Monday, July 17, 2017

Drew Knapp: On Difficult Tasks

I'm skim-fed to the city through the baleen corridor of the Lincoln tunnel. I'm aware of the oft-inhabited expectation of this place (a movie set of indeterminate expanse, where glimpsed strangers, in their thespian intersections, become saturated with the kinetic glow of promise) and find it seems to descend from paranoia and manifest as mental succor in specie. I am not searching for ambition in the gullet of this great mechanical whale, nor escape from insecurity. In truth, there is no tangible ultima Thule to discover, no other pantheonic status desired. I have come for more money, yes, and to be closer to the family of my significant other, but the defining traits of the act--position, velocity, time--don’t clarify its meaning beyond movement. That its occurrence exists outside of my general emotional ataxia makes it important, I think--archaic content given a significative insertion into the present.

My prior home is stuck in a constant state of (what to call it?) terminal prettiness. Each frontal square snapshot stretches out across that frontier town; it collects dust in blue and green (these colors used loosely to include cyan, teal, turquoise, aquamarine) so regular that the neighbors keep their clocks by it. Whirring mercy-mild we traversed that old, motley woodsmoke bridge, unpainted and unhinged, over small creeks we bottled in amethyst like reserves for rapture–goddamn we had the freedom to make fun of it. We stomped through those howls and humps like some latterday Titans letting off steam. The place disarmed me with openness and stitched up my irony, while the old blood and the gunshot cough were swabbed away. This place was peaceful before the opioid epidemic and will forever remain not yet a dreamwork, not yet Chernobyl.

Home is not the first place a man is captive (or captivated!)–but it is surely the most relatable, and so I use it to set the table: The cabin had once belonged to my grandfather–a place for last stands: haggle of brickwork, a stairway of pointed mortar jogging up the spent orchid facade, each filigree of brick entablature Earth’s rebate, a vocabulary of masonic ritual. On each revisit to the old place I find the innards of the house paused in time–MomMom’s beaded dresses lay embalmed in dime-store tissue and cedar cabinets, a number runner’s box of betting slips still wedged between the hand-sawn joists above the single room, a collection of whalebone corsets piled unceremoniously on the table among thin tubes of ether and empty glass bottles rayed in a circle. Visualizing the motions of a busy family is kind of like tracking shadows in a kaleidoscope, but I have vivid memories of the sounds of the place: my father’s shirk of duffle to the washroom, the windowsill radio humming Pacini, clack of tin and razor, screech of medicine cabinet, the whip pop of cream being frothed into a memory of meringue dabbed from cheek to chin to cheek, running water over porcelain, straight razor ringing like a tuning fork off the spicket.

Hear the loving language I tell it with. The notion of captivity should not always be reduced to the roles of prisoner and warden. Sometimes we must glance at it sideways, look down on it or up at it, move past it quickly, stop and hold it close for a while–here is the prescribed thought: I am captive to my home because the place relies on me to see it as such to be so; my home is captive to me because I rely on it to stay homelike to qualify as such–if either side waivers the whole binary notion collapses and the self-referential meaning I impart to the word disappears along with my identity in the context of this place. Preservation of the relationship requires upkeep and each moment of the present maintenance becomes a refrain for itself as it moves into the past–a structure with two shapes like Wittgenstein’s rabbit | duck–refrener from refrenare: re- (expressing intensive force) + frenum ‘bridle’; or, efraindre from refringere: ‘break’, based on the Latin refringere, ‘break up’. From the east the word lets us start over; from the west it lets us leave.

It is this express relationship with the cradle that allows the certain freedom of perspective one is gifted when assuming the identity of a pedestrian in a new city. There is nothing quite like donning the costume of an average day and witnessing it gleam in new places. Today’s life-hike begins in Astoria, named so to draw money out of the richest man in the country (an investment that never manifested in any meaningful way), at the intersection of two streets: the first is named for a piano company whose products were advertised as mania-inducing in 1867, the second after a famed curator of reptiles for the New York Zoological Society. In short, it seems I stand at the gateway to a very strange riddle.

This is perhaps why, hours later and many steps into the neon chrome and new smells of Manhattan, I am disregarding the daily spectacle of too-much-life in bloom, like I’m looking on it through the window of a backlit room, discerning mostly the reflection of myself overlaid on the hazy scenery and recalling, the way one does a mantra, a small excerpt from an old book by Siegfried J. Garethewohl on the philosophy a man must hold when he first explores new space: “[any system] of this kind must therefore be studied to define man’s objectives for the system, his functions within the system, and the information necessary to establish the requirements for an efficient use of the system.” Put another way, I am wondering what I am here to do, what I am able to do, and what I need to know to do so. All day, this curiosity is chewed up by toothy skyline and spit out as noise. If there is a simple answer, it is not easy to detect.

