I am delighted to announce the publication of Impossible Loves: Essays. When my friends Heather and Steve started up Rock Paper Tiger Press last year, they proposed that their first book be a collection of essays from this blog, and I was thrilled and honored. The essays have been edited, polished, and a little de-blog-ized for publication, and I hope you’ll like them!
Here’s the copy from the back cover:
To read McNellis’s essays is to find yourself having one of those late-night conversations you always thought awaited you – those conversations where, for two hours before dawn, everything made complete sense. She’s good – very good – on ideas and thinkers, excellent on poets, and she’s miraculous on love. There is a real discursive ease of thinking in the essays, a desire to communicate the difficult joys of being human, and the reader can only hope to reciprocate.
- Dr. Timothy C. Baker, Ph.D., Author of George Mackay Brown and the Philosophy of Community
“Possible loves – are for fools – The wise have – impossible loves,” reads a journal fragment from Christian mystic Simone Weil, whose life and works are examined here amid a seemingly unlikely assortment of topics. An argument for maintaining a reverence for commitment while rejecting a traditional, sentimental embrace of outmoded family structures becomes an inquiry into Weil’s drive toward self-sacrifice. A consideration of what Weil might have had in common with libertine and frequent critic Georges Bataille develops into a discussion of Timothy Treadwell, the tragic, grizzly-bear-enamored subject of Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man. Later, delving into the tradition of reticence in American poetry is brought into relief against the author’s own experience at Burning Man, where the beat never stops.
Like a long discussion with a sharply intelligent friend, Impossible Loves moves effortlessly from topic to topic without ever losing its focus. “Nearly every paper in my academic career has the secret or not-so-secret message of ‘please, please try to love one another,’ and I think it would not be exaggerating to say that many, if not most, works of art have exactly this message as well,” McNellis writes, admitting in the same essay that “emotions are embarrassing.” Embarrassing, complex, even impossible though it may be, love is still the answer – but that doesn’t make the questions any less interesting.
You can get the book from Amazon, or you can order it through your local bookstore!
For those of you keeping track, I have now finished my Ph.D. in English and am about to stumble across the finish line of my first semester of adjuncting. But I will have a nice long six-week winter break, during which I hope to bring you a slew of new posts on the Occupy movement and on what I’ve been reading. Cheers!
I am currently reading Kenneth Goldsmith’s Traffic, a conceptual poetry project consisting of twenty-four hours of traffic reports from New York’s 1010 WINS (available online in its entirety here), and am stunned to find myself moved nearly to tears. Goldsmith, who claims that his transcription projects make him “the most boring writer that has ever lived,” is not thought of as a particularly moving writer, and I was certainly not expecting to react this way. But as soon as I opened the book I was floored; I was transported Proust-style right back into the kitchen of the house where I grew up in suburban New Jersey:
12:01 Well, in conjunction with the big holiday weekend, we start out with the Hudson River horror show right now. Big delays in the Holland Tunnel either way with roadwork, only one lane will be getting by. You’re talking about, at least, twenty to thirty minutes worth of traffic either way, possibly even more than that. Meanwhile the Lincoln Tunnel, not great back to Jersey but still your best option. And the GW Bridge your worst possible option. Thirty to forty minute delays, and that’s just going into town. Lower level closed, upper level all you get. Then back to New Jersey every approach is fouled-up: West Side Highway from the 150′s, the Major Deegan, the Bronx approaches and the Harlem River Drive are all a disaster, the Harlem River Drive could take you an hour, no direct access to the GW Bridge with roadwork. And right now across the East River 59th Street Bridge, you’ve gotta steer clear of that one. Midtown Tunnel, Triboro Bridge, they remain in better shape. Still very slow on the eastbound Southern State Parkway here at the area of the, uh, Meadowbrook there’s a, uh, stalled car there blocking a lane and traffic very slow.
Just about every weekday morning of my life between ages six and eighteen, I listened to traffic reports exactly like this one sputtering out of my father’s battery-powered radio. And I do mean exactly: it was 1010 WINS that he had on every morning, with traffic updates every ten minutes from Pete Tauriello, who is evidently still doing the traffic reports that Goldsmith is transcribing. (Actually, now that I think about it, there was definitely a period where my dad listened to WNEW’s Bloomberg Radio instead — another AM news channel financed, of course, by the man who would eventually become mayor of New York.) But in any case, Goldsmith’s block of text activated neurons I didn’t even remember I had, and it occurred to me that his work is rarely considered in terms of the specific times, places, and communities that it evokes. Critics tend to be concerned with what it means to copy something so banal word-for-word — to be concerned, that is, with the theoretical — and miss that perhaps what he’s trying to get at is the banal itself, rather than the philosophy that leads him to reproduce the banal.
My dad listened to that little battery-powered radio while shaving, and then would bring it with him into the kitchen to make breakfast for himself, me, and my brother. My mother didn’t really eat breakfast; she seemed to subsist on instant coffee and diet Pepsi until noon. When I was very young, I would hang around in the bathroom watching my dad shave and then follow him and the radio out to the kitchen. When I was older, I would endeavor to wake up as late as possible, but I’d still find myself downstairs in the kitchen shoveling cereal or Pop Tarts into my mouth in the cold dark morning while the radio chattered away. This was a decidedly pre-internet age; my dad listened to AM radio every morning so he could get the news efficiently, which I now suddenly recognize as an antiquated practice. I doubt he listens to that radio at all anymore, now that he has an iPhone. Stations like 1010 WINS are on a very short loop — the traffic and weather recur every ten minutes (and each time are just the slightest bit different, as conditions progress) and the material between these reports varies a bit more — sometimes you’ll get financial news, sometimes political news, etc — but even so, you don’t have to listen to the radio for more than twenty or thirty minutes before you start hearing the same stories repeated exactly. So it was always a little bit of a mystery to me why my father let the radio accompany him through his whole morning ritual — he, and I by extension especially when I was young and following him around, would be subjected to not just repeated-with-a-difference content like the traffic, but actually verbatim repeated content.
