[written in LA, posted several days later]

I’m in Los Angeles right now. I got a grant from IU’s invaluable New Frontiers program to go to the Getty Research Institute for a couple of weeks and do research in the M. C. Richards papers. I have a thing for esoteric avant-gardists, I guess: like John Benson Brooks, who I wrote about at length in Dig, Richards is one of those Zelig-like people who knew everyone and happened to be involved in a lot of legendary scenes without herself being particularly well-known. (Though she is at least better-known than JBB.) Richards was a teacher at the Black Mountain College, a sort of All-Varsity Squad of the avant-garde, and among other things wrote the English translation of Antonin Artaud’s Theatre and Its Double, which had incalculable influence on postwar American art and not least on John Cage, with whom Richards collaborated on his Black Mountain Piece no. 1 in 1952 — a work of Artaudian “Theatre of Cruelty” and the first-ever Happening.

Richards also wrote Centering, a unique treatise on the practice of art and life. I suppose I could say that it’s a book about creativity and you’d get a halfway decent idea of what it’s about, but really, this book is sui generis. As Cage wrote in his blurb for the book, “the subject she teaches isn’t listed in the catalogs.” Wesleyan University Press published it in 1964 and intended it to complement its publications of Cage’s essays; in the years since, that cultural context has become less legible, and the back cover now lists it in “Psychology/New Age.” But that’s not it either.

What Richards was writing about, here and in all her works, is art as the necessary bodying-forth of human life. From a history-of-ideas point of view, this is the characteristic avant-garde idea of the form of an artwork being identical to the act by which it is made — an idea vividly demonstrated by the film of Jackson Pollack painting on glass. It was also how the literary avant-garde — most famously, Jack Kerouac — understood jazz improvisation, and what they sought in their own writing.

animationRichards believed that art is the trace our life leaves in our chosen medium, whether it be her own media of poetry and pottery or anything else. Centering, for Richards, is a process by which we integrate (“bring to the center”) all the parts of our lives, our different moods and characters, the pleasures and traumas that befall us, and allow them expression in art. An art whose form is necessarily the form of the life from which it emanates. Just as we manifest the energy of the universe in our breathing, in the pulse of our blood and the tightening and relaxation of our muscles, so too does our creative work manifest those same pulses, tensions, resistances, and releases. Being “creative” is not the inane goofing-off that marketers so often make it out to be, but hard and chastening work, for it involves bringing to the center everything, not just the stuff we like.

Richards demands that we embrace everything and turn away from nothing: like Cage, she wanted to let sounds — and sights, tastes, smells, feelings, experiences in the broadest sense — be themselves, unfalsified by our egoistic attachments and cravings. Cage’s philosophical point of reference here was Zen; Richards was closer to Rudolph Steiner and Carl Jung. But it was in the very air they breathed to insist upon digging everything and seeing the holy in the bruised, shit-stained, scabbed, needle-marked human chaos.

Easier said than done, though.

There is a subtle trap: if, in the act of gathering everything into yourself, in centering it, there is the danger that you will make of everything a oneness by which you can transcend the particular miseries of your experience. In fact, it’s hard to see how we can avoid doing that. Even as you say, wait, experience this pain, don’t try to prettify it, don’t make it something other than what it is — even as you say that, the very act of framing it as a singular pain held within a larger whole suggests an integrity that gives any particular part its meaning, a Greater Good for the pain to serve. And a pain that serves a Greater Good is a pain negated or denied, or at least made to be something other than what it is. From what I can tell after several days of working through her collected papers, this was a problem Richards wrestled with her entire life.

I once heard Simon Morrison say, of archival research, “the highs are high and the lows are . . . consistent.” It’s very true. There are moments when you’re looking at some obscure scrap of paper and you figure something out, make a connection, fit some missing piece into the puzzle, and realize that, in that moment, you’re probably the only person in the world who knows what you know. But much of the time you’re just plowing through endless reams of stuff, the ejecta of a human life that forms no pattern and serves no purpose beyond the perpetuation of its own Brownian motion. And from the hour-by-hour repetition of this exercise comes a certain pervading feeling of sadness. You begin to question the point of the human life you’re researching, the point of your own life, the point of what you’re doing right now.

In my book I made the distinction between “living” and “a life.” The distinction is akin to that between “practice” and “performance.” The one is the name we give to a process that is intrinsically open-ended and imperfect; the other is the name we give in retrospect to that process, now conceived as finished, complete, a whole that can hold still for our judgment. “A life of service,” “a wasted life,” “an uncompromising life,” etc. And of course we also do this while we are living. We always try to convert our living into a life; we always apply a valedictory rhetoric to our living and speak as if the events of our lives are turning points that lead towards the final meaning that our lives must surely have. But what if it really is just one damn thing after another, and we never really change, never really learn, just go on making the same stupid mistakes again and again until we die?

In the avant-garde rhetoric of living rather than life, process rather than product, of centering, this is ultimately the thing we have to bring to the center. Our radical imperfection, our irremediable limitation. And this is supposed to be a beautiful, life-affirming thing, somehow. I am guilty of a certain amount of this rhetoric myself. As I say, easier said than done.

That’s the feeling of sadness I get every time I do research in the papers of some historical figure. I have a lot of fellow-feeling for M. C. Richards: like me, she’s a bit of a mess. She’s so full of love and insecurity and pride and hurt, so painfully sincere, trying so hard, so honest and self-revealing and yet always falling into traps laid by the parts of herself she can’t see. In page after page of her diaries, she tells herself don’t do X, don’t do X, don’t do X . . . and she goes ahead and does X again. Year after year she ponders the mystery of herself and human beings generally, and year after year she remains stubbornly herself.

Remind you of anyone you know? It should: it’s the essence of our limited condition as human beings. Old Adam.

To give up on the possibility of change, transformation, and transcendence, feels like giving up on life itself. And yet acceptance of our limited condition, our human condition, is surely the only possible freedom.

I won’t pretend I’ve figured any of this out. After a lifetime of thinking about it harder than almost anyone, M. C. Richards didn’t come up with a final understanding either. Is that OK?

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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