Posts Tagged ‘Isak Dinesen’

Self-Archaeology

Monday, May 1st, 2017

rolling wheels

Rolling Wheels and Hills of Gold by Katharine Grey

“Well-ordered self-love is right and natural.” Thomas Aquinas

Recent excavations on the shelves of my office have turned up some long-forgotten artifacts, including books and plays I wrote in my youth and loved enough to carry with me through several major moves over the course of forty years.

Indeed, one of my finds, a play I wrote when I was in my early twenties, has traveled with me since the 1970’s when I could carry all my earthly possessions onto a train or bus with me. In my pre-car days, the sum total of my stuff was: a guitar in a flimsy case, a large backpack full of clothes and basic survival gear, and one big cardboard box full of books and manuscripts and pens and paper and sketchpads, the box tied up with a length of sturdy rope.

Among the books I always carried with me, and still have today, were the two-volume The Greek Myths by Robert Graves, On Bear’s Head poems by Philip Whalen, Selected Poems of Robert Duncan, Collected Poems of Robert Graves, Zorba the Greek and The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis, Seven Gothic Tales by Isak Dinesen, and Suzuki Roshi’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.

This ancient play I unearthed is entitled The Last Temptation, and I read the faded pages with the curiosity of an archaeologist stumbling upon an opus writ on papyrus two thousand years ago. On the title page, a note from the young author explains: The title of the play and the setting of Act One were inspired by the novel The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis. Pilate’s dog in Act Two was inspired by Mikhail Bulgakov’s book The Master and Margarita.

I expected to find The Last Temptation a student work full of energy but lacking consistency and originality. But that is not the case. The play is wonderfully original, the characters complex, the dialogue not terrible, and the story full of suspense. To make things even better, the work is my favorite kind of play, an extreme rarity these days—a serious comedy with multi-dimensional characters. So I’ve decided to spend some weeks rewriting the play. Why not?

Finding and reading the play also jarred my memory about what I did with the blessed thing way back when; and as one memory begot another, there came an avalanche of memories, and for some hours I relived my interactions with several theatre companies large and small in California and Oregon and New York, and the many rejections I gained thereby. Nothing has changed in that regard. My recent plays, and The Last Temptation, should I rewrite it to my liking, have virtually no chance of being produced—the stages of American theatre off limits to all but a few privileged playwrights.

Still, a good play is worth writing whether anyone produces the play or not. That also goes for writing books, composing music, and making art. The artist’s job is to create. The rest is up to the gods.

During that same office dig, I found two novels written by my great grandmother Katharine Grey. Published by Little Brown in 1934 and 1935, Rolling Wheels and Hills of Gold are excellent novels featuring youthful protagonists and their families who, in Rolling Wheels, make the trek by wagon train from Indiana to California shortly before the California Gold Rush, and in Hills of Gold are farming in California when the Gold Rush begins. Full of fascinating details about life in California in the mid-1800’s times, and rife with adventures, these books would be fabulous additions to junior high and high school curriculum all over America. Sadly, these books are long out-of-print and will remain so barring some fortuitous intervention by the aforementioned gods.

In any case, I now have two good books to read, which is no small thing in these times when I find so little in the way of new books that appeal to me. Oh if only I hadn’t learned proper syntax and grammar. If only in my formative years I hadn’t steeped in great literature and poetry, then I wouldn’t mind crappy writing filled with unnatural implausible dialogue—think of all the contemporary fiction and plays and movies I could choose from.

Another of my finds on that revelatory shelf was a small plastic box full of thumb picks for playing the guitar. I haven’t played the guitar in nine years, and I gave away my guitar a few years ago because I felt bad about keeping such a lovely instrument sequestered in darkness, untouched and unappreciated—a guitar suffused with more bad memories than good, but still a fine instrument.

Since finding those thumb picks, I have had two vivid dreams about playing the guitar and being frustrated by my diminished playing skill. In my latest guitar dream, I played a new song for three people, all deceased now, and they were keenly interested in the song and enthusiastic in their praise of it. These were people who had been fiercely disapproving of me while they were alive; but in this guitar dream, they were supportive and full of love for me.

So today I bought a guitar.

And right after I bought the guitar, we ran into a friend in the grocery store and spoke of what we were soon to be cooking. This talk of food inspired in our friend a memory of growing up in Monterey in the Italian part of town known as Spaghetti Hill.

“It was called Spaghetti Hill,” he explained, “because every Sunday morning, in every kitchen in that big Italian neighborhood, the cooks would concoct their spaghetti sauces before going to Mass.”

