For the letter kills, but the spirit gives life

Seven or so years ago, near the beginning of my analysis, I explained to my analyst, after some frustrating experiences, how important it was to me that they always engage with the actual content of what I was saying. I took a huge amount of care in expressing myself – choosing exactly the right words, multiplying distinctions in order to communicate with laser precision – and I didn’t want to be ‘interpreted’ before the letter of what I was saying had been fully attended to.

Paul says in 2 Corinthians (3:6), distinguishing between Jews and the new Jesus movement, that “the letter kills, but the spirit gives life” and as a Jew, I have always understood that my job is to be for the letter. This has meant two things.

letter:spirit-again
My measurement by a pauline gauge

By “the letter,” Paul means the old covenant, the Mosaic law and its development by the rabbis of his day, whose views are recorded in the Mishnah. This he took to have been annulled by the advent of Jesus with a new covenant. Accordingly, the text of the Old Testament could no longer be read literally, but only ‘spiritually,’ by means of allegory, typology, and so on. The Jews were stubborn in continuing, in the face of the new covenant, to read their sacred books by the letter. So, one part of being “for the letter” has been a determination to treat the language I am exposed to from other people literally and precisely – not to try and get the gist or spirit of it, not to look beyond it to see where its originator is coming from.

But there is, alongside this, another way of being “for the letter.” R. Akiva, a near contemporary of Paul’s, was said to interpret “mounds of rules from every tip of the letters” (TB Menachot 29b). The ‘tips’ were ornamental ‘crowns’ that adorned the Hebrew script of the time. This type of reading, truly and radically literal (perhaps we should say “letteral”), can stand as synecdoche for a panoply of more or less perverse methods of interpretation associated with the Jews. In the words of John Wilkins, the 17th century inventor of a ‘real character’ (an ideal language which mirrors the structure of reality):

Amongst the Jewish Rabbies, is not any opinion, whether in nature or policy, whether true or false, but some of them, by a cabalistical interpretation can father it upon a dark place of scripture, or (if need be) upon a text that is clean contrary. There being not any absurdity so gross and incredible, for which these abusers of the text, will not find out an argument.

(The quotation is from his The Discovery of a World in the Moone of 1638.)

Wilkins-Moon

So Jews were taken to task, under the guise of the letter, for being both too literal and too fanciful. I have endeavored to honor these twin heritages: a laborious literalism with respect to what I read and write, hear and say, and an extravagant letteralism, a willingness to associate anything with anything by means of some devious chain, to father monstrous conjunctions of words and meanings through textual abuse. It feels to me as if there must be some relation – quite other than monstrous conjunction – between these two ways of being for the letter, but I cannot easily identify what it is. They are, perhaps, both subsumed by the term “pharisaism.” The historical Pharisees, and their successors who compiled the Talmud, stubbornly adhered to the plain meaning of the Bible (in some of their moods) and yet developed complex and sometimes rebarbative methods of interpretation partly to reconcile that text with a much more humane standard of conduct. I would like, therefore, to re-appropriate the term “Pharisee” from the infamy with which the fevered Christian imagination has painted it.

Those seven or so years ago, when I implored my analyst to take me at my word, it was, almost needless to say, only the first way, according to which it contrasts with “spirit,” that I had in mind. Two or three years after that, well into the analysis, I was becoming more comfortable and more curious. The tight control over my words – the only real power I could exert to protect myself and ensure the analysis did not unleash anything too scary – came to feel constricting, even suffocating. It was, I suppose, a Damascene moment. I relented, and gave my analyst permission to listen to the spirit of my words and report back on what they heard. (I have no reason to think my analyst’s behavior was in any way affected by either my initial injunction or my subsequent permission!) It was around that time that I composed this animated meme, which will appear in my book A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga! (perhaps even with commentary based on this very blog post):

text_subtext1
White – Robin: “I assumed you meant…” Batman: “Listen to my words!”
Black – Robin: “But you said…” Batman: “Listen to what I’m not saying!”

