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Tamsin Smith Headshot

WABAC With Einstein on the Beach

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Apropos of what's to follow, I don't dig current television, but I do delight in reruns of old favorites. One such -- "Peabody's Improbably History" from The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show -- holds up admirably. It remains, for me, the most clever, comical and captivating animated series ever.

Have a peak:


Each episode finds Mr. Peabody, the dog, and Sherman, "his boy," traveling through history on a WABAC machine. The shows are full of puns and anachronisms, egged on by a technical adjustment that allows Mr. Peabody to turn the gizmo from a "way-back" machine into a "should-have-been" machine. Of course, this revisionist trope has a long tail. Everyone from William Shakespeare to the creators of Mr. Roarke's Fantasy Island have teased fate with the irresistible lure of do-overs and what-ifs.

But in reality, time is the one playing tricks on us, rather than the other way around. Time, the merry prankster, holds us hostage in the no-win land between memory and anticipation, sunset-infused nostalgia and neon-lit horizons. How painfully difficult it is to simply sit in peace with the present, resisting the compulsion either to recollect or to look ahead.

Is there a way to be fully in the here and now? There are plenty of spiritual practices to assist with this. Meditation, for instance, can suspend the whir of the mind, for some moments at least. Worth the effort? Indeed, I'd say. Here's my theory: Silencing the intellect allows us to grasp all that we miss when we're too busy sorting and guessing and assuming and fretting and judging.

But don't listen to me. Try a far fancier prose stylist, such as Vladimir Nabokov, who described this ecstasy of timelessness as, "a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love. A sense of oneness with sun and stone." Yummy stuff. Yet, even this experience of an infinite now can't be sustained indefinitely. Frankly, if it could, it would lose its power and import, as the fleeting nature of weightless flight is part of its thrill. How long would one want to dance on the head of a pin anyhow?

What's gained in those ecstatic, untimed flashes does linger on. Somewhere in that amber zone -- between the thirst for the familiar and the hunger for change -- lies the sweetness of the unknown. When we can think less about beginnings and endings, findings and forgettings, the open road materializes. Western culture is so full of milestones and prescriptions. Even our traditional music is marked by meter to prevent us from missing a beat. Yet, when that internal clock gets stretched beyond a place where we can keep the count, enchanting things commence to occur.

I was taken to this place by a recent performance of Einstein on the Beach, the landmark 1976 opera by composer Phillip Glass and Director Robert Wilson. Einstein is the first in a trilogy of avant-guarde operas that Glass wrote in homage to iconoclastic individuals who used the power of their ideas to change the course history. Like Albert Einstein, the other two subjects, Mahatma Gandhi and the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhnaten, took the concept of the WABAC machine up a notch -- from "way back" through "should have been," and all the way to "we will make it so."

Just as these three great men upset the conventional wisdom of their respective ages, the composer, director and choreographer of Einstein broke the molds into which all "normal" sense of pace, setting and storytelling had been confined. Einstein the man dethroned reason and the primacy of human beings, whereas Einstein the opera subverts reason, and in so doing reveals to humans another way of being in time and space.

Einstein provokes as it pleases. It is in turns: deliciously maddening, glacially graceful, disturbingly dissonant, mentally exhausting and emotionally exhilarating. It purely evokes sensation -- many sensations -- that defy definition or even understanding. It does so as the very greatest poems do, by confounding and suspending disbelief.


It can be said of a poem that its beauty lies in the lines, but its truth lies in the white space. It may be said of Phillip Glass' score that its beauty lies in the notes, but its truth is in the hush. Repetition and pause, memory and yearning. We naturally look for patterns in the music, but here order and connotation are ephemeral. We think we catch hold of an essence, but then it slips through the net -- very much mimicking the fundamental rhythms of human experience.

Most of us have been taught to seek and follow guardrails. We pursue the customary, but a bell goes off with the realization that our delight is actually provoked by the completely unnerving. That bell is the sound of our soul advancing. It's not of what someone else has hung around our necks. Maybe it is only in those shining instances when our expectations are thwarted that we are disarmed enough to witness the grandeur of the unknown. From there, we can begin to order the words of the sea, the sun, the stone, ourselves, in ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.

http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15749