Tuesday, June 17, 2014

She Got the Ruins of Him (IPoS,tHL Part 9)

I started this post considering the expansive style Proust deploys throughout In Search of Lost Time as a hedge against the callousness of history, writing as a cultural biodome for the society and manners all but wiped out by the first World War. Writing for posterity.

In The Recognitions, when asked to forge a Fra Angelico, Wyatt Gwyon answers that it would be impossible. Fra Angelico painted on his knees.  Gaddis, in his letters, mentions that he wrote The Recognitions to be the last Christian novel. When coupled with his obsession over what he saw to be the loss of techne or the technical prowess earned and defined by genius to the ease of mechanical reproduction (will someone turn off that fucking player piano), I get the sense of his historical comment: that man, in losing his connection to god, loses that which can enable the best in men, that is divine inspiration.  When abutted against J R, the historical moment is characterized further as we edge deeper into entropy, we don't just lose inspiration, but we lose its fruits, we ultimately lose the ability to discern the truth.

In reading some of the press around Karl Ove Knausgaard, I have begun to think of his work, My Struggle, as fitting in this place of entropic expansion, where a bowl of corn flakes can carry equal weight to the death of a father, the exact place of anxiety where every moment must be recorded to show it is both everything and nothing, the terrifying place of historical disappearance.  His recent piece in the Times Style section of all places discusses the meaning of fame in the face of a culture that emphasizes and rewards sameness. I'll have to bar myself from completing this prolonged post until I've had my chance to read his books, at least the first, but this I am prepared to say: There are no modern ruins outside of the moment.

However often I see New York City destroyed on screen, whether it's the remains of the Statue of Liberty in Planet of the Apes, or whether it's the eagles on the Empire State Building gushing water in AI, or the weed-ridden Times Square in I Am Legend, or the towers of the Time Warner Center in Cloverfield, or the intergalactic melee at the close of The Avengers (how much fun is it to watch the Hulk shred aliens and city scenery both in that scene?), or yes the Empire State Building again getting decimated by the alien laser in Richard Ford's Michael Bay's Independence Day, I wonder what it is I'm being asked to consider.  We are entertained by the prospect of our own destruction so regularly that it takes on a Buddhist character of non-attachment rather than as a tragic Cassandra-esque prediction. It brings to mind as well the habit of thought Herman Kahn proposed in On Thermonuclear War, that by bringing ourselves to imagine the worst, we can overcome the fear of it. As recently as a decade ago in India, there was a support group for women who had suffered domestic abuse. The women would sit together and visualize themselves receiving beatings, horrible beatings at the hands of their spouses, fathers and brothers. In doing so, a number of them found the strength to stand up to the abuse, to stop it. After September 11th, I remember wondering how long it would be before New York City could be destroyed again on screen. It would allow us to return to a sense of normalcy.

What is it about NYC that we're so thrilled to see it destroyed? The impersonal city filled with its invulnerable skyscrapers, it's like a great uncle with a face full of cigars shouting for you to knock him one on the chin. Come on, tough guy, come on! By watching its perpetual destruction we are reminded of its importance, its singularity.  We are fragile because of its importance, its centrality to everything, we can't help but to heap more importance on it, add more authority to the place, imagine it as the place where all old world arguments dissolve into currency, the central totem of the New World amnesia.  Of course, New York City has been erased. The idiom of each street runs: Duane Reade, American Apparel, Chase, Starbucks, Payless Shoes or Rite Aid, Dunkin Donuts/Baskin Robbins, pizza place, Virgin Mobile store, TD Bank, Radioshack. I have to pay attention to the street signs. It's amazingly easy to ignore where you are when your street turns into a corridor of chains. The ruins we leave will be like a labyrinth of ice.

Almost two years ago, I got to work about an hour early so I could walk up the street and watch Christian Marclay's The Clock. They were showing it at the Lincoln Center atrium and I got there early enough that I didn't need to wait in line.  I walked right in and found a seat.  They had set up a provisional theater in the atrium, behind dark curtains you crossed through. I sat alone. Marclay edited together a twenty-four hour film made up of shots of clocks from thousands of movies, edited together to become a working clock.  Each scenario I saw occurred within the span between 8 AM and 9 AM and despite showing a kind of pluralism-- the imaginations of hundreds of film makers, the actions of thousands of actors separated by decades, by film stock, by technicolor, split up by the minutes in the day but unified in their purpose-- they were all there to count the time. Each time a clock appeared on screen, it was like the true star of the film had just appeared.  I sat enthralled. Time was passing me by. I was late for work.

Bat Conlon has a forehead like the Merrick's retriever... (William Trevor, The Piano Turner's Wives)

It may be a fair question-- was art more beautiful when god was central to the artist's pursuit?--but it is only fair if it shows us a way forward. In other words, how do we account for the effect of what was once deemed divine inspiration. Part of it seems coeval with the faulty belief that morality can't exist without religion, but the part that is deeper, the question as to what informs great art, because great art still happens and whether that constitutes a true difference between people, a talent that would set aside one person or give that person power or special vision over others may be irrelevant. I think of Rimbaud, the fed up poet turned arms dealer. Perhaps there's a fine line. The best writers are just borrowing our words.

