Friday, February 20, 2009

The mess

Several years ago I took a class at the University of Kentucky on theatre of the absurd.  As it turned out, I took it at the same time as a class on galactic astronomy (did you know the Milky Way is on a collision course?) AND at the same time as a class on Milton's Paradise Lost.  It was a deep semester.  Anyway, the man who taught the class on absurdism was a brilliant, kind, wonderful man who asked us to be curious and to call him Pat.  Pat had a soft voice and a gray beard and wore plaid shirts.  

One day in class, he sat on the table in the front of the room and told us this story:  It was 1969 and, like much of the rest of the country, Pat was depressed about the state of the world.  A friend invited him to go to some music festival up north, hoping it would shake him out of his funk, but Pat declined.  Instead, he went hiking with another friend.  They spent the day walking through the woods, then stopped by a stream, got naked and cooled off, smoked some pot, and fell asleep on a boulder warmed by the sun.  When they woke up, they were completely covered in a thick blanket of monarch butterflies who'd stopped to rest, too, on their southward migration.  Pat said this shook him from his funk in a way Woodstock could never have done.

Before that class, in my previous incarnation as a philosophy major at a crunchy, small, liberal arts college,  I was certainly exposed to Samuel Beckett. We watched Waiting For Godot in the evening session of Existentialism; someone probably brought a case of may have been the prof. (Just kidding -- the prof only drank snooty Belgian beers.)  But it was really later on, in Pat's class, that I was properly introduced to the playwright.  He gave us Tom Driver's interview, "Beckett by the Madeleine," published in Columbia University Forum (and excerpted more fully here, if you're interested.)  

I think about the passages below a lot, especially when I sit down to write and find myself overwhelmed by the project of transforming life into narrative.  This is what I was trying to get at a little bit in THIS entry:  whether we are literally writing a story or just trying to understand our lives in our own minds, we end up carving that narrative out of the buzzing bombardment of details that life actually is, like Michelangelo bringing the form of a body up out of a huge slab of stone.  It works for our minds, which appreciate familiar shapes, but is it really anything like life at all?  

Last night I sat at my writing table staring out at the snow alternately whooshing and hovering under the streetlight outside my window, wishing I could truly translate it into words.  It, the tangle of telephone wire, the blank lit third-floor windows of the homes across the street, the empty matchbook I took from a bar in Madison eight years ago with gold text shining under the desk lamp, my sheets swishing in the washing machine in the next room, the cramp in my second toe, the static-induced fluffiness of my bangs, the click of my fingernails against the blue plastic pen I held -- and there, you see?  What form is this?  A list that only barely skims the surface of an experience as simple as trying to write after everyone has gone to sleep?  I give these details life and millions of others fall by the wayside, and still the state of my mind -- the anxiety, what was at stake in that moment -- is elusive, ineffable.  For me anyway.  So far.

Here's what Beckett said:

The confusion is not my invention.  We cannot listen to a conversation for five minutes without being acutely aware of the confusion.  It is all around us and our only chance now is to let it in.  The only chance of renovation is to open our eyes and see the mess.  It is not a mess you can make sense of.

What is more true than anything else?  To swim is true, and to sink is true.  One is not more true than the other.  One cannot speak anymore of being, one must speak only of the mess.  When Heidegger and Sartre speak of a contrast between being and existence, they may be right, I don't know, but their language is too philosophical for me.  I am not a philosopher.  One can only speak of what is in front of him, and that now is simply the mess.

What I am saying does not mean that there will henceforth be no form in art.  It only means that there will be new form, and that this form will be of such a type that it admits the chaos and does not try to say that the chaos is really something else.  The form and the chaos remain separate.  The latter is not reduced to the former.  That is why the form itself becomes a preoccupation, because it exists as a problem separate from the material it accommodates.  To find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist now.

Yeah, good luck with that.  Actually Beckett did pretty damn well.  If you're interested but can't find his plays being performed around town, you're still in luck because of this awesome film project.  Waiting for Godot is done so hilariously well and Happy Days, directed by my favorite, the brilliant Patricia Rozema...well, it's beautiful.

One more thing.  Pat, wonderful professor and kindred spirit, passed away last year.  I don't know what to say to describe the heartbreak of this because, honestly, I kind of refuse to accept that he's gone.  Some people are just alive.


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