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While the Guggenheim is rewriting the narrative of twentieth-century art history, with revision inked in pages upon pages of critical revelation, a quieter disruption is occurring down the street at the Asia Society, where an ambitiously comprehensive exhibition populates two floors with paintings by the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group. After India’s independence in 1947, the PAG—a collective of headstrong, dynamic men—was formed as a way of shaping Indian culture and society for the new modern world. The social purpose of these paintings looks forward by looking inward, and therein lies their genius. The range and variety are evidence of an energetic originality; every painting is fresh and exciting, a refraction of the artist’s central vision, which is steadfast and zealous in its innovation. I found myself captivated by the characters that emerged from each cluster of work: F. N. Souza, the radical virtuoso whose work is arguably boldest in its imagination, is fearless in his often gruesome depictions and also in his liberal use of bold black lines and shapes (and is also perhaps my favorite). The prolific M. F. Husain marks his canvases with rough strokes of muted earthy browns and reds depicting Cubist renderings of scenes from Hindu tradition. S. H. Raza becomes obsessed with the Bindu, the motif of a black orb, which appears time and again, as a black sun in the sky or as a sparse mandala—a hypnotic, primordial symbol both auspicious and ominous. And the list could go on. As we change how we think about the influence of women in modern European abstractionism, so should we take time to reconsider the evolution of the avant-garde with respect to influence beyond the West. —Lauren Kane
I don’t read enough new books to declare anything “the nonfiction literary event of the year,” but that’s my experience with Kembrew McLeod’s The Downtown Pop Underground. In the late fifties, tax breaks on the West Coast had sucked most of the industry out from under the Big Apple, allowing people like the Village Voice film critic Jonas Mekas to rent an entire floor on Orchard Street for what would today amount to around a hundred dollars. The city was so cheap that working was almost optional, and the area south of Fourteenth Street became a playground for freaks and creative geniuses who poured their talent equally into their lives and their art. Reading about the now vanished downtown bohemian culture will no doubt fill you with joy (the playwright Harry Koutoukas shattering a mirror and gluing it to his suit, Joe Cino determining if you could stage your play based on your astrological sign), but there’s something sad about it, too. What happened to the freedom of the Village, where success and approval from cultural gatekeepers were eschewed and replaced with liberation of mind and body? It seems so impossibly distant from our city today, and yet I thought of a remark from the queer performance artist Vaginal Davis: “If you’re seeking a scene, you have to first envision it, and then it can become a reality.” Going on about the decline of New York is a tired old tune, but McLeod’s work is an authentic social history, neither an elegy nor a eulogy. Drugs, often erroneously considered a secret ingredient to the magic of old New York, appear in this book as the poison they really were. “In came drugs,” the La MaMa playwright Paul Foster tells McLeod, “and out went creativity.” What comes through is the cosmic consciousness of the era that, for better or worse, made drugs attractive. This book should be required reading for anyone—which I think is almost everyone—who wants an alternative to their “career” aspirations or strategies to expand their “network.” If there can be another underground, there will be. As the giant from Twin Peaks says: “It is happening again.” —Ben Shields
Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival is in full swing, and while programing continues through November 18, you have only a few days left to see Druid’s production of Waiting for Godot, on through Tuesday at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College. The Galway-based company knows its Beckett, with the four-and-a-half-character cast (the Boy actor is closer to a quarter of the size of Rory Nelson’s Pozzo) nailing not only the dialogue but those strange stage directions, bowler hat blowing and all. By the end of the two acts, I felt like I’d known Gogo and Didi, played by Aaron Monaghan and Marty Rea respectively, for many more moons than the two that rise onstage—it’s a testament to the pair’s ability to perform the challenging script, which is at once existentially wrought and physically demanding. Both are taken to their logical extremes with the actors’ emphatic delivery (there are squeaks, whispers, shouts) and physical feats (there’s a good moment of shoe-tugging that looks more like partners’ yoga). Pozzo and Lucky, in their own manic extremes, redouble the central question of play with their entrance, crisis, and defeat/retreat. Perhaps watching the pair await dusk as daylight saving time came to a close—how dark it was outside, how early!—and with an injured foot of my own (Gogo’s poor foot could be read as painful all the way up in the balcony) made Waiting for Godot’s existentialism particularly resonant with this viewer, but the strange sense of urgency wrapped in never-ending limbo that compels Beckett’s play is bigger than my busted pinkie toe. It echoes across the “muddy” scenery and into all of our lives. Well? Shall we go? —Emily Nemens
