Columbus Day: Mimesis Is Thievery–Jacob Paul

I never went to a proper kindergarten. I was the first child. My father was an academic, a scientist at Columbia, just over 50. My mother was an idealist not yet 30. They enrolled me in a place called the free school, at which, in the socialist spirit of New York City’s upper west side intellectual elite of the late Seventies, parents took turns teaching, cooperative style. This led to poor discipline:

  1. There was a child with whom I fought. Omar. He kicked me hard with his little kid cowboy boot’s pointed toe, and my parent determined that cowboy boots were evil.
  2. One of the parent-teachers led a pizza-making session. We were given pepperoni to taste before choosing to make our pizzas: with or without. I chose with (pepperoni is delicious!), but when my mother came to pick me up, the pizzas about baked, and she hoped aloud that I hadn’t chosen the pepperoni as it was pork, which was unkosher, and it was mixing meat and milk, which was unkosher, I insisted that I’d chosen without.
  3. My father made an elaborate model using Fisher Price people to demonstrate the physics of pulleys to the first and second graders.  He insisted that it was not a toy, and that the children not play with it when he wasn’t there. It was a toy though, an irresistible toy; and the other parents let their children play with it when my father wasn’t around, pooh-poohing his concerns. This, I reported dutifully.

This last was proof of things amok. My parents walked me home though Columbia’s campus in the midday September glare, and explained that I’d just go to school the following year, for first grade.

I was a wimp, a liar, a cheat and a snitch and pulled out of kindergarten; I was not yet quite five.

Thus it was that October 13, 1980, was my sixth birthday and my first that fell while I was enrolled in school, at PS 75 on 95th Street at West End Avenue, to be exact. We lived on Riverside Drive at 118th Street in a classic six on the sixth floor of a Columbia-owned prewar building, the kind with parquet floors and ten-foot ceilings and painted over buzzers that once rang the suite past the kitchen designed with a maid in mind and a fireplace and a bench to store wood beneath a broad window overlooking Riverside Park and the Hudson below it.

My father would walk me the mile south through the park’s upper level to school most mornings. The park’s lower level, much like the elementary school in Harlem for which I was actually zoned, deemed unsafe. For my birthday, my father brought bagels and cream cheese enough for my entire class. This wasn’t an easy feat. Ms. Fruitkin’s was a combined 1st and 2nd grade, administered by aid of two teaching assistants, with over 40 students. No small measure of deliberation had transpired between my mother and father that preceding weekend about how many bagels this mandated, and what variety would best appeal, and whether they were really obligated to do anything in the classroom at all. Somehow, the notion of serving cake never came up.

We walked the unusually quiet morning through the park’s just falling leaves, my father weighted with shopping bags, his pinkie free for me to hang upon. And he insisted I hang upon it: my afternoon return in my mother’s charge often featured dalliances with leaves and twigs and trees and other children; not so the walk to. We were earlier than ordinary so that my father might have time to set up breakfast for all of the children, and perhaps it was to that he attributed the park’s extra-sleepy calm.

The school was gated, dark, abandoned. It wasn’t that we were that incredibly exceptionally early. PS 75 opened to feed children breakfast hours before classes began.  My father cast about for someone to flag, someone to ask. There weren’t many pedestrians on 95th street, and those few there were didn’t want flagging. We walked east to Broadway, me frantic about my birthday, my father frenetic with inexplicable school closure.

Broadway had better foot traffic, but my father was beyond impeding the peasants passing, preferring a vegetable stand beneath the scaffolding ubiquitous since a falling façade-stone brained a Columbia co-ed.  He dragged me past the stacked cucumbers and apples by my wrist, his shopping bags of bagels in his other hand before him like the swinging anchor on a warship’s prow in chop, and, as I would observe every time after that he accosted strangers for information, assumed a charm whose character I still can’t quite qualify but that it was completely out of keeping with his internal disorder, in order to petition man at the till. And thus we learned that it was Columbus Day: Schools were closed. Banks were closed. The post office was closed. The federal government was closed. Columbus Day!

Columbus Day!

