With its sandy expanses and climbable pyramids, the Ancient Playground was designed to evoke empire. As a kid, I spent countless afternoons ducking through the piss-fragrant tunnels of the Giza-inspired play structures. During the summer, I’d dash through the sprinkler as if Moses himself had just cracked it open. In all seasons, teenagers made out behind the concrete obelisk.
The playground is one of several Egyptian architectural features in the stodgy, patrician neighborhood where I went to school. A quarter mile west is Cleopatra’s Needle, a 3,500-year-old obelisk (it’s a long story) that shrouds itself in pink blooms during springtime. Across the street, the Metropolitan Museum exhibits a transplanted sandstone temple (also a long story, but I’ll get to it later) in an all-glass wing. On some days, this is nothing short of majestic, and on others, you feel like you are peering into the world’s largest dining room cabinet.
The Ancient Playground was built in 1973, one of several “adventure playgrounds” constructed in New York City during the 60s and 70s. These were considered antidotes to the philistine playgrounds erected during the tenure of Parks Commissioner Robert Moses. Though outdoor play spaces proliferated under Moses (municipal, not Biblical), they were uniform and Spartan in design: a slide, a swing set, a row of monkey bars. A patch of the outdoors for drilling gross motor skills. The spatial equivalent of drinking a glass of milk for strong bones. Grip, lift, climb.
Richard Dattner, who designed the Ancient Playground and other avant-garde recreational spaces, had some choice words for these average traditional playgrounds: “there could not be a more hostile environment for children’s play if it had been designed for the express purpose of preventing play.”
Dattner’s adventure playgrounds, in turn, were meant to condition the imaginative muscles of the New York City child. European children, as legend would have it, forged their own play spaces from the rubble of World War II—and in true American fashion, the grown-ups decided that their children could learn a thing or two from other people’s misfortune. The resulting playgrounds touted themselves as theatrical stages rather than gymnasia, opulent and seamless ecosystems of make-believe. In a 1973 feature that heralded this new, innovative generation of playgrounds, the New York Times reported that architects aimed to provide “physical or psychological separation of the children from their parents” and “promote indulgence in a child's sensory experience and fantasies.”
The construction of the Ancient Playground was bankrolled by the Estee and Joseph Lauder Foundation ($225,000) and a cohort of Upper East Side mothers who called themselves the 85th Street Playground Association ($75,000). The project was ostensibly a six-figure investment in the strange and unconquerable inner lives of children. In the New York Times piece, one mother marveled: “In this kind of playground, for an adult to walk in, it's almost like interfering.”
This no-grown-ups-allowed ethos was inscribed in the design of the playground. Until the renovation, all of the slides and tunnels and pyramids sat in a massive, central pit of sand that smelled like rust and always felt a little bit damp. Mothers and nannies sat at the periphery and only traversed the sacrosanct boundary in case of blood or bruises. Standing atop peaks of concrete, the Upper East Side’s youngest denizens could see the park unfold at their feet, tasting something like imperial power for the first time.
Sometime in the early aughts, I found myself the indentured best friend of a classmate known for her clinginess. It all started innocuously enough: at the Ancient Playground (where else?) with some make-believe game that seamlessly incorporated lots of sliding. (The architectural motifs rarely had any bearing on the games that were played; girls at my school were partial to variants of tag that also involved pretending to be Dickensian orphans.)
When recess ended I asked this classmate, with a frankness I wish I could still access today, if I had to do this again tomorrow. She looked down at me from the top of the pyramid and gleefully informed me that we would be doing this every single day. And so we did.
I’ve since come to associate little blonde girls and wide blue eyes with pleading and persuasion, but in that fateful, unflinching every single day there was no room to negotiate. It was an ironclad contract I could never quite explain to my parents. So it was on the Playground: languid afternoons, some artificial sense of the old and majestic, little blonde girls and their forceful, lawless fantasies.
The Ancient Playground is Egyptian in the same way that Mandarin oranges in salad are Chinese: vaguely, and with a certain 1970s flair. But Dattner didn’t just pick the Egyptian theme out of a hat. The playground commemorated the Temple of Dendur, a sandstone structure that was built during the reign of Emperor Augustus Caesar. The temple was dedicated to Isis and Osiris, and it was fully relocated to the Metropolitan Museum, one block away from the playground, in 1978. In its original iteration, the temple was not a congregational place of worship; it was designed to house the deities and the offerings their worshipers extended. No one would have imagined the crowds it weathers today.
The 800-ton transplant was largely the doing of Jacqueline Kennedy. The construction of the Aswan High Dam threatened to submerge several sacred sites along the Nile, and the First Lady urged her husband and Congress to join an international effort to save them. As a thank-you, the Egyptian government gifted the Temple of Dendur to the United States in 1965. The Met won the monument in an inter-city bidding war that journalists termed the “Dendur Derby.”
It took more than a decade to dismantle, transport, and reassemble the temple. Thanks to a hefty donation from opioid magnate Arthur Sackler, the museum’s director, Thomas Hoving, built an artificial “Nile” to encircle the temple. Floor-to-ceiling glass paneling made the monument visible to all passersby. Though the widowed Jacqueline Kennedy had wanted to reconstruct Dendur (a remembrance of her husband’s foreign policy) on the banks of the Potomac, she got a pretty convenient view of the temple from her Manhattan apartment right across the street. The lights stayed on in the glass-enclosed Dendur wing all night, even after the museum closed.
A few years ago, a guide on a trendy “unofficial” museum tour told me that in some circles, the temple was nicknamed “Jackie’s Night Light.” At the time, I thought the image was adorable: eight hundred tons of sacred sandstone keeping the widow’s nightmares at bay. I imagined the stony likeness of Horus at the foot of her duvet and the hem of her silk pajamas brushing the mighty columns.
I’ve never entertained the idea that Cleopatra was white, but I’ve devised this strange mythology of Manhattan’s Egyptian and “Egyptian” structures in my head, and it crawls with terrifying, wealthy, and beautiful white women. They are at once tiny and giant, swarming the ruins like ants and then holding the sandstone in their fingers like teacups. There are pyramids and pillbox hats and pleated uniform skirts—oddities of the Upper East Side’s “Egypt” and the white women who make playthings of it.
The whole scene has the effect of a diorama or a snowglobe collection or some other artifact of the postwar affinity for stuff. It is an indulgence in fantasies I didn’t invent. It is an investment in the daydreams of Jacqueline Kennedy, my elementary school classmate, and the concerned mothers of the 85th Street Playground Association.
