Hide and Seek: An Essay about Some Fragments from Antennas and Sensors, by Israel Pincas
From the window of our apartment, I see the sea every day. (Antennas and Sensors, the last line of fragment 2)
Underneath the surface of this line we find the materials of Israel Pincas’s writing. The speaker’s apartment is shared with the unnamed person or persons implied by the first-person plural: “our.” Our apartment. But “we” do not look out the window; only “I” do. Standing apart from those with whom he shares his home, the speaker looks out the window—his window, their window—out to the sea. The sea: a vessel of adventures, promises, and dreams. A dangerous universe; an immense, natural, and mythic force; a place where people disappear, never to be found. On the other side of the window, the sea is a caged animal; on this side, the speaker is a caged sailor. There is longing and relief. Ecstasy and horror are restrained by the distance from the sea and sustained by the proximity to it. There is a gaze and there is a call; an exchange and a confrontation. A great drama indeed but, we are told, also a routine. Like an actor on the stage, night after night, looking at the audience: every day the speaker stands there, at the window, looking at the sea.
Israel Pincas is an Israeli poet, but Antennas and Sensors—published in 2008, forty-seven years after Pincas published his first book—is a book of fragments. Like poems, fragments are relatively short, but unlike poems, they are never whole. Fragments are broken and sudden. They always fall short of something, even when it’s not clear what they fall short of. There are ninety-nine fragments in the book. Of these, thirty-three (exactly a third) have been translated into English by Michal Leibowitz and Jessica Hwang. The translation is a fragment of fragments, a ripple of an echo. I want to read the fragmentary translation as an attempt to continue rather than reproduce its source. I hope the present essay will be yet another reverberation of Pincas’s subterranean materials.
* * *
Here are the first few lines of the first fragment in the book, which, appropriately, begins with an abrupt event:
Suddenly the curtains of the entrance and the exit opened, and for a moment, the auditorium was pierced by light. That’s how I knew there was something outside, that there truly was a world beyond the walls of the theater, as they had said. They claimed it was reality, but to me it remained hidden somehow, only a faint presence in my dreams. (fragment 1)
Like the shadows in Plato’s cave, the dark theater seems to the speaker more real than reality itself, of which he detects only scant signs. The curtains do not cover the stage, as one might expect, but the entrance and exit of the theater. But while the shadows in Plato’s cave are claimed to be inferior to reality because they are only a distorted projection of it, for Pincas the dreamy presence of reality casts doubt on the status and authority of reality itself. Why must we acknowledge reality if it is less real to us than the fictions we live in? Nevertheless, like Plato, Pincas is deeply concerned with reality. Indeed, he seems to suggest that if reality appears in one’s dreams, then dreams are the guise of the real and must be taken seriously. Whatever the status of the outside world and so-called reality, in this very first fragment the strict divide between real and unreal, truth and fiction, being awake and dreaming, is disturbed. These divisions remain unsettled throughout the book.
The strictest divide, of course, is between being alive and being dead. Pincas explores this divide from the other side, as it were, only to find there is no other side:
It’s been three months since I died. Expired completely. I didn’t have time to report it, as I had to get used to the change in my status and my new state of matter. I didn’t get used to it. It’s nothing like what they said. Not Dante, and none of the others either. What can I say? It’s terrible here. I would give anything to live, to spend even a single day with the bitterest of my enemies, a thought that would never have crossed my mind while I was still alive. That said, it’s possible that this is only a transitional stage, and that later on your awareness of being dead, and your ability to contemplate and report on the situation, also dissipates. (fragment 47)
The very experience and consciousness of death create a further death of which there is no experience and consciousness. And suddenly it seems we do not even have to die in order to be dead: we must only be lost or lose, which come to the same thing. Death is a loss that cannot be told. Our lives are filled with such losses. We die in life.
Transatlantic call, late: You sound so close. Where are you calling from? Are you still in New York? Where is that? Are you in a phone booth? Are you beautiful like you were? I remember you on our last trip, after the concert. Why did we go to that silly cafe on 57th Street? A shame we couldn’t be alone. Is it cold over there where you are? I don’t understand, you’re saying you’re a skeleton? (fragment 17)
Listen carefully for encrypted reports; look for signs; observe each object from all sides. Something might show up and declare its past existence. Be alert. Strange sounds might conceal transmissions from past lives.
You can also see it like this: The deeper we delve into time, the more we retreat backwards in essence, sinking into the void from which we came. Because we’ve come so far, there is almost no chance that anyone will still hear our voice. Conscious of this, even though something within us still cries out, we choose silence. This is another way of listening. The void that opens before us sprouts antennas and sensors all the time. (fragment 4)
Silence is another way of listening when something within us cries out but cannot be heard. In listening we seek signs not only of those we lost but of ourselves. We lost ourselves in time and got distracted by so-called reality.
