Ecstasy as the Deepest Level of Aesthetic Purity: The 7 Levels of Aesthetic Subordination

Seven Levels of Narrative Subordination

The discussion of value of a particular narrative too often misidentifies rhetoric or realism as the sole factor placing a text at a high (or the highest) level of quality; realism, in particular, has this false association with narrative purity, and rhetoric in narrative has the mistaken association of intellectual engagement as a necessary component of artistic value. This is a narrow perspective born from the notion that rationality has a greater value than emotional/visceral reaction. A more significant problem with this perspective is that it displaces value from the text or the work of art itself. The text has no intrinsic value, only its capacity to represent something else: so-called reality, a philosophical concept, a social condition, a sociological perspective, etc.

This is the aesthetic problem of subordination which art in the twentieth century strove to and should have eliminated. William Carlos Williams and the Abstract Expressionists should have, finally and completely, highlighted the falsity in the notion that subordination is superior to aesthetic purity.

Alas, critics seem resistant to accepting what Williams should have taught the world, slow to accept that thousands of years of traditional Western concepts of artistic value have been upside down this whole time (something that Eastern concepts of artistic value have acknowledged for just as long). This is partly because there are so few systematic ways to analyze a text given the elimination of subordination. Understandably. How do you rationally analyze something that is at its core irrational? When writers say (as so many writers do) that they have no rational purpose or intention in writing a narrative other than to explore a character’s tapestry of emotions, how then do critics take that irrational but perfectly valid claim and honor it without forcing rational analysis in places it doesn’t necessarily belong?

This is why I keep attempting to make something systematic, hence the Seven Levels of Narrative Subordination.

A more effective way to approach a work of art which has greater potential to give the irrational core its due weight is to look at the various levels on the spectrum between aesthetic purity and subordination. Considering this as a spectrum better highlights the value at both ends (since critical analysis has been stuck at one of the spectrum for too long).  By “aesthetic purity,” I just mean acknowledging the text based on its own value without subordinating the value to something outside of it. The most aesthetically pure is the least subordinated; the most subordinated is the most rational/cerebral but also furthest removed from its aesthetic core, that which gives it stimulant (visceral/emotional) value.

A spectrum, however, is not the most accurate way to consider these levels since each element in the scale builds on the next, so a work of art must start with that pure, irrational core as a condition of being a work of art. Thus, one could argue the higher levels have greater value in their relative complexity. What I have identified as the “Rhetorical” level, the highest level of subordination, most likely contains the other six levels as well, thus allowing the possibility of argument for the superiority of this type of text. However, as this level is farthest removed from the aesthetic core, it is least likely to be enjoyable, beautiful, viscerally stimulating, etc. Also, this complexity is not a necessary condition of the Rhetorical level, and containing each of the previous six levels is likewise not a necessary condition. For example, most children’s narratives are Rhetorical without necessarily being complex and without necessarily containing all seven levels within them.

Also, to clarify, I focus on levels  narrative subordination particularly because the first two levels (“Ecstatic” and “Paratactic”) work well with any type of art, but the other five apply best to narrative. For example, considering the rule systems relevant to each level is a way to understand its level of subordination, a consideration that is less helpful for non-narrative art. As a more specific example, the “Mythological” level functions based on its own internal rule system, a concept that is very useful in understanding narratives but not as useful in understanding visual art. Rule systems in narratives are an important aesthetic consideration since violation of a perceived rule system may seem like a flaw. To say this is an intrinsic or universal flaw is false, but it is important for a writer to recognize that the reader is likely to perceive this as a flaw. For example, a story on the Mythological level may include imaginary creatures who must adhere to an internal rule system without necessarily adhering to the rules of the so-called real world. A violation of this internal rule system may seem like a flaw no matter how beautiful the text may be at its core. Likewise, what I identify as a Rhetorical story must adhere consistently to the premises of the argument, and failure to do so may seem like a flaw even if the story itself is beautiful and adheres to internal rules irrelevant to the argument.

Here are the seven levels:

1)Ecstatic: The direct, visceral, irrational experience that eliminates the barrier between self and other.

  • Rule System: No rule system.
  • Subordination: No distance between the work itself and the experience of the reader/viewer.
  • Analytical strategy: As this is the most irrational level based purely on individual experience, the easiest element to access and analyze is individual emotional/visceral reaction.
  • In brief: As the narrative or artistic experience requires the elimination of the barrier between self and other, this is the most basic and purest level of an artwork or narrative, and each subsequent level must contain this at its core. This level could be called “Absurd” as absurd narratives are the most characteristic examples and least likely to contain one of the other levels as well, and it’s provocative to say that all narratives must be absurd at their core, but that word contains so much baggage it may be counter-productive. Most philosophical treatments of absurdity as a concept are Rhetorical in nature, not truly and purely absurd. The Ecstatic level is the level of pure artistic absurdity where philosophy is irrelevant and unnecessary (in other words, absurdity certainly isn’t a problem to be solved). To clarify, narratives or artistic works can function on other levels, and often with more purely absurd texts critics attempt to impose order and meaning on them (the need to impose unnecessary order and meaning on things is a common and often intense desire); however, since absurdity/ecstasy is at the core of all successful narratives and art works, meaning and order are more incidental factors than necessary components. There is resistance to recognizing this as the core of all art, arguably, for two reasons: 1) artifice appears impure; 2) pleasure for its own sake engenders discomfort and seems like a frivolous, indulgent, gratuitous, or self-serving moral violation. The answer to both of these objections/misconceptions is in the nature of ecstatic engagement: it eliminates the barrier between self and other. It is artifice (and all art is artifice to a degree) only in that it has no necessary relationship with physical reality and exists primarily in the interaction between self and other free of barriers. Tangible/physical/material reality is only more pure than this if you believe science is the only authentic mechanism for discovering truth. That is a valid position to hold, but it is hardly helpful in creating or understanding art. This connects likewise with the notion that ecstasy is mere frivolity or self-pleasing immorality, but empathy (elimination of the barrier between self and other) should be the root of morality, arguably, and is the root of morality in many religions, from the “Love your neighbor as yourself” of Jesus to the compassionate non-duality of Buddha. To feel the pain and joy of another can only be immoral frivolity if your moral system is devoid of empathy as an essential component. Again, this is a valid position but hardly relevant to art.
  • Favorite Examples: Incidences by Daniil Kharms, Amedée by Eugene Ionesco, “Sorrows of a Family Man” by Franz Kafka, etc. Frank O’Hara’s “Personism: A Manifesto” is essential reading in understanding the one-to-one interaction of the ecstatic text and the irrelevance of universality.

