Since the “it” in our existence cannot be identified, since the essence of language is its poverty in the face of it, since one cannot hold a mirror to it, since it is the monster in the labyrinth and the eternal playmate, one strives for an art whose aim is to render the effect of its presence.
– Charles Simic, Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell
How can art address those aspects of life that elude direct expression? In his remarkable book Art Matters, the aesthetic theorist Peter De Bolla describes his encounter with a particular painting (Barnett Newman’s enormous Vir Heroicus Sublimis) whose powerful presence leaves him “struck dumb.” Searching for words to express this unsettling experience, De Bolla poses a series of questions. Firstly, he asks, “how does this painting determine my address to it?” Next, as an aspect of that address, “how does it make me feel?” Crucially, neither inquiry quite captures the canvas’s enigmatic effect; the nimbus that seems to surround it. “Beyond these questions,” De Bolla reflects, “there lies the insistent murmur of all great art; the nagging thought that the work holds something to itself, contains something that in the final analysis remains untouchable, unknowable.” Consequently, he concludes that the only adequate question would be “what does this painting know?” And this very question, which the critic Michael Wood has since called “truly haunting,” can also be asked of the ambiguous literary artworks created by the British author Gabriel Josipovici—whose new novel concerns the equally elusive American artist Joseph Cornell.
Unlike Newman’s painting, the curious “boxes” made by Cornell can’t accurately be described as great art, since greatness is clearly not Cornell’s concern. On the contrary, Cornell’s artistry makes much of little, crafting an uncanny atmosphere from the smallest details. Famously, Cornell assembled his boxes from trivial trinkets; forgotten treasures sifted from the thrift stores of old New York. The resulting constructions—obscure collages like the Medici Slot Machine series, or the Soap Bubble sets—are neither (to use Newman’s terms) “sublime” nor “heroic.” Far from evoking expansive grandeur, they draw us into a strangely constrained inner world. In some respects, this world is recognizably that of the eccentric, or the neurotic: Cornell’s boxes often seem like ornate prison cells, adorned with the signs of a personal sadness. Yet somehow we sense that the source of this sadness is never entirely accessible—whether to us, or even to Cornell himself. Within this world, each twig, each cork, each sequin secretes a strangely illegible signature, so that each box as a whole seems to speak to itself, as if in its own unique language. And perhaps this private language resembles the “insistent murmur” described by De Bolla; it raises Cornell’s eccentricity to something more significant: knowledge, enclosed in a cloud of unknowing.
Cornell’s air of mystery has attracted many literary admirers, from Octavio Paz to John Ashbery to Charles Simic, whose sequence of ekphrastic prose-poems, Dime-Store Alchemy, could be considered the most effective attempt to bottle up some of that cloud, that aura. Josipovici appears well-acquainted with these precursors, and perhaps it is partly thanks to their inspiration that he has now created his own Cornellian novel, named after a box filled with stars and scraps of paper: Hotel Andromeda. Josipovici has written briefly on Cornell before—notably in the allusive short stories “The Principle of Order” and “That Which Is Hidden Is That Which Is Shown; That Which Is Shown Is That Which Is Hidden.” However, Hotel Andromeda represents his first extended engagement with the artist. Characteristically though, when compared to those earlier sketches, the novel’s extent doesn’t encumber it with extraneous weight. Josipovici is a writer who prizes “lightness,” and his airborne prose never tethers or traps Cornell’s art; never encases it in the amber of comprehension. Rather, his narrative subtly circles around its subject, tracing the outlines of a shape which remains, to refer back to De Bolla, “untouchable, unknowable.”
In this sense, of course, the book is not only about Cornell, but also about the act of writing: an act which itself, as Barthelme says, entails a state of “not knowing.” Such is the situation of Hotel Andromeda’s protagonist, Helena, who spends the whole novel absorbed in a struggle with writing’s inherent uncertainty. We first encounter Helena in conversation with an elderly neighbor, who quizzes her about her estranged sister, Alice. Helena lives in affluent North London, writing art history books, with the help of her inheritance. Alice has emigrated to war-torn Chechnya, where she works in an orphanage. When were they last in touch? Straight away, this everyday question raises the unnerving specter of writing:
– And you don’t write? the old lady asks.
– Not any more, Helena says.
– You don’t want to know what she’s up to?
