Edited by Andrea Spofford | Barry Kitterman | Amy Wright
Flutter Point (An Essay In Three Acts)
If you were to look for a person whose biography most reflected the twentieth century, you could do worse than Fritz Haber. The chemist who discovered how to fix Nitrogen from the air, thereby creating the artificial fertilizers that enabled a dramatic spike in population, was
the same one who adapted his process to make gunpowder, thereby fueling the massive death tolls of the century. The humanitarian who won the Nobel Prize for his discovery was the war criminal who pioneered the use of chemical weapons in the Battle of Ypres. The forward thinker who married the first woman to receive her PhD in chemistry from the University of Breslau was the one whose son led him one night in May of 1915 into the garden of his villa, where, after a party, his wife had shot herself with his revolver rather than remain married to him. Finally, the nationalist who renounced his Jewishness in favor of his Germanness early in his career was the same one who, persecuted by the Nazis, died en route to Palestine in 1934.
It would seem an instructive biography, but instructive of what? It’s tempting to see Haber’s life in terms of its painful ironies, to claim something like the law of unintended consequences at work, but it isn’t precisely true that the outcomes ran counter to his intentions. Take the rise of a militaristic Germany: it was just such a nation, minus the anti-Semitism, that Haber, as a fierce patriot, had always aspired to and towards which his research was directed. Haber’s .remarkable successes were met, almost uniformly, by remarkable failures, if not of a professional sort then of a moral one. He seemed unable to meet the dilemmas of his time with anything like integrity, and it may be that along with his success came certain responsibilities that Haber refused, as he would any restraints to his personal trajectory. He appears not to have understood that his ambition was also one of those dilemmas, and that for his own good, if for nobody else’s, it would have been best to accept certain curbs on it.
But then life strives, and the primary purpose of living, at least on the genetic level, is to perpetuate life—we may be more used by our genes, that is, than users of them. Think of the young chimpanzee climbing the social ladder. His goal is dominance, yes, but also the
privilege to mate with the females in the group, thereby passing on his DNA. Human success may be less overtly sexual, but perhaps those ambitions have become sublimated in the drive for, among other things, professional conquest. Ambition may sometimes take hideous turns, but it is entirely natural to desire the best possible spot in whatever tribe to which you swear allegiance.
Because if the spot isn’t yours, it’s bound to be somebody else’s, and maybe that’s not something you can, in any sense, live with. Put another way, if Haber hadn’t come up with the process for fixing Nitrogen, it is almost certain someone else would have—maybe not at the same time as Haber, or even the same decade, but eventually. Science has a certain teleology to it, and once certain paths are open they don’t really close again, they just open further. This doesn’t absolve Haber by any means, but it does reframe the scope of his failings. If the age of synthetic fertilizers had simply come, and the age of synthetic gunpowder along with it, that might say as much if not more about the place we had arrived as a species than it does about Haber himself. And considering the heartlessness with which, on the whole, we have met the challenges of our age, I wonder if we weren’t, throughout the twentieth century, a bit like the kitten who may know its claws are sharp but who hasn’t quite learned to be careful with them.
Perhaps it’s self-serving to think so, but there must be paths forward for those of us equally unwilling to be either shrinking violets or total Machiavellians. It must be possible to get somewhere without paying much of a price, and if success sometimes amounts to plain good fortune, it must at other times be a product of the sense to balance one’s ends with the costs of achieving them. If this is the case for a single person, one would hope, given the dramatic prices we’ve already paid for our collective ambitions, it is equally true of the species.
And yet those Chinese alchemists scraping potassium nitrate from stone walls more than a millennium ago were only doing what they thought made sense. They were exploring, experimenting, and their primitive methods were aimed at discovering something like the philosopher’s stone. They may not have hit their mark, but then they were aiming high, at something that didn’t exist. Instead they found the saltpeter that came to be known as China Snow: the first gunpowder. What a delight it must have been for them to see the colors of the flames different combinations of the material produced. What a delight to their masters
when they realized it could be turned into a weapon.
END OF ACT I
Imagine you’re attending a performance, maybe in that big room at MOMA where Marina Abramovic spent several months simply sitting with whoever showed up. It’s the night of the debut, and the gallery is packed in around what appears to be a small chamber, maybe fifteen feet wide, covered in heavy drapes.
People mill about for some time. The waiting, you think, must be part of the performance, but some, maybe the smart ones, are unwilling to wait. They sneak out the back. You resist the urge to leave, and finally the curtains are raised, revealing two people, a man and a woman, in a sound-proofed glass box. They are yelling at each other, screaming in fact, but it’s impossible to hear what they’re saying. It is as though someone has hit the mute button for them, too, as neither seems to be aware of the audience.
After twenty minutes or so—more people have left in the meantime—the man reaches into his pocket and pulls out a pistol. He waves it around histrionically before pointing it at the woman, now hysterical, frantically clawing at the walls of the room but still unaware of the audience. You don’t see the bullet, but in the brightly lit gallery you do see the small cloud of smoke, the pool spreading out from the woman’s collapsed body.
