Review of 'The Angel in the Dream of Our Hangover' by Mark Leidner

Mark Leidner’s first book collects aphorisms on art, literature, politics, religion, and love, among other subjects. Here, Leidner describes his work:
the purpose of the aphorism isn’t to illustrate a deep or beautiful thought, but to unburden the aphorist from the horror of a wordless equivocation
This horror is the horror of absence, of ineffability resulting from the absence of meaning, of love, of beauty—of purpose. Leidner’s aphorisms are an argument against the absence of purpose (I refer not at all to ‘purpose’ in the ‘Rick Warren’ sense [the religious sense], only in existential terms—in terms of motivation to survive while experiencing the above-mentioned absences). Leidner’s aphorisms are big bangs struck on the heads of matchsticks still stuck in their book, waiting for curious fingers to tear them out. This is a burning book, its flames mutable, galactic and expanding:
the instability of language has become so predictable that no word in this book will mean in one second what it meant one second ago
Leidner’s aphorisms begin with no capitalization, end sans punctuation. One punctuation mark, however, does appear (spelled out, in word-form rather than its sign/symbol form, implying the words we use to describe symbols are more important than the symbols themselves):
a question mark, like a glassblown exclamation point, takes the shape of love
Love is a question we shape when we think we have the answers. We all inflate our infatuations like balloon animals, watch them curve like space as they extend beyond their own prescribed boundaries/limits, too far perhaps to follow. Leidner further explores the questions we pose toward things we already know but refuse to acknowledge:
the purpose of love is to gain so much off one person’s trust, that when they are dying you can tell them it will be okay, and they will believe you
The purpose of love is to lie—not only to the person you love but to yourself, as reassurance that, if you die first, you’ll believe the person you love when they tell you everything will be okay. Love is a lie we tell ourselves to feel safe, and that safety makes us feel immortal. Deathless. Existence is love, which is a lie and, in despairing truth (death), we exist only in consequence: The perpetual aftermath of its telling:
missing someone is like what the wind feels like to itself
Leidner’s aphorisms are clear, concise, and dictate truths which even the words themselves seem initially skeptical of. Lines like the romantic:
need is the right sound and the wrong sense for what the moon does to the sky
And the ominously quizzical:
because everything is expressible in terms of everything else, there is a bird for whom death is how the wing bends
And the soberingly hopeless:
a vote is a prayer with no poetry
And the reminiscent:
poets are the unacknowledged law students of the world
This aphorism recalls Shelley’s famous assertion that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Leidner, though, humbles the poet’s role in society, reminding us that poets still have a lot to learn about their craft and the world in which they exercise it. After all:
you can’t shine a light on darkness
unless you first convince your audience
that dark is light, which ink accomplishes
Like Plato’s cave, the eyes of those inside have adjusted too well to the dark, and the fear of escaping—of seeing the light outside—is too painful. Leidner’s image of light travels through the dark emptiness of ink, as all literature seeks to illuminate something (but often only does so in secret—as paradox). But Leidner reminds us: This ink is the stain of civilization, a stain naive witnesses find so beautiful they fail to see the damage it’s caused, and how the power and knowledge acquired from the stain’s relentless spread across the world’s tablecloth (conquering even the cutlery, as it were) comes only at the expense of the very light it masquerades as. And here, Leidner constructs the precise definition of neocolonialism:
civilization is the process by which we expand the sphere of things we exempt from physical rape in order to more comfortably subject them to our continual, conceptual kind
This shift from brute, patriarchal force (of both humans and land—as so many male poets for hundreds of years have equated land masses to virgin women who are just begging to be defiled) to the malignant acculturation of consumerism in which insignificant (however contagious) abstractions shape our ideological discourse and, like violent video games, desensitize and remove us from consequence—from the concrete reality of our decisions:
the white male wears a mask that faces himself; then calls himself the world
The wonderful paradox here is the white man’s adoptive nature (‘adoptive’ is too euphemistic—‘usurpative’, perhaps, but even that fails), appropriating aspects of the cultures he conquers (the mask here possibly symbolizing an African mask the white man confiscates to camouflage his true intentions from his subjects, subjects whom he converts at first by force and subsequently through ideology to a more ‘civilized’ life). This also implies the white male wears this mask of civility to convince himself of his own righteousness, his own intellectual and technological superiority over the cultures he conquers—to prove to himself he’s at the apex of the human hierarchy he’s devised.

