Touches bloquées

PN Review, July—August 2011

Opening the door of his chest he shows, painted inside, the body of his soul. . . . “Here is the place,” he says, “here.”

—Dennis Silk, on Cesare the Somnabulist, a marionette

Felicity or not

I had a large doll with a gauzy dress and bonnet, maybe called Felicity, maybe called nothing at all. She was made of rubber, which eventually cracked: the palms of her hands parched with drought, and the wads of felt offal inside her came out. There was no rhyme to it at the time. I cried. Gradually the voice box in her stomach, too, wore out: Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to . . . keep . . . I couldn’t remember: what comes next?

Waiting shapes

You can invest your emotions in an object and retrieve them, identical or evolved, at will. You can see yourself as kind, loving, and lovable to the degree that your heart is pulled toward Felicity or a plush frog. But what about the other objects with which we share space? Anthropomorphic, biomorphic, geometric solids, metamorphic liquids: assemblages of molecules that are distinctly not us and have no need of our patronage.

Better that objects not speak, that they be only spoken to, that voices be thrown toward their waiting shapes. Yet objects, by their silence, amplify the plaint and whinny of our horse-trading with truth. For the sake of assonance, I toss off a phrase: waiting shapes. We can be fairly certain, however, that shapes do not wait.

Stock still

Sometimes we suspect that an object is us when in fact it is them. I was walking down a dirt road one early spring in the Catskill Mountains of New York when a huge dead collie came into view. Lying across a tangle of bushes, an overgrowth of undergrowth dun-colored like the corpse.

The middle of me clenched, my animal gut responding without recourse to brain. The locus of clenching somewhere below the lungs. Even as I try to locate the locus, like a Google map sliding around its pinprick of blood, the dog lies there in my memory unmoved by the breeze.

I had stopped at the sight of the dog, and stood stock-still. Then, inching closer to the thatch, I saw that the dead dog was in fact a sodden roll of carpeting. My gut unclenched, my insides went back about their business. The kill in Catskill again meant creek.

Webster’s dictionary says stock is related to stick. The Shorter Oxford, with a longer definition, says “a tree stump; an idol, a graven image; a type of what is lifeless, motionless, or without consciousness, esp. a senseless or stupid person.”

The picklemaker’s daughter

My father told me a story that had been weighing on him for sixty years. We were sitting on a wrought-iron bench outside the Catskill hotel where he and my mother were staying with their “senior” group for Passover.

In 1923, when he left his village for the US at the age of eighteen, he had taken the train to Warsaw. He stayed at the home of a pickle-maker, a family acquaintance, while he got papers in order for the next leg of his journey, to Paris, where he was notably to taste a tomato for the first time in his life and spit it out.

The pickle-maker had a daughter. Possibly named Minna. Something with an M. Marriageable. Perhaps the pickle-maker had hopes for a union. My father, after all, was on his way to what they called in Yiddish the goldene medina: the land where whatever you asked for promptly made itself available.

Paris came and went; Cherbourg came and went; New York arrived. My father wrote the occasional letter back to the pickle-maker and family, especially daughter. He was delivering newspapers by then, beginning to earn some money. From time to time he would send a dollar in a letter. The pickle-maker let him know that that was not enough.

The thirties came and went; the Germans arrived in Warsaw. What wrenched my reticent father still, here in the Catskills, was not the pickle-maker’s ingratitude. It was that merchant and family had probably been gassed. Maybe if my father had brought Minna to the US she would have been alive this April day, sitting on a wrought-iron bench with gravel under her feet and low sun in her eyes. Or in the hotel dining room where a standup comic popped Yiddish into English like peppercorns into brine.

What about me, Dad, I say, twenty-five years after that conversation, sitting at my desk, sixteen years after his death. Had it been Minna, there would not have been me, M is for . . .? Trying to imagine my non-being, I sit stock-still. Trying to imagine the end of Minna’s being— did she manage to climb out of her life before she died?—I am a senseless or stupid person.

