Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Notes on Wallace Shawn's The Fever

[...] Still, it is the personal,
Interior life that gives us something to think about.
The rest is only drama.

-- John Ashbery, "But What is the Reader to Make of This?"

The subject is not psychological. It's quite the opposite. He doesn't learn things about his psychological problems. He learns ... how he's viewed by a poor or oppressed person indifferent to his psychological problem.
-- Wallace Shawn on The Fever, in the Los Angeles Times, May 12 1991

Belief in the existence of other human beings as such is love.
-- Simone Weil, paraphrased in W.H. Auden, A Certain World

For the last several months I’ve been rehearsing for a production of Wallace Shawn’s one-person show The Fever. For those who don’t know it, it’s the depiction of a person with a comfortable life, coming to realize the human cost of that comfort elsewhere in the world. A man (in my production, but not always -- Vanessa Redgrave stars in the 2004 film) wakes up sick in his hotel room, and through the night his illness and the assaults of a guilty conscience build to a breakdown. You overhear his nocturnal dialogue with himself, as one by one the excuses of privilege fall away. His aestheticism comes into ever more naked conflict with his growing awareness of the radical disparity between those who have comfort and security, and those who have next to nothing. Where is there to hide, when the truth is in plain sight and your accuser is yourself?

As I’ve mentioned my work on this play to people, whenever I’ve given that one-sentence summary -- “a person with a comfortable life, coming to realize…,” -- the reaction I’ve heard the most has been something like, “Ah. Timely.” I think it’s good that people say this -- it means they care about what is happening in our own political moment -- but I can’t agree. The Fever is not especially timely, in at least two senses. The first is fairly obvious: the show is clearly marked by the era in which it was first created and performed, in the late 80s and very early 90s. Except for a brief mention of “Communism [having] finally died,” no specific political circumstances are invoked -- not the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Iran-Contra scandal, the transition to democracy in Chile, the Gulf War -- but the spectre of Communism, and especially Latin American Communism, haunts The Fever, in a way that might feel almost quaint today when the word “Soviet” seems like ancient history and the War on Terror, now well into its second decade, has long ago replaced the Cold War. Even for domestic critics in the US, theoretical basis for political resistance is provided far less by Marxism than by a melange of pluralism and more or less New Deal economics, or -- among radicals and Utopians -- by Anarchism. (This is true despite David Graeber’s lament that Marxism is over-represented in academe and anarchism is under-represented, for the effective center of leftist critique in the US has long ago left the academy.) In short, The Fever’s continual reference to “the followers of Marx” makes its account of global inequality far less “timely” than it might otherwise seem. The foreign threat haunting the American psyche is no longer a Communist soldier in combat fatigues, but someone in a cartoon robe and “turban,” or a suicide vest; and the feared document is not a nineteenth-century manifesto but a seventh-century holy book.

Marx got a some things wrong, but he saw one thing clearly that I've never known compelling reason to disavow: class, more than race, more than gender, is what lies at the root of social dynamics good and bad. This is not to deny the continued relevance of other lines of division. I sometimes think twice about whether gender doesn't play as crucial a role in certain ways; and I’ve learned a lot from scholars who have theorized intersectionality as a way of understanding the experience of people who are marginalized by power and privilege, or who may share such privilege in some ways but not in others. But still, when it comes to thinking about power and difference, class is where I usually start. (I do not believe that class "explains everything," but I do hold that class distinctions, while perhaps not inherently pernicious, aggravate and likely foment other social evils, especially those pertaining to race. If you want to convince me otherwise, I’m up for the discussion.) In light of these positions, perhaps I’d argue that The Fever ought to seem a lot more timely than it in fact does, when you pay attention to the actual words. But still, to me, the play is not timely at all, if by “timely” one means "especially pertinent to right now," more than any other time. A different -- and only apparently paradoxical -- way of putting this might be that the questions The Fever raises are always “timely;” has there ever been an era in which the distinction between rich and poor didn’t exist? This play will be pertinent as long as this difference is built into our way of life, as long as our way of life is premised upon the notion of some having more and some less, of a handful living in opulence, many living a hairsbreadth from starvation, and most struggling for “upward mobility” and more or less keeping at arm’s length the panicking thought of slipping closer to ruin. Which means, it’s not especially pertinent, because it’s always pertinent -- the issues never go away; what changes, and is still changing, are the accounts we give of this, and the options they open or close. Are the poor resigned, fearful, miserable without recourse? Do they aspire to "join the middle class," or does it never occur to them to ask why some are lucky and some not? Or are they ready to try to dismantle the system? And the rich -- are they entitled and satisfied, or do they torture themselves with regret, or -- most perniciously -- do they want to have it both ways?