(This also applies to literature: The canon consists primarily of deceased white men whose work is paraded throughout academia by living white men [Bloom, for instance] as the apparent absolute of the Hegelian dialectic. Only when Modernism arises do white men even consider allowing outsiders [the other] access to membership, and only because their work is considered ‘charming’ and ‘primitive’ [see Primitivism]: White men admiring the uneducated and innocent cultural expression of a group of people they haven’t exploited yet—or have, as many of these cultures exist in limbo between their own cultural traditions and white men’s attempt to civilize them [see Amos Tutuola, whose first novel, The Palm-Wine Drinkard, was praised by white men like Dylan Thomas for its magical elements culled from traditional Nigerian folklore as well as its linguistic innocence—its use of a kind of proto-English making white men nostalgic about their own origins—, while critics from Tutuola’s own country of Nigeria denigrated his work for the same reason: That he is merely mining traditions they sought to move away from in their pursuit of a more civilized life—the white man’s life—, which is ironically the point of Tutuola’s novel]).

Leidner continues:
buried deep within art for art’s sake lies the implicit sanction of war for war’s
Art is produced from a position of privilege, its practitioners tortured by comfort. At what expense is art produced? Its modes of production perfectly mirror that of the imperialistic exploration on which war is predicated. Artists—like national, military and religious leaders—venture into the unknown to seize and exploit it, to taxonimize its components, its wonders. From here art mirrors/reproduces and glorifies national, political and religious ideologies which not only promote but actively engage in war. And as so often has been the case, a nation’s art and its literature are nothing but tools for propaganda to shape the ideology of its subjects. Leidner later says:
if the principles we purport to hold in art were applied to politics, we would be living in the world we are living in now
Leidner also tackles religion in relation to ideology:
art is the contraceptive of meaning; perform the same acts without it and religions are born
There are so many ways to interpret just this one line. Some of my thoughts include: 1) Humans use art to protect meaning from their interpretation of its essence, to merely transpose its silhouette onto canvas, to give it shape—form, 2) Art (expression) ultimately masks the meaning it seeks to uncover, 3) Meaning exists independent of humans who interpret it, and uses the art humans create to shield itself and humans from purpose (an enticing contradiction, though one I don't think at all plausible because there is no meaning without the subject projecting it onto the external world of objects [Wut up, Kant...]), 4) Religion as petulant child—its traditions supplanting those of its parents, paradoxically beginning a new tradition of suppressing new and/or opposing traditions; religion resists progress of any kind to maintain its power over the believing populace. Much art has originated from religious belief (indeed, much of it done to please patrons rather than the artist), but as Leidner says:
if changing the prerequisites of the form is the only way to satisfy the prerequisites of the form, it is art
Again, Leidner examines the function of meaning as it pertains to absence. Art must not only preserve but embody that absence: A void we can’t simply peer into with the telescope of curiosity and wonder (the telescope, like a cave), certain we’ll find something. We might see light coming from outside the cave but we only use it to blind ourselves to the dark from which we pretend to emerge.

The Angel in the Dream of Our Hangover is available now from Sator Press. Here is Mark Leidner’s Twitter.


Ken Baumann said...

Thank you so much for this. I received that rare and ultrastrong pleasure of seeing another see further into something that you feel is part yours, mostly gift. I respect & admire the hell out of this, and you. Thanks again.

Eric Beeny said...

Thanks so much, Ken. I feel like there's a lot I didn't even touch because this collection has so much to unpack. Big thanks again for sending it to me...

Anonymous said...

"If I have nothing to say, I can say it best in an aphorism."
The Masked Aphorist