I saw the seven words, then it finally registered with all the synchronicity of a lighted odometer turning over from all nines to all zeroes. This was it! The riddle had been solved! In ill-considered black and white here before me, written three days earlier, on my mother’s 48th birthday was the culminating stroke of this freaky name-change operation thing I had charted for months with soft sell handshakes and strange grimaces to any new person who happened to meet me.
And I took the name Gabriel Thy...
The Howell House was clean and active, even upscale I suppose one could say, secure and nearly two-thirds geriatric. My mother lived four floors above me up on the sixth floor of the 18-story building. She was on staff as the senior citizens coordinator and bookkeeper, and I occasionally helped her out with some of the more confined and colorful patrons doing odd chores for them. I was anxious to tell her of my discovery, although I could hardly expect her to understand the impact this fresh twig of myth and reality would have on me, Richard, the eldest of her seven children. It was her birthday and we were to have dinner together. I was bursting with excitement but I was understandably challenged by a mother's sense of her own naming rightsto bring the gift of reason to the dinner table that night.
How would my family, particularly my mother react to this news, a most suspicious tale ringing with tremendous religious overtones, or as others might prefer, smacking of superstitious or worse, some kind of dangerous demonic affiliations? Of course many people have changed their names with no other purposes other than enhancing one’s business, hiding an ethnicity, blending in, or sheer simplicity in mind.
As it was written on the page, the nameGabriel Thywas not given but was taken. This seemingly minor detail concerned me for a quite a while, not in a truly bothersome way, but as a nuisance, like a flapping scarecrow in a field of errors. Having taken this name was it no longer a gift? But when someone gives you a nickel, don’t you take it and perhaps slip it into your own pocket? Such were the subtleties of bible and literary scholarship, and so it was with my own problematic gestures.
I was thoroughly bewildered. The name was certainly an odd one, a very special one. I liked it, approved of it, but without a doubt it certainly had a very pretentious ring to it. I was not at all certain I in good faith could take it. And what would I do with it? The cornpone religiosity, the in-your-face God-component of the now prophetic name-change operation, self-fulfilling and otherwise, was obvious to me. But I was sure others would laugh me right off the sidewalk. What about those who already knew me as RSNa right interesting vintage acronym already, particularly when pronounced Risen or risin as in...Christ is risen! How would my family, particularly my mother react to this news, a most suspicious tale ringing with tremendous religious overtones, or as others might prefer, smacking of superstitious or worse, some kind of dangerous demonic affiliations? Of course many people have changed their names with no other purposes other than enhancing one's business, hiding an ethnicity, blending in, or sheer simplicity in mind.
Having finished with ecclesiastical literature, about this time I had also finished reading, was presently reading, or would very soon be reading the herded vapors of Gide, Camus, Sartre, Kierkegaard, Miller, Darwin, Kerouac, Nietzsche, Castaneda, and Douglas R. Hofstadter, author of Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, A Metaphorical Fugue on Minds and Machines in the Spirit of Lewis Carroll, the latter, a landmark ransom for me, among others. But I would not wholly give up the ghost. I clung to every shred of hope massaging my investigations that God would clear me for landing his understanding, that each and every one of the moderns were wrong in their denial of deity, dead wrong in their intemperance in disparaging the creative power from without, even as they worshipped the creative power within whether it be DNA or environmental advantages. Time and time again I found the writers complaining not against Christ but rather against the wretched incarnations of the church, its scavengerlike methods poisoning their minds against all of the burlier forms of theology and the God of Abraham, Issac, and Jesus of Nazareth. Still I persisted just as I persist today.
And by no stretch of time or imagination was this an easy task to discharge, seeing as I knew almost no women at the time and had little coin with which to persuade others that this was on the level, was no prank, no plot to appear artistic and sublime, nor merely a passing fancy. Yes neighbor, I was feeling tragically symbolic, alone but for the voice of God resounding in my head, just as intricately wrought analysis of my daily experiences had led me to belief.
I don’t remember my mother’s initial reactions to my telling the tale of the harbinger bringing forth her son a new name. Not then, not there. She in all likelihood, since I don’t specifically remember her response, sighed and said something along the lines of, “That’s interesting, son,” while thinking to herself that this was just a passing artistic phase or something or another and to follow form she’d share no words either of encouragement or of any personal horror. She’d always thought of herself as somewhat of a mystic, but was not easily persuaded that any such thing would rub off onto her children. So I use the words "not then, not there" simply because there was no mindjarring quarrel I recall from that Sunday night, and shortly thereafter, speaking both epistemologically and chronologically, things begin to shift into place with great importance.
The name was mine to take. That much was had been chanced upon, had been written, had arrived in a happy circumstance. There was no doubt in my mind that this was living theatre, that I had been given an emblazoned word of prophecy in Corpus Christi, and it was fulfilled here in Atlanta because I had stayed the course. But I also intuited that there were certain terms involved, certain measures and quotas to be filled, certain spiritual hoops to be jumped through in order to discern whether or not this was this real McCoy. Because it was my understanding that I’d come to this earth through the wondrous body of a woman, was named by that same woman, had bullishly married and was now irreparably separated from another woman once twice my age, it was preserved in my mind and reinforced by circular logic that if this name change was truly from God, my doubts could only be dispelled if endorsed by a woman. And by no stretch of time or imagination was this an easy task to discharge, seeing as I knew almost no women at the time and had little coin with which to persuade others that this was on the level, was no prank, no plot to appear artistic and sublime, nor merely a passing fancy. Yes neighbor, I was feeling tragically symbolic, alone but for the voice of God resounding in my head, just as intricately wrought analysis of my daily experiences had led me to belief.
I was working three hours a day downtown delivering pizzas and sandwiches on foot to the downtown Atlanta highrise luncheon crowd. I saw many faces and shared a quick grin or a few words of friendly chat, but my social importance was next to nothing. When I had a few dollars to spare I’d occasionally dip into a rather eclectic pub down Peachtree Street a few blocks from the Howell House for a pitcher of cheap suds, but knew only a few guys, the bar maid, and maybe one woman superficially at best. The happy hour crowd was always buzzing with a spattering of high profile cultural scooters including the nucleus I later grew to appreciate individually as an art curator, a couple of attorneys, an old hippie or two, a librarian, a couple of salesmen, a science fiction aficionado, a banker, a copywriter, an amateur actress, a faux cubist painter, a few struggling musicians, a chess champion, and a CDC technician.
The nihilistic era of the rude nickname had arrived in spades, the new epithet of the unsung, pacing the steamy streets and charlatanic nightclubs with the vengeance of a caged wolf, with little respect for anything, hardly sparing themselves. Visceral yearnings in youth were reshaping a new generation’s perspective on love and hatred, and the mad rush for mostly vulgar monikers had already begun in earnest.
