The Sacred Disease:
An Apologia in Fragments and Fractals
by C. Derick Varn
Why does anyone write as a profession? Language, the basic medium for communication, is a trickery mistress. It slips around in your mouth, evades your fingers, vomits itself forth from your pencil, limits your thoughts, and colors your world. It is this that let E. M. Cioran to say, “One does not inhabit a country; one inhabits a language. That is our country, our fatherland – and no other.”
One wonders how writing cannot be a profession at that point. After all, profession is, at root, what one professes. The word is rooted in language, to profess, to admit or publicly show. Indeed, one’s profession is what one shows to the world. Like a supplicant to a religion that requires a “profession of faith,” to use Protestant Christian terms, the writer must profess what makes his world. Not as master or a priest, but as supplicant. A writer then is someone who has felt the joy of language force prostration before the great wall of silence.
Diseases are sacred thing and mine are no exceptions. Dyslexia is the muse’s gift. Anyone who is dyslexic rearranges the lexicon without the consent of the universe. My dyslexia is a gift against the static wall of lexicography. It is my gift to pick apart the day.
A handsome female does a flirtatious act and performs a ritual spiral belly dance and sexuality bombards the senses of some blundering male. A neurotic, fat-mouthed, politically minded, neo-elitist gives meaning to the Christian myth of the Tower of Babel as he complains tirelessly. Tremors of rapture run through a cute pre-teen girl as she receives her first full kiss and her heart melts like a salted slug. All these things are daily events to the current world of men as they have been daily events since the most primordial times of human history. All these things represent aspects of the realms of human experience and all these things invoke complex emotion. All these facets bring so much meaning into people’s lives and, yet, nature sees these things as both important and unimportant. Since emotion is in constant flux between psychological and physiological states, it has been the responsibility of artists, of all mediums, to try to create visions of the emotional life of the time and place that he or she is living. A quote from Albert Camus sums up my opinion of the artist’s place in society: “It is impossible to give a clear account of the world, but art can teach us how to reproduce it–just as the world reproduces itself in the course of its eternal gyrations. The primordial sea indefatigably repeats the same words and casts up the same astonished beings on the same seashore.”
Emotions are mere hormones, electrical nervous impulses, firing neurons, and bodily reactions. They are also the only things in understandable human experience that are truly supernatural–they exist a priori. Emotions are what make a reader feel the power of the writer’s creativity and its relevance to the world around them. The emotions bring unity; the writer lets talent shine as annoyingly and constantly as intercity neon lights
All my work is about nothing, a battle against nothing, a dance with the beast of nothing, a kiss on the lips of nothing.
The mystical side of life is simply a mixture of emotion and need for secure “knowledge.” The mystical elements of religion invoke the same positive hysteria that is seen at rock concerts, musical ballets, or when witnessing beautiful natural phenomena. Even in the dogmas and pretenses of organized religion, appeals are made by the subjective magic of mystical emotions and mind states.
I will never call myself a poet, even though I write verse. Poet is, from the Greek, a maker. I do not make anything. When I sit at the pressboard desk and write for hours, be it with pencil or by the clicking of keys, I am not making. I am presenting what the world has implanted in me and polishing it off. The language chooses me as much as I choose the language.
A poet, then, is a pretense of originality. The world is without self. A maker implies selfhood. This is against both my aesthetics and my religion. When I write about myself, as I do in my poem, “Neon Cross at 16th and Cherry,” I am not particularly concerned about my own selfhood, but rather the lack of it.
Browning buildings rest downtown, a meeting
of roads at the skeleton of a Jesuit mission. On
dusty glass, under the diminished glow of “-ESUS
S-VES,” there are two tubes of gas slowly burning
as if to denote where the vertical meets the
horizontal, or where alpha can slip omega
the tongue. A pigeon lays splayed in the
gutter near by, a beetle crushed in the beak
hook. Sinew and feathers color the pavement
where bird crossed paths with a Ford pick-up
under the guidance of artificial light.
