What’s Missing?

By Judith E. Vida

For presentation to International Federation for Psychoanalytic Education Nineteenth Annual Interdisciplinary Conference Encounters and Escapes: Danger and Desire in the Analytic Connection, November 21-23, 2008, Boston, Massachusetts
Art is:

  1. unnecessary
  2. nonproductive
  3. without function
  4. the expenditure of energy
  5. the determination and commitment to execute the above in perfect form
  6. valuable

Bruce Metro, The Dig (1977)

If the most unrelated things share a place, time, or odd similarity, there develop wonderful unities and peculiar relationships…and one thing reminds us of everything.

Attributed to Novalis, quoted by Allen Ruppersberg in Fifty Helpful Hints on the Art of the Everyday (1984)

This presentation was originally written as a contribution to an exhibition catalog for Mel’s Hole: Artists Respond to a Paranormal Land Event Occurring in Radiospace, curated by the artist Doug Harvey. The exhibition could be seen at Grand Central Art Center in Santa Ana, California, from September 6 to October 19 of this year, so it is now over, but the catalog lives on.

I had relished Doug Harvey’s art criticism for years, in LA Weekly and Art issues. but we didn’t meet face to face1 until 2000, when we both wrote essays and appeared in a public program for Laguna Art Museum’s exhibition and catalog Margaret Keane and Keaneabilia. From then on, our paths have gone on crossing both in real- and in cyber-space, almost always in the territory of the strange and the quirky that makes possible a partial liberation from pedestrian habits of mind and being.

A while ago, I got a letter from Doug, which began,

Dear Judy,

In 1997 radio host Art Bell first introduced his listeners to Mel Waters, a man from Eastern Washington who claimed to have discovered an ancient and apparently bottomless pit on his property. The story of the hole was remarkable enough, but the subsequent events took an almost surreal bent — Mel was threatened into silence by the US military, exiled into cushy Wombat Restoration service in Australia, and tipped off to a second bottomless pit in Nevada. Rather than recount the entire story, I’ve enclosed a research copy condensing the most complete version of the story thus far onto a single CD.

He went on to describe a future curatorial project addressing this, inquiring if I’d like to write something. Stuart2 and I listened to the CD on a long drive at night to the desert. Immediately I caught an uncanny similarity of Mel’s Hole to The Hollow Tube, a passageway from one side of the earth to the other, right through the center, presided over by the terribly just Tititi Hoochoo, the Great JinJin; this is a crucial episode in TikTok of Oz, my favorite of all the Oz books by L. Frank Baum. I thought this would be a fine opportunity to re-visit parts of that story in a new context. When I mentioned TikTok, Doug was cool about it3 and that’s where it seemed to sit until the deadline grew nigh.4

I say “seemed to” because out of my conscious awareness, my associations to Mel’s Hole were already simmering. There would have been a personal dimension to anything I wrote about Mel’s Hole anyway, as I will shortly explain, but I couldn’t have imagined when I entered the project how intensely personal it would become.

In scholarly and critical writing about art, the personal is unacceptable. The writer’s personal intersection with the work at hand is irrelevant and even irresponsible. And in scholarly psychoanalytic writing, the personal is equally frowned upon. But over very many years now, and I am speaking as a psychoanalyst who has learned from art and artists, writing that is empty of the personal has no interest for me and, more than that, is impossible to understand.5 When I am writing, the trail of my thought, feeling, and memory illuminates the inquiry, allowing a deeper penetration into the work, and a deeper penetration of the work into me. Following this trail and privileging it is not easy to do. It requires an abandonment of destination and the foregoing of expectation, of preconception, of self-consciousness, and of critique; and it draws on everything. I am always afraid that the trail will be fruitless or silly. But at a moment when, improbably and against expectation, everything at hand suddenly does hold together, I have a heightened sense of being in the world.6

What stayed with me from first hearing the CD was that things went in to Mel’s Hole and didn’t come out. They didn’t hit bottom; they didn’t even hit anything else that might have been in there. These things were big things, like cows, or machinery. These things were little: junk, small objects, fishing line. These things were hot, and cold, and liquid, and solid. They all disappeared completely, without a trace. And the hole was described as not just a hole in the earth but something seemingly constructed: nine feet across, with a rim and sides (near the top, at least) of an unidentifiable metallic substance. In radiospace, amazement, disbelief, and curiosity built steadily toward fear and paranoia, intensifying the desire to wrest control. (But from whom? For what?)

