Posts Tagged ‘Camus’

Taylor Stoehr

Wednesday, September 25th, 2013

Taylor Stoehr

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser September 2013)

“In life, one must show character and kindness.” Pablo Casals

My good buddy Taylor Stoehr just died and I’ve been leafing through the bulging file of his letters to me, reading passages at random and marveling at the clarity of his prose and the generosity of his spirit. He was eighty-two when he died, and we only knew each other for four years, yet he was immensely important to me—a thoughtful person who took the time to read my books and plays and articles, and then write lengthy responses that made me glad I wrote them.

I never met Taylor in-person or spoke to him, our friendship based entirely upon handwritten letters sent between California and Massachusetts, our knowing each other the result of my sending him a letter of praise about his book I Hear My Gate Slam, a collection of excellent translations of ancient Chinese poetry.

Late Spring

In the evening swallows

appear at the window;

on my doorstep sparrows

flutter in the dust.

At sundown a breeze stirs

and I hear my gate slam;

a few petals fall silently

but no one has come.

—Yüan Chen

I sent my adulatory letter to Taylor in care of the University of Massachusetts, having learned from his biography at the back of I Hear My Gate Slam that he was a professor in the English department there. In addition to his translations of Chinese poets, he was a translator of the poetry of François Villon and Bertolt Brecht. He received my letter just a few weeks after he retired from professing and in the midst of moving with his new wife Teri from Boston to Otis, a small town in western Massachusetts. Much to my surprise and delight, he replied to my missive and our correspondence took off like a shot.

Because he enjoyed my essays, Taylor subscribed to the Anderson Valley Advertiser, but the small print was hard on his eyes, so when his subscription lapsed I began making large print, double-spaced copies of my articles for him and came to feel that my weekly essay was not quite finished until I had slipped the fat envelope bound for Otis Massachusetts through the Out Of Town mail slot.

Here is a favorite passage from one of Taylor’s letters.

“Dear Todd—I won’t be able to get all I want to say on this card, but here I am in Boston to see doctors and friends and do a few errands. I brought this card with me so that I could write to you, not knowing until I stopped at the post office on the way out of Otis how much I would have to say. I did know that I wanted to respond to your letter which seems to me to inaugurate a new era in our friendship—as perhaps my last letter to you also evidenced. However it may be, I’m grateful to the spirits, or the great atman, for the good fortune of our meeting. I am ever more convinced that it was meant to be.

“Learning of your Huge Transitions—your move to the North, meeting and marrying Marcia, your confrontation with mortality—all these have their correspondence, though not precisely in the same order, to my moving to the West, only just effected, meeting and marrying Teri, in the last four years, my own still unresolved encounter with mortality in the form of atrial fibrillation and perhaps other heart problems as yet not understood. In short, though I’m almost twenty years older than you, we seem to have arrived at the same moment in our development (I was always a slow learner). But I would say that you’ve apparently come a good deal farther in some respects.

“I’m currently struggling to let go of fears and desires and self-delusions that have been making life a roller coaster these last months, as Teri and I endeavor to live in the same space for the first time, away from our usual respites and rituals, without blaming each other for the difficulties we bring on ourselves, trying instead to learn from suffering and confusion. I speak for myself, of course. Teri has her own demons, but I can testify to mine. To accept them and not cling to them has proved more than I’m capable of, especially in a climate of inevitable physical decline that comes with being seventy-nine years old.

“I was still playing basketball at 64, when my knee failed to respond to surgery and I had to give it up. Before that, like you, I loved to play at the local Y, or on the beach court in Manhattan Beach (LA), or at the gym at UC Santa Cruz, or anywhere there was someone with a ball ready for one-on-one. I think we share all the same feelings about the game—my passion.”

When I learned that Taylor was the literary executor of Paul Goodman, the writer most famous for his treatise Growing Up Absurd, a daring critique of American education first published in 1960, I wrote to Taylor that my one personal connection to Paul Goodman was that I started a commune in Santa Cruz in 1972 with the widow of Paul Goodman’s son, a woman named Epi. Here is part of Taylor’s reply.

