Fiction

 
Fall 2005 [Issue No. 8]

 

 

 

The Audience (Part 1 of 2) ▪► James Chapman

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James Chapman

 

Supposing Stet had a brain tumor, that still wouldn’t explain matters. What is the likelihood that a brain tumor would allow you to see only the beauty in everything? No, a tumor is a subtraction—the doctors tell us that certain tumors will demolish the moral sense in their living victims, that a victim will eat food insatiably, steal money from loved ones, physically attack anybody at all, refuse to bathe or dress, yet still have access to all his intelligence, charm and cunning for the purpose of finding the precisely most injurious thing to say to his best friend, the one criticism that will damage that friend for years. No, it’s the absence of tumors in many people that is hard to credit. We note this because Stet’s uncle Natan later made such a point, when Stet went to prison, of claiming that Stet had certainly had a brain tumor since the age of twelve. But then, Stet’s uncle Natan was a success, and successes are permitted to narrate. If Natan had to modify the world within your skull by telling a story, giving you a tumor you didn’t have, that was not a problem for him. We must not blame the storytellers for our plight; it’s our own fault for listening to them. We know what reality is like without their help. The aroma of bread affects every soul the same way; there’s no need to turn that aroma into a tale with characters and a moral, it’s enough to inhale.

Uncle Natan worked at Lenfilm, in the dubbing studio, a place where a gunshot or a human voice were subject to the same mechanical synchronization. A sound is a sound, just as a step is a step, though some steps only lead one direction. And it was decided by the nervous adults surrounding Stet that a twelve-year-old boy as odd as he had better find work in a trade, such as audio engineering or film cutting, that would keep him from exhibiting his tendencies. Film is the opposite of painting; there are not hundreds of workers involved in a painting who spend their lives only mixing the colors, stretching canvases, or opening and closing windows to make the light change. Film is a factory, the most anonymous artwork, therefore the safest. Naturally nobody suggested the boy become a director.

This choice of career was a primary mistake. The lad was obviously meant for music or some art equally abstract. Music, maybe. Music, like acting, is capable of being monstrously public. But music can be written in silence, it need not even be played. To his credit, the first day Natan brought Stet to the recording studio, he sat him at the piano (a Steinway? no, it’s only a Petrov), and the youth didn’t bang the keys, he played one note. A good sign, except that this note he continued to hum and sing the rest of the afternoon, angering his uncle, who, however, would also have been angered if the boy had been completely unmusical. Perhaps Stet was supposed to sit there and play the Chopin Bercuse.

Stet could take the one note he learned from the piano and use it to shout, speak, cheer, dance, and when ordered to shut up he could use his note to focus, disappear, and fly. That same day was the first time he heard a recorded voice on tape, sped up in fast-forward; he fell on his knees in the studio. Then the rewind, a sound like the end of the world. His uncle’s wife arrived, she was arguing with Natan. “Are you always going to be an idiot?” he replied, “am I going to be surrounded by nothing but idiots? Is that fair?” Their shouting moved around the room, from left front to right rear.

Workers cut and packaged sounds there. Some sounds are too deep to package; for example, the earth turns at one cycle per day, which is 1,728,000 times lower than the lowest pipe-organ note. On the other hand, if you could sing higher and always higher, you would eventually be creating light. (It has always been possible to sing in such a way as to create darkness, even at noon on a day full of the supposed promise of new political realities. Perhaps this remark is out of place, but while glasnost supposedly gave us back the right to sing to ourselves, perestroika attempted to create a structure whereby music would sit in one place and light in another. A primitive, incoherent attempt to build a fenceless meadow out of old barbed wire. Undoubtedly a sincere effort. Stet would not have minded, so we will shut up about it.)

