PRINT November 1992


IN MY END is my beginning. I do not know what follows that. The phrase—In my end is my beginning— is a beautiful one and I did not write it. In my end is my beginning is a version of a phrase in a poem. The poem begins, In my beginning is my end. It is titled “East Coker” and was written by Thomas Stearns Eliot in 1943.

For many years I would quote passages from this poem. I always began my recitation In my end is my beginning, believing I was correct. I was not. Now, having looked “East Coker” over again, I believe I understand why such an error was made: I do not prefer the exact memory of anything. Do you know what I mean? To recall something exactly as it was: it is possible, but not for me. In precise remembrance one does not find what is compelling about memory: the ever shifting space of interpretation around it. I had read Eliot’s lines in the way life had made them true for me. My memory recalled: In my end is my beginning.

I believe this to be true: that the end is a beginning. I mean, it has to be. Otherwise grief would be such an unbearable constant in my life and the lives of those I have loved, we would not choose it—a life. Do you know what I mean? The fact that I misremembered “East Coker” is a kind of beginning: I now have the chance to get it right.

Heaven is a place filled with mistakes. The “heaven” part of it is the fact we have the chance to get these mistakes right. I like the idea of heaven: it is a comfort to me as something dies, or someone dies. It is a chance for me to get my love for them right. It is a chance for me to set my memory of them right. It is my second chance with death.

Photographs also are imagined as a second chance with death, for they outlive the dead people in them. What kind of author does this make a photographer? Generous, because the photograph triumphs in a small way over death? How small photography makes us! But how large it can make us, too, if it is considered a second chance. One must begin to think of the photograph as the photographer’s second chance to get their feeling for the subject right.

In these photographs, taken between 1969 and 1972, does Judy Linn get Robert Mapplethorpe, Patti Smith, and Sam Shepard “right”? I do not know. I do not know because I am unfamiliar with what these people were before they became icons—icons of a kind of innocence. Today, in memory, Smith, Mapplethorpe, and Shepard seem to have processed their world through alchemy. They seem to have conformed to innocent ideas about art and its production: they did not “think”; they did not react to external stimuli; they were, or played the role of, innocents in a world made not to understand them. That is why the people in these photographs found each other. Do people still find each other in this way? I do not believe so, since acting the role of artist has supplanted being one. These photographs show such an innocent time! Filled with so many wonderful mistakes!

I love the old mistakes. Photography is a recorded mistake, unlike misremembering “East Coker,” which is a mistake relegated to memory now. I spoke Eliot’s words, incorrectly. A photograph is a recorded image of something captured, incorrectly. For instance: in this portfolio of portraits by Judy Linn, there is an image of Robert Mapplethorpe. He is wearing a leather diaper. There is some jewelry on his wrists. I notice this jewelry because he is trying to light a cigarette and his hands are about his face. Perhaps there was a strong wind that prevented his cigarette from being lit. Over his head, there is a large sky. What was in that sky? What did anyone say under it? Were there voices blown away by the wind, the sand? Was anyone ill? Did someone make a mistake by misremembering another person’s name? Did someone make a bigger mistake by not mentioning that this one day, spent under a large sky, near the sea, among people younger than the birds, as young as Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith and Judy Linn, would result in these photographs? I do not know. I wasn’t there.

Hilton Als is a writer who lives in New York. Judy Linn is a photographer who lives in New York, and is currently collaborating on a book with Patti Smith.