Jan 072017

John Madera


But let us concede that the observation that “wherever you go there you are” is true; what happens, though, when the “there” is a destabilized something or other, that is, is a zone of uncertainty; is this “there” the same there about which Gertrude Stein would reflect on and write: “There is no there there”? In any case, there we were, “there,” on our way to the Absolute Quiet Room, drinking a smoothie (it was a “Hawaiian Lust,” a tangy blend of orange juice, strawberries, bananas, and something else, papaya, maybe?), thinking, as we sipped, about line 462 of Book I of Virgil’s The Aeneid, where you find Aeneas gazing at a Carthaginian temple’s mural depicting battles of the Trojan War, Aeneas, driven to tears as he recalls the deaths of his friends and fellow citizens, saying, “Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt,” which could be translated as “There are tears for things and mortal matters touch the mind,” but which Robert Fagles translates as “The world is a world of tears, and the burdens of mortality touch the heart”; and Robert Fitzgerald as “They weep here / For how the world goes, and our life that passes / Touches their hearts.” Franz Liszt’s Sunt Lacrimae Rerum en Mode Hongrois was a response to the disastrous Hungarian War of Independence and the executions following it. The mournful four-note motif opening the piece is iterated throughout the composition, the piece’s rhythmic angularities colored by both ominous bass and plaintive melodic figures. Strangely enough, James Elkin’s Pictures and Tears, a book purporting to be a history of paintings that have made people cry, doesn’t address Aeneas’s falling apart at the sight of the mural. (Elkin does refer to Ingres’s Virgil Reading the Aeneid to Augustus, which might be an intimation of the abovementioned famous scene.) Perhaps Elkin is making too fine a distinction between characters and people, a distinction that we often find ourselves making with a kind of stringency that may well be worth sometimes being skeptical about. The word lacrimae inevitably always makes us think of the band Tool, whose music offers its own peculiar kind of catharsis, its members once claiming to be inspired to form after reading The Joyful Guide to Lachrymology, a book supposedly written in 1949 by Ronald P. Vincent, a “crop-spray contractor.” It was a hoax, of course. We have been tempted to actually write this book, since crying is something we know something about. We could talk about Roy Orbison’s “Crying,” for instance, a song which has made us cry, a song also used to eerie effect in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. Rita, still awake at two a.m. after having sex with Betty, insists they go to a theater called Club Silencio, where a man onstage explains in several languages that everything is an illusion, after which a woman, after emerging from the stage’s red curtains, begins singing “Crying” in Spanish, said singer collapsing toward the song’s end, the song continuing, the vocals disembodied, as it were, these thoughts leading us to think about the popularly held notion that some things are unthinkable, which leads us to think about the outset of “Are Some Things Unrepresentable?” where Jacques Rancière registers the titular question’s undecidability by first indicating that the notion of the “unrepresentable phenomenon” is often an umbrella term linking a “constellation of allied notions,” that is, “the unrepresentable, the unthinkable, the untreatable, the irredeemable.” Unfortunately, Rancière’s inventory, bolstered by another inventory of specific “phenomena, processes and notions,” doesn’t adequately address the differences between each of these varied phenomena, processes, and notions. We are not sure how defensible it is to simply contest how these disparate terms have been subsumed under the heading of the “unrepresentable phenomenon.” It would have been useful to have these terms defined and to see the ways in which they have been arbitrarily formed and connected. That said, Rancière’s project is a nuanced one: it is a series of inquiries toward ascertaining the circumstances under which an event can be said to be unrepresentable, followed by demonstrations of how that unrepresentability might be unrealizable.

Rancière investigates his subject through the lens of aesthetic inquiry, calling representation a “regime of thinking about art,” his use of the word “regime” surprising, since, for us, it immediately conjures up not only a generalized conception of organizing systems and patterns, but of governmental structures, particularly oppressive ones, its use, however, surely deliberate since one of the primary currents with which this essay engages is the supposedly inexplicable acts performed by fascistic entities. Rancière proceeds by engaging common notions about what art can and cannot do. So then, we have two “heterogeneous logics,” that is, the representative regime and the aesthetic regime, or, as Rancière puts it, a “Platonic plain tale” and “a new art of the sublime,” the majority of the essay finding Rancière disentangling these intertwining logics, while also engaging with Lyotard’s idea of the “‘witness’s narrative’”: “a new mode of art,” an idea which, though necessarily inadequate, is supposedly intrinsically capable of attesting to the existence of something that is unrepresentable.

