Posts Tagged ‘Socrates’

What Really Happened?

Wednesday, April 10th, 2013

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

“There are three things I always forget. Names, faces and—the third I can’t remember.” Italo Svevo

The very first course that Norman O. Brown taught when he arrived at UC Santa Cruz in 1968 was Myth & History and I was among the lucky people to hear him deliver that series of lectures. I was also privileged to meet with Norman in his office on two occasions to talk about various things, notably the fifty-page manuscript I composed in response to his lectures. I wish I still had a copy of that youthful creation—poems, dialogues, story fragments, essays, questions—with the notes Norman made throughout and his flattering words at the bottom of the final page, but I was only nineteen and saved nothing I wrote until I was in my twenties.

I have many vivid memories of Norman O. Brown, some of which I shared in an article I published two years ago. After that essay ran in the Anderson Valley Advertiser and was reprinted on the CounterPunch web site, I received a few emails and letters from people who thanked me for writing about Norman and wanted to share memories of him with me. I also received several angry missives from people telling me that my memories of Norman could not possibly be true, that Norman was nothing like the person I described, and how dare I misrepresent the great man. What I loved about these responses was that they absolutely confirmed the central thesis of Norman’s Myth & History lectures, which was that history is entirely subjective and over the course of time becomes indistinguishable from myth.

“In the Eskimo language there are four future tenses: the immediate future, the middle future, the far-in-the-future future and a future that will never arrive.” Robert Littell

I was reminded of the subjective nature of history during a recent visit from my sister Kathy with whom I had not communed in many years. As we shared memories of our shared past, we discovered that our recollections of people and events were sometimes identical, sometimes entirely different, and sometimes partly identical and partly entirely different. Of the greatest interest to me were those events involving Kathy that I remembered vividly and she had no memory of whatsoever.

Our parents—and this Kathy and I agreed on—regularly carried out long and painful interrogations of their four children—my two older sisters, my young brother, and I. They interrogated us one at a time, the child on a low stool looking up at the imperious father sitting on his throne-like chair, the angry mother pacing back and forth behind the scowling father. These interrogations took place in the living room in the evenings or on Sunday afternoons, our mother the arresting officer, so to speak, our father the prosecutor and judge.

The interrogations were ostensibly held in lieu of spanking us for our little crimes, but I think the real purpose of these trials was to fulfill our father’s desire to abuse us verbally, and my mother’s need to involve our father in her attempts to control us—our mother who was frequently overwhelmed by single-handedly trying to control four bright, independent, rambunctious children. She was perpetually angry with our father for not giving her more help with us, and these interrogations provided a way for her to involve him in our upbringing as well as allowing her to vent her fury about her situation in his presence.

We underwent these interrogations from early childhood until we were in our teens—the grueling sessions lengthy, abusive and emotionally damaging. I find it hard to believe that our intelligent, highly educated parents—my mother an attorney, my father a child psychiatrist—were unaware of the harm they were inflicting, and I assume they felt justified in carrying out what my three siblings and I remember as their relentless efforts to break our wills and verbally pound us into submission, first by forcing us to admit our crimes (real or not), then forcing us to beg them repeatedly for their forgiveness, then making us promise to never again do whatever they said we had done, and finally, sickeningly, to help them devise appropriate punishments for whatever they had forced us to admit to.

Kathy said several things about these interrogations that greatly surprised me. She said that at the outset of every interrogation, she would frantically try to shift the blame from her to another of the children, and she assumed we all did that. But I, as the younger brother of two powerful older sisters, never did that because I feared my bigger stronger sisters would take revenge on me if I dared to even try to divert my parents’ wrath onto them.

Kathy also said that during every interrogation, after our parents had verbally battered her into a state of desperate despair, she always wanted to shout at them, “Just hit me and get it over with!” but never had the courage to do so.

What made this revelation so surprising to me was that one of my most vivid childhood memories was of a time when I was eleven and Kathy was twelve, and my parents were viciously torturing Kathy and she was sobbing so convulsively I feared she might die. And my fear of my sister dying was so great, that despite the probability of being physically assaulted by my father for daring to defy him, I went to intervene on Kathy’s behalf. And just as I entered the living room to demand they leave her alone, Kathy shrieked, “Just hit me! Just hit me and get it over with!” Then she jumped up, ran down the hall, and locked herself in her room.

“I have no memory of doing that,” Kathy told me these many decades later, “though I always wanted to, so I’m glad to know I actually did it one time.”

When I imagine telling Norman O. Brown such a tale, I see him gazing off into space as he visualizes the drama, and then I hear him suggesting that regardless of what actually happened, the most interesting thing about my memory is that I wanted to rescue my sister—to be a hero—though I failed to act quickly enough for that to happen. And though I, too, find my desire to rescue her quite telling, what I find most interesting is that Kathy has no memory of ever acting out her wish, while I remember her defiance of my parents as an act of incredible bravery and self-preservation that empowered me to defy my parents, too.

