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© La Piccioletta Barca 2018-2020
"Square Mythologies” is a research-based project focusing on the notion of the “absurd” and the relationship between language and space. Stemming from the understanding of the Greek word for the absurd, παράλογο (paralogo), as the topos outside both reason and language ([para]—outside, [logos]—reason/language), this piece explores the exhaustion of the latter in Samuel Beckett’s teleplay “Quad” and the construction of its theatrical space. The revision of the original play manifests as an analytical approach towards its linguistic possibilities and is presented as a form of interaction between the tangible (bodies) and intangible (boundaries) forces at play. Working upon the relationship between logos (script) and its performance, “Square Mythologies” seeks to reclaim the capacities of the infinite – yet fully defined – space of the square, or what Deleuze calls “any-space-whatever”.
Below, you can find preliminary scripts and research for the performance.
Tristan is talking about Papua New Guinea—Tristan is always talking about Papua New Guinea. “When linguists want a new language to study, they just go to Papua New Guinea,” he tells me, clambering over a fallen tree trunk. “Walk through any valley and you’ll find like three different languages practically by accident. And they’re all totally different. The language in one valley has a different grammatical structure, different word order, different phonemes, different everything from the language the next valley over. All of Siberia has like three languages and they’re honestly related to one another, but in Papua New Guinea you can hardly turn around without finding a new language family. My theory is that it’s because Papua New Guinea has so many mountains and valleys. They keep each society isolated so all their languages develop separately.”
“Does Papua New Guinea have a lot of mountains and valleys?”
“It must, if it has so many languages.”
Tristan takes out a tube of lip balm and uncaps it to reveal the joint he’s been hiding in there. “You got a lighter?” he asks.
“What a coincidence.”
Years ago, you could play tag on this field, when it was still a field. The grass was low-cut, the bushes trimmed, the mosquitos nonexistent. Since then, the local Parks Department has thrown up its hands and left it to nature. Nature has been happy to take it. Now it’d be easier to play hide-and-seek than tag. There’s a layer of miscellaneous brush over all but a few clearings. Vines have sprawled out and scaled the trees. A dense tangle of leaves hushes the sounds of the road nearby. A fallen trunk at the entrance acts as an accidental barricade. Once you get past that, plants with thistles do their best to snag your t-shirt.
While nature has made this place its own, so have we. On nights that my Dad is home, it’s our go to spot to get high. These little woods are just two blocks from the police station, which is something of a downside. But, of course, this is Narberth. With a population of 4,336 and an area of half a square mile, everywhere is just two blocks from the police station.
"Every time I talk to your Dad, I'm high," Tristan tells me, exhaling a cloud. “It’s not a good look.” Just a few minutes ago we’d stopped by the house to check up on him. When the conversation dragged, I introduced the subject of language. I love to see Tristan turn his three semesters of elective linguistics on unsuspecting people. He always starts with the line, “So writing has only been invented three times: in the Middle East, China, and Mezo-America.” He then goes on to mention that English’s one claim to fame is the ridiculous amount of vowel phonemes we have (20) and then pivots to articulate the wonder that is the Indo-European family of languages. Despite thousands of miles, despite vast cultural differences, despite the Caucasus, the English word “candy” has its roots in Sanskrit. Sanskrit! The language of the Bhagavad Gītā. And Tristan says all of this while desperately hoping that he doesn’t seem as high as he feels.
"Don't worry," I tell him, citing an axiom of ours, "my Dad hasn’t been high for over a decade. People who don't get high never have a clue whether you're high or not. They just don't know what to look for.”
"You're right," Tristan says, "drugs are an otherpeople thing for him."
Otherpeople Thing |oth·er + peo·ple + thing|
Something that is quite ordinary for someone else, but that is foreign to you. Tristan reads the nutritional stats on the side of food before he buys it, but I never do. Paying attention to grams of carbs versus grams of protein versus grams of fat is an otherpeople thing for me.
