a phantasmagoria’s revenge
The Caprice of Art
I am I.
But you are I.
Am I you? And you I?
Everywhere unending I myself am myself and I
and I and I and I
go on, starting at myself in confusion,
Everywhere I turn,
Until, with desperate hands,
I claw my image on my image while a thousand images
scratch the glass of a thousand more
and an infinite I loses me
in a simple, eternal maze
as I scrabbles I scrabbles I scrabbles I
myself on myself on myself on the mirrors,
in my blood.
That, at least, I know for mine.
But where is me?
if we were similes of ourselves we could be victims to the caprice of art, technē mirroring mimicry, echo engulfing echo, believing the eternally repeating speech never ending, speaking, “No one spoke!”
A hammered world, grammarless, is a chamber of echoes with no hope of finding the original voice. Words distort into chaos. Meaning obliterates meaning until the conviction forms in the speaker that no one spoke, that no one is speaking, that to be is to be shrouded in noise. Keep your head down and go to work.
There’s a tide moving constantly under the clatter of everyday life. We fill our days with noise, with chatter. Always another show. Always more news. Always another book. It’s an election, it’s a catastrophe, there’s a bus to catch, there’s a meeting to arrange. Layer over layer over layer we drown out the roar of emptiness beneath us, the hollow, guttering, nonsense echo which, if it has a meaning, means we don’t know what we’re about.
Two significant additions to this passage in ‘As if, if’ add some complexity to its meaning. In the revision, we are ‘victims oblivious to the caprice of art’. So, this seems to say, there is a bondage inherent in arts capriciousness, and a bondage in oblivion to it.
Art mirrors life. But is, as the hammerers would say, art itself is simply mockery over a roaring silence, art becomes a hall of mirrors in which we wander with demented terror, scrabbling our own image in our blood to find a meaning, an exit, that isn’t there. If we deny the plurality of being, we are left only with ourselves, isolated selves, repeated endlessly and locked in our own perception of ourselves. The oppressor and the liberator are both art.
Art is capricious. Art changes. Fashions rise and fall and call themselves Art. Media can be art or not, and few bother to discern the difference. Culture and medium both transform our expression of Art. And the word itself is illusive, evading our definitions until we point at a painting or a song or a story or a dance and cry, “There! That, there, is Art! That is what it means!”
And then discover we’re all pointing at different things.
The capriciousness of art is this illusive quality. It is, in many ways, an attempt, a dream, of somehow expressing the roaring we hear beneath us. Either in reminding us of its starkness and despair, or in articulating the words we think—we hope—we hear in it. We create an icon for the commingling of hope and despair, perhaps more hopeful or more despair depending on our mood or beliefs. We use it to tell us who we are, what we can believe in and what we should despise, what we feel and what we ignore.
Art it is a dream. It is not immediately real. It gives us a meaning, satisfies ‘ancient human desires’—but not really. Like food conjured through illusion in Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea Quartet, we can eat it happily and so starve to death.
Art in its caprice does nourish in a way, however, does satisfy something, perhaps better than anything else. Yet it is not nourishing in itself. If a man paints and does nothing else, if a man makes art and yet murders his father with a hammer, that man is mad.
We speak to insist that “No one spoke!” and we ourselves give the lie to ourselves. The creative act of speaking, the complaint against silence, is in itself its own remedy. This is art’s caprice. In nourishing us it leaves us hungry. In complaining of meaninglessness it creates meaning.
If we are oblivious to this caprice, we leave ourselves exposed to imagine that arts speaks once, and never again. Either we hear nourishment in that one speaking, and leave imagining that having eaten of it we will live forever, when we have, perhaps, forty days. Or we hear nothing but an unfunny joke, and turn an ignorant ear to a meaning we insist isn’t there: “No one spoke when we first listened!’
We played the hornpipe, but you didn’t dance! We played a dirge, and you didn’t cry!
The absurd roar beneath our noise speaks to the silence of all voices, the emptiness of meaning. So, perhaps, if we are not alone and the universe has room for speech—if there are words in the roaring—there is a silence deeper and wilder yet from which all words are come. Perhaps grammar is nothing more—or, more truly, nothing less—than the patterns of silence.
Perhaps I can put out my hand and touch another, not just the cold pane reaching toward me with un-touching hands.