Friday, August 8, 2014

Singularity

Long ago, before memory, there was a single point of infinite energetic density. Because a point is that which has no parts or magnitude, we know it exists only in relationship 
to something greater. But there is nothing else: here is a point without context.

          Before separation—before the idea of it can be conceived, before anything—there is loneliness. Totality is unimaginably lonely, so terribly complete that separation is conceived, as a salve.

          Longing for companionship, the whole must divide itself. With the mightiest effort of
consciousness the whole splits, explodes into an infinity of parts and particles. An explosion of unimagined diversity.

          But now, like the singularity, each part of the whole knows only itself, longs, in its perceived isolation, for union with something greater than itself.

          In the way an amnesiac might experience homesickness, the yearning for separation and reunion emanate from one source, animating everything.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Schadenfreude

Ivan Vasiliev and Natalia Osipova, "Solo for Two"
Emotional states can be transferred to others via emotional contagion, leading them to experience the same emotions as those around them. Emotional contagion is well established in laboratory experiments, in which people transfer positive and negative moods and emotions to others.~"Experimental Evidence of Massive-Scale Emotional Contagion Through Social Networks," Adam Kramer, et al.
Our beliefs about what we are and what we can be precisely determine what we can be.~Tony Robbins
Let your smile be your umbrella.~Bing Crosby
Ever since I decided to write something cheerful, I've been fighting the urge to binge drink Sapporo beer, protest Israel's ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from their own land—then protest the other protesters because this genocide has been going on for 50 years already, so what the fuck, motherfuckers?—also to use the compound word 'motherfucker' in every possible sentence, and to sulk. 

          I've been picking fights under the guise of standing up for myself, making up stories to explain why I'm uneasy, why others should censor themselves so I don't have to. Curt, my first love, writes to me from Southeast Asia, 8,000 miles away, and I'm displeased. Poor, sensitive Charlotte. Curt describes getting a massage in a curtained cubicle in a shopping mall, beside a Starbucks. He's tired from all that shopping so Curt pays 400 pesos, about six bucks, for a one-hour massage. The girl asks him to remove all his clothing and she watches as he does this. She asks him to lie on his stomach. He tells me how good her hands feel on him, how sensual. She asks him to turn over and, of course, he's hard. She's 20, he writes, with big lips and a willing smile. I've cleaned up his version a little. Yes, okay, a lot.

          I am not cheerful; I'm a sullen, angry motherfucker.



I start telling him the fantasy I had the night before—to put us on more equal footing, I think, as if perhaps I hope to ease the shame of remaining untouched. Even to me, my words sound prudish and absurd. I hit the Reply key anyway and go to bed.

          I dream I'm dressing for a wedding I've been to before—the wedding of a friend that took place a few years ago. For the real wedding, I wore clothes that felt unnatural and stiff. I'm always embarrassed when I have to dress up. Here I wear a beautiful, sweeping gown that looks weightless and fragile, like it's made of gold leaf, with a snug, black velvet bodice. But it's strapless and if I can't find something to cover my big bare shoulders and swelling arm fat, I will miss the wedding. Getting dressed beside me is my date to the wedding, and I'm surprised to see it's Curt, who is totally unaware of me. But there are two Curts—they're knotting each other's ties—and I can't decide which Curt is mine. If I don't sort that out, I'll definitely miss the wedding.  



The next day Curt asks polite questions about my stupid fantasy and I'm even less cheerful.

          In an effort to cheer the fuck up, I try to explain myself to Curt although, as I said, I suspect I'm just making things up to justify my black mood. But what if my lies are actually the truth I've been avoiding? 

          It's true. I do want Curt to be reverent and kneel at the altar of First Love, the same way I do. He can pay for three blow jobs a day for all I care, just don't tell me about it. Be different with me. I want to be passionately in love and, because I'm not and don't expect to be again, the next best thing is memory. It turns out it's like visiting a grave, though. Here lies First Love. Still, I want Curt to admit our graveyard isn't the best setting for a blow job with a stranger.

          Curt replies. After delivering a scathing monologue on the judgmental and hypocritical attitudes of the west, Curt apologizes for his insensitivity to my feelings. Weirdly, I know he's being sincere. It's even possible he has understood me quite well. Although he probably just thinks I need to get laid. A dense fog is lifting and I see nothing familiar in the emotional landscape that's starting to take shape.

          I read a new poem by Dani Kopoulos in the Summer issue of Sufi Journal, and write down the lines

all the complexities
of our oneness and separation 
are made simple
and beautiful
by impermanence.

let that haunt you
and you'll know what to do.

