I read somewhere—on a museum plaque, I think—that, in essence, luminism was an effort to portray a “transcendental unity in the contemplation of nature’s stillness” and I wonder what the antonymic would be—to capture a descendant fragmentation in hasty reactions to urban chaos, perhaps. I might call that lifeism if a name was needed, one starting with L, but it’s not so forget it.
And then I think about cities, some cities, maybe most, how chaos breaks out sometimes but isn’t necessarily the norm, how they’re canvases for conflict and contradiction and extremes and differentiations more accented than homogenized under a great, seething sameness. How they’re restricted open areas for the confused, the hypocritical, the multifaceted, the plain, the dull and the brilliant, the honest and the insane and whoever else can fit in between, lit up by light and darkness alike. Inhabitants dwell, dwellers inhabit, proudly staking claim as much through action and congregation as through subversion, criminalism, resistance, and denial. It’s all participation, all in, fringe or otherwise, and there’s no getting out, or, rather, getting it out of you once it’s in.
And then I think of this city, mine, proud and beautiful and disproportioned and balanced and symmetrical and random and stubborn Chicago, never just bleak, not even at its bleakest, a city of departures, arrivals, stays, reasons, situations, and purposes, all growing more and more familiar and more mine, in me, in spite of my despites. The neighborhoods that smell like things I’ve seen, the lights at night that throb and sound like things I know, the train rumbles and wind gusts that look like here and what I’ve imagined and I’d never want to cover that up or paper it over or smooth it all out, not in the least.
And then, gagging on all that hyperbole and wondering why I don’t take advantage of delete, I think again of those 19th century paintings by Americans I’ve never heard of and won’t remember, contemplating nature’s stillness and tranquility in the decades covering our Civil War and while I appreciate their desires to tone it all down several notches with their soft skies and glassy waters and moon-ish light pouring from unseen sources over bucolic landscapes the artists themselves had likely never seen, I find I can’t help seeing it as contrivance, pure and plain, maybe even evasion, like they took a photo someone else snapped of the real deal and painted themselves a nice little literary offense on par with Fenimore Cooper’s 114 and I wonder how many I just violated out of the possible 115 with all that city blather. Good thing Twain is dead and there’s no one in hell to tell him.
I’m in no position/condition to write a transition to the next cognition so I’ll just come out with it. It’s about Twain and Cooper, yes, and luminists and art museums and cities, but also about Muhammad Ali too, fancy that, and change and this country in which I live. A mixed up and lucid thought, this, just like cities, just like this nation, just like history, just like now, and it’s as much about all that as about the impossible because Ali just died and he once said “I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize” and he was right and he wasn’t, because he’s as eminently recognizable as anyone could ever become and he also said this:
Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.
And I feel like Twain could’ve said that and how’s that for juxtaposition. They both used pen names so what’s the difference, and weren’t far off from one another on the matter of impossibility anyway, considering Twain’s too-famous “They did not know it was impossible so they did it” is as much Ali’s as Ali’s is Twain’s and it’s all America all at once, now and past and back to presence.
Impossible is nothing sounds quintessentially American but that’s where I think we’re wrong in what we think that essence sounds like and I hate hearing/reading writers talk about writing, except for the really good ones, just like it’s hard to hear anyone but the good ones talk about life, American or otherwise, about change, about possibility and dares, not because they know the measure but because they are it and are there to be approached and matched and exceeded just like anyone/thing else but different because they’ve thrown their weight behind being just and only that regardless of where they’re from and when and what it’s supposed to mean.
Impossible amounts to complacency and complacency changes nothing, takes no dares, explores no powers, and is potential, temporary, and nothing. It’s a cover-up, a nice, safe sheet with ghost eyes cut out for looking without assertion. I, for one, as one I am, am a lover of stillness and tranquility naturally occurring, but I don’t think I seek to create them where they do not already exist on their own and independent, but rather to acknowledge and appreciate them as and how and where and when they stand. And that’s not easy, which is partly why it’s worth it, as they say. Manufacturing them would seem temporary and nothing, without potential, unresponsive, paradoxically, in a dully responsive-reactive sort of way that says hello chaos here’s tranquility, hello tranquility here’s chaos and isn’t that fascinating how we play with antonyms and synonyms and think we’ve made something new.
It’s the dare that gets me, the dare a city poses to change it not by making it different by peeling an “IMPOSSIBLE” sticker off something so labeled but by never knowing it as such to begin with, by adding to what’s been added to, by breathing history back in and out and talking transcendentally discontinuous continuity through slight tweaks and adjustments and forays and jaunts and to do anything anything anything to tap a way to say something different(ly) about what’s always been pretty much the same. That’s change, I think, and power, and also so so beautiful when it’s caught, just for a moment, then released.
What am I trying to change, I wonder? Art? Writing? Not really, though those are my methods (Ali said “It’s just a job. Grass grows, birds fly, waves pound the sand. I beat people up.” Ok, and I write, I guess, that’s one thing). I want to stake a claim too, like city-dwellers do, and I know for a fact I’d want to stake that claim whether I carried a pen or wore boxing gloves or drove a bus, to leave a mark of a being on a path through all this to somewhere else as a person whose ceaseless efforts of self-assertion in a socio-historical sea of questionable, cursory, fugitive self-fulness meant something and meant something that’s never been impossible but only and too-often imagined so, and to stake that claim not in fenced academicals or bland institutionals but in the mind’s eye sensory modifiers that take the given and imbue it with what it is and then some, letting that then some move us past what we see with receptor eyes to what we know with more thinking, feeling ones, whether it’s what we wish or not, perhaps especially if not. Like impressionism capturing the zeitgeist and then renaming it by looking in ignored museum corners as much as the obvious open, anything to at once illuminate and obscure, to speak differently and crease those corners for dog-eared deviation with an aura free of any tangible, chain-linked sense of possibility, understanding all the while that impossible is a dare and how can you be a poet if you can’t spell? How can you change terms if you don’t know what they are in the first place? How can you turn chaos to tranquility or impossible to possibility without daring to let it all intertwine?
Twain’s line is not inspirational, nor is Ali’s blockquoteableism, not in the direct and kitschy sense that armchair inspirationalists insist upon with their ruinous designs on the sublime and copyright infringements. Their words—the fighter’s and the writer’s—are warnings, callouts called from different neighborhoods of the same big timeless city to say this is mostly a game though the moonlight is real and it illuminates civil wars as much as quiet landscapes and we better pay attention to both without ever taking ourselves so seriously, so fearfully seriously that we become one and not the other, single-dimensioned to the exclusion of all else, small, local, and locked in a contentious complacency stripped of all meaningful contention, like standing alone facing a dark, empty, uncreased corner as if it’s the future and the past is not right there behind us, expansive and present and possible, daring us to go past downtown.