– Of course I do, Helena says. But I told you. What’s the point? She never answers my letters. Perhaps she never gets them. I don’t know. But I can’t keep writing into the silence.
But writing as such is always directed into this “silence,” just as a letter is sent through the empty air. In this way, Helena’s statement seems to apply equally to her unanswered letters and to the book she is trying and failing to write—a book about the life and work of Joseph Cornell. Indeed, the letters themselves are bound up with this book, as their implicit purpose is partly to justify its production. By explicating her work on Cornell to Alice in Chechnya, Helena hopes to ease her own fear that it is “absurd to be here, in my comfortable flat, trying to write a book about a dead artist hardly anyone has heard of—while all of that is happening over there.” So, Helena’s letters to Alice reflect her deeper desire to explain her chosen existence. In this respect, they could even be said to “return” to their sender: each message is meant to confirm the rightness of what it describes, thus underwriting its author’s identity. Nevertheless, the assertion of selfhood receives no response from the silence. “I sometimes dream I’m writing to her,” Helena remarks to her neighbor. “Telling her about my work. Trying to explain. But even in my dreams she never replies.” Life, like writing, addresses itself to the world—and the world does not answer.
Hence, if Helena can’t explain herself to her sister, neither can she explain herself to herself. A certain external source of meaning is missing. Such a scenario subtly suggests the crisis that Josipovici has elsewhere described, following Weber, as the “disenchantment of the world”—an archetypically modern condition, in which identities come unanchored, and life is left without a divine guarantee. In fiction, of course, there is no need to state such ideas so directly or grandiosely. As with the conversation quoted above, our ordinary talk already contains an entire epistemology of incompleteness and doubt. Likewise, if Josipovici’s novels and stories describe a state of disenchantment, they do not do so by means of didactic pronouncements, but through the most delicate calibrations of theme and form. One common feature of these arrangements has been acutely characterized by the critic Victoria Best:
From the interlocking scenarios of Josipovici’s texts to the inability of his characters to be together or apart, what seems to be missing—and desperately, at times—is the presence of a solid third term standing beyond the binary opposition. Readers of a Josipovici text often long for some substantive perspective or interpretation that could finally release them from their entanglement with that text, and its refusal to offer up meaning.
Hotel Andromeda creates an apparent candidate for that “third term” in the form of Ed, a Czech acquaintance of Alice, who comes to stay in Helena’s home. Ed’s unannounced arrival arouses our readerly expectations: is he to be that familiar figure, the foreigner who transforms the life of the tribe? Is he Zeus in disguise; the change-bringing stranger? Like us, Helena hopes that her guest will fulfil this fictional function. However, when pressed, he declares, “I do not want to talk.” The nature of his connection to Alice is also left unspoken: were they lovers, perhaps? Or is he lying about having known her at all? Ed never reveals any great revelation, nor reconciles, in Helena’s terms, “here” with “over there.” His narrative role is not as a mediator of meaning, but a random atom; a broken middle. Further frustrating the stereotype that Ed’s arrival implies, Helena doesn’t exactly learn lessons from her encounter. After she and Ed have had sex, she kicks him out, prioritizing her right to her property over her morals: “I will throw your stuff onto the pavement and change the locks,” she shouts, “because that’s how I am.” Her words enact an ironic reversal of a conversion experience: far from reaching an ethical peripety, Helena comically reverts to type, conforming to the complacency of her class. Here, “disenchantment” effects a deflation of what would have been the biggest cliché—namely, an alternate plot in which Ed would inspire Helena to finally write her book; the very book we hold in our hands!
So, this is a novel that nimbly eludes any overly obvious closure. But what does that have to do with Cornell? Strikingly, Josipovici juxtaposes his descriptions of Helena’s life with incomplete extracts from her book—a work which only “exists,” after all, in the form of those unfinished fragments. Hence, at its heart, Hotel Andromeda poses the question of the connection between a make-believe book and the actual book that depicts it. Crucially though, this question can’t quite be settled by seeing the narrative as a commentary on Cornell; Helena’s interactions with Alice and Ed don’t help the reader to clarify Cornell’s art. In this regard, the relationship between the two books is not simply recapitulative. These entities don’t exist in a state of neat integration, but one of reciprocal interruption. As a result, the form of the novel itself becomes discomposed. In a less literal sense than Helena’s, Josipovici’s book is unfinished: it furnishes no final alignment; no Archimedean point to fix our perspective. The total effect of the text, as Best puts it above, is one of intricate “entanglement.” Thus, our reading experience is roughly this: we apprehend the work as a whole, but we cannot say whether it is broken, or whether the chaos we see conceals an order beyond our knowledge.
