He Wrote To Me (Wenckheim IV)

Old Baron Wenckheim is returning. Hidden behind the noisy preparations of his home town to welcome him and his expected fortune, the third chapter of Krasznahorkai’s novel includes a more delicate dialogue in form of a letter Wenckheim wrote to Marika, the love of his youth, and her brief but intense reply.

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… she was an old lady, there was no embellishing that, so that what could they expect, she just sat there bent over the postcard, she looked at the three words, and tears came to her eyes, and somehow her back became even more hunched, her two shoulders fell forward,…

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How do we communicate across time? How do we talk to someone whom we have long forgotten, or maybe even never met? I keep quoting Paul Celan, who compared poems to messages in a bottle, sent off with the hope that they will eventually be washed ashore at heartland.

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Marika’s emotional breakdown while responding to Wenckheim is contrasted with the nervous breakdown of the entire city that is afraid of making costly mistakes:

…because that moment, everywhere in the town, had somehow shattered apart, everything came to a halt, from fear, to a dead stop because of the fear which had swept across the city,…

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The dialogue between a town and its visitors is not necessarily doomed. New Harmony manages to talk to the visitors to various works of public art, some immensely popular like its labyrinths or the Roofless Church, others well hidden like the installation of 20 tableaus of writing from the Kcymaerxthaere project, which are slowly eroding away.

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But it’s not enough that words are being written, they also need to be read.


While horizontally distanced, let’s use the freed time for a contemplation of the vertical.

The first two sets from today are, as so often, taken at the DePauw Nature Park.

I have arranged the 1×3 pictures in triptychs to further emphasize their narrowness by framing the depth of the center piece with contrasting walls. I find the effect disconcerting in a positive way, maybe because the obvious path is not necessarily the only path.

This last one is from my other favorite place here, New Harmony.

From North by Hill, From South by Lake, From West by Paths, From East by River

So the title of a little book by László Krasznahorkai, better known for Sátántangó, and responsible for the stories behind a few of Béla Tarr’s films.

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Main protagonist is the grandson of Prince Genji, who is visiting a monastery near Kyoto.

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In 49 short chapters, we get a tour, both of the monastery, and of what the grandson perceives. Everything is treacherous.

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It is as if the visitor and the place are resisting their fictionality: Their possibility is enough to contemplate how place and visitor react to each other.

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Physical reality becomes secondary, what counts is the permanence of the imagination.

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Courage (New Harmony VIII)

Walking a bridge always takes courage.

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This is particularly true if the bridge has been abandoned, become treacherous, or otherwise suspect.

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Why do we do it anyway? Walking across a bridge is the quintessential metaphor (the pattern) for change.

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When done right, it is a slow process, and involves looking at what we are transcending.

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It also involves facing, eventually, the other side.

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And finally, the test: Can we look back and accept where we come from? A bridge is not about abandoning the past, but connecting it with the future.

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Sunrise (New Harmony VII)

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While the absence of light in winter has it’s own appeal, we humans prefer it bright. We would be nowhere without having mastered fire. The pottery studio in New Harmony gives multiple evidence of this.

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For the photographer and everybody else who likes to see, these early hours just before sunrise are the most revealing.

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Everything appears gradually and returns to existence.

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Sky and earth are still in perfect balance.

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We get ready to continue to walk the mazes of the human mind. A new day has been born.

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Silent Night (New Harmony VI)

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Now is a good time to approach darkness: You know that this is it, from now on the days will get longer again.

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It is also a good time to approach silence. New Harmony, at this time of the year and this time of the day, is nearly deserted.

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In the Roofless Church I met James. He was making music, just singing and playing guitar. This is also a form of listening.

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We talked for a bit. He is there sometimes three times a week. He also likes the Athenaeum, and the Bridge, but hasn’t been on top of the Athenaeum or across the Bridge.

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It is also a good time to approach light.

New Eden (New Harmony IV)

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Nested among a garden of fruit trees next to the Roofless Church in New Harmony is another sculpture by Stephen de Staebler, the Angel of Annunciation, which is easy to overlook, despite its tallness.

