Tuesday, September 29, 2009

My current life

Dear oh dear, I want to post, I want to edit, I want to write, I want to clarify, edify, amplify, all those fly things, but have painted myself into a corner of work with no time for reflection.  If you are looking for any articles here, the Myth, Mirror Neurons, and Stanislavski piece is here.  Just look for it.  And, stay tuned till after October 15.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Necessary Ritual and Play: Losing One of Our Own-



This article was prompted by the sudden death of my former student Ricci Anselmi.



PROLOGUE



Late in August of 2007, before our school year at The Theatre School began, some of our students were rehearsing a production of the Misanthrope.  In the cast was a young man with whom I had worked in the previous year.  His name was Ricci Anselmi, and he was among the most promising students of his year.  He was set to graduate in June of 2008.  On a lunch break from rehearsal he was killed riding his skateboard.  He had gone to the local snack shop and never returned. At first, the young actors at the rehearsal waited for Ricci to return with no idea that anything had happened four blocks away.  Finally, they got word that he had been taken to the hospital and was seriously injured and not expected to recover.



The cast and other students immediately went to the hospital to say their last good-byes.  Ricci was not injured physically, his head had struck a curb and his death probably occurred more or less immediately.  He bore no scars and rested in the bed as if asleep. The students visiting spontaneously began singing to him, popular songs they knew together, hymns, and songs from school productions.  Some danced and some recited poetry.  All talked to him as if he were alive to receive their last wishes.  All of this in his hospital room.


His death left a deep wide hole in the fabric of our school and it will never be the same.
 


Two days later, the opening day of school, the theatre school celebrated, as we always have, with a party thrown in the outdoor courtyard that is encompassed by the four sides of our building.  Every member of the staff, faculty, and student body attends this picnic, and we cancel the first afternoon of classes for it. In general, this is a time to greet everyone, to rejoice in our love for each other, and for the graduating seniors to begin their campaign to raise funds for the pictures, resumes, and trips they will need for their official entrance into the business.  They hold a raffle and provide the entertainment at this event.  Ricci had entered school as a freshman with this group of young actors.
Of course, Ricci’s death prompted the administration to question whether such an event would be appropriate.  The graduating seniors responded that it was to be made in honor of Ricci.


A somber crowd gathered, with the exception of the new class of freshmen who didn’t really understand what was going on.  As we all talked softly and ate our pizza, the graduating seniors full of their trained athleticism bound up onto the raised wooden platform in the corner of the yard.  All eleven of them standing together minus their missing brother. They began by once again announcing Ricci’s death for those who hadn’t heard the news, and then gave a brief eulogy.  They followed the eulogy with a rap-song co-written for the occasion by the class, with a call and response from the audience.  It focused on Ricci’s daredevil life; on his frequent run-ins with authority, and the responding words expected of the audience were something like “Ricci was a bastard who rode his way to heaven”.  I am sure it was more profane than this, but my amazed response at the released energy in the courtyard kept me from really knowing anything much--- except that I felt renewed and able to move forward as did everyone in the yard.  Ricci began to move from the realm of the human to the gates of the gods.  He became a trickster in the minds of all of us and we were somehow given solace because of this and the enormous laughter that reverberated off the walls of the surrounding school as the song took its effect.  It was the laughing that did it, not the crying and not the eulogy.
Ricci is still alive in all of our memories, both those who knew him, and for those hapless freshmen who entered our midst when such grief stood upon us.  As we left the courtyard, we were all changed both in ourselves with the others who had been at the event.


As a passionate theatre practitioner, I believe that the most fundamental use of our ancient art form is the reconciliation of humanity with itself, with the gods, and therefore with the natural and metaphysical world. That reconciliation seemed to me to have taken place in the courtyard that August. Theatre for me is not necessarily what happens in a designated performing space; it occurs whenever an “actor” and an “audience” willingly appear.  This coming-together- spilt, this dualism exists for a certain amount of time and when it dis-appears, the two parts leave each other with a greater appreciation for their shared-ness as well as their separateness. The quality of live theatre itself involves a sensual, nearly fleshly exchange between the spectators and the actors.  Whether behind masks as for the ancient Greeks, or behind grease paint, or naked-faced, or dancing in front of a dying youth in a hospital room, actors exist biologically in the same space as the audience but separate from it.  As the brilliant British director and acting theoretician Declan Donnellan says, “A theatre is not only a literal space, but also a place where we dream together; not merely a building but a space that is both imaginative and collective.”  


Imitation and imagination are the original technologies of learning and remain the methods by which babies learn to survive in the world.  The joy of discovery and the necessity of role–enactment are genetic and shared by both humans and many not humans as well. We all play the copycat game. Actors may, through some exceptionally sensitive mirror- neuronic activity continue to “enact,” but everyone is born an actor.  For any child to learn, he or she must be curious, attentive, observant, and mimetic.  These little scientists test theories of nature and human nature through interactive and imitative play. As the child learns, he or she must be rewarded for success. “Eating, walking, talking, all are developed by copying and applause.  Whatever human instinct is latent, it reaches virtuosity only after acute observation, repetition, and performance.  Acting is a reflex, a mechanism for development and survival.” Thus the making of theatre, mimesis with an audience is one of the primary experiences of early life.


As a child’s experiments and learning begin to bear fruit, the growing consciousness soon discovers that not all discoveries are pleasurable.  Some discoveries are painful.  Some demand more energy than seems possible.  The world begins to expand exponentially and threatens to reel out of control. Some way of capturing it is required.  In order to get a handle on things, we codify things, name things, disregard most things, and deny many things, as a response to the painful experience and observation of unpleasantness.  We decide against moving onto further research at quite a young age.  It is as if we set out purposefully to blind ourselves. As if we decide that we must limit the vastness of human joy and terror, simply to avoid being overwhelmed.


As we begin to darken and focus the lenses of our minds, by accepting certain things into our world and eliminating others, what emerges is what we begin to call a ‘self.’—’Self’ as a reduction of possibility. —’Self’, as a closing down of expansion. As we separate our ‘self’ from the other less rewarding possible “selves” we perform a succession of self- abortions. However, somewhere left in the dark reaches of the brain is the loneliness for those lost others, the ones we left behind, the ones we didn’t become.  Perhaps this is the true beginning of existential shame for us, the burying of a multiplicity of potential beings, so that we may stand-alone.  The feeling of being alone and “only” begins to take hold, and it too terrifies us. We long to re-unite, not only with the former familial audience, but also with our forgotten potential lives.  The actor, Forest Whitaker said the following in his acceptance speech for his Oscar: “...when I first started acting, it was because of my desire to connect to everyone--to that thing inside each of us. That light that I believe exists in all of us. Because acting for me is about believing in that connection and it's a connection so strong, it's a connection so deep, that we feel it. And through our combined belief, we can create a new reality.”


Not only the various forms of theatre, but also religion, dreams, and simple people-watching becomes a means for us to re-visit that which we deserted; to be re-united with a half-forgotten reality if only for a while. The left-behind others about whom I speak, include not only our mourned-for frail other-selves, but all of the strong, single-minded appetites on which we might have built alternative lives and identities, the tyrants, the mischief makers, the saints, the hedonists, the builders, the martyrs, the torturers, the dancers, the executioners, the sensualists, the explorers, the madonnas, the gluttons, the criminals, the lovers.  They include the lions and tigers and monkeys and snakes and eagles and elephants and coyotes and dogs we could have been.  All of these qualities of ravenous need form the archetypes familiar to us from the legends of many cultures and are hardwired and given faces in our unconscious world. It is truly unfortunate that we live in a more or less One God world; it seems so much more prudent to have many with whom to commune, who are not quite so awesome. Rather like being in a large family where Dad and Mom are so busy just feeding and housing the brood that the sisters and brothers become lesser gods for each other.


Like such a large family, religion and theatre provide the spaces, both actual and metaphoric in which to connect physically, intellectually, and emotionally with our archetypes alongside the equally disconnected other humans walking among us.  The rituals performed by the actors and priests with their dances, movement, and words serve to unite us with the powerful symbols of our archetypes and to aid in our acceptance of the helpful and our rejection of the hurtful.  The rituals repeat symbolically the old stories, sometimes literally, sometimes metaphorically.  Often the metaphor is lost to the participant, but there is still comfort in its very being.


In religion, I postulate, the more frequently we participate in these performances, the more accustomed we are to them, the more comfort we tend to receive from them.  Religion exists to make us feel good about ourselves (if we obey the rules) as well as to create an orderly view of the universe and perhaps the afterlife.


Theatre’s function is to educate and entertain, not to make us feel good about ourselves nor secure in the universe.  And when it is good it challenges the rules and forces us to see things differently. As a theatre practitioner, I am aware that there are only, arguably, forty-six plots, or twelve or four depending on your reference.  Be that as it may, there are a finite number of stories.  If one also understands that there are only seven or eight essential relationships, one can easily see that, given some arithmetic beyond my capabilities, there are no new stories.  Both theatre and religion repeat the old stories; that is a major part of their ritual function, but only the theatre intends to irritate us with new questions about the old stories.  Even when it has no political or sociological ax to grind, its function, besides ritual, is that of investigation into what makes us human and how to interpret the world around us.


Formal theatre (and I include film as well) in the United States has, for the most part, moved beyond it’s ancient traditions and been relegated by its general public to entertainment with the occasional serious piece thrown in for balance.  Also, and with few exceptions, the American theatre has never been very political and rarely symbolic.  The need for communal access to more universal ideas dealing with Rudolph Otto’s ‘mysterium tremendum’ seems to have been lost or rejected in the original colonies as a function of art in general. This was probably owing, in part, to the religious suspicion of the power of the churches’ secular and obstreperous brother to create doubt in the mind of its audience.  The pilgrims and religious zealot who made up a powerful percentage of our orignal settlers wanted the audience for themselves, and wished to eradicate the sensuality implicit in the art of performance.  The European theatre they had left was at its apogee when they departed. The beauty of the language, the frankness of the stories, and the complexity of the ideas and arguments addressed at that time were truly astonishing.  This theatre, and its later writings, was available to a large number of people of any rank and the Protestant churches must have been truly envious.


Our Western theatre tradition began, at least according to some theorists, with the golden age of the Athenian theatre.  The Greeks saw theatre attendance as a necessary part of citizenship because it served several functions simultaneously.  We believe that the rituals of this theatre themselves were based on the sacrifice of a goat in early Greek religious practices.  We know the first actors were also priests.  As this began to change, as the Athenians became a democracy, the theatre was given a larger function. It united the citizenry on a psychic level, it re-enforced Greek political values of argument and counter-argument, and third it educated the potentially under-educated crowds both politically and morally. As Greece developed, so also did its theatre both for good and for ill.  The writing became increasingly more humanly complex as the qualifications for citizenship became narrower.  At the end, only the elite were left to attend.


