The Fictional Selves Breed Like Bunnies: The Image As Transmigration

Season seven of Curb Your Enthusiasm deals with the fictional (but actual) Seinfeld reunion and the fictional (but actual) Larry David’s divorce. David comes to fear his estranged wife has been sleeping with Jason Alexander, the actor who played the fictional Larry David surrogate George Costanza, and confronts Alexander about this. As a result, Alexander briefly drops out of the reunion, and Larry David tries to play his fictional self, George Costanza, and fails miserably. The season ends with David reunited with his wife. In the final scene, David ruins this second chance by being the embodied actual self of his fictional creation “Larry David”.

This might sound familiar. It’s pretty much the plot of Othello except with Othello also playing Iago and much more humane marriage laws allowing Desdemona to just get a divorce this time.

First as tragedy, then as farce…

Of course, this is also just a particularly pretzeled variation on the standard sitcom trope of the man/woman who lies about him/herself to another man/woman and then keeps escalating the lie, but for one caveat; in the standard telling of this story, the fictional projection of the character, their job as an astronaut, inevitably collapses and the person is forced to own up to the inferior actual self with the result of learning “to be themselves”. Here, George Costanza is much more socially reified as a “reality” than either the real or “fictional” Larry David and probably worth far more money on the books. Larry David, real or fictionalized, is right to be scared.

The self is of course a much more dynamic and subjective thing than any flat actuality could ever “be”. “Just be yourself” translates quite comfortably into another cliche: “know your place.”

Bruce Conner’s Report dramatizes this in terms of the Kennedy assassination. The Brechtian structuralist cinema technique of the flicker is contrasted with the actuality of journalists discussing the assassination as its occurring and footage Conner filmed off his TV. As Conner does in many of his films, the jumbled countdown of a film reel is repeated several times. Kennedy dies; footage of a matador spearing a bull and part of a space age refrigerator advertisement are shown, and suddenly the audio is rearranged so that the new living Kennedy seems to be resurrected as a media manipulation; but then, in the world of the short film and quite possibly ours, he already was.

Cliches and folk stories of the ridiculous frequently resonate as the simultaneous acknowledgement of their legitimacy and this legitimacy’s necessary repression. Several come to mind here: The oft-repeated story of an always changing indigenous tribe believing the camera steals ones’ soul, Ken Jacobs saying the cinema was a seance; a flickering light that made the dead seem to move; Robert Bresson’s numerous lines in Notes on the Cinematographer which further confuse the possibility of a chronology being so simple as the old paradigm of transmigration cleanly being a thing that happens after death:

My movie is born first in my head, dies on paper; is resuscitated by the living persons and real objects I use, which are killed on film but, placed in a certain order and projected on to a screen, come to life again like flowers in water.
Films can only be made by by-passing the will of those who appear in them, using not what they do, but what they are.
But just what are they? The overwhelming desire for fame that makes masses of people clump for it in feverish pastiches of the breadline is not borne of the desire to date outside their weight class and have financial security; these are simply the justifications for the deeper desire for transmigration. And unlike karma, transmigration can happen in this lifetime.

Not all forms of being fictionalized are created equal.

An example from life:

I was physically dragged off stage at the Saratoga Springs High School talent show when I was 16. As I’m now 26, this was ten years ago. I walked into a local open mic and found the ticket taker and another person I knew discussing the event, getting most of the details wrong and not realizing I was the person who was dragged off the stage. I sat listening for a while. I was tickled. I thought “This is the transmigration I wanted; it may be the transmigration I deserved.”

By comparison, the book I wrote and published on my time at Occupy Wall Street was little discussed, a fictional self I presented to the world that’s now sitting in larger quantities than the “real” me ever could in my garage.

Going over some things I wrote several years ago, I found much expressed that I didn’t remember explicitly understanding at the time; more often than not I feel like the words move around with a freedom and boldness I seem unable to conjure in my actual living. They float around in the darkness like fireflies; I chase them because they glow. I manage to capture several in a jar and wake up in the morning to find them no longer glowing…


Chris Marker, director of La Jettee, never allowed himself to be photographed, preferring to be represented in pictures of cats. He attended a post-screening panel for one of his works as a Second Life avatar, where spent most of the time discussing his desire to retire there. Thomas Pynchon has allowed himself to be photographed only rarely, once with bad teeth for a year book and once by a news crew on the condition it be a crowd shot and that the news report couldn’t pick him out of the shot.