2)Paratactic: The juxtaposition of viscerally stimulating but seemingly unrelated images without a rational, directly stated, or necessary connection.

  • Rule system: No rule system.
  • Subordination: No element is necessarily subordinated to another, by definition, but images can relate to elements or concepts outside of the text itself.
  • Analytical strategy: Determine the images that create a visceral response in juxtaposition. Do not look for a rational connection but a purely irrational resonance. If you find a rational connection, especially where one element is subordinated to the other, this likely qualifies as the Representational level and muddies the aesthetic purity with overt rationality.
  • In brief: The line between the Ecstatic and Paratactic level are blurred since both levels function quite similarly. However, the Paratactic differentiates from the Ecstatic in that images can relate to concepts or a so-called reality outside of the text. For example, a William Carlos Williams poem might relate a “red wheelbarrow” and “white chickens” without stating how they connect (a classic, basic example of parataxis), but understanding of this parataxis might relate to the reader’s own experience or concept of farming or poverty without necessarily subordinating the images to the concepts or experiences. The text, however, becomes one step away from the pure ecstatic experience in this outward-stretching web. Another example: a text might contain multiple blue objects, and the reader may yearn to find some rational connection between these blue objects. However, the yearning for connection (a type of visceral stimulation vital for this level) is far more important than an actual, rational connection, and the reader may think of traditional associations of blue and the Virgin Mary without necessarily subordinating the text to Christian concepts. In other words, the color blue does not necessarily make the text about (“about” generally implying a level of subordination) the Virgin Mary or Christianity simply because of the presence of blue, but this irrational connection could add visceral value to the text. If the weight of history aids in arguing the importance of parataxis, subordinating a text to abstractions may be the traditional Western way of understanding a narrative (thus the taken-for-granted superior position), but parataxis is the traditional Eastern way of understanding imagery in multiple art forms.

3)Mythological: This narrative level functions based on its own internal rule system.

  • Rule system: Internal rule system set by the author, genre, narrative conventions, etc.
  • Subordination: A concept of order is grafted on the irrational/visceral elements of the text, but this rule system is essentially arbitrary; it may relate to rule systems in reality/outside of the text, but this is not necessary.
  • Analytical strategy: Identify the internal rule system and how the text fulfills or violates this rule system; recognize the relationship between the imposed order and the irrational, visceral core. For example, if a character has imposed a system of order on the absurd universe, does he/she violate this imposed order, or does the universe violate/fulfill this order in some way?
  • In brief: I call this level “mythological,” not because it has a relationship to myth criticism (as most of that sort of criticism functions on the Representational or Rhetorical level) or any narrative identified as myth (which is only one of many other types of stories on the Mythological level) but because it comes from the same impulse as myth making: to impose order on the disorderly whether or not that order has any rational relationship with scientifically measurable reality. Myths, likewise, must conform only to their own ordered system and not necessarily to any system outside of themselves. I would go further and say most narratives, by the nature of being a narrative, are intrinsically mythological if they have any sense of order or conform to any rule system. The most obvious place to see this is in so-called “genre” fiction – a vampire story follows the well-established vampire rules or sets its own but follows those consistently. However, internal rule systems are as relevant to a so-called “literary” work as they are to a so-called “genre” work. The terms “literary” and “genre” are grossly inaccurate and sloppily applied in most cases, but considering their relationship with internal rule systems clarifies their basic difference more accurately: a “genre” work conforms to rule systems within its own type and a “literary” work establishes its own, supposedly (and a “literary” work becomes “genre” when it follows the rule system established by the “literary” type). However, the most egregiously applied term associated with this level is “escapism” – escapism is indeed one of the effects of works which remain more purely within the Mythological level, but this one effect is hardly its most significant value. “Escapism,” especially in its pejorative sense, inverts the value system placing so-called reality above the narrative experience. The narrative experience can as easily be considered a greater level of reality. The relationship between the mythological and the realistic level is incidental – so-called reality fills in the gaps left by mythology but is far from a necessary condition of mythology.

4)Psychological: A separation between the purer aesthetic levels and reality by attributing the contrast to an internal/external split.

