Saturday, July 20, 2013
The Nonexistent Is Whatever We Have Not Sufficiently Desired
I saw The House that Herman Built on PBS a couple weeks back, and I'm still thinking about it. It's a documentary directed by Angad Singh Bhalla about Jackie Sumell, an artist, and her relationship with Herman Wallace, a prisoner at Angola prison in Louisiana who has been in solitary confinement for over 41 years. He's still there now, at 71. The movie is not preachy at all, even though the subject matter kind of demands it. However, Jackie seems completely at home living in a world gone mad and trying to make something beautiful out of fighting against the madness. The actual artistic media she uses the most is friendship. She cultivates and protects her friendship with Herman in the movie as if that connection is her only way out of insanity. The visual art she makes is the byproduct of that connection, a skillful assortment of testaments to Herman's dignity, chiefly plans for building his dreamhouse.
Herman's dreamhouse is something to behold:
As you can see, it's a beautiful, celestial place. The interior views have an institutional feel, as if heaven in Herman's mind is a clean, well-kept group-home with a large kitchen beside a long picnic-table, hall-ways with multiple bedrooms. He also has envisioned a swimming pool out back with a black panther logo painted on the bottom, the panther staring out at you from beneath chlorine-blue sun-glistening water. The plans, the rooms, the pool, the flowers -- they are all from Herman's mind. It's Jackie's duty to turn the plans into a reality.
First steps came from art exhibits showing the letters the two of them wrote back and forth starting in 2003, and then the architectural plans, the computer graphic visions of the house, and an installation depicting where Herman currently lives (a small claustrophobic cells he is allowed to live for one hour a day), as well as a maquette of the actual house he is dreaming of.
Jackie is one of those activist/artists that usually gets on my nerves, but in the doc she's more of a go-getter than a do-gooder thank God. She is crazy about Herman in a little-sister kind of way, and her whole life has been dedicated to figuring out how to get Herman the hell out of jail, while also understanding how almost futile that is. To counteract the futility: art. That's it. That's all she's got, and if you think about it that's all any of us have. She is using her talents and energies not just to help Herman, but to help herself re-imagine what art is and is supposed to do and be. That struggle is usually missing in every art exhibit I come across. A muscular, hard-assed battle for meaning is what Jackie's art is about. Her life too.
And then there's Herman's voice over the phone, telling her to stay strong. Their conversations are artless and beautiful somehow in the doc, unrehearsed and meaningfully arbitrary. They are two lost souls who have found a way to find themselves, but that doesn't mean life is any easier. In fact it means it's harder. "Struggle" is common language they speak.
The movie follows them through all kinds of possibilities that never pan out. It's not one of those documentaries that end with a big beautiful hug and a neighborhood of people holding up "Welcome Home" signs. By the end, Herman is still in solitary confinement, and Jackie moves to New Orleans to try to find land to build the house, slowly going bankrupt. It's completely on the money somehow. You feel uplifted and also deeply sad. Those two feelings intermingle until you become a part of their family. You actually want to move into Herman's house, even though it's not built yet.
As I watched The House that Herman Built, I kept thinking of Kafka for some reason, witnessing Jackie and Herman as they keep trying and trying and trying. Many of Kafka's stories and novels have a sort of stubborn, inscrutable absurdity to them like that, a dreamy, cast-iron hope that often gets confused with cynicism. After the movie I looked in an old journal I kept and discovered I had written down this quote from Kafka years ago:
"By believing passionately in something that still does not exist, we create it. The nonexistent is whatever we have not sufficiently desired."
Holy shit. Ain't it the truth? "Desire" is all Herman and Jackie have, and it has to be enough.