Archive for the ‘Naomi Wallace’ Category

6 Ways to Transgress

January 20th, 2008 No comments

Naomi Wallace’s article, which I began reviewing in my last post, continues with an enumeration of ways to transgress when writing. She outlines six, specifically:

  1. Ways of Seeing — she points to John Berger’s book.
  2. Interestingly, I have several copies of John Berger’s book. When I worked for AmeriCorps in 1994 one of the VISTAs with whom I worked managed to get Penguin Books to donate tens of thousands of its overstocked books to the program. We filled the shelves of the ABLE program and had many duplicates to take for ourselves. I have looked at it several times, but always assumed it was an “art” book. Guess I should go dig it out.

  3. Write against YOUR traditional ways of seeing.

    I’ll have to read it to gain the perspective necessary to fully understand what Wallace is talking about here; but I have no doubt about it’s validity. I was amazed by the immediate progress I made when I changed the MANNER in which I approached playwriting. I can’t imagine how beneficial approaching the matter from a different way of SEEING will be.

  4. Study how language is used to oppress
  5. From the various forms of literary criticism that I’ve read, I’ve certainly come to understand the validity of claims regarding how language conveys power relationships and affects self-perception. When researching my play about midwives I looked into misogyny in medicine and power relationships in the medical world; it should come as no surprise to anyone who has spent time in a hospital that language is one of the key mechanisms that medical professionals use to control interactions: from the mechanistic view of the body to the manner in which they use “medical-ese” to keep patients at arms length (nephrology–kidney; oncology–cancer, etc.). I still find the way Wallace loads this item with her communist polemic distasteful, but hey, to each her own. Regardless, language is certainly something that should be important to playwrights, and how one group uses it against another is key to many aspects of play creation.

  6. Disrupt cliches and the “cluttered mind”
  7. I always strive to do this. Cliches are THE key indicator that you are not original…unless, of course, you’re writing an entire play using cliches, which I have thought of doing.

  8. Explore other writers
  9. Probably the single most valuable aspect of the MFA program I’m in. Just the sheer exposure to other writers and other “ways of seeing.”

  10. Research thoroughly what you’re writing about
  11. I always am thorough in my research. In fact, I am afraid that my calling may be to just do research and not to write at all. In each major work that I have done–two big plays and a children’s book–I’ve spent, collectively, six years researching: gathering, reading, analyzing, following citations, working the interlibrary loan machine…

Wallace goes on, after this, to express her “highest aspiration” as a writer: which is to “re-imagine ourselves and our communities” which I think is very noble, indeed. And despite my disagreement with the language in which Wallace often couches her propositions, I do very much agree with her on this point–as well as her “6 Ways to Transgress.”

The next thing that Wallace considers is of great import to me, I’m glad to see it is for her, too. Of course, I am forced to admit that Wallace’s language in her plays and her often stunning stage images leaves my constructs to shame–but with Geither’s help and my re-constructed view of playwriting and the stage I have began to cultivate powerful stage images of my own. Regardless, the item of concern here is the question of “dryness” and “sex” that she puts.

The question of “dryness” refers to “writing devoid of passion and complexity and entertainment”–that is, the fear that if you write plays that are political they will be “dry” and uninteresting. This certainly should be a concern, but I would state that it ALWAYS should be a concern REGARDLESS of the subject matter. If characters in a play are viewed humanely and honestly and one utilizes imagination in the staging and dimensionality of the work and one exercises the “standard” toolkit of playwriting techniques: such as timing and tension, etc., then a play should NOT be “dry.” Wallace goes on to expand the dryness to encompass a subject matter that is just plain boring (again, as viewed by students). But Wallace ably fends off this question by simply pointing to the blood press that is history–that is, one throws apples into a press to get cider; history throws people into a press to get blood, consequence, and the problems of the future.

The question of “sex” is what Wallace re-phrases as a question of intimacy. And again, Wallace ably defends that both economics and politics are sexy, especially when couched in the terms of their consequence on the smallest of lives throughout all time: for instance, the prejudice of a pope makes four generations of Jews live in a ghetto. The consequences on the lives of all those people is pretty intimate. Here Wallace quotes Terry Eagleton who somewhere wrote that “our economic world is about ‘the plundering of the body of its sensuous wealth'” and again, she couches the argument in terms of capitalism, etc. But, in this case I agree–in that our lives are spent pursuing a course other than that which we would were it possible for us to live without selling 40+ of our human hours every week: our body hours, our dreaming hours, our life hours. Now that I have children I realize more acutely what the sale of my time–my life–means.

Here, Wallace begins to make some of her more powerful and beautifully worded appeals. For instance, “What could be more intimate and personal than the history of our bodies and their relationship to the world?” or:

History itself is a study in intimacy, or our lack of it, with others. What else is history and politics but the struggle of people to define who they are and what they can and cannot do?