This circle of soon to be regulars was still small at the time of the White Crow writing. All of them knew me as Richard, slightly weird and chalked up with an armload of library books. Keep in mind of course that when I introduced myself to someone, that was the last mention of a name-change operation, the line was dead until the next stranger was introduced. I didn’t go around like some enfilading riflemouth spraying people with some nonsense line in search of attention. In fact I was often quite self-conscious when introducing myself. Within a few days (three, four, five?) however I was to meet a young woman four or five years older than me named Kathleen Baker, a woman whose more delicate features were overshadowed by the liberal contours of her body. She weighed over 300 pounds, sang classical music with the voice of a monk, and immediately seemed to enjoy the nimble dispatches my wit invested among the afternoon mélange. Thinking again as I write this, perhaps I hadn’t told my mother of the Gabriel Thy transmogrification after all, not then that night of her birthday, for whatever reasons I now forget, because with each ascendant memory, in fact, as I am thinking about this concentratedly for the first time in many years, it seems that Kathleen Baker’s were the very first ears to hear the entire mess of fish from beginning to end, sans of course, the still confidential part about needing a woman to validate the transition (part of the test is to not publicly reveal all the details but to allow the truth to unfold according to God’s will and not mine), and that she energetically embraced the novelty of what she was hearing and resolved at that very first meeting to call me Gabriel, Gabriel Thy, enough said. And so in that unorchestrated off the cuff fashion this woman became the first person to know me only as Gabriel Thy, not Richard Nix.
Yes, that was it. She listened to my poem and she approved. Mother would learn only later, and now I recall another event which I shall get to shortly. That afternoon at the Stein tavern I did however note my apprehension at appearing far too pretentious for these cynical hobbyhorse times by dubbing myself Gabriel Thy. I was a nothing, a fledgling writer, a seeker after an illusive and much debated truth, caught within the mechanical web of all breeds and conjugation of fact and fantasy, and yet despite my busy faith and rote exhilaration, I could not call myself a christian because quite frankly I couldn't fathom exactly what the word meant anymore, if indeed I ever did. There were so many conflicting versions of the title that I just preferred to leave it alone, to let the scavengers pick the bones clean if need be.
Little did I know at the time that even as I in all seriousness was changing my name thousands of others were performing a similar operation. The nihilistic era of the rude nickname had arrived in spades, the new epithet of the unsung, pacing the steamy streets and charlatanic nightclubs with the vengeance of a caged wolf, with little respect for anything, hardly sparing themselves. Visceral yearnings in youth were reshaping a new generation’s perspective on love and hatred, and the mad rush for mostly vulgar monikers had already begun in earnest.
Names like Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious became the norming curve for acceptance into this thriving cult of nothingness. My own name mutation, void of applause or record deals, shock value or normalcy, was a serious matter, referencing everything I earnestly believed about the nature and signature of the Creator, flagging for all to observe, his will for me and mankind. To understand this name would take time for me as I experienced what surely would be a new direction in destiny. The easy part was over. Onto the Directed Path of God’s dotted line I was willing to sign, but where, and how?
My anxiety with these problematic questions did not evaporate with the introduction to Kathleen. I still begged in my spirit for more validation.
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dreamand not make dreams your master;
If you can thinkand not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kingsnor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is moreyou’ll be a Man, my son!
The mainstream media keeps trying to make Sarah Palin irrelevant and within the NYC-Washington Corridor she is exactly that. But the highbrow mainstream media might want to put down their lattes and New York Times and embrace the concept that Palin is still relevant. Her words and endorsements will matter in the 2014 Midterms. And beyond? Who knows.
David Brody | The Brody File
My friend with the Mexican mustache, savvy art collector and former Mike Gravel campaign strategist, José Rodriguez, could not contain his glee that he had gotten another whiff of the Sarah Palin meme, and so rushed right in to let me know how beneficial to the nation she would be should she stretch her wings to fly right at the old bastards who are in cahoots in destroying the economical sustainability of this nation in the long run, just one of their many political sins, "Cruz Palin 2016! Please help make the GOP irrelevant."
I had to capitalize and punctuate his words to meet the standards of this punk rock blog. You must understand, I have always been a grammar Nazi, having fought at least two underqualified English teachers in junior and senior highschool right straight to the revolt of the class when they tried unsuccessfully to assert their ignorance over what I knew to be true. I would walk away with a F in Comportment and a visit to the principal's office on my final day of Eighth Grade with an A in scholarship. That story I tell elsewhere, so I'll just flash my hall pass to get on with this one. So. Later, in the Tenth Grade, I refused to reread Huck Finn as I had read that book silly a dozen times as a grade schooler on summer break on my own, instead cutting up in class, clown and resident know it all, but was woefully prepared for the more sophisticated written essays of the highschool finals, so to my surprise I turned in an empty page. Still, Miss Harris, whose fiancée, was just starting out on the PGA tour, and who had only come to Glynn Academy as a sub after Christmas holidays to replace the beautiful young but tough Mrs. Mayhew who took a leave of absence to have the baby she'd been carrying long before the first September bell of the school year 1970-71. Mrs. Mayhew was also my first Negro teacher. I liked her. She was deliberate, adjudicated, serious, temporate, friendly, charming, but when analyzed as a complete package suggesting woman in charge who knew her place she was as tough as nails, as I said.
Did I mention I later ran for Senior Class President at another school from which I in two years would graduate, on the platform to bring a junk food canteen to campus? An idea that has become the contemporary norm but is now frowned upon just like it was back then at the front of the caloric revolution, an idea of freedom of choice, of brief respite, of the mouth-watering zest that sometimes is just a little bit more satisfying and attention-grabbing than the traditional wares of zealotry...
At the end of the first quarter of fifth period Mayhew English, we got our report cards. I was pleased I had received an A in Scholarship, but was stunned when I saw a B in Effort. I also received an A in Comportment, but it was the B in effort which startled me, as rumors soon circulated that I had received the only A in that fifth period class, and that she had only given out four A's across the five classes of sophomore English that she taught that semester at Glynn Academy, located in Brunswick GA, Glynn County along the famous "marshes of Glynn" made memorable by some romantic long-bearded mid-19th century minor poet named Sidney Lanier, for whom the nearby grade school where my youngest brother, John, now also a painter but always a woeful student, was attending.
I recall the class had mostly been rote memorization at that point, no essays, just spelling and a rehash of grammar studies we were forced to memorize year after since since we were first taken from group tables and put into individual desks like the big kids we would become.
Yo Rodriguez. Palin's not running for anything, but Cruz will take a bite out of that left-wing biscuit of you'rn...or put another way, I'm sure he'll step right up to announce without a drop of insincerity, "I'll be your Huckleberry. Seems I recall a chief strategist, a mutual friend of ours I'll just call Paul, declaring on the same night he announced he was considering a run on the Green ticket for Governor of New York state as we were all sweating over dinner at the 14th Street Busboy's & Poets in the summer of '08, that destroying the Democratic Party was at hand, and favorable. What a tangled web...and what strong, large memories some of us have. While yes, some just have large mammaries. And others, not that it matters on the golf course have neither."
Funny, as a ballplayer, I was often diagnosed as an over-achiever, capable of great moments, and of carrying a lackluster team far beyond its means only to crash at the last moment. Second place, not third, or last, or in the middle but second place was the recurring theme of my competitive life. Second most econonomic cab driver after just a few weeks on the job. Second most productive and accurate surveyor after being given my shot at party chief with my own crew. Race through dominating the regular season only to lose in the playoff finals to a team we'd slammed by large margins several times already. This was my luck, my meme, my path to the stars. Never quite the top dog, always stuck in the doghouse at number two, and I don't like the way that sounds.
However, after turning in a blank sheet of paper in response to twelve analytical questions, no multiple choice here, sitting in the same desk in the same classroom where I had achieved a rare A only to get a B in effort, you could have knocked me over with a feather when a few days after that school year had ended, and the final report cards were mailed, and I opened that envelope with great trepidation, I discovered to my amusement that Miss Harris had capitulated to my commanding spirit,and had given me straight A's across the board, including the course final. Deportment, Effort, Scholarship. All A's.