          I watch a new TV program called "Married." In it, a middle-aged couple goes on vacation hoping to rekindle their romance. They've just met the couple from the next room; she has a belly-button piercing and perky tits, and her boyfriend looks like a body builder. Once inside their room, as the married couple start to touch each other, they hear the couple next door fucking like animals. Meanwhile, our married couple is struggling; every position they try is uncomfortable; at one point her head stops bobbing under the sheets and she whines, "If I go on any longer I'm gonna get lockjaw." He mounts her proudly but slips out after a couple of thrusts and can't make himself rise again. Then she falls asleep while he lies awake in the dark and listens to their neighbors pounding and moaning. 

          That makes me cheerful.

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Tree That Falls Unheard

The sliver of new moon has been sighted so the month of Ramadan is now officially over and Eid begins. It's a bit like Muslim New Year. The kids are off overnight with their father's family to celebrate, and now limitless opportunities appear to open before me. With no one else around there's no particular role to play (not the nurturing or exacting mother; not the grieving daughter; not the apologetic, dysfunctional slacker; nor spiritual seeker; nor the fat, aging spinster).  

          A lover could spend the night, or I could pray for insight, or I could watch porn or blast music or eat fillet mignon, rare, fried in butter with mushrooms, with a bottle of chilled Prosecco.  

          I forget there are still a few bottles of wine in the basement and make iced coffee instead. I walk around the house, switch paintings on the wall, eye the placement of pictures and books. Rearrange a vase and a bronze statue. Imagine what the rooms will look like when the 70 boxes of books standing in wobbly towers are finally sold and gone and the wandering gaze no longer trips over what shouldn't be there: I shouldn't be there. But tonight that's of no consequence, simply because I am here, alone, with no one to worry about and no one worrying about me. Tonight the house is mine and I fill it completely with my singular presence.

          I could watch a movie, call a friend, write a poem, color my hair, paint my nails, paint a picture. Instead I spend the next few hours gathering papers from all over my mother's bedroom, sorting and discarding papers, setting up a logical filing system with a labelmaker, file folders, hanging Pendaflex files, and arranging everything in its proper place, in a single file drawer, in a simple, easily intelligible order. 

          I take a break and fix another glass of iced coffee and prune the two ferns in the kitchen so only a few lush strands of green are left. I water both pots and sweep the floor of all the dead clippings and take the garbage out. 

          I think how much I love living alone and creating my own world. Or maybe expressing my own world is a better way to put it. I imagine other people in my space, sharing it, enjoying it, comfortable and happy to be here—once I've perfected it—and I feel expansive and optimistic. I worry that I may be happier imagining a shared life than actually sharing it.

          Around midnight the thunderstorm begins. The black sky blinks and rumbles and the windows rattle. I remember to let Pablo in before it rains and feed him. All four cats curl up with me in the living room and fall asleep. I wish I was sleepy; that coffee will probably keep me awake all night.

          I turn off the lights and go upstairs to my bedroom in the dark. I can sleep without clothes for a change, so I do. I snuggle into bed and Pablo soon joins me. I let my mind wander before reaching for my flashlight, reading glasses, and book. I turn to look outside, seeing black on black. When lightning flashes, the window of sky turns white. In that heartbeat I relive a memory. The feeling reminds me of the stories told by people on the brink of death, whose whole lives flash before them in a millisecond, but this is a lifetime compressed into one brief, insignificant image—and from a perspective that seems to be other than my own. 

          To be honest, I don't pay attention until the next lightning flash, when it happens again. Exactly the same image, same feeling. I'm not sleepy and I have nothing better to do. This time I wait for it; and it comes.

          On my last day of work, many years ago, a particular student—the apple of my eye—wanted to have his picture taken with his favorite mentors. I hate to be photographed, but I did it for him. We gathered in a small courtyard, among the shady trees, side-stepping the rotten watermelon left out for the turtles, and posed, an adult on either side of the boy, all three of them seated on a bench, and myself and my colleague arranged behind them. But the photographer had paused. 


It's this pause that keeps flashing now. In the pause I mutter like a ventriloquist through my fixed smile, No one will notice if I slowly slip away. Standing beside me, the only person who hears is my colleague, the other apple of my eye (who also hates having his picture taken and with whom I should not be in love), who I will soon amputate from my life like a diseased part. 

          No one notices that I'm gliding invisibly out of frame. I'm so relieved to be out of the picture—a picture of loss, of not belonging—because I've been laid off, because the boy is leaving and I won't see him again, because I won't see my lovely colleague anymore, because he doesn't love me. I hear him grunt, Uh-uh, through his smile.

          Without looking, my colleague reaches out one of his long arms, grabs my shirt and pulls me back. He keeps his arm tight around me so I can't move till the picture is taken. 

          I view this scene as if I'm standing offstage; the photographer and subject are blocked by our silhouettes, I see only our backs, his and mine. A flash of jumbled emotion and perspective. 

