India Hixon Radfar
New England Review, Volume 39, No. 2 (2018) p. 179
Enough denial. One must be affirmative. Enough wishing to be cured!
One must be sublime. —Salvador Dali
Feb. 4, 2009
I suppose I could write a piece to turn Paros into Paris. About my dreams of going to Paris and sometimes waking up there without a map or itinerary of any kind. Of my picking up again of the French language over the Persian and the Aramaic, and before that, the Greek. Of my return to Joan Miró with more depth, finding him there, the man that he was, not the woman I suspected him to be. Or hoped he was. Or pretended he was.
For the moment, I am reading French again. As I read—and it’s like riding a bicycle—I can’t suppress the delight I feel—it feels like I’m reading in English!—I decide I’m going to write like I don’t have a moment to spare.
I read in French, I look at sketches of the streets of Paris. I need my words to turn into poems. I even read the Manifestoes of Surrealism by André Breton, and although I don’t expect to understand them, I do, and I end up feeling very close to Breton, as if we share the same experience.
I haven’t been to Paris in twenty years, but so many nights I dream that I am packing to go on a trip to Paris. I’m packing all the wrong things, all the clothes I never wear. Sometimes I’m packing whole closets of useless stuff. What am I doing? Every companion I’ve ever traveled with makes appearances in these dreams. For that night, they are my accomplices. But we never accomplish anything.
Alice thinks I’ve mistakenly substituted the i for an o. Paros: a place we both love. “India, if you got off the plane in Paros, you wouldn’t need a map or an itinerary,” she says. “You would know exactly where to go.” One of her friends got on a plane in Athens headed, he thought, for Paros, and he ended up in Paris.
I haven’t yet had the chance to explain to Alice why I can’t go back to Paros. Why the changing of the o to an i is no mere Freudian slip. Why the possibility of changing the i back to an o would, in reality, please no one.
My memory is a little rusty. I try to think of Parisian streets but I might be conjuring up Montreal streets instead. I haven’t been to Montreal in seven years, but I haven’t been to Paris in twenty years. I haven’t been to Paris in eight years. No, I mean I haven’t been to Paros in eight years. Aram was four then. Two years later, we left Woodstock. Now we’ve been living in Los Angeles coming upon six years. Los Angeles is our consolation prize for Greece.
Right now, I’m sitting in a café Alice showed me on the Santa Monica end of the Venice Boardwalk, the one near where her son used to live. Here, Europeans drink tall glasses of beer on tap and eat Swiss food. And Americans drink beer and go back to work. There’s always at least one local who has nowhere to go and talks about his DUI case or his friends’ DUI cases loudly. Two Germans eat Bavarian pretzels.
I’m sitting by the ocean right now, but I can’t use it, it’s broken, or it’s too cold, or it’s too dirty. Something. But the sun is good. And the ocean is a very big expanse. A very big unconscious. And the sound of that unconscious is very subtle, kind of like the breathing of sleep but somewhat heavier. When I sit beside it my mind is freed.
If Alice is right, and I think she is, I may be trying to make Paris my new Paros unconsciously. But Paris is so big. I need to start small. Under the sheltering glass of the old arcades. Walking my way past rain. In waking dreams. Once you are there, it becomes irrelevant what you brought with you.
Sometimes, in the early morning, you are knocking against fog.
Go alone. As in dreams, it is easier to go alone. You don’t have to do anything but wander until you wake. If I could just wander Paris all night . . . then I would learn. What? More from André Breton. In my bed or in Paris? Either.
Not dreaming about Paris right now, but . . . I turn it like an object in my mind. Paris.
André Breton. I’ve definitely experienced the joy he speaks of in connection with writing from the unconscious.
Reading Breton here at the Swiss Café is just as surreal as it was to read it yesterday in my day bed while doing moxibustion. Did Breton really coin the word surreal?
I have Atget’s streets of Paris book leaning up against the wall where I keep my own watercolors of Alice’s house on Paros.
I found a very satisfying definition for the term sublimation in a footnote to André Breton’s Second Manifesto of Surrealism of 1930. This is important because I’ve been trying to understand the concept for some time now. I am really grateful to him for stating it so clearly, and although it is somewhat lengthy I want to reproduce it in full here:
The more one delves into the pathology of nervous illnesses, said Freud, the more one perceives the connections which link them to other phenomena of man’s psychic life, even to those to which we attach the greatest importance.
