Elixir—the word just sounds tempting, I guess. I dunno, as it also sounds like a cough syrup brand. Still, it does no good not to hope. Maybe it wouldn’t just give me longer life and better health, but make me look better. Not only would I entertain larger prospects of success, but the chances that I’d be remembered—become an image on which people wanted to dwell—would increase.
“Buying” challenges the very idea that I know what I want. She was buying an elixir / in a city / of bygone times—Follain tells a story of a woman of an era which has been almost entirely erased. She indulges a cure, a power, that might as well be magic. One can surmise this sets her apart from her fellow citizens, but what does it have to do with us?
Buying Jean Follain (tr. Heather McHugh) She was buying an elixir in a city of bygone times yet we should think of her now when shoulders are as white and wrists as fine flesh as sweet Oh, vertiginous life!
[Y]et we should think of her / now when shoulders are as white / and wrists as fine / flesh as sweet—from the woman long ago buying an elixir, the poem suddenly crashes into the present. Her buying an elixir does not sound half as creepy as our thought of white shoulders, fine wrists, sweet flesh. She bought an elixir and had an appetite; we seem to be nothing but appetite. Why should we think of her at all?
You could also say that if we do think of her in any way, we do so based on our desires. Maybe we craft those desires into ideals—perfect colors, perfect proportions—but our hunger still underlies the whole project. This would indicate that if this poor woman of the past wanted to be remembered in any way, that wish is caught up completely in our crude imaginings. Oh, vertiginous life, indeed.
I take “Buying” ultimately to be about trying to get some kind of reputation or fame. It has a lesson, one more subtle than “trying to get famous is the same as making a demonic wish.” We can surmise the poor woman didn’t really know what she wanted from the elixir. If she knew what she wanted, she would have done something more precise (this, to be sure, is not to blame her). We know we need a reputation and respect to function in society, not just have a legacy. If we’re precise about what we want to obtain—what we want to do, make, or give for it—we can sidestep at least some dependence on others’ whims. If what we possess is useful and others are in need of it, we can be visible for however long and not exploited. —I would only add, as a word of caution, that being useful and actually being needed are two entirely different things.—
Milosz, Czeslaw. A Book of Luminous Things. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1996. 160.