Flights of Fancy
by Robert Wexelblatt
Looking at old pictures. Here they are. Traces left by reflected light and vibrating air. Shimmering, banal, piercing, but revealing only when we convince ourselves by repeating the word. What we have here is a memory of memories.
Only the visible gives warrant to the invisible, the audible to the inaudible. Tantalized by certain negatives we insist they’re positives; thus the two most fatiguing études in concentration are trying to listen to what you can’t hear, looking for what you can’t see. In the same way, being unwilling to make do with making do means searching out the ineffable.
The art that is common to oyster shuckers, atom smashers, peelers of onions, interviewers, photographers.
Tapes and pictures turn gradually, or suddenly, into these memories of memories: faces written in vanished light, voices that once disturbed distant air. Just re-runs.
See, Mother? I can still can’t write a sentence.
• • •
-So, why did you withdraw?
-Withdraw? What’s that mean? A dignified advance to the rear?
-Cutting yourself off from public life then.
-I never engaged in such a thing as public life. In fact, the phrase sounds to me like a contradiction. Public as in mechanical, as in artificially constructed; life as in organic, also constructed, but from inside. Or maybe I’ve always been what you call withdrawn. An introvert for life.
-You were a celebrity. A huge one.
-That’s a laugh. Say I was known by people I didn’t want to know. I was young and bookish. When I figured it out I stopped doing public readings.
-You say life is constructed from within. Do you mean your, well, your seclusion’s been constructed from within . . . ? You don’t choose to display yourself to others? Society began to disgust you? The baseness of people, the degradation of culture? Cults of personality? Sexuality’s compromises? Universal guilt? The cheapening of politics . . ?
-No, no. Please, don’t stop. You’re as lyrical as Jeremiah. Go on. It’s always fascinating to hear how a lover makes the case against her beloved.
-You think I love the world?
-Well, I’ve only just met you, though I’ve read several examples of your work, which seems to me very good. All the same, yes, I think you must love the world, at least to the extent of wishing to seek it out, to interview it, which is to say, in a certain measure, to preserve the world.
-I interview people, not the world.
-But there’s no world apart from the people who conceive it. Each of us is a world, which is what makes death a serious matter. Isn’t that what you’re after, somebody’s world, the one that would die with them?
-Doesn’t it occur to you that my purpose isn’t to love or preserve the world but to expose it?
-Then you’re out to expose me? Not a pretty prospect. But no, nothing to do with me personally. The lover always wants to expose the beloved . . . . Or is that too masculine a thing to say? You know the phrase to undress her with his eyes? It’s vulgar but sharp. I wonder if we’re going to flirt or talk like serious middle-aged people? More coffee?
-No, thank you. And you can be as masculine as you like, but I’m not flirting. And I resent your suggesting . . . Look, I want to come back to my question, which you’re evading all too well.
-And that was?
-I’m asking myself whether it’s odd that a famous interviewer should be trapped by words.
-Withdrawal? It’s not merely a word. After all, you live way out here. On a ranch all by yourself, like a hermit.
-It’s not a ranch actually. It was one, but no more. And I see people from time to time. I have friends. I’m seeing you. As for my being a hermit, hermits used to talk to angels who sometimes fed them. They prayed. They resisted temptations heroically and strove to leave the world.
-Whereas they are the world?
-Precisely. They were a world. It’s a noble but doomed effort trying to climb up out of it.
-Like a hermit, I said.
-Well, and there’s another word that puts a lens over the camera.
- . . . All right. I admit it. You’re defeating me. Happy?
-Our conversations needn’t be like combat, though many of the best are. Still, my opinion isn’t worth much. I admit that I don’t have many non-functional conversations with other people. Still, it seems to me that this kind of bantering or sparring could be an alliance; I mean we can attack a common enemy, struggle together to the same end—
-That kind of combat usually winds up in bed.
-Only in comedies, not in, say, Plato’s dialogues. I know, you need a serious conversation—and no flirting, remember?
-Serious, yet . . . inconsequential.
-Exactly. So there’s no need to be polite.
-Not if you don’t want to.
-A mind that’s used to conversing with itself doesn’t bother much with manners. Anyway, I don’t know how to be interviewed, lack the knack. So, excuse me. Correct me when I break the rules.
-You’re doing fine. Just keep doing. Now, what about withdrawal which by any name still means an unusually sparse social life, which you admit to. You used to live differently. Ten years ago you moved out here, bought this place. You vanished.
