Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A Wake

The ends of endings and the beginnings of beginnings leads one to simmer in a cesspool of contemplation. And apparently alliteration. Memories coalesce on the rear view mirror of hindsight only to be distorted by the internal convex mirror of passing time. One would hope we could just flip the switch and the intrusive headlights of archived scars and learned aversions could just be deflected onto an alternate existence; and yet, the blindspot persists.

As I walked to the June 26th performance of In the Wake by Lisa Kron at Berkeley Rep, my colleague Trent Walker and I discussed plans for the Agent Orange project which will occupy my life for the next couple of years. He offered me the question--What is the benefit of art that presents past trauma? Which is to say, does rumination over an injury post-mortem have value or does memory act as an obscuring scrim through which we must discern the figure of past fact against the ground of historical narrative? After all, neuropsychologists have already determined that memory only exists as constructed narrative-- a malleable misrepresentation of only partial fact, that when added to trauma, is ultimately equivalent to the acuity of a lush's dart after happy hour.

The play addresses this rearview reflection from a phenomenological perspective. The set was constructed so that the proscenium was itself a convex diorama mimicking the shape of a rear view mirror. The main character, Ellen, presents a discourse about the attribution of "retrospective intention" to past events to justify, remediate, or cope with what has occurred. Consequently, the first act replays the lives of a group of middle class, white young liberals, living in New York during both of Bush's terms. The opening scene reenacts--quite painfully--Bush's victory over Gore, followed by Bush's victory over Kerry later in the play. The disjunct between what is excruciatingly immanent to the theater audience and what the characters believe the outcome of the election will be elevates dramatic irony to a new level of masochism. To watch the hope dilate from the character's eyes as Bush wins, again, and again, is almost as disheartening as the original experience of the loss for the liberally-minded Dems in the audience.

Through the process of re-telling, the events in the play make up the wake of a boat tearing through the serene calm of a bay void of reflection. It is in this process of re-enactment that trauma terrorizes. For, a negative experience can be forgotten, but it is the loss of agency at the hand of trauma that sublimates the past pain into present reality. It is the pain's constant insertion into the everyday that re-presents the scars of excavated trespassing.

Thus, the objective of presenting trauma then, is evident in this chance to re-construct, re-articulate, re-create really, the circumstances under which the pain reigned supreme and we, as victims, remained silent. It is this creation and ownership of alternate narrative that allows for the reclaiming of the mind in the face of destruction.

How the marked body heals, however, is a completely different story. Somatic scars know in a way the mind could never comprehend or rationalize.