Philosophical Improvisations

By Jon CotnerDecember 20, 2011

The Chairs Are Where the People Go by Misha Glouberman and Sheila Heti

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-poems. The range of topics evokes Montaigne's essays. All these works aim to put language in contact with thinking. When you read them, there's always an element of surprise. It's impossible to predict where you'll end up as you travel the zigzagging — the improvisatory — paths. This commitment to improvisation "as a practice, as something to do" is crucial for Glouberman. Improvisation is not just a theme for his Toronto-based acting courses. Rather, it's his first principle, and it underlies Chairs.


Improvisation is an art of time in search of the present. Like the other philosophical improvisers I've named, Heti and Glouberman give us a new literary form: one that permitted them to spend mornings together drinking coffee and investigating ideas before these very ideas change or vanish. Chairs slows down, inhabits, life's "drunken wildfire." It makes time less anonymous and more affectionate. Our few days become a greater adventure.


LARB Contributor

Jon Cotner is the author, with Andy Fitch, of Ten Walks/Two Talks, which was chosen as a best book of 2010 by The Week, The Millions, Time Out Chicago, and Bookslut. Their new collaboration is called Conversations over Stolen Food. Cotner lives in Brooklyn and teaches in Pratt Institute’s Creative Writing Program.


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