‘Leaving the Atocha Station’ and the art of not quite saying what you mean
For Tao Lin, Ben Lerner’s novel ‘Leaving the Atocha Station’ (2011) exists as a ‘concisely definitive study of the “actual” versus the “virtual” as applied to relationships, language, poetry, [and] experience’. Adam Gordon — Lerner’s untrustworthy alter-ego — cannot escape this mode of thinking, or of experiencing. The novel’s opening pages relate an encounter with Van der Weyden’s ‘Descent from the Cross’ in the Museo del Prado, Madrid. ‘I was interested in the disconnect between my experience of actual artworks and the claims made on their behalf,’ Adam suggests, immediately concerned by the emotional response of a man seemingly undergoing ‘a profound experience of art’ at the foot of the painting:
I had long worried that I was incapable of having a profound experience of art and I had trouble believing that anyone had, at least anyone I knew. I was intensely suspicious of people who claimed a poem or painting or piece of music “changed their life,” especially since I had often known these people before and after their experience and could register no change.
Adam cannot align his own experience of the painting to that of the stranger’s. The transcendent, ‘virtual’ appreciation of art evades him — if, as he wonders, it exists at all. Indeed, ‘the closest I’d come to having a profound experience of art,’ he continues, ‘was probably the experience of this distance, a profound experience of the absence of profundity’.
[Grossman] describes what he calls “virtual” poetry. Poems are virtual for Grossman because there is an unbridgeable gap between what the poet wants the poem to do and what it can actually do…[P]oetry issues from the desire to get beyond the human, the finite, the historical, and to reach the transcendent or divine. But as soon as the poet moves from the poetic impulse to the actual poem, the song of the infinite is compromised by the finitude of its terms.
This necessary failure, for Lerner and for Gordon, creates a void between the reception of the art and the art itself. ‘[P]oems would constitute screens on which readers could project their own desperate belief in the possibility of poetic experience…or afford them the opportunity to mourn its impossibility’. Poems are ‘pure potentiality, awaiting articulation’. This belief engenders a kind of negative experience, whereby emotion is inherently related to the potential of an artwork as opposed to its physical realization. Negative experience of this sort necessitates a continual adherence to the virtual. Indeed, Adam exerts a constant, corresponding impulse towards interpretation, relentlessly demanding an answer to the question “What does this mean?” or, more acutely, “What might this mean?”
It is, in part, from John Ashbery that Adam comes to recognize this distance, both in his art and his personal life. ‘Ashbery’s flowing sentences always felt as if they were making sense, but when you looked up from the page, it was impossible to say what sense had been made,’ he suggests before reading lines from ‘Clepsydra’. The process of reading Ashbery, for Adam, presents a singular profundity, ‘as though the actual…poem were concealed from you, written on the other side of a mirrored surface, and you saw only the reflection of your reading,’ an experience of your experience ‘that keeps the virtual possibilities of poetry intact because the true poem remains beyond you’. Lerner’s discussion of this humiliating process is contained in his own essay on the poet, ‘The Future Continuous: Ashbery’s Lyric Mediacy’ (boundary 2, 2010). An accomplished poet himself, with three equally demanding collections of verse, Lerner reflects that ‘I wanted to take these ideas about poetry and the arts and…track their effects once they were placed in a particular body, mind, and time’.