According to family lore, I took my first steps in the Temple of Dendur. I’m not quite sure that this is true, but at the very least it makes for a picturesque thing to say about growing up in New York. There are photos of me at a year old, arrested in some intent waddling motion toward the massive arches. I am wearing green corduroy overalls.
Somehow, this unlikely meeting of the ancient and the infant feels fitting. It is a surprisingly humble encounter between site and visitor: the sandstone looms high and majestic and indifferent to the development of gross motor skills happening below. There is little room for games or adventure or imperialist fantasy in learning how to walk; there are only steps and stumbles and the incomprehensible, enormous things ahead.
When I learn about the homeland for the first time, nobody tells me that I should see home. A teacher pulls down the map of the world, then the map of the continent, and taps with the black tip of her pointer. “Africa,” she says, and like magic the classroom turns a Sahara-sun yellow, something called tribal print bordering the walls, my sister said, pointing through the doorway; and in a few months she is learning to say jambo, we are beating pellet drums against our legs, she is sent home with a letter to give to our parents asking them to bring African food on World Culture Day. I sit on the floor by the stove, my tongue to the hard scratchy surface of the pellet drum, smoky-tasting, hide-flavored, and worriedly watch my mother make a rice that will be served to our classmates at school in the cafeteria, in huge aluminum pans, in front of the teacher who pulls down maps of the world and its continents, who sent home the letter. (Can your family make us some African food?)
On the day my sister is wearing a shirt, lemon-yellow, Africa-yellow, and on the day I am not wearing a yellow shirt but I cannot let my sister be the only one here, I cannot let these people shit on my mother’s cooking. I hover by the station, armpits damp with anxiety over our classmates who cannot eat the rice because it is too spicy—meaning too peppery—which my mother stubbornly dishes out to them with a smile on her face, sweat on her forehead. Nobody knows what Kenyan food looks like. This jollof is full of bay leaves and scotch bonnet so hot it burned my fingers to separate into pieces and dump into the blender the night before in the suffocating warmth of the kitchen. Today my sister and I eat platefuls like dutiful daughters, the insides of our mouths stinging, cumin seeds caught on our tongues. We watch our classmates spear dodo with their forks and nod when they tell us that they like these bananas (because even then we know that no one else eats plantain). Next to the red station, China, I stare out across the cafeteria, where my mother smiles at me from Kenya and wipes her face with the back of her wrist, where I ask myself what color I feel for the homeland, and then I’m not sure that I’ve ever had an answer.
When I see the homeland in color it is ankara glittering from the inside of a red and blue bag, it is the hand cream my mommy-auntie left on the shelf when she went back to the homeland, peach, rosewater. The grimy glass bottles of Fanta in the back of the African market, in a fridge hidden behind shelves of Nido and cornflakes and halal kilishi and black soap. The dust everybody talked about, settling over their feet like beauty powder. I tell myself know dust, sparkling in the air when light comes through and beams across the living room carpet. I know snow, sparkling in the air when light hits it from all sides. I know the grime I swept up from windowsills with one finger, I don’t know anything about the dust. But the smell of it. And how it gets into your mouth. And the red.
My mother hasn’t spoken about the dust since my father came back from the airport one night, auburn lining his luggage. My father has never spoken about the dust. Instead he told us about the color television in his baba’s bedroom which he and his siblings would secretly watch as children, he described the amount of beer his parents bought him for his high school graduation party before he left for America. The day my father started to remember the homeland more than he had ever remembered it before was the day he began to forget us. Twenty-five years and the Texas in his accent made no difference, when he left sometimes none of us knew if, this time, he would ever be back. Once when my father came back he brought us a suitcase full of toilet paper we were not allowed to touch. Too many curses in the homeland, my mother told us. Too much conflict for this house. I saw the nostalgia dry up inside of her, grow inside of me, and then the homeland became so many colors I couldn’t name them all at once. When I looked at a map of the continent I saw a darkness full of purple lights, bouncing; a house bursting with cousins, spilling out aunties and uncles and music and noise; oil-stained linoleum, reeking of meat roasted to oblivion; green Heineken bottles and the caps we collected and held up to our noses, that bitter lemony smell of the metal; praise medleys and Nollywood voices vibrating into our chests. The homeland became the color blue, a Super Blue Omo blue, of the blankets they piled on top of us during the blackout at mommy-auntie’s house in Ekpoma, and of the milk candy my uncles bought us at a kiosk in the middle of nowhere, and of the painted flowers bordering the china plates my grandmother stacked with biscuits and agege bread. I picked sugar crystals off the tops and ate garri with powdered milk and even though I knew the nostalgia had died within my mother, who was only here in Benin City to bury her iye, I would put my fingers to my mouth and taste sand. Sugar. But somehow from the window, from the playground in front of Mr. Bigg’s, in the hallways of the hospital where they brought my sister to take a shot of antimalarial, I could still hear the mourning. The sound of the shovel, dirt over an ancestor, someone disappeared into somewhere: someone finally returned to the sea. I wipe the tears off grown-up cheeks with my hands, my knuckles, and imagine ancestral spirits among the waves, bobbing like lights towards an unknown endlessness.
I hear the homeland like it’s trying to reach out through the speakers at a backyard wedding party and touch me, slip into my skin, nestle into my stomach. Somebody from the soil once said, “The place of remembrance.” Somebody newer said, “The center of love.” When, shaded in orange from a faraway streetlight, my cousins and I sit on an uncle’s front porch holding bottles of malta against our bottom lips and swaying reluctantly to P Square the summer of “1er Gaou”, I can maybe imagine that the stories are not so far away. That the language lives between my teeth, silently, tucked into the left sides of my cheek like baba dudu waiting to slip, to be swallowed whole. That when the time comes to speak, it filters out into the air like the red dust of the homeland. Its perfume. But our aunties say, “Sweet, like chalk,” and I do not know what on earth that means—chalk? A sweetness?—I think of a loss in translation, I think despair, I think of the sand, mixing in with the sugar. What I know how to translate is thank you. Good morning. I’ll see you later. I pronounced my name and all the aunties and uncles laughed at me. Then saddened for me. They said, “The name. What we gave to you from the homeland, the only thing we thought you could keep.”
