There Are So Many Oceans

I can’t remember how or when Mahler’s 9th Symphony became so closely associated, “in my mind,” with the Bay Area or to that part of my narrative where I ended up out here. When I listen to it, I see reel after reel of 1960’s-era footage of San Francisco in my head: cars cruising the great highway or stacked bumper to bumper on the lower level of the west side of the Bay Bridge, flowers blooming in time-lapse on Telegraph Hill, ocean winds berating the always already disfigured Cypress trees, luminescent ocean mists hovering over the perpetually greening flora, etcetera.

Last Wednesday my daughter and I spent a couple of hours playing at Ocean Beach, under the watchful gaze of three giant butts spray-painted on the rocks beneath the Cliff House, and I was hearing the symphony in my head (which makes sense considering the oneiric quality of lazy afternoons at the beach) and the part of the feeling that didn’t have to do with place or space emerged: as I looked at this vibrant little creature, this tiny close friend of mine, as I watched her whole body coil up in expectation of imminent collision with a briny wave, or listened as she explained something I couldn’t understand, I had this strange sense that the present and past and future were all simultaneously co-engendered in each other, of the weird sort of perfectness of being surprised by something like inevitability.

So Mahler’s 9th was all of the sudden like a bridge, a big, red, Golden Gate Bridge, a node where the futures and pasts and presents all sort of traveled together, in different directions and at different speeds and for different reasons, on foot or in cars or on rented city bikes. On one side there was endless ocean and on the other a vast bay, dotted with human things. Looking at the latter, on the drive out, my daughter told me “Papa: there are so many oceans!” And it felt like we had all the time in the world.

Mirror in the Mirror

Second only to the question “Batman or Superman?,” I like to ask people what they think the most beautiful thing in the world is. Most people, I think, find both of these questions unsettling.

The word “thing,” of course, is a sort of placeholder for the word “object,” or something like it. I’m continually delighted by the fact that my answer to the second question is this song, because the words “thing” and “object” are odd designations for something that wants to defy the sort of objectness that the word “thing” wants to impose (a song is less spatial, more thoroughly temporal insofar as it is fleeting, it fleets, slips away, is connected more to the concept of “event,” etc.).

Similarly, I’m fascinated by my reticence to call it a song- not out of some reverence or desire to elevate my most beautiful thing to something sacred or divine, but because this word also seems not to be the best one for it. It seems to me that “songs” like this are most often referred to as “compositions,” and I’m happy again because I think it’s wonderful that what we call this thing when we refer to it foregrounds its very creation, or the fact that it is created in a certain manner: it’s put together, assembled, crafted as a sort of assemblage of many things, but is, by its very nature, impossible to grasp. Especially this one, which is so quiet that I can’t even really hear it as I sit in this busy coffee shop.

Hey Wait A Minute: Narrative & Form & Forrest Bess

Bess Drawings
Drawings, 1957


Sometime last spring I discovered that the BAM/PFA was going to be hosting a retrospective on the work of Forrest Bess. I was not familiar with Bess at the time, but was intrigued both by what I saw and read in the press release.

I’ve struggled with finding the correct word to describe Bess’ work, and have only just now realized that this is probably because of the extent to which it is mediated by the language through which I came to be introduced to it. I am just as intrigued by the way in which Bess’ story is narrativized- in both BAM/PFA’s press release and his Wikipedia page, among others- as I am in his work. His story is so bizarre that it can’t help but evince striking paradoxes and contradictions, especially in the repetition of its retelling.

But all of this is fitting, because if there is anything about Bess’ work that I might be able to claim did strike me unmediated by the language of his story (a brittle claim, but arguable), it’s the way in which it suggests a language, a symbology crying out for decoding.

Before Man, 1952-1953
Before Man, 1952-1953

Indeed, reading a bit more about Bess and his work this turns out to be true: apparently he was plagued by visions from a young age, and his paintings work together to comprise a sort of dream journal.  According to him, the “ideograms,” were simply his records of the images that he saw on the “insides of his eyelids.” There is a lexicon on that translates some of his glyphs.

Bess’ visions form a specific node along the narrative of his life and work as it’s often told, one of those above-mentioned paradoxes, though it’s really more of a slippage, a hey-wait-a-minute: you’ll often read of Forrest Bess as a “visionary” painter – and just like that, too: quotations marks and all, as though the writer were making the classic ironic T-rex fingers in the air. It was only after I’d read a few accounts that I got the joke, the double-meaning of the use of the word visionary, and the weird irony with which it was deployed.

This plays into another tendency in regards to writing Bess’ life/ work: an apparent inability to call it anything: he is neither a modernist nor an “actual” visionary; he is treated as a mystery, an oddity, an I-don’t-know-what-to-make-of-it. This, too, is fitting, considering the centrality of sexuality and gender to Bess thesis and life: Bess believed that “becoming a hermaphrodite was the key to immortality.” This belief, which eventually led to him performing surgery on himself, also problematizes the category of homosexuality – but only in that instance where someone claims that he was a homosexual, or cites said homosexuality as key in a specific turn in his life-narrative.