There are gasps in the space. Screams. The curtain descends and the room explodes into anarchy as people pile out. Perhaps the murder was real, perhaps it was simulated—there is no way to tell. You assume the latter, but then why did the museum ask you to sign that waiver?
Or suppose the performance takes place in the open. Suppose, as in Abramovic’s, the only thing separating you from the artwork is a white line drawn on the floor. What are your responsibilities when the decision is not just a matter of endurance but one, potentially, of
intervention? The role of viewer transforms into witness, and one’s limited agency in the first scenario widens considerably in the second.
There seems to be no way around the fact that responsibility, here as elsewhere, increases in direct proportion to that agency. The more capable you are of action, the more culpable you become for what occurs. But again you don’t really know what you’re watching, or if you
should even be watching it, nor can you claim any mastery over the outcomes. Maybe the woman will rise after the audience has rushed out, clean herself up, and get ready for tomorrow’s performance. Maybe not.
From the hypothetical to the actual: Yoko Ono walks on stage at Carnegie Hall. The year is 1964. She carries a big pair of shiny scissors and the simple instruction to cut. The audience does as it’s told. One young man turns towards the camera as he settles into his task. “It’s very delicate,” he says. “It might take some time.”
She’s been stoic up until this point, but now she bites her lower lip as he cuts off her slip. Her eyes dart back and forth. She’s blinking a lot, nervously looking down at his work, at her shredded dress. Someone calls out, “Make a piece for Playboy, Richard.”
I watch the film on the second floor of the Hirshhorn. It is November of 2013, fifty years after the performance. My wife and son are in the neighboring Air & Space Museum, looking at moon rocks and rovers. He wants to know, she says in a text, when we’re going to Mars.
Ono’s Cut Piece is part of an exhibition on art’s obsession in the atomic age with destruction. Although much of the work is highly critical, it’s clear we are also (artists and viewers both) taking a perverse delight in our repulsion.
People cycle through the gallery as I watch. I want to stop them, point to what radiates from the face of that zealous young man, linked as it is (in different ways) to both Abramovic and Haber, but the thought of what I might see in their own, or they in mine, sends a shiver up my spine.
END OF ACT II
For a long time I was a poet. Then, suddenly, I wasn’t a poet anymore. I’d like to say I traded poetry, as Sarah Manguso writes, for a longer life, but the truth is that one day poetry was there and the next it was not. I’ve had only one relapse, brief and intense though it was: in December of 2011, I wrote thirty or forty poems under the rubric “Flesh Forest” before I learned it was the name of a noisy garage band whose music, when I found it on the Internet, I didn’t really like or even understand. So I left the poems, and the music, alone, and when I turned to them again several weeks ago, thinking I might still be a poet after all, I immediately came down with a painful (and, for someone my age, rather rare) case of shingles.
But there are many ways to tell this story. On a hot August day, for instance, I took my son inside of a heart. It was made of narrow hallways and stairs, and the route was designed to mimic the passage of blood through its chambers. The heart—and the museum that surrounded it—was recompense, my way of making amends for the kittens I’d returned,
after only a week, to the shelter.
That version of this story starts well enough, with friends celebrating the playful new additions. My eyes watered but that was the extent of it. The weather was lovely and the windows were open. We drank beer and talked and every once in a while someone would walk over to pick up and coo at one of the cats. A few days later, after they had pissed on the couch and rubbed their shit on the floor, I felt my throat constricting. It was warmer, more humid. We closed the windows and turned on the air. I woke up coughing, unable to breathe. We spent the whole day out of the house, and the following one as well.
The solutions (air filters, allergists) seemed costly, drawn-out, and for me, at least, unpleasant. The idea came over me all at once, out of nowhere, and with a force I didn’t understand, couldn’t reason with: I have to get rid of these kittens. Once it settled in my mind, like the cough in my lungs, I couldn’t dislodge it. I was repulsed by the kittens, as though my body, for its own sake, were telling my emotions to stay away. I even felt contempt, which may make me the first person in history to have felt that way about a kitten.
Were she to write her own account, my wife might describe other such times in our life together when my reactions have been so overwhelming as to defy explanation. I imagine her describing me as someone who makes emotional decisions, often irrational ones, someone who does or doesn’t do something because it does or doesn’t feel right, whatever that means. Someone highly, though suspiciously, attuned to his own distress. This may or may not align with her description of me, though I think it explains my response to the cats, to the poems, and maybe even the genesis of this essay, its various acts that constitute
something like a premonition.
What we know is often more than what we know, which is only to repeat a psychological truism: the thinking that happens in the mind, and body, outside of conscious thought has a tremendous power.
Maybe my shingles meant nothing, or maybe the stress of the poems, like that of the cats, was simply more than my nerves could handle. Sitting in the shelter’s parking lot last August, anyway, wiping the melodrama from my eyes, I thought there must be something to perceiving these visible products of invisible processes, to knowing ourselves through our disturbances as they push their inexorable way, like the tips of various icebergs, to the surface.
