Monday, October 25, 2010

Dragon, Pirate, Mountain, Dust

Burning Man 2010: dragon tail, pirate flag, mountains, and dust. There's a LOT going on here.
As a college freshman, I studied ancient Greek and Roman humanities at Reed. One of the assignments I remember being insulted by, and one of the only assignments I was ever insulted by, and also one of the only assignments I remember, was a sort of scavenger-hunt we were supposed to perform over the course of a week. The point was to collect as many references to ancient Greek gods and goddesses, characters from the Iliad, pieces of architecture that resembled columns of the Parthenon, and so on, that we could find in our daily lives. I was insulted by this assignment because it seemed like something I might have had to do in high school, had I gone to an okay high school instead of a desperately under-funded Los Angeles Unified school. The point is, I didn't feel like carrying my little list around everywhere and jotting down things like: "Goodyear tires logo: Hermes winged foot." I did do it, of course, because I am what's known as a "good student."

And what happened was that I found so many references to ancient Greece in my daily life I felt a little scared. I felt scared knowing that I had just been cruising through a visual media culture that made references I didn't know before, because that meant that the academic culture I was entering was going to make a thousand times more. And of course, it did.

Skip ahead some years later, to a very similar feeling that happened when I read Nabokov's Lolita for the first time. I read the novel very soon after I'd been first introduced to Derrida, and there was a sort of dizzying effect to Nabokov's text as I felt I could fall inside each page, and this was a physical sensation that never stopped after I taught the book 8 times, because Derrida had told me I was already bleeding in through the spaces between the words.

I am back in grad school, attending seminars with extremely smart abstract thinkers, finding myself awash in visual imagery and idiosyncratic connections that sometimes enhance the discourse and at other times make it jumbled and clunky. Tonight I watched a Miyazaki film called "Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind" for a class I'm taking on anime--and really, the way anime can be seen as a portal to a new relation to technology a la Heidegger. And I was heartened by the fact that someone out there has a brain that moves in lateral, brightly colored directions like mine.

If that meant nothing to you, know this: I cried many times during the film, as connections came slamming through me: this is America, this is the global political body, this is the demonized dream of environmentalism, this is the problem of the ivory tower, this is Anthony, this is my old cat Boots and my new adopted cat Bembo, this is me, this is the unbelievably beautiful piece of visual art that somehow got enough people and money behind it to get MADE. And I fell into the movie in the same way I fall into a page. And the depth of these connections, the allusions I felt moving backward (the film was made in 1984, but visually seemed to reference Burning Man 2010 and Star Wars: the Clone Wars), the sheer weight of connectivity I don't understand because I haven't, still haven't read enough books or seen enough film was almost too much.

I know that for some people, in fact, it IS too much. They give up and watch TV without thinking about what that TV might be referencing. They give up and do all kinds of things, with the general theme of ignorance, indifference, or disinterest. This is the condition that most troubles people who worry about "the postmodern." But for me, those glimpses into the rampant allusive-ness of the world are like a drug. I want to see more. I want to trace them. I don't pretend I'll find origins, really, but I want to find swarms and packs and pockets and concentric circles of connection. I want to peel off and paste on layer after layer of the collage.

At the Getty last weekend for my Mom's birthday, I looked at ancient Greek art that I'd studied at some point at Reed. I saw a bust I recognized from a book cover. I read and remembered, vaguely, certain customs, names of gods and goddesses, and as we strolled out into the garden, I tried to figure out why the Koi in the pond "worked" with everything else. Pure aesthetics? Some reference in Ovid? Some cultural exchange between the Greeks and elsewhere that I don't know about? The questions are pleasurable. They're worthwhile. They feel like practicing piano or going for a run--I may not get an instant return on this hour, but if I keep it up, someday I'll have a moment when that little "click" will turn over, that flush of recognition, and I'll grab the arm of the person I'm with and crazily try to explain it. Eventually, one day, I'll get a piece memorized, I'll notice a new shapeliness to my calves, I'll read something new and feel I can love it more because I understand that it is a piece of homage to another book I already love.

I'm pretty sure I'm not arguing art for art's sake, although it may seem that way. What ultimately drives this desire and pleasure is a humanist passion: the more connectivity I can discuss, the more I can show, the more others can feel, the less distanced and dehumanized and disembodied we will be together. I actually believe this is possible, as a life-praxis, not just an academic exercise.

The biggest barrier to it is the ego. Wanting to feel like I already know what someone is going to say or show to me. Wanting to feel that triumph in argument, wanting to above all not lose face in front of people whose admiration I crave. When I am able to stop seeing through the ego-lens, I don't become a relativist or a confused little baby lost in the fog. I become even more convinced that creative moments of connection, collaboration, and realization of creative impulse is the way out. The way through, the way in, the way toward a moment in which the Dragon (spirit-body), the Pirate (the people's power to resist and organize), the Mountain (wisdom), and the Dust (the everyday made extraordinary) not only coexist in a lucky photo, but ARE together in my body and my body of work.


  1. I don't think you are arguing art for art's sake. I think you are disproving the possibility of art for art's sake. For even IF! Just supposing some little slog, some sniveling little wiener were to TRY! JUST FUCKING TRY! to make some art just 'cause, they would run aground. But not to some ignoble end. No they would run aground like Odysseus on the island of the Phaeacians. And so you! You Radical Conscious Ness! You just come along with your way of being with art in four dimensions, bleeding into the spaces between words, becoming a companion piece, a gestalt entity beyond person or art piece, and render unto the world the JUST CAUSE for which that art has been waiting. You bear that sleeping art to a new world, and to the home from which its nobility springs.

  2. Such a moving post, on several levels... thank you !!

    > the sheer weight of connectivity I don't understand because I haven't, still haven't read enough books or seen enough film was almost too much.

    This strikes such a deep chord within... it's a frequently recurring theme in my life. I guess it's tightly coupled with the idea that the more we know, the more we become aware of all that we don't, and thus each small step up the stairs serves to raise the height of the staircase exponentially.

    Every time my brilliant high school english teacher threw open a new portal to some seemingly-obscure vantage point from which to view a new-to-us piece of remarkable literature (themes of light/dark in Hesse's "Demian" comes to mind), I found those already-fascinating two-dimensional stories expanding into three-dimensional Rubik's Cubes of intellectual puzzle-feasts. (Not sure what's with all the hyphens.. .weird.)

    Unfortunately my experience at a midwestern commuter-college excuse for a state university echoes what you inferred about your high school years. As a result I've spent years envying the liberal arts undergrads who actually read much of the western canon, and had the arguable pleasure (but definite privilege) of deconstructing and debating the culminating themes of modern thinking with the undervalued blessing of learned guidance and moderation.

    I was reminded yet again of this a few days ago when NPR interviewed an author who'd written about his quest to read all the books on Harvard's list of recommended reading for undergrads. I'm so tempted by this proposition, yet keenly aware of the divide between reading canonical literature on one's own versus actually studying it with a class and a great teacher. Much like a good creative writing class (and a lot of other things in life, now that I think about it) there is no substitute for inspired instruction.

    Time to found a local lit salon, methinks. Know any great lit profs in the Bay Area with plenty of extra time on their hands? ;)

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts, really enjoying reading through your blog.

    PS: If you haven't yet added "Princess Mononoke" and "Spirited Away" to your list of Miyazake films viewed, do so at once. :)

  3. PPS: The combination of your book title with the playa photo above brought to mind one of my favorite installations ever, "A Cleavage In Space" done by Rosanna Scimeca back in... 2002 or so? Thought you might appreciate it also, if you're not already familiar with it: