Thirteen Ways of Looking at Disappearance
“Life’s greatest gift is the freedom it leaves you to step out of it whenever you choose.” — André Breton
“One thing alone does not exist―oblivion.” — Jorge Luis Borges
The ways of disappearing are as myriad and complex as they are mysterious and unpredictable. To disappear does not mean to escape, and it is not the same thing as to be missing, absent, or invisible. To disappear does not mean to not be here; it means something more akin to finding a way to matter while not appearing to [or as] matter. To disappear is to raise recursive questions: if something is gone, is it in a better place? Will it reappear? Should we try to find it? Does it still exist? Was it ever here? These questions are as true of a magic trick designed to make the Statue of Liberty disappear as they are of a lost sailor, an altered sign, a former country, or a dry lake—to name but a few of the subjects touched on by the writers whose contributions follow.
Amelia Earhart, American aviation pioneer and author.
Born: July 24, 1897, Atchison, Kansas.
Last Seen: July 2, 1937, in Lae, New Guinea (now Papua New Guinea).
Cause of Disappearance: unknown (plane crash / lost at sea)
Found object/mixed media collage, 1934; artist unknown, family album.
Appearance and disappearance seep into one another; there is fluid ground but no solid line between them. “All appearances are of the nature of clouds,” John Berger once wrote. And indeed, as with clouds, who can say that appearance comes before disappearance or that disappearance precedes appearance? One never entirely loses sight (or hearing) of the other. Joseph Grigely could not write about seeing conversation as he does if he had not once heard it. Mladen Dolar could not write about the disappearance of Yugoslavia as he does if part of his soul did not still dwell there. And Mary Sue Andersen-Ader could not recall her lost husband as she does if she did not agree with Simone Weil: “Love sees what is invisible.”
“Disappearing”, said Jean Baudrillard, “should be an art form, a seductive way of leaving the world. I believe that part of disappearing is to disappear before you die, before you have run dry, while you still have more to say. Many people and intellectuals are already dead but continue, unfortunately for them, to speak.”1 Unfortunately for them, yes. But even more, unfortunately for us. To disappear is to invoke wonder on the part of those who still appear.
Baudrillard followed his own advice. In his last, shortest, posthumous book, Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?, he describes disappearing as necessity, as fulfillment: “the real world begins, paradoxically, to disappear at the very same time as it begins to exist.”2
The art of disappearing can be related to the art of knowing when to stop what you are good at before you are not, whether it be writing, marriage, teaching, fishing, or boxing. Or it may be about going out into the streets of Manhattan like Moondog3 did with nothing but the cloak he was wearing and the flute he was playing, in view of everyone, playing sonatas for no one. There is no right way or one time or good place to do it. You just have to choose. You do not have to have had too much life, or even enough life, to self-eclipse. As Maurice Blanchot wrote of Robert Musil’s protagonist Ulrich in The Man Without Qualities, he is not someone who said no to life. He just said not yet. So too with the disappeared. Or, as William Gass said of Musil himself, who died in obscurity and was forgotten for years, he was a perfectionist who set out “to accomplish the inconclusive.” It is hard to think of a truer statement to describe the lives of Bas Jan Ader and Arthur Cravan, both of whom were last seen sailing toward the beyond, “in search of the miraculous,” in their thirties.4
In addition to the thirteen texts which follow, I am reproducing the covers of thirteen books unrelated to those texts but related to our subject, drawn from my personal library of books on anonymity, disguise, and disappearance. Apart from Baudrillard’s work, I here call particular attention to Daniel Heller-Roazen’s Absentees: On Variously Missing Persons, for its nuanced reckoning with a vast range of historical, legal, and literary sources on the absent and absented; and to Akiko Busch’s How to Disappear: Notes on Invisibility in a Time of Transparency, which reminds us of the power of being inconspicuous in an age of surveillance, and of the agency that children gain by managing disappearance through activities such as writing with invisible ink and creating imaginary worlds inaccessible to adults.
