Let Go and Go On and On by Tim Kinsella: Never an Unconditional Freedom
The other day, I asked a woman working in the R.C. Gorman gallery in Taos, New Mexico how she would characterize her relationship to Gorman after becoming well acquainted with his work. She deflected--she had never met Gorman and believed that you cannot know someone solely on the basis of their body of visual art (for literary work, she was open to the possibility). She insisted that it was possible to truly know someone, but that a body of visual artwork was not sufficient enough to merit a posthumous relationship. One could be an expert on a person, she insisted, without truly knowing them. I walked out of the gallery, confused and confronted by questions about the relationship between artists, audience, and work. I asked myself, what is the threshold of information that must be provided, and in what form, in order to know someone? And how does that threshold differ from that which is required to become an expert? In other words, what characterizes that intuitive distinction between intellectually knowing about someone and intimately knowing them? And if the information is dishonest, if it is interpolated from provided cues, what is that thing which we come to know or know about? When does a person become an archetype?
What is known about Laurie Bird? She appeared in three films--Two-Lane Blacktop, Cockfighter, and Annie Hall. She was romantically involved with director Monte Hellman and later, Art Garfunkel. She took up photography, at least far enough to shoot the cover artwork for Garfunkel’s solo album Watermark. At the age of 25, she committed suicide via valium overdose in the apartment she shared with Garfunkel. In total, it’s far from enough information to be a basis for “knowing”, both in the sense of knowing about her and personally knowing her. In 2014, emo musician Tim Kinsella (of Joan of Arc, American Football, and Cap'n Jazz) wrote a novel on the basis of this information, using details of her life and the plot of her films as a springboard from which he vaults and contorts the structures of the world and defining aspects of self. Without knowing much about her, he builds a relationship to her, or rather, an idea of her. In Let Go and Go On and On, Kinsella toys with the concept of the fictional biography by reducing Laurie Bird down to her archetypal perception and mirroring her back at the world which perceives her. Let Go and Go On and On is a novel in four parts which ties together the films of Laurie Bird with the film Bad Timing, which Art Garfunkel was shooting when Laurie Bird committed suicide. The plots of these films are linked together through Laurie Bird’s actual biography, forming a cohesive narrative. Each character in the book, which includes Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel, Woody Allen, and Harry Dean Stanton, adhere to similar structures, their biography indistinguishable from the roles they played in the films they appeared in. This structure is certainly creative, and goes a long way in exploring the relationship of acting to agency.
The book is written in a second person point-of-view, or rather, a first person perspective that is not revealed until the final segment. At first, this read as commanding and a bit gimmicky. Used in this context, the second person is like an invasion of privacy, a seizure of one’s personal territory of identity. The reader is implied to be Laurie, and her (our) actions are dictated to her (us) from an outside force--she (we) seems to have little agency in choosing our actions. She (we) is doomed to be caught between pairs of men, quietly and dispassionately drifting from lover to lover, place to place. The effect is to render Laurie as a kind of doll, tolerating whatever man is around out of survival, but having little control over her actual life. As the book progressed, I developed a resentment toward the narrating voice that was referring to Laurie in the second person, who focused so much on the men and circumstances around her and so little on her actual character traits. The character traits she is portrayed to have are viewed through an external lens, to the extent that it remains still difficult to discern much about her actual personality. The narrator is then revealed to be Art Garfunkel, which seems like a huge joke. The portrayal of Garfunkel actually seems pretty spot on for his general abrasive personality--he’s one to huff and cuss out interviewers, and his portrayal was not a particularly romantic one. Kinsella’s Garfunkel cannot entirely view Laurie outside the context of the men around her. She drifts above roaming landscapes, a blank void without men to pin her down to Earth. In spite of this, it is a portrayal that is powerless--as carefree as she may be, she knows where her power lies, and is able to use her sexuality in her survival.
In considering the medium of film, it is common to associate the camera with the freudian male phallus--it is often viewed in criticism as both the eye of the male gaze and a sometimes violating cock which infiltrates intimate spheres at its own whim. The audience is typically given a phantom cock in viewing a scene through the camera’s eye--they are treated to an array of thrills and delights as the camera penetrates into time and claims it for itself. Kinsella seems to make a critique of the medium of film under this line of theory. In fact, the book is less about who Laurie Bird actually was than it is about the power of this camera-phallus of stripping its subject of agency, and by extension, how the role of biography relates to this inquiry into agency. By implementing the second person point-of-view, he places the reader in the role of both audience and subject, on both ends of the camera. It’s an uncomfortable place to be, to alternate between alignment with the addresser and addressee. It’s an arousing text, but the way it is arousing is like watching pornography of acts that you never wish to experience. You briefly place yourself in the position of the subject, relish in the perversity of the act you are viewing, and step back with clarity and revulsion at what you enjoy. His men are douchebags. They themselves represent the power of the camera as they bend the subject into their own narratives. Kinsella, for his role, exempts himself into the realm of critique.
Laurie Bird, for her part, is a symbol of performativity and agency. Her body is perceived in distorted memory, through moments in film, doomed to never be reproduced in complete likeness. It is an extreme form of our own societal perception. Always a moment lost, always a compendium of information, cobbled together to form impressions of identity. Merleau-Ponty writes in Phenomenology of Perception, “Man is a historical idea and not a natural species… All that we are, we are on the basis of a de facto situation which we appropriate to ourselves and which we transform by a sort of escape which is never an unconditioned freedom.” All that remains of Laurie Bird is the idea of her, which, with regards to her portrayal in Let Go and Go On and On, is perpetually constrained to her films and the men around her. We ourselves remain constrained to our own contexts, distorted through what lenses are around to perceive us. Our notions of who we are occupy the dual space of observer and observed that is induced by Kinsella’s second person perspective--to get an impression of who we are, we must allow ourselves to be observed and place ourselves in an externally objective stance. These are roles which are much easier to alternate between than to simultaneously hold.
In many ways, our perception of ourselves and others is archetypal. We build brands of association to establish who a person is. It is an elusive thing to pin down the threshold between knowing and not knowing a person, particularly when it is inevitably filtered through some lens. In a way, it’s calming to view humans as a historical phenomenon. It is more as if a person is a chain of events with which we can interact and ingrain into our own set of phenomena than it is as if a human is something rigid and essential. On the other hand the idea is disconcerting--that you may never shed your own lens of perception, as much as that lens may warp and fade. There is also the fantasy, the range of possibilities that a person could have occupied--it may not be factitious, but it remains historical.