Thursday, June 3, 2010

Adventures In Aphasia

Floats Horse-Floats or Horse-Flows, a novel by Leslie Scalapino
Starcherone Books, 2010

“There is no lid or limit on sensation,” remarks the mysterious narrator of “zoom in black,” a chapter in Scalapino’s mind-storm of a novel. This occurs during a horrific scene of poachers bringing down silver antelope in the Himalayas, “four or five hundred corpses on the floor of night desert are skinned at different times, their rib cages illumined in the pool amidst feeding buzzards.”

No lid or limit on sensation explodes the opium of reading into a peregrination of liquidationists, paregmenons, and the Melbourne tennis opening. Reading ceases to be reading and morphs into something else: a deeply focused meditation. A lexical gymnastic maneuver. A cerebral activity akin to mountain climbing, or bronco riding. It is, at once, difficult and exciting. But please. Don’t let the word ‘difficult’ put a crease in your brow; Scalapino is a dish served with piquant flavors, not all of them familiar. But it is tasty and it is digestible. And it’s good for you, too! It is high in protein and low in carbohydrates.

Scalapino has revealed that she based the writing of this novel on a form of language disorder called alexia, which refers to an acquired type of sensory aphasia where damage to the brain causes a patient to lose the ability to read. It is also called word blindness, text blindness, or visual aphasia. I find this deeply ironic, considering the richness of Scalapino’s text, and the inherently futile task of devoting one’s writing to a form of aphasia in which reading has been seriously incapacitated, but one cannot help be mindful also of the social, ethical, and political blindness by which we find ourselves surrounded here in the 21st millennium. And that reading, even among the population of people who do not suffer an aphasia, or illiteracy, is at risk.

Alexia may not mean total blindness. Sometimes comprehension is ok, but there may be some difficulty matching semantic interpretation to a sentence. An example is a sentence like “the water gushed from the pump,” which may be interpreted as “the pump gushed from the water.” In other words, an unintended poetry emerges. We see the world differently. Subject and object relationships become discombobulated. Control of the words feels tentative. They feel dazed and unsteady. Consequently, we find relationships between things and ideas that are often bizarre, creating novel perceptions, extraordinary images, such as “laced with swine jelly,” “flexing blue metal water,” “crocodile teeth spread in hatred,” or “an ear unfolds in hot night.” As bizarre as the associations can be, a peculiar, unexpected vividness arises, grips the attention, shows the world in a flare of brilliant hyper-reality.

Neurolinguists refer to a phenomenon called N400 (Negativity at 400 milliseconds) discovered by Marta Kutas and Steven Hillyard in 1980. This was a measure of how people respond to unexpected words in sentences. The N400 is characterized by a distinct pattern of electrical activity that can be observed at the scalp. Kutas and Hillyard used sentences with anomalous endings (i.e. “I take coffee with cream and dog”), to test their subjects. A positive or negative deflection in voltage indicates how the subject is responding to stimuli. A negative deflection indicates a delay. The subject is confused, and pauses to assimilate the semantic anomaly. The mind is hard-wired to make sense of things. Everything. This is what makes art, good art, so challenging and stimulating. And this is what makes Scalapino’s writing such a difficulty, and hugely rewarding.

We are not talking physics equations here. The sentences are odd, aberrant, screwy, the syntax eccentric, the words often large, exotic, and orchidaceous, but there is nothing so enigmatic it throws you off entirely. He peculiar phrasing very often has an exquisite sapience, a sharpness of perception that drives into you with the burning suddenness of a jalapeño pepper, or electrifying cold of an alpine lake. A phrase like “nerves inside muscles,” for instance, embodies a very real, proprioceptive circumstance, or “Anything has once been memory and can be placed beside anything” sends swirls of reflection spinning through the brain. Frequently, she will disrupt the waters by tossing a difficult, rarely used word into an otherwise familiar or pastoral context, such as “orexis is the waterfowl.”

Orexis is a male sexual enhancement product with “guaranteed results.” These must be very busy waterfowl. Or possibly frustrated male fowl and very pissed off female fowl.

Quite frankly, I’ve never read quite such a strange and invigorating book. We are beyond surrealism here. Scalapino appears to have figured out a way to access the entire world and make all of its beauty and hideousness, its violence and sublimity, its joys and indiscriminate burs, its pompous bureaucrats and toxic bullshit, euphoric buoyancies and defiant meadows, simultaneous.