          When the light flashes, this is the vision that surrounds me, that must be in me, and is also at an unreachable distance. I don't want to see the colleague anymore, no more secret pining or dreaming, absolutely no desire to return to that job I had loved before. But the lightning puts me everywhere at once, on the brink of loss and its opposite. 


No more coffee before bed, I think, and feel around under my pillow for the book. The book is by Freeman Dyson, intended as a condensed, simplified history of the universe. I read each paragraph several times till some meaning sinks in, but most of it sinks all the way out. The beam of my flashlight falls on Euclid's definition of a point. 

          A point is that which has no parts or magnitude.

          I read it a couple of times and I think I finally get it. A point only exists in relationship to something else; it has no independent existence. Without at least a single point of reference—a relationship—sense-making is impossible; just 360 degrees of unrelieved, indecipherable chaos. But with nothing to refer to, a point itself is alone and infinite, meaningless.

          It reminds me of my sister's pragmatic approach to the baffling question, "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?" My sister says that in the absence of any creature with aural cilia to translate vibration into sound, there's no sound. That's true, of course. But perhaps as long as the idea of sound exists, the concept is real, whether or not anyone actually hears it. That might be enough. Just because something is an abstraction doesn't necessarily make it unreal.

          Dyson goes on to explain the Almighty Abstraction, the superstring. But how to grasp at this invisible thread? Euclid, he muses, might have defined a superstring as a "wiggly curve which moves in 10-dimensional space-time of peculiar symmetry." You can practically hear Dyson chuckle while he tries to imagine how a lay audience will receive this news. (Drooling? Stupefied?) But to his credit, he patiently tries to get us to accept something inconceivable by ruthlessly cutting away what we already kind of understand and accept:
Imagine, if you can, four things that have very different sizes. First, the entire visible universe. Second, the planet Earth. Third, the nucleus of an atom. Fourth a superstring. The step in size from each of these things to the next is roughly the same. The Earth is smaller than the visible universe by about 20 powers of 10. An atomic nucleus is smaller than the Earth by 20 powers of 10. And a superstring is smaller than a nucleus by 20 powers of 10. That gives you a rough measure of how far we have to go in the domain of the small before we reach superstrings. (Infinite In All Directions, by Freeman Dyson.) 
I read this several times before closing the book. Excuse me, I think, but my fucking nostrils are actually the size of a fucking multiverse, seething with those unseen fuckers—those god damned superstrings? I'm freaking out because I shouldn't have had that second coffee. Perhaps I should re-think living alone. I'll just close my eyes now and take it easy. I'm in my bed, in my house, the kids are fine, the cats are fine, the papers in order. Breathe. In through the superstring-snotted multiverse I call my nostrils. And out. In and out.

          Lightning continues to flash. Each time, I'm comforted by the hand that pulls me back—even though I know in the end, in the dark, he lets go. There's some comfort in the darkness as well now, unseen and inconceivable, as real as anything.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

One Slipper

We could start, This is the true story of a mother who lost a son. Those are facts. Or, This is the true story of a hero whose comrades called him Captain of the Future. These are also facts. But instead I will begin with a deceptively small fact that also happens to contain within it the mystery of our very existence, of Hamid's disappearance—and the uninterrupted relationship between the living and the dead.

This is the story of one slipper.

          As we know, our story starts in many places simultaneously, but we will meet Hamid on Sunday at midnight, standing watch on the bridge of a cargo ship headed for Nova Scotia. A tall, lanky sailor in his mid-30s, he has brown eyes but a curiously hard, blue-eyed gaze. The gaze is at odds with his soft mouth, easy laugh, and the head of dark, childish curls. Hamid's lifetime of extraordinary experiences leaves no trace on him, he will always look boyish. We often mistake such men as souls on whom life has left no impression
—shallow men, reckless men—men untouched by the vicissitudes of life. We can't see the interior, how deeply the invisible, unexpressed self is marked.

          In another part of the world, where Dutch is spoken, there is a woman with strikingly similar features. She is also tall, but rather sturdy, with the same delicate nose and full lips. Her wavy, white hair is swept up into a loose bun with an assortment of combs and pins. Unlike her son, she has always looked far older than her years. She dresses modestly, in sensible shoes and heavy stockings, a cheerful scarf always fastened around her throat with a Victorian brooch, no matter the season. Her gaze is as warm as Hamid's is cool. She transmits a feeling of gentle candor and care. She is radiant with the knowledge of life's vicissitudes, conveysin the crinkle of her eyes when she smiles, in her marvelous laughter and the way she listens, nodding her head thoughtfullywhat we can only call the radiance of love.