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

Time passes after Doug’s letter. The dates of the exhibition change; my thoughts about writing yield to everyday concerns. At a certain point, on another drive toward the desert, this time alone, I am finally ready to refresh my memory and to immerse myself in the details, so I put in the CD to listen again. But … the audio starts to break up about half an hour in. Abruptly the story is interrupted; I am dangling. I had completely forgotten that this happened the first time, too. I e-mail Doug frantically that the CD is damaged; is there time for him to send me another? Before hitting “send,” I add, “Or could this possibly be the whole point?”

He doesn’t reply.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

As I write, while I am writing, I need to keep reminding myself of how this works, of how I work,7 so I decide to revisit my trail in chronological order:

Right after the first listening, I take TikTok off the shelfand then I stop thinking about Mel’s Hole. As I read, I fall in love all over again with the whole Hollow Tube episode, especially that it has been magically sealed to prevent its thoughtless use as a garbage dump.  One end of the tube “had a silver rim and around it was a gold railing to which was attached a sign that read:

“IF YOU ARE OUT, STAY THERE.

IF YOU ARE IN, DON’T COME OUT.” (p. 140)

I think, I could submit an essay consisting solely of quotations from the book strung artfully together to parallel the saga of Mel’s Hole.

But I don’t.

Along the way I meet my daughter-in-law Jenny Spence’s enthusiasm about Wicked (The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz), both the novel and the musical play. From its first appearance on the contemporary scene, I have shied away from Wicked. I do not like the Judy Garland film The Wizard of Oz, andmy distaste for it makes me wary of those who tamper with the magic of the Oz to which I had fled as a child, if only in my reading imagination. But the more I trust my daughter-in-law’s tutelage, I know I will face Wicked eventually.

Before I can do that, I feel obliged to look into Philip José Farmer’s book A Barnstormer in Oz which I picked up out of curiosity in the early 80s but I couldn’t read it then: his restoration of the sex and violence implied in Baum’s narrative but elided for both necessity and convention, was too jarring. Oz is a children’s book, after all, despite being remarkably free of the sentimentality and condescension of its day. But reading Farmer now, I recognize that the child I was, in desperate search of a utopian solution, had suspended all inquiry and critical judgment. This preparation by Farmer now allows me to discover that what Gregory Maguire does in Wicked and Son of a Witch makes Oz more real to me rather than less. Gregory Maguire’s writing makes fully visible to me the space between wish-fulfilling fantasy and the irreducible parameters – disappointments, difficulties, and devastations – of a lived life. I’m referring to the space between the idealizations by adults (of children and of themselves) and what else is going on, the very “what else” that makes adults uneasy, and children anxious when they are denied the truth. A backstory is always there, I murmur to myself with amazement. Every person sees something different. Every person inhabits a different story. Sometimes the different stories of the same story are very different.

Somewhere along the way, Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” is brought to me by a dear friend and would seem to have no place in this narrative. Yet this story of the confounding nonlinearity of memory told from the inside, as it is happening, takes me by surprise.8 It sheds unexpected light on some professional difficulties I am emerging from, but only later does its relevance for me in writing this essay become visible; it speaks to difference, and it speaks to the way difference is framed by language.

As the time of needing to write closes in, I detect in myself some familiar avoidance-maneuvers: I don’t want to read that (something identified as related to the project); I’d rather read this. In recent years, I’ve seen this petulance lead me to something startlingly and improbably central to whatever project I am ostensibly trying to avoid, but this time I worry that it might be just defiance. I pick up Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. Before long, Iread:

In the middle of the dirt floor … a disk of raw plywood lies set in a circular metal frame, flush with the floor…. Landsman fits his fingernails between the plywood and the frame and pries off the crude hatch. The flashlight reveals a threaded tube of aluminum screwed into the earth, laddered with steel cleats. The frame turns out to be the edge of the tube itself. Just wide enough to admit a full-grown psychopath. Or a Jewish policeman with fewer phobias than Landsman…. No way is he going down there. (p. 12) …. The ones who had been in the ghetto at Warsaw … dug tunnels. Just in case they had to fight again …. (p. 22) … That is part of the policeman’s job, to jerk back the pretty carpet that covers over the deep jagged hole in the floor. (p. 96)

After that, I try Roberto Bolaño’s The Amulet, only to find:

…I started looking at the vase that had captured that sad gaze of his, and I thought: Maybe it’s because he has no flowers, there are hardly ever any flowers here, and I approached the vase and examined it from various angles, and then (I was coming closer and closer, although in a roundabout way, tracing a more or less spiral path toward the object of my observation) I thought: I’m going to put my hand into the vase’s dark mouth. (p. 7)

I have to face it: holes are pursuing me. Holes,Louis Suchar’s celebrated children’s book, comes to mind; I read it and set it aside.9 It is getting late in the game. I mention the essay to my writing partner and colleague Gersh Molad of Tel Aviv when he is briefly here in Los Angeles for an annual seminar in The Autobiographical Dialogue that he and I developed in 2002. “A psychoanalytic take on Mel’s Hole? Courbet’s L’origine du monde, of course!” he enthuses. The direction of his association is obvious, though it doesn’t seem right somehow. But three days after he leaves, I spot in the newspaper an art review: a work called “L’origine du monde Wallpaper” by David Brady is being shown at a Chinatown gallery. In the grips of the uncanny, I go to the gallery. David Brady has digitally manipulated into kaleidoscopic patterns color images of Courbet’s anatomical paradigm from pornographic Internet sites, and, in Holly Myers’ words, “deployed them for purely decorative purposes.”

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

All along, though, going all the way back to TikTok, my attention is increasingly consumed by something else:10 my nearly 94-year-old mother, who collapses just as the deadline of this essay “whooshes” by.11

A few days after his arrival home, on the telephone, Gersh Molad mentions Simone de Beauvoir’s memoir A Very Easy Death. I order it on a Tuesday and am shocked that it comes so soon, in the mail, on Friday. I started to read it Friday evening. Awaking on Saturday morning, I mention to Stuart that Gersh has seen some similarities of de Beauvoir’s mother to mine. “Yes,” he says. “I looked at a few pages when it arrived; I was struck by the emotional chasm between her and her mother.”

Indeed, there is so much about de Beauvoir’s mother that echoes mine:

The sight of her tears grieved me; but I soon realized that she was weeping over her failure, without caring about what was happening inside me. (p. 67)

How could she have tried to understand me since she avoided looking into her own heart? … [T]he unexpected sent her into a panic, because she had been taught never to think, act, or feel except in a ready-made framework. (p 68)

It doesn’t escape my notice that Simone de Beauvoir can bear to be with her mother, can stay by her conscious mother’s bedside for long hours in some of those last days. Simone de Beauvoir can stand at the rim of the emotional chasm. (Simone de Beauvoir can stand it.)

I did not particularly want to see Maman again before her death; but I could not bear the idea that she should not see me again. Why attribute such importance to a moment since there would be no memory? There would not be any atonement either. For myself I understood, to the innermost fibre of my being, that the absolute could be enclosed within the last moments of a dying person. (pp 62-3)

Simone de Beauvoir can bear to be with her mother as I can not with mine. Instead I keep my visits and calls brief, task- and circumstance-oriented, tightly book-ended by where I have just been and where I next need to go. The danger of being swept over the edge is too much for me.

Describing their relationship during most of her own adulthood, de Beauvoir writes,

The silence between us became quite impenetrable. (p. 68)

Between my mother and me, there is no silence. There is only her criticism, accusation, blame for depriving her (and my long-dead father) of the life they deserve, that has been my sole responsibility to bestow upon them. If by chance there ever is a quiet moment, I am always palpably in dread of what she will deliver in the next. Quiet is the signal I seize upon to make a quick though temporary getaway. Quick but temporary. Always only temporary. The pull on me to return is relentless.

In an e-mail that he titles “Mel’s Black Holes,” Stuart writes, “I was looking for something else and came across this; I’m not sure you looked closely before, now the Mel relevance suggests you could.”

The attachment is an article from The New York Times from May 2, 2006, by Kenneth Chang.

Scientists at NASA have simulated gravitational waves from the violent merger of two black holes [the page reads]. Traveling at the speed of light, gravitational waves never stop, just weaken with distance. Gravitational waves are ripples in space and time, a four-dimensional concept that Einstein called space-time. The waves are caused by violent events in the distant universe.

In the article are breathtaking images of gravitational waves predicted by Einstein’s theory of general relativity but never directly detected. In their unfettered sensuality, these images uncannily resemble David Brady’s pornographic kaleidoscope.

