David Kronemyer

Love Song for the Dead Iris

September 3rd, 2006 by David Kronemyer · 2 Comments

DAVID KRONEMYER: … and then along came Iris. We were together for two years.  She spoke at least five languages and her intention was to become some kind of a professor somewhere.  Our relationship was dramatic and tumultuous.   We spent a lot of time gaze-eyeing and with-talking.  She was driven by an inner restlessness.  Not so much a striving or a purpose, because she had no apparent goal or objective.  Although she became agitated about various topics from time to time (many of which involved theological issues, with which she had been indoctrinated as a child), it was not anxiety.  I did not know then what I know now about the DSM, but, if asked to do so, I probably would diagnose her with some cluster of Axis II personality disorders, particularly something with histrionic features.  One day I came home and found her dead body, limp, mute. Her death was so … unnatural.  But, as Simone de Beauvoir wrote about her mother’s demise:

“There is no such thing as a natural death: nothing that happens to a man is ever natural since his presence calls the world into question.  All men must die; but for every man his death is an accident and, even if he knows it and consents to it, an unjustifiable violation.”[2]

She had published a book of poetry called “My Summer Love.”  She wrote a book of short stories called “Hallucinations” under the pen name of Mena Giotti.  One was entitled “Enclosed.”  Another was “Ariadne’s Thread.”[3] At the time I found all of this to be intriguing.  It should, however, have been a warning sign.  Hallucinations = schizophrenia and schizophrenia = high risk for suicidality.[4] What was I thinking?

For that matter, what was she thinking?  Killing oneself seems so – final.  It eradicates the prospect of all future experience, whether good or bad, up or down – even the experience of wanting to kill oneself (but not doing so).  No more poetry, no more paintings, no more music.  If one is feeling exultant, then one should enact it to the fullest; conversely, if one is feeling depressed, then one should embrace it.  Entre nous, we might say they are antipodes, the perigees and apogees of life.  One shares a little joke with the world.  Still, I can’t help but wonder what could I have done differently, something that might have made a difference.  In an attempt to find out, I determined to reconstruct that period of my life, as best as I can.  To do so, I consulted an archive of documents and objects that I have in storage, pertaining to previous phases of my life.  They are located at a Public Storage facility in Van Nuys, which I seldom visit.

I must briefly explain the nature and purpose of the archive.  It created itself ex nihilo, primarily as a result of inanition.  Many of the things I’ve done in my life have required me to retain documents, which I uncritically have deposited into Bekins-type boxes, which then have kept proliferating.  It is haphazard, not particularly well organized.  It has been ontologically more efficient simply to let them propagate, rather than taking the time to go through them and discard what no longer is required.  In the blink of an eye, a quarter of a century’s worth of material has accumulated; possibly as many as 500 boxes.

I have come to realize there is another more disconcerting aspect to the archive, which is: I have been afraid to let things go.  I must accept responsibility for its origination and maintenance.  One might say: I have been its curator.  Quite possibly: I could reconstruct a simulated me, comprising nothing but data points harvested from the archive.

It is easy enough to reconstruct its beginnings (aside from mere document retention requirements).  I can’t remember everything about where I’ve been, places I’ve seen, people I’ve known, bizarre encounters I’ve had with situation, context and circumstance – even my own personal identity, at various stages of my life.  Forgetfully, I seem to have misplaced entire decades.  Whatever recollections I have are nothing more than thin strips of celluloid, colored slides, which I can cycle through in a matter of seconds; perhaps picking one or two to linger over, lovingly, like flowers in a garden.  German has an evocative word for this, which is augenblick – literally, in an instant, or the “blink of an eye.”

So, I require primes, or triggers.  It is astonishing how a piece of paper can activate one’s recollection, bringing back the circumstances of its creation and existence in vivid detail – correspondence, journals, old notes (perhaps even poetry).  The names of former colleagues, all convivial, fake friends – now scattered into time.  These are the experiences, which comprise one’s mortal existence.  Unaided, they are impossible for me to reanimate.

