SEPTEMBER 20, 2012
My Past Lover
I met my soulmate too late. He was dead and I was married. It happens like that sometimes. You find stability, contentment even, and then he shows up. By simply existing he reaffirms there’s a reason to be here and that alone infuses meaning in getting by. He has—had?— the same method to his work as I do, to write thoughts down and then, somehow, allow them to coalesce into a story, a theory. “The work is the death mask of its conception,” he says. I used to worry why I couldn’t sit in the quiet and simply write, why it took fragments with words and surges of nervous energy, a build up that borders on ecstatic finale, religious climax.
And so, we’re both also interested in Jewish mysticism and in love with Baudelaire. He understands salvation in uneasy obsession with objects and he tells me, “the collector is the true resident of the interior.” Mindful of his own relationship with things, he loves a notebook, one so fine he likens it to “shoes from Turkistan.” Since childhood growing up in France, I too have collected cahiers. I loved going to the papeterie to pick out my supply. Even now, I use that very style found at a specialty shop in New York. I love these sorts of shops, just as he fell into fascination with the arcade malls of Paris, the magasins. He saw the dust of commerce as a way forward to understand what is backward. And since those lonely days outside of Paris, I’ve poured over another sign of material times, magazines, a homonym for his love. From a young age, I wanted to create the sort of imagery that I saw in commercial catalogs and magazines. Wordplay as foreplay, mutual obsessions with refuse from a bygone moment. I still haven’t told you his name: Walter Benjamin (b. 1892) and this is the short story of our love.
My own fixation with ornaments and decoration began as far back as I can remember. I felt uneasy with my mother’s decorating choices. This sounds frivolous and affected, but I knew why I cared. I cared because it was the only part of my world I could control. My parents moved me around the world and I selfishly, deludedly wanted premature responsibility, to make choices of my own. And so, I became obsessed with aesthetics. Babysitting savings went to buying English language versions of fashion magazines from the Shakespeare & Co. in Paris. I hoarded printed matter of all kinds. My shelves and vanity tabletop was covered with objects, my walls with postcards. Benjamin too loves postcards and collections, each “a magic encyclopedia, a world ordering, whose outline is the fate of the object.” I imagine the arcades of his day were much like the rows I’d trawl at the brocante, alongside my parents, searching for used treasures. Benjamin calls out the doll parts, false teeth, and iridescent buttons. He, like me, can’t help but be captivated by the old world and mythology (“after all, nothing of the lot appears to be new”), and that his boy Baudelaire was right on when he thought these stalls led to way to the underworld. It was from old postcards, vats of glass eyeballs, and stuffed tigers that my sensibility was born. And so, it makes sense that I would fall for a man from the past. He, like my objects, is not so much useful (he can’t take me to the movies or make love) rather to be studied, lessons learned from his fate. Benjamin is good at nudging along positive ambivalence, seeing both sides (the photograph devalues art, but revalues it, as well.) He refuses to let the banality of the world impede his process, finding wonder and meaning in the obvious. Benjamin makes me feel like my crazy makes sense after all.
Stephanie LaCava is a journalist and writer working in New York City and Paris. She began her career at Vogue, in fashion and later in features, where she assisted the European Editor-at-Large of the magazine. Her writing has appeared in print and online publications such as Vogue, The Paris Review, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, Interview, and Garage. She makes her literary debut this December with An Extraordinary Theory of Objects.