Two black holes start some distance apart, orbiting around each other. As the black holes spiral inward, weak gravitational waves are released. Stronger waves are released as the black holes get closer. An intense burst of gravitational waves occurs when the cones of the black holes merge … This power output is more than that of all the stars in the universe combined. When two black holes merge, they flatten into one larger hole that spins 70 times as fast as Earth.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

I am not Simone de Beauvoir. I do not soften my mother’s last waking hours. But as she slips below the level of consciousness, I can at last draw closer. I’m here, Ma. It’s Judy. You’re safe. It’s OK. Perhaps what I also mean is, You’re there, Ma. It’s Judy. I’m safe. We’re both OK.

(You see, Stuart, it’s not because of Mel’s Hole that I can read now about Black Holes. It is because my mother is dead.)

(You see, all of you, it’s not because of the deadline that I have found a “way in” to Mel’s Hole. It is because my mother is dead.)

The Hollow Tube has a backstory. Oz itself has a backstory. Mel’s Hole has a backstory.12 And here in the underground tunnel of personal connection, it turns out I too have a backstory. A small one, to be sure, but my discovery of it some years ago infuriates my mother because of her desperate need for it not to be true, a desperation I can speculate about but never truly understand. Since earliest memory my mother has told me proudly that I am the only member of the immigrant family on both sides who spoke only American-English, never Hungarian. But when I am 50 and in Budapest (for the first time) for a professional conference, my head explodes with language-memory; I hear my grandparents’ voices; I read the billboards. This is a baby-Hungarian language that my mother will insist is false-memory syndrome, even though an elderly cousin confirms later to me that Yes, this is how it is for all of us, how it comes back, through the clouds and the fog.

All backstories call out to be told; the more unknowable, the more desperate the cries. Amazement, disbelief, and curiosity gradually build toward fear and paranoia, intensifying the desire to wrest control. Deprived of the backstories, we can only stand quaking at the rim, petrified to move in any direction. The instant the backstory is revealed in Holes, all the menace drains away: a hole is only a hole.

My mother is dead. Her grave is only a hole, a bounded hole, with measurable dimensions. The sun is shining, a soft breeze blowing. Next to hers is my father’s grave. I can hear his voice booming loud: Shit. It’s been twenty seven years, and the trees have grown so tall they’ve ruined my view. As the coffin is lowered in place, we toss in two cans of my mother’s favorite Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer, a bottle of Columbia Crest Riesling that she also loved, and the copy of the Los Angeles Times that, despite a canceled subscription, has been delivered to her house on the day of her death.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

On Friday of the weekend during which this essay would be written, as I am driving home, unaware that the de Beauvoir book has arrived, feeling rather desperate and not a little frantic about finding a “way in” to Mel’s Hole, something pops into my mind: a work by Chris Wilder that was intended to be part of an exhibition of works from our collection at Laguna Art Museum in 1998 but that had collapsed on delivery from storage and to our dismay could not be shown. Titled Circle of Deceit, it was a large black-blue blob of “hotmelt” meant to lie on the floor. This is the comment about the piece we had prepared to accompany the exhibition:

Originally this was part of a large gallery installation, titled Project Blue Book, that was about conspiracy theories and the strange bureaucratic confusion of the government’s efforts to collect information about UFOs. In a composite piece called “Web of Deception, Circle of Deceit,” a web-like vortex hung from the ceiling positioned over this piece. The whole thing looked like it could suck you up and you’d never be seen again.

Chris Wilder himself is an artist whose work and person we have profoundly loved, who disappeared for a time,and who has now, after a long absence, returned. All Chris’ works to date have embodied loss and the lost. Our favorite of his pieces, Missing, was made after the death of his mother – a different kind of mother, a different kind of death.

It is time for a deep breath here. Do you see how everything is connected? Mel’s Hole turns out to remind me of everything, everything that matters at this moment in my life. Some things in life have to be collected and held on to until the patterns, only much later, become apparent, though we can never know in advance what they will be, or when. And more than that, I think we have to live long enough, and then look and feel, feel even more deeply as we risk entry into a space that may have no dimensions and no bottom, where we will think and reflect for a while and then hoist ourselves back up in the company of some others. Then we may be able to recognize the profound connectedness of all the parts of our lives, including the vitality siphoned and held by the missing.

The connections are the point.

