Dwelling, Regret, Permutational Art

(N.B. I wrote this for a class last semester. It was rejected. I kind of like the idea still and I figure my own blog cannot reject me, no matter how wrong I am. Sorry for any layout errors, I copy and pasted. As a result, the foot/endnotes don't worry- they are trying to link to the original document for some reason.)
When Johannes Göransson came to my class to discuss A New Quarantine Will Take My Place, one of my students asked him if he hated the world and what his relationship with his parents was like. As the teacher who invited Johannes, I was a bit embarrassed. However, if the student felt the need to ask those questions, there must have been something that came up in the text for her. After that point, when discussing students’ poems, I have done my best to push them away from asking those kinds personal of questions because initially did not want them to feel limit the scope of their discussion. I have gone to the measure of acting as though the author is not in the room during the first read. Now, at the students’ insistence, they are getting poems for workshop a few days in advance, forcing them to come up with their own interpretation before they even hear the author read their poem.
It is ultimately foolish, however, to tell my students to remove biographical inquiry from their toolbox. With poems in general, sometimes whatever key it takes to get into them is a necessary item to have, even when that key requires you to look beyond the page. Is it possible to read the Dream Songs without knowing a bit about John Berryman? No. Although, I do admit biographical context is itself a problematic method for understanding poetry. But while the New Critics would say that one should not look beyond the page and that the work should stand by itself, I think a contextual approach ultimately allows readers to understand a work better. It might not be fair to the author to focus on them rather than their work, but I believe that ultimately, all work is a manifestation of its creator.
Berryman’s Henry is a version of himself, although Berryman does attempt to separate the two identities. Paul Mariani writes in his biography, Dream Song: The Life of John Berryman, that Berryman and his second wife Ann Levine came up with names for one another— “Henry” for John and “Mabel” for Ann (Mariani 298). These pseudonyms allowed them to blame one another somewhat indirectly for mishaps in their marriage. It was out of this context that Henry emerged as a permutation of Berryman's own identity, a creation of a dream world of the poems. In a way, Berryman uses the construction he and his wife had to lay upon Henry all the issues that Berryman is working through at the time. This includes his father’s suicide when he was twelve, a major factor in all of his work and possibly the catalyst for his own suicide in 1972. As if foreshadowing the actual outcome of Berryman’s own life, it was the dwelling on issues that led to the creation of Henry even in the context of Berryman’s marriage: if he and his wife had not been dwelling on the disagreements that they had been having, they would never have needed to create characters to blame. As a result, Henry comes to be the center of Berryman’s own dwellings and regrets in The Dream Songs.
In Dream Song number 4, Henry is at dinner where he sees a woman (who might be part of Henry’s table) that he finds particularly attractive:
Filling her compact & delicious body
with chicken páprika, she glanced at me
Fainting with interest, I hungered back
and only the fact of her husband & four other people
kept me from springing on her
or falling at her little feet and crying
'You are the hottest one for years of night
Henry's dazed eyes
have enjoyed, Brilliance.' I advanced upon
(despairing) my spumoni.--Sir Bones: is stuffed,
de world, wif feeding girls.
--Black hair, complexion Latin, jewelled eyes
downcast . . . The slob beside her feasts . . . What wonders is
she sitting on, over there?
The restaurant buzzes. She might as well be on Mars.
Where did it all go wrong? There ought to be a law against Henry.
--Mr. Bones: there is.
(Berryman 6)
Berryman uses his poetry, and the character of Henry, to dwell on and process his regrets over a shared experience. Mariani’s biography of Berryman suggests this may be similar to a real life incident. Of course, the universal desires of a lyric poem aside, how else could Berryman have reconstructed the moment and given us his experience of it other than in art? Even though Berryman could perhaps have told people his desires, only in art is there the sense of closure that comes only from artistic reconstruction because in speaking of desires, there is no ability to recreate the space. And while it can be argued that it is Berryman speaking directly, Henry truly serves as the agent of Berryman’s emotions. The sense of guilt that Henry expresses is twofold. First, his lust would be frowned upon if anyone knew that is how he feels. Second, Berryman regrets not doing what he wanted to do. Here is Sir Bones’ (whom I will discuss a bit later) indictment: both feelings are wrong and as a result, and Henry has been preemptively outlawed. Perhaps this self-critique is harsh of Berryman, but if this is how he is feeling, we should not argue.
