“That’s how quickly your life can change”

Adam Thirlwell's Serpentine Bridge Commission and everyday prophecy

Serpentine-Galleries

“…prophetic speech, which tells of the impossible future,
also tells of the ‘nonetheless’ that breaks the impossible and restores time.”

(Blanchot 2003 [1959]: 81).

As a human being, mortal and of flesh and blood (though as you read these words, I may seem little more than disembodied type on a screen or page), I cannot predict the future – certainly not with absolute faith or even, in my case, with much accuracy. Yet I have always dared to hope that my projections might come true. At the age of 11 I was convinced I’d one day marry the singer Ronan Keating from Boyzone; at 21 I expected that the world’s leaders would learn from their mistakes – that, for instance, the UK government would learn from their problematic decision to invade Iraq; and last night I believed that this morning I would sleep in until 9.00am. These were perhaps rather silly visions, but even so I was wrong about them all.

I do not have a talent for prophecy.

Then again, the notion of prophecy might seem somewhat archaic, resonating as it so clearly does with the biblical and the classical, with religious writings and divine scripture. However, as Balfour states in The Rhetoric of Romantic Prophecy, “the prophetic tends to emerge, as does the apocalyptic, at times of great social and political turbulence” (2002: 2). With this in mind, and in the context of the French Revolution, Balfour therefore suggests that prophecy is an important frame in understanding British and German Romantic literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I do not take issue with Balfour’s claim; certainly, Hartman’s earlier (1981) essay ‘The Poetics of Prophecy’, which discusses Wordsworth’s use of the prophetic as a rhetorical trope, can be seen to corroborate it. I do, however, want to hypothesise a contemporary reinvigoration of the prophecy. I want to suggest, in other words, that the notion of the prophecy might also resonate with a metamodern sensibility.

If postmodernism is characterised by ironic detachment, by dystopic debris, and by ‘the end of history’ (Fukuyama 1992) and if metamodernism breaks with these sentiments in order to re-enliven “myth and metataxis”, to exchange “melancholy for hope” (Vermeulen and van den Akker 2010: 5), then prophetic language could be said to share more sympathies with the latter than the former. Indeed, Vermeulen and van den Akker in their recent explication of metamodern aesthetics, and drawing on Jameson, affirm that postmodernism is “characterized by senses of an end – of History, social class, art, the subject”; Metamodernism, in comparison, is a “structure of feeling typified by the return of many of these debates, foremost among them History, the grand narrative, Bildung and the agent” (2014: 1). In light of their statement and given that Vermeulen and van den Akker also speak of “the Romantic turn in contemporary aesthetics” including the return of myth (2010: 2) and the re-envisaging of utopia in metamodern art (2014), prophecy can be construed as a likely companion. Nevertheless, and particularly in a metamodern context, prophecy cannot be modelled as grand utopian thinking alone. Rather, and as Blanchot’s words intimate, prophecy and prophetic speech have dualistic reference. That is, prophecy points forward in time to an expectant future whilst firmly grounded in a present moment. In this sense, prophecy involves both a temporal and an attitudinal oscillation: its focus is bi-stable, shifting between a future logic of ‘yet to come’ and/or a present logic of ‘until then’, between hopeful possibility and sceptical reluctance.

Adam Thirlwell’s audio story ‘Five Prophecies’ (2014a) is a recent fictive text to which (as the title so brazenly suggests) the concept of prophecy might apply. Thirlwell’s fiction has recently been characterised as exhibiting metamodern style (Gibbons 2014) and explicitly engages with recent world-historical events (see Thirlwell 2014c). Moreover, Vermeulen describes Thirlwell as a writer interested in “simulation not as a model of/for reality but as a diagram of possibilities, creating self-enclosed scenarios informed by reality but enacted in isolation from it, whose conclusions offer radical alternatives” (2015: 1); the play with the concepts of the real and the possible in this description surely reverberate with the notion of prophecy. Between November 2013 and September 2014, the Serpentine Gallery (London, UK) commissioned 13 writers to create short audio stories. Available in the form of an mp3 download, the stories should be designed to last the duration it would take a listener to walk from the Serpentine, across the bridge in Kensington Gardens, and to the then newly built Serpentine Sackler Gallery. ‘Five Prophecies’ is Adam Thirlwell’s response to the commission.

