What follows is a very long post discussing the ambition, confusion and frustration in my life and art for which I lack the language to explore in conversation. The main topics are crucially important to me and, as a verbal social primate, I have tried to unpack with other people the matters unpacked here. Those attempts foundered because I could not communicate adequately in the moment. This is common for me, resulting consistently in whomever I’ve chosen to burden reacting to something other than what I try to say.
Please do not jump up declaring that this is true for everyone. Please don’t do that at any part of what follows that you choose to read. A wise elder of my youth cautioned long ago, “A lazy mind sees similarity before it sees distinction.” I tried, have tried, still try to take that to heart, and at least for this column I ask the same of you. I am not a great one for exclamation points, and I grow ever more suspicious of passionate language. Please take as given that the disconnect I’m talking about is non-ordinary, and supply exclamations and emotional flushes where needed.
None of what follows requires comment or other response. Befuddlement, disappointment and all their baggage have occupied too much of my mental life, to a point where they have become impairments. When the drawings I had been drawing and the poetry I had been writing ground to a halt it was clearly time to scour the mindscape of what boils from the mud. That is what this column is about. Its purpose is to clear away fog so that I may let go of what must be released and move on. It’s not about eliciting argument, counters or other perspectives. Rather than post this as a column, I could have printed a hard copy, mumbled magic words and set it on fire, but I’m a verbal social primate—a silver-haired ape—and an old fool. Posting here allows me to imagine I have said these things to someone, while allowing any reader to choose whether or not to accept the burden.
Originally this was going to be three columns. One was to be a final statement on the importance of my name, a parting shot before putting the subject to bed. Its direction did not aim for anything more than saying one last time that what you call me matters. A second column set out to process my psychological diagnoses and the lived experience of the mind that provoked them. The third sought to analyze the failure of intention in the most ambitious creative project I have yet attempted.
Too many weeks trying to juggle all three at once while keeping them separate accomplished little besides chewing up time. Occasionally, dividing attention this way has been productive. When simultaneous threads flow together, progress accelerates, but as often as not that doesn’t happen. Finally, I just stacked the three one on the other in order to get past them. Layering the cake did suggest connections between the discussions of mind and art, so what follows is a two-out-of-three confluence on the tail of a parting shot. Actually, this is all parting shot. I’m too old not to look ahead. Like Narcissus, this column gazes at a reflection. Unlike him, recognition allows me to rise and go.
If you are a reader who is not me, you should probably stop now and visit again when the next column posts. That one will talk about why I’m still going to rewrite two novels and then push on to finish the interrupted cycle. Other topics already jockey for future position. Channels have been opened by flushing this clutter. Please hold my jacket. I’ll see you when I come up for air.
Names are power
In some societies an individual has a true name that is never revealed and a public name that is not true but is the one that is used. A popular explanation is that exposing a person’s true name renders them vulnerable. In other societies, a person may change his or her name, or have it changed, several times in order to recognize that events, deeds or attainments fundamentally change identity. In much of the world there is also a tradition of using nicknames outside of formal contexts, which is fine when the person nicked is willing.
Willing or not, some names get nicked automatically by custom. These are names that common practice does not permit except on legal documents, diplomas and title pages. My name, Robert, is one of these. For most of my life I believed my only choice in the matter was choosing which nickname to suffer. I have always clung to Robert as my true name, but if you tell someone Robert is your name and you do not give them a specific exception, they will leap without asking to Bob, which is odious. If you do not wish to suffer a nickname all of them are odious, but Bob is more so. I’m sorry, Bob, but it’s true. One day I finally decided to let people know how important it is to me that they use the name I prefer, which, with underscores, is Robert. It is now almost twenty years that I have been quietly stating this position. Recently, I have been less quiet.
Why a request to recognize how I identify should be controversial escapes me. Over the many years that I was involved in, first, personnel (when we were still persons) and then human resources management, I had more than one occasion to support employees through name changes. These decisions were not always based on reasons some of their colleagues wanted to accept. My role was to insist that the change had to be respected even if the reason for it appeared arbitrary. The line in the workplace was clear: no one gets to choose how someone else identifies. In a time when rising generations expect to declare what pronouns others will use when referring to them in the third person, asking that I not be called by a nickname seems simple and straightforward. And I have been asking, mostly politely, for a very long time now.
