Sunday, April 26, 2015

"The Machinery Disposes of the Words Like They Weren't Even Spoken"


I'm rereading One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey.  I do this every few years just because I love the velocity, complexity and artfulness of the prose and hope it rubs off on me.  But also I revisit the book because its meaning seems to expand more and more every time I go through it.  Upon first reading it way back in the day I loved the brash radical bravado of McMurphy, the way he swoops in and tries to save the day, only to be  vanquished by evil Nurse Ratched.  In that reading, it's almost a classic fairytale in its use of simple, willful tropes:  big bad lady nurse/administrator/jailer vs. big brash redheaded lumberjack/gambler/anti-hero.  Other readings though revealed for me the slightly silly counter-culture swagger, the moments built to humiliate just for the hell of it, the self-congratulatory feeling sometimes involved in pitting such elemental examples of "good" and "bad" against one another (not to mention the overarching racism involved in the "black boy" orderlies, and so on). 

Still, every time I read it I come away with an odd respect for its sense of urgency, the burning need to get at something profound and devastating in the simplest and yet most harrowing language and style.

And much of that style is manufactured because Kesey uses Chief Bromden as his narrator.  You could argue that placing Bromden on the periphery and giving him the chore of narration is a form of racism, of framing McMurphy's story through the eyes of the oppressed so McMurphy's oppression can be heightened to the point of Beatnik glamor, but this time reading Bromden's voice really truly got to me, in a way it hasn't before.  That exact moment of total connection for me came on page 182, when Bromden is at the end of a flashback concerning a time when he was a little kid living on the reservation, and he's outside the house he lives in sprinkling salt on salmon he and his dad caught.  A group of speculators and government workers pull in.  They are visiting the reservation in order to talk to his father about buying the land the reservation is on for cheap, so they can build a dam.  These characters, like many in the Cuckoo's Nest, are grotesque versions of people Kesey obviously found disgusting -- bureaucrats and landowners and other bourgeoisie types stomping around the world looking for every opportunity to screw it up.  But somehow in this moment the grotesque enlightens and does not obscure, and the oppressors glide through the reservation, ignoring Bromden, who wants to tell them he can understand the horrible things they are saying to each other, that he is not invisible.  But when he does speak to them, all they do is ignore him. 

This is the passage that truly got to me:

I can see the seams where they are put together.  And, almost, see the apparatus inside them take the words I just said and try to fit the words in here and there, this place and that, and when they find the words don't have any place ready-made where they'll fit, the machinery disposes of the words like they weren't even spoken.

How amazing is that?   A simple, calm and very accurate summation of what it means to be someone totally on the outskirts of meaning, totally trying to rectify a situation that can't be rectified.  This flashback lets us know the origin of Bromden's philosophy, his use of the "combine" as metaphor for way the world works:  the "machine" must be fed and constantly repaired, and if you can't cut it as part of the machine, then you to have to be "fixed," have to be institutionalized, tinkered with, eventually de-brained. 

Maybe my sensitivity to this moment in the book comes from what's going on in my work-life and -world.  I keep going to conferences and  meetings about how to help people with developmental disabilities get jobs in the real world, in effect often revamping the way they and the people who love and support them often see what they are capable of.  Sometimes in those meetings and conferences I can almost feel that sense that Bromden felt that day outside his house when the government workers come to pay a call:  everyone is talking and talking, and filling in the blanks, but no one is listening, and no one is trying to understand how all of this talking contributes even more to the sense of victimhood and powerlessness and futility.  Helping people who have developmental and physical and other disabilities be a part of the world, to get employed and be able to contribute in vital ways, is one of the most complicated and scary enterprises you can attempt not only because of the skills the people you're trying to support may need to acquire/work on to get a gig, but mostly because of the way they are perceived, the way they are ignored, and mainly the way they are institutionalized almost as soon as they get a diagnosis.  Even the systems meant to "help" them group them into categories and statistics in order to manage their care, and once the systems take over the words just "don't fit."  Like Bromden I'm seeing the "seams" all the time, and that sense that when the words are found not to fit the "machine disposes of the words like they weren't even spoken."

How do you disrupt the machine?

I don't think by screaming or pleading to it.  The machine does not give a shit.  It's simply by sticking to your guns, I guess, never allowing yourself to be mechanized or put into place inside that ongoing machine.  You don't talk.  You don't show off.  You don't make speeches.  You listen and you move forward and you make things happen outside of the machine, in spite of it.  

At the end of the book, even though McMurphy is the symbol of what it means to be alive in a cookie-cutter culture (or maybe it's because of it), he is lobotomized and brought back into the institution on display for everyone to see.  Nurse Ratched wins.  And yet Chief Bromden escapes the institution that same day, bursting through a window and running into the wild.  His voice in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, beautifully desultory, matter-of-fact, brutally poetic, drives the story home to the point he can no longer live in the place he once called "home." 