 

To understand how the concept of prophecy might work within Thirlwell’s story, the rhetorical nature of prophecy must be explicitly acknowledged. In other words, a prophecy is a rhetorical act from a speaker (who is usually thus cast as a prophet). In his book The Return of the Omniscient Narrator, Paul Dawson argues that a defining characteristic of contemporary fiction is a reworking of omniscience particularly in the form of a somewhat intrusive narrative voice. Self-reflexive, self-conscious, and invasive narrators are, of course, familiar postmodern metafictional creatures. Indeed, Dawson recognises that fiction that is considered to be post- postmodern “owes some debt of influence to, or at least demonstrates a textual awareness of, the major works and characteristics of postmodernism, but which attempts to put this legacy of experimentation in the service of more humanist concerns” (2013: 68). He later adds “[c]ontemporary omniscient narration emerges from an attempt to engage with the insights of postmodernism while reconfiguring the authority of the novelist in the public sphere” (69). According to Dawson, the contemporary narrator may take one of four forms, but Thirlwell’s writing (Dawson specifically mentions Thirlwell’s debut novel Politics), demonstrates the “ironic moralist”. This type of narrator “grapples self-reflexively with the legacy of the ‘universalising’ moral authority of classic omniscience” (Dawson 2013: 69). Moreover, “narratorial direct address is the main device used to engage with this problem”, that is “the problem of how to assert the universal in relation to the particular” (71).

Appropriately, ‘Five Prophecies’ does open with direct address to the reader: “One thing that’s possible is that without anticipating this state at all, you wake up and are suddenly unable to imagine how you will complete the slightest action”. It is Thirlwell who reads his story on the audio file and therefore the narrator, however implicit in linguistic terms, is interpreted by the listener as a textual counterpart of the author. Second-person ‘you’ is used here, arguably in generalised mode but nevertheless appearing to directly address the listener through the immediacy of Thirlwell’s voice. Thirlwell continues to muse upon this sense of stasis by prompting listeners to imagine the particularities of their own morning routine: “…once you’ve made it to the door how many steps must you go down to the kitchen, and then how many operations just to make a cup of coffee!” In imaginative terms, the prepositional phrases ‘to the door’ and ‘down to the kitchen’ prompt the visualisation of movement, whilst the rhetorical questions (‘how many steps..?’, ‘how many operations..?’) invite the listener to personalise the imaginative construal (how many steps, roughly, does it take you to get downstairs in your home? What processes are involved for you in making your first morning cup of coffee?). Subsequent to this though, Thirlwell’s story zooms out, so to speak, with the narrator resigning, “It’s a wonder anyone survives even the beginning of a day, let alone an entire week”. This zooming-out, if I can call it that, occurs through the shift from direct second-person address to the indefinite third person ‘anyone’ and by changing the temporal parameters from the moment of waking up to ‘a day’ and then ‘an entire week’, the latter of which is further extended by premodification using the adjective ‘entire’ to suggest totality. Thirlwell’s next statement appears to hold the particular and the universal in tension, since he returns to second-person address yet speaks of the ‘infinite’: “For once you discover the infinite inside things it’s very wearing and dispiriting”.

At this time in ‘Five Prophecies’, Thirlwell introduces a character proper, declaring “And that is what once happened to Jaleesa”. Jaleesa is placed in spatial terms “just before a bridge”. Although Thirlwell uses the indefinite article in the noun phrase ‘a bridge’ (making it, effectively, any bridge), in writing this short fiction as a Serpentine Bridge Commission Audio Walk he would have been explicitly aware of the bridge in Kensington Gardens over which his listeners would be walking. In fact, I asked Thirlwell about the Bridge Commission when I interviewed him in April 2014 for the journal Contemporary Literature (Gibbons 2015). Although our discussion of the Serpentine Bridge Commission did not make it into the published interview, Thirlwell’s comments are nevertheless relevant in the context of the present analysis. He admitted (Thirlwell 2014b; personal conversation/interview):

…obviously there is more than one possible bridge. Other writers in the project chose to make it a metaphorical bridge, but I very much liked imagining the bridge in the story as the bridge that the listener would be crossing, as they listened to the text. Always I have this love of blurring the difference between the fiction and the real.

What we therefore find epitomised in the bridge in Thirlwell’s ‘Five Prophecies’ is again a combination of particularity and universalism, exactness and generality, the real and the fictional.

Jaleesa, Thirlwell tells us, is a body builder. As she contemplates her walk across the bridge, she realises “how many prophecies she could make even concerning a single walk”. It is at this point that Thirlwell introduces the idea of prophecy into the fiction. The rhetorical style in which Jaleesa’s prophecies are imparted to the listener are particularly significant:

… according to Jaleesa five things were going to happen before she reached the other side of the bridge.

She knew that when she saw the water she would want to look down at it. And this happened.

She knew that if a car went past it would make her think of her dead father. And this happened.

She knew that a wind would suddenly make the sound in her headphones go crazy. And this happened.