The larger number of my friends and some relations have accepted that I no longer wish to be the object of a bleating monosyllable. The offensive nick is not Bob, but rhymes with it. The bleat grated on me long before I asked people to stop using it; it just seemed that I had no choice. Finally, with the thought that one can never see through what one has never begun, I started asking politely that people not call me by that cursed bleat.
I began to write about this as one of the juggled columns because there are still people who insist on calling me something I find distasteful. It saddens me that this is so. The person that bleat once tagged may have never existed. Shifting identity doesn’t fix well in time, so it’s hard to say. He certainly does not exist now.
Attempting to concoct a persuasion impossible to resist, I scribbled away in a notebook, scratched out the scribble, and scribbled more. As it went on, and as I got deeper into the other two Musings drafts, the impulse to argue drained away. It became clear that everything I wrote on the topic was an exercise in talking to myself. All the holdouts I can justify unfriending have been unfriended. The remaining offenders are family or good friends secure in their assumption that I will continue to suffer their disregard for a preference important to me. They are right, of course. Even so, to state it once more, Robert is my actual name and the one I prefer in every situation.
IQ, haiku, ten-Q, you’re welcome
The draft column about my diagnoses grew long-winded. Some of it was combative. This is a topic I would find helpful to discuss with an open-minded, perceptive non-professional, but the hopes of delving with another have stalled at my inability to find appropriate language. The available words mean so many things that in the flow of talk I cannot figure out how to be specific. At least not specific enough.
Despite reservations I have about methods and conclusions, I think the diagnostic process points toward something actual. A limitation, potentially crippling, is that few diagnosticians have direct experience of the mental states they seek to evaluate, and all of them depend on inference. In fact, diagnosticians have direct experience of only one mental state each, adding a whiff of the anecdotal to everything downstream. Despite this, the professional tone I have met pretends objective authority.
Going through the diagnosis a second time as an adult helped give perspective to a lifetime of social incomprehension. Talking about it would help tremendously in separating what is useful from mumbo-jumbo. Mumbo-jumbo is exactly what I got from the diagnostician when I tried to point out problems with the instrument. Unfortunately, I’ve had no more success with lay listeners. Though my attempts at sharing were as precise as I could make them, they were not precise enough. The only reaction has been that my disconnect is no different from what everyone experiences. A few, supposedly sympathetic loved ones even suggested the difficulties I experience are self-created.
I still dissect those conversations trying to figure out where I assumed too much and what I might have explained better. Finding courage to talk about how and in how many ways one has been designated “disordered” is hard. One takes lessons where one finds them. The language we share for talking about mental states (or mentalities, minds, whatever it is that looks out from our skulls) is so commonplace that getting past its inbuilt misconceptions almost cannot happen.
Pressing forward with what terminology we have for the subject of personality disorders can make the most surprising people uncomfortable. Eventually it became apparent that in search of an open ear I was bringing up the subject inappropriately with near strangers. As the saying goes, once a thing is done even a fool sees it. Finally, I turned to writing about what I have been unable to say.
This topic merits comment because it bears on my art, which is what I actually intend to talk about. It bears on all my art, but for the moment most especially on the four books I call artifacts of Habdvarsha. Those books, to be clear, are Dvarsh, An Introduction, Dvarsh Workbook, Nod’s Way (The Author’s Edition), and The Song of Worlds. Drawing the connection requires sketching some of the diagnoses. As they say in courtroom dramas, it goes to motive.
Briefly, I have been diagnosed with a suite of disorders that collectively present as almost indistinguishable from Asperger’s syndrome. A crucial difference stressed by the diagnosing psychologist is that “true” Asperger’s is characterized by a lack of empathy. In her terms, I exhibit a “surfeit of empathy.” That phrase has pushed me into pools of bottomless pondering. Surfeit suggests excess. Did she mean that? The description is not scientific.
Whatever the condition indicated, one effect is that I struggle not to be colonized by emotional states of others. That battle is real. Sometimes the only defense is to shutter the windows and turn a flat personality to the world. “Dour,” I have been called when in full defensive mode. My smart phone doesn’t recognize my face when I smile.
