by Regina Dürig
Regina Dürig researched the life of Alice Kober at the PASP archives in the autumn of 2017. She has recently completed her dissertation on that research, “Deciphering the Silence: A Literary Journey to Alice E. Kober”. Regina is a Switzerland based writer and performer, and closely collaborates with the musician Christian Müller in the experimental story & sound duo Butterland and with artists from other disciplines, notably with visual artist Patrizia Bach. Regina is an adjunct professor for creative writing at the Berne University of the Arts/Swiss Literature Institute and is finishing her novel “Federn lassen” which will be published in spring 2021.
On the last day of my month as visiting scholar at PASP I found a notebook of Alice Kober in which she had pencilled the words (in German): “When grass has grown over all the good things, for sure some camel comes along to eat it all away.” It was a slight shock to me as it seemed these words had been aimed directly at me almost a century ago, clairvoyant and ethereal. Me: the writer who came to Alice Kober’s archive to leave no sheet of paper unturned, to find whatever tiny hints there were in order to get to know her better, to come across stories yet untold. (She must have remembered the saying incorrectly or she varied it deliberately: in the original it’s not “all the good things” but “one bad thing”.)
Warmth & compassion
It took me a long time to truly embrace the fact that I am, indeed, a camel: I am not a classicist, I am not an archaeologist, I don’t even know ancient (or modern) Greek. What am I, then? A writer, that is to say, a person who is good at reading both writing and people. I am cautious and meticulous. In this, I hope, Alice would approve of me, of me searching for her. But I had to invent, I had to guess a lot. And I could feel her frowning on me. For almost two years I couldn’t write at all. Then, after re-reading all the books that mention Alice Kober, her methodology and her achievements, I became angry. Why is her gentle and caring side almost always brushed aside? Why can’t we imagine that a brilliant mind is lodged in the warmth of a compassionate body?
Then, one day in early 2019, I placed my hooves on the keyboard. It did feel clumsy at first, but then I got used to it. I finally was ready to write, stomping furiously, write about all the little details that I had found in the correspondences and also about my imaginations they sparked. It didn’t matter anymore how correct my writing was. What mattered was that it was compassionate, that it acknowledged what can be known and what cannot, that the language itself was taken into account, it’s potential of overcoming habits of ignorance:
“[…] without reducing this gesture [of communicating with another subject] to passing on some information, we must change our way of talking, our use of words—we must be attentive to use words that in themselves conserve life and pass it on instead of passing on only information. We must use a language that remains breathful, alive, sensible.” (Irigaray 2002: 87)
Fragment: The Cat
Alice was that kind of girl that would play hours and hours on her own. The only thing that made her come to me was being hungry or just wanting to eat something. She liked apples cut into pieces. But she hated cut apples when the apple had been peeled. She had this phase, that must have been before school, when she was played at being a cat. But because it was Alice, she was not playing at being a cat, she was a cat. She wouldn’t use any words, she answered in purrs. Ferrie wasn’t too fond of childishness of that kind. After a while he ignored her. She could rub up against his leg for as long as she wanted, but he didn’t pet her, didn’t pick her up, even though Alice was his princess. He’d buy her dresses, so beautiful that I didn’t want her to wear them. So expensive, so delicate. But he insisted. I don’t really know where he got the money from or what he did to get them. Sometimes I thought, well, I don’t grow out of things, I could do with something nice too. But that just didn’t interest him. She was his little doll. I started to worry that Alice would think her father didn’t like her anymore. So I begged her to stop being a cat, to stand up straight, to talk, to smile for Ferrie’s sake. But she looked at me with this cat gaze. You know the way cats look: with their little triangular heads tilted, the way in which you have no idea whether they understand what you are saying and just don’t care, or if they really have no idea what you want from them. When Ferrie went off to work, I put a little bowl of cream on the kitchen floor. I couldn’t let the child starve, could I? She did it for so long, it must have been several days in a row, not answering, not blinking, that I began to think she had suffered a concussion or something or had gone deaf. Things happen faster than one might think inside those little heads, and I took her to our neighbour who had been a doctor back home. Alice would climb up to the fourth floor on all fours. She would lick the backs of her hands while neatly sitting on the doormat. Mr. Cramer examined her, but she wouldn’t answer him with words either. He said that Alice was fine, but that she was a cat now and the only advice he could give me was to adjust her diet. At least once a week she needed to eat a mouse or bird or a rat. He asked me if I had traps in the house and I said yes. He said: “Try to catch them alive, cats like to play with their prey before they eat them.” This was too much for my poor little Alice. She stood up with an awfully grim look on her face and said: “You can’t be a doctor if you can’t tell the difference between a girl and a cat.”