Back in the winter of 2006, I visited Beijing.  I was informed then of the rapid changes that the city was realizing in order to host the Olympics.  Whole neighborhoods were evacuated then leveled, the people relocated, sometimes officially sometimes not.  There was an international shortage of cement and cranes due to the amount of construction happening in Beijing.  It was February and a lot of people burned coal to stay warm.  There was so much dust in the air that when I chewed gum (with my mouth shut) the gum grew gritty. The changes that were happening meant little too me, though I registered the appropriate culture shock that a government could so indispose its citizens without there being some kind of reciprocity-- and there may have been but I didn't hear about it.  Instead, I heard about how the Beijing branch of Hooters set to open prior to the Olympics had stacks of resumes from college graduates fighting over the open waitressing jobs.  In tips alone, the job could provide a middle class life in a country where there was still no sign of a middle class. I think about this in relation to a line I read recently in Jack Gilbert's A Brief for the Defense:
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction, 
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight...    

It struck me first as sentimental and a little reckless. Gilbert positions these lines after speaking of women in Calcutta laughing in spite of their pain, but as I considered it against the hardness of Gilbert's other poems, the sentiment went away.  It is just the way we live now. We risk delight.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Covering a Distance of 356 Feet

In the Recognitions,Wyatt Gwyon expresses the rarity of a moment of pure perception when relating his experience of seeing Night Fishing at AntibesThat scene has stuck with me and every now and then when the barometric pressure is right and I haven't over-eaten or gotten drunk, I feel clear-eyed and I think of this painting.


The universe is a shadow, an absence so massive it is beguiled by the force of its own casting.   

We think of the big bang as a single event, as a moment where everything was collapsed into an infinitesimal dot.

Though I'm free to consider the possibility that the universe did not begin under the conditions of symmetry, that there were an array of bangs that cast out massive overlapping differences across the universe. 

But if I consider the single event and I think of the prospect of infinite expansion under the conditions of the laws of thermodynamics, that all matter as we know it has always existed and will always exist and will only undergo changes, I'm inclined to think of distance as the shadow of time. That is distance and time are both the vectors describing the expansion of that little dot, where the big bang is the zero state and the outer edge of the universe is its present-- we exist somewhere inside it, a dizzied mote swirling somewhere in the shadow, capable of defining a separate present.

The experience of the universe is force, matter and absence. Time and space both undergo customizations when they are attached to human experience, specializations. When we perceive time, we perceive our own mortality.  When we perceive space, we reckon our own smallness or borrow the world's largeness.  Our perceptions are attuned to radiations and emanations aged by their crossing of space. We cope with these gaps in various ways, but our senses function as relays and our experiences relay our energies. The planet is a prism, a cloud chamber, where the forces of space and time are slowed and bent by our living. We don't have to accept the indifference of the universe, we only have to understand it. 

Have you ever been to Ohio?
Side view of the Wright Brothers glider courtesy of the Library of Congress

Stairway Treads

At work, our stairway is covered in a black industrial tread with raised black dots to lend the treadless sole of the work-appropriate dress shoe extra grip.  Our stairway is also our fire stairway, so it serves a dual purpose and the only break in the functional repetition of the bland wall and bright rail are inspirational posters, placed at the occasion of a new floor.  If you are like me and tend to miss a step, your eye is likely pointed at the stairs for the most part and so lost inside the march of the raised black dots that cascade ever downward.  It seems like Robert Smithson's definition of a non-site, a place of pure dislocation without any identity.  Smithson, an earthworks artist, used the term pejoratively to describe the housing and commercial development booms in the late sixties and early seventies-- that continue to the present and were first signified by the mini-mall and now extend to the big box store.  But where those stores are at least partially clothed in their purpose and it can take a good half hour before I'm dwarfed by their exhaustive supply and choices, the functionality of the stairway treads overwhelm me almost immediately, to the point where I second guess taking the stairs. I feel out of place and have to stop myself from running down the stairs, even when I do, the repetition I find at the next floor is almost as disheartening as starting back at the top where I began.  There's an airlessness in the stairwell.  It's pressurized in case of fire and there's an industrial fan hidden away somewhere to suck away smoke in case it enters. For some reason today I was in the stairwell and I didn't feel the need to rush. I let the illusion that I was nowhere stand and I walked as slowly as I could and I found myself comforted by the procession of raised black dots. I let my eyes go soft and I felt for a few moments that the tread had dropped away and that I was floating down on a cushion of dots.      

Roll 'Em

A reel-to-reel projector, if turned upside down, becomes a small car. 

Portrait of Rose Covarrubias, Mexico by Edward Weston
Bad Art

One measure of bad art is the distance of the art from the artist.  Bad technique.

Another measure is the distance of the artist from the viewer.  Bad engagement.

Both measures are usually blocked by our own embarrassment because these distances come across like bad pick up lines.  We hold it against the artist because he or she could not manipulate us. 

The pleasure we take from bad art is entirely fed by our notion of the artist's shame. The artist should be shamed to make better art, but then we couldn't measure their distance from our ideal.   
Wax Hanks