Benedict Seymour’s Dead the Ends takes Chris Marker’s La Jetée as its Ur-text. Seymour’s film is a found-footage concoction, and thus incorporates much of the Marker film into itself. But Dead the Ends is also database art, as Seymour pairs these bits of La Jetée with their many echoes in subsequent time travel narratives (Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys, etc.). These works that Seymour reanimates in Dead the Ends all feature romance at their core: lovers seeking each other across time. The narrator of my story, meanwhile, feels growing within himself some similar romantic core. It is there “in the belly of this story,” as Leslie Marmon Silko says of her novel Ceremony. I trance-scribe these texts in the time-stream of the paralogy, but they are words received from another timeline, spoken by a shadow-self whose desires led him West. Or not spoken by the shadow-self, but in dialogue with it. Trance-scribing is not the same as channeling. The shadow-self wants to access the acid diaries of Merry Prankster Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog. The shadow-self is headstrong — discontented — and then enlivened — reawakened — through an encounter with another. Whereas the paralogical self is a family man: loving father, loving husband. But grown weary from excessive self-silencing, and (given the nature of the karmic cycle) the expectation that he plod on and endure.
All of us are feeling it, the sudden shift in mood and content from one day to the next. Here we are trying to react to this new present. I for one haven’t any words yet for this funk that leaves me driving around weeping to Martha Wainwright midday. I’m supposed to suffer through this, is what I gather from the day’s intel. I’m reliving an incident from my past. Time travel prompts a return of the repressed. I’m here to revisit an old knot of sorrow: a scene of fantasy that ended poorly when pursued in the past. The hope is that in my behaving differently this time, we can heal.
Without yet knowing in advance the form of this narrative, or even whether it is to be a story or a novel, this thing, this experiment in living theater that we’ve method-acted our way into — let us nonetheless speculate as to what it might mean and how it might happen. At minimum, it means a shift in genre. This Work we’re trance-scribing would become a fiction, a fantasy: something other than the author’s lived reality. This despite being tied indexically to that reality through its temporal adjacency. The world contributes, the world participates in the coming-into-being, the trance-scription, of the text’s episodes. It is to the rhythm of the day that the text is sung. What happens is: I realize I’m already in the alternate timeline. The shift occurred with the paralogy of “Wednesday January 6, 2020.” Publish as is and we can continue to remain in this timeline, thinks our traveler. Edit the date and we enter a timeline that occurred otherwise. Or so I imagine as I sit with the idea, the realization unfolding slowly as I water the plants in our garden. “Otherwise how?” I wonder. “What would happen?” We couldn’t know in advance, could we? We would have to become part of the experiment, like seed in soil, attending to the unfolding of each day amid conditions of precarity and love. Yet this we’ve already done by gifting ourselves the paralogy. Swapping the zero with the one would be like looking a gift horse in the mouth.
So begins the tale. Sarah green-lights the production and confirms my thinking about how to proceed. I go live with the paralogy intact mid-afternoon, and encounter several immediate forms of resistance. A troll, for instance, posts a comment proposing that the work has “hit a new level of faggotry,” while someone I care to know better sings out into the void of social media Martha Wainwright’s “Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole.” On a more hopeful note, though, the room (acting collectively here as Greek chorus) replies by sounding the passing of Donald Rumsfeld. Have I succumbed to cruel optimism? Should I have proceeded to the “unknown unknown” of the one? Perhaps the Work moves toward personal and collective flourishing as the one and the many learn to live in fidelity with both love and desire.
Friends, let us hold space and remember Cruel Optimism author Lauren Berlant upon word of their passing. “A relation of cruel optimism exists,” Berlant wrote, “when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing” (1). We are all in such relationships, are we not? “Speaking of grieving,” they wrote, it was in grieving French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard that Berlant “first saw optimism as the thing that keeps the event open, for better or ill” (viii). How does one come to recognize that one’s optimisms have become “cruel”? What is it that moves us out of ourselves? “A satisfying something,” they whisper. “An intelligence beyond rational calculation” (2). And we are here, we are caught in this “scene of fantasy,” we are in the throes of it. ‘Tis our present, our contemporary moment. And this moment is what Berlant calls an “impasse”: “a time of dithering from which someone or some situation cannot move forward” (4). That is the genre of these trance-scripts, is it not? “The impasse is a stretch of time in which one moves around with a sense that the world is at once intensely present and enigmatic, such that the activity of living demands both a wandering absorptive awareness and a hypervigilance that collects material that might help to clarify things” (4).
The day is a difficult yoga session writ large. I hold poses through tasks required of me: grocery shopping, lawn mowing, parenting. When time allows, I sit eyes closed and meditate. There is an alchemy in this working-through, this processing of desire. The day is the site where one practices care for an absent other. Come afternoon and suddenly it’s a pool day, world redeemed by popsicles and coconut bars. I rise up onto the surface of the pool and float there, big happy smile on my face as I imagine the act shared with another. My friend at The Alchemist’s Studio reminds me of a saying attributed to Vincent Van Gogh: “Yellow is capable of charming God.” The charm of that rhymes later in the day with “Charm (Over ‘Burundi Cloud’),” the 21:24 B-side to Jon Hassell and Brian Eno’s Fourth World Vol. 1: Possible Musics.