         Standing watch for four hours while much of the ship sleeps, Hamid must have time to think about more than navigation. Perhaps he thinks about his girlfriend. Perhaps he contemplates his last trip, or his next. Last year he was captain of a ship bound for the Amazon, leading his second clandestine campaign to protect the South American rainforest. On that trip he suffered a brain hemorrhage, but still managed to guide his ship to port, as befitting a captain. His current assignment as second mate is the last part of his recovery before leading another Amazon campaign in just two months' time. 

          What does he think about? We don't know. All we know is his watch ends at 4 am. Later, his mother may imagine Hamid in the dark, before he heads to bed, leaning on the aft bulwark, waiting for the sun to rise starboard over the Atlantic while having a smoke. Hamid is probably tired, but in July at this hour the open sea refreshes and the ship's forward movement through vastness is reassuring. He takes in all that surrounds him like a deep blue breath filling his lungs: the deep blue of the sky and the deeper blue of the ocean, the endless wind. The water barely glimmers in that first light, under the fading stars. Everything is possible right now, is poised to happen. Hamid is alone on his planet and all that surrounds him is his. He exhales and the sun rises.

          We know something is wrong when the sun reaches its zenith. Hamid fails to appear at noon for his next watch. A general alarm is sounded to signal man overboard. The ship changes course to return to the place where Hamid was last seen eight hours before, at 44° 05 North latitude and 61° 30 West latitude. Every inch of the ship is searched and the Canadian Coastguard is alerted. Five ships and two planes are dispatched to conduct a massive search. 

          What we find on Monday evening, after 18 hours searching, is a single slipper, on the aft deck near the port side.



What happens next, when the search is called off, will be different for all of us. We will, each of us, tell a story of our own. Did he jump? Was there another aneurysm? Was he pushed? Is he hiding somewhere? Did he really sit on the bulwark to watch the sun rise and lose his balance? What does it feel like to fall backward? To be alone in the ship's waketo shift, between one moment and the next, from watching the the ocean to being the ocean? Was he cold? Did he watch the ship sail away? Perhaps it is out of respect for his mother that I rarely contemplate such questions. 

          What I do ask is similar to the question Where is Hamid? But what I really ask is Where is Hamid's slipper? The question is wordless, akin to the turning of a lighthouse beam, round and round, illuminating nothing. I probably think of the slipper every day, worrying over its whereabouts but unable to ask. 

          Sometimes I think, He is still Captain of the Future—he is already there.

          Sometimes I wonder about my vanished friend in Sri Lanka. Was he tortured and killed by the army, or by the rebels, or is he living up in the hills, married, with grandchildren, alive? I've asked humanitarian aid workers and people in his hometown to help me but, as with Hamid, there are no answers. In the absence of proof, I indulge in a memory that seems to have nothing to do with Hamid or my friend, to serve no intelligent purpose, except to frame a crucial question, wordlessly.

At the end of a quiet street in the city of Colombo, a narrow strip of sand divides the Indian Ocean from a sea wall. The sand is coarse, its grains as big as demerara sugar mixed in with black pebbles. Through a gap in the wall, we see men walking along that margin of sand, never glancing at the breakers that come so close, or the ships out in the distance. It must be midday because the men don't cast shadows. They walk briskly, purposefully, sinking into their own footsteps, sometimes swallowed ankle-deep or tripping over stray flip-flops scattered along the beach, tangled in seaweed. Not one of these sandals has a mate. 

          The missing sandals, the men in their urgency, where do they end up?

          Sometimes I think, All the oceans of the world are connected.

          Sometimes I think of how every summer, as a child, I would lean over the bulwark on the ferry to Martha's Vineyard, entranced, as if being daredby the churning wake.

          Hamid's mother died last year, the same year that my own mother died. As I go through my mother's belongings, weighing the significance of each object before deciding what to do with it, I find something Hamid's mother brought us decades ago, before Hamid vanished, and which suddenly brings me face-to-face with Hamid's slipper.    

          The polished stone is as beautiful as I remembered it to bemysterious, round and flat, like the moonand nearly as big as the whole well of my palm. Although the stone contains many colors, it is predominantly a deep mineral-red streaked with blue and gold. It has always reminded me of the Earth and the Moon. Holding it, one feels connected to something. 

          Hamid's mother explained that she had brought it back from Delhi, where every summer she tended a Sufi shrine. Beautiful stones, such as this one, are left at the saint's tomb as reverent offerings. I remember how she stroked the face of the stone before giving it.

          Dutch sounds strange to English ears, at once soft and gutteral. My mother said it sounded the way she imagined gnomes might secretly converse. Sometimes, instead of saying goodnight, my mother and I would imitate the way Hamid's mother would abruptly stand and take her leave. 