I burn at a different speed, so of course I’m a year behind on Vince Staples releases. While the rest of the rap-listening public is bumping Staples’s latest, FM!, I’m just now dipping into Big Fish Theory, his truly extraordinary record from last year. The gamble at the heart of Big Fish Theory is this: to fuse hip-hop and electronic music, two genres that share common elements—DJs, heavy reliance on sampling and interpolation, deep ties to dance subcultures and clubs—and have long existed on the margins but exerted outsize influence on the mainstream. They should be a natural fit—but then again, the road to hell is paved with half-baked genre experiments. Rappers such as Azealia Banks and Danny Brown have flirted with electronic music before, but Big Fish Theory is perhaps the only full-length project I’ve heard that successfully capitalizes on the potent possibilities of a hip-hop-electronic-music cocktail. As a personality, Vince Staples is an effusive jokester, always incisive and insightful, even when he’s, say, cracking wise about DMX. On wax, though, the grinning class clown simmers to a cold, clever, streetwise technician. He raps effortlessly, like he has both everything and nothing to prove, and it’s a credit to his versatility that he’s able to thread his quiet menace through the squishy, clicky, whooshing beats that constitute Big Fish Theory’s distinctive sound. These are enormous, cavernous productions; most rappers would be hopelessly lost. (I’m reminded of when Kendrick Lamar tried to freestyle over TNGHT’s monstrous “Higher Ground.”) But Staples darts hither and thither, punching in the shadows, peddling pain, raging against the conventions of hip-hop to create something truly new. —Brian Ransom
At the NonfictioNow conference in Phoenix last week, I had the great pleasure of meeting the author Erica Trabold and reading her debut nonfiction collection, Five Plots. Trabold’s structural technique is to thread together a series of small and often seemingly disparate vignettes of description, intellectual observation, memoir, and personal (and regional) history, and tie those threads into larger essay structures, five in all. Her intellectual moves are as dazzling as they are surprising, as is the style she employs to get at her subject matter. “All rocks are ghost,” she writes early on. And later: “America is Nebraska is Arizona is the heat of summer in any place with a proper swimming hole.” Such moves from the national to the personal are the pistons that drive Trabold’s narratives, ways in which to break the frame and get at her material from new directions (as comparisons to Maggie Nelson, Eliot Weinberger, Lily Hoang, and Elena Passarello all come to mind). The through line here is place, but Trabold’s use of place is not always in the physical topography of the world. Like the rivers she returns to again and again in this book, place for Trabold is a shifty, moving thing, different at each bend. Sometimes it is the Platte. Sometimes it is the body: sometimes the author’s, sometimes your own. —Christian Kiefer
My Paris Review colleague Nadja Spiegelman explained how it was going to work when I read Sally Rooney’s Normal People: “You are going to love it, and you are going to finish it in one afternoon.” Fuck me. Rooney writes like she’s shearing through blue silk with a newly sharpened pair of scissors. I had the distinct sensation she was parting the cloud cover over modern Ireland, and in the rain-washed streets, I was able to see all sorts of things, my adolescence and my college experience among them. I’m transfixed by the way Rooney works, and I’m hardly the only one. At first, it seems as though there’s nothing terribly complex about Rooney’s plots or prose, but like any confident couturier, she’s slicing the free flow of words into the perfect shape. Again and again, she hits the perfect phrase and then the ideal restraint. She writes about tricky commonplace things (text messages, sex) with a familiarity no one else has. She is a puer senex, and I hope the spell holds. Rooney’s lack of quotation marks in Normal People quietly makes the digital world convert to the page: “Marianne takes her phone from her bag and writes Connell a text message: Lively discussion here on the subject of your absence. Are you planning to come at all? Within thirty seconds he replies: yeah jack just got sick everywhere so we had to put him in a taxi etc. on our way soon though.” The boy and the girl at the center of the story misunderstand each other over and over again. This misunderstanding ruins their love and their lives and says more gently than most things that the raising of boys and girls and that union of humans is complex and confused. There are monstrous men in the story. Our hero isn’t one of them, but he nevertheless hurts Marianne several times with selfishness, with misjudgment, with reticence. Marianne, within the misery of her life, is a Normal girl who sometimes feels her body is a tidy garment she’s trying on. Their bodies can fit together in the manner of untold centuries, and then: “He leaves. The door clicks shut behind him, not very loudly.” —Julia Berick
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In our column Poetry Rx, readers write in with a specific emotion, and our resident poets—Sarah Kay, Kaveh Akbar, and Claire Schwartz—take turns prescribing the perfect poems to match. This week, Claire Schwartz is on the line.
I find myself distracted these days—mostly by the violence of the news, which streams in circles. I want to engage thoughtfully, but it’s difficult when everything is “breaking” and urgent. Do you have a poem for this age of terrible information? I want to do what I can in solidarity with those who are putting everything on the line, but I get overwhelmed by the width and scale of injustice. I’d appreciate any help you can offer for narrowing in and focusing my efforts without tuning reality out. At the moment my world is spinning, and I just feel helpless.
