WARP SPASM by BASIL KINGJOHN BLOOMBERG-RISSMAN reviews:
WARP SPASM by Basil King
(Spuyten Duyvil, New York, 2001)
1. “In the Lost and Found”
One must, certainly, inscribe in words, in images. One cannot escape the necessity of representing. It would be sin itself to believe oneself safe and sound. But it is one thing to do it in view of saving the memory, and quite another to try to preserve the remainder, the unforgettable forgotten … (Jean-François Lyotard, Heidegger and “the jews”, p. 26)
These are simply “first meditations” while reading Basil King’s WARP SPASM. If you would prefer the USA Today review, here it is: Important. Read it.
2. First Meditation: On Narrative. Some Rudimentary Thoughts
Narrative (like history, “one damn thing after another”) is an epiphenomenon of neural networks. It’s what life does to organize the myriad inputs, conscious or subconscious, “clear and distinct” or “returned through the repressed”, which make up the self or its equivalents. It may (or may not; how would we know?) be a fiction or a deception but we couldn’t function without it. All those inputs, unorganized, would overwhelm. However much we “write” narrative or it “writes” us, the babble, the cacophony, the roar must become something “coherent”. Without narrative we truly couldn’t take a step.
“However much we “write” narrative or it “writes” us” … is there a difference?
Narrative. Here’s the dictionary definition: “a spoken or written account of connected events.” I’d leave out “spoken or written” or I’d note that those are only special occasions of narrative. But those are the ones we’re most interested in here.
Around 1870, something happened to the several-thousand-year-old connections the master narratives of “Western Civ” had come to depend on. We could digress and discuss that something (“death of God”, rise of big capital, industrialization, increased pace of urban life, Darwin, etc. etc.), but that’s been done and done and done … and I’m not sure anyone really knows, anyway:
The transitions had gone. He knew it was over. They had taken everything with them. (“ABUSE / A COLOR CHART”, p. 22).
But he was wrong. It wasn’t over. And, as it turns out, they hadn’t taken anything essential with them; everything in fact “always had been always will be” connected to everything in an incredible web. It’s what Buddhists call “dependent origination”. But it was all just somehow different now. At least that’s how it felt. We simply (!) had to find new ways to go on.
Here are a few that artists found:
Isidore Ducasse, the Comte de Lautreamont was struck by
the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella.
And later, so were the surrealists. That “touch of the marvelous” sufficed for many (as if anything “sufficed”) through the 1930s.
Around midcentury, Frank O’Hara, in “Personism”, put it thus:
You just go on your nerve.
Around the same time, Philip Whalen referred to his writings as
… a continuous nerve movie …
(Side note, or maybe not: I think of midcentury as the era in which the big pharmas came up with meds specifically aimed at our jangled “nerves”. These were (for the first time?) distributed en masse. “Coincidence?” as the comedian asked, adding ominously, “I think not.”)
In 1982 Bob Perelman wrote,
Attempts to posit an idealized narrative time would only blur perception of the actual time of writing and reading. Persona, Personism, the poem as trace of the poet-demiurge – these, too, are now extraneous. The problems that narrative had fulfilled … are now dealt with more directly by a variety of procedures. A priori forms and lengths may be determined. Specific areas of vocabulary and syntax, or modes of patterning will be investigated.
This would seem to indicate that procedures would come to constitute the new “connections”.
Well, they did and they didn’t. Sure, artists in all media (including yours truly) have used countless procedures from the Oulipean to the aleatory to eliminate the imposition of an imperial will on the materials (that desire being a story in itself). But that isn’t all they’ve used. And, more importantly, when procedures are used, who has responsibility for them? It’s not as if they’ve fallen from the skies …
So we’re back to those neural networks, the synaptic self, what make us us. Perhaps the word for how to go on, how to put one word next to another, one foot in front of the other, how to “narrate”, is trust (something like “nerve”, I guess), whether it’s trust in the surreal marvelous, trust in nerve itself, trust in procedure … or in those ancient standbys, “possession” (cf. Plato), whether by Martian radio or the holy ghost or some other breathy emanation, and memory.
It is my habit to bring disparate things together. If I can see them, if I can feel them, how far away can they be? (“INTRODUCTION”, p.6)
And after all, it’s not as if these various “compositional strategies” are mutually exclusive, or that any piece of art is bound to any one of them, unless the artist so chooses. And it’s a rare work of art in which the artist (consciously) makes all the choices.
Cf. flarf for one example where borderlines blur between procedure, the aleatory, the demi-urge …
In any case, when I say trust, I mean TRUST. In his PREFACE King describes a Warp Spasm:
… before you went into combat the Warp Spasm would seize you and make you into a monstrous thing, hideous and shapeless, unheard of. That your body would contort so violently that no description can do justice to the menace you would become. (“PREFACE”, p. 7)
To become the play of such forces one must TRUST.
Must Rinzai raise his stick? “Kaa!” Do you understand him?