When I speak homeland I speak something else. My parents call me baby-baby and sweetie pie, they kiss my forehead with lips pursed into an English Honey I love you, our language of intimacy. Their language of love. Even when they are very angry they are angry in English. I asked them, “How many times do you dream in homeland?” (But I cannot remember what on earth they had answered). When my parents speak homeland together it is their language of secrecy, and when my sister and I sit on the stairs trying to listen for our names in their dense conversations it almost feels like a constant defeat. Africa, a traitor. When I speak homeland it means I’m speaking English, which is not “my native language”, which cannot be; although it is the only thing I really speak, it is the language my mother used to sing to me at night as a baby, it is there when I love somebody, when I can’t find the words, when all I have between my teeth and inside of my stomach are shooting stars and feeling. I call my mother and ask her about her day, and the language comes out like gravel. She does not like the America in my accent, the softness of the syllables, the mismatched tones; she says, in English, “Just speak English. ”
I think that maybe she found English a liberation. She cannot speak homeland without bringing it to life with English. She was younger than I am when she arrived at LaGuardia, Jheri-curled hair and a suitcase full of Austen and Shakespeare, she could not tell you who the current president of Nigeria is—and so we can almost forget that there’s something missing. We throw I love yous out into the world like confetti. There is no word for love in homeland. Still I kept notebooks full of words, wahala and mumu and na wa o, and when I wanted to learn something beyond the heartbeat of the nation she said, “No, you are from the heartbeat of the nation.” When I tried to learn homeland she said, “Stop, stop speaking.” I wrote down more words. She couldn’t understand them.
The homeland on paper is silent. Too small now. Too gone. I am obsessed with the ruins, I read all the stories about the kingdom and realize many of them end in a bloodshed that makes the baba dudu taste sour in my mouth. Yet relentlessly I search for art history papers about religious ceremonies and chalk thrown into rivers; I put together documents about spirituality and title them mysticism. I look at the shirts my sister and I were made to wear as children, photos of stolen artwork printed on the front and underneath, a caption urging the British to bring our iyoba home. Realize so much has been stolen that my foreign hands are never enough to salvage, no matter how bare, or determined. When I learn about the homeland my professor turns on the projector to flash us an image of the continent and then switches the slide to an overview of South Africa. One tribal system is Africa’s system. One people’s religion is African religion. We sit in lecture romanticizing Africa, they tell us, “Let’s think of a new Africa,” erase the old Africa—first the Kenya-yellow Africa, then the homeland of bouncing purple lights. “Let’s invest in Africa,” because Africa should be our next real-life endeavor, Africa has all this real-world potential, Africa just needs somebody to believe in it. They say everything I have is not my own, not my liberation love-language English, not my grandfather’s Catholic church, not my grandmother’s European name. They say everything I have is adulteration. My family does not care when I call after class to describe all the Wole Soyinka I have studied. All they know about the history of the homeland is that it was a very large and very ancient kingdom, and for this reason my sister and I were named very ancient things. The first woman born to the world was Adesuwa. The second, our namesake. My mind dreams her up in a deep red wrapper, shining, coral beads clinking together around her neck and ankles. Black hair gathered into a crown. My mind dreams up a woman from the homeland and I do not think she looks like me. My aunties, wrapping fufu in aluminum foil, sometimes stare as one of us passes through the doorway, lamenting our faces (features full of America). How much America has drawn homeland out of their children. How they cannot give us a single piece of our ancestors, no matter how hard they try. But instead bequeathed a nostalgia so heavy it is all of the old country weighing us down. We say we would like to someday visit the homeland; they ask us what we think we are trying to find.
They do not know that when we are not learning about the homeland, the homeland does not exist. There are no black children in America whose parents got off planes here in 1984 or 1991. The grandmothers I venerate were Freedom Riders, were women who lit the lamps along the underground railroad, grandmothers who did not know I would come but did all these things so that I could come. Their blackness is the only blackness that holds me in its arms and makes me feel like a daughter. The homeland is a birthplace I romanticize through their eyes. When I learn about black people for the first time I remember my teacher in that empty classroom, sunlight filtering through the window and illuminating the colors on each shiny page of the book, Ruby Bridges lit up like royalty. My teacher followed my eyes, wanting me to read the words and breathe in the story, the courage! The revolutionary! But I kept looking down at the illustration of her, Ruby Bridges in a pink dress, six years old and brown like me, I wanted her curls and her white socks and her cardigan. Wanted the baubles tying up her hair. At home I have big flat picture books about Sojourner Truth and John Henry but my grandmother is a woman I speak to once every seven years. My grandmothers are all dead. The last time the homeland buried an iye I was not four years old eating garri out of a ceramic bowl, sitting on the window seat and trying to hear the bright music of church bells piercing through the gray gray sky. The last time, I was facing my house, in the middle of the road, another place I’d started calling home. That last time, I cried. A loss so vast it was all of those souls, lights drifting through the ocean, tired of waiting for me to find them.
When I dream of the homeland I dream mythology. Everything I have is not my own. How many times have I learned about the homeland and hoped I could feel some kind of connection or some kind of beauty in a history no one records anymore? Do I still press my palms against the glass at the Met and close my eyes in front of the ivories, wishing some kind of forebear magic would filter in and fuse with my very Western soul? I had a mommy-auntie who would carry me on her back until I fell asleep on her shoulder and feed me beans with the tips of her fingers, who would press her cheek against my forehead when I was sick and sweating in her arms and once walked a mile in the snow to buy medicine for my fever.
“What’s the matter?” my mother would ask me when I was very little, and my mommy-auntie would explain, “She doesn’t like crowds.” Or, “The TV’s too loud.” Or, “She only drinks chocolate Nesquik, you’ve bought her strawberry.”
Sometimes we’d go out to feed bread to the birds after it rained, and then she would poke my stomach and ask me questions in homeland. (Sometimes I answered correctly and when this happened she would take both my hands and shake them, overjoyed). When she went back everyone says I sat by the front door and cried for weeks. When I speak to her on the phone now she cannot understand me. Eventually someone explains that mommy-auntie isn’t used to my accent anymore, the American noise of my words so thick and heavy that she never calls to speak to me again. But there was a time I dreamed of her when I dreamed of the homeland, I conjured her smell when other people’s planes landed in from West Africa at JFK, I slept with her scarf around my neck and listened to people talk to her on the phone and wished she would ask to speak to me again. So that maybe I could just try again.