Alpha is a neon inspiration, flickering as a
Beacon to all poor sinners. Yet, Omega is more
abundant: the beetle, the pigeon, the fender, and
the abandoned soup kitchen. Alpha and Omega
may be laughing as they roll in the bushes, but
ants still crawl over blood on the roadside.
Here the narrator is I, but I am not functioning to create the scene. The scene was there long before I captured it. The pigeon, the beetle, the electric lights of the mission have a being much larger than myself. The spiritual implications here are manifold. Life continues on without the artist and the disingenuous argument for the poem making anything immoral here is far beyond the point. This a subjective truth presented in the language and idiom I understand. I did not make this. The language stems beyond me, the beetle’s crushed mandibles have long since decayed, the cultural baggage of English brings in revelations I did not know and do not intend, and the bird feathers have probably washed down a sewage drain.
As poet Lynn Emmanuel once told a group of creative writing students, over a dinner of chicken parmesan, it took her a long time to come to terms with a linear narrative. She told us how she became engrossed with James Joyce and Gertrude Stein because of their abstracting of the traditional idea of the dramatic narrative into explorations of consciousness and non-linear ideas. Emmanuel said that as she was dealing with the death of her father, she was hit in the face with life’s rather linear narrative. She said that the body definitely has beginning, middle, a climax, and an end–deal with it. A few years ago, I stood over my maternal grandfather’s bed: it smelled stale with urine and lye. As he raised his atrophied hand, he started laughing for no discernable reason. He slurred some words that gave credit to what a few well-placed strokes can do to one’s mind. As Chinua Achebe and the second law of thermodynamics like to remind us, “things fall apart.” This is the shitty part of a narrative: it ends. Maybe it’s our cultural fear of death that has led us away from the linear narrative. Maybe it’s any number of things. It is interesting, however, that the academia has been distancing itself from the popular reader by trying to avoid traditional narrative and plot. Language-based literature has become the vogue. There is nothing wrong with that if as long as there is some discernable narrative. Things fall apart and, as writers, it’s our job to put them back together. Language can do that if it has a recognizable structure–something some poets ignore. That’s the why I believe in narratives and that narratives are something that even poets should employ. All that said, I still don’t think linearly.
It is surprising how often what is thought to be objective and eternal truth is a mere reflection of what lies within pools of the human brain. The brain functions with infinite vastness, complexity of neurons, and other amazing processing capacities.
It is biological technology at its finest, and yet, it is so banal and common in the vastness of the universe. The brain is so small in the light of the stars. It is so soft that a hammer blow can shut it down. Ultimately, it is nothing in comparison to the vastness of the universe or the vastness of the void.
A writer may say that he or she created language as a work and as a craft, but if one is honest, language also created their self. Indeed, I believe that the self is more rooted in social relationships than essence. Why? Essence is a slippery slope, evading even most astute philosophers. Ideas, however, are often conceived in the limitations of the language construct. Indeed, it is hard to define any abstract without making references to emotional states or to other words. Can you define liberty in a concrete way? Or love?
Most scholars of the Christian New Testament know that the Greeks, at least in Hellenic and Roman times, had five words for love: Philía, Agápe, Éros, Xenia, and Storgé. Éros was erotic—which is obvious—sensual, desirous. It also had Platonic philosophical connotations and was often used for mystical Saints in their longing for the divine. For Plato, although Éros is initially felt for a person, with contemplation it becomes an appreciation of the beauty within that person, or even become appreciation of beauty itself. Philía is the love between friends, dispassionate and virtuous. Agápe is divine love, but is sometimes used interchangeably with Philía. Storgé is natural, non-sexual affection like the bond between parent and child. Xenia is the affection necessitated by ritual such as love for one’s houseguest. While the Greeks were freed by these categorical definitions that enriched both Pagan and Christian philosophy in ways that are hard to translate into English correctly, this does not mean that the terms are any less abstract. Indeed, their translation requires certain thought separations created by Greek language. Thus Greek love is dependent on the language context that spawned it, as English love is dependent on the context around the verb. Language there is a web, which allows emotions to be expressed in ways that more clearly define both culture and personality.
