New York Anabasis

In praise of the return to the surface

Rachel Eisendrath

Detail from Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Hunters in the Snow (Winter), 1565. Courtesy KHM-Museumsverband

There is only one good joke in the Aeneid. To reach his new home in Latium, Aeneas must first visit the underworld, but he is unsure how to pass through its gates. So the sad prince asks the Sibyl, who responds:

The descent to Avernus is easy:

night and day the doors of death stand open;

but to retrace your steps and emerge into the upper air,

this is the work, this is the labor.

In other words, finding your way to the land of the dead is no problem. Pills, old age, illness, tall buildings stand at the ready. In truth, it is all too easy to find your way down to the world of shade and shadow, to the ultimate rattrap that is death.

After all, dying is a feat accomplished by exactly everyone.

What can be tricky is finding your way back up to life: hoc opus, hic labor est, the Sibyl says. This is the work, this is the labor.

But, in a sense, we’ve all already had some experience of finding our way back up to life. I am talking about the moment when, sunk into the depths of our own minds, lost in ourselves, so withdrawn that we feel ourselves to be the “vast unhide-bound corpse” that Milton says is death, we suddenly emerge back into awareness of the world around us.

Sometimes that sudden sensation of reaching the surface happens for almost no discernable reason at all.

Maybe this ascent happens through long introspection, as when, after decades of a relationship with your therapist, you realize that your propensity for guilt serves no one. (“Haven’t your gods con­sumed enough flesh?” my therapist asks me one afternoon after twenty-some years of our talking together.)

But sometimes that sudden sensation of reaching the surface happens for almost no discernable reason at all. Sometimes, as on a recent evening in New York City, it’s just by looking around.

I was out with my girlfriend and her daughter and some other girls (the daughter’s best friend and that friend’s two younger sis­ters; the smallest was wearing pajamas and her braids were fuzzy). We were out to get ice cream, which the four girls made known to everyone else on the street because they were all screaming ICE CREAM! Suddenly this throng of girls was shrieking in mock horror and semi-hysterical laughter because they’d just seen a rat scrabbling among the bags of trash that were piled against the side of the building, and then they were racing down the street, and my girlfriend was shouting after them as they approached the inter­section, “DON’T GET KILLED!!!” and the kids stopped, turned around, and then came tearing back up the street again, screech­ing. Soon I was surrounded by this swarming horde of little girls, whooping and laughing uncontrollably, and I thought: Where have I been, in a hole? For here is the world, filled not with my thoughts but with this laughing gaggle of girls, with their demands for extra scoops of ice cream and extra toppings, with the sudden blare of an oncoming car, with an insult flung at the driver, with the sym­pathetic glance of another woman, with—

And then, just as quickly, because I am actually only remember­ing that night right now as I walk along, this whole group is gone again—they’ve disappeared over the edge of the flat world of my memory—

—leaving, in their wake, what? (I mean, what for me?)

Well, me walking in the city, passing other people, who are talking and switching their bags from one shoulder to the other and sometimes looking back at me. (My girlfriend says about having children: You can’t hear yourself think and they exhaust you, but, on the other hand, you can’t hear yourself think and they exhaust you.)

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Hunters in the Snow (Winter), 1565. Courtesy KHM-Museumsverband

Some painters knew how to represent this experience of mul­tiple realities that draw you back to the surface. When you look at Netherlandish painting of the sixteenth century (recall that New York, colonized by the Dutch, was once part of New Netherland), you sometimes see a highly varied surface that refuses to sink its details into the allegorical meaning it also evokes, refuses to sink them into any unifying concept at all. Standing recently in the Pieter Bruegel room of the Kunsthistorisches in Vienna (a room with a wood-planked floor that creaks wonderfully like the deck of a ship, as though Bruegel’s work were indeed an ark that wanted to contain the whole world), I looked at the paintings and I looked also at the people looking at the paintings. In Bruegel’s most famous painting, Hunters in the Snow, I looked at the beautiful dogs whose tails were between their legs, maybe because they are returning from the hunt without having found much to eat, and I looked Breugel detail 1at the frolicking little one, the doglet, who, oblivious to all worldly unhappiness and precarity, is bound­ing along in front, snuffing the fresh air, delighted to be out with the big dogs: not tired at all! And I looked at the older dog, who looks directly back at us, and this latter dog seemed to me a self-deprecating parody of the bystander off to the side whom painters have often constructed as self-portraits, the melancholy one who stands apart from the crowd and knowingly returns our gaze.

