For those who know to look for me here, a word explaining my disappearance from Facebook. I deactivated my account today because I cannot stand the corporation that owns it (and, in the dynamic of its possession of our ‘content’, us). I do not believe that corporation has the best interests of its clients in mind, i is duplicitous and exploitative, I think it colludes with governments and other corporations for purposes of surreptitious influence and control, etc etc etc. I took the leap without preliminaries because I knew that if I tried to make some speech about it I’d never do it. So here I am. You can find me here, and on Twitter @passerpiccolo, and via my email which is widely available. If you reverse my names and attach that info to the name of a giant corporation that has PROMISED not be evil, but now clearly is, you’ll have it. Apologies to anyone–I really mean it–who might have been inconvenienced or upset by my departure or the disappearance of stuff I might have written in threads you are involved in. Love and peace and, when we’re ready for it, a little joy as well. Because what could it hurt.
In the summer of 1985 I happened upon an exhibition of little note at the Hirshhorn Gallery in Washington, called “Representation Abroad”. The idea of “representation” was hardly a presence in major art circles in the United States (though it would become so later) and it has never been clear to me why this exhibition even took place—-recognition of a frail new figurative movement in Europe that seemed to have no influence here whatsoever. But in it I discovered a small group of artists from Spain who constituted a movement called “Realismo Español” —-Spanish Realism. The papa bear of this group was Antonio López-García but the artist whose work froze me in place was a disciple of his, named Isabel Quintanilla.
I don’t know that Quintanilla’s work was shown in the United States again; not in any major show that I was ever aware of. Intermittently I have searched for it—-longed for it, nearly—-wishing I could see roomsful of her simple moments, her carefully framed domestic scenes, with their gorgeous, perfect light. None of the art people I knew at the time considered this to be important work. But it was important to me. And seeking her out yet one more time, just yesterday, online, I discovered that she died in October, at the age of 79. So, first, doña Isabel: Requiascat in pace.
I looked at web images of her work for a good while yesterday (there aren’t that many of them posted to look at, see links below), and all these years later, encountering these images once again, I think I finally have some idea why they mattered so much to me. I knew even then that what she was doing with oil on canvas was something I wanted to do as writer of fiction, a vocation I was just beginning to undertake; I wanted, as she did, to get common things so exactly right that you—-the viewer, the reader, either or both—-see them completely anew, see them as redefined and, more than that, glorified, glorified in the exactness of the loyalty the artist has given to their truth. Such work is a form of prayer, I think. What moved me in Quintanilla’s work, I can now see, was the force of an artist’s love for the physical world. The real force of the love it revealed: as in, I love this moment, this normal, mundane, kitchen-reality, this life, so much I will dedicate hours, and every bit of craft I have painfully acquired, to its representation. To see the paintings, especially live, as I got to see four or five of them, allows you to feel Quintanilla’s devotion to reality as she labored to perceive it. The paintings are—-some would say to a fault, I suppose—-flawless.
Sometime in my undergraduate years I read an essay by Lionel Trilling, an introduction he’d written for a particular edition of Anna Karenina. I was very affected by this piece: indeed, as with Quintanilla’s work, I never forgot it and long associated it with my own inclinations and development. In it Trilling wrote that Tolstoy’s great strength as a writer, his unmatchable achievement, resided in his love for his characters. I came to think, eventually, that there is no way to do ‘realism’ in fiction of any importance without something close to this Tolstoyan love. For more modern approaches, that relationship of author to created persons, scenes, circumstances is not a necessity, but in realism it is. Otherwise, why bother? This is why, for instance, I have never been a fan of the longer fiction of John Updike or any that I’ve found so far of Saul Bellow: I don’t think they like people much. I think they like their own sentences, their own ability to describe reality, but the people in those sentences, those realities, not so much. Updike has a humanity (by which I mean a tenderness) in his short stories sometimes that is not to be found in any of his novels that I’ve tried. I’d go so far as to say, Tolstoy aside, the kind of precision of effect that Quintanilla’s work suggests can better be matched in short fiction than in long. In long fiction there is so much furniture to move around, so many bills to pay, one loses touch with the quality of the light, as it were.
This love and devotion for a perceived reality is an idiosyncratic critical principle. I don’t mean to claim it as comprehensive or even, for anyone but me, useful. It’s not easy to resist infusing it with one or another unnatural form of style, and too much style applied to such subject matter, to the essence of lived reality, to felt life, would lead quickly to sentimentality and myth (think, everything that Hemingway wrote after 1930 or so…). Of course the realism itself you might call a ‘style’ but you’d be hard pressed in Quintanilla’s case to attach it to any but the most pious and selfless kind of artist. It is suffused with humility, and the pleasure to be discovered in the basic truth of this vision is overwhelming. I still remember standing there, thirty-odd years ago, galvanized. /#
http://www.artelibre.net/autor/5772 (Linked here with gratitude: that’s the site from which I lifted the images shown above…)
Just yesterday I was recollecting how my agent chided me, after my first book came out, that I hadn’t expressed in it my gratitude to my editor, who had waited a long time for me to finish the book, it’s true, but who, I assume, found other things to occupy himself in that interim of years. Didn’t he get paid to do this work? I said. He makes more in a year than I’ll ever make from this book. I’ll happily take my thanks in cash, won’t he? She just shook her head. Of course implicit in the conversation was the fact that I should have thanked her too, another matter altogether, in that having left a big agency and gone indie during those years, she did not in fact get paid for whatever she later did for the book. Anyway the memory brought back to me a matter that’s been caught up among the graying hairs on my breastbone for years and years now, and that finally I wish to remove therefrom (see under “My chest, getting things off of” ).
I wish to speak of the “Acknowledgements” page that frequently appears in literary works, in works of the imagination, i.e., fiction, poetry, etc* — please, fellow writers, drop it. Do any of our actually great novelists/poets do these pages? Can you imagine Philip Roth doing one? Don DeLillo? Louise Erdrich? (Actually I should check Erdrich; I haven’t read enough of her books to feel I really know her.) The acknowledgements page as current fashion presents it to us essentially is a display of the author’s social life or social network as such has touched on her working life; it’s a not very subtle form of bragging, in other words, and, even when such a page manages against all odds to avoid seeming so, it still shouldn’t be in the book, especially at the outset, where the author is thanking his lineup of connections before (in the reader’s mind) he’s actually accomplished anything.
What’s at stake here is the reader’s connection to the text — her intimacy with the voice of the work should not be broken or burdened with this material, this alien ‘Saturday voice’ of the writer, whether at front or back. After you make love to someone you’ve much desired — or, if you prefer, fucked that person, we hope very well — you don’t sit up and declare, “First, I’d like to thank my father and mother — from your pain, I sought respite here. To Bobby Durrell — you know why. My first wife Laura taught me so much, thank you, Laura. To my kids: you also were here with me tonight but fortunately for you, you didn’t know it. Finally, to all the women and men who’ve played a part, all the way back to the days of stolen cans of Schlitz turned half-warm in Cicely’s basement, you will never know what my heart owes to all of you, and how large it has grown so that it can joyfully hold you in it.”
