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Making the audience work

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CowHeartDissection.jpg
Throughout time, authors have found ways of challenging their audience, as if the egotism of authorship had caused writers to feel that the price paid for their books was insufficient to earn the entertainment gleaned from their pages.  

Laurence Sterne, for example, intersperses the text of Tristram Shandy with blank pages.  Samuel Beckett's Watt drags on interminably with redundant sentences.  Most people die without getting through all (or even any) of the volumes of Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Time Past.

But no author, I believe, has ever posed a greater challenge to the reader than René Descartes.  I do not refer to his extremely long sentences with extended use of subordinate clauses.  I am talking about his demand, in Discourse 5 of Discourse on the Method of Properly Conducting One's Reason and of Seeking the Truth in the Sciences, that readers do the following prior to perusing his description of the circulation of blood:

I would like those who are not versed in anatomy to take the trouble, before reading [further], to have cut open in front of them the heart of some large animal which has lungs, because it is, in all of them, similar enough to that of man, and to be shown its two ventricles or cavities.
(p. 66.)

The only other creator, in my awareness, who requires his audience to sacrifice animals in conjunction with the partaking of his words is God.

Then again, the man who wrote, "I have hardly ever encountered any critic of my opinions who did not seem either less exacting or less equitable than myself," has never, to my knowledge, been accused of modesty.   

(Image of dissected cow heart from University of Utah site)

Trees, not flags

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Still_from_A_Declaration_by_Yael_Bartana.jpg
Today I went to Sweden.  You should, too.

I went to the Moderna Museet in Malmö, where I saw an exhibit of five films by the Israeli video artist, Yael Bartana.  The show is called, "and Europe will be stunned."  I was stunned, too.

One of the films, called "A Declaration," involves a man rowing out to Andromeda's rock, off the coast of Jaffa near Tel-Aviv, on which stands an Israeli flag.  The man has an olive tree in his boat.  He docks the boat by the rock, takes down the flag and replaces it with the olive tree.

The swap - plant for flag - is deeply moving, despite its apparent ambiguity.  As curator Joa Ljungberg observes in the exhibition catalog,

To exchange the Israeli flag for an olive tree can mean to remove a national symbol in favor of a universal symbol of peace.  But the olive tree is also closely associated with Palestinian nationalism and thus the gesture can mean to replace one national symbol with another.  As an integral part of the Israeli national emblem, the olive tree could furthermore represent two nations, or two peoples in one nation.
(p. 15.)  I realize that "ambiguity" is the watch-word of today's pluralistic, multi-perspective, globalized society, but I think you have to place too-heavy emphasis on the conceptual to find ambiguity in "A Declaration."  My own interpretation is rooted in the aesthetics of the film, which is visually gorgeous.

I was inspired by the arresting images of the man rowing an olive tree out to sea.  A man, a boat, an olive plant: I saw Noah, as Noah might have been in a different narrative. 

Say that, instead of landing on Mount Ararat, Noah had kept sailing.  Naturally, others on the boat - like the animals in their two-by-twos and the other humans on board - objected, so Noah dropped them off and kept going: "Sorry guys," he said, "but I'm a sea dog by nature.  This whole flood episode helped me find myself, and I can't give up this hard won self-knowledge just because some of the water is drying up."

So Noah keeps going, just him and the olive branch brought to him by the dove.  And eventually the ark suffers some wear-and-tear, until it's reduced to a dingy.  But Noah's unfazed; he just starts rowing.  And the olive branch keeps growing because it's a hardy creature.  And Noah's pleased; he's grateful for the company, even if it is a plant.

So Noah sails on - and since 6,000 years is a long time for anyone to live, even a Biblical character caught in a fanciful alternative narrative, let's have him sail through a time portal that transports him to the Med coast, off Israel, in 2006, in time for Yael Bartana's video shoot.

And so there he is: Noah, the last good man on earth, pre-flood, pre-Abraham, pre-Ishmael and pre-Isaac, pre-nation state politics.  Noah is back-to-basics humanity, our common ancestor returned to remind us that what every inhospitable rock needs is a plant, not a flag.

Seems pretty straightforward to me.

(Still image from "A Declaration" from Artnet)

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