2a. On Narrative. One More Rudimentary Thought
As the master narratives came to be recognized as the dangers they so obviously were (and, in debased forms, still so obviously are) a great deal of artists’ energy went and continues to go into subverting narrative altogether. But. Here’s a story John Cage told:
We’ve now played the Winter Music quite a number of times. I haven’t kept count. When we first played it, the silences seemed very long and the sounds seemed really separated in space, not obstructing one another. In Stockholm, however, when we played it at the Opera as an interlude in the dance program given by Merce Cunningham and Carolyn Brown early one October, I noticed that it had become melodic. Christian Wolff prophesied this to me years ago – he said, we were walking along Seventeenth Street talking – he said, “No matter what we do it ends by being melodic.” … (John Cage, “How to Pass, Kick, Fall, and Run”, in A Year From Monday, p. 135)
3. Second Meditation: On “the jews”
… the expression “the jews” refers to all those who, wherever they are, seek to remember and to bear witness to something that is constitutively forgotten, not only in each individual mind, but in the very thought of the West. And it refers to all those who assume this anamnesis and this witnessing as an obligation, a responsibility, or a debt, not only toward thought, but toward justice … (Jean François Lyotard, as cited by Michael Peters, “Jean-François Lyotard, Political Writings, trans. Bill Readings and Kevin Paul Geiman, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993)” http://www.pum.umontreal.ca/revues/surfaces/vol4/peters.html)
As much as a book is “about” anything, WARP SPASM is a book about “jews”. A few “jews”: Chaim Soutine, Gwen John, Basil Cohen, John Weiners, Suzanne Valadon … maybe even Karla Faye Tucker … it is not our job to decide who “gets to be” “a jew”. And a book about “jews” is a book that assumes “this anamnesis and this witnessing as an obligation …”
History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake. (James Joyce, Ulysses, ed. Jeri Johnson, p.34)
Joyce himself knew better. Why else all that poring over maps, all those letters to Dublin, confirming each detail?
Nobody, nobody paints just for themselves. Nobody. Oh, let there be nobody. Paint nobody, paint language. Nobody, nobody, paints just for themselves. Let the shadows unroll. Let the shadow cover the mountain. Let the shadow be. Let the world stop. Let paint be. Nobody, nobody, paints just for themselves. Let poetry cease. Let the shadows be. Nobody, nobody paints just for themselves. (“GWEN”, pp. 34, 41, 43, 46)
“Oh let there be nobody.” When one assumes “this anamnesis and this witnessing as an obligation” one assumes what Peter Sloterdijk calls “the unbearable”. And one bears it. How?
(Robert S. Leventhal, “Jean François Lyotard, The Differend: Phrases in Dispute (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991)” http://www3.iath.virginia.edu/holocaust/lyotarddiff.html)
My cousin Michele turned to me in the car and asked, “Do you remember when we were abused?” Martha was sitting in the back seat next to me. Yes, I do. (“ABUSE/A COLOR CHART”, p.9)
Washington, D.C.: Martha and I walked to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. We hadn’t lost anyone in the war. We came to see the sculpture. As we approached the entrance the anguish of the living and the anger from the dead rose up in front of us. Our emotions told us not to go in. Martha took my arm. We turned and walked to the Smithsonian. (“GWEN”, p. 41)
“ … the anguish of the living and the anger of the dead …”
One’s misery thus consists not so much in one’s sufferings as in the inability to be responsible for them – one’s inability to want to be responsible for them. The will to accept one’s own responsibility – which is, as it were, the psychonautical variant of the amor fati – indicates neither narcissistic hubris nor fatalistic masochism, but rather the courage and the composure to accept one’s own life in all its reality and potentiality. (Peter Sloterdijk, Thinker on Stage: Nietzsche’s Materialism, p. 90)
“ … the anguish of the living and the anger of the dead …”
She had been warned that another world war was about to start. She must have paid attention to what she was told, because on September 1, 1939, she got off the train with the intention of returning to England. She collapsed in the street. Most probably from a lack of food. She had no luggage and was considered a derelict by the authorities. She became another unknown soldier. Her grave is unmarked. (“GWEN”, p. 47)
Nobody, nobody paints just for themselves.
This story like every other short story has no ending. No short story ever ends. (“GWEN”, p. 33)
When Rinzai roars, then, to what do we awake? To our responsibility. To our response–ability.
4. Third Meditation: On I don’t know its name (“bearing the unbearable”? “It’s all right ma, it’s life and life only”?)
But time has not passed
Time is just not there
Time would pass, if at all it existed. (Rajenda Bhandari, “Time Does Not Pass” http://international.poetryinternationalweb.org/piw_cms/cms/cms_module/index.php?obj_id=7448)
When Basil Cohen moved to the USA he brought his books.
