Erri De Luca
The Silent Street Singer The Story of a Beginning
It was no longer “teacher” but “professor.” Although we had left the barracks-like elementary school, we were still in short pants, a mark of childhood. Anyone in long pants seemed adult and awkward.
In middle school, the subject of classroom themes was the material studied; they looked for our level of comprehension. We stuck to a government Italian, as rigid as a printed form. Although I couldn’t explain why, it disgusted me.
This embalmed language was part of a general submissiveness to adult power. In the intervals between classes we broke into dialect, a way of escape. We washed out our mouths with Neapolitan.
One day our assignment was to invent a fable—a free subject. We were reading our first translations of Aesop and Phaedrus. Many of us were anxious, asking for explanations, an outline, fearful of getting lost in that unexpected expanse. We were to invent a story about animals. The sudden freedom made my head tingle. I wrote in a continuous flow, clutching the pen until my fingers were numb, the only trained part of a body that was still a mollusk. I wrote on a downhill, the slant of the desk tilting toward me with running herds and clouds of dust. The beasts love to raise dust, to harass the insects that besiege them. With us, the dust is chased out every morning, there it rose up to the sky, driven by the drumbeat of hooves. Dust was the soul of the world. I wrote, and the thoughts pawed the ground, eager to come out and run, too. It was a precipice of writing; I even had time to make a copy to take home. I was among the first to hand in my paper. Usually I was late getting free of an assignment, in search of ways to extend it, to reach the minimum length required.
At home I made them listen to the theme. They were surprised more by that impulse than by what I’d written. I had gained that day the sure knowledge that writing was an open field, a way out. It could enable me to run where there was no room for my feet, it sent me off while I was crushed on a page. I began to write, from that day, in order to force the locks around me. They yielded, and let me go as long as I kept on writing.
The professor returned some days later with the corrected papers, and the grade. Mine was failing, because, evading his vigilance, I had obviously copied it from some manual of ready-made essays. An unusual freedom of language and an excess of fantasy were my accusers. The evidence was the fact that I had handed in early a composition of superior length.
It wasn’t a slap in the face but, rather, a punch in the pit of the stomach, thrown deliberately. The charge provoked in me a rebellion of silence. I didn’t answer. I experienced for the first time the incompetence of the authorities. They needed narrow spaces: the open field disoriented them. From that free assignment an hour of air had escaped and had to be brought back to order. Those authorities needed enclosed spaces, sclerotic bodies in order to impose their version of knowledge. They didn’t even like it if you arrived in the classroom a little warm after the rare hour of physical education.
At that point of friction between my truth and theirs a kernel of resistance formed in my body: opposed to power, which is abusive by instinct. Today I know that the authorities with their false accusations can bring the greatest honor to a writer. Make writing the proof of a crime that disrupts their discipline. Only the authorities succeed by insult in adding value to writing.
Today I know the inconsistency of the authorities, of the official hierarchies. At that time, however, they were flawless and incontestable. From the injustice of that day the crack opened, the wound that in time demolished them inside me. With that punch in the stomach my skeleton reacted. I insistently asked for, and received, my first pair of long pants.
Banier must have such a blow deep in his youth, shock of an injustice that was never remedied. With his photographs he redresses a wrong that at the time he had no right to respond to, only to suffer. I write about him out of a feeling of fraternity.
The Silent Singer of Tales
The photographer and the marksman are at their point of greatest vulnerability at the moment they take aim. Their visual field is reduced to the target, one eye is closed, and they have to be still—anyone could strike them. They are crouching over an invisible prie-dieu. The passerby who sees them tries to go around them, as the citizens of Sarajevo did with the snipers.
Tradition says that the apparatus in the photographer’s hand is the extension of his eye. Another tradition says that the horse pulls the cart, but sometimes the cart pushes the horse. It’s not so strange: it happens on a downhill. “Ah, yes, I hadn’t thought of that.” You no, but the horse yes. At the right moment the photographer has to be the cart, not the carrier but the one who is carried. This is where his vocation is revealed: the area beyond technique where it’s the camera that carries the photographer, who at that moment is merely a Tripod sapiens. There is a point where there is no photograph without the capitulation of the photographer.
