Essay

ALGERIAN FLOWERS

Algerian Flowers

[A Short Story]

For Marguerite Duras

PART ONE

“Monochrome”

I

“Black and White Low Light”

I see scenes in monochrome. There are many scenes in the world that are not to be recorded in monochrome; there just isn’t the contrast for them. There are sets that should only be shot in black and white. What makes a beautiful photo in color can be the dullest and palest in contrast of all in black and white photos. After shooting with black and white film long enough, you get accustomed to seeing the world in monochrome.

All black and white photography is the world in monochrome . . .

I won’t be able to wait for the film to go away, fade out–I am not able to talk the truth of monochrome without one or another allusions or references to the film being made. There are always illusions we keep for however brief a time, a moment we have. Did you ever notice that black people are white in photographic negatives and that white people are black, and the blacker you are, the whiter, you are and vice-versa. Albino caucasians are jet black.

I was once told that neither extreme on the monochromatic scale is actually present in a film–but that can’t be, can it? This is not a point of contention for me when I shoot with black and white film; is there true white and true black in what I have shot. I have gone into the extremes of low-light photography and let me tell you I have recorded on film, black and white. I have hundreds and hundreds of photos in black and white stored in boxes in a closet in my apartment. . . a closet photographer, no? Interesting, this idea about being in a closet anything, or about being closeted . . . how it is not only about sexual orientation and sexuality, being in the closet. Every human soul experiences this closet of his own, this closet of his desires, his feelings, his ideas, whatever have you that’s locked up in you.

How long ago now–everything falling below the horizon in memory. There are many things I become surprised by–surprised how old they are in my life, how long ago they happened. I can say that the last time I was there with my dad, I bought film at HB and burgers at the cheyenne Diner. We did go and get burgers at the Cheyenne. How long before he died–he died in the morning with the sun breaking through the clouds after having snowed a few inches the night before. It’s four years ago that my dad died as the sun broke through the gloom. I would have liked to have taken shots of the sun that morning, both in color and in monochrome.

Everything from one end of the monochromatic scale of black to that of white, though, I am able to imagine when taking photos–I can see color arrangement easily; I can also see the many shades of gray with the eye in the mind. How many shades of gray make up a black and white film? I am genuinely asking. The black and white film I buy at B & H on 9th Avenue across from the Cheyenne Diner I have used for decades now–is it that long already, really? The last time I was there was with my Dad–no, it wasn’t the last time I was there, the time I am remembering. I was there getting some 8mm movie film processed–color–when? My last time there . . . the last time I was there with my dad we did go to the Cheyenne Diner.

I have been told that in any black and white movie there is no black and there is no white–for sure. There are how many shades of gray in our optics? What is it that I do see on the borders of the film in Fritz Lnag’s M? Everything dissolves in the black perimeter, no? Circumambient dark–yes, it is the same circumambient dark I see in De La Tour’s Penitent Magdalene at the Met, Magdalene surrounded in her room by the dark, pitch black perimeter, a mirror reflecting the black and the lone candle on her vanity table, the sole illumination as she contemplates the skull in her lap. I am reminded of Hamlet overtime I look to the penitent Mary Magdalene. Yes, Alas! Poor Yorick. I knew him Horatio. Hamlet is the King of Shadows.

I do impose my preferences on my judgements of the world. But snow would make the graying of the day less intense, less grayed. Night photos with snow around are always clearer than when there is not snow and thus no intensifying of whatever light is around. I remember having learned how long ago I cannot tell that black and white photography is an arrangement of shades of gray–yes, we will to be able to escape the movie for a while–but this monochrome scale does and does not have everything to do with the film by the title, Is there no real black and no real white? I’m asking. Waiting for a response; En Attendant Pour Une Response; yes, waiting for an answer might not be exactly what Didi and Gogo experience when waiting for Godot . . . and Godot is not God. He might as well be a weather report as much as he is God. Becket said as much–if he had wanted Godot to be God, he would have put it in the play.