Then she walked home with me and has remained my little girl ever since.
Roland Barthes stated in his 1967 article “From Literature to Science” (in which he was addressing the debate of what was being taught at universities and what wasn’t) that science and literature are, while sharing certain methods and aims, fundamentally different in their way of approaching language: “science speaks itself; literature writes itself; science is led by the voice, literature follows the hand; it is not the same body, and hence the same desire, which is behind the one and the other.” (Barthes 1967: 5)
While science needs and depends on language, it does not take place in language itself; science uses language to communicate the ideas or facts found with other instruments. It doesn’t question language. This means that literature “is alone today in bearing the entire responsibility for language; for though science needs language, it is not, like literature, within language.” (Barthes 1967: 5). I read this thought as a logical utopia, which does not mean all research must be writing, but writing must, if one follows the simplest means of science, namely logic, be or become part of the discourse in the sciences. What Barthes demands of language is self-confidence and subversiveness, right up to the disintegration of the essential concepts of our culture:
“Language is the being of literature, its very world: all literature is contained in the act of writing […]. Ethically, it is solely by its passage through language that literature pursues the disturbance of the essential concepts of our culture, ‘reality’ chief among them. Politically, it is by professing (and illustrating) that no language is innocent, it is by employing what might be called an ‘integral language’ that literature is revolutionary.” (Barthes 1967: 5-6)
As a trained and published writer, I follow the hand when I write, and also in doing research (writing my PhD thesis about the exploration of Alice Kober’s archive) I have a writer’s body. This is to say, my aim is to establish an in-between-space which encourages thinking and working within the language, balancing or expanding the writing into a dialogue with texts falling in Barthes’ category of science.
Obviously, time has passed since Barthes’ statement of the separation between science and literature, and today we see many approaches which strive to bring them closer together (autoethography, for example, or more artistically driven approaches to language based research). But the question still remains: How can those two bodies meet without destroying the world “which is proper to each one”? (Irigaray 2011: 112)
Alice was the kind of child that never liked going to bed, apart from at family parties. When we had my sister over with her children and everything was loud and a mess, Alice would, after eating as much cake or marillenknödel as we could give her, silently disappear. You’d never see her leave; at some point you’d just notice that you hadn’t seen her in a while. Her cousins were making jokes about Alice, but she didn’t mind. She would put on her nightgown, brush her teeth, comb her hair and curl up in bed, no matter what the time of day. I couldn’t get her out, not for anything in the world. And a part of me didn’t want to get her out: a part of me enjoyed that, for once, it was effortless to get her into bed. From her youth, she just wasn’t tired. Not like other kids who want to stay up to play or be with the adults but, in fact, are so exhausted that they finally fall asleep sitting at the table or tying their shoelaces. No. Alice was wide awake. Later on, as a school girl, she would lie down without making a fuss. When she was younger, bedtime was the only thing that made her cry. She didn’t cry when she fell, she didn’t cry when Willie hurt her in his clumsiness or rage, she didn’t cry when she didn’t get what she wanted. When I went to bed, she was almost always still awake. I’d ask her what she was doing and she said she was sleeping. This was said completely truthfully. She thought that lying in bed and being bored was actually what sleeping was. I don’t know what thoughts went through her little head for all those hours. I don’t know how much she slept, because I myself am a good sleeper. Ferrie was too. I don’t know where she got it from. When she was six or seven and her teeth started to fall out, she’d spend the nights wiggling them. She did it even with teeth that weren’t quite loose, she’d just decide on which one was next. She seemed to like the pain that came with it. Alice was the kind of child you never really worried about, but you wondered a lot. Where did all those ideas and habits come from? I still have no idea. Not from us, most certainly, and not from other kids, because she didn’t like to be with them. The only one she liked was a boy from the neighborhood who was a bit slow. She was very gentle with him and talked to him a lot. When I asked her what they were talking about, she of course refused to tell me.