Dedication to Van Gogh, 1946
Dedication to Van Gogh, 1946

The above painting is a perfect example of the sort of word that I wanted to be able to use in reference to Bess’ work: a sort of bleak, mad, Texas-Heat-Rites-of-Spring affect, to which the detail of the fact that he lived the second part of his life “ in virtual isolation, on a strip of land accessible only by boat,” bears witness. And yet the title of the above piece reminds me more of (the feeling I had when I first saw) another painting by Bess, “Symbol of Flowers” (below), that seems to suggest a modern(ist?) spectre of Van Gogh’s Crows.

Symbol of Flowers, 1951
Symbol of Flowers, 1951

Perhaps it is because the narrative has played such an important role in my apprehension of Bess’ work that after reading a handful of these accounts I found myself full of the desire to see just where it was that Bess lived out the end of his life: I desired the denouement. Luckily for me, I have at my fingertips the Destroyer of the Sublime, Google Maps, and at least one other blogger who not only felt the same, but acted on said desire.

Though it seems just about impossible to find the exact location of Bess’ cabin- and/ therefore begs the question of why, beyond the need for some sort of denouement, one might care, it does seem as though it’s possible to get close enough. What struck me, however, was the extent to which the topography of the land on which Bess lived looks itself like the form of one of his paintings:

Bess Topography 1

, and even more so when you click over to Earth from Map

Bess Topography 2Which makes me wonder if it wasn’t the simple photograph of his cabin that lead me to the desire to physically visit the place where it used to be. I never did make it to the exhibit in Berkeley.  Maybe that’s it.

Bess Shack

GOODNIGHT NOBODY: Children’s Literature & The *New* Fantastic

What follows: the rough draft of an abstract for a paper for a panel entitled “Keep Children’s Literature Weird:”*

In 1973 Tzvetan Todorov defined the fantastic as occupying “the duration of the uncertainty” produced by those fictive situations in which a crucial question must be answered: do the physics of the diegetic world presented in a text contain the demand for a “natural” explanation, or something extra, other than, “supernatural?” More than fifty years earlier, Freud had identified the same conceptual binary in his consideration of “the uncanny,” wherein the “distinction between imagination and reality is effaced.” Inasmuch as they both comprise the historical and conceptual foundation for our understanding of fantastic fiction, they have also engendered their own limitations – as well as the demand to exceed said limitations.

One limitation of the fantastic, or fantastic literature, understood as such, is located precisely in the somewhat circular practice of providing a schema of understanding what is understood to be a genre to the end of defining it as a genre. It is this sense of tautology that leads to a particular crisis for both Todorov and Freud: what – other than being able to say this is that, or that is this – is at stake? In the endeavor to establish the uncanny and/ or the fantastic, what – other than being able to insert a text into its correct category – is the point? Todorov begins his book not with the definition of the fantastic, but with an exposition of genre; and inasmuch as Freud seeks to pay lip service to the sort of problematized subject-position his inquiry assumes, in the end it is the articulation of a particular category. The limits of the fantastic, then, are the borders created by and inherent in genre itself, and the irony is that the fantastic is precisely that which seeks to puncture or surpass, by its very nature, all limits and borders. Fantastic criticism, then, in an age when we’re not sure how to know the fantastic when we see it, should commit the selfsame act of transgression, and seek not to name the fantastic in the world, but to inquire into the fantasticity of the world- or at least, in our case, of literature.

The *New* Fantastic, then, is equipment for inquiry into this fantasticity. A concept-tool adopted from Paul Rabinow’s Anthropological Research on the Contemporary, equipment is “a set of truth claims, affects, and ethical orientations, designed and composed into a practice.” When applied practically in the reading of texts, it takes the form of a question:

In what way does what deviate from what normativity?

It therefore retains the conceptual foundation of both Freud’s “uncanny” and Todorov’s “Fantastic,” while modifying it significantly: it is neither a theoretical foundation, nor  is it concerned with the establishment of a proper object of study: its function is to “enable[] practical responses to changing conditions brought about by specific problems.”

This paper argues that Children’s Literature is fantastic literature- except for the fact that it also claims that there is no longer any such thing as fantastic literature – and it does so by taking up the case of Margaret Wise Brown’s legendary Goodnight Moon, as an example (of sorts) of the multiple vectors along which various modes of fantasticity, both inside and outside the text, are wont to slide. These vectors will include, but are not limited to: reading and writing practices, sign-play, diegesis, literariness or canonicity, aesthetics and its historical moment.

By providing an initial register of these metrics – by asking, of each, the question: in what way is what deviating from what normativity? – it hopes to articulate the contours of the work’s heretofore difficult to apprehend fantasticity, and to suggest an extension of the same to that group of texts within which we have always apprehended it: children’s literature.



*Sans citations because it’s a rough draft.