Breugel detail 2 >
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And I looked at the hunters. As in the case of most Bruegel paintings, their faces are turned away. I think it should be taken as a statement of this painter’s philosophy of human existence that he depicted, across his entire body of work, almost no portraits of sol­itary individuals. (One exception is a painting of a peasant woman, a type, and even she seems more like a spoon carved out of wood than an individual.) When Bruegel does paint the faces of people in his landscapes, their eyes are not portals but buttons. What Bruegel wanted to show, it seems, was not the internal life of the individual but the external life of the group—that is, communal life, life lived in the indefinite article (as has been said of Homer’s shield of Achilles, which shows not the world of named heroes but the daily routines of people and animals and plants living together). Looking around at the other paintings, I thought that this is the life of human beings seen from outside as bodies, ones that are round and skinny, ill and healthy, stubbled and smooth, concave and con­vex, hemp-covered, pleasure-seeking. With their big heads, most of Bruegel’s peasants appear as innocent or as neither good nor bad as the dirt under their fingernails, as the nails in their shoes, as the cows, as the eager, hopeful expression with which that man at the peasant wedding feast looks around to see if he will get a second helping.

As my eyes wandered away from the drama of the hunters and then back again, what I noticed next were the birds in the trees. Looking from left to right, I saw first the bird sitting on a branch of the closest tree, then the bird turning to the right, then the bird taking flight—and it was almost as if, as in medieval paintings of Christ, all these birds are just one bird, shown at different moments. Seen as a sequence, this bird is taking flight, and I almost felt in my own body its lifting into the air and the corresponding drop of the land beneath me and the sudden swoop of field and pond and mountain, as my now compact bird-body rises on the rush of air, glorying in the extravagance of height, in the elevation (literally) that comes with feeling the great sweep and gesture of this place and the multitude of life that it contains.

Down below—how small it all now looks—the picture vapor­izes into lots of little pictures, mini-scenes, vignettes. Here is a woman carrying kindling on her back (like the women who carry recycled bottles from Brooklyn Heights to Chinatown over the Brooklyn Bridge); here a child teaching another how to slide curl­ing stones on the frozen pond; here a child who has fallen down, whose despair, while he lies alone on the cold ice, is as profound and lonely and bottomless as that of an epic hero like Aeneas whose city has just fallen; here a man along the pond border who is driv­ing his cart through the snow and is eager to get home. And here, almost disappearing off the lower edge of the painting’s frame, are two women.

I looked more closely: one woman is pulling another on what seems to be a kind of impromptu sled. These women are no longer children. They are, probably, mothers and wives who are in charge of children and land and chickens—but—what a relief to be out, with a friend, away from all those children and chickens and hus­bands. One woman—why not?—finds that she can sit on her little sled, ties the rope around it—pull, pull, pull!—so that she slides over the ice—ha! ha! ha!—motivated by no need other than a sud­den impulse to play. (Because women have never been the parable of women.) In their game, there is a visual repetition (but now in a lighthearted mode) of their life experience as laborers with oxen that drag plows. The details are precise. See how the woman who is pulling has rotated her left foot slightly, at an angle to her forward direction of movement, so that this foot doesn’t just slide back on the ice but counteracts the extra weight she’s pulling. See how the woman on the sled bends forward eagerly—and also a bit stiffly; she has become unused to play, and her lower back is rigid.

There’s an allegorical meaning to explain all this playing on ice (Bruegel painted and drew a lot of ice skating). A later seventeenth-century publisher made sense of Frans Huys’s engraving of a Bruegel drawing of people skating on a frozen pond near the gates of Antwerp by adding these words to the bottom of the image: “Oh learn from this scene how we pass through the world, slith­ering as we go, one foolish, the other wise, on this impermanence, far brittler than ice.” Yet what’s notable is the ultimate failure of this totalizing idea to subsume the myriad details of Bruegel’s pic­ture. Similarly, Hunters in the Snow resists any unifying meaning by seeming to disperse into a kind of atomization of vignettes, of various moments each observed with the utmost care. The world, as though resisting its negation or effacement or subordination to one idea, thrusts itself in its variety into our awareness, insisting on the irreducible particularity of each item. The effect is a little like when, in response to Desdemona’s idealized belief that a woman could never be unfaithful to her husband, not “for all the world,” Emilia reminds her that “the world’s a huge thing.” What if the world can’t be made to disappear?

