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A Planetoid of Self: Mac Wellman

I was walking through Dia Beacon (the contemporary art museum in Beacon, NY) a couple of weekends ago, and as I left one enormous exhibition space to enter into another, I started thinking, firstly that I have no idea where I am in relation to where I came in, and secondly, this sooo reminds me of Mac Wellman’s book, A Chronicle Of The Madness Of Small Worlds, that it’s flipping me out a little.

Each room is an experience unto itself, and that intensity and focus somehow helped facilitate my clouded interpretation of the layout of the land, thus leaving me unsure exactly where that Warhol installation actually was in relation to where I now stood in the building. A similar thing happened to me with reading Chronicle. I became so engulfed in this cosmos of words that each paragraph had its own infinite world, and it was quite tempting to drift off in a daydream to think about just one sentence. Maybe not even just tempting, maybe a necessity:

Such was the fervor of my newly illuminated soul that the future became clear to me, or what became clear to me was a bifurcation (a double U, so to speak) of the river of Wild Time into two distinct torrents of probability. (1965UU)

Chronicle is a collection of short stories related in that they take place on various asteroids or planetoids. 1965UU is one of these stories and it is about the planetoid 1965UU from the perspective of one Ravanello, or as he says, Doctor Ravanello for short. I actually saw the play 1965UU at The Chocolate Factory a couple of months ago before reading the book, so let me backtrack to there. It was a rainy Saturday night when I went, and I was ever so slightly high. It was the perfect thing to do. The play was directed by Stephen Mellor, and Ravanello was played by Paul Lazar. The long and lean runway of a set was designed by Kyle Chepulis. Ravanello sat center stage wearing a fez and goggles. He spoke to the audience directly, telling us about his planetoid and about Rosalind, the asteroid woman whom he longs for. As she shuffled across the length of the stage, never talking, it created an eerie sense of longing in this viewer. It was a lonely place this 1965UU. Ravanello, doing all the philosophizing, pauses eventually to do battle with a character named Al Bedo, due to Al Bedo’s mockery of him. (Lazar’s acting was understated and hypnotizing, and Chepulis’s set was perfectly befitting of the play.) I remember tripping out on the poetry of Wellman’s words. But the experience of seeing the performance somehow caused me to focus more on the literature. The words were so meaty, so chewable.

Interestingly, while reading the book later, the theatricality of the pieces became very important for me. I had the experience of a kind of theater for one (as Emily DeVoti suggested I might), these private little performances just for me, performances that I could stop if I wanted and rewind and do again if I didn’t get it the first time, or just to experience some more. Performances exploding over and over again. Performances making me laugh out loud while I’m reading (which ain’t all that easy). Performances that remind me just how messed up our world is, but in a kind of beautiful way. Performances that reflect on being.

I studied playwriting with Mac Wellman at Brooklyn College, and I recall a piece of advice he gave to us once in a workshop (I hope I have it right). It was something along the lines of trying to view the world (and write something) as if you were from another planet. In that way the familiar and everyday would become strange. In doing that (besides being interesting and fun), it illuminates the craziness in our own existence. That sort of looking at ourselves from a slightly different perspective is prevalent throughout Chronicle. Wellman is a master of taking something and naming it something else, which causes us to look at the original thing from a different angle.

In the story Elmer:

We who are certified victims of the Madness must carry a mark identifying us as what we are. The mark itself is called a “murder.” Often we do not like this rule, since our perilous identity is a thing we are proud of—many times the Madness renders us far more socially successful, intriguing, and in a strange sense—and as individuals even, individually considered—unique. We derive pleasure from this uniqueness, or at least I do; although it is an established fact that most sufferers of the Madness of Small Worlds are tedious, verbose, intellectual frauds and spiritual incontinents who are about as amusing as a…talking crow.

What does a name mean? If we use the word murder to mean maybe, artist, how does that skew the perceptions? How is one linked to their name? I am certainly not the sounds that make my name. But if not that, then what? There are so many questions that Wellman plants in our brains, of course never to be answered. There is so much to think about. And aren’t we all intellectual frauds? (Oh that might just be me.)

On 1965UU there is no memorization of any texts or reading allowed. Reality is constructed rather from what one says. Ravanello tells us about his love for Rosalind and about life on his planetoid:

I only know about what is from what I do, and say. And see, despite the terrible brightness. Since on the world of 1965UU there is no hard and fast distinction between saying and doing, my mind is at ease with regards to the sanctity of the factual.

If saying and doing are very nearly the same thing, then everything one says kind of has to be true. If you say such and such a thing, then such and such a thing must be done to make it true. How would one lie in this environment? And how would one live and learn? Ravanello says he only learns from what he does and says. Why is that? Is it because nobody else is saying anything? If you can’t learn from anybody but yourself, can you be a thinking person, or will you be more of a thinking person?

Maybe it’s just that the distinction isn’t made between saying and doing, but it doesn’t mean that a distinction doesn’t actually exist. Is our idea of truth only a subjective idea or is the notion of truth something we can all agree upon? Chronicle is full of complex ideas about the self, insights which are hidden in witty word entanglements. Ideas of self and what a self is jump out at me:

I wouldn’t know what to call myself if I possessed a real name, or names; further, I’m not sure I’d know what a real name is, or how to differentiate one from a false name, or a box nail, or even an ordinary narration. (1965UU)

The self and the narration both have an infinite set of possibilities. Is it a random set of events that create our lives and worlds, a mere wrinkle or lump on the ground to trip us up and send us rocketing off in another direction?

And from Muazzez:

I hope you can follow my drift, for try as I might it is almost always elusive to me even though I am present in much of it. Drifts about the self, especially complex and highly evolved selves, selves like abandoned cigar factories, have a way of sliding off into places beyond the beaten path, places like non-self hedges and the hegemony of the self’s perfect picture of the world and all things in it. In the best of all possible worlds that perfect picture comes to replace the self, which is a messy, nasty and vile set of arbitrary constructions at best.

After seeing the play 1965UU, I found myself wondering about this idea of self and having a kind of meditation on the meaning of self, but after reading the whole book, I feel it even more. A Chronicle of the Madness of Small Worlds is mesmerizing in its ability to take you on a journey that is not exactly optimistic, but can cheerfully make you want to stay a while and just think about the nature of your own universe, and self, and chronicle the madness of your own small world. And like the exhibits in Dia Beacon, once you are in one world you are thoroughly in, and you may forget for a while just how you got there, but that’s okay. You might say, I walked here, and actually make it so.

So, relax, pull up a chair—it is mad indeed in Mac-land, but it’s an awfully thoughtful and poetic place to be.

A Chronicle Of The Madness Of Small Worlds, short stories by Mac Wellman, published by Trip Street Press (San Francisco) is available through online booksellers, or your local bookstore!


Barbara Cassidy

Barbara Cassidy is working on a project with Amie Hartman called Very Different People.


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 08-JAN 09

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