What astonished me, I think, was the simple fact that he had body.
Paul Auster, The Book of Illusions
Tucked away in a deep closet full of books I recovered this photo portrait in my former ancestral home.
Actually, you can no longer speak of a portrait. It is rather like the Grin of the Cheshire Cat which remained in the tree for a while after the rest of cat’s body had already faded away.
Was it out of shame that this image was hiding in that closet, because on it there’s almost nothing to be seen anymore? Or, conversely, was it hidden there to protect the likeness against further yellowing? Or simply because my parents, who received it in the legacy of my grandparents, did not have the slightest idea who this person might have been? Three variations, then, on someone’s disappearance.
In Lewis Carroll’s Adventures his protagonist Alice laments that the cat who keeps her company is either appearing or disappearing far too suddenly. She finds this most irritating.
‘All right’, said the cat, and this time it vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of the tail, and ending with the grin, which remained some time after the rest of it had gone.
Later in the book, this remarkable event triggered a strictly logical argument between the King and his Executioner. The Executioner refuses the order to execute the cat, raising the objection that he simply cannot perform what is commanded:
‘You can simply not chop off anyone’s head when there is no body attached to it’.
Old photos, especially the black and white variety or the sepia ones, always deal with death – like an executioner takes care of heads and bodies. Most portraits show only a head, sometimes with just the remnant of its body added. But often in these black and white or sepia photographs the face is evaporating, such as happened to the grinning face of the Cheshire Cat – slowly, yet certainly.
In order to give a slight twist to the argument of Carroll’s executioner you could also describe it like this: Has the decapitation on such faded portraits not already taken place? Just like the grinning Cheshire Cat has already been beheaded before there is any need for an executioner.
When the same devastating, severe light with which that image first was written begins to slowly kill its child and finally causes it to fade away, this merely confirms the attitude of that wonderful cat. It may not have given a satisfactory answer to his Alice in words, but instead it answered by way of its mysterious act of indeed disappearing not suddenly. Paying her in kind, one might say.
It is said that a man only lives on in what he himself has created, and more especially in the minds of those he left behind at his death, at least in memories of him of those who admired him or loved him. The purpose of such framed images of older folks was, after all, not to be forgotten.
The vague shape in this small portrait may be have been the likeness of a woman, perhaps even of my Mother’s mother’s mother. Levi-Strauss wrote beautifully about the computing processes going on in the human brain – a kind of calculating factory owned by primitive, modern and postmodern man alike. In a primitive tribe every member knew the precise lineage tree for each member and thus his own relationship to all the others. ‘That man – he is my father’s mother’s sister’s son’ – et cetera.
Such deep knowledge was vital to the intricate system of marriages in these tribes. Levi-Strauss gave a mathematician the task of inventing the formula needed to cope with such a set of extremely complex relationships. For this that man’s whole ingenuity was required, as well as quite a lot of his time.
We still use this computing capacity, however not any longer to calculate the relationship to our fellow citizens. In the meantime the scope of social bonds has grown so large, that knowledge of the relationship system of all citizens is just impossible, even though in our head Lévi-Strauss’ savage mind is still the same well-oiled computer.
We may, however, still do this within our own families – hence the term used: My mother’s mother’s mother. This could also have been My mother’s fáther’s mother. On the backside of the image the name of the picture shop is mentioned where the gilded wooden frame was made. In Leeuwarden, the capital of Friesland, close to which my grandfather lived.
Then again, my mother’s father was an orphan and what can still be seen of the face in the frame points to an older person. So Mother’s ‘mother’s mother may just be it.
However, understanding all this does not help us to solve existential enigmas. This informative code may live on in each succeeding generation, the genes may have been diligently working to reproduce themselves. Why not – eternal life… But sure enough, this possible Mother’s mother’s mother is by now stone dead, there is no one left to remember her. So, does she still exist…?
Now, on this last remaining image of her, the face is even blurring. Whether she grinned during its taking can no longer be determined.