If Mrs. Mayhem's intuition had presaged the Miss Harris teacher-student debacle, the Miss Harris scourge would presage the coming generations, although let's face it, student punks were a dime a dozen at least since the times of the Greeks. Did I mention I later ran for Senior Class President at another school from which I in two years would graduate, on the platform to bring a junk food canteen to campus? An idea that has become the contemporary norm but is now frowned upon just like it was back then at the front of the caloric revolution, an idea of freedom of choice, of brief respite, of the mouth-watering zest that sometimes is just a little bit more satisfying and attention-grabbing than the traditional wares of zealotry, an idea I also picked up at Glynn Academy, an historical school founded in 1788, had sported the first "rest area" I had ever seen (although I'm sure large urban highschools in other warped regions of the country were even back then in the very first year of forced integration in the south), an entirely different breed of failure and excess freedom running rampart apart from my own small town observations, aptitude, and media-crunching misapplications. But as I learned somewhere in the finer thills of Huckleberry Finn via the aristocratic airs of the cinematic flair that a tuberculosis sickened Doc Holliday, who hailed from Valdosta GA we should not forget, one should first write about what one knows as long as you include lots of links because the following generations will know nothing about any history that preceded them until it affects them more than a poorly formed sentence from the gangrened mouth of their hanging judge.
The world is a very strange place. Not unlike the movie Tombstone.
Rules: Once you've been tagged, you are supposed to write a note with 25 random things, facts, habits, or goals about yourself. At the end, choose 25 people to be tagged. You have to tag the person who tagged you. If I tagged you, it's because I want to know more about you.
(To do this, go to "notes" under tabs on your profile page, paste these instructions in the body of the note, type your 25 random things, tag 25 people (in the right hand corner of the app) then click publish.)
1. I used to hang with Ru Paul in Atlanta back when HE played in a band called Wee Wee Pole, mostly at the 688 Club and the Bistro, both now defunct.
2. I was a brilliant child (one of the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging myself through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix…), then I bumped into the lads of 9353, and learned something else about myself.
3. Bob Dylan, Thomas Paine, and Henry Miller, in that order fascinate me to the ends of the intellectual spool, are my heroes, and oddly enough, both the Right and the Left claim them (well, Miller might not make the cut on the Right), and yet all are despised by both the Right and the Left when it suits them.
4. I hitchhiked from Atlanta to NYC to meet Allen Ginsberg with seven cents in my pocket because I had lost my whole $250 paycheck earned working a roofing tar kettle the night before dancing and boozing with a hole in my pocket I had sworn to avoid, all in celebration of my departure. I also met my future wife on that trip. It's a long story.
5. I was a literary poet when I came to DC. I then became a drunk, quit writing poetry in deference to my rocker friends and enemies like Bruce, Boyd, Vance, Gene, Jamie, Rene, Lloyd, Frank, Henry, Andy, Jack and so many more of that squiggle of spit-possessed renegades.
6. I grew up poor among the poor. My five siblings and I often slept in sleeping bags curled up around the only kerosene heater in the house built in 1865, later burned to the ground by an arsonist in 1972, along with many of my childhood treasures. My father collected junk Cadillac & Pontiac hearses and DUIs as if nothing else existed for him.
7. I once told Jesse Jackson I don't stomp the pavement for any cause. And yes, I shook Ronald Reagan's hand as he was leaving the Jacksonville Convention Center in 1972, as a Nixon delegate in the first highschool mock convention of its kind. My particular Florida highschool represented the state of Tennessee. Shirley Chisolm was also there.
8. I recall the Kennedy assassination in full black and white. I was in the third grade. I watched the aftermath at Darwin Gale's house while he was outside playing in the dirt with toy soldiers, our usual connivance.
9. I was married to a Jehovah's Witness twice my age, mother of three, when I was eighteen, four weeks after she smothered my virginity. What a dweeb I was! It lasted three horrific years.
10. With a nod to Yeats, I slouched in the dirty and dangerous coke ovens at Bethlehem Steel on Lake Michigan back when America was strong, though the steel industry was just then beginning to feel the coming shrinkage.
11. My grandfather regularly played chess with King Faisal Ibn Abdul of Saudi Arabia when he was a construction superintendent there in 1966. This king was later assassinated by his own nephew. Spud Woodward, my grandfather, left after six months of his two year tour seriously needing an adult beverage, of course banned over there.
12. I became a painter after reading a book.
13. I believe America is in deep shit, and I also believe we haven't a pooper scooper to our name as a nation.
14. If it weren't for money, I'd be a rich man.
15. I lost a 900 page novel manuscript among other fine washables when I accidentally erased it off my computer.
16. As a former Episcopalean acolyte and Eagle scout, well not quite, my family moved to a remote barrier island owned by the Carnegie and Rockefeller families when I was fourteen, effectively ending my scouting career at Life, anyhow, what was my point?
17. My family were among the original band of Scottish Highlanders to found the State of Georgia. Names like Mackintosh, Spalding, Kenan, Woodward, Atwood lead straight to me. Big effing deal some might say; I say it's all in how you present the information. Did I mention one of my ancestors traced my heritage straight to William the Conqueror, the bastard lord of feudalism? Thirty-one generations. I did the math. Lots of people are my cousins.
18. I have never been to college. But I am still a tool of my enemy, and I cannot visualize an escape.
19. Guns. Now that's something William S. Burroughs knew something about.
20. I either secretly or outright despise Marxists because I am right of center and am more generous with my time and my treasure than any "ever so concerned" Marxist I have ever met.
21. I realize that the line is being drawn in the sand even as I write these words and parse these syllables. There is no time left to write poems or paint pretty pictures. Now is the time for all good men and women to rise to the challenges our spineless leaders have injected into our collective bloodstream.
22. Twenty-five years with the same woman. Haplessly married, but unbreachably united. A story for the ages. Check out Abelard and Heloise.
23. I am either supra-confident in public (usually a byproduct of alcohol, of which I rarely partake these days), or timid and tragically neurotic and full of self-doubt. Ask around.
24. In the spirit of jolly old Saint Nix (one of my former namesakes), I am always making a list and checking it twice, determined as hell to discover who is naughty and who is nice.
25. My greatest shame is that few people who call themselves my friends have ever bothered to listen to my Internet radio station, Radio Scenewash, or read, much less respond to any of my blogs in the several years I have operated them. Such is MY life in the fast lane among the self-satisfied and the splendid.
AMASTERFUL AMERICAN writer and novelist was found dead in his California home by his wife last week. His name was David Foster Wallace. His universally acclaimed magnum opus, a 1100 page tome published in 1996, called Infinite Jest was an immediate sensation. It immediately joined The Boomer Bible by RF Laird as my all-time favorite reads of the 1990s. The novel was set in a tennis academy and a nearby drug rehab centre in a parodic version of Organization of North American Nations, or ONAN, where traditional calendar years were renamed after sponsoring companies to become "The Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment" and "The Year of Dairy Products from the American Heartland." Some have stated that the novel circulated on a lost film cartridge called "Infinite Jest" that is so entertaining that unwary viewers lost interest in everything else in life. I found other threads more compelling, such as the Alcoholics Anonymous culture, the academy, the family dynamics of the author, and simply the whirling language of the author, the footnotes, his debilitating sense of irony, and inside-the-box dead pan humor.
Among other titles, the writer, originally from Illinois, also authored other such enviable short story collections as "Girl With The Curious Hair" and a smaller, less rambunctious novel called "The Broom Of The System." Wallace's death at 46 by hanging was ruled a suicide. He will be infinitely missed.