          "Well, I go now," she would say. But in her lilting Dutch accent it came out, Fell, I go now. And she would smile her radiant smile, and we would smile back.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Mahal Kita

"Has it ever struck you that making a work of art is a very odd and unnatural activity? Let us have a look at the painter: a creature created out of dust takes dust of various colors and with them creates something quite apart from himself and, what is even stranger, something that seems to have no practical use."                                                          ~William S. Heckscher, art historian and artist
I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
~T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland

Art is indeed a very odd and unnatural activity. It creates meaning and beauty out of dust. If I were writing a novel, I might have tried to stop Curt from resigning from his job, selling his house and leaving the country to follow his tropical bliss on the other side of the planet, never to be seen again. There would be a declaration of love, a conversation, consummation, a fight, something. In fiction, I would enjoy a scene. 

          But there's no escaping the end when he leaves for good. As long as he is he and I am I, he leaves. The beginning always contains the end. Without the formula of a good story—a classic five-act dramatic structure consisting of exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and dénouement, or the basic three-part structure with setup, conflict, and resolution—our dramatic arc just tapers off.


          He knows I'm sad but swiftly changes the subject, cracks a joke. I know he loves me only because of how he sometimes signs his emails. He doesn't know I googled Mahal kita; it means I love you in Tagalog. 

          And unlike the the impractical domain of art—with its sleek, astonishing self-contained worlds, suspended in frozen time between the brackets of a frame or the covers of a bookin this world time goes on and there's nothing we can do about it.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Given

 Étant donnés, by Marcel Duchamp
          Do you know the story of how John Lennon fell in love with Yoko Ono? He describes in an interview how he met Yoko at an art gallery. Lennon had been a classically trained art student so he was skeptical about conceptual and performance art. But when he saw a tall ladder set up in the gallery as part of the show, he dutifully climbed up anyway. Dangling from a panel on the ceiling was a magnifying glass and printed on the ceiling, too tiny to be deciphered by the naked eye, was the single word: Yes. The experience Yoko had wanted to create was one of affirmation and relief, like a hope realized after the struggle of a long ascent, or the answer to a prayer. The rest is history.

Yoko observing her work called Yes Painting

          Conceptual and performance art make a lot of us uneasy because they engage us in a level of participation otherwise absent from normal art. In the former, a viewer becomes part of the concept or performance and contributes to its shifting meaning; in the latter a viewer is primarily a critic, a voyeur among other voyeurs, perhaps commenting in hushed tones about a painting or sculpture, or experiencing a more private response, but always at a safe remove behind plexiglass or a velvet rope.

          On my Facebook newsfeed recently someone posted a Banksy video and, judging from the responses, you'd think every viewer was looking at a completely different film.

Banksy's Sirens of the Lambs

          We were all looking at the same film, of course, but it was we, as individuals, who were different. In fact, my first reaction was outrage for the slaughtered lambs and a brief flirtation with veganism, but an hour later I was laughing my ass off. Part of my laughter, I'm afraid, had to do with embarrassment at my initial reaction. Regardless of Banksy's artistic intention with Sirens of the Lambs, we viewers define who we are—or how we wish to be seen—by how we react to his work.

       
How the artist wishes to be seen and how the viewer wishes to be seen are often at odds, and this creates a dilemma which is itself, I believe, a purpose of art. Through our highly subjective responses to art, we are almost violently brought to the brink between who we are and who we wish to be, how we see and how we wish to be seen.

          In my inbox today, I received another video from the Campaign for Truth & Justice in Sri Lanka for their Stop Torture campaign. Their public relations scheme was disturbing. In Sri Lanka, where women and girls are raped and tortured with impunity by members of the military police, they have no protection or legal recourse. In the video, Cara Delevingne, a very pretty, blond actress, performed a dramatic reading for the Campaign during which she read a Tamil woman’s actual account of her own torture and gang rape. There was a warning on the video stating it may be very upsetting to watch.
Cara Delevingne—International Truth & Justice Project Sri Lanka

          That the actress is pale and blond while Tamil women are dark was a little disconcerting, but I figured this is about human rights, after all. Why discriminate against blonds? Halfway through the film, though, it dawned on me that the actress was nude. Doubtless, Delevingne and the Campaign are sincere in their effort to help the plight of Tamil women and had no intention of appearing to titillate. Perhaps her nakedness is meant to convey her vulnerability. But we're not being asked to watch a woman's rape, we're being asked to listen to a real-life account of it. Something feels terribly wrong. Where do we draw the line between censorship and titillation? But perhaps a harder question, especially in the context of a human rights appeal, is just why is rape so titillating? 
Courbet's "The Origin of the World"
At the Musée d’Orsay every day people admire Gustave Courbet's painting, "The Origin of the World." In a lavish gilt frame, the painting depicts a faceless nude woman, close up, with her legs spread open at the foreground drawing our attention to the mysterious place from which all life emerges. A few weeks ago, a performance artist named Deborah de Robertis walked up to the painting, lifted her sparkly golden mini-dress, so like Courbet's golden frame, and sat down, opening her legs and using her fingers to spread open her labia, for the following reason.

