Posts Tagged ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’

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.

Favorites

Monday, April 4th, 2016

sunstruck tw

Sunstruck painting by Nolan Winkler

“The diamond-bright dawn woke men and crows and bullocks together. Kim sat up and yawned, shook himself, and thrilled with delight. This was seeing the world in real truth; this was life as he would have it—bustling and shouting, the buckling of belts, and beating of bullocks and creaking of wheels, lighting of fires and cooking of food, and new sights at every turn of the approving eye. The morning mist swept off in a whorl of silver, the parrots shot away to some distant river in shrieking green hosts: all the well-wheels within earshot went to work.” Rudyard Kipling

Reading Kim by Rudyard Kipling for the tenth time in the last twenty-five years, I’ve been thinking about why this novel and no other of the thousands I’ve read calls to me again and again, and why, again and again, I am enthralled from first word to last.

There are books I loved in my teens and twenties I revisited in middle age—Zorba the Greek, The Last Temptation of Christ, Parnassus On Wheels—and a handful of other novels I’ve read a second or third time over the years; but Kim is the only novel I am eager to read again every few years.

This is not a recommendation, however. There was a time when I urged my friends to read Kim and quickly learned that women, for the most part, do not like this book, and some women loathe it. A few men I touted on the book enjoyed the tale, but I was repeatedly cautioned that Kim was out of date, racist, misogynist, and juvenile. Never mind that the writing is exquisite, those charges against the book—none of which I agree with—are prevalent today, so I do not recommend Kim.

One friend suggested I love the book because the character of Kim resonates with some vision of who I imagine I am in relation to the larger world. Perhaps. But I think the greater draw for me is the relationship between Kim and the lama with whom he travels, and through whom he discovers the spiritual side of life. Also, Kim is beloved and revered by not one but four fascinating older men, something I did not experience with my own father or any older man, and I longed for that in my life.

The words in Kim sing to me—glorious prose poetry—else I would not return so often to those pages.

Kim got me thinking about movies I have watched multiple times, as in more than three times, and one movie jumps out before any other: The Horse’s Mouth starring Alec Guinness. I saw the movie when I was eight, eighteen, twenty-five, thirty-seven, thirty-nine, forty-eight, fifty-three, and sixty. And I was enthralled from first frame to last, moved to tears, and greatly inspired each time.

Again, not a recommendation. Having touted this film to many people, I know The Horse’s Mouth is not to everyone’s taste and many women find the movie sexist. Be that as it may, The Horse’s Mouth is still the best film I’ve ever seen about what it is to be an artist of the kind Guinness portrays—a person for whom making art takes precedence over everything else in life. Everything. And the movie is screamingly funny in parts, as well as profoundly moving.

Another film I have seen four times and would gladly watch again tomorrow is Mostly Martha, the German film about a hyper-controlling German chef who is melted out of her emotional isolation by unexpectedly becoming mother to her sister’s young daughter, while having to share her high-end restaurant kitchen with her emotional opposite, a sensual funny guy chef from Italy.

The other food-related film I love and have watched multiple times is The Big Night.

Then there is Danny Kaye in The Court Jester. I have seen this movie at least ten times, from when I was a boy until a couple years ago when I couldn’t resist renting it again. I love everything about this movie. Never gets old for me.

In that same vein: Young Frankenstein.

I once knew a man named Jack who used a particular film as a preliminary test for establishing friendships and relationships. If the man or woman being tested did not like the French film Toto le Hero, Jack would have nothing more to do with the person. If the person being tested had not seen the film, which was usually the case, Jack would screen it for them and judge them according to their reaction.

As it happened, I loved Toto le Hero, but made the mistake of raving about it to many of my friends, and with few exceptions they hated the movie. I did not hold this against them, so some of them remained my friends, whereas Jack had almost no friends. But I understood why he felt as he did. When a movie or book or work of art is precious to us, there is undoubtedly something in the work representative of our feelings and spirit, and so another’s rejection of our favorite can feel like a rejection of us.