Entre dos novias
se ama a la que nunca existió
-Nacanor Parra, Artefactos
Form and frustration: those are the two f-words that fuel most poetry. Often both of them lead to muttering another f-word as I struggle with my verse. I have pondered using plastic explosives on my computer as I rework stanzas and even had a pencil holocaust after trying to search for the perfect verb. Form and frustration habitually direct writers to an abstract approach to writing. Parra’s aphorism translated means: “Given two women, you’d love the one that didn’t exist.” Once I read that Percy Bysshe Shelly thought that the poem one writes is never as good as the one in one’s head. Many writers feel the brunt of the same curse. This is where Parra’s little maxim comes in. The poem in your head never existed: it’s an illusion. Comparing your poems to your ideals leads to more frustration than envisioning your significant other as one of those heavily airbrushed erotica stars. The formulas of the –isms don’t help this. Surrealism, New Formalism, and Imagism all provide helpful forms for your poetry, but it also leads you to those delusional poetic ideals. This is part of why Parra endorsed the destruction of idealized poetics with what he called anti-poetry. At the same time many of the Beats were breaking down American poetry, anti-poetry was fragmenting Latin America’s extremely formal traditions. My hands write as much as my head does. Creating is an act, not an ideal. All good poetry has a sense of action. My hands know this. Anti-poets are still poets. They see life as action and incorporate form. When I see ideals as life and incorporate action, I will never be satisfied with your work.
“Except for Music, everything is a lie,” E.M. Cioran says. Until the rise of pop culture, Cioran was right. Now music is even subject to a cynic’s eye. Records are no longer records of the event of people making music, but quite often cross marketing attempts. Still, without music, I don’t think I would have entered the “arts.”
I started writing as a music reviewer of underground bands when I was fourteen years old. Underage drinking, Nirvana-esque guitar riffs, and the out of control punk scene led me to want to be a poet. I tried to write lyrics; however, I found musical rhythm and coherence limiting. That led to writing poems. The two are related, I think. “We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.” Arthur W. E. O’Shaughnessy is right. Even at it’s most trite, music can pull emotions out of you. It’s not logical at all; music is pure emotional communication. As a writer it’s easy to get bogged down in words. Abstractions can creep into your work and thwart your best intentions to be solid. Listening and understanding music can help that. Sometimes, the only thing you need to set the mood is simplicity and sound. Tom Waits’ wails have helped me get the right feel for a story on more than one occasion.
The blue and red paint on her body dried slowly and slightly cracked around her joints. Her dyed red hair hung over her shoulders as I smeared more of the paste over her chest, back, thighs, feet… detailing all of her body. After I finished and we sit awkwardly letting the body finish drying, we hung a green blanket over the door of her dorm room. She gave me one of the cardboard disposable Kodiak cameras. I smiled at her. With each flash that would eventually be a few horrible-but-sexy photographs, I realized something about art. Despite the poor lighting and the makeshift backdrop, I tapped into something beautiful and organic. Beauty is not controlling your medium, it becoming part of it. The Japanese, Africans, and Native Americans know this, it took a naked woman to teach it to me. It’s been several years since that spiritual experience involving one of my best friends. I’ve wrote a couple of bad poems about it, done some more pieces of body art, become a little better at photography and kept those first photographs. I have always been obsessed with the body. The muscles, blood, and sinew often make their way into my art, especially my poetry. The Renaissance artists who played with cadavers in order to learn their art relearned what tribal peoples already knew: the body is art. Poems seem to have blood and sinew too. Like with body art-painting, tattooing, and piercing, the secret is to work with the body, not to recreate it. Poems are showing images, events, and ideas; however, how you present them is as important as what you have to say. My job as a poet is to present the image in a poem and let my words speak for the poem. Every poet and every reader is a voyeur. We are taking photographs and making the images and ideas surreal or crisp, but we are not really changing anything about them.
Perhaps the reason why Americans have trouble with poetry is that the American culture has a metaphorical stick up its ass about the human body. Poetry, even in its most urban and symbolic moments, is more organic than prose. Poetry likes to dance in the leaves, run in the rain, and occasionally fuck a loved one.
