Monday, 5 January 2009

Sleep, Beauty & Forgetting

[I wrote this after a trip I took in 2002.]

This morning I got up, put on my dressing gown and went to the kitchen. As I had neither cereal nor bread I decided to heat some milk for breakfast. Because there were no matches to light the stove, I got a lighter. To understand what happened next I need to explain that my dressing gown was a little frayed around the cuffs – indeed, frayed everywhere. When I ignited the gas element the flame leapt, and almost immediately I heard a crackling sound racing up my sleave. In every film I have seen of someone on fire they are always running. And that is exactly what I started doing – down the hallway. It is just instinct. Halfway to the front door, I had a thought, a thought more scientific than I’d had before or since, “This is silly; running is fuelling the fire with oxygen.” I stopped, then felt the urge to scream for help. Before I could open my mouth, though, I thought, “No, I am a gentleman, I will keep a stiff upper lip.” Repressing the urge to scream, I took off the dressing gown, quelled the flames with a few stomps, then acting as though nothing had happened, I finished making my hot milk. Five minutes later, as I was sipping my breakfast, I pondered whether the incident was indicative of my life, and if not, what was.

I addressed the question by asking if the conflagration was representative of how I create drama in my life. The etymology of "Drama" is “do” in ancient Greek and as such, for me, the ideal drama is the wind because we only see what it does, never what it is. The wind pushes that tree, moves this cloud. But drama is rarely viewed in this sense. It is rather how or why one does something to the world. I considered two of my friends. One creates drama by leaving everything till the last minute, or, as they say in theatre, the denouement. He creates drama by not doing. Another friend has a constant denouement by doing as many things as possible. His drama lies in how he cannot do all the things he sets himself. Even with these two comparisons, however, I found it impossible to scrutinise myself without more direction. Finally I realised that there are at least two forms of drama for me. The events I am involved in, and how I sustain those events through a telling of some kind. In effect, then, it is a case of being either the playwright writing a scene or the spectator retelling the drama to a third party. These two forms of drama continued spinning through my mind. As one became prominent, the other would revolve around it until eventually they joined together into a single mass large enough to gravitate towards the time I spent in the international centre of drama, Hollywood.

I was staying in a Hollywood hostel when I met a woman who recommended a Borges story I was unable to recall reading. Not remembering its title she told me the story. A poet, she explained, is asked by a king to write a poem to the glory of his kingdom. When he returns with his elegy the king is not completely satisfied and so sends him back to his writing table. The second poem is also rejected, but with his third attempt, which is only one word, the king is so moved that he chops off the poet’s head and destroys the poem. She said the story made her cry every time she read it.

When I left L.A. we missed exchanging addresses. All I had was her first name, Thea. I talked to her several times. One time she invited me to go to a cemetery with her to see Marilyn Monroe’s grave. She apparently visited all the famous graves on her travels. On our third encounter we had a Borgesian conversation that reduced America to one word. At the time I was reading Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and disagreed with Hunter S. Thompson’s diagnosis that the American dream was to be rich. I thought this was only a symptom of the true dream, which was fame. Thea was in agreement with me that fame was the essential American dream, but she admitted that we were in Hollywood, after all, and she’d just had a bad experience with a dorm-mate at our hostel, a pornographically busty African-American called Sandy with a Jaguar in which she drove her to Santa Monica while Thea said she didn’t want to go. Halfway there she had finally called Sandy crazy and that had gotten her thrown out of the car. Sandy’s parting words were: “You don’t know who you’re messing with: I’m famous.”

Standing in the entrance of the hostel, where we had happened to cross paths, Thea reached the conclusion that fame in America was tragic. Shifting my position to allow someone with a large backpack to get passed me, I said I didn’t understand. She explained that it was more tragic to try to succeed and fail than never to attempt to succeed at all. Dumbfounded, I jokingly said, “So you believe in the dictum: it is better to live on your knees than die on your feet” She said that she had a t-shirt with that saying on it.