Don’t you ever want to disappear, become someone else? Live a different life than the one you have made, or are expected to live for the rest of it? These are among the questions that Joshua Rothman asked in a ruminative article about the allure of our unlived lives that appeared in The New Yorker a few years ago.5 You have a life, a job, a story. Maybe even fame. But would you still choose to live this life if you didn’t have to, if you could disappear from it and do it over? Are you content living the one life you live, or do you feel haunted—driven by some fatal need for plurality or other-than-thisness—by the lives you haven’t lived? What keeps you from going in search of those other lives? Age, perhaps? “While growth realizes, it narrows,” Andrew H. Miller diplomatically reminds us; as we get older, “plural possibilities simmer down.” Rothman acknowledges the paradox of the situation. “We seem to find meaning in what’s never happened,” he writes.6 We stop thinking we need to reboot ourselves. There is always tomorrow. We watch the earth and its resources deplete themselves. There is still time, we tell ourselves.
Baudrillard: “When I speak of time, it is not yet. When I speak of a place, it has disappeared. When I speak of a man, he’s already dead. When I speak of time, it is already no more. Let us speak, then, of the world from which human beings have disappeared.”7
As I write this text, the Johnny Depp vs. Amber Heard trial is streaming on YouTube. I cannot stop watching it. I have no idea what will happen; none of us do at this point. It is only day three. I am reminded of another eyelined-performer-pirate: Prince. I need more distraction. I check out a website I haven’t visited for a while, where I usually find something interesting. As anticipated, I do again. This time, I encounter a Brooklyn-based poet and essayist I have never heard of, and a gorgeously written essay called “The Artist Formerly Known As.” In it, Hillery Stone conflates the willful, decisive disappearance of an older, revered cousin with the disappearance of his idol—the singer Prince—with her own imagined absence, with the inevitability of our collective absence. “How do any of us stand quiet in the middle of a life that’s moving steadily toward its end, that has, up ahead, a total and inexorable vanishing?”8 She then confesses her own seduction by the idea of erasure, “the destruction and freedom of it,” something I strongly relate to. Not only the freedom of it, but the vitality of it!
Baudrillard: “Apart from all the phantasies we maintain around it—and in the entirely justified hope of seeing a certain number of things disappear once and for all—we must give disappearance back its prestige or, quite simply, its power, its impact. We must reinvest it not as a final but as an immanent dimension—I would even say as a vital dimension of existence.”9
“Sometimes I want to get very lost,” Stone continues. “It soothes me to imagine flight, to conjure an escape from my own life.”
“Is there any crack in the framework to slip through anymore?” she asks.
Yes, I answer.
That is why we write.
- Jean Baudrillard, from an interview conducted by Truls Lie in 2000, first published in Norwegian by Le Monde diplomatique (Oslo), April 2007, later reprinted and translated in Eurozine.
- Jean Baudrillard, Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?, translated by Chris Turner. (London: Seagull Books, 2009).
- “Moondog” was the adopted name of Louis Thomas Hardin (1916–1999), an American composer, musician, theoretician, poet, and inventor of several musical instruments. Largely self-taught as a composer, his music influenced composers Steve Reich and Philip Glass, among others. Blind from the age of sixteen, he lived in NYC from the late 1940s until 1972 and was often seen on 6th Avenue, between 52nd and 55th Streets, wearing his signature cloak and horned helmet, while busking or selling music, but more often just standing silently on the sidewalk. He was recognized by thousands of passersby as “the Viking of Sixth Avenue,” though few were aware of his musical career or influence.
- Arthur Cravan (née Fabian Lloyd, 1887–?), poet-boxer, proto-Dadaist, nephew of Oscar Wilde, and husband of Mina Loy, was last seen in October 1918 on the coast of Mexico, preparing to sail from Salina Cruz to Buenos Aires. Although many theories as to his disappearance exist, including a number of alleged “sightings” in subsequent decades, there has never been any convincing proof of his death or of the meaning behind his final, fatal “performance.”
Bas Jan Ader (1942–?), the Dutch conceptual artist and husband of American artist Mary Sue Andersen, was last seen in July, 1975, setting sail from Chatham, Massachusetts in what was intended to be a single-handed transatlantic voyage in a 12.5 foot modified pocket cruiser, which would have been the smallest boat ever to cross the Atlantic. His voyage in Ocean Wave was to have been the middle part of a planned triptych performance that was never completed. Approximately nine months after he set sail, his boat was found by Spanish fishermen about 100 nautical miles SW of Ireland. He was not in it.
- Joshua Rothman, “In Another Life”, The New Yorker, December 21, 2020.
- Arthur H. Miller, On Not Being Someone Else: Tales of Our Unled Lives (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2020)
- Baudrillard, Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?
- Hillery Stone, “The Artists Formerly Known As.” https://electricliterature.com/the-artist-formerly-known-as/
- Baudrillard, Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?