Donald Trump called Haiti and Africa “shithole countries.” Countries that expel shit. The crappy fetid people who are thus defecated come to the United States where they are called immigrants. The New Yorker is on the case: the cover illustration for the issue following the comment shows the yellow fiberglass top of the president’s head sticking out of a sewer! On another Trump front, Masha Gessen faces down that two “unhinged” men are, right now as I type, arm’s length from nuclear attacking each other. I remind myself every day that a process which took months, and was visible all that time, and required thousands, then millions, of people to sustain it, made Donald Trump president. It did not happen quickly, in secret, at the hands of a few people who could hold and move a few mighty levers and, Satan’s presto, Donald Trump is president. The arithmetic of the popular vote and electoral college is not a moral argument I can hide behind with my New Yorker subscription: Donald Trump got to be president out in the open, carried across this country and up to the ruler’s chair in the arms of millions of sane people. You better keep this one plate spinning, I tell myself every day. You better never forget that this is happening because nothing along the path–a path that was sunlit and open to us–was large and solid enough to stop it right here, or here, before reaching the door at the end of the path, which opened and let us all in. I am of this, it’s not happening to me. The problem immediately following this rational, healthy, and true admission is the magic trick involving setting up mirrors just right so that I get to observe myself on a special moral high ground: I have acknowledged my inertia and privilege. Two points for me for recognizing my own entitlement.
I think I can do myself in one better. President Donald Trump is a great show. Inarguable, unbidden, justified horror and outrage can be titillating and delicious. Did I read this editorial in the Times yesterday for any objective other than pleasure? So, my topic today is about knowing I am standing still, and worthless, and captivated, while so many people harmed in this train wreck are going past me. There is art for this condition.
Look up an installation called Exodus 2016 by the artist Jon Kessler. It was on display at the 2017 Whitney Biennial and I don’t know where it is now. I found it the one wonderful thing in the Biennial, and a writer for the blog The Art Newspaper did not:
Adam Weinberg, the Whitney’s director, suggested in a press conference that irony was absent from this show. But then how to explain Jon Kessler’s ridiculous sculpture, Exodus 2016, in which a few dozen kitsch figurines, including one of a man happily reading a book, are set on a spinning pedestal going round and round in ‘exile’. Does Kessler really believe that Syrian refugees fleeing Aleppo look like that ornament of the old woman gladly carrying flowers? Irony is a poor tool and offensive when the situation is deadly serious.
“A few dozen kitsch figurines, including one of a man happily reading a book, are set on a spinning pedestal going round and round in ‘exile'” is an accurate description of Exodus 2016. The piece is a tower about 6–7 feet high whose several stacked parts and the mechanisms that connect them are simply engineered. At the Whitney, we were kept at a short distance from the piece by stanchions surrounding it on all four sides, but, except for the smallest figures, the whole thing was all clear and readable. Dozens of figures of people, animals, and novelty creatures are fixed to a clockwise-revolving disc of unfinished wood, and all figures face forward. The disc sits on visible wheels which, in turn, rest on a clean and practical white upended trunk, something I could afford at IKEA. Rising above the disc is a clever but uncomplicated arrangement of an iPhone on a selfie stick, which is set so the figurines are captured as they pass by the phone, then uploaded to a large screen that’s framed with familiar icons to look like a jumbo iPhone camera feature. A video-editing app creates footage of an endless spiral, an illusion of figures descending featurelessly into a gyre. As the figures sink, they lose detail; their shapes become silhouettes; the silhouettes become indistinguishable tiny receding blips; they are gone. I didn’t time it, but in a few minutes the figures that disappeared into the video abyss would return, of course, and appear as recognizable video images on the screen, become again silhouette, then again the blip, then sink again. The rods, the wires, the selfie stick, it’s all right out there, ungainly and without mystery. Who would look at Exodus 2016 and say, “I wonder how this works?”
Kessler’ really knows his kitsch, and selected his population for the right qualities of vapid, craftsy, and artless. Nothing I saw seemed to be a child’s toy, nothing was an Archie McPhee parody of kitsch, and nothing was a legitimate curiosity. Some, though, are tiny, smaller than paperclips, and I couldn’t make them out from the distance imposed by the installation. A few were several feet high and loomed over their companions. Stock figures: Hobos with sticks and bundles. Peasant women with bonnets and aprons and baskets. A fat-headed fanciful creature like a troll–something the cat-obsessed woman who works in Payroll would have on her desk next to a little sign reading Is It Friday Yet? There’s a young country buck in gleaming china whose trousers and blowy top seem painted on his perfect limbs. He’s got a goose at his side, which for some reason adds to the Paul Cadmus vibe. There’s a proud upright doomed white soldier with his pack. He strides heroically into battle while still endlessly revolving, dying, and being revived. A small unpainted metal woman covered in graceless cloth and holding a swaddled babe stands at a bit of railing connected to nothing—it took me a moment to get that she is the classic immigrant story. Here is her first glimpse of the New World. There are two African women whose elongated bodies and natural breasts are carved from solid pieces of wood. On one, a slim arm balances a jug on her head, gracefully as they do, at home as they are in bright sun and seared brown grass, huts. There’s a fisherman lazing asleep on a log, if I saw correctly. A chubby little white girl with a folksy kerchief, fat little legs, fat little mouth open in stupid happiness at gathering flowers on a bright woodsy fresh day, eternally unmolested and unstarving. The cheerful lad and his silly too-large book, he’s reading and walking and smoking his healthful pipe, free and charmed in his imagination and his surroundings.
