Remnants (2020)

“There is no realistic now”

At unpredictable intervals, something happens that breaks the continuity of experience for a culture, or even for the world: the Holocaust, the dropping of the atomic bomb, the 9/11 attacks. Haruki Murakami, in his 2010 essay “Reality A and Reality B,” says this about the psychic consequences of 9/11:

“Let’s call the world we actually have now Reality A and the world that we might have had if 9/11 had never happened Reality B. Then we can’t help but notice that the world of Reality B appears to be realer and more rational than the world of Reality A. To put it in different terms, we are living in a world that has an even lower level of reality than the unreal world.”

The 9/11 attack was unimaginable, and to say that something is unimaginable is to say that I am helpless before it. To call something imaginable means that I have some kind of ability to encompass it, to frame it in a mind-space where I continually create and re-create my reality. The unimaginable thing cannot fit in that space, cannot be compared to anything in it; it shatters the existing frame. All I know about the novel event is that it happened. In a world where this unprecedented terrible thing exists, does the “I” whose helplessness is now revealed still matter? Or is it forced to remake itself starting from this pile of rubble?

No wonder, then, that the now-counterfactual world which would have existed had the 9/11 attacks never occurred seems more real than the one we found ourselves living in after they did. That former mind-space had a realness that we built up over a lifetime. Now, abruptly, irrevocably, that was not enough.

The question I’m working my way towards, the bird I’m trying to sneak up on, is how in the world one is supposed to make art at such a time.

Since the onset of the pandemic, people find themselves in just this situation: living in a new reality which, even as it surrounds them every day, seems less real than the reality they believe they would still be living in if only Covid-19 had not happened.

In 1945, Gertrude Stein wrote in Wars I Have Seen, “Anybody can understand that there is no point in being realistic about here and now, no use at all not any . . . there is no realistic now, life is not real it is not earnest, it is strange which is an entirely different matter.” Only in one way would I diverge from what Stein said a lifetime ago: life is dreadfully earnest now, but once again it does not feel real, it absolutely is strange. This is why Stein was right, concerning the making of art, in saying “there is no point in being realistic about here and now, no use at all not any.” “Realistic” is Reality B, the counterfactual one, the mind-frame that depends on the unimaginable never having happened. When in fact, if we pay attention, it’s impossible to deny that our world is “strange which is an entirely different matter.” One must be committed to the strange, as Murakami is. He refers to it as chaos, and says: “Perhaps the solution begins from softly accepting chaos not as something that ‘should not be there,’ . . . but as something that ‘is there in actual fact.’”

There is a realistic way of imagining our situation which is historical, epidemiological, and so forth, making use of all kinds of scientific and social-scientific understandings. Then there is another way which is the province of art; it involves accepting strangeness as an inherent piece of the world.

The “realistic” method is great for what it can do, but it cannot create metaphor. I read the news constantly about the literal reality, which we attempt to understand using tools that work on literal reality; that’s all very well and good, and might lead to the creation of a vaccine that would alter the whole situation, but it cannot water that which needs to be watered by the non-literal, by metaphor. It cannot make visible the inner life, or keep it alive and fed. It doesn’t matter how much we learn about the admirable work of virologists, that won’t change the fact that we still know very little about what it’s like to be human at this time. We’re experiencing it, but can we imagine it? The goal in making art, as I see it, is to create a metaphor which might suggest the true nature of the situation. To turn this baffling reality into an experience for an audience that isn’t simply more of “the first draft of history,” as journalism styles itself. What I need is the first draft of a poem.

Have I created anything approaching this? That’s for others to decide.