Between the wheels of a subway train and its tracks or off the crags of stones or even the space between your dog’s toes, between a curtain and its stage, or the air vibrating between two bodies, we may hope to find a world apart. Where time envelops space, shadowing it, scrambling it and then gluing it back together in a different scene, in quiet, anxiety-ridden hovels of pleasure lifted from pain. This is happening now. Unobjectionable inexpressibility is best formulated by overwhelming all of the senses. How do we attain sensorial overload? Where do we find such drastic heights or such terrifying depths? Lights go out, shadows fall, the players emerge, this is the avant-garde. Longinus’ stenographer can’t stamp out the rules any longer. Rhetoric fails in shadows. We are left naked in our own production, subject to sensual whims of the blissfully blasphemous sublime. [Stop the noise now]
Part I: Quod
“So we / got / started. I didn’t know her she / didn’t know me”[i]. A beginning is born. Some thing happens. You feel tension between moments broken up into even more minute moments, each a beginning and each an end in itself. Perhaps an unknowable nervousness, muscles shaking, difficulty breathing, blurry vision, even sweat glands making themselves known. This is the agitation observed at the point of [some thing] happening. Agitation, Monsieur Kant, is sublime occurrence, no? Meanwhile, the immediacy of experiencing the disruptive sounds and sensations of a non-opera opera [let’s say Anne Carson’s Hephaistos’ Hunger Tango or Einstein on the Beach [ii]] grants us the right to let go of that which is knowable or that which is foreseeable: “…guarding the occurrence ‘before’ any defence, any illustration, and any commentary, guarding before being on one’s guard, before ‘looking’ (regarder) under the aegis of now, this is the rigour of the avant-garde”[iii]. In the now, we feel the jolts of every microbe of the physical and the mental.
A moment happens, something happens, and terror arises at the possibility of absolutely nothing happening thereafter. There is fear, respect, an inherent violence of endless possibility. Of something or nothing that drives endlessly into your [our] hollow chest. As more moments “happen” the feeling persists in varying degrees of hot and cold, underneath the skin, we fear for ourselves and the destruction of this new world. It is painful but pleasurable, these masochistic renderings of time in the shadow of an artist-constructed space. If you can envision Carson’s Aphrodite on a palely shadowed and stripped stage, are we not devastated by the impossibility of looking away, “backed-up roses bleed out the ends of my hair– / I beg you / keep looking. / for the logic I could follow / out of / here. ‘To think logically is to be perpetually astonished’ / said / the saint / before I destroyed her”[iv].
Thank you Anne for spelling it out: “The mind is the body. / I hate this fact. / I love this hate”[v]. Please forgive the necessity of words, black marks on a white page, in order to explain what language [really] can’t explain. What other service do we have? An occasional hyperlink, a pixilated voice to supplicate “the nothingness now”[vi]. Our sensual response to the new world created by a moment of avant-garde performance, this is what we have: our own skin crawling into the void of contemporary performance art [still we toy with terms and proper diction as a means to express the inexpressible]. We lose the self and gain the shadow of a violent sublimity in the midst of these performances. Carson unleashes Simone Weil into an altercation with herself in time in Fight Cherries [vii]. Again, we glimpse a pixilated interpretation of a new and unknowable world. The audience’s [your] senses plunge into an undefined and fearful moment, a time without a clarified space. Carson uses Simone to present the predicament of contemporary sublimity, “To accept a void in oneself is a question. / The energy has to come from somewhere else”[viii]. This energy comes from the happening. The happening that exists in its own world. The happening that is launched at the audience by the vivid performance [attempted translation] of the unknowable [unexplainable] void. Of the sublime.
Part II: Quid
con1 kän/ informal verb / verb: con; 3rd person present: cons; past tense: conned; past participle: conned; gerund or present participle: conning 1. persuade (someone) to do or believe something, typically by use of a deception. Noun: con; plural noun: cons 1. an instance of deceiving or tricking someone.
tem·po·rar·yˈ tempəˌrerē/ adjective: temporary 1. lasting for only a limited period of time; not permanent. Noun: temporary; plural noun: temporaries 1. a person employed on a temporary basis, typically an office worker who finds employment through an agency.