“There are two kinds of statistics, the kind you look up and the kind you make up.” Rex Stout

We now officially congressionally know that in 1964 the North Vietnamese did not attack a gigantic heavily armed United States of America battleship in the Gulf of Tonkin with a little motorboat and a pea shooter, and that the alleged attack was entirely fabricated by our government so they could begin the horrific saturation bombing of North Vietnam and escalate the ground war in Vietnam that went on for many years and killed millions of Vietnamese people and tens of thousands of Americans. Therefore, those of us who protested from the outset that the so-called Gulf of Tonkin Incident was a fraud can no longer be called conspiracy kooks, at least regarding that particular event.

Norman O. Brown frequently spoke of Gulf of Tonkin-like mytho-historic events that compose much of Greek and Roman history, and how there is really no way to distinguish ancient historical events, as writ by the victors, from myths, which is why the Norman O. Brown I remember was far more interested in archetypes and poetry and art and legends and philosophy arising from particular cultures and cultural milieus than he was in the historical records of who, what, when and why.

“The field of philosophy may be reduced to the following questions: 1. What can I know?  2. What ought I do?  3. What may I hope for?  4. What is man?” Immanuel Kant

I’ve been doing a bit of research on the trial and death of Socrates that probably (maybe) happened in Athens some 2400 years ago, assuming Plato and others who left behind accounts of the event may be trusted not to have fabricated the whole thing. Why do we trust Plato? I dunno. In any case, the trial and death of the famous Socrates, who left behind nary a scrap of his own writing, took place four hundred years before the birth, if there really was such a birth, of Jesus of Nazareth, who also did not leave behind a scrap of his own writing. Come to think of it, Gautama Buddha didn’t leave behind a scrap of writing either. Indeed, we only have the highly subjective words of others that these super famous people even existed.

Nevertheless, the more I read about Socrates, the clearer it becomes that he was either a great champion of democracy or he thought democracy was a terrible way to run a city-state; that he drank hemlock rather than flee because he wanted to honor the laws of Athens or because he was old and ill and preferred a quick death to lingering in misery; and the method of philosophical inquiry known as the Socratic Method either sprang from the brilliance of Socrates or from his inability to come to a conclusion about anything.

Speaking of conclusions, in honor of my wholly subjective memories of Norman O. Brown’s wide-ranging lectures in which he might read a poem by Robert Duncan, follow Duncan’s poem with a passage from Finnegan’s Wake, follow that with a salient and beautifully pronounced line or two of Latin, and finish that particular train of inquiry with a pronouncement such as “in psychoanalysis only exaggerations are important,” I will end this ramble with a quote from Jacques Cousteau.

“From the data, covering over a hundred shark encounters with many varieties, I can offer two conclusions: the better acquainted we become with sharks, the less we know them, and one can never tell what a shark is going to do.”

Muse Rides Again

Thursday, February 21st, 2013

Max Greenstreet in Ireland (self-portrait)

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

“I decided that it was not wisdom that enabled poets to write their poetry, but a kind of instinct or inspiration, such as you find in seers and prophets who deliver all their sublime messages without knowing in the least what they mean.” Socrates

From the age of twenty-one until I was fifty, with only a few brief respites, I wrote many novels, most of them never published. The first dozen or so novels I wrote were related to the kind of poetry Socrates is describing when he says, “…who deliver all their sublime messages without knowing in the least what they mean.” I wrote in a state of enchantment without knowing in the least what I had written until I came out of my writing trance, gathered up the pages, and read the words that had spilled from my pen. By the age of thirty-five, I had managed to publish four of those inspired novels, and then for reasons known and unknown to me, I was unable to convince publishers to take any more chances with my books; and shortly thereafter those marvelous states of enchantment ceased entirely to take me over.

“Do not quench your inspiration and your imagination; do not become the slave of your model.” Vincent Van Gogh

As Van Gogh warned, I then became a slave to my model, which is to say I feverishly tried to think of what would make saleable novels, and I slaved away for years writing dozens of half-baked uninspired works that literally made me sick. Yet I continued to compulsively work at novel writing because I defined myself as a man who writes novels, which self-definition was how I knew, sort of, what I was or thought I was; and I desperately wanted to sell another book because I thought such a sale might save my marriage and cause my friends and family to like me again.

But my marriage collapsed before cosmic largesse might have prolonged the inevitable, and in that state of collapse and emotional free fall, the muse suddenly dropped in on me for the first time in many years and gave me Ruby & Spear, which, despite my not having published anything in a decade, was quickly bought by Bantam and brought me sufficient bread to move from the rubble of my marriage to my next camping spot, Berkeley, where I once again fell prey to trying to think up my next saleable opus, which behavior inspired my muse, the bringer of enchantment, to disappear once more.

So at the age of fifty I had a real humdinger of a breakdown accompanied by a severe depression that brought me face to face with the question: what’s with the compulsive novel writing, buster? And in the throes of my misery, I spotted a book I had been schlepping around for fifteen years but had never opened (the only such book I have ever owned) entitled Severe and Mild Depression by Silvano Arieti and Jules Bemporad, two erudite psychotherapists, their tome full of case studies of depression.

