Every means and every weapon is valid to save oneself from death and time. If a straight line is the shortest distance between two fated and inevitable positions, digressions will lengthen it; and if these digressions become so complex, so tangled and tortuous, so rapid as to hide their own tracks, who knows, perhaps death may not find us, perhaps time will lose its way, and perhaps we ourselves can remain concealed in our shifting hiding places
— Carlo Levi in the introduction to an Italian edition of Lawrence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (quoted in Italo Calvino’s Six Memos For the Next Millennium)
A simple home: timber-made, American-looking, wrapped casually with a soft, dark shawl of country shrubs. It seems solid, if a little tumble-down, a touch unloved, and it is, most of all, an unassuming, ordinary place. Seen here in a few decaying frames of quivering black-and-white, it is, for a moment, a mundane monument to nothing in particular. But ‘here’, however close it seems, is always somewhere else, and perched high on the pitched roof of this plain dwelling, a lone man sits in stiff and straight-backed readiness. Absurdly, a dining chair has been placed at the humble building’s hazardous apex and the curious, black-clad figure waits there, in a pose of ridiculous propriety — almost as if he is expecting, any second now, a waiter to arrive with menus.
Slowly, more slowly than the living world allows, the stuttering film shows strained, purposeful movement. An unbalancing act begins. The isolated body tilts, leaning a degree or two towards a dangerous diagonal, giving way to gravity with evident but unfathomable intent. A bewildering, cautious-but-committed dive is initiated. As he topples forwards, the masochistic man reaches out, searching for solidity— but is he stretching for a steadying hold or attempting to propel himself further into the coming fall? He appears to be tumbling and toiling all at once, willing another, greater force to take control of his heavy body’s hindered movement. It seems like such a dumb, undignified act. (As he rolls down that old roof the left-behind chair clatters him around the head; and as the culminating, undoubtedly painful, crash to earth comes closer, one pathetic shoe slips off and somersaults away.) But this bizarre scene — in which our hero must hit the ground hurting — is also, for some unclear reason, ‘uplifting’. Played back in meditative slow-motion, the dive becomes an agonizing, tragicomic drift in time and space. This is such strange, languid, melancholy slapstick. It is an occasion of ambiguous comic effect that is ‘forced’ but free from any predetermined outcome: at once open and opaque, it serves up no straightforward meaning, delivering no comprehensible lesson. (I am reminded, in passing, of the literary critic James Wood’s admiration for a peculiarly modern comedy of ‘irresponsibility’ that ‘replaces the knowable with the unknowable, transparency with unreliability’ — a comic ‘state’ in which ‘the reader may not always know why a character does something or may not know how to ‘read’ a passage, and feels that in order to find these things out, he must try to merge with the characters in their uncertainty.’)
I watch the scene again and see, more than before, the strong shivering of the pale, opening titles — thin charcoal letters over a lighter, luminous grey: Bas Jan Ader, Fall 1, Los Angeles, 1970. (A forced, tragicomic fall that is enacted, incidentally, in the year of my own arrival into the world.) The camera view is unfixed, agitated. For a moment or two I concentrate my rapt gaze on the little explosions of imperfection in the ageing film, the only-just perceptible fissures in the raw material of this analogue memory: slight scrapes and cracks that flicker and burst and blur on the screen like the tiny retinal ‘floaters’ that now more and more interfere with my own sight— dark, intrusive marks of time on my already-weak eyes. (These irritating, spectral shadows on our sight are referred to by optometrists as muscae volitantes or ‘flying flies’.) I am entranced but troubled by the jittery, antiquated inadequacy of this footage, captivated by its combined traces of disintegration and disorder, by the accumulating intimations of loss. And maybe, who knows, this is all because I intuit here an unhappy correspondence with my persistent lack of faith in my own flawed perspective, with the enduring difficulties I face — and am drawn to — in the process of critically reflecting on art. Walter Benjamin once said (and note the panicked speed at which I introduce the fallacious ‘argument from authority’) that film had the capacity to burst asunder the ‘prison-world’ of the everyday, allowing us ‘in the midst of its far-flung ruins and debris [to] calmly and adventurously go traveling.’ But, having taken Bas Jan Ader’s inelegant plunge to earth as my own jumping off point, concentrating on the slowed-down details of his sad and senseless comic performance, searching for the stable surface of a suitable response and seeking to gather a productive momentum of mental associations, I am uncertain, as ever, if I am traveling or if I too am falling. (And, knowing that a deadline is looming — knowing that this text must make a convincing start so that it might also soon reach a satisfactory end — I am not exactly proceeding ‘calmly’.) If, right now, I should strive to steady myself, what would I reach for? Perhaps, like so many others these days, I might turn to Borges:
Like all men of the library I have traveled in my youth; I have wandered in search of a book, perhaps the catalogue of catalogues; now that my eyes can hardly decipher what I write, I am preparing to die just a few leagues from the hexagon in which I was born. Once I am dead, there will be no lack of pious hands to throw me over the railing; my grave will be the fathomless air; my body will sink endlessly and decay and dissolve in the wind generated by the fall, which is infinite.