“Asperger’s syndrome,” by the way, is not a term accepted by all psychologists. Some prefer “High Functioning Autism.” Others consider “Asperger’s” a useful distinction that should not be discarded, especially as evidence accumulates that “autism” is a big umbrella covering several kinds of possibly unrelated mindedness. Loose language is unavoidable until consensus emerges. Whatever view that coalesces around, today’s “spectrum” will likely look more like a Venn diagram or the Olympic rings when redrawn.
A thing about spectra is that once metaphorized for the ends of a “soft science” like psychology, it’s possible to define one for any set of traits. This can be useful as a station on the way to more nuanced architectures, but as a settled camp it’s suspicious. Both the strength and frailty of a single axis is that its extent is every possible variation of whatever it is supposed to describe. If you speak of a spectrum, you place yourself on it somewhere. If it is possible to exclude yourself, the thing you define is not a spectrum. It is a bias. If you call it a spectrum and you are not on it, your construct demands scrutiny for its potential to enable discrimination. If you ARE on it, its objectivity (assuming metaphors have any) is compromised. Talking about human minds is already hard enough without such misuse of language. See the earlier comment about lazy minds.
Some may be surprised to learn that a primary instrument for diagnosing disorders on or related to what for now we call a spectrum—at least at the “high functioning” end identified with Asperger’s—is an IQ test. If you have never had one, skip it. Such tests are pocked with unexamined assumptions, unverifiable interpretation and pseudo-science. In this they mirror the field of psychology itself, whose dowsing rods they are.
Before getting personal, I have to comment generally on these tests. Lost in the Newspeak of pop culture is that IQ tests do not measure intelligence. Such a thing is not even possible without specifying which definition of intelligence one means. What IQ tests actually measure is a mix of cognitive potential and a smatter of general knowledge deemed relevant or practical by the neurotypical world. The tests point toward actual states of mind, but with one foot in a mire of ideology and subjectivity. That undermines claims to a scientific basis.
It is entirely possible to have a very high IQ and yet not satisfy definitions of practical intelligence. IQ is a measure of potential, and potential can cut more than one way. As readily as with intelligence, high IQ can—and often does—correlate with faster, vaster stupidity. Trust me on this. A voice of experience speaks.
A related misconception is that there exists something identifiable as “genius IQ.” If the connection between IQ and intelligence is indirect, that between IQ and genius is obscure. Talking about genius and IQ is like trying to mount wheels on a rainbow. They share no common substance. “Genius” has as many definitions as “intelligence.” Further, applicability of the word is rooted not in cognitive potential, but in works and the perception of those works by a public.
These points matter for two reasons, the first because outside of the world of some professional psychologists it is very difficult to talk of high IQ without an inadvertent suggestion that one means high intelligence. There are moments in which I approach the latter. There are also moments when I’m dumber than dirt. In any circumstance involving humans, more often than not I am lost.
As for genius, that word with a thousand possible interpretations and no fixed meaning has been thrown at me a lot. It’s not applicable. In fact, it’s damned annoying. Used to describe a person—as opposed to creations or process—it becomes a way of avoiding judgment of what the person makes or does. As a label, I find it as grating as monosyllabic nicknames.
I went through the diagnostic process twice, once at age five with results that poisoned my entire experience of grades one through twelve, and again at age 57 in an attempt to erect a defense against an abusive executive. The test was the same both times. At 57, I remembered most of the questions and problems from age 5, and still knew the fact based answers. What little I know about the resulting diagnosis at age five (other than consequences) suggests it was pretty similar to the one at age 57. Such diagnoses today come with crushing stigma attached. The stigma was far more crushing more than sixty years ago. I learned nothing about why my childhood sentence to local schools was miserable until I was in my teens, and then only in broken whispers.
The test I took consists of multiple modules, each of which purportedly measures a different flavor of intelligence—verbal, visual, mathematical, mechanical, etc. As I keep saying, the exercises point toward something actual. Interpretation is basically a finger to the wind. Whatever the merits of the instrument, however, the official result of both tests was that I blew the top off every single module.
Sounds great, right? Well it’s not. Blowing the top off one or two modules may indicate particular gifts in the relevant areas. Cakewalking several may indicate very high general intelligence. My waltz through ALL the modules set the diagnostician’s alarm bells ringing. In the diagnostic view, minds with potential for every kind of intelligence are disordered. That mind may be highly ordered internally; its problem is that it does not order socially. There is not a readymade socket into which it plugs. This is a key point about psychological disorders. To a greater or lesser extent they are all valuations of individuals in social contexts, some entirely so.