What I ask about snow and rain I ask rhetorically, secure in the notion that snow must be universally preferable to rain any time in the winter. I know it is for me any December. I prefer 28 degrees Fahrenheit with snow to 38 degrees Fahrenheit with rain. Yes, I would prefer 30F with snow to 34F with rain. Who would not? Everyone would, no? Preferences for weather are often determined by mood, mood determined sometimes by weather; there are times when these are not mutual, nor reciprocal. There are times when it is exactly this, a mood determined by weather and the preference for weather in my mood. Weather reflects my mood, my mood reflects the weather–why the need to repeat? I used to be sure and oftentimes said, my mood, the weather. Yet, it is another thing entirely to say that I am the storm that blows, or the sun that shines, or the rain that falls, or the night that comes–night is n to a condition of weather, I know. All of the former references to weather could be continued into tother references so on and so on. Yes, there is very, very little in life and the world that is not and so on; but what this has to do with the world in monochrome . . . it does not, does it? Rain and snow have a lot to do with shades of gray, which does not suggest that rain or snow hold the day and the sunshine in bondage–they may be holding a nice day hostage. Are they the same, this holding in bondage and this holding hostage. I am certain that shooting the human body naked or nude in color is more pornographic than if it were done in black and white, in monochrome.

I could go on and on about Romanticism, about there being a fire and a motion in the soul that cannot be contained by the narrow sphere of being, but I will stop here. No, I won’t. I am a reflection of the force and violence of nature . . . yet we must remember that nature is not red in tooth and claw for the Romantics the way it became for the Victorians, but then the Romantics did not have the prisms of Lyell and Darwin, did they? Moreover, who wouldn’t prefer snow to rain? I mean–you just do not get as wet, and I’m not referring to the occasional desire to stand in a thunder storm–of course, not in an opened field, but perhaps near or next to one’s home–in the summer, as we used to do in the Berkshires, sometimes putting on our bathing suits to take a shower in a thunder storm.

Would I prefer snow to the drizzle that seems terminally expressed by the color of the weather these last several days, a mood evoked by the grayness of today and yesterday and the day before that? I recall our last visit to Paris and how terminally gray it seemed, every day gray, gray and more gray until the last day when she puked a half block from our hotel before we got ready to leave and take a cab to De Gaulle–who goes to Paris in February? What questions do I have at the ready to ask about weather and myself, who I am in face of what weather we face? My soul is romantic, I imagine, but then that is romantic in the sense of the word when it is applied to Byron, Shelley, Keats, Wordsworth, or Coleridge–there are others, but let these suffice to tell and infer a showing through familiarity. But I am expecting too much from my readers, am I not? Do I assume most have read what I have read, as much as I have read, for as long and as often as I have . . . and frequently re-reading as I do? I will reiterate one of my older undergraduate mantras: all good reading is re-reading.

II

Light, Camera, Shadow, Gaze

I gaze at shadows. I look at shadows. I watch the shadows of the winter bare tree outside shake on the wall opposite the window, the street light blaring a lot like a charging Rhino if Rhinoceroses were swaths of light. I look for the line between light and dark, what I see, what I imagine I do, where one begins and the other ends, chiaroscuro. I recall the photos I have taken over the years, my preference for low light photography, hand-held at 1/15th of a second, aperture sometimes opened at f 1.4, a fifty millimeter fixed lens, sometimes veiling the lens with anklet-stockings of different degrees of opacity, one shot I remember of the Jefferson Market Library from the second floor window looking out on 8th Street and 6th Avenue through a thunderstorm, an 8 x 10 blow-up framed and hung on the wall in my living room, opacity. I have taken so many photographs in black and white, preferring monochrome to color, the shades of gray, shadows again on the wall moving in time with the breeze that blows. I like low light photography. I push exposure, hand held, the camera steady at one-fifteenth of second, sometimes the shutter opened less than f/1.4, an old AE-1; what is repetition for a writer but motif. The rain was filter enough.

The Jefferson Market Library Tower in shades of gray through a thunderstorm through a window . . . it is a gorgeous shot almost a charcoal sketch, something of Fritz Lang and Greg Toland’s use of black in the margins of the frames of the shots they used in some of the former’s more significant films. I watched a lot of Dreyer and Murnau when I was walking around with three SLRs and three different speed films for New York, Manhattan, sometimes as gray as Paris in the winter, one February, terminally gray, the sky, the buildings, the Seine, a statue of Joan of Arc . . . I watched a lot of John Ford and Toland’s work here in the states, and the work of Orson Welles when in Black and White, what films did he do in color I cannot recall. Expressionism in film, particularly the German variety, if there was any other kind, is so much in debt to the baroque . . . baroque light, baroque space . . .

