7.06.2012

That Exquisite Vertigo

As a kid, I used to lie in bed cloaked in tighty whities and darkness, picturing the infinity of space, pushing myself to that precise moment when I could see all limits give way to the voluptuous blackness of eternal space and the the entirety of my scrawny, 9 year old self would quiver in a kind of existential orgasm. 

In some sense, much of my life has been an attempt to relive that exquisite vertigo when all ground gives way not to an abyss but to the billowing sumptuousness of infinity.  I am chasing a bizarre and beautiful dragon's tail.

And I found it in philosophy, in Nietzsche, Deleuze, Foucault, and Bergson; in the writing of Clarice Lispector, JL Borges, and Nabokov; in the art of Jeff Wall, Matthew Ritchie, Sarah Sze; in the films of Godard, Bunuel, and David Lynch; in the music of The Boredoms, Cornelius, and the Grateful Dead. All of these artists, in their own way, inaugurate a certain vertiginous experience.  They don't seek to ground you; on the contrary, they seek to unground you. 

Now, there are other things I want from life, from art, from people, from ideas. Sometimes, I want to be embraced, taken into the bosom  to suckle on the teat of some cosmic momma. There are days in San Francisco when the air is so crystal clear, I fear I will be swept up into the Milky Way, kicked off the planet into the wild blue yonder. At times like this, I crave the gentle embrace of the low, grey cloud cover the city is famous for: it is that maternal embrace, keeping my ridiculous self tethered to the planet, to my life, to humanity. And still other times, I want some idea I have to be extended — confirmed but extended. This may in fact be what I desire often: take what I know and make it fresh for me again — that way, I get some confirmation and something novel.

But what I really want, what inspires me and drives me and gets me giddy and aroused and my heart thumping and my body vibrating, is that sensation of vertigo — that feeling that everything I know has just given way but rather than falling into a pit of nothingness, I am sent aloft into the dense ether of possibility. (I imagine this is what Buddhist practice seeks in the dissolution of the ego: a free flowing connection with all things. Only, for me, it's not the connection per se that drives me, even if it's an effect: it's the orgasmic sensation — which is maybe what the monks are after, too. I don't know.)

When I was in high school, I had a great history teacher — Mr. Tucker — Robert Tucker, RIP — who would have us read Marxist revisionist historians. I'll never forget the moment when he had us read Gabriel Kolko's essay on the formation of the USDA. Not only was the birth of this governmental institution not meant to protect us, its citizens, from harm — it was created to protect the meat packing industry!  Wowzer! What I loved about that moment was the feeling of the ground giving way, that sensation of vertigo that didn't debilitate but liberated.

And so I went on to study rhetoric in grad school — yes, I have a doctorate in Rhetoric — because I wanted that sensation over and over again. And, even more, I wanted the skills to be able to create that sensation. I didn't want the password to the cosmos; I wanted to know how to pick the lock. 

My entire intellectual career has been focused on this one thing (more or less). I haven't sought truth — although I thought, for a while, that that was my goal. I have sought that feeling I had when I was 9 and so skinny and lying in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York in my weird ass house staring at the ceiling in the dark, conjuring infinite space right there in that room until my entire being reverberated with a cosmic harmonic convergence and gave way to an exquisite vertigo.

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