Your gut tells you when
something’s wrong— here
I am at war in darkness—
no moss over me, no
camouflage— I lean forward—
but oh the degenerate trenches,
so very boring, passion kept
to a minimum, fires aglow
never, and my guts fear
the soulless twerps, jealous
that I might be brought low
by some version of cripple’s
Let's Get Metaphysical: Something into Nothing into Something
My conclusion, as regards century
XX art, and its flagship movements, Modernism and post-modernism, is that most
of the art generated from Modern and post-modern impulses expresses an
uncomfortable amount of absolute nothingness: no formal beauty, thoughtfulness,
or profound emotion inhere. One can then line up the usual suspects and begin
to compose the dossier against them, as anti-art shysters: that John Ashbery’s
poetry is largely an expression of absolute nothingness, as is George Oppen’s,
Jack Spicer’s, Ron Silliman’s, and the rest (San Fran Ren, Objectivism, Lang-Po
all being po-mo offshoots). As a tangent to this, why several generations of
American avant-garde poets have rejected English Romanticism is simple: John
Keats and his brethren (minus, for my money, William Blake) were too involved
in substance and something-ness: affirming the human mind and its imaginative
capacities, while also engaging affect and its chiasmus with cognition. In
other words, writing serious poetry. The nothingness who is John Ashbery
receiving the nothingness that is the Pulitzer Prize (Oppen won it too)
perfectly expresses the century XX Zeitgeist: connecting nothing with nothing,
as Eliot would have it (pardon the self-contradictory allusion), so that poetry
might represent a world “beneath the earth,” so to speak, a world sans what
makes us most human, and wise (lowly or not) in our humanity.
What the PFS artists have been doing for
fifteen years now is acclimating our creative energies towards realities “above
the earth,” rather than beneath it. The transfer of power from nothingness New York to a Philadelphia
that, in its architecture and high art, is really something, is bound to be
rocky, because, for those less human and humane, nothingness has its pleasures.
Yet, where high art is concerned, the city with the best architecture generally
wins. Philly will wind up pummeling the shit out of NYC, only to find there was
no one there to pummel. The NYC art mindset is, in its willingness to
narrativize out of nothing, a totalized sense of nothingness, and, for those
who have lived there, Warhol, Koons, and Schnabel are only the beginning. NYC
bleeds nothingness. What PFS are looking for is a new, thoughtful,
beauty-seeking, cognition-embracing something America from Philadelphia
on out. And Philly must accept (as a city which has as active a nothingness
quotient as any other) what has happened here, and how a generation of artists
tapped into the cosmic, and committed their visions to the public sector in a
bunch of blinding flashes; for, as Asians do say, Heaven on Earth is just as
disruptive, if not more so, than Hell on Earth. Heaven’s sense of “something”
forces people to think, and feel (just as Hellish “nothingness” energies
short-circuit cognition, and affect). So, the shock and awe around a changing America, from Philadelphia, may have to blend ecstasy and
agony for a while, or forever.
This is a time of extremes. Why it should be that the
American media circus, popular culture, partisan politics, and other prominent
sectors of American life should be stuck in a proverbial morass of stultifying
stupidity and obdurate degeneracy is semi-obvious: the Great Recession took
out, one way or another, too many well-intentioned, intelligent sectors of America, and
left a gaping hole where they should be. That’s the obvious part. What tilts me
towards “semi” is that, for some unaccountable reason, it looks like many of
the moves we’re seeing in the mentioned sectors were planned a long time ago,
and the relevant figures are just going through the motions of enacting scripts
of some kind. Who knows? What I do know is that the Teens so far swing, in a rather
nauseous and nauseating way, between enlightened egalitarianism, especially
online, and borderline fascistic homogeneity elsewhere, including the bars,
clubs, coffeeshops, supermarkets, etc. Too much of the populace talks as if
they have the brains of eighteen-year-old or sixteen-year-old children, and I
perpetually feel my intelligence insulted by the banality and vapidity of their
The New Lightweight-ism, as I call, is certainly present in
cultural milieus as well. The erudite literature voices of the Aughts are gone,
other than myself. What the power vacuum is throwing up, for our delectation,
is more teenage malarkey, as though American literature were to be reduced to a
simulacrum of Hollywood;
and I become a grumpy old man at thirty-nine for telling the truth. Ha! Or, as
SNL used to have it, “Flipidiflu!” In a way, the New Lightweight-ism doesn’t
bother me that much. Those afraid of substance and depth, national degeneracy,
cultural and otherwise, extensive depopulation, have all come and gone among
the human race thousands of times. I collect my burdens and move forward,
bearing more on my back than those who see me in those streets, bars, etc,
probably notice. And incomprehension of a serious artist from plebes is like
death and taxes. What they see in my face is not something or someone related
to me that much. Know what I mean?
