Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives Pt. 4: The Bar

Dear mother, dear mother, the Church is cold;
But the Alehouse is healthy, and pleasant, and warm.
Besides, I can tell where I am used well;
Such usage in heaven will never do well.

But, if at the Church they would give us some ale,
And a pleasant fire our souls to regale,
We’d sing and we’d pray all the livelong day,
Nor ever once wish from the Church to stray.

Then the Parson might preach, and drink, and sing,
And we’d be as happy as birds in the spring;
And modest Dame Lurch, who is always at church,
Would not have bandy children, nor fasting, nor birch.

And God, like a father, rejoicing to see
His children as pleasant and happy as He,
Would have no more quarrel with the Devil or the barrel,
But kiss him, and give him both drink and apparel.

-William Blake, “The Little Vagabond”

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Episode 4 is both the center of the opera , sandwiched between the three chapters preceding it and the three that come after it. It works as Ashley testament, his personal aria and the point where all the chapters come together into an idiosyncratic theory of language as theory of everything. In parts 2 and 3 the camera shot of the road kept getting closer and closer; it could be said that the old man in the hotel room in the opening chapter is a further aged and widowed iteration of the man from the older couple in chapter 2, and that the old couple are in fact the star crossed lovers of chapter 3, Ed and Gwyn. Narrative timelines have been coexisting and moving backwards. Ed and Gwyn are presumed to be different characters co-existing with the old couple but are played by the same actors in only slightly modified outfits.

This accordion notion of time has been leading toward the unification/collapse of time and language that occurs in “The Bar”, a sermon on the mount delivered from the ground and what could reasonably be presumed to be Ashley’s own spoke-sung manifesto. It is the skeleton key through which to unlock the rest of the work. It has the most lively backing music, a sort of R&B that leans heavily on the gospel roots of the genre. The words of the chorus in this episode are unified with Ashley the narrator’s speech in a call and response that suggests a lively Pentecostal service. Ashley the narrator collapses into the characters of the piece and we hear him speaking as a character but in the video version see him still firmly placed in the physical space of the narrator as he delivers his stirring oration.

Note that the background colors used in the narrator set in the previous three episodes are put left-to-right, the progression forward of words in written English.

Ashley speaking as Buddy, the preacher in the bar, and the narrator simultaneously. Note that the background colors used in the narrator set in the previous three episodes are put left-to-right, the progression forward of words in written English.

The Ashley doubles put in a spatial progression mirroring that of the background behind him in the above shot of him narrating.

The Ashley doubles put in a spatial progression mirroring that of the background behind him in the above shot of him narrating.

As I pointed out in the earlier chapters, Ashley tends to play the dual role of narrator and arbiter of strictly codified language and relationships between characters. In this chapter, Ashley is the bartender, who is silent and fairly irrelevant to the goings on, and the narrator, suggesting a dialectical relationship between the possibility of exuberance; of unrestrained language and the juridical constraints/containers that keep language contained in hopes of resolution, both in the larger society and in Ashley himself. He is split along similar lines, lines that keep shifting.

Unlike the previous chapters we see only one still image of a landscape here, a shot of the outside of a JC Penney department store with a very artificially inserted lightning bolt. The quantification and restrictive relationship of capitalism to language and the people living in it.

The branches of the tree of life, the painful markings (

The branches of the tree of life, the painful markings (“bruises”) on the landscape, an ominously lit department store.

The imagery of the prior episodes swirls inside and around shots of Ashley speaking and an overlay of the tree of life. In an especially clever shot, Ed and Gwyn, in their only appearance within the immediate “now” of the episode’s progression of the plot are zoomed out from their seats at the bar into what at first appears to be the bar’s window but reveals itself to be the context of the opera itself, the opera itself being a simultaneous metaphor and actualization of Ashley’s accordion metaphysics.

The edges closing in to contain Ed and Gwyn. The window frame is the cinematic frame and a continuation of the shifting prison bar imagery of the third episode.

The edges closing in to contain Ed and Gwyn. The window frame is the cinematic frame and a continuation of the shifting prison bar imagery of the third episode. The prison is the narrative.