We can endlessly discuss whether or not Henry is really Berryman, but I would argue that there is no separating the two, regardless of Berryman’s introduction to The Dream Songs (v)[1]. Berryman asks us to attribute the character of Henry to the title of the work, suggesting that Henry is truly only a figure of Berryman’s imagination and nothing more. However, again on page 298 of his biography, Mariani tells us that Berryman had been putting together his dreams for some time, but it was finally upon adding his wife’s hurtful nickname as the character that Berryman began work earnestly on the series of poems.
I am bringing in permutation, a math term, as a way of thinking about the biographical relation between the author and the work. The term “permutation” refers to all the possible combinations of a set of numbers. For example, if you had the numbers [1, 2, 3], then there are five other permutations of it: [1, 3, 2], [2, 1, 3], [2, 3, 1], [3, 1, 2], and [3, 2, 1].[2] What the mathematical permutation does not allow for is any change in the ultimate outcome. No matter how you arrange the set of numbers, they are still the same numbers. However, the part I am interested in is the process in which the numbers are rearranged. How the numbers are arranged, I believe, can change the perception of those numbers. A permutation in a creative sense is the reorganization of existing events in order for there to be a new outcome. Permutations exist not only in poetry, but in other artistic forms as well. I believe these other art forms can be looked at as a text. Film, for example, is in many ways the modern equivalent of the mass produced lyric voice because film attempts to address many of the same issues as the lyric has historically covered by giving us the sense of experience versus only being a list of events. Permutational art is an offshoot of the idea of an author's surrogate, which of course allows the creator to exist in a work as a character or narrator. I believe that taking this a step further is a permutation, the manipulation of that character to fit the ideal of the creator.
This permutation is often based on regret because regret is where dwelling is usually focused. Regret, however, is not enough to spur on an artistic endeavor. Martin Heidegger writes in “…Poetically Man Dwells…” that only language, and specifically poetry, creates the ability for a person to dwell. However, I believe and will discuss how we as a society now dwell in other art forms in similar ways. What happens in much of art, especially writing, is the creation of a permutation of an existing situation. The reason I say especially writing is because Heidegger points out to us that language is the ultimate use of art because language is the tool we have developed for all things. Permutations are born from dwelling because then the principle here is the motivation for creating a new version of what occurred. For example, if in real life an individual wanted to seduce another person, but for whatever reason felt inadequate, art serves as a means to keep their feelings obscured and somewhat distinct from their person, but to still express them. Ultimately art becomes the means to an ideal conclusion. Now, “ideal” can mean different things and is not beholden to a positive conclusion. What is important here, though, is that art is very often the place to make up for a situation which did not turn out as expected. Art, beyond the mind, is the only place where these permutations can manifest themselves and is certainly the only physical exercise which works. Regret has the ability to become compulsion- to become reenacted in thought so often that there are only a few outlets: insanity, of course; violence (which is not all together dissimilar than insanity); and creative reconstruction.
Heidegger’s definition of dwelling is not necessarily disputed by this essay. If dwelling is meant to be a physical place, like Earth in Hölderlin’s poem, then the goal of permutation is not to take the emotional dwelling and leave it there: the goal is to create a physical dwelling for the reconstruction via art. While Heidegger says that the goal is to broaden the dwelling place, the degree should be mutable and can be considered a smaller dwelling: that of the art, which is, ignoring its performance or display, an inherently personal endeavor[3], a very small dwelling indeed.
Before I go further, I want to take a minute and talk about “ideal.” Ideals vary greatly, which seems obvious, but that means that permutations also vary quite a bit. The beauty of my definition of permutation is that it really means a nearly infinite set of possibilities, limited only by the context of the biographical antecedent. For example, if your antecedent is that you wish you had told someone you loved them but instead ended up crying, terrified of being rejected, your possible list of permutations can only be so many different things. If you are interested in realism, you cannot really turn into a bee and sting the object of your affections. Obviously, if you do not care for realism, that opens up the possibilities greatly. Of course, your list of possibilities will only be able to reflect the ideals that might meet your goal. If you want to recreate an outcome which is positive to you, then obviously there are a limited number of options. In recalling and in manipulating is where I believe there is some desire to achieve an ideal, a version of the situation that best fits our perfect vision of it. This is, of course, entirely subjective, especially considering that different ideals permeate every person and every person in a single moment, and the way a moment plays out is a reflection of those ideals, by either meeting expectations or denying them. Plays and poems I have written, which I will return to, are certainly idealizations of moments that turned out less than perfect. This is not an issue of fault, but rather a situational reflection: certain things just could not go the way I would have wanted, so as a result of recalling those memories, I constructed a creative method of dealing with the issues. And I'm certainly not alone.
