STAIN THE WATER CLEAR
It becomes a symbol of a language between a certain set of people, friends, people moving in each other’s world, and it is a language that is at once private and public.
A few weeks ago I lost my journal. I’d been writing in it for about six months. My journals have charted my past few years and when in a state of turmoil, it is always to the journals I come back to to re-situate myself inside my own life. Everything in them is augmented in some way; glossy and shining and tenderly recalled, or potent with pain. I can’t argue for objectivity in what I write. But either way the passages, sketches, collages always rebuild my past, one that exists within my body/mind and one seems to exist externally, though I can never seem to put my finger on that one. This past returns me to my place in the present, stable. This particular journal (the lost one) is particularly precious, full of firsts: tracks my entrance into love, travelling alone during a month spent in France, the end of my first year of University, and living alone for the first time in Toronto in the sprawling summer.
I know that at some point I must have written about the sweaty wooden student house I lived in this summer with Sonja. Must have written about the Japanese, Dutch, Indian, British exchange students that I lived with who hand made sushi and pickled radishes for us. I know that at one point I wrote about Sonja and I standing on the metal balcony and feeling incurably romantic about it. I know that I must have written about my nineteenth birthday, going to a psychic who told me that I would meet a girl named Allison who would become very important, and told Sonja that she would fall in love with someone who’s name starts with “A.” I know I must have written about driving with Sonja and Teddy and Kylie through the mountains of Nice, France when we visited Kylie while she was living there as a nanny. About Teddy in the backseat, her hair rising like a halo, the green of the trees and the mountain air tinged with sea salt. About the summer night Brad and I drove to the Toronto Beaches, through the Korean neighbourhood and basketball courts in golden hour, then walked down the house-lined street to the beach, where we sat on a sheet and watched kids running through water, the sunlight, each other. I’m sure I wrote about all of it, and I can write about it in retrospect, but in a way this reflection feels like I’m pulling from memories that are not fully mine - I can’t quote the way I felt during, or right after the moment, specifics only available to me via my journal. Can’t quote the rawness of that the way I want to. The long stretch of time that exists between these moments and right now adds to the mediation, and the truth of my own feelings slips away from me.
Susan Sontag says that photographs are like quotations. Visual based quotations, quotations plucked from life. She says that because they are specific, small pieces of reality, they are more authentic than extended literary narratives (ie, the extended narrative of life). Jean Baudrillard says that “The secret of the image must not be sought in it’s differentiation from reality […] but in its “telescoping” into reality […] the implosion of image and reality.”
I admire photographers who’s self-documentation captures a Dionysian-type revelry. Nietzsche talks about Dionysian art as the kind of art that exists within/leads to intoxication so that you get outside your own body, intoxicated not drowsily, but ecstatically, elevating the participant to transcendence into some kind of universal truth. Acting, drama, music playing, dancing - all these corporeal arts that bring you outside yourself. The singular experience becoming part of something larger. There’s a ritualistic nature to this that translates over to the way I like to think of the contemporary events of my own life - putting on makeup in a mirror, sharing glittery eyeliners, mixing a drink and listening to the chosen song of the week, watching the careful precision of a friend rolling a joint and smoking it out the window, candles lit to cover the smell, or the mini-traditions of a group of people, even if they only last for a little while: ordering eggs benedict in the morning. There’s the performing of the ritual, the indulging in the intoxication, and then there’s the documenting of it. Can they be simultaneous? Hilton Als wrote for the New Yorker about the legendary Nan Goldin’s work, that her photos capture “the random gestures and colors of the universe of sex and dreams, longing and breakups—the electric reds and pinks, deep blacks and blues.” He wrote that she is a photographer who “believes in the narrative of the self.’” I like art that frames a situation with more importance than it perhaps actually has. The actual action of all this is beautiful - but the recording of it doubles its importance to me. Any palpable emotion framed and stilled in a photograph, quoted, becomes something more than itself. Sonja and Brad slippery with sunlight and playing a guitar outside my cottage, Kylie and Emily slurping noodles on the couch, two friends dancing in the blurry blue lights of a basement party. It becomes a symbol of a language between a certain set of people, friends, people moving in each other’s world, and it is a language that is at once private and public.
In teenage-hood, I became good at heightening experiences, and through this, certain moments turned precious. As if they would never be experienced again - and in a way, they wouldn’t. We were painfully aware of this, even as we lived them. In high school I would turn my life into eras, into segmented chunks of time. I would mourn the end, get hyper-nostalgic, but always be looking for the Next Thing that would define this new ‘era.’ The defining indicator of the change in era would be, above all, the change in aesthetics. I would pin-point the moments through aesthetics that surrounded them. Like a magpie, I would create a world around these shiny objects, my life mapped out by my cultural consumption. And then the era would become an aesthetic object in itself as I would be making these eras into their own aesthetics, via photos, collages, writing, playlists created by me. It would go both ways, like a mirror that’s also a window.
