April 2013

Olivia Cronk


Reading is Conflation: "Dune" and Leonard Cohen

When I was nineteen and on a small airplane ride out of the shitty Louisiana town in which my college boyfriend lived and from whom I was departing for an unknown length of time and for whom I had the customary feelings of obsessive longing and despair, I read Joan Didion's Miami. I had a Walkman with mix tapes, labeled in his hand, of course; a crappy nineties dress (floral and long); a Salvation Army cardigan; my mother's semi-chic piece of luggage; and a hoody from K-Mart. I was crying. I had not been on many planes, and when the flight attendant asked me to remove my headphones for takeoff, I was confused, embarrassed, and angry. I was most certainly hung over, sleepless, crazed. When I settled into the flight, I played my tapes, sipped my coffee, and read Didion's brittle little fashion indictments of Cuban women in Florida and her winding explanation of the Miami situation and the socio-political currents to which it was subject. I don't really remember much about her thesis, but I loved the book, will still blindly recommend it. I still have a habit, when the timing is right, of reading Didion on planes. (In 2006, I lingered pleasingly, falsely, in the line (from "In the Islands") "We are here on this island in the middle of the Pacific in lieu of filing for divorce" while flying back to that Louisiana town, now married to the boy, now visiting formal in-laws.) I truly felt that, in 1998, Miami was about my life at that moment; it diamond-colored my despair, gave it the right mid-day-flight-in-a-dress sheen. I still read and reread everything by Didion as if it is about me. I think that "On Keeping a Notebook" is about me, same with Run River and Play It as It Lays and even, kind of, in a fucked up way, The Year of Magical Thinking. I am not saying that I simply like Didion's floppy, crackling, poseur-ish, caked-on, name-dropping, ocean-of-melancholy-and-elegance sentences, though I do; or that I simply identify with her, as a writer, as a person, whatever; or that I identify with people in her books. I am saying that some reading experiences, nay, some (all?) art experiences give presence to a type of marked up transparency or scrawled upon tissue paper that can be laid over one's life to create a truer document, a more heavily inscribed text, an actual life. I know that others have advocated for this kind of "selfish" or "occult" reading practice, both characteristics I embrace, but I also want to add to the list "willfully confused" or "allusive." I think that this experience of seeing the composition transposed on other "texts" is psychedelic in nature, is rooted in the inherently narcotic experiences of allusion and art-consumption, and is a secret and sneaky way around disciplinary structures that inhibit freedom of movement at all levels.

I am naively interested in word roots and how words' evolutions provide the words' portraits. I'm sure this is obvious stuff to higher end folks -- meanings and histories and metaphors and mis-hearings, mis-applications, failure of and contamination of language, tyranny and usage, pre-literate creatures gumming out hole, dead, sound, threat... in pleasure, in thrill, in unknowing theater, in 1970s turbans and around lacy table cloths, holding hands in sťance, summoning, mediating, becoming the mouth of the one who needs a mouth because she/he has need of a mount, must come through another in order to make meaning, must tongue it out, must use the technology of language to further the dirty endlessness of language -- I thank my husband's ways of reading and writing for this channeling I'm doing here -- words, fuck, man, words and their strands and strands of meaning.

I want to argue here that reading is conflation, at least the kind of reading in which I am most interested. I used to brain-tongue the word conflation a bit, carelessly linking it to inflation and deflation and flatulence. These strands do not prove to be accurate guesses at the history of the word (per the OED), but my process does, I think, demonstrate my claim. I see my interacting with language (so often in the form of reading) as an act of filling one shell of information with another and then massaging both into a bubble-space that creates one massive gasp of contaminated (because of the end of distinction between two sets of information) text. I started to believe this while reading Dune, a book I read only recently. I received it as a gift, in conjunction with the much more sophisticated Solaris -- and this juxtapositional conflation and then the unintended conflation created by three films' worth (holla to Lynch and Tarkovsky, not so much to Clooney) of interpretation create a very bizarre situation for all the texts, one that I find non-dismissable. I am simply the channel, here, by which the texts become these versions of themselves; they get conflated with multiple other textual entities in order to fill their respective bubble-spaces.

The women of Dune (and we should all be fully cognizant of the feminist concerns that Herbert does not address with the text) are conflationary heroes; they share information with the community through the consumption of a psychedelic beverage, and the sipping and passing create an overlapping of space, memory, and identity... the mother of the hero (note that she was former concubine to his father -- and this form of companionship requires that both parties reassign roles to themselves in their interactions, i.e. conflate one another with other players) and the lover of the hero (soon to be symbolically usurped by diplomatic marriage necessities, soon to be concubine) communicate in bubble-space: soap-opera-style: assumption, presumption, threat, and gesture determine their relationship (note that, in such relationships, so very Jane Austen, speculation replaces information in the communicative space)... and the miraculously existent fetus (soon to be weirdo child, unsettling to the blue-eyed, spice-addicted desert people because of her ability to both grasp complex information and speak like an admonishing know-it-all), Alia, is "talked to" during the psychedelic sipping, and her identity becomes conflated with her mother's, just as her mother's is conflated with that of all the previous shamanic-type women, the Reverend Mothers, of the Fremen community (additionally, it's hard for the reader sometimes to avoid conflating the Reverend Mothers with the Bene Gesserit; both groups are invested in ideas about gender and leadership, power and secrecy). And, actually, all of the women in Dune are in conflation with readers' examined and unexamined ideas about cave-dwelling witches and sexy loin-cloth types from fantasy television. These sets of information are constantly interacting with and replacing other sets and then, as I am arguing here, massaged into a conflationary space. It's impossible to see where the bubbles' boundaries are -- and addictingly thrilling to feel that the merging of disparate notions is nearly undetectable.

