The Akademie Schloss Solitude, an institution that I admire, a truly life-changing one for me, has requested answers, over correspondence, to the following questions; verbatim:
»Would you say that your (artistic) practice is political? If so, how would you describe its political dimension?«
Tricky inquiries. As it turned out, the investigation for sensible answers on these thorny questions has opened a Pandora’s box of conflicting points of view in me. Also, as it happens, at the time of writing these words, it seems that we are already cursed with an abundance of open Pandora’s boxes, so many that all the works and days will not suffice to mend them, or so it seems to me right now, at least. With that in mind, I began thinking; with an index finger poked in a book’s index and a thumb flipping-releasing its pages I thought more, and then I thought even more, and then I thought that I don’t know the answers to such questions at all. Though, I can (I think that I can) take the endless detour after detour through what I think (I think that I think) about them, this Ouroboros, questions that don’t merely ask questions but plant a glove for their answers when asking them. I’ll resort to linguistics in order to demonstrate what I mean by this so-called glove-planting, ne plus ultra, via a series of meta-questions. This will also rid us quickly of any meta-questions about the questions asked in said correspondence that I’ve received from the Akademie Schloss Solitude, the one that I’m attempting to consider meta-questions as answers to; exempli gratia:
»Would you say that your (artistic) practice is [insert adjective]? If so, how would you describe its [adjective inserted] dimension?«
Now chosen [adjective] becomes our planted glove; see:
»Would you say that your (artistic) practice is [competitive]? If so, how would you describe its [competitive] dimension?«
»Would you say that your (artistic) practice is [aesthetic]? If so, how would you describe its [aesthetic] dimension?«
And so forth. But, let’s abstract further:
»Would you say that your ([insert adjective1]) practice is [insert adjective2]? If so, how would you describe its [adjective inserted2] dimension?«
Or (maybe) further still; when constructing a parse tree out of their supposed syntax:
And then, after traversing the linguistic parse tree to its inevitable etymological Socratic (ignorant) stem, is semantics: What do the questions that the Akademie Schloss Solitude asked actually mean? I’ll spare you the Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary definitions, which I’ve read, to little resulting insight, and, if only for mere entertainment, I’ll skip right ahead to Stendhal, who, in The Charterhouse of Parma, wrote that:
»Politics in a work of literature are like a pistol-shot in the middle of a concert, something loud and vulgar and yet a thing to which it is not possible to refuse one’s attention.«
I’m looking at Stendhal’s book, it’s sitting next to the copy of Rouge et Noir, on the shelf, it’s in its English rendition. The book has one of those obligatory-yet-superfluous literary introductions, this one by Margaret Mauldon, who felt compelled to write many words about Stendhal’s work before Stendhal got a chance to write even one. Her words are about what she thinks when considering Stendhal’s statement, the one declaring politics as art’s deafening pistol-shot, as she writes, this »disingenuous remark,« asserts that »political power actually depends on ›story-telling‹,« and then she further deduces one thing or another, of which I cannot unequivocally conclude, as it happens to tread exactly on the tautology that had me so confused to begin with, the one of which came first, the narrative or its underlying spectacle, that (perhaps debatable definition of the) »political dimension.«
Fine, wince; Stendhal for me in any case is a blind watchman of primordial narratives, so I turn to Ecclesiastes, arguably the first existential (»political?«) text ever written, somewhere circa 330 BCE. It’s the one that made that grim observation, to then be so beautifully rephrased by Beckett, of how: »The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.« Nothing new. And nothing new it may just be in the circular reasoning that befall those who attempt to determine if the »political« is inclusive of verse, or vice versa. Case in point: Ecclesiastes is attributed to King Solomon, which, as his eponymous title-cum-name suggests, was a king, and kings, as we all know, practice their rule in monarchies, and monarchies, of course, are political systems par excellence. Ergo, did the learned philosopher-king have a political motive when writing such a scathing, bleak, nearly cynical even, text such as Ecclesiastes? It’s nearly impossible to say, as much as it would be with a more recent literary example, more recent certainly than that of a of a (presumably) nearly three thousand-year-old Biblical text, and to similarly declare Albert Camus’ works as »political;« as opposed to those of his contemporary, Jean-Paul Sartre, who instead adopted a more aggressive (if, to my taste, a hypocritical) political agenda as an answer to the absurdity of existentialism, rather than the more art pour l’art puritanism of Camus. And these points, I am very aware, are still very arguable. And, further, I can repeatedly find these sort of postmortem or in vivo cases of political in literary or literary in political. Alas, even when considering all of that, I still know nothing about what I think would serve as adequate answers to the questions that were addressed to me by the Akademie Schloss Solitude, and what, exactly, does that »political dimension« means to me or how it relates to my (artistic) practice.
