The problem with quality concepts is that their enactment is redundant. If the idea swings, then the execution don’t mean a thing – in fact, sometimes the practice of a good idea actually reduces the virtue of the idea itself. Thus, my problem with so-called conceptual art. I veer towards the Oulipo model when it comes to these things; once the fancy strikes, no point in freezing it into form.
Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, the umbrella term for that collection of psychotherapeutic techniques designed to diminish undesirable feelings by consciously modifying the idea from which those feelings derive, is both the title and the modus operandi of Tao Lin’s second book of poetry. Lin does a good job of describing the principles of CBT in his characteristically blunt prose sentences:
we have our undesirable situations whether we are upset about them
if we are upset about our problems we have two problems: the problem
and our being upset about it; with thoughts as the cause of emotions
rather than the out come the causal order is reversed
the benefit of this is that we can change our thoughts
to feel or act differently regardless of the situation
i need to win a major prize to shove in people’s faces
note the similarities with buddhism
As those last two lines suggest, Lin’s genuine commitment to b-mod ethics also leaves plenty of room for his sense of the ridiculous. More to the point, his sense of the ridiculous is consonant with his ethical intuitions and the disjunction in scale between what he knows (for he’s seen that the world is a vast machine designed in its every element to produce evil and folly) and what he can do (steal from Whole Foods) and what he feels (sad). So what we have here is the logical inversion of concept art; what we can call concept life. If Lin’s ideas are not enacted, they lose ethical traction, to the cost of both the world and his emotional wellbeing. Enacting them, however, makes no discernible difference in the suffering of others, and thus embodies a kind of narcissism, a narcissism Lin has already identified as elemental to the machinery of the world that he finds so ethically objectionable and personally dispiriting. Not quite a paradox, but mighty close.
The structure of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy reflects this tail-swallowing impossibility. In terms of subject, Lin constantly references objects, moods and end-points that have no independent justification for his focus upon them other than the degree to which their randomness documents the relatively ineffectual nature of the poet’s efforts to seize control of his own mind. Taco Bell, headbutts, the shit of the world, Richard Yates, a small army of other things: Lin returns to them across the whole of the book, creating a kind of thematic mega-villanelle, in which every circuit brings a new perspective, the novelty of which suffers as a result of the poet’s – and the reader’s – conviction that new perspectives will not and cannot alter the ingredients themselves. This books reminds of nothing so much as the efforts of Number Six to escape The Village in Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner, except instead of a big white semi-sentient gelatinous blob, Lin keeps falling into the gap between what he knows and what he can do.
Regardless of his final ability to escape, Lin cannot be faulted for lack of effort. Although they don’t perfectly match the sections of the book, Lin organizes the poem/poems into a sequence that shifts from relatively straightforward (if cloistered) self-reportage to a long sequence in which the poet and all his social interlocutors are, suddenly and without logical preamble, hamsters. This works better than you think it might:
it had stacks of stolen books. the hamster had organic green tea extract that was stolen.
the hamster’s toothpaste was stolen and it used stolen flaxseed lemon soap on its hair, which it cut itself. the hamster had an eleven-dollar toothbrush.
* * *
one night the hamster read a book that said HIV probably wasn’t the cause of AIDS. The hamster told three other hamsters that HIV probably wasn’t the cause of AIDS and two of the hamsters got angry at it.
The advantages of transposing one’s experiences onto those of a proxy-hamster are clear. The gesture first comes at the moment when self-analysis begins to become self-regard; it clears the contemplative space of the narcissism that doesn’t dare admit its own name. But it’s also ridiculous, and funny, and an effective means by which to admit the absurdity of the individual without forcing applause for making such a recognition. Lin follows the first hamster interlude with another sequence of principled claims and episodes of reportage, many of which cite the hamster-episodes:
it was cruel
to leave the homeless man
‘there’s no such thing,’
‘as good or bad’; something about being
in the center of my philosophy
i walked through someone’s vision
and it was a vegan walking through someone’s vision
something about the way I felt kind of abstract
These interludes give the impression that the narrator may be using the capital accrued via the hamster-poems to purchase a larger or more resolute set of observations, but a few pages later, the hamster are back, only this time in Florida and with greater emphasis on email (I don’t think any poet has ever written so poignantly and un-self consciously about the emotional utility of his blog. A watershed moment.) The hamster redux poems lead in turn to my favorite sequence in the book, the ugly fish poems, in which an ugly fishes commits a kind of Song of Solomon Whitmanesque O’Hara-inflected aqua-flaneur jubilate:
from afar i have appreciated the manatee for its round body
from within i have appreciated the manatee for its veganism
my favorite poets include mary oliver and alice notley
i am a playful companion, a tactful friend
and compassionate lover; i have seen a mutant sturgeon sniff a seahorse
with a nose located on its stomach
i have lain alone on the ocean floor
at night on my birthday
The last section of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy takes an epistolary turn, and the poem reveals itself as one long justification, or preparation for, an intimate confession, one at which Lin hints in the title of the very first poem in the collection, “I will learn how to love a person and then I will teach you and then we will know”. And I amazed at how persuasive and frankly moving a case Lin makes here, for all the focus on Bruce Lee and the hamster antics.
Much hay has made in many of our more fantastically fey periodicals about the significance of Tao Lin’s age, which is not very much age at all: to the best of my ability to determine, he was 23 at the time of C-B T’s composition. My impulse is thus to dismiss his age as a genuine factor in considering his work, but I cannot quite bring myself to do so, because I’m so impressed with the way Lin articulates an enormous problem at just the moment in life when it is possible to recognize all the wrongness in which one is complicit without having to account for the consequence of a lifetime’s complicity. For all the simplicity of Lin’s objection, say, to publicly traded companies, there’s nothing logically or ethically flawed in his criticism. He’s right. And so the only way to resist the implication of his correctness – which we must reject, lest we all agree that we are indeed the human shit Lin berates himself for naming and judging – is to fault him for imagining that being right is of any relevance or importance whatsoever. That, we could sigh, is a young person’s error.
Well, it’s a young person’s privilege. And as such, it is usually exercise with bathos, malice, hyperbolic vanity or romantic melodrama. I like Tao Lin because he is weird and sad and a little cranky, but I admire Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy because it finds a tone that perfectly accommodates the experience of an untenable moral position, one in which knowledge of one’s power necessitates a powerlessness. If it’s a difficult way to live, it’s an immeasurably more difficult thing to describe. I’m curious as to whether Lin’s powers of description will persist as he continues in that state, but I’m committed to checking in on how things look to him. He continually writes I’ll be right back; like a hamster on a wheel, he has to be right back because he isn’t really going anywhere. I’m impressed with how he’s made the paradox of his situation as compelling to read as he is compelled to live it.
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