It’s time to do a little essaying, proposing an idea and a reading.
In Lust, a woman (and others within the space of this hypertext) struggles with the powerful force of memory and recounting. She’s encouraged to “Try” but fails to remember a significant event. She remembers other details related to it but can never find the center. The reader will attempt to identify when this struggle is taking place or when the questioner’s voice says “Try.” The answer may be irrelevant because the story is not about when something occurred. In Lust, chronology or, let’s call it the imperative of chronology, to borrow from Milan Kundera, is of lesser importance than the moment or the struggle to understand the event of the moment. The woman may be fighting to juggle a series of images to formulate coherence but a chronological telling for this purpose is not required by the reader.
The main character in Lust fails to control a basic human property, the ability to remember and make sense of events, events that, we assume, occurred chronologically in experienced time. While significant, Lust moves beyond this and doesn’t concern itself with an historical sentiment. On the surface, what should be within the human boundary of control has become elusive under the stresses of trauma or the impulse to tell what must be told and understood. More importantly, the character is unable to express either the event or its significance–its meaning. This condition, the inability to express a past or an event in the past (or, as we shall see a thought in the past), forms a central problem for the character given that bits and pieces of that past stand alone in such crisp and powerful detail. This is the frustration of the inability to compose and share, a special kind of amnesia or silence, where one might have all the elements of a mathematical proof but cannot sort them to arrive at a satisfactory conclusion.
Alone Lust’s images glow with poetic clarity as expressions of action and thought, but together in their complex link structures they disrupt the ability to know and comfort. In this light, some readers may see Arnold’s text as the manifestation of a de-centered, disorienting, and frustrating digital text. I would argue that Lust is, on the contrary, the very opposite: a centered probing or examination of human guilt, self-questioning, simultaneity, and the torment of loss in the form of hypertext.
In a way, we live in a time of imminent forgetting. Not only is there the potential to forget last week’s news but this news will be physically hidden behind the news of the current day and its narrative context. The news of the day will most likely come in the form of an alarming event or cluster of seemingly related events, an item or multiple related items edited to appear worth the time of the masses: a thing that will relegate yesterday to an object of insignificance. This news will by necessity disappear when the next item fills the screen, like an unwanted guest or an unwanted guest who keeps knocking at the door, and so news cycles stumble day to day, and the thinker is left with an impression that nothing has lasting meaning at all. This is the idea of imminent forgetting, a condition of human experience. What may have consequence may be lost in a stupefying sea of data or in a ceaseless waiting for relevance.
This is not an abrupt or even a new phenomenon, a condition that simply popped out of the thicket of the now because of technology (always the likely suspect), but a condition of modern life aggravated by the commodification of information and the business of ubiquity. (Sidenote: a new and trivial term describes this: twenty-four hour news. But twenty-four hour news means: the news doesn’t end.) All of this is merely a variation on the theme I highlighted in the context of the literature anthology and its discontextualizing of works of art for the sake of educational convenience. By this I do not argue that technology is a cause of this imminence or to say that human application and design is at fault. There may be no cause at all, simply an accumulation of catalysts and opportunities, or simply an inappropriate application of a form (an anthology is, after all, a mnemonic artifact).
The nature of imminent forgetting may even be a condition of humanity in general, if I can draw such a massive generalization: it just takes different forms or is more evident at different times. In generational thinking, the general memory of a family can be contained in genetic make up, records (this could be anything from relational databases to carvings), and story. People have struggled throughout time to stake their place in it (what happens when an entire family or population disappears?), even when tangible experience is beyond them, when the past becomes a special kind of fiction known as history, the great narrative of human passage. I can never really verify through my own experience the stories my father and mother told. Nor can I verify the facts their parents told them as experiences of my own.
“Your father reached into the machine,” Mother says. “That’s how he lost his finger.”
You relay this to a friend: “My father lost his finger in a machine.”
To the friend you have become a person whose father was cruelly deformed by the evils of the factory. And thus the fiction proceeds. In this analogy, fact is of lesser importance than image or even a political point of view.
