Meaningful Cracks and Breakages
1. In an inconspicuous corner of my living room, you will notice a small, silver clad, Orthodox icon of the Virgin Mary holding Baby Jesus. If you detach the silver cladding, you will see that the wooden body of the icon, on which Mary and Jesus are painted, is neatly broken in two halves, as if by an invisible but firm hand. Once upon a time, the icon used to hang above my grandmother’s bed. When she gave birth to my mother — or rather, exactly as my mother exited Granny’s tormented body — the icon broke in two. Was it God? Was it Fate? Was it Mother Universe? Was it the second law of thermodynamics?
Predictably, the cracked icon became a metaphor for Mum’s dramatic life, which included many breakages: divorce, widowhood and exile. The lesson I learnt from this coincidence was that the simple, mundane, physical occurrences of life can be more dangerously metaphorical than any fiction, movie or soap opera.
2. Apart from the sentimental songs with lyrics by obscure romantic poets that Granny used to sing to herself in her frequent moments of nostalgia, my first memorable introduction to poetry was in first grade, at the Clementza primary school in Bucharest, in the form of an unforgettably tense poem describing little Nelu’s adventure of breaking a cup. Faced with the dilemma of lying or telling the truth, little Nelu battles his demons and his visible tears, and bravely confesses his guilt to Mummy, who praises his courage and forgives him. Had he not broken that cup, Nelu would not have been faced with a symbolic choice and his subsequent promotion from the ranks of tearful little boys to the golden squad of exemplary heroes. The poem still haunts me, despite my sustained effort to forget its silly lines. Or maybe it’s the very silliness of the lines that have become endearing, with the cracks of time:
Lacrimi mici răsar sub geană
Ce-ai făcut? Am spart o cană!
(Under his eyelid, small tears well up
What have you done? I broke a cup!)
3. Shortly after we broke into the third millennium, I found myself in Barcelona. In his marvellous book about this city, Robert Hughes had written about the cultural significance of the central cemetery, which reproduced, at a smaller scale, the lavish modernista architecture where the departed members of the high bourgeoisie had lived and frolicked. From the Rambla, I took the ill-famed 38 bus to the cemetery. On the bus, there was an armed guard to protect the improbable traveller from drug dealers, pimps, prostitutes, pickpockets and other underworld regulars that had turned the 38 bus and the cemetery end-of-line bus stop into their busy headquarters.
The challenging trip was well worth the effort. Instead of a predictably melancholy experience in that majestic, picturesque location, overlooking the bay … I was hit by the full blast of a loud and sumptuous symphony of cracked tombstones, torn and twisted marble slates, fractured angel wings, beheaded madonnas, crumbling Art Nouveau nymphs. The blazing whiteness of the best Carrara marble that money could buy, cracking, breaking, decomposing into tiny particles of rubble continuously dispersed by the salty winds of the sea, was by far the most monumental expression I had ever witnessed, the most evocative empirical experience of the impermanence of what I’d thought would be the most permanent of things. That funerary approximation of eternity turned out to be much more fragile and brittle than its occupants had ever expected it to be. Its image stayed forever chiselled on my mind and was to become one more reason for me to weigh on the side of incineration and annihilation.
4. I’ve spent the most meaningful years of my life in a Victorian house, in an area that has been recently earmarked for intensive development. At the corner of my street, just four houses away, an entrepreneur is building a six-storeyed block of 57 flats.
Over the last year, a variety of cracks have appeared in the walls of my house. Some are deep and dramatic. Others are shallow, like spider veins on a middle-aged leg. I patch them, one by one, over and over, and I love my house ever more tenderly for this very reason.
From a metaphysical perspective, things break because we live in a world of duality, in other words, a world of broken parts, pointlessly yearning for the unattainable perfection of the whole, which belongs, of course, outside of the duality trap.
From a physical perspective, things break because this is what the second law of thermodynamics tells us, and the second law of thermodynamics is always right: sooner or later, everything — no matter how huge, how sturdy, how important, how expensive, how tough, will turn into sand and stardust.
From a poetic perspective, things break firstly because Leonard Cohen says so: ‘there is a crack in everything/that’s how the light gets in’.
Secondly, the breakage of things is an expression of poetic justice: if we, the animate, must die, they — the inanimate — must break. A broken cup is a dead cup. A broken dream becomes, sooner or later, a dead dream.
Whichever way one looks at the problem, to exist in the world translates into a succession of breakages. Of falls, cracks, fissures, gaps. Of subdividing and dispersing, into ever more numerous and tinier bits and pieces.
Until further notice, the universe breaks. In fact, the universe can’t even begin, without a generic big break.
Mountains break, continents break, ships break, buildings break, pipes break, cables break, fast-moving trains break and so do Boeing 777 aeroplanes.
The fertilised egg cell breaks, ever more furiously, morphing into a body that spends its entire existence cracking and breaking … until its final release into the common matrix of stardust.
In contrast to the highly disposable character of Western, mainstream, consumerist society, the Japanese have developed a concept called Wabi-sabi — an approach to life that embraces the cracked, the imperfect, that which is broken and put back together. By celebrating the precious immanence of objects, wabi-sabi cultivates what is permanently worthy of us human beings.
Starting with the Impressionists, modern art has broken the visible world into meaningful parts, endowing it with renewed, hypnotic fascination.
Arguably, every great work of art is a voyeuristic enterprise, a witnessing — of some kind or another — of the great breaking adventure brought to us by the simple and unavoidable reality of existing in an imperfect universe under the ever-grinding wheels of duality.
Shakespeare was obsessed with the grand mechanics of breaking: the falling, the cracking, the thunderous implosion of kingdoms and dynasties, of the world as a stage … the obsessive spectacle of historical and existential disintegration.
Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, arguably the best novel ever written, is essentially a sumptuous chronicle of the serial and systematic cracking and crumbling of its protagonist’s expectations and aspirations.
Looking back at my life, the only thing that genuinely distinguishes me from the other seven billion human beings going through the various, ever more globalised, rituals of life, is my very own, my very personal, my totally inimitable response to the universal experience of breaking inflicted on us all by the very act of living.
The cracks, fissures, gaps and breaks I was exposed to through my middle of the range existence, and the way I reacted — or interacted! With them makes me what I am today: a multi-cracked, multi-fissured human being, with a few broken wings in my bag and lots of stories to tell.
If, by metaphysical coincidence or simply by virtue of a broken timetable, you and I ever end up in each other’s company … say, we occupy neighbouring seats in a fast moving train carriage, or we wait in an airport, for relatives on a Boeing 777 that continues to be late …
… and the congenial demon of conversation tempts us into killing some time together, be sure that I will always be fascinated to listen to your story. On one condition: don’t bore me to death with your achievements; your titles; your partners; your trips to South America, your medals, your grandfather’s medals, your amazing children, your fascinating pets.
No! If you want me to lend you my ear, if you want to tempt my interest, if you want to engage me in meaningful conversation: tell me about how you cracked and fell and broke. And tell me how — imperfectly, clumsily, ridiculously — you somehow managed, or attempted, to put the pieces back together.
Shall we give it crack?