“I don’t know which is the greater marvel, to find your new book Under the Table Books on my doorstep just when I was beginning to pine for it (having read Buddha In A Teacup more than once), or to find that you knew Epi! Indeed, it’s possible that you and I have met, not in a past life but in this one, back in 1971, for I was teaching at UC Santa Cruz from 1969 to 1971. When I rode my 450 Honda back to Buffalo in 1970 (June) I carried one provision for the road, a big bag I made of Epi’s granola recipe.”

As it happened, I was absent from Santa Cruz from 1969 to 1971, so Taylor and I did not tangle on the basketball court or eat vegetables and tofu with Epi or embark on our friendship forty years sooner.

“Three things in life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.” Henry James

Taylor began many of his letters to me with a response to my latest article or story, and I will sorely miss his insights and encouragement, as well as his matter-of-fact comparison of my stories and novels to the works of literary giants.

“I have to write again to tell you how much your story Balance affected me, and Teri, to whom I read it aloud. As you are well aware, it’s a kind of answer to Kafka—or, perhaps even more, to Camus, whose work I’ve gone back to recently. Of course Camus was not so despairing as Kafka, but I find him sometimes even more grim. Well, that’s neither here nor there, except to say that your story touches very deep themes of our times. What you add that Kafka and Camus seem never to have found is the way out of the maze. For all your hero’s abject acceptance off his meaningless life, he trusts the universe, and he surrenders to it. We see that happening—for his suffering and his discovery of meaning when all his anodynes are stripped away, activate what has been buried in him, call it his soul.”

“There are three ingredients in the good life: learning, earning, and yearning.” Christopher Morley

It was Taylor’s practice for many years to begin each day by writing an eight-line poem. Then at the end of the year he would select a handful of these morning musings to make into a volume of Morning Prayers to give as gifts to his many friends and family, including his five children and many grandchildren, each a joy to Taylor.

Some of my friends are sane

as a hammer, but they’re like me

and choose for their lovers someone

wild, solitary, plain crazy.

Why do we love these tortoises

and mountain deer bound to leave

us mad with grief sooner or later?

They’re the only ones still alive.

—Taylor Stoehr from Morning Prayers 2009

That poem proved prophetic, for Teri left Taylor when life in Otis proved too difficult for her, after which Taylor entered a time of profound grief and ill health that continued until his death. Yet despite his sorrow and anger about Teri leaving him when he most needed a loving helpmate, he continued to write letters full of insight and hope. Here is the end of one of the last letters I received from him.

“I continue to use my morning poems as lifeboat, and I got a boost from watching Groundhog Day on your recommendation. It was surprisingly inspiriting—I don’t quite know why. I think something about the rhythmic repetition rather than either plot or theme. Interesting how a form can get under one’s skin. I think that’s part of the power of your own writing—both Buddha and Under the Table. If I were going to write anything but poems the rest of my life, I’d imitate you in form. And maybe if I move to Maine I will do that. I wish I were already there!

“Meanwhile, I’ve returned to Joseph Campbell (Pathways to Bliss) and thinking about his effort to bring Eastern thought into some kind of alignment with both Christian thought and modern cultural eclecticism—our cultureless steam table. Here’s one result, today:

Despair is the other face of hope;

the loss of what might be

races ahead of what I want,

snatches it away from me.

Shall I therefore renounce desire

and settle for what is?

No! Let my heart burn in the fire,

I and hot be the ashes!

Love Taylor”

Myth & History

Thursday, March 10th, 2011

(This essay originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser March 2011)

“As the heavens are high and the earth is deep, so the hearts of kings are unsearchable.” Book of Proverbs 25:3

“Have you seen The King’s Speech?” asked a friend.

“Marcia has and loved it,” I replied. “I’m waiting for it to come out on Netflix.”

My wife Marcia and I are on the two-movies-a-month plan, and we often don’t find the time to watch even that many.

“Of course,” continued my friend, “they’ve taken great liberties with the historical facts. I read one article that said the movie isn’t even close to the truth and another that said it has some truth in it, but not much.”

“The only way to speak the truth is to speak lovingly.” Henry David Thoreau

Historical facts. Hmm. When I was attending UC Santa Cruz in the late 1960’s (and I really did do that) Norman O. Brown came to teach at our newborn college. His course Myth & History was open to undergrads, so I signed up to hear what the famous man had to say. Who was Norman O. Brown? Having taken his Myth & History class, and having spent a few hours blabbing with Norman about this and that, I think he would have been amused by the question. Why amused? Because the central theme of his course was that myth and history are inextricably entwined; history being mythologized the moment that highly subjective reporter known as a human being attempts to put into words what he or she thinks may have happened.

