Thursday, May 8, 2014

Elegant Opposition, Inside Out, A Little Break (IPoS,tHL Part 8)

Elegant Opposition

Perhaps you know the person offering you a light is a martial arts master, perhaps you don't.  Perhaps you know that the offered match will approach with a physical precision and authority that will require a response, a minor contortion, but a move of equal elegance that preserves space and precludes any action further than a single gesture.  Perhaps you know you are being filmed by Wong Kar Wai and the fluidity of the camera will perfectly frame your action and the editing will assemble the scene in an equally fluid balance.  If you know this then you are Tony Leung and the fluidity of your movement can only mean you are playing Ip Man, the kung fu Zhivago, and that you are in the midst of redefining the idea of the kung fu movie and that you exist in one of the best records of motion put to film. But if you are this version Ip Man, the Ip Man who dulls a straight razor with a swipe from a single steel rod, who turns a two story fight with Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) into a lighter than air Fred and Ginger number while retaining an edge of lethalness and you know that the strategy of living is in anticipation. Self-protection and self-preservation are slightly different than the mechanics of game theory, at least Ip Man's rendition of self protection. Within Ip Man's world, an opponent will adhere to a certain set of rules, that ruthless as the opponent may be, the object of the study of kung fu is to practice and not to fall back on a submachine gun, atomic warhead or other cheap tricks. There is a code of conduct, power built out of restraint.

Inside Out

Yukio Mishima once challenged his translator, John Nathan, that westerners could not understand Japanese culture. I'm not going to pretend to contradict Mishima, but the challenge has always bothered me, like the lyrics in Pink Floyd's Eclipse or David Hume's box. In each there's the premise of a closed system, and maybe less so with Pink Floyd, a trap of inscrutability, isolation or solipsism. But what I think Mishima was getting at was the role of individual in Japan versus the Western artist as individual. In traditional Japanese culture, what may appear as a performative or an aestheticization of a social role stems from a unification of mind, body and purpose, a formative concept that would recreate the western idea of the individual as belonging first to a society then to oneself. In this way the surface comes under a different kind of scrutiny in Japan. Where a westerner may speak of the performative as false, there it would be genuine, essential and indistinguishable from the act of living. I only go here to point out that fraught relationships with appearances have a cultural basis in the US that may not be found elsewhere in the world or get branded differently depending upon the inclusiveness of genuine difference and the strength of a central cultural identity that can be enforced. 

Mishima's work by and large portrays the point where the spirit outgrows the form. I think of the tortured acolyte who burns down the Temple of the Golden Pavilion because he cannot stand its beauty. Or the children who murder the eponymous sailor in The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea for choosing the beauty of a woman over the beauty of the sea. In a radio interview, Mishima once said that while most people believe themselves to be secretly evil, he knew himself to be evil. Mishima was in the generation that came of age in the years following the second world war. His ultimate act, haranguing the assembled troops of the Japanese Diet to rise up and embrace Japan's militaristic past and his subsequent death by seppuku, speaks to the paradox of the performed interior. There's a moment in his short story, Patriotism, when the protagonist commits seppuku and the author pauses to relay the vitality and color of the spilled intestines: the interior becomes another surface, a proof. In the case of Mishima, his message was met with jeers from the assembled troops, so it may be that personal myths die the hardest or it may be that he was one of the emperor's last casualties (though Kawabata also took his life a few years later in a much quieter manner and there was that soldier found in Guam in 1972 who still believed the war was going on).  

So often in art, the unspoken is the sign of the true self, the character finally tricked into a revelation. As in love or crime, confessions serve to drive the drama.  In that confessions uncover a secret, they work to gel the audience's perception of a character and so to tie them to their fate. In as far as we are defined by our actions, we undervalue the character of silence.  Silence is a shadow.  It's a quality born from an absence. The silent character is on the side of the image, in that every image is latent, an event to unpack either immediately in the case of icons, or eventually in the case of symbols. While visual memory can function without the aid of language, when we begin to tell ourselves what we are seeing, images become subject to the conditions of our abilities to describe.  As a movie fades to black and the silence hangs before the credits role, there is a kind of death that occurs for each of the characters in the film that preceded.  Their story has been truncated and so we consider it complete.  They live within a reducible truth. What we saw, or thought we saw, was all we have been told is worth knowing. But the image persists past the credits. The image recurs each time we see a cop and Mahoney or Tackleberry come to mind. In this way, they live in echoes each time their associated features of actions are invoked and we smuggle bits of reality back into our fantasies or project our fantasies on the world. But in silence, in primary silence, say in the scene between Nick Nolte and John Travolta in The Thin Red Line  or in the complex of unexplained images that pass in Inland Empire where the widening context of the film only works to retain the original complexity of the image, the opacity of silence may at times be the point, or if John Cage has his way, that demonstrated silence is an illusion and that the experience we point to as silence may occur in nature, it is less compelling than the psychological force of a silence imposed.      