The standard comment in this vein, to the unwanted interview, is the classic anthropomorphism of the image: “I’d like to let the work speak for itself.” The earliest incarnations of this phrase I can find in a cursory search is all in the Christian tradition. “May the work I’ve done speak for me, oh Lord…”

Christ of course never bothered writing anything down and was shown almost exclusively as a variety of animal forms from a sheep to a Unicorn for centuries, long before Chris Marker was a twitch in his father’s testicles.

Fred Exley’s great “fictional memoir” A Fan’s Notes, is an account of Exley trying to make sense of his life, a long string of self-sabotage, institutionalization, and obsessive failure to live up to the examples of his father, NY Giants wide receiver Frank Gifford, and by extension the “American Dream”. Structured like a confession in the tradition of St. Augustine, Exley’s repetitive descents into booze and madness give the sense that he was attempting to lead a life of perfect mediocrity so that he could eventually write the book; like the print is the original and not the woodblock it came from, so A Fan’s Notes seems more real than the living Exley.

Exley seems to realize this; his salvation is in the space of fiction. He recounts getting a job at an advertising firm and finding he suddenly has the confidence to attract women so long as he approaches them with fake names and invented history. When he meets the woman of his dreams, Bunny Sue, the gorgeous “Vassar” blonde of his personal translation of the American dream, despite her being inexplicably and unconditionally in love with him, he finds himself entirely impotent. They try everything but eventually he unconsciously pushes her away with obnoxious behavior and hates himself for doing so. Where St. Augustine found salvation in his mother crying over his transgressions, Exley finds his in going over Bunny Sue’s letters and finding numerous typos and shoddy, boring syntax. In perhaps the only passage of ecstatic joy in the book, Exley imagines the horrific boredom of how he could’ve ended up sitting drinking with Sue Bunny’s parents in their basement watching bad television for the rest of his life; he exclaims he was saved by the comma, the sentence, the image, the word…


My last serious relationship was with a trilingual woman in a prestigious graduate program for art history. I first felt I might possibly have been hopelessly in love with her when, on our first date, we sat in her apartment watching an Eric Rohmer film and she whispered a correction to the subtitles in my ear. She would complain about the deficiencies in the various citation styles, then apologize that it was boring; I was flabbergasted as I found this unspeakably attractive. I could only refute her anxieties there in ardent physical overtures, and for a short period we were both very happy.

Eventually we ran out of things to talk about. I was reluctant to let go, and showered her with improvised fictions and together we nurtured a bizarre fantasy life for our imagined pet, Pusheen the cat.


An example:

WHY PUSHEEN IS FAT

kitty’s so fat he needs a rascal scooter

but no cart in the front because the cake’s never making it home

he loves cake he does. and the bakery at the supermarket loves him

and when his little scooter slowly struggles to get to the cakes the speakers change whatever they’re playing to “Happy Together” by The Turtles

but kitty is selfish and consumed by his mad Colonel Kurtz like desire for cake and never notices as he makes his upriver voyage to the heart of chocolate darkness

“I will get what is coming to me! All of it!” Kitty thinks.

the speakers are sad

their gesture has gone unnoticed

but unlike kitties, supermarket speakers have no mouth with which to indulge in the callow cake of disappointment

so when kitty has feasted and left a carcass of crumbs and icing in his wake,

when the night janitor quietly makes his rounds,

they play “My Son Calls Another Man Daddy” over and over to the empty parking lot


I sent these, and just as prolifically sabotaged the relationship, or whatever was left of it, through various other means. Ours was a love triangle with a ghost; I saw her as means to the word. She saw this much more clearly than I did at the time.

I’d like to say my feelings of immediate kinship with A Fan’s Notes came from my self-recognition of this, but I read it several months before we met. But time isn’t quite so linear; maybe the text is faster than reality.

Comedic texts of the 20th century, from Stanley Elkin’s The Franchiser to Woody Allen’s Love and Death were frequently dramatizations of man trying to destroy the oppressive monoliths of meaning and “truth” by coming to an agility in nonsense faster than reality itself. Sometimes they win. In Artists and Models, Dean Martin, the paragon of “sense”, teases Jerry Lewis when Jerry goes into a musical number saying that the way they can live on the single canned bean they have for dinner is to imagine it’s a juicy steak. Dean thinks this is stupid and goes to sleep. Meanwhile, an actual steak literally falls out of the sky onto Jerry’s plate.

This seems ludicrous except when you realize that the Jerry Lewis outside the movies could afford to eat steak himself by imagining a person imagining eating a steak.

The story of Kekule discovering the shape of the Benzene molecule in a dream of a snake, the linear, eating itself.

At times dead while waking, at others vigorously alive in our slumber, by varied means we come to similar ends…


Guest post by Daniel Levine. Check out his first book here. He also just released a comedy album which you can hear selections from for free here.

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