And while those cooks and their families were attending Mass, the myriad sauces simmered—their spices conspiring divinely with wine and diced tomatoes and mushrooms and who knows what else—so that when the fasting supplicants arrived home from church, the neighborhood air was freighted with the divine aroma of hundreds of simmering sauces. Time and God had done their work and all that remained to do was boil the pasta to perfection, open jars of olives, bring forth loaves of bread, toss the great green salads, uncork the good red wines, and sit down to feast.

Wrong Thinking

Thursday, September 15th, 2011

Mr. Magician painting by Todd

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser September 2011)

“Taken out of context I must seem so strange.” Ani DiFranco

One of my Anthropology professors was Nigerian, his people Yoruba. An exceptional student as a child, he was sent to school in England and eventually got his PhD from a prestigious American university. My professor married an African American woman, with whom he had two children, and when those children were five and three-years-old, he and his wife took the kids to Nigeria so they could get to know their paternal grandparents and the huge extended family that was my professor’s clan. After a few days in Nigeria, my professor was summoned to a meeting of the male elders of his clan who severely chastised him for not taking a second and third wife to produce more sons.

“You are a very rich man,” said his father, with twenty other men nodding in agreement. “You are richer than any of us, yet you shame your parents and your clan by not taking more wives. Why are you doing this?”

The professor explained to his outraged father and uncles and cousins that in America it was the law that a man may only have one wife. The Yoruba men were disgusted to hear this and shouted many insults at my professor, the gist of their insults being that wealthy American men who take only one wife are weak and impotent and effeminate and crazy.

“Fortunately this is not the law among our people,” said my professor’s father, “so we will find two more wives for you and you will keep them here and get children with them. You will send money from America and your wives will make a fine household for you here. You will come home for a time each year and get many children. And when you have finished your work in America you will live here with your wives and their children as you should.”

My professor said that he and his wife decided to cut their visit short in order to avoid the marriages being arranged for him. “You see,” he explained, chuckling, “my wife is liberated and will not share me with other women.”

“Context and memory play powerful roles in all the truly great meals in one’s life.” Anthony Bourdain

If you have never, or not in a long time, read the forty-eight-page novella Babette’s Feast by Isak Dinesen, I highly recommend the tale as a thought provoking inquiry into context, memory, and truly great meals. An excellent film version of Babette’s Feast was made in Denmark in 1987 and is remarkably faithful to the original story, so whether you spend an hour and a half watching the movie or an hour reading the story, or both, you will see what I mean about thought provoking. Along with Dinesen’s exquisite prose, what I love most about Babette’s Feast are the myriad ways in which concepts of right and wrong are revealed to be little more than the passing fancies of context, memory, and truly great meals.

“SCORN FOR JOBLESS ON RISE: unemployed face compassion fatigue as economy remains flat” front page headline and sub-headline, Santa Rosa Press Democrat September 4, 2011

The article that follows those scurrilous sentence fragments is a lengthy piece of cruel propaganda quoting various wealthy politicos from around the country who are growing impatient and angry with tens of millions of unemployed people who lost their jobs and houses and savings due to the criminal activities of banks and investment firms expedited by wealthy politicos from around the country. Published with no indication it was intended as satire, the article emphatically suggests that people receiving unemployment benefits are “leeching off the system.”

“I don’t feel we did wrong in taking this great country away from them. There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.” John Wayne

I thought it would be wrong to attribute that quote to John Wayne until I checked multiple reliable sources to make sure he really did say such a thing.

“She’s the kind of girl who climbed the ladder of success wrong by wrong.” Mae West

When I was eight-years-old I saw the movie The Horse’s Mouth, starring Alec Guinness, after which I knew what I wanted to be: a writer, director, and star of movies about strange and marvelous people. I have subsequently seen The Horse’s Mouth many times, and the movie remains a marvel to me.

My mother grew up in close proximity to Hollywood and her mother’s best friend was the wife of a famous movie director. My mother was a Drama major at UCLA before giving up her theatrical ambitions to attend law school, pass the bar, and postpone practicing law for twenty-five years while she raised four children. For reasons I never fully understood, my mother felt it necessary to try to burst my movie career bubble every chance she got, and her primary means of doing so was to cast terrible aspersions on anyone in the movie business I dared reveal my admiration for.

