A sign, to an unbeliever, is coincidence; one in a string of occurrences to take up or leave to be claimed by someone else. Meaning, it could be said, is the search for signs that fit us, neatly or otherwise, into the world. When we open our eyes to these signs, they seem to be everywhere: scattered, piling on top of each other for us to spot, sift through and connect with, like the attic fragments of a distant, deceased relation’s life.
But signs also follow events, anti-chronology a reminder that one must look backwards as well as forwards at life in order to glean logic from it. To understand time in narrative one must also reject its linearity; embracing the chaos that often reveals a sense of place and belonging not always found within our known ideas of order. As Giorgio Agamben says in Taste, “the universe signified long before people began to know what it signified”, and it is a telling trait of humankind that we generally do not look for signs until we have questions, rather than archive what crosses our path for future examination. We only ask them when the signs we have relied on no longer fulfill or satisfy our situations. Trapped as we are in our neat temporal compartments, we forget that answers, as well as meaning—for there can always be one without the other—exist on an almost limitless plane, and that it is only ourselves who are responsible for creating the boundaries which deny possibility.
To ask is to observe, and vice versa; suddenly we found ourselves in a time where this wholly consumed our living and breathing thoughts, a flux where everything changed but us. Instead of resulting in a sense of constancy, the change made us realise our precariousness, and the more we looked for new signs to continue to anchor us in our familiarities, the more there were none. What had been irrelevant was now of the utmost relevance, but even to pick through the detritus of forgotten signs one could not bring about the change desired so urgently. For myself, I think of a moment from over four years ago in the empty Tuscan countryside, swathes of fire-blackened scorched earth blotted the grey-green, alien—what had once been described to me as almost lunar—landscape between islands of elongated cypresses, in their different sizes looking as if they were huddled together for companionship; a topography of loneliness. A bird of prey exited the sky, plucked a snake from the tall dry grass with mechanically precise talons and then flew off, the entirety of the act performed in a single unbroken movement. I laughed in disbelief then, but I now found myself replaying the scene. I turned it over in my mind in an attempt to fit it, puzzle-like, into the present as an act of supernatural instead of mundane nature, forgetting that they are connected.
It seems strange to say once upon a time we could not breathe, as if this were a fairytale, which it is not, but nevertheless has the same elements at its core. Some of us had our breath taken from us in ways more violent than others, but most of us understood what it was to feel a degree of breathlessness, if not our own, then that of others. Most tales have a wedge of truth, a warning wrapped in fantasy, the mythologisation of the real so that it may echo through time. What remains is often the fantasy, for it is less painful to recall and requires no questioning of ourselves or what has been. It remains to be seen if we can remember our breathlessness as it really was—as humanity goes on, it writes itself increasingly as myth to deny its own reality; not just distant histories, but the more immediate past as well. But as any child knows, the erasing of a blackboard means an assumption of recollection in order to move on to and contextualise what’s written next. Somewhere between childhood and adulthood we learned we had the ability to drink from the waters of Lethe and wipe our collective memories; writing and art have long testified to this great forgetting. Yet it has also been impossible to erase it completely, for it has a way of clinging to individual memory. One has a way of finding another and another one until we end up with a tapestry of sorrows, unravelled pain woven together again, urging us to read and remember our stories entirely. This must be the work of the persistent unconscious: after all, Persephone returned from the underworld and into the daylight of consciousness.
In this time of breathlessness, it seemed as if the reminders of breathing and its difficulties were everywhere. Being asthmatic, I had no doubt that, like new lovers who suddenly see signs of each other in the most ordinary things, this pause in our lives would cast its shadow over everything. There seemed to be little to do in those first unbelieving months but watch the bare trees through the window and envision my own bronchi and bronchioles constricting. When Joseph Brodsky notes in Watermarkthat “metaphor is incurable”, he wasn’t wrong, asthma being an illness where one lives defined by its varied metaphors. Having asthma means you know what it is to not breathe, while wondering what it would be like to breathe as others do. It was true that I was afraid to take in what I felt was unnecessary air, as if this parsimony would somehow create a surplus in my body, to be released if and when the worst should befall me. That led, as such behaviour often does, to a miserliness: as I became unwilling to breathe the new strange air, I began to fear the outside; not just the new invisible unknown it held, but that I might also misinterpret what I found there, with maybe irreversible ramifications. This unknown was fundamentally no different prior to this time, but the event had the effect of reverting some part of myself to a more figurative logic, despite realising its superstitious aspects.
I grew up in a house of mixed belief. On one side there was nothing, or rather, there were traces of discarded Western religiosity that presented as scepticism and cynicism from years of observing what was seen as its hypocrisies. My mother’s religious upbringing was Shinto, and what was scattered unobtrusively around the house, such as the omamori pouches filled with unseen wishes and prayers and the black decorative masks of the seven lucky gods or kami representing, amongst other things, luck, prosperity, wisdom, protection—Ebisu; Daikoku; Bishamon; Benten; Fukurokuju; Hotei; Jurōjin—that hung in the entrance hall, appeared to me to be more enchanted and connected with the minutiae of the world. Regardless of their attributed meaning, I treated all such objects and symbols from that side of the family as if they held some unearthly power, from the kokeshi, and daruma dolls, weightless, cloudlike piles of lilac, aqua, pink, and lime pastel silk obi for tying around the kimono, to a miniature gold and silver fan suspended in a lucite cube. Even at the young age I started to sense this, these things signified the opposite of whatever the feeling was from my father’s discarded beliefs and their accompanying objects. And as much as I was a stubborn, questioning child, dissatisfied with answers that required the passivity of a certain kind of faith, I secretly clung to the mysteries of those gods, going into the hall to silently wish from them luck or strength.
The mythologies and stories of my mother’s culture taught me that there was a reverence to be had regarding the various signs that presented themselves in nature and the unnatural; such respect would yield contentment greater than the more material thanks it often came with. The one thing I wished for the most that the gods could never bestow was breath, but they gave me its equivalent in observation and thought. What I could not accomplish with my lungs, I was to be able to take in deeply in other ways.
It is said that it is in the early hours of the morning that one’s breathing is at its lowest ebb. This is the time of warnings: a stray cough or a tightening that signals an irregularity to heed. But it was at that very ebb in the pandemic, when the numbers dropped at the end of the summer and when, for a moment, it felt like we could breathe—however briefly—that I found myself in the unlikeliest of places, Venice. This is not to say I was not afraid. That new fear of breathing and uncontrollable space was still with me. Nor does it matter what circumstances brought me there, only that one day we packed and sealed ourselves into the car with a supply of clothes, masks, gloves, sanitisers, pandemic travel documents, and my totem, inhalers. What overrode my self-imprisonment was the familiar feeling of complete physical tension, returning me to those emergency room gurneys and the soft hiss of the nebuliser. What I wanted was to emerge into the daylit world again and absorb an excess of its air.