For me, this primarily is a musical experience.  Many people respond to taste, sight or smell.  For example, in Du côté de chez Swann, the first volume of À la recherche du temps perdu (1913/1981)[5], Marcel Proust’s Narrator has a single memory of his mother reading to him at night, which is all he can recall of that period of his life in a small French town called Combray.  The memory is reactivated when he eats a madeleine cake dipped in tea, which in turn precipitates further recollections.  I have been intimately involved with music my entire life, which accounts for this preference. And Iris never wore perfume, which would have reactivated a sense of scent or smell; I’m glad she didn’t, because I’m deathly allergic to it.

There are three main problems with this formulation for recall of involuntary memories.

First, I rarely consult the archive, even just to browse it.  So, it’s not so much the existence of primes or triggers – rather, the knowledge they’re there, should I require their use.  It is unlikely, however, that at this point in my life I ever will be called upon to answer a question like “Where were you on the night of January 5, 1985?”  The chances of having to respond to such a query never were great, and they grow slimmer with each passing season.

Second, the retention of primes or triggers makes it start to seem as though their associated recollections (and, possibly, artifacts accompanying them) are important.  But the truth of the matter is – who cares?  It’s simply trivial minutiae.  They seem like they’re important, they were important at the time, they ought still to be important, but they’re not.[6]

Third, and even more perfidious, every instant I spend trying to reconstruct old memories reduces the amount of time I could spend in the present, creating new ones.  In their song “Bookends,” the duo Simon & Garfunkel sang: “preserve your memories, they’re all that’s left you.”[7] Shouldn’t this really be: “kill all your memories, before they preserve you?”

I have a strong feeling I must resolve this issue.  I must discard the archive, or at least vast portions of it, and triage the memories it provokes.  I must lay them to rest, finally consigning them to oblivion.  For I never will have the opportunity to relive them, once the prime is absent.[8] What do I do, for example, with old correspondence from one’s beloved?  What is so insistent, so plangent, and so plaintive, that it must be saved?  But even then, what in turn happens to it next?  I must progressively and rigorously winnow them down, like a series of concentric circles.  I must be rigorous in this exercise, and not get lost in sentiment.  If asked “does this document matter?” I well might say “yes,” but I must resist this temptation.  Perhaps a few artifacts will stay with me, because they are so compelling, or they still are usable tools; or, maybe, because I can’t make up my mind what to do with them.  But in principle, even those must not survive another round.  They mean nothing to anybody else.  The meaning (or potential meaning) they have to me, won’t survive my demise.  I can’t have them buried with me, like relics in Tutankhamen’s tomb.

These thoughts put me in a mood of vague melancholy.  I can feel my energy sapping, but I know I must overcome the inertia that inheres in every waking moment.  I searched at home for the key to Public Storage, and the entrance code, but finally I found them.  I drove out to it last Saturday afternoon.  The space was dusty, seemingly full of crickets and cobwebs.  I brushed them aside.  With speed and rapidity that astonished even myself, I located a box labeled “Iris.”  I loaded it into the back of my car.  When I got home I carried it in to my office.  I opened it with trepidation.  I found letters from her, a copy of the aforementioned “Hallucinations,” and several cassette tapes, which she had recorded and sent to me.  The letters were arranged by date, still in their respective envelopes, and I had tied them together with a red ribbon.  The cassette tapes were loose in the box, but each one also was dated.  I carefully untied the red ribbon entwining the letters, and started reading.  I no longer have a cassette player, but it’s just as well, because after reading the letters I was too distraught actually to hear her voice.  As a medium, the cassette tapes would have too much lability, or plasticity.  I believe they are a loose and unscripted narration of her thoughts about various topics, including our relationship.[9] We didn’t take many photographs, but I found a picture or two.  I recalled the words to a song by the 1960s band The Doors:

“I can’t see your face, in my mind
Carnival dogs consume the lines
I won’t need your picture
Until we say goodbye.”[10]

I never have dreamed about her.  I have spent weeks, even months, not thinking of her.  When I did, it was nothing more than a stray thought or two, a spontaneous but fleeting recollection.  Now, though, I am perfused with a sense of presence, and having been present, and I am able to recapitulate or reexperience the events of her, to the fullest extent I ever will be able to achieve.  I wept, powerless and frustrated at my inability to reorganize past events.

