AT PRATT INSTITUTE in Brooklyn, New York, I teach a writing workshop called "Daily Life." Students read poets, philosophers, essayists, and novelists, each of whom emphasizes, in one way or another, the sheer fleetingness of time. Chinese poet Tu Fu describes life as "whirling past like drunken wildfire." Twelve hundred years later American poet James Schuyler says: "A few days / are all we have. So count them as they pass. They pass too quickly / out of breath."
Daily life is the most available and least accessible realm. Fundamentally speaking, it's our existence, "the what we have now" (Schuyler). But the present speeds past, flowing with such momentum that we need extreme discipline if we're to glimpse these one-and-one-time-only moments. Of course our days seem to bear some resemblance to each other. Yet at another, deeper level, let's say the level of the microsecond, there's constant Heraclitean flux — phenomena that never happen twice.
After reading The Chairs Are Where the People Go, my students came to class with a new kind of intensity. They felt closer to themselves. The background against which their minds operate, often ignored on account of more "productive," more "serious" pursuits, rose into sharper focus. As Misha Glouberman observes, "[t]here is so much pressure on people to achieve, to become ever more accomplished and impressive," that it can amount to a loss of the present, which is to say a loss of contact with the relationships, sensations, and opinions that constitute us.
Chairs — a series of 72 uncategorizable essays — offers an antidote to this dangerous trend. Its premise is simple but potentially misleading: Sheila Heti wants to collaborate with her friend Glouberman on a book that would feature Glouberman's worldview. Glouberman agrees. They assemble a list of relevant topics, then meet regularly over a few months to tackle them one by one via his improvisatory remarks. Heti types as he talks. Such a project could sound solipsistic, pointless. After all, why would people who don't know Glouberman care about what he thinks? And why should he spend hours exploring himself when there's larger social work to be done?
But Heti and Glouberman's book has an intimacy, clear-headedness, and humor that our society needs right now. It should be required reading for Congress. Chairs is a dialogic project deeply concerned with dialogue; the title, in fact, comes from a piece where Glouberman discusses how to position chairs at readings, parties, and conferences in order to maximize engagement for everyone involved. Other pieces depict Glouberman's relationships with his girlfriend Margaux, his parents, his neighbors, his students, his audiences, as well as the customs and values of his culture.
Then there's the basic fact that none of these essays would be the same if Glouberman had composed them privately. Every single word is addressed to Heti. His friend's presence (though silent) gives Glouberman's speech its rhetorical charm and casual tone. He needn't worry about appeasing some far-off reader while Heti sits nearby, at once interlocutor and muse.
Chairs is reminiscent of Plato's dialogues, Ludwig Wittgenstein's lectures, and David Antin's talk-poem...read more