In addition to being repetitive, a lot of the news on the radio didn’t really affect my dad very much, and it certainly didn’t affect me. My parents had some investments, so I guess the financial news was sort of important, and it’s also how I learned about the stock market myself. (“Dad, what’s a ‘bear market’?”) The traffic reports that came on every ten minutes meant nothing to anybody in my family, since both of my parents had “commutes” that were less than ten minutes long. But listening to the traffic reports every morning taught me a fair amount about local geography — the BQE, the Major Deegan, the Verrazano — these names were burned into my brain before they even really meant anything, and years later when I learned to drive and started navigating the highways myself, I found myself having little a-ha moments every time I crossed a bridge in real life that I had previously only known from Pete Tauriello’s traffic reports.
Now that I think about it, the reason the traffic reports are so burned into my brain is that the one thing I personally was always interested in was the weather report, and these radio stations of course do “traffic and weather together” — so when you started to hear the traffic report, you’d hush everybody up so you could catch the weather. The thing about these news stations is that they operate at a blinding pace — everybody is always speaking very quickly so they can cram as much information as possible into their minute-long slot. The rhythm and diction of the traffic reports that Goldsmith transcribes are at least as evocative for me as the names of the tunnels and bridges. Some phrases the announcer seemed to have by rote — “stalled car blocking a lane,” “only one lane getting by” — these we’d hear several times a morning. “Jackknifed tractor-trailer” was one we’d hear a lot, and I remember being somewhat enamored of the sound of the words as well as slightly alarmed by its frequency given what an enormous disaster a jackknifed tractor trailer in fact is. Sentences in this barrage of information tend to be clipped and lack verbs: “Meanwhile the Lincoln Tunnel, not great back to Jersey but still your best option. And the GW Bridge your worst possible option. Thirty to forty minute delays, and that’s just going into town.” And to make matters worse, the announcers would jump all over the map: “then back to New Jersey every approach is fouled-up.” I remember trying to hold it all in my head, to picture the places they were talking about, and I always found that it was too difficult to follow. On the rare occasions that we did need the traffic report’s wisdom, we found that we’d have to strain to pick out the relevant information from this rapid barrage. But colorful touches like “the Hudson River horror show” remind you that there’s a person and a personality on the other end of this deluge of information that is so particularly stylized. I hadn’t thought about Pete Tauriello in years — in fact, I never really thought about him; I just heard his name a lot — but when Marjorie Perloff mentioned him in her chapter on Traffic in her new book, Unoriginal Genius, I gasped aloud as the “Pete Tauriello” neurons in my brain started firing again more than ten years later.
In retrospect, I think my dad probably just liked the chatter. The radio made us all feel connected to the outside world, whether or not we were paying very close attention to it. Now, of course, we have the internet to fill our lives with chatter and connection — but I think one of the things we can learn from Goldsmith’s Traffic is that not all forms of chatter are alike. Ten years from now, will radio announcers still be clipping their diction and dropping their verbs to fit all the traffic into their one-minute report? Or will news radio wither and die from the internet’s competition? Even if it doesn’t entirely vanish, I’d wager that news radio will reach ever smaller — poorer and older — segments of the population, and that it will no longer be a mainstay of middle-class suburban houses like my parents’.
I think, then, that part of what Goldsmith is getting at in his transcription projects is the power of records of utterly banal minutia to evoke the particular places and times from which they emerge. I doubt that Traffic would have had so powerful an effect on me if I hadn’t moved across the country to southern California, where names like “the BQE” make me feel nostalgic and the very idea of straining to hear the weather report in order to choose appropriate clothing is somewhat quaint. Neither the radio nor even weather itself is much a part of my life these days. But I experience these traffic reports as microcosms of a life I once lived, reflected through something I never particularly paid attention to while I was living it. Traffic reports — and weather reports, and newspapers, subjects of some of Goldsmith’s other transcription projects — are part of the texture of the everyday; they are where we live without noticing that we live there.
As you have no doubt noticed, I’m having a hard time figuring out what to say to this blog lately, since my academic thoughts are all getting funneled into my dissertation. But two out of my three most recent posts have been collage-poems, so I figure I may as well share with you another poem in order to keep this place from going completely dark. Lately in places other than this blog I have been experimenting with another poetic technique of constraint, wherein I take every Nth letter of an existing, usually rather famous poem, and write a new poem connecting those words in the order that I found them. The best results of this I have been hoarding with the ambition of getting them published someplace, but tonight’s poem hits that place between “potentially publishable” and “do not show to anyone ever” that blogs so happily occupy — and besides, I think it’s kind of fun. Instead of a poem, I used “The Promised Land,” one of my favorite Bruce Springsteen songs, as my source text, because it’s my last night in Jersey until December. Enjoy.
Thirty miles into Utah and the
radio stops working. Barefoot driving
turns me part machine; soon the cops won’t know
who to tell to step out of what. They all said to live
in the moment, like a moment was a place where you could
wipe your feet and hang your hat. I don’t know anymore
what I’ve done, just that I’ve got a long way to go.
Your eyes can’t tell when somebody’s gone cold-hearted, so just
remember this: when you get cut and somebody else bleeds,
the dogs understand. Cut yourself into ribbons,
boy; believe in the dark spaces between them.
I’m heading straight for the twister,
so either you’ve gotta blow apart
your tomorrows or you’ve gotta leave the keys
in the ignition. They all said to live in the moment
like a moment was a goddamn split-level condo.
