The Wanderer

a long-overdue and dispassionate assessment of earth as art

The Wanderer

Amy Leach
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It is customary, when one is reviewing a klezmer concert or a kabuki dance, to first sit through the whole performance. But there is this one extravaganza, already in production for five million years now, called Earth. Because it is so full of redundancies, so repetitious in its winters and fishes, we feel we have seen enough to get a handle on it; we would like to set out our critique of the planet’s aesthetic merits and failures before we are toast like Tacitus. There was once a critique that it was “very good,” but that was affectionate and antediluvian; it is high time for a dispassionate reassessment of Earth as art.

Two felicities we would like to commend, first off—the artist’s facility and his versatility. There is an effortless quality to the inventions here, as if sneezeworts and salamanders came easily to him, without strain or torment. Of course, such extreme facility does bring up the question of taste. Let’s just say that if we were able to conjure anything out of the blue, it would not be a blobfish. As for the versatility on display, it is equally a virtuoso performance, viz., voodoo lilies, vireos, chiffchaffs, sapphires, walking leafs, surfing snails, hellions, moppets, yahoos. Such variation leaves us reeling, and also a little suspicious: to a certain degree, versatility is admirable—we admire someone who can speak Japanese and Hungarian, as well as the business and boxing dialects of these languages. But there is such a thing as being overly versatile: if this person also speaks Grackle and Grampus and Baby Just Born, that starts to weird us out; she starts to seems shifty, promiscuous.

Imagination unchecked can result in a mishmash. There should be a common thread in all of an artist’s works, a uniformity of purpose, a marshaling of ideas and characters. The stance of a writer can be maddeningly hard to detect if her characters are free to make their own decisions; we just think the world could have used a teensy bit more autocracy. It’s not that we want all the animals to be square; there should simply be some consistency, unity, something tying everything together to signal the values and priorities at work here. How hard can it be, if you can make porcupines and jellyfish out of the blue, to make uniforms for them to wear? Blue jackets, neat hats, chevrons for favor. As it is, the world seems deficient in uniformity and purpose. Granted, there are mini-purposes here and there, like how within his swarm a mortuary bee has a purpose: dragging away the dead bees. A mopper’s place in Mattress World is clear, but what is the mopper’s place in the universe, the universe being inscrutable? When everything is mad, even the exigencies are mad. Sweeping, mopping, schmoozing, morticianship.


We often feel that the artist is toying with us, being purposefully opaque, making us try to winkle out his meaning. Sometimes a cloud resolves itself into a camel and then we think, Ah, so that’s what he’s getting at. But then we think, But wait, we don’t really know what camels are getting at. The figurative art here is as enigmatic as the abstract art. Clouds resolve and dissolve, like camels, crayfish, urchins, efts, the Inka Taky Trio. Here is something else we find confusing: unlike in a photograph with a celebrity in it, we are not sure where we’re supposed to look. Are we supposed to look at the snow falling or the tree behind the falling snow or at the chickadee in the branches? A more accomplished artist would have featured certain characters, exalted them, inserted more focus, more signals, and—crucially—would have made the signals actually signal something. As it is, who knows what it means for the green hills to sprinkle with gold every spring, for the cranes to creak like that, for that one tree to remind us of our grandmother? In his way, Anonymous is as squirrelly as Shakespeare, who took perfectly good stories with coherent motives and clear trajectories and subtracted all that. The world seems to have been similarly subtracted from, unscrewed, mystifying. Mystification is not an end. It’s not that we’ve never been tempted by mystery, with his darkening, deepening eyes; it’s that we can anticipate to what wordlessness such an assignation would lead. Our words are our sovereignty; we daren’t yield to that punk, mystery. Mystery’s a punk like Mendelssohn; songs should always have words.

Then there is all the flummery of the seas, as if spangles and flounces had fallen off of their gowns and commenced to lead lives of their own, with consternations of their own. It is disturbing enough to look underwater and find a tchotchke. Violence we get, predation we get, heads getting bitten off—deep things should be abominable. Deep things should not be flossy and twee—little turquoise trinkets waggling around—and trinkets should never have worries. A worried trinket is aesthetically incongruous, like a flibbertigibbet at prayer. But seahorses do have worries and disappointments sometimes, having dropped their clutch of eggs into the seagrass, or having wrapped their tails around a holdfast that floats away—a plastic straw.

The wicked thing about punctuation is that it has the last word. You might be reading a sober, measured statement but find, at the end, upending all that sobriety, an exclamation point! A sentence may seem to be tendering absolute verities—then a question mark can come along and subvert that verity? Seahorses are not just frivolous squiggles but tiny, spiny question marks with fans on their backs; append a seahorse to any of your precepts and see if the precept does not begin to wobble. Even a conviction capacious enough for a landhorse will hardly be able to accommodate a seahorse, for what conviction can accommodate a question mark? The seahorse is certainty’s nemesis (albeit a nemesis who swims away from you, back down to her Gorgonian sea fan).

Now to address a general difficulty we have with the characters here: in ascertaining anyone’s identity, we rely primarily on extraction. Someone’s background, more than her patience or parsimony, identifies her, allows us to place her, like a Buick with Buicks. But the players in this piece, noddies and finches and ouzels and froglets, carry no signs of their extraction, no air of whence they came—there is no whiff of the void, not a trace of nullity about them. Extracted from nothing, they arrive screaming, scrambling, wanton, wriggling, hailing from nullity with entity coming out of their ears. Entity defies identity. By entity, of course, we do not mean the material: material comes not from nothing but from material and is easily identified and handily reused, like a marzipan moose being reshaped into a marzipan mouse. No, entity is that which looks, or speaks, from out of the material, and startles us. (No color is so startling as clear.) Entity is always getting to us, entity’s plights and entity’s moos: there’s a barn we don’t care about, then we hear a moo. There’s a hermitage we don’t care about, then we hear a guffaw.