What the waltz means for me is that I live isolated amidst crowds. Isolated even among people who believe they know me, lost in place. Because I am generally low key and non-confrontational, almost no one recognizes how lost I am. Given time, I can usually figure out almost anything except people, their behaviors and communications. After 67 years of trial and error, I may almost grasp where my older brother is coming from.
About non-people puzzles I say “given time” and “usually” because one factor of my class of disorder is that I see ALL possibilities. A lot of sorting and weighing for probability has to happen before work toward any solution begins. People I just don’t get at all. Really. There just isn’t anything about personalities that is verifiably obvious. Over time I construct functional models of mind for individuals with whom I become very familiar. That sometimes passes for understanding. With the majority, however, your lives, opinions and preferences are simply alien.
The abusive exec used to tell me daily, often several times a day, “You are so fucked up.” The more she came to depend on me, the more abusive she became. Understand, she was not saying that whatever provoked her was necessarily wrong. Often she meant that I was right when no neurotypical would be. That seemed to offend her. Or she meant that I had expressed an unexpected point of view, and that bothered her—unless she found a chance to restate it as her own without giving credit. She would do that in my presence even after telling me I was “fucked up” for uttering whatever she subsequently parroted. She knew that I knew she would make me pay if I challenged her. When she learned of my diagnosis, she damned near crowed. Sixteen single-spaced pages from a psychologist “proved” what she “knew.” I am fucked up.
In our final interview, when we reviewed those pages, this is what the diagnosing psychologist told me: “Your mind is so completely unique that you spend all your time with others trying to figure out where you have common ground, and others either struggle to understand where you’re coming from or they don’t make the effort.”
We had some back and forth about that—and about flaws I observed in her instrument—before I asked what seemed a crucial question. How do I find people for whom I am not a struggle? Where do I find others like me? I have heard often that the kinds of conversations people have with me are unlike those they have with any other. Where do I find someone who also makes my kind of conversation? She was very clear that I should not expect that to happen. To imagine such a thing was unrealistic. The phrase, “completely unique,” recurred more than once in her argument. It sounds vaguely positive, right? Almost cute. Not like a euphemism for “You are alone,” although that is precisely what it is. Not like a euphemism for, “You are fucked up.”
The psychologist thought I might try going back to graduate school if I really wanted to look for like minds. She thought the chances hit or miss at best. Her recommendations were two referrals, one to a psychiatrist for a regimen of medication and another to a therapist for training in how to behave like a neurotypical. I declined both.
This episode took place at a crossroad in my creative life. A little before, I had assessed my three published novels, and concluded that despite publication by small commercial houses, none was in a finished state. None had been served adequately by the editors who handled them. It was during the course of deeply critiquing the novels that I began to understand what was necessary to write fiction well, especially how to create the books I envisioned. Comprehensive rewrite was the remedy for their deficiencies. Rewrite, and the rigorous eye of a fiction-oriented editor. The three editors with whom I had worked were all poets with no experience of writing fiction. There is more to it than simply being grammatical. Ultimately, I decided that I am the only editor to whom I have access who could be tough in the necessary way. Compare what I accomplished with Prelude to a Change of Mind, the Author’s Edition to that story’s previous, crippled versions.
I was considering how far down to strip the texts of the novels when I went through the testing and diagnosis sessions. The final meeting left me angry and defiant. An attempt to discuss my creative work with the psychologist had provoked dismissal so brusque it was contemptuous. In her opinion, creativity only took me farther into myself. It was among the last paths she thought I should pursue. Drugs and therapy were the only tickets out of the “problems” she had fingered. She completely lost sight of the fact that I had come to her seeking to protect, not change, who I am. Far from abandon creativity, I decided to use it to blow apart her assumptions. I chose to set the novels aside temporarily in order to put something into the world that reflected my total being. It would be as original and beautiful as I could make it. It would irresistibly tempt others like me. I was convinced they waited only to be called.
Dvarsh, An Introduction as surrealist novella: Yes, you’re supposed to read it.
