A dear friend tells me that, by using audio books, she regularly consumes two books a week. I am both astonished and intimidated. I cannot imagine stretching my mind enough even to hold two novels a week. I read and write only a tad more slowly than I think, which is glacial, documented in geologic measures, as if the more slowly I go, I can by my effort retard Time itself, as if Time and I are lugging uphill, each of us dragging against the other, me busting myself to increase the friction of deceleration.
The longer I am retired and not obliged to earn my daily bread, the more I see art … visual, concrete, graphic, written, spoken, sung, acted, even “gardened” ... as an effort to encapsulate time.
From Angela Carter’s 1969 novel, Heroes and Villains (a bland title for a caustic story): “... she inhabited a totally durationless present, a moment of time sharply dividing past from future and utterly distinct from both.” (148) I’m familiar with that place. Carter’s story is a post-apocalyptic gothic romance, set in a primitive society rebuilt after the “blast,” a word given casually on page 2 and never again mentioned directly, although there are descriptions of “calcined” ruins.
Calcination is one of the twelve vital processes in alchemy, the initial burning that blackens material intended for transformation. Here is calcined gothic romance. The virgin cast into peril is described in the book’s opening sentence: “Marianne had sharp, cold eyes and she was spiteful, but her father loved her.”
The first time Marianne and her dark lover-to-be, the “Barbarian boy,” see each other, his immediate response is “some vague, terrified gestures with his hands” which she comes to realize is a movement to protect against the evil eye. At the end of the story, we learn the historical significance of this oft repeated hand ritual, but I won’t reveal it.
Carter’s novel is hard to read. It grates against every instinct and every learned convention of what a story should be. To read it is like voluntarily drinking poison when one is not suicidal. Why would I do this?
Because her bizarre, angular, disruptive, chafing anti-romance freezes time as one reads it. Current reality does not run parallel to Carter’s invented world as one might assume in a multiverse where infinite numbers of realities spin off from each choice made. Instead the physical world stops, Carter’s story spins, and the reader emerges later from the printed page, stunned and blinking as one does from the afternoon matinee at high summer. This reminds me of the world of Faery. Some legends say that if one is kidnapped into Faery Land, years may pass in the magic realm, but upon returning to the mundane world, one is at the same spot, at the last beat of the second one vanished. Other legends say quite the opposite, that Faery Land is the transcendent, timeless moment, and that when (and if) one comes back to earth, then decades will have passed, Rip Van Winkle-like, or for a contemporary story, Ripley-like in the Alien movies. One’s children will have grown up and died, society will have morphed into an unrecognizable culture, and the returnee will be a lost, unknowable soul. (Ah, just thought of Takeshi Kovacs in the NetFlix series Altered Carbon … have not read the novel. A pause to put in on reserve at the public library.)
I’m reading a book by Arthur Danto, What Art Is, and it’s enormously challenging. He goes to great lengths (involving Plato and Descartes) to show that art is a “wakeful dream,” which has “the advantage over the dreams that come to us in sleep in that they can be shared. They are accordingly not private.” (49) This shared dream results in what Danto calls “embodied meaning.” (37) Meaning is an invisible, defining property by which all art can be known. “Art always stands at a distance from reality.” (49) … That distance remains even when, for all sensory perceptions, art and reality appear the same, like John Cage’s four and a half minutes of silence in the musical composition 4’33” (…What I enjoy most about the linked performance is the end where a wise-ass yells, “Encore!”…) or Andy Warhol’s famously absurd Brillo boxes.
My take on this: The artist is a maker of meaning. That which is art fills with meaning as a vessel can fill with content. Art brims with meaning, shared or not, appreciated or not, valued or not. This gives comfort to the unread writer. Perhaps it’s self-indulgent, but I don’t care because I know this “meaning” in my own life as disrupted time. Art happens in a realm independent of measured time, a dream world, an invented/built world, a world unmoored from Truth and Beauty, those stabilizing Forms of rational thought. By its nature, art is unstabilizing, and Plato was right to eject it from the perfectly civilized society.
I have to think about it some more. I’ll need to think slowly about it for a long time.