2005 Kenyon Commencement Address by David Foster Wallace May 21, 2005
We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it’s so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on.
IF ANYBODY FEELS like perspiring [cough], I'd advise you to go ahead, because I'm sure going to. In fact I'm gonna [mumbles while pulling up his gown and taking out a handkerchief from his pocket].) Greetings ["parents"?] and congratulations to Kenyon's graduating class of 2005. There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says "Morning, boys. How's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes "What the hell is water?"
This is a standard requirement of US commencement speeches, the deployment of didactic little parable-ish stories. The story ["thing"] turns out to be one of the better, less bullshitty conventions of the genre, but if you're worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise, older fish explaining what water is to you younger fish, please don't be. I am not the wise old fish. The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude, but the fact is that in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance, or so I wish to suggest to you on this dry and lovely morning.
Here's another didactic little story. There are these two guys sitting together in a bar in the remote Alaskan wilderness. One of the guys is religious, the other is an atheist, and the two are arguing about the existence of God with that special intensity that comes after about the fourth beer. And the atheist says: "Look, it's not like I don't have actual reasons for not believing in God. It's not like I haven't ever experimented with the whole God and prayer thing. Just last month I got caught away from the camp in that terrible blizzard, and I was totally lost and I couldn't see a thing, and it was fifty below, and so I tried it: I fell to my knees in the snow and cried out 'Oh, God, if there is a God, I'm lost in this blizzard, and I'm gonna die if you don't help me.'" And now, in the bar, the religious guy looks at the atheist all puzzled. "Well then you must believe now," he says, "After all, here you are, alive." The atheist just rolls his eyes. "No, man, all that was was a couple Eskimos happened to come wandering by and showed me the way back to camp."
It's easy to run this story through kind of a standard liberal arts analysis: the exact same experience can mean two totally different things to two different people, given those people's two different belief templates and two different ways of constructing meaning from experience. Because we prize tolerance and diversity of belief, nowhere in our liberal arts analysis do we want to claim that one guy's interpretation is true and the other guy's is false or bad. Which is fine, except we also never end up talking about just where these individual templates and beliefs come from. Meaning, where they come from INSIDE the two guys. As if a person's most basic orientation toward the world, and the meaning of his experience were somehow just hard-wired, like height or shoe-size; or automatically absorbed from the culture, like language. As if how we construct meaning were not actually a matter of personal, intentional choice. Plus, there's the whole matter of arrogance. The nonreligious guy is so totally certain in his dismissal of the possibility that the passing Eskimos had anything to do with his prayer for help. True, there are plenty of religious people who seem arrogant and certain of their own interpretations, too. They're probably even more repulsive than atheists, at least to most of us. But religious dogmatists' problem is exactly the same as the story's unbeliever: blind certainty, a close-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn't even know he's locked up.
The point here is that I think this is one part of what teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean. To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. I have learned this the hard way, as I predict you graduates will, too.
Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it's so socially repulsive. But it's pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people's thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.
Please don't worry that I'm getting ready to lecture you about compassion or other-directedness or all the so-called virtues. This is not a matter of virtue. It's a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self. People who can adjust their natural default setting this way are often described as being "well-adjusted", which I suggest to you is not an accidental term.
Given the triumphant academic setting here, an obvious question is how much of this work of adjusting our default setting involves actual knowledge or intellect. This question gets very tricky. Probably the most dangerous thing about an academic educationleast in my own caseis that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualize stuff, to get lost in abstract argument inside my head, instead of simply paying attention to what is going on right in front of me, paying attention to what is going on inside me.
And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out. That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense. Let's get concrete. The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what "day in day out" really means. There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine, and petty frustration. The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I'm talking about.
By way of example, let's say it's an average adult day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging, white-collar, college-graduate job, and you work hard for eight or ten hours, and at the end of the day you're tired and somewhat stressed and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for an hour, and then hit the sack early because, of course, you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there's no food at home. You haven't had time to shop this week because of your challenging job, and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It's the end of the work day and the traffic is apt to be: very bad. So getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there, the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it's the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping. And the store is hideously lit and infused with soul-killing muzak or corporate pop and it's pretty much the last place you want to be but you can't just get in and quickly out; you have to wander all over the huge, over-lit store's confusing aisles to find the stuff you want and you have to maneuver your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts (et cetera, et cetera, cutting stuff out because this is a long ceremony) and eventually you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren't enough check-out lanes open even though it's the end-of-the-day rush. So the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating. But you can't take your frustration out on the frantic lady working the register, who is overworked at a job whose daily tedium and meaninglessness surpasses the imagination of any of us here at a prestigious college.
The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death. It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over.
But anyway, you finally get to the checkout line's front, and you pay for your food, and you get told to "Have a nice day" in a voice that is the absolute voice of death. Then you have to take your creepy, flimsy, plastic bags of groceries in your cart with the one crazy wheel that pulls maddeningly to the left, all the way out through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive, rush-hour traffic, et cetera et cetera.
Everyone here has done this, of course. But it hasn't yet been part of you graduates' actual life routine, day after week after month after year.
But it will be. And many more dreary, annoying, seemingly meaningless routines besides. But that is not the point. The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing is gonna come in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don't make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I'm gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop. Because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me. About MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it's going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way. And who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are, and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line. And look at how deeply and personally unfair this is.
Or, of course, if I'm in a more socially conscious liberal arts form of my default setting, I can spend time in the end-of-the-day traffic being disgusted about all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUV's and Hummers and V-12 pickup trucks, burning their wasteful, selfish, forty-gallon tanks of gas, and I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious bumper-stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest [responding here to loud applause] (this is an example of how NOT to think, though) most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest, most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers. And I can think about how our children's children will despise us for wasting all the future's fuel, and probably screwing up the climate, and how spoiled and stupid and selfish and disgusting we all are, and how modern consumer society just sucks, and so forth and so on.
You get the idea.
If I choose to think this way in a store and on the freeway, fine. Lots of us do. Except thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic that it doesn't have to be a choice. It is my natural default setting. It's the automatic way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I'm operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world, and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world's priorities.
The thing is that, of course, there are totally different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stopped and idling in my way, it's not impossible that some of these people in SUV's have been in horrible auto accidents in the past, and now find driving so terrifying that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive. Or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he's trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he's in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way.
Or I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket's checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do.
Again, please don't think that I'm giving you moral advice, or that I'm saying you are supposed to think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it. Because it's hard. It takes will and effort, and if you are like me, some days you won't be able to do it, or you just flat out won't want to.
But most days, if you're aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she's not usually like this. Maybe she's been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it's also not impossible. It just depends what you what to consider. If you're automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won't consider possibilities that aren't annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.
Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that's capital-T True is that you get to decide how you're gonna try to see it.
This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't. You get to decide what to worship.
Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful, it's that they're unconscious. They are default settings.
They're the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that's what you're doing.
And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving and [unintelligible -- sounds like "displayal"]. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.
That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.
I know that this stuff probably doesn't sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational the way a commencement speech is supposed to sound. What it is, as far as I can see, is the capital-T Truth, with a whole lot of rhetorical niceties stripped away. You are, of course, free to think of it whatever you wish. But please don't just dismiss it as just some finger-wagging Dr. Laura sermon. None of this stuff is really about morality or religion or dogma or big fancy questions of life after death.
The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death.