          "If you ignore the context, you could construe this performance as an act of exhibitionism, but what I did was not an impulsive act,” she explained to Luxemburger Wort. “There is a gap in art history, the absent point of view of the object of the gaze. In his realist painting, the painter shows the open legs, but the vagina remains closed. He does not reveal the hole, that is to say, the eye. I am not showing my vagina, but I am revealing what we do not see in the painting, the eye of the vagina, the black hole, this concealed eye, this chasm, which, beyond the flesh, refers to infinity, to the origin of the origin.”
"Mirror of Origin"

          De Robertis performed "Mirror of Origin" in the same museum several times, but she was only arrested once. Do you think Deborah de Robertis is courageous? Is she a profound thinker making you think? Is she witty? Absurd? Irreverent? A slut? I wonder how you feel about this performance and, if you are disturbed, how do you interpret your own response? Do you find yourself thrust violently to the terrifying precipice between awareness and self-awareness? Or is it bullshit?

          I thoroughly admire de Robertis, but my initial responses were purely practical; I thought Her ass must be cold and That looks like my vagina and I bet she's embarrassed, wouldn't it be great if someone joined her, which led to I'd love to see this live, but not with my kids. But once I settled in and really looked, I was reminded of another provocative painting in another museum.


A long time ago, I had a boyfriend whose idea of a hot date was to take me to the Philadelphia Museum of Art to see Marcel Duchamp's Étant donnés. It was very "special," he said, one of his favorite works of art and he wanted me to see it for the first time with him.

Normally the tiny, windowless room leading to the wooden door is dark
          The work of art was in a small dark room all by itself and the boyfriend instructed me to go in alone. But there was someone else in the room, peering into a crack in the door, and he was shaking violently. At first I had thought he was part of the installation, but when I cleared my throat he turned around. His hand was in his pants and he was smiling.

          "Isn't this wonderful?" he said, right before turning back to the peephole. How strange, I thought, that those happen to have been the very words uttered by the boyfriend after our first kiss. I had thought the words charming then.

          The boyfriend was waiting for me, puzzled about why I'd come out so soon, but before I could think of how to explain, the masturbating man emerged, smiling in complicity.

          When I returned to the dark room and pressed my eye to the peephole, I was afraid. What I saw behind the closed door, beyond the ragged edges of a blasted brick wall, was this three-dimensional environmental tableau.
I believe that most women imagine this faceless woman is dead, that it's an image of the aftermath of rape. I pressed up against the peephole to see what might be hidden out of direct view but it was a perfect microcosm. I worried how the sharp, bare twigs would cut into my flesh, how cold I would be outside and stripped bare in the winter; I thought of the man masturbating to the sight of her hairless, defenseless, dead vagina; and I recalled the time the boyfriend shared with me a single entry from his Dream Journal—how he'd been cross when I'd skipped ahead to a different dream about a naked woman who spread her legs but "her pussy hairs were tightly woven together so I couldn't get in"; and I wondered what was so wonderful? Was it just that Duchamp's nude was penetrable?

          But I expressed none of my worries and asked no troubling questions. To please the boyfriend, I asked, "I wonder how he made that shimmering waterfall in the background?" If he was disappointed in my response, I didn't notice because he quickly walked into the dark room for his own viewing of Étant donnés. It may have occurred to me then that men must view the image differently. What a woman experiences as defenselessness, a man may view as willingness.

          What occurs to me now is a cascading stream of other people's opinions. Life imitates art (Oscar Wilde); Art is the lie that enables us to realize the truth (Picasso); One eye sees, the other feels (Paul Klee); Art is not what you see, but what you make others see (Degas); A picture is a secret about a secret, the more it tells the less you know (Diane Arbus); One can have no smaller or greater mastery than mastery of oneself (Da Vinci); Your mind is working at its best when you are being paranoid. You explore every avenue and possibility of your situation at high speed with total clarity (Banksy); We don't see things as they are, we see things as we are (Anaïs Nin); and We have art in order not to die of the truth (Nietzsche).

          Rilke says simply, Go into yourself, and this is really a way of approaching life, art, and all relationships and problems, and I believe it's what conceptual and performance art asks us to do.


Still, aren't you curious about Duchamp's motivation for Étant donnés? Yoko Ono knows and speaks about what The Yes Painting means to her and de Robertis has explained The Mirror of Origin to the Luxemburger Wort, allowing our interpretations to perhaps be influenced by their maker. But what about Duchamp?



