family, London, meaning of life, screen, words

Now You See It

waiting for scorcio

In the state of happyanxious, a late lover for Roland Barthes, hide and seek, London, Something Wild, The Last Shadow Puppets, scorcio


       It’s supposed to be the most dispiriting time of the year – late January, early February: cold, wet, windy, with yards of winter still to plough through. And yet it might as well be spring.
 
So, what do you write about when you’re happy? With the content of Kaput relying on melancholy for fuel, a dose of the jollies is an interesting challenge. But not insurmountable.
 
Many years ago, on a weekend of perfect spring weather in Paris, the writer Samuel Beckett went walking with a friend. After a while, delighted with the beautiful morning, the friend said to Beckett, ‘Doesn’t a day like this make you glad to be alive?’ To which the author of Happy Days replied, ‘I wouldn’t go as far as that.’

Happy Days, the young male leads from the 70s TV show
oh Happy Days

Although plainly there is pleasure to be taken from blue skies, indeterminate grey feels more complex and human, and therefore more interesting. Maybe it is a lifetime of British weather talking, but if you’ve got an eye for the speck on the otherwise flawless horizon, probably best use it. 

With doleful currently out of circulation, let’s do anxiety instead.
 
A semi-imaginary scene from the past:
 
Roland Barthes
I do not know quoi

A man waits for his lover in a bar in mid 1970s Paris. The man is the writer and philosopher Roland Barthes. Despite his celebrated career as an intellectual, all those fine books and the near certainty of a place in the pantheon of eternal French thinkers awaiting, still Barthes worries as he waits anxiously ‘for an arrival, a return, a promised sign’. And he waits with ‘no sense of proportions’  This is key – proportion. With time on his hands, and only his head for company, the lone thinker rapidly ties himself in knots, creating a mini psychodrama of abandonment by his lover, the ‘loss of the loved object’, where the scenography induces ‘all the effects of minor mourning.’ 

Barthes’ psychodrama is personal, but also familiar to many. It’s early evening, the magic hour, and the writer rests his reading book on the cafe table in expectation of the lover’s imminent arrival. The wait is firstly mathematical, the checking of the watch. The second hand races up to, then past, the agreed time; and then inexorably circuits round again (like the sea, it never stops), pulling the minute hand away from the meeting time, making the lover definitively late. 

A Lover's Discourse by Roland Barthes
A Lover’s jacket

And the one who waits becomes cross with the one who still hasn’t arrived. ‘I decide to “take it badly”’, writes Barthes in A Lover’s Discourse, his collection of short speculative pieces on the ambiguities of passion and the self.

The next stage of waiting is wondering. Was there a misunderstanding of where and when? Could he/she be in a different cafe? Or is it me stupidly sat at the wrong meeting place?

Barthes could call his lover and ask. This is pre-mobile, so he’d need to get up and use the public phone booth. But often with Parisian cafes the booth is in the basement, and in this way Barthes risks missing the late arrival of the lover; who (following the law of sod) would arrive just after he ducked downstairs. And, finding no sign of Barthes, the lover might assume their date gave up waiting and left, probably in anger.

Cafe de Flore, Paris, exterior black and white photo
let’s play cafe society
But even if this story happened today, and just to prove this isn’t simply a historical problem, a mobile phone wouldn’t necessarily make things better for Barthes. Yes, he could quite easily get out his device and make a call. In calling, however, we’re also occupying the phone line, just when the date might be seeking to make contact with important news concerning the hold up. 
 
So, instead Barthes could text maybe. But then the text might seem tetchy; worse, needy; or cause crossness because the lover is rushing to get to the cafe, and one thing they don’t need is to stop and check their phone, simply to be reminded of the fact that they are late. Get that pressing text wrong, and you might as well read the last rites over your romantic get together. 
 
