I’ve been singing The Bug while I do my work lately. It started with needing to replace a piece of trim on the carriage house (fancy word for garage). Uncovering one piece of wasted wood revealed another, and then others. Soon I was into a pretty serious restoration project—once again. Our house is over a hundred years old, and little but paint-overs had been done to the garage in all that time. Some pretty important pieces of wood had become toast from the termites. When I say toast, I mean burnt toast. Crumbling in the hand.
Once upon a time someone had plugged a hole with a Louisville Slugger.
The Slugger (originally maple I think. maybe ash. who the hell knows?) had been transformed into toast. Toast.
When I think about termite art those thoughts are tempered by what I, a worker with wood in Florida, know about termites. I have to say I don’t really like Manny Farber’s essay on termite art. His argument against Cézanne is unconvincing, his railing against “strict obeisance to the canvas edge” sounds, for 1962, like some leftover complaint of the heroic action painting avant-garde (by 1962 advanced artists had moved on), and his abrupt switch from a discussion of painting to that of film lacks coherence. That of course is one of the dangers of championing termite art: if you’re always eating at your boundaries and reject the value of a conclusion then your essay must find a method other than a reasoned argument to enthrall the reader. Farber doesn’t find it. But he did find an opening to something worthwhile, the head of a nice cellulose trail, with these words:
The most inclusive description of the art is that, termite-like, it feels its way through walls of particularization with no sign that the artist has any object in mind other than eating away the immediate boundaries of his art, and turning these boundaries into conditions of the next achievement.
I would think that, in terms of art theory, improvisational music would have been a better way to go with this idea than either painting or film. But the art of writing fiction would also work. And without a doubt Michael Brodsky has taken this idea and run and run and run with it. First of all in his own article on termite art he succeeds where Farber had failed in mingling two media into the discussion. Second I think he’s correct in locating Kafka’s story The Burrow as a site of perfection in termite art. The persistent idea that this story (as well as Investigations of a Dog) is unfinished becomes unsustainable from the pov of Brodsky’s take on termite art. The work opened up by The Burrow and Investigations cannot be finished. As in an action painting, one simply stops at a point that feels right, and what point, given the preceding, could be better for The Burrow than, “But all remained unchanged”—that being the ceaseless mechanism constructed by The Burrow itself? Or for Investigations of a Dog this paradox: “Certainly such freedom as is possible today is a wretched business. But nevertheless freedom, nevertheless a possession.” And then of course Brodsky’s own novels are demonstrations of termite art, and sometimes demonstrations within demonstrations. Like the chapter in Melville’s The Confidence Man where the author tears a hole in the fabric of the play by walking onstage, Brodsky walks onto his novel *** (the title consists of three asterisks. I refer to it internally as “tri-star”) to describe the method of its construction, point by point, dependent on “thought packets”, the first two of which go:
- There is no story. There are only thought packets, debris from the avalanche of a story that cannot be told. Because it is too many stories at the same time.
- The story exists to domicile the packets. And the packets exist to create the story but in such a way that the teller does not have to think the creating. The packet does the thinking for the two of them. So do the steps do the thinking-about-expressing for the Balanchine dancer.
In a later section the author provides some packets that did not make it into the story, writing, “The most beautiful elements of Story are the huddled masses rejected at the Ellis Island of its Making.” These author appearances disrupt the complacent writer/reader relationship, putting the latter on notice that more is required than peering passively through a window while a scene is described, or falling into some discursive car and going for a ride. Indeed there would be no reason for the author to expose another dimension of the art if the reader were not expected to examine his or her own relationship to it.
After all and moreover, the reader has packets of his own. It’s taking me a while to get through *** (and this is my second reading), as I want to travel on my own thought packets between reading sessions. I’m glad that Brodsky writes the way he does, but I have to say I would not recommend it to the casual writer. Just as it is doubtful a Summerhill could exist without an A. S. Neill, I am skeptical that Brodsky’s method could succeed without a Brodsky. When asked why he wrote the way he did, Barthelme replied it was because Beckett was already writing the way Beckett does. It’s not just a matter of avoiding imitation, but in less capable hands I think Brodsky’s method could easily become so much blather and bullshit. How do you monitor yourself in the process of making termite art? Derek Bailey didn’t pop up out of nowhere. He had mastered traditional techniques on the guitar before he went free. Besides and in addition, I said that my thoughts on termite art were tempered by my experience with termites as a carpenter in Florida. In fact, every thought I have is tempered by some other—opposing, counter, alter—thought. I’ve been taking a MOOC on Kierkegaard, hoping it would help me get a grip. Kierkegaard isn’t easy, but maybe I’ve finally figured out that he doesn’t offer anything but difficulty. He engages in a kind of Socratic negative dialectics to get you to question what you think you know (you decide you know nothing), and offers nothing positive in return, but suggests you’re supposed to do that work yourself. We humans want pleasure, maybe an answer or two, or if heaven is too much to expect then at least some rest. Just a little rest. But there’s no real rest, just a catching of the breath here and there. You have to keep doing this work of figuring out how to be a human being every day. And it never ends. Kierkegaard’s philosophy means: keep going, keep going, keep going. The work never stops. Reward is never guaranteed. And it’s not over until the day you die.