In Beowulf, the historical past manifests as a measure for the presence. History is a force of recurrence: Beowulf must become as great as past leaders or his significance, like Hrothgar’s, will be diminished. The past, in this logic, may swallow him whole. Mark Twain once accused American’s of a woeful ability to determine the proportions of things. In a time of omnipresent data filters, where one event, image, or object has just as much extraordinary validity as any other (or where all events–the personal life of a singer and the eradication of a village–are judged equally), proportion becomes even more difficult to measure, such that politicians must take responsibility for any thought uttered by a friend (the ideas of the latter are used to judge the former), the fantastic decisions of governments can become just as common as any other outrage, and where perpetual war is the norm. In this sense, we live in a time where it is common to think of perpetual war and perpetual peace not as an irrational pairing but as a perfectly justifiable fusion.
I have a habit of telling students that if they want to read or hear the truth they should read or hear what poets write because while poets will not tell the truth they will not lie. In this I don’t mean to suggest that truth and lies are opposites. Irony, for example, complicates both. In a time, therefore, of imminent forgetting–where the news of the world (and the world at large, as if the world itself is slowly becoming one massive airport) becomes a set of forgotten yesterdays–oppositions and proportions are confused. In addition, under this condition, remembering becomes an act whose impulse is located outside of the body. (Side note: At the time I wrote this I received a Twitter message from a presidential nominee. It goes like this: “Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr. watch the video . . . ” For me, this message is just unfathomable.)
Seeing the Light
In poetry and story telling, the reader may at some point in the experience see the light. What I mean by this metaphor is that during or after reading, the reader may experience understanding in the form of insight, when the text suddenly means something beyond its literal reality. It’s that “ah ha” moment when the experience of the text comes together and is exposed more often than not after lots of lingering. A blossoming, an emergence of meaning beyond the text. At the close of Raymond Carver’s story, “Cathedral,” Bub, the protagonist, experiences this kind of blossoming in his own experience
So we kept on with it. His fingers rode my fingers as my hand went over the paper. It was like nothing else in my life up to now.
Then he said, “I think that’s it. I think you got it,” he said. “Take a look. What do you think?”
But I had my eyes closed. I thought I’d keep them that way for a little longer. I thought it was something I ought to do.
“Well?” he said. “Are you looking?”
My eyes were still closed. I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn’t feel like I was inside anything.
“It’s really something,” I said.
Here Bub emerges, stepping out of the enclosed space that was his life in which intimacy had become a stranger. He opens. And we urge him to keep going, to push into a world of ambiguity and texture.
In Lust, characters are beyond time. Time in the work is indicated by adjectives not by days, durations, or spans. The characters grope in a search for something lost (and something that is simultaneously undisclosed): The characters do not search for the meaning of a lost event (the meaning is trivial because past events have no intrinsic weight even under the most intense scrutiny), but the meaning of the event in a sublime totality of images. Which would lead perhaps to this conclusion: that the dominant protagonist, faced with tragedy, provides us her memory in its chronological tatters. Furthermore, it is not just one act of memory; it is several, several acts of memory conjoined in an instance of narrative space. In this sense, Lust becomes an instance of many acts of memory laid bare.
Let me attempt a definition in the spirit of the essay: Lust is several acts of memory conjoined into one instance of narrative space. If this is so, or possible, what does this memory laid bare reveal?
Pablo Picasso illuminated the object by examining an object’s numerous surfaces, making the object strange, disorienting, beautiful in its strangeness and multi-surfaced orientation. In doing so, he presented the object in an almost imperceptible light. For Picasso, the object is not just one object, the viewer not just one viewer. If the object is not just one object but many objects in time and space, then the object becomes imperceptible, imperceptible because of our limited perspective. And the viewer follows, removed ever more from the knowledge of the nature of things. Simplicity to complexity. More precisely, the multifaceted object has a life beyond our experience and the more we learn the more complex life becomes. In this sense, the object has a separate life in the eyes of a second and a third person, simultaneously with the first.
In similar ways, Arnold illuminates action from within and from without in ways as unique as Picasso’s but in the form of hypertext, extending Picasso, extending Joyce. An action or series of actions may be known in their chronological position, say in a plot or causal chain, but in Lust one act or event becomes a confluence of a universe of actions. An event is never singular. The fall of the Twin Towers is a collective event. Where Picasso illuminates the object, Arnold illuminates a much more complicated phenomenon, human action itself. The hypertext, therefore, resonates with new ways of expressing, capturing, and examining (holding up to the light) the complicated nature of human action.