I believe in starting fires and running
for the horizon.
Here’s a meme I picked up from Ron Silliman’s blog: list the 20 books that caused you to fall in love with poetry. It is, as Ron notes, quite a different proposition from asking you to list the 20 books of poetry most influential on your current thinking. My list is pretty weird, shaped largely by what I happened to come in contact with during high school, and by a particular class I took in college which cemented my certainty that experimental poetry was What I Was Going To Do With My Life. Here’s the list in alphabetical order, with some explanatory notes.
Will Alexander, Asia and Haiti — I decided to write a paper about this in that class because it was the most difficult book we’d read so far. Making that decision made me feel pretty cool.
John Ashbery, Your Name Here — A peculiar choice from Ashbery’s oeuvre, to be sure, but it was the first book of his I ever came across. “The Fortune Cookie Crumbles” remains one of my favorite poems ever.
Karin Boye, Complete Poems, tr. David McDuff — This was sent to me by my cousins in Sweden, and it was exactly what a melodramatic teenager needed. Her poems are a strange marriage of strong viking spirit and burning romance. Here are some lines that stick with me to this day: “Fair, fair is joy, fair also is sorrow. / But fairest is to stand on pain’s battlefield / with stilled mind and see that the sun is shining.”
Reggie Cabico and Todd Swift, eds., Poetry Nation: The North American Anthology of Fusion Poetry – I bought this book at Barnes & Noble when I was about fifteen because I wanted to find out “what people were writing today,” and I was so charmed that I read at least four or five of the poems in here at an event at my high school. I think the major revelation that the book gave me was that poetry could be really fucking funny without being trivial, a fact that would be reinforced by all the experimental stuff I would begin reading once I got to college. A few years ago, Cabico was brought out as a special guest at a poetry reading I’d participated in, and it seemed like I made his year by recognizing him and explaining at great length what his anthology had meant to me.
e.e. cummings, 100 Selected Poems — A friend of mine once said that e.e. cummings is for deep sixteen-year-olds, and I think he’s right, but I think a lot of us are secretly deep sixteen-year-olds at heart. When I was a deep sixteen-year-old in the flesh, I would stay up late and sit on the floor in front of the full-length mirror in my closet and read e.e. cummings out loud to myself. The revelation that cummings was not actually very difficult once you read him out loud was a pretty important one for me.
Emily Dickinson, Selected Poems — A boy gave this to me for my sixteenth birthday, with a bunch of artifacts inside keyed to specific poems — pictures, magazine clippings, a necklace. Most of them are still in there. Years later, I would write a paper about death and the void in Dickinson, and decide that this gifted edition presented a pretty heavily edited view of her work.
Allen Ginsberg, Howl — Sooner or later, every poetry-loving teenager gets ahold of Howl. I was fortunate enough to have access to my mother’s legitimately-70s copy. Later, I would name one of my notebooks “The Sunflower Sutras.”
Joy Harjo, A Map to the Next World — I read this book in college under my favorite tree on one of the first warm days of spring, and cried like I was waking up from a terrible dream. Just a few days ago I was reminded of that experience and I picked the book up again, and I had trouble figuring out what had moved me so deeply. Harjo has some interesting things to say, for sure, and I’ve always been interested in myth, but I think it must have been a confluence of circumstance that made me love this book so much back then.
H.D., Trilogy — I have now written four separate papers on this book for graduate school. Every time I re-read it there’s something new to pay attention to.
Lyn Hejinian, My Life — This is one of the books I wrote my senior honors thesis on, and I read it six million billion times. I circled all the repetitions and keyed them together by page number, I underlined any time she seemed to be saying anything about the composition process, and I came to love parataxis above all other literary devices.
Yusef Komunyakaa, Neon Vernacular — I read “Woman, I Got the Blues” to basically everyone who will let me. You have to yell the “sweet mercy” line pretty loudly and sincerely to get it right.
Mina Loy, The Lost Lunar Bedecker — I was on a date with a guy ten years older and a million times cooler than I was, and I took him to one of my favorite little bookstores in NYC, and he pulled this book off the shelf and said “if you buy this, I guarantee that you’ll be ahead of the game in your next poetry class.” And he was right; Loy was assigned to me just a few weeks later, in a modernist poetry class I took my senior year. I had already read it and fallen in love with “Songs to Joannes,” which remains one of my favorite ambiguous-love poems of all time.
Harryette Mullen, Sleeping with the Dictionary — This was it; this was the book that I was reading when I decided “this, right here, is what I am going to do with my life.”
Pablo Neruda, Selected Poems, A Bilingual Edition, ed. Nathanial Tarn — Really, what I loved the most in this volume was the Viente Poemas de Amor. I read my mother’s copy so many times that the binding fell apart, so she didn’t mind too much when I stole it and brought it to college with me.
Sylvia Plath, Ariel — I am allergic to bees, and hence pretty afraid of them. My most vivid memory of this book is of being so unable to put it down that I took it to the dorm kitchen with me to read while making dinner.
Adrienne Rich, The Fact of a Doorframe — I first encountered Rich through one of her more recent books assigned in class, but it was this “selected poems” volume that really had an effect on me; watching the arc of her career as it developed was incredibly interesting.
Leslie Scalapino, The Public World / Syntactically Impermanence — My most vivid memory of reading this is of lounging around on the quad in the sunshine while a tour group walked by, and thinking to myself, “The scene of me reading here only looks idyllic. If they could see inside my head or even just onto this page, boy howdy would they get a different idea.”
Juliana Spahr, Fuck You – Aloha – I Love You — I read this book at the beginning of a five-hour bus ride, and then I read it again, and then I read it again. It was like watching the same tower be built, unbuilt, and rearranged over and over again.