  • Rule system: Two separate rule systems, internal and external. The internal rule system may function the same as the Ecstatic, Paratactic, or Mythological level, but the subordination implies that the external rule system functions the same as the Realistic level.
  • Subordination: The non-realistic or seemingly disorderly elements are subordinated to external reality because they are attributed to psychological reflections of external factors.
  • Analytical strategy: Identify the internal and external elements in the story and determine how one reflects the other; for example, how does a non-real element reflect some more realistic element within a character’s world or something psychologically significant to the character?
  • In brief: This is the transition between irrational and rational levels because it acknowledges the value of both sides. However, this dilutes the aesthetic power of the Ecstatic core because it is subordinated to so-called reality. This is not necessarily limited to psychoanalytical criticism or rules of psychology, psychoanalysis, etc. though this can be enlightening method for approaching texts on this level. Most forms of criticism hover in the Representational level, but the Psychological level can resonate in both directions as long as it remains rooted in this two-level contrast between internal and external forces. For example, elements can function by internal rules, thus making it a Mythological narrative, but function simultaneously on the Representational level if elements stand in for abstract concepts. If this resonance takes place on two levels – for example, Mythological elements take place inside a character’s mind while Representational elements are outside of the character’s mind – and the internal elements are subordinate to the external elements, this narrative exists on the Psychological level.

5)Realistic: The narrative exists to depict something in the real (material, tangible, physical) world.

  • Rule system: The narrative must follow the rules of the scientifically measurable, so-called real world.
  • Subordination: The narrative is subordinated to the real world outside of it.
  • Analytical strategy: Focus on the accuracy of the narrative within the context of the real world. For example, an element inaccurate to material existence, scientifically established rule systems, or social conventions becomes a flaw.
  • In brief: While works within the genre called “Realism” are often depicted as purer forms for their elimination of imaginative elements, they are aesthetically impure because of their dependence on a material, tangible, physical reality outside of the texts. Any consideration of the text’s basis in reality displaces value from the text and places value in elements only incidental to the text’s core Ecstatic value. This is not applicable only to texts based on real events or texts in which events are depicted as being real. More important at this level is recognition of a narrative as being dependent on reality and valuation of the accuracy of this depiction of reality. However, if a text functions to reflect some universal concept (like the “human condition,” etc.) or has non-realistic elements which stand in for universal concepts, it is more likely Representational, a step further in subordination.

6)Representational: The narrative stands in for some abstract concept such as philosophy, sociological perspective/condition, or universalized concept of humanity.

  • Rule system: The narrative may follow essentially the same rules as the Realistic level but applied universally or at least broadly to a sociological condition, or it may follow the rules or principles of a particular philosophy without necessarily making an endpoint argument.
  • Subordination: Both real and non-real elements are subordinated to universal/philosophical concepts.
  • Analytical strategy: As most criticism hovers in this or the Rhetorical level, analytical strategies are well-established elsewhere.
  • In brief: When considering narrative analysis, this and the Rhetorical level are too often considered the only relevant levels or the levels with the greatest capacity to highlight the value of a narrative – this is the limited perspective I’m attempting to correct. The concept is that a narrative has value in that it “means” something or is “about” something when this perspective separates, by several levels of subordination, the narrative from its core aesthetic value. The Representational level essentially bridges the Realistic and Rhetorical level in that realistic elements are elevated into the abstract realm by being treated as representations of universal conditions (humans aren’t humans but stand in for all of humanity, for example) or reflect one of thousands of possible philosophical perspectives without necessarily making an argument (which would qualify it as Rhetorical). The various philosophies are well-established within criticism, so I need not spend much time explaining them, but an example might be a Marxist perspective which views elements within a text as representations of class oppression, commodification, historical cycles of revolution, etc. Characters aren’t people but social forces and conditions and only have value in their capacity to represent.

7)Rhetorical: A catch all term for anything with an endpoint value based in some abstract concept, argument, lesson, etc.

  • Rule system: The narrative must consistently follow the principles of the argument or lesson.
  • Subordination: Elements within the narrative are subordinate to the argument or lesson.
  • Analytical strategy: As most criticism hovers in this or the Representational level, analytical strategies are well-established elsewhere.
  • In brief: I call this level “Rhetorical” for the sake of the catchy three R’s of rational-level narrative subordination, but this includes many types of narratives beyond the argumentative – didactic narratives, for example. The significance is that the narrative has a purpose or that the narrative is leading to a particular end. This endpoint may be open to interpretation, but the writer is proposing some rhetorical premise subject to the rules of rhetoric or a moral principle subject to the rules or designed to develop or disseminate that particular moral principle. It differs from the Representational level only in that a Representational narrative can function more purely as a portrait of an abstract or universalized concept, but the Rhetorical level further subordinates that portrait to the ultimate purpose, argument, lesson, etc.
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Nintendo :oR: Multiply the Screaming by Millions

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(for 2100)

 Benny gave birth to Nintendo because she hated everything, but Charlie hated everything too, so they could hate everything together.

 Charlie made or modified all those Easter dresses  because she never wanted anyone to wear them (all the unworthy and jealous legions) (and Benny was the only one who knew this about her intent) only to sit on dummies in museums made just for Charlie’s legacy so Benny could be there hosting tours and say, “Ha ha, you dumbass. This is not for you. You’d make a dress like that stink too bad to wear.” Benny would be there with her every afterschool in the little shop Charlie made out back of her house, and Benny would be fiddling with a little needle and string like anything she did did anything to the dresses, but at least she’d get to say, “These are the dresses we made,” and feel a little less like she lied it. When the other kids called her weirdo, she always had the future worship of Easter dresses from God’s own patterns to laugh at those fools in secret.

