Tag Archive: peonies

  1. A Genealogy of Solitude

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    I am going to begin by saying something in poor taste. But I am holding out my hand to you as I say it, and I hope you will trust me.

    I don’t much like people. It’s not that we’re too selfish or too boring or too cruel, because how can that be when there’s nothing and no one to compare us to? Rather, it’s that flowers have been kinder to me.

    I was told recently that there were no flowers in the age of the dinosaurs. That makes me sad for the dinosaurs, but it also means the world can exist without flowers and therefore can exist without me, who devote myself to them. It frees me to love the flowers without the grandeur of a savior. Although I must admit a bit of disappointment that I am no longer a savior. Disappointment and relief.

    I laugh when I think that I might someday be forgotten. The idea that I could keep myself a secret from all of mankind awakens in me a delight in mischief of which I didn’t know I was capable. But the fact that I am keeping myself a secret is also a secret because I still strive to be remembered. So it is even a secret from myself.

    Make no mistake: I want to be famous. But even more than being famous, I want to know that I could have been famous but wasn’t. Then my life will have been a magnificent joke. All along I was thought to be just another sleepwalker but that is only because you didn’t see the splendor of my inner kingdoms.

    I was about to lie and tell you that I save my best phrases for the flowers so that the world will never hear them, but I couldn’t bear it, I want them to ring in your ears. Anyway, if my joke is to play out, I can’t be aware that it’s happening, and neither can you. So let’s both forget about it.

    What I want you to know is this: I am an empty cathedral in search of a congregation — and the song of bells which I feel inside my body is my great call of love. I want to be heard for miles.

    But I only know how to be beautiful for the sake of a phrase, not for another person. And even phrases aren’t enough. My writing forgets about me as soon as I put down my pen. When the sun wakes me I am always sad because, though my dreams were populated by splendid beings, my bed is empty except for me. To wake up alone is like waking up to the world after you have died: Everything has gone on without you. Especially when you wake up late in the afternoon, as is my custom.

    Ah but I never feel so in love with the world as when I write to it, it is an ecstasy to abandon myself to phrases. I wonder if I am the only one who has visions of a sea of pink peonies? I do not doubt that there are others but I do not know in what quiet rooms they are hiding, all the time telling no one of the splendor of the peonies. Perhaps those whose hearts are most like mine are also those who remain most out of reach.

    If you have dreams of pink peonies will you write and tell me so? Or even if you have other strange and wonderful dreams and think from my words that a kinship is possible. Then we can both descend our marble staircases, leave our palaces behind, and meet miles beneath the clouds, speaking unforgettable phrases.

    Or am I too delicate to be a human? It is dangerous to speak and be spoken to, the great wings of our emotions thrashing about us as we speak. And the subtler thoughts, too, which flutter lightly about our heads and are so easily crushed if we are not careful. If only we had the delicacy to feel their sacred fluttering against our cheeks.

    I have always asked too much of friendship. I have asked my friends to love me when I do not love myself. Although I do love and glorify myself as a writer, I don’t love myself as a person, and it is as a person that I spend most of my time.

    As a writer I can say, “I looked out my window by the beach and saw there a sea of pink peonies scattering petals against the shore.” You may find that phrase magnificent or dull, depending on your mood, and your taste in literature, and your inclination towards or against flowers, though if you don’t like flowers I imagine you will have stopped reading by now. If you do find that phrase dull, feel free to exchange it for one you prefer — there are plenty in this essay. Yet to write even the most magnificent sentence is easier for me than to walk down the street and face one thousand nameless eyes.

    But I cannot be a writer for more than a few hours at a time. It is exhausting to be whimsical and serious all at once, which I must be, in order to be inspired. I am in pursuit of the intimate and illogical heart of language. Beneath language is the heart of language and in the heart there is nothing but peacocks spreading their plumage. Or something much more luminous but which I do not know how to express, except as peacocks. That is to say, I cannot speak of the heart of language at all, or only in a hermetic phrase. When you look into the heart of language you may not, so to speak, see peacocks. That is not my concern: you will have your own paradisiacal visions.

    If you do see peacocks, however, do not forget me. I will be waiting in my quiet room, sitting at my love-letter desk from 1890, surrounded by the scrolls of Qing dynasty poetry I have hung on my wall, and the map of Albany from 1770, and the print of Mount Fuji from the 1980s, and the fairy lights, and my painted mugs from Mexico, and my pillows from France and India, and all my books, young and old, and my perfumes. I am not like a monk despite my solitude—my splendors are as often material as they are spiritual. Often enough, material splendors inspire me unto the spiritual. These artifacts are of so many eras that I may make of them a lineage which roots me to the centuries. It gives me the illusion, at least, that I am part of a grand history. When it comes to emotions it’s the illusion that matters.

    But for you this is a feeble illusion and you see through it. Why, you might ask, are you listing your possessions? I must admit I have tried to cultivate a certain sense of elegance; the eclectic elegance of one who knows a story that others do not, one who perceives a harmony invisible to everyone else. If my lineage did reside in a single object, though, wouldn’t it be my fountain pen? I could not have written were it not for the one who, in some distant workshop, crafted this pen from teak and steel; I could not have written were it not for the lumberjack who cut down the tree from which the workman made the pen. So perhaps it would be more honest to write a history not of my disparate possessions but of my pen and ink and paper. Perhaps they are my secret history, and the designer of the pen my true comrade.

    But my great-grandfather was a maker of paintbrushes. So perhaps my true lineage does not reside in objects at all, or only obscurely. Perhaps my lineage is in the blood itself and he prefigured my artistry with his paintbrushes.

    To return to my subject: I cannot be a writer for very long each day, but I find most conversations dull, or unnecessary. (So that I lie less, I am trying to speak as little as possible. Do not ask me “how are you” because I have learned that most people cannot endure the delicacy of my wings, or their multitude. Intimacy with me is like a swarm of butterflies — an unbearable splendor.)

    What, then, is the use of someone like me? I do not know. Do not forget that very few butterflies survive into adulthood. The death of the butterflies is a matter of many more thousands of pages, but I will end my prayer now because I am exhausted and must return to being a person. Amen.