David Vichnar & Jeffrey Howe sit down with Harold Jaffe to talk about his book Performances for the End of Time, just out with Equus Press in October 2022.
EP: What Performances shares with your previous book BRUT (2021) is interest in the (semi)biographical fragment that fuses fact and fiction. Where it differs is its generic demarcation: where BRUT employs the docufictional essay, Performances are… well, “performances.” Could you tell us more about the genre of “textual performance”? Are these texts meant for oral delivery? Are they poetic prose or prose in verse?
HJ: I’d say these are texts for the theatre of the heart-mind.
EP: Performance in the sense of “theatre play” is most prominent within the concluding piece, your meta-textual reimagining of Faust. This final dramatic piece also brings home the idea of the problems of the world being unfixable because it is ultimately humanity itself that is the root of those problems. So, in order for us to resolve any or all of the existential threats we face, we would, in a sense, have to be something other than human, or at least “other humans”. What to your mind would this “other” look like?
HJ: This other would consist in an un-hierarchic respect for every living thing.
EP: Several of the pieces work together: ‘Cut’ the two poems labeled ‘Bang Your Head’, ’26 Million’, and ‘Love Neuro’. These seem to paint a cumulative picture of silent suffering and futility both for the observer and the observed. Can you expand upon this juxtaposition?
HJ: A number of the texts are repeated, sometimes one after the other, other times separated. I want to reinforce or extend the significations of certain titles, such as ‘Embrace’ or ‘Lie’ or ‘Cut’. Other times I want to contradict or partially contradict the significations of certain titles, such as ‘Justice’ and ‘Justice Fantasia’ or ‘Praise’ and ‘Praise or Pray’ and ‘Prey’ or ‘Gloryhole’ followed by ‘Shroud’. These last two are similar yet different in that Gloryhole wishes to believe in humankind, so to speak, whereas Magritte’s Shroud is satisfied with distance even while loving.
EP: Is the final piece intended as an epitaph or as a wake-up call? Or both? One does receive an impression of the former, that while the phenomenon of time itself may not cease, our own tenure within it is well at an end. Is there still a way out or is it time to come to terms with the inevitable?
HJ: Epitaph. Humankind will have given way to the electronic antihuman.
EP: Combined with this sentiment, there is a strong suggestion within your text (particularly the piece ‘Stop’) that the end of our (human) time heralds the beginning of something new, or at least restorative, for the planet. Indeed, there seems to be an element of accelerationism to the pieces, a sort of urging humanity to abandon hope and hurtle towards destruction, the implication being that only by destroying ourselves can we really help the planet. Is that a point of view you espouse?
HJ: Human destruction is inevitable, in my view. One hopes that living earth free of humans will be restored to some extent. Mother Earth is dying indisputably. Most humans feel impotent or are deluded by mainstream media so they shut their eyes. Or they look through one violent eye like Cyclops and strike out at vulnerable targets, since the actual makers of their misery are unreachable.
EP: Performances derives its name from Olivier Messiaen and music plays an important role throughout—not just in ‘Imagine’ where John & Yoko have 4 children each named Ringo. I’m thinking in particular of ‘Dance!’ where the question ‘Where’s the music’ gets answered by the line, ‘The shrill cries of children are the music’ (91). With “music” being THE artform of performance, what other (conceptual) ties are there between your writing and music?
HJ: Music points to the ideal which has been squandered by a species that has proven itself incapable.
EP: Of interest is the value you place on suffering, whether it be through sacrifice, melancholy, or contrarianism. Thinking specifically of ‘Fast’, ‘Praise’, and ‘Praise Melancholy.’ Do you see an inherent value in suffering?
HJ: Suffering to my mind allows a person to see the world as it really is and to perhaps channel that view and that depressive energy into something valuable.
EP: There is undoubtedly a dark side to that. “With its advancement in science and applied science and its multiple new ways to make war and money, nearsighted humans mindlessly patronize the past” (111) seems to speak to the way creativity is harnessed and mechanized towards ends that prioritize production and commerce instead of a genuine benefit, like say removing the addictive properties of opioids. Where does the vision of the melancholy creative, the lone observer play in such an atmosphere of specifically guided “creative” endeavors?
HJ: The lone observer, as in K’s “Hunger Artist”, sacrifices himself for those who are capable of witnessing.
EP: Or, returning to ‘Praise Melancholy’, is the problem that there is no room for individual effort anymore, that only a cooperative “army of depressives” (39) could hope to make a dent in this highly industrialized, highly interconnected world?
HJ: The melancholy thinkers of the world are just so many unheeded Cassandras.
EP: You address race, class, and the carceral system, all of which are indeed serious issues. However, in light of much of the tone of the book, do not these concerns seem somewhat moot for a doomed species on a collision course with its collective mortality? Or does charity, even in the apocalyptic times of our present, still always begin at home?
HJ: Charity even among a killing species counts for something in that it offers a temporary relief to unjustified suffering. I would bracket PC responses and address the crucial questions such as the climate crisis and meaningless wars and dying, neglected continents such as Africa.
EP: Many of these pieces deal with blindness, either through passive ignorance or willful dismissal. When you think of people increasingly forced to see things they’d rather not in a heavily interconnected world with massive, shared existential problems, what do you see? How do you think people will react when their eyes are forced open and they can never close them again?
HJ: If people make art, movies, for example, they address the apocalypse in a humorous or cartoon-like way. Notice how cartoon figures like Batman and Captain Marvel have usurped the artistic space even in serious venues such as the Guardian, for example. Or they transform art into NFTs, another stock market asset. Culturally, Identity Politics has gone bonkers, whether it’s #MeToo or LGBTQ or using inclusive pronouns, or other versions of “political correctness.” I see these as pharisaic responses, concentrating on the letter rather than the—for most people—indigestible meaning.
EP: It’s not a surprise that ‘Faust and Mephisto’ ends badly/ironically because of course it was always going to, but the execution is both funny and poignant. But his fate, “to live in a chronically violent, deluded, money-mad, self-serving, forever perishing Mother Earth” (174), turns out no different from the fate of all the rest of us. Could you comment on your intentions behind that?
HJ: To some extent, this is my way of bypassing the ethical / theological dilemma of Faust’s damnation vs. salvation in favor of environmental alarmism. But above all, there is greed. Will humans open their eyes? No, greed has become inextricable. In Buddha’s 4 Noble Truths, the World is filled with suffering, and the suffering is caused by covetousness. Only when the earth implodes utterly will everything else become immaterial and humans will be compelled to witness their own destruction.