Twentieth-century avant-gardism was short on discussions of
formal beauty in high art. “Beauty,” itself, as a manifest aim in art, was
mistrusted, and gamed against heavily. In a way and on a very salient level,
this travesties the entire endeavor of major high art consonance: which must
include, as a component aspect, the idea that formal beauty ranks high on
imperative spreadsheets, no matter what other avant-garde imperatives may ride
alongside it. This game against formal beauty guaranteed that, in the twentieth
century, the likes of William Blake— a comparative novice/amateur, whose worth
as a higher artist is contained in a philosophical imperative and visionary
stance puerile next to Keats’ Odal vision— could be given a higher ranking than
Keats, who supersedes Blake at every point, both as formalist and philosophe. What I would like to address here is specifically the issue of
Keats’ prosody, his metrics, the formal beauty of his best poetry, as a
political statement in and of itself, against society, against authority as
well. In a certain way and on a certain level, formal beauty in high art is the
ultimate statement of individuality against authority, and an ultimate
statement (also) of rebellion. By granting extreme non-homogeneity to the work,
which inheres not just superficially but profoundly within the works’ confines,
and raises the work to a level at which history must be brought into focus
by the work’s grandiosity (and I do mean grandiosity against mere novelty, as
mere novelty was the issue with century XX avant-garde), the work
situates itself within its own transcendent mode of visualization/realization, and
authority instantly cringes at having its vestments and privileges taken away
against it. Century XX avant-gardism was very secretly invested in different
forms of homogenization, up to and including complicity with authoritarian
governments— thus, its tendency to de-emphasize, demean, and
degrade formal beauty.
This sense— that twentieth century avant-gardism was
secretly a game against formal beauty, and thus posited against an important component
element of major high art consonance— is what makes it so easy to dispense with. By emptying art of anything artistic,
they proved themselves to be non-artists. They, thus, might as well have been
government clerics or bureaucratic scripters— they were there, in high art
spaces, for the wrong reasons, playing the wrong games. This century, a
gauntlet has already been laid down against these middling-at-best structures,
welcoming formal beauty in high art back into the fold, understanding what put
amateurism in place of giftedness and inverting things back to where they
belong, which is (to be frank) the nineteenth century and back. Rebellion in
century XX avant-gardism was faux-rebellion— more in cahoots with authoritarian
impulses and destructive games than not— now, we stand ready to let our own
version of prosody, its masterful manifestation and enactment, to dictate
terms to us about how we may cultivate any extreme form/manner of artistic
individuality against the rest of the world (art-world or otherwise) which is
not us, and thus make a potent political statement that there is room, in
American society, for individuals to stand against the masses, and for the
realization of beauty, from individuals “on out,” to become an event of some
consequence for the whole of society at large.
Outlaw Playwrights was assembled by undergraduate theater
majors (and some graduate students) at the University Park
campus of PennState, and ran from the early 90s
through the early Aughts. It was generally held once a week during semesters,
at 11:15 pm on Thursday nights, in a black box theater in the basement of the
main theater building near North Halls and the PalmerMuseum of Art in State
College. Between 1997 and 1999, I had four one-acts produced by
the Outlaws— “The Touched: A Very Black Comedy,” “Hearing Angels,” “Dada
Circus,” and "Mortuary Puppies." If I deem “Hearing Angels” too naïve to be
included, the other three still hold some interest for me— as experiments done
by a young writer with some theater experience (I had done the Carnegie Mellon
pre-college program for drama as a teenager), feeling around for a way to make
a one-act play interesting (a one-act being theater’s equivalent of a sonnet),
employing avant-garde extremity and poetic language (especially in "Mortuary Puppies") to do so.