Hassell passed away yesterday at the age of 84. After listening and giving thanks, I receive J.R.R. Tolkien’s St. Andrews lecture, “On Fairy-Stories.” For this is what we wish to write, is it not? A story about Faerie, “the realm or state in which fairies have their being.” As Tolkien emphasizes early on, “Faerie contains many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted.” Tolkien also calls Faerie “the Perilous Realm” — the source of peril, I presume, having something to do with the realm’s magic. Faerie’s virtue lies in its capacity to satisfy various desires: “to survey the depths of space and time,” for instance, and “to hold communion with other living things.”
Robin D.G. Kelley carries forward a remarkable defense of fantasy in his book Freedom Dreams — one I might consider as I design a course on fantastic literature for the year ahead. Kelley quotes from Paul Garon’s book Blues and the Poetic Spirit. “Fantasy alone,” writes Garon, “enables us to envision the real possibilities of human existence, no longer tied securely to the historical effluvia passed off as everyday life; fantasy remains our most pre-emptive critical faculty, for it alone tells us what can be” (as quoted in Kelley 163-164). Garon sees the blues as revolutionary in nature due to “its fidelity to fantasy and desire” (164). Fantasy is one’s remembering of the past on behalf of the future through a kind of dreamwork, in accordance with a desire that draws reality toward the “as if” and the “can be.” Others have called this desire Eros and the Spirit of Hope. In his retelling of the story of surrealism in light of anticolonialism, Kelley reveals a side of Jules Monnerot that was unknown to me. I’d known him before as a member of Acéphale, a secret society formed by Georges Bataille in the 1930s. After WWII Monnerot drifted to the right and denounced Marxism as a political theology akin to Gnosticism. What I learn from Kelley, however, is Monnerot’s prior involvement with surrealism. Martinican by birth, Monnerot arrived to France in the early 1930s. By 1933, he’d published a critique of the “civilized mentality” in the Surrealist periodical Le Surréalisme au service de la révolution. Monnerot was one of several black intellectuals attracted to surrealism. Kelley argues that these intellectuals “found in surrealism confirmation of what they already know — for them it is more an act of recognition than a revolutionary discovery. […]. Aime Césaire insisted that surrealism brought him back to African culture. Ted Joans wrote Breton that he ‘chose’ surrealism because he recognized its fundamental ideas and camaraderie in jazz. Wilfredo Lam said he was drawn to surrealism because he already knew the power of the unconscious, having grown up in the Africanized spirit world of Santeria” (184-185). For the abovementioned figures, and for others like Watts poet-activist Jayne Cortez, “Surrealism was less a revelation than a recognition of what already existed in the black tradition” (187).
Sarah and I celebrate her birthday by beginning A Discovery of Witches, a British television series based on the first book in author Deborah Harkness’s “All Souls” trilogy. It’s a fantasy series, magic a central facet of its world.
The following are multimodal, multigenre maps of consciousness.
Across these maps run time travelers, world runners
growing and evolving together into ever-larger
circles of trust, connected
Heed her words:
Moor Mother, at the end of Circuit City when she
shouts, “You can’t
time travel / Seek inner and outer
dimensions / Without free jazz!”
or on Youtube:
“If you wanna do something / find a way to create it.”
“Singing together / is how we heal.”
Fugitive study leads me to the Dogon tribe. Place matters to Afrofuturists: Chicago is the mothership, and Philadelphia is the devil’s playground. IFA originates among the Yoruba people. Yoruba divination practices make use of an ancient binary system of 256 odus. Charles and Ray Eames’s short film Powers of Ten opens with a couple picnicking in a park in Chicago. Chicago is where police killed Fred Hampton. Chicago is where police beat the future as the whole world watched. Philadelphia is where police bombed MOVE. With our portals and our time machines, let us re-member the past. Let us return these truths to the times to which they belong.
In place of “Afrofuturism,” a term coined by white cultural critic Mark Dery, science fiction writer Nnedi Okorafor prefers “Africanfuturism” and “Africanjujuism,” terms she coined herself. She defines the latter as “a subcategory of fantasy that respectfully acknowledges the seamless blend of true existing African spiritualities and cosmologies with the imaginative.” History is that which, ever-changing even as it rhymes, never neatly coincides with itself. Only in this way can the future be other than circuit city: rote repetition of that which came before.
Wizards often stroke their beards as they think. Picture it — as in a Halloween costume. ‘Tis a trope of the genre — as with Merlin, Gandalf, and Dumbledore. Wizards don’t have to fit this image — but there’s a long tradition of bearded wizards, sages who clutch staffs, canes, walking sticks, wands. The particulars vary from culture to culture. Tolkien is said to have acquired the trope from an ancient Finnish epic called The Kalevala, at the heart of which is a mage named Vainamoinen — old, wise, long beard, performs magic using voice and song. Esoteric secrets and forgotten knowledges grant all such figures special powers, distinct from the powers of their peers.
My wish is to write something that blurs the lines between fantasy and reality, a story that re-enchants everyday life, sending readers out on weird walks through landscapes rich with clues. Let there be a well in one of these landscapes — or even just a spigot. Let there be precious stones and warp zones and portals to other worlds.