On his own, the lad discovers a snare drum. The military musicians of the Red and all other armies understand that what to do with a snare drum is hit it. If you walk up to a drum, you’ll see two sticks and a canvas strap to hold it at your stomach. Drawing obvious conclusions makes everything easy. You tune the drum with the little wrench, get the flat thud tightened up to a high nervous tat, the drum fits so well on your gut that you walk taller  wearing it, and the two sticks balance in your fingers so tat tat tatatatatatat. You see? That makes you march, and marching snaring you go for hours before you finally need a drink. What you’ve been playing is what the drum told you to play, and everybody in the whole town has heard you, and they’ve heard it all before. Probably they even like it. So what is to be done with a youth who can look at a simple drum and draw the wrong conclusion? When Stet puts his ear to the drumhead, it is the invention of the telescope. With his ear pressed into the skin of the drum, one fingernail barely touched to the drum surface will give out a huge sound like animal static, a nervous organic noise. Rubbing the flat back of his fingernail creates the music of hydroplanes, surgeon’s knives, things that plow through resistance. To scrape his fingernail is deafening shock, the noise of flinging a monster through stained glass. The pad of Stet’s index finger rubbing can make dark musical tones at any pitch. One knuckle at the perimeter is a way of bending the musical sounds; if the knuckle’s shifted it even makes harmony. A drum is the only instrument anybody needs!

Perhaps Stet had already led a complicated life. Today we celebrate the lives of wonderful politicians, singers, and players of team sports, yet we prefer to know little about the lives of people whose childhoods rendered them peculiar. If a man cannot walk up to a microphone and say Hi everybody in a voice not choked by complication, then you have nothing but an ambiguity, and everybody knows what that’s worth. We have to mention this because of Stet’s having invented, at age twelve, with his ear pressed to a private snare drum, an even more impractical form of performance than that keyboard from J. S. Bach’s time, the clavichord, which played such a whisper that it could not reach out to the next room, an instrument that even permitted bebung, a vibrato so subtle it was only noticed by the player himself—now Stet brought to the overpopulated world an art that nobody except the player, nobody else at all, could hear, not even by leaning over the player’s shoulder, straining the ears, ceasing to breathe, focusing the mind, meditating and praying—it couldn’t be heard by even the ideal audience.

What if Stet should go ahead and become an interior-drum performing specialist? First of all, his audience would not appreciate being excluded. They would accuse him of self-indulgence, solipsism, inability, heedlessness, cruelty, perversion, dishonesty, commercialism, irrelevance, lack of social responsibility, anti-state activities. If he were incredibly lucky he would be banned, and then certain poets and painters would consider him family, and come to his rooms to praise him in secret. But more likely nothing at all would happen. Any afternoon some idiot might be seen huddling next to a drum; that doesn’t mean we will get on our knees and ask if we can listen in. Wouldn’t it be simpler to put on a recording of noise from a steel foundry? When we listen to phonograph records, nobody accuses us of anything antisocial. We are behaving best when we just sit still and listen.

After an hour of making this drum speak (his own laughter, too, sounds magnified and changed) (his uncle calling searching for him out in the hallways) he stops, just to listen to his blood moving, amplified in the drum, his ear ringing, his own breathing—music exists because there’s no such thing as silence. And “What did you learn today?” asks his uncle. “What you learned today was that when your uncle calls you, little idiot, answer immediately, idiot. You better learn to listen.”

Another thing. Let us be careful with the heart of even a man like this uncle.He was not Stet’s destroyer, in fact he supplied him with the best of toys—a storage room for use as a training studio, and all manner of broken equipment to learn with. There was a looted German tape machine that went into oscillation sometimes and nobody could fix it, a small mixing board with missing parts, the amplifier from a rusted movie projector, a pile of rejected Bulgarian audiotape that was starting to flake off its backing. Missing parts are how we learn, through struggle. A Russian must deal with gaps, abysses of lack. The folded arms of your uncle “training” you, watching you and not speaking, even that is a missing part, a gap to leap across. Once you have performed, you will hear all about it, you will receive advice, or at least critique, after you have fallen. But first the teacher has to prove a point, by letting you see him watch you fall. And no matter how many of your bones you break at the bottom, your injuries don’t distress him. “Yes, you’re bleeding. You see?”

