A sculpture by Rodin, A Man and His Thoughts, is one of his small scale works, almost a miniature. It is carved from a single piece of marble, a block approximately 30 × 40 × 60 cm. Like in many of Rodin’s pieces, this block of stone has been hacked at, giving its surface a rough and worn appearance. At the front of the block a small male figure has been carved out. His torso, seen from behind is, in contrast to the rough block, smooth and perfectly rendered. He appears to have emerged from the stone, as though Rodin had split open a geode to reveal this figure.
We note his well formed back, arms, and head, und upon closer observation we see the place where his lips are attached to the stone block, in sort of an umbilical—kiss. Here his mouth touches the belly of a little nymph-like figure just below her budding breasts. But she is barely there, just the front of her emerges from the surface of the marble block. It is as though the male figure, in kissing the stone (the material, the source from which he has emerged), were calling up his thoughts, and that his powers of thought and imagination were only strong enough to elicit just this glimpse of his muse.
The piece is so solid, so finite, so grounded by material, and yet the fleetingness of thought is captured in the moment his lips meet the muses chest, the moment he calls her up from the marble, as though this ephemeral creature could retreat at any moment back into the block.
Abstraction miniaturized, anthropomorphisized.
The definition of abstraction:
Characterized by the notion of cloaking the relationship between the observed world and the created image. To abstract means to “withdraw,” to “take away,” to “draw off or apart,” to “disengage from;” to “separate in mental conception,” to “consider apart from the material embodiment, or from particular instances;” without object, objectless.
The purpose of this “withdrawing,” “disengaging,” “separating” from the “material body” is to find the underlying structure, to gain a Big Picture. But by stripping an idea of its concrete accompaniment, even if the most interesting of generalizations can be found, you take the risk of losing track of the specific, material, grounding elements which are the source. In formulating thoughts as removed from their referent (observation, experiences, images) the specific can be killed off.
Using this definition of abstraction, where does it leave the referent, this material embodiment, the object? These (impure) material embodiments are banned to the ends of sentences and paragraphs, only to be found in parenthetic phrases that begin with “i. e.,” as though they were tacked onto the (pure) abstractions as an after thought. After the “i. e.”—follow examples, which function as support and evidence to strengthen the abstract argument. They are subordinate to the (purer) abstract notion, back-up singers to the abstract lead vocalist.
What if we were to structure our sentences differently? What if we were to rethink the notion of abstraction altogether and give these material embodiments (these prosaic little human scaled details) Top Billing? What if there were a way to consider abstract notions in which it weren’t necessary to withdraw, disengage or separate so drastically from the material embodiments? Could we form abstract sentences, arguments solely made up of these specific details, these material embodiments strung together, placed next to each other, connected by nothing more than simple conjunctions?
In Wim Wenders’s film The State of Things, we see fragments of a strange Science Fiction film being shot on location in Portugal. The director gets word that the producer and backers have seen the latest “rushes” and are pulling back the funding, stopping production indefinitely. In his exasperation, the director asks himself rhetorically, “Why do they keep complaining, nagging about ‘The Story’? What are they always looking for ‘A Story’? Isn't it enough to have the characters and the space between them?”
The characters and the space between them.
The objects and the space between them.
The referents and the space between them.
The images… the objects… the sounds… the material embodiments.
A+B+C+D+E—More than the sum of components.
Prokofiev's Op. 67, Peter and the Wolf, is a famous orchestral piece narrated by famous people. I have the versions narrated by Mia Farrow, by David Bowie, and most curiously, by William F. Buckley Jr. (the common denominator is seemingly pompous English diction). There are many more versions, and the whole might warrant a peculiar little complete collection.
Straight off, the narrator tells us, “This is a story with music. Each character is represented by a different instrument of the orchestra.” And then goes on to introduce us to the various distinctly recognizable musical themes:
The Bird —by the flute
The Duck —by the oboe
The Cat —by the clarinet
The Grandfather —by the bassoon
The Wolf —by three French horns
Peter —by all the strings of the orchestra
The rifle shots of the hunters —by the kettle drum and the bass drum
The story begins:
“Early one morning Peter opened the gate and went out into the big green meadow.” (String “Peter” theme) “On the branch of a big tree sat a little bird, Peter's friend.” (Flute “Bird” theme) “‘All is quiet,’ it chirpped gaily.” (Flute and strings together = bird and Peter together)
“Just then, a duck came waddling 'round. (Oboe ‘Duck’ theme) She was glad that Peter had not closed the gate, and decided to take a nice swim in the deep pond in the meadow.” (Oboe, flute and strings together… Get it?)
