Posts Tagged ‘time’

Threading the Temporal Needle: The Dada Movement’s Flight From Time

December 11, 2016

 

dadaeye

Many Dadaist authors accept the malleable and elusive nature of trying to aphoristically define “Dada” in a traditional line definition. To that end, my own survey of the Dada movement has been tailored towards proposing my own definition. But, as one might expect, this aim has yielded little in the way of conceptual motif. One idea, however, is constant throughout the works of each Dadaist author: a hyper-sensitivity and resistance to time passing. Embedded in this line of inquiry is the implicit division between scholarly understanding of the Dada movement as a historical phenomenon–as “creatures of their epoch”–and as state of mind, something enduring beyond its historical situation. Inevitably and inexorably, the Dadaist’s attempt to escape time failed–time moved on–but looking at the Dada movement as “anti-time” serves as an example as to how we can better understand our mortal relation to time’s passing.

Creatures of their Epoch

Looking back on the Dada movement, Hans Richter concluded that “each generation must have its own avant-garde.” Given that the Dada movement was, in essence, the definitive avant-garde around the time of World War I, the immediate aim of the avant-garde, for Richter, “was an action directed against the conventional routine with which the generation preceding [them] made war, rules, art, and [the Dadaists].” The negation of convention and historical precedent “broke up what was past & dead, and opened the way to emotional experience from which all the arts profited and still profit.” Thus, ironically, despite the Dada movement’s recalcitrance to their own epoch, we have inherited the Dada movement as a tradition in art, an emotional experience (often of shock or liberation) that is both immediate and historical.

The Dada movement didn’t announce itself as the self-appointed avant-garde, though they readily adopted the title and exploited it. “It wasn’t Dadaists who made Dada;” writes Jed Rasula, “the times themselves propitiously excreted Dadaists like lava from a volcano…they were merely holding a mirror up to the audience to cull its opposite, a pure distillation straight from the age itself.” Reflected in the mirror, the tempestuous conditions of their time would have appeared so disgusting to the Dadaists that their art would have very consciously, according to Tristan Tzara, presented the “thousandfold problems of the day, the art which has been visibly shattered by the explosions of last week, which is forever trying to collect its limbs after yesterday’s crash.”. Tzara continues to argue that the “true” artist would be one who, at every hour, would “snatch the tatters of their bodies out of the frenzied cataract of life.” The “frenzied cataract of life,” the historical epoch in which the Dadaists found themselves, was to be torn away as an ultimate project of the “true” Dadaists.

The essence of how the Dada movement responded to their historical epoch, is captured in Tzara’s Zurich Chronicle: “But the mechanism turns / turn turn Baedeker nocturnes of history / brush the teeth of the hours.” The “mechanism” Tzara refers to can be understood as the rise of industrialism and nationalism that swept the turn of the century, almost as if history itself–the myth of human progress–was a machine that ground up all in its wake. As this machine turns, Tzara points us to “Baedeker nocturnes of history.” Understanding “Baedeker” as a term for map or guide to the “nocturnes” of history, Tzara suggests that an understanding of the “mechanism” of time serves as a roadmap through human history, specifically the dark parts: namely, war. Thus, we understand Tzara’s final line, “brush the teeth of the hours,” to convey our need for a hygienic cleansing of the temporal palette–so as to live better, more harmonious lives–which Modernism had, in Tzara’s view, corrupted.

Tzara’s jabbings at modernity are echoes in Hans Arp’s Notes from a Dada Diary, in which Arp jabs instead at expressions of modern economics, namely, capitalism: “was there ever a bigger swine than the man who invented the expression time is money. time and space no longer exist for modern man.” If we ignore Arp’s resistance to punctuation and capitalization, the critique of modernity embedded within his writings suggests a similar account to Tzara’s own. For instance, in asserting that the cliche, “time is money,” came from the mouth of a swine, Arp echoes the grumblings of Marx and the anti-capitalists, Tzara’s notion of the “Baedeker nocturnes” of Modernism’s unhygienic palette. Arp’s critique of modern values, specifically capitalistic currency and its commodification of time, is yet another instance of the Dadaists undermining the imposing presence of both modernity and time’s passage.

In considering the question of Dada’s relation to time’s passage, the question inevitably arises regarding the dualistic nature of the Dada movement: that of being a historical phenomena and/or an attitudinal state of mind. “Dada is ageless,” proposes George Hugnet in his The Dada Spirit in Painting. Hugnet’s conception of Dada as “ageless” is clear evidence to ground an understanding of the Dada movement as a state of mind, a flight from time. But Hugnet’s indelible image of Dada being a “scarecrow erected at the crossroads of the epoch” is ample reason to take both views into serious consideration. As scarecrows were first invented to protect the land of Egyptian farmers, so too was the Dada movement itself a scarecrow to protect art (and reason) from itself, as manifest in modernity. “Dada made a clean sweep of the past,” writes Hugnet, “the state of mind represented by Dada was only a state of mind.” In negating the past as a value, Hugnet clarifies how the Dada movement repudiated time’s passage by rendering itself an “an astonishing halting-place, an escape, a liberating, shocking force”; in this instance, Hugnet’s diction is revealing, as it implicitly endorses the notion that the Dadaists succeeded in their attempt to flee from time though the Dada state of mind.