Gertrude Stein, Tender Buttons — The professor of that landmark poetry class I took in college gave us the first few pages of this on the first day of class, and I thought he was out of his mind. Over the next few weeks, though, I realized that he was right, and this stuff was incredibly interesting. Furthermore, when I read the whole book, I was surprised to find that it was downright hilarious. Now that I’m a teacher myself, I too start my poetry classes with Tender Buttons. (And Shakespeare, and Christian Bök’s aural ravings, and I ask my students whether each of these three objects count as poetry and why.)
Rosmarie Waldrop, Reluctant Gravities
Rosmarie Waldrop, The Reproduction of Profiles – Waldrop instantly became my favorite living poet when I read these two books, and she remains so today (her other books are great, too). I think she is the only person in the history of the human race who has successfully solved the mind-body problem.
One of the things I seem to keep coming back to in this blog is the question of what can and cannot and should and should not be articulated. In my last post, I invoked the myth of Cupid and Psyche in order to argue that there is a value to keeping dark corners unlit, that certain experiences are impoverished by the telling. Today I’m going to investigate some critiques of that point of view from some experimental poets, and I’m going to connect all of this to a discussion of Burning Man, a yearly festival of art, free expression, and self-reliance in the Nevada desert that I have just returned from for the second time.
The Cult of Silence
Most mainstream US poetry, since at least the 1950s, has organized its emotional economy around a conspicuously absent center. Concrete details point to a an epiphany of resonant silence, where the emotional force of the poem is expressed through its very unexpressableness. Consider, for example, Robert Hass’ poem “Meditations at Lagunitas”. The speaker begins with a sort of critique of Platonism, arguing that concrete instances of things should not be viewed as degraded versions of their ideal forms. Then he turns to words, the bottom of Plato’s hierarchy (because they are imitations of imitations of the Forms), and argues that just “because there is in this world no one thing / to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,” we should not think that “a word is an elegy to what it signifies.” (It’s tricky, of course, because all this is stated in the positive & not the negative, but the framing of the first few lines makes this criticism apparent.)
At this point, you might think that Hass is rejecting the numinous, vague world of forms — but as the end of the poem makes clear, he is in fact holding it more sacred than anything, so sacred that it cannot be described. The mistake is not believing in something beyond words, but failing to put that thing properly beyond words. As he thinks of his beloved, the speaker is driven to a series of recollections, presented paratactically in a series of concrete details, first about his childhood and then about the woman herself. The gaps in the parataxis point to what cannot be said, and the final chant of “blackberry, blackberry, blackberry” walks a weird line between signifying everything and signifying nothing: the true essence of those afternoons and evenings is safely hidden where attempts to explain it cannot limit or contaminate it.
“Meditations at Lagunitas” is one of my favorite examples of this kind of poem, but as you might guess, the premise that the most important revelations are beyond words can lead to a lot of really dubious poetry. Ron Silliman, probably the most widely-read poetry blogger today, pejoratively calls this tendency in mainstream US poetry the “School of Quietude” — this is the sort of writing more widely known as “workshop lyric” because it’s the kind of poetry that’s generally encouraged by creative writing classes. You know these poems, even if you’ve never heard these terms — this is the poetry of quiet, serene epiphany, often taking place in nature. Poets of this school would agree with the declaration in my last post that “love suffers in the naming” — these are what you might call reticent poems, which rely on evocative concrete detail. Silliman calls this tendency a “school” to emphasize that it’s just one way of making poetry, and should not be thought of as the “normal” from which avant-garde poetry “deviates.” (He claims, furthermore, that every single US Poet Laureate has been a member of the SoQ, with the sole exception of William Carlos Williams, who declined the position due to illness and never served.)
And if running an institutional hegemony that’s been crowding out other styles of writing for the past few decades weren’t enough reason to dislike it, the “School of Quietude” also has plenty of critics of its aesthetic practice. In Self and Sensibility in Contemporary American Poetry (1984), Charles Alteri characterizes this kind of poetry as “the scenic style,” explaining that these poems “achieve closure by a leap from the narrative to the visionary levels, as if sensitive experience reached its climax in moments of resonant silence” and goes on to criticize this approach pretty sternly: “finally, the pursuit of resonant silence may not allow the poet to say enough, may not purchase enough in vision to pay for what it costs poetry in eloquence, especially when a cult of silence makes it easy to luxuriate in vague emotions” (15).
Alteri’s critique gives us an economics of style, where silence is a poverty taken on almost monastically as a prerequisite to visions that may or may not turn out to be worth the sacrifice. But he clearly sees hypocrisy in this “cult,” in which an initial vow of asceticism devolves quickly into complacency — the silence that was supposed to make us all seekers has instead dulled that impulse and made us all either converts to or heretics of a new orthodoxy.
The Heresy of Eloquence
David Antin and Jerome Rothenberg were already heretics in 1965, when they began the poetry magazine some/thing with a manifesto railing against this aesthetics of resonant silence. It’s a problem for much more than poetry, they argue; the cult of silence is diminishing our ability to understand ourselves and others:
THE MOST TERRIBLE EXPERIENCE OF THE LAST THREE HUNDRED AND FIFTY YEARS HAS BEEN THE GROWING CONVICTION THAT THE MOST SIGNIFICANT ASPECTS OF REALITY HAVE BECOME UNSPEAKABLE WITH THE CONSEQUENCE THAT THEY HAVE ALSO COME TO FEEL UNREAL THEY ARE UNREAL
STATEMENT: I CAN CALL SPIRITS FROM THE VASTY DEEP
QUESTION: BUT WILL THEY COME
THE FEELING THAT SOME/THING LIES OUT THERE THAT WE CANNOT LAY HOLD OF IS THE FEELING OF THE INADEQUACY OF THE EXISTING ORDER IT IS THE DEMAND FOR A DIFFERENT ORDER THE CONDITION OF POETRY THE NEED TO GAIN GROUND
Antin and Rothenberg up the ante, then, when they say that the problem is not just the emotional economy of a particular style of poetry, but a general trend in consciousness. Once we start to treat our “most significant” experiences with reverent silence, these experiences start to feel unreal — and consequently become unreal, for what are they but feelings? The quote from Shakespeare’s Henry IV in this context is not about devils, but about emotions: you can name them, but will you feel them? Antin and Rothenberg want to turn this skepticism about the connection between words and experience into a positive force: instead of passing over in silence that which we cannot speak of, we ought to be constructing new ways of speaking.
