“Failure. A Tale with Ghosts” – the first pages in English of my new novel “Fallire. Storia con fantasmi”
Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away (Philip K. Dick)
The soul is awakening, but it still feels a prey to nightmare. It glimpses only a faint light, like a dot in a huge black circle. It is a foreboding that lacks the courage to go into this any deeper, for fear that the light may be a dream and the black circle reality (Wassily Kandinsky)
As I was contemplating the dawn, evening fell (Novalis)
On a bright afternoon I feel the spring and go to the cinema (B.S.)
(The following pages are the first of FAILURE. A Tale with Ghosts, in the English translation by Alastair McEwen, and they are a kind of introduction to the introduction… . The index of the novel is complex, however alternating chapters that bear a date of reference and other composing a novel (horror?) into the novel. The two strands, of course, converge … “Feuilleton (2011)” is a kind of general introduction, because the tale (the “story” and history) goes from 2005 to 2010… )
You find yourself in Venice in the off season – two things that go very well together – a guest of the Biennale art exhibition. They are showing a film called Io è un altro (I is someone else), and you have to talk about “art and the disabled”. Perhaps it is no accident that the seminar is being held across the water from the little island of San Servolo, where the lunatic asylum used to stand and where there is now a museum of its “remains”, and the Fondazione Franco Basaglia.
There is no art of the disabled, you say, but disability is often an art. You don’t have to be disabled to be disabled, or to be an artist, and there’s no need to be an artist so as not to be disabled. But both, the disabled and the artists, have special abilities, including their own matchless disability.
The following day, walking in the park of the exhibition that is so like a colonial zoo, shortly after the “Wheel of Fortune” by your friend Christian Boltanski in the French pavilion (a samsara amid a scaffolding structure through which run the faces of newborn Polish babies and of deceased Swiss), you come across an installation entitled Feuilleton, in the Belgian pavilion.
The video screens show alternating images of news items, politicians, celebrities, picturesque places, ferocious animals, news and stereotypes. On these is projected the artist’s hand as he draws signs and forms with no relation to the photographs that roll along, a hand that indeed partly covers that uneven but stubborn contest, that delicate conflict, with the official images of the world.
The artist’s brushstrokes, touches of colour as light as butterflies, stand out fragile on the monitor against the background of that imposing visual noise of “news” that, seldom nice to look at, possesses a hypnotic power similar to the scenes of a thriller you come across by chance half way through the film, without knowing the plot.
Instead, the plot of those images (some, printed and blown up, were hanging from a wall) was simply reality, or what happens according to the testimony of the media (the fact that the media create what they themselves testify to is another matter): there’s no use saying “I don’t watch TV”, “I don’t read the papers”, “I don’t use the Internet” (you didn’t have a TV set for years despite the demands for licence fee payments you received, you didn’t even have the decoder marketed by the prime minister’s brother, without which it was impossible to watch it); no one can say they are immune, because those images affect us like a virus, they rebound over a thousand trajectories and penetrate us, we recognize them, we possess them, and are possessed by them. (On thinking it over, maybe it’s right for everyone to pay a tribute, even those who don’t have a TV set – that’s right, a tax on “reality”).
The same held for words, regarding which you had had for some time a claustrophobic fear that in the end the only ones that would remain would be those written in the papers, on advertising hoardings, on cereal or detergent packets, in thrillers and in plot-driven novels – in short only those words with a purpose, slogans, “public” words.
On looking at Feuilleton, a work by the artist Angel Vergara, you didn’t know if the novelesque story referred to by the title was that impersonal one ground out in the background or if, conversely, it consisted of people’s singular and almost evanescent acts – the hand, the colours and the dreams of the artist that represent you in some way. But you understood that it was on those images of the world broadcast by the monitors, on that constant sound and screen, that life passes every day; and that whatever we think, say or do, whatever we write, paint or imagine, it is on that ineliminable background canvas that we will continue to say, do and imagine it. [1*]
And this answered at least in part a frequently asked question of yours: how the devil had you come to know what you had no desire to know, and indeed it repelled you to know.
It was while you were thinking about these things when suddenly, attracted by shouting, you went out and saw a wild beast – a great, astonishing tiger – running among the colonial pavilions of the Venice Biennale, as if it had come out of a painting or escaped from another world. It would have certainly attacked and mauled a group of white American tourists and a lady from Milan, if from the pavilion of an Asian country there had not emerged, with bow and quiver (part of an installation inspired by the memory and iconography of the Mahabharata) a man who looked very like Arjuna, the archer and spiritual hero of the epic Indian poem; who, drawing his bowstring with incredible power and calm, loosed one after another – enchanting you with the vigorous harp-like sound of his vibrating bow – a myriad of golden arrows intended not to kill the tiger but to form around it, almost embroidering it in the air, a kind of cage that immobilized the beast, until some strange, composed keepers with covered heads came to get it.
As he had appeared, so the man vanished, but not before coming towards you to give you, to your great amazement, his bow and quiver. As soon as they were in your hands, they magically shrank until they became a portable miniature, like a key ring. It all happened in a flash. For obvious reasons you had to tell this story many times: people always had trouble believing it, but they had the merit of interrupting the rather academic tone of your reflections at the beginning of this novel.
In that period you were reading only the classics – the Mahabharata, Homer, Dante, Stendhal, Richard Brautigan. For years you had been writing for the papers, but you had stopped doing that. It was impossible for you to write and publish words that you weren’t sure you’d be ashamed of immediately afterwards, or that would not have been erased instantly by the background noise, together with all the others jostling in the semiosphere like bacteria, like pieces of plastic in the dumps. (Or, conversely, that were not so presumptuous as to ignore the dissolution of Everything, and therefore of themselves too, in the Great Dump on the horizon).
