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To a young boy entering the confessional box, a grope in the darkness is all there is. To articulate tbe recollection of the sacrament of penance one first drenches the body in darkness, purifies memory from all sentiment and myththough the act of confessing is imbued with sentiment and myth, especially to the young. Rainer Maria Rilke recalled encountering once, when he was a small child, a disembodied hand while he was momentarily beneath a table; in the darkness the extremity surprised him in its disassociated warmth and comfort, though he could not tell in the intervening moments whose hand it was-his, or his housekeeper's?
One always hoped for existential discoveries in the confessional box, that the body still did exist, that one hadn't left its abundance entirely. Sometimes succor was delivered within the reassuring tones of the priest's voice, a timbre recollected from last week's classroom visit; sometimes it was one's tired knees, or trembling elbows. One needed to depart from the corpus if one was to truly confess.
This, I believed, was why I was not allowed to see the priest's face when I confessed: to stare eye- to-eye when confessing belied the obvious, I am flesh-and-blood, I am less-than-whole. To intellectually comprehend moral and ethical transgressions-regardless of how domestically petty they might feel to the confessor (last night I bit my little brother)-the confessor must shed anatomy's garment and step in unencumbered. The fragmented reminder that we are always flesh filtered through the shadowy screen between priest and penitent, and such a reminder could not have
been allowed to distract. ..
But spiritual grace was impossible in the confessional! The body was always interrupting, one's voice welling from a palpitating source more physical than celestial, perspiring than divine. The body struggling to presence itself in the darkness saturated the act of unburdening oneself of one's corporeal and spiritual sins with dramatic nobility, resulting from the enclosing of oneself in the small, enormous dark box behind the plum-velvet curtain, where whispers strayed like incense, and where the body threatened to dissipate.
And yet, always we returned to the world witb the body intact. And yet, always we returned to the confessional with the body in disarray.
Smaller enormities. An untitled Joseph Cornell construction circa 1969, known familiarly as "For Trista," dramatizes the geometric intrigue implicit in all boxes and as with all of Cornell's creations, that which is left out-thus that which is inherently imagined, irrational-moves invisibly within and without as contents for the content. "For Trista" consists of a 14-by-18-by-5 inch upright wooden box; dropped in snugly, nearly at box's depth, is a pale, thin piece of plywood with a one and-a-half inch hole excised just off-center. Peering through is the operative behavior when encountering a Cornell box: through tbis hole one spies a dim detail of an archaic, other-century map (when the panel is removed, the map is revealed to be a chart of "Principal Rivers"). In the box's lower-right hand corner, lying simply and innocently in front of the plywood sheet as if on a ledge: a single maroon wooden bead; a blue cube; a plastic globe. 1
I My description of "Untitled (For Trista)" is based on the physical arrangement of materials organized by the curators at the Art Institute in Chicago, Illinois, where the construction is on permanent display. The piece achieves its fullest dimension, I believe, with the panel installed, and with the globe-which in other installations is propped inside the panel-hole-resting at the base alongside the bead and cube.
164 Joe Bonomo
I am always suspicious of (though intrigued by) Cornell's claims that "random chance" plays such an active role in his box-constructions. A close examination of any piece from his "bird sanctuary" series, for example, reveals an artist's eye-fordetail and an expert, well-earned tone embodied by the lively and resonant possibility of juxtaposed objets trouves; the composition in 1945's "Untitled (The Hotel Eden)," for example, falls nothing short of Velazquez's pictorial ambitions in its scope and determination.
And in Cornell's boxes the dark aura of mystery, and of the imagination's being implicated in that mystery, is by requirement doubled. Intrigued at one point by a closed box-what must loom in there?-CorneU spent the better part of his life opening the lids, as it were. Thus, what one was doubtless convinced byenigma as shut chest-becomes multi plied upon further curiosity. The riddle guessed at beneath the lid, or behind the velvet curtain, was more than anyone bargained for, argues Cornell, and isn't this a spectacular gift?
I was wary about confession in the new arrangement. While the old penance frightened me with the cloaked hush of its dark box, this novel face-to-face design introduced a newer, equally fearful prospect: intimacy-not the vast, sacred intimacy of the box, but bodily intimacy, eye contact, body language, a whole host of threatening physical melodramas naturally loathed by the puberty-aged. Perhaps, I rationalized, this was an opportunity to combat the fear of my vanishing body; ifI was made visible to myself, the apprehension might be forever erased. And yet the prospect of having no barrier separating myself and the priest to whom I would confess my sins seemed impossible to bear, the stripping away not only of a certain dignity, but also of an odd sense of comfort: if made invisible during this most personal of moments, then I and my stain would not be seen. At the very least, to thrust myself, flesh, bones, and pounding blood at once, toward the vulnerability of repenting frailties seemed at odds with the liberating casualness surrounding the church's new policy.
