The Grave's A Fine and Private Place: on Aurel Schmidt's "Voodoo Dolls" (2011)


The unwritten history of failure might include a section devoted to our many ways of staving failure off. Not the striving toward any actual pursuit, but the marginal, anxious froth that hovers around the notion of the productive. Acedia, melancholia, Weltschmertz, the black dog, the noonday demon -- the dizzy ritual of non-work -- of what we do when we say “all day I have done nothing,” having thought all the while of what we should have done. There is the true source of restless creation -- that home-brewed occult of ceremonial idleness.

Subsections of this history could be labeled: debasement; self-abuse; cooking; smoking; what to do at midnight; the pleasure of photographs; manic deep cleaning; there are a lot of interesting things in this drawer; catching up with a childhood friend; unexpected high; much feared low; how's the weather; this looks okay to me, let's eat it; what happened to the groceries. In the rumpled sheet between should and should not dwell things that are good and things that are bad, things that devour themselves continually in a reproductive cycle of cathartic ennui. Base and beautiful, the straightforward revolt of taking pen away from paper and just letting it lie on the empty page: this is a necessary pause, breeding unforeseeable monsters.

We look through the glazed layers of a 16th century Dutch still-life to uncover a vase of flowers in full bloom -- swarming with bees, witnessed by a skull. Composed, fantastically vulnerable subjects made of writhing and iconic parts. The limpid butt of a cigarette arcs to form a limb; a cigarette burn bores two wide and unflinching eyes. A quarter-machine yin-yang ring dangles on the rumpled butt of an arm. The fragility of the dolls' beauty, verging on rot, rises as though from the ash heap to confront you with uncomplicated happiness: a placid, Snoopy-dog smile.

The poet Andrew Marvell persists in wooing his ever-desirable mistress with the threat of worms, violating her virginal sanctity in death. So, why, dear, not violate it now, he insists? She is a vegetable muse, yet we demand a live one -- more elusive, world-weary and steeled for loss. We demand charms that protect bedrock hope, born of every day’s onslaught of deleterious detritus. Why not ransack the garbage pail for the discarded keepsake, and restore its shiny, good-as-gold worth? I don’t know; if it looks good, forgive and ecstatically grab hold.

This essay was published in TAR Magazine, Spring 2011.