-Vanished? . . . Life sometimes turns people about the way a framed photograph can be set down this way or that.
-But a photograph’s purely passive, a thing. People aren’t things.
-People aren’t passive, that’s true. They’re only more or less passive.
-Then life turned you . . . away? Like a portrait? And what do you mean by life? What happened ten years ago? It seems to me when people blame things on life there are events they would prefer not to discuss.
-Then it wouldn’t be polite of you to inquire further.
-Oh, now I see. I’m to be polite but you’re not!
-The guest should always outdo the host in courtesy. Otherwise she could feel uncomfortable.
-Why are you here and not . . . out there?
-Valéry’s Monsieur Teste is insufferable. Do you know the book?
-Teste boasts of himself: “I am not turned toward the world. My face is to the wall. There is not an atom of the wall’s surface that is not known to me.”
-And that’s how you feel?
-No. As a matter of fact I disapprove of Teste’s boast, though I admit I can’t forget it. Still, it’s not at all the sort of thing Teste ought to say. Too much amour-propre, even for him—that claim to know every atom, for instance. Worse yet, the remark’s romantic and nobody’s less romantic than Teste. So, either he’s speaking out of character or Valéry was recording a moment of weakness. Nobody deserves to have their character judged only by a moment of weakness, even in literature. Or it may just be a weakness on Valéry’s part; after all, he couldn’t resist allowing Teste a putative wife and a friend to adore him. Why not a dog as well?
-Why are you talking about Monsieur Teste?
-Why not? He too is withdrawn, a sort of hermit. He has no emotions and lives entirely in his perceptions, which he’s at great pains to make precise. By most standards, he’s striving to become superhuman, which is to say inhuman . . . . Maybe I’m talking about how you seem to see me.
-Then, you’re not romantic?
-Ah, the way you fasten on a word. First off, grown-up people are seldom romantic, though they may be misperceived by others who think they are. Or maybe that’s what romance is, a mistake people make about each other, an optical problem. I suppose some persist with the image even after being confronted with the reality. After all, it’s a great age for extending adolescence, isn’t it?
-Forty year-olds in blue jeans?
-Ha. As for being romantic, that’s exactly how your books strike people. Some people at least.
-You’ve heard of incurable romantics? Okay, I’m a cured one.
-What cured you?
-The usual thing. Bitter medicine.
-You want to explain?
-Not really. Talking too freely about yourself is a kind of weakness too. It’s not like judging yourself . . . .
• • •
My profession: from dark room to darkroom.
This is a law: recording tends to displace remembering. The former progresses at the side of modernity, goading it along. Homer wrote nothing down. History in the future will truly be bunk, comprehensively accessible and utterly forgotten. Remember - recollect - recall - it’s on the tip of my tongue - let me look it up - whatever.
Am I being too hard? Distinctions are brutal, which is certainly part of their allure. One of Mother’s secrets was to be alert to this brutality, but not always to avoid it. She would sort of head it off before she scared the wild beast she meant to tame. “Interviewing isn’t war; it’s domestication. That’s why women are better at it.” To make the subject docile requires as much giving in as engineering dominance. Giving in can even be a way of dominating (a feminine wile?). The colt gives in because it is not giving in when it gives in. Giving in as successful seduction.
She once said to me about her technique (how she loved to talk technique!) that one had sometimes to challenge the subject’s point of view but must never contradict it outright. “Let them contradict themselves,” she declared. People are on their guard in an interview and so will be grateful for the space to disagree with themselves. Out of gratitude they may spill everything, thinking they can take it back.
People want space to be complex and deep in. Who opens up in a cell, except under torture? “To interview is not to interrogate. But the aims aren’t all that different.”
Distinctions as the walls of a cell, a cell of forced consistency. No wonder I preferred my camera.
The camera, though, is a cell too, the narrowest. He taught me that, the Italian phrase. “Do you know why it’s called a camera?” Light captured in darkness, revealed in darkness.
“From dark room to darkroom,” he said. “It could be a description of life.”
• • •
-Now, about the two years in prison.
-There’s a hawk. See? Red-tailed.
-In Pennsylvania wasn’t it?
-They can spot a vole from a mile up, but probably not a second vole a foot away. Tunnel vision makes for nobility of action. A fly sees in every direction but only for a few inches. If you’re short-sighted and see too much you’re an insect.
-Why? Why prison? Was it the same as in the book?
-I wouldn’t step over a line.