For some reason we always were writing letters to each other – she more to me than I to her, probably by an order of magnitude, even as we saw each other almost daily.  She regarded them more like a journal, or a diary, than correspondence.  Frequently paragraph headings or sections begin with the date or the day of the week, or even the time of day.  They are verbatim records of her cognitive and affective processes – scribbled down, often not well-composed, full of sentence fragments and non sequiturs.  But also an extraordinary window into what she was thinking, how she was feeling, and full of insight, critique, commentary and poetry.  She was not well-modulated, and from an affective standpoint, highly labile.  I think of a young rattlesnake, uncertain over how much venom to inject into its victim, so it shoots all of it just to be sure.  Re-reading them, they seemed fresh and new; I wonder how carefully I read them, upon initial receipt.

From one of her first letters to me:

“Hi baby, amore mio! I’m dreaming about being in your arms.  I love you more each day.  I wanted to write to wish you ever so much LUCK on your presentation!  I know you can do it, you will RIP as usual.  I have such confidence in your powers.  I think of you everyday and I can’t wait to see you.  I want to hear your heart beat and feel your body next to mine.  I think of how it will be as I lie upon my bed at night – holding you and touching you. … it is possible to find a dream-mate that will share common interests and introduce me to new worlds unfathomable before.  Life is all new again for me, full of colors.  I feel like a little girl in your arms.  Don’t you just love being in love with a younger girl, someone younger than yourself because then you both want the same things.  Young girls grow up quickly and will soon be more beautiful and more intelligent than the girls your own age.  I love you.”[11]

Then, a few weeks later:

“It’s 1:30 Wed. after our phone conversation.  I’ve been thinking.  After this nightmare the whole idea of sex terrifies me.  I don’t wish to ever again use my body in any way that demeans my soul.  I’ve never felt such anguish and guilt.  I can’t sleep again tonight.  I’m sick of sex with absolutely anyone including you.  I’m tired of screaming in the night.  I will not be used.  I may suffer like hell without you.”

Then, a few weeks later:

“I’m taking a break.  I studied from 10:30 – 11:30 and finished Victor Hugo’s poetry.  He isn’t my type, everything gets out of hand and he takes on epic proportions thinking himself a prophet, “enlightened.”  He seems to think he can take God’s place and right all the wrongs God didn’t.  … Today I plowed through Musset’s “Les Nuits,” he gets a little personal because of his ill-fated romance with George Sand.  At times I had to put the book down today and brush aside the tears.  I told myself “I won’t read this today,” then I decided it had to be done, so I did it.  I look around this room and I have read 2/3 of these hundreds of old dusty books.  Such is life and illusions.  We so expend our minds on these oh too brief encounters with others and speak of “relationship” and “heartbreak” and “love lost and found.”  But what is man that he should have such vivid fancy?  I was elated to see you today.   I could hear our souls communing when our voices were silent.  I listened to your breathing.  Only you so understand my futile attempts at exploring my mind and the literary world I embrace so tenderly.  I so miss you … but to hold you in my arms again.  If I could only see those stunningly electric deep blue eyes, I’d tell you all my cares and listen to your thoughts and dreams.  I’d share every emotion – and beauty and truth and love would open their majestic gates as rainbows flashed.  I need you and I love you.  How I miss your face.  You are so handsome and could win the favors of any princess you might choose. … (more discussion of George Sand) …  Your bizarre approach has found its way into my heart … And I need to bounce my thoughts off your eternal wisdom.  I love you with all my heart.  You are the only man I could love in the whole world.  No other man can take your place.  The mark you made runs deeper than a river.  I love every part of your being.  There isn’t one peculiar part of your make-up I love more than another.  I miss you so and can’t wait to see you again this evening.”

