By Gian Balsamo, writer
Human breathing has always been the source of scandals. All religions from which Christianity drew its identity recognize breathing as the origin of life: pneuma for the Greeks, the breath from the after-world for the Egyptians, etc. Christianity gave us the Holy Spirit, which should be more properly called the Holy Breath because it is the breath that God blows – in Genesis – into the throat of a statue of mud. It is also the breath with which Christ and his disciples made 'logos' announcing the 'Verb'. For the ancients the scandal of breathing was found in the spell of a life-originating blow (of the flesh, of the spirit) where previously there was only death and inertia – in fact in t s'aï n sensen (the Book of Breathings) ancient Egyptians believed that life in the after-world depended on breathing: the only ones able to complete undamaged the crossing of the Realm of the Night were those deceased who started breathing again – right after death – and unite sexually with the goddess Isis. Here's another scandal: in the Egyptian Book of Breathings the breath of coitus brings back to life.
Another more recent scandal is to be found in the philosophy of William James who, about a century ago, believed that Descartes' expression "I think, therefore I am" needed to be changed into "I breathe, therefore I think". James is father to the well known expression "stream of consciousness" or flow of conscience. He believed that this flow was only the imprecise name for "stream of breathing", the flow of breathing.
During the past two years I often interviewed Enrica Antonioni, Michelangelos's young widow, about her husband's last documentary, "The gaze of Michelangelo". It is a short film about 15 minutes long dedicated to Buonarroti's Moses in San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome. When Antonioni was shooting this documentary the 92 years old director had but one eye left to see with (the other had fallen into an advanced tumefaction stage) and only one hand to move around with a lot of effort. The first time I saw Buonarroti's statue was when I visited the church of San Pietro in Vincoli together with Enrica and with the shooting crew; that day I had the impression that Antonioni's documentary had been able to give me a much livelier statue than the one I was looking at. Few people know that the short was shot without sound; later on the soundtrack was added by a sound technician named Mirco Mencacci, who is blind. Mencacci was able to catch what was missing in the frames invisible to him, images that he could only guess from the descriptions given to him by friends and colleagues. It was his idea to complete the scene where Antonioni strokes Moses' surface with the sound made by the ring on the director's finger while gliding on the marble. The most magical moment of my interviews with Enrica came when she told me that Mencacci had asked her to record Antonioni's breathing. The sound of this documentary is so ethereal that there is only one Movie Theater in all of Rome equipped to play it properly. It is as evanescent as Antonioni's own breathing which accompanies some of the scenes. After an entire life spent behind the camera, Antonioni put himself in front of the lens to leave us, as death was approaching, the track of his breath – that "stream of breathing" which nourished all his masterpieces.
Gian Balsamo taught literature at Stanford University, Northwestern University and at the American University of Cairo.