Charles Baudelaire presents the idea of the cult of the self. He says, “it is first and foremost the burning need to create for oneself a personal originality, bounded only by the limit of the properties.” To construct oneself, create the self through aesthetics, to build an internal world and an external persona/self. How does one do this? Maybe, compile cultural artifacts, memories’ aesthetic components, these fragments, and amalgamate them until as a whole they become something more than their individualities - they relate to each other and to you in such a way that they build a self.
In the eleventh grade Sonja and I discovered John Waters and became obsessed with Crybaby. I don’t remember how we came across it, but shortly after our stint with The Virgin Suicides and Drop Dead Gorgeous, we sat in Sonja’s black and cavernous basement and watched it twice the same day. I think part of it was just the thrill of being obsessed and sharing in that obsession. We convinced twelve of our friends to watch the film in the span of two weeks. These two weeks mark for me a larger era, the meaning of which I can’t really explain, nor can I really explain what happened during it specifically, besides certain sparks. Like buying noodles with Sam and Lucas then dancing to a playlist full of Stevie Wonder and David Bowie in Sam’s basement where he had his own kitchen separate from his parents, and feeling very adult. Driving around corners of the streets around our high school in my parent’s ancient Toyota Corolla (that Sonja had nicknamed Foxy Charlotte as a spinoff from Adventure Time’s Hot Daniel) and rolling down the window to yell back and forth with boys we knew in passing cars. All these little chunks, wrapped together by the vision of Johnny Depp’s swooped hair and single tear. “You got it Allison/ You got it raw.”
The summer before I left for University, I started dating the boy that I went to Prom with. The romance lacked some sort of purity and intensity I’d been expecting. The feeling was more of a shimmering indulgence, like eating a lot of ice cream or diving from a high cliff. I remember going to a gorge with some of our friends, this massive hole of water with cliffs surrounding it that everyone in our hometown would go to in the summertime to take pictures next to the sign that said “No Diving.” Me and him swam out to this ledge that jutted out from the rock wall, and we came out of the water sitting and dripping, not saying anything. It was horrible: everything looked perfect, but there was nothing to say. Eventually I felt like the self-reflexive relationship had taught me all it could. The break up was sharp only because I’d always thought breakups had the most potent form of romance associated with them. We broke up in his driveway; it was one of those situations where you feel like you’re reading from a script. You’re like, okay, this is a break up. We are breaking up. Now we are sad. Now are kissing goodbye. Now I’m driving back to Martha’s house, broken up. It was surprisingly clean, I was almost disappointed with how easy it was. The whole break up, and by default the whole relationship, is centralized in my memory around the drive from his house to Martha’s house, that path of road scorched with that event. And that drive centralizes around Arcade Fire’s song Afterlife, which came on as I drove. When it came on, I started crying and thought, thank god, now I know how to pin down this feeling. When love is gone/ Where does it go? Thank god, now I know how I’m supposed to remember this, what direction I’m supposed to point this heartbreak in. Where do we go? The last week before I left my hometown for school. Where do we go?
A different kind of heartbreak: the kind where six months later I am lying on a single bed in a city I don’t know well, the streetlight sneaking through slants in the blinds, and I am trying really hard to understand if I’m in love with this person, this person who appeared out of nowhere, but who I’m now orbiting, and he orbits me back. The heartbreak takes form through the space that the potential for heartbreak takes up. We’re lying on his bed and Brand New’s Socco Amaretto Lime plays through his laptop speakers, so gooey that it sounds like a polariod, it sounds so filtered with nostalgia that it hurts. They’re just jealous cause we’re young and in love/They’re just jealous cause we’re young and in love and he mouths the words. As it is happening, it’s impossible not to think about how I’ll remember this, the way I’ll remember him saying these words before we’ve actually said ‘I love you.’ I already know how I’ll remember the softness of it all.
To be aware of oneself is to be brought out of the moment. I’ll be searching my whole life to find a way to rectify being fully present in the moment while also remembering enough that’s happening so I can write it down later, recount it, retrace it, relive it. This awareness of the self often is what makes self-documentation possible. In Donna Tartt’s novel The Secret History, the cult-like leader/professor says:
“Pain often makes us most aware of self… One’s burned tongues and skinned knees, one’s aches and pains are all one’s own […] Our own selves make us most unhappy, and that’s why we’re so anxious to lose them, don’t you think? And how can we lose this maddening self, lose it entirely? Love?”