An example of permutation as an attempt to reform an ideal being forced into the real life of the work is Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo where, in order to save the woman he loves, Scottie Ferguson forces Judy Barton to become Madeleine Elster again so that he can stop her from allegedly killing herself. Of course, he figures out that Judy was the woman he fell in love with before. She was pretending to be Madeleine so that Gavin Elster could kill his wife and Scottie would be a witness to it and at the same time unable to stop the actions from moving forward. However, the point remains that Scottie, in attempting to recreate the situation, was hoping it would turn out differently so he could absolve himself of fault as well as carry on his relationship with the new Madeleine. Even while attempting to delude himself that Judy was a different person that Madeleine, Scottie, simultaneously on subconscious and conscious levels, knows that the permutation that allows him to save his love cannot happen. As this occurs, he pushes Judy further and further into looking like her version of Madeleine. Of course none of this works and Judy too falls to her death, out of surprise, in contrast to Madeleine's murder.
Personally, I have worked in permutation, though I did not define it as such at the time. During my first two years as an undergraduate student at the University of Georgia, I wrote a short play each fall semester to be performed as part of an evening of short pieces. The second one, Seeing Somebody was a re-imaging of events that had transpired in the months prior: I had been spending time with a young woman and I had no idea how to gauge her level of interest in me. Eventually I decided that she had no interest in me at all, which turned out to be incorrect, but only because we never discussed the issue. The play then, is about a male and a female sitting in a theater, first silent and then gradually beginning to discuss how they feel about each other and what to call their relationship. To be honest, the play was terrible, but for me, it was a version of what could have been, ideally. Ideally this person and I could have talked to each other, but because I was awkward and nineteen, I just avoided it. I do not know her motivation, but obviously in my revision, it is not terribly important: the woman, as they wait for the movie to begin, asks “So what are we?” Again, this would have been ideal (at the time).
I think that those two plays owe a lot to the work of Woody Allen. Allen generally plays the same character in many of his movies and the main characters in my plays are basically versions of me. Is the Woody Allen of real life anything like his on-screen personas? Does it matter? Well, not really, I admit, but what does matter is that in the roles that Allen is writing, he sees a version of himself in those characters. Maybe he does not do this consciously, but I think we can all agree that we imagine that Alvy Singer or Larry Lipton to be Woody Allen in one way or another. Not only can we not avoid that viewpoint, I think that Allen knows it is a character that can be identified with and so he, until he took a break from acting in his roles, writes that same basic version over and over again. I would argue beyond this that Allen purposely chooses to have characters similar to himself so that he may give it his feelings and emotions while putting them in either situations which he can rework creatively OR situations which are long term expansions of permutations. I would say that Manhattan Murder Mystery is one of those expansions, a dream of an ideal life for Allen, assuming he had stayed with Diane Keaton. It is obviously kind of a cliché situation finding yourself in the middle of a murder mystery, but I think the plot is separate from the life the Liptons had been leading up to that point.
In his film Manhattan, Allen’s character Issac Davis is dating a 17 year old, played by Mariel Hemingway. Hemingway’s character is reportedly based on Stacey Nelkin with whom Allen had a relationship that began when she was 17. Allen has never acknowledged this relationship, but based on his history as a filmmaker and actor, I cannot help but wonder if this is not yet another example of permutation in Allen’s work. I can imagine him saying to his young girlfriend that perhaps she should plan her life without him in it, that she should take the opportunities that come to her without regard for anyone else. Allen seems to have written an ideal version of what he would like to have said to appear on screen. None of this would be possible if Allen were not dwelling on the antecedents, which led to his regret.