A tall order, you say. Shall we concoct a new alphabet? Put together new words out of nonsense syllables? No and no: all Antin wants is for people to listen to each other, rather than assuming that the truth of another person is out of reach or, worse, already understood. In a piece entitled “tuning,” he writes,
at this point i think its very important for us to form a new notion of human rapprochement thats not based on understanding and i would like to contribute to not understanding i would like to contribute to human not understanding i would like to slow down the fantasy and illusion of understanding so that we could inspect the way and the pace at which we are approaching or leaving other people and see how far away they are and whether there is any reason or prospect for reaching them because one thing thats been promoted endlessly in the world is the fantasy of understanding the notion that its always possible desirable and costs nothing
For Antin, subjectivity is always in motion, a state of affairs belied by our traditional metaphors for understanding, such as “getting,” “grasping,” and “finding common ground.” In “gambling,” a companion piece to “tuning,” Antin says that such metaphors “reinforce the static sense of knowing whereby it seems a kind of standing instead of going” and suggests that “there is another way of talking about all this because wherever im standing ill only be there for a while.” Antin would like to replace these static notions of understanding with the concept of “tuning,” the process whereby musicians, by alternately sounding and listening, come to a point where their notes match up. He likens it to walking side by side, where the longer-legged person shortens her stride, and the shorter-legged person speeds up a little bit, so that they can move together harmoniously. When we walk we do this more or less unconsciously, but when we talk we ought to know that we are doing it; we ought to be aware that we are coming from different places, and that my words might not mean the same thing to you that they do to me, and we ought to take turns talking and listening until we are both satisfied that we hitting the same — or nearly the same — notes.
The Price of Vision
It’s not news that the Burning Man festival costs a lot of money and time, and hence is only open to a certain, economically privileged section of the population. Problematic as that is, I want to talk about a different kind of price tag. Charles Alteri set up this economy for us earlier when he said that “the pursuit of resonant silence . . . may not purchase enough in vision to pay for what it costs poetry in eloquence.” In the “School of Quietude,” vision is purchased by giving up words, by foregoing the hope that the numinous can be made concrete, by declaring eloquence to be worthless. At Burning Man the numinous is made concrete, again and again and again. At an art installation called CheckPoint DreamYourTopia, visitors were asked to fill out lengthy, complicated forms, endure harassment from border guards, and undergo interrogation by customs agents in order to be granted passports to the “Land of Dreams.” A giant duck with a disco-ball head that shot flames roamed the desert hosting a mobile party. The temple burned, as it does every year, sending the hopes, fears, regrets, prayers, and messages of the thousands of participants who wrote on its wooden walls literally up to the heavens in smoke.
None of these artistic feats could have been accomplished under an ideology of resonant silence. Burning Man has got an ideology of riotous noise, incarnated not only in the thumping electronic music that is audible at all places at all times of the day and night, but in all of the creations, costumes, and events that the participants bring to life. The giant duck you build may not quite be the giant duck of your dreams, but it makes your dream real for thousands of other people, and allows them to live their own dreams. Over and over again, you find yourself saying “fuck it — let’s do that” — let’s climb that tower, let’s swing on those swings, let’s light those lamps, let’s talk to that guy, let’s use that giant mechanical hand to pick up and crush cars. Any possibility that you don’t seize and turn into a reality there, you will eventually regret. (I didn’t bother to wait in line for the giant mechanical hand, and will basically never forgive myself.)
Furthermore, I’ve never been to a place where Davin Antin’s notion of “tuning” was more possible — people at Burning Man are far more open to one another than most people in what burners call “the default world.” One source of this is certainly the sense of camaraderie, the sense that you all share certain fundamental beliefs and inclinations. But I think another source is a heightened sense of subjectivity as something fundamentally in motion, like Antin describes — burners come from all over the world, from all kinds of different backgrounds and walks of life, and share a single bizarre space for a brief time. Moreover, the city is so chaotic and people keep such different hours that the likelihood of you seeing any one person a second time (unless you are camping with them, or try really hard) are pretty slim. All encounters are understood to be momentary crossings of paths: you fall into step with somebody, you talk, you go your separate ways.
I didn’t write on the temple. Part of it was that I didn’t know what to write, and part of it was the pervasive influence of the cult of silence: if I did try to write something personally sacred, wouldn’t I mess it up by writing it wrong, or writing it only partially, or failing to do it justice? This afternoon, David Antin reminded me that “the weakness of representation is also its strength . . . all representations are at the expense of other representations, and the only way to deal with this is to preserve some sense of their provisionality.” This, I think, is what Burning Man does in spades: every year, the man is burned, the temple is burned, and a whole city of 50,000 people vanishes without a trace when the festival is over.
The price of vision, then, is provision. If you want to keep what you hold sacred inviolate and pure, you are going to have to keep it to yourself. But if you want to bring it into the world and share it with others, it’s not going to come out in quite the way you imagined, it’s not going to last forever, and it’s probably going to get a little dusty.