This one dates back to high school. We coined it when Tristan found out that I didn’t really watch children’s cartoons as a kid, rarely ate fruit roll-ups or gushers, and didn’t have a microwave. I only encountered these things at other people’s houses, so we decided to call them “otherpeople things.” It’s handy when you need to explain why you don’t get a reference. Ex: “Sorry, I don’t know what you mean by ‘There is no war in Ba Sing Se.’ I never had Nickelodeon as a kid. Avatar: the Last Airbender is an otherpeople thing for me.”
Another of our phrases is the pilot moment. It came out of an anecdote I heard about our friend Harper’s father. The family had somewhere to be, but the youngest daughter was busy sitting in some grass and playing with a cool bug. “We have to go, honey,” he told his daughter. She continued to play with the cool bug. “We really have to go,” he said, dialing the severity up a few turns. She kept on playing with the bug. So, then he walked over, crushed the bug under his foot and said, “We. Have. To. Go.”
“If he were a character in a tv show I was writing, I’d put that scene right in the pilot,” I said. “That one interaction just reveals so much. He’s patient at first, but then ruthless. It’s a pilot moment.”
Pilot Moment |Pi·lot + mo·ment|
A pilot moment is a single incident or anecdote that reveals a lot about your personality. Tristan’s pilot moment is the time he didn’t have anyone to hang out with over Spring Break so he built himself a fully functional ballista.
Sometimes Tristan and I get help coming up with our new words. Once, struggling to describe my sister’s boyfriend to my Mom, I explained, “He’s one of those people who is more loyal to the exact facts than to social etiquette. If you say something wrong, he’ll correct you. If you make a large claim, he will question you on it. It’s not malicious or mean in any way, he just really cares about precise honesty.”
“So, he has a bit of nerd rudeness,” she said, condensing my description into two words. Tristan condensed it further into the portmanteau “nerdrude.”
Nerdrude |nerd + ru·de|
Willing to breach politeness in brusque or obtuse ways in order to get facts straight or to be precise. Daniel is so nerdrude: I said that the novel was my favorite genre and he said, “The novel is a form, not a genre.”
This is how we all end up becoming Papua New Guineas. You accumulate one set of neologisms with your friend Tristan, another with your friends from university, another with your coworkers. You end up with a different jargon for each mountain and valley in your life. These words are the inverse of otherpeople things: you and your friend understand them but no one else does. But to limit it to only the words themselves would be reductive. Tristan likes to picture relationships as Venn diagrams.
Let’s imagine that A contains all of me and B contains all of Tristan. A includes: a habit of leaving anonymous sealed wax notes around for strangers to find, a decade or so of writing short stories and essays, that time I got lost during a cross country race, my taste for citrus fruits, a knowledge of Roman history, a sense that there’s a lot more travelling I ought to do, a skill at pronouncing Hawaiian words, a conviction that computer code can be used as a literary form. B includes: an aptitude for engineering, a knack for gymnastics, fluency in German, three years of high school debate, a goal of visiting every cultural region in the world, a second degree black belt, a youtube channel where he shows you how to code and build everything from a neural net that plays pong to a myoelectric robotic arm, a few words of Russian, a belief that food is little more than fuel to keep you going, a year as captain of the high school crew team, an EU citizenship.
So, we find that A∩B includes a general interest in code, a desire to travel, and a fascination with language. Wandering through Narberth until 2 AM, we explore every nook and cranny of A∩B. We digress on hash maps and neural nets, we coin and codify our new words, we reference times we’ve had together in Venice and Munich and Butte, Montana. But that’s not all we do. Comfortable as A∩B may be, the real growth is elsewhere. Yes, the real growth happens when A drifts into B and B drifts into A. When I go to the gym, it’s with Tristan’s advice on which weights to use and how to modulate reps vs intensity. When Tristan reads, he reads Maggie Nelson’s Bluets or Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goonsquad or something else I recommended. Tristan’s woodworking looked fun, so I picked up whittling. My whittling looked fun, so Tristan carved a bishop, painted it, glued some felt to the bottom, and surprised me with it as a gift.