The latch

My niece—her existence, too, entwined with the pickle family’s fate—once hinted that her one- year-old daughter might like a Jack-in-the-box. I ignored the hint. As a child I had had such a Jack, scarcely contained, and it scared me. What I remember first is the latch on the metal frame, the key to its operation. Only then do I recall the clown on a spring, feel the hard smoothness of its head under a soft cloth hat as I pushed it down. Then I hear the cobbler’s-bench music, cranked faster and faster, or was it the music of the mulberry bush? Some song revolving around a central obstruction in a dizzying race. But mainly I remember bracing myself for the pop that the weasel went, anticipating surprise not with glee but with trepidation: the jostling, vibration, abrupt end of a tune. Then what? The painted clown smile, the last bounce, the stillness. I learned that you could put one hand on the lid while cranking with the other. You could overcome the mechanism, slow the slide of the latch, make the lawless ruly. Was that fun? Fun had nothing to do with it. Maybe I have vigilance in my genes: stop that pop. My father once enumerated five times that he had come close to death as Polish, Russian, and German soldiers combed through his town during World War I and the question became which way to run.


Rilke was the intimate of objects, from which he was also estranged: faithful to his doubts. The doll of his childhood was silent, he wrote, “and the idea did not even occur to it that this silence must confer considerable importance on it in a world where destiny and indeed God himself have become famous mainly by not speaking to us.” Only an intimate would know what thoughts were not in his doll’s head. Maybe an intimate would know what comes after “my soul to keep” in a doll’s prayer.

The silence of Rilke’s doll was “larger than life” and “later breathed on us again and again out of space whenever we came at any point to the border of our existence.”


The stage in the theater of Tadeusz Kantor is crisscrossed with the borders of existence. A supine woman whose legs are spread by two boards with a hinge between them gives birth, to the accompaniment of the Yiddish lullaby “Rozhinkes mit Mondlen” (Raisins and Almonds). The imaginary offspring conveniently drops into a waiting cradle whose rocking sound is the clickety-clack of a train on tracks. We know where the trains took Yiddish in Poland. Is this a birth into death? Whom can we ask? Kantor is dead.

Is he at home in death, I wonder, having invited it so insistently into his work? Does death reciprocate the hospitality?

In Wielopole, Wielopole, named for the village of his birth, near Krakow, Kantor staged the posthumous wedding of his parents: his father standing dead in his World War I uniform, his mother moony in her tattered white dress, leaning in toward her man as the cheerful village curate does the honors. In The Dead Class, adults squeeze back into their school benches, with their younger selves in the form of mannequins draped around their necks or clinging to their ankles. Graybeards bicker and mock; someone’s pants are pulled down. They conjugate verbs and decline their body parts, they rise to a waltz, circling the desks at a stately pace, pulling at their alter egos to pry them off. A man drapes his dummy over a bicycle and wheels it along with one hand, striking the ground, or maybe the ego, with a whip held in the other. Meanwhile, someone is shot in Sarajevo; a Jewish woman is spat upon; guns and flags materialize. The ineluctable waltz resumes. Kantor, onstage as was his practice, conducts all this living with long hands: God among the people, but keeping his silence.

Kantor fostered the objectivity of objects, referred to the school benches in Dead Class as “the machine of memory.” The central obstructions around which we dance. The objects that wind us up, cranking faster and faster.

Effacing I

I have two books of funerary portraits, and once kept them open for weeks on the flowered couch, among the tapestry tulips and lippy roses and slate-blue grapes, as I sought their perspective on stillness. Distracted, I once sat on them. That did not seem to diminish the dignity of the faces, or the question that they constitute.

One of the books was The Mysterious Fayoum Portraits, by Euphrosyne Doxiadis, an artist and art historian. Named for the oasis where they were found, southwest of Cairo, and dating from the Greco-Roman period, the portraits were painted in encaustic or tempera on wood panel or linen. Shortly after September 11, 2001, I visited one of the originals in the Sackler Museum at Harvard. I would ordinarily have felt superior to the subject through sheer skill at breathing in the present moment; my ability to shift from foot to foot while she remained trapped in paint on panel; my knowledge of what came later, that there was a later, that I was part of it, so there. “The living man never considers himself greater than when confronted with the dead man, who is felled forever,” Elias Canetti wrote in “Power and Survival.” This time I thought only: I too live inside history. Empires rise and empires fall.