Yesterday I had the minorly excruciating and entirely bizarre experience of sitting through three hours of personal introductions on the first day of a nine-person seminar class. The class, which I am considering auditing, is being taught by a Jesuit monk turned professor turned journalist and recently re-turned professor, so perhaps he doesn’t know that most graduate seminars consist of intellectual exchanges between people who, for the most part, don’t know each other very well outside the classroom and form their ideas of one another largely on the basis of how smart they manage to sound when talking about the assigned texts. Most graduate seminars begin with “introductions,” but these take the form of “Hi, I’m Mary, I’m a second year in the English department, and I work on Victorian novels.” This professor, by contrast, demanded that each of us give an account of our relationship to Americanness, to religion, and to poetry (this being a class on American religious poetry), and then proceeded to interrupt each of us numerous times with sincerely interested questions. “Oh, what town in Texas was that?” “Would you say your connection to Catholicism is more cultural, then?” etc. For the nine of us to account for ourselves and answer his questions in sufficient detail took the whole three hours allotted for the seminar, which was on the one hand excruciatingly boring and on the other hand fascinating.
What fascinated me was not the particular details of my colleagues’ stories (though they sometimes were quite interesting), but the process of accounting for myself in this way, and of watching other people do the same thing. My “religion” and my “poetry” stories are both things I have recounted so many times that my telling of them in class today was more like a recitation than a process of self-discovery — but my “American” answer was a little more roughshod, and I ended up feeling dissatisfied with it, like I hadn’t really expressed what I’d wanted to. What happened, actually, was that I recited a couple of things about my parents’ families, but I didn’t really get a chance to think or talk about my own “American” experience, which has far more to do with my growing up in suburban New Jersey than with my mother’s family being Irish potato famine immigrants.
Whether or not it was true, it looked to me that my colleagues’ stories were, for the most part, more “authentic” than my own — they seemed to be answering these questions for the first time, and saying something “real,” rather than just rattling off the stories they’d told to themselves and their friends a billion times before. I realized immediately, even as I was having this thought, that it probably wasn’t true; it was just that since I was hearing their stories for the first time, they seemed more spontaneous.
I began to think, while walking home, that it would be a very interesting exercise to try to write one’s autobiography — or even just bits of it — completely without the help of one’s familiar store of stories about oneself. That is, to try to dig up and put into words the parts of your life that you’d never put into words before, not even to yourself. It may be that I’m an academic and a writer, or it may just be that I’m a human and everybody does this, but I am constantly, constantly telling myself stories about myself. Even as I know that I’m fictionalizing and oversimplifying, it’s helpful and reassuring to be able to trace certain kinds of continuity, to be able to say “I presently feel this way because of these other things that happened in the past” and “I did that terrible thing because I couldn’t help it, that is the kind of thing I have always done, but at least I did it less terribly this time.”
I suspect that, the farther back I tried to reach in my past without the aid of my stories, the less I would find. From my elementary school years, I don’t think there’s a single thing my mind could touch that is not already part of my Grand Narrative. But from middle school, and certainly later, there must be things lurking in my mind that are not crystallized into words in the same way that the more “important” events are.
I recently gave a paper at a conference on excess and obsession, which is one reason why I’ve been driven to think about the above things. In a lot of ways, the most illuminating panel at the conference turned out to be the one I had most snickered about to my friends beforehand: the panel on fandom. What the fandom scholars were able to articulate that the more traditional scholars (myself included) were not was, more or less, that what we are talking about when we are talking about “excess,” in any kind of literary/cultural way, is emotion, and that emotion is embarrassing. When you’re a Trekkie, a Xenaphile, or an emo kid, you are identifying with an emotional attachment that is viewed with skepticism by the rest of society because of its publicness and because of its fervor. It seems to me that we are generally expected, these days, to have our emotions quietly and at home. (And hasn’t this always been the case? With the brief subcultural exception of the Summer of Love?)
Many of the conference participants, in other words, seemed to be coding “excess” as “authentic,” to be buying into the idea that that which is unarticulated is unspoiled in much the same vein as my autobiography speculations above. This was particularly true of the queer theorists, at least two of whom focused on queer reading practice as something that draws on textual possibilities rather than textual actualities to move toward an imagined utopian future that is acknowledged as imagined, and yet still must be imagined.
I found their frankness about possibility very helpful. There probably are parts of my life that I haven’t articulated to myself, but the minute I discover them I begin to articulate them, and they become assimilated into the already-existing Grand Narrative, becoming just more examples of this or that Trend In My Life At That Time. Perhaps the only way these parts of my history can have power is as possibilities, as dark corners that remain dark. One of the keynote speakers at the conference remarked that, as a writer, “one has to hide one’s intent” — when I asked him in the Q&A to elaborate, he more or less said that your intent is not going to sell books; that you have to give readers something they want, and smuggle your “real” message in the back door. I can empathize, of course. Nearly every paper in my academic career has had the secret or not-so-secret message of “please please try to love one another,” and I think I would not be exaggerating to say that many, if not most, enduring works of art have exactly this message as well. But slapping a sticker on the front of Ulysses reading “LOVE IS IN HERE” would not particularly have helped Joyce sell more copies — because, as I said, emotion is embarrassing. You have to give readers something else to tell themselves that they want: the challenge of the experimentation, the pleasure of the text, the possibility of pornography, etc.
Probably the best readings of texts are the ones that leave some of the dark places unlit. Psyche should not have lit her lamp to look on Cupid’s face, and love suffers in the labeling.
