I was lucky enough to participate in a theater workshop last night with a resident artist, Bronwyn Sims, who staged her solo performance piece, Moment of Impact, here at Putney on Sunday. It was an autobiographical meta-drama about a train ride to Yale on September 10, 2009. She was on her way to run a tutorial on aerial performance (featured in this show via a rope ladder), with a focus on how to adapt Henrik Ibsen’s The Master Builder to the stage acrobatically. Her trip was delayed because a 19 year old French boy had committed suicide by hurling himself in front of the train she was riding.
In retrospect, building a narrative around this experience, she wove together the story, the people in her real life situation on the train, and her childhood in an effort to explore the impact of death. The explicit guiding curiosity concerns what people must be thinking right before the moment of impact, and she applies this directly to Halvard Solness’ fatal fall from one of his own buildings in Ibsen’s play, the boy and the train, and a car crash early in her life. The “impact” on this level can be viewed as death itself, but the more impactful moment is the confrontation with death, the shouldn’t-really-be-revelatory revelation about our own mortality.
Heidegger wrote voluminously on the subject. Such a confrontation was critical to authentic Da-sein, or “being there.” Being there for Heidegger meant recognizing that death would put an end to all our projects and everything we care about; presumably, such a realistic acceptance and orientation toward death would enable us to prioritize what we truly care about and maximize existence. The problem with this is that intellectualizing death is one thing, and it doesn’t really bring us closer to its inevitability. If life is full of possibility, death is the possibility-of-our-own-impossibility-not-to-be-bypassed (put in his hyphenated terms, which I’ve cited in previous posts for various purposes). If we orient our being in this way, if we embrace that we are Being-toward-death, then we increase the possibility of authentic experience, of Being manifesting itself in our active, mindful presence. But without experiencing “the moment of impact” in terms of death itself, its full, irrevocable reality, how do we actually engage with our own mortality in a way that transforms us?
The real question isn’t what we’re thinking before the moment of impact as death – because who cares, right? thinking stops from that moment on – the real question is what we think and how we act after the moment of impact as Being-toward-death. In the play, Sims depicts several characters grieving in their own ways, some adopting the convenience of death as a thing that happens to other people but not them, some confronting the abyss of their own mortality and falling prey to that darkness, and some confronting death as an opportunity for them to transform their lives so that they live more fully and authentically. I understand – in my mind – that I’m going to die. But I can’t really imagine it. It still feels like something that I might somehow avoid, even though everyone else will surely succumb to it. Which means that I’ve never had a true life-changing experience, one that leaves me no choice but to accept that I, Lou Canelli, will die. And the will here offers no security in its delay. That moment could impact me before I finish this post. I can’t know. So what will I do after writing this? Can you think your way to the moment of impact that I described? What would I transform right now if I had the courage to?
The workshop last night inspired in me the desire to pursue performance art. Something about it resonates with me. I’m not sure I’d be any good at it, I have no ambitions of fame, but the art of performing in itself, with the limited experience that I’ve had with it, is incredibly moving to me. I feel most alive when I’m letting go of myself to it. I worry that my passion is uninformed in a way that I’ve written about before, where I can get really into something for a short burst before moving on to the next creative possibility. I can’t know unless I’m willing to try, of course. Teaching is a passion, but it’s also a security blanket (albeit a demanding, exhausting one). What of writing? This is where I can’t draw the distinction between the allure of novelty and an authentic project.
Sims presented to us, through a series of warm-ups and games, “the speed of fun.” For her, this meant performative “buoyancy,” a feeling in which you are faster than your judge and louder than your critic, where you are so engaged in the present moment with present company that you forget to surrender to your often self-destructive ego. I’m not sure which project I’ll pursue next, but I do want to practice this “speed of fun” thing.