Literary Yard

Search for meaning

By: Gaither Stewart

Nikolai Gogol

Damiano ignores the tourists standing four and five deep at the coffee and pastry counter up front, nods amicably at the cashier, and strides purposefully down the red- carpeted corridor that by now he knows centimeter by centimeter. At the end of the hall he greets a passing waiter carrying a tray of espressos and slender glasses of Campari, turns right and again right, weaves among the tiny tables in the rear section of the 250-year old caffé and finally stops to examine the photograph as if he hadn’t done the same thing yesterday, the day-before-yesterday, the day before that, and as long as the waiting trio of aged waiters dressed in formal black could recall.
Carefully, with an affected, almost effeminate flourish, he withdraws a silver eyeglass case from an inner pocket of his dark lavender, wide-sleeved jacket and looks over the photograph from a distance of about a meter. Again enraptured in anticipation of his daily study of the picture he adjusts his glasses securely and shakes his head left and right to make certain they are in proper position.
Only then does he bend his sore knees and lean forward toward the framed photograph. Transfixed as usual, for a moment he feels the world spin out of control, perhaps even reversing its orbit. First, he scrutinizes millimeter by millimeter the pale white marks here and there in the small, faded photograph of Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol. He still finds it peculiar that the barely visible white mark on the writer’s foppish black velvety scarf—or perhaps it is a high-necked vest—resembles the white mark in the writer’s girlish hair curling on the left side of his youthful face. He is convinced that they are signs of further surprises to come. For some reason Damiano has long suspected a connection between the white marks and the illegible words he sometimes imagines he distinguishes within the blank space in the mysterious black sea of the right top corner of the famous photograph dating back to 1841 in the early years of the arcane art of photography. As each day he wonders if photography is really an art, or is it not a form of chemical magic which as such has always perplexed him.
The silent waiters stand motionless. They never disturb the maestro until he signals. Mentally measuring the angles of the haunting blank space and imagining the words that he too could crowd into such a space in a painting without encroaching on the image in the picture, Damiano, whom the Russian writer might have described as “though not overly elderly, he was not over-young,” removes his glasses and absent-mindedly polishes them before putting them back in the metal case, slips them into the same inside pocket, and sits down heavily at his usual table, his Stammtisch he likes to call it, in memory of his youthful years passed in Munich in order to study and feel the art of German Expressionism, and at the same time keeping in mind that famous writers like George Eliot, Hans Christian Anderson, Stendhal, Charles Dickens, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe-Shelley and most probably John Keats sipped cappuccinos at the tables of this same discreet rear room of the caffè. For that reason, Damiano, like most foreigners—but unlike Italians who in the afternoon prefer espressos—drinks cappuccinos at any time of the day or night.

His self-absorption is so total, so absolute and uncompromising, that he doesn’t notice the arrival of Cristoforo who stands over him patiently waiting to be recognized.
“So what are you meditating on today, sitting there in the shadows, so lonely looking, so desperate?” his photographer friend finally asks.
“You know!” Damiano answers looking up at his friend with still dilated eyes.
Cristoforo knows that his search for light is primary. The metaphysical painter Damiano believes in light but loves the shadows. Shadows and light are the backbone of his artistic work.
“Looking for light!” Cristoforo’s words ring like an accusation.
“Words are light. And light is God. After all.”
“It is for you as it was for your best friend, Caravaggio.”
“You said that yesterday and every day before. You find it hard to accept that I have emotions similar to yours, don’t you? I mean about the same secrets we both hope to get to the bottom of … someday.”
“It’s not the same, my friend. Your secrets, Damiano, cannot be rationally unraveled. Mine instead exist but they are forever hidden within those little things today called pixels. Their existence is recognized but is not yet discernable. Reality lies there too.”
“That’s what I was wondering about?”
“What was what you were wondering about.”
“That vacuum in the upper right hand corner of the photograph … and what lies within that deserted territory. I look at Gogol’s picture and I too wonder about the tiny invisible figures you speak of floating around inside the shadows of he world of all your photos. What are they anyway?”
“Damiano, what do you care what they are? You only think of your, er, your enigmatic metaphysical paintings … if you will permit me to define your incomprehensible work with that word.”
“I hate that silly adjective, you know that.”
“Yes, but that adjective made you famous … or you, it.”
“Bullshit, and you know that too. I just want to know what’s hidden in the upper right corner of that nineteenth century photo of Nikolai Gogol hanging right over there in the corner of this old caffé.”
“OK, but you still want to reflect what’s hidden there. Is that not your metaphysical bent … your goal, your yearning for the unknown … or in this case most likely the unknowable?”
“But why shouldn’t I?”
“Because, my best friend, it’s an inexplicable mystery and will remain such.”
“What’s an inexplicable mystery?”
“What’s hidden in the refracted light of the glass reflected through the lenses is inexplicable because we can never see it all. I’ve told you over and over that even what you see in a mirror reflects at the most only ninety-five per cent of the full image. So when you look at yourself in the mirror the image that stares back at you is not the real you. It is a simulacrum of yourself because it is incomplete and because it even reverses left and right. It doesn’t know itself. And it must mean something that when you turn the mirror away from you, your already deformed image vanishes … even though, as you say, perhaps something of it remains.”
“Something always remains,” Damiano retorts and sighs deeply.
“In any case that missing five per cent is the mystery we photographers always hope to capture … but never do. Maybe it’s the mystery of life itself. It’s our nature!”
“What do you mean? You’re always speaking in riddles. What is our nature?”
“That we never see everything contained in objects, in ourselves, in life. That our perception is destined to remain defective. Maybe we see only illusions … or rather simulacra … simulacra of illusions.”
“That’s terribly unfair … and also impure.”
“Yes, but impurities exist and you can’t blame photography or the limitations of human vision for that. Blame rather, uh, well, you know who. Meanwhile I call what is hidden there ‘little gods’—or maybe they are little devils—because I imagine that that five per cent is filled with little dancing figures that can be gods.”
“Well, if that’s the case, maybe my metaphysics is more useful. Maybe those little gods are trying to signal me a message. And I can’t bear the thought that I might not get the message. Hello out there! Hello! Over.”
“Oh, Damiano, per l’amor di Dio! Anyway, I wonder what Gogol would call those little figures.”
“Maybe dead souls.”