Rancière refutes Lyotard’s new sublime by addressing the witness narrative, a seemingly singular attestation, as it were, as it pertains to the Holocaust, comparing the language, or, more specifically, the “paratactic linking of simple perceptions” that Robert Antelme employs in The Human Race (an eyewitness account of his imprisonment in Nazi concentration camps) with that found in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, demonstrating that the language of testimony is no different from the “common language of literature.” Rancière argues that this “extreme experience of the inhuman confronts no impossibility of representation; nor is there a language peculiar to it. There is no appropriate language for witnessing”; it is instead a manifestation of qualities typical of the aesthetic regime, and is therefore intelligible.

Rancière concludes his essay by returning to the titular question, claiming that the idea that “some things can only be represented in a certain type of form, by a type of language appropriate to their exceptionality” is “vacuous,” reminding us of the passage in George Perec’s W, or the Memory of Childhood, where the narrator also confronts the idea of the unsayable: “I do not know whether I have anything to say, I know that I am saying nothing; I do not know if what I might have to say is unsaid because it is unsayable (the unsayable is not buried inside of writing, it is what prompted it in the first place); I know what I say is blank, is neutral, is a sign, once and for all, of a once-and-for-all annihilation,” the narrator’s circumlocutions suggesting that what is unsayable is ultimately what is actually left unsaid, which makes us think that what we thought we had known we do not now know. Until now, only we knew that we had known and do not now know what we had known. If only we did not know that we had known what we did not know and only we knew what we had not known and had known what we know now before we knew what we had known. We know that we knew that we did not know because knowing what we now know about what we knew we did not know about what we knew back then and knowing what we knew we had known about what we know and did not know back then has shown us that we do not know what we know about what we had known and did not know and do not know now.

Yes, there we were, thinking about thinking, and thinking about so-called intellectual property, thinking that if ideas are property, then they are meant to be trespassed; in other words, there we were, profoundly enjoying our Thursday, until we realized it was Monday, realizing our mistake as we passed Mt. Hope Community Baptist Church’s lawn, where a sign reads: “Words can make things wither and they can bring dead things to life,” making us think, first, of the Gospel of John and the Logos, and then also making us think about Derrida’s attack on “logocentrism,” but then also making us think about another sign that we are not sure we had ever seen but had simply heard about, namely, “Stop, drop, and roll isn’t going to work in Hell,” which made us think of another sign, which we are sure we had often seen when we worked in Jamaica, Queens, a sign that was unironically suffused with schadenfreude: “When your back is up against the wall, remember that Christ’s was on the cross,” all of which made us return to our own uncertainty about certainty, especially with regard to ideas and beauty, and language, doubting whether language could be anything other than a figure, a representation of a thing, rather than the thing itself, wondering whether we would ever know the thing itself, and whether it was even important to ever be able to identify that thing.

Blocks away from the Absolute Quiet Room, we heard cawing and looked up toward crows flying above our heads, and watched the ever-shifting patternings of their flight, and followed them to where they eventually landed, that is, a copse of oak trees, five of them, in fact, on old Prospect Street. The trees were bare, of course, though, probably as confused as the rest of us were by the sudden change in weather, their uppermost branches bent by crows. There must have been a hundred of them, black black and cawing, and we realized, with all due respect to Wallace Stevens, that there were more than thirteen ways to look at them.

