Picture of a Boy: The Discontinuity along our Similarities
Wind tugging at my sleeve
Feet sinking into the sand
I stand at the edge where earth touches ocean
Where the two overlap
A gentle coming together
At other times and places a
A postcard, pinned on a wall at my parents place. Beside it a display of many more, most sent by my father to his own address while on the countless overseas work trips he made over the last 30 years. Each card functions as a little thread connecting my mom, my brother and I to him and these places. The one drawing my attention shows Mexico City’s central square, the Zócalo, and it serves as a wormhole to a bygone day in 1993, early in my life, in a side street near this square.2
The air is almost at boiling point, moving thickly like a lava flow, almost as slow as the traffic. The labyrinthine streets are clogged with cars, like pulsating veins full of blood. Midday sunbeams paint beads of swea onto people’s already-glistening complexions. Some of the drops melt together into lines and wrinkles, salty drops everyone wishes were diamonds. Like rain quaking on a windscreen due to the wind, they nervously thread between hairs, from foreheads to necks, speeding as they pass along arms. Helplessly surrendering to gravity, seeking free spot on top of the split ends, or getting soaked by a damp textile. Being wiped away by a hand, or shaken
off by the bump of bodies.
A momentary free-fall before they finally vaporise out of perception. Like so much of what lives, they are defined by their departure. Succumbing to eternity on the heated, dusty ground, each with a brief, barely-audible hiss lost amongst the frustrated cacophony of car horns. A silence, transformed into steam and instantly mixed with exhaust fumes. Like a stagnant bubble, this little cloud is thus liberated to float randomly through the narrow, jam-packed streets in the colonial shadows of pristine buildings four and five floors high. The palpable air swims around us, slowly pushed forward only by the uncountable breaths of the voices surrounding me. As we breathe to stay alive, so does it burn our lungs unconsciously. Like the hidden structures dividing us from others, it fills us with foolishness.
The blinding lightness of the sun lets my mind’s eye fade slowly into the pacifying darkness of an ocean full of non-remembrance. Brought back by a postcard, a vivid memory of an image which apparently had lost allts colours and contrast. Whereas the rivers of blood under my skin propel me onward, the soil of the city we walk on is sinking due to its own weight into the lacustrine mud it is built on. It labours under invisible layers of time which settle silently like the dirt that covers my skin, as this ancient lake bed is filled with bricks and concrete. No matter how this postcard may fade tomorrow, the scratches on its ghostly image remain like tender marks on the surface of my remembrance. They mark the entrance to a giant underwater cave system full of the formative experiences that shaped my mind and body. The multitude of meanings contained in their continued existence illuminate the great cavern, changing constantly the deeper I venture into its dimness.
A photograph which renders the subject’s finiteness while simultaneously conserving that hundredth-of-a-second appearance infinitely. Against the backdrop of the many memories lost in transit on their way into timelessness, the ones that last are like the distant lights of a lighthouse yet to disappear beyond the horizon. The date of that disappearance is as yet unknown; the past’s echoes continue to vibrate in our present, perpetually resonating in every one of us as we sleep, and each morning we wake up. As I write these ephemeral fragments down, seeking orientation in this fog, my words come together like a puzzle, words thicken to lines like concrete. Emerging from the obscurity of that forgetful distance they are transformed into something else, into anything at all. As a written-down photograph it escapes extinction, testament to an instant remembered only by me.
In these streets Andrea, a benevolent thirty-one- year old woman and mother, my mother, holds the hand of Mario, her eight-year old son. I am there too, carried on her left arm, grasped tightly with her left hand so I don’t fall or perhaps get snatched away. I grasp her left hand with mine too, making sure she doesn’t let me go. I must be three years old. As I write these words I am almost the same age that she was back then. Trying to create something meaningful at an age when she was already holding in her hands what made her life meaningful—my brother and me.
Our left hands clutching each other remind me of people’s first reaction when they notice my left-handedness, commonly expressed as an utter disbelief and astonishment. This should perhaps not surprise me: studies suggest that only one in every ten people you meet is left-handed. The left hand still retains a mark of its mysterious past, associated with darkness. The word sinister even comes from the Latin word for left. The earliest uses of the word in English refer variously to some measure of evil, foreboding or malevolence, or they retain the Latin sense of left. Even today, modern Italian retains that ambiguity of meaning in sinistro/a.
The association of evil with the ‹left› side appears in part to be due to the dominance of right-handed people within populations. Whereas the Ancient Celts honoured the left side and associated it with femininity, traces can be found in Christian tradition linking that same left side to immorality. The book of Matthew tells how nations will be divided by God on the Day of Judgement: «as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats; and he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left», those on the right are sent to the kingdom of Heaven and those on the left «cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels.»
Thus the use of the left hand was ascribed to demonic possession and led to accusations of witchcraft. Later the anthropologists and psychologists of the 20th century described left-handedness as a biological anomaly, a deviation from the norm, a backwardness that could be corrected by means of behavioural reinforcement. In contrast to all of these interpretations and assignations, dexter, the Latin word for «on the right side», still retains largely positive connotation which is tangible through its linguistic descendants.
