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On Writing…and on Writing about Sex

June 2nd, 2008 No comments

Just now getting to the article in American Theatre highlighting the work of Wallace Shawn. The first that I’ll talk about is “Writing about Sex” which is the first article.

First, I found his commentary on writing to be not only amusing, but accurate. Shawn notes that,

“I don’t do my own writing. I personally sometimes express the point, when pressed, by saying that I see my writing as a sort of collaboration between my rational self (“me”) and the voice that comes from outside the window, the voice that comes in through the window, whose words I write down in a state of weirded-out puzzlement, thinking, “Jesus Christ, what the fuck is he saying?” The collaboration is really quite an unequal partnership, I’d have to admit. The voice contributes everything, and I contribute nothing, frankly, except some modest organizing abilities and (if I may say so) a certain skill in finding, among the voice’s many utterances, those that are most successful.” Pp24

There are many such examples of writers talking about how they write. The muses of course being the oldest, but always the notion that somehow one is channeling the voice or channeling the impulse, guiding it, stewarding it onto paper, into the laptop, whatever… The writers as a vehicle to impart the raging voice of the gods. The writer as a lightning rod. Or in the case above, the writer as the person sitting closest to the open window. But I find the notion of the “modest organizing” quite interesting at this point. The small kudos paid to the logical dweller in the great cavern who’s only pedantic offering is to sort things out. And I don’t underestimate this by any stretch of the imagination. Shawn is quite right to point to the “skill” required, for it is that. It is one that I am still honing. I can catch the torrent and ensure that it pours out onto a page. It is that skill at going back and doing the “modest organizing” and the “finding” that is most important. To pare down the utterance. To select. And yet NOT TO HARM or DISTORT the voice. My “modest” parcel always tries to tamper. Tries to adjust. And the only thing that I can think of right now is Mickey Mouse as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice who dabbles a bit too much and all of a sudden the whole damn thing is spinning out of control—brooms and water everywhere.

And like Shawn, I am tempted to just call the voice the unconscious. Especially after my stints reading Jung and Campbell. But I am interested in the fact that he ties the unconscious to society—that:

“I’m forced to conclude that, if the unconscious has thoughts, it has to have heard these thoughts, or at least their constituent fragments, from human beings of some description—from the people I’ve met, the people I’ve read about, the people I’ve happened to overhear on the street. So, it’s not just a theory that society is speaking to itself through me.”

Here, Shawn really is pointing to the idea of society being channeled through the writer, and not the collective unconscious. This notion is somewhat different for me as I think the images that I have put out are somewhat more raw than something that would be formed by society. Shawn’s work is very talky and full of ideas that must be imparted—usually with a quick, breathless flurry. My images tend to stride and swagger around the room and fart. Yet, I find his notion of channeling the rest of society very compelling. And it is to this voice that Shawn attributes his focused interest in sex.

“So,” Shawn writes “at a certain point—and with a certain sadness, because of how I knew I would be seen by other people—I decided I was going to trust the voice I was hearing. And of course, like every writer, I hope I’ll be one of the ones who will be led to do something truly worthwhile.” 25

There are two things I would comment on here: first, the notion of how others will see you. Certainly, I have found, and am slowly wrestling with, that there is this realization that if you want to have an authentic voice you must speak the truth. I am reminded of the scene in Labute’s The Shape of Things where it is stated that there is no place for morality in art. Or, as Oscar Wilde put it, “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book; books are well written or badly written.” And yet, the people you know DO SEE YOU DIFFERENTLY based on what you put out into the world. Dare you be daring and shock them all? Or do you stay domesticated and dish out lukewarm, tasteless paste? The second is that the hope that this voice will take him to election. That is, a sort of disembodied method of selection. An almost spiritual notion of selection for greatness. And not the notion of greatness for greatness in and of itself, but rather of being led to see something. That the reward is where you are taken, not in any outward dressings that are applied to it.

But more to the point of the article, the “voice outside the window” for Shawn kept returning to the topic of sex. So, the article asks, “why is sex interesting to write about?”