Can’t Do It All
Dear Can’t Do It All,
This morning, I stood in the desert. I felt so small compared with its the vastness. Then I imagined myself not in opposition to the desert, but joining with it. Suddenly, I felt different, possible. When I think about the scale of injustice against the scale of my one life, I feel overwhelmed. News cycles rely on the pretense of newness, but these are old stories. The urgency is real, but the roots are deep. We can’t hack at what grows new and expect the roots to shift. Learn your histories. Join with those doing the work of making a better world. There is a quote I have been holding recently, from Pirkei Avot: “It is not your responsibility to finish the work, neither are you free to desist from it.” For you, Louise Glück’s “Vespers,” a poem that draws me back to the sacred work of tending even the smallest things:
In your extended absence, you permit me
use of earth, anticipating
some return on investment. I must report
failure in my assignment, principally
regarding the tomato plants.
The speaker seems at first to be addressing, perhaps, a neighbor who has left town. Then the poem turns. The address expands:
belongs to you:
…You who do not discriminate
between the dead and the living, who are, in consequence,
immune to foreshadowing, you may not know
how much terror we bear, the spotted leaf,
the red leaves of the maple falling
It is not a neighbor but the world’s creator who has taken leave. What immense uncertainty the speaker’s vision passes through. In the poem’s final lines, the speaker’s gaze contracts, renewing an obligation not to every leaf on earth, but to the tomato plants:
even in early August, even in darkness: I am responsible
for these vines.
You already see that the work is large. Now choose your plot and commit to its care.
I teach creative writing to students in juvenile detention. I love using your column as a way to talk about emotions with kids who often aren’t given many opportunities to express themselves. Yesterday, one student wrote a piece for me to submit to you.
Have you ever felt trapped to the point where you can’t go anywhere or leave or text your friends, can’t go outside whenever you want? Because I feel trapped like I’m chained down in a maze, about to set my soul ablaze. I want to be free and spread my wings and fly high like a kite, but I can’t because I’m stuck in a jail cell, staring into the white walls, slowly going insane. I get headaches, brain waves that die and come back from the grave. I hate this place. Got any advice?
Do you have any poems to help this student?
All the best,
Dear Trapped’s Teacher,
Thank you for the work you do. Thank you for sharing Poetry Rx with your student, and for sharing your student’s letter with us.
I’m sorry you’re in a place you haven’t chosen, and that you can’t leave freely. There is a rich tradition of poetry written in confinement. I wonder if this is in part because poems can craft largess from small spaces, as they radically reimagine the boundaries of the work. The work of Reginald Dwayne Betts, Ethridge Knight, Mahvash Sabet, among many others, comes to mind. I hear poetry in your letter, too—your rhyme and simile (“like a kite”) forge beauty, your language maps the freedom that incarceration denies. I want to share with you a poem that teaches me how poetry can transform the experience that has been handed to us. Mahmoud Darwish’s “The Prison Cell” (translated by Ben Bennani) begins with wild affirmation:
It is possible…
It is possible at least sometimes…
It is possible especially now
To ride a horse
Inside a prison cell
And run away…
When the guard comes to interrogate the imprisoned poet, the poet affirms the ability of poetry to create a new order:
What did you do with the walls?
I gave them back to the rocks.
And what did you do with the ceiling?
I turned it into a saddle.
And your chain?
I turned it into a pencil.
The prison guard got angry.
He put an end to the dialogue.
He said he didn’t care for poetry,
And bolted the door of my cell.
In the evening, the guard returns:
Where did this moon come from?
From the nights of Baghdad.
And the wine?
From the vineyards of Algiers.
And this freedom?
From the chain you tied me with last night.
The prison guard grew so sad…
He begged me to give him back
As the poem ends, it is the poet—with their imagination that can reconfigure the world—who possesses freedom. The guard, who knows only the language of locks and anger, is the one who is confined.
I’ve been in a state of unraveling for the past few months. For a while, I felt ready to barge into my priorities headfirst, but now I feel a little more wary. Several traumatic memories have bubbled back up to the surface. I feel like I’m living as a contradiction. I exist in the shadow of past abuse while still living with my abuser. I thought that he had changed, as our relationship has improved by leaps and bounds, but I feel simply confused in light of these recovered memories.
What constitutes growth? What does it feel like to truly recover—from pain, inflicting pain, or otherwise?
Dear Discovered Darkness,
I’m sorry that you’ve experienced abuse and that the abuse you’ve experienced in the past is resurfacing to unsettle your present. I can’t tell you what recovery feels like because too often the idea of recovery imposes a narrative on an experience that is fundamentally nonnarrative. Growth feels like many things. I can tell you what you already know: healing is not linear. The conditions of your relationship may have changed, but memory lives in your body on its own terms. You deserve whatever time and space your healing requires. As we’ve said here before, a poem is not a therapist, and I hope you are building robust support systems. In the spirit of offering something to go along with that support, whatever form it might take, I want to share with you Joanna Klink’s “Four Skies,” which offers both companionship in devastation and language for imagining healing. The poem’s four sections recall for me four seasons, reminding me that growth happens in cycles.
The first section opens into harm’s infinity:
Each wrong done to you
a gate that opens forever into storm.
In the second section, the subject dissolves. The trauma overwhelms.