When I learn about the homeland I draw a map in my head that looks like an expanse of silk-linked constellations. Trails of lights intersecting across the sea, a warm clear water and something returned. A map that sounds like highlife guitar, collecting dollar bills on a shoe-scuffed dance floor, Asa above the sizzling of onions, like cymbals edited into her rustic strumming as my friend’s mother cooks a golden shito behind us. A map that has all the wrinkles of fabric crumpled up at the back of my clothes drawer, glitter from the gele still rigid with pins, sequins from the skirt our grandmother sent us from a tailor in Ibadan. Iye-nokhua, drinking her morning milk and tea and eating her buttered bread at the table, then an apparition of woman towering over me while I squinted at the crystals on the biscuits, the flowers on the plates. Later an illumination of a buoy shifting towards the final star, the homeland, the center of the world. The two-piece she sent was green-black-orange, and when I tried to put it on I realized I couldn’t sit, couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe in it. Instead put it to my nose and inhaled deep the Africa. Was this, I wondered, a thing I felt I knew by heart? (“No,” my parents would later say. “No, you don’t know Nigeria.”)
Still, how it smelled like my father when he comes back from the homeland, sad to return to remembering us again, jetlagged and sentimental for days—how it felt like falling asleep as a five-year old with my pinkies stuck in the lace of his white-lavender agbada. The time he would look at me like he was looking at me, instead of something stopping him from making that final trip back home. One day when my sister and I were small he told us that there is truly not much homeland in us but just look through the window—we were in the car, I rolled down the glass and put my hand out towards the traffic—just look through the window, this place should be home. So maybe every day I do the remembering. And maybe every time we’re a little more found.
Maggie Nelson is a poet, a scholar, and a writer of non-fiction. Her work is known for bending genres, refusing to sequester academic rigor from lived experiences of intimacy. She is perhaps best known for her 2015 book of memoir and analysis, The Argonauts, as well as Bluets, a 2009 prose meditation on loss and the color blue. She has a PhD in English from the Graduate Center, CUNY and is currently a Professor of English at USC. Harvard Advocate President and staff writer Lily Scherlis corresponded with Nelson by email over the course of a month.
Let's start on a style note. You've described your ideal prose as hot, as writing that "puts the needle right into the vein." What does good prose feel like, for you? How about bad? Is it easy to tell the difference? How do you calibrate your mental prose-barometer?
You mean, my own prose, or that of others? Other people’s writing is infinitely easier to judge, because while reading it I’m not struggling to get any thoughts out. As for my writing, I generally ignore questions of style while I’m writing, & go back in with an eye to sound later. Poetry is a little different, as there I’m not trying to get at an idea that could be separated from its inaugural sound.
In Bluets and elsewhere you talk about how your writing is often comported towards a "you." Your work often makes me think of Lauren Berlant's discussion of apostrophe, which builds off Barbara Johnson's ideas. She talks about how in writing we conjure up other subjectivities, phantasmagoric spectres who are really parts of our selves that have broken off so that we have someone to talk to, to address. Elsewhere Berlant writes:"To intimate is to communicate with the sparest of signs and gestures... but intimacy also involves an aspiration for a narrative about something shared, a story about both oneself and others."
Here I think she's getting at the same tension you address when you talk about wanting "the you no one else can see, the you so close the third person need never apply." Do you feel like writing about intimacy while, as you've put it, serving two gods––the "you" that you love, and the deity on the page––is like writing a letter that's meant to be intercepted? Or is it the work of translating private shorthand into plaintext?
This is lovely—I will look up the exchange of ideas between Berlant and Johnson, both of whom are important to me. I have often used the need to address someone in language as a spur to write, but the more I write of a given project, the more it’s quite clear that I’m not actually addressing that person any more, even though I might have been in the moment of composition. In that sense I never really think, by the time of publication, that I’m writing an intimate letter, or that there’s any doubling of purpose—I’ve been around the block too many times to delude myself on that account. I mean, it can feel great to be addressed in someone’s poem, to be the beloved memorialized in print, to sit in the audience feeling important, but even then both parties know that it’s one-sided literature and not the full relation, so that can feel lousy and cause pain. Exulting in being someone’s muse and feeling used are closely related, always have been. It’s a pharmakon.
Reading your review of Fred Moten's new book, Black and Blur, I was admiring how conscientiously you commit to writing plainly about language you describe as "a field defined by incessant motion, escape." For me, the sheer firepower of Moten's prose together with his tendency to defer satisfying our desire to "figure out" what's being said makes the inability to cleanly parse his sentences is a pleasurable kind of pain. I'm curious how you would situate yourself on the imaginary spectrum between writers religiously dedicated to transparency and those inclined towards more viscous or opaque prose. What do you think these different modes have to offer, especially in the context of the project of consenting not to be a single being?
That’s well put, about parsing sentences being a pleasurable kind of pain. I relate to that, re: some of my favorite writers. Moten himself has said some very smart things about plainness, & about precision. I won’t try to reproduce what he’s said here but I will say that the conversation has been fruitful to me, challenging, important. Generally speaking I kind of doubt that writers really choose their idiom—I think people have a way of thinking and talking and addressing, and then usually find an explanation, political or spiritual or what have you, after the fact, that gives their approach a certain kind of meaning. Which is fine, you just have to watch out that you’re not valorizing what you do as a privileged aesthetic just because that’s the way you happen to express yourself. I mean, even if I wanted to write in a very viscous or opaque way, I likely just don’t have it in me (which is why it kind of delights me when someone thinks I’ve been unclear or baroque, even if they’re saying it as an insult). I don’t think writing should be any one way or another, or that any one style is better suited to the project of consenting not to be a single being. Really the opposite—we need everything, everybody, all sounds. Because part of that consent, so far as I understand it, is endlessly recognizing our difference, while also understanding that difference as part of the world as a plenum, as da Silva has put it. If there were only one way forward, then only one single being would make it.
You wrote about your mentor Christina Crosby in The Argonauts. You've also written poetry about visiting her in the hospital in Something Bright, Then Holes. Reciprocally, she wrote about these poems and your relationship more broadly in her book, A Body, Undone. How do you feel about relationships of mutual literary use, mutual museship? Do they offer new possibilities for intimacy, or are they doubly precarious?
Each situation is distinct, and demands its own negotiation, comes with its own set of possibilities and challenges. In the case of Christina, our enmeshment in person and on the page has brought me much happiness & satisfaction, probably more than any other instance of writing about someone/ being written about that I’ve had. In my experience, being written about doesn’t usually bring the subject very much pleasure. So the fact that Christina valued my being there to bear witness, in writing, some of her most difficult, indeed catastrophic moments, and that she said so in her own book – that meant a lot to me. A LOT.
In an interview with The Creative Independent, you said:
People often say they feel like they know me, but I know they don’t—they’re just responding to an effect created by artifice. Which isn’t to say there isn’t real intimacy created—there is. It just means that they’re responding to a sort of “use artifice to strip artifice of artifice” loop.
