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The Columnest: Uncomfortable in the Best of All Possible Worlds

Wait a minute: Did I, a few weeks ago, really compare experiencing postmodern art to drowning in the Asian tsunami of 2004? It’s a sickening thought—which I have been twisting in for days. But did I? Not as such: I put the two together under the heading of being “swept away”—and I meant to put […]

Adam Simpson, This Must Be the Best of All Possible Worlds. Exhibited at Circus Gallery, London. Courtesy of the artist.

Adam Simpson, This Must Be the Best of All Possible Worlds. Exhibited at Circus Gallery, London. Courtesy of the artist.

Wait a minute: Did I, a few weeks ago, really compare experiencing postmodern art to drowning in the Asian tsunami of 2004?

It’s a sickening thought—which I have been twisting in for days. But did I? Not as such: I put the two together under the heading of being “swept away”—and I meant to put the one very far from the other, to say that “swept away” might mean one thing to the American intellectual and quite another to someone with first-hand experience of such a sweeping. However, I have to admit that is still a comparison, a metaphor, and it brings out the perennial question: Can we really understand anything beyond our own experience?

I have just looked up the casualties from the tsunami and, no, I have to think 230,000 dead is beyond most imagining, loss on a scale incomprehensible to any but god. But that’s not the point either, exactly. Any one victim or survivor perceived only a piece of that. I want to say yes—because that is what this whole project of language is about, after all. We speak to each other, knowing that heart and home and loss are all relative, and yet feeling that we can be together in those words.

And yet, this assumption that we do speak to each other—you know that’s not completely true. Across some divides people don’t talk, or talk only in a partial way, without expectation of understanding. This has been brought home to me recently by the kerfuffle around Miley Cyrus and Lily Allen’s use of black bodies, by comments from outspoken women of color on my Facebook feed, and by the conversation surrounding #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen: There are moments when I should not try to envelope another person’s experience in my own, when I should not imagine I can understand. There are moments to be uncomfortable, and moments to be silent.

Copper engraving of the Lisbon earthquake of 1755.

Copper engraving of the Lisbon earthquake of 1755.

The other week, when I said I felt I was riding a raveling edge, I meant that I’m aware of my wonderful luck in comparison to most of the human animals who have ever lived—aware, and maybe afraid. I think of all the people who have been completely unaware of that edge until they fell off it. I think of Lisbon: on October 31, 1755, one of the largest and most splendid cities in Europe, and the next day almost completely destroyed by an earthquake, a tenth to a fifth of its population dead.

Perhaps I’m thinking of Lisbon because I often, writing these columns, feel like a twenty-first century feminist Pangloss, sending you off with a chirpy utterance about how everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds—and Lisbon is the scene for part of Voltaire’s wicked satire. Now, in tenth grade European history, we found Pangloss’s optimism as ridiculous as it was meant to be, set amid disaster and cruelty, rape, torture, disease, and summary execution. But we were not so aware of our own optimism, the optimism of our culture.

I have been thinking, lately, about closure, what we recognize as closure, and thinking about how a satisfactory ending is likely culturally bound. What is a well-educated white woman’s sense of closure? I skimmed a book of poetry the other day, noting how every poem ended with a solemn line, a Saxon word, a quiet image. And I felt sick of it all. If I know the ending already, how can the poem be anything new? A vase of flowers—or anything, really—in a cracked window, lit by twilight? Forget it! You know this small town like the back of your hand. Short fiction is as bad. If the story ends with Jamey leaving in her beat-up Subaru or pick-up, whether or not she waves on her way out (a difference the writer sweated over), just stop. You’ve been here before. And in the personal essay—this form, in short—you can expect all the disparate threads to turn out to be part of some grand design.

Where, then, can we go? Gentle reader, I don’t know.

Lightsey Darst writes, dances, writes about dance and other arts, and teaches. Her books are Find the Girl and the new collection, DANCE (both Coffee House Press). Her poetic work appears in Typo, Spork, and Diagram. Her criticism is online at mnartists.org, The Huffington Post, and Bookslut.