Letter 9

Dear Katherine,

A recurring theme of our letters, which I previously labelled as ‘failure,’ but that we’ve also described as ‘a field and not a path,’ and can be likened to the undesirability of the snail, came to mind today when I read this article I Can, I Can’t, Who Cares? by Jan Verwoert.

In your previous letter you explained that contrary to Sylvia Plath’s description in her poem Tulips one cannot luxuriate in the sensation of nothingness in a psychiatric hospital because one’s behaviour is being constantly monitored. In this setting not acting can be interpreted as a sign of disturbance. You also proposed that perhaps the need to monitor or measure appropriate behaviour was a problem in itself.

In his article Verwoert explains that a characteristic feature of our society is that with the disappearance of factory work, we no longer work, we perform. This notion of performing is particularly applicable to us misc creative types who are attempting to create some traction (maybe even a career) behind their own creative output. This pressure to perform I relate to the requirement to frame ones identity and practice. The instruction by education and society to define oneself as a certain type of artist, with certain define-able, write-down-able in 200 words or less interests, or rather ‘concerns’. Then there’s the requirement  to be available and wiling to perform when opportunity knocks. In the face of the pressure of performativity Verwoert asks the question;

What silent but effective forms of unwillingness, non-compliance, uncooperativeness, reluctance or non-alignment do we find in A Precarious Existence contemporary culture when it comes to inventing ways to not perform how and when you are asked to perform? Can we ever embrace these forms of non-performance in art and thinking as forms of art and thinking?


Recently I saw an exhibition at TCB gallery called ‘Practice’, curated by Anna Parlane. Included  were a collection of notebooks by the artist Adam Parata. These books were covered with finely rendered sketches and notes he’d made as part of his home schooling / self education project. 

In one book there was a drawing of a collections of trees, lightly drawn. I liked these pages in particular because a few years ago resting after an afternoon meditation I had an image occur in my mind of a forest its green leaves shimmering, golden light refracting. The mental image had a soft colour quality akin to 70s footage, and it was blurred as though I was seeing a bad reproduction. This image brought with it a sensation of delicate peace – something like gratitude and something like tenderness.  I was drawing a lot with lead pencil at the time, and I immediately wanted to translate this into a soft pencil on paper drawing, trying to retain some of the preciousness of this experience.

But I never did draw the picture, only a small sketch of it in my journal that I labelled ‘the forest with the finest lines’. Now, years after the acuity of the remembered feeling has faded I am much less driven to create the piece, and if I tried I’m not sure I could render it with the appropriate delicacy. But perhaps it’s not much of an issue as Adam Parata has made the work in some sense himself, and perhaps this goes for most ideas, that they are not exclusive.


In Iris Murdoch’s novel ‘An Accidental Man’ one of the characters Gracie has a somewhat more dramatic tree moment:

 Before her, across a little lawn of cropped velvety grass, there was standing all by itself a single tree with a smooth shaft of light grey close textured trunk of a glowing colour between silver and pewter. Above the high shaft a thick cloud of leaves moved, though there was no wind, with intricate tiny curtsying movements and seemed to wink noiselessly, turning dark and pale side alternately in the absorbed still complex light. The dim leafy cone swelled and diminished, its fine top thinning into an extremity of pure sky. Gracie knew of the leaves, of the pencil-thin peak and of the void beyond, but she gazed at the trunk of the tree, at its perfect smoothness and roundness and she felt a shudder of urgency pin her to the earth as if an arrow from directly above her had passed through her body and her feet and pierced the earth below with a long thin electrical thrill.

She was conscious of herself with a fullness she had never known before, and yet also she was absent, there was no anxiety, no thought even, just this thrilling sense of full and absolute being. She stood quite still for a while breathing deeply and staring at the tree. There was fear but now it was inhibited, impersonal. She kicked off her shoes and stood barefoot, feeling the cool grass creasing the soles of her feet with little precious patterns. She thought, I must walk to the tree, and in doing so I shall make a vow which will dedicate me and alter my whole life, so that I will be given and will never belong to myself again ever. I have to do this. And yet at the same time I am free, I can stay here, I can run back into the wood. I can break the spell which I know I am in some way weaving myself. I can make the tree cease to glow and shimmer, make my flesh cease from trembling, unbind my eyes and disavow this vision. Or I can walk to the tree and make everything different forever.