Like termites. The little bastards never stop.
When I was in my twenties, early in my study of Samuel Beckett, I scribbled this line by Rene Char in my copy of How it Is: “We go wrong when the straight line that rushes ahead of us becomes the ground we walk on.” I can’t remember where I encountered that line, but I just read this in Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Irony: “If one is going to speculate, one had better be facing in the right direction.” Good luck finding it. OK, in this one instance Beckett chose not to lift his head from the mud. A legitimate choice. Even so, the tone, the speed, the ravenous chew-chew-chew of How it Is really annoyed me. To this day it’s still my least favorite of his novels.
So, do I embrace termite art or reject it? I practice it, with reservations.
For a long time my happiness was spoiled by Willem de Kooning. All those bowls of paint, dozens of them, mixed colors, on a vast table and the paintings, a whole row in various stages of—no I won’t say “completion” but various stages of becoming paintings. Stop one when you can no longer see it, go to the next, let them inform each other, teach each other how to become, keep the paint in the bowls fresh, roll from one day into the next…. But this is not possible when one has to earn a living through other work (the paint in the bowls skins over, the paint on the canvas skins over; freshness has to be maintained daily. And that’s just the materials. Mental freshness associated with a specific painting also has a shelf life). Still I kept trying to do it, year after year. And I didn’t fail better.
I had to face in the right direction, find another method, one that allowed me to come to my work in concentrated moments, always interrupted by the job. I had to find both a way of working as well as a type of work that could withstand constant interruption. The answer excluded traditional oil painting altogether in favor of small discrete units that could be combined later. I called them sourcebooks. Here is one in charcoal that I mounted and framed:
And here is one in charcoal and acrylic washes that exists only as a digital photograph:
Obviously I had to scale down my ambitions in more ways than one. There’s no composition to speak of in the sourcebooks, only finding an arrangement that worked, one that allowed the eye to scroll around from unit to unit without becoming fixed on any one or exiting the ensemble. I then made a series out of other materials.
Screw Set rejects composition in a different manner than the sourcebooks. By scaling down visual elements to just a few variables the grid is reinforced and the eye, like a pinball, skitters via the blue and red bands in jagged movements back and forth over the whole. But since it would feel too confining to have a permanent set, the viewer of the piece (in real space) is allowed the privilege of a certain compositional agency. Each disk can be placed on any of the sixteen posts and all can be rotated so that the bands lie at any angle.
Screw Set, like others in the series, was made out of wood that I salvaged from demolition sites to restore my house—in this case cypress (the disks), on a field of cedar and framed (not seen in the photo) in heart-pine. I have saved this wood yes from the termites but mainly from my fellow humans who would reduce it to a pile of splinters in favor of a construction of cheap yellow pine, particleboard, plywood and assorted faux masonry. Humans reject what termites leave alone. Termites follow the cellulose, and for whatever reason they leave some boards alone. Over time the resin in the pine boards hardens until the wood is nearly as hard as rock. That kind of wood cannot be purchased today at your local Home Depot. It came from trees hundreds of years old in forests long gone. And the houses in my neck of the human woods that were made out of it a hundred years ago are (when they’ve been maintained and cared for) as beautiful as ever and for my money more structurally sound, termites notwithstanding, than the new houses built out of crap infused with chemicals designed to deter bugs.
These days my preferred method is poetry. Generally a poem can be done in one sitting (although of course some poems go through many revisions). And one poem doesn’t have to be approached in the same manner as another. Different poems can do different things. Some are like little linguistic machines, designed to function in specific discursive ways. Others pinpoint discrete moods or tones or indeed thought packets. Others, perhaps the most delicious kind, are those that are constructed with little offering shelves where the reader can place his or her own thought packet. But if I practice termite art, my way does not wipe from the palette the possibility of a conclusion or of writing the last line first. Anyway, here is a poem I have written about boards and bugs:
Freedom as a Possession
Nevertheless freedom, nevertheless a possession
The wretched business of freedom
goes on like masquerading bugs
in the fibers of splintered boards
that ride out the months,
minimally attended to.
Every nuance of this, our weather,
is felt, nay lived, by such bugs
as we are, rolling over
in our beds of wilderness
shimmed in the concrete
expanse that we say
only God can see past.