The Sorrows of Young Werewolf (eyeteeth) wrote,
The Sorrows of Young Werewolf
eyeteeth

The force that through the green fuse drives the stick figure



Winter is a terrible, ghastly, awful time made worse by this business of setting the clocks back. I want "summer time" all the time and there's no reason I shouldn't have it. No one actually seems to know why we mess with the clocks twice a year; there was a theory back in the forties that it would save energy, thereby helping us fight the Nazis, but I don't think there's any proof that it actually does, as the hour you don't turn your lights on in the morning is balanced out by the extra hour you do in the evening; it doesn't aid farmers, who get up at dawn no matter what time you say dawn is; the only plausible argument I've heard in favor of setting the clocks back is that it keeps children from having to go to school in the dark, but even that seems like a problem for which there could be a less radical solution. How about setting schools an hour forward, if that's a concern? It angers me because I find this time of year seriously depressing and having to turn the lights on in my second-floor apartment at four p.m. has a real psychological effect on me. It makes the night about a million hours long and I sit here feeling like the last human being left alive on Earth. The thing to do, if it were possible, would be to make myself into a morning person, but I don't think that is possible.

But I don't want to talk about that, I want to talk about John Fare. I just learned about John Fare last night, during the million hours that it was dark, and I'm pleased as punch about him and the weird lore that surrounds him as in the first two pages of a Borges story. The Borges part is that John Fare was first mentioned in a short story called "The Hand" published in 1968 in a volume of a literary magazine called the Insect Trust Gazette. It's about a performance artist whose act consists of having parts of his body amputated onstage by robots, and the author is one N. B. Shein, who doesn't seem to have published anything else ever. "The Hand" isn't a great story, but it isn't bad, and it has one great virtue, which is that it's written as a first-hand account by someone who witnessed one of John Fare's peculiar art performances. This is a virtue because over the years it has made some people think John Fare might have been a real person, especially as the Isaacs Gallery where he supposedly performed is a gallery that really exists. The owner, Av Isaacs, gets letters. "I know of no such person as John Fare," he responded to one of them. "In the sixties I had a series of mixed media concerts in my gallery, and out of this came the myth of John Fare. Every five years or so, someone rediscovers the myth and writes me a letter such as yours." This is possibly because of a piece published in Studio International four years later that is heavily plagiarized from "The Hand" and embellished with detail and rhetorical flourishes of which the author, Tim Craig, was obviously proud. (Presumably he felt about "The Hand" the way I feel about Frankenstein, that such a cool idea deserved to have been thought of by a better writer.) A Coil fanzine republished the Craig piece in 1987. Ten years later the story kind of came full circle when a performer calling himself John Fare enacted the amputation of one of his pinky fingers as part of a Nocturnal Emissions concert, and journalists in attendance documented the event in first person just as Shein and Craig had written decades earlier. This idea of witnessing, of the witnessing being part of the act, is part of the legend of John Fare. I think it's fair to call it a legend, and not just because it has a Wikipedia page calling it one. Something about this idea, or this particular cluster of ideas, sticks in the mind. The people who suspect it may have really happened are part of the legend too, because legends are true even if they didn't happen. They tell us something about ourselves.

I can't quite figure out what John Fare tells me about myself. That art nerds and body modifiers and kinksters find him fascinating or emblematic or something is to be expected, but I'm not any of those things. Am I drawn to the legend's portrayal of the artist as a doomed figure? Or the idea of an artist whose doom is accepted and encouraged by everyone else, maybe because they recognize that it is in some way necessary? Shein, whoever he or she was, mentions Fare's audience at the beginning of "The Hand": "Fare has a peculiar underground reputation which does not run through the usual channels. The people who attended the Toronto appearance seemed completely unlike those who usually turn out for avantgarde events: there were quite a few who looked like businessmen (with their wives), clerks, and doctors. One wonders how, exactly, they got word of the appearance." Like all of Fare's performances, it is barely advertised: people just show up for it because for some reason they need to see (and hear; bone saws are involved) this man willingly submit to mutilation.

Of course any discussion of John Fare's particular appeal for me has to include the fact that, according to both versions of the story, the first mutilation Fare endured was a lobotomy. Shein: "The first operation, in Copenhagen, was a lobotomy: the severing of the frontal lobes of the brain which results in a complete and unquestioning acceptance of the status quo, whatever that may be. In Fare's case, the status quo was the series of appearances he had already planned; the amputation of his mind sealed off whatever will he might have had to escape from that irrevocable sequence which is slowly transforming him with each part of his body that he loses." Actually I think this makes the story weaker, and not just because that's an overly simplistic way of describing the effect of a lobotomy. (Not even because once again lobotomy is reduced to narrative handwaving employed by an author who wants to make a character subhuman. Respect the lobotomy, storytellers!) If Fare is lobotomized, he's just the victim of his handlers (an engineer, who helped him build the robots, and a painter). It's kind of intriguing that he is also the victim of his pre-lobotomized self, who planned the whole thing out with the handlers before the lobotomy, but ultimately it's not that interesting if the answer to "Why does the artist agree to suffer?" is "Because he got a lobotomy." Most artists didn't, as far as I know, and they still agree to suffer, so this is not a very useful contribution.

So we turn to the other half of the performance, the audience. Why do they hunger for this spectacle? (Why, for that matter, do people who insist that it might really have taken place accept that no one called the police, no one made any objection or even any sound?) Fortunately there's no psychosurgical handwaving here to distract us, so perhaps this is the truly compelling part of the legend of John Fare: not the artist-victim himself but the "businessmen (with their wives), clerks, and doctors" who need his art, which is his suffering. Perhaps the right way to experience the performance is after all to watch the people watching Fare -- to amputate him from the narrative. Shein does this at points: "The sound of cutting came across the speakers too now, faint and tickling for the skin, thick and dream-like for the flesh. The noise of surgical saw against bone is indescribable. Two members of the audience got up and left at this point, but quietly, still holding their breath. The rest hardly seemed to notice them; hypnotized eyes focused on the table where Fare lay." And Shein's narrator talks about his (or her, but I have a feeling his) own reaction to the performance: "For myself, I cannot honestly say why I paid the price of admission, but once in the gallery I felt completely free from the qualms of consicence. The reason for that must be the same reason why, apparently, there is no legal justification for the police to interfere in the appearances, to stop Fare from pursuing a course that must end in his death, at least his death as a human being." Wikipedia says that he "has been seen as a successor of the Christian martyrs." Art is a sacrifice that we require, even though we don't know why.

And why am I writing about giant paragraphs about John Fare for like two hours in the middle of the night, instead of sleeping? I don't know why. Like him, like his audience, I just have to.
Tags: john fare, jorge luis borges, stix, whyamiflailing
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