 Her greatest addition to the birth of Nintendo came from a mask given to her by providence. In her honest history she’d only confess to biographers on her deathbed, she stole the Nintendo mask from a girl in shop class everyone hated, Greta, the girl who tinkered with all the rejected machines like she cared and believed in something (idiot), and everyone on the planet made fun of her for it (everybody may’ve made fun of Benny and Charlie likewise, but at least they weren’t as low down as Greta).

 Benny: “What’s this dumb machine you’re making, Greta?” This machine was a mask Benny put on (because why not?) that covered her face from forehead to chin with a flat mirrored surface like Cobra Commander.

 Greta: “It’s a mask” (because maybe she thought obvious statements weren’t a total waste of time).

 Benny: “Why would you waste time making machine masks?” As she spoke, she saw (the mirror was one sided) a pixilated face like old fashioned videogame faces appeared on the mask and spoke with an autotune voice.

 Thus, Nintendo had a forgotten third mother (but once Benny made the mask hers alone, Greta was so gone forever from this business she’s hardly even worth mentioning) and the mask now was only something she found by chance in the middle of nothing. The magic of Jesus delivered the mask via thunderbolts of heaven to facilitate their destiny to go hardcore apocalypse on all of existence (or whatever). That’s around the time Jesus magic let her find the rainbowcolored Tasselactor wig in an old abandoned grown over park below an arch of chipped off gold like Jesus, in his cultural closemindedness, got the whole leprechaun gold and rainbow set up backward.

 Then Benny saw the Easter dresses Charlie turned into drag dresses in her free time. The Easter drag dress Benny put on first to model was blue like Easter egg dye and patterns, like Paas made dresses, so it became the Paas Dress in their personal legends. It hung fine at the top but pooled below her like the whole thing melted into puddles (like fitting ever mattered for anything).

 Charlie: “You’re too small to be a drag queen. Maybe I can corner the market on a line of short-and-small drag dresses.”

 Benny: “Close your eyes.” Benny reached into her bag to pull out the Cobra Commander mask and rainbow wig. “Open your eyes.” But this greatness got no response at first. “What’s the matter?” The face came up the happy pixilated face on the blank mask, the electronic voice. “Don’t you think I’m pretty?” She stroked the long straight rainbowcolored hair. “My name is Nintendo. I always wished to be a real girl, and here I am.”

 Charlie laughed.

 In this manner, Benny became famous.

 Because Nintendo in this personal legend embodied all the most awful qualities of popularity and popular music (compounded with Benny’s conviction to delight the only one who knew the joke) she became the most famous pop star on the planet.

 When Nintendo was a brand new creation, she played drag clubs where Charlie sold dresses. Soon she was in local papers and on talk shows as a musical oddity where she had to relate her origins anew to each interviewer.

 Nintendo: “I was born a Nintendo. I wanted to be a real girl. If you dream hard enough…” And so on. It was that easy.

 It was pop music created by people who hated pop music and hearts and love (Benny, at least, hated all music and made music only to show people they should hate themselves). To Benny, Nintendo’s music and the amount of people who loved it, nothing but hilarious. The songs weren’t hard to make, mostly beat presets in the too complicated computer system what’s-her-name put in the mask for no good reason. Add this to repeated uplifting pithy aphorisms in her computer voice like, “If you dream hard and your heart is big, you can have anything you love come true, true to you, true to you,” that sort of thing, random blather (like hearts and truth ever mattered for anyone but idiots and dumbasses).

 Charlie plugged away at all the Nintendo dresses for every show she got booked in which seemed like every show that existed. She was there for Benny all that summer (like they’d always been there for each other’s summers).

 Until she wasn’t.

 Charlie: “I got this offer to go to Paris.”

 Benny: “Why would you want to go to Paris? It’s awful.”

 Charlie: “I kind of want to study design. Some people say my designs are good.”

 Benny: “Who’s ever said that but me?”

Charlie: “A lot of people. Teachers. Then there’s also the people who offered to pay to send me to Paris. They kind of think my stuff is good.”

Benny: “They’re just having a joke on you, right?”

Charlie: “But you told me my dresses would be in museums one day.”

Benny: “When people stop sucking and we make them better.”

Charlie: “By doing what? Making fun of them?”

Benny: “By making them want to be like us. You and me represent the only non-sucking portion of the population.”

They had the whole summer before Charlie decided Paris was stupid (because of course she would, right?) (because anything like that had to be stupid, right?) but Charlie disappeared a lot (like a crazy person who just goes off and leaves loved ones for days) (it could only possibly be insanity). It started with the off and on no shows like Benny might expect her to be at a fitting for a pop festival Benny planned to destroy or a press junket or whatever where idiots would write her lies, but soon Charlie was only a void. She stopped being a real girl and became Benny’s eternal waiting.