Think Like a Child

The Dada movement, understood as a state of mind which seeks to escape and negate the passage of time, implies the question of what kind of “state of mind” is most characteristic of the attitude of Dadaism. An answer is suggested in Hugo Ball’s Dada Fragments, namely the entry labeled “August 5, 1916,” and its discussion of childhood. Ball writes of childhood as a “new world” which embraces the phantastic, direct, and symbolical “opposition to the senilities of the world of grown ups.” This opposition indicates an implicit duality between adulthood and childhood, the former of which can be characterized as rational (or orderly/boring), indirect, and literal (or, as I prefer, material). The “senilities” to which Ball refers are to be found in these qualities of adulthood, “of a youth which never knew how to be young.” The child, in other words, has access to something alert and real, something not senile, which we as adults have lost access to.

Further on in Ball’s Fragments, he states that “Childhood is not at all as obvious as is generally assumed. It is a world to which hardly any attention is paid, with its own laws, without whose application there is no art.” If we “generally assume” childhood to be “obvious,” then the obviousness of it must be in relation to age. Childhood, in other words, is a very explicit period that our society recognizes; childhood is understood to eventually cease. Furthermore, Ball’s suggestion that the “obvious” characterization of childhood is mistaken, that we are “senile,” invites us to explore childhood as something else, which I’d argue is to be understood as a process of perception. That is, childhood is not just a period of time but a way of being in time. Childhood, then, is accessible to all of us, even now.

In asserting that without the application of childhood there would be no “art,” Ball commits to the claim that all art requires a childlike state of mind. If we consider the Dada movement to be “art” (as opposed to anti-art), then it follows that the Dada movement was, at its heart, a return to a childlike state of mind, a way to escape time.

To further embolden the notion that childhood is an activity of mind (and body), rather than a straightjacket of prepubescence, consider what children are best known for doing: play. Playtime is a common activity in which children are allowed to have fun, that is obvious; but recall, Ball warned us not to buy into “obvious” understandings of childhood. Play–at its essence–is the manipulation of objects and ideas, altering their function in the world; this can be understood as a manifestation of the “credulous imagination” of children that Ball describes. That is, a credulous and imaginative mind is the mind of a child at play (i.e. role playing, acting, even sports, etc.). Due to necessity and responsibility, it is not characteristic of adults to spend time “playing.” To see an adult pretending that a toy airplane is real, or to see them having conversations with a stuffed animal, would lead most bystanding adults to the reasonable conclusion that the “playing” adult were a bit mad. In considering this example of anachronistic childhood (adulthood?), we arrive at the critical component linking Dadaism to childhood: play. Thus, we can see how the Dadaists willingly and actively subverted their “sanity” as adults to escape time’s passage. They became children to avoid going mad.

Our discussion of the Dadaist “childlike” state of mind can be grounded in empiricism through Henri Bergson’s book, Duration and Simultaneity, which discusses the relationship between simultaneity and time. “Ageing and duration belong to the order of quality,” writes Bergson, “no work of analysis can resolve them into pure quantity. Here the thing remains separate from its measurement, which besides, bears upon a space representative of time rather than upon time itself.” Bergson’s distinction between the quality and quantity of ageing (and duration) harkens the Dada movement’s regard for childhood as a (qualitative) state of mind. In dividing the “thing” from its “measurement,” Bergson, like the Dadaists, complicates the self-evidence of childhood. Childhood, then, “bears upon a space representative of time rather than upon time itself,” which is to say that we no longer have “obvious” (recall Ball) means to discuss what childhood is and isn’t.

Time flows flows flows

Time flows flows flows

Time flows flows flows flows Time flows flows

flows flows flows drop by drop

drop drop by drop drop drop drop by drop drop drop drop drop drop drop by drop drop drop drop

Tristan Tzara, “Handkerchief of the Clouds”

We’ve seen how the child is allowed to play–an activity that otherwise, in adulthood, equates with madness and the absurd–but the adult is not, per se. Adults have professions, not playtime. This lack of play is evidence of what Ball describes as the “corruption and deformation” of the child’s imagination; in learning the rules of society and adulthood, no longer playing, our imaginations–once that of a child–are corrupted and deformed. The antidote, for Ball, is to “surpass oneself in naivete and childishness.” Ask yourself, dear reader, if naivete and childishness of the mind isn’t precisely the right frame from which to participate in producing Dada works. Recall Tristan Tzara’s prescription to cut out every word of the newspaper, gently shake it in a bag, and assemble a poem resembling yourself. Tzara offers us a literal process by which we can, I’d argue, access childhood through the act of playfulness–or, with Ball in mind, a cultivated naivete and childishness.