And in spite of what we pretend, we see how little reality satisfies us;
thus, beneath the pressure of our interior repressions, we create within ourselves a whole fantasy life, which, by carrying out our desires, makes up for the insuf- ficiencies of our actual existence.
The energetic person who succeeds [“who succeeds”: it goes without saying that I leave to Freud the responsibility for this terminology] is the one who manages to turn these desire- fantasies into reality.
When this transmutation fails either because of external circumstances or the weakness of the individual, the person turns away from reality: he retires into the happier world of his dreams; in the case of sickness, he transforms the contents of them into symptoms. Under certain favorable conditions, he can still find some other way to move from his fantasies to reality, instead of straying defini- tively away from it by regression into the realm of infancy; I believe that if he has any artistic gift, which is psychologically so mysterious, he can, rather than transform his dreams into symptoms, transform them into artistic creations.
Thus can he escape the fate of neurosis and, through this detour, make contact with reality.*
So it is important, if one has chosen to be an artist, to succeed at it (“to succeed”: I leave this to each and every one of us to determine for him or herself).
Be careful of the books you read early in life because they go deep and stay there. When the memory of a book stirs in me, I usually end up calculating I was thirteen when I read it. But in reality I probably did not read it when I was exactly thirteen. Writers can feel other writers’ words stirring beneath their own. We can see books underneath each other’s texts.
I’ve been dreaming of being in high school again even though in the dream I know I’ve already finished college, being in college again even though in the dream I know I am married and have two children, being in graduate school again even though I decided I couldn’t do that after Leila was born.
Is it safe to say I am in some sort of transition?
I’m reading Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, which takes place in Paris. A lot of books take place in Paris. And then there’s the poet Jean Daive’s book Under the Dome: Walks with Paul Celan, about walking Paris as a young man with the poet Paul Celan. He wrote it on a Greek island twenty years after the anguish of losing this close friend and mentor to suicide. It reminds me of Laurence Durrell’s Justine, in which the main character and narrator retreats from the complexities of Alexandrian society in order to piece his story of emotional loss together on an unnamed Greek island. I found Durrell’s book on a shelf in my father’s study where my mother kept some of her old books. My mother thought I was too young to read it (I was thirteen) but she eventually gave in.
The heat in summer makes it hard to act so you tend to reflect instead. The air itself is sensual.
Paris is a Greek word to begin with, let’s not forget. Remember Paris winning Helen of Troy from Aphrodite? How could we forget.
In the Third Manifesto of Surrealism, from 1942, (“Prolegomena to a Third Surrealist Manifesto or Not”), Breton mentions Freud’s passing and worries; now that Freud himself is gone, will his new techniques for the freeing of the individual mind be somehow misused instead for its further confinement?
I don’t know. But when André Breton came to America in 1941, he refused to learn any English. And his spoken French was said to be so ornate that even perfectly good French speakers often had difficulty understanding him.
Falling asleep in the Hammer Museum and no one is bothering me in this armchair, this sort of bed. My eyes close to fatigue in a visionary way. I don’t try to wake myself up as I slip into my unconscious. Why should I? I am jolted awake half an hour later by the presence of a gentle observer.
Later I find out that over the weekend the Hammer Museum invited people to sleep the whole night in the museum in honor of Jung’s Red Book. There were psychoanalysts present to talk about dreaming, and in the morning, there was a group discussion of the previous night’s dreams.
I am holding some of André Breton’s books in first edition in my hands. They are from the shelves of the Getty Research Library. They are well archived and need to be unwrapped in order to be read. I browse through “Arcane 17” in French, which I know was written by Breton in Canada. And in a beautiful leather-bound four-volume set of Breton’s writings, also in French, I see color reproductions of Joan Miró’s “Constellations” paintings and see that Breton has written a text for each of the twenty-two paintings. In the foreword of a collection in English, a woman says we know that what Breton has written is not good in a literary sense. In the introduction to another collection in English, a man with a French name makes the statement that “poetry is nothing less than the antithesis of repressive reason and the translation of desire.” I pick five books to check out and keep them on a shelf so I can read more later.