Nintendo then went on stage in the same battered Easter dresses as always, including some nights the overworn Paas Dress from Nintendo’s birth, torn in secret absences never to be known in the mystery of Nintendo’s origin, but all the songs became about the awful inevitable failure of loving anyone, and her fans loved it because they’d had their heart broken like this, in the simpler but more incredible ripping away that leaves an unhideable hole, a heartbreak more intense and acute than any other possible pain, and Nintendo, as the hate monster she’d become, embodied all they needed. Nintendo didn’t hide her feelings, and her fans were people who couldn’t hide their feelings, who wanted to hurt along with others in the intensity of their openness, especially with the most open sentient computer who even had clothes disheveled by her misery.

But then Charlie came back.

Benny: “Where did you go?”

Charlie: “I don’t know. I go places sometimes.” She had a girl tagging along like some stray she picked up, face obscured by black hair, toes turned inward like eternally curled into shadow. “This is O. She’s going to be my assistant.”

Benny: “Your little orphan can go away. No one will be offended, and everyone will forget it happened.”

Charlie: “You’re having me make a lot of dresses. I need a hand.”

Benny: “When’d you find time for charity cases? You encounter a lot of crystal babies in whatever magical world you got kidnapped to?”

Charlie: “Okay, to be honest, as long as you promise to drop it, I’ll tell you where I go. I go to motels sometimes. I just find a motel and check in and stay there alone for days. I don’t tell you because I just want to go to motels, and I don’t tell anybody. But I go because, I don’t know, it’s quiet, and I meet people who don’t know me. I met O there and taught her a little bit about sewing. She seemed like she wanted to learn.”

Benny: “I can learn to sew.” (Why hadn’t she thought of that before?)

Charlie: “Don’t worry about it. You’ve got your thing. You’re the pop star. Go be the pop star.”

Benny: “I’m only that because you thought it was funny.”

Charlie: “Yes, you’re hilarious.” (There was no mirth, only tones of some new girl who sneaks off to motels and teaches random little bitches to sew.)

Benny wanted to walk away, but it would be so far and weird. They were on the stage for that night’s show, and the stage was covered in giant rainbow-colored stuffed animals, so big even the feet were taller than Benny. The rest of the theater was empty but Benny and Charlie and that new girl (who seemed to suck away any presence anyway like black holes). The empty sound of some machine click echoed. That girl remained (despite stares supposed to make her have multiple heart attacks) (she was only some lump of black hair, silence, and nothing but still refusing to be anything but solid).

Charlie: “We’ve got to go work on your outfits for tonight. You’ve got to practice.”

Benny: “I never practice. Because I hate it. We both hate it.”

Charlie: “You can’t hate all of it. I think the Easter drag dresses are great.”

Machine click echo.

Benny: “Me too.”

Charlie walked away with that girl. Off to sew. Or whatever.

But Benny had nowhere to go (alone and made microscopic by gratuitous animals) so she went to the sewing room and made her silence as offensive as possible.

Charlie (like everything was suddenly okay again): “O and I bonded because we both had dreams of being crucified in bloody and terrible ways. There must have been a thousand screaming voices in those dreams.”

Benny doodled O’s burning corpse on the fake set list for tech as she babbled vague lyrics for the nonsense she’d sing tonight (something about burning love and burning hate and crucifixion) (she hoped/wondered/didn’t care if crucifixion lyrics offended delicate ears) (something like, “hope you enjoy your crucifixion” (or whatever, didn’t matter)).

Benny: “Dream as in ambition or night vision?”

Charlie: “Why would we have ambition to be murdered?”

Benny fiddled with a flat pincushion pushing the pins through until they made a nail bed on the other side (she could make things as good as anybody made them) (they always called her the creative type) (creativity is a good name for things like nailbeds for torture).

Benny: “How’d you know she dreamed that if she’s a mute?”

Charlie: “What makes you think she’s mute?”

Benny: “I guess it’s only that she seems so, I don’t know, lacking in something.”

Charlie stepped out a moment to get whatever sewing stuff people like her needed, and Benny put her miniature nailbed down in front of O.

Benny: “Charlie said to put your hand on this hard until blood comes out. For sewing.” Benny grabbed her hand when she failed to respond, but O resisted. “Come on. She said it’s to fulfill a dream.” But Charlie came back before she could bring this creativity to completion. “We’re just bonding.”

Then later over the radio she heard about the Greatest Pop Star on the Planet Contest, created by the Electric Youth, an organization that does some stupid nonsense for pop music and some dumb charity for kids (like at this point in history anybody but Benny needed charity). She would win the contest, and Charlie and O would see her glory and bow down in supplication begging forgiveness for the great crime, whatever that great crime was.

So Benny ordered Charlie to make the dress the world’s greatest human would wear, and Charlie complied without complaining and brought her little grunt worker along.

Charlie: “O had a great idea for a dress for the Greatest Pop Star on the Planet contest.”

Benny: “Sounds terrible.”

Charlie: “You haven’t even…never mind.”

Charlie turned away, and Benny was sick of that sort of turning away, how dare she? Like she’s the one to be offended. She couldn’t let her get away with it.

Benny: “What is it then?”

Her real voice was always more innocent and desperate than she wanted it to be these days (like that fake Nintendo vulnerability had become a virus corrupting her real vocal chords).

Charlie: “Refurbish the old Paas Dress from back when we started.”

Neither one said a thing then or made a move to leave (though every muscle of everybody seemed ready to flee like prey animals). Charlie sat down to sew because all the shows gave her too much work to do to just up and leave like that (like lazy cowards). Then she started chitchatting (like that was something they still did).