But still, I think the statements that she makes apply to a certain type of writing, a certain type of play. What has been referred to by others, with some amount of distaste, as “social plays” or plays about “issues”: Ibsen, Miller, Wilson, etc. But when I think of the early plays of Sam Shepard, I am less inclined to agree that these elements apply. But one certainly could argue for them in his later family trilogy plays, and so on. They play out less on the national political level than at the metapolitical level of the family or the interpersonal/personal level of the self and its relation to family members. If anything, of course, Shepard’s plays approach the idea of masculinity in our culture: its manifestation, consequences, and meaning. But, as Wallace states, “we are involved in the job of drama,” each of us.

I am relieved that on page 102 Wallace writes that she is “not calling for a condescending theatre or a ‘preaching to the converted’ theatre but a welcoming, vigorous, inquisitive and brutal theatre…to challenge normative ways of seeing, to get uncomfortable, to get unsafe, to get unsure.” For really, there is nothing worse than a condescending political theatre. It becomes very like the current national campaign for president.

In the end, true to form, and true to good writing, Wallace leaves us with as many questions as possible answers. Some of the questions that I felt particularly drawn to were those that Wallace posited for playwrights–what she refers to as a “how” state of mind:

“How did it come to this? How am I diminished by my own ignorance? How have I been silenced in ways that I am not aware of?” These are good questions, and while I know Wallace points us toward a full human condition, I am still disappointed that the questions (and her pointing) are couched in the lesser language of a blatant political philosophy that I would say, diminishes the discussion.

Writing as Transgression

January 20th, 2008 No comments

I was drawn recently to the article by Naomi Wallace in this month’s American Theatre. I was drawn primarily because in one of my early MFA courses the class read One Flea Spare, which is still ranks as one of the most beautiful and haunting pieces of writing that I’ve encountered. My professor and mentor Mike Geither knows Naomi and he arranged to have her come to one of our classes and there was a reading of one of her works The Retreating World, which was also very lovely and moving. I had the chance to talk with her during some down time and I found that my method of writing was much like hers–perhaps my method is like many peoples… Naomi said that she researched a project for nearly two years before writing and that generally had a good idea of where she was going with it, and generally disliked writing itself. That’s pretty much how I feel every time I start a play. Although, since I embarked a different approach as described elsewhere, I’ve found this to be less the case; and I’ve always loved the research–I guess that’s why I’m a research librarian. I also purchased the movie she wrote: Lawn Dogs, which has many of the attributes of her plays–a strange magical mysticism, etc. And a heavy dose of class angst. But, I digress. The point is, I looked forward to the article. Then I read it.

Now I’m not sure what to think. I feel that most of my mixed feelings arise from inner turmoil rather than from something she stated; but I can touch on this in a while.

Mainly, I was fascinated that she would begin by stating that writing is at its “best an act of transgression.” Transgression is an interesting word. Or rather, comes from an interesting root of words. Every time I see the word “trans” I’m reminded of my attempts to teach myself Latin, where many word roots were unveiled to me: “trans” = “across”. Just like “peninsula” which comes from the Latin “paene” (almost) and “insula” (island). I find etymology fun. So you have “trans” (across) and “gressus” (step). So, then I thought “aggression,” hmmm. “ad” (to) and “gressus” (step)–but in this case, it obviously means to step toward in a threatening manner; while transgress is to violate or cross someone’s step, violate their space or motion or whatever–I’m trying to figure this out as I go. Regardless, transgress means to step across the line; break a rule or a taboo. That is, Naomi begins by immediately setting up writing as something that runs counter, that is subversive, etc., with which I don’t agree at all. Or, let me say, rather, that this does not solely have to be the purpose and I take issue with her assumption, both at the beginning and throughout her essay, that it must be. Often times she’ll try to pull away from such a hard line–stating that “I tend to generalize. I like to generalize.” pp100 column 3–but despite her attempts? to pull away, she goes right on displaying her unconscious assumptions that all writing need be transgressive and politically directed. She gives the nod to writing for entertainment, writing for money, and writing for politics, but never writing for self-discovery, growth, or the search for the universe through the local–or rather, should I say, her brush, light with paint, but doth touch the canvas once with such a thought.

Writing to transgress, that is, to cross the self, to open the self and discover the self, while important to her, is seen as a means to a political end. To cross the self to realize how insulated you are, how naive you are, how self-centered, how white, how WRONG you are.