At that moment, Cristoforo, who is facing the rear of the red room in which they are the only seated guests, exclaims softly: “Oh, no! Another photographer. Now how did he get in here?”
Damiano snaps his head around, indignant at any invasion of what he considers his territory, ready to evict the intruder interrupting their discussion of metaphysics.
Seconds later Damiano the painter and Cristoforo the photographer sense something rare in the tall, slim figure holding a camera at waist level now standing before them. The maybe twenty-year old man is almost a boy. His brown skin highlighted by a black T-shirt and gray pants is the beautiful shade of East African peoples.
“Good day! My name is Sharif. May I offer my services to you gentlemen to immortalize you here in the historic Antico Caffè Greco, the home of artists?”
More than the young man’s attractive and elegant physical appearance, his perfect Italian and his self-assured stillness of royalty seem to effect a soothing sway over the two artists who examine him wordlessly.
Suddenly, Cristoforo leans forward and exclaims: “Hey, is that a Leica you are using?”
“Yes, it is,” Sharif says holding it out toward Cristoforo.
“Very good,” the photographer answers. “And is it not a Leica, series X?”
“Yes, it is.”
“I envy you.”
“A gift … from a well-wisher who has confidence in my photographic art.”
Damiano, unable to control his curiosity any longer asks, “Do you, like my friend here, think that every image you capture with that fine camera contains at least five per cent of unaccounted for space and that that space is filled with mystery? Maybe little gods … or little devils?”
Sharif steps backwards, a puzzled look on his handsome face, runs one hand through his silky dark hair and haltingly whispers: “Yes. Yes, I do.”
“Young man!” Damiano begins hoarsely, “Do you think that with extreme care and attention and with that good camera you can capture at least a tiny part of that missing five per cent?”
“I doubt it, Sir. I doubt it seriously.”
“Would you try if I hire you?”
“I could try, yes. I’ve been trying for a long time now. But I can promise no more than an attempt.”
“All right. If you will try, you can first photograph us together at this table and then photograph a photograph hanging on the wall just over there.”
“Yessir. But if I may ask, why a particular photograph?”
“Because after years of studying it I have come to believe there are some important words concealed in it.”
“Oh, that five per cent again! How should we proceed then?” Sharif asks.
“Since I assume you will have to work on the film in your dark room many hours, or even days, you can do the photography now and we can meet here tomorrow or the day after to examine the results. Is, well, five hundred euros now and the balance on delivery agreeable?
“Oh, yessir, I think so.”
“I think you will need considerable studio time,” Cristoforo confirms. “So I think a total of one thousand euros is proper.”
“That is more than fair,” Sharif concurs.
“Of course your fee will be much higher if you find the words I believe are hidden in the upper right hand corner of the Nikolai Gogol portrait. Uh, Sharif, I assume you know who Gogol was?”
“Oh yes, I have heard of him,” Sharif mutters and smiles an inspiring smile. “Dead Souls.”
“All right,” Damiano says. “Agreed.”
After several shots of the two friends conversing at their table in the Antico Caffè Greco, the three of them—observed curiously by the waiters who are uncertain if it is permitted to photograph the art works in the caffé—hover around the small picture of the famous writer. Just in case, Sharif works fast, shooting the photograph from different angles and from close p and further away and makes several shots of the upper right hand corner, after each of which he smiles at Damiano in a conspiratorial way.

