it was a long afternoon of loving and frank recollections that ranged from the value of her work to the difficulty of her personality and back. I cannot have that conversation here, so I am trying to stumble my way to the conversation I can have. One thing I do know is that I am unable to talk about “the work” apart from “the person”, because they are not separate in my own mind.
I have been thinking, too, about how Robert mentioned that he now has access to Shani’s private documents and has been trying to walk a line between what could be made public and what shouldn’t, with Shani’s voice in his ear (what would she have wanted?). The extent and completeness of these kinds of documentation of a life is a phenomenon of the digital age. In helping to disassemble people’s houses after death, I have always found it especially jarring to come across things I sent them: long-forgotten letters, a favorite book. And there was always the sense of enormous burden and promise in the left-behind troves of a life’s work, boxes of papers or a studio full of paintings. But it was always somewhat fragmentary, and with respect to correspondence, missing half the context. Now there are terabytes upon terabytes of research projects in every possible digitized medium, and both sides of every correspondence, all in one place. There is an instant archive. I do not grudge Robert this close-up view of Shani’s life and work—in a way it seems like her last gift to him—but I am aware of this archive now as I never was before, as a kind of Aladdin’s cave, tempting me to think that the treasure and mystery of Shani is there, somewhere, rather than, say, in our memories and thoughts. I’m thinking here of Claire and Robert’s exchange on the idea of a “lens”, a mediated or filtered looking-at, and how with Shani’s removal from the world, what were secondary documents are now de facto primary, and we are tasked with filtering the already filtered. Do we get closer or further away in the process? Robert still has that vivid sense-memory of the slow walk-dance it took to help Shani cross a room towards the end, and the sheer physicality of that is in startling contrast to the rest.
I have also been thinking about how we all see Shani as a heroic figure, someone brave, unflinching, uncomplaining of her unluck (for the most part), indomitable, and the more admirable because she went forward gracefully and even, strange to say, at times made it look easier than it could ever possibly have been. And what does it mean to be heroic, exactly? One of the major archetype of the heroic in western culture is Hercules, one of several ancient heroes to make a descent into the underworld, the realm of Hades and thus of death and dreams. As the Jungian psychologist James Hillman writes, Hercules runs fruitlessly amok in the underworld because he sees himself as the enemy of death and strives to conquer it. In that realm, the relentless activity that is fruitful and lauded in the upperworld—the world of good work, the world where the ego and its actions are celebrated—is pathological since death cannot be conquered. For the hero to reach initiation into the great mysteries, he or she must go down to the underworld to learn from it, and bring what is learned back, as for example Ulysses and Aeneas both did, in contrast to Hercules. I am writing this because, if Shani was on a hero’s journey, I think it was one that changed in the time I knew her. I see her great efforts to externalize herself through her work—to seize the moment, to make art while she could, to travel, to become known—as the campaign of the hero who is the enemy of death, putting all her energy into beating it on every front. And what I see in those last years and projects is the record of her late initiation, the deliberate facing up to death—her own imminent death—and then the returning of that knowledge to us. In this last stage, I think she was energized by the fact that she could understand it even if she could not conquer it, and that she could find a way to bring us a little way along her path, and it is in this that I see the generosity of her nature—sometimes lacking in daily life—reach a full and shining expression.
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