I would like to use this opportunity to speak about Herbert Blau. Really, only Blau and his influence have brought me here today.
In my early twenties, a number of months out of college, I was on hold, biding my time, and I was lucky enough to land a job perfect for sustaining a desire to stay that way perpetually. I worked in the media library at Emory University. I could thread the projector (yes, this was a while ago) and watch Last Year at Marianbad during my lunch break. I led a blessed life. I could also move through the stacks at will, reading as deeply as I wished into anything that appealed, playing hunt the citation in the great Guttenberg Galaxy.
I tended to juggle books that touched on the theatre with anything else emerging from that certain French turn in Philosophy and Criticism. I saw myself on a quest to systematically drag my perceptions in all sorts of new and interesting directions, and somehow Post-Structuralism was going to be my way to go about it. I really did think of myself as an artist looking for new answers. At that point, I was too young and cowardly to realize it was really about looking for new questions. I want to say I picked up Blooded Thought at some point between Of Grammatology and Anti-Oedipus.
To truly do justice to Blau, I know I should spend some time on his background. And on his style. And on his domain of theoretical engagement. I’m not. I am not equipped to deliver a learned and seasoned comprehensive encomium on Blau. I can report merely as one who got caught up in the writing, in that impossible vortex, and was helplessly entangled in the mystery lurking within the spin. I believe a truly seasoned academic commentator will laugh at this point because it is about to become clear that as an eager youngster in search of new highs, I fell victim to a syndrome that has afflicted many. The professional Blau scholars have watched it happen time and again to many a vulnerable and impressionable mind, have listened to an endless stream of anecdotes. That word. I beheld that word. In the middle of all the ferocious theoretical work there appeared that one word. Here and there. In the acknowledgements and in a few of the chapters. Often popping up in the text after a nod to something characterized as a fundamental and constitutive opacity or as a scandalous betrayal of the whole notion of representation carried out by the very mimetic attempt itself or after a catalog of Heideggerian imponderables tangling and contending in a darkness beyond what can be said or seen or fleetingly grasped. The word appeared. IN ALL CAPS. I felt the dark tentacled grip of it. Always coupled with the assertion of a recollected attempt. KRAKEN.
You need to know at this point that I spent some time as a Boy Scout when I was a kid. I was not Eagle material or anything like that. I was happy and content in the rank and file. I’m not sure if I ever made it as far as First Class. I distinguished myself only once, I think I remember, by being the only member of our troop who earned the Dentistry merit badge. My mom had a cousin who taught at a dental school and so could set me up with a former student as an advisor. When left on my own, however. I lacked the initiative to soar. For me it was all about camping, the simple fun of belonging, and pouring over the Handbook with an ever-renewable fascination.
Blau referenced his work with the KRAKEN group in Blooded Thought, and the Boy Scout read it, eyes wide with a total readiness to align himself in any way possible. Scholars chuckle. I’m imagining they call it the KRAKEN effect: the mere word on the page acting as a prompt, as a call to some wholly indeterminate action, as a made-to-order example of Jean Laplanche’s “enigmatic signifier.”
The wonder of the Boy Scout Handbook lay in the setting out of ways forward for finding adventure. There were steps one could take. The only real possibility for adventure available if you think about it. There were certainly no formulas or know-how on hand for traversing the mysteries of sexuality, for instance. Nothing written down as far as that was concerned. There was no compendium one could consult to find a way forward, hence that world was destined to remain neatly divided into those who knew and those who didn’t, the baffled who stood in place, and the adept who knew when to disappear around the corner. But in Scouting there was a handbook. One could put one’s desire and wonder to work. One could find answers. The Boy Scout hungrily read through Blooded Thought because somehow KRAKEN presented a similar set of possibilities: there was an invitation from the unknown and a suggested approach, somewhere to go and something to do, and the possibility that I wouldn’t have to do it all alone, that I might be making this odd quest accepted as part of a troop.
How simple I make it all seem. Surely this is not a distinct tribute to Blau. My enthusiasm for a word on a page is not a fitting representation of the work of a great theatre artist and thinker. No, but I did not read with the mind of a scholar. I read as the Boy Scout. And I kept the Scout with me as I moved forward, undertaking a number of creative and intellectual adventures in the years to come. Often I relied on the Scout’s orienteering skills, especially as I ventured into territories where I knew I lacked the proper degree of callow mental equipage to contend as a player of the first rank. When I felt my lack of layered knowingness, the Boy Scout supplied a well-timed “Golly, gee whiz” (I could sprout freckles and a pronounced Adam’s apple on cue) to remind everyone I possessed the power of an unprepossessing enthusiasm bubbling up from a non-threatening place. I was not glamorous but somehow partook of that which the ancients had in mind when naively referring to “the good” and, therefore, was acceptable as a curio.