I have never been what people would consider grossly irresponsible; not in the sense of risking myself or others, only in the matter of the usual indiscretions of youth and indifference, which are less about responsibility and more about testing the elasticity of the boundaries of how one fits into the world. Responsibility is often the bedfellow to a degree of fear, and it is not incorrect to say that life as an asthmatic comes with a burden of self-responsibility, so much so that one wishes for a respite from it as much as from lack of lung capacity. It would also be true that sometimes the testing of those boundaries showed me that parts of my life were inextricably bound to my breathing. There were simply things I could not do if I were to consider breathing of a naturally higher priority. That lack of breath I often felt as something physically pressing against me, for attempting to desperately suck in air that does not replenish or revive forces your body into resisting itself; while you pull in, it pulls away. As with other afflictions where the mental desires for one’s body cannot be fulfilled, the self becomes divided: forever in conflict with itself, to the point that it makes one backwardly long to be an automaton, always able to carry out its physical requirements, rather than a flesh-and-blood person. Pinocchio only wished to be a real boy because he did not realise that the body is—sooner or later—a collection of failing parts.
This ages a child prematurely: at some point you realise that entire segments of a typical childhood are no longer for you. This realisation is what led me to become, beyond all other things, a voracious reader. Where one cannot have constant friends—most healthy children cannot understand this self-imposed restraint—because the very meaning of early friendship is running, excitement, and being carried away in laughter to the point of what will be, for you, a week’s worth of illness; books become friends and confidantes. Reading functions as a metronome for breathing that teaches control over one’s body. It is both every bit as lonely and yet not as lonely as it seems. Most children have an innate sense of resiliency and self-preservation that manifests itself by merely creating other paths in life when one is no longer accessible; this is what I did, and what I continued to do as I grew up. Even as an adult, I remain quiet, mostly unwilling and unable to show excess emotion.
This is the legacy of asthma: a constant, possessive guarding of the self in order to preserve breath, a poverty of the lungs that shows its scars not only there, but also in our hearts when we try to interact with the world. Being so used to keeping our own company, such interactions become similar to miming, where our voices are lost, sometimes literally. Asthma has a way of altering and breaking the voice so that one moment it is raw and unnatural, as if possessed; the next, a hoarse whisper like sandpaper, finally broken down to near-silence after its initial rasp. But in our heads, they still thunder and echo with the messages we desperately wish to convey. Such muteness is rewarded with suspicion: if the mouth opens but cannot utter, then the would-be speaker is seen as withholding and withdrawing. In the end, our frustrated gestures are so weak that it is only those who know us intimately in our minds, as well as in our more superficial selves, that are able to translate our minute expressions with the expertise of someone deciphering worn lettered stones or hieroglyphs. And so we find ourselves mostly in the company of books and our own scant breath, a meditation on mortality that comes too early and shapes our thoughts and actions all too young.
Breathing is an unusual identity marker: vital yet ignored, to the point that people refuse to believe in your affliction. I have been told numerous times that asthma is purely psychosomatic and that inhalers are only placebos by those who do not know of nights attempting to sleep sitting up, or exhaling into your palm to roughly estimate the seriousness of an attack. When I was older and understood its meaning, I would sometimes—and occasionally still do—breathe onto a mirror with grim humour instead. Having death as a playmate is not always serious; if anything, one grows more at ease with gently making fun of its proximity because, like an intimate friend, your conversation is constant. But perhaps it is because asthma’s signs present quietly that its deniers cannot grasp the infinite patience that’s needed when sitting in an emergency room holding a nebuliser to your mouth. We are used to seeing people vocalise their pain, sometimes loudly, but asthma’s danger is that sometimes one is literally unable to express air or voice. Once settled on a gurney, it becomes both a time for reflection and a retreat from the self: breathe in, breathe out, focusing on nothing but that rhythm for a half hour or more, waiting for infinitesimal change, the gradual opening of the airways. In the following days of recovery, your sore body wrung out from being cramped with anxiety and lack of oxygen, powerful steroid pills to keep your lungs open, the relief of a full breath; the subsequent coming down and depression that it will always be less than that of others—that you will never know what it is like to fill and fill your lungs, dizzy with a surfeit of air that does not come administered, adulterated, from a tube.
There is a strange moment that occurs just on the cusp of the treatment working, a confused nervous excitement where your shortness of breath signals the brain with a new possibility. This could be the transcendence of illness or a belated reaction by your body to its lack, but for the rest of your life it becomes hardwired to fear, an almost-sexual grappling between the unknown and the possible. This peculiar threshold acts as a filter for how you view the world; a medicinal vision that allows you to believe—if only for a moment—that you can breathe in humanity, saturating your blood with its colours and meaning forever after watching it pulsate and flow through your veins.
The few times that I ventured out of the house during those first six months, whether it was to take a walk or pick up an inhaler, I was met with some form of antagonism. Not because of me—though it was sometimes directed at me—but because of the state of things and an, if not new, then rejuvenated sense that there was now an audience for declaring this was somehow all a conspiracy. Never having been a conspiracist in the acknowledged sense (though it occurs to me that the ideal conspiracist is simply someone who embraces every possibility) or having had a particular interest in such things, it was now impossible not, there being not much else to observe outside besides increasingly imbalanced inequalities. Sometimes it was not just observational; wearing a mask while out on a walk, I was pointed out and mocked by a father with his family, all unmasked, as if I were somehow interpreting things incorrectly. Another time, waiting for a prescription to be filled, I stood back as the unmasked customer before me ranted about the links between the pandemic and the government plot to keep us all in our homes, before seguing inevitably and seamlessly into 9/11, a speech that must have been rehearsed as lovingly and carefully as an actor practising their first big role. In the essay “Reference and Repetition in Conspiracy Theory” for Covidian Æsthetics, the author, @ghostofchristo1, remarks that “the cognitive map of the conspiratorial takes what seem like random crises and disasters and renders them as components in a system of control, providing the comforting sense that someone—somewhere—is in charge.”
In a remarkable way I could see it all from their eyes as an opportunity to guide and protect, as roughly as it presented itself; the previously disdained now able to show the purity of their intent in a world lit by blacklight.
Meaning is the search for signs that fit us, neatly or otherwise, into the world. Suddenly, there were—if not swathes, then certainly enough to notice—people all around who had found theirs, determined to show others that this almost divine revelation was a universal truth. And in a way it is hard to deny; from the beginnings of record, the immediacy and vast reach of plagues and destruction have always brought on a kind of mass (even if relatively small) realisation. It may not be a correct one, in that it does not come to its predicted fruition, but it could be said that many of our realisations and mappings are incorrect without labelling them as extreme or crazy. The perspectives of human nature ensure that something or another can always be applied to somebody, and that one point is sure to find a line, straight or meandering, to its connection. Meaning is a sigh of relief or a sharp exhaling of confirmation; it is knowing that others share your breath, and if that air is strange, at least you are not.
The philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce said that “the absence of knowledge which is essential to the validity of any probable argument relates to some question which is determined by the argument itself. […] hence, the absence of knowledge is either whether besides the objects which, according to the premises, possess certain characters, any other objects possess them; or, whether besides the characters which, according to the premises, belong to certain objects, any other characters not necessarily involved in these belong to the same objects.” I am unsure if Peirce ever considered that such a statement would be both reduced and complicated by the projection of characters onto objects where there was seemingly none, or the inclusion of objects where they did not belong, but this behaviour must also pre-date any logic such as Peirce’s, making it—in a particularly human way—another perfectly valid form of logic.