We lose ourselves in love and it feels, somehow, inarticulably whole. It feels never ending. Jenny Zhang says of love, in her essay How It Feels, “We built our private little world through these mistakes, and like everyone else falling in love we tried to become one entity, impenetrable through our arsenal of inside jokes, through a language that other people could not understand or use.” Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s art piece Perfect Lovers says “We conquered fate by meeting at a certain time in a certain space. We are the products of the time, therefore we give back credit where it is due: time. We are synchronized, now and forever.” Tavi Gevinson says in her series, The Infinity Diaries “Taking on all of someone else—a partner in love, a character in a play, a new identity in a new city—is an escape until it becomes a confrontation, and you find that you’ve run away only to yourself.” So do we lose ourselves in this love, or do we find ourselves in it? Is love just a mirage, something we disappear into for a short time? But even in this supposed state of loss of self-awareness, I am conscious of myself.
Nietzsche argues that truth is ultimately the unveiling and confrontation of ugliness, of pain. His Dionysian form of art is vulnerable, confronts this pain but also chisels down to the essence of being human. In her book How Should A Person Be, Sheila Heti describes a golden age of falling in love: “a time before the Fall - between me and every other person. A time before the other person knows my ugliness.” When asked how to get over a bad breakup, the musician Karen O said, “Heartbreak is pretty much one of the most romantic things that could happen to you in your life. You get the opportunity to feel one of the most intense, soul-shaking to your core, deep and most alive feelings that there is.” Artists and theorists alike seem to argue that hurt cuts us cleanly, rings the most true, and love provides the softness of an Apollonian golden age. Maybe this pure essence of heartbreak and hurt is more “truthful” theoretically because it is sharp, pointed, specific. Love feels messy, it swarms, it comes in heaving doses, it is greedy and doesn’t want to get out of bed. But isn’t this messiness, this dying to preserve our tiny specks of brightness, to augment ourselves into something more than a person carrying out menial tasks - isn’t that the whole point?
I try to sort out the paradox of advice from an interview between writer Jenny Zhang and musician Mitski. Mitski says in the interview: “Happiness is messy and the thing that’s messy about it is that it can’t last.” In the liner notes of her album Puberty 2, Mitski wrote “Happiness fucks you.” But then at the end of the interview, Mitski kisses Jenny’s cheek and says, “Love is worth it.” What do I do with that?
The imminent need to turn my life into an aesthetic form presumes an audience, even unconsciously. Even with my private journals, I imagine an audience. This kind of intimate documentation operates as a confessional. Foucault says that a confession is “a ritual that unfolds within a power relationship, for one does not confess without a presence of a partner.” A confession, he says, that occurs independently of being required to confess redeems, purifies, unburdens and liberates the confessor. So my recounting is in some way a confession that alleviates me. In another sense, it is a creation. Kant’s theory of fragmentation talks about the idea that since there are no universal truths, we must continuously piece together fragments in order to try to find some sort of truth. Since there can never be, Kant says, any universal truth found, this results in the continuous creation of art. For the postmodernist, this is a pleasurable task - new great art keeps being made. For the modernist it is painful - the modernist wants the truth nailed down. Sometimes I am a modernist, wishing I could view all my life in a single document, my memories preserved, everything encompassed, neat and clean. But then what would art be made of?
In the last song on both of Mitski’s most recent albums, the lyrics are about dying clean.
From Last Words of A Shooting Star:
I always wanted to die clean and pretty
but I'd be too busy on working days
I am relieved that I'd left my room tidy
From A Burning Hill:
So today I will wear my white button down
I can at least be neat
walk out and be seen as clean
And I’ll go to work and I’ll go to sleep
And I’ll love the littler things
Jacques Lacan has a theory of the aesthetics of narcissism, that as humans we only ever see ourselves in fragments: our hands when we are typing or preparing food, or focusing on our mouths when we speak. But we never see ourselves as full bodies - the narcissism is the deep frustration we feel in the absence of seeing our full, ideal self. Nietzsche’s Dionysian art argues for dissolving any sort of mediation so that the human embodies truth, is riled up and shaking with the pure act of being. He argues for the benefit of the artist becoming the artwork. Similarly to this personal embodiment as opposed to outsourced emotion into art, dadaist and surrealist artist André Breton said as a sort of mantra: “And since the words have become over-rife, Rather life.” Barthes speaks of loved ones in a photo: “anesthetized and fastened down, like butterflies.” - by preserving something, he argues, we kill it, in a certain way. But what if the mediation of this truth or experience doesn’t hinder or dilute the truth, but creates a heightened layer of emotion, understanding, importance to an experience? Baudelaire describes the painter Constantin Guys: “He is an ‘I’ with an insatiable appetite for the non-‘I,’ at every instant rendering and explaining it in pictures more living than life itself, which is always unstable and fugitive.” Baudelaire claims that by painting, Guys is able to obtain a deeper and greater understanding of life, preserving it and sculpting the chaos and nonsense of being alive into something of beauty, something of magic.