Fast forward in the analysis to last week and a very exhausting and disspiriting session. At the end of the previous session, I had said I thought my presence in our sessions now was very different from how it used to be. My analyst agreed, adding that they, too, were a different analyst now from what they had been. The next day, I said that I would love – if not now, then perhaps towards termination – to hear about the ways in which they thought they had changed as an analyst during the course of my treatment. When my analyst asked what exactly I wanted them to explain, we set off on a frustrating tussle, lasting the whole session, in which I said, over and over again, in every way I could think of, what I wanted and my analyst kept alleging that they didn’t understand. Somehow, I don’t really understand how, I kind of got through; and my analyst conveyed how their attempt to hear the question behind the question kept them from seeing what I wanted to communicate. At the end I exclaimed “I’d like to go back to that injunction I made right at the start. Please make an effort to engage with the letter of what I am saying before trying to hear what is unsaid.” To which they replied, with some, subsequently confessed, hyperbole: “You do realize that is literally the exact opposite of what I’m supposed to be doing?!” (One reason to think that the designation of psychoanalysis as “the Jewish science” may be misleading.) In some sense, of course, what they said is obvious. They are listening for what is unconscious, which is unlikely to be found in the obsessively-controlled language that I wield almost like a weapon. But it startled me nonetheless and I decided to write this post to help work through it.

Unsurprisingly, being for the letter, in both senses I identified, is, deliberately, a large component of A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!. It shows up in the commentaries themselves and in the relations of the commentaries to the memes they comment on. (I don’t think it anywhere shows up wholly within memes, which are too compact really to allow such devices.) Sometimes those commentaries pound away at the most minute aspects of a meme, trying to work out just what the artist (myself) meant by using a question mark where an exclamation mark seemed to be what was called for! Other times, they join with their memes in a monstrous conjunction. Occasionally, I confess, I even have something already written which I want to include in the book and so search out a dark place in the memes on which to father it.

“a glove slapping a human face – forever”

One of the memes of the Batman Meme Project, posted on Facebook on March 2nd, 2016, was this:

doubles

Michael Rosen very wittily and astutely posted as a comment an adapted passage from George Orwell’s 1984:

All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always — do not forget this, Winston — always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a glove slapping a human face — forever.

(The original, of course, has “a boot stamping on” where the adaptation has “a glove slapping”.) “a glove slapping a human face – forever” became the meme’s obvious title, and I am greatly indebted to Michael (and also to Tim Watson, who independently referred to the same passage from Orwell when I posted Evnine’s Batman Memes: The Movie, shortly thereafter).

I am currently reading Carolyn Korsmeyer‘s recent book Things: In Touch with the Past (OUP, 2019). Korsmeyer writes:

Dan Lewis, Senior Curator of the History of Science and Technology at the Huntington Library in California, described the thrilling privilege of handling the books housed in the collection… Lewis, who does not wear gloves, says that being able to handle such rare documents is like “being present at the moment of creation.” (25)

On reading this, I was arrested by that parenthetical comment about Lewis’s not wearing gloves. Why doesn’t he? The way the passage is written suggests that this is a remarkable fact, that one would expect him to wear gloves in handling these precious books. Lewis’s haptic experience would be slightly different if he did wear gloves, but I assume it is not for that difference that he forgoes this form of protection. His goal is more likely – this is a key theme in Korsmeyer’s book – to be in direct contact with these rare objects from the past. But is Lewis’s pursuit of the frisson of unmediated touch so important to him that he ignores the damaging effects of his body’s effluvia on these objects, of which he says “Just to be in their presence is an honor”?

Having thought all this, my mind went (forgive my crudity) to men who fetishize not wearing a condom during sex. Their sensory experience will, like Lewis and his books, be different according to whether or not they use a condom. But one might easily speculate that it is not really for the sake of the haptic surplus that they so scorn the use of something that protects their partner from the damaging effects of their body’s products, whether in the form of unwanted pregnancy or STD. Korsmeyer says that experiences like those of Lewis “evoke an impression that gaps of time have been momentarily bridged, bringing the past into the present” (25). It is hardly novel to see sexual relations in terms of bridging a gap not of time, but between persons. Perhaps the sexual cases should be subsumed under the wider rubric about touch, not the usual finger-as-phallus motif, but instead the phallus-as-finger. But men who prioritize the pursuit of unmediated contact over the well-being of their partner are often, rightly, reviled. How should this bear on how we think about putting our grubby ungloved hands on priceless relics from the past? The general public, naturally, is kept from defiling quasi-sacred relics in this way – but what of curators like Lewis who take to themselves the privilege and pleasure of intercourse with these hierodules?