According to my mother, all successful female stars of stage and screen, without exception, succeeded not through their talents as thespians, but through sexual escapades with people of wealth and power; and all successful male stars were either promiscuous homosexuals or unscrupulous bisexuals. According to my mother, all but a very few successful actors of both sexes were alcoholics, and many were drug addicts. She never revealed where she got her information about the stars of stage and screen, and since she did not read gossip magazines or watch television, the implication of her fierce certainty was that she had firsthand knowledge of these immoral people. But how, I wondered, did she come by such knowledge unless, while I was at school, she spent hours on the phone with operatives in Hollywood and Manhattan?

I remember one evening in particular when I was fifteen and had recently won a small part in a school play—my first step, I hoped, on the road to fame and fortune, and my mother, fortified with several martinis, was excoriating yet another of my favorite stars with a history of sexual depravity and opportunistic backstabbing.

“Oh, come on,” I protested. “Are you saying that no movie star has ever succeeded because they were talented? They’re all whores and crooks? What about Fred Astaire? Ginger Rogers? Jimmy Stewart? Claudette Colbert. Alec Guinness? The Marx Brothers?”

“Ha!” she said bitterly. “Little do you know.”

“We made too many wrong mistakes.” Yogi Berra

On September 4, 2011, our beloved San Francisco Giants lost most ignobly to the Snakes, otherwise known as the Arizona Diamondbacks, and fell seven games out of first place with only twenty-two games left to play. We were poised to win that game, but then lost, and as we lost I felt in my bones, as opposed to in my brain, that we no longer had any hope of making the playoffs and returning to the World Series. I think we had good enough players to catch the Snakes, but not the right managers. I won’t say our managers are bad, for they are the same fellows who skippered our team to the World Series and won it all last year. But I do think they were the wrong managers this year because they were not creative or prescient, nor did they win the close games through guile and daring, all of which they were and did last year. Or so it seems. I could be wrong, but I don’t think so.

“Things are as they are. Looking out into it the universe at night, we make no comparisons between right and wrong stars, nor between well and badly arranged constellations.” Alan Watts

In 1970, in the hour before dawn, I climbed to the top of the monumental Pyramid of the Moon at Teotihuacán (near Mexico City) and made the acquaintance of four French travelers who had spent the night atop the pyramid. Our shared ambition was to watch the sun appear to rise out of the Pyramid of the Sun across the great plaza from us.

I write “appear to rise” in deference to Buckminster Fuller who cautioned us not to use expressions such as “the sun rising” or “the sun going down” because he felt such usage reinforced a wrong view of how our earth, in relation to our sun, actually operates. The earth spins us into light and spins us into darkness in relation to the sun; the sun does not rise or fall in relation to us. Bucky also pointed out that when humans first began to fly in airplanes, they spontaneously and accurately coined the expression “coming in for a landing,” rather than “coming down for a landing” because there is no up or down in space. Bucky fervently believed that the more truthfully we describe reality, the more successful we will be in developing a regenerative relationship with the earth and Universe.

So the sun appeared to rise out of the massive Pyramid of the Sun, the third largest human-made pyramid on earth, and the appearance was a stirring sight, indeed. Then, not long after the earth had spun us into sunlight, a tour bus arrived and shattered the quietude we had so enjoyed. The bus door opened and several dozen American tourists disembarked, their voices so loud and the acoustics of that amazing place such that we could hear the words they spoke a mile away. And the loudest voice came from a man reacting to the majestic Pyramid of the Sun. “That’s it?” he bellowed. “That one right there? What a let down. The ones in Egypt are so much bigger.”

“The pendulum of the mind alternates between sense and nonsense, not between right and wrong.” Carl Jung

There is a wonderful story about the current Dalai Lama visiting America for the first time several decades ago, before he was better acquainted with the American psyche. His Holiness was taking questions from a group of meditation teachers and their students when a man asked the Dalai Lama for advice about how to overcome low self-esteem because this man’s struggle with low self-esteem was seriously impeding his meditation practice.

The Dalai Lama had never heard of low self-esteem and was perplexed by the question. After someone explained to him what low self-esteem was, the Dalai Lama went around the room asking person after person, “Do you have this?” And when all the Americans admitted that to one degree or another they suffered from low self-esteem, the Dalai Lama proclaimed, “But this is wrong thinking. You must stop thinking this way.”

Gay

Thursday, October 21st, 2010

“A good story cannot be devised; it has to be distilled.” Raymond Chandler

Before the advent of the interweb, I frequented libraries and secondhand bookstores in search of good short stories, my appetite for cuentos pequeños insatiable. I am not keen on most contemporary short stories that find their way into mass media print, so I mainly feed on authors dead and obscure.