The tragic comes in many guises. For the ancients a tragedy was to try to change one’s fate, rather than accept it. Until quite recently tragedy was also reserved for the aristocracy or royalty. Since the rise of existentialism, the tragic is, what Jean-Paul Sartre calls Bad Faith, where persons of any class do not accept that they have the freedom to control their lives. They live on their knees.

Two of my friends at hostel were Angus and Allan. They called Thea “Pocahontas” because on the first night we had met her in the hostel’s bar she had pigtailed her straight hair. Angus, Allan and I met a couple of weeks earlier in a Las Vegas hostel playing foozball. Angus was a nickname, his real name was Augusto. Even though Spanish, he lived in Denmark as a computer programmer. Allan was a Danish drum teacher. Allan seemed lost, like Hamlet in Elsinore. Tall and blonde, Allan told me he was sleeping with a married woman back in Denmark. He had told her he didn’t love her, and she didn’t mind. He confided to me that when he got back he’d demand some gifts for sleeping with her because he wasn’t enjoying it. He said it without emotion or shame, as if he had told it to himself so many times that he assumed it would seem quite normal for anyone else to hear. This was on the way to the nearest liquor store to buy a couple of forty fluid ounce bottles of beer to drink on the hostel’s patio. The hostel used to be a motel. Corridors ran the length of its two-storeys. Each dorm room contained at least 8 bunk beds and an en suite bathroom.

I spent over a month at the Hollywood hostel, primarily waiting for my airplane ticket to come back from Arizona with a changed departure date and an additional stopover in Fiji. While in Los Angeles I decided not to keep in contact with Amy once I left America. I first met Amy in Perth in 1988. She was from the Minnesota and, like me, travelling around Australia. The following year I travelled to America, crossing the states from Hawaii to the east coast. I arrived in New York and bought a plane ticket for London. I was staying in a hostel near Times Square. The next day I walked up and down much of Broadway. At one point a woman approached walking her Labrador. As they passed I said hello to the dog. I confounded myself by this action, finding no immediate reason for why I had spoken to a dumb animal rather than a human. But I found a reason soon enough. It is the fear of failure. I had no guarantee that I would get a friendly response from the human, whereas the dog was just a dog. The attraction of animals, as opposed to humans, is their innocence. Their emotions may be biased but never duplicitous. And then, compared to humans – who have a measure of control over their lives, albeit invariably denied by neuroses or bad faith – animals’ lack of freedom induces the most extreme form of pity in me, to the point where I deny my own freedom to satisfy their smallest whims. My fear of failure is dictated by the fear of being myself. It is all right to fail if I am acting a role. The fear of approaching a woman, unless somehow detached from what I am doing, is a distrust of my own actions. If I act somehow other than myself then the blame for my actions cannot be completely attributed to myself. It is like writing fiction but pretending it is one’s autobiography.

Performance theories are contrary things by the mere oddity of trying to theorise the instant of action, because thought is somehow both before and after but rarely coincidental with action. The more one thinks about actions, the more detached the two become. Because thought is perceived to be related to expression, the highest form of expression, language, has been seen by performance theorists as the key to reconnecting thought and action. Of particular interest to theorists are things called speech acts, where words are themselves acts, such as the “I do” in a wedding ceremony. A “written act” would be to write “I write”. The heightened drama of speech acts is quite contrary to my own dissociative drama. Two examples. I will be drinking a beer on the back porch and think that it would be good to get a beer from the fridge. Or I will turn the radio on only later to think I would like to listen to some music. I am not sure whether I want more because I don’t realise what I am doing or because I am not satisfied with what I have chosen.

There is an anecdote told by Jean-Paul Sartre to explain the difference between Being And Nothingness. For existentialism being is doing. He arrives at a café where he has an appointment with Pierre. After studying all the tables he experiences nothingness in the fact that Pierre is not there. By contrast, when I enter a café my first impulse is to look for the nothingness of an empty table. Soon after greeting the dog I stepped into a café, and headed for the one remaining unoccupied table. As I was making my way through the labyrinth of tables I looked up to see that a couple were already making themselves comfortable at the table. Unable to secure my own patch of nothingness, I backtracked and exited the café. I was walking back down Broadway when I heard a small voice behind me say, “Excuse me, do I know you?” I turned around and surprised her by saying immediately, “Hello, Amy.” We walked back into the café and had coffee.