We have all watched children attempt to fit actual objects into wrong-shaped holes, and some declare that an apple is an orange. They are not incorrect in their intuitions; an empty space is an unknown until an attempt is made to fill it, both apples and oranges are fruits. Most of us come to understand that our standard accepted logic requires far more specificity and nuance. But in times where there are yet no known specifics, and so nuance cannot be readily discerned, then in a way, it is understandable—if not excusable—that some go back to trying to fit something into the wrong space.
Aged seventeen, I stood outside the Oriental Institute of Chicago on an art school trip. Despite the outward, masklike indifference of youth, my mind was in awe of the enormous—so large that on arrival it was built into the wall—lamassu, a creature with a human head, wings, and a bull’s body that had once adorned and protected the palace of Sargon II of Assyria. Having temporarily left behind the gods of my mother—a natural shedding of childhood when one embarks on trying to find meaning in oneself, independent of personal history—I wondered at an earlier world. The fantastic mythologies interwoven with the everyday, where the logic of the spectacular remained imposing and unreal, a reminder that we once harmoniously existed in a space and time with the mysterious and the unknowable as an accepted truth. Later, as my friends and I, posing as youth does, smoked—for a time, desperation for a certain normality and acceptance overrode the dangers of illness—our various Marlboro, gold-tipped Sobranie Cocktail, and Djarum Black cigarettes, we saw that across the way, in front of a chapel or church, was a group of people with signs proclaiming the end of the world. That day at the museum, the exact date of which I have forgotten, was in the fall of 1992.
I no longer remember if the end was due that day or the next, just that I regarded it with a kind of detached interest and noted the specific time, wondering more at the logistics of the endtimes than at the assumed nothingness of its actuality. It hardly seemed like flicking off a light-switch but something more complex, like the assembly of a box, one step necessarily leading to another and another before it could finally be sealed. I seem to recall—and this could apply to any one of the many similar predictions and failed events that the 90s were inexplicably littered with—that when it failed to happen, this was attributed to a miscalculation—a misreading of the signs. It only occurred to me years later that, to believers, it was the frisson of possible destruction driving fervour, rather than the promise of the end, that made them feel control. In its way, the idea of the end became sexualised in its supernature, a drawn-out arousal with no climax, each re-interpreting of signs an opportunity to prolong the pleasure of an impending mortality that flashed with the promise of permanence.
I felt a sort of ennui after the occurrence of a few of these, for despite not wanting the world to end, I nevertheless began to get caught up in a similar excitement for possible unknowns of that magnitude. I had no fragment of belief in all the signs that were being heralded, other than the curiosity I felt towards a life yet to be widely explored—which at that time had much of its focus on sex—but what I did find myself empathising with was the idea that what felt like an outside minority experience—even though it was major to the believer—could be shared and understood by others.
What began to surpass my current fear was the need to see if there was a world that was could still breathe in anything other than paranoid confirmation and the oxygen of its own, personal fears. As with my smoking indiscretion, the temptation of experience briefly seemed greater than its risks. It seemed—it still seems—ridiculous to somehow declare these times as apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic. This would appear to place me firmly within the group of pandemic deniers and conspiracists, but an apocalypse is not just about destruction, although we have come to understand it that way thanks to pop culture and because, as a society, we are not uniformly as religious as we once were. Apocalypse is more accurately revelation, and revelation is gnosis.
There is a fascination in observing that we have generally gone from times where knowledge is defined, in large part, by our deities and all-encompassing mythologies to (perhaps erroneously) thinking that we, without hubris, are the sole creators and possessors of it. This is driven partly by a realisation of the possible through capitalism, which is at its heart another belief system. To then have events like this one render what were cracks into near-tectonic shifts reveals, in full, perceptions of true and false knowledge; how we fall back on random signs and the fantastic to explain the world when the knowledge we have come to depend on does not make sense of it all. In Infinite Resignation, Eugene Thacker says that “every faith should have as its aim disbelief.” And so it seems that now is such a time. Disbelief rules: towards the governments of the world, of infinitesimal nature, the cause of our current state, of people—the facilitators of that state, of standard protocols and structures, of our relationships, shadowed by the creeping doubt of instability provoked by absence. What is this faith but chaos? And yet what persists is the idea of faith as necessarily anti-chaos, and so we cannot see that our disbelief is a sign itself, the first block in the building of whatever it is we desire to come after destruction.
In terms of art history, in About Looking John Berger refers to the “primitive and the professional”, the former indicative of a more personal, even intuitive method. This seems equally applicable to our current processing of the world: the divisions, fear and animosity towards science when it shows its natural workings—that is, error and the constant amending of formulae and data in order to come to solutions that benefit the majority. Science has always been so, but when there is nothing to do but keep track of lost time, then the errors of modernity and technology are somehow unendurable and unacceptable. We have become a society that demands both immediacy and perceived perfection. When time is luxurious, what is successful for us and not others tends to be irrelevant (something we are seeing now—after the events I have written of here—with the imbalance and indifference towards global equitable vaccine distribution). But the subsequent attacks on modernity and governance, when it fails us, sometimes suggest the only remedy is to return to the reductive mythologies of nationalism and imperialism that forget each age’s difficulties, viewing their mysticisms with a nostalgic and utopian tunnel vision. That it is both polemic and binary is an enduring trait of general humanity’s unwillingness—or at this point, sheer inability—to discern the world through nuance.
So I was glad to be in that car one early morning with a charted destination, even if I did not know what I found on arrival would be something that I recognised. I had nothing really to compare a present Venice to, for even though I had been there once years ago, it was only for a few hours, and I was both in a pre-illness heat delirium and a denial of my newlywed status to take much notice of anything but a broad touristy crowdedness that obscured everything else. All I know is I must have arrived just outside St Mark’s Square, not in a vaporetto or one of the more glamorous water taxis, but in something much smaller and unofficial—which was to say, cheap—for I remember being vaguely sea-sick on top of everything else, unsure of whether to look at the city, the sky, or the grey-green-blue of the lagoon. The water is the colour of an uncut, unpolished aquamarine whose clarity has yet to be revealed; knowledge deliberately darkened but beckoning, nevertheless. Once on land, it seemed that people moved while standing still; it was as if walking resulted in going nowhere at all, an apt description for a certain type of tourism.
Because my recollections can be condensed with alarming brevity in a Perec-esque manner—1. I remember an illegal street vendor with his array of fake Louis Vuitton Stephen Sprouse collaboration bags laid out on a blanket; 2. I remember my new husband appalled at the cost of two coffees at Caffè Florian; 3. I remember, with fascination, the open display of porn videos on the counter of the petrol station just outside the city—it could be said I never visited Venice at all. It is not often that one gets to re-experience a place with the benefit of a sort of memory erasure, though its pain remained intact; as well as living a completely different life—that relationship having ended years before—and, given the radical shift in the world, a total mystery as to what I might find.