He was wounded and I covered young Basil’s wound [his name as inscribed in his books] with Band-Aids and woodruff. The Band-Aids and the books are on a shelf. The woodruff is gone. The wound remains. (“IDENTITY”, p.48)
It is not so easy (!), then, to cure a wound, to efface a name, erase experience. Basil Cohen was 11 or 12 when the time for his move came. I was slightly younger when my family left a Jewish neighborhood on the north side of Chicago and resettled in a blond suburb on the west side of Los Angeles. I remember (as Joe Brainard would say). First day of school. The blond strangers who were to become my classmates were gigantic. I could see that even from the other end of an infinite playground. They were doing something I’d never seen done before and had no idea how to do. They were playing … kickball. SPACE may be the central fact to those born in America (I quote/paraphrase Olson’s opening to Call Me Ishmael), but if space was the central fact in my part of Chicago it was because it was absent, at least in the sense I found it now. I believe that’s the moment I became bookish.
This way to the canvas. This way to the clouds. The sky’s the limit. Three colors, three faces, three winds. Not our faces, not our colors, not our faces. Not my face. Not my father’s face. Which face. My face, “Endurance.” (“IDENTITY”, p.50)
From a poem I wrote after looking at a painting:
Just maybe I
The face you
Wearing your face.
Wishful thinking? In the following, notice the upper case.
“You did it to him, you damn fucking Jew.” Jonas was sitting behind his typewriter. “You Jews are all alike.” Again he quoted Pound. Hate poured out of him. “JEW! JEW!” Was he quoting Hitler? Before I’d gone to the dog track, the two of us had argued. Banking, Pound, usury. We didn’t agree but I didn’t think anything of it. For the first time I was frightened. “JEW!” That’s all I heard. I’d been there before and it was ugly. I felt betrayed. I’d wanted to meet Steve Jonas. The anger in his poems hadn’t scared me. And I felt stupid. I hadn’t taken his poetry seriously. We were both screaming when Fielding came to. “Basil! You… all right? you okay?” (“IDENTITY”, p. 61)
What was the face Steve Jonas wore prior to wearing THAT? I’m sure there was one. But there’s more to “IDENTITY” than the faces we wear:
In the garden of the Lost and Found tulips have opened up. Pink, yellow and orange. Martha and I found over fifty Asian lilies in the grass after lunch. Strange, they endure winter and we never know how many will bloom. They probably don’t know that we want them, but there is some communication between us, otherwise it wouldn’t work. (“IDENTITY”, p. 67.)
In spite of (because of?) “the unbearable”, in spite of (because of?) the “nightmare of history”, the flowers raise their stick and roar. And we roar back at them. Or better: we roar with them.
And so one becomes, is born, becomes, is born, a human. An artist. A jew.
5. Fourth Meditation: And then there’s Karla Faye. On “I will stick my hand inside you and squeeze your heart”
In 1983, Danny Garrett, age 37, and Karla Faye Tucker, age 23, put over forty pick-axe holes in a man and woman. Later, Karla Faye Tucker was to tell a friend, “I came with every stroke.” … What painter, what artist, wouldn’t want to say, “I came with every stroke.” But murder? Killing? Do soldiers do it? Did Murder Incorporated come with every stroke? (“KARLA FAYE”, p. 75)
All that exists is just and unjust and equally justified in both. (Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, tr. Walter Kaufman, p. 72, as cited in Peter Sloterdijk, Thinker on Stage: Nietzsche’s Materialism, p. 81)
All that exists … but what of memory?
Half of memory remains unprimed. The other half is not always what you think it is. (“KARLA FAYE”, p. 77)
What does that say about “anamnesis and … witnessing as an obligation”? What does this say about “bearing the unbearable?” (Narrative may be all we’ve got, but what does this say about narrative?)
Karla Faye, take care! (“KARLA FAYE”, p. 79)
Was she learning that we invent ourselves? (“KARLA FAYE, p. 83)
… on February 3, 1998, the state of Texas killed her by lethal injection. (“KARLA FAYE, p. 86)
Do the strong and the weak together do what nobody else can do? (“KARLA FAYE”, p. 85)
The final section is called “MEAT”. It’s just as good as the others. In “MEAT”
… there is also a sense that sex is not far away, that rape, sorrow and responsibility have been measured. (“MEAT”, p.95)
To retrieve my Met shopping bag I had to hand over the card that had been given to me when I’d come in. It was the Queen of Diamonds. (“MEAT”, p.96)
I can tell the queen of diamonds by the way she shines. (Grateful Dead, “Loser”)
Art makes life available. What else does it do? (“MEAT”, p. 98).
Must Rinzai raise his stick? “Kaa!” Do you understand him?
Reimburse the void, for the two of you have become inseparable. Reimburse matter, for it gives what you cannot give. Give, even if it is the last thing you will ever give. Give, and don’t ever remind yourself that you have given. (“MEAT”, p. 112)
Am I meditating or am I half asleep and dreaming? Someone has just stuck his hand inside me and squeezed my heart. “… it is one thing to do it in view of saving the memory, and quite another to try to preserve the remainder, the unforgettable forgotten …”
I can’t tell you where I am.
John Bloomberg-Rissman’s most recent publication is OTAGES, which was written during the recent Israeli/Hizbollah conflict in Lebanon. In 2007 Leafe Press should publish his TRAVELS TO CAPITALS. His current project is a hay(na)ku called NO SOUNDS OF MY OWN MAKING, which in fact includes very few sounds of his own making.