Grief and Invisibility:
How Wings of Desire Saved My Life
Sara Irene Rosenbaum
Man makes a picture
A moving picture
In light projected
he can see himself up close
When I first saw Wings of Desire, I was twenty years old, and I recognized myself immediately.
The winter of that year, the winter after my stepfather's death, I wore a long black overcoat. I kept my hair, which I had grown long as a kind of protest against my stepfather's chemotherapy, pulled back and bound behind my head. When I had time to myself, I walked through my city, Boston, and watched people. I watched them on the subway, reading the newspaper for which I worked. Often they would be looking only for the personal ads, but I would pray, as they passed my article, that what I wrote would mean something to someone. Then I would become the words I wrote; I would touch people when their eyes scanned a printed page.
It was my third summer working as a journalist. I had spent the summer of the previous year, 1997, working at another minor Boston weekly, writing about high school graduations, neighborhood events, and one suicide. I was still only beginning to learn my work. Halfway through that summer we learned that my stepfather's cancer had recurred, that it had passed through his bloodstream, that it had already entered into his brain.
That summer, I wrote article after article, staying up all night to patch my interview notes into something sensible. I spent my days listening to people tell me their stories, and I wrote them down, and hoped that the stories would inspire those who read them, my stepfather included. I had no friend that summer, no lover; it had been five years since I had last been kissed on the mouth. As a journalist, my interactions with people were disembodied: I was part of the spirit world. Journalistic interaction is not normal human contact. We are taught, for example, never to eat food offered by a source; a rule I remembered from childhood and the myth of Persephone. We are taught to try not to touch a source. To describe that summer I could say, as the poet Homer says in Wings of Desire:
The world seems to be
sinking into dusk
but I tell the stories
as in the beginning
in my sing-song voice.
which sustains me
protected by the tale
from the troubling present.
But that would be melodrama. Instead, I mourned, worked, watched tv, ate lunch, wrote late at night, was isolated and exhausted, and listened to the radio.
At the end of the summer my mother phoned me to tell me to meet her at the hospital. My stepfather was dying. But instead of going to him right away, I went to the computer and opened the file which contained the short story I was working on, the story of my stepfather as I knew him. I had begun it when he was first diagnosed.
After my stepfather's death, I spent the winter finishing this story. He was a reserved man, embarrassed by emotion, and when I learned he had cancer and cried into his chest, he was astounded: why was I so upset? Did he mean that much to me? The story had been meant to answer him, but he never read it. That winter as I finished writing it, and as long as I wrote it was as if I were speaking to him, touching him. Then I finished the story, and it was winter, and he was still dead.
Name me, muse,
the immortal singer
by his mortal listeners
lost his voice.
There was a night when I woke from a dream in which my stepfather had returned to us, sicker than before, so that he could die again. I had many of these dreams. In this one his eyes had changed color. His eyes in life were like mine, hazel, but in my dream they were blue and didn't see me.
I woke; my eyes were wide open, but all I saw was him dying in my dream. I took the volume of Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet that I kept next to my bed and opened it to a random page. I read:
... because we stand in the middle of a transition where we cannot remain standing. For this reason the sadness too passes: the new thing in us, the added thing, has entered into our heart, has gone into its inmost chamber and is not even there any more – is already in our blood.
This is how I was when I first saw Wings of Desire: I stood in a place where I could not remain standing. In my grief – in my reaction against death – I had become paper, I had become words. I had become a part of the invisible world.
There are, of course, two worlds: the visible and the invisible.
The visible world is everything that touches us through our eyes and our hands. But the invisible world we touch only with the parts of ourselves which are also invisible: the emotions, the imagination, memory. It is the world of text, and of the dead. In Wim Wenders's Der Himmel über Berlin it is the colorless world of angels.
Black-overcoated, their hair bound back, Damiel and Cassiel move through a city with which they barely interact, but which moves them deeply. They are there only to assure that nothing goes unwitnessed. They are the perfect journalists, writing down what they see in their thin notebooks, taking notes and moving on.
But at the same time, the angels live as text lives: in black and white, able sometimes to inspire, but changing nothing in the world. They are not writers so much as what is written. They touch people as art touches us: able, as Cassiel says:
To do no more than observe,
collect, testify, preserve!
I quote these lines as if they were poetry, which they are. The film begins with a poem written in Damiel's hand, and this poem continues as a refrain through the scenes to come. As an English-speaking viewer, I read the subtitled dialogue of the film as if it were all part of the same poem, flashing in two-line stanzas across the bottom of the screen. The movie, for me, is a written text as well as a visual one.
It's a strange combination, because most written texts are invisible.
When we read a written text, we scan the black-and-white of words on paper. This is all that exists of the text in the visible world. It is only in our minds that we see light and movement.
Reading, therefore, is the act of a shaman. Through text we see the
invisible; in imagination we know people who never lived, just as in memory we know people who no longer live. The invisible world is the inadequate way in which the mind of one person can touch another. It is as inadequate as the angels themselves, who cannot do so much as make love, or shake hands.
It's great to live only by the
spirit, to testify day by day
for eternity only to the
spiritual side of people.
But sometimes I get fed up
with my spiritual existance.
Instead of forever
I'd like to feel
there's some weight to me
I realized, seeing myself in Damiel, that I had become text. But worse than that; in becoming text I was living like someone dead. I touched only those parts of the people in the city around me which the dead touched: their minds, their imagination.
To have a fever,
to have blackened fingers
from the newspaper
to be excited
not only by the mind
but, at last, by a meal
by the curve of a neck
by an ear.
I watched Wings of Desire on a hot July night, almost a year after my stepfather's death. In the Jewish tradition mourning is supposed to take one year, but I did not know what to do if I was not mourning. I thought that I would have to try to fall like Damiel, to take hold of the visible world of the present. I would try to step out of the taxing private world of my grief. I would have to train myself to live with open hands. I will have to watch both of my remaining parents die someday, and I want to have hands so open that I can let them go.
The next day I rode the subway in to my job at the newspaper. On the train I watched expression move over the faces of the passengers like wind, leaving a shape, an impression of thought. When I came out of the station it was sunny, and there was heat on my face.
In the newsroom, I was reading over the story I had written the week before, the words I had chosen, changed by my editor and by the fact of their publication. I looked at the story, my paper body.
Then I looked down at my hands, shaped like my mother's, and saw that they were black with newsprint.
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