Humans appear to have an odd, practically limitless desire to define and be defined by our differences—left and right, high and low, good and bad. As apparently insignificant as this may be, the way we encounter the world is fascinating and frightening at once; we are constantly scanning and interpreting our surroundings according to our collective and personal experiences. Capture the world with a camera this way, and your pictures will become weapons.
It is fitting, then, that the streets of this city that my mom, my brother and I are walking on were once the site of a battle whose severe consequences still echo. Built on an
island in the centre of an ancient lake, Tenochtitlán emerged in 1325 as the capital of the Aztec Empire. Five times the size of London, it was one of the richest and most prosperous urban areas in the world at that time. It shone in prosperity till, as the story goes, towers and small mountains appeared on the eastern horizon—the sails of a Spanish fleet.
Deceived by the ships’ direction of arrival and dazzled by the Spaniards light skin, their short hair and long beards, the invaders found themselves greeted ecstatically as the return of the serpent god Quetzalcoatl. From this uneven battlefield emerged the colony of New Spain in 1521, aided in its birthing by an epidemic which raged through the native population. Glimpses of centuries in which the imperceptible foundations of our present Western cultures were silently laid, beginning to cut threads that might otherwise have connected us.
As the uncountable amount of raindrops seep through the cracks between the paving stones, so the space between our feet and the clay is filled with a mass of roots, where the end of each embodies the beginning of long-forgotten wisdoms. Overwhelmed by the pulsating heat and crowd we turn in circles, dizzyingly imagining the lumbering weight of history as bricks formed from blood, dried to concrete, while my mother tries to re-gain her orientation.
The circular movement of my eyes is arrested by the stare of a boy about my age. My perception of time slows, a moment lasts an age. As if by the click of a camera shutter his view is engraved on my light-sensitive retina. Like a latent image on photographic film, its positive becomes visible in my mind. His gaze is the direct gaze of a portrait, an expression of courage and confidence, selfpossession, facing a camera, facing me. The recognition of looking and being looked at. Beside him his brother,
closer in age to my brother, holds out his hand. They are both begging for some food, or money.
There is a sudden flash of recognition, as if for the first time I have recognised myself in the mirror stage.3 Leaving the body which marks that primordial identification of my self as I, an object. What would have been, in other circumstances, the meeting of two boys who’d like to play with each other. In the words of Gloria Anzaldúa, in her poem that introduces this chapter, a gentle coming together becomes a violent crash in the constitution of my own subjectivity.4
This intimate exchange of sight at the age of three is the seed of my awareness that just as our histories connect us, so too do they drive a wedge between our existences. We come together as humans, and we are torn apart by invisible forces that unevenly render the potential frame of our social interaction and physical space. When I saw that boy, I knew that whatever was hurting him was not caused by our immediate encounter, the direct gaze of a three year old German-born boy from a family of workers, but was strongly tied to grander narratives that we are barely in control of or conscious of.5
From the pictures of the boy’s eyes I zoom steadily out, via my mom, across the ancient lake and the city, past the rectangular border of the postcard, and finally find myself seated back in front of the wall of postcards again. My numbness slowly fades; how long have I been gone for? After more than 27 years I still think of this boy, wondering how his life turned out. Pondering on how much this encounter, as one of my oldest memories, remains the lens through which I began to conceive of the ways in which our social, class, racial, sexual, national and economic experiences shape our personhood and the ways we navigate the world, and define how we respond to it and to others.
As my eyes wander across the many postcards on the wall, each of them offers a potential wormhole to fall into. I wonder—is it me looking at the pictures, or have I become
an image myself? It’s as if the surface of each postcard is made up of tiny keyholes through to other emotions and memories. My wandering eyes come to a standstill on a postcard with red edges and bold white lettering on a black background. It reads, Virginia is for Lovers.
1 Anzaldúa,Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1987, p. 1.
2 The wormhole theory of Albert Einstein and Nathan Rosen speculates a theoretical passage which bridges two disparate points in space-time, creating shortcuts for long journeys across the universe. For me, the postcard on the wall embodies what Jorge Luis Borges described as The Aleph, in his story of the same name. The Aleph is a point in space that contains all other points, and everyone who looks into it can see everything in the universe from every angle simultaneously. In Jewish mysticism Aleph represents the oneness of God. It is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, representing primeval air and in the Kabbalah it relates to the origin of the universe.
3 Lacan, Jacques. «The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I». Écrits: A Selection. London & New York: Routledge, 2001, pp. 1-7. The ‹mirror stage› is a conception in the psychoanalytic theory of Jacque Lacan, in which a child in a primordial state recognises itself in the mirrored image f itself for the first time. The discontinuity between the self and the mirrored self causes alienation, a gap which Lacan describes as the place from which the desire to become whole again originates.
4 Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt
Lute Books, 1987, p. 1.
5 Here, I think of for instance colonialism, religion, imperialism, white supremacy, capitalism, patriarchy and other dominant systems of power.