Simultaneity is at the core of this book. It is a collage, but a very dynamic collage that feels harnessed to a team of very powerful horses. Consciousness rides each sentence with a handful of mane and the frenzy of unbridled energies. Each pulse of existence achieves its fullest expression as a part of the overall synthesis of creation, but without a concomitant incongruity, synthesis turns stale. We don’t know we’re moving if we don’t move against something. Hills, fences, mailboxes, doors. Simultaneity means everything happening at once which is what life is. All things are interrelated. There is propinquity between a milkweed and a swordfish. "But," observes Whitehead, "though there are gradations of importance, and diversities of function, yet in the principles which actuality exemplifies all are on the same level."

Simultaneity also means there is no plot. Not a linear plot anyway. Scalapino has taken Gertrude Stein’s aesthetic of a continuous present to its maximal level of synchronicity. “Synchronicity,” the narrator remarks, “as determining characteristic doesn’t exist in that all actions are random as synchronous anyway.”

This is an aesthetic that begins, at least in the western world, with Cézanne, and was developed to its fullest in the Cubism of Picasso and Braque. Stein was Cubism’s most salient literary exemplar. Tender Buttons stands as one of the first examples of literary Cubism. In four years it will be one hundred years old. That makes me feel old. For me, Tender Buttons is still a very new and modern work.

Tender Buttons also makes me grateful that such an accomplished writer as Scalapino has carried that Cubist aesthetic of simultaneity into further excursions, and has left so many wonderful books behind her.

However enigmatic its plot may be, and I do feel there is something of a plot plotted among its pages, Floats Horse-Floats or Horse Flows does read very much like a novel. It has characters, many with strange, colorful names: “powder monkey,” “Chrysanthemum,” “Detective Grace Abe,” “Fujimori,” the “orphan girls,” “Violet,” and “Sister Serena,” who appears to be the tennis champion, Serena Williams.

And they do things. The powder monkey pops “the air of the edge of forest’s flocculation but in his speed on the horse ship the forest-edge almost an osculation of him leaving it closes in its quiet.” “Red chrysanthemum not having a realistic sense of time or mortality usurps it of others wasting them.” “Grace mumbles walking lying in the trees. Looking down she sees, having followed the poachers at night, the forest mirrored in green, red, and black corpses, dermoid without skeletons or organs.”

There are numerous references to cattle, “the black guiltless cattle are like dogs in someone’s description,” “the cattle née dogs with a wah-wah muted bawling sound begin to wander budwoods,” “Guiltless black cattle are only half-winged.” Sometimes an invented species will emerge: “Wallables, some no larger than rabbits, grazed on the orange mail…” The animals, as they do in the so-called real world, feel under constant threat. “Driven to extinction, the few elephant-herds remaining are pressed to the surface the outskirts of cities where the jockeys sleep in trees, in which the elephants feed.” With the exception of a “white wolf,” who has dazzling, hyperphysical powers, the animals occupy a world full of poaching, theft, cruelty, and war. There are also numerous references to corpses floating in the Euphrates, an obvious allusion to the war in Iraq, and drones “cruising and killing citizens née insurgents’ resistances have sounds they halve the people running.”

The real antagonist of this novel is capitalism. “Capitalism’s separating us from reality,” says the narrator. She identities conventional narrative with the noxious delusions of capitalism:

Separated oil burns 4 as another day begins on water they’re speaking it’s seen by being that’s slowed as if they’re removed from their actions’ occurrence and there’s only just as it occurs. Ron had (friend who’s feudist) blistering the hides of others said abridgement or any plot means “transparency” as a negative wherein all interwoven seems real. The individual is consumed in capitalism by their actions being (and seen by them in) the outside’s delusion of a whole reality as the individual sees events fed to them in as [while] [being] the outside’s ordered certainty. The origin as authority. In a given, a plot is or transpires as this transparency, he says silkworm, in which wired only receiving we’re quiet. In mine, a plot is only later, is events to see, a vehicle unplanned any actions unknown [going on] before their being known 2. But he says plot is any action, in it is already description (even if known before it occurs?) and creates this delusion of our being contained: capitalism’s separating us from reality.

How do we regain reality? How do we regain a sense of ourselves being alive, structured in bone, enveloped in skin, capable of movement, closer to our own actual needs rather than those imposed from without by a mechanized, totalitarian society? For “totalitarian,” observes Herbert Marcuse, “is not only a terroristic political coordination of society, but also a non-terroristic economic-technical coordination which operates through the manipulation of needs by vested interests.” To actualize an opposition may entail the employment of a pathology, i.e. an aphasia in the production of poetry. Perhaps poetry itself has become an aphasia. There is a vital element in all artwork that works contrary to the volition of the artist. It is what makes the work alive, a living pulsing breathing entity of words or paint or stone or clay. A Pygmalia. A fast horse. Which carries our sense of inner connectedness. As a being. As an opening. “As one’s waking mind.”

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