“Seeing the duck, the little bird flew down upon the grass, settled next to her, and shrugged her shoulders…”
Pretty cute stuff.
All was well in the world, and the composition. The duck, the bird, the cat, the grandfather, Peter, and their respective instruments lived in a world of melodious harmony.
Until, of course, the three dissonant French horns show up and make the clarinet tremble, the flute flutter, and the oboe faint away. And though the grumpy slow old bassoon sends out tunes of warning, the proud and confident strings, with the help and accompaniment of the kettle and bass drums, come to battle with the French horns. The strings win out, and harmony and order are restored.
This is the kind of one-to-one relationship between the referent and its representations that was pumped into us as kids, a kind of Musical Primer on Abstraction.
God help us.
We know better now.
This relationship between the characters and the music which represents them is clearly far too literal. In art we hope for more inference, more innuendo. But in setting up this veiled and complex relationship between referent and abstraction, how submerged can a referent be before it drowns?
We hope, by withdrawing, disengaging and separating from the material body, that in our process of veiling, we don't completely drown the referent. We only want to hold it down under the surface so that it doesn't poke its little head up and disturb the surface of the Pool of Abstraction.
How's that for a metaphoric touch?
Gustave Flaubert complained in a letter, “I am bothered by my tendency to metaphor, decidedly excessive. I am devoured by comparisons as one is by lice, and I spend my time doing nothing but squashing them.”
Julian Barnes wrote in Metroland:
Cut privet still smells of sour apples, as it did when I was sixteen; but this is a rare, lingering exception. At that age, everything seemed more open to analogy, to metaphor, than it does now. There were more meanings, more interpretations, a greater variety of available truths. There was more symbolism. Things contained more.
Take my mother's coat, for example. She had made it herself, on a dressmaker's dummy which lived under the stairs and told you everything and nothing about the female body (see what I mean?). The coat was reversible, pillar-box red on one side, an expansive black and white check on the other; the lapels, being made of the inner material, provided what the pattern called “a dash of contrast at the neck” and chimed with me large square patch pockets. It was, I now see, a highly skillful piece of needlework; then, it proved to me that my mother was a turncoat.
This evidence of duplicity was corroborated one year when the family went to the Channel Islands for a holiday. The size of the coat's pockets, it transpired, was exactly that of a flatpack of 100 cigarettes; and my mother walked back through the customs with 400 contraband Senior Service. I felt, by association, guilt and excitement; but also, further down, a private sense of being right.
Yet there was even more to be extracted from this simple coat. Its colour, like its structure, had secrets…
“Reading in” brings satisfaction, but has its dangers. As we all know, Curiosity—though it resurrected many a lost or hidden narrative—killed the cat.
I loved Ellen, and I wanted to know the worst. I never provoked her; I was cautious and defensive, as is my habit; I didn't even ask questions; but I wanted to know the worst. Ellen never returned this caress. She was fond of me—she would automatically agree, as if the matter weren't worth discussing, that she loved me—but she unquestioningly believed the best about me. That's the difference. She didn't ever search for that sliding panel which opens the secret chamber of the heart, the chamber where memory and corpses are kept. Sometimes you find the panel, but it doesn't open; sometimes it opens, and your gaze meets nothing but a mouse skeleton. But at least you've looked. That's the real distinction between people: not between those who have secrets and those who don't, but between those who want to know everything and those who don't. This search is a sign of love, I maintain.
From Julian Barnes's Flaubert's Parrot
Some observations or experiences lend themselves to metaphor, and therefore function well as material for narrative, allegory, parrable, or myth. Some occurences just don't lend themselves for use at all. I have a category in life for just such events, which I call Unusable Stories:
One rainy afternoon in a foreign city, I was walking down the street. I must have been in a particularly good mood (or have just gotten out of an elevator where I had subconsciously heard Muzak) because I was whistling as I stepped off of the curb to cross the street. There, in the middle of the crosswalk, I slipped on a banana peel and fell on my ass.
I sat there on the asphalt, surprised to be there, a bit bruised and wet, but amused by the running monologue which I had been carrying out in the seconds of falling.
