No Way but by Such Stairs: Notes on the Nemesis
In the final canto of Dante’s Inferno, Virgil and Dante rappel down Lucifer’s massive flanks by “seizing the shaggy coat of the king demon; then grappling matted hair and frozen crusts/from one tuft to another.” When I first encountered this image, I had to reread it: wait – did our pilgrims really scramble down Satan’s furry delts to get out of hell? Sure, I knew how the movie ends: they’re going to see the stars again somehow. But I was stunned to find an image of such visceral perfection for meeting fear, for finding support and even leverage in that which appears to oppose us.
They’ve been through hell, after all. They know enough to know that avoidance isn’t going to get them anywhere. If hell is separation, they finally find an exit by venturing onto the very body of “evil.” It’s a brilliant depiction of taking a posture of inquiry, of staying with difficulty, of noticing the part of a problem that presents a solution. Virgil, for example, notably doesn’t whisper into Dante’s ear, “It’s Beelzebub! Run!” No, "Hold fast!” he says in his exhaustion, “There is no way but by such stairs to rise above such evil" (82-84).
Michael Cunningham adopts a similarly adventuresome posture in a piece I’ve remembered since coming upon it almost a decade ago in the Fall 2004 issue of BlackBook magazine that invited authors to write a six-word story, after Hemingway’s famous example: “For sale: baby shoes. Never used.” As today’s window on our advent calendar, I’m going to read Cunningham’s piece as a six-word essay. It’s an inquiry, an experiment in thinking. Here it is in its entirety: “My nemesis is dead. Now what?”
Cunningham lays out a proposition, then poses a question, and from there, leaves us ample margin on all sides to live into a response. With its proportions, its proposition and question, and the springy voltaic fulcrum between its two parts, I entertain myself by reading the piece as a semi-sonnet, with a silent 7th line, a hemi-sonnet, in half-shadow, (like Lucifer’s body, half above and half below the frozen lake).
Now what? The speaker seems almost clueless, helpless at the prospect of being free from a personal nemesis. Bane, rival, scourge, arch-enemy, affliction, the nemesis seems to be almost a comfort. Familiar. An intimate, almost erotic magnetism courses between the nemesis and its subject, a tuning toward the nemesis to determine the next move. In the relationship, which exists almost entirely in projection, there is a preoccupation, almost an affection, for the specific vexation the nemesis brings.
For a while I misremembered the piece as “My enemy is dead. Now what?” But I did the piece such a disservice in remembering it that way. The notion of “enemy” feels rooted in an idea of a vilified other. The word Nemesis, (from the Greek, νέμειν [némein] “to give what is due,”) however, arises from a world view that includes the possibility that someone, (or some force, or tendency) that opposes us is not necessarily against us, but is in some way part of a system that is honing our patience, vision, and skill. That it is somehow necessary, maybe even an honor, to have a nemesis. A nemesis is personal. The German for “nemesis,” is “erzfiend,” our favorite enemy, our archenemy.
We can play with some substitutions: “My nemesis is my benefactor. Now what?” Or perhaps the most challenging: My nemesis is indifferent. Now what? Coyote and Roadrunner. Who are they without each other?
Rilke, in his Florence Diaries, writes, “But art is also justice. And you must, if you wish to be artists, grant all forces the right to lift you and press you down, to shackle you and set you free. It’s only a game, don’t be afraid.” (italics mine)
I’m pretty sure my brother wasn’t reading Rilke when he wrote this letter to my father in Vietnam:
When you come home, you're going to have a hard time getting Neni [my nickname] back as your pal. She's been my pal since you've been gone and we’ve had a good time. She used to make my lunch for me every day and I would pay her a nickel a night, but she got tired of making them so she said the deal was off. Well, she'll do it again once she needs the money. Me and her always play her Trouble game.
We also play a game called "driving." It's sort of like football. She puts on my shoulder pads and gets at one end of the hall and I try to stop her from getting to the other. She wins every time. I hold back myself so's not to hurt her and I'm real careful. After all if I hurt her I won't have anyone to play with.
Something so tender and desperate in his admission. If I hurt her I won’t have anyone to play with. Why does this sound so familiar? How often have I felt that vise grip, that vise with velvet platens. When every move feels difficult, but the difficulty feels, in the end, kind, as if it's being "real careful." As if it's difficulty tailor-made to teach exactly what I need to know to get to whatever is next. I love this idea that if the obstacle hurts you, it won't have anyone to play with. It wants your impediment. It even probably especially wants your resistance.