Some of the Fayoum women are dressed for posterity in pearl earrings or elaborate necklaces rendered in gold leaf, which I inspect intuitively for grains of sand. The touch of white in an eye suggests humidity that even desert could not disperse. What are their eyes seeing as— we like to think—they fix on us? The portraits were mounted on mummy cases, like a window above the head of the deceased. The cases often stood upright at home with the family, Doxiadis tells us, before succeeding generations got tired of them—the central obstructions around which they mopped—and sent them off for haphazard burial. I hear in their desert a silence less radical than that of Rilke’s doll: muffled air admits the ting of a bell on a distant goat.

Where paint is missing on a Fayoum cheek—say, of the woman named Aline, depicted opposite her two small daughters—the effect is modern. Intentional incompleteness, brushwork in unblended pigments, process revealed in product, encaustic pungent in the nostrils. Modern is knowing you end up one inch thick, impasto mounted on a coffin lid. Illusionism is thinking the palette knife is in your hands.

I want to be recognized by the humid eyes of those now dead. What longevity they bestow!

Effacing II

In a photograph of a photograph on a tombstone in a Jewish cemetery in New York, a woman gazes up slightly to her left. Sepia shadow pools in her eyes. Only the right edge of the right eye is visible. Through that square inch of surface I am sure she sees me, shares her world of equanimity. The blood of the subject of this photo of a photo is dry by now and mixed with the earth of Maspeth, Queens. The photo of a photo bleeds—as they say in the book trade—to the edges of the page. The book is John Yang’s Mount Zion: Sepulchral Portraits.

The tombstone portraits were enameled for long life. An appendix to the book includes an excerpt from the Dictionary of Photography for the Professional and Amateur Photographer (1889): “Enamels are photographic images burnt into porcelain, and coated with a glaze, rendering them absolutely permanent.” The images reproduced here are faded, cracked, abraded, cooked by the sun. Enameled cheeks are gone from their faces, exposing whorls of the cement to which they were attached. Where faces have faded, sometimes only retouched eyebrows remain, floating above oblivion. Some of these photographed people seem so much more earnest about enduring than the painted people of Fayoum, and so much less adept at it.

The woman with sepia pooled in her eyes wears a choker to which a baby’s portrait is attached: enameled medallion. I try to situate myself in time and space through parallax, measuring distances from the middle of me to these multiple bygone generations in sundry layers of reality and its representation and copies of its representation. If only these dead people would hold still.

Saying nothing

The French art historian Jean-Christophe Bailly confronts the faces of Fayoum and tries to fathom their blend of Egyptian and Greco-Roman aesthetics, the absence marked by their vivid presence. In his book L’apostrophe muette (Silent Address), he listens closely to these faces, which “say nothing, constitute nothing like speech” but show us “the memory of speech that was. Not the human voice in general, but this voice, this timbre, or, one might say, this texture or these eyes. The silence of faces in portraits is that of extinguished voices—it is absolute, entire, but like a shadow, as if all sonority had been channeled into the visible and, through imitation, given the weight of memory.”

The sound of an extinguished voice is what I hear in a Ligeti piano étude, Touches bloquées (Blocked Keys), in which one hand plays keys that are still depressed by the other: an exquisite and excruciating coaxing of nothing out of something, everything out of anything, the dumb sound of felt offal under the ivory, in the hammer and the damper, the blunt what of the universe, singing.


Which are the voices that we hear, and which are the voices that we throw? In the Harvard library I found a crumbling copy of The Art of Ventriloquism, a pamphlet by Frederic Maccabe, copyright 1894, part of the People’s Handbook Series published by F. M. Lupton, N.Y. (ten cents):

Popular notions are current and accepted that the ventriloquist can throw his voice anywhere within the range of hearing, and make it explode at pleasure at any given place, like a bullet from an air gun. A perusal of these pages will help to dispel this common delusion, and show—

“what charms,

what conjurations, and what mighty magic”

there are in it. It is of course beyond human possibility to make these dead pages speak outright. The most elaborate and well defined description utterly fails to give the resonance of the full toned vocal organs, swelling with volumes of sound, or the modulations of their tone as they are subsiding their vibrations on the senses. As well one might try to taste mustard by merely whispering the word. . . .