Before you come to the Absolute Quiet Room, you will find on the wall, immediately to your left, a reproduction of a Mark Rothko painting flanked by two nondescript abstractions by some easily forgotten artist, each of those paintings clearly indebted to Rothko’s approach, but each one, though sharing, superficially, a similar palette to the aforementioned painting, containing similar hues of oranges, blacks, and yellows, actually contain nothing of the gravitas, the pathos of the Rothko, a painting which even in reproduction, substantially and necessarily reduced in size (the reproduction at about one by five feet appearing to be what we imagine is only a quarter the size of the original), and the icy glare from the crisp squares of fluorescent light, not to mention the reflection of the area itself, a convergence of lines where the ceiling and walls meet behind us, an image which is nevertheless still imbued with light, color-saturated lozenges floating within an overall field of magma-like intensity, these tiny swatches dissolving into the overall orange field, like disks of aspirin which have been plopped into liquid, fogging up its contents (much like the ice in the cup belonging to the woman who sat in front of the poster while we looked at it); a large black rectangular shape portentously taking up about two-thirds of the field, the combination of orange and black not conjuring up the Halloween we are most acquainted with, that is, an anesthetized, a Mickey Mouse version, of the Day of the Dead, but, rather, of death itself, that black shape like an amoral splotch of cancer slowly metastasizing, in quiet resolve and confidence, wrecking an otherwise healthy body, that black shape reminding us of Rothko’s final paintings, each one a portal, of a kind, into darkness; which makes us think of Andrew Bird’s “Dark Matter”; which makes us think how, on a terrible day, years back, falling face forward toward glass-scattered concrete, we had not been thinking about how it, the ground, looked like a shattered kaleidoscope, or about how Billy had called us a cocksucker, or how that was not an insult anyway—not that we were gay or anything—or about how this fight was a long time coming (we had long tired of Billy’s duplicity), or about how, later, our scar-streaked face would remind us of some phosphorescent and tentacled slimy thing on the ocean floor, or a paper birch’s branches, anything dendritic really, like the lightning that shook us awake as a toddler, forcing us to cry, only to have our mother tell us that it was nothing, that we should be a big boy, that we should go right to bed; we had not been thinking of any of those things, thinking, instead of one of Rothko’s black squares, as if plunging into its maw, its absence, its erasure, that emptiness thrumming in our chest whenever we think back to the fight; and as our face smashed against the ground, and a tooth squeezed down our throat like an aspirin, we had not been thinking that Esther, Sasha, and especially Jasmine, who were all standing around screaming, were all secretly rooting for us, rather than trying to keep us from getting completely pummeled, and we had not been thinking about how, just moments before, we had splashed our beer across Billy’s face because Billy had told these same three women how we had peed on ourselves when we were in the first grade, and as Billy’s boots carved into our stomach, and the bouncer from Mulchahy’s was pulling Billy away saying, “Get off him or deal with me, Motherfucker!” we had not been thinking about the sweet sick smell wafting from the hot dog stand on the corner, or the bus’s seeming illness as its doors congestedly wheezed open, or how everything went wrong, how everything always went wrong whenever Billy was around, and as we grabbed his shoe that somehow wriggled off when we were getting our ass kicked we watched Billy jump into the bus, and then threw our shoe at the bus, and saw Billy’s unmarked but beer-wet face curled into that same sitcom smile, and Billy flipped the bird at us, we had not thought of how Billy had once again got the last word, instead thinking how everything was what it was, turned out to be what it turned out to be: bus fumes, tires spinning, rainbow in oil, us tonguing our cheek; which makes us think back to the splotch, leading to thinking about news we had recently received about our ex-father-in-law, who has just begun experiencing “monocular transient blindness,” a symptom of what they refer to as a “mini-stroke,” a man we were once close to, who will, in a few days, have surgery to remove the plaque in his carotid artery, which is ninety-five percent blocked; thoughts of these correspondences raising, for us, a kind of skepticism about what might be described as circumstantial contiguities, the resonance of which, at first, brings satisfaction, but which, after reflecting that these were all really just incidental accidents, fills us, in the end, with horror, making us think about Henry James’s preface to The Turn of the Screw, where he writes: “My values are positively all blanks save so far as an excited horror, a promoted pity, a created expertness,” making us further feel that the tenuous grasp we have on meaning is about to snap.

A person, just passing us, sounded like he said, “ex nihilo reflexivity.”

