Words and Pictures: "You Must Console Me"
In that time before smartphones, I kept this raggedy scrap of paper in my wallet. It was a list called “The best 100 books of fiction”—put together by Oxford, if I remember correctly. I kept it handy in case I found myself passing a second hand bookstore where I could pick up some reading that was both entertaining and wholesome, and dirt cheap besides.
That’s how I found the 1929 novel Berlin Alexanderplatz, written by Alfred Döblin, number eighteen on the list, between Diderot and Dostoevsky. Döblin wrote the way George Grosz and Max Beckmann painted. His created world was a psychological, social, and moral circus buzzing with multiple voices and vibes from the unconscious. In 1980 Rainer Werner Fassbinder completed a film version of Berlin Alexanderplatz that famously ran for over fifteen hours.
The way Döblin wrote his story was even more important than the story itself, which, brutally summarized, goes like this. Petty criminal Franz Bieberkopf leaves prison. Bieberkopfis an apparently simple, and most certainly flawed, character. The novel traces Franz’s odyssey through not only the tawdry jungle of Weimar Berlin but also the convolutions within his mind.
Part of my reading ritual is that when I find something I really like—a phrase, a sentence, sometimes more—I write it down. I enjoy collecting these prizes; I find them comforting and, after a time, comfortingly familiar. I have more than two decades of this stuff. So it was with Döblin’s novel, where I found—and scribbled down on a raggedy scrap of paper—this sentence:
You must console me.
I no longer remember which character said it, or in what context. But I loved the sentence when I first read it, and love it still. It has to do with four words, just four, binding together this nuanced melancholy with what feels like desperation. It’s not a simple cry like “You must save me”; that would sound hackneyed anyway. It’s specific, and subtle. It’s direct, urgent, loud, near histrionic: You must console me. Nothing tepid like "I want you to console me." No choice allowed. The words are commanding and explicit; it’s you who must console me, not just anyone. They’re aggressive and directive, even manipulating and controlling—qualities that don’t usually keep company with the act of consolation and its gentle overtones.
You must console me. Here's why the phrase still gets me. It encapsulates the psychic contradictions that we don’t like to acknowledge but nonetheless teem inside us. We suffer, and to assuage that pain we want comfort, company. But in that maelstrom of pain we lose perspective. We flail. We up the ante, raising desires to needs, yearnings to cravings; a plea becomes an edict. Vulnerability spawns panic and even hostility. What comes from a fragile place emerges as a frenzied wail or even a fist. We squeeze the bird we hold in our palm so hard that it dies.
The first piece I titled You must console me was this one, a 2002 triptych from the Arena series:
Titles are a treacherous business. I develop titles for my work through a period of of what I would call gentle and uneven percolation. The image comes first, of course. As the image comes together, words that feel more or less consonant with that image start turning over in my mind . Sometimes these words, or word combinations, grow out of my quotations lists or some amalgamation thereof; often they come from somewhere else. If I don't find words that feel right, I leave the work untitled.
Last year I finished the image I called Frances (you must console me), which you see above. In this case I took the use of words further, inserting the text into the picture. I went through some trepidation here. If titles are tough, using words as formal elements in images—commonplace as it is—is a hundred times more so. But after obsessing over it, after experimenting with endless variations including dumping the text altogether and trying out different typefaces, after running it by a few trusted friends and finally letting it sit for a long while (always essential), I did it. The text you must console me became part of this image, which I constructed starting with a 1942 photo of my mother.
My mother died in 2010—I found the old photo after her death—so some people have asked me about the text: am I referring to myself? (I suppose there are others who just assume I am.) The short answer is no. More than anything I found relief when my mother died. She lived nearly twenty years with mercilessly advancing Alzheimer’s disease. Anybody who knows even a little about that knows I don’t have to say more.
The phrase you must console me is one I connect—strongly, I’ve come to realize through creating this picture—to my mother’s life. Like Franz Bieberkopf, she was burdened and abused by the unique historical circumstances in which she found herself. In her case, those circumstances spun out of the particularly virulent anti-semitism of the 1930s and 1940s. As most of us do, my mother wove those circumstances into her life using materials she both inherited and made herself. Unlike Franz, my mother could be powerfully smart and sensitive, with a tenacious energy for what moved her. Those traits reacted with events and experiences to produce a toxic spiral inside her, one that too often spat anger and hatred. But at the root of all that disquiet and fury was an acute grief and the wish that went with it: a wish for comfort and soothing, for some great consolation.
Frances Rodick never found that consolation. But the yearning, in its unique and often terrible configuration, burned its way through her life, destroying relationships and throwing away years. It may be true, as the platitude goes, that we all die alone. But some of us die more alone than others.
I should add that I was never able (Was I even willing?) to help her find that solace. Of course, my head, along with some wise company along the way, remind me this was impossible. But there are times when my heart whispers something else. So, perhaps that short answer I gave—that no, the words aren’t about me—isn’t entirely correct. I don’t know. And, as I think about it, it seems unbefitting to talk about knowing when it applies to such ghostly things. Here's what I do know about those four words, you must console me: in ways I can’t define, they feel true. But in order for me to lean that much closer into this feeling, to really listen to the words—which come out whispered despite their fire—for this the words needed the image. And the image needed the words, declared over and over.
To see more images from the series Frances, click here.