ESSAY BY AYTEN TARTICI
ARTWORK BY TED FULLERTON
For the Roman poet Ovid, the creation of the world as we know it was preceded by an amorphous state, in which all matter was promiscuously combined. Everything, he tells us in Metamorphoses, was shapeless and undifferentiated, a primordial, anarchic confusion that he refers to by its Greek name: ‘CHAOS.’ And so that confusion of elements—dark and light, cold and hot—continued until some kindly god started disentangling the mess, pulling the heavens from the earth and the sea from the land. Unruly chaos became our ordered cosmos. The meaning of the word ‘chaos’ today still bears Ovid’s sense of disorder and confusion, but has shed its earlier sense of formlessness; a ‘chaotic scene’ is one filled with too many disparate, individual elements, like the pandemonium of fists flying in a bar brawl.
Modern cities embody that newer sense of chaos, not as inert formlessness but as intemperate multiplicity. Think of the Shibuya ‘scramble crossing’ in Tokyo and the millions of pedestrians, officer workers, tourists and shoppers who stream ac-ross it in undulating waves every day when the light turns green. Or the crush of feet trampling over each other on Istanbul’s Metrobus, as it glides over the Bosphorus like an overstuffed duffle bag on wheels. In Ezra Pound’s poem, In a Station of the Metro, a crowded public transport station in Paris becomes an ecstatic vision of disembodied visages: ‘The apparition of these faces in the crowd: / Petals on a wet, black bough.’ That multiplicity is also aural. In the famous recording of the New York poet Frank O’Hara reading Having a Coke with You, written for his lover, the ballet dancer Vincent Warren, you can hear the crackles of traffic and car horns seeping into the track from his window. I throw myself into the street for a similar fix: the yoking of incompatible sounds and the ever-replenished promise of novelty that I cannot seem to outgrow. Not even its so-called filthiness can repel me. ‘Is it dirty?’ O’Hara lasciviously, invitingly, asks in another poem, ‘does it look dirty / that’s what you think of in the city.’ I return to my apartment as form changed, atoms rearranged.
That invigorating tumult of New York City screeched to a halt as the pandemic, a rival kind of disorder, set in. I watched as one by one neighbours, colleagues and acquaintances departed in different directions, some seeking comfort, others safety. I hoped to decipher, in their discarded effects, the invisible forces and fears that governed them. A friend from high school risked a flight to be with his girlfriend in Lyon just before the European countries started closing their borders, in March. He mailed me his apartment keys from France, so I could help him close the Brooklyn apartment for which he was still paying rent. I sat amongst a pile of expired contact lenses and loose change, as movers hauled away the balance of his belongings and his loneliness, a newfound intimacy I didn’t know how to navigate. Not everyone lamented the exodus and resulting decline in the population, estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands. When told that New Yorkers were fleeing the city, the cultural critic Fran Lebowitz tartly replied, ‘Don’t come back. OK?’ Her response suggested a different kind of fantasy: the dream of a habitable New York, one less crowded, one in which you can actually afford to breathe. In Martin Scorsese’s documentary, Pretend It’s a City, Lebowitz happily ambles through Robert Moses’s miniature model of New York in the Queens Museum, a towering Godzilla-like figure in a city of one.
In the beginning, I too flirted with the idea of calling it quits with New York and all seven-hundred and thirty-seven square feet of my apartment, spending troves of time scrolling through Zillow, looking at Zestimates of houses in any reasonably warm state near a body of water. I daydreamed of a new life, especially of a spacious study lined with bookshelves. In the five years I have lived in the city, I have only briefly owned a desk. Instead, I sacrificed all the accoutrements of a writer for an oversized, concrete-coloured dining table, a king-sized bed that allows me to toss and turn and a long gray sofa for sneaking afternoon naps. Books keep accumulating by the side of the wall in a teetering pile that reaches as far up as the light switch. Every time I need a book from the bottom of said pile, my personal Jenga tower collapses. Yet, if I could leave all this, if I gathered up the courage to let this cramped slice of my world evaporate and become my past, where exactly would I go?
In times of crisis, we are prone to discover desires buried so deep we are astonished to learn we were capable of ever possessing them. Five months in, and suffering from a mounting sense of restlessness, I broke down and called a friend who works as a neurologist at a hospital in North Carolina. I proudly announced that I was going to live near her, in Asheville. She patiently listened to me, recommended some neighbourhoods and hung up. Two days later, she texted me that I would need new hobbies if I was to survive in North Carolina (I have none besides reading). A few days after that, she called again, and said she wasn’t sure I would survive there for more than a month. The ease with which she drew these inferences, the dexterity with which others scanned our character, attributing to it a changeless, permanent quality, frightened me. It seemed as if the accumulation of our interactions produced a hologram, unintelligible to us, that was doomed to repeat our most salient characteristics and habits. Was I not capable of change? How about we try it for a week, I countered. Give me a chance to prove you wrong.
The drive from New York to North Carolina was exhaustingly long. Eleven hours and forty-five minutes of endless highway. Despite that, the first couple of days were idyllic. One afternoon, as if in a dream, I found myself gliding up and down Lake Norman – a massive man-made lake, heated to bath water temperatures by a hydroelectric plant. I anchored and swam until my arms grew tired. Beginnings, and the freedom to change course, are intoxicating. I drove to Bojangles, a Southern fast food chain, and ate blueberry biscuits for breakfast three days in a row just because I could. By the end of the week, however, my initial enthusiasm had waned. The mosquitos were ubiquitous. It was impossible to read a single page outside without finding my legs covered in raised red bites. The route for my run was getting old: rows of single-family homes, picket fences, manicured lawns and graceful-looking geese promenading about. It was all too quiet, too spread out, too peaceful.
I wished I could embrace that peace and quiet. One of the most difficult Turkish words to translate is ‘huzur.’ It conveys not just freedom from mayhem and confusion, but also a deeper sense of calm, an untroubled conscience brought about by being at peace with your choices. The urge to conjure that state of calmness through an external environment that matches it is all too human. And yet, what constitutes our sense of huzur is intrinsically subjective, idiosyncratic and coloured by reassuring habits and illusions of continuity. One person’s chaos is another person’s cosmos. The day I was slated to return to New York, I woke up at 4 am. I tidied the kitchen, did the dishes and loaded up the car. I thought of all the mail that must have arrived in my absence. When the sun came up, I was already at the wheel. Huzur entered Turkish from Arabic and originally meant being settled – the antithesis of being a nomad. It meant, To paraphrase, it meant being able to say: I am here, by your side, a bird alighting on its chosen branch.