Before I tell you a little more about Norman O. Brown, I would like to recount a scene from Nikos Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ, the novel, not the movie. The Norman I remember (which is probably a very different Norman than the Norman other people remember) would have appreciated this digression because his lectures were composed entirely of digressions that would then double back on themselves and culminate in conclusions that, depending on each listener’s perspective, made some sort of larger sense. Or not.

“Great things happen when God mixes with man.” Nikos Kazantzakis

So…in The Last Temptation of Christ there is a memorable scene in which Jesus and his disciples are sitting around a campfire after a long day of spreading their gospel, when Matthew, a recent addition to the crew, is suddenly impelled by angels (or so he claims) to write the biography of Jesus. So he gets out quill and papyrus and sets to work transcribing the angelic dictation; and Jesus, curious to see what’s gotten into his latest convert, takes a peek over Matthew’s shoulder and reads the opening lines of what will one day be a very famous gospel.

Jesus is outraged. “None of this is true,” he cries, or words to that effect. And then Judas (I’m pretty sure it was Judas and not Andrew) calms Jesus down with a Norman O. Brown-like bit of wisdom, something along the lines of: “You know, Jesus, in the long run it really doesn’t matter if he writes the truth or not. You’re a myth now, so you’d better get used to everybody and his aunt coming up with his or her version of who you are.”

Kazantzakis, trust me, wrote the scene much more poetically and marvelously than the way I just recounted it, but…

“All good books have one thing in common. They are truer than if they had really happened.” Ernest Hemingway

Back to Norman O. Brown. In the late 1960’s, Norman was among the most famous pop academic writers in the world. Not only had he written Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History, which made him famous, he had just published (in 1966) Love’s Body, a mainstream and academic bestseller exploring the impact of erotic love on human history; or was it the struggle between eroticism and civilization? In any case, here is one of my favorite blurbs from the hundreds of reviews that made Love’s Body so famous in its time. I will digress again (thank you, Norman) by saying if any book I ever publish gets a blurb even remotely as stupendous as the following, and said blurb appears in, say, the San Francisco Chronicle or even the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, drinks are on me.

“Norman O. Brown is variously considered the architect of a new view of man, a modern-day shaman, and a Pied Piper leading the youth of America astray. His more ardent admirers, of whom I am one, judge him one of the seminal thinkers who profoundly challenge the dominant assumptions of the age. Although he is a classicist by training who came late to the study of Freud and later to mysticism, he has already created a revolution in psychological theory.” — Sam Keen, Psychology Today

The myth and history web site known as Wikipedia says that Norman was a much-loved professor at UC Santa Cruz where he taught and lived to the end of his days (he died in 2002, or so they say). Wikipedia also reports that Norman had the nickname Nobby, which I would like to say I gave him, but I did not. At least I don’t think I gave it to him. On the other hand, I might have given it to him because that was not his nickname when I knew him, so it must have been affixed after I knew him. Thus we might say, “After I got through with him, he was known as Nobby.” That does sort of sound like I’m responsible for his nickname. You decide.

“Personality is the original personal property.” Norman O. Brown

Here are a few true stories about Norman that might as well be myths.

Norman loved to fool around with the order of letters in words and the order of syllables in words and the order of words in phrases. For instance, he began one lecture by…

But first of all, here’s a snapshot of Norman in 1968: a portly white man of medium height with curly brown hair. I wouldn’t say his hair was unruly, but it was certainly not ruly. Is ruly a word? If not, then from whence came unruly? These were the kinds of questions Norman would ask of us, his audience, and not answer. On second thought, his hair was unruly. In either case, he would cast his questions upon his waters, he the fly fisherman, we the trout finning below the surface of his stream of consciousness, and he would allow the flies (the questions) to drift along above us for a time to see if we might rise to the bait. If no trout rose, he cast again.

Norman had voluptuous lips and frequently wept in front of us, moved by something he felt, or moved by inner demons we could only guess at, or moved by God knows what (if you subscribe to the myth of God.) I knew several people (mostly guys) who were so freaked out by how fragile and vulnerable and weird Norman seemed to them that they dropped the class after the first couple lectures.

