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Smoking with Carol
Composed for the memorial service honoring Carol Feldman, NYU School of Law, New York
By Mark Danner May 04, 2006
Tags: Elegies and Appreciations | Carol Feldman Print

When I look back over the many years of conversations with Carol Feldman, I realize that what brought us together, first and foremost, was our vices. Our true relationship began at that precise moment, at some cocktail party or other ten or fifteen years ago, when she interrupted our conversation with the sudden interjection, "Excuse me, I HAVE to go out and have a cigarette"— and I exclaimed instantly in response, with gratitude and enthusiasm, "Oh yes, yes, me too!"And off we went, arm in arm, as it were, out to the back stoop or whatever it was, and lit up; and there began our relationship of a decade or more, a relationship of stoops and doorways and sidewalks where we stood talking and smoking and laughing, always conspiratorially, always knowingly — for what we knew first of all was what those healthy ones still inside could not have realized, that in fact the party had slipped away from them, had moved outside, to where we stood beneath a drifting cloud of smoke and laughter.

Now this story will not take on its true color of meaning if I do not make to you a confession that I never made to Carol: I don't smoke. Or to put it another way: I had an enormous crush on Carol and sacrificed my lungs to get a few moments privately with her. Truth to tell, I would have sacrificed much else. One consequence of this is that for a decade and more Carol thought of me as a fellow smoker and she, unlike you, will never know otherwise.

To what can I trace my frank and prolonged mendacity? Well, as I said, I had an enormous crush on Carol. Unlike my smoking, or rather my not smoking, that was certainly no secret to her. Still, that does not really answer the question. She was a lovely woman but it was clearly not only that; some joining, rather, of beauty and delight. When I heard Carol had left us I thought about the times we had spent together and I could envision her face with great clarity and brightness in all manner of expressions. I could see her — I can still see her — with startling presence. If I was a painter, I feel I could render her perfectly, laughing at me, her delight and spirit leaping at me right off the canvas. I can see her gestures, the way she smiled, the way she drew on her cigarette, the way she tilted her head to let her cheek be kissed.

And yet when I think of all those conversations we had I can remember very little of them. I have tried hard to reconstruct them, have thought of the various places we encountered one another — at Institute of Humanities parties, in particular, where I went, Christmas and spring, in particular delight at the expectation of seeing her — and yet I have to confess that at the end of the day we talked of pedestrian things, of what we had been doing and whom we had been seeing, of where our travels had taken us and where our work had left us, and of course, always, always, of the foibles and follies of those non-smokers we had left behind. And yet this admission of the blank dailyness of what we shared in words contrasts strongly with the enormous pleasure I took in seeing her.

As I was puzzling over this conundrum there kept flickering before my mind, just beyond the reach of consciousness, like a an elusive dream whose relevance one can't quite pin down, a passage from a book I had read long before. I tried hard to grasp the thread but it trailed before me, just out of reach; finally, though, I caught it and began gently to draw it toward me. The passage, it turned out, came from the work of my friend Czeslaw Milosz and after a long search through his books I came upon it, a paragraph in his book, The Year of the Hunter. This book is a kind of journal recounting the year he spent alone after the death of his wife, Janina. It mostly takes place on Grizzly Peak, in the house where I now live, but in the paragraph I remembered Czeslaw has traveled to Paris, and here he is wandering through the galleries of the Quai d'Orsay. Here is what he says:

If we think about it seriously, it is unbelievable that from a considerable distance, when we still don't even know the painter's name, we are able to make distinctions and to say who it is. For example, that it is a landscape by Corot. Which means that there exists (I'm not sure how to define it) a tone, a nuance, a melody, which is peculiar to one man only and to no one else, the mark of an individual, and art supplies only a particular occasion for becoming conscious of this, for the painter has managed to express what is his own, but that does not mean that other people lack their own particular note. This may be the sole proof of the immortality of the soul, with due consideration for additional premises, to be sure: that this strictly individual, unique something cannot be destroyed forever, because that would be senseless and unjust.

I love this passage and it is clear to me now why my mind, as I struggled to understand my relationship to Carol, kept trying to find it again. The reason is simple. I was strongly drawn to "this strictly individual, unique something"that was Carol, and all the talking and the laughing, and certainly all the smoking, was simply a way for me to be close to her — to be close to that "tone, that nuance, that melody"that was Carol. And I believe the poet when he says that "this strictly individual, unique something cannot be destroyed forever."Certainly that strictly individual, unique something is with us now, in this room. It is with me when I hear her laughter, as I still do, and it is with me every time I see two people standing together, exiled at the threshold of some building, talking and laughing and smiling under their twin corona of softly drifting smoke.

© 2021 Mark Danner