It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:
SAINT-GENIS-POUILLY, FranceLate last year, as an international crisis was brewing over Danish cartoons of Muhammad, Muslims raised a furor in this little alpine town over a much older provocateur: Voltaire, the French champion of the 18th-century Enlightenment.
A municipal cultural center here on France's border with Switzerland organized a reading of a 265-year-old play by Voltaire, whose writings helped lay the foundations of modern Europe's commitment to secularism. The play, "Fanaticism, or Mahomet the Prophet," uses the founder of Islam to lampoon all forms of religious frenzy and intolerance. The production quickly stirred up passions that echoed the cartoon uproar. "This play ... constitutes an insult to the entire Muslim community," said a letter to the mayor of Saint-Genis-Pouilly, signed by Said Akhrouf, a French-born cafe owner of Moroccan descent and three other Islamic activists representing Muslim associations. They demanded the performance be cancelled.
Instead, Mayor Hubert Bertrand called in police reinforcements to protect the theater. On the night of the December reading, a small riot broke out involving several dozen people and youths who set fire to a car and garbage cans. It was "the most excitement we've ever had down here," says the socialist mayor.
The dispute rumbles on, playing into a wider debate over faith and free-speech. Supporters of Europe's secular values have rushed to embrace Voltaire as their standard-bearer. France's national library last week opened an exhibition dedicated to the writer and other Enlightenment thinkers. It features a police file started in 1748 on Voltaire, highlighting efforts by authorities to muzzle him. "Spirit of the Enlightenment, are you there?" asked a headline Saturday in Le Figaro, a French daily newspaper. A debate on Swiss television last month degenerated into a shouting match when the director of the Saint-Genis-Pouilly performance accused a prominent Muslim of campaigning to censor Voltaire in the past. The two men also have traded insults in the French media.
Voltaire, the pen-name of Francois-Marie Arouet, peppered his writing with irreverent barbs that riled the Church. He described God as "a comedian playing to an audience too afraid to laugh," and wrote that "If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him." Mr. Goldzink, the scholar, says Voltaire mocked all religions but had some sympathy for Islam, which Voltaire described as "less impure and more reasonable" than Christianity and Judaism.
Meanwhile, the name Voltaireand the Enlightenment tradition he embodieshas frequently been cited by pundits across Europe commenting on the Danish cartoon furor. That controversy has triggered violent clashes in Pakistan, Nigeria, Libya, Syria and elsewhere, leaving scores dead. It has led to the arrest of nearly a dozen Muslim journalists who re-published some of the drawings and has driven the original artists into hiding.
Sunday in the Pakistani city of Karachi, about 50,000 people, many chanting "Hang those who insulted the prophet," rallied to protest the cartoons. The protest, held a day after a visit to the country by President Bush, also featured chants of "Death to America." In a video broadcast Sunday, Osama bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, also denounced the Danish drawings, saying they showed the West has double standards because "no one dares to harm Jews ... nor even to insult homosexuals."
"Help us Voltaire. They've gone mad," read a headline last month in France Soir, a daily newspaper. Editors in France, Germany and elsewhere have explained their decision to reprint the drawings by pointing to principles enshrined in a statement often attributed to Voltaire: "I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it." Voltaire said something similar, but the phrase was coined in 1906 by a biographer of Voltaire to sum up the French writer's views.
"Fanaticism," the play that stirred the ruckus in Saint-Genis-Pouilly, portrays Muhammad as a ruthless tyrant bent on conquest. Its main theme is the use of religion to promote and mask political ambition. For Voltaire's Muslim critics, the play reveals a centuries-old Western distortion of Islam. For his fans, it represents a manifesto for liberty and reason and should be read not so much as an attack on Islam but as a coded assault on the religious dogmas that have stained European history with bloody conflict. When Voltaire wrote the play in 1741, Roman Catholic clergymen denounced it as a thinly veiled anti-Christian tract. Their protests forced the cancellation of a staging in Paris after three performances -- and hardened Voltaire's distaste for religion. Asked on his deathbed by a priest to renounce Satan, he quipped: "This is not the time to be making enemies."
Jean Goldzink, a scholar who edited a French edition of "Fanaticism," sees in today's tumult a repeat of the polemics aroused by Voltaire in his lifetime. "It is the same situation as in the 18th Century," Mr. Goldzink says. "Then it was Catholic priests who were angry. Now it is parts of the Muslim community."
Voltaire, the pen-name of Francois-Marie Arouet, peppered his writing with irreverent barbs that riled the Church. He described God as "a comedian playing to an audience too afraid to laugh," and wrote that "If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him." Mr. Goldzink, the scholar, says Voltaire mocked all religions but had some sympathy for Islam, which Voltaire described as "less impure and more reasonable" than Christianity and Judaism.
Banned from Paris by France's Catholic king, Voltaire moved to Geneva. He quickly irked Swiss authorities, who burned one of his books. He then moved to a chateau a few miles from Saint-Genis-Pouilly and wrote a "Treatise on Tolerance." He later campaigned in vain to reverse a blasphemy conviction against a French noble, who was tortured, beheaded and then incinerated -- along with a copy of Voltaire's "Philosophical Dictionary."
Accusations of blasphemy attract mostly yawns today in mainly secular Europe, though they do sometimes excite the dwindling Christian faithful. Monty Python's 1979 film "Life of Brian" was banned for a time in parts of Europe. More recently, "Jerry Springer: The Opera," which portrays Jesus as a homosexual who dances around in diapers, drew protests from Christian groups. Still, it ran for months in London and was broadcast by British state television.
Some devout Muslims are trying to revive taboos against blasphemy, and there are signs of growing self-censorship on matters even tangentially related to Islam. In January, the Belgian town of Middelkerke cancelled a planned art display that featured a fiberglass model of Saddam Hussein submerged in a fish tank in his underwear. The Czech artist, David Cerny, describes his work "Shark" as "a reflection on dictatorship." Officials say they worried it might upset local Muslims.
Herve Loichemol, a French theater director who produced the recent readings of Voltaire's play in Saint-Genis-Pouilly and Geneva, says he wasn't trying to provoke Muslims but knew from experience his production might anger some. He pushed ahead anyway. Banning blasphemy "admits private beliefs into public space," he says. "This is how catastrophe starts."
In the early 1990s, Mr. Loichemol had proposed staging the play to mark the 300th anniversary of Voltaire's birth in 1694. Islamic activists objected, among them Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss Muslim whose grandfather founded the Muslim Brotherhood fundamentalist movement in Egypt. Mr. Ramadan wrote an open letter in October 1993 warning that performing Voltaire's play would "be another brick in an edifice of hatred and rejection in which Muslims feel they are being enclosed."
Now that tempers have calmed, Mayor Bertrand says he is proud his town took a stand by refusing to cave in under pressure to call off the reading. Free speech is modern Europe’s “foundation stone,” he says. “For a long time we have not confirmed our convictions, so lots of people think they can contest them.”
After weeks of debate, Geneva authorities dropped the play, citing financial reasons. Mr. Loichemol, who lives near Voltaire's old chateau outside Geneva, denounced the decision as a revival of intolerance. Mr. Ramadan, who has become one of Europe's most influential Muslim intellectuals, has since tried to distance himself from the campaign to censor Voltaire, saying he admires the writer and has taught "Fanaticism" to students. In an interview last year with the French magazine Medias, he said he was in Egypt when the play got canned and "was not even aware of this affair."
Last spring, Mr. Loichemol decided to take another stab at reviving the play and persuaded Saint-Genis-Pouilly to include it in a program of cultural events, along with Flamenco dancers and a lowbrow farce.
