As I get older I find myself growing on the one hand much more flexible, more resilient, more inclined to take risks, and yet at the same time I can feel my interests and affections calcifying. My taste is turning pathological. More of this and less of that, then the next year even more and even less until, I suppose, one day I will cut out that entirely and shutter myself inside stacks of this. By then there will be a new “contemporary” and I will be, in some sense, happily past tense.
As opposed to wit, which is often just pedantic cruelty, more ingenious than funny, rarely instructive or heartening, Aphorism is, historically, a manly form, laconic, from the Spartan polis of Laconia. Spartan men were said to hold the rhetoricians and the poets in disdain; the Laconians valued bravery, austerity, and, as anyone who’s seen 300 knows, a direct and very un-pedantic sort of cruelty. The first “Laconisms” come from accounts of the Battle of Thermopylae, the bloody contest that pitted a small band Greeks and Spartans against a superior Persian force. Grotesque, frightening, often hilarious, these early Laconisms make the battle out to be a bloody lark. My favorite: when a Persian envoy sent to Sparta asks for a tribute of “some soil and water,” the Spartans throw him down a well; “Dig it out yourself,” they say.
When Cage began experimenting with chance operations in the 40s, he was looking for a means of stripping intention and taste from the process of creating art. In the Western world, our notion of “genius,” at least as it relates to artists and performers, is generally shaped by a psycho-historical method of decoding biography to discover the seed of ability. In the pre-modern world, it was taken for granted than an artist in full possession of his facilities, having taken care to hone his craft, could be compelled by divine will or religious mania to make a work of lasting value. After Freud and Nietzsche, we began to see our manias and urges as beginning and ending in the self. If the artist used to be Jacob wrestling with angel, now he is at best a lesser Hercules, laboring to exorcise the demons of his parentage, or at worst a nebbish with one foot in the analyst’s door.
If you believe the Times, and why not believe them, Google is developing everything from robot drones and driverless cars to a space elevator, which, so far as I can deduce, is a kind of hybrid, Wonkafied rocket-cum-slingshot. Great, I say go for it, Google! To tell you the truth, I don’t care about intelligent droids, wireless refrigerators or a dinner plate that loads my bio-feedback straight to Facebook. My interest is in that ‘X’ and it’s whispered hint of secret happenings. The sex of X, the intrigue, that’s what caught my attention, because—here’s my confession— I am obsessed with the letter X
Bu that was ’41. In 1937, when Agee posted his list to the folks at Guggenheim, he was awe-struck, still a Southern boy in NYC , a writer entering maturity. He was 26, the age that I am now, and despite the Great Depression, in 1937 Agee must have seen the world as almost unbearably vibrant, a great and full spirit house. Even in the depths of the Depression (in fact, it was because of the Depression), the WPA allowed artists like Agee, who used Roosevelt’s New Deal money to underwrite his trip to Alabama, to see themselves as members of a kind of populist-avant-garde, the first generation of American artists to have access not only to the remote corners of our continent (air travel and the highway systems were moving out of their respective infancies) but also to a wide variety of new technologies and media, including moving pictures and magnetic tape sound recording. The spirit of Agee’s “Plans for Work,” the full text of which I will not reproduce here in the hope that you, dear gentle reader, might seek out your own copy of Agee’s Short Prose, sees in his era’s media the seeds of a kaleidoscopic new art, one that would embrace within the body and mind of one artist a great plurality of interests and techniques.