Also, for the Greeks, the theatre was not a weekly or even monthly event; it was connected to a religious or civic festival and took place outdoors as a part of other competitive events.  The festivals of Dionysius included winners and losers amongst the playwrights and eventually among the actors.  The writers were also statesmen, soldiers, citizens and businessmen, and therefore an integrated portion of the elite community. However, there was little conflict between the temple and the theatre at the time.  Such an idea would have been considered absurd.  Of course Plato did come along and begin the proposed destruction of to theatre and mimesis which was almost completed by the Christians. But before him, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes mounted their astonishing works for the eternally grateful world.



At the festival of Dionysius, the largest of the Greek religious events, playwrights had to offer three tragedies and a comedy.  This combination acknowledged that tragic feelings needed to be cauterized with the hot blade of comedy.  And the comedies of the Greeks were generally satires based on present day events while the tragedies were most often historical and therefore metaphorical.  Finally, though, the problem that beset the Greeks was the same problem that besets the modern theatre in America.  It is an elitist event witnessed by elite audiences.


Most of my fellow theatre practitioners would attribute this problem to a lack of exposure to audiences whom they assume would fall in love with the experience as they themselves did.  So we truck children by the busload to productions of Hamlet, or Antigone, or whatever else is edifying, and can’t understand when they don’t return.  We attribute a lack of finances to our inability to advertise sufficiently, disregarding the amazing popularity of such black shows as Men, Money and Golf Diggers advertised only by small African-American centered publications and handbills.  If we look around us, we will see that sunny, romantic, upbeat Broadway musicals are recycled endlessly throughout the land at high schools and community theatres and that Wicked is not having trouble getting an audience.  The black plays on the famous ‘chitlin circuit’ tend to be very well attended despite their expense.  And they draw an audience of people who rarely attend the kinds of ‘serious theatre’ we theatre folk flock to see.  These shows are not ‘serious’ theatre, and therefore beneath our contempt, while they find audiences and money right beneath our much too sensitive noses.  We have fallen victim to our own pessimism and tend to forget that pessimism and darkness are the part of life that most people want respite from.  These shows do, however feature, clear and linear story lines with archetypal figures in the plot configurations.  Their only fault from our theatrically pure perspective is a sentimental desire for a laugh and the possibility of a happy ending, just like the comedies at the end of the tragedies several thousands years ago.  Or just like our elevation of Ricci Anselmi to demi-god status.


The difference in subject matter between the big shows attended by people who would never consider going to one of our earnest store fronts or our towering institutions is that they want to laugh as well as cry, and most of us theatre folks want them to think deeply about our offerings and possibly become politically or socially active and possibly cry as well.


As far as serious theatre, theatre that deeply examines issues using theatrical expression, we are pretty useless to change the world. We know this. We mope about it, we are self-righteous about it, we shake our fists at TV for taking our rightful audience, but finally we know the problem.  We may be just too snooty, too taken with our importance.


We have pooh-poohed the very means by which we might be effective—vaudeville and musical theatre, clowning and dancing. We have forgotten how to entertain. Right now, many things are happening to change that attitude the Blue Man Group, Second City, the bread and puppet theatre, the Cirque du Soleil, the renewed interest in Clowning all are pointing the way through their use of humor, spectacle, and astonishing physical athleticism.  The current theatre sees itself as needing to engage physically more that with language—there is a danger in this insofar as it moves from a theatre of narrative to one of sensation only.  However, if the theatre is to be an effective vehicle for change, it must be far more entertaining, more physically arresting and far less self-conscious without losing it ability to tell an old story.  It must re-unite its audiences with itself in a far more recognizable way.


A while ago,  I went to see a film called “Charley Wilson’s War.”  I went because I was interested in the subject matter, the war in Afghanistan, but also because Tom Hanks and Phillip Seymour Hoffman were in it.  It is the only film on the topic of the war I have ventured out to see since “The Departed” which I dutifully saw.  The film was enormously entertaining, full of wit and featuring some great archetypes, the reformed reprobate, the wise but gruff guru, the beautiful temptress, the uptight bureaucrat, the dumb crook, and lots of goddesses.  I recognized all of these types and took great delight in seeing them played by some wonderful actors who shook the truth out of these old stand-bys.  As we left the theatre, my friend reported that Charley Wilson was one of the few movies concerning the Middle East that was making money for the studios.  My guess is the reason for this is the easy recognizability of the demi-gods and the comedy of the whole thing.


As far as I can see, most of the citizens of the US regardless of political leanings have been in mourning for the death of our culture, our dreams, our soldiers, and our government.  We need to go to the metaphoric courtyard, to mourn, to eulogize, and then to actively laugh as we all participate to heal the rift in our hearts and souls.


So where does that leave us theatre people in the fight against the most urgent and challenging of all the wars, the fight for the environment?  It seems obvious, that in spite of our fears, we must go outside, we must joke, we must make merry, we must find the archetypes that soothe, we must press the flesh. We must cut the giants of terror down to size.  We must embrace a new Commedia, a new space and a new form of spectacle.  We must create a series of wakes for our fallen planet. 

Let us have burials and wakes for the trees we know we will lose to infestation, let us remember the parks that used to exist and plant afresh. Let us join together with the environmentalists, the oceanographers, the weather scientists, and make something of our shared problems. Let us create intrusions of a comic and musical variety into the workaday world.  Bring a cow to the town square and sing to it; decorate the land to be destroyed, rip out invasive species and howl as we do so and then plant again, stage events in alleys where the garbage lurks. Celebrate the hunters who cull the herds of starving deer, rather than cursing them. Lets us close off streets on Arbor Day and name the trees.  There are many, many things we can do that get us back into the courtyard at in The Theatre School at Depaul University to mourn, and then to celebrate, and then to get back to work strengthened as a community because of our mutual participation in the theatre of life.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Neuronarrative

Neuronarrative Shared via AddThis

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Myths, Mirror Neurons, and Stanislavski



I have much to do before I really will feel ready to publish this article.  Many colleagues have graciously read it and given me truly constructive criticism.  However, because my students are asking me about it so frequently, I am posting it here.  If you read it and have observations, criticisms, annoyances, or whatever, please feel free to comment.  I am not wedded to anything in it but the ideas and the transmission of these ideas.


“Haven’t you ever been aware, in life or onstage, when in communication with other people, of a current emanating from your will flowing through your eyes, your fingertips, your skin? What shall we call this method of communication? Emitting and receiving rays, signals? Radiating out and radiating in? In the absence of an alternative terminology let us stick with these words since they illustrate very clearly the kind of communication I have to talk to you about. In the near future, when this invisible current has been studied by science, a more appropriate terminology will be established.”[1] Konstantin Stanislavski.

 These rays/signals, radiating out and radiating in were encountered in a laboratory in Parma, Italy in 1996 by a team of neurophysiologists led by Giacomo Rizolatti. This team was studying the brain responses of Macaque monkeys when grasping objects with their hands.

“ . . . the neurophysiologist, Vittorio Gallese was moving around the lab during a lull in the day’s experiment. A monkey was sitting quietly in the chair, waiting for her next assignment. Suddenly, just as Vittorio reached for something, he does not remember what, he heard a burst of activity from the computer that was connected to the electrodes that had been surgically implanted in the monkey’s brain . . .Vittorio immediately thought the reaction was strange. The monkey was just sitting quietly, not intending to grasp anything, yet this neuron affiliated with the grasping action had fired nevertheless.”

What this meant was undeniable; the idea that monkey see, monkey “virtually” do is true.

We now partially understand what Stanislavski knew all along; the waves or rays are known as mirror neurons. This article will attempt to describe the implications of this research for actors, directors, and acting teachers through an examination of myth and archetype as a means to access such neuronal response in both actor and audience.  If one considers that responses to archetypal images, actions, characters are on some level physiological, it would then follow that such images would excite this type of mirror neuronal activity.

Mirror neurons, simply put, are elements in the brain that fire unconsciously in the presence of another person’s activity. Consider a baseball fan watching a player hit a ball; Fmri imaging research shows that mirror neurons light up in the same area of the fan’s brain as those in the brain of the hitter. The viewers of the game and the player have the same neuronal pattern; their brains are synchronized by the firing of these mirror neurons. Furthermore, if our fan in the stands has at some point actually played baseball, the neurons will be even more excited than those in someone who has never played or seen a ballgame. What this implies is that we as humans respond to recognizable actions in recognizable situations that because of their familiarity have the power to engage us on a biological level.

 At the base of dramatic texts is the telling of stories (either linear or non-linear, spoken or silent) that deal with basic human difficulties, and the attempt by the characters to find solutions to those problems. In order for a story to be recognizable to an audience, actors must do actions with intentions that are meant to overcome these obstacles, just as the baseball player needs to overcome the pitcher and the fielders by hitting, bunting or sacrificing in order to win the game. Actions for actors therefore can be understood as something done either physically or verbally with intentions. And as many acting teachers have found, if the action/intention is conceived of physically, its effectiveness for the actor and for his/her partner is stronger. This is true partially because such ideas move toward basic animal urges that are stronger and less sophisticated than the more shaded gradations of language usage.  My belief is that such physical imagery on the part of the actor activates the actor’s mirror neurons, simply through the kinesthetic visualization necessary to conceive it. Another aspect of mirror neuron research strongly suggests that these neurons pick up not only the physical aspects of action but also the intention behind it for the viewer.

As we know, scenes and acts are compilations, either linear or episodic, of actions/intentions leading to desired ends. It therefore follows that the viewer’s mirror neurons will be physically reinforced by the clarity of the actor’s actions and intentions. This clarity can be strengthened through the actor’s commitment to finding the physical action beneath the psychological. Joseph Campbell says in Transformations of Myth Through Time "Art is the clothing of a revelation." We as theatre artists must translate into visible reality, the myths and revelations presented to us by our playwrights and poets.

Physically conceived action/intention can be a direct and non-intellectual translation of deeply seated feelings, needs, and desires that cannot be fully verbalized. And these are revealed and understood partially as a result of the activity of mirror neurons.

Plays have as their skeletons, a mix of the essential relationships and stories that in the past have been explicated in myth and ritual. They constitute memories begun in forgotten times and in dreams enacted around campfires. When the actor or director or designer digs deeply to find the bones of these narratives under the layers formed by the accretions of time and place, and reveals these bones bare, their mythical and archetypal natures are released and form a bridge for the viewer to the essential meanings obscured by day-to-day life. Both actor and audience are bound together in the time that is “Once upon a time.”

Theatre from this perspective can constitute some of the most compelling rituals remaining in our society.  It is as if, in re-enacting the myth beneath the plot, the actors awaken a set of mirror neurons that remove the separateness of the audience and join it with the actors and with itself. For such ritual re-enactments to take place, powerful and archetypal characters and relationships must be called to the place of battle and engagement.

Jung suggests that an archetype is a person, a relationship, or a situation that is so rooted in our DNA that in its presence we are moved in emotionally. Archetypal characters are embodiments of powers and energies whose clashes are the eternal working out of the joyful/sorrowful songs of life and death.They may be called by different names in different times and places because they must speak to the individual culture; however, whatever the name, the acknowledgement of the energy or power being personified can be said to be universal because these powers emerge from our shared biology not from our separate societies.