-Some genius thought of it. Step over that line. A bully’s dare. I mean the physicality of it is arresting. No commitment’s real unless it’s physical. This is how you accept induction into the armed forces, you step across a line. A free act, you see. Democratic and metaphorical. Putting yourself on the line, moving into the line, the front line, the firing line.
-Or giving in, toeing the line. Everybody else took the step, you stayed behind.
-I was scared, of course.
-That’s no distinction. So were they, I imagine. It’s what you do with being scared that counts, isn’t it?
-Don’t be flippant. There’s a famous scene in your first book where the young man has it out with his father. A professor, right?
-Of philosophy, like you.
-Of philosophy. They argue about Socrates. About Crito.
-I’m sorry. I hardly remember it.
-Did you have a debate like that with your own father?
-Oh no. Dad wanted me out of the country. He thought the war was wrong long before I did. How could we argue?
-But you didn’t go to Canada.
-Or Sweden. Or over that line. It was a short multiple-choice test: army, exile, jail.
-In the book the father cites Socrates to the effect that the law of the state has to be obeyed or the state would be undermined.
-I suppose I was doing some contrived generation gap scene.
-The son says if that’s all Socrates believed he wouldn’t be in prison inventing civil disobedience. He cites scripture, where Socrates says one must change the state’s view of justice and you can’t do that by either knuckling under or running away.
-Why bring this up? Look, it’s a terrible thing for a son to beat his father in an argument, if he loves him. Forcing him into a corner like that. The father in the book had spent his life adoring Plato, so it’s even worse. For that alone my tin-pot hero deserved a couple years.
-You think so now. Did you think so then?
- . . . Oh, when isn’t punishment justifiable? Tell me, does your daughter, does Emily ever win an argument with you?
• • •
The clutch of breath at the magic syllables of your own name. And the way he said it too: “does your daughter, does Emily.” Formal, stately, forever mine. Emily the daughter, the teenager, Emily the photographer holding up her little dark room, Emily whose individuality he acknowledges without apposition.
I took black and white and also color. Of course the former are the ones that have lasted best. Memories, like dreams, are colorless and sharp.
All my doing, that interview; it was my production, on my head. I read the book, made her read it, whined about getting out of the city, riding horses, seeing sagebrush and tumbleweeds, about the millions of devoted readers who’d love to know what became of him, how keen I was to meet him myself. I preferred the two later books, the ones that hadn’t sold or been turned into movies. He couldn’t help smiling when I told him and that’s probably why I told him, for the sake of that smile. The wish to please others is usually a sly way of pleasing ourselves. Cagey, flattering North American adolescent female with long hair already aware of how a giggle could shatter the wine-glass ego of even a mesomorphic quarterback.
How beautiful his red biplane was. It looked like a big toy. “Used to be a crop duster,” he said. “Picked it up pretty cheap.”
“Take me up,” I begged.
Flight of fancy, but then all flights are fanciful. I still have the dream of rising and swimming with my arms and feet through an ocean of air, slowly, able to talk to those below, unnecessarily bound by gravity, because they refuse to believe it’s not some trick. I never go higher than a ceiling, though there’s no fear of going higher. I know I can, but prefer the satisfaction of exhorting those below, encouraging them to join me. Wendy and the Lost Boys.
Mother said if he said yes, which was unlikely given his reputation, she would aim to get him to talk most about his solitude. She had interviewed a prisoner of war who told her that what kept him from killing himself was the other prisoners. What kept him from killing himself? Was loneliness his glory or despair? Up in his plane, he said, he felt best. Pilots always do. Perhaps solitude is more exquisite in the air, purified, since he needn’t speak to those below, what few there were in that empty land.
The barn had been extended to include a hangar. Horses on one side, plane on the other. Smells of oil and manure mingled as if it were the turn of the century. Teenager that I was, I called the plane “cute.” Surprisingly tiny leather seats. He brushed back my hair before I climbed in and asked if I could perhaps try to sulk a little less. And it was true. I slouched the teenage slouch, pouted with pseudo-ennui. I frowned at him and held up my camera aggressively.
“Cameras steal souls,” he said with a shrug, as though his soul could not be captured or as if he lacked one.
“Bullshit,” I replied. “Let’s get up there before she changes her mind.”
And Mother might have. I had a tough time convincing her, kept looking to him for support, but he refused. Impassive. Nonchalant. Didn’t matter to him. Not his idea.
