The Bulb of Light

This entry is dedicated to Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1927-2014)

“[Man’s absurdity] is so solely by virtue of the disproportion between his intention and the reality he will encounter, of the contradiction between the true strength and the aim which is in view. It lies in neither of the elements compared; it is born of their confrontation.” –Albert Camus

I was feeling a little lonely this week, artistically speaking, so I decided to have a friend accompany me through this edition of The Alembic. I chose Guido Anselmi, the tortured anti-hero played by Marcello Mastroianni in Federico Fellini’s movie “8 1/2.” It is the ultimate artist movie. It is a movie about making a movie, about making two movies, in fact, while making none of them and actually making the one that is presented.


And Guido, for those of you who have never seen the movie, or for those of you who have watched the first three minutes only to fall asleep for the rest of the film, is the ultimate artist’s protagonist. Guido is suave, accomplished, cerebral, decadent yet suffering from an inadequacy of direction. He understands, and even worse must endure the obvious contradictions of the privilege that surrounds him with the suffering necessary to produce any legitimate work. He has all the food and wine he needs, yet he needs to be hungry. He has his pick of women yet he needs desire. He has all the resources at his disposal for making a film, except for the most important thing, inspiration. He seemed like a fine choice for a road companion. Sal Paradise had Dean Moriarty, Tom Sawyer had Huck Finn, Dante had Virgil. I figured what the heck, it is my blog, I can bring in anybody I want.

We began our whimsical trip by traveling to Pakistan, because we could, Guido and I, to attend the arraignment of Musa Khan, the nine-month-old toddler charged with attempted murder because someone in his family threw a rock at a soldier. Little Musa Khan, the court claimed, was the mastermind behind the assault, holding his relatives hostage until one of his uncles was forced to throw projectiles at advancing police, only to save the family’s life from the tiny terror. The court claimed that, despite little Musa Khan’s inability to talk, and his penchant for long naps, and his crankiness when he drops his bottle, and the flagrant way he soils his diaper at authority, and the fact that he is less than a year old, the child has a deep-seated and dangerous attitude toward cops and society in general and must be stopped at all costs.

Guido and I look on from the spectator pews. Although it is strange, Guido seems to think that the boy has a special streak of luck for having to endure something so ridiculous. It is the birth of a revolutionary, he says. The nine-month-old in his highchair at the defense table throws chick peas at his accusers while his lawyers try to calm him down by singing him a lullaby. Pretty soon the infant is asleep, which doesn’t win him any favors with the judge, who warns of an added charge of contempt. They call for a recess.

“I hear there is a bar above this place,” I say, motioning overhead. “Claudia Cardinale hangs out there when she is in town.”

This brightens Guido up considerably since she is his muse in “8 1/2” and furthermore I need a drink. We adjourn upstairs to a dusty saloon. In the corner a man at an upright piano is furiously pounding the keys in a frantic rendition of the Infernal Galop. There is some gambling going on in the corner, fits and bursts of shouting. A man is somehow caught hanging from a wooden chandelier, unsure of whether to cling to the ceiling or drop himself to the floor. The cast of Moulin Rouge is atop all the tables, kicking their legs high in the air, petticoats flying every which way.

“Strange,” says Guido, dodging the high-stepping feet, “for Pakistan.”

“Hey! We’re stretching time and space. Besides, what’s good for surreal sixties Italian cinema is good for me,” I say. He shrugs, grabs a bottle of something sinister-looking from the bar, again dodges a near miss kick to the face, and settles in to take stock of the situation.

“We must find the bulb of light,” he says, looking around.

“What’s that?” I say.

He makes a closed fist gesture above his head.

“Like the divine spark? Inspiration?”

“Si, si,” says Guido. “I have a friend who is counting on me.”

“A Pakistani courthouse with a burlesque bar in it is a good place to start.”

We drink whatever is in the bottle that Guido is holding. It’s got the general effect of a blowtorch to the head. Waves of heat roll over me. Eventually I see Claudia Cardinale, seated at the bar. Actually there are two Claudia Cardinales. I spot a third. Now there are four. A fifth emerges from behind the fourth. There is way too much Claudia Cardinale, which I would’ve thought impossible, because there is no such thing as too much Claudia Cardinale, but as more Claudia Cardinales show up, it seems like the whole thing might become a stampede. At this rate we may be smothered by Claudia Cardinale. Guido seems to think this isn’t such a bad idea.