We had plotted a journey through countries whose numbers were at the time very low (and have not been experienced since). While it was inevitable that we had to go via France, where the numbers were high, stopping was unnecessary; we drove through it, on to Germany directly, the strangeness of which I felt acutely. My last trip anywhere had been to Paris in the late fall of 2019, having prior to that been restricted to remaining in the UK most of a year, due to being in the process of applying for citizenship. There were signs there as well, to be retrospectively applied to this new time. The evening protests by the gilet jaunes streets away across the bridges from where I had stayed, unaware and wrapped in velvet in a hotel where Wilde died and Borges once slept, on a street where Yves Klein introduced the world to his blue vision and then to the void on the Left Bank; but in the light of day, the only traces that remained were some bollards, drifting papers, and an increased police presence around government areas. In a gallery steps away, the disordered faces of Francis Bacon’s figures looked both outwards and inwards at unknown futures and present pasts.
Whatever the sort, restlessness begets restlessness, just as the unsuccessful sleeper only makes their attempts at peace with the night more violent. Now, I watched all the brown and white roadside signs go by, displaying what the particular region, city or commune was known for—chateaux, wine, forests, battlefields, the Éperlecques rocket bunker (the contradictions of pleasure, nature, and war: homogenous as they are separate, a reminder we perpetually exist in phases of restlessness, excitement, and violence, demanding to be entertained within each) as well as the familiar stops from previous trips. Everything, even the motorways, had a sense of stillness without rest. A traveller often travels simply for the journey’s sake, not always having a destination in mind. Liminality is enough to satisfy their desire, and sometimes the only reason for it. This was the uncanniness that hung over me. Necessity, not desire, now dictated our actions, and most lives of even modest privilege are made up of decisions based on that luxury more than necessity, even if the latter provides the basic structure that makes the former possible. In short, I was observing life without what makes a life.
The small spa town in Bavaria we had chosen for our overnight stay made me realise how unused I had become to personal interactions in such a short space of time, and how little I had spoken. I took in my surroundings with parched eyes, desperate to drink it in while repelling them at the same time, a sensory overload I did not know how to process. The town itself, viewed from the car and briefly outside the hotel doors, had a determined uncanniness. It presented us with uniformly pristine, chocolate-box houses with balcony scalloping and faintly white-capped mountains in the background, the overall effect as if the universe had decided that anything perceived must also inflict doubt.
What surprised me was that almost everyone was masked. Despite living near a major hospital in my London neighbourhood, most people went about unmasked even in shops. Here, before entering an establishment, the few that were not pulled out a mask without complaint. The hotel itself was uniform and unremarkable but I looked at everything as if it held some secret meaning: the silver-crowned frog—the hotel mascot—on the reception desk, the labyrinthine red and gold-carpeted unpeopled corridors, a darkened spa closed due to pandemic hygiene, even the complimentary morning breakfast form. Sensing my inability to place myself, the young nonbinary check-in person sympathetically made some corrections on it while I confirmed my choices in school German, the result being a breakfast more suited for six, as if they thought a surfeit of brötchen, cold meats, and eggs would comfort and reassimilate me. A story I’d read as a teenager wafted into recollection, something about passengers aboard a plane who had survived an unknown event landing at an empty airport. Their uncanniness was amplified on one of them taking a bite of a pastry or sandwich, finding it tasteless. I took my first bites with wariness, then felt a clichéd—but no less real—wave of relief at the normalcy of the food.
However strangely the world had presented itself until now, in some respects it remained the same: the myriad forms we’d printed to declare ourselves COVID-free and currently well for at least three countries were unneeded. There were no checks at all along the way, and even though we hadn’t known what to expect, at the very least I think we had envisioned some sort of makeshift stops. In the end, the only thing resembling a holdup was at one point in Austria, where road construction meant the manually stop-started traffic resulted in watching an almost absurdly relaxed scene of bell-adorned cows eating grass and wildflowers for half an hour. Crossing into Italy, the landscape changed. Suddenly the motorways were full again, the speeding Italians switching from lane to lane without signaling an agreeable, even endearing, sight. While they were not as packed as I’d seen them on previous trips, it was also enough to instill a false sense that the world had kept going undeterred.
Pulling off into the last rest stop before Venice, the light switch flicked off again. The enormous lot was empty bar one or two cars, and the building itself just as barren. An elaborate system of neon-stickered feet mapped the correct distanced path between the entry doors and through the aisles to the cashier’s desks. Even though there was no reason to heed it, I did, feeling ridiculous but wanting to acknowledge the gravity of its necessity, its order reminding me of the small things we are taught to do as children to teach a sense of place and structure. Upstairs in the empty toilets, I looked at the vast row of cubicles, hearing the sounds of doors opening and closing, the blast of hand dryers from years before. Looking in the mirror and then over to the others, infinitely reflecting nothing, I was struck by how before this time, things like ruin porn and urbexing were popular—our connoisseurial taste for destruction, so long as it was removed from our lived lives.
To my mind there is not much difference between that and 17th century tourism of London’s Bedlam (Bethlem Hospital) asylum, where even the great stone statues flanking the outside of the building representing “Raving and Melancholy Madness” warned of intrusion and invasion (mental or otherwise) instead of protection. As a species, we have an innate desire for observing—at a distance—varying degrees of horror wreaked by our own hands; a more perverse variation of the tapestry of sorrows and Persephone’s return because it needs to remember nothing. Without a sense of personal mortality or responsibility which only comes with experience, such things become both casual and illusory. Almost overnight, we had become a ruin of ourselves. This time we had no idea how to navigate its landscape of destruction because we were no longer tourists; detached from our non-mythological past, we had wiped out any useful context for our present.
There is—and I am not sure why I think this or where it might originate—an idea that with such upheaval, the weather itself should reflect the state of the world. This was easy enough in London, where most days have some overcast or rainy aspect. Here, the sun shone without relent. While welcome on my skin, it only served to maintain a sense of disquiet, a psychological veiling that cast a greyish tint on everything. In an essay about nudes in art in Not-Knowing, Donald Barthelme, writing about photographer Deborah Turbeville, whose work is “often involved with the idea of lost time”, considers how the former creates an operatic drama when combined, as it is, with a frank but almost confrontational eroticism in both the model’s stances and settings. “It’s a drama […] with an implied horizon of violence not far off—drama with no predictable dénouement.”
Eroticism seems like a strange and improper word to describe the uneasiness I had so far experienced. But no matter where I looked, the life without life in this if not lost, then confused, period did imply violence—stretching past the present and into the future. Alongside it, there was an excitement. If it seems odd to say sexual, the word has always been synonymous with emotional, cerebral, and primal; in that sense, the physicality of “sexual” is actually a minor part.
We have always been excited by the possible—the coming together of signs, even their non-fulfillment—and to say that there are clear lines of demarcation between these aspects, well, perhaps that is the only part that’s truly strange. Turbeville’s images capture this, and regardless of whether her photographs are set indoors or out, the psychology of emotion that radiates from her model’s poses, settings, and impure colours—muddied scarlets, dirty creams and greys—influences our very imagining of the weather. Whatever the variation, a clouded sense of foreboding, the ambiguity of which may also be pleasurable, veils her images. In Overcoming the Problematics of Art, Yves Klein writes “when color is no longer pure, the drama can take on frightening proportions.” This disquiet, turbulence, fear, and excitement were all things I felt, knowing that another kind of unknown was to come.
