Some tenets of Elpenor thought (part 2)

[* For the LUV site, this is part two of a set. Let’s call it the Elpenor Set. See part one, here.]

1) It never ceases to baffle and amaze me whenever an association between Elpenor – a decidedly minor character in Homer’s Odyssey – and an idea of methodology crops up in my presence. Akin to being caught midfall (pants down). It is a kinship that plunges me from a secure apex, a terrace (a spacing out) of experience into abstraction, the amplest of falls, towards the world. One thinks [during the fall]: what exactly is a methodology? What is it made of, what are its parameters? Solid and well-built as the Achaen ships, wouldn’t a methodology forcefully entail global applicability – or, better still, isn’t the efficaciousness of any given methodology ultimately tested in and by socially intricate contexts? Elpenor translated, carried over into a methodology. For me, it seems startingly easy to squash a methodology: one minor incoherence is enough, one dicey corner, one false move. It seems to me even easier to destruct a model. If, on the one hand, I am capable of recognizing Elpenor’s potential as a “conceptual character” such as the ones presented by Deleuze and Guattari in “What is Philosophy?”; if I am able to interpret him as a body of diligences and prescriptions – a sort of lens through which the world into which we are falling is simultaneously sought after, a world that grows more and more clear-cut as we approach the asphalt –, it is also my innermost guess that an identical link could be established between a certain postural inclination and the harmless Choreocampa elpenor caterpillar, one of the mimetic insects listed by Caillois in his Man, Play & Games. The caterpillar in question, if perceived to be threatened, operates in itself a physical mutation termed terrifying by the author; in taking upon itself the likeness of a serpent, it manages to fend off lizards and small birds. Through an act of camouflage, a momentary absence from “self”, the caterpillar postpones its death. The analogy doesn’t seem that far-fetched once we take into consideration that both beings have developed (evolved) strategies to go unnoticed – in the mythical world and in the natural world. Were it not the case, how else could we justify Elpenor’s survival through so many dangers – a character repeatedly referred to as inept at warfare and somewhat dumb? Both Elpenor and the caterpillar that echoes his name help compose a gallery of beings unfairly flattened into the singular episodes they are at the forefront of – in most cases, episodes taking place in other people’s lives – the predator’s, the hero’s – in a supposedly general circumstance that divorces the hero, the “true” virtuous hero, from all those who surround him; characters which seem to exist solely in relation to a stilled organizational nexus oft emblemed by a protagonist who is in some way exceptional. I think of counter- types such as Bartleby, the scrivener – the Incredible Shrinking Man – and finally Jepthe’s daughter, an anonymous character from the Hebrew Bible who seems to serve the single purpose of illustrating a most dubious idea of sacrifice. Characters about whom we know next to nothing; characters we know just enough about, however, so as to feel compelled to side with them, to defend their opacity.

2) Since moving to São Paulo, I have been supporting myself mostly by
ministering a workshop devised a few years ago called Exercises in the Other. Originally comprised of five sessions, but congenial to contractions and dilations according to my interlocutors’ agendas, it consists of a series of activities in the course of which I seek to send the enrollees back to the idea of a mythical, non-historical past as well as towards a notion of “deep futurity” which can be thought of almost as mythically as what we conventionally refer to as the “Homeric World”. I usually begin – and this is as good a time as any to explain that we are not talking about classes here in the strict sense; rather group dynamics, communal readings, outbursts of “savage hermeneutics” and guided discussions around which chaos seems to be constantly lurking – aiming at redacting a handful of notes that, once shared in a non-hostile environment amid equally interested interlocutors, might eventually resolve themselves into text – I usually begin by telling the story of Elpenor. The importance of orality here could hardly be minimized, but we do resort to texts throughout the sessions whenever the occasion calls for it. I tell them the story of Elpenor and ask them to tell that same story to someone else. With this is mind, we attempt to position ourselves individually in relation to concepts as virtually unsaturable as myth, epopee, heroism. The important thing is, in this inaugural moment, that people put forward their own version of the tale, their own perversion, that they relay and recirculate this particular “type”, trying to secure it some sort of afterlife, or at least a life beyond the one episode it is most commonly known for. A most striking correlate of the communal mindset we attempt to achieve is the respect and the sense of responsibility that seems to stem organically in relation to the texts, as though these poems commenced in a workshop context were indeed the only ones to survive a possible global catastrophe. I ask then, to put it shortly, for Elpenor to be displaced to the center of a foundational narrative, so we might try and come up with texts of consequence and political resonance not so much thematically, but political in the sense that these might eventually compose the mythological matrix of a polis yet to come. I invite all interlocutors to imagine what a sociality would be like if it were held together by unheroic myths. What worlds can spring from an Elpenor-foundation, as opposed to an Achilles or an Odysseus-foundation?

