Boots and Rallies

by Aaron Pellowski | 11/6/14 8:40pm

In my second year at the Delaware Advanced Institute for Unreality Studies, the Blockor Memorial Art and Artifice Speculum, where I worked as a work-study student attendant, hosted a special exhibition entitled “Space Astonishes!” — an exploration by several musicians and visual artists of the aesthetic category of the sublime.

Included among the collection were “Pump!” by Reinhart Altdorjer, a plastic cube in which a human heart (that of his own father, who had been put to death by the state) was artificially stimulated to continue pumping blood (that of his own mother, similar fate); “Timur” by Dan Darwick, a pyramid of 10,000 dogs’ skulls, collected from a cash-poor pet cemetery in Yugoslavia, installed in the Blockor parking lot and screened off from children; and “Union” by Ono Barrets, which was a single, perfectly round pebble of unknown provenance.

The piece that impressed me the most, however, stood in its own room in the east wing of Blockor. It was a one-by-two-foot photograph of an empty beach near Naples. Though a color photograph, the dreary weather depicted the scene in near grayscale — a dove-white sky, nickel-plated ocean and sandy and graphite coast layered upon one another, like Neopolitan ice cream in film noir. Below where the photograph was hung lay a plaque reading the title of the piece — So Much of Just One Thing — and a table on which rested a voicemail machine.

This played on loop a recorded voice message from the artist, Rene Champilleau, to his ex-fiancée, Viola Aix (now deceased). Rene recounted, in French, a memory from his boyhood of a winter vacation to the bay of Naples, and how he, strolling along the beach alone in shorts and sandals, out of the sight of his parents, had become suddenly overwhelmed by the nature of his surroundings.

For he had observed, looking out at the sea, that the water was one vast, undifferentiated unity, larger than anything that he had ever encountered with such immediacy, that there was “so much of just one thing.” But he had noticed, too, that the sand below his feet had itself another kind of infinity, in that even within a fistful of sand were uncountably many grains, and uncountably many fistfuls were there on the beach. So he had halted, frozen, with one foot immersed in the quality of immensity and the other in the quantity. And then, with a click, the voice message ended and began again.

I wasn’t really sure I got the “point” of “So Much of Just One Thing” at the time, but I did not forget it quickly. Certain aspects of my time at Dartmouth have caused it to float back up amid the rest of the waterlogged detritus in my memory. Namely, the emotions I have accumulated toward a few other people here have come to be structured by complementary notions of affectionate infinity. What’s partially responsible for this is the isolation. Hanover is like this underground kingdom — the Coach ride from Boston feels like some dark, downhill katabasis into a region out of the grasp of civilization. In this Narnia-like realm, the littlest parts balloon into one’s entire world. Some of those parts are people.

While my enrollment at Dartmouth has been a fraudulent art piece, my friendships here have not been. The love I feel for my best friends resurrects both senses of “So Much of Just One Thing” — since love, when it is true, feels like the largest thing in the universe. But at the same time, true love imagines in quantities of infinite degree. As I cross the Green, I gather in one pass of mind all the millions of memories that have accumulated there — the quiet walks, the hand-holding, the knee-buckling laughter, the half-awake sunning of two partied-out bodies in the grass. Love turns itself toward the future as well, dreaming up endless years of moments with the people it treasures most.

Xenophon tells some story about a young man for whose prize-winning horse the Persian King Cyrus offered an entire kingdom. The young man refused, stating that he would instead gladly give it — this horse valued at the rate of a kingdom, all its wealth and walls and people and laws — in trade for a single true friend.

On some mornings, I wake up congested, dehydrated and with a pounding headache. I throw on four sweaters and hobble over to Collis for tea and a bagel. Passing over one or two humdrum thoughts, my mind lights upon the memory of my friends and how lucky I am to have them. I get a big feeling outside the ordinary that is systemic and quaking and levitates me a little out of my seat. It’s something tear-jerking and awesome to me, almost a reverse vertigo, of one looking upon the trunk of a great redwood to where it disappears into the canopy, projecting oneself along with one’s sight-line, plummeting upward to heaven, to the kingdom of god, to a region vaster than even the oceans, with more stars than there are even grains of sand upon the good earth.

If such experience, as I’ve so described it, is alien to you, that may well say something about me — that I am melodramatic and given over easily to exaggerated, violet prose. Yet I would rather suggest, that if your most abstract feelings toward your friends evoke no such visions of stupefying infinity, only spurious ones of opportunity, utility, competition and friction, then I’m afraid you just have no true friends. In which case, according with the words of Aristippus the Cyrenaic: “It sucks to be you.”