The chirpy claptrap of most acknowledgement pages practically erases the hard won authority of the text. This authority resides, from the opening lines of the book to its final word, in our acquiescence to the necessity of the existence of this language, this story, this voice speaking low and urgent in our ear. The kind of necessity I’m speaking of is, for me, the indisputable measure, or almost indisputable measure, of greatness in art.
Yes, it’s true, other people do help us. Often, they love us and, boy, do we need it. Send each of them a NOTE. Make it beautiful and true. The reader should not be involved. It doesn’t matter to him and it shouldn’t matter to the people who’ve helped us that we have or have not blared their names at said reader, who will in any case almost instantly forget them.
* Please note I do not mean to include in this denunciation those works of nonfiction to which so many people professionally contribute and in which such people should indeed be named. I also don’t mind when I get to the end of a crime novel, say, to see thanked the specialists who (again, as a professional act of generosity) assisted the author on technical matters. But in a work of art? All the readers of my Wednesday writing group? My agent’s assistant? The publicist? My dad? My spouse? My dog? My cousin Elroy? Clara the robot? No.
First of all, to rent a van and drive it into pedestrians and bike riders and collide with a school bus and run out of the van into the street waving a pellet and a paintball gun so you get shot by the police, likely to be killed but miraculously not, is a horrifying and cruel and insane action and you can accurately characterize it in many, many other negative ways — but to call it “cowardly” is idiotic. Every politician marches this word out when there’s an attack and every one of them knows he or she is lying. If you think it’s so cowardly go try it. I’m baffled why we think this word is necessary — I don’t understand how it actually makes people feel better. Somebody mugs me, shoots me, knifes me, runs me down, I don’t think, well, he’s a coward. He should have what? Argued with me? Challenged me to a duel?
Second: I’m listening to the press conference in NYC now; the Mayor and Governor, after deploying their “coward” and “cowardly” charges, are sanctifying, as with a Lenten litany, the MANY agencies of security and police that were called in to action yesterday to deal with the emergency and to investigate it in its aftermath. This is a core ritual of the Holy Church of Security; each invocation increases the power of these agencies, makes them unassailable politically and thereby solidifies the power of the state.
Meanwhile, in related world news, the French yesterday rendered as permanent the powers of policing that were instituted temporarily two years ago there, in the form of measures taken to address “a state of emergency”. We did this, in the US, with Patriot Act renewals (carrying huge majorities in both houses) in 2006, 2011, and 2015, creating permanent security apparatuses out of a host of measures taken and authorized originally, and in a high emotional state, as TEMPORARY. So remember, always remember — these powers are NEVER TEMPORARY. The modern state, granted a new licit power, will NEVER relinquish it. What has happened in the United States since 9/11 is the relentless creation of a police state– at the local level, where the number of homicides by police have risen exponentially, killing few enemies of the United States but many poor people; at the state level where large state police forces (and many urban ones too) have been provided weapons of war by the Department of Defense, weapons which in such hands can ONLY be deployed against our own citizens; and nationally, where no form of surveillance seems to be outside the authority of the national security agencies, and where we have essentially invisible and unregulated prisons from which people can never be released as well as dozens more “high security” prisons in which people are routinely brutalized and isolated, which is another way of saying tortured.
So — did those cowardly terrorists of 9/11 fail to destroy us? It appears not.
It made me so happy today, if happy is a word that can be applied to how one feels walking out of the funeral service of a friend, who died too young, a beautiful man, to find you, to see your face after all these years, another beautiful man. How often I have thought of you, remembered you, remembered your kindness to me during the period when my mother was dying and then died, what a total pain in the ass I was. You were amazingly patient, more patient than almost anyone else could have been. I clung to you, I clung to your life, I clung to your living of your life, because yours looked so much better than mine, so much more to be desired, and because whatever mine was I certainly did not know how to occupy it with any grace or ease, as you did yours.
But now it is clear you are sad about your own life. You had no children, never married, said you’d partied through the main years when you were working. You had—in facing all these old school friends I suppose—an air of embarrassment and sadness about your life. You said, when we were joking about hair (we noticed your head had no bald spot) you said, well, you might have a lot of stuff on the outside of your head but not enough stuff on the inside. That particularly was a blade to the heart: you realize, of course you must, that anyone who actually had little going on inside his head, anyone who had no sense of language, metaphor, and wit, would have been incapable of making the joke.
Perhaps you fucked up in life. I have no idea. What constitutes fucking up, really? To the degree I know what fucking up is I know I did plenty of it—in a number of ways that have me dreaming guilty dreams at night (last night, in fact). But I can assert this much, for certain, though I haven’t seen you in nearly four decades—there is nothing more miserable than a miserable old age and our regrets will drown us. Drown us. To get rid of the regret is like ploughing the sea, a seemingly hopeless task. But we have to do it. It’s time to drive back the regrets. I do battle with them every day, and I’ve come to see them as a form of vanity: as if our lives were so important in the scheme of the cosmos that our supposed failures at them actually mattered. We still have bodies to live in, relatively healthy ones, thank God, or thank whatever forces of the universe see to these matters. Because what is left for us now but the joy of others and the joy of the moments we recognize, moments of beauty and truth and life, such as the funeral today, with 150 firefighters in full dress uniform there to honor a man, and with his wife, his daughter, his friends expressing not only their grief but their pride in sharing their lives with that man; those moments of authentic experience in which the world, gorgeous and uncaring, turns no matter what we do, no matter how we might have fucked up, and people continue to love each other, and continue to love us. These years we have left, these days, these hours, are beautiful and they are small miracles. What makes them so pleasurable in a way is that we know so much more than we once did; we can see so much more, we understand so much more. And we accept so much more, fighting off so much less. This acceptance, and this seeing and understanding, fill the moments as they pass, make them larger, make them last longer, if we allow it to happen.
It requires great bravery to forgive oneself: it’s an outlandish act—for who are we, to declare ourselves forgiven? But we must insist on it. I’m trying to do it, I’m trying to make myself stronger physically and more capable of simple joy. I’m trying to let go of years and years of stress and self-punishment and self-neglect. I don’t see anything else that will redeem these last decades that we might be given—that we hope we’re given. (I mean, money would help, if only a little; but that’s apparently not (so far) part of the universe’s plans for me and I’m pretty clear on why. It’s something I chose and I shall have to live with, and just smile at my foolish ways. I wanted to believe in a different kind of world than the one I was living in.)