Helena seems to sense something like this when she says, contemplating a photo of Cornell, that its “atmosphere is of a demented silence.” The formulation feels precisely right, reflecting the boxes’ cryptic blend of serenity and neurosis, freedom and claustrophobia. And in articulating this, her statement also speaks to an impossible aspect of her project. As Simic puts it in one of his poems, Cornell’s personality appears so introverted as to be ultimately “unknowable,” just as his boxes so often seem “beautiful but not sayable.” In Helena’s phrasing, “he is an absence, beyond speech,” such that “to make him the centre of a narrative would be to distort him,” and indeed “if I write a portrait of him ‘from the inside,’ I’m left feeling that I’m furnishing him with an inside which is not there.” Moreover, not only is Cornell himself a kind of black box (so to speak) but so is his art, since no one will ever decisively know “whether what he was making was a way of talking to the world, or to himself.” For Helena, this is what finally makes Cornell “so ambiguous,” and nowhere is this ambiguity better expressed than in his box of 1954, Andromeda: Grand Hôtel de l'Observatoire. Here is Helena’s written account of this work of art:
Are we in heaven, then, among the myths of antiquity, or in the workshop of a Renaissance magus, or in a seedy provincial French hotel? The box is profoundly ambiguous. On the one hand this is the hotel of all hotels, a place in the heavens open to the stars, inside which Andromeda, free and transformed, performs her glorious trapeze acts for ever and ever. But the fact that the name appears in French on all too ordinary notepaper allows a hint of sadness and even despair to seep into this image of life in the heavens, sadness at the hubris of such a name, despair at the thought of the bleak reality of such places which, far from redeeming time, convey only the sense that time has passed them by.
Glory and sadness, stars and despair: the box’s “unsayable” truth consists of a combination of contradictory qualities. Within the bounded world of the box, “the sordid and the heavenly, reality and the ideal” are constellated but not reconciled, so that the viewer’s gaze moves through that world “as in a Möbius strip, perpetually from one to the other.” In this vein, we might even say that the box combines conflicting ideas in its mind, much as our own minds can sometimes hold two antithetical thoughts in tension. In other words, this work of art could be said to possess a cognitive power; a kind of knowledge, whose nature resides in something like what Adorno once called “the consistent consciousness of non-identity.” Not only this, but that non-identical knowledge contains an existential component. Specifically, the box seems to “know” something about the complex relation—or rather, to recall Best’s word, the “entanglement”—that always links art and life. In biographical terms, for Cornell, this relation was partly one of neurotic wish-fulfilment. As Helena says, Cornell was a classic “case”—a recluse, a loner, “chained to his sick brother and domineering mother.” Hence, in crafting his heavenly hotel, he could be construed as “creating an image he could long for but never realize.”
Certainly, that would be one kind of reading. However, for Helena (and, we sense, for Josipovici) such statements are finally insufficient. We cannot simply come to rest in a romantic conception of art as redemption. Nor is it adequate to conclude of Cornell that, as Paz writes in his poem, “out of your ruins you have made creations.” To be sure, it is tempting to take comfort in such reductive re-enchantments. When we feel completely alone, like Cornell, we often long to escape into art. Part of us wants to climb into the box, a little like Cornell’s beloved Houdini, hoping to find our freedom within it. And yet the ethical content of Cornell’s art, and indeed of Josipovici’s novel, lies precisely in the frustration of such consolations. What the boxes and the book both provide is, as Helena says, a more testing truth: “a dramatization not of the dream but of both the dream and its source in a life from which there is no escape.” Thus, although at first glance the box might look closed, somehow the book illuminates the openness of that closure. And while I suspect that what I have said only burdens this novel’s lightness, perhaps I can say, before falling silent, that it too partakes of what it describes as “the paradoxical truth that it is only possible for art to assert.” That is, “dream with the dreamer, but never forget that the dreamer will wake in a world devoid of dreams.”
David Winters has written on literature and philosophy for the Times Literary Supplement, The Guardian, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Quarterly Conversation and elsewhere. He is co-editor in chief of 3:AM Magazine.