This is not atypical for Allen and looking at Play It Again, Sam we even see his character having visions of Humphrey Bogart telling him how to move forward as he is in love with his friend’s wife. In a sense, Bogart appearing to Allen’s character allows him to do the most with permutation because not only does he have his own version to rely on, Bogart’s words become a second level of Allen being able to express his emotions within the film. Once again, the object of Allen’s affection is played by Diane Keaton and she also starred in the stage version prior to the making of the movie. It seems a pattern in Allen’s work to focus on Keaton and on permutations, and ideal he is attempting to reach.
For Berryman, Henry arguably has his own permutation in Mr. Bones, a sort of hallucination that Henry has throughout the course of the 385 poems that make up the book. It is “Sir Bones” who tells Henry that there is, in fact, a law against him and is often the person who responds to Henry’s comments. In a way, this permutation is not set up as any kind of ideal per se, but one that only speaks the truth to Henry, harboring itself against ideologies. Now, Berryman’s answer to all this is that the nature of the title informs all choices in the poems, but of course by bringing it into the conscious world, we have to question Berryman’s motives and decisions. What can be agreed upon, I hope, is that Sir Bones is Henry’s Id and that by bringing the Id into a named being, has created another permutation.
One thing that allows Berryman to work in permutation is that he has his permutation create its own permutation, allowing himself to further explore many angles and in fact examine the events and experiences that happen to Henry. While Berryman is a good example of this in poetry, by looking at television and film, we can see other examples of permutation within permutations, allowed for by the medium in which they are expressed. For example, there is the play inside the film Annie Hall and there is the show inside the larger show of Seinfeld. Why do such examples work? Because in examining permutations of permutations, we are further forced to look at the biographical context of their creation and it becomes necessary to admit we have to move beyond the work depicted. In the case of Alvy Singer’s play at the end of Annie Hall, the resolution is Alvy’s ideal permutation, in which Annie’s stand-in decides to follow Alvy back to New York City after Alvy’s stand-in’s passionate speech. Of course, Alvy really responded by asking for the check and getting upset and losing control of his emotions, crashing the rental car and having to deal with the police in a humorous conversation. In his play, Alvy manages to keep his cool and takes on a Bogart-esque masculinity, which endears Annie to him enough to return. Alvy even jokes about it: “Tsch, whatta you want? It was my first play. You know, you know how you're always tryin' t' get things to come out perfect in art because, uh, it's real difficult in life.” What better definition of permutation?
So here is an example of a permutation where we understand the ideal of the writer: of course Alvy wants Annie to come back because he is in love with her and because he has an artistic medium, he can live out the fantasy of her return. However, in the television series Seinfeld, the ideal seems to be keeping the status quo for an unknown creative purpose. Famously a show about nothing, what would have happened had the show “Jerry” been picked after the pilot episode aired? Larry David, Jerry Seinfeld, and their team of writers would have had to abandon the idea that the show was about “nothing” if Jerry and George Costanza were working on a television series. The show is doomed to fail for this reason and I would be willing to guess that it had been planned all along. It should be noted too that after this point, Seinfeld generally abandons the idea of having a seasonal arc, something that Larry David picks back up in Curb Your Enthusiasm. The permutation nature in both shows from the point comes to a micro level with both leads acting the way they wish they could act in real life. David especially speaks of wanting to act as he does on Curb but realizes that that kind of behavior is unacceptable in the real world. However, in the world of his show, David can write his permutation with as much anger and disdain as he chooses and create his own consequences from those events. While sometimes his choices have positive outcomes, any regular viewer of the show can realize that Larry David very rarely ends up a happy person. In this case, the ideal is for people to laugh and for the show to be critically acclaimed, so in David’s case, this is done at his own expense. It seems unlikely that in real life anyone would like to be laughed at for having a fight with their friend at the doorstep of a jewelry store.
