August 9, 2015
Essay "Answering the Sphinx" (on Antin's I Never Knew What Time It Was) by Douglas Messerli
ANSWERING THE SPHINX
by Douglas Messerli
David Antin, I Never Knew What Time It Was (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).
I told my friend David Antin the other day that I had a bone of contention with his new book, i never knew what time it was. For the several days I was reading it, whenever I went into the room where I had last left his book and glimpsed the cover, I immediately began singing the Rodgers and Hart song. That song began to haunt me, in fact. I couldn’t remember the actual lyrics, so I would begin with “I never knew what time it was / Till there was you…” and make up the rest… “What a strange time it was / so long without you,” each time creating new lyrics. For those who have a memory for lyrics, of course, the song actually begins with the phrase “I didn’t know what time it was / Till I met you.” and continues, “Oh, what a lovely time it was, / How sublime it was too!” So both David (perhaps intentionally) and I had gotten the lyrics wrong. How appropriate for a book that is very much about memory, about what one thinks one remembers in relationship to whatever the actual “reality” may be.
Reading David’s book, moreover, called up my own memories of David and his readings. I witnessed two of these pieces in their oral performances: “california — the nervous camel” at one of Paul Holdengräber’s cultural forums at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art — where I also served as unofficial photographer of the event — and “time on my hands,” performed at CalArts.
Accordingly, I spent some time, after reading these works, attempting to remember them in their oral manifestations — which seemed to me quite different from the written documents. This is inevitable, I suspect, when attempting to remember what was said during a hour-long event. In short, I experienced a sort of fracture between event and document, a sort “crack in time,” if you will, which my memory had to bridge. I have known David and his wife Eleanor now for about 25 years, moreover, and during that long period my personal memories of these and numerous other performances I’ve witnessed have become intertwined with their personal lives and the several events I shared with them.
For example, after reading “california — the nervous camel”— the title of which arose, apparently, from the travels of a San Diego couple to Egypt, where the couple’s camera had captured the fall of a woman from a camel who’d been given contrary orders (“get up,” “go down”) by the camel driver — I could not quite comprehend this image within the context of what David was saying about the region. It was a wonderful image and sounded perfect as a metaphor for the desert lands of Southern California, but I grew uncertain whether California was like the camel because of the rolling earthquake-like temblors, the indecisiveness of its citizens or leaders, the quick rise and fall of its cultural interests and/or economy, or the constant shifts in its values. The metaphor presented a series of possibilities, all of which were of interest. Just as I had reinvented the lyrics of the standard ballad, I made a new meaning of David’s image. I chose a much more personal meaning for the metaphor, picturing the author himself as the “the nervous camel”— albeit with one hump, that marvelously domed head that anyone who’s seen him cannot forget.
When I first visited California, I stayed with the Antins, who lived, as they do today, near San Diego. I remember them picking me up at the train station and the three of us beginning a series of conversations that would continue seemingly nonstop during the two days of my visit. As he drove up the sandy paths to their then somewhat isolated home, David, speaking, seldom seemed to attend to the road, which terrified me! Between the continued movement of his hands and the almost complete inattention of his eyes upon the road, I was amazed we reached their house safely.
Later he took me to the beach — as he reminds me it must have been the more isolated Solana Beach rather than the popular La Jolla beach — where I recall, with fondness, our remarkable discussion as we walked along the Pacific (in what must be one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world), the bald pate of his head glistening in the afternoon sun. We returned to the house and friends stopped by, friends who were introduced not just by name or vocation, but through extensive descriptions of their intellectual achievements and their current subjects of research. Such intense conversation is highly exciting, but also exhausting, and I was almost relieved to hit the bed. From my room across the way from their bedroom, however, I could hear David and Eleanor continuing the day’s discussions long into the night. I realized that, in a sense, language never quite stopped in the Antin’s house. Just as Eudora Welty had described the constant rhythm of the cotton gins as defining the life of the Fairchilds in Delta Wedding, so did the sound of voices define the Antins. It is easy for me, accordingly, to project the image of David as the nervous, one-humped camel of California, attempting to display the beauty of the landscape while discussing the narrative theory of my PhD dissertation which I was currently writing as we shuffled across the sand in a constant state of indecision between the enjoyment of space (sitting down to rest) and intellectual pleasure (moving forward with our ideas).
One might note that David was born into just such a world. As he describes his early life in his recent book-length conversation with Charles Bernstein: “My earliest family memories were living with my grandmother and my aunts — all beautiful women — living in a great old house in Boro Park. …People kept coming from all over the world to visit, to play cards or chess and to tell stories and argue in a handful of European languages about people and facts and politics. …And my grandmother presided over the entire household in a droll, mischievous manner. This is the household I most remember. It was noisy, cheerful and gay, and a world away from the austere prison of living with my mother, which happened only once in a while.”
It is no wonder that Antin has spent a lifetime now “talking,” talking in public about the past and family, the present and ideas, philosophy and reminiscences. Although Antin has long been determined to separate his “talking” from fiction or story, and has doggedly argued that his work, with its intense use of poetic devices, is poetry, one must admit—as David does finally in this new volume — that his is a life of storytelling as intense—if not as encyclopedic — as Scheherazade. Indeed, it is the life-saving necessity of Scheherazade’s Thousand and One Nights, a necessity growing out of desire — in her case the desire to survive — that most distinguishes Antin’s storytelling from other, more normative, patterns.
These, in fact, are the very subjects of this new book: How does one remember? How does one understand life within the constant flux of time? How does one frame meaning when it constantly shifts? Or, to put it in the context of “the nervous camel,” how does one live in a place that is simultaneously rising and falling, beginning always anew by destroying the old? Naturally, one cannot help tumbling from time to time.
In exploring these ideas, however, Antin does not simply weave fictions — at least the kind of fiction most people understand by the word. For Antin’s talking is as interesting for what it leaves out as for what it presents.
The long California piece, for example, is a strange kind of love story. Well — it might be seen as a love story, although we have no evidence, no plot details that allow us any certainty. “california — the nervous camel” is about many things, but at its heart is a narrative about two couples, friends of the Antins, who seemingly do everything — except travel on vacation — together: Jack and Melissa, Richard and Alexandra. When Jack is killed in a car accident, Richard’s behavior radically changes:
Richard never seemed to recover from jacks untimely accident
his life changed completely after that he moved out of his house
and into the servants quarters behind it he stopped going to concerts
and openings where alexandra appeared alone he started spending
more time at the clinic in mexico and even that wasnt enough for
a while he literally disappeared …but when he came back to
san diego he gave up his practice left the house to Alexandra and
took up an entirely new career….
In Antin’s “story,” in which the characters are not overtly psychological, the reader/listener has no way of knowing what Richard is really feeling. Perhaps the death simply reminded him, as many men are reminded at his age, of his own mortality; perhaps he merely suffered a kind of mid-life crisis. Yet we feel, given the extensiveness of his withdrawal from his previous life, that the two men may have had a deeper relationship than the narrative itself presents, that perhaps their friendship might have been a gay one.
As with living beings, however, there is no discernable “plot,” we have no clear motivating action, just the events, the narrative of his acts. Antin has presented us with a story that, just as in my confusion of the work of art and the person, creates a sort of “crack in time” which the individual perceiver must fill with a significance of his own imagination. For Richard the face of the “nervous” camel, as it settled back into its relaxed state, appeared as a sphinx, an inscrutable beast demanding an answer to its impossible riddle, which is perhaps what Antin really means by his comparison of California to the camel. Clearly it is an image that might also help to describe Antin’s art. For what the cracks or hollow spaces of Antin’s “stories” force the reader to encounter is precisely that: the riddles of life.
In the title piece, Antin’s father-in-law undergoes a stroke and is able to speak only one word that sounds as if it might be from his native language, Hungarian: zaha. “zaha zaha he said zaha shaking his head and repeating it over and over zaha zaha to anything we had to say.” The Hungarian dictionary has no word remotely like it, and David is puzzled by the repeated word: is it a command? a desire? a person? something or someone he loved?
A Hungarian friend, a violinist, suggests it’s an inverted word, haza, which means homeland. But even this “answer,” if it is one, explains little. What does a dying man who has spent most of his life as a displaced Hungarian painter and poet in La Jolla mean by repeating “homeland?” As Antin notes:
…he was thinking of his homeland and of course Budapest
is no longer his budapest and keckemet is no longer the little
town where his father painted the interiors of churches but
he was looking for this one place that he was sure never ever
to find again
The reader/listener can only imagine, can only fill in this “crack in time” with his own imaginative responses.
Something similar to the riddles at the heart of David’s “stories” occurs also on their larger structural level. In the more constrained form of commercial fiction it is plot that carries forward the events. In other words, it is a pattern of narrative continuity that allows the specific events of a tale to occur at regular intervals to this: Unhappy with her life, Jane takes a vacation to a small village to visit her friend Sally. There she meets an old friend Richard, a handsome man, who is still in love with her. Jane refuses the old friend’s advances, but as she finds herself growing fond of him once again, she discovers that Sally, who has always hated Jane’s husband, has secretly invited Richard to the town. At first she feels betrayed, but gradually comes to understand just how mistaken she has been in marrying her husband, a man whose affections she accepted just to goad her mother and father. Suddenly, comprehending that her life has been lived in emptiness, she seeks out her old friend’s love. But having been spurned twice, he has left the little country village. She follows him to the mountains, but he has moved on, and she is forced to return to her husband and family with the realization that true love will never be possible again. (If you don’t like my hastily constructed plot, substitute the plot of almost any Henry James novel).
What Jane does in the little tourist town, the beautiful coat she wears as she again encounters Richard, what the town looks like, what she says to her acquaintances, the memories that overcome Jane in the little village — these are pearls on the string of the previous paragraph’s somewhat banal story-line, that, apparently, retain the attention of certain kinds of passive readers.
In Antin’s writing the strings have all been cut; his “tales” have no true beginning, no middle, no necessary end. Rather, they are structured by a sense of rhythm, most often linked by philosophical meditations or ideas, closing only when a literary narrative presents a parallel image of the ideas about which he has been talking.