A final consideration regarding Dadaism and its commitments to a childlike state of mind arises (again) from a rather unexpected discussion of war. War, as discussed in Richard Huelsenbeck’s En Avant Dada, is another activity which challenges our understanding and experience of time. Huelsenbeck writes of war as “the highest expression of the conflicts of things, as a spontaneous eruption of possibilities, as movement, as a simultaneous poem, as a symphony of cries, shots, commands, embodying an attempted solution of the problem of life in motion” [my italics]. War, in other words, is a quintessentially Dadaist facet of humanity. Life, understood as “in motion,” for the Dadaist, is not to be understood simply in terms of physical movement, but rather through movements in time. Hence, the “problem of life,” is that of approaching one’s mortality, of finding oneself in the world, being-towards-death, yet with every action affirming one’s own will-to-live (Nietzschean life-affirmation). Time, in the Dadaist conception, as we’ve explored, is something to be rallied against, a force to be objected to and (simultaneously) obeyed. This temporal function of war yields a particularly odd view of time, namely, simultaneity.

Huelsenbeck continues these aporetic threads of war and simultaneity, regarding Bruitism, as a “return to nature,” and as “the music produced by circuits of atoms,” thus “death ceases to be an escape of the soul from earthly misery and becomes a vomiting, screaming and choking.” Death, for the Dadaists, was likely more real and terrifying than it is for those of us who are not so incriminated in war as they were. In fact, their draft dodging–as opposed to the millions who faced combat in the early 20th century–speaks to their attitudes towards time, as death positioned itself as more immanent for those who’d otherwise be drafted. In avoiding the “vomiting, screaming and choking” of war and death, they were seeking out a creation of the opposite: that which consumes (instead of vomits), which listens (instead of screams), and which breathes (instead of chokes). These qualities are at the essence of life, the essence of childhood, once again; kids don’t do much but consume (food and information), listen (eventually speaking back), and breathe back into the world (as we all must do). In the childlike state of mind, there is no thanatos, only eros; the Dadaist had to confront thanatos to rediscover eros. Furthermore, in understanding the simultaneous nature of childhood–the barrage of new experiences–we now turn to a specific, refined instance of the Dada movement’s attempted escape from time: the simultaneous poem.

Hurrah for Simultaneity!

The word “simultaneous,” is first explicated in Huelsenbeck’s En Avant Dada, where he describes simultaneity as that which is “an abstraction, a concept referring to the occurrence of different events at the same time.” Simultaneity, though straightforward as a concept, is complicated by its “abstraction,” in the same way that, when we try to pin down what defines “childhood” (apart from the arbitrary markers of psychological development and physical age) we are faced with capricious distinctions. “[Simultaneity] presupposes a heightened sensitivity to the passage of things in time,” Huelsenbeck writes, “it turns the sequences a=b=c=d into an a-b-c-d,” confusing our distinctions between positions in time, “and attempts to transform the problem of the ear into a problem of the face.” We, in other words, try to falsely identify the distinct moments of transition between the sounds of simultaneity, as manifest in the Dadaist simultaneous poem. “Simultaneity,” for the Dadaist, “is against what has become, and for what is becoming.” It’s as if one could replace the word, “simultaneity” with “childhood”: childhood is against what has become, and is for what is becoming (i.e. Kids are the future!). The simultaneity of the childlike experience was understood by the Dadaists to be a more authentic state of being, a state in which, Huelsenbeck writes, “I become directly aware that I am alive.” This awareness is such that Huelsenbeck concludes, “And so ultimately a simultaneous poem means nothing but ‘Hurrah for life!’” Through this rejoice, one can find further justification for seeking refuge in the childlike state of mind–a celebration for life and a rebellion against death–through simultaneity, as means for escaping the horrors (death) of adulthood.

Returning to the works of Bergson, we find an empirically grounded and philosophically nuanced discussion of simultaneity. It turns out that the Dadaists, lunatics though they might have been, were anticipating contemporaneous (simultaneous!) developments in physics. Bergson first rhetorically asks what simultaneity is, to which he responds, “First, [it is] an instantaneous perception; second, the capacity of our attention to divide itself without being split up.” Thinking of the Dadaist “simultaneous poem,” one can imagine how the experience of either performing or spectating the act of poetic simultaneity would be “instantaneous,” as Bergson writes, and “[divided] without being split up.” That is, perception oscillates between noticing multiple and singular instances of the simultaneous performance. Bergson continues with an appeal to our own faculties: “I open my eyes for a moment: I perceive two flashes in that instant, coming from separate points.” The two “flashes” can be understood as the multiple languages of the simultaneous poem, while the “separate points” represent the performers, separate on stage. “I call them simultaneous because they are both one and two at the same time: they are one in that my act of attention is indivisible, yet they are two in as much [sic] as my attention is at once shared between both of them, divided but not split up.” Thus, an aporia of the mind arises between an “indivisible” perceptive capacity, and the fact that the simultaneous poem demands of the audience to “divide but not split up” this “indivisible” perception. This tension between performer and audience, between indivisible and forcibly divided perception, noticeably alters the experience of identity and time’s passage throughout the performance.

