What is it like to make your own utopia? It’s a sociologist’s dream, like Tilda Swinton’s Sal in The Beach. That was every back-to-basics minimalist’s wet dream of a movie. And Swinton played the grossly idealistic Sal well, right down to the dark descent into autocracy. It’s as if all the Foucault she read—about what it means to discipline and punish—started surfacing in her, once things got difficult and a bit less idyllic. Swinton is perfect for such characters. There’s archangel Gabriel in Constantine, for one. Look at her losing her wings; look at her tasting first blood, blood that was her own. The author just found out that in 1995, at London’s Serpentine Gallery, Swinton played herself, and put herself up for public viewership—and aesthetic appraisal, one would suppose, given the venue and nature of work. The work took on the label of performance art, and so had to be looked at, scrutinized, read with that identifier in mind. She was there for a week, she was on exhibit within a glass case, a kind of cell or cage, if you wish. That Vietnamese eatery also placed something under a glass case; it was the table Obama and Bourdain ate at, when they decided to sit down for a chat. There’s a remarkable consistency in audience response when celebrity decides to hang out in ordinary, unremarkable places. It’s almost formulaic, as if to say: we, too, can slum it, we, too, hike up our dungarees and let our guard down. And everyone is hypnotized at the sweet gesture, how much of an outreach it seems, genuine and affirming in how it accommodates. This isn’t a cynic’s jab of a read; it’s an assessment of our own lust for a commonness made valid, as well as a leveling of the field. Again, this isn’t a kind of played game; it’s just a phenomenological tool that has seen its easy iteration. In the same way, Bourdain has appeared here again, simply because his death has been in the news, and the author’s mind has latched onto the current of what is being said. Of the paeans, and the eulogistic. History has a way with our lives, of constructing its own narrative of you. You may, indeed, try hard as you might to control your own narrative—personal and public—within your lifetime. But the real deal is this: that language and history will continue their constructions beyond our mortal selves. So much for the ego, so much for the mind, and all its power to define reality.
Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé is the author of an epistolary novel, a quasi-memoir, two lyric essay monographs, four hybrid works, and nine poetry collections. A former journalist, he has edited more than twenty books and coproduced three audiobooks. Among other accolades, Desmond is the recipient of the IBPA Benjamin Franklin Award, Independent Publisher Book Award, National Indie Excellence Book Award, Singapore Literature Prize, Poetry World Cup, two Beverly Hills International Book Awards, and three Living Now Book Awards. His newest outing is The Good Day I Died from Penguin-Random House Southeast Asia. He can be found at www.desmondkon.com. • Photo by Karen Kon