by Matthew Sharpe, September 16, 2011 11:13 AM
In graduate school I took a class with the French semiotician Michael Riffaterre, who one day told a story about refusing to study Latin as a child. His father was concerned enough about this that he brought a famous local writer over to the house to convince his son of the importance of learning Latin. This is how the eminent man convinced the stubborn child: "My dear boy, if you do not learn Latin, how will you quote?"
I will devote my last blog of the week to answering that question. I'll begin with this remark by Ralph Waldo Emerson, which ended up on the cutting room floor of the post I wrote about the paintings of Michele Araujo, and which I first read in a beautiful and soon-to-be-published book by Lisa Cohen called All We Know:
Every book is a quotation; and every house is a quotation out of all forests and mines and stone quarries; and every man is a quotation from all his ancestors. And this grasping inventor puts all nations under contribution.
And here is the work of a painter I would like to write about when I've had more time to look at his trippy and beguiling paintings and can come up with more than an incipient verbal response. The painter's name is Greg Drasler and if you're in New York this month or next you can see his work at Betty Cunningham Gallery.
And here is my incipient verbal response to this and the other paintings in Drasler's current show: The abundant pleasure in their warm, bright colors, their lovingly meticulous rendering, and their crazy, patterned landscapes distracted me when I first saw them from noticing that while the products and traces of humanity are everywhere in these paintings, there are no people in them. They are, in addition to being sumptuously fun to look at, frighteningly lonely, as if a neutron bomb has destroyed all creaturely life but left this gorgeous infrastructure intact. At the show's opening, I told Drasler about my two responses, first pleasure, then creepiness, and he said, "I frost the problem."
Moving from frosting to lining, here is the philosopher Elizabeth Grosz in an essay that appeared in the spring 2010 issue of differences: a Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, which I learned about from my erudite friend Christina Crosby, Professor of English at Wesleyan University; it was she who pointed out to me that "lines the world" could refer to sewing a garment:
Philosophy, in adding the concept to the world, lines the world, or the events that comprise the world, with a layer of incorporeality, an excess that makes it more than it presently is, that imbues it with the possibility of being otherwise, the possibility of dispersal and transformation.
by Matthew Sharpe, September 15, 2011 11:34 AM
I was having dinner a few weeks ago with a friend who is highly accomplished, a true polymath, and one of most inquisitive and open people I know. I don't remember how we got there, but at a certain point he asked me, "What is poetry?" just like that. I think I said something like, "Poetry is whatever a given community of poetry readers agrees it is," which may be true, but wasn't very satisfying to either of us. It became evident that he was talking about the kind of poetry that has no regular meter or rhyme scheme, and may not feel so different from prose chopped up with line breaks — in other words, free verse, the dominant way of working for contemporary poets, at least in this country. I told him something that I'd heard the poet Galway Kinnell
say about free verse, that it does all the same things formal verse does, just not in a predictable pattern. That is, it intensifies the physical properties of words — their acoustical (rhyme, assonance, alliteration, etc.) and their visual properties (how the poem looks on the page) — and, hopefully, is compressed in the way that it makes meaning.
We agreed that without concrete examples, this was a harder discussion than it needed to be. So when I got home that night I emailed him one of my favorite poems by a living author, Anne Carson's "First Chaldaic Oracle," from her book Men in the Off Hours:
There is something you should know.
And the right way to know it
is by a cherrying of your mind.
Because if you press your mind towards it
and try to know
as you know a thing,
you will not know it.
It comes out of red
with kills on both sides,
it is scrap, it is nightly,
it kings your mind.
No. Scorch is not the way
that thing you must know.
But use the hum
of your wound
and flamepit out everything
right to the edge
of that thing you should know.
The way to know it
is not by staring hard.
But keep chiselled
keep Praguing the eye
of your soul and reach—
towards that thing you should know
until you get it.
That thing you should know.
Because it is out there (orchid) outside your and, it is.