You could stand here for hours and then turn to
storm—sheer refusal and will. You could collapse
into fear and draw back into foam. These sheets of rain
are fences and crops, deeds, statues, ponds.
They are things you can’t change. Things you can’t say
The third section is distilled into clarity. “If you have grieved you have loved,” Klink writes. These lines teach me to approach my grief with tenderness, to ask: Where is the love drawn by the outline of my loss? How might I move back toward that?
And, finally, a vision toward healing—not a destination, but something to hold as you move through the harder times:
You are unscathed. The delicate grasslands
have thinned to pure sound traveling across miles
of white dust…
You have become everything you needed
Claire Schwartz is the author of bound (Button Poetry, 2018). Her poetry has appeared in Apogee, Bennington Review, The Massachusetts Review, and Prairie Schooner, and her essays, reviews, and interviews have appeared in The Iowa Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, Virginia Quarterly Review, and elsewhere.
In touch, sound, and smell, dawn gives a sense of triumph. It’s a golden feeling of awe and optimism: trumpet blasts and peachy whiffs and caresses. It’s not always so. There’s another side of dawn, a side that has nothing to do with hope or gold. There’s the dawn defined by dread, when your eyes are open too early and the light turns gray and mustardy.
This is the dawn when you’ve been awake all night, when the fanged and hungry muskrats of insomnia have chewed the corners of your mind. They’ve spent the night whispering lies about the small pink blotch of skin on your chest that will bloom into cancer and seep through your flesh and into your heart, or reminding you of every false, infuriating word your father said, or giving you a close look at the soundless black abyss that waits for you.
This is the dawn when you’ve been up all night drunk, on drugs, a lunatic. The taste is sour. It is stale. It is the rotting tang of summer dumpsters. It tastes like sucking spilled whiskey from the sleeve of a wool sweater. It tastes like things you want to forget about yourself. It tastes like the amoxicillin you drank as a child to cure the infection in your ear. It tastes like dust, like desiccated residue, like skin and shit and heavy, metal particles that linger in the air. It tastes like regret. And it tastes, too, like fear.
Toothpaste doesn’t help, or it helps only a little bit, because the taste is not just on your tongue, but down your throat and in your belly, coating your lungs, lining the sick, wet crannies of your poisoned guts.
The taste of fear comes from the knowledge, as the sky begins its shift, that you have murdered this next day, one that hasn’t even lived yet, and no mouth-to-mouth will bring it back. What have I done?
As Clarice Lispector writes, “It is important to be awake in order to see. But it is also important to sleep in order to dream about the lack of time.” I do not think you need to be asleep to know that night is atemporal. The hours bend differently in the dark; there are times in the night when the concept of an hour doesn’t make sense. In a state of late-night debauch, one exits time, in fragmented fireworks of conversation, in kissing, in another drink, in another, in the desperate press against another body to confirm the insatiability of desire. Dizzy, thrilled, dissolved, spent. Time gone.
And then dawn shows up like a cop, like an angry neighbor, like death itself, and the clock starts ticking again. The damp cold come down begins, a new day wrecked from the start. The mouth is dry and sour. All you want to do is eat, or else that is the last thing in this world you want to do.
Nan Goldin captures this mood like no one else. To look at her images from the eighties, from The Ballad of Sexual Dependency in particular, is to taste the cigarettes, the beers, the waxy lipstick licked and smeared, the nights that go and go and go until they can’t go any longer. Take the image “Nan and Brian in Bed, New York City.” The light is yellow. He sits up, she lies looking wary. Both look troubled. This is not the hopeful gold of early morning. The next step is to close the curtains. Let’s forget last night, we can talk about it later, let’s try to sleep it off.
Or consider a later image, “David H. Looking Down, Zurich, 1998,” of a young man, with features a little less delicate than Timothée Chalamet’s, shirtless, looking down his bare chest. He is thin and strong and shame seems to run down the back of his throat. What have I done?
Or take any of her images of beds (“Empty beds, Lexington, Massachusetts 1979”; “Suzanne in yellow hotel room, Hotel Seville, Merida, Mexico (1981)”; “My room in halfway house Belmont, Ma.”), but especially “My hotel room, Valencia, Spain.” The tasseled yellow bedspreads are frayed; the carpet is worn, stained; two scuffed red shoes lie as though they’d been stumbled out of in exhaustion, in despair. The two beds, pushed together, are littered with papers, books, a white phone, a role of paper towels, a belt like a snake. One can almost hear the hum of the fluorescent bulbs in the ceiling above. There is no sense of, Thank god I’m home. It’s more: who am I, what is this place, where am I, what day is it, what am I doing, will I ever feel home again?
In this dawn, one is jagged, raw at the edges, sick with doubt, and so, so lonely. A cosmic kind of alone that registers as nausea. It tastes like dirty-footed demons stomping on the back of your tongue.