Mother didn’t like it, my going up or not going up; or maybe she disliked having the last word, the way we both wouldn’t challenge her authority. I took three pictures of her deciding. Close-ups of the furrowed brow, the downturned mouth, the exasperated cheeks. And somewhere in the eyes suspicion, maybe jealousy.
He took me up. I’d never been in a small plane before. The take-off was glorious, but I became unexpectedly nauseated by the first tight turn. We stayed up for all of five minutes. Five minutes over the ranch, the plains stretching toward mauve mountains. It was like laying a baby in a crib the way he set us down. The smoothness of sleep when you’re young, the innocence of one’s first dreams.
• • •
-How did your marriage end?
-What a question!
-Why? Should I be more polite? Should I . . . meander up to the interesting questions?
- . . . I’d like to say she died in childbirth and then I walked back to the hotel in the rain. I’d like to say it was after a short, tragic illness, or that she was shot down in a crossfire while covering a post-colonial war.
-You’d like her dead?
-Yes, I suppose, but in the nicest way, without malice.
-And the truth is . . . ?
-The truth is . . . contradictory, as usual.
-Why contradictory as usual?
-It’s always like that. Can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em. A sentiment that was old before Gilgamesh. Usually men say it and smile at each other and stay with the women they’ve just said it about. I didn’t. We didn’t. Have you noticed that people can make too many demands of one another and, at the same time, not nearly enough? Generally speaking, sex is too expensive, unless that’s the only thing you want.
-So you claim to be celibate?
-Celibacy. It’s not a trait women find attractive.
-Do you miss it, sex?
-I didn’t say . . . Well, all bad habits seem natural to us. Ask a smoker or a thumb-sucker.
-The Bible says it’s bad for a man to live alone.
-So I’ve heard. How about you?
-My husband left me.
-For a younger woman.
-Simple as that? A cliché?
-Well, he’s the sophisticated kind. He performed the cliché with irony.
-How did Emily react?
-Oh, she blamed him, then herself, then me.
• • •
Was it true? Did I? I was eleven when it happened. I don’t remember being surprised or blaming. It was hardly abnormal to have divorced parents. The irritating thing as I remember it was that neither tried to spoil me, to win me over, which is what my friends gleefully predicted would happen. That was what I resented, wanting not the presents and treats, but to be the field of battle. There wasn’t any battle. Nothing the least bit stormy. I didn’t feel tugged either way, wanted or unwanted. Dad was the least bit guilty for the least possible time. That was when I scored my first Nikon. I struck while the iron was hot. But the camera was barely enough.
Mother was determined to be strict with me. Life is hard, work is all-important, to indulge oneself is to decay. “Discipline alone can save you and discipline begins with good habits.” By which she meant the absence of bad ones, those bad habits that he wisely said are so natural to us.
Rebellion: taciturnity accompanied by an obsession with photography. One picture would absolve me from having to speak a thousand words. The world, I thought, should be kept at a precisely calibrated distance, and yet would open itself to me, only me. I alone would pierce through it with the eye of a red-tailed hawk. Words penetrated nothing; on the contrary, words were always more or less lies. Barriers and baffles. No one could have been more sentimental about snapping pictures. Or more laconic.
But I really did love his books. I figured a hundred thousand of his words equaled five score first-rate photographs.
So I talked her into asking him for that interview, into taking me along just so I could take his picture. What I suppose I wanted was portraits of the boys in his books, with whom I was in love. I was sure I would find those boys in him. I was certain his face would be a palimpsest.
• • •
-Do you still write?
-Sometimes. A lot more often than I swim, not quite so often as I fly, or ride my horses. One has one’s favorite distractions. It’s beautiful country, isn’t it? Sundown, such a lovely word. Did you like the teriyaki?
-What are you writing?
-The truth, I hope. That’s to say . . . fiction.
-Only fiction can tell the truth?
-I believe people have different tastes in truth, if they have any taste at all for it, which is rare. That’s what I learned at the university.
-What do you mean?
-Each discipline, sometimes each professor, represented for me a different truth, or rather a different path leading to it. I quite liked physics and biology, for instance. But they weren’t my paths. Still, why rule them out?
-May I ask you something?
-What else have you been doing?
-You know what I mean.
-All right. I know.
-Why did you consent to let me interview you?
-Oh . . . I suppose I was feeling like one lonesome old cowboy.
-Emily likes you.
-Really? I’m surprised you say so. She doesn’t appear to like much of anything.