What has it been like to meet your own page-dwelling mentors, your "many-gendered mothers of the heart"? Do these encounters change their work for you? Do you feel like matching up voices with real embodied people is anticlimactic, or conducive to more meaningful relationships on or off the page?
I think I’ve been around long enough to no longer ever feel “disappointed” or some such by meeting anyone I admire in person. I usually feel just fascinated and grateful. I’ve noticed that my students often report feelings of anticlimax on this account, maybe because they still expect a certain one-to-one relation between the written word / art practice and the human being. I don’t expect that. I can remember a whole class of poetry students being so disappointed after we read John Ashbery and then I took them to an Ashbery reading – they were like, “he’s not a good reader of his own work!” I was like, there is no good or bad reading of his own work; this isn’t a theater audition. It’s JOHN ASHBERY!!
You told Poetry Foundation that you're (understandably) getting tired of the phrase "personal writing." Any thoughts on how we could recontextualize or change how we talk about the genre it refers to?
Not really. I don’t think personal writing refers to a genre. I’d like it if people gave up this fetish of “she seems to be speaking just for herself, but the miracle is that it ends up a universal truth!” – on the one hand, good writing always does that, and on the other, trying to get to some universal transcendent shared experience or feeling is part of the problem anyway.
As a college lit mag, much of what we publish is juvenilia our writers may eventually disown. How much of yourself do you recognize in work from, say, your early twenties? Do you feel a sense of contiguity with your younger voice? Or is the "I" in those pieces a discrete individual, distinct from your present "I"?
O I recognize all of it. My ‘I’ has always been the same ‘I.’ Mostly I’m amazed that I had the chutzpah to think that my innermost musings and language experiments were worth publishing as soon as I’d written them. But I’m glad I did – because without that kind of chutzpah, you probably won’t go very far as a writer.
Can young writers (or older writers!) have too much chutzpah? Moreover, I have the sense that eventually we all start to develop grumpy language-foreclosing super-egos. Do you have one? If so, how do you negotiate with it?
I’m not concerned about too much chutzpah. If you’re a self-important jerk or your politics are rotten, all that will come out in your writing and personhood eventually, so if you care about that, you should engage in some good old-fashioned self-examination and transformation. And you’ve got to do your work – just because you wrote some cute tweets doesn’t mean you should or will sail into a fat book contract. But chutzpah is necessary for writing, and I don’t worry too much about grumpy language-foreclosing super egos. Just make sure you give yourself the time and space somewhere to express yourself without fear of what readers will think. You can worry about that later.
Hito Steyerl is a visual artist, a filmmaker, and a writer. Her work across media is known for “twisting the politics of representation around the representation of politics” and shaking up our default orientation towards screens, media, vision, and technology. She has defended the poor image, mobilized morphsuited and pixel-headed figures in a comedic critique of digital visibility, and created a world in which workers are forced to dance in order to produce artificial sunshine. She lives in Berlin and is a professor of experimental film and video at Universität der Künste. Advocate President and staff writer Lily Scherlis spoke with Steyerl over the phone in December 2017.
You treat images as things themselves, rather than as images of something. You’ve said that “contemporary visual artifacts project instead of representing,” and I know that Vilém Flusser has influenced your notion of projection. I’m a big fan of Into the Universe of Technical Images, in which he writes that the “image is directed toward a person. It presses in on him and finds him in even the most secret reaches of his private space.” This valence of exposure, of being vulnerable to images that Flusser connotes seems entangled in your notion of visibility. How do you relate the processes of being imaged, of being visible, to receiving an image, to seeing the visible? Can we distinguish between the two?
Between being an image and receiving an image? Bergson found a way of relating the two by inventing a world in which everything is an image basically but also a sensible image. Image that basically has some faculties of perception as well, so in that sense there is no difference between being an image and being able to sense or receive other images. He basically reformulated ideas by Leibniz, who had similar ideas in his monadology, whereby he said that basically everything in the world is a monad and some are lower resolu-tion than others, so they have less faculties of perception. Only one, namely God, the most highly resolved monad, is able to see everything.
So are we images with faculties for perception?
No, we are more complex than that, but interestingly I think that technology is headed in the direction of creating more and more sensitive assemblages ranked according to their faculties of perception. There are very stupid devices and much smarter ones, if you will.
There is a moment from your essay “Medya: Autonomy of Images” in Laura Poitras’ exhibition catalogue Astro Noise that haunts me. You write: “Machines show one another unintelligible images, or, more gen-erally, sets of data that cannot be perceived by human vision”—about how machines may cut us out of their chains of communication entirely, or ventriloquize us to create an illegible reality in the likeness of their images. You describe the reality they might ultimate-ly create as one in which, in your words, “you cannot understand your own eyes.” I’m curious about this last line.
This is partly a reality already. You somehow find yourself exposed to a reality which is bewildering and irrational and not very obvious. In that sense I think it’s partly realized already. The world sometimes looks like a totally disjointed and incongrouous Twitter feed of a person with severe mental issues. Guess why.
Aren’t computerized voices something of an inver-sion of the phenomenon of machines ventriloquizing us (here through our eyes) to talk amongst themselves. I think about the narrators in How Not To Be Seen... they are computer voices, right?
These voices I use definitely are computer voices. I have somehow stopped using them now. I never asked myself why. Maybe because it’s become a template which has been used a lot, but I think also because this communication amongst machines is now happening on a level which is not available to the senses anymore at all. It is even not translated into words anymore.
Did it used to be translated into words?
Well I think you know the let’s say... no. Definitely not. But it was represented to us as using words. But I think there has been experiments in which machines invented their own language to talk to one another which basically don’t make any sense to humans but still use human words but then you can easily imagine that human words are completely superfluous to that process.
This is what it sounds like:
Bob: I can i i everything else
Alice: balls have zero to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to
Bob: you i everything else
Alice: balls have a ball to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to meca
We’re just intervening in their own networks.
What happens once machines are no longer repre-senting themselves to us?
I don’t know but I think machines will also use some kind of representation to talk to one another, so in that sense it won’t disappear. The question is: what does it mean then? What kind of function does it have?
You’ve previously questioned the applicability of the analyzing images as representations. What even is representation these days?
I am not opposed to representation. There will always be representation. Representation is a process of alienation which is necessary for people to communicate. I love it. But there is no political automatism or social justice associated with cultural representation. There is no political effect tied to it necessarily.
Whether certain things or people are represented in the sphere of culture or not is not inextricably tied to any sort of political change. It can be reconfigured in completely other or different ways.
What are some of those other different ways?