You are a beautiful human being. You always have been. When we were young, you were full of mischief at times; also incredibly hard working and in my experience always noticeably good at whatever you were doing, often the best. You had from early on a sense of pleasure, physical pleasure, in work and in play and in other realms, a sense of pleasure denied to many of us Catholic boys, your brethren. God didn’t invent such feelings for nothing. I will always think of you as one of the people who contributed, mightily and blessedly, to my survival; for that I am grateful beyond what I can say. I am sure there are others like me. I am certain of it. Love yourself. It’s the hardest thing we’re asked to do, finally, to love ourselves, we know ourselves too well, know our weaknesses and failures to the point of illness. But that’s the request. I am saying all of this more for me—in truth, much more—as I am saying it for you. If I can say it and mean it as I do mean it, for your sake, then how can I deny it for mine? Indeed it occurs to me that seeing you today has given me the opportunity to write these thoughts down so that they will live in me, and I will better remember them. So look—there—you’ve done it again, by being yourself, honestly, authentically yourself, you’ve helped me to save myself. There are some ugly, nasty, hurtful, vile people out in the world. Celebrate how well you’ve done—how spectacularly well—at not being one of them. Enjoy the future, imagine some days at the beach, imagine some days in the mountains. Take deep, deep breaths of the present. The past sits in each of our houses like a large book—we all get our special edition—full of colorful tales; concentrate when looking through it at the beauty of your presence and the power of your endurance.
Know that you are loved, and not for no reason.
Recently I became a subscriber to The Library of America, which I was once before, long ago in a different life; and as a result three new “free gift” books arrived the other day. John Ashbury’s Collected Poems, 1956-1987; James Baldwin’s Collected Essays; and Mary McCarthy’s early fiction, Novels & Stories 1942-1963. Having been woken up, by my nervous child, shortly after getting to sleep, I end up sitting at the dining room table with the new books, peeling from them their shrink wrap, jiggling them out of their white slipcases (subscribers get the books not in their paper jackets but in this sturdy white cardboard boxes, which I love and which played some role in my re-subscribing).
Two of them, Baldwin and McCarthy, I opened and read from at random. The Ashbury I went searching through, seeking a particular set of lines I remember hearing him read almost forty years ago. Which set of lines eventually I found. So here are the three passages I read — first the Ashbury, then Baldwin, then McCarthy:
From “The System”, Three Poems, 1972—
These ample digressions of yours have carried you ahead to a distant and seemingly remote place, and it is here that you stop to give emphasis to all the way you have traveled and to your present silence. And it is here that I am quite ready to admit that I am alone, that the film I have been watching all this time may be only a mirror, with all the characters including that of the old aunt played by me in different disguises. If you need a certain vitality you can only supply it yourself, or there comes a point, anyway, when no one’s actions but your own seem dramatically convincing and justifiable in the plot that the number of your days concocts.
From “Stranger in the Village”, Notes of a Native Son, 1955—
And this [strangeness, separateness] is so despite everything I may do to feel differently, despite my friendly conversations with the bistro owner’s wife, despite their three-year-old son who has at last become my friend, despite the saluts and bonsoirs which I exchange with people as I walk, despite the fact that I know that no individual can be taken to task for what history is doing, or has done. I say that the culture of these people controls me — but they can scarcely be held responsible for European culture. America comes out of Europe, but these people have never seen America, nor have most of them seen more of Europe than the hamlet at the foot of their mountain. Yet they move with an authority that I shall never have; and they regard me, quite rightly, not only as a stranger in their village but as a suspect latecomer, bearing no credentials, to everything they have — however unconsciously — inherited.
For this village, even were it incomparably more remote and incredibly more primitive, is the West, the West onto which I have been so strangely grafted. These people cannot be, from the point of view of power, strangers anywhere in the world; they have made the modern world, in effect, even if they do not know it. The most illiterate among them is related, in a way that I am not, to Dante, Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Aeschylus, Da Vinci, Rembrandt, and Racine; the cathedral at Chartres says something to them which it cannot say to me, as indeed would New York’s Empire State Building, should anyone here ever see it. Out of their hymns and dances come Beethoven and Bach. Go back a few centuries and they are in their full glory — but I am in Africa, watching the conquerors arrive.
From Groves of Academe, 1952 — (The Mulcaheys chaperone a student dance.)
[Catherine Mulcahey] wore her wedding-dress, a white satin and net concoction with a short train; crystal drops sparkled at her ears; lipstick outlined her thin lips; and the pale, somewhat watery blue of her eyes, the sharp cut of her nose, which ordinarily had a secretarial quiver, were lustered and softened with excitement and a heightened sexual aplomb. “Doesn’t Mrs. Mulcahey look beautiful?” the girls cried to their escorts, identifying Catherine’s triumph over four children, housekeeping, and poverty with their own trepidant emergence from the chrysalis of slacks and blue jeans, with the innocent magic of parties, rouge, low dresses, music, with everything silky, shining, glossy, transfigured, and yet everyday and serviceable, like a spool of mercerized cotton or a pair of transparent nylons reinforced at heel and toe.
So I’m dwelling on these three quotes, actually loving these two randomly and one almost randomly arrived-at quotes, when I start doing that thing readers of my generation were taught by our philologically-inclined college faculty to do: comparing, weighing, placing into boxes and labeling. And what then do I see — I see Henry James. I hear Henry James, more accurately; his voice is detectable in all three passages: “ … it is here that you stop to give emphasis to all the way you have traveled and to your present silence”; “…this village, even were it incomparably more remote and incredibly more primitive, is the West, the West onto which I have been so strangely grafted”; “… identifying Catherine’s triumph over four children, housekeeping, and poverty with their own trepidant emergence from the chrysalis of slacks and blue jeans, with the innocent magic of parties, rouge. low dresses, music, with everything silky, shining, glossy, transfigured …”. They resemble James in that order, too: Ashbury the least, Baldwin considerably more, McCarthy, by a hair over Baldwin, the most. McCarthy was close to a number of critics who were key figures in the Henry James ‘revival’, a kind of James mania among literary figures of the mid-twentieth century in the U.S. — a smaller phenomenon than the Roman Catholic mania among writers and intellectuals of that time but with longer lasting effects on our literature, I suspect.
Among the lingering emotions, there are three that for me are almost certain to induce depression: anger, fear, and longing.
Grief is different, grief is an agony, it pulses like a wet wound. I’ve only experienced it once, a long delayed kind of omni-grief, a hospital gown that I wore after the towers fell, and every loss and every long-endured trauma of my life gathered to have its due; it took me years to recover. Years.
But depression I know; I know it like pajamas, like socks, and it is death, nothing about it alive except a knowledge of truth that grows in the hidden stone of the mind. It is a cocoon of selfhood, in which one can read, sleep, listen to the radio, sleep, and refuse to answer calls. And sleep. One enjoys the freedom of the prisoner. A silence one drinks. As in church.
(It is important, I feel compelled to mention, to have a negligent landlord, as the rent is beyond one’s agency.)
Never, fortunately, have I been attracted to suicide, an unimaginable effort — I can’t even take a shower. I concluded, regarding this paradox, that I too much enjoy my own thoughts, my language, even what comes on dirty sheets, to want to leave them. My shrink confirmed (this years ago now) that there are many kinds of depression but he noted that they all have in common one thing, just one, at least so far as he had up to then been able to detect.
What’s that, I said.