Where to start was never an issue. Ever since the first public samples of Dvarsh language, there had been requests for a dictionary. I ignored these for the longest time because producing a simple dictionary never interested me. I already had a dictionary, and it was constantly growing. Fixing it in print at some arbitrary moment for purely commercial reasons would have been good business, but a distraction from the primary aim of making a language in the first place. What the conlang enthusiasts have yet to see is that Dvarsh has never been an end in itself. Besides a deeply satisfying personal pleasure, it has been and always will be a tool for realizing a larger vision.
After the diagnosis, my thoughts about a dictionary changed. I had a mission and an idea. The mission was to create something uncompromising, something as unique as the psychologist thought my head, but gorgeous, a construct that would ring out and attract attention. The idea was to make a work many times more interesting than a mere dictionary. By creating not a reference, but a fictional representation that nevertheless functioned exactly like an actual reference, I would evoke an entire world through a book about its language and culture.
Looking back, I see the flaws in that thinking. At the time I was swept away by how cool the plan seemed. Like so many other creatives, I harbored unspoken dreams of some day producing something genuinely extraordinary, and here I thought I had hit upon it: a fiction that is also a metafiction that is also conceptual art that is also a practical reference demanding the whole of who I am to create.
How nice it would be to say the results speak for themselves. The dictionary requested by constructed language enthusiasts is a feature. It’s there, just what they asked for. Its word list, carefully selected, simultaneously provides essential vocabulary while furthering the fiction and the fictive art. The essays pack in enough rules of grammar to bring the language to life, and enough details of Dvarsh history and culture to provide a landscape for players in more free-form gaming communities. The essays are also avenues of story. The lexicon dialogues with them. Through choice of vocabulary, etymologies implied by patterns of word formation, puns and other word play, the lexicon amplifies and sometimes contradicts the “received” facts of the introductory material. In other words, the book expresses an official history openly while evidence of a more storied past nests within the language itself.
The story seeded into the dictionary is not vast and populous. Rather, it is a collection of suggestions about social relations, traditional technologies, etc. that illuminate the sources of modern Dvarsh in an imagined past. I aimed for something similar to how etymologies of English words sometimes evoke relative status of Britons and Saxons 1500 years ago, or Normans and Saxons a thousand years ago, or class differences in the nineteenth century. The encoding was deliberately allusive and elusive. A small cast of characters is named. The text is seeded with pieces of a bare bones plot. It is a prompt, a point of departure, an invitation to build castles. Some assembly is required.
Like Jah said to Job, it ain’t funny if I have to explain it: Fictive art, Dvarsh, An Introduction and the whole of Habdvarsha
In such discussion as it has generated, Dvarsh has drawn comparison to Tolkien’s languages, and to Klingon, Na’vi and Dothraki. The comparisons should be drawn, but they are low hanging fruit. I am proud of my invention in all of its parts, never doubt it. The language, as I keep insisting, is a well crafted, adaptable tool that originated as a private passion designed for specific, limited applications. For the longest time its purpose was to look beautiful while actually meaning something. To the public, what any specific instance meant was less important than the fact that meaning something gave each specimen a charge of authenticity that no group of asemic shapes has ever approximated. This was the state reflected in the early book, The Way it Grows, which was rendered utterly beside the point as soon as the idea of Dvarsh, An Introduction sparked the language’s rapid, latter day evolution.
There were several inspirations for Dvarsh, An Introduction. Other constructed languages matter less than a suite of personal fascinations. It was almost coincidental that I had created a language and had it handy when embarking on this book. “Almost” because loose in the world was an interest in Dvarsh that I neither sought nor intended. Rather than occupy center stage of what I envisioned, it entered the project as a resource to exploit for a more profound purpose. Yes, Dvarsh, An Introduction purports to be about the language. Yes, it really can be used to acquire a working basis in the language. The language is not what the book is about. It moved closer to center as the project developed.
To go on record, Thomas More’s Utopia, which is framed as factual and features a constructed language, had greater impact than Sindarin or Klingon. My book also stands on the shoulders of that bad boy Rabelais, Miguel de Cervantes and his Don Quixote, Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, Doris Lessing’s Canopus in Argos: Archives and Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, and all these far more than those of Tolkien or his offspring. A constructed language (of sorts) figures centrally only in Riddley Walker.
