Either because I did not find courage or was preoccupied with framing the image — since we were moving fast and I had limited time to photograph — I did not go all the way to the edge of the cliff to look down. Yet, when I was setting up my camera, I remembered W. G. Sebald who had looked over the edge and described what he had seen in an incredible paragraph of his mesmerizing book The Rings of Saturn:
” I crouched down and, overcome by a sudden panic, looked over the edge. A couple lay down there, in the bottom of the pit, as I thought: a man stretched full length over another body of witch nothing was visible but legs, spread and angled. In the startled moment when that image went through me, which lasted an eternity, it seemed as if the man’s feet twitched like those of one just hanged. Now, though, he lay still, and the woman too was still and motionless. Misshapen, like some great mollusk washed ashore, they lay there, to all appearances a single being, a many-limbed, two-headed monster that had drifted in from far out at sea, the last of a prodigious species, its life ebbing from it with each breath expired through its nostrils.”
This extraordinary scene was recreated, for a couple of seconds only, in the film Patience (After Sebald) by Grant Gee. Nowhere in the film does the filmmaker — or anyone else who appears in it and talks about this fascinating book — refer to this passage. Yet, Grant Gee was obviously taken by its beauty and found a way to compose the image as he envisioned it so as to slip it into the film. If not for a few blades of grass that swayed in the wind at the edge between the dense shadows and mute highlights, one could mistake this for a still image. Or, for a composite of still and moving images. Ever since the first few seconds of watching the scene, this has become the image that defines my memory of the original Sebald description. Moreover, it has become the image that represents the memory of my travel to a cliff, somewhere in Iceland, and my failure to look over the edge. Moving images, unable to take over memory, turn into still images and do so with ease. Such is the case here: the filmmaker’s scene has turned into a still image and has become at once the first and true representation of my memory of reading and of this Iceland experience.
But there is something else about this image that I can’t ignore. Almost instantly after I saw it I was reminded of another type of imagery, that of the first recorded representation of each person before they are even born. Gee’s representation of Sebald’s many-limbed monster, its life ebbing from it, resembles the first ultrasound images parents see of the life they have just created.
In retrospect, when I looked at the first image of my first child, which could be one of the most exciting and terrifying experiences in any parent’s life, it felt as if I was looking over the edge and seeing something I could neither recognize nor understand, something that could have easily been a monster. The helpful technician had to mark the image and help me read what I saw.