If an actor’s job is to engage the audience either emotionally or intellectually, it would then follow that when she is truly effective, it is because she has hit upon an archetype of some kind either consciously or unconsciously and hooked into the actions underlying the archetypal role. She is channeling, if you will, a shamanistic activity, and when that occurs, the mirror neurons of all are engaged because of the shared recognition of the mysterious comedy/tragedy of life.

“All the most powerful ideas in history go back to archetypes. This is particularly true of religious ideas, but the central concepts of science, philosophy, and ethics are no exception to this rule. In their present form they are variants of archetypal ideas created by consciously applying and adapting these ideas to reality. For it is the function of consciousness not only to recognize and assimilate the external world through the gateway of the senses, but to translate into visible reality the world within us.” Carl  Jung

To this end, it seems appropriate that actors, directors, designers, dramaturgs, and acting teachers study myth, ritual, and archetypes and find ways to consciously translate these unconscious powers.

Joseph Campbell says that a myth is a recounting of a hero’s journey out of his community or place of balance, and into a fearful world where he must confront fearful powers before returning to the place of peace. His return brings with it a new knowledge for the hero and the community itself. I began my own exploration of the idea of “Acting Myth” following Campbell’s idea that the essence of any hero’s journey is to risk the confrontation with chaos whether willingly or not in order to grow.

The hero shakes up the world and is shaken by it in turn; there is no other way for meaningful growth to happen. As Nietzsche says, "All learning is suffering, and all suffering, learning." This exit into the world of shapes and trials is simply a replaying of the birth trauma, and the desire to return to the womb of unknowingness. This idea is central to tragedy, but as is obvious, it applies equally to all forms of drama. The hero must do things that are out of his/her sphere of experience in order to overcome the obstacles on the way. These kinds of actions are inherently theatrical in their uniqueness; they need not be logical in this world, but because we are in a mythical time and place, they are appropriate. To return to the idea of mirror neurons, one could say that the witnessing of  this surprising but recognizable quest, will create a more excited neuronal activity because the ideas presented emanate from our shared biology, but the situation is changed in such a way as to draw us in.

 I further believe that, as in life, every character in a play believes him or herself to be the hero of his or her own life. So, as the actor prepares, he or she must examine the journey of their own characters. If everyone in the story seems him or herself as the protagonist, the resulting collisions are more profound than the idea that the hero has a subordinate cast. Each character in the play brings a particular power to the world, a visceral attachment to his or her primal antecedents.  None are more or less important, none more right or wrong, none either good or bad.

Because life is the never ending struggle to balance order with chaos, government with anarchy, freedom with restraint. I believe that every character is motivated by the desire for more order or for more chaos depending on their given circumstances. I use the word chaos because of its ancient underpinnings for western civilization and its links to terror, sex, and death . However, as a means of speaking to my students, I often employ the archetypal conflict of pragmatist(order) vs. romantic(chaos) or, and more easily, Peter Pan (chaotic, romantic, right brained, etc) versus Wendy (orderly, pragmatic, left brained). From this perspective, Peter Pan is the eternal willful child with the possibility of both cruelty and total dependence (puer aeternus) and Wendy is the eternal mother (mater aeternus) with equal control of nurturance and abandonment. Peter’s ability to fly is an ancient dream of immortality, of breaking from the earth, of escaping death as symbolized by human limitation and Wendy, the true hero of the story, escapes the earth to fly off with a godlike creature in order that she may choose her destiny consciously rather than mindlessly.  The story has roots in the primary myths of the Middle East.

The two archetypes desire and need each other, and fear each other in almost equal parts. The yin and yang is quite obvious. Peter, fears that more order will trap him, bury him alive, shackle him to a world of responsibilities, a diminishment off of his identity/freedom, thus removing his god-like immortality. In other words, the female power may pull him into the earth, the domain of women who are the keepers of life and death. Wendy, fears falling from heights unknown and “never landing”, of always clutching for a life rope which is eternally slipping from her grasp, of being unable to fulfill her procreative and authentic destiny as a human woman, to relinquish her creative powers. If she remains in Neverland she loses her immortality as realized in her progeny, she will be as if dead to the world. she will "never-be." The conflict between these two as they attempt to find a balance is for me, the never-ending story at the very bottom-most layer of life. And with all of these ideas, we begin class.

The remainder of the article will be an examination and recitation of the exercises we did and the scenes we did in my MFA 2 classes in 2008 and 2009 to try to utilize these ideas.
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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

On His Blindness

This poem is frequently in my mind, so I share it here.


Origin: Quotation from the great English poet John Milton (1608-74). After going blind, Milton wrote the poem "On His Blindness". In the sonnet's last line, he reflects that even with his disability he has a place in the world:
When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest He returning chide,
"Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?"
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, "God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts. Who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly: thousands at his bidding speed,
And post o'er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Third Man syndrome

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=112746464&sc=emaf

Article on the biological power of Relationships

http://www.wired.com/medtech/health/magazine/17-10/ff_christakis/

The Encultured Brain

I am really excited today!  I have been chosen to present at the Neuroanthropology Conference: The Encultured Mind conference at Notre Dame University on October 8.  My topic will be Neuroscience and the Actor.  Guess I better read up!  If your are interested, go to http://neuroanthropology.net

The Genesis Project: Lots of Creation Myths

The Genesis Project

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Play and Necessary Ritual: Losing One of Our Own



This article was prompted by the sudden death of my former student Ricci Anselmi.



PROLOGUE




Late in August of 2007, before our school year at The Theatre School began, some of our students were rehearsing a production of the Misanthrope.  In the cast was a young man with whom I had worked in the previous year.  His name was Ricci Anselmi, and he was among the most promising students of his year.  He was set to graduate in June of 2008.  On a lunch break from rehearsal he was killed riding his skateboard.  He had gone to the local snack shop and never returned. At first, the young actors at the rehearsal waited for Ricci to return with no idea that anything had happened four blocks away.  Finally, they got word that he had been taken to the hospital and was seriously injured and not expected to recover.



The cast and other students immediately went to the hospital to say their last good-byes.  Ricci was not injured physically, his head had struck a curb and his death probably occurred more or less immediately.  He bore no scars and rested in the bed as if asleep. The students visiting spontaneously began singing to him, popular songs they knew together, hymns, and songs from school productions.  Some danced and some recited poetry.  All talked to him as if he were alive to receive their last wishes.  All of this in his hospital room.



His death left a deep wide hole in the fabric of our school and it will never be the same.
 



Two days later, the opening day of school, the theatre school celebrated, as we always have, with a party thrown in the outdoor courtyard that is encompassed by the four sides of our building.  Every member of the staff, faculty, and student body attends this picnic, and we cancel the first afternoon of classes for it. In general, this is a time to greet everyone, to rejoice in our love for each other, and for the graduating seniors to begin their campaign to raise funds for the pictures, resumes, and trips they will need for their official entrance into the business.  They hold a raffle and provide the entertainment at this event.  Ricci had entered school as a freshman with this group of young actors.
Of course, Ricci’s death prompted the administration to question whether such an event would be appropriate.  The graduating seniors responded that it was to be made in honor of Ricci.


A somber crowd gathered, with the exception of the new class of freshmen who didn’t really understand what was going on.  As we all talked softly and ate our pizza, the graduating seniors full of their trained athleticism bound up onto the raised wooden platform in the corner of the yard.  All eleven of them standing together minus their missing brother. They began by once again announcing Ricci’s death for those who hadn’t heard the news, and then gave a brief eulogy.  They followed the eulogy with a rap-song co-written for the occasion by the class, with a call and response from the audience.  It focused on Ricci’s daredevil life; on his frequent run-ins with authority, and the responding words expected of the audience were something like “Ricci was a bastard who rode his way to heaven”.  I am sure it was more profane than this, but my amazed response at the released energy in the courtyard kept me from really knowing anything much--- except that I felt renewed and able to move forward as did everyone in the yard.  Ricci began to move from the realm of the human to the gates of the gods.  He became a trickster in the minds of all of us and we were somehow given solace because of this and the enormous laughter that reverberated off the walls of the surrounding school as the song took its effect.  It was the laughing that did it, not the crying and not the eulogy.
Ricci is still alive in all of our memories, both those who knew him, and for those hapless freshmen who entered our midst when such grief stood upon us.  As we left the courtyard, we were all changed both in ourselves with the others who had been at the event.


As a passionate theatre practitioner, I believe that the most fundamental use of our ancient art form is the reconciliation of humanity with itself, with the gods, and therefore with the natural and metaphysical world. That reconciliation seemed to me to have taken place in the courtyard that August. Theatre for me is not necessarily what happens in a designated performing space; it occurs whenever an “actor” and an “audience” willingly appear.  This coming-together- spilt, this dualism exists for a certain amount of time and when it dis-appears, the two parts leave each other with a greater appreciation for their shared-ness as well as their separateness. The quality of live theatre itself involves a sensual, nearly fleshly exchange between the spectators and the actors.  Whether behind masks as for the ancient Greeks, or behind grease paint, or naked-faced, or dancing in front of a dying youth in a hospital room, actors exist biologically in the same space as the audience but separate from it.  As the brilliant British director and acting theoretician Declan Donnellan says, “A theatre is not only a literal space, but also a place where we dream together; not merely a building but a space that is both imaginative and collective.”  



Imitation and imagination are the original technologies of learning and remain the methods by which babies learn to survive in the world.  The joy of discovery and the necessity of role–enactment are genetic and shared by both humans and many not humans as well. We all play the copycat game. Actors may, through some exceptionally sensitive mirror- neuronic activity continue to “enact,” but everyone is born an actor.  For any child to learn, he or she must be curious, attentive, observant, and mimetic.  These little scientists test theories of nature and human nature through interactive and imitative play. As the child learns, he or she must be rewarded for success. “Eating, walking, talking, all are developed by copying and applause.  Whatever human instinct is latent, it reaches virtuosity only after acute observation, repetition, and performance.  Acting is a reflex, a mechanism for development and survival.” Thus the making of theatre, mimesis with an audience is one of the primary experiences of early life.


As a child’s experiments and learning begin to bear fruit, the growing consciousness soon discovers that not all discoveries are pleasurable.  Some discoveries are painful.  Some demand more energy than seems possible.  The world begins to expand exponentially and threatens to reel out of control. Some way of capturing it is required.  In order to get a handle on things, we codify things, name things, disregard most things, and deny many things, as a response to the painful experience and observation of unpleasantness.  We decide against moving onto further research at quite a young age.  It is as if we set out purposefully to blind ourselves. As if we decide that we must limit the vastness of human joy and terror, simply to avoid being overwhelmed.