Bergson’s description of simultaneity in physics, as well as in terms of the Dadaist simultaneous poem, has been further explored in modern psychology. These experiences of simultaneity, in which one’s sense of identity is lost and one’s sense of time is distorted, are known in the modern vernacular as “flow states.” Though in their scientific infancy, the study of flow states, specifically the works of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, reveals that we can improve both our quality of life and our quantity of it by accruing more “flow” in our everyday lives. Understood through the empirical lens, Hugo Ball’s charge to “rewrite life every day!” seems all the more prescient, as Csikzentmihalyi’s work accounts for flow states being a way to escape one’s sense of time’s passage; that is, flow-inducing activities reduce one’s sense of the past and the future. In these states, Bergson might suggest, “I can also conceive how every part of the universe which is mathematically linked to the present and past — that is, the future unfolding of the inorganic world — may be representable in the same schema.” In describing the future as an “inorganic” unfolding of the world, Bergson subtly critiques the conventions of clock time without explicitly naming it. The collapsing of time into one continuous “flow,” as it were–understanding, as the Dadaists did, that “now” is the only moment ever experienced by humans–is best exemplified in the energy of the simultaneous poem, and serves as a successful instance of the Dada movement’s perpetual flight from time.

Be Drunk

Through a temporal survey of the Dada movement, we know that many of the Dadaists had scholarly backgrounds, borrowing from Nietzsche, Freud, and Einstein. What is often scantily explored in the relevant scholarly literature, however, is Charles Baudelaire’s influence on the Dada movement. Regarding our question of how time’s passage appears in the Dada movement, Baudelaire’s figure looms above our discussion. An essential project of the Dada movement was to escape the “death-throes and death-drunkenness of [their] time,” according to Hugo Ball. The language of Ball’s declaration is uncannily similar to the language of Baudelaire’s poem, “Be Drunk”, which beautifully wraps up the varying projects of the Dada movement’s attempted escape from time.

“You have to be always drunk,” begins Baudelaire’s poem, “That’s all there is to it–it’s the only way. So as not to feel the horrible burden of time that breaks your back and bends you to the earth, you have to be continually drunk.” From the outset, this poem strings together the ideas of time’s passage, death, and drunkenness. The senseless and commonplace death of World War I would have intensely revealed to the Dadaists the “horrible burden” of time, as described by Baudelaire. But, as far as we know, the Dadaists weren’t all raging alcoholics, so Baudelaire continues: “But [drunk] on what? Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be drunk.” Baudelaire’s broad definition of drunkenness, as achievable through wine, poetry or virtue, is further revealed in his book, The Painter of Modern Life, through a discussion of the child: “The child sees everything as a novelty; the child is always drunk.” As we’ve seen, the Dadaist imperative to think like a child can be said in another way: the Dadaist imperative is to be drunk. Drunk on wine, drunk on poetry, drunk on virtue or, in the case of the Dadaists, drunk on art, so as to escape time’s “horrible burden.”

Baudelaire’s poem continues with a discussion of sobriety, which is a state that, if we find ourselves in it, we must ask “everything that is flying, everything that is groaning, everything that is rolling, everything that is singing, everything that is speaking” what time it is, to which they unanimously reply, “It is time to be drunk!” This beautiful series of images recalls, like childhood, another crucial feature of our discussion: simultaneity. For, if “everything” replies, then everything is happening at once, everything is simultaneous. The response of simultaneity, in Baudelaire’s poem, is an impulse towards drunkenness, an impulse away from time’s “horrible burden.” The Baudelairian sense of drunkenness was, for the Dada movement, at the heart of all their spontaneity, simultaneity, and creativity. They got “drunk” on playfulness, childishness, and were able to forget, for the time, their own passage through time.

In concluding our discussion of Baudelaire’s poem–its precise encapsulation of the Dadaists’ time anxiety and the means to escape it–there is one final consideration. That is, Huelsenbeck’s notion that “everyone can be a Dadaist.” The recurrence of the openness and accessibility of the Dada movement to all individuals is, like time, at the heart of the Dada movement. However, an exploration of Dadaism as a democratic ethos would require another discussion entirely. For our purposes, we are to understand Huelsenbeck to be offering a similar account to Baudelaire’s; that is, the notion that we must always be drunk (regardless of our means and social status) coincides with the notion that we must rewrite life every day (because we all can be (and are!) Dadaists). If we take the Dadaists at their word, and Baudelaire’s drunken proffering, then it becomes apparent that both the Dadaists and Baudelaire found their own unique ways to escape time’s “horrible burden.” Furthermore, if we reinterpret their solution through the lens of modern psychology and its affinity with “flow states,” then we have a road map to reinvigorate the immortality projects of Baudelaire and the Dadaists, recreating them in the twenty-first century, one hundred years later.

The Clock is Ticking

Understanding the Dada movement as a flight from time, the writings of Ball, Tzara, Huelsenbeck and Arp, all propose one constant: the notion that we can, at any moment, escape our epoch, return to childhood, steep ourselves in the simultaneity of the world, allowing for a temporary (temporal) escape from the clutches of clocktime. All of this can be achieved, simply by being a Dadaist. The Dadaist formula is thus one that allows us to veritably “rewrite life every day!”