I’ve been struggling with this very thing regarding Bernie Sanders. I love Bernie Sanders. Yes, I know. He has this flaw and that flaw and he voted wrong on this and that, and he should be better than he is, but I love him. I have never in my life liked a candidate for President of the United States remotely as much as I like Bernie, and I have a hard time feeling friendly toward people who do not share my love for him. For me, Bernie is the reincarnation of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, his opponent the female embodiment of the plutocracy.

Yet some of my favorite people do not love Kim, do not love The Horse’s Mouth, would rather do anything than watch The Court Jester, and do not think Bernie has a chance in hell of unseating the reigning overlords.

But one of the important things I’ve learned from reading Kim ten times is that it is far better to rejoice with others who share our enthusiasms than to waste our precious time feeling bitterly toward those who do not.

When Is It Done?

Monday, December 12th, 2011

(This piece appeared—twice!—in the Anderson Valley Advertiser in 2008-2009. I recently got a request for this article, thought it was on my blog, but could not find it herein. So here it is now. Enjoy.)

Thirty-five years ago, I was hitchhiking from Santa Cruz to San Francisco on Highway One, and I got a ride with the poet William Everson, also known as Brother Antoninus, one of the more esoteric Beats. He sported a wispy white beard and a well-worn cowboy hat, and his old car reeked of tobacco. Recently installed as a poet-in-residence at UC Santa Cruz, he was going to a party in Bonny Dune but had no idea how to get there.

 I knew exactly where he wanted to go and offered to be his guide, though it meant traveling many miles out of my way. I was obsessed with poetry and wanted as much of the great man’s time as I could finagle. He accepted my offer to be his Sancho Panza and did me the honor of asking, “So what’s your thing?”

“Guitar. And I write stories and poems, too.”

He nodded. “Who do you read?”

“Philip Whalen. Lew Welch. Faulkner. Kazantzakis.”

He lit a cigarette and seemed disinclined to continue the conversation.

And then, without consciously intending to, I asked, “So…how do you know when a poem is done?”

So pained was Everson’s expression, I might as well have asked him what he thought of the poetry of Rod McKuen. Here he was on his way to a party, no doubt to drink and smoke and let his hair down and take a break from all the bullshit attendant to his newly won academic sinecure, and his guide to such bliss—a scrawny wannabe with nary a joint to share—asks him the single most annoying question an artist can be asked.

I was about to blurt an apology for my stupid question, when the good man cleared his throat and said, “So you decide this is what you want to do, and you do it for years and years and years, not because anybody gives you anything for it but because you want those poems. And you might work a line a hundred times and never get it, and then you’ll be sure you’ve got a good one and the next morning it reads like shit. But one day, after all that work, something shifts in your awareness, and from then on you just know. You just do. There’s no rule about it. You come into harmony with your feelings and you look at the thing and say, ‘Yeah. That’s it.’”

William Faulkner rewrote his first two novels, Mosquitoes and Soldier’s Pay, many times. But no matter how many drafts he wrote, he always wanted to rewrite. He came to realize that in the time it took him to complete a new draft, he had so changed as a person and grown as a writer, that he had become, literally, someone else; and this new person wanted to make the book his book.

So from then on, Faulkner made it his practice to write three drafts and call the book done. Nikos Kazantzakis, author of Zorba the Greek and The Last Temptation of Christ also settled on three drafts. And I, in the days before computers, would do four drafts before undertaking a final draft with an editor. Of course, with the advent of computers, rewriting has taken on whole new meanings, and our beleaguered bookstores and libraries are jammed with proof that computerized word processing has in no way improved the quality of writing or the quality of books.

There is a marvelous movie made in 1956 entitled The Mystery of Picasso. The film was revived in the 1980’s and shown in art houses all over Europe and America. In the film, Picasso paints on one side of an absorbent canvas that allows colored ink to seep through the canvas unadulterated and without running. The camera is on the other side of the canvas, filming Picasso’s strokes as they appear, as if by magic, and coalesce into paintings. Some of the paintings are shown developing in real time, some manifest in time lapse.

