On Invisible Beauty

 Beauty spins and the mind moves. To catch beauty would be to understand how that impertinent stability in vertigo is possible. But no, delight need not reach so far. To be running breathlessly, but not yet arrived, is itself delightful, a suspended moment of living hope. —Anne Carson, Eros the Bittersweet 1. I discovered boys at the height of my reading years. I was 12, in Copenhagen, and I read on the train to school, walking home from the station, on family holidays driving across Europe, at night in bed while my parents entertained guests around the dinner table on the other side of my bedroom wall. We had left Turkey for my father’s work when I was in third grade. My parents worried that our language would deteriorate during our time abroad and strictly required that my brother and I read in Turkish. I did not care what language I read in, as long as the story was exciting. I read my parents’ childhood copies of Jules Verne; I read the books our grandparents sent us about children resolving blood feuds in Aegean villages; I read all the Laura Ingalls Wilder books that my American best friend, Theresa, gave me; I went through entire bookshelves at the school library on Egyptians, Vikings, paranormal activity, and exploration. I even read a book I had accidentally checked out about Mikhail Gorbachev and have had a strange friendship with the word glasnost ever since, as if it belonged to that golden Danish autumn when I first encountered it. That year I won the school library contest having identified the most fictional characters and lines from books. It was Robert Louis Stevenson who established my victory against Theresa in the last round: “Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest/yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum.” (Theresa had won the bookmark contest some months earlier with her drawing of a man immersed in his book, sitting on top of Salvador Dali’s melting clock. The caption said: Read the Time Away.) Even though my eyes and imagination were content to embark on whatever book came my way, I also read repetitively, going back to my friends Anne from Green Gables, Jo from Little Women, Lucy from Narnia, a villager girl Halime, and one German Gundula with a fiery temper. I followed them again and again into their worlds of boyishness and adventure, at a time when grandparents, uncles, and aunts were telling me that I was already a “young lady.” When I walked our dog, Dost, in the forest, I cast myself in the role of my heroines, pretending that I lived another, carefree and adventurous life, far from the Copenhagen suburbs. Sometimes I thought of myself as an explorer walking for hours in the forest, familiar with every tree, bird, and flower, my schoolbag transformed to a satchel of tools and maps, my loyal dog following at my heel. (In truth, I was afraid to let Dost off the leash, because he would dart off immediately and I would have to search for him for hours.) Even though I insisted that I was still a child, I secretly knew I was no longer so innocent. I made an effort to look disheveled, hid any evidence of breasts with oversized t-shirts, and tried my best to ignore my interest in boys beyond games of rounders and tag. That was the year I fell in love with David—a blond, freckled Italian who wore white polo shirts and was the star football player of our class. What I mean by falling in love is that I slowed my step when I saw David in my peripheral vision, memorized the names of Danish and Italian football players, and even allowed myself, several times, to write out his full name in my notebook, before hurriedly erasing it. Beyond this, I did not really interact with him, except for one memorable walk from the train station to school when I asked if he would be watching the Juventus game that evening. I thought, then, that I saw a glimmer of recognition in his eyes. I had encountered David’s types in books, too. His free-spirited boyishness was not too different from Gilbert Blythe’s in Anne of Green Gables. His delicate, handsome features were just like Laurie’s in Little Women. He had dimples and talent for sport like the eldest brother Peter in The Chronicles of Narnia. But I was not in love with David’s fictional counterparts. Instead, in my fifth, sixth, 1oth readings of these books, I would jump ahead to the scenes with Anne’s bashful adoptive uncle Matthew; the sloppy and clumsy Professor Bhaer; the soft-pawed lion Aslan. I thought that all girls who read Narnia were in love with Aslan, until a friend recently burst out laughing at what she thought was a strange confession. “You were in love with the lion?” she said. “Sure, we all loved him, but like…a teddy bear, someone you’d like to hug.” Of course, I was not really in love with the furry creature, nor with the farmer Matthew who was my grandfather’s age. It was what they represented—kindness, unconditional love, nobility—that made them superior to the handsome boys still battling with their temper and pride. Beneath their bodily disguises, my heroes embodied the perfect person whom I had never seen but felt certain was there, just out of sight. And even though I liked to attribute noble traits to David that were not visible to the