Wednesday, December 16, 2020

2020 Advent Calendar: Dec 16, Susan Neville, Celluloid

It is raining DNA outside. The (seeds from the willow tree ) are mostly made of cellulose, and it dwarfs the tiny capsule that contains the DNA…. It’s the DNA that matters. It is raining instructions out there, it’s raining programs; it’s raining tree-growing, fluff spreading, algorithms. That is not a metaphor, it is the plain truth. It couldn’t be any plainer if it were raining floppy disks. 
—Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker

I was standing in line at Target watching the checkout person scan what seemed like completely unnecessary items from the cart of the person in front of me when I realized the checkout person and the person she was helping and everyone else I saw when I looked around reminded me of someone I knew from somewhere else. All of them: the cashiers, the customers, the crying toddlers, the babies in the carts with the soon-to-be-purchased towels and lamps and stuffed toys and pureed food. But I couldn’t remember, in a single case, who the doppelganger’s double was. 
     It occurred to me as I placed $100 worth of my own (to me) quite necessary items (prescriptions, ridged makeup remover pads, a blue plastic bowl, a mint-green mixer, a faux eucalyptus wreath designed by Chip and Joana Gaines, whom I feel I know) that this generalized ‘you remind me of’ experience had been going on for several weeks. This has happened only rarely to me in the past, usually when I moved to someplace new or was spending time in a foreign country, someplace where I felt very much alone and everyone I saw reminded me of someone back home. I had always understood the phenomenon as the psyche attempting to soothe itself with familiarity. 
     But this was something else. Before the pandemic, I came to this Target several times a month and saw unfamiliar individuals, but every person that morning and every morning since then has seemed much closer to me than they actually are, like a forgotten brother/sister/cousin/friend. Or even child. I feel the familiarity and also a strange affection. This seems very wrong to me. Strangers should stay behind the gate of strangerism until you cautiously and individually let one or two in and they come into focus for you. They shouldn’t seem so familiar that you want to weep.
     And if this experience was my new normal, how soon would it be until the scenario had flipped, when everyone I thought I knew wouldn’t remind me of anyone at all and I hated everyone and everything I saw? Things tend to work this way, flipping between opposites. A neutron star becomes a black hole, for instance, and not a daylily. So I would only recognize my children, possibly, if I ran into them disguised as strangers, or rather, I would recognize their strangeness but not their familiarity and perhaps would even loathe them, and that I couldn’t bear contemplating.
     But why borrow trouble, as my mother would have said, back when she was among the living. 
     Yet I feel as though the world has become an image etched on film and the projector is running but the film has snapped and is flapping around and around in the air.


Celluloid. The word popped into my head immediately, right there in Target. They keep some DVDs near the gum and mints as possible impulse purchases. Perhaps this has to do with images, I thought, and the doppelgangers are the result of my consumption of film. I’ve been watching too much television lately, too many old movies. That’s why Chip and Joanna feel like family to me. Photos of my dear mother look like a forties movie star with her black waved hair and large eyes, like Vivien Leigh. My father looks like Steve McQueen. My husband, who is still alive (though lately I worry about his mortality and the mortality of everyone I love through all hours of every day, and this is also so new for me that I’ve taken to the ‘God bless so and so’ kind of daily prayer that I remember from childhood because the possibility of his death, or my children’s or friends’, strikes me with such impossible dread that perhaps I am looking for their doubles and a kind of permanent object permanence, a belief that things I see will always be there even when I don’t see them) used to look like the film version of Superman and now like one of the bearded men on television, selling bourbon or fine cigars. I myself have been told I looked like Meryl Streep but primarily (I seem to have an average blandly northern European face) like many Midwestern women you would run into at, say, a Target looking for a eucalyptus wreath. You look familiar, people often say to me, but they can’t say why.
     I personally know doppelgangers for Jean Seberg and George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg. My nephew looks like Andrew Luck. The photographer Lee Miller looked like Grace Kelly. Brad Pitt’s doppelgangers are rare, but even he is slowly turning into Robert Redford. Directors seem to love doppelgangers. Get me another icy blonde, Hitchcock said when Grace Kelly married a live prince in a fairy tale country and became unavailable. The icy blondes look most like victims, he is said to have said. And so he found a Kim Novak, a Janet Leigh, an Eva Marie Saint, a Tippi Hedren. They could have been sisters. Marilyn was not one of Hitchcock’s interchangeable women, though her films were made at the same time: a lamb that escaped the fold. At any rate, the doppelgangers began to multiply in the streets and in the offices of America. Corporations are always looking for the next new thing that reminds them of the old thing. Even publishers, especially perhaps publishers. The new Stephen King, the new Joan Didion, the new Kafka, the new Salinger, the new Lennon and McCartney, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, Joni Mitchell. We can’t recognize something unless we’ve seen it before.