What does all this have to do with Batman and Robin? Despite Rosen’s reference to Orwell, it never really occurred to me until this very day, exactly four years after I began the Batman Meme Project (actually, tomorrow is the four-year anniversary), that Batman slaps Robin with a gloved and not a bare hand. In fact, gloved hands are very prominent in the image. We see two of Batman’s and one of Robin’s, densely clustered in the bottom left corner. How does this detail inflect the image? What does it mean for my book-in-progress A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!? Should we praise Batman because, even in this moment of violence, he holds back from the further violation of Robin’s bodily autonomy that hitting him with his bare hand would represent? Should we pity him because, even in this moment of perverse intimacy, he cannot bridge the gap with another person? I just don’t know how to read it.

As for my project, I have written on this blog about how important to me is the sound effect of the slap that I have used on many occasions in work around my book:

But I realize now that this is the sound of an ungloved hand slapping a human face – forever! (Why did none of you call me on this?) I am so, so disappointed! The internet does not offer me much in the way of sound effects of gloved hands slapping, but the few there are are woefully lacking in the zest I have imagined the slap to express. Here is the best of them:

 

[Even you?]

Here is an excerpt from my book-in-progress, A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!. I’ve been posting here a lot about loss recently and this meme is  a manifestation of that sentiment inside the book. I am really moved by what I did in this meme. (Is it perverse to be moved by one’s own creation?)

M.101 [Even You?]

death


M.101 [Even You?] Composed: June 11th, 2017. Posted: June 11th, 2017. Orientation: Reverse. Font: Arial. TB1: “Batman, will even you die some day?”, black. TB2: “Only when I’m very old, Robin. And you’ll be all grown up by then!!”, black.


Adam West, who portrayed Batman in the 1960s TV series, died on June 9th, 2017, two days before this meme was composed and posted on Facebook. There can be no doubt that it was intended as a tribute to him. The meme has great pathos, owing, I think, to the discrepancy between Robin’s age and the much younger manner in which he expresses himself. (In this incongruity, it resembles M.25 (“Mr. Peabody”).) Robin sounds like a child of six or seven, beginning to confront the reality and the universality of death. Batman plays the role of the loving parent, attempting, but inevitably failing, to make this unacceptable fact acceptable. The slap, so at odds with the love and care Batman exhibits towards Robin in his words, actualizes the way in which no amount of tenderness can mitigate the slap in the face that is death, and loss in general. (See also M.21.)

Excisions: 8 (That’s all folks!)

I mentioned in a couple of previous posts that I decided to excise a number of the memes that were going to be part of my book. It was sufficient for a meme to be excluded that I did not envisage being able to write anything of interest (to me) in the commentary on it. I have now set myself the goal of posting the excised memes here, in an occasional series, and trying to write something of interest (to me) about them, thus proving my decision to exclude them mistaken! Also, in this parergonal space around the book, I will write about the memes without the pretense that their maker is someone other than myself. I am curious to see how this affects the nature of my writing about the memes.

finis

Like the previous meme in the Excisions series, “Holy Memes, Batman,” “That’s All Folks!” appeared publicly only in the film Evnine’s Batman Memes: The Movie.

It simultaneously closes two quite distinct openings, which makes it of some structural interest. First, as the last meme seen in the movie, it complements “Holy Memes, Batman,” the first meme of the movie. As the bookends of the movie, they share several features.

1. Not only are they the first and last memes of the movie, but they are about the beginning and end of the movie. Or perhaps I should not say that they are about the beginning and end, but that the first begins, or introduces and the second ends, or concludes, the movie. (This too requires some qualification but it’s too boring and unimportant to make. And here you can see that a different spirit is now animating my project – as I have spoken about recently – since some time ago I would have certainly laboriously spelled out the qualifications. I used to say that the whole project was a field for the free exercise of my obsessional pedantry, something I had always struggled, and am apparently again struggling, to keep in check.)

2. Each was made specially for the movie and each appeared only in the movie. (One other meme appears only in the movie but was not composed for it – “I Don’t Care!”.  It appears in the movie at a particularly climactic moment, around 2’22”, and stays visible and stationary for longer than any other meme in the film. It will be commented on at length in the book and is a very important meme in the economy of the whole project.)

3. Each has a specifically cinematic character. The first serves as the backdrop to the movie’s title and Batman’s response to Robin’s “Holy memes, Batman!” is “Yes, Robin, I fear it’s a movie.” The second uses the classic end of the Warner Brothers Looney Tunes cartoons and shows Robin as sad that the movie is ending.

