Recently I’ve seen art and historic forces reflecting each other in dramatic ways. The HBO series “The Leftovers” and the best-selling novel by Elena Ferrante “The Story of the Lost Child” are the examples from art. The historic example is the current flood of humanity making its way from the Middle East to Europe.
Both Ferrante’s novel and “The Leftovers” are concerned with vanishings. In the novel, a beloved four-year old is last seen on a Neapolitan street corner, and then never seen again. In the TV show, two percent of the world’s population inexplicably vanish in an event called “The Departure”.
In today’s Europe, many thousands are experiencing the “Arrival” of an entire population, forced to depart from their homes. Within a short time their lives have been deeply impacted by people unexpectedly appearing on their doorstep.
Unpredictable, unexpected vanishings .. unpredictable, unexpected arrivals. The earth shifts under our feet. Something is deleted, something is added. So much is changing so rapidly.
The migrant outpouring; climate change leading to devastating tsunamis; hurricanes; and lethal heat; the rise of ISIS. No wonder that the mirror of contemporary art reflects danger and uncertainty.
And yet, at the core of both the novel and the TV show, another aspect of reality emerges. Below I quote Ferrante, speaking of herself during the tumult in Italy during the seventies, when the Red Brigades practiced terror provoking harsh repression from the authorities.
I felt that in me fear could not put down roots.. and even the lava and the fear it provoked in me, settled in my mind in orderly sentences, in harmonious images, became a pavement of black stones like the streets of Naples, a pavement where I was always and no matter what the center. I gave myself weight, in other words, I knew how to do that, whatever happened.
Ferrante succeeded in transforming her fear by means of her art, (orderly sentences and harmonious images). That art takes us into dark places, but like Goya and Rembrandt before her, the author reminds us of human resilience and value by creating beauty in the face of human suffering.
In a particularly moving and tender episode of “the Leftovers”, Kevin (the protagonist, an ex-policeman) returns home late at night after an earthquake has shaken his wife Nora to her core. She had lost her former husband and two children in the Departure, and Kevin’s absence during the quake triggers her trauma. When they go to bed she shows him that she has attached half a pair of hand cuffs around her wrist – he understands, and clicks on the other half.
No sexual games, simply a symbolic and actual way of ensuring their facing together whatever fate awaits them. I will not let you out of my sight or touch.
The creators of “The Leftovers” have provided us with words and images of love and connection that can inspire and sustain us during these difficult times.
Lastly, I associate to the massive, weighty works of Anselm Kiefer. Often grey, sometimes ponderous, his works alert me to a seemingly unlikely correlation between heaviness and the appreciation of life and light. With this particular artist, it seems that the heavier the material and the more arduous the work that went into it, the more it honors the light, sustaining his creativity.
When we absorb the details and density of both “The Leftovers” and Ferrante’s novel, my Kiefer-derived correlation doesn’t seem far-fetched.
Below is “Lilith” from 1997.