In Curiosity, Alberto Manguel says “we make up stories in order to give a shape to our questions […] all stories are mirrors of what we believe we don’t yet know. […] in spite of being aware of this, we are more concerned with beginnings than with endings.” Most of us, being so used to the luxury of controlling our spaces, lives, and narratives (or at least believing we have the power to), know exactly how things end, even if we do not know the specifics. Now is an upheaval of that thinking. We have suddenly been presented with the same beginning, and for the first time in a long while—due to globalisation, the very first time that this has applied to every single one of us—we both have no control and no idea of what our endings might be. Beyond an obvious one that never seemed quite so obvious in its previous, “normal” narrative sense, we are also aware that this is happening to all of us.
We are used to a knowable unknown, and we find ourselves now faced with a true unknown unknown—Barthelme’s unpredictable dénouement. My attempt at creating a story of this time found its mid-point in, of all places, the Venice municipal carpark. A bland but brutal, unlovely structure that, though antithetical to any typical romantic imagining, it still served as a threshold of sorts: an entry into the unknown, a strange horizon of grey blocks melting into blue-green water, where I might find myself either drinking from the lagoon of forgetfulness or facing a reckoning for my wandering folly.
It could be said that this was never going to be about anything but signs and breathing. Once we take notice and start to organise the chaos of the myriad signs around us, a pattern or patterns begin to emerge. It is common enough to find the ones that unconsciously attract us more than others are the ones we have had, up to then, a personal connection with. Until this point, I was hyperaware of what breaths I took in and let out, monitoring my body the way Balzac’s Grandet père keeps a miser’s watch over his estates and family, while also knowing that this habit was, health-wise, a false economy, having no reserves of air like wheat or wine. As my partner found us a taxi at the edge of the water—this time, I was to go into the city without tourists at my elbows, sitting in the back of an almost vintage-looking glossy wooden boat—I felt a familiar tightness. Not because of the mask I wore, but startled, I realised that for a few moments I had stopped breathing altogether. The unreality of the world from my perch in London clashed with the unreality of the world here, and I looked at it with a mistrust in my own vision, a lack of faith in my next steps.
A bout of labyrinthitis years ago once gave me the impression of seeing the world through a frame: not because my vision was affected, but because my ability to walk or function standing or sitting up was dependent on keeping my head straight and still, looking forward only. I had to step on and off of trains looking ahead and not down, and if someone entered my office, I would have to turn my entire body in the chair to speak to them, constraining the innumerable micro-movements we perform under normal circumstances. The result was a world that seemed somehow false, in stop-motion rather than fluid, but all the more chaotic for the minutiae of its control. Here, at the water’s edge, I realised the feeling that had followed me from the moment I entered the continent was that of being a character in a movie, aware that my life was only within the frame of the image and not without, whatever actions I performed provided as direction somewhere on a page.
In Francis Bacon’s Triptych August 1972, the artist and his lover George Dyer, seated, flank the central panel in which they are combined in a sexual topology described by the Tate Museum’s website as “a life-and-death struggle” where, according to Bacon’s biographer, “what death has not already consumed seeps incontinently out of the figures as their shadows.” The observer observes but is also observed; it was both paranoid and natural that I should wonder who was watching me. Death had not consumed me, true, but then I had spent a lifetime in its company. My ragged breath was my shadow, and the three of us had made our way through the thickness of time, slow in our phlegmatic persistence. We now found ourselves in the unknown world “set against black voids”, although here they were neither Bacon’s darkness nor Klein’s white, but Canaletto’s impure aquamarine.
As the taxi pulled into the quiet, unhurried traffic of the main waterway, I looked out with the same sense of visual overload I had had in that Bavarian hotel. It was too much: the shuttered palazzos lining each side of the Grand Canal, the striped pali da casada, the flocks of black-crested gondolas moored, like great primeval nesting birds. Brodsky’s line about traveling by water being almost primordial came to mind. Passing under the Rialto bridge—overhung with some, but not many, people—then turning closely into smaller canals to see the tops of cloistered gardens, branches of pomegranate trees with their golden-red fruit arching gracefully over old walls like arms seeking an escape: the seeds of illness we had eaten, and who knew how many more months to go despite this, the briefest of respites.
Writing about The Cantos in “Persephone’s Ezra”, Guy Davenport refers to “the force that reclaims lost form, lost spirit, Persephone’s transformation back to virginity.” It was hard to believe at that moment that there was any sort of force—disbelief, signs, or otherwise—that could restore our metaphorical virginity (a delusion to start with), let alone our actual, collective health. People went about their daily business, with small dogs on leads, chic briefcases, or grocery bags in hand. Almost all were masked but walked and interacted with everyday ease, devoid of the tension that I had experienced for months. Turning back to the expanse of water, I watched the rhythm of the little waves, breathing in and out as they rose and fell, at times feeling a fine mist on my face. The motor of the boat hummed in the background; another kind of nebuliser. To breathe again was too much, and not nearly enough.
A gondola with passengers moved towards us from the opposite direction. This was to be a rare sighting, and if I have described the numerous moored boats as nesting birds, then this was as wondrous as seeing one in flight. Two women sat inside: preening, adjusting and readjusting a phone in order to take a selfie rather than looking out onto the strange new city. Part of me wondered if this was all normal to them; that in the relative emptiness—and perhaps they did not even register either the lack of people or the air of change—they were the natural focus of everything. It had long seemed to me that people had shifted their perspective to frame themselves as I had so uncomfortably felt before, as if in a movie or by becoming the axis on which the world turned.
The last time I had been in Paris, at the Louvre, I watched a man stand with his back turned to Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa, smiling broadly as he snapped his own picture. Against the death and madness, confusion and hopeless resignation of the painting’s faces, he laughed and gesticulated, a historical event rendered in sickening detail from the testimony of survivors and studies of remains reduced to a momentary distraction. His eyes searched out the next violent painting like the people in the car-crash scene from Godard’s Weekend: the carnage beside them signifying nothing more than entertainment—a tableau vivant, more unreal than real—, a reminder that interest is now fleeting if it fails to involve and indulge the self.
This could also be said to be unconsciously—though that may be too generous—a means of sheltering oneself from the world. Protection has an element of ignorance, or more liberally, naiveté. But how far we have reverted from the imaginary real of the lamassu!—the belief that nothing bad can happen to one, or a disbelief of harm. To centre oneself in the face of despair and chaos; the hubris of declaring oneself beyond what affects others. The camera phone becomes the agent of this cinematic narrative, where one is guaranteed a happy ending—or at least survival—as the central character. The difference was that, while I was paranoid of the unseen audience’s reception outside of my imaginary frame, I realised others assumed greatness, and that to them this was altogether natural. It was true that I feared the unknown of this new time, but nor did I want to shut it out. As the gondola swept on, I thought what a fitting amulet it was for the age, this device that allowed one to create a world where it was possible to always be its centre while remaining detached from it.
In Paolo Sorrentino’s The New Pope, the former Pope, played by Jude Law, lies in a coma in a Venetian hospital, having fallen unconscious after delivering a speech in St Mark’s Square. In almost every way, he is given up for dead; except for that the young Pope is already thought of as a living saint, so a sign of some sort to his followers is inevitable, expected. Sure enough, the nun on night watch by his bedside reports after some time that his breathing is miraculously forming a pattern: after x amount of breaths, he sighs once in the depths of his sleep. Each time she has counted, there is one less breath before the next and so, to the crowds of his devotees, who camp day and night outside his window, this is their revelation; that only they knew was coming but could not calculate or articulate beyond the amorphousness of belief, finally given the correct-shaped hole to fit the object of their faith in.
