Saturday 9 January 2021


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Enchantment by Daphne Merkin   {Reviewed by THOMAS}
He gazes at the young man standing in front of the tree, the young man probably, he thinks, between the ages of his own children but not one of his own children. It seems to him that the young man is gazing back at him, but this, of course, is not the case, the young man is gazing, certainly, but not at him, he is gazing, or appears to be gazing, at the least visible person, perhaps even his own father but who knows, hidden at the place in the young man’s gaze that he now occupies, a usurper of another’s place in the gazes, uncomfortable with his intrusion into this moment not or no longer of not yet his yet drawn back yet again to this moment and to his uncomfortableness about it. He feels as if he has some responsibilities towards the young man in the photograph but it is very unclear to him what these responsibilities might be or might have been, different responsibilities, certainly, or possibly, from the responsibilities he has or has had towards his own children, who now approximate the age of the young man in the photograph, rising twenty he would say, making them in some way his peers if not his contemporaries, but responsibilities less clear, at least now, than the responsibilities he has or has had towards his children, which are themselves not exactly clear. He cannot help feeling, as he glances a little embarrassedly at the young man’s gaze, hardly meeting his gaze, a gaze both expectant and accusatory, it seems to him, that this expectation and this accusation are directed at him personally, rather than at the world in general, the gazer is not gazing at him but at the world in general after all, as far as he can tell, but he is convinced that he now knows better than the young man about his own gaze, and that the gaze is somehow directed at him, at least that the expectation and the accusation he identifies in that gaze are directed at precisely him and that he has somehow failed this young man by failing to recognise and fulfill his responsibilities towards him, whatever they might be, in a way that he has not failed in his responsibilities towards his own children, he has failed in his responsibilities towards them no doubt in other ways, although, since his responsibilities towards the young man are unclear, and therefore his failure in these responsibilities is unclear, how can he be certain that he has not failed similarly, or by extension, in these responsibilities towards his own children in addition to the ways he has no doubt failed towards them in other ways. He glances again at the gaze of the young man in the photograph, if a photograph can be said to have a gaze, there is something at once both fascinating and off-putting about that gaze, he thinks, and probably more off-putting than fascinating, he thinks, here is a gaze that pushes away whatever it fixes itself upon, a gaze that repels its object, what you might perhaps but misleadingly call a repellant gaze, a gaze that keeps its object at a safe distance, whatever that means, at a distance from which the object cannot act upon the gazer. There is a tragedy here, he thinks, though it is almost impossible to see and the reasons for this tragedy are impossible to see. The young man, presumably, has hopes and wishes not dissimilar from the hopes and wishes of other persons of his age, though, as is common, perhaps even general, with persons of his age, he is probably unaware of these hopes and wishes in any definite way, they are probably unconscious hopes and wishes, if it is possible to call them hopes and wishes if they are unconscious, anyway he supposes the young man has them, whatever they are, though he might be wrong. With a gaze like that anything hoped or wished for would remain forever safely beyond reach, he thinks, as if safety consists of remaining beyond reach, remaining joined to whatever you are joined to by a rod long enough to prevent contact, so to speak, avoiding failure by presupposing failure and avoiding fulfilment by the same means, for there is nothing that destabilises hopes and wishes more than their fulfillment, he thinks, or he thinks the young man thinks, or, rather, he thinks the young man thinks but is unaware that he thinks, if thinking can be unaware. In any case, the young man does not know either how to take or how to receive, so there is not much hope for him, not that he lives on hope, and perhaps he has no hopes, perhap he does not even know how to formulate a hope, other than perhaps the hope for his own non-existence, if that is something that could sensibly be said to be one’s own, not that any of the various ways by which non-existence may be reached by someone who already exists holds any attraction, at best, for him, or fills him, at worst, with anything other than revulsion or fear. I presume too much, though, upon this young man, he thinks, these last thirty-five years are an unfair burden upon him, no wonder he gazes at me, or seems to gaze at me, with such seeming accusation and also with such seeming expectation, a gaze I can barely meet, could I, and perhaps should I, in the course of those thirty-five years that he is younger than me, have assuaged the threat he feels, or felt, or from then to now will feel, both from taking and from receiving when, I realise now, I am no better at this now than I was at his age? Did he get his hopelessness at the same place I got mine, he thinks, or if not hopelessness, that is not the word, perhaps this reluctance to exist. Or uncertainty how to exist. “Doesn't everyone begin happy? More or less inclined to embrace the world?” asks Daphne Merkin in the novel he has been reading, or, more precisely, asks the novel’s narrator Hannah. “Or are there those who sense the sorrow the world has in store for them already in the cradle, furrowing their infant brows in an adult manifestation of distress?” His life as a child was a happy one, but he was incapable, even at the time, he thinks now, of being happy with it, or was there was perhaps some point at which this incapacity began, but he does not know what point, if there was one. When Merkin writes in this memoir of childhood, a fictional memoir, but one written with the authenticity of a psychoanalytic project, an autofictional memoir of childhood, “Somewhere in this story is a tragedy, but it is almost impossible to see,” he finds this *relatable*, to use a term that he despises, even though there is no instance of ostensible tragedy, even unseen, in his life, although he knows there is, or must be, at least he assumes, in Hannah’s. “No-one has it in for me but my memory,” she says. Hannah’s problems are not his problems, or, rather, not the problems of the young man of whom he writes, nor of the child that came before him, Hannah’s particular problems seemingly concern her mother, who withheld and thus made a thirst in Hannah for her love. “I was stuck forever, immured behind unbreachable walls, my mother’s dominion stretching on as far as I could see. Beyond it I knew was the world, what I needed in order to survive, but how was I to get to it?” says Hannah. “My mother is the source of my unease in the world and thus the only person who can make me feel at home in the world.” He has no such problems, but, perhaps because they are so well written, he feels a certain empathy for hers. Hannah learns to seek the love of those whose love for her is at best uncertain, rather than seek the love of the amiable, and this is also not his problem, but he is completely hooked, if that is not a metaphor, for reasons he has mentioned above, when Hannah describes how “the future falls out of my grasp,” reasons enmeshed, if that is not another metaphor, in his responsibilities, or seeming responsibilities, towards the young man in the photograph about or for or to whom or as whom he writes. “I am not a naturally well-planned person and Sundays aren’t good, I’ve come to think, for people with leanings towards the void,” writes Merkin as Hannah at one point, and, at another, “it is from somewhere around this time that I date the awakening of my impulse to disappear from the scene of my life—what I recognise years later, while sitting on the beach playing with my niece, as a chronic but undramatic wish to die.” Where does his wish come from, this wish without a corresponding wish to act upon this wish, why does Hannah have this wish and not her sisters and her brothers? Where do children disappear to as they age? As the years pass, where does an ungrasped future go? Is there no cure for the young man’s angst but ennui? He, and not the young man, if he can still maintain the distinction, nor the one whose place he occupies when he meets, or does not meet, the young man’s gaze, is the least visible person, but even that is not enough. It is never enough. For better or worse he exists. He exists and cannot achieve invisibility without the gaze of others. 

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