Mustard and pickle, equally elusive condiments for the mind. Othello and Desdemona are more fully conjured than Dad or Minna. To read the pamphlet in the Phillips Reading Room at Widener Library you have to put on white cotton gloves and lay the binder of “these dead pages” in the V-shaped depression of a stiff foam cradle. Clickety-clack.

Saying something

I requested a second item in the reading room: a tape of Yehoshua Sobol’s play Ghetto, based on the experiences of a theater group in the Jewish ghetto of Vilna, Lithuania, during World War II. I had seen the play in the 1980s, had written for the Jerusalem Post about its Haifa Theater debut. What I remembered was the dummy in the ghetto repertory group. The dummy lets fly, taunts the Nazi overseer even as the ventriloquist feigns dismay. Starving by the end and groping in a barrel for jam, the actors are shot. The dummy, in defiance, continues the cabaret song they had just been singing. The Nazi shoots him. The dummy crumples. The death of the dummy is the most unbearable death of all. I wanted to see that on tape, twenty years later, and try to understand why.

When I finally got the tape into the machine I found that this was not a video of the play, but a documentary about its making. Interviews with by then elderly members of the original Vilna ghetto troupe on which Sobol based his play; interviews with residents of the ghetto who had gone eagerly to the theater to share a small space with hundreds of other bodies and stay warm in a Baltic winter without fuel. I heard the debate over whether theater in a ghetto, however brief a diversion, was morally acceptable or politically wise. I heard the Slavic-tinged Hebrew, the knowing tone, the self-righteousness of one of the Holocaust survivors: a tone I had grown to resent during my years in Israel, feeling guilty all the while. I saw excerpts from the play, but not the dummy’s finale.

I cried in the Phillips Reading Room, mostly empty on a Sunday evening fifteen minutes before closing. I cried to think I preferred the dummy to fickle human beings; cried because, when I lived in Israel, the land of survival, I had borrowed that knowing, superior tone; cried because the Never Again of those who have suffered becomes license to do unto others. I cried to see how young the playwright and the director and the leading lady were, whom I remembered as my elders; cried for my younger self, a byline in yellowing newsprint; cried for the survivors of the Vilna ghetto who have since died, their annoying accents extinguished. I cried quickly and efficiently, as the librarian closed up shop.

But here is the question: do I prefer to believe that the ventriloquist survived the shooting, or that the dummy gained the gift of speech?


Some of the Yiddish letters in the sheaf my parents left are postmarked Warsaw. Addressed to my father, from a woman who must have been the pickle-maker’s daughter—named not Minna, but Rochel: Rochel Cyrkin. Her letters relate turns in the weather, and the upstairs and the downstairs of the daily. One letter reaches uneasily into English: “And so, my friend, good nigth.”

Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to . . . keep . . . I picture the voice box in the belly, with its perforations. Who lived and breathed in there? And what comes next?

My grandniece, as yet unaware of the pickle connection, is nearly two and now has a Jack-in-the-box of her own. Its frame and latch are plastic rather than metal, but it plays the same dance around a central obstruction that shaped my early days. She seems unfazed by the pop, even a little bored by it. She moves on to the next toy, no longer cranking, but pressing a button and then a few white keys, giggling and banging out a random melody, bouncing to the beat of a plastic synthesizer.



The epigraph is from “The Marionette Theater,” in Dennis Silk’s William the Wonder-Kid: Plays, Puppet Plays, and Theater Writings (Riverdale-on Hudson: The Sheep Meadow Press, 1996), p. 249. Silk (1928–1998) was a mentor and friend to me for many years in Jerusalem, and his theory and practice of “thing theater” underlie much of my essay. Cesare is presumably borrowed from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

The Rilke quote is from his “Dolls: On the Wax Dolls of Lotte Pritzel,” in Essays on Dolls, translated and edited by Idris Parry (London: Syrens/Penguin, 1994), p. 33.

Canetti: “Power and Survival,” in The Conscience of Words, translated by Joachim Neugroschel (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1984), p. 16.

Bailly’s description of the Fayoum portraits in L’apostrophe muette (Paris: Éditions Hazan, 1997) comes from chapter 9, “Le portrait et l’absence,” p. 109; the translation is mine.