I think we are or have seen one of them, which is a multitude or avalanche of images of mostly everything existing without any political or economical consequence whatsoever.
Flusser writes: “Technical images do isolate those who receive them in corners, but they isolate those who flee from them even further.” You’ve written ex-tensively about potential refuges from visibility, from exposure, about hiding in low resolution zones and under sheets of plastic in the drone shadow. Do you distinguish between fleeing and hiding? Moreover, where are our refuges now, now that poor images are basically defunct?
I mean most people choose to engage, choose to be involuntarily represented to platforms every day. They could also choose not to. No one forces people to use smartphones day in day out. But to go completely un-represented.. that’s much more complicated. It’s prob-ably not... it’s very difficult, let’s put it like this. Many people don’t have a choice so they need to inhabit this zone. Those who do not want to be seen because for them visibility is dangerous. On the other hand invisi-bility is also a privilege for elites.
What would be the consequences of choosing not to use a smartphone?
I think there would be a lot less data trail, on the one hand. On the other hand it might also have an effect on your brain. For example if people stop using Google Maps or routing applications their brain changes. Orientational parts are rewired. It’s not only on the level of representation that people would slightly change. Time and space would be perceived differently without a phone, or, using the Google maps example, they would not be perceived at all.
What about the video editing process? How do you think about the potential images or potential iterations of a work that never get rendered, potential iterations that exist as a possibility in AfterEffects but then never materialize? Where do they go? Is there a graveyard somewhere for hypothetical images?
Interesting. Yeah, probably there is. I’m just happy that I don’t have to deal with it!
Do you find the decision-making required stressful, or is it a fluid process for you?
No, no. It’s horrible. Getting rid of images is the most difficult thing. I once met an archivist at Frank-furt University. He told me: people are totally naïve, they think storage and preservation define an archive. But I have to tell you that its mainly about discarding stuff and getting rid of it.
I’ve been thinking a lot about a particular visual shorthand from your video How Not To Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File: the person with a pixel for a head. Do we relate, bodily, to the pixel in which we might hide? Are pixels appendages, digital phantom limbs? Can we crawl inside them?
A guy once wrote a text about this experiences pro-testing on Maidan in Kiev, Ukraine. I think the text was called my life as a pixel. He would talk about how he worked tirelessly as a pixel in the TV news. If he was a pixel it means there were many people. So there was something rewarding to it - keeping in mind of course that many people were shot by snipers on Maidan, so it was very dangerous too.
Do you think that pixels have insides to them? Do you think that images are spaces?
I think yes. I mean let’s say more in a mathematical sense. Not in the sense that every 2D image has a 3D component to it but of course they have mathematical spaces, color spaces, probability spaces.
What is a mathematical space?
In the sense that, let’s say, a picture has let’s say 12k pixels, so the mathematical space is the space that has all possible combinations of all these pixels to one an-other. Its all the potential images within this one.
So that would be the graveyard of hypothetical images?
Yes. A mass grave or a future potential, depending how you see it.
Others have often asked you how your reconcile your writing with your visual work. You’ve said how at this point writing and images are materially the same—1s and 0s—and trying to enforce the divide or difference between the two doesn’t really work anymore. Does that manifest in your process, in how you engage with each medium?
To some degree, yes. To some degree. Writing, if you want to see it from that angle, is the extremely simpli-fied process of arranging data—let’s put it like that. It´s like a plumber and a winemaker both deal with liquids in different ways, so also very different crafts.
Do you have advice for young artists and writers try-ing to figure out how to move through the world?
It’s difficult because for basically everything the past training set does not apply in the current situation. In that sense I don’t think there is any precedent so to speak, or it would be arrogant to assume that there is a training set for this situation. Honestly speaking, I think trying to disengage with the existing structures is under the current conditions not a bad idea.
What does disengagement look like?
Trying to regain control over basic social infrastructure. Water, energy, health/care, education, information. On a communal cooperative level. If I was 20 now I'd try to learn a profession which could be useful in that endeavour.
In a 2014 interview with Marvin Jordan, you dis-cussed how phone cameras create pictures using algo-rithms that speculate what is signal and what is noise based on past images—in other words, they disrupt the clear indexical link of representation to reality. This residue of the past in the present prescribes history as the future. You noted how Rancière concluded that, in the context of dividing political subjects from the unheard and unseen, there is no noise, only speech: what is noise to you? Where does it come from, and where—once resolved into an image or into a voice—does it go?
Noise is the things that are not yet known, meaning that it is the future.
Does it relate to the glitch?
Yes, but maybe the glitch is after the fact. The noise is the glitch before the image. The glitch necessitates something which is...already configured to some de-gree, right? It is some kind of artifact which is added after something is supposed to have been completed, like an image or a sound. The noise is before the image or sound is constituted. Before the signal is extracted, so to speak. It is when all possibilities are still open.
My mother raised me on spoonfuls of musical theater soundtracks.
Long before I had the motor control to make my stubby fingers press play or rewind, she began to curate a collection of CDs for my auditory consumption. We’d pop them into the stereo, and feeding time would begin: soaring voices and charging trumpet crescendos like bites of quiche, baked to eggy perfection.
Open wide, she would say, and I’d swallow a steaming mouthful of harmonic thirds.
She stored each disc in a neon green CD binder. The case was made out of a shiny material I can only describe as kind of like those optical illusions where you see a rabbit when you look at it from the left but a pony from the right. The kind of material that, once you develop control over your fingers, you can scratch with your nails to make a piercing skrt skrt skrt noise. A material you can keep skrt skrting until the day your dad explodes that he will confiscate every last CD in the case if you make that noise one more time. (Whereupon you tell him it doesn’t seem to bother anyone else. He tells you he has sensitive ears. You did not know this was a condition an ear could be in, and you say an extra prayer for weak-eared people of the world the next time you’re not mad at God for making you go to Sunday School, which is not for a while.)
Before they lived in my binder, these albums were my mother’s. Not in CD form–those gleaming tokens never belonged to anyone besides me–but as their primordial ancestors. She likes to tell me how she’d put them on her record player and lie on the ground for hours listening. I imagine her melting into her shag carpet while humming along to angsty Chorus Line tunes. Hello twelve, hello thirteen, hello love... she’d sing, as the rest of the children lit up blunts, paged through Go Ask Alice.