As we begin to darken and focus the lenses of our minds, by accepting certain things into our world and eliminating others, what emerges is what we begin to call a ‘self.’—’Self’ as a reduction of possibility. —’Self’, as a closing down of expansion. As we separate our ‘self’ from the other less rewarding possible “selves” we perform a succession of self- abortions. However, somewhere left in the dark reaches of the brain is the loneliness for those lost others, the ones we left behind, the ones we didn’t become.  Perhaps this is the true beginning of existential shame for us, the burying of a multiplicity of potential beings, so that we may stand-alone.  The feeling of being alone and “only” begins to take hold, and it too terrifies us. We long to re-unite, not only with the former familial audience, but also with our forgotten potential lives.  The actor, Forest Whitaker said the following in his acceptance speech for his Oscar: “...when I first started acting, it was because of my desire to connect to everyone--to that thing inside each of us. That light that I believe exists in all of us. Because acting for me is about believing in that connection and it's a connection so strong, it's a connection so deep, that we feel it. And through our combined belief, we can create a new reality.”



Not only the various forms of theatre, but also religion, dreams, and simple people-watching becomes a means for us to re-visit that which we deserted; to be re-united with a half-forgotten reality if only for a while. The left-behind others about whom I speak, include not only our mourned-for frail other-selves, but all of the strong, single-minded appetites on which we might have built alternative lives and identities, the tyrants, the mischief makers, the saints, the hedonists, the builders, the martyrs, the torturers, the dancers, the executioners, the sensualists, the explorers, the madonnas, the gluttons, the criminals, the lovers.  They include the lions and tigers and monkeys and snakes and eagles and elephants and coyotes and dogs we could have been.  All of these qualities of ravenous need form the archetypes familiar to us from the legends of many cultures and are hardwired and given faces in our unconscious world. It is truly unfortunate that we live in a more or less One God world; it seems so much more prudent to have many with whom to commune, who are not quite so awesome. Rather like being in a large family where Dad and Mom are so busy just feeding and housing the brood that the sisters and brothers become lesser gods for each other.


Like such a large family, religion and theatre provide the spaces, both actual and metaphoric in which to connect physically, intellectually, and emotionally with our archetypes alongside the equally disconnected other humans walking among us.  The rituals performed by the actors and priests with their dances, movement, and words serve to unite us with the powerful symbols of our archetypes and to aid in our acceptance of the helpful and our rejection of the hurtful.  The rituals repeat symbolically the old stories, sometimes literally, sometimes metaphorically.  Often the metaphor is lost to the participant, but there is still comfort in its very being.


In religion, I postulate, the more frequently we participate in these performances, the more accustomed we are to them, the more comfort we tend to receive from them.  Religion exists to make us feel good about ourselves (if we obey the rules) as well as to create an orderly view of the universe and perhaps the afterlife.



Theatre’s function is to educate and entertain, not to make us feel good about ourselves nor secure in the universe.  And when it is good it challenges the rules and forces us to see things differently. As a theatre practitioner, I am aware that there are only, arguably, forty-six plots, or twelve or four depending on your reference.  Be that as it may, there are a finite number of stories.  If one also understands that there are only seven or eight essential relationships, one can easily see that, given some arithmetic beyond my capabilities, there are no new stories.  Both theatre and religion repeat the old stories; that is a major part of their ritual function, but only the theatre intends to irritate us with new questions about the old stories.  Even when it has no political or sociological ax to grind, its function, besides ritual, is that of investigation into what makes us human and how to interpret the world around us.


Formal theatre (and I include film as well) in the United States has, for the most part, moved beyond it’s ancient traditions and been relegated by its general public to entertainment with the occasional serious piece thrown in for balance.  Also, and with few exceptions, the American theatre has never been very political and rarely symbolic.  The need for communal access to more universal ideas dealing with Rudolph Otto’s ‘mysterium tremendum’ seems to have been lost or rejected in the original colonies as a function of art in general. This was probably owing, in part, to the religious suspicion of the power of the churches’ secular and obstreperous brother to create doubt in the mind of its audience.  The pilgrims and religious zealot who made up a powerful percentage of our orignal settlers wanted the audience for themselves, and wished to eradicate the sensuality implicit in the art of performance.  The European theatre they had left was at its apogee when they departed. The beauty of the language, the frankness of the stories, and the complexity of the ideas and arguments addressed at that time were truly astonishing.  This theatre, and its later writings, was available to a large number of people of any rank and the Protestant churches must have been truly envious.


Our Western theatre tradition began, at least according to some theorists, with the golden age of the Athenian theatre.  The Greeks saw theatre attendance as a necessary part of citizenship because it served several functions simultaneously.  We believe that the rituals of this theatre themselves were based on the sacrifice of a goat in early Greek religious practices.  We know the first actors were also priests.  As this began to change, as the Athenians became a democracy, the theatre was given a larger function. It united the citizenry on a psychic level, it re-enforced Greek political values of argument and counter-argument, and third it educated the potentially under-educated crowds both politically and morally. As Greece developed, so also did its theatre both for good and for ill.  The writing became increasingly more humanly complex as the qualifications for citizenship became narrower.  At the end, only the elite were left to attend.



Also, for the Greeks, the theatre was not a weekly or even monthly event; it was connected to a religious or civic festival and took place outdoors as a part of other competitive events.  The festivals of Dionysius included winners and losers amongst the playwrights and eventually among the actors.  The writers were also statesmen, soldiers, citizens and businessmen, and therefore an integrated portion of the elite community. However, there was little conflict between the temple and the theatre at the time.  Such an idea would have been considered absurd.  Of course Plato did come along and begin the proposed destruction of to theatre and mimesis which was almost completed by the Christians. But before him, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes mounted their astonishing works for the eternally grateful world.




At the festival of Dionysius, the largest of the Greek religious events, playwrights had to offer three tragedies and a comedy.  This combination acknowledged that tragic feelings needed to be cauterized with the hot blade of comedy.  And the comedies of the Greeks were generally satires based on present day events while the tragedies were most often historical and therefore metaphorical.  Finally, though, the problem that beset the Greeks was the same problem that besets the modern theatre in America.  It is an elitist event witnessed by elite audiences.


Most of my fellow theatre practitioners would attribute this problem to a lack of exposure to audiences whom they assume would fall in love with the experience as they themselves did.  So we truck children by the busload to productions of Hamlet, or Antigone, or whatever else is edifying, and can’t understand when they don’t return.  We attribute a lack of finances to our inability to advertise sufficiently, disregarding the amazing popularity of such black shows as Men, Money and Golf Diggers advertised only by small African-American centered publications and handbills.  If we look around us, we will see that sunny, romantic, upbeat Broadway musicals are recycled endlessly throughout the land at high schools and community theatres and that Wicked is not having trouble getting an audience.  The black plays on the famous ‘chitlin circuit’ tend to be very well attended despite their expense.  And they draw an audience of people who rarely attend the kinds of ‘serious theatre’ we theatre folk flock to see.  These shows are not ‘serious’ theatre, and therefore beneath our contempt, while they find audiences and money right beneath our much too sensitive noses.  We have fallen victim to our own pessimism and tend to forget that pessimism and darkness are the part of life that most people want respite from.  These shows do, however feature, clear and linear story lines with archetypal figures in the plot configurations.  Their only fault from our theatrically pure perspective is a sentimental desire for a laugh and the possibility of a happy ending, just like the comedies at the end of the tragedies several thousands years ago.  Or just like our elevation of Ricci Anselmi to demi-god status.


The difference in subject matter between the big shows attended by people who would never consider going to one of our earnest store fronts or our towering institutions is that they want to laugh as well as cry, and most of us theatre folks want them to think deeply about our offerings and possibly become politically or socially active and possibly cry as well.


As far as serious theatre, theatre that deeply examines issues using theatrical expression, we are pretty useless to change the world. We know this. We mope about it, we are self-righteous about it, we shake our fists at TV for taking our rightful audience, but finally we know the problem.  We may be just too snooty, too taken with our importance.


We have pooh-poohed the very means by which we might be effective—vaudeville and musical theatre, clowning and dancing. We have forgotten how to entertain. Right now, many things are happening to change that attitude the Blue Man Group, Second City, the bread and puppet theatre, the Cirque du Soleil, the renewed interest in Clowning all are pointing the way through their use of humor, spectacle, and astonishing physical athleticism.  The current theatre sees itself as needing to engage physically more that with language—there is a danger in this insofar as it moves from a theatre of narrative to one of sensation only.  However, if the theatre is to be an effective vehicle for change, it must be far more entertaining, more physically arresting and far less self-conscious without losing it ability to tell an old story.  It must re-unite its audiences with itself in a far more recognizable way.


A while ago,  I went to see a film called “Charley Wilson’s War.”  I went because I was interested in the subject matter, the war in Afghanistan, but also because Tom Hanks and Phillip Seymour Hoffman were in it.  It is the only film on the topic of the war I have ventured out to see since “The Departed” which I dutifully saw.  The film was enormously entertaining, full of wit and featuring some great archetypes, the reformed reprobate, the wise but gruff guru, the beautiful temptress, the uptight bureaucrat, the dumb crook, and lots of goddesses.  I recognized all of these types and took great delight in seeing them played by some wonderful actors who shook the truth out of these old stand-bys.  As we left the theatre, my friend reported that Charley Wilson was one of the few movies concerning the Middle East that was making money for the studios.  My guess is the reason for this is the easy recognizability of the demi-gods and the comedy of the whole thing.


As far as I can see, most of the citizens of the US regardless of political leanings have been in mourning for the death of our culture, our dreams, our soldiers, and our government.  We need to go to the metaphoric courtyard, to mourn, to eulogize, and then to actively laugh as we all participate to heal the rift in our hearts and souls.


So where does that leave us theatre people in the fight against the most urgent and challenging of all the wars, the fight for the environment?  It seems obvious, that in spite of our fears, we must go outside, we must joke, we must make merry, we must find the archetypes that soothe, we must press the flesh. We must cut the giants of terror down to size.  We must embrace a new Commedia, a new space and a new form of spectacle.  We must create a series of wakes for our fallen planet. 

Let us have burials and wakes for the trees we know we will lose to infestation, let us remember the parks that used to exist and plant afresh. Let us join together with the environmentalists, the oceanographers, the weather scientists, and make something of our shared problems. Let us create intrusions of a comic and musical variety into the workaday world.  Bring a cow to the town square and sing to it; decorate the land to be destroyed, rip out invasive species and howl as we do so and then plant again, stage events in alleys where the garbage lurks. Celebrate the hunters who cull the herds of starving deer, rather than cursing them. Lets us close off streets on Arbor Day and name the trees.  There are many, many things we can do that get us back into the courtyard at in The Theatre School at Depaul University to mourn, and then to celebrate, and then to get back to work strengthened as a community because of our mutual participation in the theatre of life.

perception and imagination: Masters of Theatrical Illusion

perception and imagination: Masters of Theatrical Illusion

The Landscape of Memory

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3vSbsSh3CoA

Place, imagination, and identity

place, imagination, and identity

The Motive for Metaphor

The Motive for Metaphor

Acting and Mirror Neurons, Panel with actors

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=loB-Lg0X1qo

Mario Iacoboni, Depth Electrode Recordings in the Brain

Mario Iacoboni, Depth Electrode Recordings in the Brain

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UHqAY0UbzAI

Mario Iacoboni on Empathy and Fairness, Pt 1

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uL9auHozQL0

Arts and Cognitive Neuroscience

Experiences in which the senses are intermingled in usual ways are a common motif in the descriptions that mystics provide of their unordinary sensory experiences. This workshop examines the phenomenon of synaesthesia from a multi-disciplinary perspective in order to advance our understanding of the relationship between synaesthesia, metaphor, creativity, and religious and artistic practices. Series: "Humanitas" [4/2008] [Humanities] [Show ID: 13189]

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C7Dy--hmgUA

Intersubjectivity and Mirror Neurons

Marco Iacoboni, M.D., Ph.D., discusses data on mirror neurons that suggest that their role in intersubjectivity may be more accurately described as allowing interdependence. This interdependence shapes the social interactions between people. where the concrete encounter between self and other becomes shared existential meaning that connects them deeply. Series: "M.I.N.D. Institute Lecture Series on Neurodevelopmental Disorders" [6/2008] [Health and Medicine] [Show ID: 14664]

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Dr http://www.salon.com/books/review/2009/05/18/evocriticism/print.html

Why do we often care more about imaginary characters than real people? A new book suggests that fiction is crucial to our survival as a species.

