Wednesday, May 2, 2012

My Name Is Mud

My name is Mud. You renewed your acquaintance with me last weekend, when you washed me out of the filters of your pond's fountain pump.

The jet from the water-spitting carp fountain had been progressively weakening in the past weeks. You'd last cleaned the pump quite a while ago--last summer? that long?--and you were sure you'd find me in there, gumming up the works.

It's unfortunate, I suppose, that your painstakingly-dug French drain ne suffit pas toujours, and a global-warming, torrential downpour (they happen more often, don't they?) conjures me out of the ground and lets me cloud the water in the pond so that you can't spy upon your goldfish: unfortunate for you whose view must always be clear.

Less so for me who makes you work to regain your clarity.

You didn't want the pump motor to burn out, so you unplugged it, hauled the pump bag up from the bottom of the pond, and marveled at the weight after all the water had drained out. "Mud," you thought.

Yes. Me.

You'd never let the pump go this long without cleaning. Your French intestine de bassin and pump filter allies had done a pretty good job of keeping me out of the water and in my wet ghetto, but you were right: I was forcing someone else to pull my weight. Time for a cleansing.

All you had to do was dismantle the little net house that held the pump--take out the walls, the floor, the ceiling--and shower them in a strong jet of water. Out I flowed. Down the driveway, looking like a runnel of mocha. But you were much too aware of my provenance in clay and fish shit to make that comparison at the time. Nor did I suggest a sunset's draining of the light from the sky or a cloud-streaked moon or any such happily romantic notion. Your memory of squishy lake-bottom wading was too strong for that. Nor did my purging even conjure any current-event regrets that you couldn't donate me as enriched water to some millet farmer in east Africa.

Instead, you spiritualized me into metaphor. I suppose I should thank you, since that is supposedly the substance of the hereafter--spirit, I mean. Maybe metaphor too. Or conceit. As in angels. How could conceit not be the argot of angels?

But it was nothing so lofty. I can't even claim "metaphor," actually. It started with an adjective, and maybe it just ended there. It was just you with a hose consigning me to the storm drain of history and thinking about a book, analyzing its style, deciding it was "muddy," and wondering if it was the translation. 

The book was My Name Is Red by Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish Nobel laureate. (You can claim that he stole the title from you, since your playing with My Name Is Mud goes back a half-century.)

You've never distrusted the translator as much as you did with this book. But the translator has won prizes too! So you decided to make me the scapegoat for the unsettled state of the rhetoric, the murky atmosphere of so many of the scenes in which the characters careened from one emotion to a different, remote one--for example, from fear to love, or vice versa--as if they were playing tackle hopscotch in pea-soup fog.

Lacking any verisimilitude of a real, inner state, you the reader felt alienated from the narrative, when you prefer to dive into it and swim around in it and shake fins with the manta rays. The characters seemed to be allegorical constructs rather than flesh-and-blood people (except they did bleed). "Cartoonish" doesn't quite catch the reality.

Which is too bad, given that most of the characters were illustrators of illuminated books.

But maybe unsettlement was part of Pamuk's purpose? The chapters were all told from the perspective of a different "character," whether an actor in the story or a book illustration (such as a dog or a tree or a color, which is all the title of the book means). Some characters recounted their own violent death as it happened--obviously, then, part of the point was to create a certain distance between the narrative and the events being described, the same kind of distance that exists between an illustrator and his or her illustration.

The kind of distance that exists between mud and its cleansing.

With art occupying the center of this book, you found myself wanting an entirely new genre, or an entirely new literary/artistic phenomenon, which would involve the display of artistic details--as they occurred in the telling--simultaneously with the telling itself. Pamuk's alternative was to resort to long lists of things being depicted, which you perceived  liturgical quality, like the names of victims read at remembrance ceremonies, as if the mention of them has spared them the fate of a final disappearance. But did this not, in fact, disembody the art? Trick it out as a meaningless babbling in tongues? If Ottoman and Persian artists drew horses from memory instead of from live models, what did they look like? You the living lack those memories. Only with the sight of their art can you make sense of things. Can you live clearly, without mud.

You did think it ironic (as you watched the filter wash go from brown to khaki to tan to silver) to complain about the limitations of this novel--limitations to do with the written word--when its most significant theme is the conflict between calligraphic, Islamic art and representational, "Frankish" art. In the Middle Ages, the illumination of books seems to have been a way of bringing representational art into Islamic cultural productions; as long as the miniature illuminations were marginal conjectures of "what Allah sees," they were approved. Whereas, now, with this book, you wanted to see what Allah sees just so you'd have a companionable representation of what Pamuk wrote. What you got was reduced to words on a page--and it wasn't even calligraphy.

I drained away, leaving you imagining a flash of universal comprehension and calling it cosmocallipsychosis. How will you breathe life into that lump of garbage? From mud you came, and to mud you will return.

Your name is Mud.

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