Graduate Seminar 1__Summer In-Residence 2013

Absurdity: Past As Present in Gray

“It’s true. You know, we’re limited little souls and we can only kind of throw ourselves against the wall…and hope to stick a bit.”

__Alan Rickman, describing his role as “M” in Play, written by Samuel Beckett

                  The works of Samuel Beckett had been in a fore position in my life for many years especially during a time in the early 2000s when I was working on a project about Ezra Pound.  One could say that Ezra Pound and Samuel Beckett do not mix, but of course everything is arguable. To me, one of the many major driving forces behind the works of Pound and Beckett has been the ways in which they handled language. Beckett’s language provided a respite from Pound’s language, and also gave me a sense of selfness while working so many long hours in support of another person’s artistic vision. Beckett became my man, as a counterpart to all of the Poundian ‘speak’ I was surrounded by in every aspect of business and the creative realm at that time.

The other man in my life was my brilliant father who upon his retirement became situationally depressed (a first in his lifetime), received irresponsible and unmanaged healthcare, and committed suicide less than a year later. While I had a certain jaded take on the world by then, my personal experiences as witness to myself, and my loved ones, during that time were the strangest, by far.  There was a disconnect of reason, a recurring disbelief occured, yet my body continued to propel forward to get back into the country, to take care of, to help with arrangements, to watch other people weep with dismay.  I used the word surreal to describe the whole of it then. But no, it was absurd on so many levels.  We were left in the dark with no answers, grappling at anything to bring together order from the aftermath of prior circumstances that ignorantly we had believed to be only a temporary disruption.  We worked to make the ground steady under our feet once again.

At the viewing, which to me is an odd tradition, I found myself contained in my very own theater of the absurd that played out around the corpse of my father.  As my shaking hands pinned his many medals onto his jacket, my memory seemed, at once, clear and blurred as I recalled occurrences in the last year. I had read Beckett’s works voraciously in-between every single thing I did each day.  My cousin stood close by watching with hawk-like focus my unfruitful efforts to pin on the last two medals. Somebody, I cannot remember who, took over that task of preparation.  I had gone to see Endgame again. I saw Krapp’s Last Tape for the first time.  Back then, I recalled having read Martin Esslin’s Absurd Drama in my long ago beginnings at undergraduate studies in the mid-70s and read it once again. I noticed how my father’s nearly white bushy eyebrows had been frozen into place with the aid of hairspray and a toothbrush, perhaps; they seemed to want to take flight from his foreheadI had read Beckett, read about Beckett, read the criticism, and had written, read and written, read and written until I thought I had a grasp on the lot of it. But I realized, then, I never would wholly understand my favorites of his writings or his supremely complex mind. What appeared unattainable was in reality ideas about human condition set up in absurd mental and emotional landscapes, and yet again set against the realities of a complicated world.  What I did not know during that Beckettian year, as I have dubbed it, is that the very writings that were so fascinatingly perplexing would be my strength during future trials. I overheard people I knew, my extended family members who were in- town from afar, making polite small talk as if it was just another day filled with repetitive dialogue, “I’m sorry for your loss”, and meaningless post-funerary expectations of food, “Yes. I like chicken real’ fine.”  My thoughts wandered back to the time at the beginning of what we call his “illness” when I had asked my father to help me decipher one of Beckett’s literary experiments, Ping, thinking that it would help him get better if he exercised his fine mind in a taxing mental chore. Together we sat on the sofa as I prepared to read out loud. He professed that he wasn’t sure he could make sense of anything anymore, even his own body. I asked him to just listen:

“All known all white bare white body fixed one yard legs joined like sewn. Light heat white floor one square yard never seen. White walls one yard by two white ceiling one square yard never seen. Bare white body fixed only the eyes only just. Traces blurs light grey almost white on white. Hands hanging palms front white feet heels together right angle. Light heat white planes shining white bare white body fixed ping fixed elsewhere. Traces blurs signs no meaning light grey almost white. Bare white body fixed white on white invisible. Only the eyes only just light blue almost white. Head naught eyes light blue almost white silence within. Brief murmurs only just almost never all known…”