Charlie: “Supposedly your big competition is this girl out of Korea called Met Gala, haven’t had time to look her up.”

Benny: “Why would you? This music is terrible. If I win this contest, I’m only winning at being terrible.”

Charlie: “There was a time when you liked some things. Remember that?”

Benny: “Yes. I remember that.” And Benny let her sew in peace (and left the room because she was the only one who had the power and right to leave).

For the Greatest Pop Star on the Planet contest, the whole stage was set up like a mini-Hoover Dam made of woven funhouse mirrors making all performers big and weird behind themselves.

Coquettish Korean teen pop star Met Gala was the first night headliner. She was a flaming black wall, six feet by six feet. When she approached the mic, the overwhelming sound, nearly blowing out the speakers, was a dozen screaming voices. The background music was still the regular pop beat. Here and there the mechanical beat would break and dulcet background refrains would counterpoint a “yeah yeah” but mostly the screaming.

The audience went nuts like this was the greatest thing, and Benny measured it against her own dumb audience (like screaming people can be anything but stupid).

Benny: “Oh God, not this crap again.”

She made sure Charlie could hear her jaded and highly intelligent dismissal for some reason.

Nintendo called her Greatest Pop Star on the Planet Contest song as the second night headliner “The Single Sustained Note of Resurrection to Mend All Broken Hearts,” and in the elaborate costume Charlie and O designed to win the whole contest based on the refurbished Paas Dress from their beginning, Nintendo entered, played one note on the piano, let it reverberate for a good three seconds, and she left. There was no way to compare the audience reaction to Met Gala’s (because Benny wouldn’t give them that power).

Charlie: “What the hell was that?”

Benny: “Exactly what I said I was going to do in the title.” Benny gave a smirk Charlie couldn’t possibly see (but she should know it was there anyway) (because she was her and they were them). “Sorry if they didn’t stare at your dress for forever. I know how long you and what’s her name worked on it.”

Benny and O gave each other death eyes (at least Benny assumed O was giving them back under that black hair) (Benny could hardly tolerate weak people who hid their faces that way).

The final headlining act of the Greatest Pop Star on the Planet Contest was the river. The concert organizers gave no indication of what this meant, but everyone presumed they meant the nearest river, the Nagsissy.

On the night the river was supposed to perform, the cameras were trained on the Nagsissy River, waiting for anything. After hours of waiting (audience silent and tense like any great moment in music where silence leads to some even greater ecstasy) part of the river lurched from its banks like a worm lifting and wiggling its head out of a hole (the crowd gasped). Half a mile of the river jerked out of its banks and onto a nearby city street, jerking forward like a worm, knocking cars aside. Its head was a thousand writhing tendrils of water. It arrived at the stage for the Greatest Pop Star on the Planet Contest and took up the whole stage, tail trailing out the door. Its music was a thousand screaming voices, deep bass rumble screaming, the sort of voices that get right inside of you and vibrate all your matter away to replace with its own being, far more intense than the flaming wall or anything else possible in music. The audience degenerated into spasms of ecstasy, frothing at the mouth, eyes rolled back, orgasming simultaneously.

It was clear who won the contest.

Benny: “Please. Give me a break.”

Benny, wearing her Nintendo mask, watched from atop a sheer silvery mirrored Hoover Dam wall behind the screaming river. Charlie came up behind her.

Charlie: “You don’t have to do this.” She had come to apologize for what she did. “I don’t know why you’re acting like this, but killing yourself is stupid.”

Benny: “I am not Benny. I am only Nintendo.”

Charlie didn’t laugh like she was (maybe) supposed to.

O was with her, and she approached like she was going to save her from suicide and everything would be better, and everybody would be great heroes forever, but they were all too dumb to realize maybe Benny wanted to be alone and watch her own embarrassing uselessness play out on stage below. O reached out a hand to lift Benny up, but Benny jerked too hard and pulled O off the side of the wall, and down she fell (to death if Benny remained lucky) but Benny tried to stand up, lost her footing likewise and fell.

The damndest thing was Charlie didn’t reach out a hand for either one. Not even an arm jerk of a deep need to save her friend like her lifelong friendship wasn’t even worth instinctive responses.

Benny and O fell together through nothing. Maybe they were going to die together, break into a thousand bloody pieces indistinguishable in the final mess of carnage. An amazing final pop star act that might be the only way to equal the river.

But, no, they fell safe into the river water that covered the stage now. (Maybe Benny knew that would happen. Maybe Charlie did too.) (If that made anything okay, who knows?)

The audience in spasms of ecstasy followed the plummeting Nintendo into the river to take their ecstasy to the only possible place, inside the body of their new god.

Hundreds of people drowned.

It was the greatest pop concert ever.

Despite everything, Charlie went to Paris. O disappeared and nobody cared that the whole world forgot about her.

Benny only had herself now and nobody ever knew she was Nintendo. The Nintendo mask, once it hit the water, became no longer usable forever, and Benny didn’t even try to fix it.

She prayed every night for the sun to fall into the ocean and for all the world to die precisely the way they wanted to and deserved.

