Wild Beast Zero: Some Reflections (Perhaps in a Funhouse Mirror; That, I Know Not) on an Encounter in a Preview of glo’s “And all directions I come to you”
I have been looking recently at a good many books from my youthful years…some, like Goethe’s Faust or Charles Francis Potter’s The Lost Years of Jesus Revealed, from really, really youthful, as in age fourteen. “Looking at,” not “reading,” because I am trying to sort through more than a lifetime’s worth of accumulated detritus. (I inherited things from my parents’ own early lives, like elegantly designed sets of playing cards and bridge tally sheets, things I can neither use nor discard. Kind of like personal memory in that regard.)
One of the books I have thus encountered is the first volume of Erich Neumann’s Jungian text The Origins and History of Consciousness, a book that set my future course rather firmly when I read it in my senior year of college. It wasn’t an assigned text at my experimental interdisciplinary school; in fact, I had to smuggle an in-depth study of depth psychology into my personal curriculum by way of a seminar in literary criticism in which I proposed to approach criticism through phenomenology and “a theology of consciousness.”
So imagine my delight back then at the synchronistic encounter, in the secondhand copy of Neumann’s book that I found at Haslam’s bookshop, with what now seems to me to be an unintended work of conceptual art; the happy accident certainly reflected the ironic visual and textual juxtapositions I had produced the year before in a wall-filling collage in my dorm room without knowing that the genre had a name.
“The fact this volume is being used as a textbook does not mean that the University endorses its contents from the standpoint of morals, philosophy, theology, or scientific hypotheses.” Think these thoughts, in other words, but do not believe them.
Study consciousness, read books that claim to give an analysis of how consciousness operates, but hold fast to your verbally expressed opinions even if everything in the book suggests that you should mistrust your verbally expressed opinions.
I laughed at the idea of a fundamentalist university having to offer a course undermining all its presuppositions, whereas my religiously liberal college offered a smattering of this opinion in our freshman year alongside Freud’s demolition of religion, and never mentioned it again.
I wanted to understand why human beings do all the incredibly strange things that they do, and here was a system that explained it all from the Paleolithic caves onward. All of it, visual art, warfare, erotic obsession, egomania, altruism, pyromaniac barn burning (I’m borrowing that one from the late James Hillman, whose books I also discovered in that year), and whatever else you can give a name to or fail to find a name for.
The only thing that bothered me was that C. G. Jung reported some very strange occurrences in his life in the autobiographical Memories, Dreams, Reflections that his system apparently failed to explain. He didn’t seem to notice the contradiction.
He did express the opinion that empirical research would eventually establish the relationship between the verbal and nonverbal behavior that he analyzed so convincingly and their neurological underpinnings.
All these years later, I remain baffled by why human beings do all the things they do; since all cultures seem equally alien to me and all of them seem to be doing no more than establishing provisional reasons for responding to their physical surroundings in the way that they do, it should come as no surprise that I now find all the psychological explanations to be grounded in the personality types of the people who espouse them. Lacanians have Lacanisn personalities, and I don’t like most of them very much. Jungians have Jungian personalities, and people who believe that consciousness is entirely computational have the kind of personalities you would expect people would have who believe that sort of thing.
It all seems extremely odd. The sciences of human behavior and human culture are constantly claiming to have a degree of certitude that confers predictive value, but they never quite manage to describe the entire empirical situation satisfactorily.
As Erich Heller wrote about Nietzsche’s philosophy, and I quote from fallible memory, “Some philosophies are like mountains; you climb them, or they are too tough for you. In either case, you can be certain of your relationship to them. Other philosophies are like longstanding cities; to ask ‘Do you know Nietzsche?’ is like asking ‘Do you know Rome?’ The answer is simple only if you have never been there.”
By and large, we exist in that latter relationship to our own minds and bodies, and to the surroundings in which we operate. We are strangers to ourselves.
Which, and I swear I was not trying to go there, turns out to be the word (“strangers”) that is operative in the creation of gloAtl’s new dance performance “And all directions I come to you.”
I have about as alien a relationship to dance as I do to human cultures or human psychology; dancers are, whatever else they are, at home in their bodies, which given the right kind of prodding will pretty much do what the dancers want them to do. (I seem to recall a passage from the Apostle Paul about all of this, but I am trying to repress that digression.)