I have hundreds of photos with no more than two votive candles for light or other such low lumen sources. I have a shot of my wife’s hand by votive light just having picked a piece of crust from the bread in the basket on the table in the corner at the banquet. Most of my film photography has been in shades of gray, black and white, again, low light most preferable within my greatest preference in photography, monochrome . . . I remember the use of the candlelight effect in certain northern baroque paintings. I recall Georges de la Tour used this effect to great purpose. I remember his “Penitent Magdalene” at the Met, the candle flame before her mirror, my mirror tonight, the mirrors at Jule’s, I’ve used the votives and the mirrors to great effect in my photography, her hand, the delicacy of her hand above the bread, a glaring burst from the candle to the side . . . very few shades of gray, as close to true black and white as is possible while still holding interest, there are areas of the most intense black, the white softened by the diffusion of light, wavering flames shedding light more diffusely than penetrating incandescent light.

“What’s the Point?” I cannot imagine the point. I have forgotten the point. The use of chiaroscuro or veiling the lens to gain what Da Vinci called sfumato, not identically but in a way associated, or so I think I can say, thus should say. The sharper contrasts of light and dark . . . I see the world in monochrome. I recall ignoring suggestions for photos from friends or family because what they were looking at they were seeing in color, and what I had in my camera was black and white film, and sometimes, even if the monochromatic scale was good for black and white, the speed of th film O had might have been all wrong for the scene, perhaps the exposure as impossible for me to hold without a tripod, which is why I had a couple of portable tripods–not that my big and tall tripod was not portable, just not as portable as the smaller ones I bought.

Oh, light and shadow, the shadow world I thought I could reveal, what shadows do veil, what they do reveal; yet there is also how light blinds and creates another kind of darkness, what is eclipsed, as the aureole of light around an eclipse of the sun can block out portions of the shadow of the moon passing in front of the sun. Penetrating the shades in the shadow, sitting in the shade of a tree or a building or under an umbrella in the heat of the afternoon in the summer, at the beach, much, much cooler.

 

PART TWO

“The Rose Seller; or, Algerian Flowers?”

I

“Good White Burgundy with Duck Breast, Medium, never Well”

I order the Meursault with the duck breasts, Parisienne, that is, medium, never well. I will not put the white burgundy in the bucket with ice and water, letting it come up because white burgundy like flowers remains closed if it is too cold. Who I am is not relevant to who writes this, who writes this not relevant to the teller of the tale, the essayer in the text; the essayer in the text not relevant to you the reader, to what the text is or means apart from me, from me the writer, the writer as essayer in the text, the culmination of the text apart from all of these.

Our waitress comes to take away the plate of oyster shells and empty glasses of Sancerre . . . I have been to Jule’s I could not count how many times. I should have said, I used to go to Jule’s a lot, how many times I cannot count. I no longer go to Jule’s; so much of what I remember about New York from when I did–when we did, regularly go to Jule’s–has changed; some has not. Some has for the better; a lot has for the worse.

I have never been in the market of explaining inferences or allusions in my writing, although everything about my writing has been pointed toward showing, revealing, yes, do I dare to embrace hyperbole . . . epiphanies, social and spiritual. These are important to me. Who am I here? There is someone behind me and behind that him behind me . . .

II

“If God Can Be Father, Son and Holy Ghost, why Can’t God be He, She and It?

Sancerre aperitifs they finish; they order another dozen oysters before the Sancerre is gone. A piece of crust, the bread in the basket by the votive; the butter here is fantastic. He saw her arrive, her legs long, gorgeous, in a short skirt, her eyes, the world full, enough sorrow, he readied his camera for her unsuspecting. He takes another photo of her legs and feet and the floor at the bar at Jule’s, another day, another evening, another Friday into Saturday, the cab home over the Brooklyn Bridge.

What any of this means to anyone else I could not say. What it means even to me I have yet to decide. The inferences or the implications or allusions or all of them should be clear. If they are not, then this is not for you. How could anything written be for anyone who does not decide that it is for them. The only authority in reading is the reader; the reader is then a kind of author, no?

He thinks he can recall having ordered them the night in question, If he were another man or perhaps myself, if the latter were at all possible, I could say that I was waiting for the one who says she loves me more than anybody could, or so she thinks I think she must believe. He looked to the votives lit on the table in the corner they always took . . . they flicker, they do, the flames of the votives. Shadows waver.

