Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives, Pt. 1: The Park

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Years ago, I became interested in the notion of involuntary speech. My way of approaching Perfect Lives came out of that interest. I had been observing people-particularly in New York-and I noticed that many many people were talking to themselves, publicly. Since I talk to myself privately, there seemed to be only a thin line between their madness and my madness. (Except I thought of mine as music.) At the same time, an idea that I was trying to confirm for myself was that there may be no problem, no discontinuity, between the thinking mode in music, and the way you correct that mode to make it something that everybody else recognizes. It’s the question of the origin of consciousness.

-Robert Ashley, printed interview

So like, um, for Bazin, what the ontology of film has to do is it has to deal with, you know, with what photography also has an ontology of, except that it adds this dimension of time to it, and this greater realism. And so, like, it’s about that guy, at that moment, in that space. And, you know, Bazin is like a Christian, so he, like, believes that, you know, God obviously ended up like, everything—he believes, for him, reality and God are the same. You know, like—and so what film is actually capturing is, like, God incarnate, creating. And this very moment, God is manifesting as this. And what the film would capture if it was filming us right now would be like God as this table; and God as you; and God as me; and God looking the way we look right now; and saying and thinking what we’re thinking, right now, because we are all God manifest in that sense. So film is actually like a record of God, or of the face of God, or of the ever-changing face of God.

-Caveh Zahedi, Waking Life

Silence is the soul’s invisibility. We can, of course, conceal ourselves behind lies and sophistries, but when we speak, we are present, however careful our disguise. The monster we choose to be on Halloween says something about the monster we are. I have often gone to masquerades as myself, and in that guise no one knew I was there.

-William H. Gass, “On Learning to Talk”


EPISODE 1: THE PARK

I have tried on and off for several years to write an essay on Perfect Lives and in all of these attempts I’ve failed.  It’s the center of my personal canon; the libretto atop the pile of books that form my bible-like any good post-structural Gideon I keep them next to my bed-and I find I revisit and ponder passages from it with a frequency that far outstrips any other book. It defies categorization, understanding, it refuses to be anything but itself and evades the bounty hunters of language that might desire to tame it so it might serve them on their own terms.

As such, there are few things I can accuse Robert Ashley of “understanding” with a clean conscience. But if even the most diffuse work has some sort of pivot point, if anything has a container even if the container can’t be specified to anything smaller than “the universe”, I would phrase the pivot point to Perfect Lives as follows:

Words don’t want understanding. They want children.

Perfect Lives is a work obsessively concerned with flatness; the flatness of Ashley’s voice, the flatness of the Great Plains, the flatness of common language, cliches, the flatness of the television. And so a flatness of language-and everything’s language, everything can be read-gives a suggestive depth and a sense of the things we can’t see (or perhaps that we don’t realize we’re seeing) that nevertheless never stop moving. The video shows static shots, the characters rarely ever move, but the shot keeps changing ever so slightly or with allusive turbulence. As presence implies lack; as the a widely spread line on the battlefield implies few reinforcements; as the things that seem to coat the world grow thin the way the uniformity of the paint on a house only maintains itself by our constant touch-ups, so Perfect Lives glimpses at something larger through the cracks. It’s an architecture that seems to touch the sky by its falling apart.

That meaning is a process, a calculus of the senses made in the face of a nothing that threatens to divide anything into the infinite is dramatized most cogently in the first episode; note how the intellectual determination is characterized as a preference. Interjections by the chorus in parentheses:

He studies the ashtray and tries to rule out preference, pre-

ferring (of course) over not preferring,

but he prefers, gravity (over what other state?) pre-

ferring in this case, (of course) earth

(the earth as they say), preferring

some state over non-state. (of course)

Now he grips himself with determination,

even knowing it causes sadness. (of course)

He is determined to be what?

(of course) He is determined to be serious,

not for the first time, not for the first time, there is the feeling

(of course) of a mistake.

But too late, he has arrived…

Ashley leaves in the corrections one makes mentally when speaking and in these suggests the tenuous, flowing nature of the conclusion of the language is betrayed; the clean confidence with which the writer or speaker is implored to present themselves to the world is but a construction; behind and around it sits, as Ashley puts it, “a ball of hot stuff we haven’t put our minds to yet.” Ashley is the first ‘pataphysician in earnest, a gentle explorer into a world of subjective pluralities after meaning that was always there, but may never have been. The chorus repeats, in each installment, the corks with which the shifting narrators attempt to bottle language unsuccessfully as it fizzes out all around them. (Of course.) It’s a coming to terms (and more terms) with the traumatic experience of facing language to see it has more powers greater than we ever imagined and that we can’t actually own it-the chickens of the word and the image come home to roost and the aftermath in which we all diffusely exist.

The overarching plot of the opera, which is barely touched on in favor of seeming digressions that may or may not be such, dramatizes this shifting exultation or transgression around a thing that seems, sometimes, to be there, and other times, more frighteningly might not. Perhaps it both is and isn’t, and this might be the most disturbing thing of all.

I quote the summary from the back of the Dalkey paperback edition of the libretto:

Raoul de Noget, an over-the-hill singer, and his younger pal Buddy (“The World’s Greatest Piano Player”), find themselves in a small town in the Midwest. They become friends with the son and daughter of the local sheriff, and the four hatch a plan to do something that, if they are caught, will be seen as crime, but if they are not, will be art: they will rob the town bank, take the money over the border into Indiana, and then return it the next day.

Episode 1 is the overture and lays out the primary question: There’s quite possibly nothing and quite possibly everything behind language. The gut seems to suggest whatever this sensed (no)thing is contains both the elements of overwhelming joy and of the worst sort of existential misery. What to do? What to say?

Knowledge as conquest of the surrounding world doesn’t seem to be the answer. Throughout the piece, in the manner of Gertrude Stein or James Joyce, Ashley is using words that have multiple definitions to stand in for several of the multiple senses in which they can be used. The word bursts forth as a wellspring of plurality in opposition to the tight academic “grasp”. In this passage, this method is spoken of and demonstrated simultaneously:

I am not sitting on a bench next to myself, (true enough) whatever that means.

I am a city of habits.

I am completely knowable in every way. (true enough)

I recognize superstition in every form.

The anger of the words wakes me in the dream of myself. (true enough)

Note the shift from the earlier interjection by the chorus of “of course”, a confident punctuation, toward the less certain and oddly quantitative “true enough”.

This and the other episodes are portraits of the words use to dance around the means in which we “master” the word. In the overarching structure of the piece is suggested a more anarchistic relationship to the word, but in this anarchistic relationship comes a very different landscape that looks superficially but precisely like the one that preceded it.

This is why Ashley names each installment after a common space. Tomorrow we’ll look at Pt. 2: The Supermarket.

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