Sunday, March 21, 2010

You Are McMurphy, Chief.

Vintery, mintery, cutery, corn,
Apple seed and apple thorn,
Wire, briar, limber lock
Three geese in a flock
One flew East
One flew West
And one flew over the cuckoo's nest

Any book or movie starts the same way. You are thrust into some portion of a character's life. There is a conflict that is resolved or not resolved in some fashion. In this case, you are an inmate who wants out of jail and who thinks you may have found it. You get yourself categorized as psychologically unstable and, ultimately, committed. You are flawed but you have some good qualities. Your key attribute is that you think that you are outside of something that you cannot possibly be outside of. You will find out soon enough.

Ken Kesey never saw the film. They didn't maintain a surreal enough sensibility for him. The book, which is seen through the eyes of a mute Indian named Chief Bromden, was practically hallucinatory at times. The movie, which was probably already pushing it by having a primary character who was a gigantic Indian, focuses on McMurphy's perspective. It is your perspective; the conscious perspective.

This perspective involves some of the flattering aspects that we crave. The anti-authoritarian, iconoclastic, sui generis figure who moves through a thoughtless and rigid environment. He can't, in spite of what would be best for him, keep from indulging his frustration. I can't help but root for him. Calling play by play for the World Series at a blank TV screen as his fellow inmates get more and more worked up. Wisecracking with his clueless superiors. Driving a stolen bus to a soon to be stolen boat prior to what will probably be the only meaningful adventure in the other inmate's adult lives. I can't help but root for him.

The book is a murkier situation. It is, almost exclusively, seen from the perspective of a genuinely distorted Bromden. He sees the 'Combine' in every calculated gesture that nurse Ratched insinuates into the ward. He also sees many things that do not exist. Drunken college students and reactionary prudes refer to this technique as 'the unreliable narrator.' Even drunker graduate students and post-reactionaries know this as a tautology. It's what you say when you can't think of anything meaningful to say.They can't entirely be blamed; even Nabokov bristled against the wisdom of Freud. But Nabokov, this time, this one time, was wrong.

The relevance of Freud to our time is largely his insight and, to a very considerable extent, his demonstration that the ordinary person is a shrivelled, desiccated fragment of what a person can be. That is a quote from RD Laing's The Politics of Experience. I read it back when I was pretending to read so that I might impress some girls. They weren't impressed, but the quote stuck with me. Not because of my carefully developed misanthropy, but because it applies in such a precisely accurate fashion to me. And to everybody that I can imagine. But, I digress...

Randle McMurphy, in short, gets himself committed to an asylum so that he can get out of the monotonies of jail. This happens in the book and the film. After some time it is brought to his attention that his release it at the mercy of his wardens. He tries to acquiesce, but they are on to him. He does his best Cool Hand Luke, but, like Luke, he is broken, and when finally given a chance to escape he sinks back into himself and is lost. He looks around the ward through bleary eyes and forgets.

In the book, McMurphy is often referred to as the bull goose loony. He is that part of you that struggles against the trivia that comprises so much of human existence. He is also that part that gropes your best friend's wife at that Christmas party even though she was just being amiable. He lacks foresight, but he is the reason that you know that you are going to die. He will never leave the party.

The Chief is selectively mute, but he hears everything. He is also broken. Like a dream he is elusive and distorted and animates conglomerate mannequins for any and every person; seven at a time. He deforms reflections that slip through your fingers before you can grasp them. And he will kill McMurphy. And here is why...

McMurphy IS you. You come out of nothing into something for reasons that cannot be described much less assimilated. You put yourself into an inescapable situation whether you intend to or not. Nurse Ratched hovers over you and smiles. She may not even know your name but she still locks the door behind her as she leaves. And every window remains locked as you fumble at the keys. You will never rip the water fountain from its mooring, even if not for lack of effort. The house is spinning a roulette wheel with one hundred trillion zeroes and the red and black will eventually be less than a memory. And then a piece of your brain will disappear, and then nothing.