 

Wrinkles

September 12, 2016

wrinkles

A dear friend of mine once remarked how I have a “resting dick face,” a clever, gender-correct incarnation of the infamous “resting bitch face.” Well-intended though she undoubtedly was in pointing this out, I have never been able to shrug off her shrewdness. Not infrequently do I notice the latent tension in my face, the expression I’m making, and it’s overall effect on my mood.

I’d like to say that I’m not a “dick,” though some may rightly dispute it, but the expression I commonly wear is somewhere between seriousness, intensity, concern, frustration. I’ve been working on noticing my face, and trying to bring a smile to it more often. Once I notice my “resting dick face,” I relax my face, smile a bit, and feel the world widen.

I spend a lot of time studying the faces and expressions of the elderly. The more I age, the more human they become. I notice their posture, their gesticulations, their demeanor, but above all–and this is not intended as derogatory–I notice their wrinkles.

Wrinkles are an inevitable part of ageing, a source of consternation for many. And I’m starting to notice a few wrinkles carving themselves out on my own face. Certain wrinkles pronounce themselves more readily than others. Raising my eyebrows, for instance, reveals about fifteen distinct stripes across my forehead–a dermatoid reminder of what people have called my “Jim Halpert face.” I’m also developing slight crows feet around my eyes, a welcoming mnemonic of uncontrolled mirth.

The wrinkles that inspire existential dread, for me, is when I narrow my brow. The two vertical lines between my eyebrows have been carved out by thousands of hours reading, trying to push myself harder at the gym, trying to take another person’s position seriously. In short, my resting dick face is the result of habit.

I ask myself what kind of wrinkles I’d like to pursue, what kind of habits are necessary to sculpt the kind of old-person face I’d like to end up with.  The obvious answer is to smile more. Build the crows feet and the dimples! I do my best to notice when I’m taking myself or others too seriously, and laugh at those moments of conceit.

And so I vacillate between these two extremes: wanting to engage the world seriously and critically, changing it for the better, and at the same time enjoying little moments, deliberately trying to curate gaiety more often. I’m not sure either path is entirely without fault, but I do want my wrinkles to be well-chosen.

Throwing Darts at the Map

September 12, 2016

The secret to escaping strait-jackets: blindfold yourself and determinedly not know where you are, really. They say the brain begins to hallucinate from lack of stimuli; this is precisely what you are trying to accomplish. (Or, if you’re a bit claustrophobic by nature, then simply travel. That’s what I did.)

If you think you need a break from life, take one. Maybe that break is two months down the road, but you can’t hide from feelings of despair forever. Repression is a hydra. Home starts to feel oppressive, your guerilla mind plots against itself, and destructive habits soon plant their flags of victory.

Alcoholism is my reason, why I so desperately needed to flee from the inviting clutches of the comfort zone. I stopped drinking two weeks prior to the greatest week of my life, what I have endearingly titled, the #AlkaSeltzerGreatAmericanRoadTrip.

throwingdarts1

Itinerary: find a place to sleep, drive there, park, begin to wander until fatigue sets in. Repeat.


Instructions: do no research, do not google suggestions, and especially do not get comfortable. (I would even recommend taking my approach of not estimating travel time in advance. Get in the car before you plug in the address of your destination. Let the duration shock you.)

The world isn’t that big of a place. I won’t tell you specifically where I travelled, but let it suffice to say that my time was well spent.

Goals: see some nature, try some local cuisine, steep myself in culture, and feel so uncomfortable by my lack of security that I have no choice but to neurotically journal out my experiences before bed each night.

A road trip is supposed to suck a little bit. Endless hours looking at a hundred thousand incarnations of the same shit. Tree after tree after tree after tree. Hopefully some good music to break the monotony. The information your brain is imbibing starts to condense. The memory of what is  concretizing births nostalgic satisfaction, the feeling that bubbles out your ears, whispering, “Let’s go again, let’s go again!”

Am I stupid? Yes. But less stupid after deepthroating a week of different cities and cultures. I didn’t even give myself time to chew. Museums, microbreweries, marketplaces. Nature, nature, nature.

throwingdarts2

Day two of my trip, somebody on the street asked me what the time was. What a stupid question, I remember thinking. Time’s oppressive weight had been lifted from my back and I hadn’t even realized it.

Each morning I’d exchange goodbyes with the roof over my head, return to my car-prison, and endure the endless hours with no one more interesting than myself. Each day, right as the penultimate half-hour of my travels approached, the mental geyser of epiphany would belch its way into gaseous existence. And just before language could bottle up the airiform ideas–There! My parking spot awaits! The moment of relief so strong as to be legitimately mistaken as an orgasm. Everything is forgotten.

The car is parked, my bed is secured, thus the timeless adventure resumed. Tick, tick, tick, remember, tick, tick, tick. But I wasn’t even dimly aware of clocks. The most striking feature of the #AlkaSeltzerGreatAmericanRoadTrip was that everything was new, everything in motion.