The blank page with which any thought project begins is, what­ever follows, its ultimate fiction. To muse from within a solitary room, to try to find a ground of being that includes only your thought in relation to itself, will always be a false thought exper­iment—for, isolated in that fashion, without a past, who would be recognizably human? (In reality, or at least in New York City, the upstairs neighbors would have interrupted Descartes’s thinking by trampling about irritatingly overhead; the hot water pipes would have annoyed him by beginning to bang just when he was about to formulate some pithy claim about the thinking ego.) In truth, we are born into a morass started by other people—and by other peo­ple before them—a crowded, yelling, wounded, stinking, laughing, lying, unjust morass, where it is impossible to locate a beginning, to locate a point before which there was nothing. Instead, emerging head-first, howling, we land on these shores and gasp for breath. Whatever you’ve read in the New Testament about the broad way that leadeth to destruction, well, all you have to do to make that power­ful idea implode is, following a suggestion of James Baldwin’s, to go some crowded Monday morning to Broad-way in NYC. The mess of that street’s life will refuse to be known according to any such totalizing judgment and, moreover, will refuse the epistemological heights that such judgments require in the first place. You’ve already, or so the blare of someone’s radio behind you suggests, become just another person trying to make her way on that crowded street and to cross to the other side before the light changes.

The only lesson seems to be: Don’t get killed!

It’s never been easy to live in a crowd of people. In the early 1400s, Thomas Hoccleve described the terrible anxiety of moving through such crowds in London: how unsettling it was to look at faces that didn’t seem to register his existence, “as they did not me see.” And, almost two hundred years later, here’s Thomas Dekker describing a related experience of living in this same city, which almost seems to run him over:

for in every street, carts and coaches make such a thundering as if the world ran upon wheels: at every corner, men, women, and children meet in such shoals that posts are set up of purpose to strengthen the houses, least with jostling one another they should shoulder them down. Besides, hammers are beating in one place, tubs hooping in another, pots clinking in a third.…

What a clanking, clinking, stinky din is the city. You can hardly hear yourself think.

The crowd is more than what your mind can contain and almost seems capable of containing you.

But such chaos is also, at least on certain days, a relief and a joy. Just feel the flickering light of the morning sun on your face, when, dressed for work, you stop and get a coffee from the woman in the coffee cart, from which steam swirls up toward its seeming apotheosis; hear how she greets you like she knows you (because she does), a greeting that restores to you, whatever you’re feeling that morning, a sense of your own externality. The pleasure is the inverse of domestic security—and yet shares some quality with it (here is my little paper coffee cup, here are my little coins), even as you may feel on other days with a shock that you have been flung into the world, as though your crib has been turned over from some great height so that you come to as you are falling squalling through the atmosphere toward the hard ground, which is death. And yet, also, again, here it all is, all of it in its great self-insistent irreducible multiplicity, and the jostling crowd that flows around you can be, at least occasionally, almost soothing in its chaos, draw­ing you out of yourself, and into a kind of dreamy reverie as you watch the crowd, which, like the flowing surface of water in the sea or the quivering flame in the campfire, lulls you. For, like the elements of water and fire, the crowd is more than what your mind can contain and almost seems capable of containing you—carrying your thoughts so that you seem to float, buoyed up by what is not yourself, by what has little to do with your self-conception and sense of agency.

For a fiction writer, the city can be a pool of minor characters through which he or she swims. One writer, contemporary to us, says that she sometimes works in the main branch of the New York Public Library because when she needs a minor character, all she has to do is look up and here one comes lumbering toward her. Listening to this interview, I remember the last time I was sitting in that same reading room. It was a hot summer’s day, and a large woman was doing sudoku puzzles, partaking of the free air con­ditioning (as was I), sitting with her feet on another chair so that I could see her support hose rolled down to her ankles. (Seeing such rich variety that the world so prodigally flings at us, “More!we might shout like fat babies, clapping our hands.) Further back, Charles Dickens marshaled onto his pages a veritable troop of minor characters—and all of these characters, whether struggling to reach the top of the barrel, or taking it upon themselves to slink down to the bottom of it (think of Little Em’ly in David Copperfield, whose very name suggests meek self-effacement in seeming to col­lapse into itself), make evident in one way or another their prob­lematic subordination in the larger tale—for history, Dickens wants us to see, is too often not about them. Shakespeare, another urban writer, also has multiple characters bobbing around, all with their own perspective on the role life has assigned them. Here is the poor nameless schmuck in King Lear who agrees to murder Cordelia and the old king: “I cannot draw a cart, nor eat dried oats. If it be man’s work, I’ll do’t.” He declares that he can’t live like a farm animal at the very moment when, forced by circumstances, he becomes most like one, deprived of choice by the need for subsistence. Some characters, expulsed from the narrative, prove capable of pointing to their own exclusion from the social. Here are the last lines of Shylock, who is ordered to convert and give up half his goods:

I pray you, give me leave to go from hence.