Certainly, with entity housed in such a profusion of forms, this can be fascinating stuff; the problem is that it is so overwhelmed by excess. We don’t know if this is perversity or if the artist just got frog-happy, periwinkle-happy, and forgot his master design. If we could just establish the genre, whether this is supposed to be comedy or tragedy or romance or what; then, following the imperatives of that genre, we would retain only those elements that contribute to the work as a whole. Armadillos are never apt. Such effusions should obviously have been scrapped at the outset, being excessive whatever the genre. Butterscotch or banana, no pudding should be overegged. Here we have the needlessly pretty, the needlessly weird, the needlessly unpleasant: natterjacks need not smell like burning rubber. There are badgers too bilious, koalas too torpid, cockles too vacuous, orangutans too Rabelaisian, olms too ambiguous, beetles too countless (counting soothes us like brandy), Pomeranians too combustible, motmots too resplendent—such ridiculously tailed birds have to back out of their burrows like bustle-bottomed ladies backing out of a carriage.


Birds in general are too privileged. Privilege is not inspiring but alienating—think of the difference between telephony and telepathy. It is inspiring when somebody makes deft use of the telephone, alienating when she makes deft use of telepathy. It is inspiring to watch a dude get catapulted over the Chattahoochee River, but if the dude doesn’t come back down, that is just alienating. Those of us who can only gravitate resent those who can levitate as well. Thus our beef with birds. Of course we have no beef with kiwis; kiwis are neither alienating nor inspiring, just dumpy and trudgy and brown. A kiwi being catapulted—now, that would be the ideal trajectory: not too trudgy, not too inimitable.

After we established the genre, submitted the world to its imperatives, and eliminated all levitation, we would set out some principles. As it is, the world seems quite unprincipled, with its silliness and sepulchres, winsome bunnies, run-over bunnies, drillmasters and goof-offs. With such a free-for-all—with riverine, wolverine, tangerine, and everybody always begging to differ—we cannot for the life of us make out the worldview of the worldmaker. Edification eludes us; Anonymous does not appear to have moral designs on anyone. This gives us the willies, in two ways: first, because we like things to have strong messages, strong ideals, even when they do not confirm our convictions (then we can write them off); and second, because we don’t really like how we come off when we stand next to crocodiles, or loofah plants. We don’t like to think of ourselves as prim. We don’t like to think of ourselves as propagandists, but next to a tree leaf, what leaf from what book isn’t going to look like propaganda?

We should concede that we are not wholly objective as reviewers; we are not just audience but performers as well, and whenever performers are involved, the execution of a composition is not entirely up to the composer. One may write a stirring oratorio for twenty-three sheep and one donkey and book the finest venues in Oslo and Madrid, but the quality of the performances will depend largely on the choristers themselves, how well they manage their quibbles and tensions, their stage fright, their itchy flanks and twitchy ears; how nimbly-ardently-ruefully they enter the music night after night. Sometimes in the show called Earth we see players not playing their parts very nimbly. But there is no rehearsal time, and sometimes the parts seem unperformable: the onus is always on the composer to write a performable piece with a satisfying conclusion.

Which brings us to the last problem we would like to address: the absence of Anonymous. We are assuming he is not around anymore, as we have never seen him posing for his picture in the sky. When a composer dies or absconds before finishing a composition, someone else may step in to complete the rougher sections and notate the last, fragmentary movement. This is called realization; Franz Xaver Süssmayr realized the Requiem after Mozart lost his entity. This is what we would do for Anonymous, who seems to have wandered off, leaving everything to ramble on and on—vines making wine, ducks making ducks, the moon sunning itself, the sun mooning around. We’ve been accused, as a species, of having a mania for conclusion, but it is so imaginatively taxing to sit through a performance that never ends. And for too long we have been denied, by the restive, rambling nature of the world, the keen pleasure of judgment. At every turn, things changed, and our judgment was snatched away, tossed into the water—splash—hard to distinguish from the splashes of little boys having fun. And in exchange we were handed—confusion, sadness. The word planet comes from the Greek word planan, “to wander”; it is so hard to subject a wanderer to judgment.

We would realize the world; we would wrap it up. It is an artistic pressure; an unfinished work feels like a monkey on our backs. More and more the whole rigmarole seems irrelevant, with its drunken-donkey aimlessness, and willfully wasteful. Anonymous went too far, as young artists tend to do: the sky was overstarred, the ponds overswanned, the evergreens overgreen, and the soul always so overdramatic. Everywhere fools, bums, and blobs were sustained by rank vegetation, rank oxygen, rank sunlight. It was a shame, all that squandered sunshine, all that squandered rain, and the incidental, needless rainbows. We hope that in his sophomore effort Anonymous will expunge the excesses, tone down that splashy, windy, salty, flighty, flowery, nutty voice, and figure out what he is trying to say. Those damned, dangling, refractory rainbows, availing no one, pertaining to nothing: as if dazzle were enough.

This essay was supported by a memorial fund honoring Harriett and Seymour Shapiro, and Carl Shapiro

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