Also she knew that she would think about a boy who was right now far away in another country because if you chose any five-minute period in her life right now she would be thinking about him at least once. And this happened. It happened more than once.

But also she knew that as soon as she reached the other side she would pause and hail a taxi to take her to the gym for her day’s training. And while this almost happened, it did not – and the story of how this prophecy did not come true is of some interest and perhaps also instructive.

Thirlwell employs a repeated parallel structure: ‘She knew that…’ followed by ‘and this happened’. In doing so, he uses the epistemic verb ‘knew’. Not only does this repetition foreground Jaleesa’s certainly that her prophecies are accurate, but the repeated structure awards the audio story a rhythmical and rhetorical effect. This is largely the consequence of epistrophe – the repetition of the coordinated clause ‘And this happened’[i] following each prophecy, thus emphasising the fulfilment of said prophecy. Consequently, the end of the fifth prophecy – ‘And while this almost happened, it did not’ – deviates from the expected pattern. It stands out for the listener as a result and enhances their interest in the narrative events that follow.

Thirlwell’s rhetorical foregrounding is important in understanding both how ‘Five Prophecies’ enacts a metamodern paradigm of prophecy and how its narrative voice might be understood as performing the role of ironic moralist in Dawson’s (2013) terms. Blanchot states that “To foresee the future and announce some future event does not amount to much, if the future takes place in the ordinary course of events and finds expression in the regularity of language. But prophetic speech announces an impossible future…” (2003 [1959]: 79). In doing so, Blanchot juxtaposes ordinary language that announces the mundane with a more ornate oration of phenomenal circumstances. Thirlwell’s prophetic statements though do not neatly fit into Blanchot’s distinction. On one hand, the stylistic parallelism and repetition in combination with the theme of prophecy itself give this part of ‘Five Prophecies’ an elevated register, and one reminiscent of biblical or divine (prophetic) textual style. Indeed, it has been claimed that repetition is “perhaps the most widespread and widely recognized stylistic feature of biblical narratives” (Howard 1993: 62). On the other hand, the semantic content of Jaleesa’s five prophecies are not grand acts of divine prediction. They are rather the day-to-day occurrences of contemporary life (looking around, thinking of loved ones, hailing a taxi, etc.). It is this disjuncture of style and content that makes the narrative voice seem both moralistic and ironic.

Jaleesa’s prophecies do indeed take effect as predicted. One after the other, Thirlwell describes the realisation of each of the first four prophecies. This is realised stylistically using free indirect discourse so that Thirlwell’s narrative voice appears to comingle with Jaleesa’s experiences as she moves across the bridge. The fifth and final prophecy though does not only not come true, Jaleesa actively chooses to prevent its fruition. Thirlwell says, “it suddenly occurred to her that no, she would not hail a taxi because she would not go to the gym, and that in fact she would never go to a gym ever again”. Using ‘occurred’ as a verb of mental cognition, this is presented as indirect thought: ‘it suddenly occurred to her’ acts as a reporting clause while ‘that’ functions to subordinate the content of Jaleesa’s thoughts in a reported clause. The impression of this as Jaleesa’s thoughts is of course heightened by Thirlwell’s use of ‘no’. The content of Jaleesa’s thoughts in these three subordinate clauses highlight the failure of the prophecy through negation: using the utterance ‘no’, the syntactic negator ‘not’, and the negative adverb ‘never’. Negation is also present when Thirlwell reveals the wider implication of Jaleesa’s decision: “She was no longer a bodybuilder. She knew this very abruptly but also completely”. At nearly the end of the audio story, Jaleesa as a character has changed as a consequence of the fifth prophecy’s failure. Not only does Thirlwell present this through negation but he offers no alternatives for what Jaleesa will become instead. Speaking of a contemporary generation reacting against postmodernism’s sense of endings, Camille de Toledo claims “…They doubt more than they believe. They prefer to explore rather than to draw conclusions” (2008: 144). This is a statement that might perhaps be applied to Thirlwell’s writing in ‘Five Prophecies’, offering a sense of prophecy not as future-proof solution but as transforming present reality and its sense of possibilities.