Still, what does it mean when every person you see reminds you of someone you’ve already seen? Does it mean that, unlike snowflakes, human crystals are not that varied?
     Does it mean that I have come to the end of my career as one amazed by the infinite variety of faces and gestures or even soon perhaps by the variety of leaves and eyelashes and stones which aren’t all that varied, are they? Is everything always on repeat? Have I seen it all? 
     Perhaps death appears at the point when God realizes you’ve figured out there are limits to His or Her imagination. You there, you insignificant human, the one who’s noticed that I’ve run out of ideas and am repeating myself, that I have always repeated myself, have you finally eaten the fruit of the tree of knowledge? Have you discovered the templates? Do I no longer entertain you? 
     In fact it is the opposite. I don’t feel bored or jaded by the sameness. I feel instead at the brink of some revelation if I could only break through and find the connection between the perceived faces and the remembered ones. 


Last month I read The Three Body Problem, a sci-fi trilogy by by Cixun Lui that describes the universe as a dark forest where civilizations light years away are on the hunt both for planets to colonize and resources to plunder and, as well, for civilizations that may be on the attack because the universe, like earth, is built on the two principles of survival of the fittest and scarcity—the foundation of conflict. And so, the novelist argues, we should not be sending our bits of celluloid, our clips of I Love Lucy and Perry Mason into space (as we have done) as messages to benevolent civilizations because (as Stephen Hawking and this novelist believe) they cannot possibly be benevolent even if they wanted to, not like the bribable God or gods we have always put our faith in. 
     We have a beautiful green and blue planet, prime real estate with fresh water and temperatures that so far has sustained us and that others will covet. And if that is not the case, they might want to destroy us in an act of self-protection because, like us, others will assume that any strange creature in the dark forest (where we all must fight to survive amid limited resources) is out to destroy them first. And so begins what Lui calls the “chains of suspicion.” We can’t wait to discover benevolence. We have to assume the opposite. We owe our existence so far, the novel argues, to the fact we live in a corner of an insignificant solar system and so are hidden and our only enemies are ourselves. 
     And if the fact that our worst evolutionary traits are multiplied in civilizations spread throughout all of everything that is, that the law of existence is survival of the fittest and love and self-sacrifice are chosen rarely, and only by saints, if that isn’t frightening enough, the novel ends like this:
     A minor functionary in an advanced civilization hears one of our signals and, fearing an attack, activates a weapon that travels light years by wrinkles in time (the only way to say it) and at the end our protagonist watches from a rocket outside of Pluto as each planet in our solar system is flattened into two dimensions. And from above she can see the beautiful transparent renderings of what is left as something like a transparent stained glass painting designed by an artist like Bosch, with flattened buildings and living beings and objects with all the shades of blues and reds and oranges, of every color, and you think that ah, this is how it will be rendered eternally, as a whole, as art, all of everything we are and have done on film, like of course, celluloid. (And in fact the Mona Lisa and Starry Night and the Sistine Chapel and all of the motion pictures are part of this complex painting or perhaps film that the earth becomes. Is this Liu’s vision?) And while it’s the end of the world, it is also extremely beautiful in the book, you have to read it. It’s hard to feel sad about it. I can picture the movie that will be made of it. 
     And then the sun itself is flattened, a beautiful translucent sunflower, a pinwheel, until it falls in upon itself and the black hole it becomes is like a whirlpool and one by one each of the beautiful paintings that had been floating (Saturn with its rings is particularly awe-inspiring) curves like the edge of a soap bubble and all the flattened planets fall into the whirlpool and everything else in this solar system and even this galaxy suffers the same fate, and everything disappears and at the end there is only darkness.
     But it doesn’t matter. There are doppelgangers for this galaxy. Our protagonist with wrinkle-in-time-hopping capabilities heads toward one of them. When a tire flattens, it seems, someplace there is a spare.

