Letter from a Valley

BY Simona Schneider

Dear L.,

 I am writing you a letter because it is less abstract. I have just finished my dissertation and most of my writing consists of job applications. I have also moved to a bilingual region where I speak neither of the two languages spoken. When I get through the applications and learning languages that I can barely use except in simulated, virtual environments, I am writing an article about epistolarity as a form of hospitality, as a proto-proxy server before internet access-management networks—subjective acts of goodwill rather than supposedly objective media “hosts.”

 L., you asked me to write pandemic diaries in the late fall and I started in earnest, as one does, just after the new year. I collected what I am sending here with your request in mind. Thank you for hosting my thoughts.

“Behold! The Portals of darkness are open and the shadows of the dead hunt over the earth…”[1]

January 1, 2021

Will this year really be different? Let’s stay up and see. We watch Blob[2] from 12:30 to 3am. Blob is an Italian satirical TV series primarily using the technique of montage to splice together absurd media moments. It lasts hours, providing a premature benefit of hindsight. Yet these few years feel like a flashback with whiplash—a repetition of so many crises of the 20th century. Must we celebrate centenials by earnestly reenacting them? One image from Blob in particular stood out to me: a spoof of Charlie Chaplin’s dance with the globe in The Great Dictator (1940) complete with Richard Wagner’s “Lohengrin’s Prelude” but here with a large balloon made to look like the now iconic spiked coronavirus diagram. Red tufts represent S proteins, parts that connect to ACE2 cells in the body and form “doors” or “gateways,” bridges over motes across which they storm the fort. Interspersed, one finds smaller orange M proteins and sparse yellow E proteins. I cannot help but notice that the Coronavirus’ atomic structure, at least its protein initials, are the same as those of the great Soviet film director and montage theorist Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein.

11am—I sleep in but join the Poetry Project in New York’s annual New Year’s Day Marathon at 6am for “A Trace Noise Immersion,” a guided writing-and-meditation-and-dropping-into-one’s-hips session with Kristin Prevallet to a Thorsten Moore track. Here is what I wrote:

New friend, my kiss
at the stroke of 12
woke me up at 4 A.M
flesh flush with regret
stilted breath, loss
of smell and taste,
foggy weakness.
Mantra: “I could kill you
without meaning to”
circuits the brain.

Sometime in the middle of January:


Something you wrote struck me. You wrote that you feel like you moved to D.C. secretly. Do you feel you are the center of a political storm’s vortex and thus in a relative state of calm from which you can write ? James Baldwin said, “You can’t turn your back long enough in America to write a book or to find out who you are.”[1] From my position abroad, I feel the tug of the vortex and cannot turn my back. I feel I am writing from inside and have no back to turn. It seems the public is inside. Even if outside protesting, marching, celebrating, resisting, it feels very intimate, masked, secret, beyond the face. A mob penetrates the chambers. Outside, approaching people feels untoward, because it endangers them. Do you feel you are there?

I incredibly filed my dissertation on lyrical spectatorship in film and poetry in May, during the pandemic, and moved to the north of Italy, to the South Tyrol, also basically in secret. The job market is terrible as usual but even more so. On the other hand, there are efforts to diversify faculty. The academy will be a better place.

I got a post-doc here in Italy, in Udine though I am living near Bolzano. The Italian government is using their EU stimulus money to inject millions into their public university system. The topic of the research project is looking at the transition from amateur film clubs to fascist university film clubs. It turns out that as soon as an international network of amateur film lovers and makers consolidated between 1932-1934, Mussolini, after a conversation with Goebbels, saw the time was right to occupy. Like a zombie invasion. No! Like a virus, which finds already established organizations and then occupies. Fascism moved more recently to the social networks. It seems this keeps happening with new technologies.

I miss the days of the letter, though the growing trend of sending voice messages over WhatsApp—little packets of embodied thoughts complete with breath and hesitations—beats texting. I have received two real letters so far, both holiday greetings that took months to arrive. They are literally things I can hold onto—missives from other interiors. One was a card with avocados sent by a friend from Berkeley. It was in Berkeley that we both learned avocados had magical omega-3 properties that helped coat synapses needed to make crucial associations stronger. Montage necessitates an associative mind, which can at times seem random (and messy) but the more the synapses fire along the same pathways the stronger and more convincing those associations. What could seem random becomes surreal.

