In December of my senior year, Rookie’s theme was Forever: Best Friends Forever, Forever Young, and other such slogans for a steadfast belief in the permanent. The site that month was all love songs and postcards, memory-hoarding and shrines to the past, yearbook photos in a heart-shaped box, starting with this long editor’s letter. Of course, that’s not the kind of thing you write unless you actually, ultimately, live in the time zone of The End: I’m still in high school for another six months, so I should probably start reflecting on it as if it were already over!
This month—also Rookie’s five-year anniversary—our theme is Infinity: time that moves in neither direction, because you’ve gotten to some level of acceptance about endings, so instead of dictating what every experience will be like as a future-memory to ensure yourself a perfect life without realizing the whole notion of perfection is in direct opposition to the absurdity that makes life itself, you can actually, finally, experience the sensation we have no better words for than: being in the moment.
In her 1979 review of a Norman Mailer novel, Joan Didion wrote that the authentic Western voice is “heard often in life but only rarely in literature, the reason being that to truly know the West is to lack all will to write it down.” The lack of good words is part of the deal: Infinity means you’ve stopped watching yourself, or watching others as if you don’t belong with them, and maybe being that inside of it means limited access to the picture frame, Joseph Cornell box, Polly Pocket dream-house that you get to hold firmly once you’ve turned something into a story.
I guess Infinity is like what psychologists call “flow,” when you get so focused on something that everything else kind of falls away. Psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott used “transitional space” to describe the unquantifiable dimension that opens up in play, sex, and other feeling-not-thinking activities. Polymath Michael Polanyi coined the term “tacit knowledge” in opposition to explicit knowledge, so that we at least have an articulatable distinction between what can and cannot be articulated.
In Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, the students in a cult-like classics course conduct an ancient Dionysian ritual in the woods at night, in order to fully lose any sense of self, and achieve what their passionate professor calls “the fire of pure being.” In Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, a different Dionysius—Dionysius the Areopagite, a Syrian monk—is cited as one of the first Christian advocates for the idea of a Divine Darkness, an experience which attests that “by not-seeing and unknowing, we attain true vision and knowledge.”
Theater is one of the last things on the planet that can’t be recorded with any semblance to the live experience, making every show a disappearing act. In the 1977 film Opening Night, the immediacy of stage acting ushers its protagonist, Myrtle Gordon, out of her own head and into a performance so real and funny that I rewatch it all the time like a reward for whatever shit I had to do that day and also get curmudgeonly and frustrated about everything that’s gotten to be called “real” or “funny” in the years of filmmaking since. The movie starts with Myrtle, an aging theater star, witnessing the death of a pretty young fan just as she was trying to get her autograph. She’s haunted for months by visions of the girl, and by the latest role she’s agreed to play: a woman her own age. She repeatedly makes her case to the playwright and director as to why she can’t be seen being good at playing an older woman, and they have to chase her down—drunk and far away from the theater, minutes before her entrance—for the opening night performance.
She doesn’t succeed in the end by escaping into the part, undergoing some huge transformation, or any of those self-annihilating acting stereotypes: she continues to grapple with the fear of becoming old and unlovable, but instead of monologuing, looks past herself, to her scene partner, so that the two of them can joke about it together. The self-sabotaging tendencies that terrorized every rehearsal are overpowered by her desire to give the audience something human. From the Criterion edition’s essay by Dennis Lim: “Myrtle’s triumph has less to do with reaffirmed public adoration than with her revitalized faith in art as a way of life. Onstage, she defiantly reanimates the self-help cliché of existing ‘in the moment’ and, however briefly, entertains the possibility of pure experience.”