Being an anarchivist
In his 2015 article “AnArcheology for AnArchives: Why Do We Need— Especially for the Arts—A Complementary Concept to the Archive?” Siegfried Zielinski unfolds his concept of the ‘anarchive’, a term he has coined to describe artists’ archives—stacks of works, references and material organised in a way that follows personal principles, work-process-logic or available space, rather than externally accessible systems.
“They [anarchives] do not, however, lay claim to leadership. Nor do they claim to truthfully know where things come from and where they may be headed to. The origin is and remains a trap. Anarchives do not follow any external purpose; they indulge in waste and offer presents. Basically, they are indebted to a single economy, that of friendship. And friendship, as Georges Bataille would have it (1971), is characterized by an acute feeling of strangeness in the world, which we occasionally share with others.” (Zielinski 2015: 122)
While the Kober papers at PASP are absolutely organized, the concept of the anarchive resonates with my research insofar that I was the prefix of anarchy in the archive: I used it for my own logic’s sake, I restructured the items in my memory and in notes to serve my process and purpose. I, as an artist, became an anarchivist amidst the neatly labelled boxes. I, too, am indebted to the economy of friendship, whose currency is my “own strangeness in the world”. My mindset, with which I immersed myself in the Kober archive, was from the beginning gentle and attentive, but not uncritical, not uncritical of myself, too, of my own position. What drew me to Alice was her strangeness in the world in which I saw my own strangeness, although mine takes a different shape.
The idea of the anarchive recognises the value of alternative propositions, of simultaneity, and the absence of power. I, as an anarchivist, did so in my own work too. I followed my own thoughts and the inspirations I got from the material. I allowed myself to get lost, to lose or deliberately misplace ideas and preconceptions.
Fragment: Curious and Tired
It was a perfect spot: slightly cooler air, and some shrubs smelling of a tangy shade of green and a rock smoothly washed out by the millennia into the shape of a recliner. Alice went up there every night while the others had their after-dinner drinks, smelling of fire inside and out. She took a book with her, but never opened it. It was more a prop for the others to not question her, let alone follow. Her muscles were so sore from kneeling, bending and digging that her body felt like one of these collapsing donkey toys, held together with hot wire instead of numb elastic. There were so many stars up there, it looked almost like a mistake. Alice enjoyed drifting away a little, the wind still dry from the heat covering her like a blanket. From time to time laughter from the camp or shrieking voices, someone answering a coyote in the distance. It took a while until the steps she heard really reached her, became a part of reality. Unstable steps, sliding, little rocks leaping off.
“I’m fine,” Alice said into the darkness. The steps stopped.
“Good, good,” said an exceptionally deep voice, giving away who was climbing up the slope. “We were wondering if we could bring you to join us? At least for the last evening?”
“Thanks, but I’m fine, really.” Alice didn’t get up, but placed the book in her lap in a way that suggested she had just put it down. “I’ll be down there in a minute.” Now Marcello stood in front of her, the legs of his trousers covered in red dust.
“The moon is bright, but not that bright,” he said, pointing at her book. “Why are you avoiding us?”
“I just don’t like groups, that’s all. Nothing personal. Besides, it’s so calm up here, back in Brooklyn it will seem like a dream. I’m just taking it in, storing it.” Marcello made a sound that could have meant anything. Most probably he was mocking her, but Alice didn’t care. That chunky ex-frat boy who was so used to being the centre of the world, he would mock gravity if he could.
“What is it that you pretend to be reading?” he asked, kneeling down next to Alice’s millennia old resort, balancing on the balls of his feet.
“The woman that wants to be left alone,” said Alice, turning the book so that he couldn’t see the cover anymore.
“Chandler,” said Marcello. “Good, good.” He kept balancing, looking over the canyon. With another inconclusive sound he sat down in the dust, hugging his shins. “I hear you are a curious woman,” he said, glancing at Alice from the side. Her recliner momentarily turned into stone and started to hurt her back. She wanted to get up, but she needed space to maneuver herself out of her cavity.
“Curious and tired.”
“Come on, you can’t be that detached. Help this oafish mind out and tell me about your work. You might be surprised to find that other people care.”
“Really, this is neither the place nor the time for me telling you about deciphering an ancient script. Plus, you probably know almost everything already, as you are an archaeologist and I am not.”
“But I don’t know you,” Marcello said, “you odd pot. You kept hiding from me the whole time. Deep in the ground.”