But let’s imagine that you disregard your own best advice (it’s been known to happen) and text anyway. And your message arrives to the lover’s phone just as they’re crossing the busy road down the street from the cafe. They must now reach inside their bag or pocket to retrieve the device, compelled but also reluctant to read what they assume to be an admonishing query, where are you? (The addition of a playful downface emoji fails to make the communication any lighter or forgiving). And in skimming the regrettable text, the lover fails to check for cars and they get knocked down (a presentiment of Bathes’ actual demise). And it’s all your fault. Now you’ve definitely reading your romantic rendezvous the last rites, and going home alone. 
 
Regardless of whether this is happening now, or the 1970s, your best practice is to keep the phone out of it. 
 
So you get angry instead, with ‘violent reproaches to the absent one: “All the same, she (he) could have…” “He (she) knows perfectly well…” Oh if she (he) could be here, so that I could reproach her (him) for not being here!’
 
From anger we ascend to the next stage of unease: she’s still not here; he’s never arriving: they finally came to their senses and found someone else; it is over. The pure anxiety of abandonment. The startling transition from the anticipation of a romantic meetup, to absence, death and an ‘explosion of grief’.  
A Parisian Cafe Terrace
Desertion reduces the accomplished worldly adult to the state of an infant child, mourning for the absent parent who has gone away. 
 
Perhaps this is where the lifetime of anxiety begins. The parent who was always there takes a break and goes missing one day, with the infant wondering, what’s up? Maybe the child worries the parent is never coming back – that the parent is as good as dead. Admittedly all this sounds quite dramatic. 

Perhaps it is better to think of it in these terms: the absent parent leaves, and then returns, and the reappearance is wonderful; but this coming and going suggests a new pattern, wherein they will probably disappear again. From now on we understand that nothing is certain in this life. Which is why Barthes is so anxious over the tardiness of his lover. A psychic wound has been created, one to last through to, and then across, the vast, yet galloping plains of adulthood. (But for the grown-up, collapsing in tears and kicking our legs on the carpet is no longer an option.)*
 
The wound could actually be of use, something to both learn from and lean upon in moments of anxiety, serving as a reassurance: yes, they went away, but look, they also came back; proving it’s not all gloom or disaster, and that disappointment doesn’t last for ever. 
 
But the wound doesn’t play out like that, and this is what Barthes is toiling with in his Parisian cafe – still there, the thinker immobile, because waiting is a state of ‘enchantment’. The psychic wound of abandonment mostly fires up the flight mechanism, hurling anxiety into turbo, spitting out new realities by the second. Every time your lover is late the threat of calamity re-surfaces – of aloneness, even death, but more generally, in the smaller scheme of everyday living, the return of the inevitability of disappointment. So, thanks for that, disappearing parent. 
 
But then, finally, he/she arrives to the cafe. At last. Yay! Here they come through the door, flustered, but smiling; and not that late in truth, only ten minutes after the hour, that’s really quite normal. And all of those new dark realities just now that your brain cooked up were quite needless.**
In A Lover’s Discourse, Barthes runs through numerous scenarios concerning the ‘internal conflict over how to deal with the other’ – a struggle that ‘is infinite and feeds upon itself.’ In doing so, the writer reveals the truly problematic relationship at the heart of all of this – the complicated, messed-up discourse between the lover and their own stupid brain.  
Karl Marx, World's No1 Philosopher
Love?  Sorry, no comment

 

 
There is no easy way out of the internal conflict. But Barthes searched all the same. It felt wrong to him that love should give rise to a sense of isolation as he turned to the world of ideas. But none of the great ideologies gave solace – not religion, psychoanalysis, not Marx. Once upon a time maybe, when ancient notions of Eros, or the all-enveloping security blanket of religion suggested a system of universal laws. But not any longer, not in our fragmented times. ’Today, however, there is no system of love: and the several systems that surround the contemporary lover offer him no room.’ ***

But despite this apparent dead end, it doesn’t need to be simply angst and pain. There is another way to regard the situation, one where ‘here, gone, but back again’, plays out as entertaining; and where glimpses of happiness might provide a sufficient warmth to get you through those inevitable cold spells.