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A small plaque on the church wall nearby quotes a poem by Staedler that states that arms are for doing, while wings are for being.DSC 1886

This angel is deeply conflicted. The arm sticks out of his head like the wings. The head itself, whose face is just recognizable as such from the side, is split in half when viewed from the front.

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One of the two feet is cemented in, the other free to walk. Where does this leave us?

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There is another sculpture in this garden, without plaque or any indication of authorship: A piece of wood, hanging from a tree.

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It’s not a sculpture. It’s what is left over from binding the branches of an aging tree together to keep it from breaking and falling apart. An attempt can never completely be a failure. Doing and being can still be one.

The Roofless Church (New Harmony III)

Most churches I know make a clear claim about what they stand for. As one might expect, the Roofless Church of New Harmony, designed by architect Philip Johnson, is a bit different:

Trees, a brick wall, and behind all that, a hump. That is what it looks like from the outside.

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The distinction between outside and inside is already misleading. There is a proper wall on one side, a gate on the other, a door hidden by smaller piece of wall behind on the third side,

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and a large balcony on the fourth, with a view onto a lake. This gives the enclosure of the church the semipermeability of a skin, both offering protection and letting breathe.

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The interior is simple: A fountain, a few sculptures, no amenities like benches, chairs, or altar. The ambiguities continue with what I called the hump: It is a second enclosure, a large dome made out of cedar shingles, resembling both a bell and a flower that seems to hover over the earth.

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The appearance and the material are organic, but its function is to enclose sound. Lacking human visitors, birds have taken to it, exploring the echo of their voices. 

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I liked this place a lot. There is no force that locks you in or out. Wall and bell coexist in a paradoxical, perfect balance. It is your choice to feel inside or outside, to speak or to be silent.

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The Other Labyrinth (New Harmony II)

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New Harmony has an interesting history. If was founded by a religious group, the Harmonists, in 1814, and sold in its entirety to Robert Owen and William Maclure in 1825, who created an experimental community, offering a public school and library. While this community project failed, many people stayed on, and new and old traces of the traditions are still visible in this town.

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The Harmonists were fond of labyrinths for spiritual enrichment. The original version is gone, but there is a replica from 1939 that one can walk.

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There also is a marble floor plan of a more complex labyrinth. In its reflection, a third labyrinth becomes visible: The Athenaeum, designed by the architect Richard Meier. It is a labyrinth both in its interior and exterior.

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The term labyrinth is sometimes used specifically for the unicursal mazes used for meditation. The mythical purpose of the labyrinth was, however, to contain the Minotaur, and I don’t think a unicursal labyrinth would have helped.

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In the third volume of Julia Golding’s remarkable Companion Quartet, the author adds a twist to the labyrinth metaphor: Connie, the hero, has special abilities, she can bond with mythical animals. When evil forces (required ingredient in most children’s books) threaten to invade the maze of her mind, she makes a Minotaur to its sentinel. 

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In the fourth book, she faces the ultimate evil against which she cannot win, by definition. Her solution is mind bending: She lets it inside her labyrinth and makes it part of herself, becoming a new person.

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On top of  Richard Meier’s amazing building is a narrow bridge like passage, connecting the stairs that lead to the outside labyrinth with the winding stairs that lead inside.

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The Fence Had a Hole (New Harmony I)

The soul pattern of a bridge is a straightforward one, we use it to cross from one state into another. I have mentioned related patterns before, that of multiple crossings and that of the arch. Today we talk about the pattern of the closed bridge.

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This is the Harmony Way Bridge over the Wabash River in the town New Harmony (about which we’ll learn more next time). The bridge opened in 1930 and was used as a toll bridge, and was designated as structurally deficient, and has been closed since 2012.

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It has been clearly adorned with warnings, as you can see. But somebody cut a hole into the fence, and those who know me can guess what happened.

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Which brings us to the point of this pattern: A closed bridge can be used for crossing, but there is a price to pay. You don’t cross such a bridge casually, you hesitate.

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Angelopoulos’ mindshattering film The Suspended Step of the Stork distills this moment of hesitation. What happens in us when we consider to leave, to cross over? 

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Standing there, looking back, and looking forward can last an eternity. Don’t do this often.

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