He was supposed to walk to his office after dropping me off. He had all these bagels. Since when had schools closed on Columbus Day anyway? And, besides wasn’t Columbus Day the 12th?

To my father’s credit, Columbus Day, celebrated, had only been unpegged from October 12 and moved to the second Monday of October a decade earlier, in 1970; and, apparently the holiday didn’t impact my father’s research and teaching schedule.

October 13, by all rights, ought to be reserved for the commemoration of the formation of the US Navy, which prefigured my inception by 199 years.

My parents said that we could have the birthday party the next day, that we’d bring the bagels back. But we didn’t. I’m probably the only kid in the history of the world to have been bummed out about having his birthday off from school, but I wanted a birthday party damn it, and my birthday was replaced by Columbus Day.

My birthday had been replaced by Columbus Day because in 1970 fidelity to a 478-year antecedent was replaced by the utility of a guaranteed three-day-weekend roughly equidistant between Labor Day and Thanksgiving.

 

*** I feel that failing to acknowledge the problematic nature of Columbus as ‘discoverer’ of the ‘New World’ threatens to derail my objecting, exclaiming, rightfully outraged readers – yes, I mean you, all three of you, though that you’ve bothered to engage this thus far requires that I pretend your act is one anyone would undertake, and that there are at least four readers; pretend that my diminutive quantification of your numbers, if any, is simply self-deprecatory humor – I expect this derailment especially much as this is an essay about replacement, and what replacement carries higher stakes than that of one people by another? And I do mean replacement, not displacement or repurposing or absorption or some other feeble word implying the persistence of a precursor original. Addressing the problematic nature of Columbus Day would also derail this writing, the construction of the essay itself, and I’m selfish enough to say that the theft of my sixth birthday is enough for me to suffer for Columbus Day, observed. If anything, this is an attempt to replace Columbus Day with the injustice of my purloined bagel party. I could have been…I don’t know what I could have been, had I only had that party: probably just the kid who distributed bagels instead of cake. ***

I’ve been struggling with theories of mimesis for the last several years. Mostly, I just like saying that at cocktail parties. Mostly, mostly, I just like qualifying topics and knowledge as cocktail party material, mostly to my students. Cocktail-parties, like singles-bars, is a fun-to-use term for a thing I at once imagine anachronistic; and yet these are also likely exactly the parties I go to and the bars I frequent. When I say “I struggle with mimesis, theories of,“ at bars or parties, one of two things happens:

  1. The rarer circumstance is that my fellow conversationalist has a theory of mimesis, into which said fellow immediately launches, no doubt as a merciful act meant to alleviate the suffering inevitably consequent to struggle.  He doesn’t struggle; I do; he can offer me his peace, his confidence, his reconciliation with mimesis, theorized, theoretical, whatever. It’s generous of him, damn it. It’s magnanimous.
  2. The more common response is that my fellows made captive nod and fiddle with their beverages. In this more common circumstance, I then begin explaining mimesis, and how it’s the theory of representation furthered by Socrates in Plato’s Republic in which everything exists first as an ideal form, the truth of which can never quite be matched by the manifestation of that ideal, and how this understanding is mostly useful when it comes to art and poetics. If I’m really on my hobby horse, I’ll explain how the chair a carpenter makes is a mimesis, and Socrates viewed the painting of that chair as the mimesis of a mimesis, or a representation of a manifestation, merely imitation, and thus really far from the truth, originality, genius, etcetera, embodied in the ideal. I suspect that the dutiful (trapped) audiences of these diatribes never quite abandon the notion that mimesis is some kind of recurrent venereal disease.

*** Mimesis, when theorized, and when that theorizing proves a source of moral unease to its practitioner, is almost certainly evidence of malvenereality. Malvenereality is a kind of new word for which I’ve coined the neologism, neomalopropogism.  The fourth syllable of neologism is no accident. ***

At stake in my struggle with mimesis is this: if, as the postmoderns seem to claim, mimesis is ultimately without agency to effect change, or, if anything, its agency was always contained in the subjectivity of its audience, if, really, nothing actually matters, then why do people get so freaking worked up about art? Why do they get worked up about art they find inadequate as well as art they find offensive? What could possibly be at stake in ‘selling out?’ If art is arbitrary, then why does it matter? If the big toe is the same as Rembrandt, why doesn’t Georges write about Rembrandt? Why does Kristeva’s privileging of the abject matter if everything is abject and nothing is abject?

