McDonald’s, Marfa & the Meaning of Life

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Where’s a Special Place?

We all know what McDonald’s is and for the most part we’re probably in agreement about what it means. For the purpose of this blog entry, I’m interested primarily in the symbol (to the symbol by way of the smell). Marfa is a small West Texas town with a big reputation and a population of about 2,000. It’s where people live, where people go, and a place I hardly know. That said, I’ve loved my visits there, it smells great, and for me, right now, it means the opposite of McDonald’s (and not just because there’s no McDonald’s there), by which I mean it’s a shame that I’m bending it for my purposes into the realm of the symbolic.

Imagine if you will an X axis that represents the amount of McDonald’s in one’s life, and a Y axis that represents the amount of Marfa in one’s life. Now put a swirly Archimedean thing on it for good measure, to recall the vagaries of life, to set the mood to proceed to the place where place is a place within.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Marfa because I’ll be going there with some friends in a few weeks to hang out, see art, swim in the world’s largest spring-fed pool, be Texan, make music, and read poetry.

Last time I was there, the incomparable Marfa Book Company (which, by the way, amazingly puts on evenings with such folks as Jonathan Richman, YACHT, Deborah Eisenberg, and Ben Marus) was hosting an exhibition in their gallery space of work by Scottish landscape artist, poet, sculptor, fiction writer, and publisher Ian Hamilton Finlay. If you’re not familiar with his work, you might begin with The Present Order: Writings on the Work of Ian Hamilton Finlay, which was edited by Caitlin Murray and Tim Johnson, who also organized the show and who operate Marfa Book Company. The book elegantly presents some of Finlay’s printed works, along with some essays about his work by Marjorie Perloff, Kenneth Goldsmith, Finlay’s grandson Alec Finlay, and others (you can get the book from Veneer Magazine HERE). There’s also plenty of info online, such as this interview with Finlay at Jacket Magazine (HERE). The exhibition was not only a wonderful, discrete experience, but also an appropriate correlative (albeit irreducible) to my experience staying in Marfa. I haven’t yet processed the work enough to give it its due, and I know I’d have nothing new to add to the eloquent conversation about the work (in the book, online, and of course in the work itself), but my impression is there is something kindred in the work to my feelings about the town or the thoughts I have while there.

“Myth of a Sort of Garden”

About five hours into the drive on I-10 from San Antonio to Los Angeles, out where the speed limit is 80, you turn onto US-67. You think about your visit to Galveston, the island where you were born, and how startling it was to see, for the first time, its landscape devoid of some 30,000 trees lost to the storm surge of Hurricane Ike. You think of the cow pasture and small farm across from your elementary school up the coast in Kemah, and how it’s now the parking lot for a Target, a Home Depot, a Wendy’s, etc. Wallace Stevens speaks, “The world is ugly, / And the people are sad.” You’re comforted by these words, because if nothing else, they seem to indicate that the world was ugly and people were sad long before you were born. Then you look around and marvel at the curve of the earth, the strangeness of the sky, the lack of commerce. You roll down your window, turn up Fool’s Gold self-titled debut debut, and a little more than an hour later you’re in Marfa.

Of course, Marfa’s got its problems too (not least among them people thinking it doesn’t or they won’t when there), but it’s also got art, lots of energetic people, tons of stuff going on, good food, open spaces, lots of stars, and the kind of air your lungs will fight each other to get at. Most importantly, for me, it’s the sort of place where I can ask the question “What’s the meaning of life?” in a sincere way. It’s not that the town is devoid of irony, in fact it’s perhaps in spite of the irony of its allure for artists and its satellite place in the art world, that the question still rings true there. For me, as someone who was born on an island and grew up on another, perhaps it’s that Marfa feels like an island. (One of my other favorite places in the world is Naoshima, a small island in the Inland Sea of Japan. [If you go at the right time of year, you’ll have no problem getting a cheap yurt right next to the beach and visitors may be outnumbered by gallery attendants.]) It seems that in quiet places where there’s lots of art I can make my separate peace with whatever I war with. I began this entry by invoking McDonald’s, and I realize I didn’t mention it again until here. McDonald’s really has no place anywhere near Marfa, and I’m pretty sure the day a McDonald’s is built in Marfa the whole world will stink and I’ll stop writing poetry. For now, though, I’m writing lots, life is good, and I know Marfa’s out there, beyond the few thousand fast food restaurants I drove past to get back home.

I wonder if you’ve also found some places (the East Village, Zion National Park, or wherever) that seem far, far away from everywhere you don’t want to go?

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