Photographer Olivia Bee says in an interview with writer Tavi Gevinson, “I can’t grasp what it’s like to be human without documenting it. I can’t reflect on what’s happened unless I’ve documented it in some way, because then I don’t reflect and don’t grow and then I feel stagnant.”
In a journal from when I was sixteen, I wrote: Part of me wants to live without observation – to be like the kinds of people that I read about or watch in films who live densely, moving and driving and swiveling in liquid of surrender, pure experience. But – I don’t think that I can live like myself without some kind of synthesis, something for reflecting on and remembering later.
A few weeks ago I’m in Toronto visiting friends. One night, six of us are hanging out at Brad and Arman’s apartment. We had spent all day together and were spending all night together, and it was starting to give me that feeling of stretching out within a space in time, rolling around in the time, the evening swelling from the inside out. I started to get that feeling you get when you spend a lot of time with a group of people that you exist as a unit. Like summer camp, or homeroom, or the cast of a show; that kind of linkage, but the linking is charged with a heartbeat. During the night time we’d spent a lot of time in the main room of their apartment, their dirty room with the posters of David Bowie and Prince like altars. There’s a fire escape right off from their living room, and we sat and stood out there for a while, hot breath mixing with the cold air. The idea of being on a fire escape carried so much weight in itself that it was like anything we did on it would feel cinematic. The coloured christmas lights that were strung out messily onto the deck helped that too. Someone asked what sitcom characters we would be and we went through our arsenal, then Arman told us about the time he greened out at a high school party. Emily was drinking milk from a wine glass for a reason I can’t remember, if there ever even was one. Tyson told us about eating sushi in a neon restaurant with members of the most dangerous gang in New Zealand and feeling like he was in a Tarantino movie. Sonja said, “being out here feels like all of my childhood dreams coming true.” Brad winked. Of the six of us, three are photographers, two writers and one a visual artist. I know each of us somehow memorialized this night in our various mediums. We all take pieces of it with us, even if just one small piece. And when we want to, we can look at the pieces and remember it. Tender, graceful, sprawling. Layered love; tokens, whispers, jokes, texts all passing over each other, and then also the fresh, clinking, sizzling spark of newness. A cusp. A long time coming. A quiet roar of togetherness, a cosmic shared inner power. Right then, the act of being feeling essential, the existing counting as a form of art, and right then, that being enough.
Works Referenced in the Essay (in order of appearance)
Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York City: Penguin, 1977. Print
Baudrillard, Jean. “The Procession of Simulacra.” Editions Galilee (1981): n. pag. Web
Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy. Print.
Als, Hilton. “Nan Goldin’s Life In Progress.” The New Yorker. Web.
Baudelaire, Charles. The Painter of Modern Life. Phaidon. Print.
Tartt, Donna. The Secret History. Random House, 1992. Print.
Zhang, Jenny. “How It Feels.” Poetry Foundation (2015)
Gonzalez-Torres, Felix. Perfect Lovers. 1988
Gevinson, Tavi. “The Infinity Diaries” Rookie. 2016. Web.
Heti, Sheila. How Should A Person Be? Ansani Press, 2010. Print.
Ask A Grown Woman. Perf. Karen O. Rookie. Web.
Zhang, Jenny. “The Cleanest Death.” Yourstruly. Web.
Foucault excerpt from: Michael Renov, "Video Confessions," Michael Renov and Erika Suderburg, eds. Resolutions: Contemporary Video Practices. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996): 78-101.
Mitski, albums: Bury Me At Makeout Creek and Puberty 2
Lacan excerpt from: Rosalind Krauss, "Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism," October. (Spring 1976): 50-64.
Breton excerpt from: David Hopkins, Dada and Surrealism: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004
Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida (London: Vintage, 2000)
Gevinson, Tavi. “Tavi Gevinson + Olivia Bee.” Studio 360. Web.
DON'T BURN OUT
NIGHT OF 9 HOURS
FIRST LOVE HEARTACHE
STAIN THE WATER CLEAR
& Margaret MacDonald
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