“Freedom is poetry, taking liberties with words, breaking the rules of normal speech, violating common sense. Freedom is violence.” Norman O. Brown

One day (getting back to Norman’s playing with the order of letters in a word) he stood (wearing a brilliant white Mexican wedding shirt tucked into fine purple corduroy trousers, his feet shod in black sandals, his toenails painted red) with his back to the audience for the first five minutes of his presentation. People began to squirm; a few walked out; and several more were about to walk out when Norman turned to face us. He ran his fingers through his unruly hair three or possibly four times, took three (I’m absolutely sure it was three) tentative steps forward, touched the tips of the fingers of his left hand to the tips of the fingers of his right hand, and gazed at this collision of digits as a lover might gaze at her beloved, or as an autistic person might stare at her fingers, and then he pursed his voluptuous lips, raised his eyes to the audience, and said so quietly we had to strain to hear, “Roma.”

Then he swallowed, licked his lips, touched his fingertips together again as described above, licked his lips once more, and repeated, “Roma.”

I looked down at my notebook and saw that I had written Roma twice. And between the first and second Roma I had unwittingly drawn a heart.

Then I looked at Norman (I usually sat in the seventeenth row, having a particular fondness for that number) and he said, “Roma spelled backwards is…”

He waited a moment for us to begin to figure it out for ourselves, and then concluded, “Amor.”

“‘Tis as human a little story as paper could well carry” James Joyce from Finnegan’s Wake

Norman began another of his lectures mid-thought and mid-sentence referencing James Joyce’s novel Finnegan’s Wake. I could not, for the life of me, discern when Norman’s sentences ended or began or even if he was speaking in sentences. People ran for the exits as if a fire alarm had sounded. Soon there were only a few of us remaining in the vast lecture hall, Norman rambling on, his tired face alight with what might have been happiness or possibly incredulity to have struck such a rich vein of…something; and I gave up trying to understand him. I simply surrendered to his sound and subtle fury, and fell into a trance from which I did not emerge until…Norman’s voice rose to a girlish crescendo, fell silent for a momentous moment, and finished basso profundo with: “Finnegan’s Wake. Fin! Again! Wake!”

“Hearasay in paradox lust” James Joyce from Finnegan’s Wake

It was following Norman’s fifth or sixth or seventh lecture that I went to his office to show him a four-page play I’d written, a dumb show, a drama without words inspired by something he’d been harping on for a couple lectures. “The slave becomes the king becomes the slave.” In my dumb show, which, come to think of it, might have been choreography for a ballet, I was exploring passive aggression and aggressive passivity and the pitfalls of passion and the pratfalls of sexual positions, and (being nineteen) I thought the play was way cool, and I suspected that if anyone on earth would appreciate my play it was Norman.

I went to his office. He was sitting at his desk, weeping. He dried his eyes, rose to shake my hand, and invited me take a seat. I told him I was taking Myth & History. He said he recognized me. He said I often frowned ferociously at things he said, after which I would scribble furiously in my notebook. He said he often wondered which part of what he had just said made me frown. I said I was unaware of my ferocious frowning but wasn’t surprised to hear I frowned ferociously because ferocious frowning was my father’s habit, too. Norman said the older he got the more he reminded himself of his father, and also of his mother.

I then blurted that I found him captivating and perplexing and thought I was probably not consciously getting most of what he was trying to convey but I was apparently unconsciously getting some of it because he had inspired me to write a short play, which I then handed him. He read the pages, avidly, or so I like to think, then read them again. Then he looked at me and blinked appreciatively. “Yes,” he gushed. “The violence of Eros the inadequacy of the nuclear family to accommodate the sexual divergences of male and female energies of young and old I love the mother becoming lovers with her daughter’s lover only to discover her daughter’s lover is her father transformed. You’ve read Graves, Durrell, Duncan, Camus, Beckett. What do you want to do?”

“I want to write epic poems disguised as novels.”

He frowned gravely and pointed with the fingers of his right hand at the air just above my head. “A path of great danger,” he intoned, wiggling his fingers to incite the spirits. “Don’t be afraid.”

Todd lives in Mendocino where he prunes fruit trees, plays the piano, and writes essays and fiction. His web site is Underthetablebooks.com