But “That’s All Folks!” is also the very last meme composed as part of the Batman Meme Project narrowly defined, for which Evnine’s Batman Memes: The Movie was the grand finale. All the further memes in my book will be from the parerga to the Batman Meme Project. Thus, “That’s All Folks!” is also a complement to M.1, “… a meme in which I’m being…,” the very first Batman meme I ever composed, and the first that will appear in the book. (You can see the meme and read the commentary on it that will open my book here.) Robin’s desire that “this” might go on and on can be seen as referring, therefore, to the Batman Meme Project itself, the project of making these memes and posting them on Facebook. (The parerga were undreamt of when the movie was made.) As first and last memes of the Batman Meme Project, M.1 and “That’s All Folks!” share a meta quality. In the first, Robin says that he feels as if everything is part of a meme in which he is being slapped. Although the rest of the Batman Meme Project was not envisaged at the point at which I made that meme (just as the parerga were not conceived of when I made “That’s All Folks!”), it made a very apt meta opening to the project. In “That’s All Folks!”, Robin casts his eye back over the project thus anticipated, recognizing that it must come to an end somewhere, sad that it is over, but perhaps also nervously excited about the prospect of life outside of a meme in which he is being slapped.

On another note, there is a formal feature to “That’s All Folks!” that I find very appealing. Many of the memes are about the interplay of between language and the pictorial depiction of speech that is engendered by the cartoon image’s speech bubbles. (I discuss this at some length in my [Italian] presentation “Image, Writing, Speech, Silence.”) In this meme, the picture of writing that represents speech by its location in a speech bubble is replaced by an image, but that image itself includes a pictorial representation of an utterance. (Recall that one often sees the line spoken, with or without the words’ being written at the same time.) So, there would have been lots to say about this meme in the commentary on it.


Well, once again, I have succeeded in bringing myself to feel that it was a sad mistake to omit this meme from the book. There would have been a lot of interesting stuff to write about it, and it would have played a kind of architectonic role that is now unfilled in the book. The Batman Meme Project will simply stop with a meme that has no special relation to the first meme of the project and that is not the performance of an ending itself. I guess my real reason for excluding it, since some of the reflections above were already present to me when I decided to leave it out, is that if I had included it I would really also have had to include “Holy Memes, Batman” and that, together, they seemed somehow of too ephemeral an interest – as if I couldn’t let anything go (which, to be honest, I couldn’t). I’m not sure I was right about that at all.

That’s all, folks!

Parents with dirty hands

As it becomes apparent what a terrible company Facebook is, I feel more and more strongly that I want nothing more to do with it. Leaving Facebook would come with loss and with gain, both substantial. Beyond the obvious considerations, there would be a special loss to leaving connected with my book-in-progress, A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!.

I always publish on Facebook (both in my feed and on the special page devoted to my book) the eperga to the parerga that are these blog posts. Without the hits generated this way, what I write here would have almost no readers! But the book’s connection with Facebook goes beyond the latter’s role as a means of broadcasting.

Slappy

Facebook has been a place where I get to share with others some of the quirky contents of my mind. Without it, I would never have begun to make Batman memes in the first place. Why would I, if I hadn’t had the immediate gratification of posting them and receiving some acknowledgement? The first idea for a book around the memes (for what eventually became the book I am now writing) came from the desire to explain what was not obvious in them to the people on Facebook who had been seeing what I published there and interacting with me about it. Even as the book expanded in scope, for a long time I conceived of it as the record of a social media art project that would incorporate  some of the conversations my memes provoked. The very distinction in the book’s title between the Batman Meme Project and its parerga hinges on which were produced and published in that burst of Facebook posting from January to March 2016.

For a while, I even entertained the fantasy that Facebook might publish my book on the grounds that it was born on and concerned their platform. I also reasoned (how foolish I feel admitting this) that if DC Comics tried to prevent me from publishing, Facebook would have the pockets to stand up for all those of its meme-making users who creatively rework copyright-protected images in a sub-culture that, as Patrick Davison puts it, prioritizes “creative freedom over security” (“The Language of Internet Memes,” p. 132).

Although the social-media origins of my book have somewhat diminished in importance, they are still there to some extent. One of the memes (pictured above) is even about Facebook. There is just no getting around the fact that my book owes its very existence to Facebook. And given how important the book has been to me, my analysis, and my conception of my place in the philosophy profession, you could say that who I am today is deeply, deeply dependent on Facebook.

I suppose I am in the position of a grown child who comes to realize that his parents are involved in something terrible that he cannot ignore.

Shells

I have written a couple of times, recently, about my gradual loss of libidinal interest in the image that forms the heart of my book-in-progress, A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!, the image of Batman slapping Robin. (Even these last three words now have the unnatural and slightly repellent feel of something recently dead.)