Duchamp's instruction manual for Étant donnés

          For 20 years Duchamp constructed this final work of his in secret, while pretending to the world he had given up art to play chess. This gave him complete privacy and freedom to create.



In his Will, Duchamp stipulated that Étant donnés, which was hidden in his Manhattan studio, be posthumously placed on permanent display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where there was already an extensive Duchamp wing. He left an instruction manual for the careful dismantling and exact reconstruction of his work. 

          The nude is a hybrid of women he loved; the body was cast from his wife, a sculptor who advised him on how to use parchment for the skin, and the arm holding the lantern was cast from the girlfriend who came after the wife. Originally, the wife's dark hair was used, but later it was replaced by the hair of his blond girlfriend. His lovers were both the objects of his work and his collaborators. Apparently, some of his earlier works were painted with his semen and there were collages made of hair. An atmosphere of spirited taxidermy then, or perhaps of fervent erotic devotion in the compulsion to immortalize...what? A person—a feeling—a purpose? 

          Étant donnés is always translated into English as Given, but the French title is plural. More than one thing is being given. The work's full title is, Étant donnés: 1° la chute d'eau, 2° le gaz d'éclairage or, in English, Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas. Doesn't that sound like a detective listing the clues or perhaps offering viewers a chess-like strategy for solving the question of meaning?

          The waterfall in Étant donnés is a kitschy, illuminated, trickling rainbow like a vision from a fairytale or dreamscape, a strange mixture of nature and artifice. The water appears to be falling because it's made from translucent plastic backed by rotating discs powered by a motor housed in a biscuit tin. The gas light actually illuminates and is held up by the raised hand of the girl; if she is meant to be dead, then how are we to imagine she is holding up her arm? She must be illuminating a clue. Perhaps she—the object of desire—is able to direct us powerfully and posthumously. But where?

          The off-putting title of one speculative article I found online is "Duchamp's Eroticism: A Mathematical Analysis." The artist Hannah Wilke who was "repulsed" by Étant donnés did a performance in which she took the place of the nude. Another critic I stumbled on earnestly concluded that the waterfall symbolized piss and the gaslight was farts.


More and more, I'm convinced we live in a Tower of Babel, that we all speak different languages but want to be able to understand, and be understood. Yoko and John shared a deeply personal interpretation and experienced it as the epiphany of love. I understand Duchamp as having wanted—and had—the last word; his meaning dies with him and yet is immortalized in the enigma of his lifework. 

          That we have such widely divergent reactions and interpretations about everything under the sun doesn't make any of us right or wrong, just desperate to justify our own claim to meaning and, perhaps, we feel a teeny bit Godlike when we succeed in making our case. But by that logic, every interpretation is merely a declaration of self, never an objective declaration of truth. Is my interpretation. For the moment.


If you made it this far (congratulations), you might be wondering what the hell is my point in all this. That's what I've been wondering all night. Is this perhaps more absurd than the guy who vigorously defends farts as a valid interpretation of a gaslightbecause at least he's trying to make a case for something. What am I doing so earnestly and imperfectly here?

          What I'm attempting isn't a scholarly investigation of avant-garde art, nor is it a feminist critique of art history and the male gaze, not a misogynist defense of rape-culture, not an existential argument for or against meaning, not a celebration of the triumph of John and Yoko (maybe that).

          What if the peephole through Duchamp's gate, beyond his smashed brick wall, allows us to glimpse the origin of all things, life and death, exposed like a terrible, gorgeous, bewildering truth? 

          What if all I do is raise a lantern, looking for my own Paradise?

Sunday, June 1, 2014

What You Want

For Rosa

Tea leaves, Tarot cards, astrology, Reiki, Shiatsu, past life regression, exercise, diet, yoga, vitamin supplements, herbal remedies, homeopathy, psychotherapy, meditation, medication, contemplation, the laws of physics, and poetry all help to some extent, but none has succeeded in providing lasting peace.

          Still, I left the The New Yorker open to page 42 on the toilet tank for over five months because I hadn't understood the last lines of particularly a challenging poem. It begins,

The rotational earth, the resting for seconds:
hemisphere one meets hemisphere two,
thoughts twist apart at the center seam.
Everything inside is.
Cyndi Lauper and I both fall into pure emptiness.
That's one way to think: I think I am right now.
We have no past we won't reach back

I read the beautiful poem sometimes, in private, when I shit. I think I finally understand the last lines but, like Cyndi Lauper or Mary Jo Bang or any of us, I can't really share what isn't mine, or what probably already belongs to all of us. We have to find out for ourselves. And I find myself worrying about the poet who seems to know so much. Is she happy? Does she get invited to parties? Is she even sane? 