And the Pope—who occupied that liminal unknown between life and death—does wake as the breaths foretold, and in his waking he returns with the foresight that allows him to see past, present, and future. In a kind of divine modesty, he leaves people to continue to attempt to interpret the signs of the world as best as their mortal blindness allows. I have mentioned before the achronology of signs and how they nevertheless find us and fit our narratives. I did not see this series, nor had any idea what it was about, until months after I had returned—and so I watched with a sort of disbelief at first. As the Pope breathed, the city held its breath. As the world held its breath, Venice, for a while, breathed and sighed in its sleep.
To not be a Venetian and to wake in Venice is a curious thing; during the entirety of my stay, every time I woke—whether in the morning or the middle of the night—it felt as if I was entering another dream. This is less romantic than it is prosaic: staying in an apartment on the Campo Santa Fosca directly overlooking a canal, the sound of water is the first thing I would hear in my hypnagogic state. It had the effect of falling asleep, then waking, in a bath, or what it used to be like to sleep, unaccustomed, on a waterbed—for a few moments one does not realise where one is or how one got there, the humid scent of water lapping at one’s dreams. But I also do not personally know any Venetians, and it might also be true that they, too, sleep and wake to the sound of water as if they were permanently in a dream. (I did, however, watch a dog in an apartment across the water from me every day—hanging its head outside of the window, the rapt look on its face and the wag of its tail were enough to convince me this dream state extended at least to the local pets). This lack of boundary considered in itself is romantic, because it makes one think of life lived as a constant journey, despite being fixed to a place. To go as one does in Venice, from this aqueous limen into the city itself, made of up such a labyrinth of streets, reminded me of lungs again; its narrow, many passages as bronchi and bronchioles, of openings and discovery, and most of all, of what it is to breathe.
It would come as no real surprise then, least of all to myself, that once I started to walk in the city, I found my breathing mirroring its shapes: in the squares and wider streets, it came and went with a luxuriant ease born of forgetting, the relative emptiness contributing to a—false or otherwise—sense of freedom. Then there was also an impression of emotional displacement, as in the large, near-empty corner by the main gate of the Arsenale where, for a while, the streets are broad, waiting for footfall that has not—and will not—come. The shadows falling on the pavements—bright faded white of the pride of stone lions, dark-green shuttered arches—made me think whatever I was feeling would only make itself known if I stopped looking directly at them, but through that strange frame instead. Here my breath was metronomic, a measured and precise uncanniness where the shutters might have opened and closed, the shadows withdrawn and closed-in, in rhythm; with only the still lions watching the landscape from within a time of their own, where past and present looped as if played on some great cosmic reel.
In the narrower passages off of the main thoroughfares or in the less intruded districts, I could feel my breath tighten; sometimes seized by a respiratory claustrophobia that those old deniers of my condition would point to, in triumph, as a proof that it was all in my head. At others, in a kind of empathy with the city’s urban planning and architecture, the longing to sigh at its beauty was stopped short by an indescribable presentiment of loss, as if breathing of any kind would take away from what surrounded me: the cherubic or sometimes grotesque open-mouthed waterspouts on the sides of buildings; sleeping cats piled atop each other in baskets and boxes on ledges in neighbourhoods of almost impermeable quiet, slandered in old tales as stealers of breath. Most of all, the bending pomegranate trees that were everywhere, their melancholy gesture making even the curving prongs of their crowned fruit appear like open, wailing mouths.
To look at certain buildings is to note their own kind of capacity or lack thereof: for light, for space, even for thought. A building or a street can be aware of itself. Their proximity and geometry in relation to its surroundings, living or otherwise, denote its meaning and its message, while our proximity to theirs reflects our capability and our hubris. More often than not, the urban landscape functions as a vanitas, albeit one we choose to ignore or interpret in any way except the one including death, its most important sign. Here was a place in the time of the new plague that reminded one in every possible way of it, with almost every building bearing its reminders or its intimate associates: cats, pomegranates, the quarantine islands of Lazzaretto Vecchio and Lazzaretto Nuovo, the medico della peste, even its food—fave dei morti is the Venetian version of osso dei morti, the biscuits shaped to resemble the bones of the dead.
Besides this, another invisible shroud veiled the city. Only a couple of weeks prior, David Graeber, the persistent critic of how we live now and its gross inequalities, had died in Venice. It was impossible not to think of the line in Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country, “the slow hot crape-smelling months, lived encircled by shrouded images of woe”. Visible and invisible, Venice permanently and eternally signifies loss. The weight of the vast cloak of mourning we so quickly learned we were wearing that first year acted not just as a mass grieving, but a mass blindness we were unable to adjust to. The elements of living devoid of life—the structures of the day-to-day—were nothing more than skeletons whose bones chimed the hours passing in no discernible direction. In Giorgio de Chirico and the Metaphysical City, Ara H. Merijan writes, apropos the shadowed arches and alien objects in the painting The Evil Genius of a King, that: “the city that hosts them forms a vanitas: a solid object and an emptied sign. And let us remember that it is emptiness—a daemon, a house genie, an absence—that defines architecture to begin with: solidity structured around a hollow. The living city is always already its own skeleton, a tectonic physics haunted by its own vacancy.” We watched our cities, houses, and especially our bodies turn into hollows and hauntings. They were occupied, but with the unease that comes with unfamiliarity, one nestled into the next like a matryoshka, hoping we could reach meaning before nothingness.
Venice is looked at—perhaps more so than other places in the world—but it is also not seen. In this sense, it is like viewing the body, although I would not like to say anything so clichéd about viewing the soul. There is something in Venice beyond the skin of history and its tourist face that is rarely captured, perhaps because it can only be expressed as an impossibility. In a small way, the abstract realisations that come from the peripheries of the unconscious resemble how asthmatics come to know themselves: lost in the concentration of the hissing nebuliser, or in the early dark hours of low breathing when one grasps that the bridge between life and death is as ephemeral as an exhalation. In his 1987 essay “The Objective in Vision”, the photographer Luigi Ghirri referred to “lost landscapes” by saying that: “for this landscape, the only definitions possible are the interchangeable, the indecipherable, the unknowable, the endless, a modern Babel. […] perhaps they are awaiting a new vocabulary, new figures, because the ones we know are worn out, and because many of them have not constituted mere changes in the landscapes much as changes in life.” This ever-shifting Venice is, in the best way, a landscape of ghosts, of spirits released from their static pre-pandemic depths to speak in a language we may only now be capable of understanding. As Eugene Thacker acutely says, “the problem with the world is that one must always speak from within it.” The corollary to this is the world itself can only speak from without; two things forever speaking past each other.
But now, we find ourselves without the very world where we remained cocooned, a metaphysical dilemma that may also be the only circumstance under which we can actually communicate. What this time has done is distort our individual and collective outlooks beyond what most of us could have imagined—excepting fiction and art, which we think of as exercises in the pre-tested tensile imaginary. De Chirico asks, “who can deny the troubling relationship that exists between perspective and metaphysics?”, to which Merjian responds, “it is the absence of subjects that renders these objects more troubling still.” It is not that I consider myself able to more successfully exist in this new time than others—indeed, I have lost even more time within lost time due to periods of near-paralytic anxious despair—but that, having considered myself as breath without body for years by basing my self-regard in the lungs no less than on my cultural and sexual identity, this was how I had already made sense of my place in the world.