I lived in Philadelphia for a time. Toward the end, I spent some weeks staying up late, staying up most of the night. I’d find myself with this person or that person, sitting on the stoop on Baltimore Avenue as night disintegrated. The first sign of morning was the Amoroso’s Bread trucks that rumbled by on their morning deliveries. We were out there enough that we’d wave to the drivers and I had a wish that one of them would stop and hand us a loaf, just once, just for being awake with them, and that we’d sit on the stoop and we’d chew the warm, soft bread without talking because it was not a time for language then, either. They never stopped. The drivers waved back though, some of them.
If you’ve been up all night, you know that there is a divide between people who’ve seen the whole of the night and those who have slept through it. It is as though, for a time, they are two different species. When it got to be tomorrow, we’d watch the first people walking down the sidewalk on their way to work. Freshly showered, cereal eaten, minty mouthed, wearing clothes they’d put on just an hour before. There is no communication between these two species. Each knows something the other does not.
On the stoop, the options were two: bed or diner. Sometimes the sun comes up in an all-night place while you are pushing waffles into your mouth. Day breaks, but your attention is on the plate in front of you, on the thick-lipped mug of coffee. Yellowy waffles with pale, melting butter pooling in the squares and sweet, tree-blood syrup pouring in that beautiful way from those stainless steel vessels. There are okay tastes at dawn for those who’ve seen all of the night. It’s a way of re-establishing order—it’s morning, it’s breakfast, it’s normal, we’re all okay.
For the narrator in Hiromi Kawakami’s breathtaking novel The Briefcase (the best book about eating and drinking that I know), dawn finds her mushroom hunting with three men. In the woods, they clean the mushrooms, tear the big ones into small pieces, sauté them in a pan on a camping stove, and use water from a stream to make soup, adding miso, and letting it simmer. Once they finish the soup, one of them pulls from his pack “dried mushrooms. Rice crackers. Dried smoked squid. Whole tomatoes. Canned bonito.” And saké. “My stomach was already warm from the mushroom soup, and the saké warmed it even more.” Mushrooms from the floor of the forest, an impromptu soup, and provisions pulled from a pack. It is another way to start a day. It tastes good.
After the night, it can be the act of eating, the return to our senses, that steadies what’s ill and jangled. It’s a new day, after all, and what can you do but hunger for it.
Read the other installments in this series here.
Nina MacLaughlin is a writer and carpenter in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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Our half-day workshop on this
Charlie Stackhouse: early bird. Andrew Cinnamon: night owl. The two men, founders of the creative agency Cinnamon Projects, spent a year collecting images—drawings and photographs from books and online—and assigned each image a set of tags according to composition, emotional response, and time. When they filtered the results according to time of day, they found the patterns and themes that presented themselves were particularly compelling. So they designed a series of scents, perfumes and incense, that are “chaptered by the hour.” The perfumes are based on the hours of 8 A.M., 10 A.M., 2 P.M., 9 P.M., and 11 P.M.
What does 11 P.M. smell like? Like white, thick-petaled flowers growing on vines, blooming at night. They climb up the gutter of a stone house that you pass on a night walk and the flowers glow like the moon glows and give off a moist smell, something like fur coats, an adult smell from the mind of a child. According to their description, it’s “deep, sophisticated, mystifying” with “amber, clove, carnation, patchouli.”
And 8 A.M.? A shampoo for children, soft and sudsy, with hints of just-laundered beach towels dried on the line, lollipops, and innocence. A bathed child, a summer morning, a porch-door slam, sunscreen, lemonade, bare feet, honeysuckle. Not just a fresh day, a fresh life. According to them: “golden, opulent, alluring,” with “neroli, orris, sandalwood, vanilla.”
And 2 P.M.? It is not among my favorite hours of the day. It’s the hour that ushers in the afternoon slump when I know the good work of the day is behind me. Of the perfume set though, it is my favorite. It is an athletic smell, the salty musk of secret places, like you’ve sweat just a little bit. Less floral and more woodsy, with light lacing through pine needles, it’s the vigorous, dense smell of walking down a path in the forest and sensing the afternoon might hold a beer and sex, and right now, the pine-pitch stickiness of sap. A sensual smell that says you’re doing it, you’ve done it, you’re alive in the woods. Less like perfume and more like all your smells combined. In truth, the perfume altered my perception of the hour. According to them, 2 P.M. is “raw, sensual, grounding” with “cypress, black pepper, driftwood, and vetiver.”
The closest Cinnamon Projects gets to dawn is an incense for 7 A.M. (“cosmic, ethereal, meditative”; “black tea, clay, driftwood, marigold”). The incense, to my nose, is hard to detangle; all incense smells like high school.
What would dawn smell like? What perfume would capture those seven minutes, or eleven minutes, in between night and day? Let’s do what Stackhouse and Cinnamon did, and start with some images.
Return of the Sun by Odd Nerdrum. Three brawny, thick-limbed women lean against a stone balcony, facing the sky and the sun. Tan, peach, and purple colors. The clouds sweep and bend. One can feel the press of the girls’ flesh against each other. Something warm, eager, ready, embracing here. So one smells: kneaded bread, yeast, peach pit, burnt sugar, the brothy smell of sleep and flannel.
