Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Poltics as Art

Several things I have read lately (plus one movie), all fantastic, converge around a central idea: the thrust of 20th century art was to blur the distinction between art and everything else. The details of each are a bit beside the point, but here's the list:

  • Exit Through the Gift Shop, a film by Banksy, a graffiti artist most famous for a series of images he painted on the wall between Israel and Gaza, but also renowned for inserting his own work onto the wall of the Tate Modern.
  • Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, a book about the California artist Robert Irwin, who began at some point creating installations that were as much about ordinary life as anything else. Lately he's been doing landscape design as well.
  • Alex Ross's article about John Cage in this week's New Yorker. The piece speaks in particular about a Cage composition that is 4 minutes of silence.
  • Andrei Condrescu, The Posthuman Dada Guide. Rules on how to be Dada, except that to be Dada is to reject rules.
More stuff, too. The list, as I say isn't what's important. It's just the stain of thought that separating out some stuff and calling it "art" is a mistake -- that really the idea of art should implicate everything we do.

This idea leads me to a question for which I have no answer. How is politics art? What way might there be of handling ourselves, making decisions, and the like would result in a process that was aesthetically pleasing. Failing that, isn't there a way of doing things that is not nauseating? Every time I hit upon what passes for "debate," I'm only a degree or two of separation from somebody saying something at best stupid and at worst noxious. Surely there is another way, and given that other models have failed, why not art?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Buddha Camp

Next Monday I’m leaving for a ten-day Vipassana retreat at Camp Sawtooth in Sun Valley, Idaho. Following are excerpts from the Code of Discipline that students are advised to study prior to attending the course, and my notes on those. I’ve taken some liberties with the text, bringing related parts together where it made sense to do so. (A pdf of the document can be found here.)
The word Vipassana means seeing things as they really are. It is the process of self- purification by self-observation. One begins by observing the natural breath to concentrate the mind. With a sharpened awareness one proceeds to observe the changing nature of body and mind and experiences the universal truths of impermanence, suffering and egolessness.
I’m all for seeing things as they really are, but what if they really suck? Does “observe the changing nature of the body” mean I’ll have to sit in the half-lotus while my legs go to sleep? I want enlightenment, but I want to be perfectly comfortable and happy and feeling terrific while I’m getting it, too. I got knee pillows to go with my zafu.

Ten days is certainly a very short time in which to penetrate the deepest levels of the unconscious mind and learn how to eradicate the complexes lying there. Continuity of the practice in seclusion is the secret of this technique's success. Rules and regulations have been developed keeping this practical aspect in mind.
Can I "to penetrate the deepest levels of the unconscious mind and learn how to eradicate the complexes lying there" if I spend the whole ten days arguing with myself about why some rule should be forfeit to my comfort because I’m special and different? I don’t know how I’ll resist breaking a rule or two – sneaking off to grab a shower when everyone’s supposed to be meditating or ignoring the 4am wake-up bell because the temperature in the cabin is hovering around the freezing mark and my sleeping bag is nice and warm – so I’m going to try very, very hard to not break a single stinking rule. I’m probably already breaking a rule. 
Students must declare themselves willing to comply fully and for the duration of the course with the teacher's guidance and instructions; that is, to observe the discipline and to meditate exactly as the teacher asks, without ignoring any part of the instructions, nor adding anything to them. This acceptance should be one of discrimination and understanding, not blind submission. Only with an attitude of trust can a student work diligently and thoroughly. Such confidence in the teacher and the technique is essential for success in meditation.
I’m not supposed to break any rules, but I’m not supposed to submit blindly, either. This is a trap. What if I’m so warped and rebellious and just plain bad that I’ll dissect every rule in my head and have an on-going conversation with myself about how it’s wrong and unfair and it doesn’t apply to me, and the only way for me to not break a rule is to just submit to the stupid rule? Bam! I am already breaking a rule. And what if a rule, such as attending every meditation session (ten hours a day, total) runs athwart another rule, such as "abstaining from killing any being"? What if I’m getting ready to go to the hall to meditate, and there’s a spider in the cabin, and instead of killing it, I have to navigate around the bunk beds in the tiny cabin I’m sharing with eleven other people to catch the spider and deposit it outside, in a place where no one will accidentally step on it?