I was trying to figure out what the odds were of someone really slipping on a banana peel. There were certainly enough peels around, and the cliché had to come from somewhere. I thought that no one would believe that I had really slipped on a banana peel. But then I corrected myself. They would believe me, that wasn't the problem. The problem was that I wouldn't be able to use this occurrence as a metaphor. I wouldn't, for instance be able to use it in a story. It was doomed to the category of cliché and drained of artist use value. Too bad.
I sat there looking up at the car bumpers, which were too close to allow me to continue my musings, and wondered whether slipping on banana peels was an international cliché. Maybe the drivers mistook my bemused grin for a state of shock. Maybe none of them had ever seen Daffy Duck or the Roadrunner or any slapstick character do what I had just done. I thought of asking, and then I thought it best to just clear out of the cross walk.
Or, here's a less happy example of an Unusable Story:
In the final days of a truly unsuccessful love affair, to top things off, I suspected that I was pregnant. Needless to say, that brought everything to a head, and finalized the break-up. So, there I was, alone at a Family Planning Center where my pregnancy test had just come back positive. I could decide to have an abortion immediately, and was sitting and reflecting on the whole unhappy situation of life. The clinic's staff was very sympathetic and gave me as much time as I needed to make decisions.
I sat there, in a waiting room, spacing out, sad, and staring out the window. I wasn't really staring out the window, more like blankly gazing in the direction of the window. It was raining. “Of course,” I thought to myself, “the windows would have to be stained by rain drops. Perfect!” At a certain point, I realized that I was focusing on some activity that was taking place out the window. Slowly, like a fade-in in a movie, I consciously recognized the scene. I was observing a church situated directly across the street from the clinic. A group of people were emerging from the church, and I realized that standing on the steps was a wedding party, complete with thrown rice, bouquets, veils, smiles, vows, and happy thoughts of the future. “Great,” I thought, “Perfect!”
YOUR DOG DIES, Raymond Craver
it gets run over by a van
you find it at the side of the road
and bury it.
you feel bad about it.
you feel bad personally.
but you feel bad for your daughter
because it was her pet.
and she loved it so.
and let it sleep in her bed,
you write a poem about it.
you call it a poem for your daughter,
about the dog getting run over by a van
and how you looked after it.
took it out into the woods
and buried it deep, deep.
and that poem runs out so good
you're almost glad the little dog
was run over, or else you'd never
have written that good poem.
then you sit down to write
a poem about writing a poem
about the death of that dog.
but while you're writing you
hear a woman scream
your name, your first name.
and your heart stops.
after a minute, you continue
she screams again
you wonder how long this can go on
There was an advertising campaign for milk a few summers ago in Holland, which consisted of large posters designed to appeal to the teenaged milk drinking community.
The creative team who had conceived the posters and written the copy had gone for a summertime—happy—youthful—swinging mood. On each of the posters were four words, written in bold letters, one on top of the other, in happy, hip, summertime pastel colors. The text combinations were clear:
DE BILT GAAF BRYLCREEM ZAKGELD TOPPOP BADPAK ONWIJS DANSLES ZATERDAG ROCKPALAST FACTOR 4 HEFTIG MEISJES DISCO MUSICBOX MELK MELK MELK MELK MELK DE BILT* COOL BRYLCREAM ALLOWANCE TOPPOP** BATHING SUIT FAR OUT DANCE LESSONS SATURDAY ROCKPALAST SUN SCREEN#4 RADICAL GIRLS DISCO MUSICBOX MILK MILK MILK MILK MILK
All of these lists end with the word MILK, as if this were a logical conclusion. These summertime teenage clichés are cleverly coupled to the comforting pleasure and, importantly, the hipness of drinking milk.
But, by far the most striking poster in the series is the one which read:
UITMAKEN BREAKING UP AANMAKEN MAKING UP UITMAKEN which translates BREAKING UP MELK MILK
Here the cliché cuts a bit closer to the human core. The basic romantic narrative is pared down to the minimum. Tragedy is packaged in pastel colors so as to accustom Youth to the inevitability of this cyclical scenario. Cultural cynicism, or wisdom passed down through the generations?
Can we reduce life to mere list of words?