When I watched this movie in a theatre full of artists and art lovers, the response from the audience was remarkable. As Picasso rapidly created a painting, a person—or several people—would cry out, “Stop! It’s perfect!” and then they would groan as Picasso carried on, changing the image until someone else would shout, “Yes! There! That’s it!” only to have the master paint on and on and on.

By the end of the film we had witnessed the making and annihilation and making and annihilation of hundreds of great works of art—done and not done and done and not done and done.

With the exception of The Prince and the Pauper, which may be a perfect fable, Mark Twain had great difficulty finishing his novels, as did Thomas Hardy. Both men would write in trances of inspiration until they reached the climaxes of their stories, and then not know how to end them. Both writers would put their incomplete manuscripts away for several months, even years, then get them out and affix endings quite unrelated to the original spontaneous flow. Sadly, these forced completions are the great weaknesses of otherwise masterful works.

So Twain might have said a book is done when the writer ceases to write it. Faulkner might have said there is no guarantee that when a thing is done the artist will like it. Picasso might have said the thing is always done and never done. And in this moment, reserving the right to change my mind in the next, I say the poem or song or book or painting is done when a comfortable silence falls and I’m absolutely certain it’s time for me to do something else.

What We Do

Thursday, June 2nd, 2011

(This article first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser June 2011)

“One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important.” Bertrand Russell

The first few times I finished writing a novel (each book representing two or three years work), I was gripped by the same terrible fear that I might die before I could make copies of the books and send them out into the world. Before the advent of personal computers and the ability to send massive documents in email attachments, making copies of fat manuscripts meant going to copy shops and leaving the precious documents overnight while copies were made.  Then, exhausted from lack of sleep and worry, I would pick up the copies and mail them to people scattered far and wide, so that in the event of multiple unforeseen disasters a few copies of my masterworks might survive to be discovered by future generations, etc.

In retrospect, yes, the machinations of my deluded ego can be seen as humorous or pathetic or pathetically humorous or plain silly, but I understand now that my fear of dying before my creations had a chance to live was proof of my total immersion in, and identification with, the things I made.

On one such pre-computer occasion in the early 1970’s, I took a play entitled The Last Temptation to one of the first photocopy shops in the Bay Area, a joint in Menlo Park, and handed over my one and only copy to the friendly shop owner. He said he would have my copies ready in two days. The play was loosely based on a brothel scene from Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ and on the Pontius Pilate character in Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. I was certain the play (as I had previously been certain about various novels and stories) would lift me from poverty and obscurity, etc.

On the day those ten precious copies of the play were supposed to be ready, I arrived at the copy joint and was greeted by the perturbed proprietor with the news that my play had disappeared. Please imagine a formerly sensible human being, me, with a formerly relatively low voice, turning into a screeching banshee. To make a very long story short, the employee assigned to make photocopies of my opus turned out to be a zealous fundamentalist Christian who thought the play might be blasphemous, and he had therefore taken the play to his minister to determine whether or not the thing should be burned at the stake.

I screeched at the copy shop owner to call the police. The poor man begged me to give him a little more time to retrieve the manuscript before we involved law enforcement. Then he giggled and said, “Please don’t sue me.” Later that day, he called to say my play had been returned unscathed and that he would have copies for me the next day, which he did.

In answer to your questions: Yes, he charged me full price, which I paid without protest because that’s the kind of fool I am, and No, the play was never produced.

“My work is a game, a very serious game.” M.C. Escher

I have been asked many times in my life by well-meaning people as well as by snide creeps why I continue to write books and plays and screenplays when it appears no one wants to publish them or produce them or film them? The short answer is: I don’t know. The longer answer is: I have my theories, but none hold water. The very long answer is that I love what I do and I have never ceased to believe that whatever I’m currently creating will lift me out of poverty and obscurity, etc. In other words, it’s what I do.

There is a curious and wonderful phenomenon that overtakes many a creative person as they work on their books or songs or paintings or essays or equations or you name it. And that is, at critical junctures along the way, these creative persons are convinced they have fashioned or discovered something fabulous and original and unprecedented that will change the course of (name of art form or academic discipline) for all time and lift them, the creator, out of poverty, obscurity, disfavor, etc.

