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.
Readers of this blog (with relatively long memories) may be interested to learn that I have just finished teaching a class on sacrifice, something I started to think seriously about two and a half years ago. I proposed the class over a year ago, and have been offered two chances to teach it since then, both of which I had to turn down because of other, more attractive teaching offers. This summer my number came up again and I was thrilled to finally get a chance to do it. The class went wonderfully, and my students were shockingly good, but teaching what’s supposed to be a ten-week course in a five-week summer session ate up all of my dissertating time. I taught the last class two days ago, finished grading their second-to-last papers yesterday, and found myself this morning facing a one-day-long chunk of potential dissertating time — because the drafts of their final papers start coming in tomorrow.
And I rebelled. “One day,” I said to myself, “is barely enough time to reacquaint myself with my notes and get back into the headspace of even thinking about this chapter. And then tomorrow I’ll have to start reading drafts again. I can’t possibly do real work today.” So instead I wrote a poem, using the same collage method I used on the one I posted in March. (In fact, it’s made from leftover words from the previous and certainly better poem, which is part of why there are so few concrete images here — I used up all the good ones on my first effort.) I’m starting to come to terms with the fact that collage really might be where my poetic voice lies. It’s just so damn hard to say anything in this post-ironic day and age. This blog is painfully sincere a lot of the time, and I’m always sort of amazed that nobody makes fun of me for it — my theory is that my entries are so long & academic that only people who genuinely care about me and/or what I have to say even make it to the end of most of them. (Hint: the end is always where it gets sappy.) But even though I’m (almost) capable of maintaining a blog that is very sincere about literature, I quail before the idea of writing a poem that says something about myself in anything like a straightforward manner. It’s not that I have burning feelings that I am afraid of putting into words, either — I’m not sure that I’ve experienced that particular kind of angst since I was about twenty years old. Rather, what excites me about poetry these days is the idea of letting the words tell their own stories — of hunting those stories out, sifting among fragments and letting them cohere and settle until they find a shape that I can call a poem.
All of that is basically to say that I utterly disown any gothy melodrama that the poem below may exude. The words, it was their idea.
I recently saw the film All About Eve, and today I posted on Facebook that I’d noticed significant structural similarities between its plot and that of Henry James’ novel The Golden Bowl, but that I was resisting the urge to write a blog post about it because I was pretty sure that nobody cared. Some friends assured me that they did, in fact, care, so I am now writing that blog post. Note that this post will be full of spoilers, especially of the film, but both works have plenty to recommend them even if you know the broad contours of their plots already.
Basically, the similarity I see is this: both plots are divided into two distinct halves, and what happens at the turn in the middle is that we are given a new perspective on the situation which causes different characters to become sympathetic. This summary will be pretty rough-hewn, as it’s been years since I read The Golden Bowl, but it goes something like this: the first half of the book is from the perspective of the prince, who is in love with Charlotte, a plucky young American, but has to marry the princess because she has money and he, though of noble blood, is destitute. Charlotte (who is the princess’s best friend) marries the princess’s father so that she can continue to be near the prince, and she and the prince unsurprisingly begin to have an affair — but the princess and her father seem not to notice; they are homebodies and enjoy each other’s company immensely, and don’t mind that Charlotte and the prince are always going out to balls together. Throughout the first half of the book, we are basically rooting for Charlotte and the prince, since they have love on their side and it doesn’t hurt that they’re the only characters doing anything interesting. The princess strikes us as a pretty flat and pretty naive character who has failed to outgrow her attachment to her father, and thus her claim on the prince’s affections seems to be not nearly as urgent or genuine as Charlotte’s. But in the second half of the novel, we see things from the princess’s perspective, and we realize that she does know what is going on, and is genuinely wounded, and moreover has every right to be wounded. Is it so wrong for a woman to enjoy her father’s company? Is it so wrong for her to be a homebody? Does that really give her husband the right to have a semi-public affair with her best friend? We are left somewhat chagrined by having written her off so early, and we cheer her on as she finally gains some agency and deals with the situation.