But I have a more idiosyncratic reason for considering the play perennially relevant, which has little to do with history. There’s a tension in The Fever, that is not resolved by the time the play ends. One reading of the play would make it a sort of transformation of a person, like Ebenezer Scrooge, or Phil Connors in Groundhog Day, though perhaps more ambiguous. This reading would say that the play shows how a comfortable bon vivant, psychologically sensitive and more or less reflexively assuming that his own sensitivities correspond to the most important things about human experience, is disabused of this illusion -- how he comes to realize that the most important thing is not, after all, “the inner life,” one’s autobiographical bildungsroman. Rather, the real evidence, what reveals who you really are, is the “outward circumstance,” one’s actual behavior and its material conditions: what hours you keep, the color of your skin, your tone of voice to people you know or don't know, where you go to eat lunch, if you water your lawn, if you go to sports games or indie shows or the ballet or political rallies or union meetings or scientific symposia or elementary school parent-teacher conferences or online antifa organization somewhere on the dark web. On this interpretation, The Fever would be claiming that one’s subjective love of music, of the arts, one’s private story with its disappointments and minor triumphs, the thrill of your first home run or the crushing disappointment of not getting the date you wanted, of learning to forgive your parents or yourself, all of that is left on one side as so much ephemera. What matters is, Whose side are you on -- the status quo, or the wretched of the Earth? -- and this is shown not by your out-loud declarations but simply by how you live, especially when you aren't thinking about it at all.

But this argument -- if it is an argument -- is obviously being put forward in a work of art. A work that took money to produce, that you are likely charged money to attend -- a work that took hours and hours of creative effort to write and practice and stage. And of course, it’s the story of an episode in the inner life of a person. Moreover, those poor with whom one is asked -- challenged -- to align oneself, are not an undifferentiated social mass. Their suffering matters, not because it is some abstract sum of woe, but because every instance is particular -- a particular woman desperate to get medicine for her child, a particular little girl feeling an unnamed shame at her shabby clothes in school, a particular man stuffing down his impotent and inarticulate frustration as he goes off to yet another exhausting night shift while his family sleeps. The hollow vacuum behind the junky's eyes, the scary voices in the head of the woman sitting by her overstuffed stolen shopping cart, the 15-year-old with the gun, eager to impress his gang leader and who assumes he won't make it to 18 in any case. In other words, a huge tangle of inner lives.

The Fever does not present intellectually watertight refutations of any protest from the rich; it shows how protest and refutation alike begin to wear more than a little thin in the face of real human wretchedness. It does not lay out a political programme, but presents a problem: what are the relationships between aesthetic delight and ethical obligation, between inner and outer, between refined culture (whose?) and bodily suffering (whose?) What kinds of costs are 'acceptable,' or not, by which standards? What could exiting a corrupt system really look like? The questions are suggested -- and sometimes expressly posed -- in utterly stark terms (some may say, too stark), but they are posed in the course of a story, not an editorial or a treatise or a manifesto. The starkness is meant not to make the questions simple, but inescapable. Just because they aren’t simple, does not mean we are given excuses for not doing (more of) what we can. I’ve wanted to perform this piece for a long time. I relate very much to both sides of this character -- the aesthete who loves Beethoven and Rilke and Monet, and the demand that says, Who cares about your precious "inner life?" (or yes, "Who cares about your precious inner life, white straight cis bourgeois "legal" first-world man?") -- and I believe that the existential experience of the struggle is worth more than coming up with a neat conclusion. But it's a precipitous and unwarranted leap from “no neat conclusion” to “Oh well.” The personal interior life does matter, but what matters about it is that it's here where one asks, How must I live? -- and asks it in the light of knowing that those "interior lives" surround you everywhere. Do they matter?