These types of back-and-forth oscillations seem to recur frequently – a range of emotional extremes, from pathos to joy.  From one of her last letters, re: the aforementioned “Ariadne’s Thread”:

“As you open these pages be a student in love  Correct the manuscript carefully, lovingly only when necessary.  You must enter the book as you enter your love.  Don’t tamper with the mood you find there merely help the novel to express its innermost yearning.  Yours forever,”

I could keep quoting from letters but these convey the general idea; they continue more or less in this vein for the entire time we were together.  Seeing as how I didn’t keep copies, I wonder what mine were like to her; I cringe at the thought.[12] What strikes me the most about them is her enthusiasm, her passion, her intensity, and her ability to live in the moment, her joie de vivre.  I am envious of these traits, even as I find them to be scary.

I came to realize I am complicit in her death.  I could, and should, have paid more attention to her; inserted myself more insistently into the chaos of her lived experience, her subjective, phenomenological world.  I lost peripheral vision.  I was too coy, too insouciant, too distant, insufficiently engaged.  I spent too much time contemplating abstract absence (why there is something rather than nothing), rather than concrete presence (being grateful for what actually’s there).  I should have been more sensitive to what (in retrospect) seem to be obvious clues about her emotions, mood and affect.  Quite likely I was unworthy of her love; selfishly, wrapped up in my own projects and myself.  I am remorseful at this thought.

I also understand how I got that way.  I was reacting to an earlier relationship I had during college with a woman named Kathryn.  She had entranced me and put me under a spell.  I became over-involved with her, riding every nuance of her whimsical caprice, her obsessions and compulsions, like I was on some kind of a Pegasus-like (or, more appropriately, horsemen-of-the-apocalypse-like) winged stallion.  Maybe she was like the sirens, who so tormented Odysseus; an emotional black hole, Jung’s shadow, beguilingly but pervasively extracting one’s personality, bit by bit, until only fragments were left.  By the end of that relationship, I was debilitated, exhausted and emotionally bereft.  So, I loved Iris, as best I could at the time.  [I feel as though this is an important insight.]

I also have come to a deeper understanding of my own mortality.  The German phenomenologist-philosopher-psychologist Martin Heidegger theorized that the one single thought individuating any one person from any other – a thought I have uniquely that you don’t, and never will – is that person’s inescapable realization of his own mortality.  One must achieve this insight and become vulnerable to it, in order to be authentic.  “Being-towards-death,” to use Heidegger’s phrase, itself is a way of life.  Absent it, “demise” simply is one’s passing, the cessation of life; “death,” on the other hand, is a fully-realized experience.  Still, even this thought simply is an instance of a broader theme of finitude, the closure of possibility, worlds in transition.  As individuals die, so do entire civilizations and cultures collapse and vanish with the passage of time, and ours will, too.[13]

Thus, for example, I recently decided to donate my organs upon my death, in lieu, say, of having them preserved in Coptic jars.  Preferably to someone who has not yet procreated, so I can in some small way help give life to their children.  I formerly was opposed to this, primarily because I didn’t like the thought of a body being buried in anything other than a whole and complete state.  But, genetically, our personal identity halves with each generation, dwindling to Vanishingly Small in an instant.  It doesn’t seem right that objects and artifacts of the sort I have described, have longer survival potential; there is something upside down about these relative priorities.

I don’t have what might be called a “bucket list” of things I want to do before I die.  If I was to learn I only had a certain amount of time left to live, I would want to spend it simply doing what I do every day, perhaps a little bit more deliberately.  I revel in the normalcy of everyday life.  After a lifetime of experiences ranging from the bizarre to the mundane, the horrific to the exhilarating, I now am much more shall we say emotionally cautious then I surely once must have been.  I mean, I wasn’t then the way I am now, am I?  This all seems like it was a long time ago, I have the feeling of finding some precious object hidden away in a mental attic or closet, then taking it down, inspecting it carefully, and then not knowing what to do with it afterwards.  If you feel like leaves are falling, then you make love flying and break china laughing.