In the first half of All About Eve, Eve is given to us as a slavish admirer of Margot Channing, a celebrated but aging star of the theater played by Bette Davis. Eve works tirelessly as Margot’s assistant — and though we know that she has acting aspirations of her own, Eve seems so genuinely selfless that when Margot turns on her, all we can see is crazy old Bette Davis getting drunk and having a persecution complex. But in the second half of the movie, something strange happens: Margot apologizes. Not to Eve, granted — she doesn’t get the chance — but to their mutual friends, she says something along the lines of “yeah, I’m sorry I acted so crazy the other day; I guess I’m just past my prime and starting to realize it, and it makes me flip out sometimes.” Sunset Boulevard came out just two months before All About Eve (in August and October of 1950, respectively), but I think I’m not wrong when I say that in 1950, the idea that a character who seemed so firmly in a downward, crazy, destructive spiral — especially one who was a woman and no longer young — could just turn around and apologize and start acting like a human being again must have been kind of surprising. Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire hit the stage in 1947, though it wouldn’t be adapted to film until 1951, and I admit that a lot of the examples of the “crazy aging woman” plot that I was going to cite here turn out to be later — Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is 1955, and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane of course features an even older and even crazier Bette Davis. Regardless, I’m reasonably certain that a 1950s audience would not have expected Margot to be able to do anything but get older and drunker and crazier.
But that’s not what happens at all — not only does Margot stop acting crazy, but it turns out she was right about Eve all along: Eve was trying to undermine her, to take over her dramatic roles and her romantic relationships, and it’s Eve who turns out to be the crazy one. What I’m proposing here is that the shift that happens in the middle of the film is similar to the one that happens in the middle of The Golden Bowl — our understanding of Margot for the first half of the film is shaped (quite deliberately, I think) by our preconceived notions of what a “crazy aging woman” plot looks like, much like our understanding of the princess is shaped by our preconceived notions about this sort of “love triangle” plot should look like. The suitor who offers wealth and stability is inevitably the “false” suitor; we assume that this person cannot also be offering true love, because if he or she were, then it would be a lot more difficult for our hero to feel noble about rejecting wealth and privilege in order to run off with his/her “true” lover. The Golden Bowl reminds us that our hero is never just rejecting wealth and privilege; he or she is also rejecting a human being. For the first half of the book, the princess is, if not a villain, at least a hapless victim who basically deserves her bad fortune — similarly, in the first half of All About Eve, we figure that even if Margot is right and Eve is scheming to further her own career, Eve deserves to further her own career and Margot ought to graciously step aside and let the next generation of actresses have their turn in the spotlight.
What both plots show us, then, is the power of plots themselves. At the turning point, they reveal the constructedness and contrivance of the first half, and the characters initially portrayed as unsympathetic get to have their say. There’s a lesson here about literature (and film), but there’s also a lesson about life, as there tends to be in this blog: pay close attention to the “plots” you impose on the things that happen to you — you may be the protagonist of your story, but everybody is their own protagonist, and if somebody looks like a flat character from where you’re sitting, that’s only because you are a poor writer.
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.
Last night, in a fit of boredom with my dissertation reading, I decided I needed to make something. I have a bunch of back issues of Poetry, the incredibly dreary magazine of the Poetry Foundation, an organization whose website invites you to “discover poetry” via the six essential categories of “love,” “weddings,” “autumn,” “sadness,” “death,” and “funerals.” (I once got so livid about this fact that I wrote a sestina with those six categories as the end words, but it wasn’t very good so you don’t get to see it.) Anyway, I came into these back issues of Poetry in college, when one of my professors was getting rid of them and I thought that reading them would be a good way to figure out “what was going on in the poetry world.” But I figured out quickly that Poetry is about as on the cutting edge as the Grammys, which recently gave “best rock song of 2008″ to Bruce Springsteen’s “Girls in Their Summer Clothes.” I grew up in New Jersey and I love The Boss, but that song utterly fails to rock — and there are plenty of yowling young bands with questionable haircuts that could teach him a thing or two these days.