A second card with hollyhock on yellowed paper was resurrected from circa 1970. The glue holding glitter onto red petals has held up surprisingly well, but the glitter makes its way around my room like an unexpected friend turning up to dinner. The writing is quaint “Mary—All is well here. Children are growing up quickly. We’re building a nice new house right next door to Mom and Dad. Do stop in to see us.” My friends Tom and Amy signed next to the other members of the family, “Betsy, Charles, Gorky and Gene Ribakoff,” inserting their names at the end of a line break. They might have revised the card with a carrot (^) and a “not” between “Do” and “stop” but it was unnecessary. This negation’s ghost persists along with the fact that the elders of this household have probably already passed. Messages from beyond the veil: we are certainly in a time of limitations and yet other realms seem quite open. Actually, I felt the Ribakoffs earnestly welcoming me to stop by and visit.

January 21, 2021

Yesterday, I attended a retirement party, a birthday, and a long overdue catching up with a childhood friend—all from my desk. People were back in their parents’ homes or nearby and calling from basements. Most of us are our late 30s. Many have children, and it made sense for them to form pods with their aging parents, suddenly and all at once deemed vulnerable instead of that slow slide into fragility. Otherwise, they couldn’t see their parents at all. Plus, the parents can help watch the kids who are also home. It’s the return of multi-generational living in America. It is beautiful except that people have different conceptions of what a “pod” means. One friend contracted Covid from her husband’s parents. My father worries me when he says that he would rather live to die than die to live but luckily his proclaimed fearlessness comes and goes with the infection waves in his area.

January 25, 2021

In short missives, pings, and instant messages, postcards—I have been asking people what I will ask you: What is keeping you sane? 

From two different sources, I have received in reply: harp music. Jazz harp (Edmar Castañeda) and electronic harp (Mary Lattimore). And if not harp, music, anyway. A friend cites a rare good music documentary about Milford Graves Full Mantis, for rhythm. Literary answers mostly include gulags, work camps, labor camps, and other situations of isolation and subjection. Varlam Shalamov and unembellished accounts of Soviet work camps. A similar gut instinct: Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man and Viktor E. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. And Ayad Akhtar’s Homeland Elegies. I do not find many accounts of escapism among my friends. Where is the Boccaccio-style pandemic relief? Borat may be the closest thing, complete with moral tales. Even when I try to watch what I think are unrelated things, it seems plagues are always lingering.

January 28, 2021

When stories involve smokey bars and sweaty contact—like About Some Meaningless Events, a film by director Mostafa Derkaoui recently restored by the Filmoteca de Catalunya, in which a bunch of people gather in a smokey bar in the 1970s, drink, chat, smoke, and talk about shooting a useful film for a new national Moroccan cinema—they seem to be mocking us. Pretend It’s a City, Martin Scorsese’s limited Netflix series with Fran Liebowitz captivated me with its evocations of what New York City used to be. Now we are even further from these public intimacies. 

What do I feel closer to?

I can participate in a workshop with Ashkal Alwan, a Beirut-based arts non-profit that offers a “Home Work” seminar program every year. I can’t get to Beirut but we can read work about lingering at the ruins together. Ruins now redoubled by the chemical blast at the port. The reading gets under my skin:

“To linger without impatience with the corpse is to step outside the general dismay with the past that does not pass and instead find in recurring violence an opportunity to think politically about structural inequalities rather than wish for the past to be declared evil in the hope that one day evil will be declared past.” —Walid Sadek, “In the Presence of the Corpse” (2012)

What am I physically closer to? We are 50 miles to the Austrian border so we listen to Ö eins (Austria 1) – the Austrian news radio. Austria is now incentivizing people to get tests by saying that they can do all the normal things: dining out, shopping, going to cultural events, as long as they get tested. This policy has been in place less than a week and already 1 in 5 have gotten their free test. Slowly, they are getting geimpft. We are not allowed to cross into Austria.

I do “cuckoos,” a shared online timer of pomodoro-sized writing blocks accompanied by 5-minute breaks with a friend in Berlin. In the breaks we write onomatopoietically, lettings words morph into sounds and come back into focus, finding shared language anew.