He said, refusal to deal with the mail.
I haven’t opened the mail in years, I said.
(* Haibun: “… literary form originating in Japan, combining prose and haiku. The range of haibun is broad and frequently includes autobiography, diary, essay, prose poem, short story and travel journal.” From Wikipedia.)
Metro North, bent old father of the tired rail lines that run out of NYC’s Grand Central Terminal and climb the Hill of Long Forgotten Dreams into Harlem — its trains take world-gathering riders to points north — along the Hudson River, through central Westchester, and along the coast of the Sound into Connecticut. It is quite unlike the raucous Long Island Railroad across town, which like an old horse, teeth exposed, has to endure so many more Italian-Americans on its weary cars. The northern train, though — that is a place for old poets, offering rich quiet and contemplation. And when we journey the other way, leaving home to enter the bustling city, more giant and frightening than Edo, Grand Central stands waiting like Mt Tsukuba, or Fuji, the place at the end of roads, the floating world waiting at the Gateless Gate. I cannot keep my ancient legs in my windswept home, I must travel there, without provisions or plans. Plus, I have a doctor’s appointment.
Summer at Grand Central
That new deli might be good
But no — no, it sucks.
I walk in the city, marveling at the beauty of the people and their hungry faces. I have planned well and am early at the doctor’s office. I noticed along the way at one establishment they serve a variety of grilled cheese sandwiches — but no eating before the blood work! I will come back later, and have the grilled gouda and mushrooms on sourdough. And I do this, after my probings; and then, lunch-satedk, I walk to the wide way. All this for tourists! Stephen Colbert! Nine NYC tee-shirts for $50!
Once Letterman had
our keeper kick roof to roof
Across the broad way
They stop’d the traffic and held
back the people — boom it!
One arrives back to the terminal shaking the dust of Lexington Avenue from one’s pant legs, having just missed one’s train. Everywhere are teenage tourists and their parents, with looks of wonder on their faces. I am seeking a deeper fulfillment:
Train in half an hour,
a warm day, you might buy books —
look! Posman’s is gone
(Warby fucking Parker now?
Who buys glasses waiting for a train?)
Coming home, always an inevitable sadness: especially after the prostate exam under the wintry fluorescent lights. Old men are offered the vaccine for shingles: a first for me. If I am going to test the insurance company’s largesse, I tell my cheerful doctor, I think we should go for the chlamydia / gonorrhea test instead, just to be on the safe side. She, who writes the scripts for the Cialis, agrees: shingles demand no stressful explanations she says. My blood pressure is beautiful. So is my heartrate. Plus I’ve lost 16 pounds. I will go home as if again a colt, bucking under the saddle!
The suit’d man riding
Summer Friday’s early train
listens to his phone
I returned to the dead streets and abandoned gardens of my town, which is a pointless place even the most ardent travelers wouldn’t wish to walk through. The staff I use for wandering on old limbs in the city is here a convenient instrument for hailing a cab. At home, I put some yogurt and cherries into a bowl.
Long long days of June —
they dim, then close like flowers,
and what have I done?
[This story first appeared in AGNI 75, Spring 2012]
(For J.A.D., whose amazing hands I see everywhere in this story. Thank you.)
To my children, to N, to a few other people who shall for now remain nameless—maybe later I’ll be able to name you, but currently it requires more in the way of moral resources than I have on hand—
We exist physically at the molecular level; we are comprehensible as strings of protein; so, when it comes to my “remains” as they are called, for Christ’s sake, just get on with it, send me to the fires. I’m fifty-four now, with gray hair and gray beard, neatly trimmed for the most youthful effect a gray beard can have, and, to further express my youthful self-state—every middle-aged man’s accessory if he can’t afford a European sports car—a young child, the newest of you, a highly enjoyable three-year-old boy who still speaks of me in generally positive terms. It occurred to me that I should write a little testament and make known to all of you my wishes regarding the usual: the tubes in and hoses out, the interment, and the division of my meager collection of stuff, my items, the things that might be of interest or stir desire. Cash I assume there’ll be none of—you know me—but I’ll mention it later just in case.
First: put my ashes in a silver Illy can. I prefer the espresso grind with the black stripe. You can bury it in the yard, if we ever manage to have a yard. Or, take it out to sea. I don’t think I ever shared with you my distant and lazy fondness for the sea. I read a lot of Conrad, not to mention Melville. Do you know about Hornblower? And Mutiny on the Bounty? (All three volumes.) Two Years Before the Mast? I bet not. The YA novels of American pirates running the British blockades off the coast of New England in 1812—I never forced any of this upon you, not as I did Twain and The Call of the Wild. I still love boats, still wish I could sail. All a surprise to you.
But maybe you’d like to do something more literary. Hire some grad student to spread the ashes discreetly around Flannery O’Connor’s farm in Milledgeville, which is open to the public now. I am what I am, or was what I was, to the extent I ever managed to be it, because of her.
Or—here’s what I’d like best, actually. Take the Illy can to “1020,” the tavern at that address on Amsterdam Avenue at the corner of 110th Street—you know the place, I believe one or two of you have begun to frequent it since I left the neighborhood—and put what’s left of me on the bar in the front corner where the painter, George the Czech, usually sits (he’ll approve—if he’s not in Ecuador where he spends half the year with his twenty-five-year-old mestiza girlfriend and new baby, about whom his divorced wife and teenage children in New York, last I heard, knew not a thing). Take me there and set me up with a Jameson straight up, a cold lager, a notebook, a Waterman, a 2B drawing pencil, a pack of Lucky Strikes, and a Leica CL. Use your iPhones to take pictures of this tableau. Send the images to all my friends.
Memories of booze and expanded time and tea-gold light forcing itself through the street-side windows of the bars I’ve known on empty afternoons. No more alcohol for me, you know. Oh what a story that is. Except it isn’t. It’s just an unpleasant, mildly pathetic sequence of events, the kind that passes through your mind when you’re stepping over a dirty raincoat abandoned on the sidewalk. Whatever the story is, you don’t actually want to know it.