When he was very small he had done something naughty, for which his father had given him a beating. The little boy had flown into a terrible rage and had hurled abuse at his father even while he was under his blows. But as he knew no bad language, he had called him all the names of common objects he could think of, and had screamed: “You lamp! You towel! You plate!” and so on.
Sigmund Freud, Case Histories, “The Rat Man”
Nouns not as euphemisms, but as stand-ins, stunt men for slanderings, impieties, verbal abuse.
The act of naming and of formulating a narrative can be a solace—a way of establishing order (categories) in the chaos. But the act of telling a story can also function as a cover-up, a camouflage.
A friend recently related a frightening and disturbing event. She had been with a girl friend in a neighborhood restaurant. It was rather late, and they were the only customers left in the place. A man entered the restaurant with tow guns, and took the day's earnings, and their money as well. But he didn't stop at that. He locked the restaurants owner, and the girl friend in a closet, and took our friend hostage. As they left the restaurant, he walked behind her with a gun at her back. They walked a circuitous route, going in and out of alley ways, and court yards. She didn't know why she had been taken hostage, or what he wanted to do to her. He told her to undress at one point, and used as an excuse the argument, that if he had her clothes, she wouldn’t be able to call the police, and that he would be able to get away safely. Somehow he decided not to do this and she escaped the event without any injury or molestation.
She told the story in great detail. She recounted her feelings about the occurences. The humorous cowboy-like image of a guy with tow guns. The fear of being lost in her own neighborhood. The strange comraderie, and then fear when she realized how frightened the oppressor was. Her story took a long time to tell. We listened attentively, as she went over and over the details, as though she were reliving them.
I asked at a certain point when this had happened, assuming from her calmness that it had happened some time in the not so distant past. She seemed to be, by retelling the story, recalling and clarifying for herself just what had happened.
I was surprised when she told us that this had happened only a few days before. And I realized then, that her need to tell the story had not sprung from a desire to recall the events (she could probably still easily call up the man's voice, his looks, even his smell. I'm sure that the whole thing kept repeating in her mind, the images over and over again, like instant replay.) By telling us about it, she was turning it all into a story. Reducing it to fiction. We were there to listen to her narrative. Its formulation was providing her with a much needed distance.
(Like a bad concert hall, affective space contains dead spots where the sound fails to circulate. — The perfect interlocutor, the friend, is he not the one who constructs around you the greatest possible resonance? Cannot friendship be defined as a space with total sonority?)
Roland Barthes, A Lover's Discourse
The referent is not only to what one is referring, also to whom one is referring. The word referent is both subject and object.
In the letters he sends to his friend, Werther recounts both the events of his life and the effects of his passion; but it is literature which governs this mixture. For if I keep a journal, we may doubt that this journal relates, strictly speaking, to events. The events of amorous life are so trivial that they gain access to writing only by an immense effort: one grows discouraged writing what, by being written, exposes its own platitude: “I ran into X, who was with Y” “Today X didn't call me” “X was in a bad mood,” etc.: who would see a story in that? The infinitesimal event exists only in its huge reverberation: Journal of my reverberations (of my wounds, my joys, my interpretations, my rationalizations, my impulses): who would understand anything in that? Only the Other could write my love story, my novel.
Roland Barthes, A Lover's Discourse
My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains, Captain Beefheart
l’ll let a train be my feet if it's too far to walk to you
If a train don't go there I'll take a jet or a bus
Cause I'm gonna find you
You're gonna see my shadow soon around you
My head is my only house unless it rains
I've walked the meadow planes
I'll visit some others until I've found you
I won't sleep until I've found you
I won't eat until I've found you
My heart won't beat until I've wrapped my arms around you
My arms are just two things in the way
Till I can wrap them around you
You can make my sad song happy
A bad world good
I can feel you out there moving
You're mine—I know I'll find you
In my head is my only house until I've found you
I hate to have other people hear me sing this song
But if it reaches you before I do
Follow this song to I Love You
That's where I'll find you
My head is my only house unless it rains
This beautiful love song is both abstract and concrete at the same time. “You can make my sad song happy, a bad world good”—that's pretty abstract. “My heart won't beat until I've wrapped my arms around you”—that's about as physical and concrete as you can get.
The singer fluctuates, as is often the case in love poetry and songs, between the Ideal Love, and the specific object of his affection. Is he speaking of an Ideal Love, an abstraction he longs for, or is he addressing a real person, someone he has lost and wants back?
