A frame, a mirror, and a canvas: Thoughts on New York

Every city in the world can be described by one of these three metaphors: a frame, a mirror, or a canvas. Rome, a perfect mirror, is a place where nothing is ever unknown. Layers and layers of history laid upon each other produce a strange genealogy of time. There is always a piece of you in Rome to be discovered. You have been there already, preconceived in distant reflections of a mirror-city. 

A frame is a refuge for imagination, an interpunction in a sentence, a shadow of an object. Without it, paintings start to disuse and merge with each other like cloudy water for paintbrushes. Frames are carriers of sense, not meaning. As concentrated exteriors, they resemble lamps turned inwards. And then, there stands Brussels—a decorated frame with no real center. Brussels is a borderline that became art itself. Images of Brussels change constantly, yet the frame is always there to keep the gaze centered, pulling the forces of the old and young Europe together. 

New York is an empty, endless canvas of a Pollockian painting sprayed with drops of sensuality and novelty, where nothing is ever finished. An old legend says that the first inhabitants of Manhattan, Lenape, used the name Shatemuc for what is nowadays known as the Hudson River. “The river that flows both ways” was their prophecy, which is still valid. Nothing is more brackish than New York, no place so fused with tastes and colors. It exists as a living monument to life that flows in both directions. 

In late summer of 2019, I arrived in New York for the first time. Everything, however, seemed strangely familiar. Aside from cinematographic reminiscences that made the landscape recognizable, I felt structural similarity between me and the big city. There was something homelike in a place that couldn’t be more different from my home. Approximately one century ago, my great, great uncle arrived at Ellis Island. After some time, his relatives lost track of him. One chapter of distant family history that began in New York was left unfinished. I remembered him when I was passing next to the Statue of Liberty, and later, tracked his name in passengers’ records. There was something soothing in seeing my family name written in a place behind many seas. I thought for a second that perhaps I was not a stranger here. Here, where even time flows in both directions. 

Columbia University is magnificent. Occasionally, I suffer from some inexplicable jet lag even without traveling anywhere. Butler Library, the main at the campus, is conveniently open 24/7 to house several dozen enthusiasts, insomniacs, and late-night book spotters. Everything becomes calm past midnight and our ears, tuned to the rhythm of city noise, take time to transition to silence. In those intermediary moments, I imagine whispers and inaudible conversations, multitudes of voices emanating from books. Every library should be like that—a hybrid of a busy crossroad and a secluded sanctuary. During breaks, I check the shelf for returned books for no reason other than discovering some familiar mind among multitudes that pass through the library, and often, there is a book we both like; I, and the unknown book reader, uncovered like a family name from a long list of titles. 

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New York is an open canvas for things similar and things different, equally adaptable to scribbles and clear concepts. During my first semester at Columbia, I spent most of my time at the School of International Relations’ AHDA program. Aside from my research and work on my book, I was participating in activities related to the topic of historical dialogue. The richest element of the program was its international diversity. Nine of us developed new projects that dealt with topics of trauma, memory, dialogue, and commemoration. Nothing teaches us as much as a personal contact. New worlds open to me from Sri Lanka and Japan, over South Sudan and Uganda, north towards Lebanon and Serbia, to Argentina and Chile. We were all there confronted with our piece of the grand painting, with an unusual sense of understanding of solidarity that occurs only in places that know no strangers. 

“This is a place where you can talk to everyone, but you must say everything twice—the first time because you feel it, and the second time because you mean it,” I wrote recently to a friend of mine. On an unfinished artwork of New York, everything exists first as an idea, and then as a realization. It took me a while to get used to the mores of personal encounters, which are easy and difficult at the same time. “Thursday, at 14h” I learned does not mean anything unless it is reconfirmed. Meanwhile, that Thursday only levitates as a coordinate in one of numerous possible worlds. “Living here” I added in the same email “is an experiment in cosmology. Just like some benign deity, people seem to create too many potential universes out of which only a small number can survive the rules of physics and time. It is easy to meet people in the realm of ideas, but a bit more difficult otherwise.” There is something uncanny about knowing that in every moment at Times Square, there must be someone similar to you hidden in a crowd of thousands upon thousands. A perfect encounter surfaces like a pure idea that can materialize in any movement. 

Recently, I started a project entitled “Notes from the Underground.” It is a less-than-subtle reference to Dostoyevsky, but unlike his eccentric hero who lives in a basement, my underground is the NYC subway. During the long commutes, I observe people around me. What has always intrigued me with transportation vehicles is the randomness of passengers brought together for a brief time. Every car is a minuscule society that exists only here and there before becoming extinct at the next station. It is there where I write poems and then leave them near the windows, like a token of a perfect encounter with an unknown stranger who might come unexpectedly. The underground is another river of people that flows in both directions like the prophecy of a promised city said—a river on an endless canvas.

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P.S. It has been almost three months since I wrote this post. Meanwhile, the virus tranquilized this ‘city that never sleeps.’ New York became one of the global spots of the pandemic. T. S. Eliot was right that “April is the cruelest month.” Yet instead of lilacs, memory, and desired, it bred disquiet and uncertainty. One spring arrived, but the real one, the spring of a renewed life is still pending. In these strange times, the rooftop of our building has been my secret sanctuary, an observation point, and a route to serenity. It is my only way to feel close to the people while remaining distant. From above, things look minute. One could be easily forgiven for thinking that everything is just a toy set, a portable city that fits in a shoebox. While I am slowly packing luggage for my return to Belgium, I’m seeking ways to carry that little world with me. “One day, we will take off our masks and meet again, protected by nothing but our fragilities,” I wrote recently. It is time to inscribe my initials somewhere on the big canvas of the city. I will come to search for them again. Nevermore a stranger.

Dr. Stipe Odak is a Belgian 2019-2020 Fulbright Visiting Scholar to Columbia University. Stipe Odak is a researcher at the Université Catholique de Louvain (Belgium) and a lecturer at the Université Catholique de Lille (France). He holds a Ph.D. in Political and Social Sciences and a doctorate in Theology. His research focuses on the intersections of religion, conflicts, and collective memories. In 2019-2020, he will be a Fulbright fellow at Columbia University, developing a theory of post-conflict memory as a form of performative justice.

Articles are written by Fulbright grantees and do not reflect the opinions of the Fulbright Commission, the grantees’ host institutions, or the U.S. Department of State

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