When I was living in Berkeley in the 1990’s, I came upon a library cache of short story anthologies published annually in the 1920’s and 1930’s, hardbound volumes featuring now mostly forgotten literary darlings of America and England. Many of the stories were well written, in stark contrast to their equivalents today, though few of the stories were great. And in every volume there was a story by Gertrude Stein, though the word story does not do justice to her conglomerations of words, for her conglomerations do not tell tales so much as they weave verbal webs that may mean something to someone, but mean very little to me.

However, whilst devouring these relatively ancient anthologies, I came upon a particular Gertrude Stein story that excited me tremendously, for I felt I had discovered the origin of the current meaning of the word gay. The story is entitled Miss Furr & Miss Skeene and featured the use of gay in the following manner.

“…she liked to stay in one place and be gay there. They were together then and traveled to another place and stayed there and were gay there. They were quite regularly gay there, Helen Furr and Georgine Skeene, they were regularly gay there where they were gay. They were very regularly gay. They were regular then, they were gay then, they were where they wanted to be then where it was gay to be then, they were regularly gay then. They were gay, they learned little things that are things in being gay, they were gay…” Etc. Ad nauseam

I admit to skimming Ms. Stein’s prose, but even in skimming what academics used to call “stream of consciousness” and now refer to as “grammar fields” or “grammarscapes”, I was aware that repeating the word gay so many times in succession did, indeed, change the word from an adjective to a quasi-noun.

I know I was not the first to hypothesize that Miss Furr & Miss Skeene was the grammatical edifice that established a new meaning for the word gay, but for several years my “discovery” caused minor sensations at Berkeley soirees where I was apparently miles ahead in that particular trivial pursuit. Today the interweb is rife with celebratory stories about Stein’s story being the first to use gay to mean what gay means today.

“You think I’m going to leave you alone with a strange Italian? He might be a tenor!” spoken by Fred Astaire in The Gay Divorcee

I confess that before gay meant homosexual, I loved that gay meant carefree. I loved gay in poems by William Carlos Williams about birds singing. I loved gay in front of the word divorcee, meaning a happy person freed from an oppressive union, starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. I loved gay when it meant the opposite of blue when blue meant sad. “I was feeling so blue until my baby came back and now I’m gay.”

But what are you going to do? Language morphs. Were Gertrude Stein to come back today, I presume she would be pleasantly surprised by the expression “gays and lesbians,” because aren’t lesbians gay? Well, yes and no. According to my up-to-date politically correct gay and lesbian sources, gays are male homosexuals, and lesbians are female homosexuals. However, a lesbian can be gay, but she cannot be a gay. That is, gay now means two different but related things. Gay can be an adjective meaning homosexual, or if someone is a gay, he is a male homosexual. Thus the expression gays and lesbians is not a contradiction or a redundancy, though it might be a paradox.

“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” Carl Rogers

The latest news swirling around the definition of gay is that many gays and lesbians are deeply concerned about the widespread and growing and indiscriminate use of the expression, That is so gay, in which gay no longer overtly means homosexual, but rather means wimpy or weak or silly or stupid or lame, which, according to gay rights advocates, makes the word gay in the expression that is so gay a barely veiled attack on gays and lesbians and everything gay.

Man oh man. I mean woman oh woman. I mean person oh person. The definition of gay just gets curiouser and curiouser. Words, words, words. Who can explain them, who can tell you why? Fools give you answers, wise men never try.

“Hello lamp post, what ya knowin’? I come to watch your flowers growin’. Ain’t you got no rhymes for me? Do do do do…feelin’ groovy.” Paul Simon

Despite that song, I’ve been trying to bring back the word groovy for the last twenty years. But no matter how often and appropriately I use groovy, people invariably smirk or snort. Now why is that? Groovy is not only a groovy sounding word, groovy conveys a right-on-ness and musicality and, well, grooviness that no other word can convey. I know, I know, you associate groovy with other words from a time you’d rather forget or misremember, but compare groovy to the expression that is so gay and groovy is Shakespeare whereas that is so gay is barely Stephen King.

Speaking of short stories, here are the names of several fantastic short story writers (most of them dead) I’ve been gorging on of late. Some of these writers were openly gay, some closeted, some carefree, some burdened with guilt and sorrow and confusion. Some were flaming heterosexuals, some less flaming. Some were probably bisexual. Three are women, though only Edith is obviously so.

Isaac Bashevis Singer, Guy de Maupassant, Edith Wharton, Somerset Maugham, Isak Dinesen, Paul Bowles, John Steinbeck, Frank O’Connor, A.S. Byatt, V.S. Pritchett, William Trevor, D.H. Lawrence, Anton Chekov.

(This article first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser October 2010)