eye—imagining, for example, when I saw him walking with his little sister that he would fight a battle for—I was old enough to know that the real world and its inhabitants would always be a bit disappointing compared to those of books. During my younger years of reading, I believed like most children that the worlds of stories really existed. They were there—somewhere—even if I did not always see them, just like my grandparents’ yellow house which I only saw in the summers, but which continued to stand quietly behind the mulberry tree even when we were back in the city. I particularly loved the worlds within worlds of The Secret Garden, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, or Enid Blyton’s adventure series, when I would first enter the lethargic lives of the characters (which were exciting to me nonetheless in their English quaintness) before embarking on an adventure. After spending several lazy afternoons in old relatives’ houses, the characters and I would all step into the magic kingdoms. I was proud to think that I had come the longest way of all, traversing not just one, but two worlds to enter the garden hidden behind a wall of ivy, jump aboard the Dawn Treader inside the painting, or discover the secret passage that led to the mines. When I became aware that these places did not exist, I was neither disappointed nor disillusioned. I simply shifted my admiration from the characters and their hidden kingdoms to the very essence of their existence—to the minds that imagined them. 2. Anyone who knows me has heard that I am in love with Orhan Pamuk. I’ve allowed this one infatuation to become a joke—as ridiculous as falling in love with a lion—so that I may preserve my other authors in their sacred light. Even though I have never met him, I’ve written letters to Pamuk (which I’ve never sent) as well as stories where I go on walks with him around Istanbul. On these walks I call him Orhan Abi, Brother Orhan, as I would a Turkish elder. Of course, there is preemptive protection in this familial address, turning my admiration to sibling love, so that we are on more equal footing and I expect nothing in return for my affection. On some walks, Orhan Abi is engaged in the conversation, on others he is lost in thought and restless to go back to his desk. Though I certainly dramatize my love for this man (whose Istanbul has so infiltrated my imagination that I find it impossible to write about the city without his shadow), I’m always surprised when friends bring me news of the real Orhan Pamuk. “Did you hear who he’s dating now?” “The Nobel Prize brought out the arrogance in him!” I hear in their voices a determination to cure me of my obsession before I have my heart broken, because, they are telling me, Orhan Pamuk won’t make a worthy boyfriend. My Orhan Pamuk is a man of my own making, fashioned from novels, imagining the type of person who would write them. While his tangible double gives lectures, has love affairs, signs books, and goes to airports, Orhan Abi is immersed in a Russian novel. He watches the Bosphorus from his desk and hopes in agony for a glimpse of a beautiful woman walking past his window each evening. It is neither the lion with a furry mane, nor the sullen, spectacled man that I fell in love with. I am enchanted by words in the literal sense—I enter into chant, not by the tangible objects that words point to, but by the rhythms and harmonies arising from their spell. Perhaps I did not learn my lesson when I realized that books were the constructions of authors, because authors for me are just as much a construct of my imagination. [millions_ad] But if the worlds of books are separate from our own, it should also be said that they intersect with ours in mysterious ways. For me, the joy of reading is partly for the thrill of becoming aware of these collisions of worlds even if I don’t always know how to interpret them. 3. There is no clearer parallel to the sights of literature emerging in life than falling in love. Then, too, every street sign, shop front, and overheard conversation becomes part of a conspiracy. And just like love, which tunes the senses to invisible harmonies (otherwise called coincidence), literature reveals patterns that connect us to multiple worlds. “What is the significance of these similarities, overlaps, and coincidences?” W.G. Sebald asks in his essay on Robert Walser, tracing the real and fictional paths they have both walked at different times. “Are they rebuses of memory, delusions of the self and of the senses, or rather the schemes and symptoms of an order underlying the chaos of human relationships, and applying equally to the living and the dead, which lies beyond our comprehension?” I can think of no truer way to express affection for a writer who has shaped our world than by simply listing the trivial encounters of our fates. “I have slowly learned to grasp how everything is connected across space and time,” Sebald continues. “Walser’s long walks with my own travels, dates of birth with dates of death, happiness with misfortune [...] On all these paths Walser has been my constant companion. I only need to look up for a moment in my daily work to see him standing somewhere a little apart, the unmistakable