Robert Mueller: Barbara Guest, West and East

The Silent Confucius, The Confetti Trees, Hollywood, Who
Else but Barbara Guest
by Robert Mueller
Barbara Guest’s books are wonderful because of how they come to us with their bountiful co-valencies and layering.  The Confetti Trees, a series of short-short stories or quasi-filmmaking anecdotes that qualify as prose poems (Sun & Moon, 1999), has this implicating character, so that when it takes its measure in the rich play of glitter and artifice that are Hollywood, one of its expounding layers is a blending cosmic plot.  Guest’s stories, deft and trothfilled-wacky in their fabulous causes, propose circumstances that concern none other than the coming to America of Confucianism.  By way of making and divining not only events on the set but their twice-felt reflections, they are the outpouring of sublime Tao (taking the concept “universal law” to be the application thereof), and thus the cream of informed understanding of universal orderliness as ever-changing mobility, and even chanciness, all figured, if you like, in a concept labeled I Ching, the title of the famous treatise that has a commentary believed to be by our Confucius who is much-endeared (just as Guest’s stories may be).

Our Hollywood miracle, in this prospect and formation, is not, however, a torchbearer’s or a spectator’s or a lover’s feat.  Rather, it carries the stamp and fleet trade, a beauteous fleecing, of history — in the form of Europe as abettor and medium, in the form of displaced filmmakers from central Europe who populated Hollywood and lent their magic, as Barbara Guest herself did, bringing monuments of unageing wisdom and glory.

Thus we note how a German scholar, Richard Wilhelm, conveyed the secrets of I Ching to the West, and further (with the help of Cary F. Baynes’ rendering of the German into English) to the American West.  Thus we observe how Guest, in going west, collects and distills the Confucian or Confucius-linked concepts, those of flow and progress within the changes, of the predictability of unpredictability, and pins them, in one of her stories, on another “Wilhelm,” who, with an annoying personal flaw, his coughing, provides the principle of departure, and hence of change and growth and ordering, for a film that will inevitably bear the title “The Cough.”  So insists his colleague on the project, all subtly Japanese and withheld and coy of approach.  So infers and observes the inclining poet.

It all begins with this Wilhelm the filmmaker and, thanks to his Japanese co-director, Wilhelm the unwitting instigator of the film as its conception rolls forward.  He is a sort of bumbling foil to one of superior discernment.  How can this be?  None need care, if the delight be otherwise.  But really Wilhelm for example appears not to know if he should in fact be “Wilhelm,” aptly named for wanting to be in control and for being determined to place his own stamp on creative nature.  Or should he be the other guy, now and then spelled as “Wilhem,” whom we would recognize as the willing/unwilling victim of the tendency (as mentioned, plenty annoying) too much to pause, to “cough,” to catch himself up with a “Hem” or two, to go about as if not so well put together though repeatedly trying? 

The significations collide but are clear.  “Wilhelm” or “Wilhem” is one of Freud’s victims of the Pathology of Everyday Life, of an ordered and explainable behavioral form of rank disorder.  Only now with Guest’s vision of the fantastical projections that are Hollywood and are full of oddities and visually captured wonders and possibilities, the Pathology has become Tao, has become the knowledge of converting the many changes, or chances, or fortuitous disorders with their inevitable misfortune, into success and fortune by way of understanding the signs, or, as Confucius might say, by dint of interpreting and predicating upon the so-called oracles.

Hollywood miracle, therefore, based now and then on the unlikely sorts of mistakes and misfortunes, not chance encounters but chance (let us say) happenings, becomes the joy and penetration of Confucian oracle, wisdom and play.  The “confetti” are the “making up,” for the project and the appeal, out of the shreds of ordinary and once-ordinary existence.  And Guest’s story “The Cough” transforms the ordinary by making it anecdotal subject of filmmaking wherein the vehicle of bemused metaphor attracts glamour and importance, regardless (at least here) of the film’s own beauty or artistic successes.

So Guest goes to Hollywood to become a star; and because she has a star’s qualities she gathers to her everything of any importance.  On the way she meets Confucius. And it is not a question of simple nearness, and it is certainly not an insignificance.  As the world of Hollywood, and filmmaking, are charmed by the temperamental, by characters possessing big or little faults, and big reactions, so a wisdom of composing this world, of performing these analogies, adds to and even completes the charm and wisdom of being here.   Thus Guest may well sympathize with the actress who is to be cajoled and tolerated in “Falling in Love.”  This actress tip-toes to correct a fault in stature, and then in form and deed actually falls.  The falling of the actress, caught on film, is the creation out of a moment of misfortune of the film “Falling in Love”; and her unpredictability scores, is made to form; and moments, mobility, “momentuum” (from another story in the collection) link to confidence, sagacity, the creation of the changes.

