In a playwrighting workshop seven years ago we were asked to bring in art that had influenced us or that we thought was particularly meaningful. I can’t remember what I brought, Infinite Jest? In a similar, but adequately different situation several years before I had chosen the final showdown gun-fighting scene in Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad and the Ugly as my favorite musicalized film moment. Ennio Morricone’s score to this film has achieved cliché-status but the extremity of the operatic climax and the rhythm of the film editing have an orgasmic quality, an overflowing aesthetic with an indivisible remainder that appealed and still appeals to my *dramatic* persona.
But in this particular workshop the successful British playwright who was facilitating the discussion led with his own choice: A song by The Pixies. It played from a small stereo for three or four minutes during which we were all silently listening and forming some thoughts. The song ended and we were then prompted to voice our opinions. Of course I only remember one response, which was hostile, but critical in an enduring way. Negation is political and in certain scenarios the political cannot be contained, it creates a rupture that spreads into our minds and out and beyond. The critical auditor was an African-American female and of what she said I can remember her affect more than the precise words: “This is just white boy stuff. Nahhh Nahhhh Nahhh Nahhhh. It’s just droning along without any motion. One note. This does nothing for me.” Not a particularly trenchant analysis, but it was less her words and more her ontological frustration that allowed me to hear her language as more than juvenile aesthetic critique, but a challenge to a certain mode of artistic subjectivity. Without detouring now forever into the nuances of white working-class dysphoria or the politics of punk, this outspoken, emotional and purposefully discomfiting challenge had a disorienting effect on my mind: Why do I like what I like, and what is artistic enjoyment anyway?
The narrator of Ben Lerner’s 2011 novel Leaving the Atocha Station would perhaps pick John Ashbery’s 1963 poem Leaving the Atocha Station as a particular piece of art that influenced his vision. The narrator is a poet who is on a fellowship in Spain in 2004 and the narrative reflects the hyper self-awareness of the “experience of experience” as Ashbery has described his own work. These experiences include visiting museums, trying (as a language-obsessed poet) to navigate a country that speaks a different language and meeting new Spanish friends, lovers, translators, poets and art curators. But reading the novel through the language of the poet-narrator we see this world through a highly literate, narcissistic, and idiosyncratic lens. The humor is incessant and comes from the acutely honest interior monologue:
What are you doing in Madrid, he said. Here I delivered a version of the answer I had memorized for my Spanish exam in Providence, a long answer composed by a fluent friend, regarding the significance of the Spanish Civil War, about which I knew nothing, for a generation of writers, few of whom I’d read; I intended to write, I explained, a long, research-driven poem exploring the war’s literary legacy. It was an answer of considerable grammatical complexity, describing the significance of my project in the conditional, the past subjunctive, and the future tense. To my surprise and discomfort Arturo’s interest was piqued…
He is a remarkable bullshit artist. But unlike the window-washer hero of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying who finds his way to become chairman of the board in one week, the poet Adam Gordon is no charming Machiavellian tyro-turned-tycoon. Instead we have a privileged Ivy-league educated poet who keeps succeeding in spite of the crushing weight of his self-critique and the deplorable dishonesty of his self-fashioning. The contradiction of his habitual lying and the harsh honesty of his commentary create a fascinating human puzzle. Deceit and candor combine and allow us to witness a mind wrestling with its own meaning, a kind of difficult poem.
In an interview in Believer Magazine the author Ben Lerner describes the work of Allen Grossman and his theory of the tension in the poem between “what the poet wants the poem to do and what it can actually do.”
For Grossman, this arises out of a kind of contradiction at the heart of poetry that’s always been with us, what he calls “the bitter logic of the poetic principle.” Poetic logic is bitter because the poem is structurally foredoomed. The lyric poet is moved to make a poem because she is dissatisfied with the human world, the world of representation. But the stuff of poetry, language, invariably reproduces the structures it aspires to replace. According to Grossman, poetry issues from the desire to get beyond the human, the finite, the historical, and to reach the transcendent or divine. But as soon as the poet moves from the poetic impulse to the actual poem, the song of the infinite is compromised by the finitude of its terms. So the poem is always a record of failure because you can’t actualize the impulse that gave rise to it without betraying it.
We have feelings and can try to recreate them or reproduce them in art for the resonance it may engender in others, but we are always already limited by the tools that intrinsically betray this desire. Successful art will in some way be able to convey this poetic problem at the heart of the project. And we see in Adam Gordon’s story a certain kind of recreation of this impossibility as the nuanced performance of his lies or smudging of the truth immediately strikes the rigor of his thought. Not to mention his own poetry about which he seems hesitant to lend any value, “Not that poems were about anything” but which sufficiently impress his Spanish audience, one of whom begins to translate his work.