My friend wrote back and said, "Here's a dumb experiment":
There is something you should know. And the right way to know it is by a cherrying of your mind. Because if you press your mind towards it, and try to know that thing as you know a thing, you will not know it. It comes out red, with kills on both sides, it is scrap, it is nightly, it kings your mind. No. Scorch is not the way to know that thing you must know.
But use the hum of your wound, and flamepit out everything right to the edge of that thing you should know. The way to know it is not staring hard. But keep chiselled, keep Praguing the eye of your soul, and reach — mind empty — towards that thing you should know until you get it. That thing you should know. Because it is out there (orchid) outside your and, it is."
"How much is gained by breaking it up into lines?"
Well, that freaked me out. I knew the poem didn't feel at all the same to me in prose form, but why? I read it again, for about the 50th time in my life — good poems are like good songs, they are perpetual energy machines that keep on giving no matter how many times you take them in. What occurred to me first is that slowness is gained by breaking it up into lines, so I asked my friend, who is a brilliant composer, what is gained by playing Bach's Goldberg Variation number 25 slowly rather than quickly. And then I proposed my own dumb experiment, though I didn't think his dumb at all: hold an index card over Carson's poem, and, beginning with the title, move the card down one line at a time, slowly, and feel what the experience of each line is like, and the flow of energy and meaning from one line to the next.
So now I'm going to re-enact my dumb experiment, and put an index card over all but the title of the poem. "First Chaldaic Oracle." When I first read this poem I knew vaguely that "Chaldaic" was somehow biblical, and that an oracle was someone through whom a god spoke, perhaps in a way that was encoded or mysterious. So the title creates the anticipation of a godly communication. I move my index card down and see "There is something you should know." Now I'm being addressed directly, with the implicit promise that I'm going to be told, by a god, through a human, something I should know. What should I know? More anticipation. I move my index card down. "And the right way to know it" — all right so maybe I'm not going to be told by this god what I should know but how I should know, and in any case it is becoming clear to me that this oracular speech is taking the form of instructions. And in that second line the poem is creating more anticipation, this time not just semantic but also grammatical — the line break interrupts the sentence before the predicate arrives. And if sentences may be thought of as miniature knowledge delivery systems, Carson is putting this one on pause before letting it complete its delivery. In poetry this is called enjambment: breaking a line in the middle of a phrase. I move the card down. "Is by a cherrying of your mind." "Cherrying" is an example of what's known as anthimeria, using one part of speech (a noun) as another (a verb). (Shakespeare liked to use anthimeria, as when Cleopatra says to a messenger she's really mad at, "I'll unhair thy head.") So Carson's poem is telling me that usual rules — of grammar, and, by extension, of knowing — must be stretched a bit, in order for me to know this thing I should know. And, for me anyway, "a cherrying of your mind" creates a weird little visual image in, well, my mind. Do I understand it? Not in the usual way I understand a thing, but let's see what happens when I move the index card down again. Nothing. I am confronted with a little bit of nothing, a little blank space, a pause I can use to contemplate what it might mean to cherry my mind.
Well, I'll stop the experiment there, but I see the way that this poem's line breaks slow down the reading as enabling at least two things: suspense and contemplation, both of which are relevant to a poem that is delivering Truth but in mysterious or coded form. Not every free verse poem is so elegantly constructed, and not every one gives you such distinct implied instructions about how to read it, but here I feel the line breaks and stanza breaks are indispensable to the meaning and effect of
by Matthew Sharpe, September 14, 2011 11:22 AM
Today I'm going to try to talk about two paintings by Michele Araujo
, with the caveat to myself and to you that one of the things I find interesting in them is how much they push back against being talked about. In fact, both paintings contain elements that are ordinarily legible — writing in one and a photograph in the other — but whose legibility Araujo has obscured.
About the large black goopy marks that seem to move from right to left across this painting from 1994, Araujo writes that they are "a detail of a Spanish text from Columbus' journal. I never translated it. My father was Spanish-speaking but rarely spoke it in our home." Even if you can read Spanish, the letter forms are so engorged and distorted that you can't make out the words. Maybe a painting in which a text is both untranslated and illegible is a visual correlative of a father who speaks a language his child doesn't understand, and hardly ever speaks it in her presence. Just as the father's native mode of meaning-making is doubly removed from the child, so the legibility of the writing is doubly obscured in the painting. Paradoxically, the obscuring of the meaning becomes the meaning.
The psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas, in his book The Shadow of the Object has coined a term that might describe this kind of experience: the unthought known. Bollas posits that a person's experiences as an infant, before that person has acquired language, continue to exist as memories, but can't be symbolized the way memories from the period after language acquisition can, because the experiences happened outside of language. So they are known, but they cannot be thought. They remain illegible and untranslatable, though they continue to exert force in the person's life. I would add that not only pre-linguistic experiences exist outside of language. Everything that isn't language exists outside of language. And, as Araujo's painting suggests, even language exists outside of language.
While preparing to write about this painting, I debated whether to, in a sense, violate its self-imposed rules and read English translations of a few of Christopher Columbus's journal entries. I decided to, because, well, they're right here on the Internet and I couldn't help it. They are abundantly wacky. For example: he referred to himself in the third person as "the Admiral"; he consistently lied to his crew about how much distance they had traveled, always telling them it was less than it really was, "that the crew might not be dismayed if the voyage should prove long"; and he tried to understand things he was experiencing for the first time by comparing them to things he already knew — "Found the sea like the river at Seville, 'thanks to God,' says the Admiral. The air soft as that of Seville in April, and so fragrant that it was delicious to breathe it."
Okay so maybe that last one isn't so wacky, it's a strategy I think we all employ when faced with something we don't understand: We start enlisting things we do understand to help us understand the not-understandable thing. In fact, that's what I've been doing all along here with Michele Araujo's paintings. But I also want to advocate for recognizing we're doing that and trying to not do it a little bit, on the grounds that whatever the new thing is that we're encountering is uniquely, irreducibly itself, and cannot be fully understood by means of the thing we already know, and, anyway, we don't really know the thing we already know because when we first encountered that thing we tried to understand it by comparing it to still other things we thought we already knew, and so on. Or, as the philosopher Avital Ronnell said, "Very often the emergency supplies of meaning that are brought to a given incident or structure or theme in one's life are ways of dressing the wound of non-meaning....To admit that we haven't really understood is much less satisfying and more frustrating and more necessary."
I haven't even talked about the roses yet. They are, Araujo writes, "collage elements," and I don't know how to write about them without resorting to Shakespeare, who has his Juliet say of her Romeo, "That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet." She was talking about how his family name is Montague, and hers is Capulet, and the two families are at war with each other, which is a huge problem for these two because they are in love with each other and would rather just smell each other's sweetness and not have to worry about the names. In Shakespeare's play the names — the words — are weapons that inflict a fatal wound on the lovers whose lives they define. But aren't those red and white roses in the painting beautiful against its washy blue and goopy, scratchy black?
I'm going to show you one more painting here, and please do yourself a favor if you have the time and just look at it for a while before reading what I have to say about it, even as you acknowledge that you're not looking at the painting but a low-resolution digital paraphrase or translation of it, and what Robert Frost said of poetry is also true of painting: It is that which cannot be translated.
Michele Araujo is a friend and I happen to be looking right now at this painting she made in 2009. That dark straight line going down the left side of it, and the dark horizontal line along the bottom, and the dark rectangle rising up from it, and the rectilinear shape near the top, slightly left of center — these too are collage elements. Looking at the painting up close I can see that they are taped down over the paint. I treated this whole painting as an abstraction and the collaged pieces as just additional abstract visual elements until one day Araujo said to me, "Do you know what the Xeroxes are?" "What Xeroxes?" "The Xeroxes taped to the painting." "No, what are they?" "They're Faye Dunaway after she's been killed in Bonnie and Clyde." "You mean, right after she and Warren Beatty declare their love for each other and get shot to pieces by the police?" "Yeah."