“If we have to succumb to something,” he says, “this might as well be it.”

“There are definitely worse ways to go. What I mean is, every other way to die would be worse than being smothered by a mob of Claudia Cardinales. This isn’t B-list suffocation. This is the real deal.”

The man hanging from the ceiling finally falls as the chandelier he has been holding onto breaks and here he comes, crashing down into our table. Guido rescues our bottle at the last second. He also takes something from the ground. My mind is a menace. Not only are there not many, many Claudia Cardinales, but she isn’t there at all. My fear of being overtaken by a roomful of voluptuous clones is reduced to the gritty misery of being left with none. I want the dangerous potential for infinite Claudia Cardinale. The world is boring without it. Guido says that art needs risk and uncertainty like a plant needs sunlight and water. You have to feel the dread before you get the “bulb of light,” as he calls it.

Word comes to the bar that there is a verdict for little Musa Khan. He has been acquitted on the grounds of absurdity. The crowd rejoices. Outside the nine-month-old walks down the steps of the courthouse, gives a small press conference to a handful of reporters, thanks his lawyers, then jumps into a modified Alfa Romeo Spider parked at the curb and whines the word, “suckers,” as he speeds off, although it is unclear whether he is referring to the court itself or rubber pacifiers, in general.

It is time for us to go, as well. It is just around midnight in my part of the world, and Guido and I visit a field by my house near Stone Mountain, Georgia. There is a party being held to either celebrate or mourn the onset of the ‘Blood Moon,’ which is the catchy nickname for a series of lunar eclipses that will be turning our normally gray satellite into a deep, rich, ominous red as many as three or four times within the next month. Guido and I sit in the grass looking up at the impressive moon–erumpent, fiery, theatrical, incarnadine. I find myself glad to be living in the age of science, where these types of things can be explained. Five hundred years ago somebody would’ve been thrown into the bonfire, just to be on the safe side. Guido wistfully mumbles something in Italian. Luckily he is subtitled.

“Beautiful,” he says.

As is to be expected, the blood moon brings out all types of eccentrics, as well as the garden variety parade of freaks, paranoids, pagans and postulants, reading the end of the world in the fat carbuncle hanging low in the sky, or the salvation of it. There is a lot of that strange, astrological math being thrown around, as well as charts to dictate what the blood moon means for the universe, the nations of the earth, and Spencer from “As The World Turns,” who may or may not emerge from his coma. (Or whoever is emerging from a coma on whatever soap opera is on these days.) My attention turns from the moon to the fireflies in the trees. There is a strange phenomenon that takes place when I notice a firefly. I will notice one, then a second one, then a million. I can never notice just three. I wonder why that is? I ask Guido about it. He laughs.

“I feel I can only articulate the depth of the mystery,” he says. “I can give no answers.” He gives my shirt sleeve a tug. “By the way, what is a Loup Garou?”

“A werewolf, I think. Why?”

“Because this woman next to me just said the ground is about to split open and an army of them will pour forth and devour us. You know, it’s all brought on by the blood moon. She’s got the math to prove it.”

“I think it means we should get out of here,” I say.

“Fretta,” says Guido.

We hop into a smooth looking convertible and head toward the city, but the city is no longer one that I recognize. Yet we arrive. The streets are deserted. Guido insists to find the bulb of light we must find the crowd. For an artist to be appreciated, he must first be perceived.

“Recipe for rabbit stew. First, catch rabbit,” he says.

“Like if a tree falls in the woods type of thing?”

He shakes his head. “If a tree falls in the woods and I am not there to hear it, then there is no sound, there is no lumberjack, no axe, no tree no woods. There are no chairs and tables made from the woods. There are no cabinets, dressers, no houses to put them in. No toys, none of those Dutch shoes…”

“I get it. Like if something happens and it isn’t posted to Facebook did it really happen?”

“What the hell is a face book?”

“It’s like a cloud sandwich.”

“Like a floor wall?”

“Look there,” I say, “a celebrity boxing tournament. Let’s go in. There is bound to be a crowd.”