This brings me to Leonard Cohen's 1977 Death of a Ladies' Man. I think that I stole this album, in LP form, from someplace in my youth -- and during different times in my young adult life, it spun around on low-quality record players. Once, it played on a little scratchy portable thing while I slept in my dorm room right before graduating from college. The awkward, sleazy sounds that rattled my room that night have continued to captivate me. My husband and I maintain a turntable and respectable record collection, and I find that every few months I simply must put the record on. I just cannot help myself. It's like being offered a cocktail at an inappropriate hour.

Death of a Ladies' Man is tacky, man. It is exactly what you might imagine would happen if Phil Spector produced a Leonard Cohen album, replete with the amplifier-mustard of the wall of sound, with drop-ins from Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg, and backup from Ronee Blakely, who played the Loretta Lynn-ish type in Altman's Nashville. I'm pretty sure that this album, for many Cohen fans, is merely a novelty to insert in a comprehensive collection. I think it is commonly hated, reviled, especially by boomers for whom Cohen was such a refined voice and is, according to testimonies from my family members, still a masterful and serious (read: not tacky, not excessive, "tasteful," "earnest") performer.

I love Cohen's early folk songs; they seemed to me the dead right soundtrack at age seventeen. I find them listenable, dryly sad, charming, a little too sincere -- just right. But they can't really compare to the awesome outrageousness of Death. The album simply breathes gaudiness; the thing is ether on a rag, humidity at the neck. The cover is a photograph of Cohen sitting in a nightclub booth (according to liner notes, "a forgotten Polynesian restaurant") with two women (one Eva LaPierre and artist Suzanne Elrod) who convey sheer malaise; disco, burnout, silver shoes, burlesque, heartache, world weariness, and cheap satin all emerge -- for me, anyway -- in the musical text. If you look at the cover while you listen to the songs, you can feel some kind of California or Florida palm tree hotel lobby and getting too drunk and waiting in someone's car and wearing white pants and picking off a piece of a Lee press-on nail: you'll be going home, after all. There's something of Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald; there's something of De Palma's Scarface. I always like how Ronee Blakely's voice seems improperly aligned with Cohen's. The poor combinations here create an end-of-the-night sing-along feeling. More excess, more gaudiness. In "Paper-Thin Hotel," Cohen talk-sings, "I stood there with my ear against the wall / I was not seized by jealousy at all... You are the woman with her legs apart." There are big patches of the bawdy (Dylan and Ginsberg stopped by during the recording of the awkward "Don't Go Home with Your Hard-On"), and there is a clumsy, though somewhat intelligent, awareness of gender-performance and costume.

While I was reading Dune, Death of a Ladies' Man played my brain. The two have nothing to do with each other, unless you consider era, in a very large sense... or maybe both could be presented in a curation of "texts that touch the precipice of time"? I had not been listening to the album in the time preceding my starting of the book, but I sure as hell played that thing after a few chapters. The music came to me while I was reading, and it came to me in posture and inclination, in the sense that the two texts were made for each other, in the sense that some days I read this book while lounging on our futon-bed, in the apocalyptic summer of a globally warmed world, in probably a ratty nightgown, while my newish baby daughter slept in the room next door and my husband was probably reading in his own heat-cave in another room of the apartment, and I would emerge from my reading like I was stoned and craven and sharing consciousness with two texts and with myself and conflating everything in my own plain life with the trashy haute drama of Jessica and Chani and the skin bag of the poisonous drink, which compels, ultimately, the narrative of the novel: "It was like an ultimate simpatico, being two people at once: not telepathy, but mutual awareness." As this psychedelia would take place ("the sensation of mote-awareness fad[ing] slightly"), I distinctly experienced the playing of the chorus of "Iodine," an absolutely delicious song. At the same time, I wrote some small scraps of things for a poetry manuscript, and the entire and ongoing experience of these situations became reduced and elevated to conflation: this is the same grip that Dario Argento's movies have on me: everything is giallo and eyebrows and sticking one's ass up in the air.

I don't know how to write about this, except to repeat myself; reading is conflation. The self and the text merge in sloppy, unformed space -- in space that allows for the replacement and re-appropriation of information and meaning. All consumption of art is reading. Every composition can give its secrets over in some language. The first moment of the intercourse requires conflation. Conflation is due, in notable part, to allusion. Knowing and not knowing and recalling and re-inserting past texts into their contamination-spaces is sometimes the process of conflating. Some texts, like Dune, lend themselves to a conflationary folding-in by virtue of the content (i.e., so much of the plot and mood rely on covert exchanges); and that simply loads one's hand with the right suits for further conflation. I read Dune, and I heard Death of a Ladies' Man. Now when I listen to Death, I think of myself in the summer heat, like I am in a desert filled with gigantic worms and I am running from an evil corporation/empire. And then, seamlessly, I am also in a dorm room and I am also in a place to which I have never been and I am at the air-conditioned bar of a wedding hall and I am in a giallo movie and also I am not there at all; I mean: I am not in the text. I am the text. I have conflated the world with "the world," and I am aptly capable of moving around inside of it, in a way that I am never going to be in the world.