But a novel can’t really be “about” the gap between language and the real, or can it? The narrator describes John Ashbery’s poetry:
The best Ashbery poems, I thought, although not in these words, describe what it’s like to read an Ashbery poem; his poems refer to how their reference evanesces. And when you read about your reading in the time of your reading, mediacy is experienced immediately. It is as though the actual Ashbery poem were concealed from you, written on the other side of the mirrored surface.
Yes. And. Leaving the Atocha Station is known to be one of Ashbery’s most difficult poems: “…perhaps derived from Abstract Expressionism” “…the vagaries of their randomness…” “The poem represents no experience in particular…” “Calculated incoherence”– to sample a few haphazard quotes from Google Books. Ashbery describes the poem in an interview: “It strikes me that the dislocated, incoherent fragments of images which make up the movement of the poem are probably the experience you get from a train pulling out of a station of no particular significance.” So we are at the limit of poetry, but nonetheless there are words in the poem and they are evocative, resonant, related. Here are the first few lines:
The arctic honey blabbed over the report causing darkness
And pulling us out of there experiencing it
he meanwhile . . . And the fried bats they sell there
dropping from sticks, so that the menace of your prayer folds . . .
Other people . . . flash
the garden are you boning
and defunct covering . . . Blind dog expressed royalties . . .
comfort of your perfect tar grams nuclear world bank tulip
Favorable to near the night pin
loading formaldehyde. the table torn from you
Suddenly and we are close
Mouthing the root when you think
generator homes enjoy leered
The worn stool blazing pigeons from the roof
driving tractor to squash
Leaving the Atocha Station steel
infected bumps the screws
Perhaps this is a naïve reading, but to my mind the poem is intensely erotic, sexual, orgasmic even. The discombobulating words strike me as short-circuited, electric and non-linear as a mind lit on fire, endlessly folding into itself in pleasure and pain. “Arctic honey”, “pulling us out”, “flash”, “boning”, “mouthing the root”, “worn stool blazing”, “bumps the screws”. It’s an evocative vocabulary, difficult and disjunctive in a way that mirrors, in my reading at least, the experience of experience, sure, but an experience that is sexually over-determined.
The one poem included in the novel which is written by the poet-narrator Adam Gordon, but also written and published by the actual novelist Ben Lerner in a previous volume of poetry is probably even more directly erotic:
Possessing a weapon has made me bashful.
Tears appreciate in this economy of pleasure.
The ether of data engulfs the capitol.
Possessing a weapon has made me forgetful.
My oboe tars her cenotaph.
The surface is in process.
Coruscant skinks emerge in force.
The moon spits on a copse of spruce.
Plausible opposites stir in the brush.
Jupiter spins in its ruts.
The wind extends its every courtesy.
I have never been here.
You have never seen me.
Perhaps it’s because I’m a musician, but I doubt I will ever forget the evocative “My oboe tars her cenotaph” —-The forlorn tone of the double reed, the lugubrious eroticism of her cenotaph, elusively “tarred”. The desire to erase the experience as the poem ends and its initial “economy” perhaps evoke a sexual encounter with a prostitute: Desire and shame experienced simultaneously. If I stretch too far in a prurient direction we can at least argue that the language and moments of the poem are dramatized in the diction of desire. And the tears that the narrator-poet incredulously notices on a museum-goer in Madrid (for how does art actually emotionally move someone?) now “appreciate in this economy of pleasure.”
Although the poet-narrator Adam Gordon never visits any prostitutes, much of his experiences revolve around Teresa and Isabel, two Spanish women who he has relationships with. The relationship with Isabel, whom he meets through his Spanish tutor, is sexual; while the relationship with Teresa is professional as she is translating his poems but also ambiguously flirtatious and riven with jealousy. The sexual encounters of the novel, however, are veiled and not explicitly described. The poet’s candor stops at a point and it is perhaps this domain of sex where narrative or prose seems inappropriate and ill suited. Poetry to Adam Gordon/Ben Lerner and John Ashbery is one way perhaps to attempt to render the asymptotic limits of physical and mental orgasmic short-circuiting, an impossible task that succeeds in its failure.
