Halloween, Masks, and the Other Side of Aschenbach
I drove to Venice from Cortina. This was late March of 2001 and I had driven my way around Europe for two months now: Verbier, Chamonix, Mont Blanc, Zurich, Geneva, two weeks in Barcelona... I stood on a balcony at the Carlton in St. Moritz and looked out over the entire valley covered with perfect snow, the bluing shades of moonlight, and frozen water. There were perfect bowls of asparagus soup, which were in season at restaurants in Lugano and Lausanne. There was a night in Innsbruck when I'd driven too far and missed the turn for Cortina. And there were dinners with the hotel owner and her sister in Cortina, itself. She had her own chef and would go off in tirades about how the French have nothing on Italian cheese. "They put a berry in it and call it new," she would say.
And now I was dropping my car off in the Alamo lot at Venice airport and stepping into a water taxi bound into the city. I was shouting. I saw that clock tower rise from the sea and I was shouting with sheer joy. This was something to behold. I ate well here, too. And I watched the gondoliers woo their passengers. I wandered St. Mark's square and the hoards of pigeons flocked around me.
I called Tom and left him a message. I told him I was in search of Tadzio.
Tom recently posted his latest painting: High Tea With Masks. He mused on the fact that we all wear masks for different occasions. Whether we are talking to the postman or a business partner, or a potential mate. He also wondered what would be left if we removed such masks.
Last week was LA. Los Angeles and B. We'd not seen each other since we both left New York on September 15th. But we'd talked every day. Nearly every day. Now, a month later, we would see each other. We would sit down at a Korean BBQ in K-town near the very Parisian apartment where I was staying. We would both eat a little fried fish with the head still attached, eyeball looking up at us. On the front door of my apartment was a plaque with the carved skeleton of a fish. And during that week, Louise wrote a blog post of watching the Fall foliage, musing that one day a storm would come and blow the leaves away leaving only skeleton trees.
Yesterday at 1pm I entered my Uber car for the airport, though by that point it felt like my Unter car to elsewhere. I watched an old crow slide past in her blue Fiat as we pulled away. My sister picked me up at the Salt Lake airport on the other side, and on the drive home our conversation moved to grieving for a family member whose spouse had left him years before. He had been a controlling, mean person in his earlier years but had made an effort to change. By the time his spouse left, he was not the same man she had vowed to leave. For her, the change had come too late. "Sometimes we put people in a box and we just won't let them out even if they have left it on their own. We keep them there, comfortable that we know who they are, not realizing what we're holding captive is a pile of bones," I said. Maybe we show the box to supportive friends who congratulate us for surviving such a monstrous creature. I didn't say that part. What I also did not say is that sometimes those of us who have found ourselves in such a box and have smugly thought we'd wholly escaped it only to discover later we've left behind a living shard, lurking and green, seething stashed beneath a fold or crammed lower in the floor like a hidden text. If we recognize our error and return to finish the job, we might be well-behooved to take care our methods. It's possible to find yourself boxed in once again. Anyhoo, when we arrived home my nephews were talking about various horror film characters. My sister thought that the hockey mask guy was in Halloween. I assured her that was Michael Meyers and that his particular mask had imprinted itself onto my soul many years ago when two of our other sisters stayed up late one night watching a collection of horror film highlights. The Michael Meyers mask came into play and I was transfixed. Horrified. Frozen face and dead eyes staring back as this living corpse moved down the street. It was like having both hands attached to an electic currant: I simply could not look away. The next morning at 530am I had to bike my way around a twisty-turny and many-bush-plotted condo complex, passing out newspapers. I crashed into not just one bush on my route that morning. The mask had triggered something which horrified me. Darkness. And later... years later in a film class with Sterling Van Wagonen, we talked about an idea the Greeks had: there is nothing in the world but that something within us goes out to greet it.
Sometime in that same schooling period, I read Death in Venice in one of Tom's classes. We also watched the film and I was again transfixed by this old man who followed the beautiful Polish boy around a disease-ridden Venice. He was willing to stay there and die in order to see him. And in the end his mask peeled in drops of black hair dye down his cheek and neck.
Which brings me back to LA. B and I were talking and I was telling him about some of my friends in New York. I mentioned one who I think is particularly kind and also particularly narcissistic. "Aren't we all.” B said and flashed a knowing look at me. Like the one Galadriel gave to Frodo as she boarded the ship for elsewhere.
I always thought it was a kind of embracing of life which was Aschenbach's choice to stay in Venice. To accept his own demise in order to persue beauty. I still believe this. But what about Tadzio? What did he think of the whole thing? Now the beeds of black hair dye run down my own cheeks and neck as the car turns onto Normandie Ave.
I'm reeling at the very thought of Halloween tonight. It rises, chattering and cackling, dragging scales and bones from the lower depths.
Somewhere in my mind I want to believe hope escapes the box as well.