Today I am in Barnes & Noble. I only stopped for the bathroom in Starbucks but feel obligated to buy something, so I buy a decaf soy latte and enter the bookstore with it. I happen to pass a table where everything is priced at ten dollars and under. “Appealing, Odd, Humorous,” reads the sign. I see a dream dictionary, so I look up packing. It’s not there. I look up travel. It says go to journey. Under journey it says:
In most cases the journey is a symbol of your travels through your inner world. According to Freud, dreams of a pleasant journey suggest steady progress in psychoanalysis; but the imagined motion of the journey also represents a wish for sexual intercourse.
I remember seeing in one of the books in the library yesterday Breton’s interview with Freud at his home in Vienna. He asks Freud why he interprets others’ dreams as sexual but not his own. Freud says that doing so might not be propitious. Breton says he hopes Freud will reconsider.
I flip to see the publishing information on the dream dictionary and realize that the book itself has been published by Barnes & Noble.
I look up departure. It is paired with arrival:
Dreams of beginning or setting out on a journey suggest that you are beginning a quest for meaning, while dream arrivals often hint that you have achieved your goal or are envisaging yourself doing so.
I look up airplane. It comes together with aircraft and airport:
According to Freudians, aircraft are phallic symbols associated with new sexual experiences.
I look up Paris. It’s not listed between parents and park. I look up city:
Cities can be a symbol of the self.
I look up foreign and find foreign city:
By choosing a specific city, your dreaming mind is drawing your attention to something about that city that is of particular significance or meaning to you.
And then it lists individual cities. I am excited to see Paris listed among them. But all it says is:
Along with Venice, Paris is the capital most associated with love and romance. Are you needing more passion in your life?
It sounds like a bad horoscope.
I put the book down, decide not to buy it. But first I glance at the introduction where the author, Theresa Cheung, suggests that we go to the earlier edition of this book for further reading, The Element Encyclopedia of 20,000 Dreams, published by HarperElement. I realize that I was only looking for a shortcut to begin with, and if I’m going to go to any other book on the subject, I should go directly to Freud himself. Besides, although her book is thorough, she somehow takes the poetry out.
Why haven’t I been to Paris in twenty years? I was supposed to go when our son was a year and a half, but I had a severe case of tendonitis in my right wrist and didn’t think I could restrain him properly. I imagined him running unsteadily off sidewalks into streets. I was also in a great deal of pain. My husband wanted to go so badly that finally I sent him there on his own. And when he got there, he didn’t like it. I thought he hadn’t seen the good parts. He said he had, but he just didn’t like it.
I invited my husband to come to Paris with me this spring, without our children, to walk the arcades. He declined. I did everything I could think of to convince him to go, but he couldn’t be convinced. I wanted to stay in a small hotel that opened into the arcades and just walk. It wouldn’t even matter if it rained. My mother said she would take care of the children in New York while they played with their cousins. I told my husband the arcades are “passages.” They say it is like old Paris in them, nothing newer than 1940 and as old as 1782. He said it was only interesting enough for three hours of one day, not four days in a row.
I got out his copy of Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades, a book made out of Benjamin’s last and unfinished musings about the arcades of Paris and a lot of other things, and I tried to read it in front of my husband. I know this used to be one of his favorite books. What a tome. It goes on and on and I have no idea what it’s about. My trying to read it had no effect on his desire to go.
I didn’t feel it was right for me to go to Paris without him, so I made a plan to go to New York to see my family instead.
I asked if he wanted to go to Switzerland this summer with the kids. He said maybe. I thought, good, then we can spend a few days in Paris and I can walk the arcades. But then he decided he didn’t want to go to Switzerland this summer after all.
It seems my husband doesn’t want me to get to Paris.
The first time I went to Paris, I was thirteen. I went with my sister, Shanti, who was twelve, my brother, Dylan, who was fourteen, and our mother. Our father stayed at home. We stayed for one month in a small hotel in Le Marais. We saw a great deal of what Paris had to offer. The second month we drove from North to South, stopping frequently along the way.
I remember lying in a bed with dysentery in our hotel room in Paris. My mother treated me with homeopathic medicine. I remember watching a man walk around his flat across the narrow street from me. His figure, not his shadow, engaged in living. We both listened to piano music drifting in from some third location. For days I lay there, feverish. They had to leave me alone some of the time. My fever kept me company. I watched thoughts arise and depart. I burned and ate nothing.
When we got home, I began to speak more rapidly and more constantly, as if everything inside of me was coming out. Paris had urged me to embrace my art, which is and has always been poetry.