Three days later, a Sunday afternoon, the two men waiting in the Antico Caffè Greco have nearly given up hope of ever seeing Sharif again when the handsome young man again appears before them, dressed exactly as before.
Beside himself in expectation, torn between desperation and hope, between skepticism and anticipation, Damiano just points at a velvet covered chair.
More contained and more skeptical than hopeful, the veteran photographer, Cristoforo, says: “Please sit down Sharif and show us the results.”
“Yes, please do, Sharif and don’t think I don’t perceive that self-satisfied expression in your eyes,” Damiano says. “I hope you have good reason for it.”
The two artists barely glance at the photographs of themselves before pushing them aside. Literally leaping from his skin, Damiano finally whispers hoarsely: “Well?”
Sharif lays a yellow envelope on the table and covers it with his beautiful brown hands as if protecting it from the world. Damiano’s nervous vein-lined hands lay on one side of the small table, those of Cristoforo on the other side.
“I soaked the film of the shots of the photograph in developer fluid for a normal length of time, stop bathed the film carefully with water, then used a common hypo fixer. Then I rinsed the film well and hung it up to dry. Nothing whatsoever appeared in that upper right corner.
“So I started the process over again, varying the length of time in the developer fluid and the amount of hypo. Useless. Nothing appeared. At that point I was very discouraged.”
On that sad note Sharif falls silent and studies intently his slim hands with the long slender fingers of a pianist.
“So that’s all? You gave up?” Damiano mutters now crestfallen.
“Predictable,” Christoforo says.
Though the ensuing silence is marked by much internal meanderings and stewings on the part of all three men, Damiano notes that the special glow never abandons the Somali’s eyes.
“Then,” Sharif resumes in true storyteller fashion, “instead of a standard developer I used a root extract native to Somalia which some few people know simultaneously removes the acids while performing the functions of any commercial developer. At the same time I ignored color photo processing methods and worked on black and white. I used the natural developer which is rather mysterious to me also, performing each step very very slowly, painstakingly slowly, until … well, at a certain point I discerned something emerging and forming, that is, something invisible to the naked eye in the photograph hanging there on the wall.”
“I knew it! I just knew it!”, Damiano exclaims, nearly shouting, slapping at the table with both hands. “OK, young man, stop the torture and show us the results.”
“Magic must be at play here,” Cristoforo mutters cynically.
Exasperatingly methodically, as if he were still working in the dark room, Sharif opens the envelope and lays a stack of perfect photographs on the table in the rear of the Antico Caffè Greco.
An antique clock on the back wall chimes softly five o’oclock.
A waiter arrives with a tray of cappuccinos and three golden cognacs.
Sharif turns up the top photo.
The two men lean forward, their heads touching just over the photograph. In the upper right corner they can make out the handwritten words:


“What! What’s that? I am who I am? What does that mean?” Cristoforo asks.
“Sounds like something biblical to me,” Damiano risks.
“Yes, it is,” the young Somali explains. “I attended Christian Schools in my home country. Protestant, not Catholic. One of my teachers explained that in a rather cryptic statement Jesus identified Himself as the I AM of the Old Testament when He said, ‘Truly, truly I say to you, I AM. He meant I AM God, which correlates with the name by which Jehovah or Yahveh revealed Himself to Moses back in the Old Testament: “And God said to Moses, ‘I AM THAT I AM’ so that just the words ‘I am’ came to mean ‘I am God’, even though, the teacher emphasized, He never said it explicitly. Of course that is the King James version of the Bible … maybe a bad translation.”.
“So that’s what Gogol might have thought of himself, eh?” Damiano the skeptic mutters.
“One may conclude that, I believe,” Sharif says. “But remember that the whole story is based on the questionable translation of original sources by the King James version which Gogol too might have consulted.”
“Well, though Gogol was the god of Russian literature for a long time, I instinctively never trusted that photograph,” a relieved, consoled and victorious Damiano says softly. “But I always thought it contained something false. So now we know a new version of the truth.”
His own words, Damiano senses, are empty and banal, concealing in the same way the photograph had concealed from him for so many years another man’s search for perfection and purity. Blameless purity. A purity today reflected by the silence of Sharif, by the centuries-long silence of the photograph, by the silence of the caffé itself. Perfect stillness. Clean and pure and clarifying.
Not even the suffered completion of his greatest works had ever offered Damiano the same spiritual comfort now pumping and flowing through his body. For a brief moment he is conscious of his longing to join the silent powers that he now knows lie beyond all physical things in his self so unbearably incomprehensible, powers that he now knows are becoming accessible—yet powers of another world.

The End

The Russian writer, Nikolai Gogol lived in Rome off-and-on from 1838 to 1842. There is a plaque to commemorate this great writer’s time in Rome and the house where he finished his great work, Dead Souls. It’s something to honor the writer who influenced the likes of Fyodor Dostoevsky and Vladimir Nabokov, among others, and who was long considered a literary god in Russia.)


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