A Ballad for Etel (Excerpts)
These are from a longer work in progress, a kind of essay-in-fragments linked more by poetic association than conventional argument, like how in Etel’s paintings shape and color neither fuse into realist depiction nor collide in contrapuntal abstraction — but as in most of her poetry and prose — resonate, as she puts it, “like something that calls you through a fog or a cloud,” or, as she writes elsewhere, like “an opera between the galaxy and the cemetery.” —DB
And this makes me think of Etel’s book Of Cities & Women (Letters to Fawwaz), where in a letter from Amsterdam she writes of going to see Monteverdi’s opera The Return of Ulysses, conducted by her partner Simone’s nephew. Etel homes in on the character Penelope, and writes of how:
In the Opera House I watched a myth become reality, because it remains such a powerful one, that of Penelope conceived as pure waiting. In fact, she does not even wait at a window, since, for women, windows have always been tantamount to a door out of the cage. Penelope lives in the back of her room. Penelope just waits.
After comparing Penelope to Job, waiting for God “to make yet another demand upon him,” Etel returns to the figure of the waiting woman:
…the woman is that which waits: she waits to grow up, she waits for puberty, waits for her fiancé, her husband, her child, her old age, and her death […] She waits for the water to boil, for the war to be over, for the spring to return […] She waits for the moment of love, the moment of vengeance, of oblivion, and again, of death […] She is born practically seated, and Penelope does nothing but sit. She is pure waiting.
And this makes me think of one of my favorite lines of film dialogue, when after a seemingly interminable silence between mother and son, a scene that captures the actual passage of domestic time, in this case time spent sitting waiting for the water to boil the potatoes, sitting and waiting as a form of domestic labor in itself, Jeanne Dielman, of 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, says, “The potatoes should be ready now.” We will have already watched Jeanne spend several minutes — shot in real time — peeling the potatoes, then watch the “pure waiting” she shares with her son as the potatoes boil in the kitchen.
And we know that the knife with which she nearly cuts herself peeling potatoes — a scene that lasts nearly ten minutes — this knife will be used again later, when she is no longer “waiting for vengeance” like Etel’s Penelope, but rather decisive in her peeling back the time of domestic routine and servitude to male desire, after the momentous if seemingly banal rent in time when she loses track of clock-time and the potatoes burn, so that when her son returns home at the end of the day and comments on his mother’s disheveled hair, she replies, as if in explanation, “I let the potatoes burn.”
And this makes me think of Gertrude Stein, not only the line in her paean to dailiness and domestic love, Tender Buttons, where she writes “a change, a final change includes potatoes,” but also of a line from her poem-portrait “Christian Bérard” (the theater-designer and fashion illustrator who died — one might say “operatically” — on the stage of a Parisian Theater) where Stein writes, “Remembering potatoes because of preparation for part of the day.”
And that makes me think of Vladimir Sorokin’s samizdat novel, The Queue, censored in the Soviet Union for years, where in 197 pages of unattributed dialogue we meet a queuer who fills her or his — but surely it is a woman — time peeling potatoes, not in preparation for as much as a way of filling time, waiting-time, not for boiled water but for the queue to move, to arrive, at what door or gate we are never told.
In Sorokin’s novel we find a society governed by “an ideology without a present tense, for a society-in-waiting, kept in permanent thrall to the future.” Here the present tense is like but unlike Stein’s continuous present, as waiting-for is different than being-in, even as the queuers create — in the real time of Sorokin’s novel, paced as it is by the passing of waiting-time — their own sociality, their own daily rhythms unloosed from clock-time and instead cued to the movement of the sun, so that at night we get pages of blank space (the blank-time of sleep and dream?) or a series of ellipses marking unspoken presence in communion, broken now and then by the sounds of grunts and sighs from fitful sleep or stolen moments of sexual congress, until at one point a voice declares, as if in answer to the more existential question of a society ever-queuing, “and that’s why there are no potatoes anymore.”
And this makes me think of another novel, also titled The Queue, by the Egyptian novelist and psychiatrist Basma Abdel Aziz, in which an unnamed Arab country has quelled a revolution by claiming its mantle, establishing a new order even more autocratic than the last, symbolized by the fortress-like administrative complex that is entered only through the Gate, in front of which grows an ever-lengthening queue of citizens, each waiting for their chance to enter, until shops close for lack of shoppers, and shopkeepers join the queue in hopes of gaining special permits to sell their goods directly to those in the queue, whereas in Sorokin’s novel a kind of improvised civic sphere emerges as those in line share gossip and news of their conditions, speculating on what might happen if and when the Gate opens. As Aziz writes: “Of course, the Gate would open, they agreed, but even when it did it would become even more oppressive, and they wouldn’t be rid of it anytime soon.”