Despite what you see in cinemas, the thumbs-down gesture of the ancient Roman citizen meant the wish that a gladiator should live—“no,” it meant, to the act of extermination. Any simple misunderstanding can bring about the worst results, unless of course people will cease to act on their understandings. Biologist Lysenko proved that if a man stabs himself through the heart, his heirs will have hearts that show through them the light of the sky. Soviet research is like that. None of this has to do with Stet, by the way, because Stet is too busy following his own incorrect path. If Stet is permitted by his uncle to learn the audio aspect of film editing for an entire summer, he will merely grow up some, his troubles will merely increase.

Reverie is no defense against blows, and it’s for that reason revolutionary socialism is so stalwartly opposed to reverie: the world is not for the unwary. Therefore it is for the wary, and it is true that when a dreamy man believes he is at last taking advantage of his oppressors, he is probably being used by them. The true helplessness which is the ultimate promise of vodka, this is not available to any but a baby playing in the dirt, but why isn’t it? There are people who will let a baby alone to enjoy itself, and other people who will try to prevent reverie wherever it is found.

And what if a grown man, during a reverie, were to capture harmlessness in a glass jar? Broken jars are not harmless. Stet’s uncle can be seen as unwary, since it was he who set before his sister-in-law’s child the tools, and put him on the incorrect path. Natan didn’t realize what he was doing, but that is the defense of the unwary. The first result was that Stet produced an audiotape which had less utility than any previous Soviet recording.

Stet, in that summer, became the only Soviet worker in the fields of feedback, erasure of feedback, and the effects of partial erasure. He made himself an expert on cancellation, negation, and the seventy varieties of silence, none of them silent, as the room you are sitting in now is not silent. He recorded the auras of each worker in the studio, from the janitor to the sound engineers, all the auras including Natan’s. Natan’s was acquired by stealth.

Stet even wheeled his tape machine out to the studio lobby, and recorded the silent desk, the unringing telephone, the lightbulb in the dustbin. He had the device turned up very high, trying to catch sighs coming from the cheap furniture. When his uncle walked through the lobby, not even angrily, not even stomping (refusing to notice his nephew’s idiot doings, he was a busy man) his footsteps overloaded the tape in distorted explosions, sunspots burning out the atmosphere.

Auras? Perhaps you are familiar with Soviet advances in the so-called Kirlian Fields—photographic records of visible auras, which were said to prove that an intense bluish-white glow, supposedly characteristic of Soviet citizens, is the aura of the anatomically primary man.  A citizen’s aura will change according to his spiritual condition—this technique thus has given us access to measurable, recordable emotion for the first time since the invention of screaming. The man of the future will have eyes to perceive these lights and halos. Parapsychological Soviet man will understand other people just by looking at their auras, even though for epochs we have refused to understand each other’s faces.

The tapes are unlabeled and mixed together, there’s no way to know who was sitting silent beside the microphone as Stet turned dials incorrectly. You’ll have to guess. Engineer Mihoels, Engineer Davidovskaya, Engineer Jubinsky, Janitor Abdusalmanov, and Uncle Natan all sat for their portraits. The resulting tapes depict: the silence after an accusation—silence of horror—held breath, stifled laughter—angry silence, proud silence—ignorance—(bliss, which is also silent, is not on these tapes)—these are reels of unachieved music, a sound that barely rises above the hiss of the tape itself—if the VU meter even slightly deflects, it’s the apocalypse. Is this pure artiness? Would it destroy the future of our country if schoolchildren were all taught automatic writing, and there grew up a race of boys and girls accessing their unconscious minds? Should such a thing be prevented, do you think? Artiness is another of the words we all know how to use; so is common sense. These words are inside your head right now, guiding you. Think of a man who hears voices inside his head, criticizing him all day long. The voices that surround him don’t have to be obeyed, they are only voices—yet they get so loud, so distracting and cruel, they could easily lead him into making an important mistake. Perhaps he’s made the mistake already. He might not ever know what the mistake was.

