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Extremes Redux Nearby or The The The

When I heard by way of a phone call that a friend of mine had been trapped in her own home and raped by two strangers off the street, instantaneously all the violence in the world crashed into actuality. The room sharpened although it was night, and a vivid feeling of violation shook through me. Poussin’s “Abduction of the Sabine Women,” a painting I’ve always loved for its glittering intelligence and wit, for once became its narrative.

The Age of Extremes by Eric Hobsbawm, The Yage Letters Redux by William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, and The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit, the three books I am currently reading, have in common the recounting of travels through traumas. One accounts the dates and geographies of wars, treaties, and major sweeps of shifting populations while trying to explain some of the reasons for the period we’re currently in; one oscillates between brutally honest observations of people and places while on a journey in search of a sacred medicine that expands consciousness (subverts the monopoly on permissible channels of thought); and one recounts a mother’s descent into memory-annihilating Alzheimer’s while taking an extended tangent discussing leprosy, among other subjects.

Imagine being a leper. The disease of leprosy itself is not what causes the mangled damage to hands and feet. “The disease strangles nerves, kills off feeling, and what you cannot feel you cannot take care of. […] You begin nicking, burning, bruising, abrading, and otherwise wearing out your fingers, toes, feet, hands, and then losing them,” Solnit writes. She expands upon leprosy as a metaphor for empathy. Pain and touch make you aware of your borders to keep your body together as a whole. If you can feel yourself then perhaps you are more able to feel as another does:

If the boundaries of the self are defined by what we feel, then those who cannot feel even for themselves shrink within their own boundaries, while those who feel for others are enlarged, and those who feel compassion for all beings must be boundless.

One quality of art is its buoyancy, ability to lift—to be less alone in pain and happier in the sharing of happiness; to be raised into a point of view or perspective, even when the sight below is indicting, distance that causes closeness. The balance of power is nearly always an undercurrent in social interactions, but here it mirrors rather than maneuvers.

Extremes redux nearby—the ends of the titles in my trinity of coinciding readings—loop around to their ambiguous shared beginning: “The.” It’s a highly functional word that can launch the recounting of any sort of experience. In our environment where to function you have to be functional, the the is a three-lettered cushion to sit back on as the mundane and unexpected leak, occasionally flood, into a day.

Last night I heard so much laughing from people on the streets. It was the first warm spring night. The friend I mentioned mediated her recovery through her love of making art—she is doing remarkably well. And Poussin’s painting has remained its narrative, although the intelligence—the drawing and color so fully integrated that bodies share limbs and blue gold patches skip across the surface like butterflies flittering over a field—glimmers more vividly than ever. 


Nathlie Provosty

NATHLIE PROVOSTY is an artist living in New York.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2015

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