There may be nothing I love more than passionate people. Even if I don’t share that passion, I love to be convinced. I love to witness displays of affection for films or concepts or collections. I ended up with a husband who cultivates collections of prestige artifacts and then sells them off when that obsession wanes or he finds a new one (we’re now on watches; previously: records, posters, toys). I suppose it was the ultimate attraction to behold a person’s pure love. I, too, am passionate, obsessive. Have you seen my books?
In On Lighthouses, Mexican writer Jazmina Barrera compiles a collection of visits to lighthouses around the world in words. The essays are a meditation on obsession and collecting, and I settled into a sublime feeling of kinship with her by page nine:
“My largest collection is of books. As a child I used to read them the day they were bought. Up until adolescence, every book I owned had been read. Then came the moment when I had more books than time to peruse them, and I soon realized that I’d probably never read everything on my shelves (there is a Japanese word for it: tsundoku). I’m now able to divide that collection into two categories: the books themselves, as objects, and the reading experiences, which can also be coveted and amassed.”
I have no special bond to lighthouses, but I know Barrera’s words have made me consider them differently. If I saw one now I would look up and a great many thoughts would come to mind directly from On Lighthouses. I’d never thought of Virginia Woolf when I saw a lighthouse (though I’ve read To The Lighthouse), but now I might. And Edward Hopper. And Robert Louis Stevenson’s grandfather. And the fact that Jules Verne and Edgar Allan Poe’s last works were about lighthouses, published posthumously. And the fate of the survivors of a lighthouse keeper who went mad on Clipperton Island off the coast of Mexico in 1917. Barrera provided me with a complete paradigm shift on the buildings, and I’m sure it will happen for you, too.
There’s a mysterious quality to lighthouses, which Barrera examines with writers who write about lighthouses. Like her. There’s Verne’s last work, The Lighthouse at the End of the World, and Poe’s last story, never finished and just fragments, about a lighthouse keeper. She even tries to complete the story at one point. Yukio Mishima’s last book was also about a lighthouse keeper, and Barrera considers not writing about lighthouses anymore—“I’m falling in love with an idea of beauty that at moments seems too much like death.”
When I picked up my copy of the book to write this review, I found a dead fly within the dog-eared and underlined pages. Its motionless wings and flattened torso poked out from the slim volume. I’m not sure where it came from, or how long I’d been reading the book with a dead fly in it. But the book, with its lighthouse so small on the cover against a vast and mirrored blue sky and sea with no discerning line of the horizon, has now taken on a mystic feeling.
Barrera’s writing, translated by prize-winner Christina MacSweeney (a frequent collaborator of Valeria Luiselli and her Spanish-language works), evokes the same quiet solitude one might associate with a lighthouse. It’s pensive, though funny at times, too, like when she observes little ironies in the world. Or, how in the last essay, she attempts to keep a travel diary but confides in the reader that she really has never kept a diary and doesn’t know how to. She’s charming, and I relished in being taken along on this written journey with her.
Barrera’s love and obsession of lighthouses rubbed off a little on me, inspired me to consider them more than I ever had while seeing them on beach trips. I even reached out to my dad while reading, asking him about a lighthouse we had visited in Maine in late 2013. He provided photographic evidence of our drive up to the Nubble Lighthouse in York, Maine. The lighthouse has been in use since 1879. I stared at the lighthouse behind me in that photo for a long time, trying to observe it as Barrera might, and then resumed with the book.
I considered if I’d be a good lighthouse keeper, myself a solitary person when I need to be, quite introverted usually. Though according to a documentary that Barrera cites, most lighthouses had more than one keeper and beyond passing technical exams, there was a requirement to “get along well with people.” I then thought of Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson in last year’s film The Lighthouse and agreed with myself that it would not be a great fit. (Barrera does not mention this film in the book but I have to think she loved it. Do I understand her obsession well enough to make that assertion?) There’s also something that I didn’t realize about myself that Barrera puts forth; I languished in my day job when I had no access to a window or daylight. I thrive better (and more creatively) when I can look out to something further away. Barrera writes,
“I’ve never suffered from claustrophobia, but I sometimes feel an uncontainable need to see the horizon. In this city of tall buildings, that horizon is difficult to find; in order to see anything at any distance you have to go up to a roof, to the river, or to one of the streets that cut across the whole island. From time to time I do one of those things. When I was taking art classes, I learned that my mind often follows the lead of my eyes, and if I restrict my gaze for too long, my thoughts become myopic.”
And yet now during this global pandemic, are we all not lighthouse keepers? I’m writing this from the attic, now turned into my home office, where I can stare out from my tiny windows down on the neighborhood full of friends I can’t spend time with. I think perhaps at night with all the lights off, and this window at the top of my house flickering with light, it might feel like being up in a lighthouse. The staircase to the attic even spirals, a standard element according to this book. Barrera treads subjects of solitude and fears of isolation in relation to the human condition. As introverted as I may be, I still need other people, and my happiest moments these days of quarantine are when I yell to my neighbor across the street to say hi and how are you. Or on Friday night family video calls when I get to see my new niece born amidst all this. When the uncertainty of this quarantine’s end looms, I try to think of how happy I will be when I get to embrace my family and friends again.
“The infants whom Frederick II of Sicily decided to isolate from all human interaction to see if they would begin to speak a primeval language—originating in pre-Babelian times—died despite having food and clothing. The absence of communication is one of the greatest dangers for a gregarious species like Homo sapiens.”
The book is an excellent choice to read during these times, as Barrera navigates how necessary and helpful these structures were centuries ago, and how they may seem like relics in these days of GPS. There were different leaps in technology that shifted the needs of these buildings. Barrera states that “obsession is a form of mental collecting. ...a fervent yet controlled passion, the consciousness of being the conserver of relics (...I’d like to rescue lighthouses from invisibility or keep some of their stories alive), and the desire to be guided by the objects themselves.”
On Lighthouses provides a succinct and intimate description of passion, and despite focusing on something I knew little about, the book invites the readers into a state of absorbing reflection. I’m eager to read more from Barrera, whether it’s about lighthouses or not. I’m sure her words will convince me to follow her wherever she goes.
By Jazmina Barrera
Translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney
174 pages. 2020.