“Artists to my mind are the real architects of change, and not political legislators, who implement change after the fact.”
—-William S. Burroughs
The most interesting conversations happen over cheap coffee. At a coffee house at about a quarter after midnight, a friend of mine was conversing about art and its meaning. After he threatened to beat me for my “catholic view of art.” Once I had said that. “all meaningless art is vandalism, but there is no such thing as true vandalism.” My response to him was to quote George Carlin about his hatred of soft language and euphemisms: “the quality of our thought can only be as high as the quality of our language.” Then I expanded on the quote the same way Carlin did–governments and religions use language to control the actions of people. The jargon of “thou shalt” and legal garble all involve the manipulation of language. Art is an aesthetic reaction to the unbalancing or stagnation of power–both personal and political. I concluded with “all art is propaganda in literal sense of the word.” “Not all art is propaganda,” he responded. “Bullshit,” I said sipping on my stale coffee, “does art have meaning?” “Not always,” he said. “Oh? Is art about communicating?” “Yes,” he said. “Then it has meaning,” I continued, “and if that meaning is persuasive, then it is propaganda by definition.” “You’re full of shit, Derick,” he took a bite of a chocolate, “are you saying that all art has to have political purpose?” “No. I am saying all art has purpose and thus is political by its wishes to affect the way we live. It’s about power and beauty.” “It’s about beauty.” He said as he took another sip.
“Language is about uniting people. That is about power,” I said looking at his frustrated face. “Maybe we need to redefine what we think about power.” “Drink your coffee before I throw mine on you.” He smiled.
This conversation along with reading Umberto Eco’s works on semiotics and Thomas Hibb’s Show about Nothing, both dealing in popular culture and its relation to linguistics, prompted this “philosophical” inquiry. Other than by brute force or threats of violence, there are two ways to redistribute the balance of power in any social system: the manipulation of wealth via business or seizure and the manipulation of communication and language through literature or polemic. For this reason, artists, especially writers and musicians, hold a revolutionary and/or shamanistic place in most societies. This is a place of power. Historically, this power of art has been realized from the use of Latin instead of vulgar tongues by the Catholic church to limit the range of readable literature in the Middle Ages to Nixon trying to have John Lennon deported from the United States. To understand why I categorize art, especially literary arts, with economics in my paradigm of power, simply apply economic principles to literature. Modern economics is based on the law of incentives. All things done by a human are done with marginal benefits in mind. If someone does something it is because they have an incentive for doing it, by either increasing their influence (power) or their comfort (property). Rational people respond to incentives and will respond to whatever they are convinced will bring the most long-term happiness. When you apply incentives to arts, you’ll see interesting developments. The incentive for writing and arts are usually catharsis, influence, or cash. Yet the incentives for partaking in high arts are often even less clear. Hyperrealism and escapism become the dominant mode of art and pseudo-art because they give the reader a quick and easy fix of something the reader thinks will benefit them. If is the reinforcement of what the reader always holds as “truth” or sometimes an escape from what the reader holds as “truth.” Both of these themes relate to pleasure. Although the high arts will never appeal to the common person all of the time, it will ultimately lose to commercial novels and genre fiction if it does not offer something more beneficial to the reader. Escapism is always easier than reality. How does high art and its economic applications relate to power? The purpose of polemic and art is to give power to some viewpoint. Even if it is the aesthetic theme of “this is beautiful” it is still done to communicate and thus convince someone of the view, “that is beautiful.” Thus all art is propaganda in that it aims to convince its reader of some way of viewing the world. Art is symbolically giving ideas power through well-crafted expression.
