This comes from an essay Fanny Howe wrote, called “Keepers of the Image,” about her mentor, Ilona Karmel, and a short essay she wrote, also called “Keepers of the Image.” Howe describes Karmel, a Jew who survived the WWII Polish labor camps, as a woman of Dostoevskian realism, someone who sought to write about her experiences not for sentimental purposes, but for an exact depiction of abject human darkness. She wrote of the conflict in each person, between the self they know everyday, and the self they long to be, the “secret self.”

Like Dostoyevsky, Ilona Karmel pursued truth (without quotes) through a relentless and unfavorable account of human behavior, interrupted fleetingly by something wonderful and strange.

She wrote: “I began my novel with only one assumption; that man lives in constant tension between contradictory forces within himself, above all what I would call ‘the everyday and the Sabbath’—his awareness of himself as he is, and his longing for what he wants to become.”

9780520251366Karmel and Dostoyevsky had experienced the worst in human behavior, mostly inside prisons, and were unable to forget it. Both used the common word “freedom” for the moment when an unforeseen act of self-abandonment occurs. This moment of freedom releases one from the everyday and the inevitable, and sometimes has the reckless look of suicide.

For both of them—if they failed to find a trace of that freedom in their long labors at writing and remembering—life would continue as a dazzling aftereffect of hell, a mirage of trauma, like the lightning-fast Shoah in Hiroshima.

…She wrote in her essay: “Terrified and alone one turns to others, not out of love, just out of the desperate and self-centered need for comfort. Those are the shabby beginnings of our love. Yet gradually a transformation occurs. He who knows how to grant comfort becomes the guarantor of hope, the keeper of one’s image of oneself. . . . No ideals of self-sacrifice or courage are now at work. Just the inner necessity to defend what has become too precious to be destroyed.”

…The vow to protect an image is a way of transcending the days you pass through by holding something that is not yet realized in human form, holding it against you, in secret.

You might vow to stay true to someone until the end of your life. You might vow to spend your life working on a peace agreement. Or to end capital punishment. Or to finish a piece of work. You cannot vow to see something happen that you wish would happen, however. You can only vow to labor for that something. (In a sense, this is what makes revenge dependent on lies and dishonesty.)

When a person becomes the keeper of an image, it requires a vow that is strange. This is because the significance of the image is only revealed in the act of preserving it, and the vow to be the one who sustains that significance must continually endow it with attention to the exclusion of real life, the everyday passing.