Inside the gritty arena, which is more of a teamsters’ hall with a canvas ring in the middle, the crowd is whipped into a frenzy. The announcer introduces the fighters. In one corner it is former presidential candidate Mitt Romney and in the other, Sesame Street’s Big Bird. They will be going at it, toe-to-claw, nose-to-beak, P.B.S. versus the L.D.S, the big payback. Mitt’s hair looks perfect.The former contender a top contender. The Sesame Street icon has the eye of the tiger. Legs of a chicken. The bell dings and seconds later feathers and blood fly everywhere. The crowd goes crazy. The bird has got the reach but Mitt’s a scrapper.

Guido watches the boxing match for a minute and then his attention is caught by something else. He hears some disturbance through the noise of the crowd. Rising, he rushes to the source, up the steps, out of the arena and down an empty street. I hurry to keep up. He walks straight into a house that is pitch black. He knows his way. Couple of lefts, a few rights. He comes to a door, gives a few quick raps and walks in. The room is dark. He pulls me over to him and asks me for a boost. I lift him as best I can. I can hear the sound of metal squeaking on metal. The room lights up. Guido jumps down to the ground after inserting the lightbulb he had taken from the broken chandelier from the saloon. I am no longer hoisting him up. I am sitting at my desk, holding my head, looking at him. He seems satisfied.

“A lightbulb,” I say.

“Bulb of light,” he says.

“Thanks,” I say.

“Look how small the filament is,” he says, pointing up to the glowing bulb. “And it illuminates the whole room.” He smiles, spins on his heels and walks off down the hall. I watch him go in appreciation. I see others with him. A parade of forms and shadows long cast. Mastroianni. Fellini. Twain. Coleman Hawkins. Joseph Heller. Hunter Thompson. Iris Murdoch. Hugh Selby, Jr. Edward Hopper. John Muir. Bogart. Huston. Edna Millay. Roberto Bolano. Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Out of the darkness comes the blaze of light. Someone harnesses the power. Someone catches the magic. Struggle, triumph and the rare plateau. Within a small slice of time the tiny filament can, with the right surge of energy, not only create the best of all possible worlds but the heat and light that shines immortal upon it. More Alembics to come.


What Happened To Vermeer?

“Up-skirting”…Frottage…The perils of peanut butter…Mutilators and regurgitators…

I’ve spent the better part of the week debating on whether to move to Massachusetts or New Mexico. On the one hand, in Massachusetts, it has been ruled legal by the State Supreme Court to take photos up women’s skirts on the public MBTA trains. On the other hand, in New Mexico, Costco is set to dump 2.6 million dollars worth of tainted peanut butter into an open landfill, or as I like to refer to it, New Mexico now has all-you-can-eat peanut butter. Life is full of tough choices and as a philosophical individual, I never want to rush into any of them. The practice of taking photos up women’s skirts is so common that there is a term for it. “Up-skirting.” I suppose if you approach from above it is called “Down-blousing,” and if you “up-skirt” with a zoom lens it is called a sonogram. After mulling it over for a few days I decided against moving to Boston. It is too cold most of the year to walk from place to place and getting on the transit system now would be like packing yourself into a nightclub full of douche-bags and perverts while a few women in corduroy pants huddle in the corner with canisters of mace out in front of them. That is not the way I prefer to travel. If Massachusetts keeps this up pretty soon “frottage” will be ruled a seasonal way to keep warm and “indecent exposure” a seasonal way to keep cool.

Frottage (noun) — The act of rubbing against another person, in a crowd, to attain sexual gratification.

Indecent Exposure — (Self-explanatory.)

I decided against the move to New Mexico as well. I’ve never been a fan of peanut butter, a dislike I can trace back to the first job I had when I was sixteen, a short stint in a family friend’s dry cleaning shop. The manager, a corpulent woman who smelled of mothballs, was explaining something or other to me about tagging the drop-offs and because it was important to maintain an efficient time schedule she was also eating her lunch, which turned out to be a peanut butter sandwich. In the middle of her explanation, here comes this monster sneeze and a blast of peanut butter spray that glued me to the wall. The owner had to get a crowbar from his trunk and pry me from the sheet-rock. I quit two weeks later and considered suing. I had endured a similar experience once when I was in first grade during a field trip to a petting zoo. In this case it was a llama that sneezed on me with a look afterwards like, “Fuck you kid, I might be in this cage but which one of us is covered in corn kernels and millet?” Looking back on both episodes I would take the llama experience every time.