In this other story the sagacity, as potentiality and motivation of silence, protects its gains by way of negotiating light and dark, and, adventurously, light and dark show they well know to disperse, to project and play themselves out in the appearance of “the delicacy of piecing together snow floes,” that is to say “the scenario, how snow rinses her wrists slowly,” “the meaning of the snow on the wrists of the actress.”  The cheekiness of such chiaroscuro in camera, of dark participating as halo and surround of image context, is crucial.  So is the time element.  Obedience to the pressures of time, expressed in “slowly,” makes all the difference; and just as light steadies quiet snow, so time’s possibilities are implied in so many aspects of the idea of “snow.”  So it may be easy to pass over the emphasis on “time” as a component of the structure of the hexagram in Wilhelm’s fully developed transcription and explanation of the I Ching.  But it may be that the point is not lost on the judicious learner, just as snow on camera slowly does not melt for the sensitive filmmaker.  The title of the story is “Confucius,” and its uptake springs forth under caress, and under delight and assured mystery:

There seemed to be no misunderstanding as to who indeed was the star and what role the camera played, each subsisted on snow.  Within the screenplay originally fixed solely on the ability of the actress to flex her wrists (camera shot of wrists) (camera preys on face above her wrists) a secondary plot was now beginning to develop as snow and light crossed the face of the actress.

The action of the film simplifies to a camera shot wherein the odd “momentuum of whiteness” (emphasis mine) is its link to counterbalancing the thought of “perpetuum mobile” (phrase mine, not in story), a notion that varies, with limited sophistication, the formal “I Ching,” and thereupon together with “momentuum” may form the proper expression of “I Ching.”
These touching cousins of momentuum and perpetuum (alternatively, “continuum”) are again seen, and again captured, in the image referred to in the story “The Utmost Unreality” as “Die Glückliche Hand (The Lucky Hand).”  Like much of the material in The Confetti Trees, the reference, in German, plays the card of central Europe as the music of Guest’s favorite, Schoenberg, emanates from a lacerated spiritual gloom, “allow[ing] a new genii to escape from under the aged veils of [Schoenberg’s and Kandinsky’s] magic.”  The filmmaking’s progress is dark and ambiguous but hints in its warning motion at the roles of fortune and change in disorderly orderliness, with “[a]tonality” at its piloting beck and call.  Guest has elsewhere touted such thoughtful contradiction in the aesthetic terms of Schoenbergian dissonance vis-à-vis consonance.  Hollywood is her claim to make this apparition prosper; her revamping of a time in history is her Europe, and her Yale and her Harvard, and her felt music.

Returning to “Confucius,” the story that appears to imagine this (or a different) “lucky” hand while “momentuum” parleys the emotions of light and dark, we discover that the actress with the fortunate appeal is a reader of who else but Confucius.  The sagacious director who (continually) reads these chance oracles is a Swede, a central European on the upper half, and he recognizes, or let us say the film recognizes, the greatness of the moment in its near-miss quality.  That is what is seen in the flow and flowing after, after what he films as the cold-sinking, gorgeous lyricism of turning wrist in snow and light.  That is what is seen afterwards, after having composed the exalted moment, after having placed the slowed “momentuum” as homage to the lessons of Tao.  The changes and chances and Hollywood, the silent glories coming again and again from near miss, are Pathology altered to Potentiality, are Annoying Habit altered to Personality:

The Director is a difficult man.  His sudden changes of mood often cause alarm.  In exasperation he picks up a book lying on a table nearby and throws this book hitting the sink where the actress washes, narrowly missing her wrists.  It is silent film so we do not hear a plaintive voice, or the sound of the book striking.

We see the trembling of the actress as the book narrowly misses her wrists.  Without any prompting she picks up the book (no sound to delude us) and guides the book up to her face where we see written on its cover The Sayings of Confucious.  “She is reading Confucius!” we repeat over and over, as we savor the Director’s silent applause.

New York City
July-August 2008

Robert Mueller reports that his main occupation is that of proofreader. He further notes that the presence of unusual spellings and unexpected inconsistencies of various kinds in poetry books authored by Barbara Guest led him to wonder how much of this contrary practice was creative and meaningful and beautiful, or helped to invoke certain aesthetic charms and mysteries. Such questions sparked the current discussion and its hopeful thoughts about how this practice may play out. Mr. Mueller has written on other aspects of the originality and brilliance that is Barbara Guest, as well as on such adventurous poets as Susan Wheeler, John Ashbery and Edmund Spenser. You may find his poem “Bubble or Tripod Which” here in Spinozablue and two new poems on-line in

Copyright© 2008, Robert Mueller and Spinozablue. All Rights Reserved.

Robert Mueller: Barbara Guest, West and East
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