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.

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