Suddenly, I heard my mother wailing, “That’s not my husband. He is not my husband!” The room was filled with the dull clamber of feet as those nearby held her up and took her from the airless room; airless because I suddenly held my breath for a very long time. Sting’s amazingly articulated recording of Cold Song in all of its drawn out beauty and luxuriousness of symphonic strings and vocalizations repeated over and over in my mind. Like a slow-motion cinematic scene unfolding it occurred to me that her shock was a reaction to what I had already discovered in the handling of his body; an autopsy had been performed.

I was the last person he spoke to. He said at the end of our conversation, “Just remember I love you.”

After everyone had left, I was alone with his body. I spit on my finger and tried to remove some of the hairspray from his brows. I squeezed the flesh between his thumb and forefinger until it softened…finally.  I whispered, “Dummy”, just as often as my mother later on that day whispered, “I love you”, as she circled and circled his casket.

Re-re-reading Martin Esslin’s introduction last week, watching Beckett’s End Game, and spending some time with Beckett’s Six Residua once again caused me to re-remember many events associated with my father’s death. Esslin wrote that absurdist playwrights “…no longer believe[d] in the possibility of …neatness of resolution. They are indeed chiefly concerned with expressing a sense of wonder, of incomprehension, and at times of despair, at the lack of cohesion and meaning that they find in the world.”[1] Further, he stated that in a world that had become absurd, the Theatre of the Absurd was the most realistic comment on, the most accurate reproduction of, reality.[2]  That is true, from my perspective and obviously from the creative viewpoint of many other artists.

In an effort to hear another person’s take on grappling with how to balance the acts of creating artworks that are very personal I asked our visiting artist how she dealt with that issue as she went about her academic career and art practice. We spoke together about that fine line of finding different approaches to expressions of storytelling and visual personal narratives through artistic means.  She explained how for her it is a constant balancing act between closeness to the subject matter and detachment by necessity. Early on while performing her public engagements, she learned from mistakes. Nothing is wrong at all with any method of creative discourse if it gets a person to an important point and alters for the greater good another person’s perceptions.

She and I agreed that it is very possible, and she has found it to be very true, that there are more people than one might imagine who have had the same life experiences. So an artist ought to just make the work anyway when they are compelled to do so. We, also, agreed that neither of us has created our art as a call for sympathy or as acts born out of a sense of victimization, but only to find understanding—and most importantly to create. There is a hope, too, that somehow the work is viewed universally thereby offering to each viewer a unique message that is larger than the artist’s actual experience portrayed in a single piece, a series, or an installation.  One difference between us is that she works directly with people who have gone through the same or similar life experiences to hers. For the most part, I have worked with and by myself.

From that good, long conversation and through our other readings, re-remembrance, and the performances of Francis Alÿs and Mary Reid Kelley, I surmise that all of the multi-symphonic languages we speak as artists are actually, even from within the realm of unreality, harmonious to one another by virtue of the fact that we are immersed in the human condition. Because of the ways in which my mind conjures fragmentary memories and how I move toward and away from experience and its potentiality, I feel a kinship with the absurdists.


[1] Martin Esslin. Introduction. Absurd Drama. [Harmondsworth, Eng.]: Penguin, 1965.

[2] Ibid

Readings About Absurdism:

  • MacAdam, Barbara A. “Francis Alÿs: Architect of the Absurd.” ARTnews. 15 July 2013.Web.<www.artnews.com/2013/07/15/architect‑of‑the‑absurd/>.
  • Martin Esslin. Introduction. Absurd Drama. [Harmondsworth, Eng.]: Penguin, 1965. Print.
  • Hugo Ball. “Dada Fragments//1916-17.” The Artist’s Joke. Ed. Jennifer Higgie. London: Whitechapel, 2007. Print.
  •  Jenelle Porter. “History Painting” from the Mary Reid Kelley Exhibition Catalog. Boston: Institute of Contemporary Art. 2013. Print.
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