Banier is the porter, who carries the equipment: one can see from the tamed violence with which he lifts it, holds it, sets it down. If you see elegance there, you confuse ethics with etiquette. It’s the manual skill of the tailor, the shoemaker—those who take measurements. Banier’s stillness is that of the hunted animal, not the hunter. We must believe that he doesn’t waste a shot, even though he is known to print thousands. But when from among a host of others the perfect frame emerges, the others don’t exist, never existed.
Banier is in these lines of Yeats:
A line will take us hours maybe
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought
Our stitching and unstitching has been nought.
Banier is a porter who feels no urgency to deliver, no anxious bite to pursue, to hurry after the moment. He knows that the moment comes on its own to one who doesn’t chase it; he knows that it never comes after a supplication or other propitiatory rite. The moment is the meeting point between a space and a time that lazily collide, usually without knowing it. The heedless friction between those two immensities produces the spit of the photographic moment.
In the longest list of infinitive verbs in any sacred book, Kohelet/Ecclesiastes tells us about it (chapter 3: 2-8). Current translations miss an opportunity when they repeat in front of each of the twenty-six verbs “a time to.” The effect is that of being on a Ferris wheel that as it circles repeats the events of a life: a time to, a time to. But the fact is, the Hebrew word eth (the letters ah-yin and tav) isn’t cyclical but, rather, critical: it denotes a collision that leaves a suture. It’s the point of impact between two lines that intersect, and perhaps never will again. I translate as “a point of” the incidence of the twenty-six infinitive verbs. “A point of embracing and a point of refraining from embracing”: Kohelet writes an autobiography of scars.
There is no hint of regularity, of a clock-like movement, in these points (not times) of Kohelet. Banier runs parallel to the twenty-six verbs of the third chapter, his frame is the eth: “Quod scripsi scripsi,” definition of the irreparable.
There is no redemption in Banier’s faces. Love, if it existed, by friction made the heart red, the redness my construction worker’s hands left on Alessandra’s delicate skin. I learned to embrace her with closed fists.
As eth (ah-yin and tav) is a point, the addition of one letter forms the word attah, the Hebrew “now.” Attah, now, is a lightning-struck present, the sound made by the click of an old camera. It spits out not a single syllable but two. Immediately after the crank is turned, the next frame loads with the rustling sound of a zipper. The pressure of the index finger transforms the eth of a scene into an attah, now, a gram of time. I learned from photography: a gadget of modern times explained to me a detail of ancient Hebrew, the arrival of the attah, now.
So, you see, I come to understanding backward. I have no gift for prophecy; I don’t know how to listen to the future that whispers its course in advance to the pure of hearing. I manage, however, to understand backward, to come to an ancient line and read it after a hundred times in a new, more radiant light. The surprise is wonderful. The past contains first fruits. It’s an emotion recommended in the book of Isaiah: “Who among you will give ear to this, will attend and listen for the time to come?” (42:23)
Banier knew a world of writers, I of workers. Banier approached mine on tiptoe and at the distance of the camera. His intrusion was sanctioned by a welcome that had been established earlier. He approaches the workers with the affection of one who wants to touch the material, but who, out of modesty, remains behind the threshold of the camera. Photography is not a window; it is, rather, a door that one stands behind even if one is invited to enter. Banier refuses to enter; the photograph has to be an act of chastity. And so the figure photographed in work clothes, in the hours when strength is sold in exchange for wages, is more physical, more fraternal, because of the absent handshake or embrace. The job of laborer is, for men, the oldest in the world.
In the presence of the man who is curious about him the worker tries for/attempts dignity, which means standing still, stopping, indicating, for the duration of the shot, that he is the master of the time sold and not its slave. At that point, eth, fixed in an attah, he is free not to do his job. At that moment Banier is the swift angel of relief, the back of the sleeve that dries the forehead, he restores control of the breath.