-She’s sixteen. It’s a pose, and it’s beginning to break down.
-It’s been nice having you here. I’m sorry you’re leaving.
-I guess it’s back to the salt mines tomorrow.
-New York is a salt mine. How about Emily?
-She gets to spend the next two weeks with her father. He and his new family are living it up in Maine.
-Does she want to go?
-I don’t think I’d dare.
-Look, while I’m asking non-interview stuff--do you ever see your ex?
-Ran into him at a wedding last summer. When he bumped into me, spilling his drink by the way, I looked over his shoulder and said, “Excuse me, dear, but I think I see someone I don’t know.”
-Not too bad . . . on the spur of the moment like that.
-Why don’t you turn that thing off.
• • •
It’s odd how little the pictures have to say. Like the ones in people’s wedding albums. Good pictures prompt something, bad ones merely register. Histories versus chronicles. Bad pictures are heresies that seem like orthodoxy. The smiles are forced, the faces strained. Places are not quite times.
It’s almost too simple and that’s what makes me unsure. But there are such hints, like her saying “I guess” that last night, like his calling himself a “lonesome old cowboy,” like his being sorry to see us go, her at least. What did I do while they were saying such extraordinary things to each other when I wasn’t sitting with them? I must have had some sense of it, I’m sure, a thrill of something in the arid air. We were there all of two days. The bathroom smelled of pine resin and soap. What was I doing while they talked? Bathing? Something with a horse? Reading? Was there even a television? I do remember listening to his old records, sixties stuff. But so much of it is wiped out, unregistered. Shock, of course, will do that. Like an explosion that vaporizes the things around it. Whatever things were said when the recorder was turned off, they’re doubly lost.
• • •
-My life is empty. Yours is full.
-Only from a distance.
-You’re successful in the way of the world.
-I’ve been lucky in that respect. And you? There’s still quite a cult, you know. They’re still waiting for the next book. Emily, for instance--
-Oh, my ex-fame. It’s easier to say what makes for success than what will keep us from being defeated by life, which is how I feel. Calling it luck is, of course, a way of saying something while saying nothing, which is the function of most of what we say to each other. Which is all right too. Who could actually bear to live in a Shakespeare play? The strain would reduce us to sucking our fingers in no time. Even poets don’t speak sensibly let alone poetically, not the best ones at least. Most speech is hardly even an act of will. I only think when I write. Unfortunately, it’s easy to write without thinking.
-The id or the muses; either way’s a fancy way of saying luck.
-Emily only believes in pictures.
-The wave of the future.
-Or the wave of the very distant past.
-Emily’ll be all right.
-Yes, I really think so.
• • •
I’m making things up now, but who knows? He might have asked her to stay. Would she have told me that night? Could she possibly even have said yes? Mother acted peculiarly when we went to bed, girlish. We giggled in our room, shushed each other so he wouldn’t hear. I told her how I dreaded Maine and that made her happy. And then I told her that it was obvious he liked her, that he had said so when we were in the biplane. He hadn’t but I wanted to make her still happier and I did. She wanted details. It was like middle school.
We had to go but we could have come back, couldn’t we?
I could see she was afraid of the plane but she insisted. She wanted to go up too. She wanted a ride. Just five minutes before we left. Like me. Maybe so that he would say things to her in the plane, who knows? Flights of fancy.
He agreed. He grinned boyishly. He was delighted to agree.
They circled once then headed west, away from the early sun. I could see the plane going up and up. I had my camera but I didn’t think to take a picture. Before the take-off they both waved to me. I was slouching by the hangar and didn’t wave back. If I felt any dread it was only because I was already thinking of Maine.
I used to focus my lens on adults the way you do on animals whose way of living is a mystery to you. I was only an amateur with laughable pretensions. My goal wasn’t to understand anything but to subdue everything. I did want to steal souls, to rearrange the world, to find without having to look. I was young and lazy and arrogant.
Just the thinnest thread of smoke and I thought irrationally that, after all, it used to be a crop duster.
Physics and biology, two paths that can smash together in a single truth.
I could see that he tried to head back but the long southward bank kept prolonging itself until, unrecorded except in this memory, it turned irrevocably into something else.
Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University’s College of General Studies. He has published essays, stories, and poems in a wide variety of journals, two story collections, Life in the Temperate Zone and The Decline of Our Neighborhood, a book of essays, Professors at Play; his recent novel, Zublinka Among Women, won the Indie Book Awards First Prize for Fiction.