For Heidegger, such examples and permutational art in general, all use language in order to express the dwelling and regret that leads to the constructive or reconstructive act. Do painters dwell on subjects that they eventually use in their craft? I assume they must, but there is no way to really measure or understand that in the visual realm of art. With language, we have the ability to create and manipulate the space in which we work, and so for writers that work in permutation, it is with language that they made their dwellings become the new project. Even if man does dwell only poetically, there is no doubt that I believe it is possible for the poetic to exist in other forms of art. I would even argue that films are a modern version of the lyric poem, attempting to cover the same ground that poetry used to hold. Where reading existed a means to pass time, now television and film fill part of that void, so it is necessary to look in that direction for a modern example. That said, in the future, I hope to be able to intelligently discuss the world of visual art in regard to this idea of permutation, but it beyond my knowledge at the moment.
I think an interesting hybrid example of language and visual use in a permutation would be the play within the film Rushmore by Wes Anderson. Before I go further, I do not believe Max Fischer (played by Jason Schwartzman) to be a permutation of Anderson, though it is certainly possible and even implied in the New York Times review of the film where Winters briefly states how Anderson and Fischer (“his comic creation”) are similar. The permutational work is between Fischer’s life and the life of his main character in his play “Heaven and Hell.” This play is perhaps one of the more difficult to understand examples of permutation because Fischer does not directly recreate the events that we have seen in the film or before that point. However, it is clear that when the movie is viewed as a whole, the play within it is Fischer attempting to create an ideal experience.
“Heaven and Hell” is prefaced by Fischer who dedicates the play to the memory of his late mother and the late husband of the teacher (Rosemary Cross, played by Olivia Williams) for whom he has been pining. Here Fischer, and to an extent Anderson, draws a connection between the play and the relationship between Fischer and Cross, which Fischer initially believes is hampered only by Cross’ love for her dead husband. In acknowledging Cross’ husband, Fischer seems to now understand the reasons why their relationship cannot work, though in the film it is clearly beyond this issue.
The play proper begins with soldiers during the Vietnam War. Dirk, Fischer’s friend, leads the group and says that in his mind, he is in Cheyenne, Wyoming, his hometown. It is this escapism we have been seeing throughout the film from Fischer: in order to avoid his home life, with his widowed father, a barber, Fischer takes on an impossible number of afterschool activities. At the same time, when asked about his father, Fischer says he is a “brain surgeon,” and while obviously a lie, it shows how he is attempting to create a façade in real life that cannot ultimately hold.
The connection to the Vietnam War is explained early on in the film: Fischer’s new friend at the beginning and eventual love interest of Ms. Cross, Herman Blume (played by Bill Murray) was “in the shit,” suggesting that he saw heavy fighting during the war. We see Blume crying at the end of the play when Esposito, Fischer’s character holds up his fingers in a peace sign saying “Maybe we’ll meet again someday, when the fighting stops.” This parallels Fischer’s dedication to his mother and to Cross’ husband in that it is an acknowledgement to his father, Ms. Cross, and Blume acknowledging that he now understands what those three characters have gone through in their lives. This is a sign of Fischer’s maturation throughout the course of the film, and, to an extent, his creation of the play is a signal of that maturation because it is through the play and through the manipulation of Esposito that he indicates his personal changes.
“Heaven and Hell” ends with Margaret Yang, who is evidently interested in Fischer, playing a woman pointing a gun at Esposito. Esposito turns and points his M-16 at her and asks her “Will you marry me, Lei Chan?” “You bet I will,” she responds. After the end of the play the characters are all dancing and Blume attempts to cut in with Yang, asking Fischer, who is dancing with her, “Can I dance with your girlfriend?” Fischer responds saying “She’s not my girlfriend,” and Yang retorts, “Yes I am!” While Fischer outwardly attempts to dismiss his relationship with Yang, it seems clear from the end of the play that he has acknowledged that Ms. Cross is in the past and that Yang is the future, if not the present.
The reason that Rushmore is a hybrid example is that the permutational nature can only be inferred and pieced together while in Berryman the evidentiary pieces are there. Rushmore presents the permutation as something outside of language because it is not only language used by Fischer to express his feelings. While he does use language on a limited basis it is the visual of Esposito being lowered by the helicopter that gives us the most prominent signal: Fischer wants to be the hero, not just for himself, but for the people that he cares about. However, with the end of the play, the hero is only leaving, the war still being fought and his friends who were just saved by him are moving on to another battle. While Fischer wants to be the hero, in Esposito’s exit, it seems clear that Max understands he can only be a hero for his friends and father in one moment, not in all moments.