The Outlaws theater crowd was an interesting one— and by the
time I left State College in late ’98
("Mortuary Puppies" was produced in ’99 without me being there), I had spent some
time hanging out and partying with them. They were, admittedly, very insular,
and when I began attending Outlaws with my friends in ‘94/’95, we would poke
fun at their dramatic gestures and semi-affected interactions (as a non
theater-major, it took me a few years to infiltrate Outlaws enough to become a
viable playwright for them). What I later realized is that the PSU theater crew
felt vulnerable, as actors/actresses often do, among crowds different from
themselves, and Outlaw Playwrights had a solid following (also) among non
theater majors on campus. The feeling each Thursday night— that you could see
anyone at Outlaws, making it an el primo occasion to see and be seen— made it
heart-stopping for everyone, especially because the convention was to hang out
in the L-shaped, garishly lit hallway which wrapped around the black-box theater
for 15-20 minutes before the door opened. Going down the long staircase towards
the L-shaped hallway and the black box, I always got butterflies. In fact, from
about supper-time onwards I always had butterflies on Thursday nights. Outlaw
Playwrights, in fact, was one operative feature of PSU which made it so that
for the years I was there, I never felt pinched by the football-n-frats
imbroglio of State College life. Paterno, for
me and for those of my ilk, might as well have been on the moon. NinetiesState College was artsy. And these
one-acts do the task of reliving moments for me, as a tangent to other 90s State College memories, of writing just for the hell of
it, and to achieve the short-term goal of indieState
College fame and fortune by making it with the Outlaws, and their minions.
If you’re ever making love,
and at the moment of
orgasm have a vision of
your mentor jumping from
a high window, don’t resort
to watching TV after,
especially if you’ve just
impregnated your lover,
the emptiness in your eyes
will be incomparable, some-
one will be broadcasting your come.
(A dilapidated old room- the Munsters meets the Bates motel- downstage left, window. Maybe an old chaise lounge and some flower-print chairs would be appropriate. Enter Helen Harold, a voluptuous young blonde- but dressed like Trent Reznor's wet dream. Goth city. With her is Timothy Whitehead, a very square GQ looking yuppie in a Gap suit.)
H: Look at this musty old place; I haven't been up here for months, not since Maggie's funeral. I made it beautiful for that; I dusted the floor and polished the tables. Everything looked new. Now here I am, the sole heir of a ghost palace! (walks stage left, gestures) Look out this window, Timothy; do you see that tree? My grandfather used to hide there when he was a kid. Eventually, he snuck girls up there too. He's another dead one.
T: Hmph! You know, talking about dead people, this place is so eerie, it's like "Twin Peaks." I feel...presences here...like we're not alone!
H: (Helen laughs nervously and pulls Timothy towards her) Don't say that, Timothy, you're frightening me! I've felt the same thing- this room has a power of its own, Timothy, this room is...(she pauses to lean in close to his face)...inhabited!
T: (breaking away from her) I wonder if we're disturbing the inhabitants?
H: (Helen moves rapidly to the windowsill) Well, maybe we are, but we have every right to; this isn't their room anymore; they're long dead!
T: (moving to console her) I see this is freakin' you out; shall we go back downstairs?
H: (as if shaking off spooks) No!...No, I'm going to stay here. (grabbing his hand) Will you stay with me, Timothy?
T: (takes on suave LOVERMAN tone) Hey, sure, baby, it's all right, I'll stay with you. I don't know what we're going to...(closes in on her, heavy sleaze) do here, though.
H: (breaking away nervously from his grip) We're going to wait. There's something else you should know about this room- Maggie died here, my grandfather did too. He used to bring his mistress up here, and my grandmother caught them, and...
T: (obviously spooked and getting impatient now) What, Helen, what? You drag me up here to tell me about your family of fucking freaks? What the hell do you want from m...
H: (screaming, hysterical): SHE KILLED HIM! MY GRANDMOTHER KILLED HIM!
T: Oh, that's great, Helen, fantastic! What the hell do you want me to do about it?