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I was relieved, then, when I learned that Father Paul was giving confessions that week. Of all of the priests at St. Andrew's he seemed the calmest and the most genial; he seemed, both in the classroom and out 011 the playground, to go out of his way to leave behind antiquated notions of the steely, stern, and humorless priest. I was also surprised when I learned that the "open-face confession"(as we thirteen-year-old wags had soon clubbed it) was a choice; one could still enter the box and confess the old-fashioned way if one preferred. But by this point I had steeled myself for a face-to-face spiritual admission. The thought of again stepping into a confessional box (bright mid-afternoon sunlight, bleed of stainedglass, imperturbable silence, kids' outside cries) seemed akin to stepping into the Old Age, of black, black, black. I was thoroughly modern now, and proud.
Cornell subverts the universal knowledge guaranteed by all maps, whether celestial or Mall of America: You Are Here. By foreshortening access to such an absurd degree, the piece brings on a tremendous rush of claustrophobia, as if the world is being pinched down to a dot. The bare plywood offers little relief; it is all that separates us from the world, that is, from proof that the world exists as vowed by that most absolute of documents, the map. With our vast perspective rapidly diminishing, what have we left? A bead. A cube. A plastic globe.
A bead, a cube, a plastic globe. Child's playthings? Microcosm? That possibility always lurks inside Cornell's boxes, as the child's imaginative apprehension of her world-not yet filtered through rational, social concerns of property disputes and political boundaries-knows no limits, but fear and the compulsion to keep moving forward. Indeed, Cornell created "For Trista" as a gift for the (titular) child, a young daughter of some friends; what was she to do with this tiny universe of apprehension? There is something remarkable about the diminutive globe resting beneath the ever-eclipsed map, as if we are at once removed warpspeed from our tiny perspective and thrust out into the cosmos. The comforting proximity to a regional map is distorted by our Atlas-towering over the token globe. As our peep-hole quickly dilates, we become, oddly, giants.
166 Joe Bonomo
But that bead, and that cube-Cezanne-like geometric takes on what remains.
The bead: a bald earth. The cube: a receptacle. As man was busy spending the Sixties perfecting his compulsion to shrink the globe down to something palmsized and possessional, was Cornell obsessed with the crackle of NASA-speak, with Houston's bizarre dialogues?
As I was ushered into the confessional office Father Paul greeted me warmly from the center of the room, calling me by my first name and motioning me to sit down. I did so, in a plush, stuffed leather chair, placed squarely in front of him. The room was comfortable, with tasteful wood paneling and green plants. What I found most odd was not the empathic countenance of the priest before me, bearing as it did no likeness whatsoever to the darkened silhouette I was used to muttering toward in the box, but the light in the r00111. Soft, natural-indeed, light -it gave the office the somewhat ersatz aura of a waiting room, and certainly felt continents and eons away from the darkness of the confessional box. The methods of the sacrament themselves hadn't changed, of course; I asked the Father for his blessing, I informed him as to how long it had been since my last confession-I confessed. He nodded, he listened, he smiled, he counseled, he forgave me, he gave me my penance.
Many of the confessional box mores were gone. Something was strangely off, and I was unprepared for how deflating the experience would be. I was not conceding my sins on my knees as had been the custom; rather, I was a casual supplicant, sitting with my legs crossed, as was the Father. We chatted; there was back-and-forth conversing, actual dialogue, none of the weighted, speak-andhush murmuring of the box. There was direct eye contact, there were mild moments of levity. There was no mystery.
Charles Simic on Cornell: "Vision is his subject. He makes holy icons. He proves that one needs to believe in angels and demons even in a modern world in order to make sense of it."
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The mysteries belonging to Cornell's boxes are those belonging to us, but which remain unarticulated. As we enter his boxes we agree to leave something behind, if only to save ourselves. Our penance when we return is to be cursed with the inability to translate what we have seen.
From small enclosures one may sense the infinite. Of possibility.
The fact that I recall so little of my face-to-face confessions suggests that there was little in them that I found spiritually compelling. In the effort to modernize, to move from the metaphorical-and-literal darkness of the confessional box to an informal discussion in the light, the archdiocese robbed the sacrament of a great deal of its sacred unknowns. The move from dark unburdening to light acknowledgement seemed reasonable, as a turn away from a Joseph Cornell conundrum feels like a turn toward reason. The language of boxes might always be foreign, but a lifting of the lid and a cocking of the ear to odd, fearful musichowever unphraseable-protects and enriches more of the soul than does an emptying of the contents into rational light.
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