This perhaps was Iris’ parting gift to me: a moment of clarity, a more robust strategy for moving forward, to go forth and confront reality, to forge meaning in the smithy of my soul, to cope with indeterminacy and randomness, but purposefully and with intentionality.  So this is my love song for the dead Iris.  As I fed her letters into the paper shredder, one by one, I remembered some lines from Shelley’s poem “Adonaïs”:

“Peace, peace! he is not dead, he doth not sleep,
He hath awaken’d from the dream of life;
‘Tis we, who lost in stormy visions, keep
With phantoms an unprofitable strife.”[14]

[1] Levine, S. (1984).  Meetings at the edge – Dialogues with the grieving and the dying, the healing and the healed.  New York, NY: Doubleday.

[2] Beauvoir, S. (1964/1985).  A very easy death.  P. O’Brian (Tr.).  New York, NY: Pantheon (p. 106).

[3] Ariadne was a character from Greek mythology.  She was the daughter of King Minos of Crete and his wife Pasiphaë, who was the daughter of Helios, the personification of the sun.  Ariadne was in love with Theseus, who slew the Minotaur.  She gave him a ball of red fleece, which he unspooled and then used to find his way out of the Labyrinth.  Later Theseus abandoned her and she married Dionysus.  Graves, R. (1960).  The Greek myths (Rev. Ed.).  New York, NY: Penguin.

[4] Hawton, K., Sutton, L., Haw, C., Sinclair, J. & Deeks, J. (2005, Jul.).  Schizophrenia and suicide: systematic review of risk factors.  British Journal of Psychiatry, 187, 9 – 20.  doi: 10.1192/bjp.187.9.1

[5] Proust, M. (1913/1981).  Du côté de chez Swann, vol. one of À la recherche du temps perdu.  C. Moncrieff & T. Kilmartin (Trs.).  New York, NY: Random House.

[6] A brief mention of Simone de Beauvoir again (I’ve been reading her work, so she’s on my mind).  In her 1946 novel All men are mortal, the lead character, Fosca, is unwilling or unable to face the prospect of his own death.  Thinking magically, he believes he can take up projects at will, complete them, and then commit his successors to them, possibly for all eternity.  He becomes paralyzed with indifference and ennui when he discovers this is impossible.  He finally comes to realize his descendants never will share his interests, which finally motivates him to think less abstractly and to live more concretely in the here and now.  Beauvoir, S. (1946/1955).  All men are mortal.  L. Friedman (Tr.).  New York, NY: Norton.

[7] Simon & Garfunkel (1968).  Bookends.  On Bookends.  New York, NY: Columbia Records.

[8] In this respect I am out of sync with the last paragraph of Rachel Naomi Remen’s vignette “Choose Life.”  At p. 199 of her book Kitchen Table Wisdom, one of the texts for this class, she states: “Freedom may come not from being in control of life but rather from a willingness to move with the events of life, to hold onto our memories but let go of the past. …” (italics added).  I don’t see how you can do this; from an epistemological standpoint, once I let go of a memory, I have let go of the past.  Remen, R. (2006).  Kitchen table wisdom (10th anniversary ed.).  New York, NY: Riverhead Trade.

[9] Having said that, I suppose I could buy a cassette player, which probably would cost around $5 on eBay.

[10] The Doors (1967).  I can’t see your face in my mind.  On Strange days.  New York, NY: Elektra Records.

[11] Our age difference wasn’t that great; when we met, I was 22 and she was 17.

[12] This strikes me as an obstacle to anthologies of letters.  While correspondence received isn’t problematic, wouldn’t it be difficult to recover correspondence sent, unless the writer made copies, which most writers probably don’t, unless they already are famous, or use a secretary, or have an enhanced sense of their own self worth?

[13] White, C. (2005).  Time and death: Heidegger’s analysis of finitude.  Farnham, UK: Ashgate Publishing.

[14] Shelley, P. (1821/1970).  Adonaïs.  In T. Hutchinson (Ed.).  Poetical works.  Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. (p. 440)