These evocations of unending enigma and of the always-proximate void in the ‘Library of Babel’ seem appropriate to the lasting mystery of Bas Jan Ader, who, as is well known, disappeared ‘in search of the miraculous’ while attempting to sail across the Atlantic single-handedly, five years after the first, reckless and touching ‘Fall’ in 1970. His humble, ill-suited craft, the ‘Ocean Wave’ was found some time later drifting off Ireland’s south-western coast, but the artist’s body is, it would seem, forever lost — as Tacita Dean has written, ‘Bas Jan Ader believed that setting sail alone in a small boat, surrendering himself up to the forces of the sea, was the highest form of pilgrimage … he was an adventurer, he wanted to survive alone, and died making a work of art.’ Yet despite the desire for answers (of one kind or another) that inspired, and arise from, these various searches, I wonder now is it the ultimate, radical meaninglessness at the heart of Borges’s labyrinthine inventions, and at the inscrutable centre of Bas Jan Ader’s life and work, that somehow has me still enthralled? In a recent interview for the Believer magazine, the philosopher Simon Critchley proposed that we must ‘give up the question of the meaning of life’, arguing instead that ‘the acceptance of meaninglessness as the achievement of the everyday or the ordinary’ may allow life’s answers to become our own creative responsibility: any meaning of life is ‘ours to make’. We should accept, Critchley suggests, that ‘we inherit a situation of meaninglessness, and out of that meaninglessness we create meaning in relationship to the ordinariness of our common existence.’ Implied here, of course, is an unrelenting alertness to endings — to the certainty of our life’s finitude — and we might ask, as Adam Phillips does in a wonderful essay on the poet Paul Muldoon, ‘how buoyant one can be in the face of such things.’
A resonant, beautiful passage from Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak Memory, in which the author’s aristocrat father is joyfully hoisted aloft by local villagers, suddenly comes floating before my mind’s eye:
From my place at the table I would suddenly see through one of the west windows a marvelous case of levitation. There, for an instant, the figure of my father in his wind-rippled white summer suit would be displayed, gloriously sprawling in midair, his limbs in a curiously casual attitude, his handsome, imperturbable features turned to the sky. Thrice, to the might heave-ho of his invisible tossers, he would fly up in this fashion, and the second time he would go higher than the first and then there he would be, on his last and loftiest flight, reclining as if for good, against the cobalt blue of the summer noon, like one of those paradisiac personages who comfortably soar, with such a wealth of folds in their garments, on the vaulted ceiling of a church while below, one by one, the wax tapers in mortal hands light up to make a swarm of minute flames in the mist of incense, and the priest chants of eternal repose, and funeral lilies conceal the face of whoever lies there, among the swimming lights, in the open coffin.