But Chief Bromden does not understand nothing. I cannot place this metaphor, it seems all too human. Still, somehow, the Chief will recognize what is going on. He will lead you by the hand to a remote part of the casino that is less well lit and that barely throbs to the canned music. He will place his hands over your nose and mouth. You will not struggle. He will call a waitress over. She will look you in the eyes and smile as she asks you what you want; and she will wait for you.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Language Fails Because Everything Fails


1. Those that belong to the Emperor.

Borges knew. At one time the study of language must have seemed as penetrating as physics. What could possibly bring us a deeper understanding of ourselves than the study of the very thing that most completely differentiates us from the other animals? Borges meticulously read everything he could get his hands on. He became a proponent. Words mattered. He wanted to be precise, but precision failed him. Soon enough he exchanged actual encyclopedias for imaginary encyclopedias. They weren't fantastic except for the fact of their irreality. Borges had come to the end of language.

2. Embalmed ones.

Set this house on fire. There must be a desperate yelp within some people. Such need to find a solid foothold to cling to. Do not end a sentence with a preposition. But even the most elementary questions become vague if you press them. According to some it is OK to end some, sometimes, that way; of course others think otherwise. So look to genius, that foul rag and bone shop of the heart. But it will tell you: You have to find your way; because there is no way. But then, there you are. The earth collapsing beneath your feet as you scramble for contact.

3. Those that are trained.

I am scared. No, uncomfortable. Who am I to blow against the wind? I feel this. I reach out and touch nothing. No, I have some things. They tie me to the mast and beat against the song. The rocky shoals are not a threat because there are greater threats. I didn't make me this, but my fingerprints are all over it. When told by his patient that they were dreams and how could he be responsible for his dreams, Freud replied: Who else could?

4. Suckling pigs.

Success has always been a great liar. How could Van Gogh have felt himself a success? Foul cheeses and unwashed linen. That fucking prostitute. Would it somehow be better if he were in heaven raking in his posthumous accolades as he casually exchanged witty banter with Oscar Wilde and Lenny Bruce? Forever? At what point is the game up? Twenty-seven million years into the glory wouldn't the thought cross his mind that they were masked charlatans simply postponing the inevitable? The deification of success. Infinity dissolves perspective. You may as well be everything.

5. Mermaids.

There are ten times as many bacteria on your body as there are cells in it. Mitochondria, which power our cells and make us us, are, in a very real way, not even us. Our unconscious mind determines over ninety percent of our cognitive processes. Subatomic particles, of which we are made, behave in a fashion that could generously be described as fucking insane. We weren't before we were born and we aren't after we die. Mermaids singing, each to each. We have an improbably brief window of time to react (for/against) to a stimulus in our brain before it becomes reality. That is our free will. I want to talk to you. I want to tell you something. There is so much that we are not; till human voices wake us, and we drown.

6. Fabulous ones.

Some men can only be aroused by a woman in pantyhose. Some, only by a woman in pantyhose who is smoking. Someone has to be slapped. Quinn has to be dipped in Fresca and threatened with excommunication. Denise likes it when she is called ambivalent. Doorknobs? A man who has just varnished an old, but not antique, desk is greeted at the door by a woman who stutters uncontrollably as she fingers herself with a gloved hand. Say the word pussy with a Celtic accent. Scream incisor! Growl and pay my gas bill as you rearrange my porcelain figurines. I want you. I want... something.

