Natalia Molchanova’s Self Preservation in Black Inscription

Margaret Goddard ’19

Staff Writer

What’s been echoing in my head since the performance of Black Inscription a week ago is actress Tatyana Gessen’s silky whisper, playing a freediver, at full volume in the dark of the Pit, “There must be something I should remember, should try to hold onto, to take me back up.” These words were taken from Hannah Silva’s spoken text in Jump Blue, a BBC Radio production in tribute to Natalia Molchanova, perhaps the best freediver in the world, who died during an easy, recreational, unsupervised dive and whose body was never recovered. Composers Carla Kihlstedt, Matthias Bossi, and Jeremy Flower wrote a series of songs that imagine what Natalia saw and experienced as she continued her dive and discovered that she could stay underwater forever. I’ve been thinking about how Natalia’s story is not only tied to the preservation of the world’s oceans, but also the preservation of her physical body as she reaches superhuman depths.

A few days before, I met with Yonca Karakilic, associate director of Arts Transcending Borders, the initiative responsible for bringing innovative performing and visual arts to our campus at Holy Cross throughout the year. She talked about her impression of the performance: a way of making data more liquid and how the creators had mixed music, film projections, light design, and sound design all at the same time, and it somehow was not distracting. I found that all of this was true when I saw Black Inscription myself. I think Black Inscription is inherently about Natalia’s untimely death, but it ends up not focusing on that tragedy. Instead, it offers a multimedia tribute to her love of the ocean and its potential for human healing.

The spoken text of Black Inscription left the strongest impression on me because of a workshop I had attended at The People’s Forum in New York City the weekend before. The workshop, “Fall: A Season of Self-Preservation by Love Light & Poetry,” led by poet Rabih Ahmed, involved poetic study and writing amidst the highly personal and messy topic of self-preservation. We looked at the place in which Solange was back in 2008 when she made “Cranes in the Sky,” in which she writes about pushing what is wrong “away” through repeating this word over and over, like a meditation. I was thinking about this repeated meditation when Hannah Silva’s words in Black Inscription echoed in the Pit: “There must be something I should try to hold onto, to take me back up.” It is as if Natalia is looking for a rope leading to the surface at this moment in the performance, while Solange was looking for a way (retail therapy, staying busy, traveling, avoiding romantic love, writing, crying) to push everything away from her.

Natalia wrote about the method of attention deconcentration, a psychological tool that prevents panic underwater, minimum energy consumption, and the ability to remain alert to know when to resurface: “The purpose of psychological training is to teach the diver to react quickly and in advance to the changes of external (increase of hydrostatic pressure) and internal (development of hypoxic and hypercapnic condition) environment, which demand to slow down metabolic processes. Consequently, the freediver prior to the dive has to have low psychophysiological tonus. Ideally it is hibernation – the astronaut’s dream when organism is in so deep a stupor, it dares not to ask for any amount of energy. But while diving we have to move, and that means production and consumption of energy. The trick is to minimize energy consumption. By changing your attitude to the situation you can control psycho-emotional stress caused by the feeling of danger. Instead of pursuing the goal depth it is always better to keep an eye on your organism condition – whether equalization goes well, whether you move relaxed enough to prevent lactic acid build-up – and turn to the surface in proper time if you feel discomfort. The perfect example is Martin Stepanek: at the Cyprus he announced 103 m and turned at 98. Love for yourself is more important than records.”

Natalia suggests to us two things (based on years of experience and manipulation of biology and human anatomy no less): preserving energy when we enter high pressure situations and turning to the surface if we feel discomfort to avoid blacking out. I’m not saying you shouldn’t try to break records, to save the oceans, or to achieve impossible things. But everyone knows when they have reached an unhealthy frequency, when they need to reassess the speed and calibration at which they’ve been going. We need to move, just like divers, but we need to adjust our attitudes so we can meet “psycho-emotional” stress. Most people in today’s climate and era are feeling this type of stress, I would argue. I’ll refer to Rabih in her last lines of “Dusk”: “Just as dedicated calamity is to our lives/I need to adjust/Just as the sun/at dusk.”

I urge you to take advantage this year of the events Arts Transcending Borders organizes especially for students and the expansion of horizons and to check out the events and workshops The People’s Forum offers. I urge you to read some of Natalia Molchanova’s articles and poetry, to follow Carla and Matthias’ projects, to maybe listen to Solange’s “Cranes in the Sky,” and to experience Rabih Ahmed’s perspective on self love. Most importantly, I hope you carve time out for self-preservation, in whatever form that might take. In the spirit of fall, I want you to address those things you have been avoiding and to take care of yourself if that is long overdue. When things get rough, remember this description of diving under the surface of things to get to the deepness and then returning to people, written by Natalia:

I go to the shining deepness,

My thoughts are left in planet air.

I meet the Manta curving wings

That slide upon the depth with care.

The blue, that tender mantles me

Came to my body, lurking there

I quietly keep my falling free

Like drop of water streaming dare.

It’s time for coming back to earth,

I leave the Manta’s silent fair.

I float to people, sunny birth

With beam of love from bottom clear… (translation by Mikhail Soldatov)


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