When Henry James wrote his essay ‘Venice’ in 1882, he confessed that he had no more than ‘a fillip’ to add to the body of art and literature about the ‘easiest city to visit without going there.’ James’s powers of description would not be devoted to any novel attempt to render Venice new to his readers, he remarks from the outset; rather, he would invigorate its existing wealth of material. ‘It would be a sad day indeed,’ he writes, ‘when there should be something new to say.’
The 58th Venice Biennale, which opens this month, borrows its title – ‘May You Live in Interesting Times’ – from an English invention of a supposedly Chinese curse (sleepy peacetime is never ‘interesting’, whereas war jolts the world awake), and it is the invocation of this witticism that nods to the ‘sad day’ upon us. There is now much that is new to say: new predictions for old landscapes, their territory impaired by record floods and swelter, disappearance, income disparity and shadow war. In Venice, the Acqua alta – the city’s famous high tide – has increased in frequency and ferocity over the past hundred years. MOSE, its massive construction project of 78 floodgates, is a laboratory for other cities also preparing their own response to the coming floods, including some of the largest on the planet, like Guangzhou, Mumbai and my home, New York. For me, then, the Biennale’s title sounds odd in 2019. It is foremost a cliché, one that has bounced about English prose since British statesman Joseph Chamberlain popularized it in his speeches as the Secretary of State for the Colonies in the late 19th-century. And like all clichés, it is an abdication to hand-me-down thinking. Has there ever been a blander epithet than ‘interesting’? ‘But what is the use of being interesting,’ Gertrude Stein remarked flatly in her poem ‘Henry James’ (1933).
We live among clichés. Many of them – jokes, narrative tropes and phrases – speak less to our failures of invention than to collective experience. The art field is no different. Usually, the most common phraseology is obscure and cribs critical theory: an installation ‘challenges negative space’, ‘gestures toward the real’ and ‘interrogates autonomy’. You see this in press releases, reviews and even essays, as Alix Rule and David Levine note in ‘International Art English’, their study of ‘art-speak’ published by Triple Canopy in 2013. Interesting! Life is safest in the pack and there’s nothing new under the sun, as we know. Even Venice itself can appear as a cliché of European splendour. In his famous tale of erotic pursuit on the Lido, Death in Venice (1912), Thomas Mann called it ‘half fairy tale and half tourist trap’. File under: nothing has changed.
In 1983, the US poet Charles Bernstein, best known as a founder of the Language movement, used the term ‘dysraphism’ – dysfunctional fusion, or ‘a process of mis-seaming’ – to describe his poetry, which combines humour, critical theory, folk lyric, ad-speak and overheard speech with a wizardly sense of linguistic possibility. (He received the 2019 Bollingen Prize for his work, one of poetry’s top honours.) ‘There is never annul- / ment, only abridgment,’ he writes in the poem for which ‘dysraphism’ serves as a title. I see this ‘mis-seaming’ as a way of thinking – and writing about – the world. It is an idea that foremost infuses language with a new sense of imagistic possibility, mostly through relentless play with expectation and meaning. No new words or pigments or pictures, just the old ones re-considered. This is not so different from James’s approach in ‘Venice’; after all, he was a novelist who, in the byzantine contortions of his late style, strove to upend any description of the world by overturning the clichés that govern our experience of it. In that essay, he skips over St. Mark’s well-known exterior and instead evokes the qualities of the shadows as they fall across its sanctum: ‘molten colour … drops from the hollow vaults and thickens the air.’
Our ‘interesting times’, with their own molten colour, demand that we challenge the language we use to describe them. This requires fewer clichés, fewer curses and far more of poetry’s mis-seaming of our words and ideas. Through the experimentation poetry demands, which seldom casts language anew, but as something to be endlessly re-encountered and re-invented for a changing world, we might discover more about our troubled moment than we yet know.
This article first appeared in frieze issue 203 with the headline ‘Coming To Terms’
Main Image: St. Mark's Square During the Historic Flood, 1966. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
First published in Issue 203