This morning, as I mulled over the implications of this for my book for the millionth time, I thought bitterly to myself, “the operative metaphor for this project is no longer parergon but husk.” But not a minute later, it hit me that, of course, a husk is a parergon! A husk (in the sense of a shell) surrounds a seed in just the way a frame surrounds a painting. And a husk (in the sense of a dried-up, useless exterior – the sense in which I meant it as a new metaphor for the book) is a parergon without its ergon – an empty frame, an index pointing nowhere, an orphaned epilogue.

Each of my Batman meme movies (Evnine’s Batman Memes: The Movie and Gone!) carries an epigraph taken from a single episode of Angel (season 5, episode 16), entitled “Shells.” (Spoilers ahead.) Both epigraphs – “It’s gone. My world is gone” and “Is there anything in this life but grief?” –   are spoken by the newly introduced character Illyria, who has taken up residence in the recently dead body of Fred, a body which is now a mere shell.

Illyria

Illyria is easily my favorite character from the Buffyverse (and “Shells” one of my favorite episodes). I need to find some way to infuse her spirit into the husk that my book currently is. The image of Batman slapping Robin, as I have made clear on numerous occasions, initially appealed to me because of its representation of the sadomasochistic relationship between different parts of myself that was very prominent in my psychoanalysis around that time. Now my analysis is haunted by loss and grief that appears to me in thoughts about its termination. Not that I am yet considering termination – but I keep circling round and around that idea. I suppose that until one is ready for termination, its prospect must strike one with all the force of Illyria’s “It’s gone. My world is gone,” as she confronts the husk that is all that is left of her once-magnificent palace. But isn’t all life, after all, saturated with the fore-knowledge of loss? Is there, then, anything in this life but grief?

loved-and-lost

 

 

Gone!

Gone! was my second Batman meme movie. It’s about the harsh slap in the face that is loss, in its many forms. Its title derives from the moment, in episode 16, season 5 of Angel, when the newly resurrected demon Illyria goes to call on her vast armies to dominate the world once again, only to find her palace of old deserted and in ruins. “It’s gone,” she says. “My world is gone.” (There is a brief shot of that moment at 1’13” in the movie.)

 

Back in February of this year, I wrote a post called “What if Batman stops slapping Robin?“. I talked about a growing sense that the image of Batman slapping Robin was losing its hold on my psyche and my concern about what that would mean for my book. Although it is hard to be precise about such matters, I shall designate November 5th 2019 as the day that Batman did, indeed, stop slapping Robin. The sadomasochistic relation to myself that made the image so activating for me has shifted. I now see it without any of the thrilling emotions it elicited at the height of my involvement with it. (My work on the slap sound effect that I wrote about here appears to me now as a last, desperate attempt to arouse those feelings again, to convince myself that nothing was happening.)

And what about the book, A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!? The initial memes, posted on Facebook between January and March, 2016, formed its nucleus and were driven by that deep libidinal connection I had to the image. Gradually, as I started to work seriously on the book, it became a magnet, attracting to itself all sorts of strange obsessions and hobby-horses of mine. I hope that the work done by the image and my fascination in it will be like the first stage of the Saturn V, the large booster needed to propel the rocket out of its inertia and which was then jettisoned over the ocean. And that the newly-attracted hobby-horses will be like the second stage, taking the rocket to the moon! (Actually, the second stage too was uncoupled and a third stage got it to the moon.) But it’s possible a more apposite metaphor is that the libidinal connection to the image was the head of a now decapitated chicken.

Mostly, this whole business is making me sad and aimless. I long for the zest provided by that sadomasochistic relation to myself. I long for the desire for self-humiliation. All I have to offer is this feeble simulacrum, a sort of last hurrah.

Done!

The presentation of Immagine – Scrittura – Parola – Silenzio

[Italiano sotto]

So, I went to Genoa to deliver my presentation about A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!. I presented four of the memes from the book and talked about how they played with the relations between speech, the written representation of speech, and the picturing of the written representation of speech – a theme that is quite prominent in the memes in the book and in the commentaries on them. After discussing these four memes, I presented another one, about John Cage and the anechoic chamber and read aloud the commentary on it that will be part of the book. It was an exciting challenge, all the more so since I did it in Italian.

