Rug Redux

I don’t personally own any nice rugs, but recently my favorite gallery closed up shop in Berkeley and moved its business to San Francisco. Levant Rug Company was one of many storefronts on a College Avenue strip that’s implicitly dedicated to rugs. Most nights after work, I go running on a route that passes these shops. There’s something surreal about the warmly-lit, basically furniture-less rooms with tapestries draped all over. In a home, I’d imagine this sort of rug to be a singular centerpiece. At Levant, the rugs exist in total excess, oriented in ways they would never sit otherwise. They’re hung in rows on the walls, rolled and stacked in piles as if worth nothing. It’s a bizarre, tantalizing sight.

I haven’t walked much down that street during the day, and I don’t want to. I’m afraid that seeing the showrooms filled with potential buyers could break the fantasy of a world rich with autonomous rugs, rugs who belong to no one and have never heard their appraised value. I almost feel like I’m observing something natural behind the glass, like exotic animals. Levant is totally empty now, except for an old piano left in the corner. Even vacant, it’s a striking space, much wider than it is tall, trapezoidal.

In fact, all these rugs do belong to someone, a man named Peter Pap. I know this because he used to keep newspaper clippings of himself in the front window. He’s dealt in luxury rugs for years, holds awards for his curation, and is praised in the collectors’ community for his eye for beauty. The absurdity of the rug economy is not lost on me, and I might be a little disturbed at the premise. Still, I felt compelled to look him up and stare at photos. In my favorite shot of Peter, he’s crouched on his front stoop as a massive blue rug rolls out from inside the house and spills down the lawn, filling up much of the frame. One night I went running a little earlier than usual and passed the store as Peter was locking up. I recognized him immediately and almost gasped, as if I’d seen a celebrity.

Stare at something long enough, and it starts to mean something. I considered the rugs for so long that I invented empathy for their literally fabricated existence. Their elegant visual complexity attracted me, while the dead opulence that they symbolized felt gross. I read that in the 17th century, housewives who couldn’t afford tapestries would swirl sand in decorative patterns on their floors. This was touching. Rugs represented having something for the sake of it. Simply there were people who hoarded fabric, and people who didn’t. Rugs became a lyric stuck in my head, an earworm that eventually accumulated significance in my worldview.

Sometimes this happens. A good example of getting your own lyrics stuck in your head is the HBO series We Are Who We Are, created by Luca Guadagnino. The whole thing is scored by Dev Hynes of Blood Orange, a band who the protagonists obsess with and bond over. The season climaxes in an epic journey to Bologna where they finally see a live show, and a different episode features a dreamlike dance sequence to “Time Will Tell.” Guadagnino has Blood Orange stuck in his head, as do the characters he creates. Dev’s electronic sound offers a cohesion that the show sometimes lacks in concept. Guadagnino uses Sufjan Stevens’s music to a similar effect in his movie Call Me By Your Name.

Blood Orange has been busy quoting itself, too. The same refrains in “Time Will Tell” actually appear on earlier tracks like “Charcoal Baby” and “It Is What It Is.”

Time will tell if we can figure this and work it out

it is what it is

etc etc.

While not common practice, one wonders why musicians don’t sample themselves more often. I remember listening to Father of the Bride when it came out and realizing gleefully that Ezra Koenig had resuscitated a lyric from their last album and placed it in a new context.

I don’t want to live like this

but I don’t want to die

etc etc.

If you’ve already identified the most precise way to communicate a thought, why change?

Meaning begets meaning. Some ideas acquire value over others, because our focus and curiosity are not spread evenly. Generally the denser the knots, the more the rug is worth. And don’t we love these tapestries for knowledge of the painstaking work put into creating them? There seems to be some unforeseen payoff in letting your mental energy pile up in one place. You end up with a framework, some sturdy surface to bounce everything off of, and then it becomes hard to let go: ah, I get it now! No one is stopping Dev from recycling the truest lyric or me from thinking about Peter Pap’s unjust rug world on my run tomorrow. But I’m not sure how long our trusty models even sustain us, or when it becomes self-indulgent to keep reaching for them.

