In 1881, while wandering the woods near their Spring Valley, Wisconsin home, brothers William and George Vanasse spotted a small creature scurry into a hole. The boys gave chase, prodding the hole with a stick until the stick slipped, then listening as it clattered far below. Curious, the young adventurers returned to their hole the following day, and after securing a rope to a nearby tree, descended into darkness. Guided by lantern light, their shadows swelled along the cool limestone walls until at last their feet touched solid ground.
Not long after reading David Shields’s Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, still high on its rallying cry for emotion over narrative, concision over Great American Novel bloat, I came across :: kogonada’s work. In his visual essays I discovered the cinematic version of what Shields called “the folk tradition in action: finding new uses for things by selecting the parts that move you and discarding the rest.”
If you’re unfamiliar with the Bible, Song of Solomon is one of the five wisdom books in the Old Testament. However, this book doesn’t teach wisdom, at least not in the traditional sense. It teaches erotic love and intimacy. ‘Song of Solomon’ doesn’t have a definitive plot but it does switch perspectives from the ‘black’ woman expressing her desire for her lover, the man describing his lover’s beauty, the man and woman visiting each other, and inclusions of how others view this woman’s looks. The literal interpretation of ‘Song of Solomon’ is that a man and woman are expressing their love for one another through song and verse. Others interpret it as an allegory for the relationship between Christ and the church. In Jewish tradition, Song of Solomon is recited at Passover to commemorate the exodus out of Egypt, and to show God’s relationship with Israel.
Last week, I saw a film about the life of Julius Rosenwald, an early twentieth-century businessman and philanthropist who financed a series of rural black schools, built and run with the oversight of the Tuskegee Institute. Rosenwald otherwise had a life such as that from which the myth of the American dream is made. He started as a merchant on the streets of Chicago, worked his way up in the “rag trade” and eventually became chief of Sears and Roebuck. In the meantime, he made large matching donations to black YMCAs and attracted the attention of Booker T. Washington. Washington took him on a tour of Tuskegee, and soon the two formed a partnership, building what would be called the Rosenwald Schools, funded by Rosenwald and each school’s immediate community, staffed by Tuskegee-trained teachers, and erected by the black communities they served.
There is a particular magnetism in things. I feel the way they cling to me especially now, as I travel from one country to another by train, wanting nothing (I tell myself) but to travel lightly, and instead weighted down by what I cannot throw away. Even as I am having an “experience” (travel), I am tethered to my objects. There are the essentials, or what must come with—my dog, for instance, a toothbrush, underwear, and some clothes—but a lot more of the inessentials: three dog toys, a pair of yellowed goggles, a cigar box full of art supplies that includes two pairs of scissors plus an X-Acto knife, a curved sewing needle and bits of ribbon, thoroughly read copies of the London Review of Books, and a board game with instructions only in Spanish, a language I do not read. The last item I managed to offload onto a friend I met up with in Croatia. A best friend, to be sure (who else takes on the burden of your things?), who begrudgingly agreed to bring this and a heavy, hardcover exhibition catalogue back to the United States ahead of me.