Celluloid, like the printing press, changed our world. It could mimic ivory, horn, tortoiseshell, and the finest linen. Until Bakelite replaced it as the plastic of choice, there were celluloid hair combs, hairbrushes, nail buffers, collars, cuffs, toothbrushes with celluloid handles, celluloid dolls, mirrors, buttons, fake leather, and celluloid false teeth. Gamblers threw celluloid dice and dealt celluloid cards and hit pearlescent celluloid billiard balls. It could be transparent, translucent, dead white or tinted; it could be stratified and veined and it could be opaque. You can magnify a celluloid ivory piano key twelve times and it will still be indistinguishable from a real ivory piano key.
     Cellulose nitrate was the substance used to fix and replicate fleeting moments, initiating the era of product repetition, of eternal returns. It was the grandparent of the rows of objects in Target. the era of the inexpensive surrogate that gave “a pure and remorseless joy to anyone unable to provide herself with ivory and agate, tortoiseshell and coral,” Anatole France wrote. It soothed “the pain caused by losing a comb.” The middle class would not exist without it.
     Of course there was the tiny issue of flammability.
     Imagine a picnic: comb in your hair, a card in your hand, dice on the table in front of you, direct sunlight and whoosh your hair, your nails! Your daughter’s beloved doll’s body cracking in the sunlight. All goes up in flame. Perhaps? I imagine a resurrection that looks like this. Everywhere on earth, at once, from particles and cells and flakes of skin and dust and rot, this sudden sparkly cloning of beings. Sequins in the air, bodies reconstructed. Our lives beginning again. Run the reel and let’s see what happens this time!

The night after my trip to Target, I watched a minor modern western on tv, and a very minor character within the western (a Native woman with powerful medicine who, at the end of the episode, changed a young woman who had been gang-raped by two oil company men into a hawk so she could fly away) seized me with her resemblance to someone from my past. Of course she did. 
     Everything: the character’s voice, facial expressions, her eyes, the things she said. But once again, who was it? It felt so necessary to make the connection, as though my life couldn’t go on unless the connection was made. Which box of memories would I search? Work history, education, neighbors, the retail workers I interact with, relatives and friends of relatives? At this point in my life, there are simply too many people populating the folds of my brain. 
     But since the Native woman was only a minor character, and my husband was interested in the plot, which was speeding in a forward direction only (and the girl’s transformation into a hawk wasn’t the only plot point that would be resolved) and in questions like who had jurisdiction on the reservation and could offer justice, questions that kept the plot (or plots, there are always three) moving, when the woman came on screen for her few seconds I couldn’t ask my husband to pause and rewind so I could look at the once-living face again. 
     And realistically, despite the urgency of my feeling, I knew that I would never find the thread that tied the on-screen character to a person who had obviously, at one time, been so very real to me that I’d retained memories of the way the person held her lips across her teeth and raised her eyebrows when she was asking a question.
     And also, if I asked my husband to do something that was so obviously silly and evidence of the deterioration of the film that stored my memories as to stop and analyze facial gestures during the forward momentum of a story, particularly a story so filled with rape and murder and car chases and gun slingers and bad guys and good-guys-who-were-sometimes-bad and a strong silent gray-haired sheriff who was on the side of justice except when he flipped suddenly and decided to be on the side of mercy and broke the law himself; not to mention the beautiful blonde female deputy whose uniform seemed made gratuitously of Lycra so the partially unbuttoned shirt was so tight around her breasts that she was forced to wear her badge on her belt—if I asked my husband to stop the story, even if the story in my own head seemed to be coming unraveled, it would both confuse him and spoil his enjoyment of the show. He is a man who jumps on the horse of a story and rides it with glee until it rises on its hind legs at the end and whinnies, and my odd request might make me unrecognizable to him or him to me. And that was the last thing I needed. 