The main point: once you have the ashes, whichever of you takes them from the dyshidrotic hands of the funeral director, probably not old, probably surprisingly young, the business has to have some young people in it after all, do not leave them sitting around and you feeling all guilty because you haven’t done something suitable with them. If you leave them sitting around then just do that. Move them from one closet to another every decade or so until you die. The main thing is, don’t feel guilty. Move on. Memory will speak what it speaks. Memory is the eternity we sometimes wish for. It has enormous vacancies in it, just like the universe—these are the collapsed black gravitational centers of longing. Memory is malleable, as would be any narrative taking place outside time; it, or parts of it, can happen over and over, and, even with different outcomes, all the contingencies will remain intact—I wish I’d been able to see this earlier. Even now, I wish I could keep it in my head. Uncountable alternate universes full of the choices that, in this universe, no one made. But this is just the kind of hey-the-present-lasts-forever momentary revelation you cannot, by virtue of being human, keep in your head. Because, hello, here is life: you still have to sit on hold with the fucking insurance company. You still have to go to CVS and face Drugstore World, where language seems no longer to function as elsewhere, where no one ever understands what the fuck you’re asking for. The products they sell? Never heard of them. Customers? Never heard of them. You still—in other words—have to deal with the daily matrix of enslaving bureaucracies, the enormous exhausting relentless forces aimed, with no admitted authorship, at dehumanizing you and destroying life’s possibilities for meaning. All wisdom vanishes. That’s the point. If you could touch the immanent God in every aspect of the universe, if you could see God and talk to God—and that is what an infinite awareness would entail—would you ever say, hold on, I have to do my taxes? Wait, I have to deal with these fucking e-mails, let me get back to you this afternoon? Would you go to work? Would you come home? No. Wrapped in nothing but the divine, you would howl on the sidewalks and grab people wild-eyed, you would be picked up and taken to Bellevue, you would starve, your teeth would fall out—you would die. God is the sun, life is the glass: you’re the ant.
If none of the above works for you, just spread me out around one of the elms in Riverside Park, north of 105th and south of 116th, if you can manage it, or down on the softball fields near there, by the highway and the river, where Richard Hart and Tom Adams (two properly disheveled sons of New Orleans) and I used to play every Thursday and Friday over the summer of 1980, after late breakfast at The Mill Luncheonette, because none of us had all that much to do—there was a paralyzing recession on, but life was cheap and I remember these days as long hours of freedom, in fact I remember specifically enjoying them as such, noting the freedom, tasting it as if it were a grandmother’s famous sauce, as if I already knew its time had run out. Occasionally in those pickup games I hit the ball off the high wall in left, sometimes halfway up; only twice did I see anyone hit it over, up onto the promenade—anyway, if I’m there, and you ever feel the need to visit, you’ll know where to go. Be done with it in any case. I won’t care. By then I’ll be wherever it is I’m supposed to be. If you can, pray for me. I have for you.
But I’ve gotten ahead of myself. When I’m going out—the awful part, the part with various terrifying and disgusting smells and the need for professionals just to clean up—revive me if it’s worthwhile, don’t if it’s not. I’m sorry I can’t be more specific, but that’s all I can say about it really. If you make the wrong decision, don’t worry, it’s not a big deal, because here’s one sure fact: I’m going to die at some point. I’d prefer to go by reason of forces other than the fill-out-the-forms-and-sign-here version of bureaucratized volition. (Nietzsche identified the birth of tragedy but who at any length has remarked its death, its utter exclusion, its impossibility?) If I’m in a nice coma and don’t need breathing equipment, etc., just a discreet feeding tube, then leave me there, because who knows what that’s all about. I might be finding something out. You never know. Caverns of silence. Charcoal darkness. Phosphorescent fish with shallow cavities where their ancestors’ eyes would have been. Skip the big efforts, let me lie there, no one can bother me anymore. A quick twice-weekly phone chat with the nurses will do. Or e-mail. Friend them on Facebook. You don’t have to visit. If you’re worried about the solitude, hour upon hour upon hour of it, don’t. I never worry about solitude. If you’re still worried, tell the nurses to use my room to smoke cigarettes or dip snuff or drink vodka or whatever other illicit shit they might like to do, perhaps they need just a simple place to gather and complain about the others. To play rummy. To fondle (or worse) their colleagues. Tell them I smile upon them. Tell them I’m happy for them. I’ll enjoy the conversation. All those accents. They’ll all be saying to each other forget it all the time. “Forget it girl, it won’t never be no different,” and that last will have all three of its god-given syllables . . . Won’t never be no diff-er-ahnt. If you do visit—please sing. You all have such beautiful voices.
The boy—fifth grade, or sixth, twelve years old, stands before the choir in the apse of the great cathedral, on which low central ground, but for the highest masses, the weekly altar is laid. He sings a Magnificat, “My soul . . . doth magnify the Lord,” in a voice pure and powerful. A high G of piercing beauty. He does not want to be there. His life is a series of oppressions: home, school, choir. He has perfect pitch. His talents, his skills, his various forms of brilliance daily conspire to punish him. He has a flawless calm before the crowd. He sings, perfectly, as once, much younger, eight or nine, he had played a Bach piece for violin, at just that fine cusp of perfection that can still a room. After: no elation. This is what is required? This is what the music requires, what the audience requires, what you expect? Okay. Here.
Death, unconsciousness, stands as relief from the harrowing memories of failure, of humiliation, of almost incomprehensible mistakenness: think of it, these things will be lifted from me, and someday too from you, as when the beautiful hostess takes your coat at a restaurant and smiles.
My funeral arrangements: now, about this, I have to say I’m feeling somewhat particular. Invite all the women. I’m serious. I want them all beckoned—some of them will come—going back to college days. Or, no: grade school. I want a large venue, many speakers; I want you strongly to encourage the comic, the inappropriate, the nakedly sentimental. Invite the hostile: You know, I have to say, he annoyed the shit out of me. There are some people who really hate me. Invite them to speak. Certain mystifyingly successful writers of sodden forgettable sentences. Let them have at me. That’ll wake people up. What a lazy, deluded, superior, pompous fucktard. I hated the fucking guy. Glib and lazy. What did he ever do? I won the Pulitzer Prize for Christ’s sake, what did he win? I want lots of music. I want everyone to sit there and listen to all thirty-two minutes of “Mountain Jam,” from the Allman Brothers at Fillmore East. Tell people to bring drugs. Make it a party. Everyone should take some Ecstasy. X. In our day it had four letters—MDMA, something like that. Then it was a drug, now it’s a combined degree. Anyway, shock people: make the papers, pass some joints around. Open bar in the rear two corners. . . . I suppose such things cannot happen anymore. Well, someone, before the day is over, at least one poor schmuck whom everyone will later ridicule, should drunkenly insist on a return to freedom. Just for the hell of it.
So: I brought up the women. There are things I want you to know, but not really. I want you to glimpse the silhouette of a few things, that’s all. What do any of us want to say in the end? I lived. I walked the planet. I made a few amusing remarks. I loved and I was loved. For a while after, I was remembered.
And let it be known: I loved them all. Andrea (who by her friends was called, without irony, Cookie), and Anna, and Ruth, and Gabrielle, and Laura, and Laureen and also a Lorene which makes no sense but she was from Dallas; Maureen Noreen Cynthia Deirdre Cathy Katherine Annaliese Karen Susan. Two Susans, actually. The first was a student of mine, the only student I ever fell for; I was only thirty — or thirty-two? thirty-four? in any case a forgivable age for that particular sin. There was a Jenn, with two n’s. Alex, Alison, Oleh. Two Amandas and two Joannas. And two Victorias, both dark-eyed, soft-skinned, proud, ambitious girls.