[We’ve been taking road trips long before cars plagued our world. I distinctly remember, back in 1789, riding a horse along the East Coast…]

Errant. Errant. Errant.
Flâneur and Anti-Flâneur.

Get lost, I wanted to tell the guy without the time. I stood on this street corner, having been violated from my incognito. I stressed to this time-ignorant blessed soul: it’s not that I’m mean, I mean it! Go, get lost, wander, intentionally lose your way, that’s the only way.

clocktower

Clocktime is the most oppressive force in the western world. Smash the patriarchy all you’d like, but the most despotic social construction from which all the oppressive manifestations of human repugnance arise is our cultist belief in the 24 hour day. Some useless sociologist once taught me something extremely useful: Thomas’ Theorem, the idea that, if an idea is real in its consequence, then it is real in the world. I hate clocks.

Clocks have actually convinced people that there’s a fourth dimension living in the sky who watches everything you do, every minute of every day.

Rewind a few rotations around the sun, and we arrive in my bedroom. I had just met god, who was presented to me in the form of myself. The psilocybin was in full effect. The ceiling was melting into the wall at an alarming rate. But pure ecstasy resulting. And I proceed into a world that makes me scoff at Dante’s: I couldn’t read clocks.

I looked at my phone, saw the numbers, but couldn’t read them. I looked up at my wall–which thankfully had stopped melting–and that clock was unreadable too! I looked out at the sun, who wasn’t giving any answers. Time paused.

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God fearing folk warned me not to look god in the face, that god’s image will blind you, etc. That might be true. Maybe this time-resistant world wasn’t going to let me go, forever. Maybe hell isn’t an “after” life, maybe it’s a tax on your “now.” The privilege of seeing god incurs an existential tariff. Thus, I sat on the mountain of shame for the next 10,000 years, alone, sweating. Time resumed.

And so, with all of this in mind, we return to the street corner. I still haven’t answered the guy’s question. Unlike you, I chose not to burden him with my web of temporal associations. So I lied. I don’t have the time, I said.

Love at Last Sight

March 10, 2016

Love-at-Last-Sight-Sermon-Series-Idea

The Flaneur is he who wanders, observes, and turns those observations into works of art; but perhaps the most crucial detail specific to the Flaneur’s activities is his seeing in motion, seeing in time. That is, the Flaneur pays primacy to the fleeting, fugitive aspects of life. William Carlos Williams’ works most clearly exemplify this constant characteristic of change. His poetry, both literally and metaphorically, moves through spaces, through time. Reading Williams as a Flaneur, in addition to his being a doctor and a poet, reveals the ways in which Flaneurs have captured something in their works, something reflecting a deep-seated wisdom about the present moment, namely, the Modern.

William Carlos Williams was a man who spent much of his life in motion. As a doctor, he was incessantly immigrating from house call to house call; he was seeing the world in motion. Constantly faced with the births of many newborn babies, Williams invariably was forced to see the world in time. One could go on about Williams’ biography, but this motion and time with which Williams navigated his everyday life moves into his poetry as well. For example, in “Aux Imagistes,” he wrote of the motion of blossoms: “I think I have never been so exalted, / As I am now by you, / O frost bitten blossoms, / That are unfolding your wings / From out the envious black branches.” In this opening stanza, Williams gives the flower blossoms agency of a kind; the “unfolding” of “your” wings is juxtaposed with the “envious” branches. This agency suggests not only the literal movement of unfolding wings, but that the plant itself will soon follow with spring’s insistence.

The poem continues, “Bloom quickly and make much of the sunshine. / The twigs conspire against you! / Hear them! / They hold you from behind!” The easy target of this second stanza is the word “quickly,” as the reminder of temporality is interpolated by the poem’s narrator. There are, however, several more subtle suggestions of movement and time within this stanza. The invocation to “make much of the sunshine” implicitly acknowledges the fleetingness of daylight, how night will return, how the seasons change. The anthropomorphic, conspiratory “twigs” of this stanza also implicate how the changing of the seasons will soon rid the plant of blooms, and restore it with leaves. Even the image Williams’ poem provides, “They hold you from behind,” suggests a literal, physical movement of the twigs–militantly, as though fighting to take back territory–to retake the branches from which the blossoms now dwell. Both elements of the Flaneur’s seeing in motion, and seeing in time, surreptitiously dominate the background of this poem, in the form of a plant, thus far.

This poem’s final stanza, however, pulls together these threads of motion and time nicely: “You shall not take wing / Except wing by wing, brokenly, / And yet– / Even they / Shall not endure for ever.” The image of a wing is one which conjures the image of some bird or butterfly, some animal capable to freely move, unfettered, through the air. To characterize this poem’s plant as one bearing wings is peculiar, but not in the analogical realm. That is, the wings of this plant may be as literal as its leaves, but the following line, “wing by wing, brokenly,” can be read as each leaf falling, wing by wing (one by one), brokenly (leaving the plant bare). In other words, the plant will try to fill itself out in vain. It struggles against the weather, the elements, the seasons, and does what it can. But it will lose leaf by leaf, inexorably, in the end: “And yet– / Even they / Shall not endure for ever.” This poem’s closing stanza acknowledges the physical changes in the plant over time–capturing both of the Flaneur’s fluid fascinations of motion and time. On the surface, one might not be inclined to attribute movement to plants, or think of them as anything remotely exciting to watch in time. However, as evidenced by William Carlos Williams’ many plant images throughout his poems, plants were something he saw as very much in motion. This poem is an example of the very thing Williams read into the world itself: Motion and Time.