Celluloid is made from cotton (or other plant fibers) and camphor. Before the camphor is added, the fiber is dissolved in nitric acid, and at this point it can be, and was, used for blasting rocks in mines.
While a celluloid comb will not, realistically, explode, a celluloid collar or celluloid mirror will catch fire if stored improperly and celluloid film, pressed thin and translucent, is highly flammable. 
     All the silent movies and many of the color films, until the 1950s, were printed on celluloid nitrate. In the heat of the vaults where they were stored, as the film decayed, many of the oldest ones went up in flame, have been lost to us, both the original copy and the copies of the copies. There were so many film vault fires that entire careers were lost in the process, actors who have been erased as though they never existed. I would list them except of course we’ve never heard of them. They’ve joined the majority of humanity and all the things we’ve made, unremembered.
     There’s nothing much you can do once the process of erasure begins. Cut off the film’s oxygen? A celluloid fire makes its own oxygen as it burns. Douse it with water? Celluloid can continue burning under water. Celluloid is a monster, almost alive, a virus. A metaphor for self-erasure.


My husband is watching reruns of Wagon Train. I’m in a separate room, but I can tell by the music what part of the episode he’s watching, and often what’s happening on the screen. In almost every episode there’s one young woman among all the men, and one thread that’s a love story, and because my experience of the show is entirely aural, I’m aware of the women’s voices. 
     Wagon Train was filmed between 1957 and 1965 and coincided with John F. Kennedy’s years as a political figure. I know this because I looked it up one day when I realized that every single one of the ingenues on Wagon Train sounds like Jackie Kennedy. Every last one. 
     Each young woman has that wispy, soft voice. How much it must have cost Jackie and all her doppelgangers on fifties television to whisper like that. How much it must have cost my mother, whose years as a wife and mother were those very years. Jackie’s voice is all breath, seems to bypass the vocal cords entirely.
     When did this whisper voice begin? Not in the 30s. Eleanor Roosevelt’s voice is deep, with an accent that’s almost British to my Midwestern ears. Her voice is strong. She has opinions. But after the second world war, American women’s voices seemed to change, perhaps in deference to the perceived sacrifices of the men in the air and on the ground in Europe. I watch an interview from the late fifties with Jackie that’s preserved, for now, on Youtube. When asked if she’s interested in politics, she says of course because she’s married to a senator. When the interviewer asks if she has causes or opinions of her own, Jackie’s voice almost escapes its cage, is supported by more than air before she draws it back in and whispers that she’s very busy as it is. And the interviewer says for her (because Jackie seems reticent to talk at this point) that it has to be a full-time job taking care of a senator husband. And Jackie smiles and whispers that yes, it is a full-time job.
     She’s boxed up in a pillbox hat, wearing a Chanel suit. My mother and all her friends had hats like that. All over the world, replications of that hat and voice.
     I can see the appeal of whispering. Whispering is intimate. We lean toward the whisperer in an attempt to hear.
And now, it occurs to me, we put on our headphones and listen to whispering again. Whisperpop: Lana del Rey, Selena Gomez, Billie Eilish. So intimate you can hear the sound of an Invisalign being removed from the singer’s mouth. It’s meant to come over the wire into the intimate folds of your ear, like a secret, the voices a response to earpods. 
     Oddly, I can hear the young women on Wagon Train much better than I can hear the men, better in some ways than I can hear the gunshots and fistfights. So maybe that was the point after all? Listen to the quiet voice amid the flames and the explosions. Is it really a problem that the women are indistinguishable from one another?