I have not placed Rushmore along with the other examples listed above of works within works because we cannot necessarily understand how Fischer or any other character in the film is a version of Anderson created as a response to some event. In fact, in the same New York Times review, Anderson states that he and co-writer Owen Wilson attempted to create a "slightly heightened reality” which would indicate that they were not attempting to emulate reality for the sake of reconstructing it, but rather that they had some idea separate from themselves for the film. As a result, it would only be speculation to connect Anderson and Wilson directly to the world of the film. That said, Fischer provides enough for us to discuss and sift through.
None of these examples should suggest that permutations are only a retroactive endeavor. Quite the contrary, actually: one can create a permutation as a means to work forward creatively speaking, whether it be a book, a poem, a film, a play, or a yet unmentioned form of art. My friend David Smith is currently a translator of Norwegian and critic, but he has had the desire to write fiction that works in realism, believing that the events of normal life are worth placing in a creative frame. I listened to him speak candidly about some personal issues and things going in his life and, mirroring Seinfeld, I said, “See, this should be the book!” The idea, I told him, was not to make it directly biographical, but to give the scenario and the emotions that go with it to someone else, a fictional person. By handing these things over to a fictional person in a fictional space, the creator immediately disengages from the emotions, allowing them to manipulate the circumstances as they see fit. This detachment is not universal—I do not imagine any detachment by Berryman—but in thinkin­g about the reasons for creating a permutation, beyond the mere desire to emote, I think it is useful to consider that stepping away opens up the number of permutations possible, removing the question of ideal partially, thought ideals are such that they can adapt to fit around whatever the artist is trying to do.
This idea of permutational art is not perfect, nor is it exhaustive: C.D. Wright correctly pointed out to me that literally any poet or writer can be plugged into this essay as examples as writers generally tend to insert themselves into their work in some fashion. However, what seems to be the case is that while “author insertion” is discussed as a literary technique, it does not seem to have a more nuanced meaning beyond that. At the same time, permutational art might not need another definition: is it really any surprise that art reflects its creator? Do we really need a paper discussing how art reflects the desires of the artist to fix the things that go wrong in everyone’s life? I believe this reflects the genesis of the paper: what leads to the biographical reconstruction that takes place it art? The answer now is regret and dwelling, but perhaps that too is obvious. Perhaps the best answer for the point of this paper is to illuminate something is present in art and no doubt will be well into the future of human imagination. It is clear to me that often the things around us have no discussion surrounding them but they ought and so too should permutational art.
The other flaw in permutational art is that it requires some knowledge of the creator of that art, which is only possible in the last few hundred years. There may be works of literature that have permutational qualities that we can never know of because their authors are long since lost to history. In a sense, this idea can only reach so far back before it dissipates. Perhaps down the road there can be some better level of knowledge that can help situate correctly the work of those who were using permutation before we have some idea of “author insertion.” Thinking about dwelling again, it seems clear the dwelling is nothing new, so that man must have been doing so poetically for millennia.
Works Cited
Annie Hall. Dir. Woody Allen. Perf. Woody Allen, Diane Keaton. United Artists, 1977.
Berryman, John. The Dream Songs. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969. Print.
David, Larry. Curb Your Enthusiasm. HBO. New York, New York. Television.
Heidegger, Martin. Poetry, Language, Thought. New York: HarperCollins, 2001. Print.
Manhattan. Dir. Woody Allen. Perf. Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Michael Murphy, Mariel
Hemingway, and Meryl Streep. United Artists Corporation, 1979.
Mariani, Paul. Dream Song: The Life of John Berryman. New York: Paragon House, 1992. Print.
Play It Again, Sam. Dir. Herbert Ross. Perf. Woody Allen, Diane Keaton. Paramount, 1972.
Rushmore. Dir. Wes Anderson. Perf. Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray. Touchtone. DVD.
Seinfeld, Jerry, and Larry David. Seinfeld. NBC. New York, New York. Television.
Vertigo. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Perf. Jimmy Stewart. Paramount, 1958. DVD.

[1] Perhaps what Berryman is really doing here is attempting to throw us off the case, a slight of hand, if you will.
[2] Wikipedia’s definition of permutation: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Permutation
[3] Of course there are collaborations, but then it is not a personal activity if working with a partner or a group.