The 6 Most Intense Experiences I’ve Had With Art So Far


1. I was maybe four years old when I read The Berenstain Bears and the Big Road Race. I have never felt closer to being on hallucinogenic drugs than when I lived in this book. To this day, I can’t look at the cover without feeling immersed in a 365-degree pinwheel of burnt orange and cyan blue. It’s as if the world of the Big Road Race is a sphere, and I’m its center, watching the engines safely grind their drivers forward as I make putt putt sounds with my immortal child mouth.

2. Around Christmas of 2002, I asked my mom to buy me a DVD copy of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was in the bargain bin in a cavernous section of Circuit City. Abilene, Texas was a comfortable place to grow up, but without my amassed collection of fantasy books, swords and DVDs, I might’ve driven my mom’s dually through the face of a Buffalo Wild Wings. I remember being drawn in by the cover art, but it was also one of those paper DVDs with the black plastic latch. Those bugged me, but it might’ve been as cheap as three dollars. I don’t remember the date I watched it for the first time, but I remember preparing to view it. A year or two earlier, I begged my parents for a “professional leather chair”—my words—so I could enjoy movies like a lounging, Bateman-esque executive/creep. I set the DVD in the DVD tray, pressed the CLOSE button by hand, closed the glass cabinet that housed my DVD player, jumped onto my leather office chair and stretched my legs out atop its accompanying ottoman, leaned the chair back to best angle my face to receive the movie’s audiovisual offering, then waited. I don’t remember what I thought while I watched the movie—the more intensely I zone into something, the harder it is to retrieve coherent thoughts about it—but I remember the feeling afterwards. I remember the exact sensation of my head opening up, as if by scalpel, which reminds me of the phrase from Emily Dickinson, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” But this felt less poetic and more philosophical, as if I had just witnessed questions being asked that I didn’t know could exist. My experience with 2001 was the most visceral and tangible head trip I’ve felt via art.

2b. Around the same time, and orbiting in the gravity well left by 2001, I read Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. I remember my fascination by the idea of Bokononism, which would later crystallize into a three-quarters-hearted vow, at sixteen, to dedicate my life to Zen Buddhism. I so badly wanted Bokononism to exist. I remember being transfixed by its relaxed attitude and its musical bent, and how vastly different my life might be if a Bokononist congregation existed next to Abilene’s unavoidable, church-sprent Baptism. And I thought the funniest chapter of literature that I would ever read was the one about Sherman Krebbs and his house-guest etiquette. Jesus: I remember telling kids at school that I was a full blown Bokononist. I even walked differently for a few hours. I tried on the outfit of enlightenment. Regardless, I still feel like the book holds some unavoidable truths about the pain of being an adult. And rubbing feet with women. I reread those sections a few times.

3. The details of this trip are fuzzy, but mainly because I can’t remember where I was when I bought The Stranger in an airport bookstore, killing time before my flight back home. And was home Los Angeles, or was home Abilene? Again, I was first pulled in by the cover. I read the first half on the flight, and then got home, got in bed and read the rest. I finished around 3am. The feeling that I remember was an exhilarating sense of hopelessness, like a weird mesh of my Cat’s Cradle experience and my 2001 experience—I felt both unlocked, and chained to something beautiful. Overall, I think I tried to verbalize this experience the most, which comports to the angsty-teen-discovering-Camus cliche. I apologize to anyone who had to listen to my spoken word liveblog of discovering existentialism. This experience feels totemic, though. If I hadn’t read The Stranger, I might not’ve googled “Virginia Tech murderer”, which lead me to this essay by Tao Lin, and then I started reading and commenting on his blog, then Blake Butler’s blog, then I started a Blogger blog and started posting stories… The chain of causality that makes a life feels incredibly vulnerable, sometimes. I’ll occasionally space out and think it impossible for my life to result from any other arbitrary configuration. The Stranger loaded me up with a sense of cursed vitality.

4. In Abilene, I read Eeee Eee Eeeee by Tao Lin, finished it past midnight, set the book on a shitty nightstand that I had topped with a hand-painted Chinese character—lurching red lines on a palette of chunky black; probably some dumb shit like Bravery or Passion or Corndogs—then I immediately called my best friend in Los Angeles. We talked until 4 a.m. I felt charged with permission after reading Eeee Eee Eeeee, like I could write about anything. The experience felt like getting turned down by someone you want to have sex with, and then saying weird shit the rest of the night because it’s not going to get worse and you might as well try your damnedest to freak everyone out.

5. I saw a nighttime screening of Antichrist at the New Beverly Cinema. I saw it with the girl I’m now married to, and back then I thought taking her to a Lars von Trier film would prove a magical night for us. And then Charlotte Gainsborough cut her clit off. I don’t know if it was before or after Willem Dafoe got his erect dick smashed with a hammer, but I remember totally sinking into the movie. And when I say totally, I mean it. Normally when watching stuff with Aviva beside me, I have a constant ambient awareness of what she might be thinking and feeling. But during Antichrist, we both had fallen into its fucked portal. After the screening was over, we barely spoke. We walked outside, and walked to our car, and in an instant I felt as if I was walking through the film’s forest, caught in a fog bank, ambulating in a Boschian realm of tall horrors. I felt gelled. Full of the kind of voided fear that might occur in the few seconds before you know you’re about to die. We slept at her place. I didn’t sleep at all. The night air felt cool, and haunted by some animal’s light. I haven’t watched the film since, afraid that any new viewing will shift my sense of its original terror, which has frozen inside me, and which I know is not replicable.

6. Aviva and I were in New York, and we saw the play Jerusalem. In it, Mark Rylance plays Johnny, a brain-fried and limping British daredevil. Johnny lives in a trailer park and hangs out with a bunch of affable fuckups. He alludes to having a certain power, and there is a reverence about him. But most of the time the lost denizens just fart around with him, laughing at his busted liveliness. I don’t remember much of the plot, but someone beats Johnny up after a few hours of ratcheting tension. After a long, tense beat, Rylance emerges, face blasted with prosthetic swelling and compote blood. And it’s just fucking miserable. I felt myself loving this character—as everyone in the audience was crafted to—but I felt attached to him in a deeper way than I thought possible within the bounds of a play. Maybe because he reminded me of my dad, another guy that has lived hard, loved doing crazy shit with speedy vehicles and has carried a limp since I’ve known him. But Johnny gets out of his trailer, cleans himself up a bit, then fulfills the play’s subtle promise in a ritual of full-body transcendence. He screams. Stomps. Beats his chest. Blood and water spraying out from him with each call, a holy mist. Johnny’s tall tales were true, you see, and that’s what I felt with each massive rumble through the theater’s sound system—Johnny comes from a line of giants, and he’s calling them home. I felt a torrent of emotion coming up. After the final, hard rumble, the lights cut out and I start bawling in a dark theater. I stay down through the curtain call, I’m crying so hard. My wife asks me if I’m okay. I nod. She pulls me up by my arm. We have to meet some people, so we rush into a cab and dash to some restaurant, and all I want is to crawl into bed and sleep for days. Thinking back on the experience, from a safe distance, I can’t pinpoint exactly what the feeling was. I failed that night when I tried to explain it to my wife. And that’s okay, because I know its intensity. I can still feel its power, perfectly formed.

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image – Antichrist