H: (runs and grabs him) Listen to me, Timothy, just listen! You can't leave me alone in this room! There's a curse on me and you've got to help me!
T: Man, this is just too fuckin' weird. I'm leaving!
H: (suddenly calm) You can't.
T: What do you mean, I can't? (Timothy tries opening the door- it stays resolutely shut- he begins to panic)
H: (suddenly very much the chastising, superior bitch) Stop struggling, Timothy. Come here, sit down, and I'll tell you what's happening. (Timothy gives up and follows her order) You think you chose to come here today. You wanted to fuck me and you know I sleep around. But you didn't choose to come here today, Timothy- I put a spell on you.
Between 1997 and 1999, I had four one-act plays produced by the Outlaw Playwrights (a theater student-run, loosely operative theater company) in State College, Pa: The Touched: A Very Black Comedy, Hearing Angels, Dada Circus, and Mortuary Puppies. The fragments you are seeing are from these one-acts. Thanks.
(A man in black ambles slowly and deliberately onstage, possibly bearing roses.)
He seats himself in a chair at a table stage left. His name is James Douglas.
J: Everything's a fight these days. We've got to fight evil! Fight racism! Free the Tibetan monks! Help the Bosnians with money, blood, sweat and tears! I see kids walking around today wearing army jackets from some thrift-store, and you know it doesn't mean a thing to them. The kids aren't fighting; it's the Baby Boomers, that's who's at the heart of our modern malaise! They know damn well that they had it better than any generation in American history- no world wars and no AIDS. I, personally, identify with these kids today. But then, I'm young at heart. (violent knock at the door) Probably someone soliciting for some goddamned Mothers Against Drunk Driving- (James opens the door to find three men in nothing but boxer shorts- Elmer, Homer, and Omar)
E: Are you James Douglas?
J: Are you a homosexual?
E: No sir- we are Elmer!
O: And Omar!
E, H, O: (in unison) We're a pseudo-quasi-ersatz-alterna-white-funk-Chili Pepper rip off band!
J: Chili Pepper wha...?
E: Could you please let us in, sir? We're freezing.
J: Why the hell should I let you into my humble abode?
E: Did you not hear us? We are Elmer!
J: Alright, alright, come in. (they enter) Now what the hell are you doing here? I ain't givin any money to no charity!
E: We're from the Society for the Humane Treatment of Overused Undergarments, and if you don't clothe us, we'll have to shampoo you (holding up Pert-Plus bottle).
O: Have you ever witnessed an Oriental Shampoo attack? It isn't pleasant.
(E, H, O form a circle around James, shampoo their hands)
J: (nervously) Do you boys like paintings? I could give you one in lieu of clothes- I'm an artist too!
O: Far out! We can't shampoo this guy! (the circle disperses)
J: Alright, now get the hell outta here.
E: We're naked and it's freezing- have you no compassion?
J: No! I ain't got no come, and I ain't got no passion! (grabbing them) Now git! (slams shut the door) Y'know, they say what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. They'll find clothes, and they'll be stronger for having suffered. Just between you and me, I know this is some artsy-fartsy play. I know you're watching me, and I don't like it. It's Orwellian. What do you want me to do, jumping jacks? (he starts doing jumping jacks) Now this is character development! This is transformation! I am in the moment! I am playing the lines! I am playing the lines! (he stops) Alright, now I'll sit here and wait. (violent knock at door) Probably another naked rock band...
(Three men and three women in black robes sit in a semi-circle; a candle sits before them, and a box of bibles. Inverted pentagrams are drawn on their foreheads, and their faces are powdered stark white, black lips. Call them A, B, C, D, E, F)
A: (tearing off his robe to reveal black jeans and teeshirt) I have no
supernatural insight! I can’t cast a spell!
B: (pinching his stomach) I’m fat! I eat too much!
C: (rising, miming an Indian rain-dance) You guys take yourselves too seriously. I can’t blame you. We’re desperate for a leader. (pulling his hood over his head) We’re living slumberously. We’d rather surf the Net then the ocean. We’d rather rent movies than make them. Lust is the only thing you can rely on. (crumbling into a heap on the floor, writhing)
D: (approaching C, comforting him with an embrace) Sex dominates our lives, but we don’t want to admit it. (she peels hood off C’s head and kisses him passionately)
E: (picking up a copy of Playboy from beneath the candle, lighting a page on fire) Look at this shit. Exploitation is rampant.
