A convoluted and wonderful play

In Legion, the new FX television series based on the Marvel comic character of the same name, an extraordinarily powerful and telepathic mutant, David, is unsure of his surroundings, of the time and place in which he exists, and regards his ability to discern between the real and the imaginative as dubious, baffled by his own symptoms, diagnosed as schizophrenia and manic depression, as far as I can tell by watching the pilot, seventy minutes long, an enjoyable episode. Aubrey Plaza continues her tireless affect, unmoved and sarcastic, decidedly one-note but nonetheless welcomed.

Noah Hawley, Legion’s showrunner, extends the X-Men’s cinematic universe to the small screen, as they say, with dazzling, mind-bending camerawork braced by a fashion aesthetic I endorse. The stars of episode one are the track jackets—the patient uniforms inside Clockworks Psychiatric Hospital, where we first meet the adult David—that evoke nineteen seventies fashion of a kind, and one must orient himself to the visual work deployed to confuse the viewer of the time and place in which the characters and plot exist, to see the world of Legion through David’s mind. Insanity beguiles the intellect. Insanity obscures malfunction.

I’ll abridge the downward drift, says John Ashbery, of writer Delmore Schwartz’s later years: two failed marriages, erratic employment as a teacher and a book and film reviewer, increasing poverty, alcohol and various other addictions. I started reading Once and For All, by the splendid New Directions, shortly after I found the book on the publisher’s table at the Brooklyn Book Festival, and purchased it on sight for reasons. The cover design, by Erik Carter, attracted me indeed but prior to I had never heard of Schwartz, had no previous exposure to his writing that would inspire me to buy a collection of his stories, poetry, letters, and criticisms, one of those catch-all collections I wish to write for myself but is seldom allowed by a publisher unless, in the case of Schwartz, a glut of unpublished and unread work gathers dust in the archives.

Delmore was born in Brooklyn, and enjoyed early critical acclaim before flaming out, according to the jacket copy, “in relative obscurity, wracked by mental illness.” No writer wishes to be forgotten by the world, abandoned to malady and the humiliating effects upon the body and mind conjured by daily life, the erasures and slights which accumulate in us all. There is something inherently mad in becoming an adult, in surviving long enough to experience the stage of life where, if all else succeeds, fantasies retreat for burial.

New Directions, established in 1936, published Delmore’s debut in 1938—an upstart New York house believed in a young Brooklyn writer’s voice and promise, justifying my purchase. Predicting it, perhaps. In this our life, writes Delmore, there are no beginnings but only departures entitled beginnings, wreathed in the formal emotions thought to be appropriate and often forced. Darkly rises each moment from the life which has been lived and which does not die, for each event lives in the heavy head forever, waiting to renew itself.

American writers scramble to decipher mass anxiety, late to the work, long derelict to the republic which birthed and tolerated them, if uneasily and with suspicion. One who takes the time to think about the writer’s work is skeptical of the artist’s devotion to reality. Borges wrote a story about a writer entangled in governmental intrigue, who then finds himself in a jail cell awaiting his death sentence; in the cell, he counts down every day, makes little tick marks on the cell walls, I imagine, indicating his approaching date of execution, and through flashback and exposition we see the writer attempting to create a convoluted and wonderful play.

As the jailers dragged him from the cell to the yard and propped his quivering body in front of the pocked, bloody concrete wall, the man realizes in his final minutes that he needs more time to finish his play, thanks to, quite literally, a last-second discovery or the uncovering of some plot hole, I do not remember now, and the man prays to God for more time, for one more year to finish his play, just one more year, as the firing squad’s smoke and bullets appear frozen in space, though they move, albeit imperceptibly, as time slowed down. Prayer answered, the man stands in front of the wall; he cannot move, he cannot escape his eventual fate, but he can think and imagine during this reprieve, which he uses to finish the play entirely in his head one year later when the bullets penetrate his body.

Borges’ writer is the only writer who deserves a salute and a toast of whiskey for doing nothing, for convincing God to intervene. Meanwhile I read an article that states the 45th President’s fans—some of them, anyway—refer to him as god emperor, which I find curious not simply because of the tacky, ostentatious title. At the kitchen table, I tell my partner he reminds me of a sketchy southern preacher visiting towns and burgs with tent revivals and anointed oils, with faith-based healing practices and the testimonials to match.

Of late, I’ve traveled from New York to Massachusetts down to Washington with a brief stop in New Jersey to bury my final grandparent, and I’ve written so little since my residency in the valley where the sun never reached my studio window, where, amid the glow from overhead lights belonging to the Israeli artist who used geometry to construct three-dimensional models I could not understand, yet marveled at when she showed me anyway, when she whispered Each model is the same area, I wrote for ten hours a day and saw through the reality and delusion the path I could follow.