So the novel is also about desire. And the desire of desire, or the desire to be desired. Here we move away from the single point of “the experience of experience” to a more dynamic vector: The experience of the desire of desire– The desire to be accepted, loved, feted, translated; the degree to which one will lie in order to achieve these goals and the self-disgust that comes with betraying one’s history, family or friends in the process. And this process is the process of power and an intimate description of the process of this power’s becoming. Much of the mental calculating that gives the novel its psychological acuity focuses on the narrator’s incessant attempts to present himself in a certain way to these two women and then immediate criticism of the efficacy of his ploys. It’s a familiar mental state and heightened by the cultural differences–especially the American abroad in 2004 at the height of post-9/11 militarism in Iraq.
The power that the United States is wielding across the globe, the destructive violence it is effecting in Afghanistan and Iraq is mirrored somewhat in the poet Adam Gordon’s experience in Spain and his conquest of a certain sector of the literary scene. When the 2004 Madrid train bombings strike the Atocha Station and bring the War on Terror and the Terrorists’ War on Us into Spain it is a moment in the narrative where Adam is at his most sexually jealous. Carlos, who is “a Marxist” has attracted the attention of Teresa and playfully teases the poet-narrator, filling him with a jealous rage. The nexus of desire and power cloud over the bombing sequence, which coincides with demonstrations and a presidential election that sees the Socialist Workers party (PSOE) come to power as voters blame the bombings in part on the right-wing People’s Party’s support for the Iraq War.
Which leads us to politics.
How do we characterize someone who would lie on a grant application about an interest in the Spanish Civil War about which he knows nothing? And who for the duration of the novel makes no real attempt to engage with the history of this conflict? The fact that Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia is not even name-checked is remarkable. Instead he reads Don Quixote and John Ashbery. So is this novel a critique of a self-interested American who narcissistically attempts to escape history while history is erupting all around? Or is it a kind of mea culpa of the educated white male class in which we are forgiven because of the brutality of our honesty: “I can’t help it, but this is the truth.” The plot of the novel strictly avoids any redemption for the narrator where he would experience some sort of historical epiphany. And the Spanish characters don’t leave him much room for political development either; on the day of the historic vote, one of Teresa’s friends doesn’t vote because he “won’t participate in a corrupt system”, and the “Marxist” votes for the right wing party in order to “destabilize the system.” But these strategies are only included to highlight the “comedy” of the milieu our narrator has entered. The poet may be hypocritical, but the left-leaning, literary elite he associates with also suffers from a large dose of contradiction as well.
As a satire this works well enough I suppose. But there is “satire” and then there is “the roast.” The roast is different from satire because in the roast the object of ridicule and jokes is still worthy of our love and admiration. We roast famous and talented actors, snickering at their eccentricities and foibles, but return in the end to endearment, love, or sentimentality. The best man’s speech at a wedding is a roast, for example. Satire on the other hand holds its target in contempt. Though perhaps admiring one or two qualities of victim, the idea is to subject the person to a withering critique and weaken the power this figure wields. The novel’s success perhaps rests in allowing the reader to accept the novel as either a satire or a roast. Depending on one’s own history, nationality, gender, ethnicity, vocation one may feel the journey of this novel in contradictory ways. We’re left with a character that we come to know intimately, but who leaves us as an indeterminate sign.
I don’t take the novel as a bildungsroman, “to forge in the smithy of my soul”, etc… That novel would end much differently, with the poet perhaps heading to the library instead of the museum and reading a few history books. How about Gerald Brenan’s classic The Spanish Labyrinth? Ronald Fraser’s The Blood of Spain? Antony Beevor, Hugh Thomas, George Orwell. English readers are lucky; many of the definitive histories and studies of the Civil War were written by British writers. In fact the European country that contains the most English expatriates is Spain. A deep study of this conflict will tell you a thing or two about the 20th century. And the narrator in the library staring at the stacks wouldn’t forget the Americans who fought and died either, the Abraham Lincoln Brigades. Or he could just click on the most recent issue of Insurgent Notes where Loren Goldner has an excellent article on the subject. But then the novel would not be this novel; we would instead be forced to “like” the poet narrator for his good work of confronting history and all that leftist rah rah rah. The relentless but wry study of a young white male intellectual self-obsessed American poet abroad who succeeds in spite of, leaves us with an indeterminate subjective challenge at the end, more puzzling and difficult than any bildung could achieve.
Suddenly and we are close
Ben Lerner and I were born the same year, both attended East Coast elite colleges, are artists, and we both had an experience abroad (I was in Paris, but only for a few months). It’s difficult to separate my response to his work from my own personal experience. Perhaps someone in the room should raise her hand: “This is just white boy stuff. Nahhh Nahhhh Nahhh Nahhhh.”