February 2009

Obsolete words are admitted when they are found in authors not obsolete, or when they have any force or beauty that may deserve revival.

Preface to the English Dictionary, Samuel Johnson


I was laying in bed one night and I said
I’ll just quit
To hell with it

And another voice in me said
don’t quit
save that tiny little ember

that spark

and never give them that spark
because as long as you have that spark
you can start the greatest fire
again (more…)

For those who were in harm’s way.
For those who help those who remain.

Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks. We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating of both body and mind. We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe that their husband is about to return and need his shoes. In the version of grief we imagine, the model will be “healing”. A certain forward movement will prevail. The worst days will be the earliest days. We imagine the moment to most severely test us will be the funeral, after which this hypothetical healing will take place.  When we anticipate the funeral we wonder about failing to “get through it,” rise to the occasion, exhibit the “strength” that invariably gets mentioned as the correct response to death. We anticipate needing to steel ourselves for the moment: will I be able to greet people, will I be able to leave the scene, will I be able even to get dressed that day? We have no way of knowing that this will not be the issue. We have no way of knowing that the funeral will be the anodyne, a kind of narcotic regression in which we are wrapped in the care of others and the gravity and meaning of the occasion. Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaningless itself.

The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion

In the old days, when men were allowed to have many wives, a Middle-aged man had one wife that was old and one that was young; each loved him very much, and desired to see him like herself. Now the Man’s hair was turning grey, which the young Wife did not like, as it made him look too old for her husband. So every night she used to comb his hair and pick out the white ones. But the elder Wife saw her husband growing grey with great pleasure, for she did not like to be mistaken for his mother. So every morning she used to arrange his hair and pick out as many of the black ones as she could. The consequence was that the Man soon found himself entirely bald.


– Aesop’s Fables

Two hundred and fifty years ago, Arab miniaturists were in the custom of staring at the western horizon at daybreak to alleviate the understandable and eternal anxieties about going blind shared by all miniaturists;  likewise, a century later in Shiraz, many illustrators would eat mashed walnuts with rose petals on an empty stomach in the mornings. Again, in the same era, the elder miniaturists of Isfahan who believed sunlight was responsible for the blindness to which they succumbed one by one, as if to the plague, would work in a half-dark corner of the room, and most often by candlelight, to prevent direct sunlight from striking their worktables. At day’s end, in the workshops of the Uzbek artists of Bukhara, master miniaturists would wash their eyes with water blessed by sheikhs. But of all these precautions the purest approach to blindness was discovered in Herat by the miniaturist Seyyit Mirek, mentor to the great master Bihzad. According to the master miniaturist Mirek, blindness wasn’t a scourge, but rather the crowning reward bestowed by Allah upon an illuminator who had devoted an entire life to His glories; for illustrating was the miniaturist’s search for Allah’s vision of the earthly realm, and this unique perspective could only be attained through recollection after blindess descended, only after a life time of hard work and only after the miniaturist’s eyes tired and had expended himself. Thus, Allah’s vision of His world only becomes manifest through the memory of blind miniaturists. When this image comes to the aging miniaturist, that is, when he sees the world as Allah sees it through the darkness of memory and blindness, the illustrator will have spent a lifetime training his hand so it might transfer this splendid revelation to the page. According to the historian Mirza Muhammet Haydar Duglat, who wrote extensively about the legends of Herat miniaturists, the master Seyyit Mirek, in his explication in the aforementioned notion of painting, used the example of the illustrator who wanted to draw a horse. He reasoned that even the most untalented painter — one whose head is empty like those of today’s Venetian painters  — who draws the picture of a horse while looking at a horse will still make the image from memory; because, you see, it is impossible, at one and the same time, to look at the horse and upon the page which the horse’s image appears. First, the illustrator looks at the horse, then he quickly transfers whatever rests in his mind onto the page. In the interim, even if only a wink in time, what the artist represents on the page is not the horse he sees, but the memory of the horse he has just seen. Proof that for even the most miserable illustrator, a picture is possible only through memory. The logical extension of this concept, which regards the active worklife of a miniaturist as but the preparation for both the resulting bliss of blindness and blind memory, is that the masters of Herat regarded the illustrations they made  for biblophile shahs and princes as training for the hand — as an exercise. They accepted the work, the endless drawing and staring at pages by candlelight for days without break, as the pleasurable labour that delivered the miniaturist to blindness. Throughout his whole life, the master miniaturist Mirek constantly sought out the most appropriate moment for this glorious of approaching eventualities, either by purposely hurrying the blindness through the painstaking depiction of trees and all their leaves on fingernails, grains of rice and even on strands of hair, or by cautiously delaying the imminent darkness by the effortless drawing of pleasant, sun-filled gardens. When he was seventy, in order to reward this great master, Sultan Huseyin Bayakra allowed him to enter the treasury containing thousands of manuscript plates that the Sultan had collected and secured under lock and key. There, in the treasury that also contained weapons, gold and bolt upon bolt of silk and velvet cloth, by the candlelight of golden candelabra, Master Mirek stared at the magnificent leaves of these books, each a legend in its own right, made by the old masters of Herat. And after three days and nights of continuous scrutiny, the great master went blind. He accepted his condition with maturity and resignation, the way one greets the Angels of Allah, and he never spoke or painted again. Mirza Muhammet Haydar Duglat, the author of The History of Rashid, ascribed this turn of events as follows: “A miniaturist united with the vision and landscape of Allah’s immortal time can never return to the manuscript pages meant for ordinary mortals”; and he adds, “Wherever the blind miniaturists memories reach Allah there reigns an absolute silence, a blessed darkness and the infinity of a blank page.”

I am called “Olive”, My Name is Red, Orhan Pamuk

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