Monday, April 20, 2015

Just Thinking Out Loud

"Have a Bandit Day," Avril Thurman

"The Vocabulary of Carpet," Steve Paddack
Bill installed “Any Given Day:  New Works by Steve Paddack and Avril Thurman” at Thunder-Sky, Inc. yesterday.  I went in and helped a little, brought him something to eat.  You can’t really be there with him too long when he hangs art – you just get in the way.  I helped a little with ordering the show, but the way Steve and Avril’s works just kind of fell into place was magic to behold.  (By the way, “Any Given Day: New Works by Steve Paddack and Avril Thurman,” opens with a reception 6 to 10 pm April 24, 2015. The exhibit closes June 12, 2015.)
Steve is an artist we met back in the day at 431 Gallery in Indianapolis, and his vibrant, unnerving works have a distilled, ghostly quality.  Witnessing each vignette you feel like you’ve fallen into a spaceship-museum that travels across the American landscape sucking in dream-like moments and then framing them and installing them on spaceship walls.  There’s something dangerous and ominous looming in Steve’s universe, a gigantic invisible snake maybe or brain at the bottom of a lake, but also that Surrealistic danger has a calm seductive veneer that makes you feel almost nostalgic both for danger and for the quiet right before the gloom becomes a strike.  His sense of color has a vibrant, phosphorescent heat to it, cooled by the exactitude of his rendering, the strictness of his lines.  His paintings are lush, droll exercises in luxury and also in the opposite of luxury, as if you're wasting an afternoon staring into space and then suddenly realize you've discovered Heaven.
Through a surreptitious system of codes and odd materials that blossom into visual and sometimes disturbing poetry, Avril’s language/object assemblages find strangeness in the everyday, and an everyday-ness in the strange.   They label the absurd and then somehow transform that absurdity into profundity, without losing that initial sense of contradiction.  Her chunky words and clunky materials function like doodles and tags transforming into important corporate logos for corporations ran by crazy geniuses currently setting up shop in tree-houses all over America.  She writes poems that seem to occupy that nether region between abstract and concrete, as if William Carlos Williams’s little red wheelbarrow has suddenly pushed itself into reality, and there you are stuck with it and its strange new voice. 
While Steve primarily deals with imagery and Avril with language, their works intermingle in ways you have to see to believe, and “belief” might be a key to what both they are striving for – that sense of the outside world being pulled into the interior for both inspection and worship.  They have a similar sense of dexterity; both artists know when to quit, never trying too hard.  Their works speak volumes without screaming or even whispering.  Just thinking out loud.  It truly is a pleasure to see such disparate approaches finding ways to coexist without elaboration or discourse, just being there together, all weird and alive.
A graduate of the Herron School of Art in Indianapolis, Steve has been a working artist for over 30 years. Thurman is a graduate of the Art Academy in Cincinnati.  We’re happy to host their visions.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Lime Aid

Oscar Wilde once wrote, "Charity creates a multitude of sins."  One of these charity-created sins happened on Twitter this past week, when Gwyneth Paltrow showed off her expertise at being poor in order to win a contest to raise awareness on how much money and smarts it takes to be a gourmand using a SNAP card.  Turns out, Gwyneth wasn't as snappy as she'd thought she could be (she wound up being three days short on her week of kindness), but the snarling trolling masses sure gave it to her and then some.  I happen to be one of the snarling trolls, so this post isn't going to be about how "we should give sweet Gwyneth a break!  I mean, even when she's trying to do something good people destroy her!"

I'm thinking the "doing good" part is exactly what she needs to be snarled at for.

The decorous, glamorous charity industry for which Gwyneth might be the poster child is a machine like any other machine, and while it is obviously necessary it usually (like Gwyneth) does not get the job done, "the job" being solving problems like poverty, hunger, fill in the blank.  It's an ongoing  saga.  We raise awareness, get aware, have a charity ball, do a charity stunt, raise some cash, and it's all still there, right?  Poverty, disease, hunger.  Charity becomes a part of the process, not a solution, just another box to check, and part of that sense of complacency is only aided and abetted by the Paltrows of the world, who seem to think a glossy take on something as serious as not having enough to eat is a sort of tricky little parlor game to play, to Instagram, to tweet, and then  now move on to the next issue, next trend, next product. 

I know it's like I'm gluttonously unloading on Gwyneth but I'm pretty sure she doesn't give a shit.    And I'm also pretty sure that she's genuinely decent, but also impossibly arrogant and privileged to the point she felt she could shed light on a big problem by doing something stupidly small and then taking a picture of it with her I-Phone.  Look at that mess up there, those goddamn limes.  It just infuriates me because even if she did get the hunger thing right, what would that do?  Would the food-stamp issue be solved?  Would we be closer to Utopia?

What that silly cornucopia up there is about is Gwyneth, not hunger, not awareness.  At the end of the day it's just another form of her ongoing branding campaign.  Gwyneth as green goddess.  Gwyneth, Queen of the Limes.  Her esoteric take on something as bluntly obvious as not having enough food-stamps is so horrible because it perverts the situation to the point that you stop giving a shit about the whole thing.  She has done the exact opposite of raising awareness.  She raised a big stink and now nobody wants to know.