Mr. Akhrouf, the cafe owner and activist, says that in early December, he got an agitated phone call from a friend who had just received a leaflet advertising the event. Mr. Akhrouf found a copy of the play on the Internet and started shaking with rage as he read the portrayal of Muhammad as a fanatic.
Shortly afterward, he attended Friday prayers at a big mosque in Geneva and talked about his concerns with Hafid Ouardiri, a mosque official and veteran of the earlier anti-Voltaire campaign. They drafted a letter to the mayor demanding the play be cancelled "in order to preserve peace." Mr. Ouardiri, an Algerian-born former leftist radical, came to France in the 1960s and says he used to chant the 1968 student slogan, "It is forbidden to forbid." Now a devout Muslim, he says he champions "the need to forbid." Algeria and other Muslim countries, he says, were colonized by Europeans "nourished by Voltaire." Mayor Bertrand considered dropping the play. But after talking to aides and voters, he decided to stand by Voltaire. A meeting two days later to defuse the crisis got nowhere. Mr. Bertrand, flanked by officials from France's security service and other state bodies, quoted a section of France's constitution that guarantees free speech. Mr. Akhrouf and Mr. Ouardiri pleaded with authorities to try to understand Muslim feelings. Mr. Akhrouf broke down in tears. "I was very emotional," he says.
The night of the reading, riot police took up positions outside Saint-Genis-Pouilly's cultural center. An hour into the performance, the mayor got called out of the hall because of street disturbances. The mayor says the mood was "quasi-insurrectional," but damage was minor. Police chased Muslim youths through the streets. Now that tempers have calmed, Mayor Bertrand says he is proud his town took a stand by refusing to cave in under pressure to call off the reading. Free speech is modern Europe's "foundation stone," he says. "For a long time we have not confirmed our convictions, so lots of people think they can contest them."
He does have one regret: He found the play, five acts in archaic verse, "deeply boring."
Aviedid you check your MySpace blog comments this afternoon? Well, let me say this to you because when I read anything written, in a book, in a magazine, in a comic, in a blog, in a stone tablet, I ask myself. Hmmm, do I do that? Am I guilty of that? Is she, or he talking about me? Does it matter? If not, why not? Et cetera, ad nauseam...
Of course, like any hot-blooded Dylanista worth his own sense of wayward mystery tramp, we all think Bob Dylan has written directly to us as individuals for the past forty years, and you have even picked up on the phenomenonwith your praises of many of the notes I have sent you the past couple of months. But let me be clear. I DO NOT think you have come on too fast, nor am I afraid of boldness and directness, or anything we have or have not shared, but I will tell you that those early heady days of Facebook jollies were just that, a newness, a folly, a guilty pleasure, a time-killer when I was home sick for weeks on end, a journey sure to end on an anti-climatic note, an odd take on reality, a complete waste of time except for the enjoyment we created.
I can kick ass with the best of the headbangers, but I'm more comfortable with a book or a philosophical treatise. You should have noticed by now that I have abandoned most of those Facebook apps that are nothing more than will-o-wisps I can blow away with the might of a well-sculpted paragraph, and prefer reciprocity in that arena to the pokes and superpokes with their respective one word iconographies in play.
Believe me. I'm not trying to strike a pose as a superior being or some nonsense like that. I had fun when I was having fun. But the bubble has burst for me. You and a couple of other friends welcomed me to Facebook with a bang. I thank you for that bit of personal ego stroking.
The long and short is I spend hours every day in study and in writing, keeping my blogs at operational speed. My radio station has been running on autopilot since September. My need to paint, and show, and sell them suckers doesn't get enough properly structured and vested time as it is, what with the symptoms of this broken down thyroid I carry in my throat, my bulging waistline, and creeping age all toss memostly sinus and skin allergies to the cotton clothing I wear, fatigue, tremendous aches, pains and head smog, all leading to a generalized exasperation in struggling to do all that I want to do without attaining anything of value much more than the rare passersby making a two-minute web visit for any of it.
I press on because the alternative is absolute stone cold unassailable darkness and its ugly cousin, loathsome failure.
We almost never entertain in our home, and rarely go out once we make it home after returning from our daily grind. I am simply more jealous of my energy now that my own death seems closer to me than when I first launched The Scenewash Project in 1996, as an early pioneer. Point is I'm a haunted individual, not all joy and vigor as many see me I've learned. There's the public Gabriel that the underground music scene loves or loathes depending on one's sense of punk, and then there's the private Gabriel, lost in this world, unfruitful, weary and disappointed, thwarted by the dualing zodiac signs of the Libran sheep, if one is of a mind to believe THAT yack.
And since you never take up any of my offers, two issued to visit studio, which drew silence, two to gallery shows, both of which you wanted to attend, but didn'tI don't hold any of that against youI just don't know how to accommodate you at this point.
But I did stay in a Holiday Inn Express last week during our snowy trip to North Adams, MA. Pictures on their way.
Cheers, beers, and steers, and maybe you weren't talking about me at all, but...
Every artist was first an amateur. Ralph Waldo Emerson
The words and life of Ralph Waldo Emerson had a profound effect on me when I was just a schoolboy, so much so that during my senior year in high school I lobbied and won the right to name the new black labrador puppy we had brought into the family, Waldo. Back then everyone my age knew about Emerson's long friendship with Henry David Thoreau and their famous exchange. According to some accounts, Emerson visited Thoreau in the Concord jail for refusing to pay his poll tax and asked, “Henry, what are you doing in there?” Thoreau replied, “Waldo, the question is what are you doing out there?" Thoreau was refusing to finance the government war machine of his day.
Although having nothing to do with Thoreau or what many have called "his hippie politics" run amuck, I have since tried to find the precise language shot from the brow of Mr. Emerson that had pierced me, words that I paraphrased with aplomb and a surety to others for years, but I have not been able to locate the exact words. However, at the other extreme of this entry, I will do my best to reconstruct the thought.
Meanwhile I did find these several contiguous paragraphs I immediately embraced because they not only reminded me of something I think I read in Henry Miller about Kierkgaard, but they are so similar to the lines I'm looking for I was surprised when I couldn't find them in the essay from which I lifted the following words:
The characteristic of such verses is, that being not written for publication, they lack that finish which the conventions of literature require of authors. But if poetry of this kind has merit, we conceive that the prescription which demands a rhythmical polish may be easily set aside; and when a writer has outgrown the state of thought which produced the poem, the interest of letters is served by publishing it imperfect, as we preserve studies, torsos, and blocked statues of the great masters. For though we should be loath to see the wholesome conventions, to which we have alluded, broken down by a general incontinence of publication, and every man's and woman's diary flying into the bookstores, yet it is to be considered, on the other hand, that men of genius are often more incapable than others of that elaborate execution which criticism exacts. Men of genius in general are, more than others, incapable of any perfect exhibition, because however agreeable it may be to them to act on the public, it is always a secondary aim. They are humble, self-accusing, moody men, whose worship is toward the Ideal Beauty, which chooses to be courted not so often in perfect hymns, as in wild ear-piercing ejaculations, or in silent musings. Their face is forward, and their heart is in this heaven. By so much are they disqualified for a perfect success in any particular performance to which they can give only a divided affection. But the man of talents has every advantage in the competition. He can give that cool and commanding attention to the thing to be done, that shall secure its just performance. Yet are the failures of genius better than the victories of talent; and we are sure that some crude manuscript poems have yielded us a more sustaining and a more stimulating diet, than many elaborated and classic productions.