Through a strange combination of effort and happenstance I was able to pursue my fascination with Blau and KRAKEN, the Boy Scout always at my side, always consulting the Handbook when necessary, using his imagination to speculate on a procedure when the Handbook seemed to be missing passages and pages, always ready to help find a trail that kept us safe from too much scrutiny while still moving forward. I insisted the Boy Scout share my preoccupation with safety. You never knew when you might be called to account as you pushed along the trail. I wasn’t that interested in holding forth on the flora and fauna we had passed. I could not entertain with relevant Cherokee lore about a particular stretch on a particular mountain. I had no grasp on the political climate during which such and such territory changed hands. I wanted to keep safe from revealing my lack or the non-discursive nature of my enthusiasm. Wondering if I would be able to dislocate my shoulder on cue typified the nature of my preoccupation; I didn’t want to learn to hold forth on its relevance to Kierkegaard’s radical turn from the Hegelian analysis of intersubjectivity. Self-protection was a priority
My concern for protection extended ultimately, of course, to hiding from Blau himself. The Boy Scout wanted to write to him, but I kept insisting we wait. It wasn’t until we had walked away from the art of the theatre and began camping out at the University of West Georgia’s Psychology Department that I gave the Boy Scout permission to send Blau a note. Blau responded warmly. He approved of the Boy Scout’s unusual proposed project for earning the Self-Creation merit badge. He even gave a supportive nod to the Auto-Didactic elements on display in the attempt to bandy about the banner of Lacan and cite from a new supplement to the Handbook recently brought into the mix. I remember reading his letter as I sat at a table in the West Georgia Library. I remember my shakiness. Lacan’s observation that a letter always arrives at its destination underwent an interesting variation in this instance. The letter arrived, but it did not remain. Hours after leaving the library, I discovered the letter was missing from my bag. I had left it at the library. When I had an opportunity to return there to search, it was too late. The Boy Scout grew a bit cold toward me after that.
He would still accompany me on outings and occasional overnight trips, of course. He did his best helping me navigate my clinical training, but he acknowledged that the going was getting pretty rough and the equipment was getting heavy. He began to seem less invested.
I think he understood and began to accept something long before I did. I am still trying to accept it. Each call to adventure is the beginning of a little fantasy. I bring my lunatic desire for conviction and commitment. I ask the Boy Scout to bring something simple and real to distract me, or to ground me, or to help me will the imagined into the realizeable, into some play of fact that will actually mark time.
What if, when all the work is done, when the artist in me is well and truly silent, someone lifts up a log and discovers what I did, half buried there in the humus? What if I am recognized and singled out for my contribution to the world of performance? Of letters? Of the state of the Art itself? There’s the thought out of time in all of its ugly desperation, probably first churned out on a walk, the fantasy swirling into view. How to bring legitimacy to a crazy moment of hubris? The audience can’t be allowed to detect the frothing at the mouth as Napoleon tries to gnaw through his straps and fight his way to the podium. I ask the Boy Scout if there’s anything in the Handbook about preparing an acceptance speech. Something to provide perspective. Something modest. He’s followed me up to the stage. He stands in the wings watching. He’s not leafing through anything. He is not holding a compass. His arms are crossed.
He is snickering. He’s about to say something. The Boy Scout can be thrifty, brave, and true, but he also is a scamp. He likes to joke. Sometimes that is his sole contribution.
(It was the Boy Scout, after all, who attempted to establish my qualifications to function as a truly knowing amanuensis to a psychology professor to whom I’d just been assigned as a graduate assistant by engaging her at the level of Critical Feminist Theory, one of her acknowledged specialties. He attached a note to the first paper she asked me to proof for her in which, amidst a few notes and suggestions, he confessed his frustration with her over-reliance on commas, suggesting to her that she had scattered them through her text like so many de-tumescent penises. This was definitely trying too hard, of course, but she did acknowledge the effort, disproving the stereotyped characterization of her ilk as wholly lacking a sense of humor. You work with what you got, or what you don’t got, as the case may be. “Be prepared!” the Scout offers while grinning.)
And as I stand there waiting for some can-do guidance on an acceptance speech, the Boy Scout stifles the snickering long enough to produce: “Acceptance Speech: ‘Accept. Accept. Accept. Accept.’” Okay, not that funny. Kind of dumb. But he has targeted the thing precisely. He knows how to push my buttons.
These were originally words from my mouth. It wasn’t that funny when I first spoke them. I invite you to imagine at this point a Southern Dowager from generations back, still the object of ancestral worship among her family. She did her part helping establish and preserve the reach of a founding family in the smallish town in which she lived. She was characterized as a bit of a saint. The Sunday school class she taught was legend, and a book was published a few years ago that collected her writings, meditations, and teachings. You could find it at the town’s locally owned bookstore. My wife’s family was part of that old town mix, so we had a copy. The title and theme touched upon acceptance. I must confess I acted like a total snot when it first came out. There was much I had yet to accept about who I was and where I was and what I was. And wasn’t. So I mistreated the memory of a sweet woman, about whom I really knew very little (certainly hadn’t read the book), to contend with my misery. I would sneer at my wife at opportune moments, erroneously assuming my enjoyment was shared, and intone in a voice laced with hokum: “In the words of the Dowager: ‘Accept. Accept. Accept…….Accept.’”
The Acceptance Speech of a miserable creature. Really, only I have brought me here today.
I find myself entertaining the idea that the Analyst is waiting and listening for an Acceptance Speech to begin….
(The Analyst, of course, is not where I am with this malarkey. The Analyst makes a cut: You find yourself entertaining, do you?)
…A speech that sounds an acceptance of what, though? Where was I when I encountered the KRAKEN? I wasn’t pulled under at that point, was I? Or was I myself tentatively surfacing, laced among the letters, latching on through the gaps with my own greedy tentacles? I’ve always been pre-occupied with orienting myself with respect to the concepts at work in the Lacanian clinic. Still clinging to the Handbook. I think maybe the Boy Scout, usually my accomplice, kicked me forward here, helping me traverse the fantasy on this one. I think I’ve manage to grasp a drive as well. I can grip it tightly for an instant and see it for what it is. But accept it for what I am?