By Medha Anoo
I play “Say Shava Shava” from my favorite movie on loop for a few days and someone I know who follows me on Spotify asks me if I need to talk about anything. Why are you watching me on Spotify, I ask, and he shrugs. I was on desktop. When my friend named her playlist, “sad lady hours,” did she actually want someone to see her listening to it and reach out?
For years, I have seen friends pass the same few photographs over and over around on Tumblr. Compositionally, they are perfect. They belong to agencies with names like Roger Viollet. They are portraits, really. Snapshots in time of people living their lives. Selling kebabs. Detailing pottery. Playing in the water. The subjects never look at the camera. Some are taken without their knowledge, behind their backs. I do not have the right to show these portraits to you.
The people in these portraits do not have names. Do they know I know them? Do they know I have watched them share a meal with their friends?
I don’t want to feel better; I want to know better.
I should have known that God is not in the meal
but in the sharing of the meal. I should have told you
that holiness resides in needing each other,
in acts of survival made generous.Julian Jarboe, EVERYONE ON THE MOON IS ESSENTIAL PERSONNEL, “First Contact”
How much sharing? How much needing? Who decides?
Much of Emily Dickinson’s poetry was not published during her lifetime. She instructed her sister, Lavinia, to burn her letters and poetry when she died. Instead, Lavinia recruited the help of Mabel Loomis Todd, their brother’s mistress, to edit Dickinson’s poetry for publication. Todd made major edits to Dickinson’s poetry, going as far as to cut pieces out to give the impression that something—or someone—is missing. For how long was our conception of Emily Dickinson the person really the work of this first voyeur? In Dickinson’s Misery, Virginia Jackson writes, “to be lyric is to be read as lyric—and to be read as a lyric is to be printed and framed as a lyric,” and I think about an article I read recently where the author says she had to stop journaling because she couldn’t stop writing for the people who would read it after she was dead.
From Mary Cassatt, an Impressionist printmaker, Woman Bathing:
One of Cassatt’s central subjects was the woman. Here, she shows us a half-naked woman, not sexualized. There are other prints where we watch unnamed women brush their hair, wash their children, and arrange their clothing. Are these women dehumanized? We never see their faces.
No one watches me apply ಕುಂಕುಮ in the mornings. I wear ಕುಂಕುಮ if I know I am seeing someone. ಕುಂಕುಮ me feel whole. My ಕುಂಕುಮ is a black ink in a Lakmé liquid eyeliner bottle. It applies bright and wet before dulling to a dry matte. I have been asked if it is a birthmark. It might as well be. Am I performing ಕುಂಕುಮ?
During spring break, I visited the Art Institute of Chicago and was lucky enough to see one of Cassatt’s works in-person. What’s the difference between one voyeur and one thousand? Cassatt’s subjects do not exist without the person who watches them. Should we still watch? You hold a person’s existence with your gaze. Should you look away? I remember walking from Cassatt’s work to one of Odilon Redon’s flower paintings. I do not remember how I felt.
Should you open the box?
If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Claude Monet painted this Weeping Willow, but the tree itself does not exist. Where would Monet be had he not painted this painting? The collection of ten Weeping Willows was painted in 1919, in mourning for the tragedy of World War I. One more or one less would have no difference to anyone but him. For Monet, art is about light. He would think: How does it bathe my subject? How can I capture it in oils? How do I grapple with light when it changes in time increments I cannot fathom, when every time I blink my subject is oceans different than it was a moment ago?
My favorite book is Chaim Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev. Asher’s mother asks, “Can you understand what it means for something to be incomplete?” Asher’s teacher answers, “…it would have made me a whore to leave it incomplete. It would have made it easier to leave future work incomplete. It would have made it more and more difficult to draw upon that additional aching surge of effort that is always the difference between integrity and deceit in a created work. I would not be the whore to my own existence. Can you understand that? I would not be the whore to my own existence.” If everything of your existence is chosen by the people who watch you, will you ever finish anything?
Turn yourself inside out
and paint your organs the color of what you see
in your dreams.Shinji Moon, “Advice from Dionysus”
In John Ashbery’s The Painter, the subject throws himself into the sea rather than paint it incomplete. He is buried in it, his only love. I wrote a paper arguing that the Painter was doomed for annihilation from the beginning because he would never complete his work. I thought a lot about his body during that week. Would he have been naked, like his canvas, when he was tossed into the sea? Does imaginary water rot imaginary bodies how real water rots real bodies? Did he float? Did the pressure of the ocean feel the way he thought it would when he tried to paint it?
Water grows, swallowing
the road and its shadows,
the house and its azure,
the slate and its ABC.
There are no more warm dens.
The earth is made of concrete.
Cranes have eviscerated the sky.
Centuries rush over the ridge now.
And not just on memories
—on high voltage,
not on teardrops
—on drum armature,
not on words
A step aside and the alarm rings,
a step backward opens the abyss,
a tremor explodes.
fish swim in cathedrals.
And every one of us
is called by name.Miroslav Holub, “The Dam” (tr. Stuart Friebert and Dana Hábová)
Or, Asher’s teacher answers, “Asher Lev, an artist is a person first. He is an individual. If there is no person, there is no artist.” I think about how the Painter thinks of his wife as a complex of ruined buildings, how he is so trapped inside his own head he thinks everybody around him is waiting for him to be destroyed. But when he kills himself, his peers bury him at sea. The Painter is a Christian. He believed in the physical resurrection of the body. He should have been buried in the ground. And yet. The water eats him.
—and I understand, nobody will know when it is incomplete except for me, and until it is complete, I am still performing. What do I love for which I would give up myself? If I loved it a little less, would I even have my self? If I loved it a little more, was I ever really there?
I don’t think I am a person who reads. But I love books. My mother is confused by this statement, because she is always watching me reading. I explain that a person who reads is meticulous. A person who reads owns bookmarks and probably belongs to a book club. According to my Storygraph, I read 29% of The English Patient. But I read it. I read Pride and Prejudice and think that there are very few action movies as gripping as the second half of the book. I read The Stone Sky and think about grief and intergenerational trauma and the inherent violence of parenthood. I read The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires and think OHHHHHHHH. I don’t finish The Ministry of Utmost Happiness because it gets preachy. I don’t finish Autobiography of Red because I find it repetitive and then two months later my best friend and I stumble on a copy at a bookstore hours after we talk about Nataraja and the circularity of creation and destruction. We walk through the Institute’s Asian collection and talk about Radhakrishna and find out our families think of Uma differently. When we go home, I have a faith that has changed from what it was before. God is not in the meal but in the sharing of the meal. God is not in the story but in the sharing of the story.
That night, we pass time trying to master the dancer’s pose from Paul Manship’s Dancer and Gazelles because when I did it at the museum, my torso was twisted in the wrong direction. My best friend and I haven’t seen each other in four years, so this trip to Chicago is a long time coming. He directs me, telling me to hold my wrist looser, lift my chin, flex my calves. I fall over more often than not. His friend tries to model it for me with barely restrained glee on her face. The result is a set of 24 photographs and 2 videos,
And we cracked up. We cracked open. We fell apart like
that, laughing.Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous: A Novel