We have been led to these thoughts by reading some verses, which were lately put into our hands by a friend with the remark, that they were the production of a youth, who had long passed out of the mood in which he wrote them, so that they had become quite dead to him. Our first feeling on reading them was a lively joy. So then the Muse is neither dead nor dumb, but has found a voice in these cold Cisatlantic States.
Here is poetry which asks no aid of magnitude or number, of blood or crime, but finds theatre enough in the first field or brookside, breadth and depth enough in the flow of its own thought. Here is self-repose, which to our mind is stabler than the Pyramids; here is self-respect which leads a man to date from his heart more proudly than from Rome. Here is love which sees through surface, and adores the gentle nature and not the costume. Here is religion, which is not of the Church of England, nor of the Church of Boston. Here is the good wise heart, which sees that the end of culture is strength and cheerfulness.
In an age too which tends with so strong an inclination to the philosophical muse, here is poetry more purely intellectual than any American verses we have yet seen, distinguished from all competition by two merits; the fineness of perception; and the poet's trust in his own genius to that degree, that there is an absence of all conventional imagery, and a bold use of that which the moment's mood had made sacred to him, quite careless that it might be sacred to no other, and might even be slightly ludicrous to the first reader.
One more thought on Thoreau and what my sources call his poll tax. Seems as if one didn't always have to be a poor Negro languishing in the Southern Disguise under Jim Crow to be smacked with a poll tax in this man's United States of America. As for knocking Thoreau and his Walden Pond fantasy, I made my own Walden Pond fantasy some to pass down in Florida, Lofton Creek, east of Yulee, where my blistering education really got a kickstart away from the slow gentle death I had been suffering since leaving highschool, my glory years of school confinement grades 1-12 which I loved, for married life and the strong American red, white, and blue work ethic which I loved considerably less...
But Emerson made plain my future to me when he described the world as full of young wits who have a measure of both skill and resolve. However, they burst upon the stage, and soon are spent, wasted, with nothing else to say, and not much of what they did say will stand. However, wrote Emerson, one should prefer to be the man who exercises patience, disabusing himself of the notion of early riches and fame only to flame out. This man would rather hone his skill, his talent, his art, his learning, and then when the time of maturity has arrived, he will have something more substantial to say, something more lasting, something more beneficial.
I would love to stumble across Emerson's exact words, but for now...
Allow me to explain my predicament. Up until March 29, 2003, I had carefully maintained, organized & archived my entire email history from 1993 when I first joined Prodigy, Compuserve, and AOL all within a few weeks of each other, having been instantly smitten with this new world of messaging and self-publication. I hail from a damned near illiterate backgroundfrom an alcohol-hardened household, from a band of brothers who somehow esteem reading and writing of little use above that required by law.
This is not an indictment of them, but a tiny spotlight onto the struggles for my own sense of clarity, given my own poetic nature, and desire for pursuing and comprehending the incomprehensible. I had been fortunate that during my ten years of archiving, I had never lost anything I had ever emailed, or had received from someone. Except for obvious and useless SPAM, and lower tier business correspondence, I cherished and kept every bit of communication I had ever mustered.
And I'd been fortunate to have met and sustained along the way a steady string of aspiring authors, so our email wasn't of the dull flat liner variety that would soon cloak the long silences of previous generations who had transitioned from sincere letter writing to the less literary and more immediate telephone call and special event card. Now we had access to a marvelous combination of the two, letter writing nearly extinct, and the telephone call, often as mundane and flawed for its archival challenges as the polaroid in the digital camera age.
But then came the shock and awe of that March 29 data loss. Ten years of treasured exchanges gone in a keystroke! Ordinarily I kept a rather recent back-up of my work, but for reasons of brevity, let's just say I had little to rely upon that day, so in one terrible keystroke I lost my entire hard drive of personal information while visiting the terminal for my first and only peek at the guts of the operating system. After the week long stress, sweat and toil of data recovery magic, I found that I had recovered maybe two-thirds of my email data. I lost so much more other work, but it was my treasured email that mattered most to me at that point, and the process was too inadequate to worry about the rest of the loss. Now, of course, my email did not recover its former glory. So, instead of each individual mail stored away in personal boxes and folders, where I had immediate access to them in plain text, I now had over 22,000 individual files each named, starting at number 1, increasing in value one file at a time, like this:
Email file (generic) 16784
And since it seems as apropos as a summer shower on a blue heat afternoon, given a rather new MySpace friend’s recent smackdown of a type of Internet personality she called the Intellectual Predator, it’s a keeper; here’s yet another redux, circa 1993-4 from my AOL years (when I signed on there I was among a mere 250,000 subscribers. When I left, over 25 million. But I’ll leave that story to later.) Can’t wait to get more of these posted somewhere new. All I can do is work the process with ev’ry muscle I’ve still got in the game…
And to make matters worse, each recovered file, no, did not include just a single piece of mail, but sometimes two, five, or three, point three emails. And these texts were not alone in their new miserable state. Now each file included huge chunks of header and other inexplicable strands of ASCII gibberish, cast off, decidedly boorish digital DNA that I would have to clear away like so many acres of undergrowth in order to isolate a long lost masterpiece from my friend Steve, or a stroll through Landryville with the wit and sarcasm of her spicy Cajun' upbringing, or merely a well-written communication from back in the day, those early days when so many people inside and outside the industry mocked the functionality, or inspirational value of email, while here we were composing masterpieces, detailing small everyday events of those days of our lives, marching to our exciting times with an eye on posterity.
Yes all this, BEFORE THE DELUGE OF SPAM. Before Internet porn. And for several years, before the WWW itself. Ah, yes, we were there, and we were writers, and yes, we could be bombastic or plain spoken. We could lie with dogs, or we could ride elephant ears. Those were the days where great plans ruled the great plains.
Nostalgic, but that's merely the background noise of my original purpose in posting today. Now here's one of those recovered files I just opened this morning, randomly. I did not write this, it seems to be unsigned, but I did save it. And since it seems as apropos as a summer shower on a blue heat afternoon, given a rather new MySpace friend's recent smackdown of a type of Internet personality she called the Intellectual Predator, it's a keeper; here's yet another redux, circa 1993-4 from my AOL years (when I signed on there I was among a mere 250,000 subscribers. When I left, over 25 million. But I'll leave that story to later.) Can't wait to get more of these posted somewhere new. All I can do is work the process with ev'ry muscle I've still got in the game...
The name Jack London conjures up dreams of the Great Yukon, ferocious wolves, pernicious gambling, alluring dancing girls, and an occasional drunken and bloody bar brawl, timeworn icons of the American taming of the Wild West, and a progressive poltical mind. The common response most casual readers hibernating in the dark, dank literary caverns of America to those rugged writers who lived life as if it were a program of perilous escape and beaconless frenzied abandon, is exemplified by the enduring myth of Jack London, the turn-of-the-century adventurer culturally transformed into a mild sedative for rambunctious boys. A fanciful string of Walt Disney films depicting the tumultuous capers of an innocent lad bent on civilizing his fellow outdoorsmen has enchanted the eager hearts and minds of anyone who ever dreamed of rubbing two wet sticks together to warm themselves and their pals, or to roast a marshmallow and a wiener on a cool October evening without the usual convenience of newspaper, lighter fluid or a half-dozen matches.
These overly-sentimentalized adventure flicks tickled the boyish imagination. Usually told in first person, the stories gave courage to those of us who cowered before the barking voices and effective forces of pounding fists offered by the local neighborhood bully. Introspection by the hero of our stories was always light-hearted, boyish, somewhat protected from the beastly nature of beastly men and women. American film. Always a happy ending.