Speaking of emetic responses, I was made good and queasy by the British performance artist Millie Brown, who creates paintings by regurgitating neon-dyed milk onto a canvas. She made news recently when she was brought out on stage by Lady Gaga, who encouraged the artist to puke on her. Bad taste creates a lot more millionaires than good taste, they say, and if that is so Lady Gaga should now be as rich as Bill Gates or the Koch Brothers. Ms. Millie Brown was on the record explaining her motivation. “I just wanted to use my body to create art,” she said. Sure, I can appreciate that, but, and I might be obsessing on a minor point, if artists are using their HANDS to paint, and their BRAINS to direct it, these minor limbs and organs would still satisfy the use-of-body definition when creating art. Working with a paintbrush also avoids the unpleasantness of having to shove your fingers down your throat and convulse repeatedly while neon dairy products rush from your nose and mouth. Of course if she could regurgitate The “Waterseller of Seville” by Diego Velazquez or “Nighthawks” by Edward Hopper, I would be dutifully impressed. Predictably, her paintings result in how you might expect them to, like Jackson Pollack with bulimia. You can get the same art for a lot less money searching the floor of a fraternity house after a keg party.

It’s moments like these when I feel like I should push the boundaries of my disgust to the limit. Never just satisfied with a marginal creep-out, I decided to do a little search of other performance artists to see what the general trend was, and boy was I sorry that I had. Millie Brown is like Norman Rockwell compared to some of these people. It’s the mutilators that really make you grit your teeth. I found a picture of the Russian artist Pyotr Pavlensky, who nailed his testicles to the cobbles in the street in Red Square to protest Russia’s imperial crackdown of free speech liberties. He has also been known to sew his mouth shut and wrap himself in barbed wire. (Google images are plentiful.) The French artist Orlan had her face surgically reconstructed as a hybrid of famous beauty ideals like Artemis, Psyche, Mona Lisa and such, which seemed to unintentionally result in her looking like a cross between Frank Langella in drag and Cruella De Vil. The ancient Aztecs used to skin unlucky slaves and wear their hides as a symbol of regeneration, sometimes for days on end. Imagine the stench? No wonder they aren’t around anymore. As if all that wasn’t bad enough, a Japanese artist named Mao Sugiyama served his surgically removed testicles to his friends in some type of soup to protest… to protest… well who gives a shit what he was protesting, really. What he was successful at was never having another houseguest over for dinner ever again, ever. Artists are strange people. No doubt. They thrive on the unexpected. So it pays to be very cautious when you go to a performance artist’s dinner party. First thing you notice is the host hopping around on one leg and then before you know it the main course arrives.

“This foot is delicious. Where did you get it?”

“You can’t find foot like this around here anywhere, especially out of season.”

“I’ve give my left foot to know where you got such good foot.”

“Served with corns. Delicious.” So on.

For all I know that strange woman that sneezed peanut butter at me all those years ago could’ve been a performance artist. “A Study in Spew,” she might’ve called it as she secretly detailed my horrified reaction. She probably has a residency at the Guggenheim these days, lecturing to art students about deconstructionism and the tension of opposites. Form and meaning, nature and technology, the intelligible and the sensible. The arrogance of youth (represented by me) neutralized by a tickle of the nose and the spray of the pasty legume (represented, I suppose, by the peanut butter). Nature attacks man. The consumer is consumed. A revolution of the natural order. For me the trauma lingers. It was like being raped by that cartoon peanut with the monocle and top hat. The nutty aristocrat, or whatever they call him. I’ll just chalk it up to the formative struggle. Contraria Sund Complimenta. We are what we are against. What happened to Vermeer? The art of quiet diligence and great heights paves the way for commercial bodily functions and general desecration. Maybe it is the only new territory left. So be it. Generations from now the edgy art of today will seem prosaic and dull. The artist who hasn’t eaten radioactivity is no longer relevant. Art itself is resourceful, though, I believe. It makes me wonder if humans are in charge of it or the other way around. That being said, I would find it both bizarre and entirely appropriate if, after a number of years, the regurgitation artist Millie Brown, upon being examined by her dentist, discovers a tiny replica of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel painted on the back of her teeth. More Alembics to come.