A Small Child Hides Behind a White Curtain
now you see me…
When the Annoying Son was little – very, very, very little – we often played a peekaboo game where he would hide behind the curtain, to then shriek with delight after we pulled away the fabric revealing him sitting there – that he hadn’t really disappeared at all. 
 
We played the game often and at length. ’More, more, more’ was the Annoying Son’s favourite refrain; with ‘just one more, okay!’ his second most favourite refrain. There is a montage of early-year photos hanging on my wall. In one picture, the infant is sat on the carpet beaming up at me. I’m wagging my finger back at him, pretending to be shocked that he could trick us, vanishing under the curtain – in plain view, in the middle of the day, now you see him, now you don’t.
 
There is also a picture of the Annoying Son in his high chair at feeding time. I see the baby blue tray and recall the lunchtimes I’d mop the mess from his minced feed, keeping him occupied by playing a hiding game under the tea towel. First it was me under the towel, but in time the performance switched so that it was his head covered over. And after some lead-up, with a big Ta Da! I’d whip it away, to reveal him as a ‘surprise’ package.  

A Blue Plastic Basin
a bucket

We assumed we were just playing a game, not enacting a crucial life lesson. But looking back, maybe there’s more to games than we know. One day, while he was under the towel, the expectation building, I took a chance and introduced a new twist by pulling out a plastic wash basin and putting it over my head. When the Annoying Son next peeped out from under the towel he was confronted by a bucket monster. And he almost exploded out of the chair at the comedy. 

I then repeated the trick, but added extra reverberating sounds from under the plastic as embellishment. Only to then, suddenly, dramatically lift the bucket, to see what J thought of it so far – and my infant son started to cry. 

Oh no! Too much. I’ve really gone and done it now, not only scaring, but possibly even scarring my son for life. I said it’s alright. Told him it was just a ‘stupid game.’ Only to realise he was crying with disappointment, not fear; that he was sad with me for taking the basin off too soon, when he was having all that fun. ‘More, Daddy! More!’ More, More, More. Just one more, okay!  

Repeated fun was never a trial or a bore. And yet with repetition there was also always difference, with everything constantly changing – even if appearances sometimes suggested otherwise. As Deleuze observed, nothing is ever the same, even copies are something new, with reality not fixed, but always in a state of becoming. 

Gratitude by Oliver Sacks, book cover

In the last months of his life, the neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks reflected upon how age and longevity profoundly changed his view on existence, bringing forth the realisation that permanence isn’t as long lasting as it once seemed – that empires rise, and they fall, that big ideas come and go. And with this knowledge, came a sharper view on the short nature of things: ‘One is more conscious of transiences and, perhaps, of beauty.’ 

With some of the good stuff, a glimpse is all you get. On a train ride four, five months ago, pulling away from a local station, I caught sight of a winding street leading away up a minor hill. But the train accelerated and the meander was gone. The after-image was of an approach road climbing up to a small cluster of brick houses, glowing in a pink sunset. I’ve looked out for this winding lane several times since – I like a good visual meander – but I can’t find it. 

A line of London Taxis

The street might just as well have vanished. It can easily happen. Streets often go missing in this complicated city. A  New York Times article from 2014 concerning trainee London taxi drivers ‘doing’ the Knowledge, describes the rigours of the memory test as ‘less a product of the English character than of the torturous London landscape… To be in London is, at least half the time, to have no idea where the hell you are… Take a look sometime at a London street map,’ urges the American writer in London, quite perplexed and put out by what lies before him. ‘What a mess: It is a preposterously complex tangle of veins and capillaries, the cardiovascular system of a monster… The result is a town that bewilders even its lifelong residents. Londoners, writes Peter Ackroyd, are “a population lost in [their] own city.”’ 