What value is there to witnessing, when tam-tam drums have started to sound all around? (fragment 6)
Perhaps there’s no value to witnessing something that has long disappeared under the barrage of occurrences that time keeps rolling in. But the writer of fragments is not driven by reason; he’s driven by necessity, desperation, and hope. The book is an act of almost invisible defiance. (How many people have read it? How many witnesses are we? Do we fill a theater? A classroom? A small office? A bedroom? A jail cell?)
The earthly always prevails. Try to dream of the opposite: you only wake up and everything is broken to pieces. (fragment 50)
Pincas’s book is concocted out of shattered stories and smashed dreams. Pincas is collecting the pieces. The pointy shreds cut through the curtains that separate dreams from reality and past from present. Dreams that seemed to wound us when we were having them are now the objects of our longing, and it is the separation from them that has become our wound.
The dream was too difficult to bear, and I couldn’t shake it for quite some time after I woke: my friend had insulted me, and the thing cut me deeply. I should have been happy that in the end it was all just a dream, but to tell the truth I was sorry that I had been cut off, and I even wished to return to the dream so I could understand exactly what had happened and demand my damages. (fragment 18)
Things were left undone. We try to find our way back, to complete them.
Today is Friday. And where are the days preceding it, Thursday, Wednesday, and so forth? And those days of the week before, and those before them, etc.? There is no way to prove that they existed at all, except that something of them, a tiny particle, infiltrated the present to reach this point. (fragment 63)
There is a recurring attempt to grasp at something, to “leave here with something true” (fragment 8). Perhaps the speaker shares the predicament of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, of whom he says:
Don Giovanni isn’t just a cruel, inconsiderate skirt-chaser. He’s aware of our finiteness—terrified by it—and he understands that our singular hold in this world is intimacy. So his pursuits and lovemaking are never merely for their own sake. He rushes from woman to woman like someone who hops from stone to stone in the raging river of life, hoping to reach the other side with something true in his hands. Of course, every time he will be proven wrong anew. So he continues to run, and so Don Giovanni is first and foremost a tragic character. There’s nothing for which to condemn him. (fragment 7)
Hopping from fragment to fragment with the speaker, hoping to reach the other side with something true in our hands, we, too, should not be condemned. Though we come up empty-handed in a sense, do we not strengthen our hold on this world through the intimacy created by the text?
Pincas alludes to this aspiration, that is, to the attempt to find something real in writing and reading:
Kafka and again Kafka. “The sea of ice within us.” (fragment 31)
The line is from Kafka’s letter to his childhood friend, Oskar Pollack:
I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief. (Kafka’s letter to Oskar Pollack, from Letters to Friends, Family, and Editors)
Don Giovanni and Kafka: two tragic characters devoted to the same futile quest. One seeks intimacy through his lovers and the other through his books. There’s no point in denying we share the same predicament. Pincas, his translators, you, the reader, and me—all of us at a loss as to how to break the sea of ice within us. Or whatever it is.
And on the other side, Montale’s line: “Dove sepelliró l’oro che porto?” (“Where will I bury the gold that I carry within me?”) (fragment 9)
We want to break the ice and bury the gold. Either way, something needs rescuing. But this “preservation effort,” as it were, is not the only dominant mood in Pincas’s book. The longing to hold on is sometimes replaced by resignation and indifference.
I look back on my past, on my life, like clothes I left on the beach. I have no interest in them now, as I dive into the deep waters, and I don’t contemplate returning. (fragment 28)
The speaker disowns his life as if he’s thereby outsmarting his finiteness. When he looks back on his life, he is estranged. But estrangement and wonder somehow go hand in hand. The speaker takes pleasure in witnessing his life without him in it; he finds satisfaction in beholding his absence. Familiar objects become foreign, though they have not changed.
Visiting an apartment that was once mine. Entering like a thief, on tiptoe, nearly floating. The study has been preserved more or less as I left it. The photos of my wife and daughters are in their places. Straightening a frame or two, sitting in the armchair, fingers grazing documents and objects. I am hollow and weightless. No one detects me. I can hardly detect myself. Dust on the table, on the books, on the shelves. (fragment 35)
Hollow and weightless and somehow still there, the writer wants to see without being seen, to be a pure, unbiased witness, a witness who cannot be witnessed. There’s a wish to finally see one’s life for what it was by leaving it entirely. A sincere wish, to be sure, but nevertheless incoherent and impossible to realize. The speaker finds his inevitable failure infuriating.