I’ll regress and address the original questions again from a different angle: Isn’t the question projecting, in a categorical sense, on my (artistic) practice a »political dimension« simply by asking if it has a »political dimension«? To answer that, I tried adding a negation to the questions, to attempt and deduce a sublation:
»Would you say that your (artistic) practice is [not] political? If so, how would you describe its [non]-political dimension?«
Even so, it seems, negated or not, with that [non] or without it, a work, ipso facto, is neither »political« nor »nonpolitical.« As the latter negated form implies, there is now a complement to a set that was assigned by asking about some non-included subset, one, hence, hinting at the existence of a »political« or »nonpolitical«, while, possibly, having none of the two exist at all by any of my volitions, which turns this into a rhetorical conceit that makes the »nonpolitical« or »political« query into a political stance as well, and simply by inclusion or omission – similarly, as it happens, to the general incongruity of the Nietzschean type of arguments, ones that I’m not very fond of, I admit, as I find them a bit reckless, no matter their surrounding (splendid) intellectual savagery. What is left if I reject both the »political« and »nonpolitical«? The [adjective] or the [non]-[adjective]? Meaninglessness? Am I so decadent to declare absolute nihilism? Why, exactly, should I declare myself as anything at all? Why should I concern myself with how am I being interpreted? Can I? Should I? And if so, how will this ever end, with me asking meta after meta question about the meaning of my (artistic) practice and its meaning, too, like in this attempt for an answer to the Akademie Schloss Solitude, ad infinitum, ad absurdum, ad nauseam, and to what end? Will I ever produce anything besides endless meanings-of-meanings if I’ll attempt to resolve this infinite regress of what it means?
Before having to, yet again, recourse to Socrates’ blissful panacea, I decide to cut the Gordian knot: I open Camille Paglia. She, very wisely, never really answers anything, she just phrases questions over and over again, and beautifully, with the beauty of an artist, an artist-writer, a poet, one who carries the torch of the Western canon, and with it all works of humanity, by repeatedly asking marvelous questions, for one: Is Donatello’s David a piece of pedophile pornography? I’m sure that by some measures it surely is. The fashions of the times. What is the fashion of our times then? Political? Maybe. Yet, to me, it seems only a blunt instrument would declare it only as such, as »political,« one that places a work of art in a contemporary, very narrow frame, even if it accuses of a deplorable crime, one that needs to be mentioned and discussed, as it is that grotesque, and then to judge its morality, the morality of an artistic object, or morality’s dea ex machina: the »political.« But, the irony, truly, of declaring Renaissance art as political (unlike a »political« argument in the case of Romanticism!), or to judge it by a restricted spectrum of what political thought is right now, at present, with literature being what it is; with art and art criticism being what they are; to ask whether my practice (or anyone’s practice, for that matter), is »political,« well, one may just as well ask me if what I practice is [adjective] (meta intended), and to let the folks back home, the masses, dwell upon it (and I write this without an ounce of condescension or cynicism). So, back to square one; I throw my hands in the air after all this hand-waving and declare utter ignorance. I profess that I know only that Socratic thing: that I know nothing at all.
But wait (»Wait while you wait. Hee hee. Wait while you hee. But wait!« to lightly Joyce a moment in this heady escapade, or, is a simple jest, too, a »political?«), there’s Women in Love, really, on my bookshelf, the D.H. Lawrence novel, and next to it Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, translated by none other than Eleanor Marx, daughter of Karl Marx, who is ostensibly the most political figure in the aesthetic of the symbolic universe of political figures – or, rather, »political figures,« the same in the unspoken »political dimension« presumed in the correspondence containing the questions addressed to me by the Akademie Schloss Solitude, questions that somehow, I suspect, carve Marx, the father, as the paragon of what that »political« could ever be, symbolically, semiotically, and almost to ridicule, or almost, to rephrase an old phrase of none other than he, Karl, himself: to farce.
