Sunday, November 04, 2012

The Spectacle of the Cat

The “Spectacle of the Cat.” Is that what you get when you cross Christopher Smart (Jubilate Agno – “my cat Jeofrey”) and Guy DeBord (“Society of the Spectacle”)?

Or, the Cat with Spectacles?

I have to say that I am a big fan of spectacles, productions, and shows of all sorts. I’ve seen my share of tourist spectacles in the form of “indigenous” dances, and I love it when they devolve into a quest for some essential element – the primal, the core, the essential concept of being and beingness that informs that whys and the “how we knows” of our postmodern selves … 

the fact that we’re convinced that we can only know ourselves when some we are able to see ourselves in some sort of mirror. In other words, our inner worlds become externalized and placed into some sort of visual metaphor for the mélange of conflicting feelings and ideas that we have and live with.

I can’t think of a single culture that does not have its own “star-crossed lovers” Romeo and Juliet tradition. In Guam, there was the cliff where two lovers whose families refused to accept them leapt to their deaths. Azerbaijan has its story of the Muslim youth and the Christian maiden (from Georgia), whose forbidden love is realized, but then quickly transforms itself into a tragedy of the highest order. The spectacle is not the love, but the condition of thwartedness. The satisfying denouement is not the glorious transcendent union, but the desperate suicides of the two lovers who (mistakenly, of course) think they’ve been rejected by the other…

After you see enough of those star-crossed lover / suicide narratives, you start to consider the possibility that Freud was unjustly neglected … not for his libido and dreams stuff, but for his “thanatos” issues – the “death drive” that represent the flip side of procreative, generative, libidinal drive.

And, death does not mean death at all, but Dionysus.  I appreciate Nietzsche in this case: oblivion that slides slowly (or even quickly) into obliterated self, recovered self, and absolute, glorious rebirth. 

Suicide is never a final waltz of dancing bears and oblivion.

No, no, no.

After all, we’re not talking reportage. Instead, we’re considering the narratives that flow from a culture, which embark upon a quest to find a way to express the most intense feelings, the most extreme conditions of existential anxiety, of doubt, fear, longing, and a need to become … to merge, metamorphose, to assume the identity of one’s deepest desires.

That’s what it’s all about.

And, I’m a bit ashamed to admit what I am, what I’ve become. In my eagerness to explore different ways of looking at the world, I’ve become incapable of maintaining a consistent sense of who or what I am in the world. “The centre does not hold” and I’m in Yeats’s “Second Coming,” “turning and turning in the widening gyre” ... If I myself am not that “rough beast” that represents the ultimate end of time, the transformation, the end of the world as we know it, then at least I’m the rough beast’s proxy.

Death does not mean death in this elaborate equation.

Death means a phase change. It means transformation. It means that, when it’s time, (and that time comes for everyone sooner or later – for my mother, it came just over two years ago) -- walking through the open door that promises you a way to unchain yourself from the voices that tell you that you just don’t measure up. In my mother’s case, that final walk was horrific. I was not there – I was at a workshop in Golden, Colorado on the Colorado School of Mines campus – but my dad was, and he remains traumatized to this day.

So, I’m not talking about the real thing. I’m talking about the mythical, metaphorical “death,” which means radical, dramatic change. It means transformation at cell level, well-nigh irreversible.

I’ve taken to sleeping on the futon-sofa in the spare upstairs bedroom that has nothing in it but a carved oak armoire and a cherry secretary desk with a flat screen monitor through which I can watch DVDs or the cable television provided by my homeowner’s association (bundled with other services covered by my monthly HOA dues).

Let me tell you, I’m not one who was seemingly “born for” our times.  No way. If anything, I hate these scary, uncertain times, and the realization that no matter how trivial or inconsequential the perk, there seem to be thousands who would cheerfully drag out the daggers and fight for every job that pops up on job boards in our global workplace and marketplace – even if it costs more to work than to stay at home, and it takes a great deal out of us to “civilize and sterilized” ourselves in order to conform to fluorescent-lit surveillance cubes that most of us call a workplace these days.

What is the alternative? Many of us could live simply, and choose to chill out on the patio, breathe deeply, have time to think about life and the eternal verities.

But then, not working means feeling outside society, and disenfranchised in a rather major way.

And when I awaken at 3:30 am after a long, dismal night of nightmares and creeping, sad knowledge that I’m alone with my thoughts, it occurs to me that it’s much easier to live in a place where consciousness and too much self-awareness are reined in by trivial, busywork coupled with draconian punishment for missing deadlines and failing to live up to expectations.

Keeping fear alive is a great way to block out the tough questions about life, life’s stages, and what it all means (and if meaningfulness matters at all)…

Sometimes, though, questions have a way of surfacing, no matter what we do to keep them submerged. At that point, it’s good to pull out the spectacle – either attend or participate in one. My vote goes to participating – if you are playing a role and are absorbed in creating a dramatic enactment of something, you are more likely to feel comfortable about yourself because you are a part of something that is larger than life, and larger than yourself.

The best example might be Disney. If you are a “cast member,” you’re role-playing in a large spectacle, and your individual beingness is subsumed and transformed into a collective one: the show.

It’s a gorgeous, brilliant concept: not only do you have the opportunity to train your mind on something other than your quotidian worries and pesky intrusive thoughts, you’re also able to achieve a sense of unity. Some writers such as William James (Varieties of Religious Experience) and Evelyn Underhill (Mysticism) might call that a mystical experience. I know I would.

So, returning to the original, triggering thought that precipitated this little “Sunday drive” of the mind, let’s regard Christopher Smart’s cat, Jeoffrey: 

For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer.
For he rolls upon prank to work it in. (Smart, Jubilate Agno,

And then let’s combine it with our media, Internet-driven sense of spectacle, and the possibility that we’re voyeurs of our own lives. Where is the power? What is the power? I’d say that it resides within one’s capacity to create visions – to envision.


Either you think--or else others have to think for you and take power from you, pervert and discipline your natural tastes, civilize and sterilize you.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender Is the Night