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Ballet for Inanimate Dancers

19th of February, 2022

The Polish writer Małgorzata Kucharska has a short story from the early 1930s called Odstęp (literally ‘Space’, probably better translated as ‘Interstices’) which involves writers describing their ideas for short stories to each other. Formally the thing resembles a parody of a frame narrative, where characters serve only as trajectories along which the exposition of themes can be thrown, in various versions of the same voice. Conversations are overheard, implying the beginnings and ends of larger continuities are inaccessible to our literary perspectives, but in fact we hear everything and there is never any sense that meaning and theme are being obscured by subjective viewpoints. The only thing that becomes obscure is the relationship that the thrown-voices of these Kraków literati have with each other. The tactical deployment of descriptions of eyelines and covert attentions creates direct contradiction: descriptions of relations move—fluidly or with a sudden semantic lesion—between eavesdropping and deep intimacy. A reader who tries in earnest to keep track of how many ears, eyes, and speakers are involved in any exchange becomes the butt of Kucharska’s joke.

The themes that the characters describe to each other are less interesting. The weirdest of the lot, and the one that piqued my curiosity about the story in the first place, was an idea about a man who lives in secret in the walls of a train station. The only evidence he ever leaves of his existence is a muffled sound when he attempts to reply to snippets of conversation he overhears from commuters. The whole thing is, according to the man who is describing the idea, a metaphor for philosophical epiphenomenalism. The extrapolation of the idea you have formed in your brain after reading my description is probably more compelling than the real thing.

One of the themes, less interesting on its face but somehow more fertile in the context of the story, was about a stray cat. There’s no grand concept here really, it’s just the description of a cat’s day: scrounging for food, being chased by a kid with a sticky face. Somehow, it’s deeply moving as a kind of exploration of subjectivity. After reading it, I went walking and I thought about the cat’s consciousness. It is ostensibly an imitation of human consciousness, but in fact it’s a simulacrum: a copy without an original. The unimaginative fictional Polish writer wants to explore animal subjectivity, but instead he writes about himself, only a version with fur and a tail and no balls. The unaccountable fractal interlocutor he is talking to seems unimpressed.

I thought about John Cage again, as I often do. Something about Kucharska’s vehicle—the hijacking of high modernism to make fun of her readers and peers—reminds me of Cage’s career. Morton Feldman apparently disagreed with Cage’s important dictum that all sound is music. He still ended up in a musical career that was almost always as quiet as possible. A musical project that both asserts the conservative position that at bottom, music is something fundamentally different to noise, and that silence is itself a sort of instrument. John Cage’s silence is a full up sort. Like white light, it feels pure and empty but is in fact the superposition of all possibilities. Feldman’s silence is hauntological. Unlike Kucharska and Cage’s jokes, the joke here is fairly linear: music without sound becomes like dancing without motion, or stories without characters.

I thought about writing a story from the perspective of a water molecule. She’s sitting in a glass of water with a trillion of her sisters. Depending on her field of vision, she either sees identical copies of herself stretching on forever, or she is in a bounded but transparent cylinder: the vast distance of the edge of the glass serving only as the frontier behind which the dance of blurry Platonic colours hints at an incomprehensible outside complexity. One of the shapes beyond the edge lowers an opaque plastic drinking straw into the glass, and the molecule is now surrounded by far fewer sisters, and a blankness. Something new, but something final.

Further Reading:

Film Acting and Identity
A Secret Church Music and the Silence of John Cage