Only recently have we had such a negative connotation for the word “propaganda”. “What separates art from the escapism of popular entertainment, political rhetoric, and ethical polemic is that it is self-contained and multi-faceted,” says Foucault. He continued in The History of Sexuality: “Power is everywhere, not because it embraces everything but because it comes from everywhere.” Power is not the same as strength, which stems from the individual. Power stems from the collective consent of some social structure–stemming from everywhere. One cannot be powerful alone. Often rhetoric and polemic are one-sided because they embrace point/counter point duality. Literature understands that life is not that simple. Art should be truly empathic because it understands the multiple and complex relationships between the subjective and objective realities around us. If there were only black and white, we would develop a spectrum of variations of gray to compensate. Both phenomenology and pragmatism apply here. All distinctions fall to the wayside when we understand that perception is the most important element in definition. The pragmatic value of the “truth” of the definition lies in the social acceptance of its meaning. This is why the polemics of politicians often seem shallow–they appeal to cultural assumptions and to social shared perceptions. If language were not the providence of power, religious leaders and politicians would not be masters at abusing it. Even the current president of the United States, George W. Bush, despite that English grammar and diction constantly wrestle him to the ground, knows how to abuse the language of euphemisms and polemic. The reason we associate propaganda with poor literary polemic is because of the abuse of literature by all national powers in World Wars One and Two. The confusion of shallow polemic with literature was largely done by both Fascist and Communist writers. Their meaning is laced with a point. Yet we forgive this in high art: Americans do not disregard Hemingway because of his politics and pro-war stance, the British do not condemn Orwell for his leftist politics and anti-communism, and the French still believe in Camus despite his flirting with socialism and declaring that all art is moral. The works of all these writers were based on reform and redistribution of power through politics, morals, or even the lack of. What separates art and literature from polemic? This is something that we must ask to understand why some attempts to increase the power of an idea are forgiven and others die when the political climate changes. Literature is different because it acknowledges the complexities of perception. In an essay entitled “Language, Power, Force,” published in Travels in Hyper Reality, Umberto Eco reminds us that “[a] force is applied to another force: they form a parallelogram of forces. They do not cancel one another . . . The play amongst forces is reformist. It produces compromises.” There is no duality in this, but there is immense plurality. To think in black, white, and even gray is to ignore the manifold spectrum of color. The plurality of literature makes it paradoxical and universal. Sometimes without the author’s consent, true literature acknowledges the values of contrary views and alternate perceptions because it respects the subjective while presenting what the author considers objective or personal elements. Even at the basic level, literature exists between the consensus of the perception of the reader and the perception of the writer. The plurality of perception in literature produces knowledge. Knowledge is power says the old maxim. Umberto Eco expands on this in “Language, Power, Force” “knowledge is produced by the composition of force.” No one would argue with the fact that one of the major aims of literature is to produce knowledge. Knowledge is held suspect in a world that is ruled with perception, so through the force of language the artist tries to break through to the reader. Sometimes it is through beauty, sometimes it is through narrative, sometimes through psychology, but it is always trying to break through. To truly understand the relationships between perception and power in language and art, we need to explore the politics of language in itself. Doing this we will use the theory of the “given language” as it is addressed in linguistics and semiotics. According to Eco and Foucault, the “given language” is the language of correct grammar and worn-out idioms and clichés. In this language you begin to develop the mainstream of ideology. Ideological words are often untranslatable from culture to culture and this enforces the given language. Thus the given language “legitimizes certain relationships of strength and criminalizes others.” It is the language of politically correct euphemism, that George Carlin hates, and the language of those who use far too much technical jargon in their work. Attempts to regain cultural legitimacy are evident through the breaking of the “given language” in several periods of literature such as the Harlem Renaissance reaction against WASP America, the Irish Renaissance’s reaction to the British, and the Southern Revival’s battle against the North. In all these things, the dialect different from that of the accepted “given language” became a pivotal point in a cultural battle.