She began to take off her clothes, her dress fell from her. She stood there white and lithe as a boy, compact and dense, an arrow, a flame. Still in the midst of fear, she began to walk springily across the grass. If she could but keep this visitation pure and whole some greatness would come to be, if she could but cover this precarious space and place her hands upon the tree she would be filled with angelic power, the world would be filled with it. She moved without sound or sensation upon the grass. She reached the tree and knelt, circling it with her arms, laying her lips upon its cool close-textured silvery bark, a little pitted and dimpled to the touch. As she knelt upright now, pressing her whole body against the shaft, she felt an agony of shame, impossibility, achievement, joy. She lost consciousness. 

I suppose, with less grandiosity and detail that’s how I felt about the image of the forest in my mind’s eye.  If (I) could but keep the visitation pure and whole some greatness would come to be. I didn’t, instead I let the image retract and be forgotten.

The importance of acting upon the imagination  is described beautifully in Lewis Hyde‘s novel  ‘The Gift’;

A work of art breeds in the imagination. In this way the imagination becomes the future. The poet ‘places’ himself where the future becomes present,’ says Whitman. He sets his writing desk in the ‘womb of shadows’ . Gifts – given or received – stand witness to meaning beyond the known , and gift exchange is therefore a transcendent commerce, the economy of recreation, conversion, or renaissance. It brings us worlds we have not seen before.

Allen Ginsberg tells the story of the time when he was a young man, out of luck and out of lovers, lying on his bed in Spanish Harlem, reading Blake. He had put the book aside. He had masturbated. He had fallen into a depression. And then, as he lay gazing at the page he heard a voice say Blake’s poem, ‘Ah sunflower, weary of time / That countest the steps of the sun…’ ‘ Almost everything I’ve done since has these moments as its motif,’ Ginsberg has said. ‘The voice I heard, the voice of Blake, the ancient saturnal voice, is the voice I have now. I was imagining my own body consciousness…’ It is Ginsberg’s use of ‘imagining’ that I wish to mark. With a poem as his seed image, the young man imagined the sonority and quiddity with which the older man has come to sing the songs of Blake.

The imagination can create the future only if the products are brought over into the real. The bestowal of the work completes the act of imagination. Ginsberg could have said, ‘O dear, now I’m hearing voices,’ and taken a sedative. But when we refuse what has been offered to the empty heart, when possible futures are given and not acted upon, then the imagination recedes. And without the imagination we can do no more than spin the future out of the logic of the present; we will never be led into a new life because  we can work only from the known. But Ginsberg responded as an artist responds. The artist completes the act of imagination by accepting the gift and laboring to give it to the real (at which point the distinction between ‘imaginary’ and ‘real’ dissolve).


It hadn’t occurred to me before reading Adam Phillip’s essay ‘The Helpless’ that I had unexamined prejudices towards helplessness in myself and others. Phillips draws out the idea that humans are the only animals who feel their helplessness as a lack. The only animals whose helplessness brings them so much pain and distress.

He wonders at some point in his argument;

Why, in short, does helplessness make us think of consolation rather than inspiration? Why is it so associated in our minds more with being tortured that being high-spirited, with being desperate rather than available, with sadomasochism rather than abandon?

So I’m beginning to wonder how I might embrace my own and other’s helplessness in new ways. Perhaps you could offer a practical suggestion beyond my spouting of theory?

In the last week it has hit mid-winter in Melbourne, cold enough that there are no longer any leaves attached to trees and cold enough that riding your bike home late at night is an amusing form of torture. But not cold enough to snow, and not cold enough that the house has a fireplace or sufficient heating or anything that might make winter a cosy hermetic retreat (puppies and children laughing in a carpet of warmth on the hearth).

This is the time of year (and how could I forget every year that it’s going to be like this?) that life takes on a greyer hue and in this relative dismal meteorology, that as much as one would like it not to, affects one mentally. I’m reminded that you told me how Thich Nhat Hanh says that we should treat the mind like a garden. That you can’t throw away the withering mid-winter flowers because, beyond the fact that there’s nowhere you can throw them away to, you’re gonna need them for compost to grow the as yet unsprouted Spring flowers. So, my next step in appreciating my helplessness will be acknowledging the mulchiness of the mind.

Mossed over at times.

Below is an image of the artist Julius Koller’s 1980 work “Anti-Performance”, and below that a picture of some foliage.

Anti-Performance (U.F.O) 1980 by Július Koller 1939-2007