Trick of the Light

In the theater as in the plague there is a kind of strange sun, a light of abnormal intensity by which it seems that the difficult and even the impossible suddenly become our normal element . . . all true theater, is within the radiance of this strange sun.
—Antonin Artaud

The world is taken like a test. Outside the sun is straightening up: the appointments I make, the tasks, the general goals, or I go online to look around in the tide pools of representation. Water, are you lying?
—Robert Glück

If fixations of belief—being pinned to the cross of one’s certainty—is the cause of tremendous pain, uncertainty also hurts. We are between a rock and a hard place. For when it is a question of fact, it cannot also be a question of belief. That said, there are times when we take something to be a fact that turns out to have been a belief. The Copernican revolution is the quintessential example. Which brings us to the title of Lyn Hejinian’s newest book, Positions of the Sun. At first the title invokes how the sun moves, our solar clock, appearing in different parts of the firmament, its positions informing us of our relative proximity to night. We also hear in the word “positions” the idea of taking positions. Political, ethical positions we take relative to, as we orbit, that which, in being posited, invites or demands, a position, or a priori positions us. But the plural in the title—positions, not position—tells us still something else: the subject, the sun, has more than one position. It moves. Indeed, it cyclically inhabits no more or less than all positions possible to it. 

Of course, this is an illusion, because the sun doesn’t move the way it appears to. At least as far as post-Copernicans are concerned, even if we perceive it to be doing so. Instead we perceive the effects of the movement of the earth as a very convincing illusion that the sun moves, that it has positions, plural. 

The medieval ‘book of hours’, a prayer book for laypeople, suggests at once an infinite and narrowly delimited scope. Like a prayer, an hour, at human scale, is a modest unit of time. Yet if there is someone to record them, the book of hours, or prayers, can go on forever. Positions of the Sun concerns itself explicitly with the “modest units” of the quotidian, the everyday of bodies moment by moment, sensing, feeling, thinking, knowing, experiencing, while not eliding, in fact laying out, a vastness: the simultaneity and infinitude of details about which we are mostly in the dark. 

In that sense, while also being a chronicle, Positions of the Sun is “about” “aboutness” itself: the capacity of a mind to shine, in passing, like the sun, on now this, now that, navigating, at one and the same time, the arbitrariness and the luminosity of its topics, which are at once necessary to it, and necessarily transient, features of an unbounded topography. 

In “The Theater and the Plague” Artaud asserts that when, in a plague, those who remain alive “pillage riches they know will serve no purpose or profit… theater is born. The theater, i.e. an immediate gratuitousness provoking acts without use or profit.” Theater and plague are both contagious deliriums. The apocalypse itself can’t tear us away. Artaud quotes St. Augustine: “Such is the blindness, such the corruption produced in the soul by plays that even in these late times those whom this fatal passion possessed, who had escaped from the sack of Rome and taken refuge in Carthage, passed each day at the theater priding themselves on their delirious enthusiasm for the actors.” 

Plague sets loose the theater: the purposeless; the profitless; the why bother-ness. Yet this seeming gratuitousness may feel most irresistible in times of breakdown. Artaud writes, “The mind believes what it sees and does what it believes: that is the secret of the fascination [with theater].” We know it’s true that the plague, etc., has come but we can’t believe it. We know the play is not true, but we do believe it, nonetheless. Belief is much easier than truth. 

This fundamental illusion—that the sun seems to us to move, and we on earth seem to stay in the same place, when in fact it’s the opposite—is not just emblematic of the human condition. It is the human condition. We know we can’t know anything except contextually; provisionally; heuristically; temporarily. Perhaps if we disbelieve something, soon it won’t be true. The earth will turn out to be flat after all. 

Why should we believe that the plague is here, even though we know it is, or that climate change is here, when there are easier, much easier things to believe, being acted out so believably in front of us? When, indeed, we are encouraged by those that pretend to govern, not to? Hannah Arendt’s study of the key role of propaganda in the rise of totalitarianism seems never to be untimely, certainly it’s timely now. In this passage, much cited over the past four years, she describes how cognitive dissonance is normalized:

In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and nothing was true . . . The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.

Hejinian writes, “We live amidst and, however unconsciously, partake in constellations of the real that cultural standards, narrative givens, etc. can’t make sense of, or even perceive. Simply to realize they are here, emitting flickers from the feathery increments of their iridescent half-lives, requires the kinds of time that we are rarely, if ever, permitted to have.”

We create cosmologies and epistemologies as best we can to get a grip. We create hierarchies of value. We link this with that. We associate and locate one thing with another, in a lineage of thought, of action. We make sense of things as best we can by delimiting and bounding them, which allows us to forget, for the long moment that is our life, that the only remotely definite thing we can claim about existence is that it is comprised of a simultaneous infinitude of details. Just as we are allowed to forget that the sun is unmoved. 

“The sun is moving time,” Hejinian writes. “The past is cast into the present, which draws it in and then has to figure out what to do with it.” She muses on the, after all, old idea that ‘there is nothing new under the sun.’ Because everything is relentlessly new there can be nothing new. Something truly new would not be merely novel, shocking, or un-anticipatable, leaving things more or less as they were. The new announces itself by its utterly transformational effects on that which it touches. On the other hand, things are renewed daily by the oldest human fact of all: the cosmic passage of time, the cyclical rising of day and then setting in of night. On the proverbial new day, everything old is new again.

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