I know exactly how to read each figure because I am Kessler’s righteous panopticon. I know who is offensive, who is a hollow cliche, who is merely sentimental or puerile. Every one of them is the antithesis of authentic identity. I recognize and dispatch each before they spiral into disappearing shades, and reappear. I dispatch again, the gyre swallows, on and on. As long as I want. Then I tried to see them with unconscious eyes, and saw what looked like Kessler’s love for his collection: everyone fixed sturdily and cleanly, with neighbors to keep company on the rounds. Looking at the contraption in this mode, I thought also about how hard it is to accept the kind you are, and leave others alone, while everyone keeps going. Of course this is always and already the way privilege works: we are the eyes of our time and place, others pass and stream before us, we know and we name. Eventually the others disappear. Or they hit the jackpot, and they get to come stand over here with us.
The two perpendicular planes of motions complement each other’s repetition. On the horizontal plan everyone is moving in a false forward; it must feel to each as though he or she is advancing. Vertically, it’s one stream both up and down into oblivion; not just a trompe l’oeil of up and down at once, but that’s how the vertical journey of rising-in-sinking must feel to them. The allegory is clear and smart without being precious. On the horizontal plane is the rotation that follows the physical and rational laws of traversing the earth: gravity holds us upright; if you keep moving forward in a circle, you’ll pass the same places and things over and over again; if you mind your own business and your neighbors mind theirs, everyone is more likely to stay in their own little space. On the screen is the vertical plane and its illusion of depth: here of course is the fact of life’s impermanence as all beings moving inexorably towards loss of distinction. We all extinguish so the ones behind us can take our place. And Kessler’s mechanism implies, like any gyre, a Somewhere at the bottom, a maw waiting. But everyone returns whole and undigested–so, for as long as I choose to witness Kessler’s Exodus, I get to dream the metaphysical dream of revival, or the philosophical ordeal of recurrence without end.
I feel large, mobile, and thoughtful as I move on from Exodus to Bob Dylan’s big parade heading down the swallowing gyre, Tempest, which steals and scrambles the Carter Family’s song, Titanic. Dylan helps himself to the melody, verbatim phrases like “sad, sad story,” “rich man,” “darling wife,” and the dreaming watchman. Dylan and the Carters both get the casualties wrong, but the Carters are off by 1093 and Dylan only by 93. The differences between the songs are rooted deep in peculiarly contrasting moral and historical visions.
The Carter Family’s Titanic sounds perfectly folksy. The melody is regular and simple. Each four-line verse of two couplets follows the same basic meter, u/u/uu/u…/uu/uu/. The voices, high and lightly strained, recite the lines one plain syllable at a time. What I expect from this soundscape is homespun thought and feeling. I expect to hear the lament of simple decent people who are aghast at the death toll, who quail at the hubris behind the metal behemoth, and who raise their hands to a higher power who seems uncaring but surely is up there. Instead I’m surprised by a tricky circular irony and a liberal intelligence. Although the watchman’s dream is instructive, in the way of dreams in myths, it occurs in the language of reality and requires no oracle to interpret. Even asleep he is on the job, and awakes without apparent surprise into his duty, which is, quite realistically, to save the “rich man” first. The captain should be the model of the heartless, driven machine-age man who “let the Titanic go on” in order to “win the record.” But he’s just a drunk, thus a pardonably weak man. “Not knowing that he’d done wrong” is offered without irony. Go ahead and throw the first stone at him.
On shore, motherless children cry, but not for gods to return their drowned mothers to them. “Surely they’ll invent something to raise the Titanic someday.” Progress will rescue their mothers, the same circle of aspiration, greed, competition, and ingenuity will wheel on until mankind makes the machine to rescue the casualties of last year’s great machine. Their mothers are dead forever, but these children will live to see or themselves invent a machine to raise shipwrecks, and the Carters know it. This is partly a tragic-ironic critique, but it’s a mistake to hear the Carters’ song as a rustic lament for a bygone, slower, pious, better world. This twangy ditty is a sharp vision of modernity, and I am exactly the stock figure who is pleasantly surprised to learn that something like a Carter Family ditty can be a sharp vision.
