U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Time, History, and Loss

[Editorial note:  the following essay is a guest post by documentary film producer Kerry Candaele]

Time, History, and Loss

By Kerry Candaele

I lived in New York City for eight years during the late 80s to the mid 90s. I was in a Ph.D. program in history at Columbia University, which means I had spent the better part of two decades reading about dead people. Reading about the dead does, I think, more than is usual, give one a sense that the reader—the student, the scholar, the digger in the archives—will also die, although when one is young or youngish (I was an “older” grad student), the fact of mortality is somewhat remote. Archives are in fact cemeteries, deposits left accidentally by the unknowing, or often curated before presentation to the undertakers by those interested in curating the remains.

caendeleBut whether the dead were ancient Greek or Roman, 19th Century statesmen or lowly labor organizers, high born or bit players, the fact is that a recognition that we would all join them soon enough allowed me to walk the streets of Manhattan not only with a sense of passionate embrace of what was before my eyes and below my feet, but also with a sense of melancholy (that’s just me, okay?), an understanding that my presence would be lost at some point in the very near future, relatively speaking. Time waits for no one, or waits impatiently, as any number of rock songs and symphonies point out with subtle insistence or with exclamation points.

For a year or more during my tenure in Manhattan, I was lucky enough to live on the corner of 110th and Riverside Drive. That’s the Upper West Side. It was also, in my case, a very lucky geographical placement. I rented a room that sat on the top of a penthouse apartment on the corner overlooking the Hudson River. The roof was my smoking room, my barbeque space, my tanning salon that was never used. Had I been into working out, I could have run laps on the top of this apartment complex or played racketball. But I was lazy. And no one in the building visited the roof to gaze at the Hudson as I obsessively did. They too were lazy. Or jaded.

Penthouse sounds pretty cool, Hefneresque, but this place was more like The Addams Family or The Munsters. A former model held the lease, and rented the many rooms to college students. Long past her years in the business, she still had a sense of her own faded regality, a powerful longing for a time when posing actually meant posing, in front of cameras that were real and meant a paycheck, not in front of iphones and for nothing. She would walk around our large space with her arm hanging to her left side as if she held a long cigarette holder–with a cigarette–in her hand, cool in speech, always aware and interested, longingly, in what we “young people” were thinking and saying, as if to be in the know was to be in the know. As far as I was concerned, the acting out among the bunch of us who shared the apartment was mostly sideshow, although I did find one of my loves-in-this-life on the main floor, a roommate who lived behind the kitchen in a tiny space, a maid’s place.

More importantly, and more to the point of this reminiscence, having come from California where there is no weather, I used to sit on top of this penthouse apartment roof and wait for some. I didn’t wait soddenly, the Godot thing, because there were, of course, weather reports. I knew when weather was coming. I waited when I could afford to wait. In California, the southern part anyway, weather does not change. We wait for nothing, and notice only the wind changing direction, the Santa Anas bringing the fear and suspense captured so well by Joan Didion, a weirdness and imbalance, and a shape-shifting of the psyche that portends trouble, or so goes the Mythos of L.A. these days.

So New York had weather. And reports. And they were true and accurate, and something secure. Fact is, I wanted to be pelted by rain, I wanted the snow to trap me in its banks and to dig out, I wanted to suffer like a true East Coaster, to brag about the “Great Storm of 1995,” to bring back big stories from the East, like the big stories of the West that used to travel from the Black Hills to Boston in a previous century.

I experienced nothing that grand. But I do remember wrapping myself in blankets–I didn’t have the proper layering of coats and sweaters, geographical sartorial ignorance being part of California life–and sitting for hours during a snow storm and watching the Hudson passing, seeming to roll by pretty fast, dark, impressive, timeless, history before me with a past, a present, and a future all at once, which is the way I understood what I was studying at Columbia—a sense that history was alive with the dead, now and forever. I wanted that weather imprinted deeply in my consciousness and memory. My experiment in the phenomenology of weather worked. I will remember, for as long as I can remember, the nights on the penthouse roof of my Addams Family home, sometimes with my friends, more often alone and pleased and even happy.

And yet here’s the thing: “Home”, the West Coast, the Pacific Ocean, all the stuff of longing that longs for completion, the longing that requires a place where one can imagine being at home, the actual experience reconfigured with nostalgia–a Romantic-era conceit—was bigger than what Manhattan could offer at the level of my somatic memory. I desired the West. Traveling west—please don’t take this as pretentiousness—reminded me of E.P. Thompson’s notion of the education of desire, how to “open a way of aspiration” and to “teach desire to desire better, to desire more, and above all to desire in a different way.” I think travel, at its best, can help this process. Paying attention to the little things while traveling helps even more. Paying attention to old trains heading east at sunset in New Mexico is Nirvana.

Each summer during my Manhattan years, I drove home. And on occasion, even during a long holiday, I would head out on my own tour of the country. I drove through forty-eight states, and learned much by getting off the main highways and taking my time, listening in on conversations in cafes and bars, churches, at small-town museums and by speaking with anyone who indulged questions from a Yankee with California plates.

But I never felt comfortable, at ease, and close to home until I had reached the Rockies, a brilliant mistake of uplift that has always thrilled me, whether it’s the southern Rothko bluffs of New Mexico sloughing off into Texas desert or the trail of mountains running north out of Idaho into Canada—my place of birth but not a place I know well enough to dislike. To dislike a place requires the privilege that time grants to intimate knowledge.

When I reached the Pacific Ocean all was well again. Except, as captured in this photo I think, there is melancholy in the arrival and the confrontation with this nature. This mise en scene, the clouds, the ocean, the sand and the trees, will, I hope, be here for a long time, time enough for a bunch of generations to come.

But this beauty stopped for my brother who many years ago died at age forty-nine, collapsing from a heart attack on a beach like this after surfing. As a folk singer once put it, this kind of experience is a short, sharp, shock, inexplicable, really, where autopsies and other ephemera only add to the archive of confusion and grief. Ecce Homo, some pleasure and pain, beauty and its undermining, a book of life, and not a book of history where most of the dead speak only in whispers. Rather, a book of wailing. Keening.

Back to the beginning. History by the scholars, and my own personal history, is learning from the dead and the living, and waiting and wanting and watching for my time to pass, while needing in the meantime to make something happen, something good.


Kerry Candaele is a documentary film producer and director and a music producer.  Most recently, he produced and directed Following the Ninth: In the Footsteps of Beethoven’s Final Symphony (2013), the first film in a documentary trilogy exploring the enduring aesthetic and political influence of Beethoven’s music and the mythos of Beethoven as hero.

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  1. Kerry Candaele,
    I’ve already told you what a wonderful essay this is but I wanted to say it again. I’m moved by it a second time because it rings so true. Life and death, the ebb and flow of experience as we meet ourselves over and over again. Thanks.

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