3) In “Notes on the Cinematographer”, a book by French filmmaker Robert Bresson, we come across a maxim that is extremely impressive, just, precise and, so to say, “true”: “To respect man’s nature without wishing it more palpable than it is”. No other filmmaker – save for Chantal Akerman – could ever have chanced an adaptation of Melville’s novella – in all cinematic adaptations I have had the occasion of watching, it is precisely Bartleby’s “impalpability” cinema shies away from in terror. It is a fun exercise for me, trying to envision what these two filmmakers might have done to Elpenor. Certainly his antiquity says something to us – its textual permanence cannot be entirely accidental after so many centuries of oral elaboration – surely it is not merely a lesson in temperance – and even though Kirk, in his famous “The Songs of Homer”, chalks the whole Elpenor episode up to a “structural anomaly” in the poem, placed there in order to distract us from the lack of any real motivation for Odysseus’ visit to Hades, this “anomaly” succeeds in bringing to the foreground the opaque ones, the species of the opaque, without having that particular trait taken away from them. A flash of something that absolutely does not flash. It only falls. In truth, the fact that Elpenor’s appearance is taken to be a structural anomaly by some scholars only makes him even more interesting in the broader scheme of things. In the general context of the poem, Elpenor cuts an emaciated figure – remembered by Odysseus at the court of the Phaeacians in the midst of his first-person account of the misadventures he had to endure after leaving Troy, Elpenor is at the head of an episode that conjoins the comic to the terrifying and instigates a certain specimen of reader to fill in the biographical blanks. It was precisely the idea of a biographical blank, repeated time and time again in workshop situations, which seems to have motivated R. the most – R. being a transsexual visual artist currently living in São Paulo. Elpenor, in R’s text, suffers an invasion in the Elpenor sign, being penetrated, shot through with the adjective “minor” and morphing into Elpeminor. R, however, refuses to carry over this “minor” sign to Elpenor’s physical build, which would have made for a facile solution. Instead, in the following line, also the last one, R. is quick to point out that he must have been over six feet tall. I distinctly remember the enthusiasm I felt while listening to this kind of counterstatement, as well as the strength of the scene that was playing out before the lot of us: R., who had absconded with her body from the commonplace of bodies in general, fiercely and rightly ridicules the Apollonian body, the heroic body, opting to make it barbarous by intruding upon its very name. Another interesting case that rechristens, perverts, continues and conditions this mythological continuity for Elpenor to a perversion in the realm of signs is the case of poet and translator C. A., who, in a classic Duchampian move, appropriated a poem titled “Elpenor” by contemporary Portuguese poet José Miguel Silva and limited herself to changing the name Elpenor to Elpenora.

