January 2010

Elizabeth Bachner


Highwire: Reading The Principles of Uncertainty

I wish I could be more like Philippe Petit, tightrope walking between the twin towers of the World Trade Center and feeling exhilarated instead of afraid. He was creating a thing of beauty, a crazy, blissful, instant offering to the universe, an offering for the present moment. His performance was less like writing than like living. It was almost the opposite of writing, which is a kind of katabasis, but even when you die for it, there’s always an element of hoarding. Your writing will never die. It could be destroyed, the way certain ancient deities have been destroyed, or it could be ignored, or it could be burned, the way books are often burned, but it doesn’t have the built-in mortality of the frail human body. And even though writers often starve themselves or drink bottles of Lysol, most of them leave their work behind. It’s not exactly walking out onto that tightrope. Or is it?

Last month I went to see the Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet at the Joyce Theater. They were dancing a piece based on Jill Bolte Taylor’s memoir of her stroke. The dancers were crawling though too-small openings between steel bars. During the after-talk, the artistic director explained that this really did give them nasty cuts and bruises. One of the soloists, Jason Kittelberger, does things with his body that I can’t imagine, even after watching him. He dances on his neck. The problem with seeing brilliance is that it starts to look easy. You have to stretch to understand, in your own body, what it might be like to crush your head against the stage and roll the rest of yourself across it while everyone watches. You have to stretch to understand that the tightrope is almost 1400 feet high, that the gap between the buildings is 140 feet across.

What makes a book brave? Is it risking censorship, exile, prison, and literal death to write down some threatening truth, to challenge a dictatorship or offend the emperor? Is it spilling your guts about the secret innards of your marriage, your sexual desires, your mania, your disease? Is it showing some part of yourself that no one would ever want to expose? Is it shaking down the art world, making something perilously new? Is it opening yourself up to the daemons and murderous deities that make you work like that, putting you on auto-pilot like the pretty ballerina in The Red Shoes, till your art takes over your fragile human life and steals everything from you?

Reading Maira Kalman’s The Principles of Uncertainty, a genreless children’s book for grown-ups filled with pictures of extraordinary hats and cakes and radishes and dodos and lollipops and dingy couches abandoned on city streets, with trips to Paris and Moscow, with young people and old people and ottomans and Nietzsche and death, reminds me of seeing Philippe Petit’s walk between the twin towers.

It’s not some bloody confessional. It’s not a cute-but-brazen work of experimentation, like George Perec’s A Void (a whole thriller written without Es, which novelist Gilbert Adair translated into English without Es, and which is actually pretty great). It’s not anything that exposes the dirty inner workings of a government. It won’t get her exiled to Scythia, or provoke anybody to issue a fatwa against her. Unlike some of the contemporary books I find magical, it’s not even obscure and underground and losing money -- it’s a collection of a year’s worth of New York Times blog posts, published by a major press, endorsed by all the media outlets that are deep-pocketed and mainstream. Its popularity gives me that warm, fuzzy Oliver Sacks feeling, like maybe everyone out there isn’t really a thoughtless consumer of the latest Eat, Pray, Love or Eating Animals or Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. It’s loved by everybody, and not some brave book in any expected sense, but it gives me that expansive feeling, soaring and delicate at the same time. She sees the beauty in people, which is actually brave because it’s so sad.

In one chapter, she uses photographs as well as drawings, of people in cities that she’s walking behind, people of all ages and colors and shapes. She thinks all of them are important. She wants to walk with them. And, with us, with whoever is reading, with all of us she’s talking to. Even though there are too many of us, and we are so often told that we aren’t important, that we aren’t beautiful, that our lives don’t matter. “The sun will blow up,” reads the caption under the back of a woman in green dress, walking along a gum-stained New York sidewalk, “in five billion years,” (a hunched man in sandals and a thobe, walking in the dust near a rusty bicycle). “Knowing that,” (a plump man slathered with sunblock, in tight swim trunks and a bathing cap, wading into the ocean), “how could anyone want a war or plastic surgery. But I am being naive. And the unknown is so unknowable.”

Elsewhere, she writes, “My husband died at the age of 49. I could collapse thinking about that.” (The roots of a tree in grass, stones, a white dog.) “But I don’t want to talk about that now. I want to say that I love that George is nearby under a leafy tree. And Ira Gershwin, too. It is very cozy.”

