I will tell you something about stories,
They aren’t just for entertainment.
Don’t be fooled
They are all we have, you see,
all we have to fight off illness and death.
You don’t have anything
if you don’t have the stories.
Their evil is mighty
but it can’t stand up to our stories.
So they try to destroy the stories
let the stories be confused or forgotten
They would like that
They would be happy
Because we would be defenseless then.
-Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony
A week — to the day — after the world tipped off its axis and went bouncing down the knotty dirt road, turned a sharp corner and careened off a cliff, I was having many glasses of wine with some lady friends. Over the course of the evening, we were all trying to put words to what we had been feeling all week…beyond and beneath panic and rage and terror. I mentioned that I, a person who lives life in the murky grays, had been feeling locked at two binary poles: Part of me wanted to live fully in the visceral world; I just wanted to scream and kick and drink and snort and fuck. The other part of me wanted to dwell solely in the sublime; I had returned to an old place of cozy intellectualism, and literature and art and music and film and theoretical physics were the only things that made sense to me (okay, theoretical physics doesn’t make actual sense to me…but it does make theoretical sense). One of these fabulous women noted that these two poles actually dwell right next to each other — if you curve the line, they are where the circle meets. The visceral and the sublime fold back on each other just like the hero’s journey ends where it begins.
This led to half-drunk talk of Wilde, and eventually of Locke and Aristotle and the dueling (and yet inseparably linked) philosophies of the American experiment. At any rate, I’m not sure I have yet left these poles. Many weeks on, and I’m not sure there is solace to be taken beyond the basely physical or that there is sense to be made of any of it.
I do know that there’s a link between the Big Questions and the desire to engage in stories. In the weeks since the election — those high-stress, high-hopes, holy-fucking-what-the-fuck weeks — I’ve been trapped in a strange inclination to fill holes in other people’s narratives. People I know. Friends going through breakups or family issues…things like that. I walk the dog and fill in holes in conversations that should be had, acknowledgements of wrong-doing that should be offered, feelings of love and pain that should be addressed. I’m trapped in a desire to fix stories, other people’s stories, with truth and with specificity (humans can be so vague sometimes). The parts of my brain that once pondered words said in a debate or the details of a particularly wonky article (I pretty much only read the really wonky ones) are now devoted wholly to the minutiae of real lives. I am diving deep into what’s real. Or maybe I’m finding something real — tangible, at least — in what is thus far incomplete. In part, I think that I’m stuffing the holes in unfinished tales because I want to know how this all ends.
Theater has taught us much about how these things go — the symbolic props of the staged life. In the simplest of theatrical truisms, if you see a gun in the first act, it will certainly go off before the end of the play. Hedda Gabler is our most sobering example of this: the titular character’s eerily fetishized mention of her father’s pistols at the end of Act I should serve a warning that one of those pistols will be used by Hedda at the play’s end. And yet readers/viewers often don’t see it coming. We underestimate women (always), but we also underestimate human capacity for the stupidly melodramatic. We think a singular logic and formal reason and social norms can be applied — that if we name and catalog and measure everything, we can telegraph the correct outcome. But literature has taught us — for centuries upon centuries (see re: Medea) — that this is not how humans behave.
Hedda Gabler shoots herself in the temple under the looming portrait of her father. The final line of the play, spoken by her ineffectual blackmailer, is “But God pity us — such things simply are not done.” I mean, swap out the specter of General Gabler for George Washington — or maybe Alexander Hamilton as we’re going Big Time Literary and timeliness is key — and of course America just shot itself in the head because it couldn’t find a better way out of its boring, tedious existence. And the rest of us, like Mr. Brack in the play, are dumbfounded as if we couldn’t see the action building throughout four acts in which an unspooling character repeatedly and recklessly waved around loaded pistols. The data didn’t show us that outcome…but Ibsen sure did.
This much I do feel is certain: the time of polling, data, evaluation, measured outcomes, and quantifiable impact is over. It has brought us nothing but distraction. With now nearly two decades of constant talk of measuring and thinking about measuring and what we’re measuring…we’ve lost a bit of humanity and a whole lot of truth. Specifically, some of us (myself included, having forgotten my roots) mollified ourselves with data; we were convinced that the impossible couldn’t happen because the data told us that it wouldn’t. And, in our defense, it is true that “no one expects the Spanish Inquisition.” And yet we should.
A few weeks after the election, with a head full of dread and images and passages and a slew of untethered semiotics, I repeatedly conjured the image of Maya Deren’s sandaled feet in “Meshes of the Afternoon.” Of being a woman in the world. Of embodying a space of madness and of masculinity. Upon re-watching the film, I realized how much I didn’t fully remember — the duplication of women-as-same, the threat of these same-women to each other, the threat of man, the man-as-mirror-for-self; I had, however, internalized in my overall sense of it a tether to my nagging thoughts about women who look like me, are white like me, in the days after the election. This horrifying betrayal of the mirror-self that I knew was there all along. I’ve read about it, I’ve seen it, I’ve absorbed it into my subconscious through feminist theory and Shakespeare and Mulholland Drive. And yet the data told me that what I knew to be true — what was as much as part of me as my own breath — was not true, and I believed the data. I have learned my lesson: always believe the art. The data are lies piled into simulated sculptures — beautiful in their own way, and capable of stunning parlor tricks and sleight of hand, but not capable of real truth. And that’s because they are absent of humanity, and we, at this moment, profoundly require humanity.
We are gearing up for a historical moment during which we will redefine what it means to fight. But I also suspect that we are likely to spend a heaping shitpile of time determining what it means to be and to be human. For my part, I feel like I’m exploding with stories. And they are deeply personal. And I have to take care not to burden my people with detailed imagined narratives of their own lives — the wormholes through which I travel to re-organize and make sense of my own very small pocket of this world, to organize their lives into endings that feel right and just and good. And yet, thanks to some dark twisting within me, I cannot write. Not anything coherent. I am only a storyteller within my flailing mind — the page has remained empty. And I think this is where this year, this moment, all this death (of people I knew personally, of people I only admired, of — not hyperbolically — the American experiment…which has been limping towards its own slaughter for quite some time) has delivered us: we are “unstuck in time,” “growing grim about the mouth,” “turning in the widening gyre.” We must continue to create, to work through our madness in ways that put order to it. But we must also return to those existing stories that show us the way beyond this moment.
This unloading is my somewhat unbounded effort at trying to bend the page to my will. I’m also rededicating myself to the study of those things that are deeply meaningful to me. It’s not healthy nor helpful to give in fully to the physical, base urges that seek a structure for their wrecking ball. So I’m attempting to settle in with the sublime. And in this world of literature and art and film and wit and music, I hope to quiet and order the stories in my mind, to find a little peace, and, probably of most value, to sharpen my weapons.