Well, I love that movie, and Faye Dunaway's performance in it is astounding, and now sometimes when I look at this painting I can't help seeing all the swirling, undulating dark red paint in it as blood. But I also don't want to let it be only blood. Araujo says when she makes these paintings she struggles with those Xeroxed elements, not only with whether and how much to make them legible, but
by Matthew Sharpe, September 13, 2011 11:30 AM
Every episode except the pilot of the wonderful and troubling TV show Burn Notice
begins with this image:
Burn Notice was created by Matt Nix and stars Jeffrey Donovan as a spy who has been excommunicated — "burned" — from the CIA and is trying to get back in. The deciders at the CIA have ousted Donovan's character, Michael Westen, who worked freelance for them, because they've been led to believe he has done something bad, not regular spy bad but, presumably, against-America's-national-interests bad. They have frozen Westen's accounts, revoked his passport, and banished him to Miami. The short arc of each episode of Burn Notice consists of him helping some innocent who's being threatened by a gang or has been bilked by a con man or whose child has been kidnapped by a bad guy (the terms good guy and bad guy come up a lot in the Manichean world of this show). To do this he draws upon his prodigious spy skills and inexhaustible resourcefulness. The long arc of each season of Burn Notice consists of Westen's efforts to get himself back in the CIA's good graces.
In keeping with this week's informal theme of looking and reading, let's scrutinize the screen grab above. We see, in the center of the frame, a white man wearing dark sunglasses and a sleek gray suit of probably American or European origin. He's looking at his watch, which means, in the language of bodily gestures, that he's waiting for somebody. ("Want to know what it's like to be a spy?" Westen asks in a voiceover in the pilot episode, from which this image is drawn. "Like sitting in your dentist's reception area 24 hours a day. You read magazines, you sip coffee, and every so often someone tries to kill you.") The white man is surrounded by black people, Africans by the look of the bright, printed garments and head coverings that nearly every one of them is wearing. So we are looking at a lone white man in a sea of Africans in what we might infer is Africa. Whose day are we interested in here? Whose waiting, whose thoughts, desires, aspirations — to pick up a thread from yesterday's remarks, whose subjectivity does the costuming, art direction, and cinematography of this shot encourage us to pay attention to and be curious about? Those of the person driving the blue car on the lower left? Those of the woman in the yellow dress and red headscarf on the upper left? I think not. Even without the voiceover, all the considerable visual information of just this one frame of the opening montage of a 42-minute long TV show asks us to focus on the white dental patient in his exotic waiting room, and wonder what kind of dental work he's waiting for. If you happen to have seen the pilot episode, then you know the African city Michael Westen is waiting in is Warri, Nigeria, which is not coincidentally one of that country's oil production centers. (Another Westen voiceover: "Southern Nigeria isn't my favorite place in the world. It's unstable, it's corrupt, and the people there eat a lot of terrible-smelling preserved fish.") But if you missed the pilot and have not spent much time in the western part of that continent then it's just kind of "Africa."
Which puts me in mind of a book by the philosopher and social theorist Judith Butler Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable?, in which she argues, among other things, that cameras can be used as instruments of warfare — that they can reinforce a set of values wherein some lives are less recognizable as lives than others, and therefore more expendable. "The frame does not simply exhibit reality, but actively participates in a strategy of containment, selectively producing and enforcing what will count as reality." This means that the image above assists in creating what Butler calls "the differential distribution of grievability upon which war depends." Knowing that Michael Westen was in Nigeria in that scene, and that his $750,000 payoff to a "warlord" to protect a local refinery "went south," doesn't decrease the interchangeability of the people in the opening montage of Burn Notice whose function is to establish the foreign ground where Westen was performing the spy activities from which he has since been banished.
Butler also says, "[T]he frame is always throwing something away, always keeping something out, always de-realizing and de-legitimizing alternative versions of reality, discarded negatives of the official version....When versions of reality are excluded or jettisoned to a domain of unreality, then specters are produced that haunt the ratified version of reality, animated and de-ratifying traces."