From my first encounter with it, Luigi Serafini’s Codex Seraphinianus was a call to action. It is still a call to action ramifying through the illustrations slowly fleshing out the artifact project. Even more than Serafini, if you look at anything I have done without seeing footprints of Marcel Duchamp, you have missed whole dimensions.
Another inspiration impacted the artifacts less directly. The Book of the Courtier, by Baldassare Castiglione, had tremendous influence in how I conceived the society of the Dvarsh people when I began to plot the more conventional narrative fiction that preceded (and will proceed from) the artifact books. The Book of the Courtier is not a work of fiction, but a Renaissance book of manners that I read as an undergraduate. When I turned to writing novels, Castiglione leapt to mine as a model for the kind of back story that would provide rich depth to an imaginary world. None of his details crept into any of my work, but the scheme of his book was important in shaping who the Dvarsh became. Benefits of that labor passed through the novels into the artifacts.
Alongside all these influences, and figuring as large, is modern development of a species of conceptual art known as “fictive.” Here’s part of a description from Wikipedia:
“Fictive art is a practice that involves the production of objects, events, and entities designed to support the plausibility of a central narrative. Fictive art projects disguise their fictional essence by incorporating materials that stand as evidence for narrative factuality and thus are designed to deceive the viewer as to their ontological status. Very often, these materials take a form that carries presumptive cultural authority, such as ‘historical’ photographs or ‘scientific’ data.”
A key difference between More and makers of fictive art is that More’s intention is (presumably) satirical while fictive art is typically presented deadpan. It departs from the other authors named in that it presents its fictions as “true.” Except for Serafini and Castiglione, the books I have listed may do the same internally, but the world reads them as novels. I followed More in creating first a reference for and then original documents of a clearly fictitious society. Fictive art provided a model for straight-faced presentation. I genuinely thought everything happening in Dvarsh, An Introduction was so obvious that any other tone would chew the rug. Although I now know that nothing about my artifact books is obvious and that the tone was a promotional disaster, it is still necessary for fictive consistency. It establishes the concept as turtles all the way down.
My ambition for Dvarsh, An Introduction was to frame a story that emerges from engagement with the book as a whole. I mistakenly imagined I had salted the contents with hints and clues that made this transparent. I was also seduced by the fact that the particular story a reader/player uncovers differs necessarily for every person who starts down the path. How and how far someone teases possibility determines any specific “reading.” This was supposed to be a magnet for audience. This was supposed to be one of my magic bells.
Another magnet I also wrongly thought obvious—Dvarsh Workbook and Nod’s Way, the Author’s Edition share this feature with Dvarsh, An Introduction—is that one NEED NOT LEARN TO READ DVARSH to get the fiction. Everything, pronunciations and etymologies included, is available in Latin characters. That the book actually can be used to learn to read Dvarsh in its native writing system is essential to its concept, but not essential to the fun. The same goes for the workbook and Nod’s Way. Only with The Song of Worlds did I commit to a work entirely and exclusively in Dvarsh. Creating a concrete, character for character representation of a fictional poem in its language of fictive origin may be my most glorious rabbit hole yet.
Since we’re here
The Song of Worlds differs from the other artifacts fundamentally. Its three companion books are designed to provide access to Dvarsh culture without necessarily learning Dvarsh language or script. The experience will be immeasurably richer for anyone who takes that plunge, but the books still operate on levels that do not demand it. Not so for The Song of Worlds. It has only one way in, and the key has two parts. First, one must go back to the three earlier books and engage them fully, language and all. Second, one must engage with me. I am the sole source for a complete Dvarsh dictionary.
A committed archaeologist of fictive civilizations could decipher the poem with only Dvarsh, An Introduction and Dvarsh Workbook as resources, much like Champollion with the Rosetta Stone. Having a complete dictionary would allow one to skip (or defer) the archaeology and go directly to translation. I have no plan to publish the complete dictionary, and a license for some other imprint to publish it will cost more than lunch money. Anyone serious about translating The Song can apply to me. If they convince me of good will and serious intent, and solemnly promise to keep the dictionary confidential, I’ll provide a PDF of whatever its state when the request comes in.