And then there’s Annuchka. I met about her five months ago and asked her to read Anna Karenina, the Tolstoy novel, the night that I proposed her in marriage in the lobby of the Adlon Hotel, in Berlin. Anna, not Annuchka, Anna Karenina, threw herself on the train tracks, and one can make the case that she (a fictional figure, it’s easy to forget) had a political motive to do so, maybe by her creator-literary-God Leo Tolstoy, as he is toying with her torment with his little finger, the same one holding the fountain pen transcribing that tragic affair. And yet, I don’t know what it is, this »political dimension,« though I do see it, I know what they mean when they ask about it – sincerely, I’m not being facetious. But it would be insulting to any reasonable criticism of Tolstoy’s work to have any political imperative on Anna Karenina’s suicide on the train tracks. Her anguish, to my own very subjective opinion, deserves more than a »political dimension.« Yet, and here’s the tricky part, it would be very tempting to say that a similar death, masterly paralleled in the beginning of the same novel, of a railway worker falling in front of a train, is nothing but a deliberate political statement made by Tolstoy (a founder, it should be mentioned, of his own political movement and religion, Christian anarchism, of which he wrote about in The Kingdom of God Is Within You, published in 1894). Or is it? I’ll play devil’s advocate, since I’m not a Marxist, nor do I subscribe to anything but the vaguest notion of »Humanism,« whatever that means, as I use it as a denomination for this incessant flippant inner discourse, the one you’re reading here as an attempt to find answers to the questions the Akademie Schloss Solitude put forth to me in that correspondence. I admit that I do see a (again, very vague) linear progression to the ideas humanity comes up with, to how their worth is repeatedly evaluated (or perhaps more accurately, negotiated) by posterity; ergo, forming a canonical measure of their merit through the temporally inescapable, red in tooth and claw, survival of ideas, which you may just say is a definition of some sort for that »political,« its objective, its aesthetic, or at least the dramatis personæ of the main symbolic cast defining its conceptual actors, the same ones we encounter again and again when examining that elusive »political dimension.«
To state the problem-solution of this circulus in probando even more clearly: What I’m attempting to describe here is an inherent incompatibility of my (artistic) practice to questions about meaning in general, and not just of the »political dimension,« as I know where I stand on matters based on an intuition that is foreign to me as it is foreign to anyone else I had ever tried explaining it to. The odd machinery that forms my thoughts is an absolute mystery to me, and I write these words after I thought about my thoughts, and then the thoughts about my thoughts about my thoughts, and so on, a great deal already, and I assure you, I’m in the dark as to my own volitions. I sometimes feel like a marionette, armed with a pen to transcribe thoughts into words, which is hanging on the strings of a hidden puppeteer, this literary qualia in the noösphere. I don’t think that I possess these thoughts or these words; I don’t declare them as mine at all, and it’s this property that intrinsically rejects declaring them as [adjective] (or meta, et cetera, or anything else). This incompatibility is (intentionally or unintentionally) directly opposite any single definable form, for it differs from any deliberate thought on any singular system or concept, something that I care little about, and doubly so in the case of the »political dimension« as something that attempts to fit everything onto one all-consuming consistent ideology – a task presenting a problem that I not only find insoluble, but entirely pointless, if not utterly dangerous, as history had shown over and over again whenever anyone had declared it ideologically, and finally, solved.
Perhaps a similar notion of this political/nonpolitical either/or contradiction is what Boris Pasternak was trying to express in Doctor Zhivago. In a way his book not only a novel, but a paradoxical manifesto: a manifesto against manifestos. It proclaims poetry as the only form of rebellion one was able muster in the direst times for free thought humanity had so far put itself through (but the night, I’m afraid, is still young, and certainly, at the time of writing these words, 2016, the tide of humanity is again high, with wars, bigotry, and hate fashionable again, as if we have forgotten entirely about the perverted wickedness that the 20th-century has brought on us). Pasternak’s manifesto presents it de facto, ipse dixit, its proof in its pudding in its eating, one that proclaims liberty as the simple creative act of scribbling words, or even, sometimes, having to memorize them, for their mere representation in ink on paper could be considered a crime, one that threatens any political ideology, any political institution, or any »political dimension,« and for nothing more than a few lines of verse written by a poet. Imagine that. Imagine the sword one swings for expressing nothing but the grandest of human achievements: Love.
I know nothing but I’ll allow myself this, and not as a cop-out: There are many facets to art, to literature. I cannot (by any means, no matter any clever literary apparatus I may come up with) withhold someone of the pleasure of asserting that say, a poem that I’ve written is political, or that the practice of a poet, in general, is political (or not, or [adjective]). However, I can assure you that when I write I have nothing political in mind. The reason, mainly, is that I find the political instrument too crude as metaphor. The twisted shape that forms in one’s mind during the process of human cognition, I found, defies all consistent schemes or ideologies. If one would equate the human soul of a dying man to us, humanity, and if the »political« is the instrument given to a metaphorical surgeon as apparatus to save this dying man’s (our), life, then that instrument would resemble more of a chainsaw, rather than the
necessary scalpel. I suppose that I see poetry as coming close to that metaphorical scalpel, and more than anything else that I had so far encountered. Though what is poetry, exactly, I cannot tell. What is that elusive property that makes a stanza into decent verse? I can’t tell you. Are the following lines, written by yours truly, political?
The golden calf:
A Faustian bargain),
With me a dog leash,
Strophes of miniature prayers,
At high windows,
I wouldn’t know. Likewise, when James Joyce wrote:
In Finnegan’s Wake, was he political? I can’t tell. Maybe phonology is political; just the sounds the words make when spoken aloud by a person, I mean. Or, maybe, orthography is political; the shapes the letters take when printed on a page. Or, maybe, the typographic river is political; that river of white, that gap that sometimes seems to appear when typesetting the pages of a book, those lines above lines in the layout of paragraphs and their particular alignment of spaces. Again, I can’t tell.
What about love?