Paul Celan, in his Meridian speech, speaks of this resistance in writing poems: (p. 409)
The poem wants to reach an Other, it needs this Other, it needs an Over-against. It seeks it out, speaks toward it.Brenda Hillman puts it this way:
For the poem making toward an Other, each thing, each human being is a form of this Other.
So, put yourself in the wayA few weeks ago, a student who hadn’t been in class, and who hadn’t yet given me a paper due weeks before said to me, “I just figured you’d give up on me.” I said, “No, I’m not giving up on you.” I wondered if he was accustomed to people giving up on him. I saw something almost like disappointment when I said that – not a true disappointment, but one that pooled only at the surface of habit. If I give up on him and let him just fail the class, he doesn’t have to write the paper. In that world of the conditioned habit, what gets disrupted if I don’t give up on him, if I’m not his nemesis, but his advocate? When I related to him as someone who could do his work, instead of as a fuckup, I could see in his face, something like a new curiosity, as if he were seeing himself in a different way. If I don’t give up on him, he might have to build a new habit around that. My advocate trusts me. Now what? What is it to grow toward an opening rather than around an obstruction?
of the poem. It needed your willing
impediment to be written. Remember the lily,
growing through the heart of the corpse?
You had to be willing to let it through the sunshine
error of your life,
be willing not to finish it--
Brenda Hillman from Death Tractates, p.25 (untitled poem):
“Do you see anything unusual about that tree,” my friend Lauren Ewing, a sculptor, someone who always draws my attention to form in a way I hadn’t noticed asked me one morning, pointing to an oak tree across the street, in the west end in Provincetown. I couldn’t discern what would make that tree different from others. "Look at its shape," she said, "it’s reached its full conformation," meaning it hadn’t been shaped by running into wires, or other trees, or any of the other obstacles a tree in a relatively dense neighborhood planting might encounter. It sounded like such an ideal life, to grow without obstruction. But it’s so difficult to separate out what is supportive from what is obstructive. Would we really choose to be free of obstruction?
I have a scrap of paper that says, “The poem is the sum of unpredictable resistances.” I don’t remember its source, but it sounds a lot like something Stanley Kunitz would say.
The 17th Century Zen Master, Hakuin quotes an earlier teacher, Rinzai, describing a story “When the Titans fought the King of the Gods, and on losing the battle he led his eighty-four thousand troops into the holes of the lotus threads, where they hid. Unable to attack them there, the King of Gods withdrew.” For a while he wonders why the Titans, who apparently could fit anywhere, including, including “the eye of a moth, the nostril of a mosquito, or on the tip of a needle,” would choose to hide in the stem of the lotus. After some consideration, he comes to the thought that, with the Lotus being symbolic of wisdom, and, though I do not like the word, let’s call it, “enlightenment,” that there is no enlightenment without a full accommodation of the demons. He says, “What you do not realize is that the demons have gone into these subtle thoughts of joy and are hiding there, completely intact.” I learned about this story in a brilliant talk called Demons in the Lotus Threads by Roshi Enkyo O’Hara at the Village Zendo’s summer Ango in 2007. Like Cunningham’s piece, it’s a sporty reminder that we consider our whole lives as our actual lives, not just the parts we like.
When I came across Cunningham’s piece, I was already walking around with this question: How do I navigate when there is no acute emergency? So I felt an affinity with the piece. I imagined I’d had a lot of practice in catastrophe and felt at home in a crisis. But I was concerned to notice that in the absence of an emergency, I felt somewhat at sea. After coming through a decade during most of which someone close to me was dying, there was a momentary lull in losing people I loved, and things were otherwise going pretty smoothly as well. I could feel in being tuned to emergency the danger of going out and trolling for the certainty of acute loss, just for the sake of familiarity. This is where the brilliance of this piece lies. It notices how dependent we can become on orienting around a countervailing force. And it pauses to ask, what if I approach this configuration differently?
The beauty of obstruction is that it gives us something to push against. But what happens when the obstruction dissolves? Are we prepared for who we are then? Around 1998, I was seeing my friend Liz Eitt for a kind of body work to help with asthma. My doctor had casually recommended that I take daily steroids and there was no way I was going to take that on. So instead I had to change my whole life. Some of it was changed for me.
In one of our sessions, Liz had me hooked up to some kind of biofeedback machine that was measuring my brain waves, and whatever was going on was not optimal. I could feel that I wanted to be the best at having the right kind of brain waves but this was not happening.
But then this amazing thing happened. The whole time I had been lying on the table I had been feeling a catch in my throat and I’d been trying to breathe around it. I told myself, this is my own problem, and it’s up to me to figure out how to breathe. But then I told Liz, "I’m trying to breathe around the wheeze." And as I said this the needle registered the more relaxed brain waves. And the monitor gave off a steady tone. Liz said, “Tell me more about the wheeze.” And so I talked about how there was this little catch in my lungs and about how it was feeling to try to breathe around it which of course made it much easier to breathe. And the whole time I was telling her about this, there was this steady state of whatever kind of brainwaves they were, the good kind.