A student will have to stay for the entire period of the course. The other rules should also be carefully read and considered. Only those who feel that they can honestly and scrupulously follow the discipline should apply for admission.

People with serious mental disorders have occasionally come to Vipassana courses with the unrealistic expectation that the technique will cure or alleviate their mental problems. Unstable interpersonal relationships and a history of various treatments can be additional factors which make it difficult for such people to benefit from, or even complete, a ten-day course.
An item on the application form asked that I list any medications I’m presently taking. I indicated that I take Ritalin and Celexa, but said I was entertaining the idea of discontinuing them prior to the course. They called me and said, “Please, DO NOT STOP TAKING YOUR MEDICATION.” Okay. Then can I bring coffee? No coffee. I’m weaning myself off coffee.

Dress should be simple, modest, and comfortable. Tight, transparent, revealing, or otherwise striking clothing (such as shorts, short skirts, tights and leggings, sleeveless or skimpy tops) should not be worn. Sunbathing and partial nudity are not permitted. This is important in order to minimize distraction to others.
This describes nearly my entire wardrobe, but the real dilemma here is underwear. I hate underwear. Underwear ruins the whole experience of wearing clothes. I’m devoting a lot of thought to the problem of how to get around wearing underwear and also avoid distracting my fellow cabin mates by flashing them while I’m changing into my pajamas. And speaking of discomfort, I should note here that I’ll be having a migraine, PMS, and all the rest while I’m at the retreat. I’ll also get to try out my Diva Cup for the first time, the instructions for which include the phrase, “Do not panic”. Maybe I should run the Diva Cup past the management?

All students must observe Noble Silence from the beginning of the course until the morning of the last full day. Noble Silence means silence of body, speech, and mind. Any form of communication with fellow student, whether by gestures, sign language, written notes, etc., is prohibited. Students should cultivate the feeling that they are working in isolation. It is important that throughout the course there be no physical contact whatsoever between persons of the same or opposite sex. Take great care that your actions do not disturb anyone. Take no notice of distractions caused by others.
There will be up to 100 people attending the retreat. I’ll be sleeping in a small, unheated cabin with eleven other women, and I can’t look any of them in the eye, nor exchange a single word, nor touch one of them on the shoulder if I need to pass by. The appropriate arrangement of the face is soft features, slightly downcast eyes, with a ghost of a smile indicating harmless mild amusement. I’m good at ignoring people, so I don’t see a problem with any of this.

No outside communications is allowed before the course ends. This includes letters, phone calls and visitors. Cell phones, pagers, and other electronic devices must be deposited with the management until the course ends. No reading or writing materials should be brought to the course. Students should not distract themselves by taking notes. The restriction on reading and writing is to emphasize the strictly practical nature of this meditation.

This rule is my Waterloo. If I can’t take notes, how will I recall funny and stupid things I and others did to tell you about later? Or what if I take notes, but only in my head? Is taking notes in my head like when thinking about committing a sin means you’re committing a sin? This seems like another trap. But alright. I give. Besides, with lunch being the final meal of the day, I’ll probably forget about this other stuff and spend all my time thinking about my next “simple vegetarian meal” (note to self: don’t forget to pack the Beano).

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Great American Novels

I was reading Ted Burke's insightful thoughts on Franzen, and it occurred to me that Franzen is not the only novelist I haven't been reading. Chabon's fiction, Nathan Englander, Jonathan S-something Foer, Nicole Krauss, David Foster Wallace, Jane Smiley,Gary Shteyngart, Rivka Galken, Annie Proulx -- I haven't read any of them. I've only read a few candidates for Great American Novel at all. The ones that I have read and enjoyed are not really comparable to one another: Middlesex, The Great Gatsby, The Invisible Man, and Jazz.

Even making the lists bores me.

I like big social novels of ideas, I really do, and I would like to read most of the authors on that list (just not Foer. If I am ever locked up in interrogation, the way to make me crack would be to dangle a copy of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close in front of me). I just think the whole enterprise of setting out to write a great American novel -- or worse, The Great American Novel -- is at heart empty in the same way I find nationalism empty.

I'm repeating a sentiment offered here, but I think my critique is a little different. Laura Miller thinks the practice is old and tired. I think the practice was never all that interesting to begin with, but sadly seems to linger in the imagination of many of the folks who have been christened as the next generation by the likes of Granta or The New Yorker.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Political Landscapes

There are a lot of clichés of American politics. The best writing (Joan Didion on California) upends these the tired topographical truisms, which are as dull a feature of current political discourse as, well, the rest of it.

