(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser October 2011)
“You are the music while the music lasts.” T.S. Eliot
Long ago, in a time when records were big round vinyl things activated by spinning them on turntables while running needles through their grooves, when marijuana was highly illegal, and long before the advent of personal computers and cell phones and digital downloads and peak oil and whole sections of grocery stores being dedicated to gluten-free products, when my hair was plentiful and not yet gray, I performed a song of mine at a party where other songs were performed by other people hoping to become famous, or at least solvent, through their music.
Following my performance, a woman in black leather approached me, and by her gait and the slurring of her words, I deduced she was drunk. “Your song,” she shouted, “was good as anything you hear in grocery stores.”
“That was like…a classic?” said a woman in green paisley, her every statement a question. “Like…I already knew it before you played it? Even though I’d never heard it before? Like…Bonnie Raitt should cover it?”
“Your voice is decent,” said a frowning fellow in blue denim who took a long drag on his cigarette between each of his proclamations. “Reminds me of Chet Baker, who I dig, but I hated your song. It grabbed me at first. It did. But then it felt phony. Like it wanted to be deep, but it wasn’t deep. I mean…the way you sang it made it seem deep at first, but then it didn’t even last as long as it lasted.”
“I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality.” James Joyce
A teenager said to me, “The only reason Shakespeare lasts from generation to generation is because people keep putting on his plays and making you study him at school.”
I was facilitating a discussion among ten ambitious young writers, our subject What Lasts? Along with discussing the topic in general, each of the writers was making a case for a current song or book or movie being widely sung or read or watched four generations hence. Why four generations? Because in my estimation, the great fame of an artist may keep his or her creations whispering in the public ear for one or two or even three generations, but for a work of art to remain vital for a hundred years in a swiftly evolving culture, it must have tremendous intrinsic value.
And I think the teenager and James Joyce were quite right to declare schools and professors prime factors in the longevity of cultural artifacts, Joyce being a good example of a writer whose works would probably vanish in a few decades without the persistent intervention of academics. Shakespeare is a much more complicated matter than Joyce, Shakespeareism being a global academic-theatrical religion, four-hundred-years-old now, dedicated to perpetuating the collected works of a literary deity under whose name were compiled the prototypical plots and characters composing virtually all of Anglo-Celtic-Judeo-Christian drama and fiction.
“Friends are relatives you make for yourself.” Eustache Deschamps
I cannot say with certainty that any current part of what I am will last beyond this particular incarnation, but as I grow older I feel less and less certain about certainty. Science, the one currently holding sway in the so-called Western world, suggests that after my body dies, most of the molecules I am made of will go on being themselves but not with each other, and eventually those molecules will combine with other molecules to form particles and parts of the greater web of life; but there will be no forming of another person or animal or plant with my personality or any part of my memory.
I beg to suggest that current science may be wrong, and that something particular to each of us, our unique spiritual essence, may survive our physical death and become part of the operating system of a new physical body, possibly a person, possibly a honey bee, possibly a pelican. And before our spiritual essences gain purchase, so to speak, in new physical bodies, we hang out for a time in a parallel dimension, or in an invisible part of this dimension, with other spiritual essences, some of whom we have hung out with before, some of whom we have incarnated with before, and some we are meeting for the first time. And as we hang out, or float about, or possibly zoom around with these other essences, we connect with each other in unimaginably compelling ways that incite us to reincarnate together during the same time window. How we accomplish our reincarnating, I don’t know, but in my theory we do accomplish the feat of returning.
This theory presented itself to me as I was pondering why it is, those few amazing times in our lives, when we meet a person on the beach or at a party or in the pickle aisle of the grocery store, never having laid eyes on each other before, and we fall into conversation about ospreys or D.H. Lawrence or who makes the best kosher dills, we are both overwhelmed by a powerful awareness that we have known each other before—because we have!
My theory also explains why, on that first day at your new school, in the middle of fourth grade, when you were so miserable about having to move away from your best friends, and you were scared to death of what might happen in that new place, and you walked into the classroom and not one but two of the kids looked at you and smiled these amazing smiles of recognition, and you felt as if you were being greeted by old friends—because they were old friends!
“Mona Lisa looks as if she has just been sick or is about to be.” Noel Coward
I have only been to Europe once, when I was sixteen. I am now sixty-two, and according to the science currently holding sway in the so-called Western world, all the cells in my body have died and been replaced several times since I was a teenager. Thus, cellularly speaking, some other body went to Europe, not this body holding the pen writing these words. Be that as it may, I remember going to Europe, and I particularly remember skipping excitedly through the galleries of the Louvre en route to see Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.
Well…it is a little painting. Small. Dark. They keep it behind glass, and they don’t let you get too close, and in the glass, obscuring the little dark painting, are reflections of other paintings and lights and walls and the faces of people jostling each other to get glimpses of the dark little painting, the paint of which is cracked and cracking. So, actually, the only good way to see the painting is to look at reproductions, not at the painting itself. Which means, honestly, that the painting is not what has lasted. Copies of the painting have lasted, and copies of copies. Indeed, one could well argue that when we say “the Mona Lisa” we no longer mean that painting, we mean the iconic form and the iconic smirk. Yes, that form, that silhouette, and that smirk are the things that have lasted, while the painting itself is now a misrepresentation of what it has become.
“Every tooth in a man’s head is more valuable than a diamond.” Miguel de Cervantes
I went to have my teeth cleaned a few days ago, after which my excellent dentist, Chris Martin, gave me a thorough exam and informed me I need yet another crown sooner than later, with two or three more crowns looming on my event horizon pending further developments of the degenerative kind. One of the many things I appreciate about Dr. Martin is his candor and wry sense of irony.
“We could,” he said, using Second Person to discuss my options, “replace that filling that shows signs of leakage (a euphemism for murderous assault by voracious decay) and it would hold for a time, though not as long as you’re going to last, or we can do a crown that should take you all the way to the finish line.”
“You mean the crown will last until I die.”
“Yes,” he said, smiling wistfully. “That’s the goal.”