The Saddest Thing Is That I Have Had to Use Words: A Madeline Gins Reader
What is the physical experience of reading? How does one’s body react to the stimulation of the mind? How does it respond to the physical touch of the page? And what about the distractions while reading, with so many things competing for our attention, for our gaze and comprehension. These are the considerations of Madeline Gins’s experimental novel WORD RAIN (1969). I write this review while holed up in my Brooklyn apartment during the COVID-19 pandemic, which is forcing people across the globe to develop a new awareness of their bodies—our bodies’ proximity to others and where and what it touches. These uncertain, fearful, and frustrating times are perhaps the most fitting to discover Gins (1941-2014), an experimental novelist, fringe Fluxus artist, and speculative architect. Much of her artistic work was done in collaboration with her husband the artist Arakawa (to whom WORD RAIN is dedicated), their most famous collaboration being The Reversible Destiny Foundation, an architectural project that posits home design to avoid death—especially relevant under today’s pandemic circumstances. Though these plans never claimed to fight disease, they did suggest a mode of living that keeps the mind active, alert, and alive. As Marie Doezema writes in a 2019 New York Times Magazine article about the couple’s architectural theories, “they posited that buildings could be designed to increase mental and physical stimulation, which would, in turn, prolong life indefinitely. An aversion to right angles, an absence of symmetry and a constant shifting of elevations would stimulate the immune system, sharpen the mind and lead to immortality.”
One could argue that Gins’s writing shares the ethos of many of these architectural qualities, particularly the “constant shifting of elevations.” As Gins writes in WORD RAIN, “Speaking about platforms, in the almost physical sense I rested on at least three. There were, at least, the off-on-light-dark-nodular platform; the high-low, yes-no, etc., trampoline; and the platform for the bottom of the feet in the head.” This gives a sense of the difficulty and tactility of Gins’s prose. Additionally, one could argue that publishing is another way to achieve a kind of immortality. (“So too every word has been lived, although I must sadly admit that I do not know any living word besides myself which is a secret,” Gins writes in WORD RAIN.) This brings us to Gins’s less widely known legacy as a literary figure, an artist whose media was language in the vein of Max Ernst, Gertude Stein, Dan Graham, or Robert Smithson.
I discovered Gins’s writing, her novels as well as poetry, lists, and essays, in the new collection The Saddest Thing Is That I Have Had to Use Words: A Madeline Gins Reader expertly edited and introduced by Lucy Ives, which includes a full facsimile reproduction of the out-of-print WORD RAIN , as well as previously unpublished essays and wordplay, and Gins’s later novels What the President Will Say and Do!! (1984) and Helen Keller or Arakawa (1994), which differ from WORD RAIN in format (President is structured more in verse like lists or poems and Helen Keller reads more like long connected essays with less visual play than WORD RAIN), but share her interest in the architecture of language and sensory experience.
I began reading her architectural prose while there was an awareness of COVID-19 in the air, but in New York we were not yet being told to stay in our homes and forego contact with others. I often read in public, my body curled around the book unaware of my surroundings and yet still very aware of how often I touched my face or the surfaces around me, and how frequently I washed my hands. But WORD RAIN too, made me conscious of my body and the “embodied” experience of reading. The narrative follows a woman trying to finish reading in the library (with the refrain throughout, “I just want to finish this chapter”) while in the dining room a “little birthday party that Judy’s preparing for Linda” causes interruptions. As I sat in public curled around the book, absorbed and unaware of my surroundings, but still regularly jarred from the pages by waiters and other patrons, WORD RAIN’s heroine too oscillates between absorption and distraction, the very structure of the book creating this experience in addition to narrating it. Knowing Gins’s future experiments with architecture, it is important to note that the first spread of the book is a floor plan of the fictional location of this story showing the library and adjacent dining room.