For my part, writing this in January 2015, I cannot predict whether you – reading it tomorrow, in a month, or even perhaps in a year’s time – will agree with my interpretation of ‘Five Prophecies’. In fact, I do not know whether the idea of the prophecy will resonate for you at all. Perhaps reading this, you’re actually thinking: well, it is only Jaleesa’s present reality and future possibilities that are transformed, and anyway she is only a character. And in many ways, you would be right. But Thirlwell, remember, is an ironic moralist and his conclusion to ‘Five Prophecies’ is in keeping with this by once again relating the particular – Jaleesa, now on the other side of the bridge – to the universal – ‘you’, wherever you are. Returning to second-person address, he concludes, “That’s how quickly your life can change and when you think about it that’s a relief, that things can change so fast, when you also consider how infinite and slow they are, as well”. Juxtaposing the gradable antonyms ‘fast’ and ‘slow’, and speaking of the infiniteness of things in our everyday mortal lives, there is (however small, however implicit) in his words here at least some small sense of hope stretching forward. Whether that hope relates to the real, the fictional, or something indistinguishable in between, and to use Camile de Toledo words, “You have to take hope seriously” (2008: 143). And this is why, even without any talent for prophecy, I continue to cling to my naïve daydreams. In fact, I hesitantly prophesise that the act of dreaming might just be more important than whether or not those dreams come true.

 

Endnote

[i] In the written text, Thirlwell marks this coordinated clause out further by punctuating it as a sentence in its own right.

 

Works Cited

Balfour, Ian (2002) The Rhetoric of Romantic Prophecy, California: Stanford University Press.

Blanchot, Maurice (2003 [1959]) ‘Prophetic Speech’, The Book to Come, trans. Charlotte Mandell, California: Stanford University Press, pp.79-85.

Dawson, Paul (2013) The Return of the Omniscient Narrator: Authorship and Authority in Twenty-First Century Fiction, Columbus: The Ohio State University Press.

de Toledo, Camille (2008) Coming of Age at the End of History, Trans. Blake Ferris. Brooklyn: Soft Skull Press.

Fukuyama, Francis (1992) The End of History and the Last Man, London: Hamish Hamilton.

Gibbons, Alison (2014) ‘ “Take that you intellectuals!” and “kaPOW!”: Adam Thirlwell and the Metamodernist Future of Style’, Studia Neophiliogicahttp://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00393274.2014.981959

Gibbons, Alison (2015) ‘An Interview with Adam Thirlwell’, Contemporary Literature 55(4): 611-634.

Hartman, Geoffrey (1981) ‘The Poetics of Prophecy’, in Lipking, Lawrence (ed.) High Romantic Argument: Essays for M. H. Abrams, Cornell University Press, pp.15-40.

Howard, David M. Howard Jr. (1993) An Introduction to the Old Testament Historical Books, Chicago: Moody Publishers.

Thirlwell, Adam (2014a) ‘Five Prophecies’, Serpentine Bridge Commission Audio Walks. Online, available: https://ia600606.us.archive.org/23/items/SGBridgeCommissionAdamThirlwell/SGBridgeCommission_AdamThirlwell_FINAL_web2.mp3

Thirlwell, Adam (2014b) Discussion of the Serpentine Bridge Commission, in conversation/interview with Alison Gibbons, 22 April 2014.

Thirlwell, Adam (2014c) Keynote lecture for the ‘2011’ panel, Metamodernism – The Return of History international symposium, 25 September 2014, The Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, Netherlands.

Vermeulen, Timotheus (2015) ‘The New Depthiness’, e-flux journal 61, January 2015: 1-12. Online, available: http://www.e-flux.com/journal/the-new-depthiness/

Vermeulen, Timotheus and van den Akker, Robin (2010) ‘Notes on Metamodernism’, Journal of Aesthetics and Culture 2: http://www.aestheticsandculture.net/index.php/jac/article/view/5677/6304

Vermeulen, Timotheus and van den Akker, Robin (2014) ‘Utopia, Sort of: A case study in metamodernism’, Studia Neophiliogicahttp://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00393274.2014.981964

 

Image from Serpentine Galleries: http://www.serpentinegalleries.org/exhibitions-events/bridge-commission-audio-walks 

There is one comment

  1. Tasha Haines

    Alison Gibbons’ article is very well considered and written, it works as an informative summary of the state of paradox that Metamodernism and beyond must make sense (and art) of.

    Both Thirwell and Gibbons are essentially ‘talking’ about approaches to existentialism; Thirwell quite languidly and poetically claiming (in the audio) that his female protagonist is inventing herself moment by moment, while Gibbons as critic is caught between Blanchot’s & Thirwell’s opposing takes on ‘prophecy’.

    Thirwell’s fine-tuned irony undermines the potency of ‘prophecy’. He expresses in his Five Prophecies a ‘low-risk’ interest in deflating the typically inflated concept. But of course if prophecy talks of the ‘impossible’ future (Blanchot) it cannot simultaneously talk of Thirwell’s ‘expectant’ future (surely the future can only be ‘of expectancy’). In deflating prophecy to ironic ends, rather than working into the mystique of it, ‘we’ eventually either kill mystery & suspense, which are ultimately essential to the artist and to epistemiological pursuits, or we spin around (oscillate?) in circles.

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