This particular six-hour performance is going to be presented nomadically in parts of Central Park, courtesy of Nato Thompson and Creative Time. I once had an argument (actually, more of an indignant shouting match) with Nato Thompson when he dissed an artist in the audience who just wanted to sit in her studio and make artwork, rather in the way that I am sitting alone in my apartment writing and revising this reflection; I yelled that only an extrovert could possibly view with disdain persons who wanted to sit in seclusion until they had prepared a face to meet the faces that they meet (a “face,” a.k.a. an artwork, and I am quoting T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in that last phrase). All that would have taken too much time to say, so what I yelled was, “Spoken like a true extrovert!” and I don’t remember what I said after that.
For all of that, even introverts have to show up in public occasionally, however much they associate public interaction with past embarrassments. (Public interaction is not the same thing as appearing onstage, where they are not interacting with an audience, they are performing solo.)
Thus did I find myself an audience member at a private preview of the artwork that Lauri Stallings and dancers had been preparing in seclusion in the studio and were now activating for persons whom Lauri considered friends before trying it out on complete strangers. I knew Lauri but not the dancers, being as how I don’t interact with folks after their performances, not if there is a side door through which to avoid face-to-face encounter.
I knew in advance that the piece would require quite a bit of perambulation by the audience, having become rather proud at my capacity to follow the wrong trail and be seduced by the sideshow being performed by a single dancer while the spectacular stuff was taking place at the opposite end of the piazza or the skatepark or wherever. Since I have long noted my tendency to zig when a passerby from the opposite direction is sagging, thus creating mutual immobility and the occasional collision, it came as no surprise that I was constantly occupying the vacant space that an entire troupe of dancers was about to traverse at top speed.
Hence my attempt to get out of the way when the entire group came sweeping by me in what seemed like yet another unintended path-blocking on my part. I continued to retreat, trying to get out of the way, until I realized I was the way.
At that point there was nothing for it but to freeze in my tracks and assume a neutral position, facing the audience but looking neither at them nor at the dancers. It is a posture I have mastered over the years after great effort.
[Photo © Catherine Wilmer and used by prior permission.]
And I stayed frozen and immobile until it became obvious that the dancers were also trying to establish eye contact, a strategy well known from previous gloATL appearances and one of the reasons I try to stay in the back row at anybody at all’s performances known to include audience interaction.
It is one of those introvert’s moments in which it becomes apparent that this is probably the greatest amount of intimacy they have experienced since some rather distressingly distant time, if ever, after which they embrace the artificiality of the situation and go with the flow. (I was too much in the moment to remember it then, but I know from the one scene in which I co-starred in Carol Lafayette’s video based on my poem Skateboarding in Sarajevo, the intense gaze of the performer is accompanied by counting off the seconds.)
We now know, thanks to the notorious New York Times article of a few months ago about how to fall in love with one another when you can’t seem to make it happen, that mutual gazing makes oxytocin levels rise regardless of your opinions in the matter. I loved the whole experience. And the later delectable, deliberate anomaly of the way in which the whole audience was eventually brought into personal communion was fascinating because it worked when I have been in so many similar situations in which it did not, including ones in which I very much longed for it to happen.
I have no idea how all this is going to play out in the company of total strangers* together in Central Park. It would be charming to see some of it happen.
I have omitted, because I was not asked to write about it (this is my response to some other audience members’ request—not glo’s), the actual subtext of the whole performance, the burden of Southern history and the endless task of creating union where there has never, ever been unity. (“The burden of Southern history” is the title of a once-famous book, as I find it necessary to state explicitly before I get credited with coining a phrase.) See the Facebook page for ‘And all directions I come to you.”
The title of this essay comes from the name of the swarming maneuver that forms the central focus of this narrative; “And all directions I come to you” is composed of something like 138 “systems”—not sure of the number—that are invoked in sequence, thus breaking up a very long event into manageable units of movement that can be changed in response to circumstances.
*This phrase is a semi-quotation from Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer,” to which I listened obsessively during my loneliest periods of isolation at age twenty-two in Santa Barbara.