From Globetrotter. Published by Yale University Press in 2014.
I turned again on the stairs when I heard Mark Robinson’s voice, but this time faster, as if speed could help. What is so absurd here, I had said to Daniel Atijas when we had our first long, serious conversation, is that artists come to the Centre seeking solitude, dedication to their inspiration and their work, but most often they cannot for the life of them elude the curiosity and envy of those who do not succeed in finding either. It’s easiest here, I said to him, to do nothing, and that is exactly what most of them do, pretending all the while, of course, that they are working on something great or at least that they never stop thinking about their work. This notion, I said, that artists should isolate themselves from others, from society, which should be the source of their work—this idea is misguided and so absurd in a system that has long since ceased endorsing isolation for any one of its segments. The notion smells of segregation, isolation, classification by any other determinant except general membership in the human race, which is forbidden and politically out of sync today, but artists continue to be set apart in reservations; this one here happens to be situated in the middle of a national park traversed every year, I said, by three to four million tourists, and we are expected to create works amid all the frenzy, works that express our serenity and focus on questions of form and content, the resolution of the dilemmas of poetics. I don’t know why I spoke so furiously at the time, just as I don’t know how all of this relates to the tangle of hairs on Daniel Atijas’s neck, but when I next had a chance to see the nape of his neck, it was freshly barbered. I don’t know who had taken him to the hair stylist; maybe he went on his own—after all, he struck me as the type who figures out how to find his way around an unknown city with ease, and Banff, hand on heart, is not an overly challenging urban labyrinth—but it is quite certain that Daniel Atijas did not then look like the kind who was ready at any moment to soar into the air. That’s how it is with some people: the more you free them of the ballast that is holding them down, the heavier they get. Instead of rising, they sink; instead of growing, they shrink. I may be overstating this: perhaps the snipping of a little hair from the neck and behind the ears cannot be fairly compared to other feelings of liberation and levitation, especially not to those which spring from a long-lasting reliance on certain psychophysical skills, but I feel this way every time I step out of a hair stylist’s. A person who has just had a haircut and doesn’t smile when he looks at himself in the mirror while the stylist brushes the hair off his shoulders, that person has something terribly wrong with him that may eat him alive. When I saw the freshly trimmed hairs on Daniel Atijas’s neck, I wondered whether he smiled after getting the haircut, and I have to admit that I was at a loss for the answer. I didn’t have it then, nor did I have it later, nor while I did what I could to untangle them while drawing the detail of his tangled hairs, or as I did—while standing at the entrance to the dining hall—what I could, though feebly, to untangle the morning, a morning that was slowly but surely, whether I liked it or not, turning into day. All in all, I didn’t have much time—perhaps, who knows, I never did—but if I wanted to get something done, there was no time for waffling. I am forever surprised by the fact that time passes more speedily between mountains than it does out on the prairie, though never, when speaking of time, should one talk of facts, for time does not exist, so it cannot be measured the same way phenomena and things can be that are, or at least seem to be, real. Whatever the case, there were still two or three days before the moment of Daniel Atijas’s departure, and they seemed, regardless of length, inadequate for all I had in mind, especially for finishing the picture of the face, and this was not only because of my working slowly but also because of the feelings that kept rising up and becoming impassable obstacles. The faster time passed, the slower I worked. I made no effort to explain this to Daniel Atijas, especially after his assertion, repeated several times in various circumstances, that time in his country had stood still. When he first said this, I had thought he was still speaking of the plain, of that sense of its endless expanse and the drop beyond the horizon when a person really has the impression that time, mid-plain, stands still, but he had something different in mind and was thinking, he said, of time as a reflection of life, and in his country, time, he said, became a quagmire, a temporal rotten egg, and as with all rotten eggs, nothing could come of it, nothing but foul smell. Time that reeks, said Daniel Atijas, has never been recorded as such. I tried to imagine life in a place like that but couldn’t. The only thing I did say was that this must be what one of the circles of hell was like, at which Daniel Atijas laughed and said that in comparison to the stench in his country the stench of hell was, to his nostrils, a breath of fresh air. And he had lovely, slim nostrils, which quivered a little whenever he was excited or raised his voice. I attempted in one of the drawings to record that quiver, sketching the outlines using a similarly shaky hand, but that didn’t do it. Many more static attempts also didn’t work—when, for instance, I sought the shadow cast across his cheek under his jutting cheekbone. I don’t know how I could ever have believed in the possibility of capturing, in an artistic rendering, one quivering nostril, or even both, either way. Our capacity for self-deception is incredible, I thought, and I trust that Daniel Atijas would have agreed if only he had shown up and given me the chance to ask. Instead of him, on the steps appeared Mark Robinson; he had finally caught up with his voice, the voice I had heard as I was leaving the dining room. He grinned as if nothing had happened the evening before. Then he thumped me on the back and invited me that evening, if my obligations allowed, to get together with him and finally spend some time with our memories. Memories, said Mark Robinson, are the single constant in this changing world. I know, I said, and I really did know, because that was a line from one of his popular poems, so popular that children read it in the Saskatchewan elementary schools. I promised I would give it a thought, but I didn’t dare promise anything more than that, though I feared that the morning might never end, that the previous evening was something only archaeologists still cared to seek, and that sooner or later I would sniff the reek of stagnant time, the same stink Daniel Atijas had been talking about. When that happens, I thought, even the mountain peaks won’t help, and it won’t matter whether a person is in the middle of the plain or at the highest point above a vertical cliff and besides, one falls into, not out of, oneself, right? Maybe I shouldn’t be speaking of falling just now, but some things do surface with no intention on our part, no matter what the psychiatrists claim. To say that everything is linked, that a pear dropping from a tree somewhere in the heart of Europe has anything to do with a horseshoe that flies off the hoof of a horse in southern Alberta and kills a boy perched on a fence, to claim that between these events and hundreds, thousands, millions of others there is some kind of cause-effect link, not obvious yet incontrovertible, is the pointless effort of a superior human mind that does not grasp its humble scope. I didn’t say this to Mark Robinson, because I didn’t want to talk with him, and while he was walking away I quaked at the possibility of his suddenly turning around and coming back, but as soon as he’d crossed the path and headed toward the building with the swimming pool and sports hall, I thought of the pear snapping off the branch and that hurtling horseshoe. They were, they should be, my bulwark against the onslaught of those who work to persuade us that our behavior is nothing more than a repeat of pre-set patterns and that, no matter what we think, we are merely entering data into a fixed equation of vital and spiritual structures of whatever, according to these interpretations, makes us all the same. Identical, I should say.