Monday, December 8, 2014

Currently Reading: Voyager by Srikanth Reddy

Where does the responsibility of the artist (and the more general person, as if artists are something different) lie: the people or the self?

Srikanth Reddy's text is one with many layers, so before I uselessly ruminate on an unanswerable question, allow me to contextualize: Voyager is a book made from another book, In the Eye of the Storm, a memoir by Kurt Waldheim, former UN Secretary General and, previously, Nazi intelligence officer. Reddy took Waldheim's memoir and composed a three-part erasure poem out of it, with each part going back to the beginning of the memoir and starting again. As is necessary for a book composed by destroying another book, there's a fair amount of meta narrative throughout the entire piece—indeed, after part one (in which there are still hints but not so blatant), part two is a construction of the story of Reddy's erasing the memoir told in prose poems, and part three is a far more broken-looking form in which Reddy takes that narrative from part two and crafts a metaphysical, Dante-esque narrative out of it. Even from the first few pages we have lines like "To complain about love in front of the famous Chagall window does not make a difference," commenting on the "use" of poetry in a way Amiri Baraka might approve of, and "Disappearance should no fashion books," which I read as a tongue-in-cheek line of Reddy making fun of himself in a way. 

But the most interesting motif of the book, to me, is the question of individuality. Reddy writes, "The self is a suffering form," in the first part of the book and spends large chunks of the second and third parts trying to come to terms with that position. In part two (and later in part three, though not as a prose poem), he writes:
On the indian sub-continent, a prince was idolated from all knowledge that might upset him. In the palae he began to lament his captivity. Could this self, born in a stream of sad time, only be makeshift? I consider my position over and over. In ships, the sea is law. In famine, the field. Therefore he took the occasion to visit the country. My my, he said, I understand nothing. The map of Asia was in the making during this period. Serious political disturbances were causing people to flee warfare, drought and famine. Some thrust aside their tragedies to cope. The self in theory is a problem. The word does not even cover the remains.
This idea of the self as a problem comes up again and again throughout the book as Reddy struggles with it, later crossing out the names of people in relation to their works ("as the playwright Hebbel once wrote," and "Thus in his fable / Schopenhauer / the philosopher describes") and commenting:
This book,
                    taken thoroughly apart
                                        and put together again
with relation to me,
                    soon came unstuck—
                                        whereupon it proved impossible
to obtain any understanding of
                    John 2:1
This struggle of Reddy's is not unlike Tolstoy's, who abandoned most of his early works as "selfish," because he felt that the artist had an obligation to his readers. By contrast, most artists seem more or less self-obsessed, putting themselves on the page/canvas/waveform/clay/stage/jar of piss over and over again. And I wonder if that is unavoidable, if that is necessarily bad, if it's something that should be fought against, if it's purposeless, if it's irresponsible, etc. Art is an intensely personal journey for a person to undertake, so contrastly I wonder if perhaps it's irresponsible or problematic to disincline the artist from their work. I don't know the answers to this debate, and in truth I think it's a sort of nebulas rabbit-hole that's just fun to add to from time to time, but Reddy seems to find his answer in the second-to-last poem in the book:

Drawn in outer space
                    on a ceiling of night,
                                        a hinged balance held true.
The balance
                    —its mechanisms
                                        worked into the unknown—
                    in the star systems
                                        which turn in union
without history
                    as we know it
                                        on this planet.
I recognize it
                    to the East
                                        said I to the West,
not made,
                    not given,
                                        over the world.
Devoted observers,
                    it seems to me
                                        a just structure.
John 1:5
                    And my search
                                        for peace underground
now come to an end
                    —constraints accepted
                                        in spirit as well as in letter,
the line spent,
                    the theatres in abandon—
                                        I viewed the balances
more clearly than ever before.

If you want a brilliantly smart read and don't mind really intensive post-modern discourse being strewn about inside it, I highly recommend Voyager. It takes about an hour to read all-in-all, and I'm not a particularly fast reader so it might take you even less. Just try not to focus on the existential dread of the artist's responsibility.

Kyle Williams

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