But that’s just the beginning of the phenomenon. Upon completion of that first draft or sketch or version of the thing, there dawns upon the creator the realization that the thing is not quite the masterwork he or she thought it was whilst in the throes of convincement. Indeed, the thing once thought to be marvelous now seems to be quite possibly poop. This is the moment that separates the men from the boys and the women from the girls. This is the first opportunity for the easily disappointed to decide something is a failure and to give up.

But creative people take deep breaths and sally forth into the next iterations of their works to find themselves once again, we hope, utterly convinced they have made something magnificent that will change the course etc. And this “it’s-genius-oops-it’s not-oh-wait-it-is” pattern continues until the thing is done.

I am now convinced this self-tricking pattern is genetic and responsible for most of our cultural and artistic evolution. Unless creative individuals can be repeatedly self-tricked into thinking they are making things of exquisite value, they aren’t going to spend hundreds of hours, let alone years and decades, working on these creations when they could much more easily and profitably help destroy the earth or watch television.

“I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.” Thomas Jefferson

One of the things I love about that Thomas Jefferson quote is that it echoes Buckminster Fuller, a primary guru of mine. (Or Bucky echoes Tom if you believe time only goes in one direction.) Bucky’s book Critical Path was a gigantic game-changer for me. I love the idea that through our work we constantly create potential landing pads for cosmic largesse, intervention, collaboration; or what Jefferson called luck, except he was being mildly facetious on one level and absolutely serious on the next level down.

Which puts me in mind of the expression: “I’m waiting for my ship to come in.” which implies you have sent your ship (or ships) out (done your work); otherwise there wouldn’t be any ship out there to return laden with largesse (luck).

Bucky also said: “I assumed that nature would ‘evaluate’ my work as I went along. If I was doing what nature wanted done, and if I was doing it in promising ways, permitted by nature’s principles, I would find my work being economically sustained.”

Realizing that I had unconsciously lived my life that way before I read Bucky’s elucidation of the phenomenon, I decided to consciously adopt his assumption of a discerning and collaborative universe as the universal joint, so to speak, of the vehicle on which I would travel through life. And I discovered that Bucky was entirely correct. Nature does evaluate my work and provide or withhold support depending on her evaluations, but nature also evaluates all my life choices, including my choices of people to travel with; and whenever I choose people who think Bucky is a crackpot, nature withdraws her support prontisimo.

“It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life.” Joseph Campbell

One of my favorite recordings is Joseph Campbell at 80. For his eightieth birthday Joe gave a one-hour talk in which he attempted to sum up the philosophical gist of his lifelong studies. I’ve listened to this talk at least ten times over the years, usually when I’m feeling at low ebb about having followed Bucky’s game plan and fearing I may have made a serious mistake. Joe always cheers me up and assures me I made the correct choice for the kind of person I am.

What I find most cheering about Joe’s eightieth birthday talk is hearing a wise and erudite old person talking about traveling the path he made for himself, and how he found help and happiness along the way despite myriad obstacles and countless people telling him he was a crackpot.

Our journeys, inward and outward, are the water; destinations are mirages.

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

My Black Heroes

Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

A hero is someone who understands the responsibility that comes with his freedom.” Bob Dylan

The black athlete I am currently most enamored of is Michael Vick, the quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles who recently spent two years in federal prison for financing a large and illegal pit bull farm where dogs were raised and trained to fight and kill other dogs, and where dogs deemed unfit to be successful fighters were ruthlessly murdered, some by Vick himself. Several of my friends are unhappy with me for liking Michael Vick, just as they were upset with me for liking Mike Tyson, and for liking Muhammad Ali before it became politically correct to like the man who started out as Cassius Clay, and for liking Sonny Liston before I liked Cassius Clay.