Stet knew there are no mistakes, but who else knows that? The normal man must think, first, how his actions will look to others. All right, normal is another automated word. Thinking is dangerous, as in the fable about the centipede. Do you trust your heart to beat, or would you rather criticize its work? When a despairing heart gives up, it takes its critic with it.

Even tap-dancing has its rule book, but sometimes a dancer will do things that have no name yet. Compulsory dancing, however, would be punishment, and most filmmaking is like that. Filmmaking is thought to be some sort of chemical test: acid is dropped on a zinc plate, and if it is the right kind of acid, if it is effective, if it can eat through the metal in 90 minutes, then it is a success and worthy to be called a film. If not, it has failed. Nothing is more abject than the failed attempt to entertain. But if the filmmaker instead paints the zinc plate with mint oil and basil, and sprinkles colored sand on it, and draws in that sand a ghost, if he never even attempts to eat through the audience’s resistance, there will nevertheless always be somebody to point out to him that he has neglected, through forgetfulness or ignorance, to include the usual powerful acid, and that his film therefore does not work. If you do not work, you are called a parasite.

A big ship that’s supposed to stay afloat for eighty years begins with vats of molten steel. Building a ship from this liquid is complex. But to ruin the future ship is easy; you can just throw quantities of lead or clay or even whole buckets of filth into the vats of steel and run away. You will have given “personality” to the rivets and plates and girders. There are some artists we revere for their personalities. If the rivets on your ship are all snapping open after ten years, it’s no good pretending it was really a submarine all along. Yet this sabotage may fail, and the ruined thing will float anyway. And then if it steers itself to incorrect places, who knows if that’s a flaw? You can examine your own substance and never know how much clay is there. Also, if a boat is torpedoed and sinks, can you say it was defective? Stet is buried at Chelkar-Tengiz, and those who wish can dig up and examine his remains, which are at present the consistency of cream cheese, and covered with a mist of mold.

None of us is made of steel, though we pretend. But nobody wants to read about a paragon of gold. If ever a proper biography is written of Stet, the author should invent or discover demons inside him, since readers love demons and in fact require them. Perhaps when the state recognized that Stet could have performed miracles, they said, very well, let him make do with nothing; his first miracle will be to live. Of course he did not live. The truth is, it is not correct to ask a man to behave like a saint, particularly when you are cutting pieces of his body off—why didn’t they, the butchers, behave like saints for once? But now we’ve said too much. Anyway, that would be utopian. Let us not have utopian wishes, not here, not at all, never again. When Stet was a young man in film school, he made an oil painting of a camera operator student named Maya, a painting portraying her as the roots of a tree, and not a healthy tree. An unusual painting for him; what should be mysterious is only vague. He was not facing something squarely. You could see them, Stet and Maya, walking down Paradjanovskaya Street, the least carefree students in all scholastic history, he wondering when he would ever become real to her, and she slackening and tightening the tension on a piece of string. There is no terror or tragedy in the affinity of a young man for girls who don’t much care for him, many have felt this affinity, because such girls are the motherland, they are nature and time, they always win.

In bed in the dark, Russia looks like any other place, and if it’s truly dark, film is helpless. In the dark, Maya says,

no, don’t pull the shade

maybe somebody on the street will look up and see us together

the windowframe frames us, see how it makes us a single thing

unless you’re looking out, instead of in

I know I criticize you too much, I criticize myself too

I say “I never should have slept with Shavkat”

but when I think of writing a screenplay about Shavkat, I demand that I behave worse, more cruelly, more abjectly

and I thank Shavkat for his Usbek complexion, and for holding me upside-down by the ankles while he screamed at me