I identify with this Other. He's singing to me. He's looking for me, he's gonna find me.
But then he sings:
“I hate to have other people hear me sing this song
But if it reaches you before I do…”
These lyrics put me in a strange relationship to the author, the singer. Before these words appeared, I could drift easily in my identification with the Other. And enjoy the intimacy in assuming that I was being addressed.
But, am I still the Other he is looking for? Am I now just one of the many people who is hearing him sing this song (a vehicle for getting to her)? Am I just coincidentally along this path of transmission—maybe not facilitating his finding her, but hopefully not obstructing or hindering their meeting either.
Or am I still (by identification) this Other, in a now even more intimate and exclusive relationship with the singer. One which excludes all the others who are only “hearing him sing this song.”
I've played this song for several of my friends. They seem to think that I'm reading a lot into the lyrics. One friend even teased me by suggesting that if I played the song backwards and 45 rpm, that it might spell out “Paul is Dead”. I hope that you will forgive my indulgences.
“Once upon a time…” is how a story begins. “… and they all lived happily ever after.” is how a story ends. I was brought up to believe in clear beginnings and satisfying endings.
In German a story begins, “Es war einmal…” and ends with, “… und wenn sie nicht gestorben sind, dann leben sie noch heute.” (“… and if they haven't died, they are still alive today.”)
But wait a minute, we all have to die and Dead is dead. But this reaction to the German probably reveals my pragmatic and positivistic upbringing. This if/then wenn/dann doesn't seem to compute in my understanding of logical constructions.
Let's face it, dead is dead.
But upon further contemplation, a whole new melancholic category of happy endings is opened up to me. This “Valley of the Dead” is in a Fairy Tale Land, and as we all know, boys and girls of all ages, in this land anything is possible. So I can imagine some little kid being appeased by the abstract notion that somehow, somewhere, in some parallel world, invisible to the eye, where death is not as finite as in our world, that they could still be alive today.
(When I was a kid in Los Angeles there was a sign outside one of the Denny's coffee shops which read,
“OPEN 24 HOURS—
WHEN IT'S TOMORROW IT'S TODAY”
That seemed pretty abstract to me. I used to love it when my parents would drive by the sign. It would give me lots to think about in the back seat, contemplating notions of Time and Space, a real little Einstein.)
Somehow the logic of “… and they lived happily ever after” remains more comforting to someone steeped in the myths of Hollywood. I confess, as far as I'm concerned, the only good ending is a happy ending. I long for them, think I need them, and therefore go to great ends to recognize them and construct them. But, knowing what I do about Life and Art, I know that I should kick the habit. But I can't. I won't. I am on the road to giving up the fantasy of the “Prince in Shining Armor” who will sweep down and rescue me. But Happy Endings are sacred.
Spalding Gray, in his “Swimming to Cambodia,” seems to be suffering from a similar condition.
But my illogical, preconscious voice would have none of this, and set up a condition I would have to call Compulsive Magical Thinking, which soon got quite out of control.
It all started innocently enough in my living loft. I found that I was unable to leave my loft without turning my little KLH radio off on a positive word. And do you know how difficult those words are to find these days? I would just stand there by the radio with my hand on the little knob so I could turn it off real fast when I heard the positive word.
“The stock market is rising.” (click)
“… consider moving Marines to safer…” (click)
“You may go to a doctor that belongs to the AMA but it doesn't necessarily mean you're going to the best.” (click)
So, in the face of this impossibility of the scenario, literally ending with a ride off into the sunset together, the idyllic moment lasting by implication forever and ever, what can I do?
Spalding has found his “click” technique. But it seems too abrupt to me, I seem to prefer a technique which is derived from film. The long slow fade-out. Fade out at a good moment, and there you have it, a Happy Ending. A life full of ellipses…
* De Bilt is the town where Dutch weather forecasts are made.
** These are names of Pop Music TV programs.
Published on <o> future <o>, April 17, 2016.
- CC BY-ND 3.0 France
This text is part of The Protagonists a series of new contributions and translations edited by François Aubart, to accompany two recent projects: a series of talks entitled Laissez-vous séduire par le Sex Appeal de l’inorganique (September 26, 2015—February 25, 2016) at centre d'art Passerelle, in Brest, and the exhibition Surfaces of You (January 21—April 10, 2016) at Le Plateau—Frac Île-de-France in Paris.