I wonder if the doppelgangers I’m experiencing are attempts to remember all the people I’ve loved, like life flashing before my eyes now, in the last part of my life, or if they’re all part of the same person, the spirit floating from one body to another. Our bodies are so fragile. The fire can be gone—snap--just like that. 

In 1897, 126 people were killed at a film screening in Paris, caused by the bright light and heat of a projector lingering too long on one frame. 
     Thomas Edison’s factory burned when a fire started in a film vault.
     In 1927 there were 125 deaths in a Cleveland hospital, caused by a fire that began in a storage room of 8500 pounds of celluloid X rays. In Pittsburgh, in 1926, a film explosion blew out the back wall of a three-story building made of concrete and bricks. 
     All the films produced by both sides during the Spanish Civil War have been lost to fire, as have all the pre-1951 holdings of Egypt’s film industry, among others, as well as 12.5 million feet of Universal Studios films. 
     A fire at the 20th Century Fox film vault in New Jersey, 1937, destroyed twenty tons of film. When the fire was finally extinguished, fifty truck-loads of melted film were removed from the site to be mined for its five cents per reel worth of silver (which had to be done quickly before the film degraded more and burst, once again, into flame.) 
     The 20th Century fire caused neighboring telegraph wires to melt and set a car parked a block away ablaze, all from radiant heat. In a detail that seems pulled from John Hersey’s Hiroshima, an insurance underwriter at the time describes shoes that weren’t even scorched but contained sheets of skin burned off the bottom of workers’ feet. 
     Eighty-five Tom Mix films were destroyed, as were all the films directed by Blake Edward’s grandfather, J. Gordon Edwards. 
     Tom Mix was the first cowboy actor. He was killed in a car wreck, like James Dean. Hardly anyone now remembers him, but he was the template for those that followed.


I walk by my husband and watch as flames fly through the dark night on the television screen. It’s the third act of an episode of Wagon Train. Are those flaming arrows? I ask. Yes, he says. How cool, I say. Not if it’s setting fire to your wagon, he says. And I say but if you’re watching this in the fifties, and you’re used to low contrast and suddenly the screen is all black and then this white flame appears and the wagon seems to be on fire, you’d think about the loss of life and property. But if you’re watching it now and you know there isn’t really a wagon on fire, you think about how the people watching it might have experienced the contrast and it just seems cool. 