Specters. What do they look like? Maybe like this:
This is from somewhere deep into the, I think, second season of the show. Michael needs some kind of serviceman's uniform to allow him to slip past the security in a highly securitized building where he is going to steal something or find out something relevant to one of his noble missions that constitute the plots of this show. (And if I sound arch in that last sentence and any other sentences in today's guest blog it's probably because my archness is a bulwark, albeit a flimsy one, against the ample enjoyment I derive from this entertaining show whose aesthetic reinforces a vision of American militarism I am disturbed by.) In his mother's garage he finds this, his father's old uniform from when he was an exterminator. Michael's father is now dead, and was an abusive alcoholic. Part of the mythology in the show is that Michael initially developed what would become his spy skills and resourcefulness and his spy's resilience in order to survive the frequent and unpredictable adversity generated by his father. What do you see in this still image? I see a grown man with the face of a little boy. I see a little boy's sorrow and shame as he contemplates trying to fill his complicated father's clothes. The son of an abusive man goes into a profession in which he is always dissembling, always hiding his genuine motives and feelings, always acting out fantasies of being someone other than who he is. And now he's about to pretend to be the very man who set him on this weird journey. Not surprising that shame and sorrow come up.
I didn't pause the episode on this fleeting facial expression because I noticed it; I noticed it because I paused it, probably to go get a snack or something. I don't know whether the actor Jeffrey Donovan intended to show us this face or it just happened. In my reading or fantasy of this face, I regard it not just as the psychological effect of a dead mean dad, but also as an instance of the kind of specter Judith Butler is talking about above. Here is a man who so fervently believes that there is no better use for his particular set of skills an
by Matthew Sharpe, September 12, 2011 11:10 AM
I'm going to introduce the loose theme of the five blogs Powell's has kindly asked me to write by saying a few words about a novel I've thought about a lot since I read it several years ago, Richard Powers
's The Echo Maker
. In it, a man named Mark Schluter suffers a brain trauma in a car accident, goes into a coma, and when he wakes up, a strange thing happens. His sister, Karin, walks into his hospital room. He apprehends that she looks like Karin, moves like her, acts like her, talks like her. But he does not recognize this person as Karin. He comes to believe she is a government agent hired for some nefarious purpose to impersonate his sister. This fictional character's affliction can happen to real people, and is called Capgras Syndrome.
With Capgras Syndrome, the part of the brain that processes visual, aural, olfactory, tactile, and gustatory stimuli may be intact, but the part that recognizes them is not. Mark knows he's been in an accident and has a brain injury. He is told that the injury affects his ability to recognize Karin. And yet he persists in believing that Karin is not Karin. Powers suggests that that's because the human mind is too invested in the accuracy of its depiction of reality to allow that it might be making a mistake.
One of the brain's jobs is to be a central assembly station for all the disparate sense data that other body parts are sending to it. Visual data arrive from the eyes, acoustical data from the ears, and so on. The brain must collage together these fragments and somehow convince the person in whose skull it dwells that this collage is the world. In other words, Capgras Syndrome is just a slightly exaggerated version of human consciousness.
So here's my loose theme and maybe also a little bit my homily for this week of guest blogging: looking is always also reading, and probably always also misreading. I find this humbling: the possibility that always and everywhere, our understanding of the world and of each other and of ourselves is at best a fairly attuned and nuanced fiction. Acknowledging this has ethical ramifications, namely, don't get too cocky about believing you're right about stuff, and more importantly, about people, and try not to confuse the two — stuff and people, I mean. Which is maybe an overstated way of saying that, just as Mark in The Echo Maker was unable to recognize his sister, so it is very hard but worthwhile for all of us to try our best to extend full recognition to, well, every single person we encounter, see, hear about, or read about — your child, your spouse, your sibling, your neighbor, the security guard you pass on the way to your office five mornings a week, the homeless man down at the end of the subway car who smells so bad that other subway riders are moving to the next car, the Taliban fighter whose goal may be to kill you or your loved one or your fellow American. I present this challenge to myself and to you: What would it mean to expand the circle of people whose subjectivity and humanity we do our best to fully