Tonight I’m at the counter, peeling fava beans, thinking of Debra Kelly. First love. Third grade. I was almost sick to my stomach every day. I was ill with it, literally. She ended up studying in Maine and becoming a dancer, which makes sense, one thinks of the way she stood there: her shoulders straight and her yellow hair clipped on each side and fanned across her back, which curved inward toward the base of the spine, not a sway-backed curve just a subtle perfect line; and the plaid Catholic school skirt centered and holding there on her hips though she was always thin, and then—but what? We were eight years old? Nine? I couldn’t take my eyes from her, except I couldn’t keep them on her either, I felt as if I’d start to dissolve like a lump of powdered soap under a faucet. Her skin was pale and softly defined and utterly unblemished. I decided to write a long note to our teacher, a large woman with a stiff short hairdo the color of gold spray paint, an imposing bosom that stuck out like a shelf, and much, much perfume. Generally stern, she was most kind to me on several fraught occasions, and shocked me once with an iron hug from the desk after calling me up to the front and announcing some score I’d gotten on a standardized test. I asked my mother what it was like, to be in love, and she started quizzing me with altogether too much amusement, so, having no one else, I took it to Mrs. Bross—asking to be transferred to the other third grade class because I just couldn’t concentrate. . . . This had been going on for at least four or five days. Maybe more. Maybe close to two weeks! Such a sweet, slow annihilation. I could not believe how good this form of torment felt, how utterly addictive. But then—wisdom—I decided to ride it out and not give Mrs. Bross that note, which would have been one of those childhood social missteps, a knife in the memory that one regrets right into the grave. I have enough of those already. But this Debra Kelly and I were in a crowd later, in high school, or, rather, she occasionally deigned to join our crowd for a movie or a party, and talking to her remained a matter of taking my palpitating venous sense of identity into my hands and squishing it. (You can imagine the sound.) She was the only tall blonde woman I ever loved.
The next year came Maureen Pappianous. Gleaming black hair. While playing one day in the basement of her apartment building, she was burned badly by a hot water pipe breaking; she was a dark sparkling girl, shy, and kind, ever after with scarred skin along her right side, over her lower neck and shoulder and arm and probably parts of her side and back and who knows where else. She was intensely beautiful, half Irish, half Greek; tonight, thinking of her, it all dovetails nicely, the ten-year-old’s built-in knowledge of enormous shapeless impossibility, and the later version, the midlife, hard-bordered, supremely familiar sense of impossibility: time don’t go that way, brother. The sense of nostalgia and loss—all this makes a fine piece of furniture for the spirit. At such moments one knows one is alive. I sat behind her (blessed alphabet); I liked to touch her hair, ever so lightly, touching a part of her but she couldn’t feel it. I did accents of the world. She and the girl beside me—whom I can’t remember at all, name, face, nothing—loved this; they would request countries and I would do them. All imitations from the 4:30 movies. They could have flummoxed me so easily, what did I know of the world? They could have said Hungary or Tibet or Thailand, but of course they were no more sophisticated than I was—it was fourth grade after all—nor, it occurs to me, did they want me to fail. We men, we want each other to fail, it’s wired in, you fail, I might succeed, or I will look less bad failing. But the girls don’t want us to fail. This is something that men don’t realize, especially after all the cruelties and rejections of adolescence: women would prefer we succeed and will help us to do so, as long as we don’t catch them at it.
Of course, yes, I know, there are always exceptions.
And so, to my ex-wife, I leave a list of ragged questions: Why did we do that to each other? And to our children? Did we believe that we and they would just somehow survive all that violence? I remember only the color red. The rage and blood, you with something sharp, anything that came to hand, and your wild, murderous eyes. Please give your answers to my attorney. He will lock them in a file for fifty years and then they will be destroyed.
As you know, I grew up alone with two women. Two Irish women, who revealed little of the truth about themselves. I suspect this partly accounts for the way I’ve been driven to study women my whole life, read them as though they were difficult books. I am captured by them still—I’m old, but it turns out I’m not over the worst of it—I love to watch the way they move, certain gestures, how they twist around to see the backs of their legs. When you live with a woman—N, this is true of you—you learn that she holds herself differently depending on what she’s wearing. It’s a rare woman who looks right standing naked putting a kettle on for tea. In skirts, with heels, your body, not just your appearance but seemingly your actual self, is different from how you are in pajama pants and a borrowed shirt. In your feet, that’s where you cannot hide: you, every woman, your feet express you in a kind of footy semaphore, minute by minute, small boned, fine muscled, elaborate. And there’s more, of course: the way you tilt your heads back slightly to put on makeup; the way you put a hand up—not all do this, but many—while you’re chewing, even if you’re not talking or laughing and your lips are closed. N, you do it when you speak at the table. My mother (aha! you all say; well, fuck you, aha yourself) sitting with her legs crossed, putting on lipstick or smoking a cigarette or sipping cold whiskey that looked brown and clear as a mountain stream—the ice made a sound like money in the glass. Her hands, small and slender and white. She smoked filterless Raleigh cigarettes and would from time to time pick a bit of tobacco from her lips or from the tip of her tongue, a gesture redolent of adulthood and sexuality. Ah, they fuck you up. It got a lot worse than that, too—I mean that kind of thing is child’s play compared to what came later. There are things I haven’t told you, boys, and likely won’t—you would not feel enlightened by it, and, really, the details don’t matter: it was a complex, impacted, damaging relationship; I had a simpler but just as damaging relationship with my old man. Of course being grown-up entails the long struggle to decide to try to get over it. But first we must reenact it, over and over, repeat the mistake until we know it, until we can see the thing: the outline of the dragon.
He stands in the kitchen in the evening, listening to her put their boy to bed; he is rinsing a plate in soft running water and there washes over him a sense of the extraordinary privilege of the moment, her love of their child, the ease of their gracious apartment and their KitchenAid dishwasher which they use every day, after eating their fill, every day. Behind this thought crouches an abiding fear: that it is, all of it, undeserved, that it is unfair, that it will be taken away.
Him: that’s me. But it’s also not. This scene never happened. We don’t have a KitchenAid dishwasher, that’s just invention; we detest the cheap dishwasher we do in fact have, which came with the place and which, N will verify, is growing some sort of intractable mold around the base of the inner chamber. I’m often at the sink while she is putting our boy to bed but this particular moment of fear, notwithstanding all the moments of fear one endures through the day, this one did not happen. Yet it did happen, to me, in the fact of writing it; because to write something in fictional mode that is at least minimally convincing, paradoxically requires that one experience it, whereas this is, again paradoxically, not required when one writes convincingly in memoir: the simple announcement at the outset that all this really happened lifts the obligation of flawless accuracy. One must only master the voice of memory: In the evenings I stood at the sink and listened to her put our boy to bed, she knew his books by heart, quoted them to him while she washed him and picked up his toys. One does not have to experience or re-experience that moment. In that sentence, in fact, the rituals are out of order, one could not be experiencing it while writing it; but to the reader it is convincing enough, memory is enough: the past has proved itself; the present, contingent, like fiction, has not.
And this, the creation of the real, which is not real but must be real—it’s an interesting way to live. Alas, just as with talking to God, it does keep you from your responsibilities.