At a certain level, politics is aesthetic and irrational, and the terrain that plays the greatest role in shaping my own is surreal. Literally. I could write at great length about the beauty of Virginia, but I think it's senseless to try to translate the Blue Ridge or the Tidewater flats into some meaning. My psyche, on the other hand, bends time and space, and in the resulting bleak dreamscapes I think I can make out something of how I think.

Seattle is one of my favorite cities, but in my dreams it is a dark place, its streets rising ominously and its rain a bit more sinister than the real deal. I think I must be recalling a couple of moments of terror I felt in the city when, biking downhill in the rain, I realized my breaks were not working, and I had to choose between wiping out now, wiping out later (only much faster) , and hoping to make it to the uphill. Seattle is a dilemma. In my dreams it is also a frequent setting for elaborate, probably fruitless plans spun in coffeeshops. More optimistically, it can be the scene for a kind of pan-out -- I've never dreamed about the sweeping vista of Mt. Rainier, Cascades, Mt. Baker, Olympics, all looming over the Puget Sound, but I often feel the breathless sense of release I used to get in Seattle when I'd make it to some high point on a clear day, the sense that one could take in a wondrous whole.

North Carolina's Outer Banks also tend to loom in my dreams as an expanse of dooms lowering to the ocean. I have an entire genre of nightmares, each relying on my different position in this world for its particular plot twist. Sometimes I am on the top floor of a house and the ocean surrounds everything, almost peaceful if not for the implication of loneliness and devastation. Sometimes I am right where the shore meets the water when I realize I am facing a gigantic wall of water. Sometimes I am father away, trying to rescue something. Various people have told me the best way to handle the fear in such dreams would be to enter the water, but this has only happened once: in my one view of a benevolent ocean, I could breathe underwater and play with friends as the wave rushed overhead, and the feeling was half jacuzzi, half surfing.

I want a politics of optimism. I want not to be ruled by fear. How I get from these fairly raw emotions to particular policies is, of course, always chancy, and often my reactions are prior to any sort of reasoning whatsoever. Tell me we are caught in a great wave of history, and I will recoil. Tell me to shoot at something, and I will assume it has as much effect as shooting at a tsunami. Tell me to overcome my own anxieties and limitations, to leap in or rise up, and I am likely to sign on. But mostly I would love to see again a politics that accepts how surreal at root so much politics is.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

On Being Boring

My previous post is very boring. Not only are lists boring, but within moments of posting this one I had echoing in my head the speech the Jack Black character makes about some list that combines standards with a few curves thrown in just to make you seem slightly original. Polythene Pam, you expose me.

I was born in Heidelberg in the immediate aftermath of the breakup of the Beatles (after Abbey Road and just before Let it Be). I was unaware of the extent of the tragedy of John Lennon's death, even after my pacifist elementary school teacher had us all study the lyrics to "Imagine." I liked the song just fine, but a ten-year old boy's interest tend toward (I can't honestly remember what... I think Blondie). I didn't listen to the Beatles until my buddy Chip brought over the White Album. I remember him with a big grin on his face mouthing "Bang bang, shoot shoot" on "Happiness is a Warm Gun." We were sitting in an odd part of my old house, a narrow sort of wing off of the living room which featured mostly bookshelves, my parents' record player, and a smallish bar. For months thereafter I listened to cassettes of Sgt Pepper and Rubber Soul and Revolver, and discovered to my delight that my parents (whose collection was otherwise disappointing) had a copy of Abbey Road.

Probably my peculiar sense of the passage of time, of decades and of eras, has as much to do with those months as with anything else. It turns out, according to Billboard, that the number one song of 1970 was "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head."

A small coda: a little before I latched on to the small, sad youth culture of John Hughes movies, the Violent Femmes, and others unimpressed with Morning in America, and it may have been a matter of months, I was at a dance somewhere. "Hard Days Night" came on, and I danced, leaping up and down alone. It gave me a way to make it through to college, a little bubble to ride out adolescence. Thinking of it now, it's not the same as nostalgia. It was a tool, and that tool gave me a particular sense of history, one that skewed some things and clarified others. It was very interesting to me, yet now seems banal in the telling, a lot like my list.