Casablanca, Gone With the Wind, Citizen Kane—all filmed on celluloid nitrate. Though less flammable celluloid acetate was invented in 1910, filmmakers still preferred the nitrate. For its luminosity, the silvery glitter. Filmmakers talk about the warmth and depth of the images, the connection of those images to the human.
     During the switch to digital, many old films were destroyed as the transfer was made from film. Transfer and destroy, it was called. Digital is easy to store, we think. It will last forever, we think. Its quality is better or at least as good, we somehow believe. 
     But two things:
     Film critic Wendell Dixon speaks of digital as “ultra clear, almost supernaturally perfect.” Too perfect, he explains. I get that. I do. When I first saw a football game on a super high definition screen, it looked less real than football looked the year before, less real than it ever looked in real life. The players looked like video game players, the astroturf too vivid. 
     Why is this? Bear with me. Instead of the vibration between frames that we’re used to from film (shot at 24 frames per second) the television receives images between 30 and 60 frames per second or, in order for a fast moving game like football to be accurate, 120 frames. But the television does something called “motion smoothing,” removes the vibration or “judder” and inserts fake images where the vibration would be. When you watch an old movie on television, HD makes it look like it was filmed by a camcorder but when you watch a football game or play a video game, it makes it look more than real, which is because a lot of what you’re seeing is the tv guessing at the images that would occur in between the images on film. Much of what you see is literally fake. 
     Apparently some of what we think we see in real life is similar, our brain guessing where a moving image will go and substituting made-up images to get us there. But it’s slower, like celluloid. And the images vibrate. At least that’s how I understand it. Our brains work more like film than high definition digital imagery.
     What you lose in digital imagery is the texture and the sensation of one image following another in time. “There is the flicker,” Dixon writes, “the sensation of light being punched through colored plastic as it hits the screen, the warmth and depth of the image unmatched by the cold perfection of the digital realm.” When Kodak stopped making certain film stocks, we lost some greens, golds, and blues, he explained. Quentin Tarantino still prefers celluloid in fact, calling digital filmmaking simply “television in public.”
     “Why an established filmmaker would shoot on digital,” Tarantino said, “I have no fucking idea.”
     And the second thing? Oh, the second thing. 
     We want to believe that things last. That we ourselves last. That our art will last. We want records that we existed, that we once lived, had things to say. In books, on film, on the internet. And so with each new way of preservation we forget the lessons of the last one. Libraries and archives begin culling books and papers because film, because tape, because digital. As it turns out, everything decays, including the internet. New platforms emerge and you can’t read old documents. What was the web address I used to upload all those videos once I digitized them? you ask yourself. Buried in someone’s email or worse, purposely erased, the videos copied and then destroyed. Because who has room for all this stuff? 
     But a piece of celluloid, if archived properly, can last 500 to 600 years without significant damage, while a digital master will last ten or fifteen before it has to be migrated to another platform. 
“Film is not an obsolete medium,” according to Dixon. “It is simply a more expensive one, much like staging an opera with real singers and actors in a live theater, versus the same televised to another location. The opera on the stage, with actual participants, is real. The other, composed of 1’s and 0’s is something else altogether.” 
     500 years. Is that too much? Would that I have that many years with the ones I love. Would that we would last forever, all of us. Would that at the very least we would be seen and remembered as our individual once-only in this universe, recorded in this essay or this photograph selves. Would that I remember you, all of you, that you will remember me.

Memory of the before times, when we used to gather. It’s the summer of 2019, and my brother and his wife and my husband and I meet some friends at an outside amphitheatre connected to an historical reenactment park. We are here for an outdoor concert. It’s my brother’s birthday. The shell-shaped stage is at the base of a gentle hill and hundreds of people sit in lawn chairs on the grass. We’ve brought picnic food and wine and it is a sweet night in late summer. There are oaks and maple trees around the perimeter, and a breeze that makes the leaves shift from emerald green to khaki and back to emerald. 
     Behind the stage a prairie stretches, hay rolled in silver bales. The sun takes its time setting, the clouds orange and pink in the blue, the light turning every face and raised glass golden, and the shadows and some of lawn chairs are washed in purple light, all of it like a watercolor, and I click my cellphone camera over and over, hoping I can capture the beauty of it, but there is some disconnect between the digital image and my eye. 
     There are hundreds of people around us, all on lawnchairs or sitting at tables, and in the gloaming every face is radiant, every one familiar. I have become used to this. There are children near the edges of the crowd, dancing and turning cartwheels. There are a few young adults. 
     But since this is a tribute band of musicians in their 50s imitating the voices and the look (uncannily so) of a band of musicians from decades earlier, most of us are the age of my brother and my husband and me, which is to say that we are old. And when I capture them on my cell, I can see that we are old but when I look at their faces they are young and filled with the animation of the living. And so is everyone around me, my people, those of us who are alive on this earth at the same time and in the same place which is so lovely in the setting sun, all of it glazed by the fading light. 
     And as the sun finally sets and darkness comes, giant silver screens seem to drop from the sky, carrying the image of the musicians to those of us sitting in the back so we are all seeing the same thing and singing the same songs and there are three of every musician—one on a screen to each side of the stage and the one on the stage, and it doesn’t matter which one you watch. And I remember feeling both wonder and a kind of youthful arrogance when I watched my parents at the age I am now as they laughed so unguarded with groups of friends and played dominoes and euchre and other silly games late into the night. I thought they had stepped outside of life, become children again, that their lives had become insignificant at the same time that I envied them those friendships. I had no time for them, I thought. I had important things to do: books to write, children to raise, a mark to make. 
     And now, there I was, one of them, all our earnest children at home, exhausted by their jobs and by their own children, their lives stretching so infinitely in front of them, thinking their parents are sad unhappy aging creatures when in fact they have never been so happy in their lives except for those moments when, like me, they stop and contemplate what is waiting in their own dark forests. 
     Is that one dead? We ask about the musician with the leather vest, meaning of course the original member of the band.
     He is, it seems. 
     And that one?
     Of course.
     Are any of them still alive?
     One is still alive, but he is much older and more feeble than the guitarist who is dressed like him.
     We try to remember who else is dead and who is still alive. One of us missed the day Tom Petty died. One of us didn’t know that Leonard Cohen was gone. Several of us aren’t sure about David Bowie, not really. I have to show my brother the obituary on my cellphone. If he’s dead, my brother asks, how did he die? 
     Liver cancer, my husband says after checking his own cell, and I stop myself from filling up my wineglass.
     The children wave neon glow sticks and some people dance and at one point we all turn on the flashlights on our phones and wave them in the air like teenagers and the field of humans looks like stars and the cameraman turns from the band and toward the sea of individual yet identical stars we have become.
And of course the tribute band is mediocre and a bit ridiculous and sad but also lovely and at the end of the concert we feel melancholy when the lights go out and the screens roll back up and we use our flashlights not as candles but as a way to light our steps as we move through the dark night to our cars. 