When The Fever first was performed, Wallace Shawn received a number of negative reviews from critics who rolled their eyes at “liberal guilt.” I think this is a travesty -- but it’s clear that some self-excoriation does happen in the play and that it’s a preoccupation for the author. Shawn’s most recent book, Night Thoughts, begins with a meditation on a crime:
Night. A hotel. A dark room on a high floor. … I turn on a dim lamp and stare at a newspaper, and my eye goes as always to the stories about crime, the murders. … They’re writing about me. Well, no, not me, not quite, not yet. But I know, as I read, that I’m not reading as the victim, I’m reading as the murderer.
Almost three decades after The Fever, Shawn is still turning over the same question, even the same scene. It is, then, not an easy question. What is still most compelling to me in this play – what I feel sharply and personally, and why I wanted to stage it – is the tension it shows between the aesthetic and the ethical. It’s a work of art that says that the love of art can be part of the problem; a depiction, possibly even an enactment, of a desperate inner struggle against the overweening claims of the inner life. To me this is a conundrum, not a gotcha. I’m willing to argue that none of us do all we could. But how to face that truth, and how to respond? The Fever gives us a story – not a manifesto. Will we write the story off as a spasm of ineffectual guilt? Will we try to invent a litmus test for how this response should look? Will we let the difficulty of the question serve as an alibi for doing nothing?

Monday, September 4, 2017

R.I.P. John Ashbery, 1927-2017

John Ashbery has died. For some he was, at least for a while, the clown prince of the democracy of American poetry. For others he was always an irritating pretender, or became one after a brief good run. I never regarded him as the culmination of the spirit of Whitman but I am unrepentant in loving his book of prose-poetry Three Poems. Below is a modified mini-appreciation of this which I initially posted online in 2006.

A definitive work of late 20th-century American poetry, Three Poems is John Ashbery's masterpiece. (Some will try to tell you that this status belongs to Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, which is probably true if you are asking about importance and influence in the ranks of American poetry. But I'm talking about depth.)

You may love what Ashbery does with language, washing it and wringing it out; you may find him too clever by three quarters; or you may think his work over-rated and his influence disastrous; but you can't ignore him if you care about poetry in English. For myself, Three Poems is up there with the Upanishads, the Tao te Ching, the Cloud of Unknowing, Spinoza's Ethics, Fear & Trembling, the great poetic sequences of Rimbaud and of Rilke, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, I & Thou, and Green Eggs and Ham. It is one of the great genre-transcending manuals of spiritual discipline. Charles Williams distinguished between two ways in the spiritual life: the Way of Affirmation, and the Way of Rejection, of Images. What Ashbery does here is walk the latter by way of the former, mixing the right-hand and left-hand paths.
I thought if I could put it all down, that would be one way. And next the thought came to me that to leave all out would be another, and truer, way.
"The poet, he nothing affirmeth, and therefore never lieth," Sidney assured us. Three Poems is Ashbery at his most "affirming," but he's showing the absence that is stirred in everywhere, and if this seems a postmodern bankruptcy, at other times it reads like a sort of suburban sunyata.

If you find it just baffling and weird, try reading it without the obligation to "get it." You can even go through it fast the first time, just letting the sound of words and the rhythm of the prose work on you. You may find that the meaning comes into focus about halfway through,like one of those 3-D pictures you have to stare at for a while. What Ashbery has done is to evoke the extreme nuance and imprecision of ordinary life, the way things happen in practice and not, ever, in theory, the way every instant is constantly shading off into the next moment and no experience stays put: you can be falling in love, or hearing terrible news one day; then, after some finite duration, you'll be learning to juggle or changing a diaper or realizing you never liked sushi. These things just happen, in all their bewildering thicket. And yet, an order emerges. Was it always there? Is "seeing it" just a function of our editing what has happened as we talk to ourselves? Or do we live in a broader story, only part of which we are overhearing? Ashbery makes these questions not a theoretical diversion but a lived mode of being, a prayer in the pulse. After this book "living inquiry" means something new. It isn't for everybody, but for some, Three Poems can become almost a breviary.

Ashbery's late-later works got cuter and more non-sequitury by the year, and I never learned to love them, but in Three Poems he either tapped into something so raw and real that it scared him away thereafter, or he mastered the art of seeming like he had tapped the raw and real so well that he never needed to try that again. I'm happily agnostic about this question most days, and then some nights it keeps me up, staring at the pages again. In any case, while he was often funny or even (maybe too often, as his career wore on) jokey, Three Poems is genuinely comic, culminating in a marriage of sorts between the "old" and the "new", and yes, raising suspicions about which section might have mapped onto which, if we care to force the analogy with that other great three-part Commedia. (It's neither a straightforward parallel nor a straightforward reversal, like Seidel's Cosmos Trilogy, but if I had to guess, I'd say Ashbery's three should be read roughly as Purgatory, Hell, Paradise.)

He's gone now, slipping out of this dark wood, and he's taken his secret with him. Or left it in plain sight. Or both.

Memory Eternal.