[Amy and I celebrating New Year's Eve, Melbourne 2001]

If Sartre helps me to understand my experience of entering the café, then another French academic, Roland Barthes, allows me to understand Amy’s position. In a small book called Camera Lucida, dedicated to Sartre, Barthes calls the stare of subjects in photographic portraits looking straight at the camera, the “photographic look”. He uses a non-photographic scenario to elucidate what he means. He is sitting in a café when an anonymous man enters and scans all the tables, including Barthes, obviously looking for someone, just as Sartre was looking for Pierre. Although the man looks at Barthes, Barthes is left with the feeling that he does not see him.

That week in New York I saw all of Amy for the first time. She was studying humanities at NYU. I stayed in her halls apartment. We kissed and fondled each other for eternity then she ran the bath. At the end of the week I left New York and did not see her again till nine years later when she came to Melbourne for a few weeks. On the last night of a later visit, which was considered a trial period, we went to a restaurant to discuss our future. She complained that I had chosen a restaurant so as to stop her from making a scene. I pointed out that a restaurant was much better suited to making a scene than my bedroom where she would only have an audience of one. During the meal she convinced me that when I had finished my studies I should come over to stay with her for six months before we returned to Melbourne. Twenty-four hours after I arrived in Minneapolis she said we couldn’t “date”. Obviously I wanted to know what the problem was. She said she didn’t know. I asked to stay for a week to get over my jetlag. I give the impression that I was calm, and I suppose I was. When I do not understand what is going on, whether in a story or my life, I do not stop. I go on in the certain knowledge or hope that when I see more of the ‘picture’ I will be able to understand in some way what has preceded it. The next few days were spent looking out of her apartment’s one large window, smoking cigarette after cigarette. It was like being in a lift with a stranger. Occasionally I played with her cat. After a week I booked a Greyhound to San Francisco. Her last request before I left was that I would tell her if I ever wrote a story about her. I said, “I will never write about you.” Fifty hours of travel later I arrived at Stephen and Anissa’s apartment.

[Mural in an alley in the Mission, San Francisco, May 2008]

I stayed with them for three weeks. One night we went to a barbecue. Mockingly, Stephen told me to tell Bryan my bike-lock question. I said, “I want to know why there are bike locks attached to poles or bike racks without any bikes connected to them.” Bryan’s response was similar to Stephen’s. He said, People leave their locks because they work nearby, and eventually they forget about them after their bike has been stolen somewhere else. I said that there is more mystery to the bike locks than that. He said, There are other more interesting mysteries, like why do people become less friendly to those who are being kind to them? I said, “People have been trying to solve that mystery for millennia, but no one has considered the mystery of the abandoned bike locks.”

Bryan left the party, driving his girlfriend, Angela, and Anissa home, so Stephen and I headed for a bar on Haight Street. As we were walking I commented on how fucked up a guy at the party had been. Stephen ask how he was fucked up. And I repeated some comment the guy had said. Stephen lashed out at me for always stating the negative, never the positive. Rather than defend myself by proving that his analysis was incorrect I instead adopted the juvenile strategy of trying to prove that my position was as equally right as his own. We were in an Irish bar on Haight St when I began to argue that if my negative comments of others were correct then the person could only learn from them, and if they are wrong then they could easily dismiss them. It is like, I continued, there is a character in a novel who resembles someone in reality, but the character is doing something the real person would never do, so that person sues the writer for libel. The publisher defends their writer by saying that if the character is doing something you would never do, then how can you recognise it as you? As I was finishing this speech I turned and caught my reflection in a mirror behind the bar and I didn’t recognise myself.