B: (pointing accusingly at E) You’re desperate! You’re an accident waiting to happen! (he shrinks away from E, pointing a cross at him)
E: (chasing B around in a circle) Hatred is the spice of life! Your subtle sensibilities are corrupt with bullshit!
F: (coming downstage left, lying flat on ground) Every man harbors a secret desire to be Superman.
D: (rising, tearing off robe to reveal glamorous dress, breaking into a supermodel strut) I am revolver! I am bomb! I am grenade! I can hurt!
E: (walking aimless circles) Like idlers at the funeral of a psychiatrist. (collapsing onto his knees in prayer) Like a pitchfork stuck into eternity’s stomach.
F: (frantically doing sit-ups) This was the determinist exercise, intellectualized, spectacle-juiced.
C: (catching D in a full-nelson) This was detrimental planets of chanting, word-place unstymied, climaxed with whoredom!
D: (breaking away from C, spitting on him) This was the court of maybe adjourned, wrestled with casual moaning blizzards!
American mythologies, up to and (sometimes) including the present moment, about the higher arts, have tended to emphasize, as a narrative hinge, how frosty, cold, antiquated and (for the majority) soulless they are compared to other standardized American pursuits: sports, Hollywood, popular music. I would like to invert back into place, via a strong emotional and intellectual conviction, that it is high art in which inheres a soul, soulfulness, and true human warmth and gravitas. What, in a person or thing, is a soul? To me, a soul is something unique and individual inhering in a person or entity, which makes it distinct from everything else: an irreplaceable essence. By this standard, the vast majority of popular culture products (let alone enfranchised athletics) are profoundly soulless— they have nothing unique or distinct about them to distinguish them from everything else, and are easily replaced with more products of the same ilk. One suspects, very heavily, owing to any kind of historical research, that humanity has not changed its stripes too much from century to century— that, for example, in other centuries there were popular songs around not that different from Bruce Springsteen and Beatles songs. As is the case with these tunes, there was nothing in them particularly distinct or original (soulful) enough to make them last— just as (you can bet) there will be future equivalents for the likes of the Beatles and Bruce Springsteen— popular culture will create the same kinds of characters with the same kinds of in-built mythologies because the goal will always be to sell cheaply and easily. And, it is important to add, bastardized forms of high art (MOMA, Pop, etc) will continue to be developed in degenerative societies to promote the same destructive games and illicit interests. Popular art and bastardized high art will always, in fact, be stunted by corrupt imperatives and intentions, and sold in the same completely bad faith.
The Star, as it were, for advanced high art, is that it is truly unique (irreplaceable), created by gifted individuals who are expressing developed souls and soulfulness in oeuvres which in turn develop their own souls, created in the good faith of complete integrity and cohesiveness. The good faith quotient being upped, high art created under the right star carries with it permanent political and social relevance: a positive pivot-point for an entire society, and a permanent hinge for that society to develop emotionally and intellectually towards the greatest possible soulfulness. Rank-and-file responses to major high art consonance must necessarily be variable— some can accept this definition of “soul” and “soulfulness,” some cannot. The key distinction (or soul) made from traditional versions of soul (“every one has a soul”) to my own is that, where high art is concerned, not only profound emotions but profound thoughts (and profound thoughts especially about emotions) are necessarily to define the “souled” individual (work or person) among the many. I would also like to argue that the United States in 2015, which has allowed PFS and our oeuvre (created from Philadelphia) to proliferate among a wide populace quickly and efficiently, is not completely degenerative at all. I hold some hope that there are population sectors bored to death with the mediocrity of Hollywood, sports, and media culture in general, and that our large numbers from within America online are a testament to more than passing curiosity with high art and the vistas it has to open for thought, feeling, and the pursuit of soul. I also have some faith that what we have incised into the Teens is the sense that for Hollywood and the rest, conquest of a naïve public from within the States can never be accomplished easily again; and that the Star of our success will pave the way for others of our ilk here, who will turn the United States into a first-rate nation at last.