Something will always be missed. Even if an action, such as the insertion of a finger in the jaws of a machine, is grasped as a confluence of a universe of actions in space and time, something still will be missed: the whole is, after all, beyond our grasp. This gap or hole, as in Lust (is the child dead, was the child murdered, was there ever a child at all–all of these are possibilities in Lust) serves to illuminate to a brighter degree the choices and proximal actions that orbit around it, like the powerful tug of a black hole.
There is a moment in Lust, (an unending ache) described as one possible reading, where the idea of the confluence of a universe of actions is laid bare. It comes in this sequence of reading spaces.
In this sequence we experience the confluence of remembered events, learning that an individual woman is agonizing over a gap in memory. We also learn that a man in He Wishing “remembers wishing he had stayed.” Aching comes as a wonderful synthesis, a wonderful link. The man, from the woman’s point of view, is “civil” and “She watches his eyes avoid her consistently. She watches his mouth twitch as he speaks. She blinks hard as if to erase the image.”
This urge for erasure is impossible. What the woman wants (to change the past) is beyond her physical ability, what she doesn’t want is inescapable (the memories that cannot be erased). These memories are provided in conventional narrative: “She screams. She picks up the knife, thinks of his face. She touches the blade, running it gently across the surface of her skin.” The narrator of Lust provides images as they come (it could be that “She . . . thinks of his face” is a part of another time not the time of the knife). Some things the man can’t remember: “He tries to remember how it happened. He tries to remember her face, her flesh.” Faces fill the cognitive spaces of both the man and the woman, a conceptual link connecting them.
Some things he can remember: “He remembers the tearing. He remembers the blood. He remembers the child.” What he remembers is the act of “Trying.” In He Wishing the paragraph following goes back to specific details: “She had fallen to her knees. He walks out of the room that night. She follows him. This night, she follows him home. She cries like a child.” In He Wishing “child” forms a motif. “Child” is an organizing pattern around which the event (an attempted suicide, violence, frustration) can only be understood, even if we suspect these details may be disordered and of questionable chronological integrity, as a desperate con-joining of a confluence of a universe of actions in space and time.
In italics we have a subtle illumination of the text, one that could easily be overlooked. We have the wishing: “If only you had stayed.” Counting, He Wishing, and Aching fuse and explode and conjoin:
He remembers wishing he had stayed.
If only you had stayed
We might understand that the couple is speaking “this night.” But, more importantly, they share a simultaneous thought. Both people wish they had stayed: both wish they can accomplish the impossible: to change the past. The event that they share yet cannot express (paradoxically) has sparked common guilt, common wishfulness, and a shared construction (in a polyphonic narrative) of a past that simply cannot be reconstructed as a coherent experience because the center is lost and all that can be found is the cloud of experience linked together around a node lost to memory. All that can be found and reconstructed is the act of trying, wishing, everything but the center.
Lust, therefore, can be read as a text that lays bare and makes luminous the phenomenon of imminent forgetting. In a world governed by its rules (these rules need more study, sure), the essence of an event or decision becomes imperceptible. While we proceed in our innocence, we fool ourselves into thinking that what the anthology contains is the work of William Blake because what contains him has physical property and concrete economic value. We forget that Blake, inside that anthology, has been brutalized, made ironically imperceptible. In such a world, the worth of Martin Luther King is reduced to an innocent request to “watch a video” about a politician “remembering” Martin Luther King (a sort of supra-anthologizing of King in the mechanical drama of a campaign. King is now simply a stop along the way). “Watch a video” becomes meaningful participation until the call comes a week after to watch another video and to participate not in meaning but in the act of forgetting.
Lust reminds the reader that meaning matters but that to find or contain it is not easy. It also reminds us that even the most concrete of events shared between just a few people exists in a complicated orbit of images and thoughts. Hypertext as the form, valuable for its ability to illuminate disunity, seems to say–yes, objects, science, events, and relationships are complicated, more complicated than previously thought, because human actions and the events they initiate have multiple surfaces and multiple lives.
For another view on Lust, see Richard Higgason’s The Mystery of “Lust”.