You can see the talk below. There is a slight break between the two parts, so some of the presentation is missing. I finish talking about the meme “The Sound of One Hand Slapping” (and play the slap sound effect I wrote about here) and begin reading the commentary on the John Cage meme. The missing text of the commentary is presented below in Italian.

anechoic

Allora, sono andato a Genova per fare la mia presentazione su A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!. Ho mostrato quattro meme nel libro e ho parlato di come giocano con le relazioni fra il parlato, la scrittura come rappresentazione del parlato, e l’immagine della scrittura. E’ un argomento molto diffuso fra i miei meme e i loro commentari. Dopo questo, ho letto la traduzione di un commentario su un meme che riguarda John Cage e la camera anecoica. E’ stata una sfida eccitante, soprattutto perche’ l’ho fatta tutto in Italiano.

Ora potete vedere la presentazione. C’e’ una rottura fra le due parti, quindi qualche parola manca. Nella rottura, finisco di discutere il meme “Il suono di una sola mano che schiaffeggia” (e faccio suonare l’effetto sonoro su di che scrivo qui) e commincio di leggere il commentario sul meme “Il suono del sangue.” Il testo che manca e’ qui:

Robin: Questo rumore non lo posso sopportare. Se solo avessimo una camera anecoica, con sei pareti…

Batman: Cretino! Il suono del sangue nelle vene e il fruscio del sistema nervoso in funzione sarebbero assordanti.


Le parole usate nel meme sono una chiara allusione a una storia raccontata varie volte dal compositore John Cage riguardo una sua visita della camera anecoica di Harvard. La morale della storia per Cage sembra essere che dove c’è vita c’è musica (“sino alla fine dei miei giorni ci saranno suoni”) —  un pensiero che per Cage è motivo di gioia. Sembra che l’artista fosse affascinato da questa storia o dall’idea della camera anecoica, forse addirittura ossessionato, ma che le conclusioni che ne trabbe siano il contrario delle conclusioni di Cage. Quando era giovane l’artista scrisse un “libro” che chiamò L’incoerenza dell’incoerenza (il titolo ispirato da un’opera del filosofo islamico Averroè). Questo scritto, composto dall’artista quasi ragazzo, è un miscuglio strano. Per il momento mi limito a dire che il libro contiene un passaggio in cui l’artista ci dà la sua prospettiva dell’aneddoto di Cage:

Immagine – scrittura – parola – silenzio

On Wednesday October 23rd, I will be giving a lecture entitled “Image – Writing – Speech – Silence” at the Museo Villa Croce (a contemporary art museum) in Genoa, Italy. I am going to talk about the ways in which some of my memes play with the representation of speech through writing and of writing through images.

I wanted to include in the presentation an extract from the book. The event was co-organized by Caterina Gualco, of Unimediamodern. Since she works with artists associated with the Fluxus movement, I thought it would be appropriate to read a commentary that deals with John Cage and silence. Here it is, in an Italian translation by Giovanna Pompele (transcribed by me, so little errors may have crept in). This marks the first appearance of any part of the book in a language other than its original English. (And I have nowhere made public the English original, so this is the only way to access it.) If you do read it, let me say that the footnotes, especially to the letter quoted at the end, are vitally important. *Le note a piè di pagina sono importanti!*

anechoic


Robin: Questo rumore non lo posso sopportare. Se solo avessimo una camera anecoica, con sei pareti…

Batman: Cretino! Il suono del sangue nelle vene e il fruscio del sistema nervoso in funzione sarebbero assordanti.


Le parole usate nel meme sono una chiara allusione a una storia raccontata varie volte dal compositore John Cage riguardo una sua visita della camera anecoica di Harvard. La morale della storia per Cage sembra essere che dove c’è vita c’è musica (“sino alla fine dei miei giorni ci saranno suoni”) —  un pensiero che per Cage è motivo di gioia. Sembra che l’artista fosse affascinato da questa storia o dall’idea della camera anecoica, forse addirittura ossessionato, ma che le conclusioni che ne trabbe siano il contrario delle conclusioni di Cage. Quando era giovane l’artista scrisse un “libro” che chiamò L’incoerenza dell’incoerenza (il titolo ispirato da un’opera del filosofo islamico Averroè). Questo scritto, composto dall’artista quasi ragazzo, è un miscuglio strano. Per il momento mi limito a dire che il libro contiene un passaggio in cui l’artista ci dà la sua prospettiva dell’aneddoto di Cage:

“L’oscurità c’era, ma il silenzio no.”[1] Questa sembra una descrizione accurata dello stare in una camera aneoica con le luci spente.