One of the things many people who abuse the “given language” do is confuse causality with symbolic relationships. Causality is unavoidable, but symbolic relations do not exist outside of perception. The most contemporary example of this is the language revision of feminism against the language of “patriarchy.” The man inseminating the woman during intercourse is causality. The woman washing dishes for the man can be seen as a symbolic relationship of power and language. The feminists rightly realized that there was no causality in the “given language” of sexual politics so they fought to transform the language. Not just of the symbolic relationship of power involved in the washing of dishes, but also of linguistic demonstratives such as “actress” and “waitress” which imply something less than the male counterpart since the suffix “-tress” means “little.” Yet the very term “patriarchy” is a polemical abuse of the “given language” against itself. Thus replacing one stale language, with all its assumptions, with another is common amongst nonliterary language revisionists. Semiotics theorist Roland Barthes once said, in a speech at College de France, that given language was always fascist. In response, Eco said: “You can cheat with the given language. This dishonest and liberating and healthy trick is called literature.” You destroy the static power of language. Literature and art also redistribute power by refreshing the “given language.” Literature pushes the language into new areas through new associations in theme and word play. This is another difference that separates art from polemic; it is not complacent with the limitations and clichés of the “given language.” Roland Langacker, echoing George Carlin’s philosophical humor in a much more academic tone in his book Language and Its Structure, remarks that “[t]he overwhelming bulk of human knowledge is stored and transmitted in language. Language is so ubiquitous that we take it for granted, but without it, society as we know it would be impossible.” Art is an intrinsically moral pursuit because of the power of language. When one controls the flow of ideas, one controls the imaginations and the actions of the people. “ I fear we are not getting rid of God because we still believe in grammar,” says Nietzsche in Twilight of the Idols. Language and God are interchangeable in the old maxim of power: “God, Gold, and Goods.” Language can be understood then not just as words but as any symbol of communication. To quote Charles S. Pierce: “A sign is something by knowing which we know more.” So artists are left in the proverbial coffee house arguing over the meaning of power and propaganda. Let those in the Ivory Tower of Art say that true art is subjective without political or moral motive, but we writers and artists who want to engage and reform the reader must never take such a decadent position. It is not that all artistic works have to be moral–even anti-moral or amoral works have made some assertion to the reform of social power. Art is the great balancer.
I am dyslexic and all my life I have known that nonsense can be understood through syntax. That is the way I see words. Here is an example: “Ey luv uyo.” That phrase is essentially a meaningless string of phonemes. Yet most readers can figure out through syntax that it is supposed to read: “I love you.” The sound relationship between “ey” and “I” establish the beginning of the subject, “luv” is pronounced the same as “love,” and syntax would normally dictate that direct object of a personal pronoun. This sort of linguistic game was part of my daily life went I was in grade school.
Dyslexic thought patterns, in this one regard, have been freeing since I am acutely aware that syntax and context explain more to a reader than direct meaning. In poetry, one can play with this meaning by stanza breaks or enjambment to create a tension in the syntax to expand the meaning of a phrase.
Earlier, I lied, or, abused dictionary meaning. By the current use of the term poet, I am one. I write poetry as a primary genre. Meaning is rooted in both its etymological root and its usage: so I both am and am not a poet.
Noise is religious for me: noise in writing, noise in listening, noise in being. Throwing myself against the wall of silence has taught me the best way to find my voice is to give up finding it. From childhood on, I struggled with speech. Not only dyslexic, but also having a severe speech impediment, I could barely form words in an articulate matter until I was almost nine years old.
To learn to write, I had to first learn to babble. To learn to babble, I had to listen to the incidental music of the universe. Static, drills, chatter, all the random patterns of everyday life start to emerge as a precursor to signifier and signified.
Learning to sit and accept silence was the hardest part of mediating as both a professional and spiritual practice. Silence is the absence of noise and the absence of noise is the absence of life. Nothing terrified more than the silence from insight mediation, I found myself listening to my breath as opposed to nothing. Silence is always awkward because it illuminates an essential lack. To quote E. M. Cioran, “A sudden silence in the middle of a conversation suddenly brings us back to essentials: it reveals how dearly we must pay for the invention of speech.”
To make a stand against silence is a religious act that every writer and, indeed, every person must do. In this we are all supplicant and we are also all master. The ultimate aesthetic is silence. Again, E. M. Cioran is illuminating, “Speech and silence. We feel safer with a madman who talks than with one who cannot open his mouth.”
It is the love for sound—pure sound, sound without meaning–that led me to writing and ultimately to poetry. Form, rhythm, rhyme, and the play of phonemes on the tongue all essentially answer my childlike craving for babble.