figure of the solitary walker just pausing to take in the surroundings.” But I wonder if Sebald would have noticed Walser’s footsteps if he had really set off on a walk with him. Do our crossings with these companions not depend on their invisibility? Do the signs of a beloved not surround us only in his absence? “The other whom I love and who fascinates me is atopos,” says Roland Barthes in A Lover’s Discourse. “I cannot classify the other, for the other is precisely, Unique, the singular Image which has miraculously come to correspond to the specialty of my desire. The other is the figure of my truth, and cannot be imprisoned in any stereotype.” I wonder if admiration does not build itself in the unique space of imagination, unencumbered by reality. I wonder this because I once had the misfortune of going on a real walk with one of my imagined writers. I thought of this man as my writer, undiscovered by anyone else despite his fame. It does not matter who he is. There are many stories about him, just as there are about Orhan Pamuk that have nothing to do with my walking companion Orhan Abi. During our walk, around a small town in Mexico, the writer observed many details that were invisible to me—the strange animals carved on a church door, the gaudy, imitation relics of saints inside the church that reminded him of his native parish, the lines of myth and history connecting the Virgin of Guadalupe, St. Brigid, and Diana of Ephesus. Afterwards, we sat on the terrace of a monastery with our backs to the fading fresco of Dominican monks holding a map of the monastery (like a book within a book). In front of us, a vertiginous valley was reddening in the afternoon light. I asked the writer what aspect of the monastery and landscape he found inspiring. He shrugged and said that all that surrounded us was built in vain, in the name of a god that didn’t exist. (“Quite frequently,” Barthes writes, “it is by language that the other is altered; the other speaks a different word, and I hear rumbling menacingly a whole other world, which is the world of the other.”) After I returned from Mexico, I sent the writer an essay I’d written about our walk. I also sent him a present to thank him. He did not respond. The same friends who told me to get over Orhan Pamuk also told me that I could not expect such a famous author to write back. Some friends said I should be grateful that he came on the walk in the first place; others said he sounded awful. In reality, the writer was not to blame for my disappointment. He was not the person whom I’d known years prior to our meeting and I wonder if he could have acted in any way that resembled the writer of my own making. My heartbreak is akin to encountering a lion in a zoo, and waiting for him to walk up to me and offer the kind of guidance I’d expect from Aslan. A few months later, I ran into the writer on the street during a visit to New York— another thread of chance without visible meaning. He was disheveled, out of breath, walking his dog. He did not mention the essay or my present. We chatted for a while about Mexico. “Well then,” the writer said after a few minutes, “you take care.” “I suddenly see the other,” Barthes says, “abiding by, respecting, yielding to worldly rites […] For the bad Image is not a wicked image; it is a paltry image: it shows me the other caught up in the platitude of the social world—common place.” But I don’t quite believe that my imaginary companions and their tangible counterparts are entirely separate. I’m sure that the sullen Orhan Pamuk whom I’ve never met is acquainted with my dreamy friend watching the street from his window, and that the dismissive writer is not entirely numb to the seductions of landscape. After all, both pairs of men take equal claim for the words committed to paper. Part of my heartbreak, then, was trying too hard to see the familiar person residing in the writer, of probing him for a glimpse of the poetic and mysterious. When I encounter beauty, I have an urge to possess it, to take it apart and discover something within. In my naïve effort to see the writer’s imagination, I am reminded of coming upon a bird’s nest, no bigger than my palm, one afternoon when I was walking Dost in the forest. Dost spotted it first, prodding his nose inside a mound of leaves to drag out a concentrated mass. I could not immediately make out what it was, and even felt frightened by the intricate chaos. But once my sight adjusted to its shape, I was so amazed by the beauty and compactness of its architecture that I took a stick and poked at it, hoping to find something hidden inside that would explain its lovely, cupped sight. I poked deeper with my stick until the nest came apart in twigs, feathers, and mud, leaving me utterly disappointed. Beauty avoids our grasp because it’s made of the same, ephemeral texture as imagination. It suggests that it is holding something we cannot see, like the evocative sight of a nest or seashell, like light faintly emanating from a lion’s skin. Like love, beauty tempts our imagination to walk down its path with the promise of revealing its golden forest, but turn after turn it spares us the sight, so splendid it would blind us if ever we were to see it. Image Credit: Pixabay.