What if there is no nemesis, dead or alive? What if our movements arise from some other mechanism than reaction, revulsion, or aversion? Perhaps the dissolution of the nemesis corresponds to a maturation process. When Cunningham says, “My nemesis is dead,” one way to read it is that the very idea of a nemesis is dead. That the world has reassembled, or that the speaker has grown past the idea of nemesis, where one steers from within a system of ethics, intentions, and even from a vow, whether explicit or not, rather than against a countervailing force.
Or what if we read it as a statement of relating to death differently? What if death, the ultimate nemesis is dead, i.e. that its force is annulled? What if in an encounter with death, the speaker came to relate to it differently? What if death itself as a threatening force is dead? Then what?
Today on the 30 bus, for a moment I thought I recognized the man sitting across from me, or that he at least looked like someone I knew. I guessed he was in his 70’s or so as he got off at Pacific and Kearney. He wore a brown jacket and carried a small canvas bag with some papers in it. I couldn’t place whoever it was he reminded me of, but then I realized later that he looked like my friend Susan, but it wasn’t that his features looked like Susan, who was in her early 30’s when I last saw her, by which I mean, when I last saw her just before she died. It was in how she looked out from her eyes, and held her mouth in the days before she died, that she resembled this man. Her mouth was almost done with eating; it had become an airy place, dedicated almost entirely to breathing, where now only a yellow sponge with glycerin passed.
This man seemed to be walking with death, out on his errands. On death's errands. The likeness I saw in Susan’s face and in this man’s face, was that while they both seemed to look directly into the face of death, they did not appear to be braced. They were close enough to death to see death not as a nemesis. What I saw in their faces, in their resemblance, was more like a thinning than a resistance. And though they seemed almost smoke-like in their dissolving density, they also seemed to be more intensified versions of whoever they still were.
A few days before Susan died, I was talking to her about a job I had at the time, doing technical editing. In those days, what she wanted from her friends was for us to talk about the mundane details of our lives. I moped about having this job instead of a different one, and she said, “At least you know what you don’t want to do.” In two days she would die, and she was already slowly pouring out of her body. For me, the luxury of having something I didn’t want to do, and to have the option to elect to not do it, became starkly and gently apparent. At least you know what you don’t want to do. She was pointing to the energy of having a nemesis to determine my contra-actions. At least you can name what you don’t want to do. That seemed suddenly to be the province of the living, to have a nemesis. She was in the arms of the supposed archnemesis and whatever struggle there had been seemed, at least to me, to be gone. There was no counter-energy, just nothing short of pure radiance. She was the one comforting us. I reached out to hold her hand, but it became clear that she was the one holding mine and reassuring me. She herself seemed to have no nemesis left. She was right there with death and for all the devastating grief in that house, she was unopposed.
Is this possible while someone is still alive? How does it change your life if you’re not contending with death? This is what I love about Cunningham’s piece, that it opens up this question.
I do not wish to diminish the primal insistence the body exerts on not dying. I’ve tried on just being totally okay with death. It didn’t work. Nor am I advocating that we court death. Please, it will come soon enough, and it will no doubt school us in ways we can’t yet conceive. I’m also not saying this is easy or it should be feigned, or that we can skip grief, or that we would even want to. Grief is one of the surest signs of life. I’m just noticing in myself a sense of release if I live exactly as I’m living, but try to dismantle, even for moments at a time, my preference for not dying. I can still fiercely want to be alive, but if I let my resistance to dying relax, then I actually get to live more.
What I mean is that I find it useful to investigate the array of anxieties I walk around with, and notice which ones root into the fear of death, in some idea that there’s not enough life. And I like to steer right into that part of the discomfort. Like turning into the swerve to correct it, or swimming alongside the shelf of an undertow, it doesn’t feel quite intuitive at first but then it takes on a plush feeling – a feeling that for a moment death does not pose itself as my nemesis, “a round aperture,” that opens in dread, like that through which Dante and Virgil once again glimpse “Some of the beautiful things that Heaven bears.” An equipoise that can be summed up in two words that have a lot of space around them: Now what?
Genine Lentine is the author of Poses: An Essay Drawn from the Model (Kelly’s Cove Press), Mr. Worthington’s Beautiful Experiments on Splashes (New Michigan Press) and Found Dharma Talks (Missing Links Press). She teaches privately and at the San Francisco Art Institute. www.geninelentine.com