Even now, at this late date, I want you to know me. This is overbearing, I realize.
So, what is at the core of life but love? An image I cannot shake: a man, my age, kissing a woman in Grand Central. She was a beautiful woman. I think of it now every time I’m there, in that part of the station.
She was waiting for him when he came off the train; she’d arrived a day or two before from upstate, where she’d been staying, but he couldn’t get away until the Thursday; so they met that day in the famed terminal, at the last ticket booth, which is always closed—most of them are closed now—a curiously private nook of tinted marble and cast-iron window grates in a vast and definitively public space. They stood and stared, searching; a look of pleasure. Eyes alight. Sadness and pleasure. This thing they had, this affair of letters and a few illicit phone calls, was doomed, they’d agreed it was doomed, but here they were at another moment in which loss is built into the fervent anticipation. They kissed. He couldn’t believe her mouth. It had been twenty-five years since they’d met, been introduced—by whom?—and they’d spoken then only briefly, graduate students at the university, standing in the ratty coffee lounge, a room in which he could not remember ever having been unhappy. He was second-year, slightly older than most, twenty-nine, outwardly confident, accomplished; she was young, the youngest person there, a prodigy. Hers was the kind of beauty that is connected to—is inseparable from—an immutable core, a self; her face was a little crooked and animated by a light you were bathed in the minute you engaged with her or saw her smile. She was immediately striking. She had that hair. She had those sad vivid mischievous eyes. She was not that tall and neither thin nor heavy; she was solid, rounded, sturdy, voluptuous. She was not one whose fire needed to be lit; it was burning already. They might have seen each other once or twice again after that, but neither remembered anything except the first meeting, brief, compelling. She told him that she’d seen him and thought, I’d like to sleep with him.
They went to lunch and then to a hotel, expensive and thoroughly adequate. They kept having to heave aside the pillows, which were the size of Labradors and seemed forever to be getting in the way: except then suddenly she’d grab one, with urgency and impassioned expertise, and jam it beneath her in just the right way to ease some conundrum they were working through. He watched her desire, studied it; he had trouble believing in it, but there it was, undeniable. She was in an open marriage. Mainly she dated younger men: they had, she’d said archly, a certain vigor. This irritated him, of course. His irritation made her glad and he knew it would make her glad so it made him glad too. Later he was above her and she began using her muscles to grip him—hard, really hard—and he looked at her and said I didn’t know you knew how to do that, and she laughed and said well I’m glad you can feel it, the twenty-eight-year-olds never seem to notice. . . . He had never felt so at ease with someone new: all his life. Of course, he would realize much later, the person he was finally at ease with was himself. They used condoms. Even this didn’t bother him though normally it would. He couldn’t come but he didn’t mind because it meant they could fuck more. After every respite a new condom. It was comical and vulgar, the wrappers dropped around the big bed. A week or two after she’d returned home, she wrote him that she was dropping her kids somewhere, to hip-hop dance class or aikido or lacrosse; she said they parked, and before anyone was out of the car in this flash moment came a sharp memory of being in bed with him, and she made an involuntary sound, like ooph—but they didn’t hear her. They are both boys, he wanted to say, they will never hear you in that way, but she wouldn’t believe that. A girl would have heard it instantly, would have known there was something in it. But not the boys. Off they went. . . . She’d told him in bed on the second day that she wanted him to fuck her in the ass and he did and here, this, now, finally he was able to come, his broad peasant hand holding the headboard slamming into her. Of course there was lubricant so he left his handprint on the fabric of the headboard, which was not really a headboard but an attractive cloth-covered board attached to the wall behind the bed. Now it was like the caves in France: he had left evidence of his existence there. When she pointed it out to him he suggested he draw a deer and a figure shooting it with an arrow.
And so once again in life he found it necessary to acknowledge a broader definition of love. He loved her; they loved each other; it was insane, after just a couple of months of correspondence and these two days in New York, it wasn’t the way they loved other people but it stood between them, undeniable, this shocking, heated intimacy in a shared language.
Then one day, for her, it was over. Whatever this was they’d been feeling, she couldn’t feel it anymore. He stopped hearing from her. He was stunned at first: no one had ever dumped him before, not unless he’d arranged it. In the first weeks he could hardly stand it: existence. It was awful. It made him sick and then put him in pain and he felt as though every nerve ending along the surface of his skin was mildly burning: he hurt, his whole person hurt. For there was something altered in him in the wake of this intense, passing moment, despite its brevity and unreality; something that was corporal, central, undeniable—no matter the pitfalls we have to call it his heart (yes, it’s a cliché, yes, his heart)—a muscle at the core of him that pushed his blood around and helped him breathe and allowed him to love and laugh and fuck and rarely, once a decade, weep—and a fresh little piece of it was broken off now, spalled, chipped, dead on the floor, lying there, and under this new light he could see not just those fragments but the poor old organ itself: it was cracked in other places and worn; and plainly its new injuries marked one more step in life, one more chunk of time, which kept moving, tumbling, rolling, skidding, toward some inevitable finish, a completion, an ending—which he could not imagine, but which he now believed, when it finally came, he would not fear.
There it is: don’t grow old with an unblemished heart. Be free. Don’t be afraid of dying.
We have not yet spoken of the books or the cameras or the lenses or the nice art supplies and Waterman pens or the four-and-a-half feet of old journals. Just decide among yourselves. Anything someone wants he should have. If more than one want it, add it to a pile to be considered later; trade and barter one thing against another. Divide among you equally my reputation, such as it is, and use it as sunscreen. The language, the images, the rights, the proper disposition: I can see that it will be remarkable to me and others how little interest my work will have for me when I’m dying. I shall assign a literary executor: to this person please deliver the journals, and don’t think about them anymore. If something of them gets published, don’t worry about it. After two weeks it’s forgotten and really, even from the first, no one gives a shit. Secrets are a dream.
Of course, there’s no money, that’s the upshot. You certainly won’t be surprised. I have a nice insurance policy at work, a hefty sum if there were only one of you, but divided four ways it is more like part of a down payment on a house. In a previous decade. Anyway, there’s that. Try to be happy.
(Okay, here: if you’re interested in money, each of you is quite sufficiently smart to make plenty of it. Only self-consciousness and perhaps aesthetic and moral and cultural distaste, as well as raw fear, fear of raising your middle finger to God and humanity, stand in the way of amassing large sums of money. But if money is what you want, all these impediments, moral, aesthetic, blah blah, can be jettisoned. I don’t remember ever meeting anyone who’d made large sums of money, on purpose, who was also imaginative. Just imitate. That’s what they all do.)
In the end, it would be a boon if we were able to enjoy our own existence, as those who’ve loved us have enjoyed us. Let me try to give you that, since as of now, it’s clear, I have little else to give you. Let me tell you that I love you; and that I admire you. That you have sharp minds, sharp tongues, and, best of all, sharp consciences. You love the woods. You can make music. You understand complex numbers and simple machines. You are kind to children. You believe there is beauty in the world, and you pursue it.
