|The fire in the stone|
Looking for me
I heard later that Alonso Baslerís conviviality, his chattiness and insurgent vanity were only noticeable after this five-year period. During these five years, he was unusually quiet, almost apathetic, kept to his shed and seemed to regard the world outside almost fearfully. But he didnít appear unfriendly or strange, just self-sufficient, quiet, and at home with himself.
At one of our last encounters, deteriorating visibly, Alonso Basler told me that from an early age, "every form of artistic expression, every artistic process seemed to me to have something in common with religion in its broadest sense. The childís desire for the absolute, and the utterly reassuring feeling of being held in an adultís arms, would find its purest expression in the artist, waiving polarities, accepting that as truth over every reality, virginity and death, day and darkness, innocence and temptation. But the polarities, I found, were not resolved. To forbid oneself one is, through this contradiction, to be bound to the other. But to hold on to these contradictions is to be lost. To possess an absolute may imply absolute surrender to the other: the fulfilment of a wish or an objective, the achievement of a goal occurs at the same time as the relinquishment of the desire. Every marksman shoots himself. The moment you aim true, you become your own prey, flayed, eviscerated, torn to pieces, slaughtered and consumed."
I donít believe that was from him, he had read it somewhere, and I was tempted to stroke Alonsoís brow, to take him in my arms, hold him close to me, rock him back and forth, to sing him a song. I thought of my first visit to his garden.
Alonso Basler stood in the frame of his door, an erratic block. He held out his short arms, then dropped them helplessly as I approached him, and shook my hand. We walked around the house. The sun shone through the close, small leaves of the weeping willow, and the wooden shed was visible behind its curtain. Alonso Basler swayed his huge head disapprovingly. It wasnít the right light to view the statues, he thought. They were made for the early morning light, or for the evening hours, for winter light or rough November, he said, and he apologised for the beautiful day.
He led me along a labyrinthine path, from green cranny to green cranny, and I still remember getting the impression that I had been invited not on a viewing tour but to make a round of visits. He introduced his sculptures to me, and presented me to them. Most sat or huddled alone, with their thick arms folded behind their heads, or in pairs, entwined in foxholes, under ivy growth, rose bushes. They were short, plump, Northern trolls and their faces bore Alonso Baslerís traits. They were things of magic that recalled Celtic love rituals and early Christian understanding of nature. They were all shockingly ugly, and grimacing watchfully at the observer, they grinned or wept, agonised or suffered. Alonso Baslerís figures freed the viewerís instincts, called up associations and suggested images. Each was the soul of its stone, the ghost of its material set free. They were not creations, they were eerie self-portraits.
I began to understand what Alonso Basler must have suffered, and started to see what the making of these sculptures had taken out of him, leaving him only a shell, a caricature of himself. Alonso Baslerís essence was lost and spellbound in these stones. Now that I could see his emptiness, I suddenly understood his chatter and his loud manner. None of his figures could, in any way, be described as beautiful, but they made a lasting impression on me. Their natural distortion was impressive. I was sorry for Alonso, but nonetheless the greatness of his achievement and the singularity of his gift were clear to me, and I looked at him shyly.
My silence and awe seemed to please Alonso. He was visibly content and as we left the garden, as the charm lifted, a tide of explanations and interpretations broke forth from him, from which I extracted myself as soon as possible with a feeble apology.
Oddly, Alonso Basler had little taste. But he had a notable sense for aesthetics and knew when two things belonged together. His external appearance was somewhere between modest and careless. However, his house was not only equipped with necessary conveniences, he had also inherited some fine pieces of furniture and in terms of colour, the rooms went well with one another. But his loudness prevented him from fitting in or adapting. Wherever he went, he was the troublemaker ó his own troublemaker. Thinking back, it occurs to me that taste has much to do with familiarity, and while the figure of Alonso Basler seemed to us to lack taste, perhaps this largeness, this loudness, this excess was pleasing to him. But it disturbed our habits, with which we always defend our own reality against the terrible realisation of an unknown truth, and injured our sense of taste and decorum.
I felt this lack of taste the first time he explained his idea of the life in the stone to me. It was in one of the restaurants which we both frequented. One sat down at a table with friends, or alone in a corner, and there he would be, crouching over his beer, his thick hands wrapped around the glass. He sat there and looked about as though he was talking to himself. I donít recall how we came to the subject of the life in a stone, the life of a stone. It was one of our last discussions. After that, I only saw him once or twice, but already, things were not going well. He babbled away, a northern troll who had left his woods and his roots, and was lost in the town. He spoke of living stones, of statues which he had made twenty years ago, which now "live in my garden", of their difficulties, their joys and their perceptions, the social structures they had established amongst themselves. I felt little other than distaste. I would have risen and left him if he hadnít suddenly begun to speak of another, untrimmed stone, a stone which was twice as large as him, and twice as broad, which he had discovered a few weeks ago while walking in the nearby quarry. "It was love at first sight," he said. Apparently, Alonso had had the stone brought to his wooden hut a few days earlier, had sat and eaten in front of it, and waited for the life within the stone to work upon him. He still didnít know what the stone wanted from him, but it was only a matter of time. He had never sensed such a powerful independent existence within a stone, Alonso said. He was sure that with this stone, he would achieve the greatest work of art in his life, even though it would cost him his own.
My aesthetic disapproval at this discussion nearly reached physical proportions, and I remained there only from pure literary interest. Alonso went as far as to suggest that the new stone which he had found, the first in twenty years, had had such a strong influence on him that he could look ahead and predict that sooner or later, the life of the stone would triumph over his own ó the revenge of the work of art on its creator, that of the living on the one to whom they owe their life. Alonso Basler was sweating heavily and his clenched fists shook. Unhealthy things were passing through his mind, I thought.
Tadeus Pfeifer is a Swiss poet, critic, novelist and short story writer.
He writes in German and lives in Basel