Embracing Dissonance

WE won! The Star of Happiness is proud to announce that it will be a part of Horse Trade’s miniFRIDGE in the summer of 2011.  Thanks to all those who came out and supported, an huge appreciation to David Lowe for producing some perfectly weird video and to luckydave for helping with tech.  both of these super talented guys have agreed to help out with the final production which will be nearly an hour in length and a culmination of a couple of year’s worth of research inspired by Helen’s four year stint on the vaudeville circuit.

I sometimes worry about putting so much pressure on Helen’s time on vaudeville.  After all, it was a mere four years in the long and impressive life of a woman named one of the most influential people of the twentieth century and whose name has been household for over one hundred and twenty years, though admittedly I just met someone the other day who claimed never to have heard of Helen Keller(!), which was a reminder to never take anything for granted.  But her time on vaudeville, controversial and even scandalous as it was  at the time, affords a unique opportunity to think about the relationship between spectacle and performance, oddity and entertainment.  My research into Helen’s time on vaudeville prompted me to wonder about the roots of vaudeville and its “odd act” which vaudeville producers dubbed any act that did not precisely fit into the entertainment arts.  Sometimes these acts would be informative other times sensational.  The best ones were both.

Helen had a theme song called “The Star of Happiness” written especially for her by the man who also wrote “yes, We Have No Bananas”.  She was a headliner, performing only twice a day with a premium salary, whereas lesser acts performed up to four times daily in this continuous entertainment.  Ostensibly her act was informative, but it had enough to titillate and amuse.  It cannot be said to be free of the stigma of the freak show, and yet it gave her an opportunity to voice her controversial, generally leftist, opinions that had gotten her into trouble on the more conservative lecture circuit.  She was supposed by many to be a heavenly, not political, creature. 

What interests me in this moment is its potential to be a crucible for a number of volatile substances.  Disability is as unstable a thing as a person can handle.  I will consider myself a failure if my work looks anything like a celebration of overcoming obstacles or transcending adversity or the like.  This is not that, or if it is, it is despite my best intentions.  But neither is it a flippant parody, meant only to reveal the embarrassing connections between the odd act and the freak show, though this connection is part of what drives my interest.  There is no easy interpretation of the deaf blind body offered as spectacle to the masses.  Like it or not, she was performing as herself and her fame was securely wrapped up in her person.  She was not blind, pardon, to this fact and as I hope will be clear in other places on this blog and in my performance, she often found this crippling – more crippling in certain respects than the disabilities themselves.

When I tell people about this project the most common question is “what was her act?”  and well, that will be part of my act too, so I won’t give it all away, but I can assure you that, though wholly dependent on her being there live and in the flesh, it consisted of elements as old as performance and as transcendent and hacky as vaudeville itself.

Vaudeville producers made it a point of having acts as varied as possible so as to invoke in their audiences a constant state of alertness.  The dissonance that the heart’s and mind’s of the spectators experienced as they were carried from opera to monkey acts and from buster Keaton to Helen Keller, is precisely the mental state I would like to induce.  However, I, unlike vaudeville producers who might accidentally inform their audiences if they thought it entertaining, am more like Helen who would happily entertain en route to opening eyes.

The Anatomy of Melancholy

michelle-leona godin @ the beezy douglas carnivale, spring 2010

I’m an artist and academic, whose accomplishments include getting my PhD in English Literature from NYU and not yet ending up in a pool of my own toxic waste… 

Robert Burton the black humored author of The Anatomy of Melancholy wrote in his preface to the reader: “I write of melancholy, by being busy to avoid melancholy.”  This apparently worked just fine until the enormous volume was finished and the sad scholar, bereft of work, hung himself in his Oxford rooms.  Although this last has not been confirmed by history, I’m not alone in thinking it makes a nice story and accept it as a fact of art  from a world that relates only tangentially to literal facts; an artifact from  a world where facts are the stuff of the imagination and inner eye and not the outer one and reason.

So that’s it.  this website is my Anatomy and I’m hopeful, since I don’t have to worry about publishing, or rather can constantly publish, that I likewise don’t have to worry about finishing, and can remain always and forever in the state of avoiding. 

But what are you avoiding?

Well, like my black biled brother Burton, I’m attempting to avoid the often romanticized and, if Prozac & other anti-depressants are any indication, just as often reviled stuff of the blues.  But also I’m attempting to stave off the rigor mortis associated with death, adulthood and a general fear that there is nothing more to learn and nothing more to do about the current sack of corpus you inhabit.  To stave off, in fact, the facts of life and death.  Because what better way than making art?  Art defies such molds and molderings.