“You’ll love this one,” my mother would tell me, tapping a disk with her fingernail. “It used to be one of my favorites.” Musicals were a love we shared, just the two of us. Sometimes, when we were alone in the house, my mom would let me pick a soundtrack. I’d scurry upstairs to the closet where my neon green binder hid. I’d flip through the plastic pages and pick out a CD, which I would carry slowly back down the stairs. Both hands, edges-only. When my fingers slipped and left a print, I’d frantically scour it with my sleeve until the little cloud of residue had mostly disappeared. Then I’d resume my dirge. Eventually, I’d reach the family room, where our stereo lived inside the left cabinet. I’d stand on my tiptoes to load the CD into the mysterious abyss, and then I’d press “play.”
And during that brief silent click click click as the CD spun unproductively, trying to figure out who it was and what kind of sounds it was supposed to be making, I’d leap from one side of the room to the other, landing next to my mother, where she awaited me on our squishy red couch. We’d curl up together, ready to embark on whichever odyssey we had chosen for the next hour.
And then the CD, having gotten its shit together, would burst into that first glorious tone.
It was via this ritual that I drank in the swaggering waltzes of South Pacific, the stumbling chromatics of Evita, the raunchy vamps of Cabaret. I sat on that couch and absorbed Cats’ psychedelic pulsing, let West Side Story’s gleaming sincerity wash over me. I chomped through the bouncing pitter-patter of My Fair Lady, slurped down the 70s New-Yorkisms of A Chorus Line, chewed up the ominous reverberation of The Secret Garden, swallowed whole the gentle warbles of Godspell.
Listening to a classic musical felt like shucking corn while the sun sets. Steady concentration unravels toward an uncomplicated relief. Gauzy contentment that swaddles in a delicious glow. A chewy golden feast, uncomplicated and hearty.
The CD case still sits by my dresser at home, quite pristine. The material has not dulled from so many years of skrt skrt skrting. These days, I dare myself to press my fingertips into the reflective rainbow of discs’ shiny metal. I don’t listen to them anymore; who cares? I like the oily fingerprint it leaves, marking them like dog pee. Mine.
This cabinet of which I speak, the stereo cabinet, of is one of two that sit against the southern wall of my family room flanking a fireplace. This fireplace, once electric, underwent a serious renovation during one of my father’s bouts of homesickness for the Maine winters of his childhood wherein he insisted we needed a wood burning fire. The upgraded fireplace functions fairly well nowadays, but used to send a thick layer of smoke snaking through the house and my father sprinting up and down staircases huffily muttering “Must close all the doors, I’ve made a terrible mistake… there’s smoke everywhere and the children will suffocate in their sleep if it gets in their rooms… why did I ever come to this godforsaken landlocked part of the country anyway… even fire doesn’t want anything to do with this state…”
The cabinets have not changed one iota in the seventeen years we have lived in the house. It’s as if they are cloaked in some kind of halo, a luminescent field that keeps them safe even as time (and my father) renovates their surroundings.
Like the fireplace, the family room cabinet to the right of the fireplace belongs to my dad. His tiny man-cave, or the closest he’ll ever get to having one. It contains our mammoth television, a television which remains to this day the oldest functioning television I have ever seen. This thing has never not felt old, not even twenty years ago when my dad loaded it out of the moving truck. When you turn the power on, which requires physically approaching the television and pressing the rectangular plastic button on its front since the remote no longer works, it makes a loud popping sound, and if you don’t remove your hand fast enough, the hairs on your fingers stand up as the glass becomes momentarily fuzzy to the touch, like the static is leaping out of the screen.
The left cabinet is my mother’s domain. We are a Family of the Future––my father does our laundry and both parents share cooking duties, so the usual Woman Spaces do not exist in my house. Instead, my mother, despite having objectively worse taste in music than my father, is master of the listening cabinet, which houses our stereo and her old record player.
She uses the stereo when she entertains to play elevator music, and when she was overcome with dramatic emotions, she blares Israeli dance music or smooth jazz or Santana over the speaker because she “really just feels like it.” My mother likes feelings.
The record player was always a bit of an enigma. Silent mostly, except for rare occasions when nostalgia overwhelmed my mother and she simply had to hear Pete Seeger’s Abiyoyo on vinyl. Mostly, this strange plastic prism felt simply out of place. Older even older than the television in right cabinet I figured it couldn’t possibly live in the world of my neon green binder. In the way that JFK accents and hoop skirts are nice in movies but bizarre on modern-day street corners, I concluded that the record player fit inside a different time.
But it was such a crucial element of her lying-on-the-carpet stories that I eventually began to wonder why we didn’t use the record player for our musical binges. I asked her, once, and she told me a story that made me feel weird.
She talked about a time after college when she lived in an apartment next to a commune. She didn’t pay much attention to the commune, and they didn’t pay much attention to her. But they were plenty nice. She quite liked them, actually, except that along with societal norms and my mother, they also mostly ignored material concerns. This was fine until the day their toilet got backed up and they didn’t notice until it exploded, covering their room, oozing into hallway, seeping under my mother’s door in waves of pungent filth.
Most of her valuables were covered with sewage in the Great Toilet Flood of 1990.
She hired two men, both Venezuelan immigrants, to help sort through what was left of her belongings. Like some sort of biblical catharsis, everything she owned was suddenly subject to a dichotomous keep or abandon. And on the seventh day, the men said it is good about the records–plastic impervious to water–but refused to bless the cardboard album covers. Sewage had seeped into the gritty pores, putrid and decaying, permanent.
She’d loved her album covers, she told me. She loved the thin, smooth surfaces; the dappled colors; the way the collection looked when she lined the covers up and pulled out different ones to look at, like synchronized swimmers diving sideways into a pool. She was so visibly heartbroken at losing the album covers that when the men came back the next day, they brought her a record of Venezuelan music with a kaleidoscopic cover. Today it sits in the left cabinet, dressed up square and fancy next to its round, eternally naked peers.
She always gets sort of bashful when she tells this part of the story, embarrassed at how much she cared. But she twinkles, too; quietly grateful for these two saviors who noticed her pain and tried to alleviate it. My mother believes in people.
But no longer in musicals, not after the flood. Once the covers were gone, she stopped caring so much about the soundtracks. She switched apartments and lost track of a few, moved again and lost a few more. Without covers, the collection became a lifeless amoeba of ridged darkness. The musicals lost their own identities and slipped out of hers. By the time the record player found a home in our left cabinet, her collection had dwindled to a couple dozen, none of them musicals.
I didn’t understand how she could just abandon them.
Didn’t you still want to listen to them? I asked her. I’d never pegged my mother for a materialist. Judge ye not lest the book cover… something. Hadn’t she herself told me that??
Not really, she said with a shrug. That was all she had to say.