I don’t like that Michael Vick treated dogs cruelly and killed them, but I understand that raising and fighting pit bulls is an integral part of southern culture. I sojourned in South Carolina in the 1970’s and attended barbecues at the homes of both white people and black people, and the climax of every such party came when the man of the house took me and a few other men to visit the kennel wherein he kept his illegal fighting dogs and the coop wherein his illegal gamecocks were caged. And as we stood in the presence of these ferocious dogs and ferocious birds, our host would proudly regale us with tales of grisly battles fought by his dogs and cocks, tales for which he expected to be greatly admired.

I don’t recount this southern lore to defend Michael Vick, but to suggest there is a cultural context for his actions. Had he come from China and been the son of a cat breeder providing cat meat to the markets of Beijing, we might wince at the thought of a child being taught by his parents how to slaughter cats, but most of us would understand that this person came from a very different culture than ours, and so be it.

“Willie Mays was the finest player I ever saw, make no mistake about it.” Willie McCovey

The greatest idol of my early childhood was Willie Mays. After Willie I added to my list of heroes Wilt Chamberlain, Cazzie Russell, Oscar Roberstson, Earl the Pearl Monroe, Julius Erving, and several other black basketball players. My current favorite among active basketball players is Rajon Rondo of the Boston Celtics.

The only white athlete I ever idolized was the Russian high jumper Valeriy Brumel. I was a lucky twelve-year old watching through binoculars at Stanford Stadium in 1962 when Valeriy jumped seven feet five inches to break his own world’s record. Inspired by Valeriy’s feat, I concocted a backyard high jump using a bamboo pole for the bar spanning the six feet between two redwood grape stakes with a pile of sawdust for my landing pad. I practiced jumping over that bar every day for several months until I cleared four feet eight inches, after which I turned my athletic attention to basketball.

“Music is the medicine of the breaking heart.” Leigh Hunt

I discovered Ray Charles when I was nine years old, and in a most roundabout way. My mother was a fan of the Mills Brothers who were black but sounded suitably white and whose pictures did not appear on their albums bought by white people. Of the big bands, my folks listened to Artie Shaw and Tommy Dorsey, not Count Basie or Duke Ellington. But in 1957, when the carob brown Harry Belafonte entered the American mainstream in the movie Island In the Sun, a drama exploring interracial relationships, my folks and many other relatively open-minded white people bought Harry’s album of calypso tunes featuring the title song from Island In The Sun.

I fell madly in love with Belafonte’s singing and played Island in the Sun so often that my mother would periodically hide the album from me lest she go mad. And when my grandmother sent me five dollars for my ninth birthday, I took the money to Discount Records in Menlo Park and asked the man behind the counter if he had any other Harry Belafonte albums. He found such an album, gave me two dollars change for my five, put the album in a bag, and sent me on my way.

When I got home, I discovered that only one side of the album featured Harry Belafonte. The other side belonged to a guy named Ray Charles. I was so angry that the record was not exclusively Harry, I didn’t listen to the Ray side for several weeks, until one fateful rainy afternoon my curiosity got the better of me and I lowered the needle onto the first cut on Ray’s side.

I have never taken LSD, but I have hallucinated while stoned and I have heard in excruciating detail many firsthand accounts of acid trips; and I daresay my initial experience of hearing Ray Charles accompanying himself on piano and singing CC Ryder was the equivalent of a beautiful acid trip. I felt as if the known universe had cracked wide open and I was looking and listening into an entirely other and better dimension, a place of astonishing colors and shapes and sounds and emotional possibilities heretofore never dreamed of. Indeed, so extraordinary was my experience of Ray’s performance of CC Ryder and the other songs on his side of the record, that when my mother screamed, “Turn that horrible noise off!” I was not even remotely the same person I had been before Ray sang to me, because now Ray’s voice and cadence and chords and feelings were part of me. I was no longer the child of my neurotic unhappy angry lonely confused biological parents who were forever asking me to be everything I was not; I was Ray’s child.