I take issue most with her on the politics of it. This is something that I have struggled with. In fact, I wrote a play, described or touched on elsewhere, entitled The Empiric, about at 14th century healer named Jacoba Felicie, or Jacqueline Felicia de Almania, who was forced out of the healing business by the violence of law in Paris, France. And yes, of course, I realize fully that “law” is a form of violence whose sole intent is to “force” a person to do something he doesn’t want to do, usually with the thin veil of physical violence lying in wait. But my question tended more toward the effect on the art itself that I was trying to create. Doesn’t the act of politicizing an art make it more like journalism? And no matter how pretty the prose or verse, or how human and empathetic the angle, there is some flavor left in the mouth that tangs metallic. It’s almost as if you must reach the truth by slight of hand–fooling even yourself. Sort of like Douglas Adams’ take on flying: that you must trip and fall and the split second before impacting be distracted by something such that you forget you’re falling and start to fly instead. And that you must not ever think of the act of flying or you will immediately fall from the sky, but must instead maintain the posture of distractedness. Such is how you must come to truth. For if you say it yourself it is your truth and if you force a character to speak it, it is degraded.

Politics overwhelms this article. The end of it invokes even global warming, for Christ’s sake. I want to state, openly and honestly, that I am not, nor have I ever been–well, except in a moment of youthful hubris at the outset of my undergraduate career–a member of the right-wing conservative establishment. And I do not want to be taken this way (I am a Libertarian today). But Wallace’s second paragraph smack so hard of Marxist overtones that it’s almost unbearable to read: “means of production,” “ownership,” “writing merely an exercise in accumulating…private property.” Give me a fucking break. And then has the audacity to posit that each of us should ask the question, when we write, “to what ends am I working.” What a load of shit. As if the act of writing is solely to polish a turd before launching it at some [thing, one, idea, group]. She begs us ask the purpose for our writing–positing the blatant assertions that there must be political motives behind when/what choices are made to a political end–one way or another, and then quickly steps behind the Brechtian shield that “all theatre is political.” As if that is an answer or ends all discussion on the matter. She states that the roll of theatre is to “speak truth to power” echoing Augusto Boal in his toppling reversal of Aristotelean logic.

But in much the way she casually dismisses “mainstream” theatre as being “mediocre” or entertainment to “keep the peace,” I defiantly state that theatre exclusively to the end of highlighting class politics, or race politics, is equally mediocre and certainly not original. She steps back from her take on Brecht by remarking that “all theatre is political” in the “human and social” sense, but immediately puts her foot back on the gas pedal of theatre as power struggle.

I am intrigued by her questions in this regard, that:

All theatre deals with questions of power. Who has it? Who doesn’t? Who wants to get it and how? Who lost it and why? Who has killed for it? Who has died for it?

And I tend to agree with Wallace’s “sizing up” of mainstream theatre’s–and it’s audience’s–penchant for congratulating itself on exploring the deep and meaningful issues of humanity, when its epic plow has only touched the surface tissue; a theatre that doesn’t think or even provide an experience of being alive, but instead provides a passable evening’s entertainment and a refreshing alternative to the evening news to while away the digestion of food: by spoon-feeding them the drama, exposition, and meaning as though it were pudding.

On page 100, Wallace defines “transgressive writing” by “calling for a teaching of theatre that encourages students to write against their ‘taught’ selves and to engage…in the kind of ‘self-transgression’ and ‘critical awareness of self’ that will enable them to become ‘citizens of the world.’

Hear, fucking, hear. I absolutely agree with this. To crack that self and unleash the torrent that is the unconscious. The become a citizen of the world by becoming one with all humankind. Nothing could be better. But the motive. My god. The motive should be the act itself; not, as Joseph Campbell would say, to move all the pieces around in the vain attempt to recreate the world–which seems to be Wallace’s explicit goal: writing to wrongs. As if the immense and powerful act of self-discovery should lead to nothing more than a new market economy in an African village. Throughout the essay Wallace waivers between stating greatness and suggesting ways to it, and then cutting it with transient political concerns of the day.

Wallace finishes this section by stating that, “Transgression is, among other things, a dissection of one’s self and a discovery of larger worlds.” A statement with which I whole-heartedly agree.

But again, to do it, Wallace states that one must be involved in “questioning entitlement and empathy.” A statement that seems to, again, take away from the main realization–to debase it. Entitlement and empathy are lesser points to the main act of self-discovery and larger world exploration. And, in fact, that new discoveries of self and larger worlds should, in and of themselves, lead to empathy and a questioning of entitlement, and not be in any way predicated on it. In fact, to listen to Nietzsche, one can make such realizations and discoveries and not give one mote of shit for other human beings at all–to elevate oneself to the status of a god: thus rejecting any empathy or questioning of entitlement; though, I admit I see Wallace’s point and don’t mean to dismiss it. The Holy Grail, or recognizing the pain of others an that in your own self (empathy) is core to the Western ideal of Christian love and understanding…and I think questions of entitlement fall immediately on the heels of such a realization. I am yet amazed that Wallace can make such bold statements regarding transgression and self-discovery and yet immediately lessen them by connecting their main importance with simple political thoughts regarding racism, sexism, etc.

Wallace ends her main introductory section by expressing her desire to see more writers “who envision theatre as a space for social and imaginative transformation.” Another desire that I share with her.

I’ll pick up this discussion again tomorrow, when my mind is clearer and my eyelids less inclined to fall over my eyes…

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