“In certe circonstanze tecniche potrebbe essere auspicabile ottenere una situazione la più silenziosa possibile, ossia quell’ambiente chiamato camera anecoica, sei pareti di materiale insonorizzante allestito in modo da ottenere una camera priva di eco. Parecchi anni fa a Harvard sono stato in uno spazio del genere e ho sentito due suoni, uno acuto e uno grave, e quando li ho descritti al tecnico incaricato questi mi ha spiegato che quello acuto era il mio sistema nervoso in funzione, quello grave era la circolazione del sangue. Sino alla fine dei miei giorni ci saranno suoni.”[2]

Lettore, pensa al significato di tutto ciò. Un giorno, anche qui in città, prova ad ascolatre i suoni che ti circondano. La musica ad alto volume, il fragore del traffico, le urla della gente. Che frastuono! Che inferno! Ecco, scappa in campagna. Godi il frullio degli uccellini e il gorgoglio di un ruscello (lasciamo stare le zampogne e gli accenti volgari). Godili. Lasciali risuonare dentro una volta, due volte e poi ancora e ancora e nuovamante finché non diventano un clamore insopportabile, finché i grilli non ti chiassano nelle orecchie durante la notte e il gufo ti urla di morte.

Poi vattene dal tuo paese e dalla tua terra; alzati e vai.[3] Va’ nelle terre desolate o negli scabri deserti dove non ci sono ne’ bestie ne’ insetti. Ah, infinita solitudine: stiamocene insieme io e te in solenne silenzio. Ma, aspetta, cos’è? Cos’è che sto sentendo? Viene da là. No, adesso è qui. È lì, è là, è lì. È dappertutto. “Si, dappertutto,” grida il vento con vuota derisione: “fintantoché il pianetta girerà intorno al sole ci saranno sempre bolle di aria calda e di aria fredda. E l’aria calda rimpiazzerà sempre l’aria fredda ed io, sì, io, il vento, soffierò per sempre. E per me soffiare è urlare. D’ora in poi, per voi che avete visto i luoghi spogli della terra, ogni mio sibilo, anche se nessun altro lo sentirà, sarà come le trombe di mille elefanti, e quando alzerò il tono vi coprirete le orecchie e vi acquatterete nel terrore d’essere soprafatti.”

Via, via da qui, andiamocene! Ma dove andare? Dov’è che il vento non mi troverà? Dovrei fuggire dall’umanità dove c’è il vento, o dal vento dove c’è l’umanità? Ma un attimo! L’ingenuità umana non mi ha già fornito qualcosa con cui possa evitare sia l’uomo che il vento? Non c’è forse la camera anecoica, non ci sono le sue sei pareti di materiale unico, una stanza che più silenziosa la tecnologia non ne puo creare? La voce dell’Essere scoppia in risatte implacabili: “O uomo, porta le tue ossa mortali in una camera anecoica e sentivi il suono del sangue che circola, e sentivi il suono del sistema nervoso in funzione.”[4]

Questo scritto è strano e piuttosto convoluto (nel penultimo paragrafo c’è anche un cambiamento stridente dalla seconda alla prima persona), ma illustra con gran forza la lotta costante, quasi esistenziale, dell’artista contro il rumore.

Ma la storia dell’artista e del suo interesse in John Cage e nella camera anecoica non si ferma qui. Siamo in possesso di una lettera scritta da lui alla fine di maggio o all’inizio di giugno 1982. Qui è la parte che ci riguarda:

Mi è successa una cosa incredibile, strafighissima! Sono andato con Miranda ad alcuni degli eventi organizzati per il settantesimo di John Cage all’Almeida.[5] Nel intervallo tra due eventi siamo andati al bar di fronte per un tè. Ci siamo seduti a un tavolo grande e dopo un po’ abbiamo notato che proprio vicino a noi c’era Cage con due pirla che lo intervistavano.[6] Come sai, sono ossessionato dalla storia che Cage continua a raccontare di quando è andato nella camera anecoica. Così gli ho chiesto se era andato a quella di Londra. Mi ha detto che c’era stato fotografato ma che non era in operazione! Che peccato. Se funzionasse, c’andrei volontieri anch’io. Ci siamo messi a parlare di filosofia. Era assurdamente inamorato del memoir di Norman Malcolm su Witters.[7],[8] Solo che invece di pronunciare “memoir” alla francese, lo pronunciava “Miiimoir”, allungando la seconda lettera sia foneticamente che temporalmente. Era cosi strano. Poi, dato che Miranda e io stiamo cercando di mangiare macrobiotico e lui vuole scrivere un ricettario macrobiotico(!) ci ha dato questa ricetta[9] (la ricordo praticamente parola per parola): “Prendete una carota, una rapa, e una pastinaca. Mettetele nel forno e arrostitele. Saranno deliziose.” Ahahahah. Abbiamo provato a farla e vuoi sapere il risultato? Una carota, una rapa, e una pastinaca arrostite in forno. Niente di più, niente di meno. Spero che il suo ricettario abbia ricette più interessanti e più buone di questa.[10] Comunque era veramente simpatico ed è stato incredibile parlargli così. Mi sento come un servo della gleba scrofuloso che è stato guarito dal tocco di un re! Sarà una storia da mettere nella mia miiimoir.[11]