Then there is the question of the woman, whose presence underneath (she is sitting) the faux Rothko has prevented us from properly deciphering what is apparently a signature on the hack’s painting. She has asked us to watch over her computer so that she may use the restroom. Actually, what she had meant was would we care to look after her rust-colored sweater, which was draped over the candied-apple red leather chair, from which she had just risen; the two spiral notebooks, one of which, the traffic-divider yellow (a yellow that also reminded us of the jaundiced disc and glowing goop wedged within the croissant of a promised egg and cheese sandwich purchased from a local eatery) one, rather than the sick pink one, stood on her seat against the inner-part of the armrest; the opened spiral notebook sitting on the aerodynamic circular table with wooden top and metal legs; her plastic cup of iced coffee, the ice having long since watered down what had probably once been a caramel brown into a kind of blanched tan, if that were possible; the empty, overturned bottle of, what was it? Sprite? Mountain Dew? or some other rarefied promise of sparkly effervescence, a kind of quintessence of delight, but what was instead a plastic container of citrus syrupy swill and fizzy ooze; an empty paper bag (But how do we know that it was really empty, since, from the angle from which we had observed it, said bag could not with any degree of certainty be said to, in fact, be empty. In any case, we can say that the bag bulged out in such a way that suggested it contained nothing save, perhaps, a straw’s long since removed papery husk and perhaps even the straw itself, nicked at its top from its respective drinker’s teeth.); the army green bag on the floor; the almost pocket-sized notebook (also enspiraled and also splayed open, with about four handwritten lines of text inscribed on it, as undecipherable as the abovementioned signature, alas); the textbook that she placed on the seat, which was still indented from her buttocks, the book’s opened page containing a bar graph; the unopened bottle of water standing between the almost-finished cup of iced coffee and the black pouch-like thing, presumably the case for the abovementioned laptop.

Said woman returned and did not acknowledge us in any way, forgot to thank us, in fact, instead lifting her textbook from the chair, positioning her face in such away as to offer us a perfect profile, displaying a disproportionately large head, her oak-tree-leaf brown hair styled into a sumo wrestler’s absurd coiffure, the sight of which forced us to quickly scan away from her head and down toward her toes, which were covered by her heinous sandals, Birkenstocks, in fact, which we were surprised to discover are still sold and, even more surprisingly, bought.

Someone, a bearded boy, stopped to talk to the abovementioned woman, saying something about the so-called big picture, saying it was a picture without borders, quickly adding something about his abiding belief in the power of love as the guiding and redeeming energy of the Universe, quickly claiming that on some days he was a Gnostic Christian Mystic and other days a Taoist, but most of the time he was neither of these things, just someone enamored of readings and musings about the world around him and within him. The woman, who had tossed requisite oh-my-gods like stones into his meandering river of talk, finally told him that she had to study, after which he embraced her, whispering something in her ear, from which hung an enormous earring, which used to be referred to as “doorknockers.” We should say that our comment about Birkenstocks was admittedly a flippant one, a flippancy you may find in similar comments we have made about those ridiculous winter boots supposedly from Australia you see all kinds of people wearing, that flippancy, though, coming with an awareness that our own preferences are subject to our own subjectivities, and are therefore tangled with our own biases, blind spots, and whatever other limitations. As we think about this, we find ourselves feeling like we should talk about how one’s sense of “beauty” is arguably more the result of nurture than of nature, how what constitutes what is beautiful, sexy, or whatever is the result of a play of intertwining scripts and discourses, while also registering how difficult it is for women to find clothing, and especially shoes, that are comfortable at all, let alone comfortable and sexy, all kinds of notions of gender, commerce, sexism, and on and on surfacing for me, which should immediately and necessarily cast suspicion on anything we might say about “beauty.” That said (and at the risk of hurting your feelings, which we really do not wish to do, so please forgive us), Birkenstocks have to be the ugliest footwear we have ever seen, displacing the boots we have described above by a wide margin, but also (and by a lesser margin) most of the sportier sandals other companies have produced. They are clunky things that make feet look like they have been bandaged by leather strips and some cardboard and cork-like amalgam used because there was nothing else available, inevitably making said feet look almost exponentially bigger. We have the same critique about most men’s footwear, generally speaking. In fact, when it comes to buying boots, we usually start in the “women’s section”— scare-quoted to highlight that these sections are gendered and therefore constructions. We are silly enough to think that companies prey on the idea that you cannot reconcile “beauty” with comfort, that is, deliberately uglifying über-comfortable products. When it comes to sandals, you will most likely find us wearing Havaianas flip flops, which we find simple, sleek, and comfortable.

What we are suggesting, in other words, is that the Absolute Quiet Room, its surround, is a kind of discordia concors.

—John Madera

John Madera’s fiction may be found in Conjunctions, Opium Magazine, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other publications. His criticism may be found in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, and many other print and online venues. Madera edits the forum Big Other.


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