Meanwhile, one of the main characters carries around a bullet in his abdomen, unable to have it removed without permission from the Gate, permission we know will never come since the bullet would provide proof that State forces had indeed fired upon protesting citizens, so that the body politic must instead become slowly poisoned by the burden of proof, carrying the evidence of state oppression in one’s body, unable to present it to any Law that might render justice, or at least permit a doctor to save the man’s life. Even his x-ray is taken away by agents of the Gate, to be filed away if not destroyed — the x-ray that magical photogram of the body’s inner light, where the bullet lies in wait as both evidence of victimhood as well as its agent. But no one lets him jump the queue.
And this makes me think of the line “you may live or die, but surely you will die if you avoid standing in line” from “The Case of the Queue-Breaker,” a satirical story by the Ethiopian exile Hama Tuma, which recounts a trial under Mengistu’s regime, where we are told that “the ties between the queuers are abstract and real, but never real enough to result in their seeing themselves as one, in opposition to […] the authorities […] Queuing contributes to the forging of the non-rebellious citizen.” Like Etel’s Penelope, Tuma writes that “life is one long queue, from birth to death you stand in line with your soup bowl or potato bag.”
The queue-breaker on trial, notably a housekeeper whose Ethiopian name means “patience” in English, freely admits to moving to the front of the line at the bakery after queuing at 3 a.m., but only after seeing five State officials do the same. When she asks “weren’t they too breaking the law?” the judge responds that “they are the law.” “I spoke the truth,” she responds — patiently — to which the prosecutor replies, as if channeling Rudy Giuliani, “the truth can be illegal, dear lady.”
Ultimately it is decided that her penalty will be that she is required to queue every day at 2 a.m. and then at noon be sent to the back of the line. The judge proclaims, as if to justify the punishment, “the smooth functioning of the queue assures the progress of the Revolution […] Distribution of penury is no easy task.”
And this makes me think of The Beggar’s Strike, a novella by the Senegalese Aminata Sow Fall, in which the rich and powerful are unable to do their religious duty of giving alms to the poor after the city’s beggars go on strike until they are able to negotiate ever-higher sums — money, cars, houses — from the corrupt government officials. The price of entrance to Heaven becomes ever-inflated, and the organized beggars — no longer isolated individuals ever-waiting for power to recognize their needs but, as Tuma puts it, “seeing themselves as one” — retreat to their own compound, behind their own gate, and the rich are forced to wait, wait for hours with truckloads of cash and slowly rotting food, until the “distribution of penury” becomes the redistribution of wealth.
And this makes me think of the opening scene of Orson Welles’ film version of Kafka’s The Trial, in which over a series of starkly simple black-and-white slides Welles reads Kafka’s parable “Before the Law.” Instead of seamless cinematic time — “truth at twenty-four frames a second” — we are presented with an almost purposely clunky slideshow, as if Welles is in a drawing room giving a proto-PowerPoint presentation while we wait for the “actual” film to begin, so that the waiting-time of Kafka’s “man from the country” who has come to ask entry into the law clicks forward with an insistent rhythm, like the sounds of so many bricks being laid to reinforce the gate, or the relentless ticking of the clock in Jeanne Dielman’s waiting room, or the insistent gaveling of the law calling for order. But as in Aziz’s novel, the man dies in wait.
And this makes me think of what could happen if we simply turned — to turn as in to torque, to bore, to rub — away from the Gate, the Court, the Law, not only in collective protest and self-organization, but also simply to remind ourselves of the immensity of sky, of fading or expansive light, the sun setting or rising, its bright expanse lending color to the world, pure or impure light burning through the ozone-hole, unrelenting and greater than any us we might call us, filtered perhaps through the polluted smog of industrial effluvia, or through the smoky airborne particulate matter caked over opiated eyes, or through the sea-mist rolling over Sausalito at dawn, or through the noirish blue hours of dusky Parisian streetscapes, or through the smoke and debris rising from the bombs dropped on Beirut, Lebanon’s light, where, as Etel writes, “death hides behind the light in an invisible way,” or through the poisoned clouds casting “shadows upon shadows” across Damascus, light nonetheless brilliant for its exactitude, delineating figure and ground, color and shape, the terror and awe in the enormity of such seemingly non-ideological actuality, light that grants sight, to see the painterly horizon aglow in a quivering color field that shatters our sense of human time. As Etel asks, “Don’t colors have the power to break through the time barrier?” Or as she writes in her most recent book, Surge: “Color is a particular manifestation of light / everything else is doubtful,” and this doubt — what I’d argue is a life-affirming doubt, doubt that leads to reflection and discovery — is rendered not only in her writing but also in her paintings where, as she puts it, “to make images, you think with them […] a painting is like a territory. All kinds of things happen within its boundary, equal to the discoveries of the murders or the creations we have in the world outside,” and this makes me think of Etel using her palette knife to intuitively map the territory of our seeing, to peel back layers of memory and perception, seeing the sun or moon ever rising and falling and hovering in the distance of our longing, however nostalgic or elegiac, despite the world, the gate, the ever-patient and waiting Penelope or Jeanne, despite the fact that “they are ringing the bells to announce that the beasts have reached the slaughterhouse. The sun refuses to set.”
And this — all this — is what I think of when looking at Etel Adnan’s paintings.