For the worker, Banier is an occasion for pride. The man who bends his back for a living straightens up in front of him. This man doesn’t know why he stopped, instead of continuing on, like all the others, who take less notice of him than of a ghost. That halt was for him a proof of his existence, like the one issued by the smiles of certain women. Banier is unaware of offering pity; he stopped because sharp blows of admiration nailed him to the spot. Admiration is a sacred emotion; it isn’t mixed with any desire, either to imitate or to possess. Banier stops and so makes a man’s day stop.
Emmaus is a place that has not been identified with certainty, but is in any case west of Jerusalem. It’s where three men, walking at a good pace, arrive after many hours, and stop to refresh themselves. They have been speaking of sacred writings the whole way. The subject has been a good method of transport. One of the three is Jesus, newly risen and not recognized. He will reveal himself to the others at table, the moment they break bread. Only then will the two see.
Emmaus is halfway between the Dead Sea and the living, the Mediterranean. It’s a good place for one who has risen, a junction between the life of before, still attached to the body, and volatile, remote eternity. The photographer is in Emmaus, at that table, waiting for the moment of the bread. His shot has to coincide with the sudden recognition. There has to be at once cognition and recognition on the part of one of the two pilgrims. To recognize is to know twice, the second time with a tug at the heart. The first time I was in the Renaissance room of the Louvre my heart leaped to my throat as I stood before paintings that I had seen so many times in reproductions. “Only at the peak of enthusiasm does the human being see the world exactly. God created the world in a burst of enthusiasm.” This is Marina Tsvetayeva, my favorite, who inspired me to decipher Russian to find the formula of the flower (in Russian: tsvet).
The photograph produces an inconvenient but necessary intimacy with strangers. I use the familiar form of you, tu, only in letters or at a table where people are drinking from the same bottle. In photography, as in religion, the pronoun of the relationship is tu. One addresses the divinity with this bold syllable, a personal pronoun that jumps the abyss and forces the invisible to listen. The tu forms the ear of God. When the believer prays, it forces him to be present. The photograph assumes the tu. One stands before a person, a crowd, a landscape in the photographer’s place, shifting him, planting one’s own frontal “Here I am.”
Every photograph increases my knowledge by adding a figure to my catalogue. Every photograph destroys by juxtaposition one that precedes. The cells that replace dead ones do likewise. The photograph is a mechanism of biology.
Then, the photograph is the mind’s format for testimony. Called on to give testimony in court, the witness tries to reconstruct a sequence of events, but his memory retains only scattered frames and he has to fill in the story. They are isolated shots, because testimony is nothing more. Often the one implicated is upset and retains meager traces of emotional outbursts.
In the nineties I got to know cities that had been destroyed, across the Adriatic, in the raging Balkans. I was a driver in aid convoys, and of those journeys, more than thirty in three years, I have a residue of images seen as if through binoculars the wrong way, like postage stamps. For hours straight I gazed at the road pitted with shots, with holes to avoid, eyes low and hands on the wheel, swerving and braking on tracks at twenty kilometers an hour: rarely did I raise my eyes. If I had to bear witness I would speak of the shape of the holes made by grenades, of the eyes fixed on us by the Bosnian Muslims, widows and orphans of annihilated men. Stamps that ended up in the retina of a driver, not in an album. Funny that a round pupil keeps in its archive small square perimeters. From those days of dust and rock I preserve, on the wall of my room, the splinter of a grenade that stuck in the wall where my shadow was.
The photographer is the conjunction “and.” He holds together two points, one living scene and one fixed. Hebrew writing, the mother and matrix of monotheism, is teeming with “and”s at the beginning of sentences. They indicate continuity, not the start of a sacred story.
Where we read in the Bible, “And X said,” in Hebrew it’s written “And said X,” the conjunction pasted to the verb and then the subject X. Even in a reference to the divinity, the subject is in the second position. In that language the conjunction “and” presides over the story. The photographer is the conjunction between his view and what he has fixed. He converts the past into a present. He is an alliance between a before and the here-and-now.