As a result of my ability (or disability), part of me understood the strangeness of the landscape even as it recognised the disbelief embedded in our current state of existence. It was because I had seen myself as an object rather than a subject for so long: a nebuliser; an inhaler; a humidifier; a propped pillow; a medicine spoon. Unlike the painter Arcimboldo’s subjects created of objects—fruits, vegetables and flowers—I could not even see myself built into the shape of a person from these things. Instead, I was more like de Chirico’s scattered objects on a remote shadowed plane, searching for a language with which to communicate. It was only now, with the world out of step and out of time, that I began to recognise a subject in those objects, to acknowledge that these distances and shadows always were part of a language that I understood. In Venice I heard and spoke with my lungs as much as with my ears and mouth; I found relief in seeing that, in the city’s signs, it understood my object-self too. In “The Redemption of Objects”, Italo Calvino reflects this in writing: “The human is the trace that man leaves in things […] it is the continuous dissemination of works and objects and signs […] if we deny this sphere of signs that surrounds us with its thick dust-cloud, man cannot survive. […] every man is man-plus-things […] he recognizes the human that has been in things, the self that has taken shape in things.”
There was never more than a vague shape to our everyday wanderings for, as Manguel says, “getting to know Venice entails losing yourself in it”. We walked at that in-between speed that politely lets fellow pedestrians know you have no destination, but are still aware of them and your surroundings. As if raptured, there were times when people seemingly appeared transported from a parallel dimension in which all was well, at least until one observed details. On their hands and knees, shopkeepers scrubbed pavements outside of their establishments with wooden bristled brushes, soapy water and disinfectant, a quotidian ritual now imbued with extra care; just inside doorways, industrial-size bottles of hand sanitiser, with signs urging and thanking customers to use them generously before moving on, were checked and refilled. At the bases of the innumerable stone pedestrian bridges that connect the city, gondoliers stood, assessing passers-by: spotting tourists with a practised eye, they called out across and above locals, haggling seemingly amongst themselves, a sung-out lowest price drifting over heads in the hope of attracting a customer on the breeze.
At Caffè Florian in St Mark’s Square for a late breakfast one morning, the numerous outside tables that would have been packed at any other time were almost empty. The café persisted, a singer and accompanying musicians in a large bandstand before the columns going through a mostly Sinatra repertoire politely attended by us few. A lone toddler danced energetically, clapping afterwards, to which the ensemble bowed with as much gravity as if the café’s corner of the square had been full. I sipped a cioccolataCasanova—hot chocolate with mint cream—and looked off, in the near distance, at the thin line of tourists waiting to get into the basilica. Squinting, the uniformity of the masks and spacing made them look like they were at a form of devotions; they were, of course. Here and now, regardless of denomination, of belief or disbelief, we all were people of the same small cloth. Those of us not inclined to any of the prayers heard within the walls of St. Mark’s were nevertheless silently asking of the air: why, I wish I had, how long, what if, questions that were muffled in the filters and that became tangled in the weave of our coverings on their way to whatever deities or spirits were still extant and kindly disposed towards our plight.
In front of the cafés that lined the inner streets and corners, ubiquitous white-aproned waiters sung out “Aperol Spritz?” in questioning tones. Thanks to what the New York Times called “an aggressive marketing campaign”, Aperol—the greater cultural importance of which may be as an accessible simulacrum of joie de vivre for our times—is currently the known and accepted drink of the meandering tourist (as opposed to the Bellini of Harry’s Bar and the Gritti Palace, the destination cocktail), and an infinitesimal movement of the head or eye would be sprung upon with more cajoling—sometimes a good quarter-way down the street. Each time I witnessed one or the other, I would remember that breath, for many of Venice’s citizens, is about two kinds of labour, intensifying the complexity of what it meant now to be shut up, vocally and physically. In London, we had a relic of an earlier time still passing through our neighbourhood: a singing knife-grinder, who walked the streets every month or so with sharpening tools on his back, crying out “knives to grind” in a drawn-out call. Once the first lockdown started, we heard him no more, and worried that his voice had been permanently stilled. But sometime in the summer, with the lifting of restrictions, we were relieved to hear him again, same as it ever was, voice ringing in the street.
In a perhaps needlessly stubborn gesture, I would always order Campari soda at these cafés, not out of an attempt to distinguish myself from other tourists, but because a combative amaro—the more medicinal or herbal, the better—gives me a special satisfaction. I once read of a famous editrix and writer, whose name now escapes me, who was known to drink Campari straight. This rather masochistic choice delights me, as it reminds me of being a child in the throes of a week or more-long bout of extreme tightchestedness, not yet able to use an inhaler and having to take an impossibly bitter liquid medicine called Quibron. I would sit up nights with my father, locked in a showdown of three until I forced myself to swallow the small, full-dosage spoon. This direct if slightly perverse road from illness to pleasure does not escape me; I am sure the child who sat obstinately in the cold kitchen thinks of amaro as a reward for taking my medicine back then, but also wants to remind me she has never forgotten our sick times, and neither should I.
Besides Venice’s physical detachment, what contributed most to its unreality at that time was its lack. Its emptiness was a marker of fact that there were fewer tourists than there had been for who knew how long: fifty years or more would not have seemed to me unreasonable. No immense cruise ships loomed in the lagoon; as a result, there was little in the way of water traffic—mostly locals in small boats ferrying supplies, a handful of gondolas in operation. Only the vaporetti continued undeterred, back and forth along their daily stops. The non-Italian voices I heard were almost solely German, it being one of the very few countries having low enough of a dip to consider short leisure travel at the time. I wondered how full it had been at the time when Brodsky was here for Watermark, or if what I was seeing was even less populated than the city he had occupied. It occurred to me that I had never really been to a destination city that was not overflowing with people. Even as a child born in the mid-70s, globalisation—at least in terms of holiday travel—was, if not quite what it had been until recently, still a reminder that the world could go mostly where it pleased, when it pleased them.
There is a great pleasure in being on intimate terms with a city, especially a smaller one. Venice encourages such behaviour from strangers, its layout being so entwined with waterways and passages and bridges no longer than a few steps’ length that, especially at night, it feels as wholly yours as a new lover—to the point where one’s breath quickens in familiar excitement on finding a new bridge; a lively dead-end, full of multicoloured doors whose pigments, softened and blurred by the elements, look like a gallery of Rothkos; a shadowy street where one must be entirely absorbed into its darkness; a park that leads you through its bay and topiary portal to a new and unknown part of the city. It is also the only threesome known to humanity that does not present the problem of how to equitably divide one’s attention: you and your companion are fully engrossed in the revealing yet secretive city.