because cruelty is more cinematic than being in bed with you in the dark

even though there’s a gap there

the exact moment I reverse myself and write a scenario about being hurt, I have to step across this gap

betraying myself of course, it’s like eating your own head

the girls at this school who want to sleep with you, they think you have a secret

they think you know how to create things without consuming yourself, but you and I know better

everyone in my life has heaped miseries upon me, I can hardly remember who I am

but I can still see you, just by looking

photographing your flesh, the back of your hand is the whole of the moon

you make me love you, I’m stupid, a feather. Mindlessness, yes, I’m hypnotized by the breeze from the window—then I wake up, furious at you. Everything is wrong. I want strength, an experience I can’t criticize, a blast of light, not your gentle shit. I light the scene in an unwifely way. I record all your flaws, sign my name across it all

the cinematographer has to find an image so clear and simple that no poet would want it

television is going to make film into the stonecarver’s art. I would rather be in television because it is the thing that exists all the time, the glass of tea, the flame of the sun, the envy you feel for a friend who’s going to be more famous than you, who’s more successful and vivid

Stet, what do you want. Instruct me, criticize me. Where do you want me to be?

when your face is an inch from mine, and I think instead about my feelings for Shavkat, it’s like deep focus. I am sorry to hurt you, but I can see what will happen to your life

that is what we learn in film school, fate is supremely powerful

supreme distance, that is film

and when I dream with you I dream of the shining-forth of our souls, the cinema where our feeling creates the world

but all that is, is a form of sleep

plain sleep, the unphotographable state where a man could come into your room and brain you with an ice-axe

then what happens to your imperishable emotions?

with Shavkat I don’t have to worry, he is full of anger, he will never permit himself to disappear. When I criticize him he slaps me! Beside such a man I can defy fate

am I morally advanced enough for a girl of my age, do you think

am I the most beautiful girl you ever slept with

is death final, do you think? I think it may as well be

 An opinion of Maya? You would think an opinion here would be superfluous. Stet was not wary enough, if you like. In some cultures there is great value put on the undertone, on never announcing the obvious. Some languages make it almost impossible to err by overstatement, whereas Russian—perhaps Russian has other, different virtues. For instance, it certainly knows how to complain. Maya was an infection. That is not true either, but what if she were as simple as that Russian sentence? Would she be worth anybody’s love?

Should Stet and Maya have stayed together? If she could leave him, let her leave. She had a great project which already intoxicated her, the self-creation of a vortex, the sublime blast of power we will all feel, our destruction, when she brings the universe down with her. Never mind Maya, she was only an emissary of the very many citizens of the globe who are temperamentally out of sympathy with Stet. Those in the bunkers in Stalingrad testified to feeling, in the roar of the bombs, in the wind of the blast, in the heat of the flames, a transcendent ecstasy. The effect was so extreme, so large, and such an extravagant waste, that men who were about to die dropped to their knees laughing. So Maya was gone, because she needed a producer. It’s not cheap to make a film with four billion extras.

Even in school Stet was a filmmaker already. He could feel the critique in Maya’s having left him, and the continual rebuke of her continuing absence, yet he made his graduation film without the help of her compressing and complexifying suffocations. It was a filmmaker who first discovered blank paper, sunlight, the South Pole, and the silver pocketwatch. And men’s faces and women’s faces, as they look at each other and think. If a singer is only an image, is only a face and aura and the subtle things his voice will do, then we are even less, we are only listeners. And if the singer invents his own words, we will not know the difference. We create the people we see around us, and we can do better.

It is a sin to look into your own future, it’s enough to know the present. Anybody, by looking at Stet’s diploma film, could have seen that this youth was going to have a short life, artistically anyway. It was, really, a film that was never made—the proper beginning for such a career. Stet’s original screenplay, the one he had been dreaming for two years, this was vetoed by his instructor. Then Stet was assigned a different topic.

 

 

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Excerpted from Stet, forthcoming from Fugue State Press.


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