As George Orwell pointed out in an essay written in 1943, London is one of those rare writers of genius like Edgar Allan Poe who enjoy a more prodigious reputation outside of the English-speaking world than in it. While Poe is critically respected both in England and France, the author of Martin Eden has been greatly admired by German, French, and Russian readers.
Orwell points out that Lenin's widow described in a short biography she wrote of him, of how she used to read stories to her husband on his deathbed as he lay paralyzed. On the day of his death she was reading from Dickens' classic A Christmas Carol, but he was put off by the bourgeois sentimentality of it all. The last words Vladamir Lenin ever heard were from Jack London's Love of Life.
Obviously, Lenin was initially drawn to London's political writings. He remained an ardent Socialist, and, as Orwell points out, one of the first American writers to pay any attention to Karl Marx. His reputation in Europe is mainly founded on another of London's books, The Iron Heel, a remarkable book of political prophecy predicting the rise of Fascism. London understood that when the working-class movements began to take on expansive dimensions and appeared to be taking over control of the world, the capitalistic class would hit back. And until Hitler came fully into his own, most Socialists imagined Marxism would simple swarm over the earth without a resistance.
In London's book, Martin Eden, the protagonist, Martin has weathered a poor working class upbringing‚ his playground was the dirty streets of Oakland in the first years of the new century‚ his pals scrappy street fighting lads like himself, his girlfriends coarse and profligate. But Martin Eden was looking for a way out. As a dedicated merchant marine, he accepts the challenges he places before himself with gusto. Voyages upon the harsh high seas for eight months of the year before docking off on extended furlough took their toll.
When back on the hill he stayed with his sister and her husband to the ambivalent reluctance of everyone involved. Robust yet uncouth, ignorant yet yearning for knowledge, Martin is introduced to a young middle class socialite named Ruth. She is the eternal rose, the effervescent source of beauty and redemption who lights a brilliant flame in young Martin. After hearing Ruth read from a collection of Swinburne's writings, our young feisty street punk, the brightest and the strongest grubbing up from the ribald and murky bowels of nothingness is transformed, in a sense, baptized by the fiery spirit of literature and fine perfumeries Ruth brings to him, and certain chariot wheels of grace for Martin Eden are set in motion. The brittle romance is charted very plainly by the author. Resolving to educate himself, the slate of middle class values and structures make their way into the agenda of the young Martin in search for a group of people he can call his own. Burning the midnight oil, abiding a strict schedule of three to four hours of sleep per night, Martin Eden first feeds his intellectual starvation by devouring the classics. After several alternating tours of duty at sea and in the mimicked words of the masters he consumed, he begins to write down stories of his adventures, pouring his soul and sensitivities into pages which began to mount into an inhuman pile of rejection notices.
His relationship with Ruth began to sour when it became apparent that she was unable to comprehend or suffer the intense struggle against the gods of moral and intellectual responsibility he was grappling with and would continue with until a victor had been proclaimed. Her father and his political friends were hopefully tied down to ineffectual status quo methods and arguments. Their condescension only fueled the young aspirant until a chance meeting with a group of revolutionary anarchists and socialists invigorated his spirits briefly. Before long even this more edgy crowd, edgy to be sure, but just as pompous and pre-occupied with status within the ranks matched only by its endless wordplay dishearted him. Yet he still believed that there was more to life than all this useless rhetoric and senseless destruction-oriented propaganda caught up in a war of words rather than the toil of sweat, blood, and tears. Undeterred, young Martin Eden pressed on.
Time, however, began to wither the young author's compulsion. It seemed an impossible achievement to gain access not to the wisdom of the sages, which he knew he already possessed but to the class of people who upheld the rules and vestiges of that wisdom. After his breakup with Ruth in a mutual dissatisfaction of personal tastes, and a hasty exploratory expedition to his old neighborhood gang, Martin decided that only the posturing fame and accompanying new fortune society bestowed upon an exciting, freshly discovered, trailblazing young writer could sustain his intensifyingly deceptive thirst for social and intellectual acceptance. He begins to write more earnestly.
When favor finally arrives, the newest bon mot on the literary scene is quick to discourage the usual fare of bandwagon jumpers, those who had rejected his pieces only months before‚ now clamoring for more, more, more! Noting the irony, he held to his guns when certain editors insisted on seeing any manuscripts still lying around, manuscripts already once rejected by these very same editors. More truth was dawning upon our young adventurer.
The novel, Jack London insisted, was an attack on individualism, the fierce individualism of his era. Being aware of the needs of others, of the whole human collective need, Martin Eden lived only for himself, fought only for himself, and, if you please, died for himself.
Suddenly all the wares of the world are at his feet. Old cohorts quickly emerge from the cracks of endless walls he had never been able to tear down with either his bare fists or the restless but youthful energy rolling off his tongue. Now his words were famous. Now everyone understood. Now everyone wanted to be his friend. Jack London was a born rebel whose manipulative personality demanded the immediate gratification of his contradictory wants. His dialectic of appetites wore on without a synthesis of satisfaction. He once confessed to wanting to drive forty horses abreast with the thousand strong arms of an army. He was a heavy drinker. He died relatively young.
Martin Eden is London's most autobiographical novel. His early death at age forty brought on by his excessive bouts of drinking and exposure to the elements is foreshadowed by the character, Eden, who hurls himself into the ocean depths in route to a tropical island he had recently purchased. Although I am aware of no supporting evidence, perhaps this book is where the poet Hart Crane derived his idea for his own self-inflicted drowning some twenty-four years after its initial publication.
The novel, Jack London insisted, was an attack on individualism, the fierce individualism of his era. Being aware of the needs of others, of the whole human collective need, Martin Eden lived only for himself, fought only for himself, and, if you please, died for himself.
An irony of the book resides in the fact that it is the only one of London's fifty books that his publishers, Macmillan, has kept in print in a cloth edition for seventy years, while it has invited the most chafing criticism from the profession as being too pessimistic, denigrating capitalism and self-improvement and ambition without providing any alternatives. London was confused with the hero of his book.
Indeed, Martin Eden is a clean read, swift in its situational currents and colorfully determined in assessing the problems the individual faces in his exodus from the battlefields where intellects clash and flesh recoils in a never adjourned meeting of forces. To stand headstrong on a frozen tundra against the elements or to bob just above a watery abyss to test the very nature of controversy, measuring the bonds and covenants between life and death, is an event reserved for the rare few who dare engage with full intellect both the demons within oneself and those within the society in which one struggles to comprehend.
In his time Jack London lived and died as a striking contrast to the Horatio Alger and more recent Ronald Reagan myth of hard work, love, success and respect. Whereas Alger inspired, London depressed the readers of early 20th century America. The simple fact is that one must find solace in the tribes as they exist, that one must have faith in the unlovely, seemingly mechanical society in order to prosper. We exist in time and place simply to count out measure until we evolve into something else, hopefully better equipped to face ourselves as we really are individuals marooned on a island surrounded by a sea of hopefuls.
Find a copy of this book. You are probably someone he has written about. A century later, we find little solace in realizing that Martin Eden's impassioned plea for a more redemptive manner of living still remains part and parcel of the ageless quarrel all religion, art, and politics seeks to address: can we really help ourselves once we know who we are?
"Ignorance and virtue suck on the same straw. Souls grow on bones, but die beneath bankers' hours.""