In her useful introduction to the collection, Ives grounds WORD RAIN in the context of her collaborations with Arakawa, her work with Fluxus artists and the publication 0 to 9, and importantly connects Gins’s writings to many of the literary arts figures I’ve previously mentioned, in addition to Hanne Darboven, Adrian Piper, Hannah Weiner, and Roland Barthes. For Barthes, the death of the author was “the birth of the reader.” “Without me, it words the page; yet says nothing,” Gins writes. The book requires a reader. Gins further upends the traditional relationship between author, book, and reader through her typographic choices, visual elements, and story. On some pages, a photocopied hand appears on the edge, echoing my own hand holding the book open. As Ives points out, this suggests the reader’s “presence has been foreseen and already exists as part of the book’s fiction.” Additionally, just as I the reader become distracted, tired, or overwhelmed with the difficulty of the material, so too does our heroine. Gins anticipates the waning of attention: “I skimmed over the conversation as it flowed on over the page” is followed by a series of lines of text where most of the words are replaced by “- - - -” leaving only a few typed words. Gins has ingeniously forced us into the reading experience of her character. But these gaps, as Ives argues, also force us to fill in the blanks, and in this way we become writers too. “Gins imagines reading and writing as co-implicated and nearly synonymous activities,” according to Ives.
This reader-as-writer status also applies to the gaps throughout Gins’s writing—the literal gaps in addition to the more figurative leaps required to continue consuming her abstract texts. “In order to make the words move, you must give your attention to them. Notice I am gone.” Who is the “I” here? Is it Gins the author, who disappears in the presence of the reader? Or is it the character who reads in the book, who disappears into the manuscript she reads? These leaps of interpretation are required throughout to continue reading.
Another of these unusual rhetorical choices is Gins’s constant attention to the characters and the page, which, when we are engrossed in a good story, disappear. In several places, she references “the muscle tone of the page,” a phrase I find surprisingly alluring, as it not only anthropomorphizes the book, but also gives a strength to the pages as an appendage. As Ives argues, Gins “compels the reader to acknowledge the mediating objects that are printed words, the page, and the book, as well as the reader’s own role in the fabrication of fictional events.” Reading is likened to a mist: “I appear on a page which would otherwise be blank. I, the mist, the agent.” As she skims and speed reads, we are given a chunk of pages with most of the words replaced by “- - - -” prefaced by, “I was picking up the meaning without stopping to accumulate words. Speed. I loved it. Soon it would be over. The words stuck to the mist, I to the meaning.” Reading is given a physical form, albeit a nearly invisible one. “She ran through the word spray and touched its streams with her free hand.” The narrative wonders, “These pages. Are they still touching?”
“WORD RAIN is also remarkable for the way in which it carries on a longer (and largely unidentified) literary tradition,” write Ives, “focusing on the interaction of the human sensorium with the tactile, durational object that is the codex.” This is one of the defining qualities of an artist book, that it highlights its bookness and thus emphasizes our bodiliness. While Gins is not the first or the last to do this, she is perhaps the most elegant. While reading, though often disoriented and confused, I found myself struck by the beauty of her descriptions and qualifications. “The sentences linked arms (as the words did sinews) as they vanished from this earth” and “Up until entrance into the lives of the characters after their departure from the typewriter carriage, I was moving about in my chair, trying to get into a more comfortable position.” What a charmingly beautiful way to describe the transition into reading that draws a narrative line between words as strings of letters and ourselves as physical beings prepare to give them life.
No matter how abstract the text becomes, Gins never forgets our body reading. In the first chapter she offers up notations to suggest our breathing speeds while reading (“When you see f I say breathe fast; s slow breathing; m through the mouth”). With breathing comes the audible nature of the words, “Even now this is a sound book. It moves through my hum. I take the letter b and move it toward ack, it moves back into me.” Gins, who was influenced by Buddhism, and was deeply invested in sensory experiences or the absence of them (several projects with Arakawa and one of her own novels namecheck Helen Keller), creates a reading experience that is akin to meditation or yoga, a physical act as much as a mental one. “I took long, measured strides along the
three-inch-eye walks of the page,” Gins writes in WORD RAIN.
But just as Gins celebrates language, she also laments its limitations, as in the titular line, which comes from WORD RAIN, “Confusion is a word. Words are our confusion. Read and be confused. But don’t be just a little confused. [...] The saddest thing is that I have had to use words.” It’s the gaps and fallibility of language that give it power in the hands of a reader willing to be confused; a reader willing to make meaning as both a writer and a reader, fully embodying the book. In these uncertain times of social isolation, when many of us will spend more time with a book, Gins’s writing captures what we crave from that experience—one that is physically and mentally all-encompassing. While The Reversible Destiny Project may not have succeeded in giving Gins or her partner eternal life, The Madeline Gins Reader does. With each reading we embody her words and write Gins anew, giving her life within the pages of the book and ourselves. “I've read enough. I'll read more. I held the manuscript in my hand. I shook it. Not a word came out.”