My mother’s muted resignation never made sense to me, not in the context of the fluffy couch and the stereo’s hypnotic unspooling of my melodic stories. How could she so tenderly fill me with mouthwatering morsels she herself felt so ambivalent about?
These days I’m beginning to understand what she meant. Musicals, as a general rule, overexplain. A drama teacher of mine once explained musicals as representing situations in which people are so overwhelmed with emotions that they can no longer speak, and so must sing and move their bodies. Songs force you to sit in a moment, to swim around in it, to explore it from all sides. Choreography requires characters to clarify emotions, to magnify subtle bodily responses to the world around them. When you musicalize your feelings, you articulate them again and again, a different way with each verse, backed by trumpets and fanfare, underscored by pirouettes and tap shoes.
There comes a time when such relentless emoting feels naïve, or perhaps simply unhelpful. The feelings you are feeling do not add up into one megafeeling that can be sung at maximum volume with maximum fanfare until one final downbeat vanquishes them forever. Life and people and feelings do not organize themselves into neatly exclamation pointed sentences. Sometimes they go dot dot dot and move on, forever withholding that satisfying final note. Sometimes they make sense as a frozen ideal, immortalized in primary colors in a hidden cardboard flap. But in motion, they feel dissonant, cloying, out of touch.
This is what I say to my friends as we snicker together at the concept of SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical.
Every once in a while, I scroll furtively through Spotify’s selection of Sondheim and Bernstein, Rogers and Larson. The pictures here are miniscule; much smaller than my mother’s long-decayed album covers, tinier even than my plastic CD fronts. I turn my volume down low–heaven help me if anyone heard the pitchy shrieks of “It’s A Hard Knock Life” as I strut coolly past jaded brick buildings in my black turtleneck. And I press my finger reluctantly over a title (this glowing material never yields any sense of possession from my smeared fingerprints no matter how much residue I leave).
The saccharine lessons, tidy aphorisms stream out of my headphones. Though scary is exciting, / nice is different than good, sings Little Red in Into the Woods. Life is a cabaret! shouts Sally Bowles in Cabaret.
No, it isn’t, I think to myself. This is silly.
But then the orchestra crescendos, Sally’s belt crackles with fortitude layered over misery, and I feel a tug at my stomach, a gnawing hunger.
These sugary treats have never quite lost their appeal. Because something happened to me years ago on that plump red couch tucked within my mother’s elbows, as my soundtracks swirled out of left cabinet like smoke from my dad’s botched fires, snaking into my brain.
Bits of musicals sped, honking, reckless, weaving through lanes; vehicles packed close together careening absolutely out of control call the cops toward my center of command. My brain, try as it might to log each musical facet passing through the tollbooth of emotional input, was simply overtaxed, absolutely bamboozled. It could not keep up with the bombardment of glissandos and lullabies, off-kilter cadences and diminished fifths, honeyed rhymes stacked on top of each other, the bounty of minutiae that comprised these fraught worlds.
So to avoid a five thousand car pileup, my brain sent these elements anywhere else, anywhere it could fit them. Off they zoomed, traversing new paths, laying down pavement wherever they could. They trickled into my hollowest corners like scalding hot soup that I could feel oozing down into my stomach and spreading, warming me from head to toe; decadent comfort food, satisfying vague taste buds in every corner of my body. Like an unexpected compliment that hits you right in the gut and radiates, fluffy and good.
What happened next was that these industrious pieces of musical, having ventured into virgin territory, planted a flag and plopped down criss cross applesauce for good. It’s like that story my granny used to tell me about the girl who ate so many watermelon seeds that one started growing inside of her. Too late, her parents realized, she had turned into a human watermelon. Like the Oompa Loompas’ warning–Violet, you’re turning violet!–musicals planted roots inside me, seeped deep into my bones, mingled with my essence at the atomic level. Mine, they said.
We’d claimed each other; I was disciple and deity both. I was wrapped up in the corn shucking sun setting smokey haze yellowed quiche, and they, in turn, bore my oily fingerprints. Try as I might to scrub these naive renderings of the world from my conscience, they’ve burrowed into my being inextricably, attaching themselves to me for good.
There is a moment in A Chorus Line when Morales, my favorite character, tells the story, in a sung monologue, about her experience in an acting class. It begins when her teacher, Mr. Karp, asks them to improvise various scenes. Be a table, be a sportscar… / ice cream cone, he orders. Morales can’t do it. I felt nothing, she reports, again and again. Mr. Karp teacher humiliates her in front of the class. “I think you should transfer,” he says.
Try, Morales. All alone, she urges herself, too stubborn to concede. Karp continues to hound her. Finally, she breaks down and asks Jesus for help. A voice speaks to her from on high, sending a message which she relays in a triumphant swell: This man is nothing! / This course is nothing! / If you want something, / Go find a better class.
It is a happy ending well-earned. We, the audience, relax. But the music continues. Morales has more to say. Six months later, she says, as the music begins to slow, I heard that Karp had died. Even slower: And I dug right down to the bottom of my soul… each word more reluctant than the next. Morales does not want to be telling this story anymore. But the music keeps playing, pulling her along.
A pause here. And cried. Another pause.
‘Cause I felt… three words on the same note, like a hymn, like she is praying again, this time for proof of her own empathy. A third pause.
Here, a moment of limbo, perfectly engineered in performance. She gives the faintest of gasps, as if she’s only just now discovered how the story ends, as if it surprises her. Her eyes light up. The corners of her mouth curve; hopeful, like her eyes. Her neck lifts, craning into the future. It is a subtle, safe sanguineness. So that until the very last, you think she’s moving her tongue toward the middle of her roof, anticipating s, thatshe felt something.
But alas, we cannot hide in this liminal moment forever. The song is waiting for its final note, the conclusion that will make the moment whole. So Morales pokes her tongue forward, lays it flat under her teeth, for n. Nothing, she sings quietly. And we realize that she has tricked us; that her eyes were filled with anguish, not hope; that the corners of her mouth turned up in a grimace of pain, that the pause was not to savor the personal victory but to build up the courage to admit a truth she is ashamed of.
A tinkle of bells, and then the song is over. We are left with silence.
I felt nothing, she said.
But hidden inside that shell of ostensible desolation is a swirling mélange of pungently flavored feelings. Pain and joy mixed up–like in Morales’s face, more alike than they are different. Disappointment and vengeance, confusion and guilt. Feelings wrapped in emptiness wrapped in feelings. Blended together and served in spoonfuls.
That’s the kicker. In the world of a musical, you never feel nothing. You feel so much of everything.