Come Away from Her by Kiki Smith. A yellow-haired girl sits on a mound in a dress. A cloud of large birds, black like smoke or night or shadow, some have hind legs with paws—wolves or cats, who knows—fly away from her. The image is based on a drawing by Lewis Carroll. There’s a sense of being left, fled from, deposited somewhere alone and left to see what happens next, an end and a beginning. So one smells: black licorice, nickels, feathers, sage, dried grass as in nests, shoreline, potential.
Hayhook by Sally Mann. A girl dangles naked from a hook hung from a porch ceiling. She is framed against an open door that leads to darkness. There are people on the porch, a long-legged man, a women reading, another, younger girl, also naked, with something in her mouth. The hanging girl does not have breasts but she will soon. She puts out her own light. She is a cusping moon. She hangs in between this world and another, in between childhood and womanhood, between dark and light, night and day, life and death. Her head is back; one cannot see her face. She is almost meat. And one can almost hear the light thud when she lets go, surrenders herself to gravity, and her weight lands on the wood floor of the porch. So one smells: electricity, menstrual blood.
What does dawn smell like? Peach pit, licorice, bread, nests, sparks, blood. What does dawn smell like? Anticipation.
There is a dispute about what place in the United States sees the first moment of sunrise. It depends on the time of year and complicated calculations about how light bends. Cadillac Mountain in Maine claims it; so does Siasconset on the eastern edge of Nantucket Island. I walked to the beach there in the dark one September morning. I sat in the sand, ready to see the glowing apricot dome peak over the horizon line, rays spearing themselves across the waves. I sat in the damp sand and waited.
Smell, like dawn, exists in the past and in the future. What’s come before, what’s coming next. Marcel Proust and neuroscientists both know: smell is the sense most linked with memory. A scent in the air deposits one back into the hallways of one’s elementary school, to a street corner in a foreign city, the doorway of one’s childhood kitchen: onions in oil on the pan, the vanilla blanket of a birthday cake, soup on a snow day. Smell makes of us time travelers.
We travel back. We travel forward. Smell is the most anticipatory sense. One smells the coffee on the counter before one takes the mug to the mouth. One smells the rotting mouse below the fridge before one sees it. One smells rain on warm pavement before one feels the drops. We’re blasted with pheromonal force before we know what it is we’re registering. And dawn, likewise, is the most anticipatory moment. Is it happening? Did I miss it?
On the beach, the wind blew at me, pressed against my face and chest; the sky was low. The air smelled metallic, ionized. Why? Don’t tell me; it’s not yet time for words. Then: a faded pink glow. A skirt of pink light. It’s coming, it’s coming. A radiant swell. It’s about to happen. Oh god. It’s all happening, now, I thought, there on the sand, not wanting to blink. Here it comes, the sun is coming. “Not knowing when the dawn will come / I open every door,” wrote Emily Dickinson. A reminder: ready yourself, open every way in. It’s not just the start of some new day, it’s the unfolding of everything. Light, love, art, the next idea that illuminates your mind and steers you some new way. Open all the doors! Is it happening? Will it happen today? What joy there is in never being sure. “We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake,” Thoreau urges us, echoing Ms. Dickinson, “by an infinite expectation of the dawn.”
On the beach, the waves kept coming toward me. The light kept coming toward me. The forces we can’t see guide us anyway. There is no stopping the waves, the passing time, the daily emergence of the light. At dawn, more than any other moment, we’re witness to earth’s turning. It seems impossible, to be able to watch the movement of the earth, but at dawn you can see how fast it happens. We’re hurtling.
The pink glow faded. A thickness of purple-gray clouds grew so dense it nearly eclipsed the coming light. Facts on the computer had told me sunrise was at 6:13 A.M. I did not want to look at my watch. I knew there were still a few more minutes. The air smelled like rust and light. Colors were coming back into the world. And then, there on a beach on the eastern edge of an island, it was day. The smell of metal disappeared, and the air smelled only of the ocean, salty and damp. No trumpet blast. It had happened. I didn’t know exactly when. A single seal raised its head from the waves.
I had thought I’d see the sun come bouncing up over the horizon line like a ball, and yet I felt no disappointment. I didn’t feel I’d missed anything. I was simply quiet. I would walk back to the house on paths lined with goldenrod and honeysuckle. Breakfast, coffee. I could almost taste it.
Nina MacLaughlin is a writer and carpenter in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Each and every day in corporate America, new technologies, new world markets, and new competitors arise at a faster pace than ever before. Forget about 5-year strategic plans. Those days are over. These days, organizations barely take the time to look 12-months into their future. And, as a result, senior teams end up rushing through their strategic planning process. Indeed, all-too-often, the so-called light at the end of the tunnel is nothing more than an oncoming train no one has a ticket for.