A less abstract instance of Williams’ seeing in the Flaneur’s fashion is seen in his poem, “The Young Housewife.” This poem begins “At ten A.M.” where this young housewife “moves about” from the narrator’s perspective, behind the walls of “her husband’s house.”. Initially, time has already been accounted for in the very first line; motion has been observed in the housewife, motion contrasted against the still backdrop of her husband’s house. The narrator, himself, is also in motion, as he passes, “solitary in [his] car.” Not only is the housewife in motion, but so is the narrator. The poem continues, “Then again she comes to the curb,” suggesting both the further movement of the housewife “to the curb,” but “again,” as though the narrator has watched her make this movement repeatedly. As the narrator continues on, he witnesses her “shy, uncorseted, tucking in / stray ends of hair, and I compare her / to a fallen leaf.” The narrator’s noticing of her lack of corset reveals the movement of his eyes, and her tucking in of hair provides the reader with a fluid motion of delicate fingers securing loose locks of hair into proper place. But why compare her to a fallen leaf? Given the value Williams gives to the motion and time of plants, this image suggests that this woman does not belong on the metaphorical tree from which she came: her husband’s “wooden walls.” One wonders if this woman as unhappy in her marriage, sexually inviting in a “shy” way, perhaps even as adulterous, as she comes out to meet the “ice-man” and “fish-man” in an “uncorseted” manner. Returning to the narrator’s emphasis on seeing her make these motions “again,” it could be that the narrator has indeed concluded that this young housewife is indeed unhappy in her marriage. All of these possibilities branch out into realms of speculation, all containing within them the transformative movement and time with which the Flaneur sees the world.

The poem concludes: “The noiseless wheels of my car / rush with a crackling sound over / dried leaves as I bow and pass smiling.” This final stanza captures further the themes of motion and time, and even harks back to the speculative connection between the “fallen leaf” and “wooden walls,” given the sound of “dried leaves” as the narrator passes by. That is, Williams used the image of leaves twice in this poem: once “dried,” and once “fallen.” Like with “Aux Imagistes,” these leaves could be literal, but a connection between the “dried” and “fallen” leaves is begging to be made. For example, the plurality to the leaves at the end of the poem leaves open the possibility of being in a crowd, rather than literally in a car. If this woman is a leaf, and he is driving amongst the leaves, then perhaps he is in a crowd, not as isolated as the poem insists. In any case, this poem serves as an illustration of the brief encounters of modern life, the fleeting nature of motion and time, in Williams’ poetry.

These two poems, “Aux Imagistes,” and “The Young Housewife,” are but a sliver of the kind of vision which Williams’ poetry offers. It is as though Williams saw the movements of life and love and lust in every realm of his life. As banal as a plant, or as seductive as an uncorseted young woman, Williams’ penetrating clarity of observation reveals the effects of modernity on the Flaneur. It is as though, borrowing from Walter Benjamin’s writings on the Flaneur, Williams’ delight was not “love at first sight,” but, rather, “love at last sight.”The plant evoked a motion and moniker of temporality to Williams because he was seeing these blossoms about to be “conspired against” by the twigs. He was seeing the blossoms “at last sight” when he stumbled upon them. Also, with the housewife, Williams saw the young housewife, who may not love her husband, who has a story ongoing in time with his own. But he passed her by. He saw her love “at last sight,” as though it may as well be over before it had begun. These kinds of seeing, Benjamin calls the “never” of the poet’s encounter with this notion of “love at last sight.” The “never” Benjamin describes is “the high point of the encounter, when the poet’s passion seems to be frustrated but in reality bursts out of him like a flame.” That is, the poet’s “passion” which “bursts” forth is, in Williams’ case, his poetry; Williams was intent on documenting these “nevers.” There is a sensuous delight in the involvement we have–only once!–with the blossom, with the plant, with the housewife, and from which life then continues. Seeing the world as fleeting, fugitive, and full of wonder to be had–including the “nevers”–seems to be the philosophy with which Williams navigated his everyday life. Taking the moment to recognize and transcribe these “nevers” into poetry was, to Williams, more the point than the passing itself.

Baudelaire’s Clock

March 10, 2016

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All of Charles Baudelaire’s writings stand on their own, but many of them bear nearly identical, overlapping titles (i.e. “Cats,” “Cat,” and “The Cat”). Though I am at the mercy of translation from French to English, I’d argue that these overlapping titles are conscious, calculated moves on Baudelaire’s behalf. On the surface, many of these instances of title duplication reveal little, if any, patterns across the source material of Baudelaire’s writings. But, in the following paragraphs, I wish to turn to Baudelaire’s poem, “The Clock,” and use a reading of it to then scrutinize his prose-poem “The Clock.” These pieces appear quite different, yet many identical themes are evoked, which yield interesting insight into the mental machinations of Baudelaire. For the purposes of this essay, I will henceforth refer to “The Clock,” from Baudelaire’s Poems, as the “Midnight” version, and “The Clock,” from Paris Spleen, as the “Noon” version.

