Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Reading, writing, and DDR, pt. 3

At the highest levels of DDR play, choice has nothing to do with it. In the most difficult songs, at the most challenging difficulties, it's generally understood that you may have to play with the bar. You can lean on the bar with your arms to hold yourself up while your legs flail wildly, barely supporting your body at all. You can never not be stepping on things, and there's very little time for style. To even have a chance, you have to memorize the arrows -- let them live in your body -- such that you can perform the song, from beginning to end, without looking. Anything less might be impressive, might in fact be amazing, but it won't win you a prize. Which is, apart from a personality disorder (or perhaps I should say including a personality disorder), just about the only reason you would learn to play at that level in the first place.

This is not to cast aspersions on personality disorders. I've got one or two myself. They treat me pretty well, all told.

But this is perhaps the endgame of all art, isn't it? You keep upping the demands on your audience until there isn't any air left in their lungs -- squeeze and push and pull them until it's all they can do to stay afloat. A person reading Finnegan's Wake may understand what I mean. A person really listening to Mozart may know what I mean. The mind struggles simply to really perceive the thing, let alone participate.

The indie lit aesthetic to which I often find myself most sympathetic is the one that emphasizes violence against the reader -- crushing, gouging, scorching stuff. Promoting one of my stories, an editor promised readers it would "smoke their brains" or something like that. It was a weird thing to see, but also a high compliment in our weird little culture. Often my favorite music is smothering -- listening to themselves, it takes so much energy just to keep up, there's no way you'll have the time to do much thinking on your own and understanding the work at the same time.

"Great art," "ambitious art," conquers. Good luck if you think you can manage more while reading Pynchon than understanding Pynchon. Good luck managing more while reading Joshua Cohen's Witz than reading Joshua Cohen's Witz. In some ways I blame this mindset on the connection of art to the project of masculinity -- "great" art aims to project itself into the body, to dominate and control. A great DDR song wants your ass. My instructor Dan Barden argued novels more or less existed, originally, to keep women too busy reading to do much of anything else. I found it persuasive. This troubles me. And as such I recoil, in some ways, from the conquering aesthetic, from the song one can only march with, from the novel that allows nothing more in your mind and life than itself.

But then, there is the beauty in being "colonized," in being suffused with another mind and body. The most irritating tendency of literary critics in the past century has got to be the continual confusion of economic and violent relations with writing -- while it's instructive to consider the way in which a novel is like those things, there is no way a novel can hit you. A novel cannot rape you. A novel cannot oppress you. A novel can't take your money, and it can't destroy your culture. These are simple physical facts. They are not facts in the world of theory, where writers are continually assaulted for colonizing, for violating, for etc. It is, frankly, bullshit. Part of the joy of writing and of reading is that this can't really happen -- Conrad can be a real son of a bitch, and I think that he was, but Heart of Darkness can't actually colonize Africa. To confuse symbolic action with the real thing is at least as simple-minded as refusing to acknowledge the symbolic components in action -- the swastika can't perform the Holocaust, but it can certainly be used as a tool therein.

Because a writer can't really destroy you, can only make you feel destroyed, cannot really overpower you, can only make you feel overpowered, complicated pleasures and communications. You can feel another's body in your body without a rape. You can interact with other people so deeply that you otherwise never could. You can let them inside you. The worst part of the tendency to confuse writing with dominance is that it denies, in its insecurity, the joy of being dominated -- that is, the joy of letting someone take you over for a while. Why should I be solely my own domain? And why you solely yours? Sure, our labors are ours, and so are our bodies, and so are our thoughts. But books offer a safe way to share.

So while ultimately we should promote other modes of writing than dominance -- persuasion, seduction, pleading, collaboration, friendship, etc. -- and these modes might allow us new opportunities in sharing our thoughts, feelings, bodies, there is something to be said, finally, for the text that allows us little more than the opportunity to be overwhelmed.

And, of course, through careful study, one can move past that feeling -- one can find the air again, one can breathe. Look at these dancers. Do they seem overwhelmed?

Do they seem powerless, inhabited though they may be by other bodies, other minds?

There's nothing to fear in a little surrender.


  1. "So while ultimately we should promote other modes of writing than dominance -- persuasion, seduction, pleading, collaboration, friendship, etc."

    Friendship is my favorite! And what I think I try to write by. In my little world a book should treat the reader really really well.

  2. I have been learning that with these writers and your posts here as well, it seems that for me at least the line between writer and reader becomes more obscure. I find myself writing in experimental ways about my experience and struggles, and it is more effective for me than typical traditional narrative. Which makes me want to read more in the hopes of emersing myself even more in the world of reading and writing experimentally. So maybe I'll even buy a book or something! Definitely your mag, though.

    Bob M.