I wondered just how different Watermark would have been—or would it have been written at all—had Brodsky successfully bedded the possibly Shalimar-perfumed, fur-clad veneziana that he longs for at the beginning of his essay. Had he accurately guessed the perfume, it would be an ideal olfactory profile for the city: its warm, vanillic, citric smokiness is among the few scents that smells the way an animal’s fur feels; luxurious but slightly abrasive, it is easy for me to conjure the image of the gorgeously attired object of his lust prowling the night streets of Venice like a black cat clinging to its fellow shadows. At any rate, his failure is literature’s benefit. His unrequited desire was transferred to Venice, to stones and to water rather than flesh, despite having a kinship, within the tenderness of memory—like Calvino’s city of Zobeide—built to fulfill the uncaptured desire of men’s dreams. It was a passion I understood fully: after a lifetime self-exiling—or escaping—I lived the city as an object of desire, love, or lust—like a person—and to explore it for the first time, and then ever afterwards, is not unlike exploring the body of a lover. To wish to be familiar with every surface, line, curve, and space is an impossibility, for the two constantly change despite retaining a welcoming intimacy through the senses. But one goes back, again and again, to find themselves in what feels like the most private of landscapes. To walk is a form of love; to love is to lose oneself with full faith in the unknown.
Having spent much of one’s childhood sick, there is a great desire to break free of the narrative of illness. This is not to say I deny this thing that I have had for almost as long as I began to recognise my presence in the world, as well as memory, but it is is also like a shadow in that one acknowledges its permanence while also knowing there are blessed times where it can be almost forgotten. Even so, it tugs at the hems of clothes and whispers in the ear when it feels you have been too dismissive of it; it reminds you that, along with your thoughts, it is your life’s companion more than any person could be. I came to Venice to see if there might be a crack in this time that I could escape through, an all-too-human folly.
If one were to anthropomorphise illness, it could be said my breathless shadow was in its element here, where there was respect for its power: the diligent usage of masks, the signs on windows—indossare mascherina and 4 persone per volta—the temperature guns pointed at our foreheads before entering museums. On the vaporetti, the driver-captains would seemingly monitor passengers with eyes in the backs of their heads; they knew when someone had tried to surreptitiously slip one off completely, or just enough. The warnings were loud and stern—enough for the passenger, embarrassed, to apologise and return to full coverage. On the news, there was the story of one who was ejected altogether, deposited on the nearest jetty. Despite the vaporetti being open boats, the Venetians took things fervently. At least then, they could see their past plague reflections too clearly in the waters and mirrors and, again, it was all a relief: validation that the illnesses of breathing were real, and that I had not spent my entire life prisoner to something unreal. Its invisibility had always been its power, and suddenly the world had to accept a presence that did not exist in a way they had been used to understanding. It is also a particular human trait to think, even in illness, that what is worthy of defeating is also expected to manifest as grotesque. And so this unseen sickness is, in every way, John Ruskin’s “fallen human soul” mirroring the truths of the world as it distorts them.
While the overall mood in Venice was cheerful, it could hardly be called celebratory, and it was in one of the city’s narrow passages that I had my reckoning with the unknown observer I had felt was watching me since I first stepped foot on the water’s edge. There was nothing out of the ordinary about the passage itself—another street full of pasticcerie, shops stuffed with Murano glass knickknacks and jewellery, gelaterias with their neat aluminum trays holding small, but seemingly self-replenishing, mountains of pastel-hued gelato which reminded me of my mother’s obi: pistacchio green, crema yellow, fragola pink. It was then I noticed the mask shop. The large window display held very little in the way of the more traditional masks, like the bauta or arlecchino. Instead, it was full of animal masks—rows of foxes, rabbits, more exotic creatures, and fantastical birds, with a single medico della peste off to the side, looking on; not out the window, but at its companions.
It was the orderliness of the display that struck me. Most shops haphazardly displayed theirs, tradition eclipsed by the Commedia the shopper expected to see—the harlequin colours, gilt and ribbon, the eerie glossed porcelain white—knowing full well that new tropes and characters were now projected onto the masks: The Influencer, The Artist, The Politician, The Activist, The Tech Entrepreneur. For all their novelty, they are not without the same echoes of entertainment, courage, villainy, and pathos. Signifiers such as the Commedia masks persist in the same way the tarot does; it is the signified that shifts with time, events, and self-reflection. Arcana, or secrets: greater and lesser, who or what represents our passage through time; the masks we attire ourselves with, in the hope that their addition or removal may reveal new aspects of ourselves, like a shedding of skin. Such signs are everywhere, from the molting of snakes and the rising of the mythic phoenix, to the invisible turnover of our own cells, and the cloak of many furs and the three dresses of sun, moon and stars worn by the fugitive princess in the Grimm’s “Many-Furred Creature”. New skin, new selves; new breath, new life. Even Brodsky came to Venice after being exiled from his old one.
This was less a riot of a menagerie than a judgment gallery: eyeless holes, with no expectation of future merriment, observing the observer, recalling their own previous plague. The darkened sockets did not telegraph a silently felicitous you are here, but a sombre why are you. They were not the beneficent masks of my childhood, with the power to change, but eternal observers of change that they could not alter despite what was projected onto—into—them. My eyes could not meet the place where theirs would have been; in my mind I tried to answer the why that cried and squawked in inquisition. The living and the dead, folly and risk, the desire to either wait for an end or tear through one’s time in the hope that it lets in the next, something better. Perhaps every decision is foolish, because the only unending there can be is the repetition of time that does not include us. Why are you? asked two separate questions—my presence and my existence—neither of which I could have satisfactorily answered. I saw my reflection juxtaposed as if I were the unreal, set against the masks; a Turbeville-esque spectral image, with its implied violence not of the physical, but the linguistic. The images inquire as if the viewer was an intruder.
Whatever the justifications or reasoning, my newly collected metaphors and signs were now like ash in front of that display, with its history of histories: war, disease, and celebration. I had conquered nothing coming here and I knew it—the valedictory belonged to the masks. As the passage came to an end, opening out into a near-empty square, I took a maskless breath. There was still fear of the unknown and disbelief in the world, but there was at least still breath. For now, to see and to breathe was enough, to start to make sense of the senseless. What exists only for a moment can be lived upon in leaner times. In Robert Harbison’s Eccentric Spaces, he speaks of the imaginary Venice of the National Gallery catalogue, where to wander through the paintings is to have an experience in which “uncertainties are richer than the truth, and imaginary Venetian journeys more engaging than the actual. […] but it is also the only way of holding on to the real ones. First the experience imposes itself and then gradually we impose more and more on it, the ordering of learning which falsifies and leaves us feeling how much is left out.” This strange stopped time reimagined and recreated Venice as the imaginary actual, an open-eyed dream-state, the pushing and the pushback of experience and projection resulting in zero; a palpable and present emptiness like breathing, the world as a de Chirico-esque landscape of shadows and masks seeking a subject and meaning.
What was left out was as if it never had been, and what remained—the distance and the space between us that was both our uncertainty and our new language—became truth. Meaning is the search for signs that place us in the world, a shared breath indicating we are not alone, subjects recognising each other in objects, a haruspex diving entrails. Venice sighed while the world slept; counting down to a time in which the very act of breathing would no longer be uncanny, a violence against ourselves and others, or breathlessly restrained. Canaletto’s aquamarine waves lapped at the edge of our collective dream, anticipating that the sleeper might awake, again, to the excitement of possibility. Per sospirare, per respirare. To sigh, to breathe; the unseen wisps that bridge one reality and another, connect us still in a world without touch.
Image: Tomoé Hill