Before turning to comparisons, it would be wise to briefly unpack each poem individually, beginning with the Midnight version. This poem explores the obvious existential implications of “Time” in human life, and begins by characterizing the clock as an “Impassive god! whose minatory hands / repeat their sinister and single charge: / Remember!” Here, the movement of clock hands represent the passage of time; the clock serves as a mnemonic device of one’s ever-aging life. But Baudelaire characterizes this reminder as “sinister” which suggests something beyond the mundane: mortality. Or, in other words, “Remember!” your time is limited, and you are on your way to the grave. The poem continues with images of theatre and, implicitly, performance on a stage being the metaphor for one’s brief life: “One pirouette, the theatre goes dark.” And as this theatre goes dark–as time marches on, and death approaches–the poem’s narrator remarks how “each instant snatches from you what you had, / the crumb of happiness within your grasp.” No happy messages here. The clock is a mnemonic token of death to the narrator, moreso than the literal ticking away of one’s own life.

Perhaps the most profound stanza present in this Midnight version of “The Clock” is the third: “Thirty-six hundred times in every hour / the Second whispers: Remember! and Now replies /in its maddening mosquito hum: I am Past, / who passing lit and sucked your life and left!” The mosquito incarnation of the present moment–”Now”–is both hilarious and shudder-inducing; for time, as Baudelaire is presenting it, is always out of our “grasp,” it is beyond our control: “Remember! Time, that tireless gambler, wins / on every turn of the wheel: that is the law.” The narrator is frantically pointing to the Clock, impelling the reader to “Remember!” how fugitive each passing moment truly is. And there is some irony embedded in this Midnight version, given how, regardless of this apprehension of mortality-remembrance, “Time” defeats us in the end.

The “Noon” version of Baudelaire’s “The Clock” is, on the surface, a much more lighthearted departure from the menacing “Impassive god” of the Midnight version. This version, as a prose-poem, contains cats, a little boy, and notably takes place in broad daylight. It begins, “The Chinese can tell the time in the eyes of cats,” which is a very provocative and unscientific assertion. For who in the West has ever heard such nonsense? But the narrator, passively and credulously, observes a “missionary, strolling through a suburb [who] had forgotten his watch.” This missionary asks a little boy the time, and the “ragamuffin” (boy) darts off to catch a “very fat cat,” which correctly yields the time: “he declared without hesitation: ‘It’s not quite noon.’ Which was correct.” A surprising and accurate clock is revealed to the narrator in the form of a cat. This leads the narrator to reflect upon his own cat which, when he gazes into the “depths of her adorable eyes,” he always sees the hour “distinctly, always the same hour, an hour vast, solemn, and grand as space, without divisions into minutes and seconds–a motionless hour unmarked by the clocks, but light as a sigh, rapid as the blink of an eye.” This “hour” the narrator describes has an uncanny quality about it, especially given our unpacking of the Midnight version of “The Clock.” That is, one can’t help assign this “motionless,” “solemn,” “unmarked,” time as something akin to death.

If Baudelaire’s intention is to divorce the Midnight version from the Noon version by setting up a bright sunny day with a children and cats, then he did an awful job. But Baudelaire was no fool; the prose-poem continues with a question to the narrator: “‘What are you looking at there so attentively? What are you seeking in the eyes of this creature? Do you see the hour there, you idle, wasteful mortal?’–I would reply without hesitation: ‘Yes, I see the hour; it is Eternity!’” The words “idle” and “wasteful mortal” suggest the connection between time and death as explored in the Midnight version. This hour, “Eternity,” may in fact be everything outside of “Now” (borrowing from the Midnight version).

The form of the Midnight version is that of linear quatrains, whereas the form of the Noon version is that of paragraphs. The Midnight version is constrained moreso to the realm of conceptual analysis and reflection, images and ideas, rather than narrative or plot. The Noon version, as a prose-poem, reads almost like a story, with time passing within the prose-poem itself. Baudelaire may have intended to embed the link between time and death, from the Midnight version, into the Noon version’s light-hearted imagery of the Orient. The “pretentious gallantry” found within the Noon version serves to mask these ideas within the setting and story of the prose-poem itself, whereas the Midnight version does not feign to do so; the Midnight version is explicit in its message, whereas the Noon version requires a more scrupulous reading.

The parallels, however, between the Noon and Midnight versions of “The Clock,” provide some synthetic reading regarding the ways in which Baudelaire’s poetry, his prose, and even his conceptual positions, are implicated by, and are found within, each of his poems. By name, by time, or by theme, Baudelaire’s inner turbulence, regarding his own antagonistic relationship with death and time, spills onto all the pages he penned.