PRINT December 2018


Ralph Lemon

In early 2018, I read three books at the same time, all of them propositions for freedom, all contemplating its seeming impossibility and the inspired labor of working toward the impossible—of believing.

From J. Krishnamurti’s On Freedom (1991): “Freedom is not from something. It is an ending [of knowledge]. Do you follow?” No, not quite. But since I was eighteen I’ve trusted, without submitting to, most of what Krishnamurti has written. (I fashion that I am an innocent.) Angela Y. Davis’s Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement (2016) is expansive, radical, and practical. She fiercely imagines a (global and intersectional) freedom from social injustice, racism, mass incarceration, poverty. I adore her—have adored her since I was sixteen—but I don’t completely trust that we as a species could ever be altogether free of these inequities.

“You notice the progressive nature of things. Things run down.” Sam Shepard’s freedom resides within his dying body. (I don’t recall the elusive noun appearing once in Spy of the First Person (Vintage), but I may be wrong). His is a more plausible freedom, one I trust more than the rest. A squall of knowledge. Abstract but also functional and palpable. Like something you can carry in your shirt pocket, perceiving its particular weight until it’s not there anymore, has fallen out or else become a part of you.

I don’t know if Spy of the First Person is a very good book, but it is a last book, deliberately written to be a last book. Whatever it is—memoir, fiction, testament to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis—it is eighty-two pages from a great artist writing as his muscles degenerate, “mumbling to himself” as he delicately and almost playfully describes what he sees, remembers, reconstructs: “One year ago exactly more or less, he could walk with his head up. He could see through the air. He could wipe his own ass.” Death is happening, and how fucking odd, curious, imaginative is his falling-down prose—Shepard’s conjured American galaxy, now destabilized. The dissolution of every creative argument. An undivided freedom. And the ambition (against all odds) to write his own dusty prairie bardo, making these final marks as the marks dissipate, life and art scattering in all directions. Like Bowie’s last thing. Like Coltrane’s last thing(s). Like Deleuze’s last thing(s). All that enlightened delirium in an almost-dead body that has had a good, short, or long, thoughtful life.

“The air is still hazy. You might ask yourself why. Why am I so interested? Is it pure curiosity or do I have some other motive?” Making (and messing) up that last rhythm, thinking those last words, that history, those final questions, that freedom. All of it beautiful, heartbreaking, and unreliable. A poignant ghost story, a haunting before the fact.

Ralph Lemon is a choreographer, writer, and visual artist.