          I may have been going about it all wrong for the past five decades. Prayer may be the final frontier, a last resort, but it's been impossible for me even when I've felt utterly bereft. I thought prayer required a sustained belief in an Ineffable Something that's both external and inclusive, inclusive and yet superior. Furthermore, while I believe in charity, I'm no beggarand this has probably always been my first obstacle. The inability to pray might arise from a kind of false pride. 

          Finally, prayer is so inherently irrational—we're not the omniscient ones so how the hell can we know what's appropriate to ask for? Isn't it hubris to expect my prayer to be answered while the prayers of 6 million Jews, for example, were not? 

          But lately, when I experience that flickering beggar's impulse, so easily snuffed out by pride and logic, I do more than yield to it. I focus all my attention on the little wish, as with the candles on a birthday cake, and invest all my faith into that wish, concentrating my very breath on it till the impulse flares up, and up, and is finally spent. It's the orgasm of the chaste.

          In yielding, the impulse becomes a demand—here is the unforeseen paradox, like the sexual paradoxthe act of surrender is the act of empowerment.

          Twice in the last month I've prayed in this metaphysical way, and both times I have received an answer to my prayers.  Though the answers were not exactly what I'd hoped for, they are no less miraculous, no less a salvation.

          Perhaps what I call prayer is just a blip of self-realization. I'm not concerned, for those few moments, with anything but my own need, which opens into a wordless plea, or just the chanting of a single word (please or help): a pure call awaiting a pure response. 

          Is it just because I am so ready for a response that I perceive one? Do I create my own miracles? Everyday miracles abound—the miraculous is overlooked daily, until we look. Could it be that prayer just makes us look?


Please, please, please, help, help, help was my first prayer. I didn't know what to ask for, just that I was desperate—the dead Mourning Dove had appeared in my bed that day, the work of my cat, Pablo. After shrieking and cleaning and fussing, I was late for my "date" with Curt, but I went to our meeting place anyway, and realized I was waiting for someone who had left and would not return. I was waiting, I told myself, for a grand gesture of love. I felt unable to face another loss, the loss of Curt and the many other losses that are approaching with the predictability of a Swiss train—selling so many of my parents' belongings accumulated over their lifetimes, and for generations, selling my childhood home, my son's inevitable departure for college next yearI waited, staring at the entrance, for a very long time before I finally stood up and left.

          The grand gesture appeared a little later in the form of a message from my sister, telling me in a voice I trust completely, You're coping beautifully, in your own way, in your own time, and I am buying a plane ticket to come help you.


The consequence of my prayers has been a focused abundance of strength and resolve, clarity and relief, right here and now, right on target, right on time. Having said that, I notice another prayer has been answered right under my nose, without my ever having noticed I'd asked.

          I've been trying to find a Sufi group nearby without success, and I fret because I feel I'm just not making progress. My dear friend, Rosa, who hasn't been interested in Sufism for nearly as long as I have, just found a Sufi yoga teacher, like magic. I even complained to Rosa recently about how no Sufis have magically dropped into my life to guide me.

          Today I finally realized it. Of course Rosa is my Sufi guide, as well as a fellow seeker. She often seems to think I am the one helping her, but she is always helping me. 


ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT
The rotational earth, the resting for seconds:
hemisphere one meets hemisphere two,
thoughts twist apart at the center seam.
Everything inside is.
Cyndi Lauper and I both fall into pure emptiness.
That's one way to think: I think I am right now.
We have no past we won't reach back
The clock ticks like the nails of a foiled dog
chasing a faster rabbit across a glass expanse.
A wheel of fortune spins on its side,
stops and starts. The stopped time
is no longer time, only an illusion that says,
I can have this, and this, and this.
Cyndi says nothing works like that.
There is no all-purpose plastic totem
that acts like a bouncer holding back the fact
that at least once a day you look up:
it's the self you kept in a suitcase holding the key,
coming to meet you, every cell a node
in a network of ongoing doubling. Cyndi says
the world expands but always keeps us in it.
For every you, there's a riot grrrl in prison
in Putin's Russia. You know the self dissolves
and when it does—no figure, all ground,
like a surface seen microscopically—
you fill the frame and explode,
a rubber-wound inside unravelling and becoming
a measurement of whatever exits. It's like sleep,
if sleep were a film that didn't include you, but no,
whatever is happening, you are always in it,
the indispensable point of view.
Proof of that is that a lift force brings you back
and you wake, back to your face, hands, mirror
image in the bed next to you, Ketamine moment
where kinesthesia is secondary to everything
is possible: you and you and you and now and
you and yes and you with the night-self singing
backup. Onstage, the fractured future of a world
which is the world with the scaffolding folded
and laid on top of this night. All through it.
Until it ends or else begins again. Meanwhile,
that indefatigable wavering between
what you want and what you get for wanting.
                              —Mary Jo Bang (The New Yorker, December 2, 2013)