Tomemos has just written a post that, in an alternate universe, I might have written myself. Honeymooning in Mexico, he decided that since it was so difficult to eat satisfyingly as a vegetarian there, he might as well permit himself to sample some of the local carnivorous cuisine. I have just returned from a vacation in New Orleans, which is also no picnic for us veggies — its chief cuisines include cajun, which is full of seafood and sausage, and barbecue. It also features a bunch of upscale restaurants run by famous chefs such as Emeril, Paul Prudhomme, and Susan Spicer, none of whom have any vegetarian entrees on their menus. For the first time in years, I began to experience “meat ideation,” in which I would picture myself stealing a bite from my brother’s plate of lobster with no intention of actually doing so, in much the way a depressed person crossing a bridge might picture herself jumping.
I did not succumb to these temptations. Unlike Tomemos, who says he’s “never been one of those vegetarians who is appalled by the thought of eating meat unknowingly,” I once wept openly in an airport food court upon discovering that the burrito I had been happily eating contained shrimp. It was embarrassing, and I wish I could be a little more relaxed about it, but I just felt so bad for those poor shrimp. (It was kind of like this.)
A high school girl that I tutor in writing recently told me that she’s trying to go vegetarian, but keeps falling off the wagon. I told her that she shouldn’t try to impose an absolute prohibition on herself, but rather to think of herself as trying to eat less meat. That way, eating the occasional hamburger doesn’t become a sin that makes her want to give up her whole project. I was interested to read that Tomemos’ carnivorous experiments actually reinforced his convictions:
In the end, though, I think this experiment ended up strengthening my vegetarianism. The fish tacos tasted good; they didn’t make me feel like I had been missing out on something amazing for fifteen years. At one point during our trip, I had a vegetarian tostada, and that was as satisfying a meal as anything else I ate in Mexico. Taste is possibly the most transitory aesthetic experience: even if you eat a meal that you remember for the rest of your life—and I’ve had one or two—it can’t make you want to live a different way. My feelings on eating meat are unchanged: for me, it is a moral issue, but not a moral absolute.
This was immensely reassuring, because it appeared that amazing things were happening on my family members’ plates and I was a little bit jealous. I’m sure they were great, but the truth was that I managed to eat pretty well. Most decent restaurants will fix you a vegetarian plate even if it’s not on the menu, something I didn’t learn until I’d been one for a few years. At first, I hated having to order them — I felt like I was being a nuisance, and I resented the restaurants for putting me in that position in the first place. Over the years I’ve gotten used to it, but it wasn’t until this trip to New Orleans that I began to actually appreciate the experience. You see, ordering a vegetarian plate gives you a unique relationship to the chef. Some will just give you a collection of their side dishes, which can be a bummer, but some will look around at their kitchens, see what’s on hand, and improvise something special for you. If taste is the most transitory aesthetic experience, it is also one of the most intimate, and I am grateful to all the chefs who have ever taken extra time to consider my needs. While my family members struggled with difficult choices, I would be sitting serenely with a closed menu, waiting to see what delightful thing the chef would do for me. I didn’t feel restricted — I felt more free.
One summer in college, I lived in a Buddhist monastery in Japan. One afternoon, I was assigned the job of sweeping out the spider webs from the temple’s windows. “But won’t that kill the spiders?” I asked. The monk responded, “We avoid harming other creatures when we can, but sometimes we have to. It’s not our intention to kill the spiders, but we need to clean our windows. You should bow to the spiders, say ‘Omitofo,’ and pray that they get reborn as humans.” This seems like a sensible attitude to me, certainly more sensible than crying over a few accidentally-eaten shrimp. We should honor all creatures, even and especially when circumstances beyond our control require us to harm them.
“And if you don’t believe in love, what do you believe in?” she asked, mocking. “Simply in the end of the world, and grass?”
— D.H. Lawrence, Women in Love
When we made that last, familiar left turn just around the bend I was shocked. I had expected all the greenery of an east coast summer to come as a comfort, a sight for sore desert eyes, but instead the forest I grew up in just made me feel claustrophobic. When I was twelve, my family left the forest to visit New Mexico, and the desert terrified me. I was used to being wrapped in a sylvan blanket, and all those wide open spaces left me feeling exposed and vulnerable on all sides. Now that I’ve been living out west for three years, it’s the east that unsettles me.
In conversation, I’ve stopped referring to these trips as “going home” and started referring to them as “visiting my parents” or “going back east for awhile.” I may have only moved west three years ago, but it’s been fully seven since this town was a place I lived in for more than a few weeks at a time. And yet despite the shift in nomenclature, this place is incredibly important to me. I am continually blindsided by my own history: here is the pond where I never caught any fish, here is the movie theater where I had my exhilarating but awkward first date, here is the intersection where I forgot you can’t turn left on red.
But this place persists in my absence, and it changes. My parents have a new kitchen, my middle school has a new science wing, and they tore down the ghetto A&P and put up a shiny new Whole Foods. When I come back to visit, I can get into strange hallucinatory moods: I project the used bookstore on top of the Starbucks that has taken its place, and I prefer my daydream.
Over time, I’ve developed a series of rituals that help stave off some of this weirdness and make this place feel more like home. There is a local pub it is imperative I visit. There are records in my mother’s collection that I absolutely must listen to (I Got Dem Ol’ Kosmic Blues Again Mama!, Pearl, American Beauty, Nashville Skyline). And I need to take a long luxurious bubble bath with a glass of wine and a good book. But by far the most significant ritual is the whirlwind visit to New York City in which I try to see as many old, dear friends as possible over the course of a single weekend. I just got back from one of these which was a stunning success; the complex scheduling came off perfectly, and every minute of all three days was spent in the company of completely marvelous people.
Of course, it’s easy to be a visiting celebrity. You become everybody’s number one social priority, and you don’t have to pay for your drinks. On these trips I feel like a comet, arcing brilliantly through the sky and making headline news, only to disappear and leave folks to their pedestrian local constellations until my orbit brings me back around again.