7. Stray dogs.

Death is cheap. On the TV show The Wire there are many well developed characters who come to a terrible and irrelevant end. Cole dies on the stairmaster. Omar, who has previously escaped many preternaturally inescapable situations, is shot in the back by a distracted twelve year old. It is what that show nails. There is no noble death. Few people die defending a noblewoman from a brutal and senseless attack. And if they do, it is very likely that the incident will be interpreted, and re-interpreted, out of existence. Right now, as you read, there may be cells in your body that are on the verge of not functioning. There may be a woman who feels under appreciated and who is swerving her way to San Thomas Liquors to re-stock her supply of Cat's Meow Box Wine; because she has a coupon and because it reminds her of high-school. But it doesn't matter. Fiery blaze or family filled hospital room; you are there. And then dust, decay, indifference, and nothing. Luis Bunuel used to put a rabid dog in his films to remind the viewers that they were one random incident away from eternity.

8. Those included in the present classification.

Godel's idea is this. Any effectively generated theory capable of expressing elementary arithmetic cannot be both consistent and complete. That means that even adding numbers is fraught with ambiguity. Adding numbers! 6+3=? This is real. I am not kidding. And so, of course, something as soft as language must be even worse. Wittgenstein, who did as much as anybody to demolish the idea of a privileged position, showed that language (i.e. the most salient feature that separates us from the rest of the animals) is, at best, a fuzzy game-like structure that we utilize to navigate the uncharted waters of existence, because we can't do any better. No word is the thing it stands for. The word 'horse' is not a horse. The word 'word' is not even a word if you think of it contextually. Pointing doesn't help much; certainly not in complex situations. So, ultimately, every human edifice evaporates. And what are we left with? The desire to make the things we feel we can grasp into something meaningful. It is literally the best we can do and it is also very close to nothing.

9. Those that tremble as if they were mad.

Look in the shadows. What do you see? Same old monkeys.

10. Innumerable ones.

There is a way to show that there are infinities that are larger than other infinities. A guy named Euler did it. No shit. Another guy, not named Euler, wrote an essay on the homoerotic tension between Huck Finn and Nigger Jim. "All right, then, I'll go to hell!" That's a quote! Aldous Huxley died in a self-induced LSD stupor and Hemingway shot himself. Dante said that the suicides resided in the seventh circle of hell. They would only talk if you tore away one of their branches. And in a hundred billion years there won't be enough evidence left for anybody to figure out how the universe began. Joyce was enamored with human waste. Sometimes I say melk instead of milk. There is such a thing as a plastic pony that you are supposed to comb the hair of. 'Jesus wept' is the shortest sentence in the Bible. I am the library at Alexandria.

11. Those drawn with a very fine camelhair brush.

Even with precise language, with the vernacular of law or medicine, there will be gaps, holes, that can only be filled with other words which, themselves, engender the need for further gap filling tactics, some of which provide an opportunity for creative expression, and some of which rely upon more sober demands, but of which all must partake in the single minded effort to help clarify that which we innately feel elicits a strong, microscopically focusing, desire for explication, ever swirling inward, like Mandelbrot's sets, until perspective becomes relative and the desire wanes.

12. Others.

My first memory is of a dream. I was looking down upon a river that felt uncomfortably small. I bent down to see it better but the sensation was unbearable. As I knelt closer the feeling grew until I had to look away, up into the sky, into an overwhelmingly large star.

13. Those that have just broken a flower vase.

keep explain. god. you astrology. i can't. create. talk to you. my mother. would it matter. cold medallion. in through the. touch. i can catch a monkey. would it matter. i feel. tarot me. read. smoke brushes leaves. breathe. the reach for can you. under decipher. they, or they. come rush me. over to the now. locust cry. no, i if. stop. would it matter.

14. Those that from a long way off look like flies.

It is no secret. A group of people come upon a meadow. It is the place where the boy who wrote all those letters finally pulled away from her. It is a field vegetated primarily by grass and other non-woody plants. It is the first draft that led to the poem about Winter. It is a blur of color, warmth, and security. It is the inability to tell his wife that he lost everything. The crime scene. The parable. The chance to get laid. The place I lost my keys. Why did I tell her that? If you would just lend me eleven thousand dollars. The last chance for the Turkana Woodthrush. More actors to swell a scene or two.