Good and evil: here, too, the “and” holds together two extremes, not in alliance, however, but in disjunction. The “and” here separates. Good and evil are coupled, bound—too close and one can make a mistake. But the work of human beings lies precisely in this. It is up to us to distinguish them, to disentangle them from the weave. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil, planted in Eden, is a single tree. There could have been two, far apart, but no—there’s one and that’s all. So we know that the knowledge of good and evil has a single root, it draws from the same earth. It is up to us to decide; the choice is an experience of foliage, flowers, fruit—it takes botanical knowledge, we have to learn from the trees. Banier loves them and writes densely on their shadow.
The photographer is also a disjunction. He is the “and” between the unbearable brought into focus and the quick glance of a passerby. The black-and-white helps to separate. Many mammals are color-blind, and if they are ignorant of our marvel at the rainbow they are better able to penetrate the grays of the shadows. I love colors, but I love even more the penguin’s livery, which is that of ink and paper. It’s a bird that has given up flight, the perfect opposite of us bipeds, who are tempted by wings. Its “Attention,” chest puffed against the wind, knows how to stay on the ground better than I do.
Banier walks. Only one who goes on foot travels. Everything else takes the name of movement. In these overtimes of 1900 (so much for the short century), the myriad migrants from the south and east of the planet travel on foot. They reach the shore of the Mediterranean and climb aboard any floating hulk. Out there sailboats encounter ships overloaded with destinies. It’s not a mistake: destinies, not clandestines. They land on islands and coasts, a tenth of them shipwrecked. It’s the greatest epic in the world, their crossing of the planet, its deserts and seas. We treat them to concentration camps. Banier walks—a habit that is being lost—and therefore he sees. Only someone who walks meets the landscape, its inhabitants. At a proper slowness, the steps mark the approach. Banier advances straight as a fir tree, stops with the old camera over his shoulder, curves over it like the top of the fir in the wind. There is a secret wind that he knows and to which he bows his head. His photographs contain the wind that forced him to stop, are imprinted by the wind. Technically, you say, it’s light that exposes/strikes them. Of course, it’s the light, the swiftest of the winds.
We are in a time of the one-eyed. Military expeditions of invasion are held up as peace missions. The only journalists allowed are those who follow the troops. Military dispatches are the truth that is to be printed. I accuse of selling the word “war” governments that send troops abroad for the purpose of investment, to acquire pieces of the market, a share of the booty. They sell “war” as an innocuous word, a surgical strike, a brief promise, and afterward everybody goes home. But in fact they are rotting inside. I curse the word “war” so that it may become damned again. I isolate it from the word “peace” with an “and” made of barbed wire. In a time of the one-eyed I dream of government by a blind man. I ask anyone who in his job has to close one eye and open the other behind a to curse the word “war.”
The sickle is an idea taken from the moon. The design was there from the start; the only human invention was to add the handle. The photographer is someone who puts a handle on the moon, gives the well-known outline a handhold, makes it useful. The face of a person caught on the street becomes a page of narrative. The photographer is a silent singer of tales.
Velázquez belongs to the most theatrical of centuries, the seventeenth. While Shakespeare dies, Calderon, Corneille, Lope de Vega are at work. The theatre was not enough for Velázquez; he dreamed of the cinema. There are inventions that wait to be produced and decide to yield only after having been dreamed of for a long time.
Before Dedalus’ wings, flight passed through men’s nights with eyes closed. The invention is only the final nocturnal act: the waking. Cinema was the night vision of Velázquez; he laid the eggs in his sleep.
Already, at twenty-four, he was the king’s painter. The only higher subject for painting would be to have God pose. He isn’t a mystic, not enough for that desire. Other representations of the divinity were by default approximations and therefore idolatries.
Velázquez dreams of the cinema, with sound and color. He wants his paintings to have plot, development, conclusion. In the “Forge of Vulcan,” painted in Rome (an advance homage to Cinecittà), light shines from outside the scene on the visiting Apollo, while the workshop is illuminated by daylight. The banging at the forge is interrupted by his arrival, the god of song is speaking: he charms ears deafened by hammers. It’s a pause of resonant peace for the hearing, and a pause of thanks, the smooth-faced one among the bearded. Apollo is telling Vulcan that his wife, Venus, is enjoying herself with his best client, the divine Mars, patron of war, who is stocking up on arms in that very shop. It’s a scene that contains a film. The painter, unlike the photographer, doesn’t narrow the field. What he puts in the scene is open to the senses, the angle of vision is greater than a hundred and eighty degrees. Before a painting by Velázquez the observer never asks what could exist outside the field. As in a good story, what is not written doesn’t exist.