4) Interesting cases are by and large the majority, but I would like to meditate briefly on two more, because of the reflections they might occasion regarding the malleability of myth, its processes of actualization and a few formal questions. For T., an American conceptual artist who also specializes in safety practices for artworkers facing political persecution around the world, Elpenor’s story was transmitted in purely oral fashion, since, at that particular moment, we did not have an English translation of the poem handy. I was especially interested in the results, since, with T., an ulterior moment of textual engagement would not be possible due to the language barrier. I wondered what components of the tale would stick, cleansed as they were to the max, and how he would rework them. The moment we began sharing our texts, T. presented a poem in which Elpenor did not figure nominally, none of the episode’s particulars were immediately identifiable, a purposefully gossipy tone predominated, and the proposed “I” sought, if not to order, at least to sequence in a vibrant manner circumstances of such an intimate nature that at times the text read slightly impenetrable. Slightly opaque. And then I thought: opaque. And then I thought: gossipy. During all of T’s exercises, I had the impression that the world he was putting before us was a world of voices. The “I” did not play protagonist – it dramatized itself, instead, as being bombarded by the most various recollections, associations, anecdotes. It was a world of voices and asides. An oscillating world of precise referents. A world the group knew nothing about, but that unfurled before us with utter clarity. In this first reading round, it was already possible to detect that T’s mode was precisely the elision of an axis – the “murder” of the hero become the murder of a traditionally dramaturgical conception of the poetic text or even of the Romanesque mode (of which the Odyssey can be deemed a precursor, at least according to Jaeger), which tends to run with a given theme until it fatally funnels into a denouement or climax. T’s text was perhaps the most radical interpretation, from a formal standpoint, of this forceful effacement of the hero-figure from the epic scheme in favour of a minor approach. Devoid of orthodox feats and bearing no sign of restitution, the poem gave rise to a most important discussion on a practice T. himself called “queering the text”. While T. expounded on this mode of writing, I could not help remembering poet Ana Cristina Cesar’s work and her constant “play” between intimacy and opaqueness, between delivery – from the point of view of signification but also of a physical surrender – and withdrawal. The experience of deviation, of a textual practice which places itself in opposition to patriarchal writing, is formally grafted onto the text by way of an illogicalness over which there never ceases to hover a certain aura of “scandal”. But this promise of a reveal is never to be fulfilled. One skates over the idea of intimacy, the waiting, one can only skate over personhood. But at no time are we entirely convinced of the text’s confessional nature or even of the possibility of a confessional text per se. It is this unfulfillment that makes T’s world vibrant and multiple. It is this bargaining, this irreducibility of the text to an unambiguous reality, that function as the lines of force of the text – translated stylistically into the intimate illogicalness Ana Cristina Cesar so rigorously practiced, along with her refusal of linearity and her disconcerting vulnerability to sudden memory (to voices) and the accumulation of not-quite-hierarchized events that seem to connect to memoir or diaries.

“I present to you the most discreet
Woman in the world: the one that has no secrets.”

5) In a different workshop-situation, before an interlocutor who seemed to be having some difficulty grasping what this first exercise was about, I thought it a good idea to list – both for him and the rest of the class – some particularly interesting results I had come across since the beginning of my activities as a professional instigator of sorts. I then proceeded to tell them about P.C., a singer-songwriter who composed a lyric poem espousing Elpenor’s voice addressing us from limbo. His version – in which Elpenor had always been secretly enamoured of Odysseus’ – was impressive not only because of the unexpected romantic overtones – the style, however, was epic –, but also because of the subtle mirroring P.C. created vis-à-vis Penelope. One awaits her husband’s return so the status quo and domestic bliss might be re-established – the other one awaits cremation in the hands of the man he has always loved secretly. While telling about P.C.’s take on the exercise, I was surprised to hear a remark from another interlocutor who was just outside my field of vision: “Better not to even try, then”. I had had more than one occasion to note that this particular interlocutor, whenever faced with interesting results that were not hers, would always contrive to find a way to manifest resentment. During our last group session, I grew impatient at this and told her that sort of environment was not propitious to competitiveness. Telling these stories, commemorating them, making visible and known examples of near artistic brilliance from relative newcomers who are typically extremely apologetic about their own work can only discourage those who have already been hopelessly poisoned by the inherited notions of heroism we are actively trying to combat in the atmosphere of a creative writing workshop. To think about Elpenor is to think about how he survived the siege of Troy and all the grotesque mishaps that he passed through anonymously until his arrival at Circe’s island. If Elpenor can lead us to a method, a mindset, a worldview, then they must take into the account the many and sundry opportunities for glorious death that were offered the seafarer in question during his ultimately incomplete nostos – opportunities for straying, for utter forgetfulness, for permanence amid unknown peoples, barbarians or otherwise – opportunities passed only so that he could die the most pathetic death conceivable. An Elpenor methodology must then celebrate chance, slapstick and a lack of favour from the Gods. It must not fall into the trap of setting up an anti-hero in relation to which burlesque figures of grandeur parade about. It is a question, I believe, of defending opacity and the fundamental, nearly holy loneliness of the unexceptional.