It’s not so much the nakedness of existential questions here that reminds me of Philippe Petit. It’s more how delectable everything is -- a tiered tower of fruit, a seven-layer chocolate cake with a cherry on top, a pink bed with The Idiot on the bedside table, Pina Bausch as a small child, being lifted into the air as a somber, pink-clad toddler. (“The floor is so hard, and the dancers are moving so quickly. How can they do this? This is dangerous. They are dancing for Pina Bausch. If Pina was lifted up in the air as a child, did she laugh? Or did it seem dangerous? Very dangerous.”)

Ever since I started reading Capitalism and Schizophrenia, my problem of noticing mystical coincidences has gotten worse. Everything seems like a sign, everything seems like more than a coincidence, I am homesick for randomness. Apparently, there are drugs that can treat this kind of apophenia -- but what if it’s not insanity? What if it’s just the way the world works?

I’m writing about Philippe Petit and thinking about what makes art brave, and which kinds of bravery are art, and I go to the book launch for a new volume of Heinrich Von Kleist’s prose. I’m in a mood, writhing and restless, finding all sorts of new edges to take off in new ways. I’ve just seen a man whose wife recently died young, of cancer, slowly. It’s been a year, maybe. I don’t really know him. He always looks uncertain. I see him trying to smile and go about his day. Meanwhile, here I am overwrought about petty things, lustful, mere, obsessing about someone, wanting to get my way, to be granted some special favor. I’ve never read Heinrich Von Kleist before. I figure he’ll be dead and German and I don’t really expect him to change my mood.

But then, translator Peter Wortsman steps up to the podium and explains that rendering Von Kleist’s endless sentences faithfully into English is like eating fugu or “playing Russian roulette with a golden bullet.” He turns off the lights and reads “The Earthquake in Chile,” which is like one of those movies where you want to scream at the characters not to go into the haunted basement. And somehow, here I am at an exciting event, on a medium-cold night that was boring until a few minutes ago, hearing an exciting story, with something daring about it. As I get to know Von Kleist, whose work significantly influenced Kafka, I learn that his stories all involve unaverted violence and inexorable descents, and that his life was even worse.

“It would be hard to imagine… a man at once more brilliantly adept at the practice of his art and more painfully inept at the business of living,” writes Wortsman. Born in 1777 into a clan of Prussian Junkers, he was “predestined to bear arms and constitutionally disinclined to do so.” He failed in the army and in academia, was shunned by his family, and “landed in the clink” due to “an unfortunate misunderstanding with Napoleon’s provisional military government.” In trying to launch his literary career, he “proved remarkably clumsy at maneuvering the social niceties, alienating with immoderate words and rash behavior many of his would-be patrons and benefactors,” including Goethe. He started a literary review that went under, and when he finally published some work, critics ridiculed his plays (which he never saw staged) and called his stories “hack jobs,” “sheer nonsense,” “senseless frivolities,” “the work of a deranged mind,” “un-German, stiff, twisted and coarse.” Of his own work, he wrote that his siblings saw him as “a good-for-nothing link in the social chain no longer worthy of any attachment.” He shot himself at age thirty-four in a suicide pact with an acquaintance’s wife.

I feel guilty about it, but learning about this man’s inability to win soothes me. It stills my writhing frustration for the night. His life sucked, but “he managed to press his Prussian discipline… to the service of his writing, sublimating tactical maneuvers into intricate syntax, waging a one-man war with society and himself, and in the process hammering the German language into a powerful weapon of expression… His words overwhelm. His stories suck you into a visceral virtual reality. Surrendering, you stagger through the telling like a sleepwalker, gasping, unable to catch your breath or find your footing, trapped by the syntax, until finally Kleist lets you drop with a merciful period and an inkling of the human condition.”

Lets you drop. I find out that Peter Wortsman has met Philippe Petit. I can picture them hanging out together. In Man on Wire, it’s clear that Petit does everything right now, no matter how wild and reckless, how illegal, how insane. And Wortsman, in the discussion after the reading, says he translates very slowly, a page a day. Yet somehow they’re both dancing on their necks, for us to watch. I’m not surprised that Maira Kalman is a fan of Pina Bausch. The obvious difference between a performance like Petit’s and the creation, or translation, of a book, is mortal danger. But every day we seem to learn new things about the ways our bodies live and die, about mirror neurons and somatization and proprioception and the wider-than-expected boundaries of ourselves, the ways we shape the universe and are shaped by it, the ways we are the universe. In some ways, we’re always at zero degrees of separation. If I watch Jason Kittelberger dance on his neck, or look at Maira Kalman’s picture of Pina Bausch being swung precariously close to the ground, or listen to Peter Wortsman read the gory ending of “An Earthquake in Chile,” it changes my own body.