Melanie Griffith in Something Wild
mum never liked birds

In the 1980s comedy film drama Something Wild, mid way through this tonally-shifting road movie, as the yuppie-out-of-water storyline shifts into a darker, twistier tale of a yuppie in peril, there’s a pause for breath as the camera follows the heroes down a empty rural meander at dusk. The road curves up, goes right, then left, as the vehicle disappears out of shot. The meander is brief and slight, but hangs heavy with a sense of switchback and transience that still hovers in my head three decades after.

The Last Shadow Puppets: the Age of the Understatement, LP Cover
the longer you look, the stranger my legs get

 The song Meeting Place, by The Last Shadow Puppets, is a retro pop ballad concerning a short-lived love affair. The swoonsome, deeply romantic track concludes with the lines: ‘I’m sorry I met you darling/I’m sorry I left you’ – to then drop away into an extended, pretty orchestral fade out. The song is brief and doesn’t pack many verses, solos, breaks, or middle eights. It is much shorter than you want it to be, and therefore, arguably, its perfect duration. But you crave for the song to hang about as the orchestral coda slowly pulls you away. And then you grasp the piece’s essence – that Meeting Place is what it describes, a heartbroke, plaintive glimpse of peak perfect happiness stretching into the distance… 

The meandering London street from the train window at dusk was beautiful because of the light, and the unexpected curve of the tarmac climbing up the hill, and because the way the full-leaf trees sagged densely over the pavement. But it was also beautiful for being fleeting, rather than lasting.

Saul Leiter, Walker
just a glimpse

There is a word for all this, if you speak Italian: scorcio. (Not to be confused with scorchio – how Spanish TV weather reporters describe hot weather.) The Italian scorcio, means a glimpse, a space, a turn, a moment – something that’s over almost before it’s really begun. A passing glimpse of the moon, a patch of sky, a strip of blue water. 

A Scorcio

A google of scorcio coughs up pictures of arches, views under a bridge, or something leading on from the bottom of an alley or stairway. Perhaps a scorcio is a flash in-between two buildings; but not long in duration, already gone in fact. Scorcio isn’t a view, or vista, or prospect in a new city, but to catch sight of another way to continue, a perhaps more enticing alternative route. But scorcio might also describe this thing that pierced you for a moment. The trick, perhaps, is to be contented with just this glimpse; to not be anxious or go chasing an elusive thing that will only give you the slip anyway.

David Bowie, Changesonebowie
‘where the fuck did Monday go?’

* Abandonment is not only a condition to last a lifetime, but enough material for a life’s work. Well, according to David Bowie in a late interview: ‘My entire career, I’ve only really worked with the same subject matter. The trousers may change, but the actual words and subjects I’ve always chosen to write with are things to do with isolation, abandonment, fear and anxiety, all of the high points of one’s life.’

** This waiting in a cafe for the late arrival of a lover didn’t happen to me. Not lately. The new lover is a good time keeper. The anxiety of waiting simply occurs as a fine example of bad brain work.

*** In the period when he went looking for support for his love life from assorted systems of belief, Barthes recounts a dream in which a loved person falls sick in the street and begs passers by for help. But they all dismiss his entreaties. Barthes interprets the dream as the various philosophies having nothing to offer him, with none of them equipped to “‘understand’ me – or ‘shelter’ me.”

**** Later on, once the Annoying Son found his legs, he graduated to hide and seek, leading to longish afternoons in the park. The parent counting to fifty, then pretending to search for their child in the bushes and woods,;despite the fact that they’d immediately spotted their child (the flash of distinctive clothing, parental radar) crouched under the canopy of the Willow tree over there.

***** Another glimpse from a train window a long, long time ago. Travelling from Vienna to Venice, crossing north eastern Italy on a hot morning. The service slowed to a crawl through the outskirts of a town. At the front of a queue of cars behind a level crossing sat two nuns in full head dress eating bananas in an old grey Fiat.

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