By Laura Miller

May. 18, 2009 |

Why do human beings spend so much time telling each other invented stories, untruths that everybody involved knows to be untrue? People in all societies do this, and do it a lot, from grandmothers spinning fairy tales at the hearthside to TV show runners marshaling roomfuls of overpaid Harvard grads to concoct the weekly adventures of crime fighters and castaways. The obvious answer to this question -- because it's fun -- is enough for many of us. But given the persuasive power of a good story, its ability to seduce us away from the facts of a situation or to make us care more about a fictional world like Middle-earth than we do about a real place like, oh, say, Turkmenistan, means that some ambitious thinkers will always be trying to figure out how and why stories work.

The latest and most intriguing effort to understand fiction is often called Darwinian literary criticism, although Brian Boyd, an English professor at the University of Auckland in New Zealand and the author of "On the Origin of Stories," a new book offering an overview and defense of the field, prefers the term "evocriticism." As Boyd points out, the process of natural selection is supposed to gradually weed out any traits in a species that don't contribute to its survival and its ability to pass on its genes to offspring who will do the same. The ability to use stories to communicate accurate information about the real world has some obvious usefulness in this department, but what possible need could be served by made-up yarns about impossible things like talking animals and flying carpets?

Boyd's explanation, heavily ballasted with citations from studies and treatises on neuroscience, cognitive theory and evolutionary biology, boils down to two general points. First, fiction -- like all art -- is a form of play, the enjoyable means by which we practice and hone certain abilities likely to come in handy in more serious situations. When kittens pounce on and wrestle with their litter mates, they're developing skills that will help them hunt, even though as far as they're concerned they're just larking around. Second, when we create and share stories with each other, we build and reinforce the cooperative bonds within groups of people (families, tribes, towns, nations), making those groups more cohesive and in time allowing human beings to lord it over the rest of creation.

The popular understanding of evolutionary biology can be sketchy even among (I'm tempted to say especially among) its most enthusiastic lay proponents. That's why it's important to point out that, whatever you've heard about "selfish genes," the secret to humanity's success lies less in Hobbesian competition than in individuals' capacity to cooperate, and even to act altruistically. While there are short-term benefits to individuals who behave selfishly -- say, by stealing or hoarding food -- the long-term benefits of sharing usually outweigh the quick payoff, provided that everybody else in your group also participates fairly. Human beings are what biologists call "hypersocial," more social by far than any other animal, and the major product of our deep investment in sociality is our culture: our language, tools, political institutions, clothing, medicine, sculpture, songs, religions, etc.

In short, humanity itself is an element, like the weather or seasons, that each of us needs to negotiate in order to survive. We're innately skilled at reading each other's intentions, judging a person's position in the current social hierarchy, checking the emotional temperature in a room, detecting when our companion isn't paying attention to us, and so on. Those who are especially adept at this are said to have good "social skills," but the average human being is a pretty impressive social navigator even when not conscious of what she's doing. It's only the rare exceptions -- people along the autistic spectrum, for example, whose social instincts and perceptions are impaired -- who make us aware of just how essential these abilities are when it comes to getting by in this world.

Boyd acknowledges that factual stories give us pertinent information about our world and the people in it -- that my neighbor is a serial killer, for example. However, fictional stories encourage and permit us to hypothesize, to speculate about potential situations we've yet to encounter and to anticipate how to respond appropriately. Were I to discover tomorrow that my neighbor had a wall entirely covered with photographs, newspaper clippings and charts with pushpinned strands of yarn connecting the items, I might conclude, thanks to my years of watching cop shows on TV, that my neighbor was either a serial killer or a law enforcement professional obsessed with catching a serial killer. I'd know better than to accept his offer of a nightcap because even if he were the detective rather than the killer, if I got too involved with him, sooner or later the serial killer would kidnap me and hold me captive in a deserted warehouse as part of a deadly game of cat and mouse.

Fiction also fosters a part of cognition known as the "theory of mind," one person's understanding that another person has feelings, desires, intentions and beliefs, the latter of which may or may not be correct. A child's ability to deduce that another child will mistakenly believe that a ball is still in a basket because the second child wasn't in the room when the ball was moved to a bucket develops surprisingly late, around age 5. Theory of mind is at the heart of empathy, and our brains are replete with systems for reinforcing it, such as the recently discovered mirror neurons, which fire both when you're, say, dancing and when you're watching someone else dance.

These cognitive features explain why tears pour down your face when you see a performance of "Romeo and Juliet," even though you know the characters aren't real people and the actors are just pretending. Furthermore, the brain turns out to be more like a muscle than scientists once thought, and the more you exercise the thinking and feeling parts of it vicariously, through stories and other kinds of play, the more active and developed those parts of the brain become.

Most of us, of course, don't realize any of these processes are going on; we just think that consuming fiction feels good. But, as with sex, Boyd notes, pleasure and other enjoyable emotions are a kind of bait, coaxing us to do things that will help propagate our genes. The affection we feel toward fictional characters like Dorothy Gale or Tom Sawyer is akin to the warm belonging we seek among friends and family, drawing us into the kind of group affiliation that can spell the difference between life and death. The late novelist David Foster Wallace once told me that reading fiction made him "feel unalone -- intellectually, emotionally, spiritually. I feel human and unalone and that I'm in a deep, significant conversation with another consciousness." That profound sense of comfort he described is, as he correctly perceived, quintessentially human, an incentive to keep connecting with each other despite our inevitable conflicts and tensions.

Stories in their most rudimentary forms -- parables, fables, myths -- usually champion what Boyd calls "prosocial values," such as sharing, kindness, honesty and so on; in short, morals. The moral of the story of the boy who cried "wolf" is that if you violate people's trust by faking distress, they will eventually stop believing you entirely and fail to come to your aid when you really need them. Other stories, like "Cinderella," insist that liars like Cinderella's stepmother and stepsisters will ultimately be thwarted and punished, while the virtuous will receive their just rewards. This sort of narrative fosters our taste for "social monitoring," the policing of group members to make sure that nobody tries to cheat the system, that everyone pulls his own weight and takes no more than his share of the group's resources.

Lastly, stories command attention, which is a valuable commodity among all social animals. Lower-status primates pay more attention to higher-status primates than vice versa. Good storytellers earn attention and admiration, and they also provide their audience with the pleasure of a communal experience that strengthens the bonds within a group. They set forth the group's shared beliefs, myths, symbols and history (real or legendary), creating a greater identity, a culture, that can expand beyond the boundary of small, local communities where everyone knows each other personally. That's one reason we have national epics like the story of Gilgamesh, the Hebrew Bible and the poems of Homer.

In the second half of "On the Origin of Stories," Boyd attempts to apply his idea of "evocriticism" to two exemplary works: the "Odyssey" and Dr. Seuss' "Horton Hears a Who." Up to this point, the book is informative, if poorly written, a mass of clotted and repetitive prose that nevertheless offers some sound insights if you're willing to really work for them. But evocriticism doesn't scale down (or is it up?) very effectively. Boyd exhaustively details Homer's narrative techniques, such as focusing on a larger-than-life yet sympathetic protagonist with a distinct goal, erecting obstacles in the protagonist's path to that goal, breaking the long narrative into discrete, digestible blocks with their own internal conflicts and resolutions, ending on a satisfying note of fulfillment when Odysseus is finally reunited with his wife, Penelope, and so on. All of this he presents, with the flourish of revelation, as brilliant strategizing on the part of Homer, an author who understands that he must seize and hold his audience's attention.

But come on, who doesn't know that? Even the rabble that masses on Amazon's review pages grasps that the storyteller's prime directive is to retain his audience's interest; "I couldn't get into it" is the complaint of first and last resort for the minimally literate customer. As for the narrative devices that Boyd lauds -- a likable hero, stumbling blocks in the way of the ultimately happy ending, etc. -- that's the stuff of remedial "Write a Novel!" guides and screenwriters' seminars. (Oh, and by the way, in case you hadn't noticed while spending your childhood amid star-bellied sneetches and loraxes who speak for the trees, Dr. Seuss has a penchant for strong liberal messages.)

To be fair, Boyd feels compelled to insist on the obvious. That's because "On the Origin of Stories" is at least partly written to refute Theory, the dominant trend in late-20th-century academic literary criticism. Theory is deeply invested in the idea that human identities are entirely "constructed" by the cultures people grow up in, that we are born blank slates with no innate traits. A disciple of such evolutionary psychology evangelists as Steven Pinker and Denis Dutton, Boyd has the enthusiasm of a convert, and he shares his gurus' propensity for overstating their case as well as exaggerating the strength and recalcitrance of the other side. A hardcore constructionist camp does still persist in academia, but it's such a tiny and marginal element in the culture at large, that evolutionary psychologists come across as disingenuous when they insist on portraying themselves as an outnumbered, ragtag band of embattled crusaders.

The truth is that evolutionary psychology has enormous popular cachet; books by Pinker and Robert Wright vastly outsell those of, say, the constructionist gender theorist Judith Butler. Furthermore, evolutionary psychology and sociobiology (and by extension "evocriticism") strive to wrap themselves in the mantle of science, but they are fundamentally speculative; more sciencey than scientific. Unlike actual science, their claims can't be falsified, given that the human behavior they purport to explain has evolved over vast periods of time and can't yet be observed in the process of continuing to evolve simply because we haven't been aware of evolution long enough to do so. (How do we know when people first told stories, for example? No physical evidence remains, and the most we can do is suggest that it co-evolved with practices like cave painting, whose true purpose we also can only guess.) That doesn't mean that some of these theories aren't plausible, or that certain observations -- like the universality of spoken language and religious beliefs among human societies -- aren't pretty persuasive.

The difficulty is that once culture became the ascendant environmental factor affecting humanity, the game changed fundamentally. It's true, as Boyd observes, that culture transforms itself in a way that resembles biological evolution; ideas and practices that catch on (such as Christianity or rap music) become more and more prevalent. But natural selection is a mindless process by which random mutations succeed or fail and the successes slowly accumulate. The evolution of culture is intentional, directed by the desires of human beings pursuing certain goals. (Nobody intends biological evolution to happen, unless you believe in God.) That's why it took 540 million years for the eye to evolve, while the detective story has become culturally ubiquitous in the mere 170 years since Edgar Allen Poe published "The Murders in the Rue Morgue."