I leave with a copy of Selected Prose of Heinrich Von Kleist and walk through the cold to meet friends at an apartment in Tribeca. Everyone is talking about theater, and someone (an actor and playwright) says he knows that some people have religious experiences at the theater, but he never has. Only at the movies, because he’s never able to forget that he’s watching a play, that he’s watching actors onstage. And I say, “Well, I have quasi-religious experiences all the time, every day,” which I do, which might just mean I’ve lost my grip, especially since I’m not religious. But I think about the times that theater has blown me wide open, Ian McKellan in Richard III maybe, and the reason I was so transformed wasn’t that it was an opaque experience, with its workings hidden, allowing me to forget that it was a creation, of actors (onstage), of a director (now invisible), of a writer (once alive). It was exactly the opposite. It was that I was participating in that whorl of energy. I could feel the creation happening, right at that moment. And the best books allow their creation to bloom up, again and again, whenever they’re read, and maybe even when they’re closed, on the shelf. There’s The Principles of Uncertainty, lying in the kitchen, filled with all those colorful pictures.

I’m thinking about dangerous books, vertigo, and Marguerite Duras’s The War. Part of it is a diary written in 1944, about wondering whether her husband, in the French Resistance, will come home from Belsen. Part of it is about Resistance members interrogating informants. Part of it is fictionalized. Part of it, she says, is actually fiction. She introduces two stories with the following: “Thérèse is me. The person who tortures the informer is me. So also is the one who feels like making love to Ter, the member of the militia. Me. I give you the torturer along with the rest of the texts. Learn to read them properly: they are sacred.”

When you’re not religious, sacredness means something that fills you with awe. The creation of something awe-striking requires a pure offering, an opening up to the universe. It’s not always an act of risk, that could land you “in the clink” or with a broken body or with your blood trickling out onto the sidewalk, but it’s always an act of uncertainty, of changing molecules into something that wasn’t there before. I think it might be brave.

I’m sitting and rereading parts of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which sometimes I think might be my favorite book, the best book of all the magic books, the right kind of bible. I’m thinking of how strange it is that he wrote this book just before he was exiled, because its stories are so inescapably exilic, so high modernist, so postmodernist, so ancient, these tales of inexorable transformation, lustful, crazy, jealous, murderous humans changing into inhuman things and never, ever changing back, because we all die, even our sun will die, or change. A book Ovid really did write in exile, Tristia, is a brave book for sure. It travels back to Rome without him. It travels all the way to us without him.

I’m reading about Salmacis, the beautiful nymph who falls in love with a boy who doesn’t want her. She comes at him in the water. She practically rapes him. She wraps herself around him and clings to him and crushes her breasts against his face, and still he kicks to get free of her. She hisses, “It’s no good struggling… you can strain, wrestle, squirm, but cannot ever get away from me now. The gods are listening to me.” When they drown in “the giddy boil” and their two bodies melt “into a single body, seamless as the water,” because “the gods heard her frenzy, and smiled” (Ted Hughes’s translation is the best), I feel gratified. It’s satisfying when all of her hoarding turns into a forced letting go, a death, an offering. It’s satisfying when the gods win. I don’t think it’s only a metaphor for sex or love, if we learn to read it properly.

I’m reading this again, and getting excited, and scribbling something down. I feel like I’m plunging somewhere. I’m thinking of Maira Kalman’s pictures again: “Everyone is behind someone” (a little lady in a grey-and-pink checkered coat with a matching hat), “And everyone is behind everyone” (an old man in a suit with a green umbrella). And I’m thinking about how the sun I share with Ovid is going to blow up, and with it everything that’s ever been written, and everybody who’s ever loved anyone, and a man comes up beside me -- this is while I am scribbling faster than my arm can move, writing something I’ll never be able to decipher later -- and he says, “You look bored.”