In the Myth of Sisyphus, Camus introduces the concept of absurd creation. This comes after he’s established his argument on absurdity, basically stating that once a man realizes the irreconcilable gulf between his desire for answers and the uncaring world, he must embrace absurd living. And for the absurd artist, there’s no hope of unity or overarching philosophical doctrine. Absurd creation is ephemeral creation, he says, and one should resist the temptation to make grand expressions summarizing human nature.

I can’t help but wonder what he’d think of Dev Hyne’s repeated lyricism. Camus may stand against universalizing thought, but he accepts our persistent, personal fixations as only natural. He recognizes that an artist’s collection of individual works represents a continuous approximation of one thought, that root question which is unique for each person and whose friction fuels their artistic life. It’s a losing game to try and extract something true, but if every attempt reflects “the same resonance, the creator has managed to repeat the image of his own condition, to make the air echo with the sterile secret he possesses.” I think Camus is telling us that it’s fine to get stuck on an idea, but to award it no conclusive value. Maybe time will tell, and maybe it won’t!

If Camus’s absurd man is without hope, Gaston Bachelard is the total optimist, but converges at a related idea. In Poetics of Space, he roasts metaphor as a concept, pointing to specific instances where metaphor became dead and stale, useless beyond the moment in which it was conceived. Instead, he playfully urges the reader to observe and delight in phenomena, using one’s imagination to constantly perceive new images. Images shimmer, while metaphors harden and splinter.

Finally, in a Sally Rooney interview, she talks about how there’s certainly no blueprint for a good novel. Even though she admits she’ll continue to write to the same themes, relationships and interaction of emotional spaces, she doesn’t feel like the last novel teaches her anything about how to write the next. The process of writing something only teaches you about how to write that specific story, she laughs, true to the spirit of absurd creation.

I’m gathering all this evidence that there’s no formula for extracting the answers, no decisive frameworks to rest upon. Maybe this is an obvious point, yet we continue to try. Last Friday I helped give a presentation on the 2-week experimentation model my team at work has been implementing. This was requested from leadership, so that we could share how we were able to move so fast, and recommend best practices to others.

I know this is one of those feel-good things that you occasionally just have to do in the corporate world. But I also felt uneasy about prescribing a model to others. It worked well for our purpose, which had a narrow focus and dedicated resources. I couldn’t say confidently that it would succeed in a more ambiguously-defined or under-staffed space. Still, by the end of the presentation, I felt a rush of pride seeing what we had accomplished on paper. Even if it wasn’t a complete answer, it was something.

I’m here to teach and I’m here to learn, is a friend’s fake-but-real mantra. We have to keep moving, but maybe it’s ok to linger a while and celebrate the glimpses of truth that we have arrived at, that resonant echo of a desired secret that Camus refers to. I think about how ridiculous it is that there are endless versions of people teaching Tik Tok how to make the viral feta cheese pasta. It has maybe three ingredients, why are we all desperate to show each other how to put it together? Why are there not, at most, three versions of this video?

In this economy, it feels good to have some answers. I don’t really blame the internet for spawning a thousand copies. It’s like a celebration of finally having something that makes some sense, something easy and delicious no less. On its own absurd schedule, Tik Tok will inevitably move on to another, better answer next week. Arguably it’s a pretty perfect example of ephemeral and hopeless creation.

I want to avoid oversimplifying, but I also want to stop this ramble. I think most pursuits, whether in the arts, business, or internet cooking, require that we stop and look at something long enough for it to spontaneously generate some meaning to which we attach ourselves.This is probably the heart of creative joy. Though, everything I’ve consumed lately is telling me that it’s dangerous to believe we’ll ever reach an endpoint in understanding.

I’m almost relieved that Peter Pap took his displays to San Francisco and away from my buffering consciousness. Anyway, it would be reductive to continue framing the rugs as a story of haves and have-nots. Peter’s reality doesn’t seem insane or even unapproachable to me, and I’d probably really enjoy talking to him. I’d ask him about how he finds all these beautiful things, and what exactly they mean to him. When he closes his eyes, does he see rugs? I wonder who will be the next to fill Levant’s empty storefront with their objects of devotion.