So, that’s it about me.  I’m just like all the rest: making art in order to avoid annihilation!

The Star of Happiness @ The December Event!

On Wed Dec 22, I’ll be unveiling the first few minutes of my upcoming one-woman, two-voice show about Helen Keller’s time on Vaudeville. 

The night is actually a competition which is why I hope you will come and vote for me.  I’m competing against some really wonderful performers, so YOU can’t lose!

We are competing for three coveted slots to put on a full-length show as a part of Horse Trade’s miniFRIDGE, which takes place in the summer.

The December Event:

Wed Dec 22, 7:30pm

@ The Kraine Theater, 85 East 4th Street, nyc

This event will sell out, so please purchase tickets in advance at SmartTix, either by following the link:

http://frigidnewyork.info/

Or by calling:

212 868 4444

(Tickets are $15 which includes a free drink and a whole lotta show!)

Yours,

ml

The St*r of Happiness: Helen Keller on Vaudeville?!

“At first it seemed odd to find ourselves on the same bill with acrobats, monkeys, horses, dogs, and parrots; but our little act was dignified and people seemed to like it.” – Helen Keller from Midstream  

Was it dignified or degrading to deaf/blind people everywhere?

Was she a holdover from the freak show or legitimate entertainment?

Was she being exploited or using the opportunity to express her pinko politics?

Was she selling out or merely trying to earn a living?

Dr. michelle-leona godin does not presume to answer these questions but rather, through a series of performative readings of disparate texts, makes bold suggestions that force us to confront our deeply held, if often unconscious, attitudes towards the disabled body.

I thought this was supposed to be funny!?

There will be jokes.

Oh thank goodness I was getting worried.

But, in laughing at these jokes, you will experience a kind of joyful shame that is not so different from that of the freak who, for financial as well as egotistical reasons, feels a kind of painful gratitude towards the gaze of the gawkers who, fancying themselves normal cannot fail to identi—

Do you want an audience?

Yes please!

Then shut up!

Ok, but let me just say…

Written and performed by michelle-leona godin, The Star of Happiness is a one-woman, two-voice show inspired by Helen Keller’s time on vaudeville.

Video projections by David Lowe

Everyone Has Heard of Helen Keller

 Of course everyone has heard of Helen Keller.  She has about as recognizable a name as anyone who has ever lived.  Mark Twain, the most quotable of all Americans and the friend credited with giving Helen a lifelong taste for whiskey, said of her that she is “the most marvelous person of her sex who had existed on the earth since Joan of Arc.”  Hyperbolic as ever, Twain suggests with this comparison a kind of saintliness that was put upon Helen even by those, like Twain himself, who knew her to be extraordinarily human.  She was deeply religious, but she was also deeply political, even radical, intelligent, funny, opinionated and practical.  It is testimony to her well-roundedness and not her saintliness that she ended up performing on vaudeville for four years.  One could not imagine such a life-style for Joan of Arc, but, then again, most people have a hard time rethinking Helen Keller as a vaudeville performer, which is, I suppose, the point of all this.

I had first discovered HK intellectually when I was just starting out, wide-eyed so to speak, on the grad school path and was very diligent, if a bit scattered.  Starting with a shaky deconstructed fixation on blindness, I moved backward in time from de Man and Derrida to Rousseau and Diderot on a theoretical trajectory and then forward again following a different path – that of the education of the blind.  The philosophy informed and shaped the history, in both concerted and accidental ways.  The education of the blind started in Paris in the late Eighteen-century and, by the middle of the nineteenth, the very first deaf-blind person had been educated.  This was Laura Bridgman, and her story was famous and written about by giants no less than Charles Dickens and Charles Darwin, but her linguistic skills never reached the heights of those of her successor.  Helen’s use of language to move her readers and listeners is truly impressive, if sometimes a bit saccharine for my tastes.  If you’ve never done a Google search for Helen Keller quotes you might do so, especially when you are feeling self-absorbed and sorry for yourself.  They are a fine cure for that sort of thing.

 But let’s start here, with the quote that first got my attention.  You can read it in her never-out-of print best-seller The Story of my Life published in 1903, when she was twenty-three and recently graduated magna cum laude from Radcliffe, or you can watch a dramatized version in the 1962 movie, The Miracle Worker.  It still blows my mind, but at the time I first encountered it struck my grad school soaked (pickled?)brain like a thunderbolt, loaded as it is with theoretical import:

“We walked down the path to the water-house, attracted by the smell of the honeysuckle with which it was covered.  Someone was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout.  As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly.   I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers.  Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten – a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me.  I knew then that “w-a-t-e-r” meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand.  That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free!”