Every essay I’ve ever written has echoes of voices I’ve read at some time in my life. I can go back through this piece and find echoes of a James Agee sentence, of things I’ve learned from Annie Dillard, James Baldwin, of William Gass and Virginia Woolf, of Michael Martone, Nanci Griffith. My thoughts combine with others thoughts and fall into the rhythms of those who’ve come before me. A template of sorts, a natural replication, an homage, eternity, the way things work.


How long will this planet last? This galaxy? 
     For some reason I can believe in clips of celluloid-like material flattening all of us together, all of human history and our precious artifacts: all the faux wreaths and other Target (with its bullseye on every plastic sack) knick knacks side by side with the Grand Canyon and all the books in the world and the Pyramids and the Great Wall of China and the Louvre and the hills of Tuscany with all its grapes and, too, all the Great Lakes and my great aunt Charlotte’s remains, and my remains when they’re ready and (I will not imagine it) my children and my husband’s into a chip of film in a universe that doesn’t seem to care two whits for it. 
     But there is in fact love, and it’s love that makes me believe that something lasts, that somewhere on film or in a vast Borgesian library or something unimaginable to me now, there’s a record of all this beauty, even the beauty of its imagined end. 
     And so while I believe the universe could be this nihilistic, in a complex sort of way that involves only patterns and algorithms and not evil or will, I still nurture this hope that on the other side of the black hole, there is something waiting, something that collects these bits of film, hardened by the whirlpool into a thing that’s permanent, jewel-like, that will hang in some cosmic museum or become a part of some mosaic or even that some cosmic doctor with gloved hands waits to gently catch the celluloid and splice the pieces back together, to watch the film with his or her own children some night, spouse in the kitchen making cookies with a mint green handmixer, popcorn on the coffee table in a blue plastic bowl, all of them looking for something that reminds them of someone, somewhere, that they have always known.


Susan Neville’s most recent book is The Town of Whispering Dolls, winner of the Catherine Doctorow Prize from fc2. Her nonfiction books include Fabrication, Iconography, and Sailing the Inland Sea. She lives in Indianapolis, Indiana, with her husband who, during the pandemic, has started re-watching Westerns. 

No comments:

Post a Comment