Velázquez looks at the scene like a director. He dares to make his actors stare straight at the camera, as in the “Triumph of Bacchus,” or the “Surrender of Breda.” He leaves in his paintings a triple concentrate of film, a density of narrative containing the thousands of shots of the three centuries to come. The cinema was invented by Velázquez. Just a mention of “Las Meninas,” a work that stands alone at the height of this vision: here the painter is on the scene as an extra and as the director, the scene’s narrative mirror (Hitchcock used “Las Meninas” flirtatiously). Here Velázquez knows that the spectators are on the other side of the reflective glass.
The photographic frame tries to make you forget everything that has not been included. It is successful when the gaze has no desire to widen the field, to peer beyond the edges of the frame. Cartier Bresson unnerves me because he always makes me want to look at the wider scene that he has narrowed. Banier, on the other hand, makes you forget that something exists which has been excluded from the frame. He has the same passion to tell a complete story within a single picture, a tenth of Velázquez.
As I was descending Peak 9 in the Dolomites in Fanes, a viper coiled, ready to spring, as I passed. Catching sight of it at the last possible moment, I dodged it with a bullfighter’s move. The altitude was 2500 meters; I would be able to find the place again, because I had mistaken the path down, and that’s where I turned back. There is an experience of mistakes that can fix geographical points. The photographer is able to return to the scenes of his photographs, but only at the same time, season, light.
Velázquez chose to take his mother’s surname. He wanted to be called by the name of a woman, rather than that of a man. Jesus says of himself: son of Adam. On one occasion he denies his mother (Matthew 12:48; Mark 3:33; Luke 8:21). In Christianity Mary the mother fades in favor of Mary the consoler and intermediary. Jesus was an intruder from his conception. Not generated by the seed of man, he is entirely the creation of his mother and an announcement from an arriving angel. “Shalom Miriam” must have been the Hebrew greeting that we read as “Hail Mary.” “Shalom Miriam”: three labials, prelude to a kiss.
An intruder not only in her but in the world, he comes to forgive our debts. The world is supported on them, the powerful are sustained by extending credit, by lending, at interest, land, water, air, and fire. Jesus denies his mother, but his birth is a job completed by her alone. No evangelist mentions midwives in the stable in Bethlehem. Therefore Miriam/Mary gave birth without any help. With her expulsive muscles she pushed out the placenta package, with her hands she seized the body that slid out, lifted it by the feet to start it breathing, cut the cord, perhaps with Joseph’s knife, tied the umbilical knot, bathed him lightly—it was winter—and attached him to her breast. The ox, lowing, and the ass, braying, praised her.
Miriam/Mary at her first birth behaved like a veteran. It’s the most absolute miracle of the nativity, apart from the star-comet and the Magi on the camel tracks. These are in the background, decorations. Miriam/Mary is at the epicenter of the shock waves that are still spreading through the world. Hers is the act of giving birth that flings out into the open the most perfect of intruders.
Jesus calls himself the son of Adam. Mothers are used to being canceled out by documents. Hurray for Matthew, who inserts some women’s names in the line of descent from Adam to Joseph that opens the New Testament. Matthew dares to name them in the precious genealogy that is advancing toward the Messiah. Luke in his list ignores them.
Velázquez chose the name of his mother: his act is a toast that means “Long live Mary!” Those who give their mother her proper weight are free of her, are no longer dependent. Those who remove her from the act of birth find her later in the form of a bridle around their jaw. At the feast of Cana, Jesus has to obey his mother’s request to take care of the wine, which has run out. She compels him to the most futile of his miracles, but also to his first public act, according to John. She announces him to the world.
