I have not had much time to read lately—or rather, I have not been giving myself much time to read, as the writing always seems to trump just about any other activity. But the other day I found myself thumbing through the New York Times Magazine, and specifically Teju Cole’s essay about recreating a photograph by Burri. I was struck both by the intensity with which Cole pursues his project—for he succeeds in discovering both the São Paulo rooftop and the way the shot was made—and by a quote he provides from Gabriel García-Márquez:
Gabriel García-Márquez, once asked whom the best reader of ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ was, responded with a story: ‘A Russian friend met a lady, a very old lady, who was copying the whole book out by hand, right to the last line. My friend asked her why she was doing it, and the lady replied, ‘Because I want to find out who is really mad, the author or me, and the only way to find out is to rewrite the book.’ I find it hard to imagine a better reader than that lady.
Cole describes the lady’s act as repetition, but knowing how taxing handwriting can be, I think it is more than that. To hand copy a work in its entirety is to inhabit it, in a way far more intimate than mere reading, or even photocopying or scanning individual pages. It creates a muscle memory of the work as a whole, a sensory experience the author themselves may lack. It is, in short, a deeply felt form of possession.
A few days later I was exercising and watching television (like you do)—in this case one of the most recent episodes of Hannibal, which in this final season took a meandering detour through a glass darkly and came back out into the Red Dragon storyline; I can still feel the whiplash of that first “Three Years Later” episode. But episode 10 had some great food for thought (empathy and cruelty are now a Venn diagram in my notes) and this memorable scene:
(Dare I confess I had forgotten about the Blake-eating, and that first bite made me gasp and flinch almost as much as any of the violence on this show?) Here again, is a deep kind of possession of? by? a work of art, part of the Dragon’s physical embodying of Blake’s watercolor. Two in one week! Such synchronicities always prod me to thinking, and in the wake of the Hannibal episode I found myself wondering: when did I last feel so drawn to a work that I wanted to possess it, inhabit it, even ingest it? And how many of us feel so in our lives, ever?
I can think of a few such moments: works I wanted to steal, to copy, to draw and paint and write upon, even to lick in an odd moment. But what if we are moving away from such a time, in this mediated, electronic world? Perhaps such personal engagements are destined to become fewer, the rare experiences of those with socioeconomic privilege . . . Today, however, I was standing on line at the thrift store and overheard a man in front of me talking to a woman who was considering a DVD from the racks of videos: “I have seen that movie fifty thousand times,” he declared; and then, as if unable to help himself, his hand jerked out and stroked the cover, like it was a beloved animal, before he was saved from himself by an available cashier.