His eyes open other eyes, in the dim he watches her right hand hovering the basket of bread on the table, another photo . . . he takes, he took, how many times I conceive of me in the third person has never been counted. I am me, I am I, I am we, I am he. Why would he be me? The dove, you know, Picasso’s dove is Noah’s dove, is the dove of peace, or is it Peace.

III

“I Will Throw the First Stone Without Considering My Sins”

There is an adolescent prejudice we hold about living, or what we call living, often times confusing surviving for the more vibrant being alive. There are some people from some places who imagine they understand reality more deeply than others not like them do; they imagine that what they live is reality and what others live is not reality, is an illusion, some layers of veils put before their eyes.

Yes, Americans cling to one or another adolescently framed opinion about life as it is lived, one formed out of vanity, one rooted in a set of delusions we eagerly perpetuate, each of them based on our gross or grotesque sense of individuality, the latter mostly helped by a media assault on the senses, driving home the message that the best way to announce, pronounce or manifest your individuality is to act as irresponsibly as possible for as long as possible, prolonging this adolescent way of being as far as one can because adolescent perceptions and visions and interpretations and wants and desires and inabilities to step out of the cocoon that teenage years are, have been the guiding marketing strategy in America for about six decades, that is, since the end of World War 2.

It is the most effective strategy meant to feed our over-indulgent consumerism. This helps manipulate us by our emotions the way adolescents are ruled by their emotions–passion is not emotion–compassion not equal to commotion, no. Do not confuse emotion for passion. They are not the same except for the degraded of heart or mind.

I wish there were some way for me to convince you of what I am convinced of, what I know, what I have faith for, what I believe–and I do believe much–I just do not get to a place where I have to kill someone for not believing as I do. There are no crimes of violence or retribution I rationalize and justify with the words, Blessed Be His Name.

IV

“Vanitas Non Est Veritas”

Why do you make me look like a gargoyle? his wife asked him once. He did not have an answer, not one he would stand behind as an expression of a truth, that is, if called upon to defend it later, at some future hour, perhaps when all feelings and hopes of progressing further in their relationship . . . what progress is there, was there, could there have been, questions begetting questions, I repeat myself once more about the questions we face making more questions, one string after another.

We are in love with asking questions in perpetuity; we have deluded ourselves that we must keep on asking if we ever really want to know. But asking question after question after question, on and on and on, becomes the most effective method of avoiding learning, of avoiding having to listen for an answer, of preventing anyone from answering the questions never asked for the purpose most of us would assume from the interrogative construction. We question so as not to have to listen. We are always thinking of our next question which disallows us from having to listen to what anyone is saying.

This man whose wife had asked him why he made her look like a gargoyle in his photgraphs responded to her with the more caustic, Why do you have to reveal your soul in my camera? A question begetting further denials and recriminations from her . . . I have a feeling that most souls are a lot darker than anyone is able to imagine, and that each of us is not as adroit at hiding. This soul within us is seen irrespective of how much we try to hide it. What depth markers do we have for the soul that could gage the darkness at our bottom.

The man whose wife is beset by her own fears and self-loathing as much as by her husbands truth bearing camera eye, responds, though, as he has before, hoping to find in words what has been lost in place. She hates most of the photos he takes of her, having taken so many he can no longer count. Her eyes, a kingdom of photographs for her eyes, unfurling petal by petal, the heavens of her eyes, he would like to have written in a journal he keeps collateral with roll after roll of photos he takes of everywhere he goes.
V

“Algerian Flowers”

A rose he buys for her from the Algerian Berber man selling roses at Jule’s . . . candles, reflections, the mirrors all around them–how many Fridays have they spent the night until midnight or later with Jazz and duck and a Puligny Montrachet?

He was sitting in Jule’s at their favorite table, the spot in the corner on the banquet beneath a poster of Jean Gabin in his film, La Bete Humaine when he saw her enter, coming to him from the front door, late as usual, she was always late, this night more so because he had moved to the banquet and did not remain at the bar as usual.

There was going to be a bottle of Meursault with the duck he was sure they would order, but at the moment, he had the bottle of Sancerre for aperitif coming up on the table, out of the bucket. He had caught the waitress as he caught site of her and ordered the oysters they were going to have with the Sancerre. But questions set to respond to other questions are meant to avoid answering while the masquerade of being inquisitive is maintained.

I wish I spoke French much better than I do.

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