The libretto goes into the four stages of “the self” which seems not coincidental in its being placed in the 4th chapter; it’s possible that the previous three episodes were mediations on the stages of the self proposed in “The Bar”. The opera’s fidgety visual, narrative, and syntactical circling, shifting and morphing is explained far more concisely than I can do here in the sermon itself:

And we said the Self is ageless being

What I don’t know

The word eternal is a mystery to me.

I don’t understand that word.

I can’t say the Self is ageless

Being eternal,

So, I have to find another way of seeing, another way of

Understanding that the Self is ageless

The line breaks and punctuation of the paperback edition of the libretto I’m working from, presumably at least overseen by Ashley, break open even further contexts and connotations while pointing toward a holistic reading of the text more conveniently (perhaps more deceptively) than the TV form. There are distinct differences in suggested cadence. For example, in the recorded version, Ashley delivers the first two lines quoted above in a manner suggesting the punctuation “And we said the self is ageless, being what? I don’t know.”  The different break up of the lines into “And we said the Self is ageless being/ What I don’t know”, suggests that “What I don’t know” is supposed to correspond as a reiteration of “ageless being” and correspond more directly to the distorted neo-Platonic theological system pointed toward in the sermon and the associated imagery used in the TV production.

The tree of life overlaid on Blue Gene Tyrrany's hands playing the piano. Note that his hands are not given a visual blur of any sort in this episode.

The tree of life overlaid on Blue Gene Tyrrany’s hands playing the piano. Note that his hands are not given a visual blur of any sort in this episode. The reflection of his playing and the keys in the body of the piano is not pointing anywhere for the first time.

Perfect Lives, having its genesis, like much of Ashley’s work, in the initial epiphany of feeling connected to the (seemingly?) inchoate ramblings of the mentally ill, might be described as a dramatized attempt to overcome the initial trauma of losing faith in the possibility of mental illness. It might also be described as an extension of the postmodern project, a project that first expanded the bounds of what constituted language theoretically and has been managing and exploring the aftermath of that discovery; a batch of book-crumbs trailing through Derrida’s destruction of the line in Saussure’s diagram through to Deleuze/Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus and that has touched pretty much every culture product to come after it, or at least was bit by the same invisible bug more noticeably before this anxiety/breakthrough crept into Western culture at large.

But Perfect Lives distinguishes itself in its framing of this dilemma as not a problem of literary criticism or secular philosophy primarily (though those were the initial delivery vessels) but as being a distinctly theological question. If language can’t “mean”, if the occasionally God-less gods of progress and teleological historicism can’t hold up, if the individual can’t come to any grander schema of “knowing”, this paradoxically, by killing anything resembling a god, positions every forward motion or action as being a leap of faith. But by doing this, it clears the playing field for a sort of gerrymandering of dogmas far more dynamic than the ones embraced prior; the flowing fluctuating liveliness of Perfect Lives can only exist in its relation to this iteration of the larger problem, falls apart so that it can come together and vice versa, and returns to one of the initial questions of western philosophy-“How ought one live?”, perhaps more productively restated as “How ought one live in the face of a circular closed thisness/haecceity that seems to open everything up?”

Perfect Lives offers not an answer but an ecumenical system of answers, a theory of theories of everything that comes to its own pluralism standing over, mucking around in and lying beneath the everythingness of everything(s). And “The Bar” stands as Ashley’s most direct, diffuse, troubling and edifying statement on the matter in a larger piece made of answers that doubt themselves and squabble as though they were people.

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If there’s an answer to tower over the rest, the one that Ashley himself secretly endorses, it might be found in the following lines:

Around us in the bar

We hear the sounds of life

Aaannnd

She goes down to The River when she can…

The Holy River where the notes came up from New Orleans.

Because It’s There, The Doctor says.

She is enchanted.

She has learned that short ideas repeated

Massage the brain.

But even this presents problems in its closeness to the regimentation of the dread “industry”. “Boogie woogie is the vessel of the eternal present”, but then the clarity of constant “present” is in itself another artificial stricture as Henry James explored in The Ambassadors. But for a brief moment, it all seems to line up. Maybe a brief moment is all we can stand. As is stated in “The Bank”: “It changes, right? ‘n so cosmic is the scale that just a glimpse is all it takes to break my heart”.

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