February 3, 2021

Writing used to be moments of solitude stolen from sociality. Now writing seeks sociality.

Today I am trying out writing with the U.K. Writing Salon: “The Writers’ Hour.” More than 100 people meet on zoom, many clutching cozy mugs and a couple wearing writing “outfits”—a pink hood with two pom-pom ears looks comfortable— at 8AM in the U.K. It is 9AM here. More than 300 people write good morning and their intentions into the chat in a waterfall of status updates that simply say, I am here, over and over. The organizers read a quote about the writing process. Many people intend to do their “morning pages” — a 3-page longhand free-write that gets the juices flowing. My intention for the writing hour is to give some form to these disparate thoughts.

L., In light of Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein and you and me, all children of Riga, montage is appropriate. I feel peaceful that the “S-M-E virus” “opens the gates” to vastly different kinds of time and space.

February 12, 2021

In SME’s montage, everything moves towards excess. There cannot be a simple understanding of heaven and hell, of good and evil, the dialectic moves towards perversity. In Potemkin, close-ups of baby carriages plummet down steps, a mother with broken glasses watches, and lion statues animated by the film sequence stand up from their slumber as the navy mutinies and the revolution begins. During the impeachment trial, the storming of the capitol will be revealed in security camera footage long takes spliced with close-ups on granular faces and tweets, like intertitles. A series of super-cuts by the defense steamrolls the prosecution’s dialectical montage.

It is difficult to write film scholarship when almost everything is mediated and we are all turned towards it or away. Or a third option: where does media begin and where does it end? In the forest, an early, heavy snow felled more trees than usual and many paths are impassible or suddenly three-dimensional and in need of clambering.

February 13, 2021

“I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity: the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind.”—William Wordsworth, “Preface to Lyrical Ballads

All is potentially tranquility now if tranquility is that which occurs away from the world—and then nothing at all if home is a handful of other humans, caretaking responsibilities, home-schooling, and meetings and events constantly zooming (not exactly “stopping”) by.

Maybe, we conjecture with a friend, when we come out of this we will have forgotten how to be with other people. Maybe, we conjecture again, we will have forgotten our social anxieties.

Uncertainty, fear, dread, hopelessness—not a great recipe for tranquility. Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere Journals reveal the sociality behind the illusion of solitude, a look behind-the-scenes, and the revisions that tranquility requires. Here’s what she said about this day, Saturday February 13th in 1802: “It snowed a little this morning—…We did not walk though it was a very fine day… William read parts of his Recluse aloud to me.”

February 17th, 2021

I have written “with” New York, with London, with Beirut, and Berlin, with you in Washington D.C., and with you and Sergei in Riga.  

Has this changed the way I/we write? It has been very hard to concentrate but thinking of you, sitting at your desk, helps. Let me describe mine to you in more detail, so you can imagine it better. It is a re-sanded fifty-year-old wood mass made of Pinus cembra.

One enormous gash on the left side could not be sanded away. One gash looks like an octopus looking back and another is pink and yonic. There is something Cronenbergian about it. Only now as I seek to describe it to you do I notice what can only be described as black claw marks on the edge facing me…

February 21, 2020

We have just learned our lockdown has been extended at least until the end of March. An ambient whirr of chainsaws has started up, clearing the treefall from the winter.  

For now, I pledge to cuckoo, claw, linger, free associate, notice, & (^not) write with you, too, from here where we are.


P.S. Write back.

Simona Schneider, Ph.D. in Comparative Literature, D.E. in Film and Media, Sarentino Valley, Italy

[1] From the film Meeting the Man: James Baldwin in Paris (1970)

[1] Opening intertitle from F. W. Murnau’s Faust (1926), in which a plague leads to Dr. Faust’s bargain with Mephistopheles—quod erat demonstrandum why we can be grateful for Dr. Fauci’s resistance to deals with other devils.

[2] The title, Blob, comes from the eponymous 1958 horror sci-fi with Steve McQueen and a Vertigo-like opening credit sequence about a martian ameoboidal organism that comes down from space and takes over everything it sees by growing larger and “redder.” The film was a not-so-subtle allegory about what would happen if we let even the smallest communist ideas in.