While evolutionary psychology, when kept on a judiciously short leash, seems capable of adding a lot to our understanding of narrative, it's a pretty crude tool to apply to something as recent and culturally volatile as literature. Identifying innate traits is a matter of observing average human behavior across large populations and in diverse societies. Even when a behavior seems obviously adaptive -- like the tendency of men to be sexually attracted to women who appear fertile -- there can be significant exceptions. Although every neurologically normal human being acquires spoken language and enjoys stories and almost everyone places a high value on some kind of group membership, it is only the majority of human beings who are sexually attracted to individuals of the opposite sex and of reproductive age.

And hardly anybody is a great writer or a storyteller of genius. Such individuals could well be freaks and anomalies, strange yet wonderful products of unique confluences of genetics and culture, illustrating next to nothing about humanity as a whole. Even if storytellers on average are getting better (and how could we quantify that?), we can't say that evolution is causing the improvement, any more than we can claim that natural selection is responsible for the fact that microchips are getting smaller. If sociobiology has yet to come up with a truly persuasive evolutionary explanation for homosexuality (and it really hasn't), then it's certainly not in a position to explain Shakespeare.

Instead of trying to fit an outlier like Homer into his evocritical scheme, Boyd would be better off looking at patterns of story that occur across cultures. He notes in passing that there are "200 folk variants" of the story of how Odysseus and his men escaped from the Cyclops' den by strapping themselves to the underside of the blind giant's sheep. Rather than asking evocriticism to explain how the rarity of Homer came to occur, why not ask why this same story keeps cropping up again and again in slightly different forms? What makes it so popular?

Such a move, however, would change the category of Boyd's studies from English literature to folklore, a less prestigious discipline on the academic scene, perhaps. (Even valiant scholarly crusaders are subject to the evolutionary pressures of status-seeking, after all.) Still, if evocriticism or Darwinian literary criticism or whatever it's called hopes to contribute something significant, it will probably need to turn away from literature's great works and their authors, at least at first and for a while, and focus on popular culture, ancient and recent. At present, one of its seminal texts argues that "Pride and Prejudice" is about courtship in a society where men are valued for their wealth and social class and women for their beauty and social class, a thesis that manages to be simultaneously crushingly obvious and not really accurate while explaining exactly nothing about why Jane Austen is better than the average romance novelist. Genius is, by definition, exceptional, while evolutionary science concerns itself with the universal, or the nearly universal. Unless this new school of criticism can find a way to reconcile that conundrum, it may soon find itself extinct.

-- By Laura Miller

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The Dream Narratives of Debris by Peter Schwenger