Rushing through your company’s strategic planning process just to keep the business afloat is not a good idea. Not only does it stifle innovation and stress people out, it threatens next year’s profitability. And then? It’s only a matter of time before stagnation sets in, 11th hour troubleshooting heads its ugly rear, and the predicable blame game begins.
The alternative? Help your senior teams become agile. In the immortal words of Charles Darwin, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”
Agile leaders are skillful at responding to the demands of accelerating change. They know how to deal with the inevitable uncertainty, ambiguity, and chaos that accompanies it. Dealing with change is not a problem for them. Nor is it a surprise or something to be avoided. Not only do agile leaders understand the phenomenon of change, they embrace it. And even more than that, they are able to help others navigate their way forward with clarity, insight, and a positive outlook.
Agile leadership is not a binary phenomenon. It is not an either/or phenomenon. Rather, it is a both/and phenomenon — the ability proceed with clarity and power even when there is no path in sight.
Bottom line, agile leaders have the mindset, skills, and expertise to make wise choices on the fly. They know how to focus, empower, and inspire others. They are discerning, intentional, courageous, collaborative, and able to see the forest for the trees.
Simply put, agile leaders know how to balance the long-term with the short-term. And perhaps most importantly, they know how to create advantage in the marketplace by helping their teams bring their “A” game during times of transition, ambiguity, and change.
The Agile Leadership/Agile Teams workshop
The Seize the Future workshop
The conspiracy lives. It goes on without you and within you, and it’s big—a perfect example of a hyperobject. That word, coined by Timothy Morton to describe those features of our existence too vast to apprehend entirely, to get our heads around, is frequently applied to global warming—which, taken as an example, in turn helps to clarify Morton’s odd term.
In a triple sense, global warming, or “climate change,” is a notion pervaded with an atmosphere of conspiracy. First, of course, the outstandingly real and simple disaster somehow stands under accusation of being the concoction of special interests (ecological, Chinese, or what have you). Second, its onset—so gradual, and now so sudden—proposes the existence of a nonhuman conspiracy against capitalism. It’s as if, instead of machines rising up against humans (as in The Terminator, or that old Twilight Zone episode in which the electric shaver comes slithering down the stairs like a cobra), it is the laws of nature that will ultimately act, like a Marvel supervillain, to topple humanity. Third, and most poignant, it has demanded in response a manifestly useless “conspiracy of good sense”; right-thinking people everywhere attempting to conspire in saving the world and … getting nowhere in particular. In this regard, or in all these senses put together, you could say we live in the era of the first truly global conspiracy that actually matters, one with sway over every human prospect. Masons, secret lizards, CIA LSD, Scientology, Tupperware, all pale in comparison.
Morton’s notion of the hyperobject also illuminates a paradoxical feature of the conspiracy: in its limitlessness, tenuousness, invisibility, and threat, it begs to be denied absolutely. Either the conspiracy infiltrates everything, or it doesn’t exist.
But that’s not right, or not right enough: the conspiracy is real partly because we make it real—like a god. One central source of the conspiracy’s power is the fact that we can’t agree, not only on what it looks like or what its purposes might be but on whether or not it’s there at all. It feeds on belief and disbelief, a billion-footed Lovecraftian creature running amok because each of us is knitting one of its socks—and those of us who deny its existence are knitting some of its most useful socks. Though the image is absurd, the word knitting suggests the knit brow of the worried person, and Shakespeare’s “sleep that knits up the raveled sleave of care.” We dwell on malign conspiracies while we’re suffering insomniac episodes.
Conspiracies also unravel, like a sweater, when they’re exposed. Or we hope they do, though actually it is more often the harmless or bogus ones that are most eligible for exposure and unraveling. The deeper and more tenacious conspiracies hide in plain sight, yet remain miraculously denied and therefore immune to simple exposure. This is where the notion of conspiracy dovetails with the concept of ideology, and with an understanding of the kinds of power baked into Foucauldian institutions. The more local and frantic and isolated variety of conspiracy thinking, in fact, often does the labor of distracting us from the oppressive operation of background power, of those “deep states” of family, nation, corporation, church. Seeing conspiracies everywhere is often denounced as a mug’s game, a dark inversion of wishful thinking: how convenient it would be if everything oppressive were the fault of some nameable bad actor who could be apprehended and punished! And yet this discrediting of the notion of conspiracy is one of the deepest operations of the conspiracy, isn’t it?
Conspiracy is a truly American motif, since ours is a nation conceived—rigged up from available parts—by a gang of slave-owning freedom fighters whispering in candlelit rooms, exchanging frantic drafts of improbable manifestos. The Masonic pyramid on the dollar bill is also a Ponzi-scheme emblem. It was Melville, in The Confidence-Man, who perfectly located that site where conspirator and con man converge—an image of the darkly veiled American huckster, making all our Manifest Destiny happen. The westward migration was a conspiracy along these Ponzi lines: keep selling the next sucker on the terrific arable land just down the track. Worse still is the conspiracy of genocide. We’re easily able to see this in Nazi trains to Nazi camps, less ready to accept it in smallpox blankets and “Urban Renewal,” those periodic and convulsive schemes to raze black middle-class cities like East Saint Louis, or slow-acting but effective “kill the poor” trickle-nowhere Republicanism.