How gracefully Nabokov guides us towards an ending in these gorgeous, gliding sentences. And how intricately he crisscrosses together multiple thematic strands of life and death. But if there is ‘redemptive’ potential here it is not to be found, I would conjecture, in the concluding set of atmospheric allusions to a transcendent realm — neither in the fake mystery of the incense mist, nor in the bogus consolations offered by that chanting priest — but rather, just maybe, in the exquisite associative work undertaken by Nabokov: in the way that he skillfully keeps us airborne, for a little while at least, with a series of extraordinary rapid-but-subtle shifts of our attention, with the distraction of vivid, ‘excessive’ detail, with ongoing adjustments to the narrative world we occupy. We share, for several seconds, a child’s barely believing view from his place at a privileged dinner table; we temporarily take flight with the father into a sublime summer sky; we contemplate, and might sense a gentle mocking of, the fantastical floating representations of religious power found in majestic church interiors (I like the light-hearted, irreverent disregard for specificity in the reference to ‘one of those paradisiac personages’); and we are returned, again, to ground level, to a mortal world made-strange, where (if I might steal from W.H. Auden), a scattering of ‘ironic points of light’ surrounds the anonymous deceased: this ‘whoever’ that might be or become the author’s father, Nabokov himself, or you or I. Even as we are taken towards death, towards resolution and rest, exhilarating connective possibilities are opened up: there is an insistent emphasis on becoming — on a vital, enlivening multiplicity — in the drift of the writing itself.
In a fascinating and wise little book on what he calls ‘the Arts of Escape’, Adam Phillips reports on a professional, analytic conversation with a somewhat tortured academic — a pretty disagreeable and self-involved and (I know what you’re thinking) oddly familiar character —who in reflecting on the distance between his imagined relationships and their unsatisfactory, lived realities, chooses the phrase ‘the ecstasy of solitude’ to assist in self-diagnosing his condition. He wonders aloud if this phrase that has risen to the surface of his brimming mind is his own, or if it is a quote. ‘Quoting’, Phillips suggests, is ‘using other people’s lines, getting away from yours.’ Grudgingly, the man agrees. Quotes are, he replies, ‘a kind of cover story.’ I sense a trace of this tendency, at times, in my own anxious efforts at establishing a position on a particular artist’s work or with regard to some current debate or other: a predilection not just for seeking accepted forms of support as I tumble through the endless space of these subjects, but for performing as I freefall. A self-conscious display of wide and various reading can be an often-trusted means of masking that not much is actually going on, or that few meaningful critical decisions have been made, or that little is at stake.
Nevertheless, there might still be something to be said for a style of critique that is provisional in its claims and precarious in its position (or, as Mieke Bal proposes, ‘preposterous’ in its historical method). A style that is in the old-fashioned sense ‘essayistic’: exploratory, freewheeling, decentred, privileging the tangent, the allusive, elliptical digression. This might be, in one regard, a mode of writing that has affinities with the here goes attitude of journalism, a form that, as Tom Paulin argues, is ‘written to the moment’: ‘it aims to be instant, excited, spontaneous, concentrated… to write like this is to reject what Yeats terms the ‘ghostly paradigm of things’ in favour of the social and subjective spume which blows across the notional platonic pattern that underlies them.’ But perhaps such ‘subjective’ writing in another way corresponds to the realm of the ‘poetic’: a category that, in his reading of Paul Muldoon, emerges for Adam Phillips as ‘the logic of the unlikely, the absence of straightforward causal connections.’ It is qualities such as this that guarantee my admiration for an artist such as Tacita Dean, whose work takes — and encourages — immeasurable, melancholy delight in accidents, asides, in winding historical narratives that offer innumerable loosely-connecting beginnings rather than leading us towards any defined conclusion. But we might thus also be led in Dean’s art to an essential situation of uncertainty, to dizzying moments when the indeterminate ‘poetic’ space that has been opened up leaves us to our own modest devices as viewers, when we must find our own way to face the infinite associative possibilities that begin to present themselves. Responding to a question from Marina Warner concerning whether ‘the perceiver makes the image appear … that somehow subjectivity is all,’ Dean notes that, for her, ‘art works best when it is open to this subjectivity, when it is not bound by too much direction and intent’: ‘art can only ever exist as part of our own subjective experience’. There is, she says ‘no other place.’