 

[1] [N.d.C] Questa citazione è l’inizio del “libro” dell’artista.

[2] [N.d.C] Cage, Silenzio, 2019, 41. Il passaggio continua così: “… e seguiteranno anche dopo la morte. Non c’è nulla da temere riguardo il futuro della musica.”

[3] [N.d.C] Possibilmente un riferimento a Genesi 12,1.

[4] [N.d.C] Cage, Silence, 1961, 51.

[5] [N.d.C.] “Cage a settanta” fu l’evento d’apertura dell’Almeida Festival del 1982. Consisté in una serie di concerti nella chiesa di Saint James a Londra da venerdì 28 a sabato 30 maggio (nella sua lettera Evnine dice che i concerti ebbero luogo al teatro Almeida, ma questo è incorretto).

[6] [N.d.C.] Questa reazione da parte di Evnine è, stranamente (o forse no), poco caritatevole verso due persone perfettamente innocenti che avevano senza dubbio contato di parlare con Cage e pensarono che fossero l’artista e la sua compagna ad essere “pirla”.

[7] [N.d.C.] Norman Malcolm, Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir. Per lo stile di abbreviazione dimostrato da “Witters,” vedi il commentario su il meme Distinguo. Il filosofo Paul Grice racconta che J. L. Austin disse “A qualcuno piace Witters… ma io sono con Moore.” Dato che il libro di Grice fu pubblicato solo nel 1991 l’utilizzazione di questo termine colloquiale da parte dell’artista è quasi certamente una coincidenza.

[8] [N.d.C.] L’entusiasmo di Cage a quel tempo per quest’opera è comprovato da un passaggio da lui scritto a Ornella Volta, l’autrice di due opere su Satie, un anno dopo la conversazione qui riportata. “Ho finito di leggere il tuo libro (in francese; l’inglese non è arrivato); lo amo, ed è una cosa che posso dire di pochi altri libri. Questi, come il tuo, sono profondamente commoventi: il Memoir di Ludwig Wittgenstein di Normal Malcolm ed Erik Satie di Templier (non nella traduzione inglese, che trovo impossibile da leggere). Rendere materiale scritto commovente dev’essere ciò che la morte fa alla biografia.”

[9] [N.d.C.] Da un’altra lettera scritta non molto dopo la conversazione riportata: “Grazie a John e Yoko ho cambiato sia la mia dieta che quella di Merce Cunningham e abbiamo adottato una dieta macrobiotica.” Questo rende l’artista una specie di nipotino culinario di John e Yoko.

[10] [N.d.C.] Del suo futuro ricettario, Cage disse: “Invece di riguardare solo la cucina, sarà di tutto ciò che mi interessa. Però modificherò l’uso di processi aleatorici in modo che la cucina venga fuori più del resto.” (Come è possibile non amare questa seconda frase?) Il libro non fu mai scritto ma sul sito del John Cage Trust c’è una pagina con annotazioni di Cage sulla cucina macrobiotica, con alcune ricette. È sbalorditivo che in questa pagina, sotto il titolo Tuberi, ci sia il seguente: “Carote, rape, topinambur, ecc. Mettetele nel piatto di terracotta da forno e poi in forno caldo per un’ora o più con un po’, molto poco, di olio di sesamo. I tuberi possono essere coperti con porri e una mistura come quella suggerita per il pollo arrostito.” È possibile che Cage non abbia raccomandato ad Evnine l’uso del olio di sesamo; e anche possibile che gliel’abbia raccomandato, ma che l’artista abbia ignorato la raccomandazione.

[11] [N.d.C.] Malgrado il fatto che questo volume non sia esattamente un memoir di Evnine, è possibile che sia una “meme-oir,” pronunciata proprio come l’aveva pronunciata Cage. La profezia dell’artista, dunque, letteralmente per modo di dire, si è realizzata.