So anyway, I cut apart the first one of those back issues last night, which required me to read it pretty closely. This was at times physically painful, but one unexpected result of scanning these poems for interesting words or phrases was that I noticed that of the fifteen or so poems in the magazine, at least five contained the word “mirror,” another five contained the word “river,” and another five were on the subject of aging. Furthermore, these groups overlapped somewhat and were arranged sequentially in the magazine — it began with “river” poems, then moved into poems where “rivers” were compared to “mirrors,” then “mirror” poems, then poems where people looked into mirrors & saw themselves aging, & finally moved into “old age” poems. These observations represent a general trend & don’t cover absolutely every poem in there, I don’t think, but I was somewhat surprised to see the organizing hand of an editor so clearly visible. However, ultimately, nearly all these poems were nothing but triteness and treacle. Do we really need more poems comparing rivers to mirrors? Come the fuck on.
These were my rules: I could use nothing other than material in this one issue (June 2003), and I was limited to what my scissors could actually remove. So if I cut out something on one page, and in doing so I mangled something on the reverse, that thing on the reverse page was lost to me. Furthermore, if I messed up in cutting something out and cut the word apart, it was lost to me. Rather than agonize over whether the poem on the front or the reverse of the page had “better” material for my purposes, I just went straight through the magazine page by page — which means, I suppose, that poems on odd-numbered pages are probably represented more heavily than poems on even-numbered pages. Fun fact: one of the poems that I harvested from was by Kay Ryan, our current poet laureate. It was called “The Niagra River,” and while not actively offensive to my sensibilities, it was pretty boring.
I apologize for the quality of this picture; for some reason it was really difficult to get the text to photograph legibly. Also, you might be interested to know that the picture at the bottom is from a Visa ad, and the whole thing is pasted on the side of a shoebox with an interesting texture that I found in my closet. Without further ado:
I have been busy with my dissertation, and hence pretty absent from this space. I reiterate that you should subscribe to this blog with an RSS reader if you haven’t already, because you never know when the skies might open up and I’ll decide to write another post. One thing I will be doing occasionally is writing at the new blog of my friend Matt: Songs About Radios. It’s an idea whose time has come, an intelligent and articulate music blog that thinks and feels about music rather than simply concerning itself with staying ahead of the indie rock curve. Here’s a quote from his inaugural post:
And so, I hope this little space where my hand is on the dial will be a chance for some of us to share our love of music. In the posts that follow, I’ll do my best to share some of my favorite artists, new and old, familiar and obscure. Rather than trying to keep up with the latest currents in music (there are already enough blogs reposting practically every track on Pitchfork.com), I’ll stick to music that is meaningful to me, and I’ll make an effort to tell you why in language that’s more heartfelt and less impenetrable than the academic blog which I’m leaving behind.
Along those lines, I’ve written a brief comparative piece about “Thunder Road” by Bruce Springsteen and “Crucify” by Tori Amos for his “Parallel Lines” series, which will concern itself with articulating specific points of comparison and contrast between particular songs.
You will also perhaps be interested in the efforts of my mysterious colleague Milo Cantos, who has just started a blog called Zombie Public Speaking in which he will post from his prolific musical recordings, some of which feature myself on flute, vocals, or melodica. He promises to keep it brief, and I highly recommend him if you like your music to feature any of the following: Ph.D.-level lyrical cleverness, garage-electronic production, irony, earnestness, distortion, orchestral instruments, and/or people laughing in the background.
As you probably already know if you are a literary type, David Foster Wallace has died. In the following thoughts about Infinite Jest, I will not divulge any plot details — but I will discuss the general shape of the plot arc in a way that, frankly, would have spoiled the reading experience for me in a pretty significant way if I had known it beforehand. However, if you’ve read even a single review of IJ, you’re probably already aware of the thing that I’m wary about disclosing; my reading experience was somewhat abnormally sheltered. Let’s put it this way: if this blog post were about The Usual Suspects, it would not tell you about the identity or even the existence of Keyser Söze, but it would tell you that the movie has a twist ending. (We all knew that, right? Sorry. I shed a lot fewer tears for watchers of a two-hour movie than for readers of a thousand-page book.) Anyway, this post will give you information about plot structure, but not about plot. The undeterred can continue reading below.
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.