Killing the Swan With Talk, (Not) Allowing the Mystery

When the pictures and videos of Peter Minshall’s The Dying Swan: Ras Nijinsky in drag as Pavlova surfaced, I was speaking to a friend over the phone who expressed some doubt about the work, but more pronounced was her bristling at the response and the alacrity behind responses to Minshall’s first offering after a long hiatus. Scrolling through all the comments filled with high praise for it, I felt a strong degree of skepticism which I am only now realising was engendered more by all the commentary surrounding the piece than the piece itself. I was not moved by the piece when I saw it and as to how much my experience of it was vitiated by the mas’ of words and volubility being played around and maybe killing (for me at least) Mr. Minshall’s already Dying Swan, I cannot say.

(See here for video: Dying Swan by Peter Minshall )
(See Maria Nunes’ photographs of the Dying Swan here)

When I posted my -deliberately provocative, deliberately piquant/picong- comment(“idk what to make of da swan nuh, unless daz Minshall Ole Mas on d economy.”) which was picked up swiftly by another blogger to represent a sort of burgeoning camp, unimpressed by the ostensibly polarising work (See here:, poet & critic Christian Campbell admonished me, asking me to ‘allow it its mystery’. And though I argued with him on the thread (an argument that brought me further away from what was really occluding my experience of the piece), he was right. It dawns on me now that this is exactly the problem I had – apart from the morass of instinctual praise of the work of a master, especially one who has, by his withdrawal, afflicted his admirers with a kind of Stockholm Syndrome- that too many people, including myself, were incapable of allowing in mystery. For me this tendency has deep roots that have been further innervated by the framework within which such forms strictly exist: competition.

The tendency is one of the secular society, exemplified of course by certain strata, certain classes. It is the society of scientific explanation, obsessed with reflexivity even to the point of illusion and thoroughly convinced of the knowability of the world. It is the post-laïcité production, that has its roots in European Enlightenment Period. I am not sure when carnival became something judged, but I think it is common knowledge that this did not constitute its raison d’être, that it did not consider itself reducible to whatever the criteria is that exists and passes judgment on it now. The Masquerade tradition has been irretrievably bound up with the religious. Not merely the representation of Other-worldly power and the acknowledgement of its incomprehensibility, but also with its containment and direction by man (obeah/ santeria/ palo/ myaal/Vodou) as well as OF man, stuck in the mud of the world beyond all his constructed forms of judgment and containment: morality/immorality, judging criteria. scientific theories etc. The Nkimba secret society, from which the French Caribbean word (at least) for Obeah derives its name “Kembois”, was known for the performance of rituals that depict man resurrecting the vanquished or dead, lifting them into rebirth. This same ritual was enacted in the now vanished mas of Papa Diable/ Djab in St. Lucia, a mas’ restricted to the city of Castries. (there is something to be said about the effect of the ‘centralization’ of mas that may have been restricted to a particular part of the country, as a means of containing and creating an indiscriminate mas —again a political imperative— that the nation could call ‘culture’)

Pioneering “Africanist” European missionaries/anthropologists (or anthropologist-missionaries) from centuries ago (the tedium of the term should tell you something) up to the present have had trouble understanding a society whose modus did not believe as fervently in the reducibility of the world to ‘critical commentary’ or the ‘hyper-reflexivity’ of their so highly-prized society:

“Among my Umeda informants I found none willing to discuss the meaning of their symbolsto discuss their symbols as symbols ‘standing for’ some other thing or idea, rather than as concrete things-in-themselves. In fact I found it impossible to even pose the question of meaning in Umeda, since I could not discover any corresponding Umeda word for the English ‘mean’, or ‘stand for’. etc.”

Another dismissively fulminates not dissimilar from Upper-/middle class dismissals in the Caribbean of the working-class, even as working-class art is hijacked and integrated into this worldview: “ As regards the symbolic interpretation of ritual, this is usually held not to be primitive; and it is doubtless true that an unreflective age is hardly aware of the differences between “outward sign” and “inward meaning” and thinks as it were by means of its eyes.” (Asad, 59) Manifest here is the need for ‘Enlightened’ Europe to distance itself from its ‘primitive’ past, by juxtaposing it with the ‘primitive’ places— such as the Caribbean— it was now discovering.

What this anthropologist and commentator bemoan here exemplifies that particular way of seeing the world: that since everything ‘stands for’ something, then the world can be figured out. Maybe it is this tendency that so frustrates Susan Sontag, in her essay Against Interpretation when she calls for the abandonment of a hermeneutics in favour of an ‘erotics’ of poetry.

