Jean Detheux on Carol Novack and Coincidences
In 1978, my 12-year marriage collapsed. I was alone, confused and suffering in New York City. I was teaching drawing and painting at the NY Studio School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture (a fabulous place: A role model for many other studio schools, private, non-degree, but with the most intense and talented students I have ever had the privilege to work with). One evening, a student invited me to a party. He was putting up walls in his newly acquired loft.
I didn’t stay very long, but as I was leaving, some inviting music was wafting from the floor below, and as I attempted to locate the source, I stumbled upon another party. Almost immediately, a rather small woman with a huge mop of black hair invited me to dance. That woman was Carol Novack.
Examples: One day I come back to her place after teaching and there’s a man sitting on the couch. The man and I look at each other and simultaneously say: “What the hell are you doing here?”
Louis Finkelstein was a painter and scholar I highly respected, and with whom I’d had many fascinating discussions (Louis was interested in Husserlian Phenomenology and I was then a member of the Husserl Circle). He often came to the NY Studio School and had taught there on and off for years, but was primarily a faculty member in the Art Department at Queens College—where Carol's father, Saul Novack, was the Dean of Arts and Humanities.
On another occasion, Carol dropped by the Studio School to pick me up after classes. As she came into the office, the Dean (Bruce Gagnier) and his (then) wife (Jamie French, daughter of Marilyn French), said in one voice: “What are you doing here?”
Carol was working for the Orchestra of St. Luke's and had been organizing the ensemble’s booking for Bruce and Jamie's wedding. So many of these incidents occurred while we were together. Even if NY is a big city, there was another, smaller world that connected us.
Sometimes, these coincidences would not be quite as pleasant. I was progressively getting deeper into Zen practice and trying to draw Carol away from the party line: chain smoking, heavy drinking, et al. I took her to a picnic held in Kingston, Ontario, by members of the Montreal Zen Centre (Albert Low's) and was hoping that this would give Carol a taste of another way of life—gentler, less focused on the self and destructive life choices.
Little did I know what was to happen: I introduced her to an old friend, long time member of the group, a music teacher, choir master and jazz pianist. When I mentioned to him that Saul Novack, Carol's father, was a leading figure in the Schenkerian Analysis field, he virulent attacked Carol, treating her as if she were personally responsible for the birth of Heinrich Schenker himself!
Needless to say, Carol did not take up Zen practice!
She did try though. She didn’t have too many issues sitting (zazen) with me every morning, even survived my vegetarian diet (but truly missed my steak béarnaise and lobster bisque). But she just could not quit smoking. Of all the issues that set us at odds with each other, this one was truly insurmountable.
I moved to Ottawa for a year and she came up from New York several times, but our relationship faltered. Eventually, I returned to New York City to teach at the NY Studio School (and NYU), but I was then involved (with another Carol) and eventually got married, raised a family, and moved all over the place (including a stint in Europe).
Many years later, I settled on a small farm in Eastern Ontario. Then suddenly in July 2005, I received an email with the subject: Hello from somebody you knew a long time ago. Lo and behold it was Carol Novack again. She had located me on the web and figured I might be willing to contribute to her Mad Hatters' Review!
She also attached one of her stories in that original email, and hoped I could do something with it. That piece was the inception of “Destination,” the very work we completed together many years later. (The last thing we actually completed together.)
One of those strange coincidences again: She told me she was coming up to Canada to visit cousins, and if their place was not too far from mine, maybe we could get together. Of course, Canada is the second largest country in the world. She might have ended up several thousands of miles from where I lived. However, it turned out they lived a mere 5 miles (8 km) from my farm—just a few short minutes away!
So we eventually connected up again; she met my (then) wife and kids, saw the farm, garden and all (which I trust had an influence on her choice of residence in Asheville many years later).
We started writing fairly regularly. (Well, there are 2,136 messages in my Carol Novack mail folder.) Of course, as before, we had many arguments—
I sensed her moving to Asheville was a real gift. I could tell, from the tone of her emails (and later from the pictures I saw of her taken in NC) that this was a great improvement on the quality of her life. I am really pained by how short her time there was. She had so many positive things to say about both her house, her friends and neighbors. It's hard to resist the urge to accuse life of being unfair—but at least, she had those moments of quietude, moments when she no longer felt she had to hold the world at arms’ length.
Carol did something exceptionally difficult when she left the (relatively) secure world of law for the unpredictable one of literature, resuming her trust in her own unsaid. With each piece of writing, her trust in her own elusive voice was reinforced by the evidence of what it manifested.
Reading (again) many of her texts demonstrates the worth of her journey; a journey that was cut short, depriving her, and us, of what was yet to come. However, as unfair as her death seems to be, I can't help but also feel genuine gratitude for the fact the her book Giraffes in Hiding was published in time for her to enjoy it.
Given that the two films we made together involve her both as writer and narrator, I can hear her voice—for real—any time I (dare to) view them.
Here they are:
I still cannot imagine her being dead—can anybody do that, really?—but in her last email to me (dated Sept. 11, 2011 and entitled “haha”), she attached a text she wanted me to set images to (“I dream I am in your dream”). Don Meyer, the composer who wrote the music for “Destination” has agreed to record the audio and create the music. Once I have that here, I’ll start creating the images.
There's absolutely no way Carol and I could have made it as a couple, each time we were near each other—in person or via email—sparks would fly. But at the same time, something very special connected us; and if there is any truth to the notion of rebirth, maybe we are destined to make all that work out during another lifetime.
If anything, her untimely death has created a sense of renewed urgency in my life. I have always worked diligently, but I am doing even more so now.
Way to go Carol...