To tell the truth, you didn’t care a jot about the things that interested you before. To be in one place rather than another was indifferent to you, to live nowhere would have been ideal. If you had learned anything, it was that “desiring” means being lost. You would willingly have started again in a house to which you could return, a new, freshly painted house – light blue, yellow, pink – but to return where, to start what again? You were with a woman, you cared for her very much, you broke up, you got back together, you didn’t understand each other very well, you made each other sad and happy, not to understand another woman very well and caring for someone with sadness would have been all the same, and it was the same thing with friends – everything was interchangeable, that was the Evil. There was nothing heroic in the papers – the rockets, the car bombs, the massacres, the reforms – you would leaf through them and toss them in the rubbish bin. The word “opportunity” made you feel sick, you didn’t want to reach any port, or to reap the fruits of any good deeds of yours. Dogs moved you, you hated crows, you loved the green parrots that flew and squawked around your windows as if it were India. The sound and the movement of a vacuum cleaner in a house and the more senseless noise of a washing machine spinning made you feel so sad you had to go out. You liked to take your shoes off and cut your toenails in the open air, you liked to read the stories you would never have been able to write, you liked to believe in them until the tears came. But you would never have believed someone who announced, as you did earlier, that he was going “to tell the truth”.
The Feuilleton installation reminded you of another work, La Pressa, a device invented and constructed by the artist Ciriaco Campus: a terribly noisy machine that literally folds and crushes, one at a time, thousands of images of the political, social and cultural history of the last fifty years, rechargeable and exchangeable.
The same year in which its creator went to a white goods store in Rome and set up a video-installation called “100 presses x 100 television sets and sound of a press for 188 refrigerators, 32 kitchens, 155 washing machines, 39 microwaves, 58 irons, 43 computers, 108 mobile phones, 21 hair dryers, 42 videocameras and others” – simultaneously switching on television sets of all sizes with the deafening noise of a factory – La Pressa was shown in the white marble showcase of the Ara Pacis during a congress of semiologists.
It was a radical work, intense and unpleasant. It seemed like a translation of a canto from the Inferno. The fact that it was appreciated by experts in the semiotics of the image didn’t surprise you, perhaps they had sensed that it was a representation of the condition of damned souls, a condition close to their own – it being impossible that the hell of semiologists could be anything other than consonant with the dominion of the communication on which the ugliness of the present was based.
The work that had drawn you to Venice had a less dramatic rhythm, perhaps a melancholy nuance of hope, with those little drawings that constantly changed shape like the animated plasticine figures in the old adverts for Fernet Branca bitters. It looked more like a Purgatory than an Inferno. And Purgatory, we know, is life itself, veined with nostalgia.
Those colour drawings were like a serial against the background of the Great Events (or great works), an elegy on the efforts that everyone makes to carry on, to construct every day a credible, liveable account of their own singular existence against the teeming background of alienated images (the Great Moloch, Allen Ginsberg had written). In the tacit attempt to obscure the power of those images, the artist’s flashes of colour seemed like fluttering butterflies that wished to prevent, with the gratuitous beauty of their wings, a B 52 from dropping bombs.
(And why not?)
Writing was the same thing, at least when it produced its finest results: to stop a bomb with a flower. Not necessarily the real flower that in some historic photographs a girl offers to armed soldiers wearing helmets, even to a tank; but the word “flower”, a handwritten flower, in italics, like Gertrude Stein’s rose that is a rose, is a rose, is a rose. To construct new backgrounds against which to live and to demolish the bogus horizons and the paper walls that Power in every epoch sets up – even though it is always possible to wonder if that power and that paper have not always been ourselves, that’s to say to wonder if we are those already portrayed on the wall in the act of knocking it down with their head, the ones we watch as we prepare to do so once more.
One of the blown up images in Feuilleton was the bloodied face of the then Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, on the evening of 13 December 2009 in Milan’s Piazza del Duomo.
You remembered the first instant in which you had seen those photos because, on seeing them, you had been afraid.
You came across them by chance, on the Internet: Berlusconi bloodied like an injured boxer. It looked like a photomontage, a parody of a zombie movie. You dropped what you had been looking for and clicked on an online news site to find confirmation. You saw again a sequence of the close-up that was already a pop icon, an aesthetic event more than anything else.
Accustomed to the constant flow of his poses, the injured face of the boss of the television networks (the “presses”) drenched in hatred and suffering, above all in common red blood, had more impact than the strangest contemporary art installations, more than Maurizio Cattalan’s meteorite that brought Pope John Paul II to his knees, or the half horse stuck in a wall. The face of the most powerful man in Italy, one of the richest on the planet, was naked for once, a face that suffers (offers itself), the utopia of a conversion (a comprehension?) that would never take place. The fear you felt on looking at those photographs was for the further violence that that face seemed to promise, like an icy breath of vendetta in the grimace of suffering… […]
[1*] Except if it were the other way round, if the installation was the prototype of a machine for psychic vampires, a device for sucking people’s ideas and fears and putting them into circulation as images, according to the demands of Security . i.e. the Market. Such machines, you thought, are perhaps all over the place, camouflaged as objects for amusement and aesthetic purposes, but also as people in flesh and blood…
Speaking with the dead (2005)
Emptying my parents’ house and the first encounter with “the Shadow” (2003, 2001, 2005)
Where you are (2006)
Mirrors, ghosts, stowaways (2007)
Call girls, the undead and dust (2008)
Losses and shamans (2009)
Shipwrecks, rubble (2009, 2010)
The souvenir, the softener, Gingko Biloba (2010 and thereafter)