I will be forgiven more than this when I am forgotten...
- Samuel Beckett First Love

A Little Break

I'm taking a little break from Proust to read 2666 by Roberto Bolaño (thanks in part to the excellence of The Savage Detectives and Richard Marshall's piece on it at 3AM).  I was reading the first book of the trio that come in my slipcased version at a local barbecue place. I sat at the bar, which is right next to the kitchen and prep area and one of the staff called me out on the book.  I was called out twice on the subway as well, by complete strangers who wanted to tell me how good 2666 is.  The guy at the barbecue place told me some advice he had heard from and interview with Bolaño, advice Bolaño had received from an older writer: work on one piece, only piece, until it is perfect then submit it everywhere under different titles.  Bolaño asked what he should do if it was accepted at more than one place and the older writer said he should publish it everywhere it gets selected.  But won't I get in trouble for publishing the same work in two places? Bolaño asked.  If it's got a different title, how are the stories the same? the older writer asked.  The guy at the barbecue place then told me how highly he regarded Bolaño and that Haruki Murakami was the other writer he was currently holding in equivalent esteem. Murakami is another writer, whenever I read his books on the subway, someone mentions how much they like him.  

A while back, I took a class on globalization at the New School and the professor who was very much into Japanese culture mentioned this phenomenon of near universal Murakami reading on the NY subway system and the subculture he'd noticed of complete strangers talking to one another about Murakami. His opinion of Murakami was pretty low and he was more dumbfounded that New Yorkers thought of it as culture, but he also belittled Koyaanisqatsi for not supplying labels or any cultural information aside from the images, a move he believed to be intended to equalize all cultural differences and to negate them. In his class we watched footage of a tribe within the amazon that had been isolated for the length of its existence and was now part of a network of tribes in the amazon seeking a way to stop deforestation. As part of this footage, they showed a ritual the men of the tribe undertook to make themselves courageous which involved getting shit-faced on a fermented brew standing arm in arm in a line and chanting songs. When they watched the footage of themselves they asked for the documentarian to destroy it.  They didn't want the loggers to know the secrets of their courage.

When I was reading book five of In Search of Lost Time, I sat on the train beside a guy with an open laptop, who seemed to be taking up two seats. I moved into a window seat without really asking him to move, but he did and put the laptop more squarely on his lap and continued to work.  After a while he stopped and asked me if I was reading Proust.  He had just finished book five. He was reading it in French.  He was originally from Montreal and came to New York to advance his studies in neuroscience. He thought Proust's jealousy would make an interesting case study. We swapped some thoughts on Proust in a guarded conversation with extended silences. When we both got off at the same stop I said good bye. Though I thought about asking if he'd like to correspond further on Proust, I stayed silent and moved to the other side of the platform to await my train.         

The guy at the barbecue place mentioned that he thought Murakami's work functioned entirely through coincidence.  That coincidence was the engine that made the various pieces of Murakami's world work.  I agreed that coincidence was a strong feature in the works I had read of Murakami, but I also mentioned something about the space of the personal, which may have come out as a remark about personal space and may explain why he stopped talking to me, but what I meant was that Murakami's works all explore forms of the uncanny by way of interiority, the collapse of shared meaning in symbols or historical moments remade so they become unique and temporarily personal, the way a good daydream can pry a moment free from the grind. I recall an interview with Murakami where he states the Japanese word for different is the same as the word for wrong and his project seems to be finding the space for difference within contemporary Japan.   

Today on the train, I was reading the second book from my slipcased edition of 2666, The Part About the Crimes, when I noticed two 4 x 6 photos had been slipped inside the case of a poster advertising a health plan. Both of the photos that had been slipped inside the poster case were of the same woman, a fit black woman with a large afro, sitting on a couch in front of an elaborate case that held a few large bottles of alcohol, maybe magnums of champagne among cognac and sake, bottles I did not recognize.  On the floor beside the couch there were boxes, which made me think the pictures were taken in the store room of a liquor store or a back room in a club or lounge. One picture showed the woman on the couch within the room. The other showed the woman up close. The zoom had been used. The scene made me wonder about the relationship between the woman and the photographer.  Her right upper arm was slightly tensed and it showed good definition.  Her hairstyle and her clothes placed the photo from any time between the 1970's and the present, except she wore white high tops and the photo paper itself looked new, the edges of the photos appeared crisp and white. Her expression seemed neutral and her look didn't directly engage the camera. The photos had ben placed in the bottom corners of the poster frame, so they sat on either side of a commuter's hair.  The commuter was sitting in front of the poster looking down, maybe at my feet or past me into the central void eyes find on the train. The commuter's hair was a set of elaborate coils, professionally tended and she wore a raspberry skirt suit so she was likely on her way to work. My eye moved from the book, to the commuter's professional hair to the photos, to the afro in the photos and the toned upper arms. The part of the book I am reading describes a series of killings in Mexico. I was reading a description of one of the women that had been killed in a particularly violent way and it put a pall on the pictures and made me wonder why someone had placed them in the ad's poster frame on the train. The act itself is already strange, but people slide cards and tags and other images into the poster frames all the time.  The light in the photos was dim and muddy and the whole thing looked amateurish to the point of questioning why the photo was taken in the first place and in the second why it was printed and not digital. They would have been deleted if they had been taken on a phone. Instead they were left behind. At a certain point, the commuter got up and left the train, leaving her seat open for me.  I took it and looked from side to side at the woman in the photo flanking me on either temple, but the mystery stopped when I sat and I returned to my book.   

It makes no sense to expect or claim to 'make the invisible visible', or the unknown known, or the unthinkable thinkable.  We can draw conclusions about the invisible; we can postulate its existence with relative certainty.  But all we can represent is an analogy, which stands for the invisible but is not it.

Perhaps the Doors, Curtains, Surface Pictures, Panes of Glass, etc. are metaphors of despair, prompted by the dilemma that our sense of sight causes us to apprehend things, but at the same time restricts and partly precludes our apprehension of reality.

-from Gerhard Richter, The Daily Practice of Painting          

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