For example, in “the noise of time” Antin begins with a discussion of an essay he’d read in The Nation on Robert Morris, an essay that disappoints the author and happens to mention the Hegelian aphorism that “an artwork is the embodiment of some truth.” Antin finds it difficult to perceive something as tangible as a piece of art or an artwork as a receptacle for abstract concepts, propositions or ideas. Perhaps the closest an art work can come to the embodiment of an idea, he suggests, is in the form of a machine, as an example of which he drolly proposes a mousetrap, a killing machine set up to act in a certain way when the mouse licks the peanut-butter. But what if the mouse prefers jelly, or the spring on the trap was not properly wound, or a whole myriad of other events intervene? Will the machine-of-art still hold its truths? Perhaps the “truths” only work under certain conditions.
Abandoning this possibility, Antin humorously explores another, slightly violent image: perhaps making art is more like bowling. The ideas are the pins toward which one propels the work of art, the ball of art hitting some of them, leaning against others. But the author admits he is a terrible bowler and most of his balls reach only the gutter. How does one then get at ideas through art? How does something mean?
Ultimately Antin argues that, for him, a work of art is something in which ideas go running in all directions, sometimes to be lost, sometimes accidentally crossing paths with others. He presents two narratives to prove his point about how ideas are lost or are transformed into other things. Having just purchased a copy of the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam’s essays, The Noise of Time, he is struck with the translator’s use of the word “noise” in the title, since in Russian shum is used to evoke the sound of repetitive or abrasive events, “the rustle of leaves,” “the roar of the sea,” “the pounding of the surf,” “the clamor of a crowd,” etc. Translating Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, Vladimir Nabokov renders the word as “hubbub.” Why has this translator, Clarence Brown, translated the word as “noise?” Perhaps, argues Antin, Brown was influenced by the period in which he was translating, when “noise” came to be understood as entropy, “the growing disorder that affects all ordered systems over time the frictional forces that reduce all directed energies to forms of disorder sooner or later as we go from more orderly universes to more disorderly universes given enough time.” I am personally somewhat skeptical about this explanation for the translator’s choice, but certainly anyone aware of the association of the word “noise” with “entropy,” would find the title much richer, as Antin argues, than Mandelstam might ever have imagined in his use of shum. And that is Antin’s point. Time and its myriad changes alter the way in which we interpret things, even how we interpret.
A more convincing example is a discussion he has with the critic Leo Steinberg about a passage of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. Steinberg uses the passage as a proof of Shakespeare’s genius: “His head sat so tickle on his shoulders that a milkmaid might sigh it off an she had been in love.” For Steinberg, the choice of the word “tickle” so close to a dark moment when the hero is in danger of losing his life, is proof of the bard’s monumentality. Antin, however, is suspicious. Perhaps the word “tickle” meant something other in Shakespeare’s day than the light rubbing under the arms, something we have forgotten. Looking it up later in the OED, Antin finds that indeed it had been used in a fifteenth century text to describe rocks “that stood tickle in a stream,” rendering passage perilous. His inclination is to write Steinberg, telling him of the discovery, that the older meaning has simply been lost in “the noise of time.” But he resists doing so, knowing that he would simply take away Steinberg’s great delight in the “strange” usage of the word. In short, the “truth” of the meaning is of less interest than the reinterpretation of it
This “story’s” final narrative event concerns the same father-in-law he describes in his title piece. Antin’s then teenage son Blaise and the poet from Hungary enjoyed one another’s company, played tennis together, discussed literature and even, apparently, the older man’s “Schnitzlerian” love life in the old days of Budapest and Vienna, which must have reflected his present sexual loneliness, with which Blaise could probably sympathize, coming as he was into his full adolescence. But Blaise was about to go away to college, and desiring to give his grandfather a special gift, he and a friend came up with the idea of setting him up with a hooker, which they planned to do with what they perceived to be the quite generous sum of $150. All the hooker had to do is to pretend to accidentally encounter the gentleman and seduce him. “you don’t have to say a lot,” the boys explained, he may just show you his paintings and “recite some poetry to you.” They tried several street girls but found no hooker willing to take on the job, not if they had to listen to poetry!
What Antin reveals in this wonderful narrative is the absolute worthlessness of poetry and art as a container for good ideas. The gap between generations has been bridged by his son’s and his father-in-law’s friendship, but what I have called “the cut in time” has irreparably severed the art from its would-be perceivers, for the art — and whatever truths it may bear — has no currency in the world of these women of the street.
In this “talk,” as in almost all of Antin’s “stories,” there is no true plot, but a series of events or narrative incidents that can only be comprehended — if they can truly be comprehended — through the reader’s/listener’s imagination, his desire to make meaning and determination to answer the sphinx.
Isn’t that, of course, what all great art, all great poetry and fiction depends upon — the willingness of the author to invite the reader into the text and the reader’s reciprocation? After all, Scheherazade would not have been able to relate her remarkable stories if the Caliph had refused to listen.
Los Angeles, July 25, 2005
Reprinted from The New Review of Literature, Vol. 3, no. 2 (April 2006)
and from My Year 2005: Terrifying Times (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2006).