Saturday, November 21, 2009

Wally Cardona and Jane Austen

I have been busy writing and teaching, but I did go to three cultural events this past weekend: My Lang colleague Wally Cardona's dance piece 'Really Real' at BAM, the Jane Austen exhibit at the Morgan Library, and a reading by Justin Taylor and one of the Wu Ming collective at P. S. 122. Wu Ming and Taylor--though very interesting--does not really go with the other two, but I found odd commonalities between the Cardona and the Austen.

The Cardona is divided into two parts, "He Lived A Somewhat Uneventful Life" and "Repetition". For the first (shorter) part, the lights are turned on, so that the audience can see themselves see the performers (I don't know whether the lights helped or hindered the performers seeing the audience). As a series of small, unobtrusive actions took place on stage by a series of dancers, a overvoice--deliberately halting and unassured--recited details which, without the name (I believe) ever being explicitly mentioned, clearly demoted the life of Søren Kierkegaard.

The first time we heard the snippets about Kierkegaard, we paid rapt attention to them, the second time, we began to drift away, notice the movements of the dancers on stage, hear the sound as only sound but not sense. By the time the words--spoken with an awareness of both how difficult the concepts evoked in them could be and for their potential as cliché--were said a third time they became meaningless; only the action mattered. Then "Repetition" began--with no words other than songs, the stage darkened, and a series of lyrical, sinuous dances, peopled by both adult and child performers, took over as a kind of rhapsodic counterpoint and complement to the more talky and cerebral part that had gone before.
It is interesting to think of the juxtaposition of Kierkegaard with the emphasis on youth and the presence of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus as a large part of the action--Kierkegaard is usually thought of not as a philosopher for young people, if indeed there is such a thing, but part of the show's theme is openness to experience.
The articulation of a lived intellectuality is very different form actually living it, and the difference between the first and second sections was just that: the first was the rationale for a concrete mental life, the second the actually living it. But the second could not possibly occur without the manifestation of the first, just as, for Kierkegaard, the 'aesthetic' mentality was the necessary prelude to the ethical. Kierkegaard was very unlike many of his contemporaries who objected to e.g. haggle for not being political or practicable enough--Kierkegaard wanted to turn Hegel in the direction not just of concreteness but of irony and polyether title, “Really Real” suggests three states, the Unreal, the Real. and the Really Real. In this scheme, the Unreal could be philosophical abstraction as such, the Real could be an understanding of the need for lived. understood intellectual experience. the Really Real would be that experience, itself. of course, for some people, like Kant and Lacan, the Really Real would be the most ultimately unknowable, and in a sense there is a kinship between the most knowable and the most unknowable, conveyed by the moody lyricism, the playing of the song "I Feel Free' , which has exuberance, joy, a sense of the unfettered, but also especially in the version used by Cardona, an underlying melancholy. The uniformity of the second half has less to do with collectivism in my mind than the connection necessitated by the dichotomy of repetition and a more active recollection, which, as all readers of Kierkegaard know, has to be lived forward. In order for this to happen, the unites that are repeated or recollected have to be standardized, but the black to me signified the inevitable sadness that attends on this project as also a sense of the night, the unknown, a kind of dark, mystical ecstasy. I did not feel any sense of ;conformity from the dancers, the differences in ages and features in any event made that impossible.

Part of the liberation was having the lights turned on the audience for the first twenty minutes or so...we felt relaxed, freed, we no longer needed to pretend we were an audience, pretend we weren't there (though I wished the woman in front of me whose cell phone went off with the telltale Cingular/At&T ring tone had not been there)

I did not see the dynamic mentioned by Gia Kourlas in her, to my mind, generally, albeit unsurprisingly, uncomprehending Times review about the individual and the collective--to me, the dynamic was between thought and experience, the mental and the physical, the conceptual and the authentic. Really Real achieved what its title spoke of, a release into the freedom of the lived, the actual, but it also showed that this has to be a complicated and earned and actually performed process, that it cannot be done with a snap of the fingers. it was an extraordinarily uplifting and stimulating evening and I am most grateful for it.
A day later, I had a strangely analogous experience, going to the Jane Austen exhibit at the Morgan. Austen, like Kierkegaard, was someone not really taken seriously in her own day: compared to her peers, like Lord Byron and Sir Walter Scott, she, like the Danish thinker, seemed unusually personal, narrow, 'living a somewhat uneventful life' --the observations made about Kierkegaard in Cardona's play, that he only traveled outside Denmark five times, that he rarely left home, could also be made of Austen--and they both, sadly, lived only 42 years. Austen also raises the issue of concrete experience--she has been underrated until the past two generations of critics because people thought she did not give vent to the Big Ideas, but what she really did is, like Kierkegaard, embed them in a lived, actualized context. As W H. Auden said about her in 'Letter to Lord Byron".

Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass.
It makes me most uncomfortable to see
An English spinster of the middle class
Describe the amorous effects of ‘brass’,
Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety,
The economic basis of society.

And this was not just an unmasking but an unmasking done in order to affirm life and affirm the real ties of regard and affection that could exist even after society's economic basis was granted. Austen and Cardona combined ot underscore the rich braid that is possible between conceptualized and lived experience, if thought of in , very generally, the right proportion.

The exhibition had Austen’s personal copies of several of the major books that influenced her (a number of which I am teaching in my eighteenth century fiction course at Lang this semester) as well as some of the few manuscripts of hers that have survived (all of her unpublished, unfinished work; the publishers threw away the manuscripts of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE and EMMA, etc., not feeling anybody needed them any more). there also was a set of instructions on courtly dancing--which attracted a group of attendees from the Westchester Courtly Dancing society, (or some such name), an organization devoted to dance in the Georgian and Regency era. The woman I talked to at the exhibit said that some dancers liked Jane Austen, and some Austen fans liked dance, but that the groups did not have an overwhelming overlap. Still, it did provide yet another interesting link between Austen and Cardona.

Aside from the Richard Foreman play, “Idiot Savant” , in December, this is it for 2009 in terms of cultural events—writing, the holidays, the end of the semester, and the MLA call! And, unless in case of emergency, my last post here for 2009—see you all in 2010!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Trip to New England

A quick weekend trip to the symposium on Australian literature at Harvard provided a joyful diversion from the rigors of the semester; not only was the academic companionship congenial and the intellectual atmosphere stimulating, but my ride up and back on Amtrak was enjoyable and in a way revelatory because I had never before travelled on this route this late in the fall--it was striking going past the Connecticut and Rhode Island shore with leaves turning, burning, churning, vibrant...seeing the bare birch trees standing alert in the unexpectedly balmy October air, the estuarine majesty of the Charles in Boston and the Thames in New London. Even an hour delay coming back at Old Saybrook was made tolerable by the company of my fellow passengers and the clarity of the blue-gray water surrounded by taut, brown reeds, the delight of intermingling yellow, green, and brown even in unromantic clusters of brush, the spray of afternoon sunlight amid trees steadily dispensing leaf after leaf...