Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Ghost Map

I’ve been low. Really low. Wish I were dead now. But wishing isn’t doing, and I know I’m not there yet. As a doctor is wont to ask if you say you no longer have any interest in living, they counter with the question, “Do you have a plan?” I’ve received this line from two docs, so it must be part of their Official Training. I’m not sure if it’s meant to throw you or for them to do a quick and dirty evaluation as they check out your response.

No, I don’t have a plan.

It’s really not important why I feel this way. But I’ll tell you a few anyway. I feel like a burden. I think chemicals are doing me wrong. I am finally grokking that I’m not going to feel much better than I do now. I still require tons of sleep- because I’m ill? Because sleep provides me with a means of escape? Getting up earlier than I do (feeling chipper and bouncy) necessitates a complete personality shift. I’ve never been chipper and bouncy though on occasion I might have appear as such. I promise you, it was only an illusion. Well, maybe not all of it. But after being slammed by a two by four (ARDS and its aftermath), I think that part is gone for good. Or it’s twisted into something I don’t yet recognize. The twisting part I get.

My friend Audge recommended to me The Ghost Map- the telling of a real-life story of two men and their search for the source of a cholera epidemic in 1854 London. She knows me all too well. Of course I was into it. She warned me, the author can get a bit redundant but he writes so beautifully, he can be forgiven. I forgive.

He prefaces the book with a passage from Walter Benjamin from Theses on the Philosophy of History. I was clueless as to who he was and found out he was a twentieth century German-Jewish intellectual, philosopher, translator…Ugh. He and his sister were literally steps ahead of the Nazis. They had obtained travel visas to cross the border into Spain which they did with the intention of heading to Portugal and from there, the United States. Bless Franco who cancelled all transit visas, and Benjamin was to be sent back to France. He killed himself in 1940, with an overdose of morphine, before the Franco regime could make good on its promise. |

Shit. I swear I didn’t know about his suicide until I just read up on the guy. And what a guy. What a mind. I was going to check him out, because I fell in love with his concept used almost word for word by Laurie Anderson in her song, “The Dream Before” dedicated to him right under the song title: “For Walter Benjamin. ” I just never noticed the credit before. Laurie certainly placed it front and center. Impossible to miss. But too long ago for me to simply Google the name and find out who the hell he was. The song is off her 1989 album Strange Angels. (Utterly, completely wonderful.) Here is Laurie’s pithy version but carefully using the same words as Mr. Benjamin:

What is history? 

History is an angel being blown backwards into the future 

History is a pile of debris 

And the angel wants to go back and fix things 

To repair the things that have been broken 

But there is a storm blowing from Paradise 

And the storm keeps blowing the angel backwards into the future 

And this storm, this storm is called Progress

When I bought the album, this passage moved me with such force that I tried to pass on my excitement and awe to friends I thought might feel it too. I was beyond passionate about it. Benjamin’s/Laurie’s words still do it for me. And to find it as the preface to The Ghost Map was as unexpected and so read with power as if I had never seen it before the very day Audge left the book for me.

I guess the fact that I so wanted to share the passage with you means there's life in the old girl yet. Fuck, l'm not ready to call it a day. Who knew?

Bravo Walter Benjamin!

Brava Laurie!

Brava Audrey!


  1. You know what I've always liked about you: I always felt you were there, really present and engaged. You are a non-bullshit person, always have been. (BTW I don't think "chipper" is necessarily a compliment.) You're passionate about the things that spark you and don't waste your time (or the time of others) faking it about the things that don't. I'm so glad that these words lit a fire in you and that you rediscovered that fire when it was most needed.