Yet for all the conspiracy’s bigness, its political implication, the image of the knitter—knit one, purl two, repeat ad infinitum—points us as well to the intimacy and intricacy, the miniaturized and obsessional nature of the conspiracy theorist’s mind-set. It’s always personal, sometimes it’s a little masturbatory. The devil is in the details, and if it’s a forest in which the monster lurks, it’s a forest made of trees—always notice the trees, I think they’re creeping closer!
What was I saying? Everything is connected, and everything matters. The research and scholarship necessary for managing a universe in the clutch of malign powers can seem rather poignant, even abject, but that’s only to say it’s sublimely human. The knitter’s yarn is also needed to provide the string between the pushpins and thumbtacks on the “crazy wall,” that staple of so many television shows and movies in which a person’s patternmaking madness is rendered explicit in a handcrafted flowchart of interconnections. It’s usually a scene of horror and/or pity, and yet another part of us knows the maker of the crazy wall is onto something, and we’re going to be playing catch-up by the end of the story. We need our paranoiacs and our detectives combined in just the right proportion, into Sherlock Holmes or Naomi Klein or Philip K. Dick, to lead us out of the wilderness, or at least show us what it looks like.
Most of our own crazy walls lead nowhere certain or, worse, into greater dark. Yet the coping individual subject, under the vast conspiracy known as contemporary life, isn’t something we can safely patronize or disclaim. We’re all we’ve got, now and forever, unless we want to surrender control of the whole thing to the post-human artificial intelligences who are already plotting to supplant us, who may in fact be the second globally relevant conspiracy we’ve conjured up for the twenty-first century.
Moving further from forest to trees, burrowing from macro to micro, it’s worth observing that consciousness itself is a kind of conspiracy. Our construction of self—memories, dreams, projections—is a thing there and not there, a machine raveling it all together by an unknowable and dubious mechanics, hiding crucial facts and features from view, and riddled with fissures and incongruities while proposing a seamless and perfect surface. We have conspirators within ourselves, in the form of our Freudian and Darwinian ghosts, strange operators with no duty of obedience to our daily agendas, our objectives inside the ordinary waking life. What a mess! Then again, why shouldn’t we be as gnarled and obscure as the larger forces manipulating us? Maybe it takes one to know one; perhaps we’re the right tool for the job.
Still, entertaining a live nerve for conspiracy feels craven and creepy, deeply at odds with the path of mindfulness, of good faith in others, of choosing your battles, and of getting off the grid. What to do, when we all understand both that the conspiracy is real and also that looking at it or thinking about it is bad for our individual health, sanity, and capacity to thrive as a participant-servant to the Matrix? What’s worse, the details are so bo-ring! Nobody wants to be that guy unveiling the conversational black hole at the dinner party.
The answer may be here, in the pages of this book. “Paranoid art is where Copernicus goes to be persistently overthrown, for it has noticed that consciousness is itself a permanent conspiracy theory, and one that is ipso facto correct: I think, therefore I am the center of this story … While paranoia in everyday life asks questions it believes have terrifying answers, paranoid art knows the more terrifying (and inevitable) discoveries are further questions. For paranoid art, unlike paranoid persons, also distrusts itself. And so, paranoid art is the ultimate opposite, the urgent opposite, of complacent art” (Jonathan Lethem, Fear of Music). I couldn’t have said it better myself. By suffusing themselves in the affective texture of left paranoia—the morbidity, the self-reproach, but also the adrenaline spike of obsessive due diligence, of clue discovery, of pinning a new three-by-five card to the crazy wall and seeing it shed light on its neighbors—the artifacts and tableaux assembled by these thriving canaries in the coal mine of late capitalism are evidence of our collective capacity to endure and abide, to detect the galaxy in a grain of sand, and to laugh in the dark. Like Don DeLillo in his JFK-assassination-conspiracy novel, Libra, these artworks don’t resolve the conundrums they entertain but instead provide a kind of mirrored room or resonating chamber that allows us to visit such apprehensions in their natural state, and to locate ourselves in them, in various states of outrage, bewilderment, complicity, arousal, and despair. This we’d better learn to do, since the only alternative is to ignore the conspiracy completely.
Jonathan Lethem is a novelist, essayist, and short-story writer. He teaches in the English department of Pomona College, Claremont, California. His latest book is The Feral Detective, out tomorrow from Ecco. Read his Art of Fiction interview.
“Knitting the Monster’s Socks,” by Jonathan Lethem, excerpted from Everything Is Connected: Art and Conspiracy, by Douglas Eklund and Ian Alteveer, published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York © 2018. Reprinted by permission. The publication is available for purchase at The Met Store and Yale University Press. It accompanies an exhibition of the same name at The Met Breuer, on view through January 6, 2018.