Well, for Shawn it has as much to do with the utter animal nature or bestial nature of the activity as anything—the shocking realization that he, as a human, in engaging in an activity that “pigs, flies, wolves, lions and tigers, also engage in…” 80. And that this fact disrupts his view of himself—“violently disrupts,” in fact. Although, he expands on this rather nicely by noting that sex is nature and that, as such, sex is really nature “coming into our home or apartment and taking root inside our own minds. It comes out of the mud where the earliest creatures swam; it comes up and appears in our brains in the form of feelings and thoughts.” That is to say, it insinuates itself into our whole being on nearly every level—and this, I suppose, is appropriate as it is the single imperative that nature outlines for us—all of we living beings on this planet, large or small, self-aware or not, by whatever definition, with souls or without, again by whatever definition—namely, to generate new versions of ourselves—to keep this Passion Play rolling along, regardless of the individual or personal character and the importance we attach to it—that is, our ‘self’. As Shawn comments, sex “sweeps other feelings and other thoughts completely out of the way.” Again, affirming its primal authority. It is the prime mover, the first cause, and it will not be bested.

Then, working his evolutionary magic, Shawn draws us into the absurdity of our own existence, as he always manages to do in his writing. By mis-direction he first, he draws our attention to the “big toe” and then compares it to the penis—noting that the two are made fundamentally similar materials. And then by spinning the logic of his argument out, he notes that men “buy magazines containing pictures of breasts, but not magazines with pictures of knees or elbows.” (Of course, during the Victorian-era, I’m sure this was in-fact the choice material—as societies at different times fetish-ize different things.) And then Shawn goes on to the demagoguery surrounding the choice of where to put that penis, and how, generally, the success or failure of an enterprise aimed at sexual gratification can make or break a poor human being. And expands to suggest that the power of desire (for anything: body, meadow, horse, painting, etc.) may reflect the power of love flowing through the individual. Hopefully, that is, not the likely more mundane rapacity of the lower Chakras—the third of possession in particular.

Shawn goes on to talk about the taboos and other barriers erected around sex, the idea of sex, the likelihood of sex, as well as the other features: jealousy, possessiveness, etc. And even notes evidence from a recent sociological survey that found, when Americans were asked the question: “What is very important for a successful marriage?” That 93% said their partner’s faithfulness, while only 70% said a “happy sexual relationship” thus drawing up the high irony that 23% of the respondents feel it is more important that their spouse not be having sex at all—or rather, as Shawn puts it “more important that they and their partner should not have sex with others than that they themselves should enjoy sex.” Yet another example of how the American individual is always more focused on the activities of others than engaged in that form of self-reflection that may lead to personal improvement and general happiness for the greater good. Further, Shawn notes that sex seems to lead to anarchy and thus those who are “committed to predictability and order find themselves inevitably either standing opposite to it, or occasionally trying to pretend to themselves that it doesn’t even exist.”

And at long last, Shawn concludes his tour by discussing what we may deem to be the ultimate point of this lively narrated escapade: that “perhaps it would be a good thing if people saw themselves as a part of nature, connected to the environment in which they live. Sex can be a very humbling, equalizing force…naked people do not wear medals, and weapons are forbidden inside the pleasure garden” and he even points out that when we find out some sexual tidbit about our leaders they somehow lose a measure of their superiority or power—they are lessened in our minds by the revelation. Again, connecting the impulse to sex back to the poor creatures of the earth, reminding ourselves that we are in fact one of them.

I am reminded of a movie that was on HBO frequently when I was a teen: Maxwell Smart and the Nude Bomb. It has been a while since I thought of this movie. The premise can be inferred from the title. The moment that I remember most, however, is a conference which must have been a mock representation of the United Nations. Maxwell Smart, or someone, makes the observation that a nude bomb would be great—it would end war—you can’t kill someone on a battlefield if you can’t tell him apart. You’d be unable to make the distinction. At which point an African states boldly, “We would.”

Some differences then are impossible to be got rid of. But the overall message of Shawn in this article is valid and enjoyably delivered.

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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