While at Stephen and Anissa’s apartment I kept in contact with Amy by phone and email, mainly because I wanted to know the truth about why we couldn’t “date.” I didn’t believe she didn’t know what it was. When I was in L.A. I finally made some headway when she said that she had just seen the film Secretary and it had a similar relationship to ours. I went to see it at a cinema on Sunset Blvd where the staff were so friendly I involuntarily began waving back at them. I was also confused by the film. I wrote to Amy the next day to ask how the sado-masochism of Secretary related to our relationship. She wrote back saying that the woman was like herself in having a Cinderella syndrome, which is where a woman changes herself to suit the desires of her man. Cinderella, that is, becomes a princess, rather than the prince becoming a pauper. Amy explained that I did not know her because she had changed herself so as to seduce me. The next phone call she said the reason we couldn’t “date” was that she didn’t think I loved her.

This doubt had its origin when she was in Melbourne. During a heated exchanged I had said I wasn’t sure whether I loved her because, although we had known each other for fourteen years, all but two months of that time had been spent apart. I couldn’t understand how she was so sure that I was the one for her. I accepted my role as the beloved with some unease, but was generally happy to find I could please someone else so easily. Maybe all relationships are based on a similar delusion. Love is parcelled out in the belief that it has already been received in kind.

There was an Italian at the Hollywood hostel called Franco who hired people to be in the audience of the Weakest Link. Franco had aspirations to be a Hollywood actor. He introduced himself to the men at the hostel with the phrase: “I’m Franco – I love pussy.” He would smile as he said this to reveal a mouth full of cavities, even though he was only in his twenties. The quiz show was shot with the audience behind the contestants so they needed people to stay all day. The first day I worked in the audience, one of the contestants, a real estate agent, confessed to liking fat women. He gave the example of Oprah as his size of woman. The host of the show, George Gray, asked him which “Oprah,” because Oprah was slim again. He replied, the last Oprah.

As the audience we had to wear black and laugh at George’s jokes. The studio was chilled to an uncomfortable level, supposedly to stop the dry ice they used to accentuate the light beams from rising to the ceiling. Each show took two hours to record. Most of the audience members were out of work or wannabe actors, like Franco, trying to get a break. We all got $6.75 an hour. Towards the end of the day some tourists would come in to experience a live recording so not all of us were needed. Some of our number volunteered to leave, others were bumped for being too slow to laugh at George’s jokes. The contestants collectively accumulated money with every question answered correctly in a row. Each contestant took turns to answer a trivia question, and with each right answer the prize doubled, but a wrong answer erased the accumulated sum. At the end of each round of questions the contestants got to choose who should be kicked off the team because they were inhibiting the collection of money. I was surprised to note that the contestants on the Weakest Link were more likely to kick someone off their team for being slow and correct than someone who was fast and wrong. I understood this impulse fully at lunch when I was talking with the other backpackers Franco had hired to work that day. They were talking about how long Scandinavians take to say “I love you.” It is a sacred phrase for them, whereas the Australian girl, who was married to an American, explained how quickly Americans are willing to say “I love you.” I could, of course, relate to this with Amy, who couldn’t understand how I could not love her after being with her for two months of my life.

While travelling in America I carried Borges’ Labyrinths. Perhaps tellingly I was particularly fond of his essay “The Avatars of the Tortoise,” which looks at finite forms of the infinite. By replaying the conditions of this morning’s conflagration, I conjectured that one of the ways I create drama is my affinity to paradoxes of the infinite, such as the one Zeno explains with a runner who cannot reach the finish line. The runner begins by halving the distance between himself and the end, then he halves the remaining distance, then that distance is halved, and so on, gradually getting closer by halves, but without the possibility of ever reaching the finish.

When writing I am like a dog. I have no trouble making a start but cannot lead it to its conclusion. Likewise, dogs know how to greet, but do not understand the etiquette of goodbyes. I have immense trouble leading things to their conclusions. I cut things in half, then half again, and so on, without joining the whole together.