Dream Narratives of Debris 75
SubStance # 100, Vol. 32, no. 1, 2003
The Dream Narratives of Debris
Peter Schwenger
Consider the so-called decorator crab. As it moves across the sea floor,
it covers itself with debris, such as bits of algae and sponge, which it attaches
to the small hooked hairs that cover its carapace. Most critical essays proceed
in a similar manner. Bristling with snipped-off quotations, footnotes and
bibliographical references, they adopt a protective coloration that allows
them to pass unharmed through intellectual deep waters. Nor is this only
superficial decoration: the body of the essay is often assembled from wide-
ranging sources, which in their conjunction may form an idea quite different
from any one of its components. The present essay is no exception to this
rule. It assembles itself out of bits and pieces of Freud, Piaget, Lévi-Strauss
and Baudrillard; and its examples are drawn from artists in various media:
Joseph Cornell, Elizabeth Bishop, Edward Gorey and Donald Barthelme.
That debris (no disrespect is intended) is assembled here precisely in order
to make a point about the ways that debris is assembled – the ways that, in
the first instance, material residues give rise to certain narrative
arrangements, which are never so thoroughly assembled that they escape
from under the sign of debris. They have now been translated into mental
debris, and as a consequence partake in the kinds of associative processes
that also give rise to dreams. Narratologists have expended much effort in
the attempt to lay out narrative’s syntax. But the structuring principles of
narrative may be more akin to those of the decorator crab than to those of
the grammarian. Within the drowned world of debris, narrative and dream
clasp hands.
Joseph Cornell supplies our first example of such an encounter. On April
15, 1946, he took time out from constructing his boxes of assembled objects
to clean up his workspace. That night Cornell wrote in his diary: “Had
satisfactory feeling about clearing up debris on cellar floor—‘sweepings’
represent all the rich crosscurrents ramifications etc that go into the boxes
but which are not apparent (I feel at least) in the final result” (Cornell 128).
While it is common enough for an artist to feel that the completed work has
fallen short of the vision, it is less common for an artist to locate that vision
in the work’s material leftovers—in sweepings, debris, the residues of the
day. “The residues of the day” is of course a phrase taken from a book that
Cornell knew well and repeatedly cited, Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams.
There Freud asserts that psychological residues of the preceding day are
essential ingredients in the formation of dreams because they offer to the
unconscious points of attachment through which its impulses may be
manifested (562-64). The same thing can be asserted of Cornell’s material
version of the day’s residues: points of attachment—or in Cornell’s words
“crosscurrents ramifications etc”—determined the way his boxes were
assembled. Indeed, even before the assembling process began in that cellar
workspace, the material brought with it a certain psychological freight. For
Cornell’s projects were often generated in the course of hunting expeditions
among the junk shops of New York: his preliminary material was already
residue even before it ended up on the cellar floor. And out of this residue of
past days arose “impressions intriguingly diverse—that in order to hold
fast one might assemble, assert, and arrange into a cabinet” (Cornell, quoted
in Ratcliffe 46). Such an arranging of debris mimics not only the processes
by which dreams are assembled but also those by which narratives are
assembled, blurring the line between them.
A continuum between dream and narrative is outlined by Freud in his
essay “Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming.” The continuum runs from
dream to day-dream to play to creative writing—but, as we will see, it by no
means runs only in one direction. If dreams are assembled from the residues
of the day in order to express a wish fulfillment, then in this regard night
dreams and the more consciously narrative day-dreams both serve the same
function. It is a function that in childhood has been served by play. Through
play, says Freud, the child “creates a world of his own, or, rather, re-arranges
the things of his world in a new way” (143-44), thereby gratifying erotic or
egoistic wishes. This rearranging of things recalls us to the cabinets of Cornell,
which not only used toys but were themselves exhibited as toys, and so
described by Cornell himself in a diary entry: “perhaps a definition of a box
could be as a kind of ‘forgotten game,’ a philosophical toy of the Victorian
era, with poetic or magical ‘moving parts’ . . . . That golden age of the toy
alone should justify the ‘box’s’ existence” (Ades 29). The toy itself, however,
is less important than the state of mind that animates it, or is animated by it.
Thus John Ruskin tells us that, deprived of conventional toys in his childhood,
he passed hours in tracing the figures in his carpet (Praeteritia 19), and Henry
James’s famous use of that image encourages us to see a narrative element
in the child’s daydream here. Still, that narrative element is scarcely a
conventional one. Cornell underlined a passage in his copy of Jean Piaget’s
Dream Narratives of Debris 77
SubStance # 100, Vol. 32, no. 1, 2003
The Language and Thought of the Child that characterized child narratives by
“an absence of order in the account given, and the fact that causal
relationships are rarely expressed, but are generally indicated by a simple
juxtaposition of the related terms” (107; cited in Keller 107). Marjorie Keller
has argued that this indicates an anti-narrative bias in Cornell. But I would
contend that rather than eliminating narrative, or even “subverting” it,
Cornell moves the narrative element to a liminal space where it may play in
subtle and elusive ways. The liminality of this space is indicated by Piaget
later in his book when he states that a child’s characteristic ways of ordering
are “intermediate between logical thought and that process which the
psychoanalysts have rather boldly described as the ‘symbolism’ of dreams”
(158).
In the essay on “Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming,” fiction occupies
a similar liminal space. For Freud, fiction naturally replaces the play that
adults are no longer allowed to indulge in, and it performs the same function
of fulfilling wishes. It’s true that Freud is here dealing with formula fiction,
written by “the less pretentious authors of novels, romances and short stories,
who nevertheless have the widest and most eager circle of readers of both
sexes” (Freud, “Creative Writers” 149)—Violet Winspear, that is, rather than
Virginia Woolf. Yet these conventional, ready-made fantasies not only enact
the wish-fufilling daydreams of their readers; they may also become elements
in the assembling of dreams. In The Interpretation of Dreams Freud explains
that secondary revision tries to give to the disparate elements of the dream
a conventional narrative form: it “seeks to mould the material offered to it
into something like a day-dream” (Interpretation 492). At the same time it
can make use of day-dreams: it “will prefer to take possession of the ready-
made day-dream and seek to introduce it into the content of the dream”
(492). And of course this “ready-made day-dream” has often been made
and shaped by fiction.
Consequently, narrative fragments may appear in the dream, and the
dream as a whole may be cast, misleadingly, as a coherent narrative. Freud
warns:
In general one must avoid seeking to explain one part of the manifest
dream by another, as though the dream had been coherently conceived
and was a logically arranged narrative. On the contrary, it is as a rule like
a piece of breccia, composed of various fragments of rock held together
by a kind of binding medium, so that the designs that appear on it do not
belong to the original rock embedded in it.1
Peter Schwenger78
SubStance # 100, Vol. 32, no. 1, 2003
The “designs” on the dream’s fragments may of course very well be narrative
designs, detached from their original coherency and jumbled. Narrative
debris, in fact—and also a mode reminiscent of the way the child jumbles
conventional narrative order. Piaget’s description of child narratives as
intermediate between a plot’s conventional mode of ordering and that of
dreams begins to deteriorate. For the dream ordering and the child’s mode
of ordering blur into each other; and neither is free of narrative elements,
fragmented though these may be. Finally there is the “binding medium” by
which the fragments are held together in their incoherent cohesion: is this
too a species of narrative principle? If so, it is disconcertingly less concrete
than Freud’s comparison would have us believe. The space we are
considering begins to take on the paradoxical qualities of a classic
deconstruction, as binaries break down and into each other. Dream is no
longer opposed to narrative, since its components may themselves be
narrative fragments; and when the surface narrative of the dream’s manifest
content is refused, it is only to be replaced with another narrative—that is,
Freud’s. Moreover, conventional narrative is said to serve the same purpose
as dream—the gratification of childhood wishes. Childhood itself, and its
characteristic ways of ordering the world, is thus not really “liminal”—if by
that we mean standing between two clearly separable realms—nor is it
“intermediate” as Piaget calls it. Difference has taken on the characteristics
of différance, and the line of argument becomes not only circular, but twisted
like a Möbius strip.
If such paradoxes of the narrative of debris are implied by Cornell’s
work, they also play themselves out in works by others, who often
acknowledge his influence. Elizabeth Bishop, for instance, constructed boxes
of her own in homage to Cornell.2 An homage of a different sort is her
translation of Octavio Paz’s poem to Cornell, “Objects and Apparitions.” It
appears in Geography III, a collection that itself adapts debris: the questions
asked in a discarded geography primer are used as the book’s epigraph,
acquiring in their new context a disconcerting poetic power. A similar
adaptation occurs in Cornell’s work, according to Paz’s poem: “refuse of
every moment, used” turns into “cages for infinity”; and “marbles, buttons,
thimbles, dice,/ pins, stamps, and glass beads” tell “tales of the time.” Time
and infinity interpenetrate in the apparitional state evoked by Cornell’s
objects. He has created a
Theatre of the spirits:
objects putting the laws
of identity through hoops.
Dream Narratives of Debris 79
SubStance # 100, Vol. 32, no. 1, 2003
Identity makes these jumps because here nothing is one thing only:
A comb is a harp strummed by the glance
of a little girl
born dumb.
The apparitions evoked by these objects populate dramas played out in each
spectator’s “theatre of the spirits”: Cornell’s stated aim in his boxes is to
invite the spectator to “elicit further dreams and musings if such he might
care to do” (Cornell, cited in Ades 33).
Nothing is one thing only, as well, in Elizabeth Bishop’s curious prose
poem “12 O’Clock News.” Her subject matter is the midnight debris of her
own writing desk, which becomes transformed: the gooseneck lamp becomes
a full moon; the typewriter becomes a terraced escarpment; the typewriter
eraser becomes a fallen unicyclist-courier “with the thick, bristling black
hair typical of the indigenes.” In part this piece is a witty description of the
writer’s desk as a battleground. For instance, a large rectangular field, “dark-
speckled,” baffles “our aerial reconnaissance”: is it, we are asked, “an airstrip?
a cemetery?” Potentially both, once the object is identified as a typed sheet,
whose words may either take off or lie lifeless as tombs. But this piece is
also, as the title indicates, a news broadcast, reproducing the glib and
patronizing language of journalists. We are presented with a dugout on the
plain full of dead soldiers, all wearing white camouflage uniforms properly
meant to be used in mountain warfare. This, we are told, “gives further
proof, if proof were necessary, either of the childishness and hopeless
impracticality of this inscrutable people, our opponents, or of the sad
corruption of their leaders.” The “proof” becomes less convincing when we
realize that the dugout is an ashtray, and the dead soldiers in white are
cigarette butts. Bishop may here be satirizing American attitudes to her
adopted Brazil, attitudes engendered by the interpretive narratives of the
evening news. Finally, there is the element of play, surrealist but also childlike.
Like the child, the poet “creates a world of [her] own, or, rather, re-arranges
the things of [her] world in a new way.” But Bishop does this not without
irony, not without a deep distrust of the very narrative thread that she spins
out of her desk’s debris.
A similar distrust impels Edward Gorey to create The Inanimate Tragedy
(Fig. 1). Like much of his other work, this is a sly satire of narrative, especially
its more melodramatic nineteenth-century versions. The drama here is
enacted by a cast of characters that includes the No. 37 Penpoint, the Glass
Marble, the Two-Holed Button, the Half-Inch Thumbtack, the Knotted String,
the Four-Holed Button, and a chorus of Pins and Needles. Our tragedy opens
Peter Schwenger80
SubStance # 100, Vol. 32, no. 1, 2003
with the chorus exclaiming “Death and Distraction! Destruction and
Debauchery!” At regular intervals the action will be interrupted with similar
exclamations, though these are not always entirely successful: “Discomfort
and Damage! Doom and Discrepancy!” The reiterated D’s order this litany—
but not without the twist of nonsense found in Carroll’s “Cabbages and
Kings” or certain alphabet books (like Graeme Base’s Animalia) which make
“alphabetical order” seem an oxymoron. The pins and needles presumably
reflect the state of suspense in which we are to be kept. However, suspense
(a pleasurable sense of non-knowing) modulates to bewilderment (a less
pleasurable version of the same thing), as the next frame tells us “Almost at
once the No. 37 Penpoint returned to the Featureless Expanse.” Almost at
once after what? Returned after what exit? We have here a mad in medias res,
which is never resolved in retrospect. And it only gets worse. The large cast
of characters are playing out a drama to which we do not have access. It’s
not just that we don’t have the answers; we don’t even know the questions.
At intervals X will tell Y what has happened, or make known to them what
has occurred, or acquaint them with what has transpired—all without
revealing particulars. Nobody tells us anything. Yet every frame of this drama
seems to be fraught with significance, even while the frames don’t always
link up with one another. Not only are the characters of this tragedy bits of
debris; narrative elements themselves have become a kind of bric-a-brac
that can be willfully shuffled on the whatnot.
The resulting narrative is once again reminiscent of Piaget’s description
of children’s narratives where “causal relationships are rarely expressed,
but are generally indicated by a simple juxtaposition of the related terms”
(107). Gorey’s narrative is also reminiscent of the sense of significance
attaching to the most jumbled dreams, and the way they make leaps that
seem logical at the time, but utterly disconnected upon conscious reflection.
Indeed the “Featureless Expanse” that provides the setting for this tragedy
may be the one familiar to us from the dream paintings of Salvador Dali and
Yves Tanguy. Another fearless illogicality is the scene in which “The Glass
Marble, mistaking the No 37 Penpoint for the Four-Holed Button, pushed it
into the Yawning Chasm.” Leaving aside the question of how anyone could
mistake a penpoint for a button, we note the deliberate avoidance of the far
more logical confusion between the Two-Holed Button and the Four-Holed
Button. These inexplicable mistakes are juxtaposed to the “fatal mistake”
that is a familiar narrative motif. In narrative, though, elements of chance
and the arbitrary only contribute to a tighter ordering of the narrative pattern.
Even when death and destruction hold sway, as in the last act of Hamlet, the
Dream Narratives of Debris 81
SubStance # 100, Vol. 32, no. 1, 2003
Illustration by Edward Gorey from “The Inanimate Tragedy,” © Estate of Edward Gorey.
All rights reserved.
Peter Schwenger82
SubStance # 100, Vol. 32, no. 1, 2003
tragedy is restful, for we sense that the machine is working as it should.
Here, as one object after another dutifully falls or flings itself into the Yawning
Chasm, quite a different effect comes about. The arbitrariness of the
convention itself is exposed; so that as the Chorus of Pins and Needles joins
all the other characters in the Yawning Chasm, we cannot help feeling that
the debris of narrative itself has just executed a final mise en abîme.
Bric-à-brac, breccia, bricolage . . . . Claude Lévi-Strauss provides yet
another case of a narrative of debris—for that is what his most famous
comparison comes down to. Speculating on how the sacred narratives of
the tribe are composed, Lévi-Strauss finds the process to be like that of the
bricoleur, the odd-jobs man who keeps on hand the dismantled and left-over
parts of every gadget or machine he has ever worked on. Out of this jumble
he selects the components he needs to create a gadget suited to a particular
task—regardless of what task those parts were meant to perform in the first
place. The myth-maker’s narrative invention is similar: he may take from
other contexts images, symbols, narrative fragments, arranging them to
express a tension or a desired resolution that is psychological as much as it