I am not well. Send the deed after me

And I will sign it.

The play, as though nauseated with a Jew in it, heaves him out and thereby achieves its comedic closure. And, meanwhile, all around me, as I read, the multitude of my city stinks and struts and lurches and hurls and, because it is New York, talks and talks and talks—and one minor character after the next emerges from the general swell like the waterdrop that Shakespeare describes, that, seeking its fellow, falls into the ocean and “unseen, inquisitive, confounds himself.”

It is said that, a few days before his death, Immanuel Kant tried to stand up when his doctor entered the room. Of this simple cour­tesy, he stated that “the sense of humanity has not abandoned me.” Who would not admire the philosopher for this final act? Having spent his life working out the most precise mental abstractions, Kant still liked to step outside of them—not just by going outside into nature (where, glad to have left the party, he used to enjoy experiencing “a train of thought that he can never fully unravel”), but, more mundanely, in the end, by attending to the minute real­ity of another person’s feelings through an everyday act of polite­ness. (Praising such normal forms of sociability, Montaigne writes that, in contrast, “transcendental humors frighten me.”) Kant and his doctor make me think of my ill friend, a writer, who, a few blocks from my apartment, is right now living what may be her last months in the same way she lived her life: with modesty, dignity, calm, and with scrupulously gracious attention to both poetry and other people. One recent afternoon, she sat reading by the window, and I was grateful to the window, for it reminded me of what she seemed to know already: that, in the last extremities, there can be an outside to suffering that is not just the nothing of death, but the everything of life and history and letters. As a reward for non-narcissism, some good people are given the world.

Leon Kossoff, Children’s Swimming Pool, Autumn Afternoon, 1971. © Leon Kossoff. Photo: Tate.

In Leon Kossoff’s 1969–1972 paintings of a north London swimming pool, he shows himself to be an inheritor of this interest in our packed-together, messy, communal lives. Here is the push and press of the world. Here is a child shoving another off the div­ing board; here is a pair discovering that they can be friends; here is a mother with a toddler on her hip. Here is the throng, the horde, the mob, the rabble, the swarm, the surge of the great unwashed, the flood (to confuse metaphors) of stupid, smart, destructive humanity. As with Bruegel’s ice ponds, Kossoff’s swimming pools show a rectangular surface (a frame within a frame) that is crowded with people—people who are swimming, talking, diving, arguing, splashing around. These people are doing multiple connected and disconnected things—testing the very limits of pictorial (and com­munal) unity. The city swimming pool is, surely, a microcosm for the city itself, in its common sociability and, although this sounds like an oxymoron, common loneliness. Kossoff’s many vignettes, like Bruegel’s, are self-contained (see that pair at the lower right who have become like two facing pages of a single book) and are also part of a larger whole. We are in it together; we are in it apart. Kossoff’s is a picture of a city that, seen in this mood, is, in truth, a jolly mayhem—and a relief from interiority.

IN A BEAUTIFUL 1849 letter, the New Yorker Herman Melville praised those who know how to descend beneath appearances. “I love all men who dive,” he said. “Any fish can swim near the surface, but it takes a great whale to go down stairs five miles or more.” Melville went on to praise, for all their absurdities, “the whole corps of thought-divers, that have been diving & coming up again with blood-shot eyes since the world began.”

How good and important is this commitment to our depths. But, as we struggle through these depths and repeatedly lose our way in them, let us also not forget to praise those moments when we suddenly find our way back to the surface: from the amorphous depths to form, from the internal to the external, from ourselves to other people. The historian Donald R. Kelley says, correctly, that we’re all floating in the cultural seas of our times, and it is ulti­mately impossible for anyone to rise up out of these seas and to become an oceanographer instead of a fish. But we also all have our days, when, after long immersion, we seem to ascend toward that amazing, shimmering, mirror-y surface above us and to break through it into the open air—and, for a few moments, to look around with our myopic eyes. Here, it seems, we are: on the sur­face of the world.

Down and down, down and down, and also finally, if we’re lucky, up; let us be thinkers that breach.

Rachel Eisendrath is the author of two books, Poetry in a World of Things and Gallery of Clouds. She teaches at Barnard College, where she directs the Medieval and Renaissance Studies Program.
Originally published:
June 12, 2023


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