In a scene in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridien, the Glanton Gang is camped in sandstone desert surrounded by petroglyphs, thousands-years-old rock art etched by long-disappeared peoples native to the American Southwest’s canyons. The Judge carefully sketches the best of these in his notebook, and then scratches the originals off of the rock. The Kid asks The Judge what he’s doing, and The Judge tells him that now no one else can experience them, that he’s taken them for himself. But The Judge has also tremendously changed the mode and character of the experience of the etchings.

 

I think that throughout the book, by using the figurative language of poetics in his descriptions of violence, McCarthy is arguing for a theory of Mimesis organized not around representation, but replacement, and the Judge’s act is his baring of this claim. By this measure, the petroglyphs replace the long eradicated peoples and gods and harvests and game that they portray. The Judge’s sketches replace the petroglyphs. McCarthy’s book replaces the Judge and his sketches and the etches etched into and out of the stone. Certainly, the novel replaces the historical Glanton Gang, the unsettled interior west between Civil War and bison slaughter, the west of filibustering deployed and returned back above the border.

But this replacement, all replacement, mimesis wholesale, is not an equal mirroring. It is a substitution dependent upon erasure. It is appropriation. It is eradication in the interest of building something new. It’s pod people. It’s changelings cradled, children long spirited from their cribs.

 

*** So maybe Derrida’s idea of the “trace” is not completely different than what I’m saying, in that the mimetic act, as its own signified, carries the trace of any other signifier pointing back at it, so that replacement is not absolute, but contaminated by the original, and the original, even if able to overwhelm its would-be replacement, is tainted by it. ***

 

In her essay “No-Man’s-Land,” Eula Biss claims that the term pioneer embeds in it the greatest mistake we of the Americas ever made as a people: that of treating as uninhabited inhabited land. Perhaps experience is always an inhabited land; its discoverers always false pioneers. Perhaps every act of mimesis is a land grab, a willful refusal to acknowledge that the expanse of experience is a plain already subdivided, collaboratively opened, purposed, precious, potential.

Perhaps we ought to realize that every narration is a development that no matter how pure, noble, or necessary is also consuming, erasing, replacing, is the ravaging, would-be ubermenschen of a Nietzschean exertion of will.

It’s time we acknowledge that whatever our theory of mimesis, we must, as would Socrates, remember that it applies not only to how we represent the world in art, but what we make of the world with ourselves, that there really is no barrier between expression, representation, creation, culture and life, that every discovery is actually an appropriation, and every appropriation precludes a different usage, reserves for some what others might otherwise use.

If we had not made of Columbus Day a convenient midway recess in the fall season, something else might well have been done with that date. Perhaps we could cease to treat it as a celebration and instead commemorate the horrors wrought by that ‘discovery.’ Perhaps not. We can never now know anymore than I can assert what shift in the universe the provision of bagels to Ms. Fruitkin’s combined second and first grades might have made.  And I feel petty demanding that this writing replace my jilted sixth birthday, but I’d be lying if I denied I want that reparation, and that in the interest of that recompense, I’m willing to risk whatever else this essay might erase.

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2 thoughts on “Columbus Day: Mimesis Is Thievery–Jacob Paul

  1. Pingback: Fiction Writers Review » Blog Archive » Slouching Past Totality; Or, What a Post-Postmodern Holocaust Novel Might Be

  2. Somehow over the course of this essay I’ve come to the conclusion that all of Plato’s Forms boil down to one Form which is not a thing at all but a complex idea: the relativity of perfection to the subject position. That the cave is the subject position from which we experience a shadow form of what perfection might mean, i.e. as it relates to us personally, and to escape the cave is to understand what it looks like outside of our own fears and desires.

    So perhaps the power of art lies in its ability to make material the relationship of Form and Forms, i.e. represent tangibly the moments of discord and harmony between what we consider most sacred about ourselves and what we’re actually manifesting in the world.

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