END OF INTERMISSION
Four months after the opening of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in July of 1940, a strong November wind blew in and the bridge began first to ripple then twist violently back and forth. In the 16mm footage shot by the owner of a local camera shop, the wavelike motion of the bridge is strangely captivating. A lone car is visible at its center and then, a moment later, a balding man with a mustache walks towards the camera. This is Bert Farquharson, an engineering professor, and he has been out to the car to try to save the cocker spaniel its owner, one Leonard Coatsworth, abandoned inside it. The dog, understandably terrified, has bitten him, and when the bridge eventually collapses that morning, Tubby the cocker
spaniel will be the sole fatality. Coatsworth, an editor at the Tacoma newspaper, will say that “with real tragedy, disaster and blasted dreams all around,” what appalled him most was having to tell his daughter her dog was dead.
In his 1958 film A Movie, Bruce Conner splices the failing bridge into footage of sinking ships, mounds of corpses, mushroom clouds, and even the Hindenburg disaster. The images flicker on screen, interrupted by unexpected stretches of black leader, surprising intertitles, and of course the images Conner constantly juxtaposes against one another. The film moves forward excitedly, irregularly, and although it is clearly about “The End,” as one early intertitle suggests, it seems equally to enact that ending, sputtering out as though history culminated in short, sharp bursts. Humans are so often fumbling their way through Conner’s film, falling off or crashing into things, that the Hindenburg, like the atom bomb, appears to be the ironic pinnacle of human achievement, as though the progression of humanity in general, or technology in particular, could only ever be a march into deterioration, as though any bridge were always threatening to collapse.
The film manages to end, for all that, on an ambiguously optimistic note, with footage of a diver swimming through a wreck. Drums pound, cymbals crash, and the strings and horns hold one long, dramatic note as the camera turns up towards the lambent sun dancing on the surface of the sea. It feels like the end of a big budget picture from Hollywood’s golden age, the top half of a double feature, but the play of Conner’s title with the B-movie materials out of which his film is made hammers home the fact that we’re never sure, in all this breaking up and falling to pieces, whether we’re watching the main show or the warm-up act, whether the images foretell causes to come or merely recast old effects.
The collapse, at least, was caused by flutter, which is the technical term for the oscillation in the structure brought about by the wind but aggravated by the design, which caught the force instead of allowing it to pass through. Tacoma Narrows became a textbook example of how not to build a bridge, but the phenomenon also had other iterations. When in September of 1959 Braniff Airways Flight 542 disintegrated mid-air near Buffalo, Texas, for example, or when, six months later, Northwest Orient Airlines Flight 710 likewise disintegrated near Cannelton, Indiana, killing fifty-seven passengers and six crewmembers, the cause was ruled to be a form of flutter. Essentially, the wings and outer casings were too stiff, and so when, due to a combination of speed and conditions, they began to vibrate unexpectedly, there was no way to dampen that motion and in fact the wings passed it on to other parts of the aircraft, which led even the fueslage to come apart at the seams.
These days all manner of structures are designed to accommodate the forces that can, if not properly accounted for, cause serious damage. Skyscrapers, for instance, are built in such a way that they sway slightly around their sturdy cores, and engineers have also designed gigantic dampers to counteract the effects of strong winds, including one filled with 300,000 gallons of water and another consisting of a 730-ton steel pendulum. Still, experts acknowledge there are stresses no building is designed to withstand, stresses that might, like that wobbling bridge, stem from an initial structural failure but lead to total collapse.
There are points in every system, even the psyche, when a disturbance becomes so acute that the whole thing starts to wobble and shake, when collapse first becomes possible and then inevitable. Beyond 350 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, climate also becomes unstable: melting glaciers, extreme weather, rising sea levels. Since 1958, when measurement began under the supervision of Charles Keeling, these levels have been continuously monitored at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii. The graphed data that now bears Keeling’s name shows a steady upward curve, and currently the level is hovering near 400 ppm and rising. Some scientists say we have already reached a point of no return, others that we’re fast approaching it, nor is it entirely alarmist to invoke here the image of the aircraft disintegrating mid-air, stressed beyond capacity by a turbulence it wasn’t designed to withstand.
We see the signs and, in our various ways, we refuse them. I am as guilty of this as anyone. Guiltier perhaps.
Walking through Point Pleasant, New Jersey, that is, the week after Sandy blew through, I saw the debris piled in the streets, or else bulldozed into one of the enormous mounds in the parking lots near the beach. I stopped to look through a heap of old books between my
brother’s house and the shore, on top of which an old hardcover copy of The Sound and the Fury, now ruined, whiffled in the breeze like a warning – or a judge.
He blundered on in the cluttered obscurity, I remember reading. And, repeated just below it, you bastard. I stared at it intently, and at the moldy copy of Treasure Island right beside it. Nearby were sodden piles of the New York Times bound in twine, a paperback copy of the poems of Robert Browning, books on ethics, statistics, and American history, including one opened—I shit you not—to a copy of the U.S. Constitution.
After a few minutes of this particular disaster (for how much more could I take?), I turned again towards the shore, unsure of what I’d just seen, or what it meant. I knew there was venom in it, as there always is in rupture, but it’s taken me more than a year to feel the effects, which isn’t the same as knowing why it stings, or how.
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