Seventy years, and I still don’t have a grand theory about the world. The houses that condescend from on high and those that threaten to fall, the buses running to exhaustion, the city streets where my feet walked without leaving a trace, the people I knew, the unrest I’ve lived through since childhood, the suffering of man, the tyrannies and wars, natural disasters, famine, disease—all of this, like a picture onscreen, passed through me and then sank. Meaningful to me only because I happened to see it. It’s simply impossible. Repulsive, even. (fragment 30)
In this last passage, Michal Leibowitz and Jessica Hwang’s translation diverges from the Hebrew text in a telling way. According to the translation, after listing horrors that happened during his lifetime, and after describing them as passing through him “like a picture onscreen,” the speaker bemoans the fact that all this is “Meaningful to me only because I happened to see it. It’s simply impossible. Repulsive, even.” But the literal translation of the source text is different. Instead of “meaningful to me only because I happened to see it,” the Hebrew reads: “and nevertheless, the hero [or protagonist or main character, O. N.] was me. It’s simply impossible. Repulsive, even.”
According to Leibowitz and Hwang’s translation, what the speaker finds impossible and repulsive is the fact the events of human suffering are meaningful to him only because he observed them on the screen of his life, so to speak. But according to the literal translation, what’s impossible and repulsive is that the speaker was the protagonist in the story of these events. Leibowitz and Hwang understand the speaker as being appalled by his gaze as the audience while the Hebrew suggests he’s appalled by the fact that, for him, he was the central figure in all this. Either way, an impartial point of view on reality is impossible, but impossible in two different ways. For the poet, impartiality fails because of his point of view as a protagonist, while for the translators impartiality fails because of the point of view of the audience. Reality diminishes on its way to poetry, and then again when it ripples into translation.
The unavoidable distance that opens up between the translation and its source is also made visible by the appearance of proper names—such as “Tel Aviv,” the Hebrew name of the city in which Pincas has lived.
The dream creates its own geography. For example, two completely unfamiliar neighborhoods in south Tel Aviv. I'm wandering in the alleys, meeting new people (I have some business here), and then it all disappears, or continues to exist who knows where. (fragment 52)
South Tel Aviv is unfamiliar to the speaker, but the whole city of Tel Aviv is probably unfamiliar to those who can access the text only through its English translation. Conversely, for those of us who read Hebrew and know Tel Aviv, the very name of the city appears unfamiliar when written in English. The speaker wanders in unfamiliar neighborhoods, meeting new people, but then everything disappears or continues to exist in some unknown place. The experience is re-created for the readers of English: they encounter a new person (the speaker) in an unfamiliar place (Tel Aviv) that soon disappears or continues to exist who knows where (in the dream created by the English translation).
I go back to the original Hebrew and read the fragments that were not included in the translation. For example, the fragment in which the speaker recounts the moment he first heard of his mother’s passing, on July 16, 1973. That morning he swam in Gordon pool (an outdoor pool by the beach, where I also swim regularly) and had accidentally bumped heads with a woman in a black bathing suit, who was swimming in the opposite direction. Upon returning home, he received a call from his wife. She hesitated and then told him that his mother had died during the night. If I were to describe Gordon pool in great detail, would you, the reader of English, know more about that morning when Pincas heard his mother had died?
* * *
I telephoned Israel Pincas at his apartment, where he has lived since 1965, on Gordon Street, Tel Aviv. A few weeks later I visited him. It was 10 a.m. on a Friday. We sat in his living room, which was full of sunlight. Clouds of smoke rose from his pipe. I looked around at the pictures and sculptures. He and his wife were art dealers. Apart from Tel Aviv, they had also lived in Paris, for a period of fifteen years. He showed me his study. I stood by the window and saw the sea. More than eleven years have passed since he published Antennas and Sensors, a book about his life and impending death. In a fragment that hasn’t been translated, he wrote:
It is certainly incomprehensible that I will go away. That I will leave my wife and children, my place of residence, my study, books, desk, pipes, that someone else will take my place and do with it as he wishes, go through the papers, disturb the order of things. I tell my wife about it and she says that if I reach old age — say, ninety, or more—I won’t care about all this.
I hear my wife talking about me to her friend:
“More than half his life he’s thinking only about how to live . . .” (fragment 15, my translation)
I mention this fragment to him and he smiles: “She really did say that.” He hasn’t written since she died, three years ago. He hasn’t been reading fiction and poetry lately; for some reason, he says, he has been reading biographies. And he still reads Kafka. He quoted Kafka’s Octavo Notebooks: “Evil knows of the Good, but Good does not know of Evil.” I sought a rejoinder but couldn’t find one. Afterward, I walked back in the familiar streets of Tel Aviv. When I got home, I opened his book:
I’ll be waiting for you on Tuesday, November 20, at the Pas de Calais hotel in Paris. Come at dusk. When you come, enter and lock the door behind you. I’ll hear the rustling of your clothes as you undress. I accept you now in your old age. Youth was the time for hesitation. For a long time, you know, for a full lifetime, we played hide and seek. (fragment 65)