Understand, reading The Song of Worlds will require real translation. Dvarsh is a language distinct from English. It features ambiguity, complexity, exceptions to rules and idiomatic expressions that imitate but do not map point by point to any human language. Two translations of the poem might differ significantly without either being more right, wrong or literal than the other. The Song of Worlds is absolutely the best poetry I could channel, and IMHO the most inspired narrative yet to escape this fucked-up head. I’m never going to tell anyone what it says. Not ever. I put everything in plain sight in the other three books. You have to work on my terms for this one.
The original plan for The Song of Worlds called for eight illustrations. I had not completed the full set when a crack in the pandemic opened the way for emigration. Having put everything else in place, I wrapped the book and released it with only a drawing on the cover, then turned to packing for a long cherished dream. The drawings would have woven together the final threads of art sprung from my whole self. I finished one more of the drawings after arrival in Uruguay. Penciled compositions of the last couple still wait for ink. Once done, they may escape into the world as a set of prints. I don’t see a tenable path to a new edition of the poem with the illustrations in place.
Book as object: more than words
In addition to the linguistic and other verbal dimensions of the artifacts, I welcomed the chance to engage as a graphic designer producing an extended work of conceptual art. In fact, the first task was design and production of a Dvarsh typeface, on which the entire Habdvarsha project has depended. Admittedly, there are snags in the typeface, yet it successfully holds a grand idea aloft.
More than a typeface, a book is itself an object of design. Dvarsh, An Introduction called not only for text and formatting decisions, but a dictionary, appendices, diagrams, tables, a cover and an index. That last was a late addition, and closer to pure play than any of the rest.
At the heart of Dvarsh, An Introduction, however, is one fact that I used to say I would never state openly. That was before reality made clear that none of the hooks built into that book or the subsequent three would snag an audience. It’s a secret bared so baldly that calling it open is an understatement. From some pages, it shouts. For me, it is the most important signal the book sends: the language is incomplete. The presentation in Dvarsh, An Introduction is explicitly partial. It dangles, a grinning invitation. A provocation. The magic bells chime, “Come out to play.” It may be that this has been missed by what public Habdvarsha has found. It may be that the invitation simply has no takers. It may be that nothing I thought explicit really is.
I count the invitation to co-create—to participate—as a defining characteristic of the artifacts project. What this means is that—to me—it is an aspect that determines the project’s success or lack of it. I have tried a few times to discuss with one or another confidant what it means for a pillar of my most important work to fail, especially how acute the feeling of failing its intention. Such a conversation would at least help me work through lingering disappointment. The unfortunate reaction to these attempts was unseemly haste in declaring that what matters most to me is not important.
The lesson was slow to sink in, but finally I understand. Whether or not this mix of concept, literature, language and design succeeds as art really has no objective importance. It was created for a public that does not exist. Without that public what matters most to me indeed really is chaff.
I’m left trying to make sense of failure the same way I try to make sense of everything else involving humans. I talk to myself. Most days I at least hear me out. As the would-be artist trying to deconstruct a life-sized misfire, my self-interest requires understanding the dynamic structure of having been a blockhead. Making nice obstructs the forensics. There is generosity but no understanding in the claim that I’m being hard on myself. It misses the point entirely to argue that because creating the works gave me pleasure—at times intense pleasure—I cannot speak of them failing. I have heard this more than once.
True, the joy of sculpting Dvarsh, An Introduction was unalloyed. I challenged myself as nothing and no one else ever had. It and The Song of Worlds are the hardest things I have yet attempted. I rose to the tasks I set. There were wrong turns along the way, but I solved problems, fixed screw-ups, and learned immeasurably. I joked that this was a self-designed graduate program and, as Habdvarsha’s jack of all trades, I had earned a degree of Master of None. I even sketched a diploma from the School of Hard Knocks.
It felt like the best of who I am went into those books. Nod’s Way, the Author’s Edition demanded only slightly less. Stakes rose and my commitment hardened as the project progressed. Also rising, particularly in the wake of the profound indifference that greeted Dvarsh, An Introduction, was determination to push the horizon as far as my limits allowed. I almost made it.
My part in the creation was joyful and joyous up to the point of publication, but art is transactional, and the part of the artist is only half the bargain. It ain’t art until it has a public, and the success of intention is always measured against response. A hallmark of the Dvarsh artifacts as art is that they are participatory. Their success or failure has always been bound to whether or not someone—anyone—came out to play. No one has. Lesser satisfactions—like the odd gamer who adopts the works at face value into an RPG—are nice, but hardly consolation.