Zeno’s paradox goes against my experience of space, where I, for instance, continually reach the toilet before I wet myself. But it is in agreement with one of my conceptions of time. When I was a teenager I calculated the year I would be exactly half my mother’s age. I would, of course, be the age she was when she gave birth to me. During that year of halves, I did remember my earlier calculation, but without knowing the reason for my concern for halves. One morning in that year, however, I was lying half awake in bed and I daydreamed that it was possible to become older than my mother while she was still alive. To do this, I vaguely calculated us both living for centuries, if not millennia. This was patently wrong. Where the fraction of our age difference would decrease with each year, there would nonetheless always remain 28 years between us. Actually this is not entirely true. When I awoke properly I realised there was a scientific explanation for how I could become older than my mother. It required that she travel at high velocity through outer space while I remained as stationary as possible. When she returned to earth she would have aged at a slower rate than myself. The paradox can be encapsulated in the different meanings of the word after, depending on whether it refers to space or time. Spatially Zeno’s runner is chasing after the finish line, whereas temporally I am necessarily born after my mother.

Time is like a dream you can’t remember. If is too familiar to waking life, it fails to be classified as a dream, and if it is too different from your reality then it is never remembered.

The concept of halves is related to the return from a journey. Odysseus is the classic example of the one who returns home. His odyssey has been contrasted with Abraham’s eternal wander without return. The infinite non-return of Abraham and Odysseus’ finite return. Odysseus and Abraham are the two archetypes of drama.
It was towards the end of the night, and my friends and I had just entered. After buying a round they began talking about someone I did not know, and being tired of their company I separated myself from their circle by leaning against the bar. When stationary in a public space I unconsciously situate myself as to the most attractive woman in the vicinity. I may be on a beach, a train, a bus, in a café or, as I was on this occasion, a busy bar. My search came back to a woman right in front of me giving off an aura of both ingenuousness and deception.

In any case, such were my thoughts after I overheard the most beautiful woman in the bar say to her female companion “It vibrates like my life,” then turn towards my gaze. Embarrassed, I spun away, closing my eyes at the same time. When I reopened them I was staring intently at my beer, then the bar, then a bar stool, then she was standing in front of me saying, “It’s terrible, isn’t it?”

Confused by her certainty, her vagueness, I asked, “What is?”

She smiled. “I don’t know.”

It was a game. I took a sip of beer. “Maybe it’s the weather,” I offered. “The rain.”

A small shake of the head signalled that I would have to be obscure as well.

A friend of mine defined the difference between obscure and normal as the difference between Sundays and Mondays. He said that the obscure becomes normal just as inevitably as Sunday’s freedom gives way to Monday’s routine. Nonetheless, I argued that the normality of Mondays can lead to their own obscurity. Rain, for instance, is rarely appreciated because it is overbearing, but if we step back we see its beauty. Between us we saw two ways of finding the obscure, like there are two ways of looking at a glass – half empty or half full.
As you might have guessed, I wasn’t thinking all this at the time, it was only in retrospect of our walk later through the all too friendly rain to her flat, where we clinked our oddly shaped glasses together in a toast to sleep, beauty, forgetting. For in the bar I had managed to convince her that if rain, war, disease, etc., were not acceptable then there was the terrible ubiquity of the self. Not that I found selfhood itself terrible, nor did I mind solitude, yet I would prefer longer breaks from myself. “There is sleep, beauty, and forgetting, of course,” I admitted, “but not enough to live on.”

When I left her flat it was somewhere between late at night and early in the morning. Long ago when walking home after a lonely night of drinking, two equally drunk women, who were passing on the other side of the deserted street, shouted provocatively, “How good are you?” It is an indicative of my selfhood that my first thought was to hear this as a moral question rather than a salacious invitation. The penance for this error is that I have always remembered that call when walking home drunk, as I was doing that rainy morning.

I come home to space bereft of importance, as all homes bequeath when we conquer them. Outside are unseen powers you succumb to in order to feel free when you come home. It is the freedom of a dream. You lie down now on your bed with a half started book. Through the walls you hear the shallow sounds of domesticity.


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