Dylan’s Tempest, on the other hand, shares a good deal with Kessler’s mischievous postmodern depiction of the turbid ebb and flow/Of human misery. One, the characters are a mixed bag of mainly phonies: fictional appropriations, anachronisms, stock figures, unknown origins, historical fact. Two, there is a panopticon, but Dylan’s is inverted: as I was the sentinel for Exodus, Tempest has its watchman, who knows everything within his sleeping, blind, and dreaming mind . And three, we’ve got our horizontal and vertical planes: the mightiest ship can only be a little compromise between us and the vastest plane on earth, the sea. So although attention rises often to the vertical in the song–to the sky, to the heavens imagined above the sky, to the encompassing bodiless eye of the watchman–the vertical does its strongest work in descent. And because this is a song, we can hear the two planes. Dylan begins each stanza with a great upsurge in the volume and strength of the vocal, and then sinks into a milder and even breath for the last line. Each stanza feels like a wave cresting, then breaking and returning to the sea. Forty-five times we rise in resistance and contest, then subside.
There are so many grades of Being in these 45 well-cadenced verses. No, there seems to be every grade of Being on this Titanic, every human form takes center stage to face his/her/its death. I tried to divide the figures into categories and came up with the following: (i) Historically accurate; (ii) Anachronistic (further divided into Decorous (Wellington) and Ludicrous (Jim Backus); (iii) Appropriated; (iv) Stock character; (iv) Invented/unknown; (v), the “many, many others,” the forever nameless 99% of history; and (vi), the watchman. The result is a havoc, as I’m asked to witness in the same plane the terrible deaths of realistic men and women, factitious men and women, and mere cliches of men and women. And mortality itself is havoc, since the preposterous cast here is dying in several incompatible worlds: one governed by an indifferent but familiar pantheon of the Christian god and attendant angels; one manipulated by a malign Wizard; one laid waste by an impersonal Reaper. The rough and fastidious old voice sets each vignette in the rocking cradle of its stanza, and I’m lulled into believing there is an affecting drama unfolding in time, instead of an absurd montage where the unreal outweighs the real.
Where the Carters end with their sly vision of a future that promises technological wonders powerless against the loss created by technological wonders, Dylan begins his song by turning time against itself, undoing progress, and leaving it at that. The “great ship” is “sailing into tomorrow/To a gilded age foretold.” The term gilded age originated with Twain’s 1873 book, and was revived to name the bling bacchanal the wealthiest Americans created for themselves between the wars, in the 20s and 30s. Twain’s gilded age preceded the dreams and money that went down in the Titanic, and the Titanic went down before the “foretold” period characterized by that nickname. The Titanic has already sailed into a tomorrow, where it is sunk and gone, before we’ve met a single passenger.
Look also at the difference between the indefinite pronoun they in both songs: in the Carter’s song, the one they is the master They, the powers-that-be who conceive and create the things that transform and advance culture. They will retrieve and repair what they gave us and we broke. In Dylan’s Tempest, they is the opposite of a superstructure. Dylan’s they is the doomed mass of humankind. They are the struggling creatures always the casualties of forces they can’t understand or influence, whether that force is human or divine judgment, nature or invention. And it can be hard work just to separate the real ones from the shams.
I obviously have nothing here to contribute to the cause. I do read what people like me are supposed to read, and I understand Ibram Kendi ‘s reprimand:
Racist is not a fixed category like “not racist,” which is steeped denial. Only racists say they are not racist. Only the racist lives by the heartbeat of denial.
The antiracist lives by the opposite heartbeat, one that rarely and irregularly sounds in America — the heartbeat of confession.
And even though Kendi’s vision of history turns the true story of power into a metaphysics of essentialism, which is a falsehood I detest, I still want to be the Good White Person who confesses instead of denies. So after reading Exodus and Tempest, and reading myself enchanted by both, I think I’m left knowing how Matthew Arnold feels in 1851, in Dover Beach. He can hear and see the veil being torn asunder on his moment in history: the note of sadness is eternal, the ebb and flow of human misery is without beginning or end. He detects maybe a new note, which clashes and smashes as certitudes recede and confusion rolls in for good. But he knows that he stands, upright and safe, with enough time and a clear mind to attend to a masterful figure, and he can at least turn to the dream of certain and enduring human love. To me, Arnold has drawn a truth-telling picture of one safe moment for one fortunate creature. And that’s the best I can do with my stories of standing on shores and watching other people without my luck. Someone else please take on Bob Dylan and Dover Beach, and have your turn being true about something, anything. Try to feel where you’re standing and don’t pretend the ground is shaking if it really isn’t.