is cultural—it is as if the myth is the culture’s dream.
This process seems to be homologous to Freud’s principles of dream
construction: bricolage and breccia are both images of the way fragments
from other contexts can be reassembled into significance by an elusive
“binding medium” that is ultimately a mental operation. It is the task of
both the psychoanalyst and the structuralist to bring that elusive mental
process to light. Indeed, some of their methods are similar. For Lévi-Strauss,
an important idea is one that occurs repeatedly in the narrative: “The function
of repetition is to render the structure of the myth apparent” (Structural
Anthropology I, 229). For Freud, “the ideas which are most important among
the dream-thoughts will almost certainly be those which occur most often
in them” (Interpretation 306). Both proceed by resisting the narrative coherence
of the surface, instead establishing associations among elements of the dream
that will ultimately reveal a deeper coherence—though their method of
establishing these associations is significantly different. Finally, in both cases,
the moment that analysis has achieved coherence, this hard-won narrative
is swallowed up by a continuing narrative evolution, thus once again
becoming a fragment of a newly elusive whole. Lévi-Strauss’s synchronic
analysis of the Oedipus myth, for instance (“The Structural Study of Myth”
in Structural Anthropology), must be situated in a diachronic space consisting
of all the variations of that myth through time. Of these variations, Freud’s
must be one, as Lévi-Strauss admits. And however fundamental Freud’s
Dream Narratives of Debris 83
SubStance # 100, Vol. 32, no. 1, 2003
Oedipus complex may be in his psychoanalytic theory, when it is detected
in dreams it is always through fragments and tangents, entangled with the
residues of the previous day. In short, narrative returns to a state of debris. If
the analyst succeeds in disentangling the dream, his success may become
matter for more dreaming: Freud describes several dreams that seem to have
been designed to disprove his theory of dream as wish-fulfillment—and
thus to fulfill the dreamer’s wish that the theory be disproved. Freud himself,
that is, becomes a fragment in his patient’s dream narrative, often being
assimilated with other significant fragments such as the father. And this
process does not end until the mind does. Freud himself concedes that
there is often a passage in even the most thoroughly interpreted dream
which has to be left obscure; this is because we become aware during the
work of interpretation that at that point there is a tangle of dream-thoughts
which cannot be unravelled and which moreover adds nothing to our
knowledge of the content of the dream. This is the dream’s navel, the spot
where it reaches down into the unknown.3
What he is decribing is a mise-en-abîme with a vengeance; into it
disappears the authority of Freud’s narratives as well as Lévi-Strauss’s, and
indeed the authority of narrative itself, conceived as coherence, structure,
order—as well as linguistically conceived versions of narratology.
Admittedly, structures and sub-structures will be found in any narrative.
But these coherences are only recognized as such through their contexts,
and are to that degree fragments; they are bound together by a force that is
allied less to grammar than to dream. Even this distinction becomes blurred
when Lévi-Strauss’s linguistically-based model is seen to share some of the
same problems as Freud’s dream rebuses.
The acknowledged master of the narrative of debris is Donald
Barthelme. It is Barthelme that Jonathan Culler uses to make a transition to
literary criticism at the conclusion of his essay on Michael Thompson’s
Rubbish Theory. Thompson, a sociologist, argues that rubbish occupies a
cultural space between the transient and the durable—a kind of holding bin
where any particular piece of rubbish may under certain conditions be
reclaimed as a collectible, that is, as something with durable value. Of course
not only collectibles have durable value: anything in the category of the
aesthetic makes that claim or at least aspires to it. In a novel like Snow White
Barthelme stakes his claim through rubbish. This becomes most explicit at a
point when one of the seven “dwarfs,” Dan, pontificates about the work
done by the dwarfs at a plant that manufactures plastic buffalo humps, and
its relation to overall trends in trash:
Peter Schwenger84
SubStance # 100, Vol. 32, no. 1, 2003
Now you’re probably familiar with the fact that the per-capita production
of trash in this country is up from 2.75 pounds per day in 1920 to 4.5
pounds per day in 1965, the last year for which we have figures, and is
increasing at the rate of about four percent a year. Now that rate will
probably go up, because it’s been going up, and I hazard that we may very
well soon reach a point where it’s 100 percent. Now at such a point, you
will agree, the question turns from a question of disposing of this “trash”
to a question of appreciating its qualities, because, after all, it’s 100 percent,
right? And there can no longer be any question of “disposing” of it, because
it’s all there is, and we will simply have to learn how to “dig” it—that’s
slang, but peculiarly appropriate here. So that’s why we’re in humps, right
now, more really from a philosophical point of view than because we find
them a great moneymaker. They are “trash,” and what in fact could be
more useless or trashlike? It’s that we want to be on the leading edge of
this trash phenomenon, the everted sphere of the future, and that’s why
we pay particular attention, too, to those aspects of language that may be
seen as a model of the trash phenomenon. (103-4)
The aspects of language that Dan refers to here need not be confined to
the linguistic “stuffing” he has spoken of earlier (e.g. “you know,” “sort of,”
“like”). Even the “durable” language of art can partake of the trash
phenomenon when it is detached from its context, thrown upon the great
slag heap of culture. So in Barthelme’s novel we have numerous
appropriations like “Then he became melancholy, melancholy as a gib cat,
melancholy as a jugged hare” (123) –this pillaged from Henry IV, Part 1. And
even when no direct quotation is involved, Barthelme’s sentences seem to
quote themselves, standing away from the page in self-conscious
construction. No mode is sustained long enough to become transparent.
Unpredictable juxtapositions, quirkings of the banal (“Spare the bat and the
child rots”) create a Chaplinesque comedy of language.4 And all this becomes
possible when language is viewed not as a transparent window to
signification but as a heap of disparate and concrete entities. Some
narratologists have hoped that the structures of language could provide a
model that would reveal the fundamental structures of narrative. But
Barthelme’s use of language implies that words do not have a stabilizing
objectivity, but rather the randomness of objects, objects that may be picked
up, turned around and—freed from their original connotations and
contexts—assembled in a comic bricolage. In one of his most quoted
pronouncements, he asserted that “Fragments are the only forms I trust”
(Symposium 26).
All this, too, is dreamlike. For, as Freud asserts, “words are frequently
treated in dreams as though they were things, and for that reason they are
apt to be combined in just the same way as presentations of things”
Dream Narratives of Debris 85
SubStance # 100, Vol. 32, no. 1, 2003
(Interpretation 295-96). Things, of course, need not be related to each other
by any principle other than juxtaposition. So when in Snow White a dream is
narrated (124), it does not stand out in contrast to anything that could be
denominated a waking reality. Its curious logic is the same as that of the
novel as a whole.
Barthelme, like Bishop, wrote an evocation of Cornell’s aesthetic world;
it combines an uncanny, dreamlike quality with a precision of reference that
is very canny indeed. Here it is in its entirety:
Cornell
I put a name in an envelope, and sealed the envelope, and put that envelope
in another envelope with a spittlebug and some quantity of boric acid,
and put that envelope in a still larger envelope which contained also a
woman tearing her gloves to tatters; and put that envelope in the mail to
Fichtelgebirge. At the Fichtelgebirge Post Office I asked if there was mail
for me, with a mysterious smile the clerk said, “Yes,” I hurried with the
envelope to London, arriving with snow, and put the envelope in the
Victoria and Albert Museum, bowing to the Curators in the Envelope
Room, the wallpaper hanging down in thick strips. I put the Victoria and
Albert Museum in a still larger envelope which I placed in the program of
the Royal Danish Ballet, in the form of an advertisement for museums,
boric acid, wallpaper. I put the program of the Royal Danish Ballet into
the North Sea for two weeks. Then, I retrieved it, it was hanging down in
thick strips, I sent it to a machine-vask on H.C. Andersens Boulevard,
everything came out square and neat, I was overjoyed. I put the square,
neat package in a safe place, and put the safe place in a vault designed by
Caspar David Friedrich, German romantic landscape painter of the last
century. I slipped the vault into a history of art (Insel Verlag, Frankfurt,
1975). But, in a convent library on the side of a hill near a principal city of
Montana, it fell out of the history of art into a wastebasket, a thing I could
not have predicted. I bound the wastebasket in stone, with a matchwood
shroud covering the stone, and placed it in the care of Charles the Good,
Charles the Bold, and Charles the Fair. They stand juggling cork balls before
the many-times-encased envelope, whispering names which are not the
right one. I put the kings into a new blue suit; it walked away from me
very confidently. (Teachings 112-13)
Structurally, the piece echoes a practice of Cornell’s described by Mary Ann
Caws: “A phrase or short text would be wrapped in an envelope with a tiny
picture, and that envelope placed within another, and so on, in an intricate
series of infoldings” (451). In Barthelme’s homage the clarity of this series of
containments is continually dissolved by surreal incongruities, made up of
typical preoccupations of Cornell such as nineteenth-century ballet and Hans
Christian Andersen, antique advertisements and weathered wallpaper. Nor
does all this containing secure meaning for us. The “name” hidden away
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from us at the start might be Cornell’s, but Cornell is just as likely to be the
contents of the “new blue suit.” And if that suit walks away “very
confidently,” the confidence is all on its side, not ours. Similarly the movement
“away” is another version of the direction taken by all that mental flotsam
and jetsam. Barthelme, perhaps alerted by his own practice, has here
fashioned an accurate parallel to Cornell’s art. For if Cornell’s boxes imply
elusive narratives, and invite the reader to provide others, they do not contain
narrative. Rather, they open up narrative to the unpredictable and endless
vagaries of dream: “cages for infinity,” Paz calls them. The paradox is doubled
when we remember that not infinity but specific and limited debris makes
up the contents of the box. What can be characterized as infinite is the
narrative-making impulse in the mind, continually elicited by the box’s
objects.
The narratives that are made in accordance with this impulse have less
to do with “meaning” than with seduction. I take this term from Jean
Baudrillard, who sees seduction as a fundamental rule, a rule opposed to
law:
We are called upon at every moment to seduce (that is, to lure to immolate
and to destroy, to subvert and to ravish) that which the law summons us to
produce. The law imposes production upon us, but the secret rule, never
spoken, hidden behind the law, imposes seduction upon us, and that rule
is stronger than the law. (133)
While Baudrillard here emphasizes seduction’s power to destroy that which
production puts forward (forward etymologically: pro), seduction has its
own version of generative power –not straightforward as in a line, but
flickering through a series of tangents, touching at one point only and then
drawing apart (apart etymologically: se) through an infinite and
unpredictable range of possibilities. Seduction is provocative: it calls out in
us something, many things, beyond the law. So the spectator of Cornell’s
work is invited to think, literally, outside the box, to “elicit further dreams
and musings.”
Narrative must partake in what Baudrillard says of writing in general:
“it’s nothing but the projection of an arbitrary code, an arbitrary system (an
invention of the rules of a game) where things come to be taken in their fatal
development” (154). Those things may be words, words functioning as
things—the way they do, according to Freud, in dreams “where words,
emptied of their meaning, begin to function as things, and are all brought
back to the same primordial, brute, material state, to link together in their
material imminence, senseless (but not random) beyond all syntax and all
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principle of coherence” (Baudrillard 154). In short, dream as debris. What
Baudrillard is describing here goes some way toward explaining how things
may have a “fatal development” beyond syntax and coherence: they link
together in ways that inhere in their individual material natures (and are
thus fatal or fated) rather than in accordance with some overarching
organizing principle. But what, then, is the nature of their relation with
coherence, with the arbitrary code, arbitrary system, to which things come,
it seems, in order “to be taken in their fatal development”?
To ask this is to ask about the nature of the narrative game. The rules of
that game are not meant to produce knowledge but to hold it off—to delay
production long enough for seduction to have its effect. Structures of narrative
slow down the acquisition of meaning so that the more rapid play of the
mind has time to flicker fitfully, to play in the spaces where “meaning” is
not. This is doubtless something of what Baudrillard intends when he says
“going faster than the conceptual connections—this is the secret of writing”
(162). So the debris that makes up Gorey’s “Inanimate Tragedy” is not only
that of material objects but also that of narrative structures—structures that
almost invariably belong to what Roland Barthes would call the hermeneutic
code, whose function is to delay the too rapid advent of meaning (75-76).
Gorey gives us reversals, mistaken identities, miscommunications and
secrets, but here these are entirely divorced from the specious promise of
“truth.” In place of truth he gives us play, a play beyond the rules of the
game, or rather a play with the rules of the game. And this is perhaps the
most fundamental pleasure of the text:
Incalculable connections are the stuff of our dreams, but also of our daily
bread. We like nothing more than this crazy imbalance of cause and effect
–it opens fabulous horizons on our origins and on our potential power.
They say that seduction is a strategy. Nothing could be more wrong.
Seduction is a matter of these unexpected connections that any strategy
can at best only attempt to reproduce. (Baudrillard 155)
Cornell describes his box as a game, though its rules are significantly
“forgotten”—or as a toy that is “philosophical” in that it plays with the
relations between physical debris and the narratives that arise out of their
enigmatic conjunction. But I have been suggesting throughout this essay
that these narratives may not be as different as one might imagine from the
physical debris that evoked them. The work is on the one hand assembled
out of narrative fragments to create an apparent structure of meaning. On
the other hand, the momentum of meaning must be delayed enough so that
the plot’s machinery falls apart, from moment to moment returning to
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narrative debris. And in the spaces between these fragments, a movement
of another sort can arise: not production but seduction, the flickering
combinatory play of dream.
Mount St. Vincent University, Halifax
The research for this essay was supported by a grant from the Social Sciences and
Humanities Research Council of Canada.
Notes
1. “Dreamwork,” 181-82. In The Interpretation of Dreams Freud uses the same analogy of
“breccia, in which largish blocks of various kinds of stone are cemented together by a
binding medium” (419) to explain the fragmented nature of speeches experienced in
dreams.
2. Two boxes are illustrated in Elizabeth Bishop, Exchanging Hats: Paintings, pp. 48-51.
3. Interpretation of Dreams 525. As the passage continues is becomes clear that Freud’s
metaphor for this “tangle of dream-thoughts” is rhizomatic:
The dream-thoughts to which we are led by interpretation cannot, from
the nature of things, have any definite endings; they are bound to branch
out in every direction into the intricate network of our world of thought.
It is at some point where this meshwork is particularly close that the dream-
wish grows up, like a mushroom out of its mycelium.
Compare Deleuze and Guattari’s “Introduction: Rhizome” in A Thousand Plateaus, where
a rhizomatic structure is played against the linguistic model of Chomsky (and by
extension of many narratologists). Deleuze and Guattari use a term that is also used in
this essay, and for similar purposes, when they speak of “the book as assemblage . . . a
rhizome-book” (23).
4. Cf. Lance Olsen: “His words are Chaplins and Keatons. They slip on themselves, trip
over their own feet in an attempt to mean something stable” (12) As in Chaplin, however,
there is an anarchic grace and wacky creativity that somehow makes the “stable” seem
very dull.
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