Menaker, Artaud, Demosthenes and what is left when the rest is gone
Daniel Menaker was an editor at the New Yorker. He then became editor in chief of Random House. He wrote three or four books. That is an impressive enough resume but for me even the seven years he spent fact checking at the New Yorker before becoming senior editor are relevant enough to be noted. Every aspect of Daniel’s working life has involved conversations. For fifty years he has been asking questions, searching for answers, pushing discussions further, making sure people are being honest, trying to inspire some to write better. Today, he sees discussions as constructions. A social matter that develops throughout a relation becoming both the core and the outcome of two persons’ interactions.
Imagine a Native American Totem made up of bull and butterfly figures. Native Americans dance around these to express their feelings towards their god and their tribe. Every relation you have is a totem. Every talk you have is a dance around that sculpture. Every discussion is a ritual. We try to find common ground, discover the space around us and try to reach each other’s feelings with our voices. The more skillful you are, the more you enjoy it. When you talk you move your hands, your tongue and the different parts of your face. You even move the upper part of your chest and chose to walk while discussing. There is a dance in the North American Indian culture called Spirit Dance. In a way, it plays out the imagery of a discussion since the concept of spirit dances is this: The body moves, but it’s the soul who dances.
However, my aim is not to prove that discussions are fueled by a much more profound sentiment. Discussions are the core of my argument. Talking in itself is an act that can shift the world. Once mastered, it has an infinite potential: it can be both lethal and salvatory. The most terrible tyrants, from Polycrates to Staline, got there through speeches and discussions. Though not exclusively I concede, they did. Conversations are the infrastructure of our humanity. The first talk we have with someone is so very different from the second one we have with that person. A sort of architecture is set, as Menaker explains in A good talk, his last book to date. Notice the specific way you greet each person you know. The different paradigms and personas you chose and impersonate with each of them: The reassuring friend, the lead-taker, the person full of suggestions, the deal breaker, the optimist, the realist …
And in the midst of all these roles and persons, we both are and aren’t, the drunken spirit dance ends up looking a bit confusing. For, though we dance the same dance during a relation, it seems like we’re not dancing together. As if the contact lacks. As if words blur everything beneath. That is the moment in your life you are most likely to understand Artaud, the long-forgotten dramatist who spent 9 years in an insane asylum. Artaud was mad: Enlighteningly mad.
To exist one need only let oneself be,
but to live,
one must be someone,
to be someone,
one must have a BONE,
not be afraid to show the bone,
and to lose the meat in the process.
Demosthenes, a prominent Greek statesman and orator of ancient Athens, used to warn Athenians about the Macedonians, until the day Greece was conquered by Alexander the Great. He was told to be “the perfect orator”, the man who “stands alone among all the orators”. But however skilled and talented, Demosthenes couldn’t fight adversity with words. When the Macedonians entered Athens, he took his own life.
The greatness of words, speeches, talks, conversations, discussions, debates, arguments, tumbles in front of brute reality. Words cannot hold a wall when a wall starts falling, they cannot stop a plane when it enters a building, they cannot steer a crowd when a crowd is blind and angry. When the beautiful construction that fills our relations fails, what is left? When there are no more words to be said, what should be done? When A good talk is no longer an option, what is the alternative? When that layer of our humanity is removed? What defines us when the rest is gone?
Look at the left of this paper, look at the right. Your hands are holding it. Clutch your fist. Touch your face, feel it: This is your skin. This is your flesh. And it is all you have to tell who you are when the rest beams out. Your body is the only tangible reality you have got. The dancing soul isn’t as real as the moving body. That is why you need more than words. Why you need a handshake to get to know a person, why you need a hug for reassurance, why you need a slap to stop biting your nails. The body remembers better. That is why love cannot survive without sex, why it comes to fists when anger is hard to hold, why a madman needs to be tied down. Because madmen lose their words and fail to grasp their souls. Only their mad brute bodies are left. Therefore, madmen are the most basic, unsophisticated, expression of humanity. That is Artaud’s story. He was left with nothing but his body. And the single reminder of that lost and damned soul’s existence was its flesh, its meat, its bones … and its shit.
Is God a being?
If he is one, he is shit.
If he is not one
he does not exist.
But he does not exist,
except as the void that approaches with all its forms
whose most perfect image
is the advance of an incalculable group of crab lice. […]
No one will believe me
and I can see the public shrugging its shoulders
but the so-called christ is none other than he
who in the presence of the crab louse god
consented to live without a body,
while an army of men
descended from a cross,
to which god thought he had long since nailed them,
and, armed with steel,
with fire, and with bones,
advances, reviling the Invisible
to have done with GOD'S JUDGMENT.
We should try to break up humanity into pieces more often, as we do in times of crisis. Throw some, see what happens. Because when everything is gone, we are left alone.