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Radu Vancu from Sibiu, Romania

Poetitorial: Lockdown diary

Rareș Helici
April 01, 2020
In fact, one of the most dangerous things that is happening to us, as dangerous as the disease we are hiding from, is the following: withdrawn among our loved ones, we suddenly have the feeling that our private lives are irrelevant; we find irrelevant almost everything we do without going out, as before, into the public space – and, conversely, everything we did in that public space seems relevant to us; it is the most painful & most frustrating paradox: in the heart of the most precious private micro-harmony, where the relevance of our lives should be maximalized, we suddenly feel irrelevant.
March 17. These are days when time has become very dense, almost unbearably dense. I think we all feel it, and, as usual, the most effective solvent of time is poetry. So I'll read now, not so much poetry, as unbearably poetic novels, with huge amounts of time in them: Mikhail Shishkin’s The Light and the Dark, or Bulat Okudzhava’s The Dilettantes’Journey, or William Gaddis’s The Recognitions. Or, after all, the entire Remembrance of Things Past. Books with such huge amounts of time and beauty in them that their gravity is practically infinite, and our lonely days will rotate slowly around the center of a book, around its core of heavy metal and illuminated gas, leading us in unseen spirals towards an Exit.

March 20. After so many years of going out and protesting in the streets and squares of Romania, movement is now in the opposite direction: a withdrawal from the square into the room. Metamorphosing the community into intimacy. And, as it was difficult to invent and manage our community, it proves just as difficult to invent and manage our privacy. We sit in our houses, among our books, with all the music and movies of the world at hand, and we complain as if we were in hell. We cannot exist without suffering. We do not know how not to transform Paradise into Hell. Probably because only in this way can we create beauty; and, for the sake of future beauty, we are willing to undergo any amount of suffering. My doubt is threefold: I am not sure that it is worth it, and I am not sure we will know how to build beauty out of suffering and, finally, I am not sure that, once built, we will not make it the seat of our new suffering.

Theoretically, there must exist spaces without suffering, from the stellar nucleosynthesis at the edges of the known universe to the confines of the nutshell we live in. I have just read John Hands's Cosmosapiens, a history of the universe and of life in the universe – more realistic and more depressing than the most sarcastic and misanthropic philosophers, Emil Cioran is a regular Buster Keaton next to this otherwise very positive American historian of science. In all these places, since there is no life, suffering should be non-existent. But then the poets could never imagine spaces without suffering; Virgil, and Dante, and Mihai Eminescu - they all have splendid lyrics about gods crying in these cosmic voids. Dante, since I mentioned it, has one of the essential questions: ma tu perchè ritorni a tanta noia? But you, why do you return to so much suffering? This is what Virgil asks Dante when they first meet. And it's not just a question, it's a diagnosis: we cannot live without returning to suffering. Which often does not let us live. We cannot live without what does not allow us to live. And this is one of the truths of literature; it is also one of the definitions of man; and it is also one of the reasons for the existence of literature.

Beauty is, I think, the answer to Dante's question: we always return to suffering because it is at the core of beauty. This is probably why Demiurgos cries in his empty universe: because he knows that the absence of suffering means the absence of beauty. This may be what Pound meant when he spoke about beauty being difficult: Pound took this idea from an answer given by Aubrey Beardsley to Yeats, when the poet asked him why he drew horrors: "So very difficult, Yeats, beauty is so difficult”. Pound remembered this when he was locked up in Pisa and the sentence returns as a leitmotif in the Pisan Cantos, the most moving of all. Beauty is difficult because, in order to see it, you have to go to the heart of your suffering. Therefore, equilibrium is not possible nor is it desirable. Beauty, like suffering, is an excess; and art, therefore, must also to be an excess. It is only “the road of excess [that] leads to the palace of wisdom”, in William Blake’s slightly grandiose but so true words.

Yesterday we all went out of the house for the first time in so many days. We got in the car and went to Cisnădioara, to the Maurer house, designed by Canadian architect Florian Maurer. We were also alone there, but at least in a house with a backyard. Sebastian fed cats, then we played football together (I was the goalkeeper, with Sebastian shooting countless penalty shots). Then we baked potatoes in the stove, and read from Dante's Inferno translated and annotated by Ronald Durling. So difficult, beauty is so difficult.

March 22. Our paradoxical reactions to the virus come from its paradoxical character:
– the virus is something so insignificant, with seemingly low mortality rates (estimated at 3.4% - which may seem a little, but is already very much - and in Italy the figure is 8.5% of the infected!). But with the effects of the huge global blockade, this paradoxical disproportion between what the disease seems to be and what it is also causes a reaction of mistrust, suspicion and the activation of conspiracy theories;
– it puts us in the situation, paradoxically, of rethinking the whole discourse about accepting refugees/immigrants etc; it has been so difficult for us until now to accept the arrival of the radical stranger, who in the eyes of many of us brought us the unknown & evil; now, we must learn to manage the return home of our compatriots - some of whom bring with them disease & evil;
– it compels us to learn isolation as an essential mode of action - to see isolation as an essential way of caring for the others; but, while retreating to the small comfortable shelters of our homes, while minimizing our space, time suddenly widens enormously – and this gigantic expansion of time unexpectedly transforms the protective & paradisiac space into hell; we are therefore asked to manage, from our personal comfort, a life overloaded with time – and we no longer know how to do it – our previous life has deactivated the gene for processing both time & intimacy – and we fail, paradoxically, in frustration & fury; (I say paradoxically, because we get to anger in what should be the heart of our micro-harmonies);
– in fact, one of the most dangerous things that is happening to us, as dangerous as the disease we are hiding from, is the following: withdrawn among our loved ones, we suddenly have the feeling that our private lives are irrelevant; we find irrelevant almost everything we do without going out, as before, into the public space – and, conversely, everything we did in that public space seems relevant to us; it is the most painful & most frustrating paradox: in the heart of the most precious private micro-harmony, where the relevance of our lives should be maximalized, we suddenly feel irrelevant.

But the truth is quite the opposite: our lives are only relevant near our loved ones – only isolated near them are we relevant. Thus, while taking care of others, we take care of ourselves. And, while taking care of ourselves, we take care of others.

The answer to all the paradoxes of this disease is therefore also a paradox: the others are also ourselves.


(Photo by Rareș Helici in Sibiu downtown)
© Radu Vancu, Romanian editor for Poetry International Archives
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