Now he whistles; now he scries
Today the magic bells still ring, though soundlessly. A set of books that together create an exact portrait of their author draws polite response from friends and almost nothing from the larger world. As the diagnosing psychologist anticipated, there is no one for whom this portrait and its intention resonate. When the clock runs out, they will travel with me into oblivion. Nothing can steal the joy of their creation, but neither can anything stem the sadness of what they ultimately demonstrate. Their creator is a species of one, or a mutant, or a mule. A maker of prodigies of no consequence. The hardest lesson should have been the most obvious. Just because a challenge demands vision, determination and originality does not make it worthy. Meeting such a challenge well doesn’t make the effort admirable.
There is so much more I could dig into, like how someone who has never learned to start a conversation with a stranger imagined he could promote what he still cannot clearly explain. Moments when we are genuinely happy are precisely those when we are most easily seduced by magical thinking. I was, for a few months, happy.
One barrier to promotion is that, like the mind that spawned them, these books really are unique. As with the case of the mind that spawned them, “unique” may not be a desirable quality. At first I hesitated to describe the books with that term. Then I spun wheels too long mistakenly thinking uniqueness equated to rare and precious. Humans in general have an aversion to uniqueness. The only rarities that are precious are those of familiar kinds. I was blind to that for a very long time.
My wish would be to keep the magic bells ringing until the last sands run through the glass. Given eight billion possibilities there is always a chance someone will eventually respond. The parallel cycle of novels and stories that augments these artifacts moves gradually back onto the assembly bench. Those tales move slowly because right this minute the author wears a different hat. A promise made to myself long ago quite suddenly became real and swept me to another continent. I draw and write to other ends while becoming part of a new location.
The wish to keep ringing, however, is complicated not only by emigration, but by the devil of economics. Enduring disinterest in what I have made weighs heavily as bills for continuing the infrastructure that underpins the art come due again. Some of them are large for a fixed income. As I build a life in another land, I cannot help but think of more practical uses for the funds Habdvarsha and Stikmantica demand. The immediate choice is whether to pay to maintain the whole package—published books, websites, registrations, distribution, etc.—or pull the plug and let the public connection disappear into the past.
Contemplating the Stikmantic edifice, I cannot avoid the truth that I have never learned to exploit it successfully or adequately describe the products it supports. I have never recouped even a fraction of what this Rube Goldberg Oz has cost in hard currency. The suggestion that it will stand as a legacy for posterity means nothing to me. My Emerald City was conceived to be participatory. Without co-creation, it remains forever unfinished, and survives only as folly. It survives only as long as the scaffolding on which it rests.
I spent years working in private on everything associated with Habdvarsha. Novels I did not know how to write until I wrote them first badly, the language, its script, the oracle, illustrations, all these things I had and have no idea how to explain were the joys that offset the drudgery of earning a living. They carried me through an ill-conceived marriage and the solitude that followed. Time and cares disappeared in the immersion from which I commuted to pedestrian life. Fantasies of creating something extraordinary were already upon me in those years, but not directly connected to Dvarsh. One or two may remember when I thought my public life as a creator would center around video performance art. A lot of Habdvarsha went into the video, but I was the only person who knew it. Nothing like the happiness of that hidden labor came home again until I launched the passion that resulted in Dvarsh, An Introduction. My surrealist novella. My forlorn masterpiece.
Facing a classic fork in the road, every lick of common sense clamors to cut the losses. I am not deaf to that argument, but common sense is only one voice of the choir in this officially disordered mind. I love the books I have brought into the world through Stikmantica. Euthanizing them may be inevitable, but I cannot do it yet. When they die, I shall be diminished.
What I have decided is to throw money down the rabbit hole to buy Stikmantica and its books one more year of existence. A year to come to terms with a failure that will then be complete. Habdvarsha will survive, and grow, and evolve, but once again as what it probably should have been always, something done for myself in private. I shall still write and draw with hope of an audience, and what I do with Habdvarsha will invisibly inform that output. When I pass into oblivion the only legacy the project leaves will crumble on a shelf with other second-hand books.
My one true name is Robert.