One contemporary anthropologist asks the very important question: “is it possible that the transformation of rites from discipline to symbol, from practicing distinctive virtues (passions) to represent by means of practices, has been one of the preconditions for the larger conceptual transformation of heterogenous life (acting and being acted upon) into readable text? (emphasis mine)
And this does not denote a lack in these societies as opposed to a recognition that the response to the aesthetic, or any phenomena for that matter is not restricted to the mouth, to the head. This probably accounts for the difference between European conceptions of ‘intelligence’ as something thoroughly contained in the head, and the semantic coalescence or rather indivisibility of the ‘intellectual intelligence’ and the ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’. Behind this indivisibility is the idea of vital force which is how many, especially West Central Africans articulate this understanding. That the intelligence and the spirit in its other forms are not essentially antagonistic to each other, nor do they exist independently or separately. In the Kweyol language for instance, the word Lèspwi (L’esprit in French) refers to ‘smartness’, (even while the word èspwi refers to spirit) someone who is smart. Even if by this ‘smartness’ we mean ‘smart’ in the Trini-vernacular sense, or Samfie ( in the Jamaican). So this consideration (call it aesthetic or otherwise if you wish) is one that is entirely amoral, which explains why Obeahmen never speak of power as essentialized into good and evil, on the sole basis of its origin, but rather good and evil manifests in how Power is deployed. It is even more telling that the enactment and evasion of a spiritual attack is many times described as ‘jès’, consanguine with the English word “jest”, collapsing —as some in the theatre would have know— the division between ‘seriousness’ and ‘play’, man as ‘Homo ludens’, which carnival so exemplifies.

But the volubility continued. The fact that the work was also ‘Nijinsky in drag as Pavlova’, also stirred the eager cilia of the neoliberals, allowed them to deploy the copious vocabulary their paradigms have mass-produced over the last decade. The teleportation of European ballet into the mas’ titillated the creolists, whose idea of the creole is an adhoc assemblage of cultures, similar to the ‘melting pot’ rhetoric of politicians. Journalists eagerly drew it in as metaphor or symbol (as I ironically did in my dismissal of the piece, or the piece’s loud social-media ambiance) of decadence, decline and the moribund visage of a nation facing austerity after a life of intemperance and profligacy. As much as I am not doubting that through both articulate and inarticulate processes(!), the artist is affected by his society, I am saying that he does not only ‘represent’ this the state of society in his art, he also manifests it, in spite of himself— so that not even ‘he’ is entirely an expert on what he did. Yet all around were the experts, a characteristic that Trinidadians often bemoan about themselves. Curiously, some of those whom I know to have a more intimate relationship to the mas’,  remained quiet, even when I probed them for comment. One of them is reported to have laconically yet sagely stated, “It have to wine”, which (for the gainsayers) of course is not to be taken literally.

But the real answer, that dissipated all my cynicism and saturation with the loudness, came from the man himself, Peter Minshall. The answer almost seems to come from somewhere beyond him. It has the quality of epiphany. Even while he resurrects the vocabulary of ‘critical commentary’ from time to time, there are these epiphanic points of departure. His tone changes in both instances, and it is like he is harking back to the most ancient knowledge, the ossified UNDER-standing in old age of what it is he has been trying to do: “And there is something about carnival, which is contrary to what we consider the NORMal, LAWful, legal (VL:which includes to some extent the laws or dictums of theatrical practice which we are all versed in and can TALK about) course of life. Everything that happens for the rest of the course of the year is all well and fine and good but THE PURPOSE OF THE CARNIVAL IS TO ACKNOWLEDGE IN ALMOST A RELIGIOUS WAY(!) THE EMPOWERMENT OF CHAOS, THAT WE ARE NOT IN CHARGE”

See interview with Minshall on the Dying Swan here.

At the end of the interview, he draws our attention to the aesthetic and spiritual (even, in a native sense, scientific) indivisible consideration: “Whether it be a painting, whether it be an aria, whether it be a piano recital, there is only one measure for a work of art, IF IT WORKS IT WORKS”. What any practicing artist knows. And Minshall is fully aware, as is evident in a quote paraphrased by the interviewer, that the work is collaborative between Minshall and Jha Whan as much as it is between Minshall and the Powers. Not the swan itself but how it is portrayed by Jha wan, what Jha Wan DOES with it. Not what is ‘means’ or ‘represents’ but what it does.

With the very important caveat that I only saw the work on video, I remain unmoved by the work and that does not negate anyone else’s positive intellectual or emotional reception of it, for as I replied to the blog in which I was quoted and as I have learnt over the last few years not even OBEAH works on everyone.



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