However, I was only nine. So I lived on with my biological parents for another eight years and suffered their vociferous contempt for most of what I loved: basketball, baseball, Ray Charles, Sam and Dave, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, rebels, fools, outcastes, and crazy geniuses. Soul music would eventually lead me to jazz, my musical pantheon to be ruled by Cannonball Adderly, Freddie Hubbard, Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, and Herbie Hancock until I fell far down into the rabbit hole of solo piano, jazz and classical, where I lived for decades without a care for any other kind of music. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

“A cool heavenly breeze took possession of him.” Nikos Kazantzakis

When I was sixteen, I saw the movie Zorba the Greek, bought the book the next day, read it twice, and then quickly read several other Kazantzakis novels, including The Last Temptation of Christ and Saint Francis. Then I read Zorba the Greek again to verify and solidify Zorba as my guide, as the mentor waiting for me on a faint trail leading into the unknown. But how was I to traverse the suburban void and elude the dominant American ethos en route to taking Zorba’s hand? And who was there to show me the way to the beginning of the way?

At the height of my Zorba worship, my best friend Rico invited me to go with him to a poetry reading in San Francisco, an event I chronicle in my novel Ruby & Spear, published by Bantam in 1996, the following passage the purest autobiography I have ever included in a work of fiction.

“…a monster poetry reading starring Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, David Meltzer, and Lew Welch. We sat down in the dark cool of a little church in the Fillmore, and Rico pointed to a pale man with curly black hair sitting two rows in front of us.

“‘It’s Robert Duncan himself,’ he whispered reverently. ‘My god, my god.’

“‘Who is he?’

“‘My favorite poet,’ said Rico, his eyes full of tears. ‘My numero uno hero.’

“‘What did he write?’

“‘The temple of the animals has fallen into disrepair.

“The lights dimmed. I took a deep breath and tried to clear my mind. Who was I? What would I become? What about college? Sex? Money?

“Michael McClure stepped into the spotlight looking like Errol Flynn dressed all in black leather. He leaned close to the microphone and crooned, ‘I been hangin’ out at the zoo talking to the lions. Rahr. Rrrahr!’

“All the women in the audience started moaning and growling, too. It was my first intimation of the sexual potential of poetry read aloud. I was psychically overwhelmed. And when the lights came up a few glorious hours later, Ginsberg and Whalen and Meltzer and Welch having set down their drums, spent from their reading and singing and dancing and howling, I knew what I wanted to be. A poet.”

“Music rots when it gets too far from the dance.  Poetry atrophies when it gets too far from music.” Ezra Pound

Before my mother vanished into the netherworld of Alzheimer’s, she would sometimes muse about why I had chosen such a chancy and impoverished road when I might have been a doctor or lawyer or, at the very least a college professor. And why was I so enamored of black people and their music? One of her theories was that because we had a black nanny, Mary Prince, when my sisters and I were babies, I had transferred my love of Mary onto black people in general. Another of my mother’s theories was that her own fascination with rebellious female artists such as Isadora Duncan and Georgia O’Keefe had somehow been transmuted in me into a love for artists who rebelled against the status quo.

“Love is the offspring of spiritual affinity.” Kahlil Gibran

I think my love of black athletes, especially those who have fallen from the heights of great success into the depths of infamy, and then climbed back into the light despite overwhelming odds against them, has everything to do with how I perceive myself. My adoration of the outcaste warrior is indivisible from my adoration of the outcaste artist. I am always moved by stories about forsaken artists or athletes or social visionaries who are strengthened and refined into greatness by the adversities they are given to transcend. I much prefer my heroes imperfect and complicated and surprising and daring, and ultimately kind and generous and humble, for they have danced cheek-to-cheek with death and lived to tell their tales.

I recently saw a highlight in which Michael Vick was brutally tackled while scoring a touchdown against the New York Giants. After his terrible collision with a man a hundred pounds heavier than he, Michael rose from the ground and carried the ball to the stands where he reached up and placed the sacred pigskin into the hands of a young man.

The first hour of Todd’s reading of Ruby & Spear can be heard gratis on the Listen page at UndertheTableBooks.com, the entire reading available from iTunes and Audible. Actual copies of Ruby & Spear can be had for mere pennies via the interweb.