Foucault wrote of difficult tasks in his Madness, though he related the adjective to a scope of time, rather than hardship: “What is difficult behavior? Basically, behavior in which a vertical analysis reveals the superimposition of several simultaneous forms of behavior. Killing game is one form of behavior; recounting one’s exploits, after the event, is another. But at the very moment one is lying in wait for one’s quarry, or actually killing the animal, to tell oneself that one is killing, that one is in pursuit, that one is lying in wait, in order, later, to be able to recount one’s exploits to others; to have simultaneously the real behavior of the hunt and the potential behavior of the account is a double operation, and although apparently simpler, is in fact more complicated than either of the others: it is the behavior of the present, the germ of all temporal behavior, in which the present action and the consciousness that this action will have a future, that one will later be able to recount it as a past event, are superimposed upon one another, are meshed together.”

A short walk past the crowded National September 11 Memorial & Museum seems to prove him right, though we’ve traded the gun and buck for a phone and a monument. Somewhere in this exchange, the anticipated act of recounting has collapsed into the event itself. The snap and post has, for many, supplanted the sensory experience. In the void left behind by this compression, receiving praise--or at least, a reaction--has moved in as the expected potential.

At a macroscopic level, society produces and maintains these counter-factual expectations in spite of disappointments. In keeping experience at arm's length, one inhabits paradox: his observations are both protected from the vulnerability of true exposure and prohibited from the steady fortification of certainty. Maintaining unfulfilled expectations made in this state (to refuse to learn from facts) disables the utility of shared knowledge and of society’s role in human progress outright. More damaging still, communication of this intention uses the symbols of normativity. The cost incurred by this process is a shifted import of understanding--beliefs fall under a pathology, one does not need to have possessed a disease to know it's bad for him. In hindsight, the political turmoil present in this country was laughably foreseeable. I can look at a photo of my grandparents’ house and find a memory, but the peace formed in that transaction requires a great cache of exploits to which the signifier can call back to; it is not a commodity that can be produced solely as an object of its own recounting.

So what can be done? What is it that I am here to do? In 2016, President Barack Obama laid wreaths at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan. Following the ceremony, he addressed the crowd: “The scientific revolution that led to the splitting of an atom requires a moral revolution as well.” In the context of the speech, this statement seems to imply that particularly American type of inspiration--the idea that human belief can be submitted, then worked--though I think in isolation it still holds as necessarily true. In the desire to rebel we find the morals that provide our ethics with valence. And in the way this memorial display was an act of rebellion against the very violence that necessitated it, I am pointed toward new behavior by the discovery that even in a profligate and beautiful city, stark apathy will seep into any space it’s allowed, riding the back of unattended humanity, each time gaining ground as we more regularly forget to marvel then and again at the smashing nonchalance of nature. To wander and wonder, this is what I’ve come for--through the belly and bones of this creature, each storefront inside it lit up in the last of a broad sunset strung with gems--hoping that you are as anxious as I am. I will walk like I am wary of collecting dust, forget for now my phone, my plans, my neuroses, and embrace instead a rambling devoid of adjectives, as though the very here and now were becoming a kind of paradise to sit in, listening, largely mindless of the risen, cloudy brilliances above.

What I am able to do? In the act of being consumed, food, as it turns out, is granted two specific powers--the ability to poison, and the ability to nourish. Perhaps concern is helpless here, quite extra; yet, I must believe that if we make the naive gesture, bend and hold the prone man’s head, walk the plank with strangers, we might someday ward off, at all costs, those great wounds that can be knelled dumb by each other’s presence. To patch with brand of love the rank grimace that hangs on forgotten faces. To trim back to shape the poverty that assaults the ego. To provide the mere chance of making harbor through this racketing flux. To taunt others to valor, or at least peace, in re-assuming their names.

As for what I need to know to do so? I have no idea, but I’ll figure it out. In the future everything is absurdly possible. If nothing else, I must remember to live before I speak. The story must be distilled from reality, it cannot just be poured over life like lacquer. Outside my new apartment, a fresh cigarette is lit, a fluent mayday. Through the door, Eva has fallen asleep; tonight the bed is blue and the angels of morphia will soon bear me up to walk among the sleepers. I think of lullabies: bloom about me like night flowers; moon bald and wild look down on me, eye of a little god, with your particular luster and delicate silence. I am silver and exact, he says, round and flat and full of wry advice. There is a dignity to this; there is a formality--such blue currents in the veins of my loved one, the flowers vivid as bandages now, and I am not mystical, just trespassing stupidly, casting with my snares for any intolerable vowels that might enter the woman's heart. Above the roof, clouds steer a burnished drift and the air becomes bright for looking.


Drew Knapp is a writer and editor based in Astoria, NY. His other work can be read at He can be reached on Twitter @ggzuzwan.

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