Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for September 19th, 2018

The chance operation

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If you were looking for insights into leading the life of an artist at a time of political turmoil, it would be hard to find a more intriguing example than Judith Malina, who spent five decades wrestling with the problem in public as the head of the Living Theatre. Beginning in the early fifties, Malina and her husband, Julian Beck, staged a series of shows in New York and Paris that appear to have been equal parts innovative, radical, and unbearable. In 1952, for example, their production of Paul Goodman’s Faustina seems to have strained the audience’s patience to the breaking point. As Erika Munk writes in a chapter of the book Restaging the Sixties:

Goodman—a great influence as anarchist thinker, Malina’s therapist, and gay-but-married exemplar to Beck—wanted theater that provoked: “Either the audience is terribly offended…or in two hours the play effects a character-change in the audience, more than all the manifestoes can accomplish.” At the end of Faustina, which concerned Rome in the time of Marcus Aurelius, the actor playing the title character was supposed to address the spectators directly, telling them they were responsible for its murderous climax because they didn’t leap onstage and stop the action. The actor playing Faustina refused to address the audience, and Malina took her place. They still didn’t leap.

Munk concludes: “Faustina was a disaster. No surprise, when sophisticated playgoers were asked to feel real guilty for not taking steps to stop a purely fictive crime.” And I can’t say that I especially wish that I had been in the audience that night.

Yet I also respect Malina’s lifelong obsession with exploring the relationship between society and art, which she expressed in the only way that she could—by forcibly transferring it to the actors and the audience. In the program notes, she wrote: “We are the creators in an art where every night hundreds of people are ignored, a pretense is made that they do not exist; and then we wonder that the actor has grown apart from society; and then we wonder that the art itself staggers lamely behind its hope of being part of life.” Her tentative solution was to explicitly acknowledge the audience’s presence, which led to a stark contradiction in itself. She was still imposing her will on the spectators, not to mention her reluctant actors, and her response was elegant, if not entirely convincing:

The play is a ritual. Any play is a ritual, but in this play the ritual is overt and we speak out about it with real brazenness…The I Ching says, “It is the Creative that begets things but they are brought to birth by the receptive.” And it says of me further, “The person in question is not in an independent position, but is acting as an assistant. This means that he must achieve something.” I consulted this book of ancient Chinese oracle not only for myself but for my audience. To allow ourselves to be led, all of us assistants in the ritual, which hasn’t any power, but from which power is derived. The play does not take place in pagan Rome. Believe me, believe me that it takes place in the theatre. In this theatre and tonight.

In other words, the play itself was in control, and both the performers and the audience had to surrender to its logic in order to achieve a deeper form of liberation.

It’s also revealing that Malina turned to the I Ching, which is the ideal vehicle for this kind of process. A year earlier, Malina and Beck had served as performers—or “operators”—at the debut of Imaginary Landscape No. 4 by their friend John Cage, which was presented by randomly changing the station and volume on twenty-four radios according to the instructions derived from the oracle. For Cage, these mechanisms were intended to serve as a means of surrendering control, as he explained in a passage that I quoted here a few months ago:

Chance operations are not mysterious sources of “the right answers.” They are a means of locating a single one among a multiplicity of answers, and, at the same time, of freeing the ego from its taste and memory, its concerns for profit and power, of silencing the ego so that the rest of the world has a chance to enter into the ego’s own experience, whether that be outside or inside.

And Cage expressly saw the use of chance operations as an artistic reaction against political dogmatism and oppression. Elsewhere in the same talk, “Lecture on the Weather,” he explains: “Now our government thinks of us also as the policemen of the world…The desire for the best and the most effective in connection with the highest profits and the greatest power led to the fall of nations before us: Rome, Britain, Hitler’s Germany. Those were not chance operations. We would do well to give up the notion that we alone can keep the world in line, that only we can solve its problems.”

And out of all forms of divination, the I Ching might be the best one to use when enacting the relationship between the individual and authority, precisely because its tone is bureaucratic and vaguely dictatorial. As Joseph Needham writes in Science and Civilisation in China:

The Book of Changes was a system for pigeon-holing novelty and then doing nothing more about it. Its universal system of symbolism constituted a stupendous filing-system. It led to a stylization of concepts almost analogous to the stylizations which have in some ages occurred in art forms, and which finally prevented painters from looking at Nature at all…The Book of Changes might almost be said to have constituted an organization for “routing ideas through the right channels to the right departments.”

This rigidity is part of the reason why I’ve never much cared for the I Ching as a creative tool—but if you’re looking to simulate the surrender of agency to an impersonal system of power, it’s perfect. (It probably isn’t an accident that Philip K. Dick turned to the I Ching to make narrative decisions while writing The Man in the High Castle, which imagines an alternate history in which the United States was divided between Germany and Japan after World War II.) And at a moment when issues of authoritarianism seem more urgent then ever, it might be a good time to revisit such tools, which force the artist to abandon the insidious inclination toward control itself. As the priestess says in Faustina: “It’s a lot of shit, but that’s how we do it.”

Quote of the Day

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I conceive theatre as a magical operation or ceremony, and I shall strive to restore to it its primitive ritual character, by contemporary modern means, and as comprehensibly as possible to everyone…I believe it is urgent, for the theatre, to become aware once and for all of what distinguishes it from written literature. However transient it is, theatrical art is based on the use of space, on expression in space, and, speaking strictly, the fixed arts, inscribed in stone, on canvas or on paper, are not necessarily the most valid, nor the most efficacious magically.

Antonin Artaud, in a letter to Comœdia

Written by nevalalee

September 19, 2018 at 7:30 am

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