It still gives me chills to copy the words.  It is no wonder that millions read the book as soon as it was published.  But it was not just the excitement of a girl learning how to communicate, but even the comprehension of language itself. My studies in first sight, which I was exploring in my master’s thesis, came to life in a new light.  The blind man restored to sight in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries turned into the deaf-blind woman learning language, but not as a child – not as an infant anyway, but rather all at once, as if the idea of language and its possibilities penetrated her six-year-old mind as a conscious revelation.

It turns out that this was a myth, a fantasy produced by Helen in conjunction with her teacher Anne Sullivan and her editor John Macy.  but the myth sticks – I mean everyone loves the moment of revelation right?  It is the stuff of religious fervor and fairy tales – the persecutor/saint struck blind on the road to Damascus and the frog restored to his princely self.

Related Links:

For some HK quotes to cure your self-pity:

http://www.quotationspage.com/quotes/Helen_Keller

Project Gutenberg edition of The Story of My Life (quote taken from Chapter IV):

http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/2397

For the dramatized version of the famous water pump scene:

http://www.tcm.com/mediaroom/index.jsp?cid=274802

For The Frog Prince:

http://www.eastoftheweb.com/cgi-bin/version_printable.pl?story_id=FrogPrin.shtml

Abstract

Seeing and not-seeing suggest a confusion between seeing metaphorically and seeing literally.  This confusion manifests in writings about poetical/critical seeing either in the mind’s eye or in the real eye.  As epistemological questions circle around the senses in the wake of empiricism the concept of seeing literally becomes more important and the metaphorics of blindness more complicated.

By examining the blind man in an age when the evidence of the senses, particularly sight, increases in importance, one finds a radical shift in ideology. The blind man, as an empirical specimen rather than a potential site for divine inspiration, deprives the Platonic ideal of meaning.  In his blindness, and in the way in which he is read through the eighteenth century, Milton represents both the poet/prophet and the specimen of empirical inquiry.

For certain early modern critics, such as Addison, the way to understand art and society is through the senses.  However, by the middle of the eighteenth century, Burke turns again to the blind man and says something quite different than had been said before.  He will empty vision of empirical sight, and he will cite real blind men as evidence for the possibility of describing the visible world without the means of sight.  For Burke the vastness of augmented sight – microscopic and telescopic – suggest the sublime, but for others particularly Swift and Pope, the microscopic eye suggests a kind of too-much of seeing that is not unrelated to blindness itself.  Lastly, I consider Samuel Johnson and his forty-year friendship with the blind lady Anna Williams, which at times suggests that his existential fears of death and doubts regarding Christianity are intimately bound up with the weightiest metaphorics of blindness.

The Star of Happiness Has Five Minutes to Shine

I’ve known people who have done fringe festivals over the past couple of years, but it was fairly recent that I found out that the fringe selection process is usually very egalitarian.  The majority of participants are allowed in via a lottery system or a first come first served basis or some combination of the two.  Applying to FRIGID new York is my first experience with this whole process and I’ve gotten a little glimpse of how it works

Frigid new York takes place in late winter, but the applications were due on Labor Day at midnight.  The first fifteen slots went in a record 6 seconds!  Although I had had my application ready to go for hours, I was somehow late to push the submit button (duh), and alas was forced to wait for another couple of months for the lottery.  The lottery was held on Halloween at Under St. Mark’s, the theater where I hope to perform The Star of Happiness, where the hard rockin/drinkin story telling madness that is the BTK Band somewhat alleviated the sadness of not having my name picked out of the hat.

Because there were so many disappointed friends of Horse Trade, they decided to invite three would be FRIGID shows to the miniFRIDGE.  Well, the irony is that if you ended up like me (and a lot of scary worthy people did), then suddenly all the luck is taken out of the equation, and we’re left with good old-fashioned competition.

On December 22, each of us miniFRIDGE hopefuls/FRIGID Fest losers will have five precious minutes to convince the audience to vote for our show and thereby win one of the three coveted miniFRIDGE spots. This will be a great event no matter what – details to come!

For more info on FRIGID new York: http://frigidnewyork.info/

And for all things wonderful at Horse Trade (including the insane BTK Band): http://horsetrade.info/