This is how people grow into each other, this is how A∩B expands. How did I pick up some new word, trait, habit, or hobby? 7 out of 10 times I got it from a friend. 4 out of those 7 times that friend was Tristan. We’ve ended up with an intimate knowledge of one another’s idiolects: the phrases we always return to and the anecdotes we can’t help but repeat. Tristan always brings up Papua New Guinea, I always tell the story of the weasel who shut down CERN by chewing through an electrical cord, Tristan always repeats the anecdote about how he got his a cappella group out of a jam in New Haven by speaking Russian to the owner of a pizza shop, I always go back to the one about how I once put ice cream in a waffle maker. You also memorize the sayings they often return to. Tristan’s: Men are just boys grown tall; Three examples and it’s true; Food is fuel. Mine: Do it for the story; Carpe diem; That’s a chiasmus.
One of my Mom’s sayings was, “They say that one should think about big ideas but take pleasure in little things.” Whatever way you can criticize Tristan and me, it’s not for thinking small. Take a cross section of our conversations and questions you might find include:
Does learning a language by definition mean learning a culture? (No, but it certainly helps.)
Capitalism or Communism? (False dichotomy, the answer feels like it’s clearly some sort of Socialist mid-point, but give us some time to read the Communist Manifesto to make sure we know what we’re talking about.)
How do you understand Jesus? (We see three distinct versions: Spiritual Jesus for his mystic teachings, Revolutionary Jesus for his social ones, and Historical Jesus for the actual man from Nazareth.)
How many times has spoken language been invented? (You may as well ask how many times running has been invented. Language is just what we do.)
Could something inorganic become conscious? (Definitely. There’s nothing special about brain matter, consciousness is just a very complex pattern that could absolutely be replicated with another substrate.)
What function do Zen Koans and Christian paradoxes serve? (To tie our common perception of reality into knots so that we might start to look beyond it.)
What was the first word for “word”? (We can’t know, but whatever it was, it was the germ of linguistics.)
As much as I like my Mom’s quote about big ideas vs small pleasures, I’ve always had trouble telling the difference. Compared to the whole history of language, compared to the monumental figure of Christ, compared to the mystery of consciousness, what could be more inconsequential than two twenty-somethings wandering around a small town, getting high, and engaging in wide ranging conjecture?
But of course that’s not how I see it. A few weeks ago Tristan arrived outside my apartment building holding a full-sized painting he’d commissioned. He wouldn’t show me what it was until he’d brought it into my room. When he revealed it, this is what I saw:
“You know,” I told him after a profuse round of thank yous, “Napoleon was actually riding a donkey during that crossing, not a horse.”
“How do we know that?” Tristan asked.
“Oh, that’s an easy one,” I said, “We’ve got letters and everything.”
“There are ‘easy ones’ in the study of history? That’s wild.” We then drove to Philadelphia’s Heritage trail and spent the rest of the day hiking, taking quick tokes, and discussing everything under the sun. What could be bigger than that?
To quote Maggie Nelson quoting Roland Barthes,
"Barthes describes how the subject who utters the phrase 'I love you' is like 'the Argonaut renewing his ship during its voyage without changing its name.' Just as the Argo’s parts may be replaced over time but the boat is still called the Argo, whenever the lover utters the phrase 'I love you,' its meaning must be renewed by each use, as 'the very task of love and of language is to give to one and the same phrase inflections which will be forever new.' "
Tristan and I are the opposite. Always adding to our language, we are not Argonauts, but Argot-nauts. Rather than repeating the same phrase with different inflections, we are forever using new phrases but always with that one inflection of love. I doubt that I’ve ever actually told Tristan that I love him. I’m not sure he’s ever said it to me either. We’ve never needed to. It would be an unnecessary formality, an understatement, an otherpeople thing. We have other words. Our own.