“But I’ve never really been depressed,” I said, as I leafed through the book. “Until now. Well…maybe for those little whiles between writing novels, but that was just post-partum blues. All the great writers talk about their little depressions between novels and plays.”

Then I happened upon Arieti’s case study of a compulsive novel writer, a summing up of that writer’s life that might as well have been my biography, including precise and detailed descriptions of my unhappy and unhealthy relationships with my parents, my failed marriage and failed relationships, and my decades-long compulsive attempt to try to write a successful novel. There was even mention of this writer’s early spontaneous and inspired works giving way to intellectually constructed imitative dribble. And, as was true of me, this man had not previously exhibited any outward signs of being depressed.

I read this case study as if watching a time-lapse movie of my life. I was fascinated and horrified and excited to find out what this guy/me was doing in a book about depression. Well, according to Arieti, this guy/me had been running ahead of a murderous depression for his entire life, and the source of this killing depression was his parents lifelong withholding of love from him while simultaneously denigrating his creative impulses and his desire to be an artist. And in order to cope with this painful lack of love and support and the resultant feelings of worthlessness, this writer came to believe that if he could only write a massively successful novel, he would be lifted out of his hellacious life of failure into a new reality in which he would finally be happy and his parents would love him.

“Inspiration exists, but it has to find us working.” Pablo Picasso

So I decided to see what would happen if I stopped writing novels. I had long known that whenever a play or screenplay or short story began to write itself through me, if, in my compulsive way, I tried to force that inspiration into the form of a novel, my state of enchantment would vanish. Which told me it was not writing I needed to quit, but the writing of novels.

And for the first year or so of not writing a novel, I was, indeed, very confused about who I was and why I was alive because I no longer possessed the identity that had been my mask and shield and raison d’etre for the previous thirty years. Eventually I embraced a more complicated and satisfying identity; and one day when I was fifty-four, I found myself writing something without thinking about what words I might write next, but rather seeing the story unfolding and writing down what I was seeing, knowing only that I’d been grabbed by something good and I wanted to read whatever that something turned out to be. So I hung onto the pen for twenty pages, then made a cup of tea and sat down to see what I’d written.

“Uh oh,” I said, speaking to the invisible ones, “this quite obviously wants to be a novel and I don’t write novels anymore. Remember? I’m okay without them now.”

“Oh, but this is a great story, Todd,” said the muse in her gorgeously non-verbal way, “and we’d really like you to write it, but not compulsively. Just as it comes to you.”

Which is what I did. And though that novel Bender’s Lover was never published, it pleased a good many of my friends and ushered in a new era in my life in which I might write anything in any form because I am no longer constrained by thoughts of what I should or shouldn’t be writing. Here for your enjoyment is how Bender’s Lover begins.

Four months ago—the ides of June—I was in Lorna’s wildflower shop ogling a maroon Sierra Shooting Star while awaiting my haircut, when I fell into conversation with an intoxicating woman who said she was looking for something to cheer her up. This woman, small and lovely and full of purpose, was torn between an Azure Penstemon and a California Harebell, and it was over this Harebell—the brightest blue I’ve ever seen—that we found ourselves marveling at the mood-enhancing qualities of flowers in general, Harebells in particular.

As her initial suspicion of me, based, I believe, on my unruly hair, gave way to a noticeable appreciation of me, based, I think, on my ability to speak in complete sentences, I was on the verge of inviting her to partake of further investigations, when she reared back and asked, “So what do you do?”

I almost replied, “Well, this morning I woke from a wildly erotic dream, masturbated, showered, had two cups of a fabulous black tea, petted my cats, played the piano for the better part of an hour, talked on the phone to a whiny friend for ten minutes and then lied about someone being at the door so I could hang up, gave a piano lesson to Ethel Zawarski, an accomplished atonalist, and then I called my whiny friend back and confessed I’d lied to her about someone being at the door. Why did I feel compelled to confess? Because I hoped to forestall the unseen powers from rioting against me.”

Instead I said, “I’m a piano player.”

“O! for a muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention.” William Shakespeare

As it happens, I have not written or been writing a novel for several years now, and I had begun to think I would never write another novel, which would have been fine with me. I no longer define myself as a novelist, though writing is still a big part of my life. I think of myself as a person, husband, friend, gardener, cook, self-certified prunologist (pruner of fruit trees, Japanese maples, and the like) writer, musician, artist, and earthling.

But a few weeks ago, I woke to a charming voice in my head telling a story I very much liked the sound of. So I gave myself to the tale, and ere long it became clear the story being told to me was not a short story, nor was it a novella. I am now a hundred pages into whatever this opus turns out to be, and I remind myself on a daily basis that if I never finish writing this tale, life will still be worth living, the earth will continue spinning around the sun, and the countless miracles composing this astonishing reality will go right on composing. And I also remind myself that if I do finish this tale, it will be my great pleasure to read the whole thing and share it with my friends.