Monday, January 2, 2012

Art as access to the authentic experience (Books - Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner)

I have finished my first read of 2012 Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner, a suggestion of Brad Listi's and a gift from my in-laws. This smart, funny, occasionally infuriating novel is about a young American poet's experience of alienation and the art he makes out of his experience while on a fellowship in Spain.
I had long worried that I was incapable of having a profound experience of art and I had trouble believing that anyone had, at least anyone I knew. I was intensely suspicious of people who claimed a poem or painting or piece of music "changed their life," especially since I had often known these people before and after their experience and could register no change. Although I claimed to be a poet, although my supposed talent as a writer had earned me my fellowship in Spain, I tended to find lines of poetry beautiful only when I encountered them quoted in prose, in the essays my professors had assigned in college, where the line breaks were replaced with slashes, so that what was communicated was less particular poem than the echo of poetic possibility. Insofar as I was interested in the arts, I was interested in the disconnect between my experience of actual artworks and the claims made on their behalf; the closest I'd come to having a profound experience of the absence of profundity.
Adam, our protagonist, sees a man in the Prado weep profusely before a painting. He and the museum's guards follow him through the museum as though he has committed some crime. Adam doubts the man's authenticity utterly, as he seems to doubt the sincerity of almost any human gesture he meets. He has the most profound case of existential angst I have ever seen. Adam seems worried about the veracity of, well, everything. Not least among these is the words he commits to paper. His solution is to compose poems via random chance (this is an accepted method of composition explored by respected writers, composers, painters, choreographers...) for, he claims, poems have no meaning (he is not the first to do this either). He suspects every word spoken to him. Every laugh someone makes in the room must be about him. He seems to doubt even the authenticity of his own behavior. This may have something to do with being a wordsmith and being involved in a culture where he doesn't know the language. It also, no doubt, has something to do with the copious amount of drugs he takes. His solution is to compose most of his behavior for effect. He claims to be conducting an experiment of sorts, an experiment in which he and the people he encounters are the lab rats.
...Teresa was approaching, the ember of her cigarette describing little circles as she walked, the ice audible in her glass as she drew nearer, and I realized with some anxiety that she would expect me to be upset, very moved, that I needed to be so in order to justify my abrupt departure from the others. I turned back toward the fence, licked the tips of my fingers, and rubbed the spit under my eyes to make it look like I'd been crying, repeating this until I felt there would be enough moisture to catch a little light or at least make my face damp to the touch.
Adam may think he is researching experience, but he is really distancing himself chemically and rhetorically out of panic from every touch of experience offered to him. He is the most fantastic liar - telling some incredible whoppers that made this reader both laugh and cringe with embarrassment. Yet, the way Lerner makes interchangeable the language that is Adam's tool of composition and the behavior via which we communicate experience to ourself is the crux of his astute novel and the source of its entertainment.
That I smoked hash with tobacco was critical during this phase of my project, although I was resolved never to smoke a cigarette again after leaving Spain, and so smoked with particular abandon, critical because the cigarette or spliff was an indispensable technology, a substitute for speech in social situations, a way to occupy the mouth and hands when alone, a deep breathing technique that rendered exhalation material, a way to measure and/or pass the time. More important than the easily satisfiable addiction, what the little cylinders provided me was a prefabricated motivation and transition, a way to approach or depart from a group of people or a topic, enter or exit a room, conjoin or punctuate a sentence. The hardest part of quitting would be the loss of narrative function; it would be like removing telephones or newspapers from the movies of Hollywood's Golden Age; there would be no possible link between scenes, no way to circulate information or close distance...
Lerner smartly drops Adam into a context where the people surrounding him seem to live realer lives than his. The social circles he travel in seem suffused with emotional sincerity (possibly true or possibly a function of the way we interpret behavior when we aren't fluent in a language). The political climate Adam inhabits is that of the tragic bombing on Madrid's Atocha Station and Spain's first election post 9/11, a time during which much of Western Europe assumed a superiority to America. I remember traveling to Holland the week after 9/11 and while I was not in favor of almost anything the Bush administration did, I found the tone of the anti-Americanism that I encountered imbued with a sort of punishing moralism. It was full of the accusation that because of my nationality, the way I lived lacked seriousness and authenticity. Juxtaposing Adam against these backdrops of, shall we say, social and political hyper-reality, depicted the contrast of his existential and compositional worries in bold relief.

Lerner indulged in some moments of arty self-consciousness that could almost be excused by the narrator himself being a poet but not quite:
It was worse than having a sinking feeilng: I was a sinking feeling, an unplayable adagio for strings...
There was also a long disquisition on the poems of John Ashbery that, however brilliant seemed out of place. But despite these moments, and despite despising Adam for his jaw-dropping lies and the way he uses other human beings, I became caught up in his story as he wrote his poems and felt the events of his life. I became hopeful that he would unravel the tangle of his lies and win his battle for authenticity by allowing himself to be touched. This made Leaving the Atocha Station a clever, creative, and satisfying read.

No comments: