Sunday, January 22, 2006

On Exploring, Instead of Arguing

George has taken issue with my post "The Totalitarian Narrative Indeed," and I can't blame him. Lately, he has been posting strong, well-considered statements about his aesthetic preferences, and every time he gets one set up, I come in and try to knock it down. A month ago, I was posting my own such statements, and I became very despondent when the only thing that happened was a series of comments and posts telling me I was wrong and evil. It is difficult to bear one's soul through one's ideas and find that you are attacked and rejected.

Why do we do that? Why do we look at the exchange of ideas as a form of pugilism? When somebody advances an idea, why is our first impulse to look for the weakness and faults, rather than explore the possibilities that the ideas present? Sometimes it seems like we prefer circular firing squads. I certainly am not free of this impulse.

Yes, challenging an idea can cause the original author to think more deeply, and perhaps emerge with a stronger and more elegant idea or explanation. But sometimes, in the face of attack, the idea is dropped or the impulse that led to the idea is squashed. I don't think George will follow the latter action, but I know, looking back at my posts a month ago, that it took nearly a week before I began posting new ideas again. I laid low.

Deborah Tannen calls this "The Argument Culture," and she sees it as intellectually destructive. Despite engaging in it all too regularly, my intuition tells me that she is right.

So let me engage George's ideas about the totalitarian narrative a bit more fully.

Some of my favorite plays are Beckett's late short plays, especially "Rockby" and "Ohio Impromptu." These are plays that do not rely on narrative, but rather on the exploration of an image: on the former, an old woman rocked (is rocked) in a chair as she stares out a window every day, and at the end of each day the chair stops rocking, and after a pause, she says "More," and the pattern begins anew; the the latter, reader and a listener seem to go through the story of the listener's life, with the listener knocking when he wants to hear something again, until at the last the reader informs him that "nothing is left to tell." If one of the functions of art is to provoke what Anne Bogart calls an "aesthetic arrest," a moment when one is stopped in one's tracks and transfixed, then I think these plays are amazing.

The philosopher Ken Wilber writes in The Eye of Spirit: "Great art suspends the reverted eye, the lamented past, the anticipated future: we enter into it with the timeless present; we are with God today, perfect in our manner and mode, open to the riches and the glories of a realm that time forgot, but that great art reminds us of: not by its content, but by what it does in us: suspends the desire to be elsewhere. And thus is undoes the agitated grasping in the heart of the suffering self, and releases us -- maybe for a second, maybe for a minute, maybe for all eternity -- releases us from the coil of ourselves....Great art i judged by its capacity to take your breath away, take your self away, take time away, all at once."

Narrative lives in the future; it relies on the question "What will happen next?" To free ourselves from narrative might lead to a contemplative pause in time. When I read one of Beckett's short plays, I wonder whether a contemporary audience rushing into the theatre with the speed of American life buzzing in their brains can actually slow down enough to experience the miracle that Beckett creates. I sometimes think that the audience should be taken through a half hour of meditation prior to the performance.

Beckett is Grotowskian in the sense that the body onstage, rather than the narrative surge through time, is what creates the profound metaphor at the center of his plays and the experience that accompanies it. And he certainly is minimalist. But not in terms of words -- there are often many words spoken even in a short Beckett play. But in terms of plot and image. The world is distilled to an essence.

Unfortunately, Beckett right now stands alone -- I can think of no one who is following the trail he has blazed. And while I love a good story, and a strong narrative line, I also love the frozen moment in time, the profound depth, that Beckett's plays create.

This may not be what George is describing, but it is what I see in my mind's eye when I take the time to explore George's ideas, rather than argue with them. It is something I ought to do more of.


Freeman said...

What I think is interesting is that almost all contemporary drama is post-Beckett, but is very aware of it. One becomes conscious of NOT imitating him. He blazed his trail so completely, that any step that looks too much like him becomes instant imitation.

oldphort said...

The problem, in Asheville and elsewhere, is gettting people in to see Beckett. Once there (a la Krapp last Jan at NC Stage), the audience is riveted by the images - the melancholy and loss is tangible. I believe this also had much to do with the space and the performer, as well as script.

Julie Gillum is exploring much the same approach to art with her work at WWC with Butoh dance. The image is the narrative. It is arresting.