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Issue 213

What Consistency Can Teach Us

Alexandra Kleeman dwells on the necessity of coherence within a pandemic 

BY Alexandra Kleeman in Opinion , Thematic Essays | 07 DEC 20

This essay is the tenth in a series of memos by artists, writers, curators and scientists written to the world after the COVID-19 crisis. In homage to Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium (1988), they are divided into six categories: ‘lightness’, ‘quickness’, ‘exactitude’, ‘visibility’, ‘multiplicity’ and ‘consistency’. Alexandra Kleeman's 'On Constancy and Form' was written in response to ‘consistency’.

The moment I wake, I roll over to check the news. My phone recognizes my face, shows me headlines about the virus, the loss of lives and jobs, the projections for the future. I read until I’ve exhausted the topmost layer of current events, then I prod at the other layers as I eat a piece of toast.

I sit at the laptop for an hour, then on the couch for an hour reading, and I repeat this pattern over and over until the day ends. Once a day, maybe twice, I put on a cloth mask and go on a walk along the desolate waterfront near my home, where I stop and stare at the lone rosebush thriving in the bramble, the unlikely survivor of an earlier disaster. At night, when I go to bed, the day I’ve just lived feels as flimsy as a piece of tissue paper, disintegrating in sleep.

Italo Calvino never finished his sixth lecture in the series that is gathered together today under the title Six Memos for the Next Millennium.

Nicole Eisenman, Close to the Edge, 2015, oil on canvas, 2 × 1.7 m. Courtesy: © Nicole Eisenman and Anton Kern Gallery, New York

All that is known is that it was to focus on the virtue of ‘consistency’. The term lacks charisma: who sets aside a collection of poems and lingers fondly on its coherence; who enthuses wildly at a dinner party over a novel’s texture, stability or evenness? Consistency is the silent virtue, the boring materiality of the fictive, the almost-imperceptible webbing on which the narrative’s more dazzling features are hung. But its quietly connective tissue has a cumulative effect, building out worlds that hold together, extending a sense of space and time within which a story can unfold.

In this sense, consistency is formal: a steady and subtle mode of world-building, a process as gradual as weaving. It proceeds in parts aiming towards a whole: a starting point coupled to a detail, a glimpse of the sky, an action arranged against a newly assembled background. Each thread of the textile expands or reinforces the pattern, each argues silently for the reality it is working to become. In the apartment that constitutes the bulk of my lockdown universe, I move between worlds, from J.G. Ballard to Samuel Beckett; I believe that I am in the jungle, then that I am nowhere at all. When we say a work has consistency, we mean that it is capable of holding us within its internal rhythm, of being a world unto itself. A world of many worlds is the goal, both in literature and in our waking lives – for a world that is too uniform, too homogenous, leaves little room to dream of any other.

But consistency also holds lessons for how to dwell in our lives in the time of pandemic. The forced evenness of quarantine, in contrast to our busy pre-pandemic schedules, asks us to consider life not as a compilation of colourful activities but as the quiet, observant mode that links events both small and large, causing them to cohere. Taken in isolation, each moment is thin but, through repetition and insistence, what is thin acquires substance. In the catastrophic stillness, there is time to notice whose labour brings your mail or stocks the supermarket shelves, whose consistency and whose risk sustains your life.

I check the news. I sit. I move. I sit. I wear my mask and look at the flowers. Somewhere else in the world, you do the same. At first, it seems like the absence of life as we knew it. But, when you look carefully, you find the threads are there still, sustained and unbroken.

Main Image: Nicole Eisenman, Long Distance (detail), 2015, oil on canvas, 1.7 × 2.1 m. Courtesy: the artist and  Anton Kern Gallery, New York

Alexandra Kleeman teaches at the New School, New York, USA, and is the author of the novel You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine (2015).