Summary of the “Seven Mountains Echo Chamber” Stories

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Presently I’m live tweeting a series of stories called the “Seven Mountains Echo Chamber” in a structure I invented called an “echo chamber” — in other words, a series of stories posted in increments over time that echo vertically but horizontally tell a linear story (see for example “Seven Minutes to Midnight” or #7m212 from last fall). As this is perhaps a hard structure to follow, here’s a simplified guide to make it easier to jump on board midway. This is the basic schedule:

5:30 a.m. #ForeignPlanets

3:00 p.m. #UnknownWorlds

4:30 p.m. #Babylon

7:30 p.m. #PopulatedWound

11:00 p.m. #FertileCrescent

Here’s a summary of each of the stories already in progress:

#ForeignPlanets (5:30 a.m.) is the story of Far Clooney, an inadvertent destroyer of planets. Far discovers one day she has transmutation powers just as she falls on a small ice planet ruled over by a monstrous space pirate named Teddy Roosevelt. Teddy Roosevelt takes pity on Far, but Far soon destroys the planet  in a misguided attempt to save it. They flee through an unexpected version of outer space with gravity, breathable air, and an abundance of animal life. Teddy Roosevelt finds out from a comprehensive library inside a nearby tree planet that Far and her sisters, Claire and Greta, may together be able to eliminate the threat of red rage moss wiping out the teeming animal life, but they must find Claire and Greta and fight off the Alchemy Robots, creatures upon whom Far’s transmutation powers seem to have no effect. As Far’s powers and awkwardness lead inevitably to planetary destruction once again, she is plucked out of this adventure and placed into another by a godlike doe named Sevendoe who recruits Far to build a body planet — a planet made from a giant body — to infiltrate the army of Vampire Gorillas ruled by Michel, the Mountain of Screaming Mako Sharks, to save a monster called Old God from being turned into a body planet himself. Far finds out, likewise, her two sisters, Claire and Greta, have been recruited to make body planets with their own transmutation powers, but they both believe they appeared magically in their own perfect place: Claire on an isolated island where she gets everything she demands and Greta in a heaven full of babies. The Vampire Gorillas have agreed to allow Far to visit her sisters as long as she doesn’t reveal the paradise is fake on threat of execution of her friend and fellow adventurer and former lover, Cosby Rose, the Bleeding Ghost. Now that she’s convinced Claire to explore beyond the island and climb a lapis lazuli mountain, she must somehow find Greta, save Old God and Cosby Rose, and escape the Vampire Gorillas.

#UnknownWorlds is the story of Old God and The Broken Heart, two birth defect monsters who work as villain thugs because it’s the only work they can do. Old God is a giant who walks on all fours and wears a diaper, but he can summon lightening when he pounds the ground. The Broken Heart is a giant, disembodied heart who floats around inside a silver gyroscope-like machine; his tendrils can send victims into a heart broken paralysis. Old God and The Broken Heart love each other — as best friends and brothers in a common effort — because no one else will. Their job requires them to be beaten up and mocked by heroes, and the villain who hires them too often screws them out of the pay they’re owed. This has made Old God bitter and cynical, trusting no one but Broken Heart. Broken Heart is more often compassionate and tries to find the best in everyone despite knowing there’s little chance of any situation turning out well for them. Old God does have one other person he admires, however: a villain named Unknown Worlds. Unknown Worlds is a Promusaurifex, meaning he has a whole city full of slaves living inside his body, giving him power — except unlike the normal Promusaurifex, Unknown Worlds is filled with imaginary creatures. When Unknown Worlds displaces and flattens the entire country of India, Old God wishes somebody like that would hire them instead of their normal duplicitous a-holes. As if in fulfillment of this wish, Unknown Worlds soon arrives and whisks them off to his flattened India. He reveals that he’s actually flattened India to shock the world but created a paradise for all the residents below the surface. Unknown Worlds now considers them all his children though Broken Heart doubts his sincerity. Unknown Worlds hires Old God and the Broken Heart to discover who has made a mountain that has suddenly appeared on his flattened India. As they ascend the mountain, they discover a mysterious empty city and floating above this mountain, as if inside of a sphere, seven mountains pointing inward at each other. They then discover that the one who appears to be responsible is Broken Heart’s brother Hank, a hero who bullied Broken Heart his whole life. He has with him a team called The Orchestrals — a ragtag team of superheroes bent on revenge against Unknown Worlds including remnants of the Hospitalers, a team based on medical/crusader gimmicks, and “Murdergod” Ford Fordham — though their role in the creation of the city has yet to be revealed.

#Babylon is about Packer Seen in the small town of Oloi who makes an observation that brooks don’t babble, they whisper. Vivaldi, the local crazy person, tells him he just brought an end to the world. Later, Packer is sitting in his quiet place on a small hill outside of town when he sees Vivaldi, whom he views with pity and curiosity because of an exile status to which Packer relates, riding a horse up and down a nearby brook. Packer then observes a sideways tower growing out of the brook winding along the same shape as the water’s path. Vivaldi tells him this is the Tower of Babel which took an ancient war to suppress in its previous incarnation. He also says Vivaldis are fruits from a tree called The Red Priest that grows near the Vatican. Vivaldis are tasked with keeping the Tower of Babel from returning to existence. Packer comes back later alone and finds the tower has now grown bigger than the brook, and there is a monster in terracotta armor lurking, still and silent, on the tower’s side.