It was on the Greek Cycladic island of Paros in an American art school at the age of seventeen that I discovered with strange certainty that I was a poet. Of course a poet has to discover and rediscover this many times in a life as the world has its way of making one forget. Now I see I had already discovered it in the city of Paris at the age of thirteen. But at thirteen I also used to sketch and play the piano and flute. By seventeen, language was my only art form.
When I was seventeen on Paros, I wrote a poem that began: “Alice says come do life drawing. Aren’t we all drawing life, Alice?” She was amused by that.
I thought Paros was the beginning, but I guess Paris was a beginning, too.
I used to have dreams of Paros and these dreams were really strange because I was half-flying half-jumping there in a mythical way.
I tried to turn precious stones into a constellation of heart and lungs. I tried to hang them on a wire bent in the shape of a woman and make the whole thing stand up.
Alice told me, once you’ve found a place like this, you always have to come back.
I went back to Paros many times.
I took my husband to Paros when our son was two and a half. He loved it. To him it felt like the Iranian villages of his childhood. The streets of the old towns are maze-like. They were built that way to confuse and defend against intruders. We often got trapped for moments inside them.
Now, eight years later, Paris is reaching out to me instead. Capital of romantic love.
I think of Freud’s term propitious. Should I be more propitious in what I reveal here? My husband is apprehensive.
No, I don’t think it matters, this is a journal, and everybody knows that journals are places where often things emerge unexpectedly.
And yes, it matters. It matters immensely.
I’m not looking for romantic love in Paris. I want romantic love with my husband. Even after seventeen years. In theory, this is what I want. Though we are frequently angry at each other, and sometimes I think that we don’t remember how to love each other.
Strange thing is, this really did become my journal, this poem. Now I write in it every day. I have come to believe its form, to adopt its form as true. Instead of writing the poem, the poem has become the place I write.
Recently I’ve been writing three or four entries in one day and marking them as separate days. What day does that make it now?
It is hard for me to separate poetry from desire.
I was relieved to hear that André Breton was kind to women. That a woman who had an interaction with him, even if it were just giving him directions in the street, would part from him having felt admired and maybe even a little happier than she was before. I was relieved to hear this because in the First Manifesto of Surrealism, 1924, the audience he is addressing is so clearly male. There is one letter addressed to the mediums of Paris, “A Letter to Seers,” 1925, that begins, “Mesdames,” and is practically worshipful. But aside from that, I can’t tell from his writings alone what he thought of non-psychic women. By the Third Manifesto of 1942, he is able to include one woman’s name on a list of “today’s most lucid and daring”: Leonora Carrington.
André Breton didn’t believe that there was such a thing as women’s art. There was just art itself. Yes, but women are different than men in many ways. Wouldn’t their art also be different?
I just want the Paris of the art that I love. Because what are women good at? They’re good at loving. They’re also good at sublimating their desires.
I look up Leonora Carrington. She is a prominent British surrealist painter, writer, and sculptor born in 1917 and currently living in Mexico City at the age of ninety-three. She says she saw her first surrealist painting in Paris when she was ten years old. By the time she was twenty, she was back in Paris as Max Ernst’s lover. At twenty-five, she was institutionalized, at fifty she was spiritualized, at eighty-five she was sublimed.
I really did think Joan Miró was a woman. At what age? Ten, eleven, twelve, I’m not sure. By thirteen, I probably knew the truth. That when I was thirteen none of the works of art in any of the museums, even the museums of modern art, were made by women. Although I think thirteen is still too young to comprehend the enormity of this.
The painter Lauren Szold once told me that she also thought Joan Miró was a woman.
How many of us thought this when we were girls?
How many of us loved Joan Miró’s work?
How many of us were influenced by our uninformed versions of Joan Miró in our heads?
Influenced perhaps to become painters ourselves.
In addition to the books mentioned in the text, I would like to note Arshile Gorky: Goats on the Roof, A life in letters and documents, edited by Matthew Spender and published by Ridinghouse, 2009. In the letters between Gorky’s wife and Jeanne Reynal, I found much of interest on André Breton, their mutual friend.
* Manifestoes of Surrealism, by André Breton. Translated by Richard Seaver and Helen
R. Lane; Ann Arbor Paperbacks, 1972, p. 160.