Banier has settled a debt with his mother. The women in his photographs are untouchable, absorbed, are sacred animals. Like Velázquez, Banier is the son of a woman.
We are children of an expulsion: that is the act of birth. One who calls himself the son of a father is providing a detail, declaring an enrollment: in a registry, in an inherited property, in a career. But in fact we are the bloody harvest of being forcibly pushed out, evicted by guts.
We do not come from an egg, from a burning impatience that breaks the shell to gain the air. We would like never to come out into the open, never lift the lid of our mother pot. It takes all her labor, the spasms of contractions, to send us to the door. And some of us plant our feet, dig in, and strangle on the cord in front of the door, desperate not to fall into the abyss of the world. We are not born voluntarily, like the fish, the reptiles, the birds; for us it takes a mother who throws us out. Thus we are from our mother, from her emptied sac.
The photograph is a point; a collection of photographs is a point-studded path. If you draw a line over them the character of the world emerges. Not that of the photographer but the character that he attributes to the world. Banier sees humanity placed in the press of a performance.
In the Treblinka concentration camp a group of Jewish musicians was forced to play a march, light music to accompany the arriving convoy to the fake showers. That performance is repeated, on a much lesser scale, everywhere. Banier isolates involuntary actors, but not for that reason are they less compelled to act. Each of us falls into a role and defends it at the cost of our life. We are willing to kill in order not to have our part taken away, we are willing even to play music at Treblinka, because the part coincides with life. If you join Banier’s points you get the archive of a Balzac. In literature today it can’t exist; in photography it can.
If you join Banier’s points, the non-geometric figure of an egg emerges, having escaped from Euclid’s catalogue. In Banier’s egg, humanity exists with its dense fats, colloidal proteins, the white of foam and the thick rust of instincts, the whole enveloped in the frame as if inside a calcareous shell. I write out of fraternity, which together with liberty and equality forms the earthly trinity that is dear to me. At the end of my leave, I have it in my hand.
The century is a bird that lays eggs. Lives hatch, swarm, then they break apart. The photograph is the fertilization of the egg, a form in the white of the albumin. Through Banier’s points, I lead existences back to a shell, I recognize them, they are the humanity that contains me.
In an open-air market in Finland one summer I saw on a basket of potatoes a sign with the name of the variety, van Gogh. Those potatoes bore his name: because he painted the most moving homage to that heroic and solitary nutrient in the painting “The Potato Eaters.”
What an honor—one’s name on a vegetable stall. The illustrious usually end up on a list of street names, over the entrance to a school, on a stamp: they end up in a sumptuous pulp. But one whose name is rung out in the market squares, where the human race quarrels, smiles, greets—he has received memory’s greatest prize.
I dream of being linked to a vegetable one day, I would like someone to name a celery “De Luca.” I wish for Banier, too, the happy fate of being remembered in the markets, rather than in the museums.
Anyone who has even once floated under a parachute knows that the wind is a means of transport and the air is an elevator. In nature everything goes willingly against the force of gravity, from the grass to the seas. The sun warms a mountainside, a column of air rises like a catapult. The upward draft is a song that comes out of the throat and travels upward. In the air the man with the parachute is a marionette. Held tight in a harness, he is guided/controlled by a fistful of strings.
At the point of takeoff the umbrella-like sack rises behind him. In contrast, his steps push forward along a descent until the ground vanishes. In a photograph there is the moment when the figure detaches itself from the rest, stands alone, stamped by the flash of light that assails the blind film. Every photograph attempts to get off the ground. When the hand is no longer pulling the kite but restraining it.
An Italian friend of mine was a refugee in France for a quarter century, for political reasons. The length of exile proved him right, the statute of limitations ran out definitively. Now he has a passport, and he takes it willingly out of his pocket, shows it off, the way others do with photographs of their children.
He says, “What is exciting to me is not so much the possession of a new passport, with my name, but the knowledge that I can lose it.”
I think it’s the opposite feeling of the artist, who has his provisional talent and is afraid of seeing it vanish. One has to go to the school of exile to learn the joy of losing one’s passport.
Erri De Luca