#PopulatedWound is part of the “Boodlepax and the Birth Monsters of Hell” series about a small, barnowl-like monster tasked with convincing customers not to pay to be tortured in Hell. His mouth is a paper rectangle floating an inch outside his face through which he must force his words, so often others fail to hear him or simply ignore him. He’s undaunted by the obstacle of his small size and weak voice because the torturers in Hell are so kind to him: these torturers include Mr. Peyzer who wears a red wedding dress and uses needle and thread to torture, treating each torture like the perfect aesthetic creation; then there’s Judson Almanac, the pacifist burnout with giant immobile stone wings who always finds a way around torturing customers. One night when Boodlepax has an especially unpleasant experience at his poetry group, he visits Hell looking for company and ends up helping deliver food to prisoners whose life is less pleasant and whose torture is less beautiful than paying customers, and there he encounters a mysterious woman named Sophie Echo whose prison cell is set up like the luxurious room of a captured princess.

#FertileCrescent is a murder mystery featuring eccentric detective Burdeneye Parnassus who rents a house in a neighborhood called Fertile Crescent to spy on brother and sister Tom and Amanda Wood who live side by side only three streets down from Burdeneye’s new house. His job is to find out for their estranged father if the Wood siblings are happy. He uses trips with his one and a half year old son Cole around the neighborhood in his wagon as pretense for spying, and he uses his son’s geniality and curiosity to overcome his own intense social anxiety for which taking on the detective role was meant to be a remedy. Burdeneye gets sidetracked, however, when Cole finds a piece of broken ceramic dentures with the word “Oloi” stamped on the side. This coincides with observation that the woman who lived on the dirt road behind him had ceased her regular 4:30 a.m. appearances, and the hefty, often-scarred man who lived with her, her son perhaps, seemed to bury something big around the time she went missing. Burdeneye decides he must pursue this murderer to keep his young son safe because protecting his son is the only happiness this broken man has ever managed. Now, he must somehow complete his investigation into the happiness of the Wood siblings while trying to find out if a murder has even taken place only a few feet behind his home. A conversation with the burly son, Holt Hefter, sheds little light on the situation but gives him the names of two residents of Fertile Crescent as clues: Murdergod and the Bird Man.

Samuel Beckett and VRP (Viscerally Resonant Parataxis) :oR: Sometimes Crucified Thieves are Just Crucified Thieves

When talking about viscerally resonant parataxis (the irrational juxtaposition of images that creates a gut level response) it’s good to look at its masters like Kafka and Beckett. The problem is that there’s so much criticism written about them, and the whole ethos of criticism is to take mystery and apply meaning to it. Great VRP functions precisely through mystery, not meaning. VRP is always struggling against metaphorizing — that’s part of what gives it power: it inspires a need to find meaning, but what is most effective is the visceral need, not the cerebral endpoint. The best of the best can create VRP that withstands metaphorizing.

Waiting for Godot, for example, is powerful no matter how much of its mystery critics seek to kill. They can’t force it to be a cerebral, rhetorical exercise when the imagery is just too powerful. However, it makes it harder for me to say, “Look at how excellently and perfectly meaningless this masterpiece is” when there are whole bookshelves full of mysterykillers seeking to prove otherwise. Beckett is a great one to look at in a discussion of VRP and other types of irrational imagery, however, because that is how he talks about his own work. When asked if Godot was God, he said Godot was Godot. He was approaching the text — as I think artists should approach the text unless they want to rip the soul right out of it — aesthetically, not rhetorical. Godot’s absence is something beautiful and is not required to mean anything. Likewise, when asked the meaning of Didi and Gogo’s discussion of the two thieves who were crucified with Jesus, Beckett just said he liked the shape of it. For him, the two thieves were aesthetically pleasing, especially in the way they related to Didi and Gogo, and that’s what gave them value in the story.

This is why I gravitate more to Beckett’s lesser known plays about which less is written. In particular, “Rough for Theatre II” has become my favorite: it succeeds where “Catastrophe” fails, in my opinion. At the core is a story that can seem allegorical or as psychological drama. For me, dismissing unusual elements as psychological, the “it’s all in his head” excuse, grates on my nerves, but it’s a step better than metaphorizing, the “it’s only a metaphor for” excuse, because at least it serves the end of characterization, but the less of any kind of dismissing the better. Essentially, what happens in “Rough for Theatre II” is that a man stands on a ledge and two men who appear to be bureaucratic functionaries discuss whether or not he should jump. Sure, the two men can be the embodiment of different sides of the suicidal man debating with himself, and that’s how it’s usually written about. That makes the whole thing a bit dull for my taste, and that may be why it isn’t considered one of Beckett’s great works.

However, what makes it excellent to me are the odd bits that just don’t seem to fit. The two functionaries discuss whether a particular star is Jupiter, and one says it can’t be because it twinkles. It’s a lovely moment that does not require explanation based on psychological embodiments, etc. My favorite part is when one of the functionaries — the one who appears at first to be pragmatic and dismisses Jupiter as only twinkling — desires “animal warmth” from the other because he seems to be frightened by the lamp’s tendency to shut off on its own. Then the play ends with the discovery of a cage with two finches, one dead and the other alive, and the Jupiter-loving functionary laments that they are only organic waste. You can grasp for metaphors — and I love that they’re not so easy with this one — but based on how Beckett feels about the image of the two crucified thieves in Godot, we can assume that Beckett simply chose the image for its beauty.

Far from the superficiality this sort of image-focused writing is accused of, “Rough for Theatre II,” like the best of Beckett, with its mysterious and irrational focus shifts, bypasses the cerebral and hits you right in the core. This shows that VRP is a technique that, when mastered, can take a text to amazing places.