The thing with a really comfortable seating is that you are either helped up by a friendly hand or roll yourself onto the side, gracelessly breaking the spell of weight.
“Stay,” said Marcello, “please.” He moved his body in front of Alice’s and brushed her hair out of her face with the back of his hands. Alice was not so much in shock at him as she was at herself. Her skin welcomed him, her muscles betrayed her.
“Kiss me,” he said and moved away, making room for the canyon and all the stars looking down on Alice. He stretched out his hand to help Alice up. Her bones betrayed her, moving her hand towards his.
“No,” she said, now standing in front of him. “I don’t…” His fingertips softly on her collar bones and the back of her neck, not pushing her, not pulling her. Marcello stood perfectly silent, his eyes on Alice. At this moment and many years later too, when Alice revisited this scene in her mind, she couldn’t find an explanation for why she did what she had done: She had put her forehead on his sternum, bringing space between the length of her body and his. And when he put his hands on her waist, not pulling her, but ever so warm, she moved against him and she did what he had asked. A part of herself, from afar, wanted to recoil from him when his tongue touched hers, but the majority of Alice’s body stayed right where it was, feeling what it felt. Just before Marcello tried to unbutton her blouse she pushed him away, and produced a “No” that sounded like one.
“Good, good,” Marcello said, “a respectable woman in the wilderness.” Alice started to run downhill, time and time again sliding. Little rocks leaping away into their coverings. When she saw the campfire she stopped to check her clothes. She wanted to close that one tell-tale button, but her hands were shaking so much that she couldn’t even feel the hole. Alice sat down and waited in the dark until everybody had gone to sleep, sneaking into the women’s tent enveloped in darkness. Now her skin was sore too.
When I write Alice’s name, I mistype it often. One time, when I was looking online for that one photograph of Alice as an adult, the one that was taken for the article about the Guggenheim fellowships in 1946, I found an entry for a picture of “Alice Korber” in the Chaco Canyon Old Timers Reunion Oral History Project Photograph Collection, an archive that has never come up in my search before and wasn’t referenced in the Kober Papers. I contacted them and only a couple of hours later they mailed me back. It seems that only when my search is flawed or somehow erratic do I actually end up finding something. And there, without any warning, Alice is looking at me.
From left to right: Helen Hewitt, Delphine McCready, Pauline Vonnegut, Virginia Hunter, Alice Kober. Courtesy of: Chaco Canyon Old Timers Reunion Oral History Project Photograph Collection 1935, 7 photographic prints (8.5 x 12.25 cm.), PICT 000- 579-0003, Special Collections and Center for Southwest Research, University of New Mexico Libraries.
Even though all five of are standing next to each other, you, Alice, are clearly in front. I wonder if the photographer had planned to arrange all five of you in between the ropes, but you came late and didn’t fill the gap that was left for you between Delphine and Pauline, you just stood where you stopped walking. In your right hand a cigarette, in your left hand a little pouch—maybe the cigarettes, maybe something else. I try to zoom into the picture, but the closer I look the blurrier it gets. Do you also hold your folded glasses in the hand with the pouch? And if you have taken your glasses off, was it vanity? Habit? Obligation?
Or did you want to refuse to be in the picture because you knew that you wouldn’t like how the metallic silver would catch your body, your face from the light and keep hold of it? And then the others wouldn’t stop asking you to join them, either for emotional reasons or for the sake of documentary completeness? Or was it to get it over with quickly, to avoid any further attention, and so you caved? You are 29 years old, and your lips are tightly closed. You are 29 years old, and your arms don’t drag your shoulders, your upper body into obedience’s collapse like Helen’s, Delphine’s and Virginia’s. You are 29 years old, and your hands are full.
When I write your name, I mistype it often.
My fingers, full of haste, write Alive.
Barthes, R. (1967). From science to literature. In: Barthes, R. (1989) The rustle of language. Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 3-10.
Irigaray, L. (2002). Why cultivate Difference? Paragraph, 25(3), 79–90.
Irigaray, L. (2011). How can we meet the other?, in: Sencindiver, S. Y./Beville, M./Lauritzen, M. (eds.), Otherness. A multilateral perspective, Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 107-136.
Zielinski, S., & Winthrop-Young, G. (2015). AnArcheology for AnArchives: Why Do We Need—Especially for the Arts—A Complementary Concept to the Archive? Journal of Contemporary Archaeology, 2(1), 116-125.