Adam’s anxieties towards the ‘actual’ and the ‘virtual’, however, culminate in his self-identified fraudulence; indeed, he considers himself at one stage to have been operating as ‘a small-time performance artist pretending to be a poet’. ‘That I was a fraud had never been in question,’ he adds, ‘who wasn’t?’ Adam is drawn into the confusion of his own fraught dishonesty, gradually losing sight of the boundary separating the real from the fabricated, unable to control the various meanings which might be projected onto him, though meticulously attempting defend himself, to ensure a particular, unmisinterpretable sense of self. As with the poetry, however, Adam finds this a constant and unmanageable exercise in failure. As the novel progresses, his anxieties towards this continuous performance intensify. Indeed, he draws the comparison between his existence in Spain and the composition of his poetry in an unprompted moment of personal scrutiny, bordering on justification:
…my research had taught me that the tissue of contradictions that was my personality was itself, at best, a poem, where “poem” is understood as referring to a failure of language to be equal to the possibilities it figures; only then could my fraudulence be a project and not merely a pathology; only then could my distance from myself be redescribed as critical, aesthetic, as opposed to a side effect of what experts called my substance problem…the origins of which lay not in my desire to evade reality, but in my desire to have a chemical excuse for reality’s unavailability.
And yet, for Lerner, ‘Adam’s awareness of the virtual is [also] a heightening of experience and not just a denial of experience: a way of “experiencing mediacy immediately,” to use the phrase he uses while praising John Ashbery’. In this sense, at least, Adam’s cultivated striving for immediacy, the fabrication of his own complex, almost Protean self, owes a debt to Walter Pater. In the ‘Conclusion’ to ‘Studies in the History of the Renaissance’ (1873) — a collection of essays treating the aesthetic values of art, literature and (ultimately) life — Pater advocates a conscious and continued variability in human experience. ‘To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy,’ he writes, ‘is success in life’; to ‘set the spirit free for a moment’ is experience’s end, whilst ‘our failure is to form habits’. This, of course, returns to the interpretive process. Adam reflects upon his individual experiences, suggesting that ‘when one was in the midst of some new intensity, kiss or concussion, one was suddenly composed exclusively of such moments,’ before echoing Pater’s above aesthetic strategy himself.He is hesitant, however, to validate this intensity. His fraudulence gets the better of him:
…such moments were equally impossible to represent precisely because they were ready-made literature, because the ease with which they could be represented entered and cancelled the experience: where life was supposed to be its most immediate…life was at its most generic, following the rules of Aristotle, and one did not make contact with the real, but performed such contact for an imagined audience.
If, as Pater asserts, our failure is to form habits, then Adam’s anxiety arises from a sense that even his most immediate and variable experiences retain a bathetic sense of exhaustion. The intensity of the encounter has been used up before it has been experienced, reducing it to a kind of fraudulent repetition, a performance for ‘an imagined audience’. And yet, later in the novel, Adam again interrogates his personality. ‘Maybe only my fraudulence was fraudulent,’ he suggests, though this is, in a sense, exactly the point.
Reading after Tomás at the gallery evening, Adam’s poems are subsequently translated into Spanish for the audience. Unable to marry what is being spoken to what he has written, Adam has difficulty identifying his work. Nevertheless, ‘as the poem went on I slowly began to recognize something like my own voice, if that’s the word, a recognition made all the more strange in that I’d never recognized my own voice before’. Adam, like his poetry, is presented in fragments, a combination of the real and the fabricated, translated into one body. We read Lerner’s novel with hesitancy, reluctant to commit to Adam’s persona, ever-changing and unsure of itself. And yet, we slowly begin to recognize something like his own voice, mediated though it is through the multiplicity of lies, fabrications, and suspicions he engenders, never quite saying what he means. Before we can reach any finite certainty, however, our interpretations are evaded once again. Adam moves on, maintaining a constant virtuality of his own which we cannot hope to contain. As the final lines of the poem appropriated from ‘The Lichtenburg Figures’ suggests, we are engaged in a continual failure to apprehend him:
I have never been here.
You have never seen me.
Ben Lerner continues to explore the junctures between art and contemporary life, and his work demands more attention than it has currently received. Since ‘Leaving the Atocha Station’ he has published ‘The Golden Vanity’ in The New Yorker, a new chapbook, ‘The Dark Threw Patches Down Upon Me Also’, and most recently ‘False Spring’, a short story for The Paris Review. His second novel, ‘10:04’, is due for publication in autumn of 2014.