Now comes what. As in, what was that? Or what the hell just happened? We [here, now] dismantle the term contemporary to expose what is indefinable in this [our] contemporary view of the sublime. We’ve witnessed moments of performance in which corporeal expressions fill the void left in the footprints of Longinus’ legacy of the sublime. With changes in temporality come different interpretations of who means what and what means whom.
When we give up language as a means to define what contemporary performance [and art] is, we see [on the horizon] a contemporary [still out of reach] sublime. Joanna Zylinska gives me a hand, “The role of the avant-gardes is thus to make us feel more; to introduce an affective excess that will disrupt the everyday existence and expose us to a different economy—but not to provide a sense of emotional or cognitive unity”[ix]. In the collaboration between Robert Wilson and Philip Glass, we witness a contemporary vision of the sublime. Einstein on the Beach manifests elation and terror, its impermanent world reflecting an industrial, global reality while representing an entirely new space and reconceived sense of time. Inherent in this, and any performance, is the idea that: “The material, corporeal existence of actors on stage exemplifies what Lyotard calls ‘the heart of absence.’ As in theatrical performance where audiences witness bodies of theater players temporarily occupying the space of absent identities”[x]. The players are our temporary employees. We shall let them go before the pain extinguishes, while we still languish in the question rather than the resolution.
In this limited space it is not possible to divulge too much on Lyotard’s sweet “heart of absence,” but I can suggest how it might pertain to Mr. Wilson and Mr. Glass, along with Carson and other artists in search of a contemporary sublime in a postmodern global climate. What is absent from Einstein on the Beach is the rulebook, the “this is how we do it.” The artists who create these works have lost [rejected] all sense of theatrical rule, structure, and design. Thus, for Mr. Glass, for Carson, and for Monsieur Lyotard himself,
A postmodern artist or writer is in the position of the philosopher: the text he writes, the work he produces are not in principle governed by preestablished rules, and they cannot be judged according to a determining judgment, by applying familiar categories to the text or to the work. Those rules and categories are what the work of art itself is looking for. [xi]
The absence, the void, the exploding shadow of impermanence is the vehicle with which we might bring ourselves closer to a sublime that is no longer fueled by rhetoric but by the individual’s affective experience in collusion with the darkest corners of a passionate imagination.
The stage is bare, naked, in darkness and shedding sparse shadows across an audience of indeterminate and infinite size. The stage looms high and cruel over the women and men crumpled in the fetal position within their seats. They have been waiting eternally for the show to start, for something to happen, to break the silence and the mystery. These women and men are all wearing the same white t-shirt, 100% cotton, larger-than-life like those television commercials with Michael Jordan. A spot of light, a column, arises from the middle of the stage, sudden, sharp, white. You see four black steel chairs where there was nothing before, circling tight and square, facing the spot.
Immanuel Kant enters stage right. He is wearing white, entirely down to the socks, but black shoes. He saunters out and sits erect in the stage right chair, facing you. He speaks calmly, with [perhaps] too much confidence: Intrinsic values are essential to goodwill / These fundamental values of freedom / Moral commands and categorical character / you are what you eat. Good / rational human being / reach your sublime. / Eternal morality / agitate my soul. In reading Rousseau / Man experienced the Sublime / having read it over and over and over again / that which is / truly / great / requires a second reading. Dislocation / pyramids / ruptured storm / Ideas! / and I smile through / pain. / Melancholic / choleric volcano / and the sun / adopting / adaptive optical negative / just imagine that. / Rules / stupid rules / Sanguine / limp and sad / phlegmatic sickness / this is morning. / Mourning in the evening / flowers are beautiful / fruit is sublime. Still sitting straight, he turns towards the center while the light flickers and then sustains.
Jean-François Lyotard enters stage left. He is wearing a white shirt [like the audience] with black pants and black suspenders, black socks, black shoes. He stumbles to the stage left chair, facing the light. His voice is equally calm, a higher pitched tone, louder than Kant, more dangerous: Now this is now happening now is this now / Maintenant ce qui se passe actuellement est maintenant ça maintenant / Nun ist dies jetzt geschieht, jetzt ist dies nun / THEN / Das Nichts ist nun / Jetzt ist etwas / So / jetzt, dass das Nichts etwas ist / ist das Nichts jetzt / Le néant est maintenant / Maintenant, c’est quelque chose / So / maintenant que le néant est quelque chose / est le néant maintenant / The nothingness is now / Now is something / So / now that nothingness is something / is the nothingness now? / Here and now / there is this / rather than nothing / and that’s what is / or can be / sublime. [xiii] Mechanically, he moves his flexed hand through the light, disrupting it and causing another flicker before the light stabilizes once again.