Works referred to:

  • Baum, L. Frank (1914). Tik-Tok of Oz. Chicago: The Reilly & Lee Co.
  • de Beauvoir, Simone (1965). A Very Easy Death. Translated from the French by Patrick O’Brian. New York: Pantheon Books.
  • Bolaño, Roberto (1999/2006). Amulet. Translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews. New York: New Directions.
  • Brady, David (2008). L’origine du monde Wallpaper. At High Energy Constructs Gallery, 990 N. Hill Street, Suite 180, Los Angeles, CA, February 2-March 8, 2008. Reviewed by Holly Myers, Los Angeles Times, February 29, 2008. High Energy Constructs is the same gallery where Doug Harvey had a solo exhibition in 2007.
  • Chabon, Michael (2007). The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. New York: Harper Collins/London: Fourth Estate.
  • Chang, Kenneth (2006). “Black Holes Collide, and Gravity Quivers.” The New York Times(electronic edition), May 2.
  • Chiang, Ted (2002). “Story of Your Life.” In Stories of Your Life and Others. New York: An   Orb Book/ Tom Doherty Associates LLC.
  • Farmer, Philip José (1982). A Barnstormer in Oz. New York: Berkley Publishing Corp.
  • Maguire, Gregory (1995). Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. New York: Harper Collins.
  • _______ (2005). Son of a Witch. New York: Harper Collins.
  • Metro, Bruce (1977). The Dig. Collection of Stuart and Judy Spence, Los Angeles, CA. With aseries of small-format photographs, the artist documents a single February day in which he digs a hole deep enough to stand in and disappear from view, and fills it in again. Of course, the day is February 7 – the day 31 years later that my mother would die. www.spence.net/collection
  • Ruppersberg, Allen (1984). “Fifty Helpful Hints on the Art of the Everyday.” In The Secret of Life and Death, Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, CA: The Museum of Contemporary Art and Black Sparrow Press, 1985, p. 114.
  • Suchar, Louis (1998). Holes. New York: Random House, Inc. (Yearling).
  • Wilder, Chris (1994). Circle of Deceit (destroyed). Collection of Stuart and Judy Spence, Los Angeles, CA.. www.spence.net/collection

For Mel’s Hole: Artists Respond to a Paranormal Land Event Occurring in Radiospace

© 2008 Judith Vida-Spence

301 S. Fair Oaks Avenue, Suite 406A

Pasadena, CA 91105

jvida@spence.net

[1]: Doug has since told me that in actual fact we had been fellow-travelers in the corridors of the Museum of Jurassic Technology for many years before that, which is perfectly consistent with the sentence that follows. [back to text]

[2]: Stuart Spence, my husband. [back to text]

[3]: “Cool”, that is, in the sense of “in to it,” interested, rather than indifferent. [back to text]

[4]: The late (lamented) Douglas Adams is reported to have said, “I love deadlines, especially the whooshing sound they make as they go by.” [back to text]

[5]: In a notable exception to the convention, Christopher Knight in his LA Times review (March 5, 2008) of Kara Walker at the Hammer acknowledges a longstanding personal relationship with the painter Lari Pittman; Knight’s citation of Pittman’s use of silhouettes in his work, which substantially predates Walker’s, restores the important dimension of “company” to a critique that otherwise could be read as just another sniping example of “who did it first.” [back to text]

[6]:I’m grateful to Doug Harvey for this one. [back to text]

[7]: When I am lost and confused in the middle of writing something, it helps to remember that it is always like this. And that it takes real time for the essential patterns to emerge. [back to text]

[8]: Following my trail chronologically seems to be a contradiction of Ted Chiang’s non-linear premise; but I am persuaded that inside this chronology I am actually quite free of the constrictions of “outcome.” (I can’t recommend this story strongly enough.) [back to text]

[9]: At the same time I order a DVD of the film adapted from the novel, which disappears shortly after being removed from its package and turns up six months later in a sack of things from my mother’s room in the convalescent hospital. [back to text]

[10]: My mother would have welcomed the notion of “consumed.”  Even before I started to write, Stuart, my husband, alerted me to the hole that would be my mother’s grave. [back to text]

[11]: On occasion my writing has been met by a criticism that I don’t go deep enough; that I reach a certain suggestive, provocative, or merely interesting point and then feint –  flinch or balk as might a skittish or poorly trained horse at a hurdle, refusing. Here, I hope not to hold back. I do not want to flinch any longer. As I write this, I suddenly understand what I am saying in these three sentences. [back to text]

[12]: Though we don’t know whose it is, or what. [back to text]


Judith E. Vida is a Past President of IFPE. Her longstanding commingled interests include Sándor Ferenczi, contemporary art (with her husband, Stuart Spence), and The Autobiographical Dialogue as concept and practice, developed with Gershon J. Molad.

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