I always come back from these trips feeling supremely loved. Sometimes on these trips I receive actual confessions of love, which I am always careful to take kindly but with a grain of salt — it’s easy to love somebody you see twice a year; it’s much much harder to love somebody you see every day.
I am presently smack in the middle of D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love, a book whose mystical sensibilities appeal to me greatly but whose gender dynamics leave me a little queasy. Yesterday on the train I read the following marvelously interesting passage: Rupert and Ursula (the names in this book are fantastic) are acquaintances who have recently had one or two philosophical-type arguments, the most recent of which was about the nature of love. A few days later, Rupert invites Ursula and her sister Gudrun (I kid you not!) over for tea, and Ursula deliberately fails to bring Gudrun because she’s pretty sure that last conversation meant something important. Rupert immediately cuts to the chase: “I can’t say it is love I have to offer — and it isn’t love I want. It is something much more impersonal and harder — and rarer.” Rupert is suspicious of love for essentially the reasons that Kugelmass laid out and that I responded to a few months ago in our posts on Neruda. Rupert says, “There is a final me which is stark and impersonal and beyond responsibility. So there is a final you. And it is there I would want to meet you — not in the emotional, loving plane — but there beyond, where there is no speech and no terms of agreement. There we are two stark, unknown beings, two utterly strange creatures, I would want to approach you, and you me.” O, the infinite otherness of the other!
Ursula is hurt. The word “love” is important to her; she thinks Rupert is dodging the question. She asks him, mockingly, whether he thinks she’s good looking.
“Don’t you see that it’s not a question of visual appreciation in the least,” he cried. “I don’t want to see you. I’ve seen plenty of women, I’m sick and weary of seeing them. I want a woman I don’t see.”
“I’m sorry I can’t oblige you by being invisible,” she laughed.
“Yes,” he said, “you are invisible to me, if you don’t force me to be visually aware of you. But I don’t want to see you or hear you.”
“What did you ask me to tea for, then?” she mocked.
But he would take no notice of her. He was talking to himself.
“I want to find you, where you don’t know your own existence, the you that your common self denies utterly. But I don’t want your good looks, and I don’t want your womanly feelings, and I don’t want your thoughts nor your opinions nor your ideas — they are all bagatelles to me.”
Rupert’s wish here actually sounds a lot like a line in the Neruda poem that Kugelmass and I were writing about: “Oh let me remember you as you were before you existed.” It is intended to be an expression of not just love, but more than love. Where love concerns itself with trifles such as a person’s physical presence and thoughts and ideas, this kind of regard concerns itself with deep spiritual truth — a mystical truth that is beyond attributes and is only and purely essential. While I appreciate that Rupert’s vision tries to be honest about the isolated human condition, I also think that it’s total bullshit. Rupert is such a thoroughgoing narcissist — or such a coward — (and when is there much of a difference?) — that he cannot imagine what it would be like to actually deal with another person. He would rather strip away all of Ursula’s specificity than try to understand it. He keeps insisting that his ideal model for their relationship is two stars in orbit around one another, holding one another in balance. But the problem with loving stars or loving comets is that they are nothing but points of light. You can’t tell one from another, and you can’t ask them to tea. And what is this hidden inner self, and how would Rupert come to know it at all? All he can ever get from Ursula are the outward, physical signs of her inner self, and to reject those is to reject the real, material person in favor of a fantasy.
This is why I smile gently and change the subject whenever a person on the east coast tries to tell me about their undying affection. What is your affection for, sir? How often do you and I even speak to one another? This town is not the only thing that’s changed; the people in it must inevitably see me with the same hallucinatory vision, projecting the girl with pigtails on top of the one with short-cropped hair. And yet it would be entirely wrong to say that my friends here and I don’t share real love. I miss them when I’m gone; I care about them deeply. A case could even be made that my faraway friends and I take our relationships with each other much more seriously than my day-to-day friends and I generally do, because our time together is so precious. But if we call this love, is it not the love of shadows?
On the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, I was sitting in a coffee shop in the East Village with one of my oldest friends, when I suddenly realized that New Year’s was my favorite holiday. For most of my life I have considered Halloween my favorite holiday; this is because I love costume and carnival and celebration. New Year’s doesn’t usually involve costume, but I realized while talking to my friend the simple truth that while many people do Halloween halfheartedly or not at all, almost everyone does something for New Year’s, and it’s often something outrageously decadent. What’s more, all this decadence is in the name of renewal, a celebration of the fact that we survived one year and now have a chance to start over again with another.
New Year’s resolutions are a tricky business. Many people, including myself, aim too high and wind up angry at ourselves by February. But this year, I have found a source of inspiration. On New Year’s Day, frazzled and recovering from the previous night’s carousing, I picked up a copy of the December 10th New York Times Magazine that was lying on the floor of my parents’ living room. It was the 6th annual Year in Ideas issue; therein I found an article on “reverse graffiti.” British artist Paul Curtis selectively cleans the dirt and soot from surfaces such as subway walls so that the original surface stands out to form words and images. The city council in Leeds has accused him of vandalism, which is pretty interesting, since all he’s doing is cleaning. From the NY Times:
“Once you do this,” he says, “you make people confront whether or not they like cleaning walls or if they really have a problem with personal expression.”
What I resolve to do this year, then, is not to try to clean all the grime off the subway walls of my life. Rather, I should tackle smaller projects. I should clean up what I can, and and accept the grime I can’t remove as the background against which my cleaned bits will sparkle. I should make of my life a message, a picture, something to make other people smile.
The new year is an arbitrary break, to be sure — but on the streets of New York, people howl and sing about it. All night long, when you pass people on the street, they will smile and call out to you and wish you well. This is surely significant. Happy New Year.