Anne Carson enters upstage center. She is wearing a red shirt, red suspenders, black pants, red socks and black shoes. She quickly arrives at the back of her chair and places her hands on it, looking through the light. Her voice is soft but strong, her eyes are closed: I could not wake from a dream I once had / during today / and before yesterday / in which all I could see was darkness around a pale sun / I wondered at the advantages of not being able to see you when from within the sun a black spot began to expand and explode until the sun was no longer there and only darkness / I could no longer see myself except for an outline / a shadow of what was to become more darkness / I felt love / fell in love / cold / and quiet / an undoing / I was violent and capable of violent things / but without seeing / I could not move / in silence / I stood / or did not stand / it was beyond / after tomorrow / I was bleeding into / darkness / and meanwhile… She grips the chair with both hands and walking backwards drags the chair back upstage, disappearing to wherever she came from.
Philip Glass enters from the orchestra pit, downstage center. He is wearing a black shirt, white suspenders, white pants, red socks, and black shoes. He turns his chair around, so that his back is to the light and he faces his audience. His voice is low, slow, and extremely calm. He stares straight ahead. The volume of his voice gets louder or quieter, depending on how you read this: I was wondering and hoping to ask / I was wondering AND hoping to ask / I was hoping to ASK and WONDERING / I was hoping to ask and wondering / I WAS here / Here / HEre / HERe / HERE /Then I began / I be gan / and then I began to see / numbers / NUMB ers / and words / yes, there were words too / but the numbers I see / I saw / I see before asking / or hoping to ask / in four / FOUR / four and one half / half of one / Einstein could be / is time / time over space / space in four / sleep for four / by four / two and two / and one plus three / I / hoping to ask / hoping to see / infinity. With his final word, Glass falls forward, arms hugging his knees so that the light may be more visible, climbing up his spine.
The light flickers and stutters while the men slowly stand and take their chairs back to the places they came from. Once completely out of sight, the light goes out and the audience [me or you or we] is left in the dark once more.
Loie Merritt is a literary and mixed media artist. In 2011, she self-published her first collection, Sole Trouble & Other Stories (Blurb, New York). Recent work has been published in Storyacious, The Cafe Review, and Vannevar. Loie is currently pursuing an MFA at the University of Colorado where she also teaches creative writing.
[i] Carson, Anne. “Decreation: An Opera in Three Parts” Decreation. New York: Vintage Books. 2005, 190
[ii] Einstein on the Beach is the premier avant-garde opera composed by Philip Glass, directed by Robert Wilson, with choreography by Lucinda Childs, 1976. This epic, four-hour production remapped the operatic kingdom by presenting the audience with a performance without narrative, plot or resolution.
[iii] Lyotard, Jean Francois. “The Sublime and the Avant Garde,” 455
[iv] Carson, 192-93
[v] Carson, 193
[vi] Lyotard, 455
[vii] Decreation: An Opera Installation with music by Guillermo Alindo, text by Anne Carson, 2001
[viii] Carson, 227
[ix] Zylinska, Joanna. “Nourished…on the Irremediable Differend of Gender,” Gender After Lyotard, edited by Margret Grebowicz. New York: State University of New York Press, 2007
[x] Bean, Kellie. “Scenes from a Marriage,” Gender After Lyotard
[xi] David, Anthony. “Lyotard and the Kantian Sublime”
[xii] From Carson, 125: “In 1982 Beckett produced Quadrat I and Quadrat II for Suddeutscher Rundfunk television in Stuttgart. Quadrat I is an action using four cloaked figures, light and percussion; Quadrat II is a variation on Quadrat I. The players pace wordlessly on a grid, each following a particular course. Quadrat I was filmed in color, Quadrat II in black and white. Later in 1982 Quadrat 1 + 2 was transmitted by BBC2, London. First published as Quad by Faber and Faber, London, 1984.”
[xiii] Lyotard, 455