Let me, as the poet said, disclose the gifts reserved for age. First, self-forgiveness comes on slowly but pointedly, like a brief, recurring memory of childhood happiness. It’s nice. Second, the treasures of solitude are best enjoyed in youth; I have come to recognize that my drive for solitude, in middle life and beyond, is a poisonous addiction. Third, and related to the second, to seek others and then to push them away is, first of all, mean and unfair; but for you, if you’re the one doing it, it’s like rowing one way with the left arm, the other way with the right. Having gotten nowhere and gained nothing, you’re still exhausted. I realized something last year when I served as best man at the wedding of my friend J. He came, as did I, from an unstable and ultimately shattered set of circumstances. Nevertheless he has made himself into a funny, generous, kind, and only mildly neurotic adult. His wedding took place downtown, one block from the site of the World Trade Center. Over the days before the wedding, as I compressed various thoughts, aiming toward some vague preparedness to make a toast, it came to me that in recent years I’ve gotten to know some young people, decent, smart, talented, likeable, from stable and prosperous homes, and in knowing them I became aware of the basic position of security upon which they stood to face the world: you, my older sons, mostly don’t have it, I never had it, and J, if possible, had it even less; people such as he and I were dropped into our adulthoods and had to face the dilemma of building strong and secure identities—in relation to the world, its indifference, our desires—with nothing at all supporting us nothing beneath us but a sense of horror; whereas some other people have solid ground beneath them. It’s a commonplace notion, I’d just never really taken it in before. And the image that followed was that of Philippe Petit, who crossed between the towers on a high wire the year I came to New York (I was eighteen, recently orphaned, completely set loose in the world). The images of Petit on the wire remained vivid for me all these years, a prominent part of my inner iconography, and suddenly I understood, at least in part, why: this was us, I told J in the toast, this was you and I, hanging between those absurd and beautiful towers; dancing out there in the gray light Petit represented us, achieving our existence and our sense of who we are, with nothing but a hundred stories of air beneath him, facing a forty-mile-an-hour wind.
Flannery O’Connor several times in her letters quoted the French (very Catholic) writer François Mauriac’s advice for the artist: “Purify the source.” That’s a lifetime’s project. The first requirement is surviving your high-wire walk to selfhood. And then, one strategy might be (I certainly haven’t gotten there and can’t say for sure) to look toward what you want. Move toward what you want. But while you’re doing that, work on wanting the right things. Never relent. After you give up, go back. Give up again, go back again. I am often slowed to a crawl by a sense that what I want to do is too hard; I’m too soft; it’s not worth it; it’s futile, it hurts too much, failing hurts too much. Then I go back.
Once we’re older—very few people from middle age onward won’t claim this—youth and its problems seem to scream out for our advice. It all looks so clear to us now, so much more manageable than it is when you’re in it. But the advice we have to offer is almost entirely ridiculous. It’s like telling a drowning man all he needs to do is swim.
Nevertheless here I go.
When people tell you they love you: listen to them.
Don’t dismiss it, or think them foolish. Try to see yourself as they see you. Just for a moment. Realize the dignity you have, struggling in the world, most days with some tangible grace. Realize your courage. See the beauty, your own beauty. Do this just for a moment: you only need a moment. But do it over and over, and over and over, and yet again, as much as you can bear to do it, and you will get good at it. And then, in its full scope, you’ll see it. It likely won’t last, this vision or this understanding, it can’t last, but this is love, this is the original love or something close to it, and you’ll remember it, you’ll know suddenly that the grief can pass, that the rage can fade away, that you can step inside the unchanging capsule of a single moment and glimpse the calm and clarity of the eternal. And when you have that, you can give it to someone else, with love; you can give it away (when people allow you to give it), yet lose nothing; you can give it over and over, give it as much as you can…. There is nothing to fear.
When I was younger, I thought it would cost me something, I thought it would drain me, diminish me, or, really, given my childhood, I thought it would kill me—but I was wrong. Love is infinite and divisible, and almost invariably healing, and my greatest regrets are the moments when I was not giving it sufficiently to you.
The following essay was published as an afterword to the Signet edition of “Heart of Darkness” and “The Secret Sharer” in 2009.
In the summer of 1978 I came into possession of a copy of this small paperback, Heart of Darkness and Secret Sharer, an earlier version of the Signet edition I presume the reader has
just finished. It was green and battered and had someone else’s annoying writing in the margins. The introduction to that edition was written in 1950, by Albert Guerard, who was, along with his colleague at Stanford, Ian Watt, an important early Conrad scholar who did much to revive Conrad’s reputation after it had fallen into a certain degree of obscurity in the middle of the century.
At the time, I was 21 years old, an off-sequence sophomore at Columbia University, and I had set out specifically to read Heart of Darkness because when I’d read it as an assignment in high school, I’d had some difficulty understanding it. Although it is short, only a hundred pages or so in this and most other editions, Heart of Darkness is one of Conrad’s most dense narratives. The structure of the book is complex, Conrad’s irony is thick and relentless, and his language is difficult as well: he had learned English while living in France and his English would always be heavy with Latinates. As is often the case with Conrad, his point – his meaning or his multiple meanings – is a little hard to pick out from amid the somber moods and romantic outpourings of his narrative voice.
Yet I knew something important was there. So I was rereading it, sitting in the lobby of a building on Morningside Drive in New York City. Columbia owned the building and it housed several of the university’s most distinguished faculty members — Jackson in the history department, as I remember; Edward Tayler in English; and Allan Sachs who was the much admired chair of the physics department. I’d been handed a job that summer as a replacement for the union doormen of that building, taking their shifts when they went on holiday. On this particular occasion, it was midafternoon on a mild day in July. The wide lobby doors were swung open to let in the air, and the bright summer light was cheerfully lacking the mean white glare so common during New York’s overbearing summers. In strolled a handsome, well-built man I recognized as Edward Said, of Columbia’s English department. The foregoing sentence, and that he lived on the fourth floor of this building, constituted everything I then knew about him. The book that would make him globally famous, Orientalism, would not come out until later that year.
He walked toward me down the length of the lobby and I got up, put down my book, and started over to the lobby’s north side, as it was also my job to run the manual elevator located there. Said had a gruff and physically aggressive air with students, particularly in these years, and had barely spoken to me in the past. But suddenly he was interested. “What are you reading?” he practically shouted and strode over to the table where I’d laid my book. “Heart of Darkness!” he said.“Great book, great book” — I swear. It’s comical now, yes, but that’s what he said. Little did I know, from this cheery reaction, that Said was a respected Conrad scholar himself, that he’d done his doctoral dissertation on Conrad, that Conrad’s exile and the ambiguous effects it had on his personality and his art would be a source of continuing fascination for Said, and finally that Conrad would be an author, and Heart of Darkness a text, that Said would return to over and over as he explored the fine mechanisms connecting the most transcendent art with specific cultures in specific historical situations.
We rode up to his floor and he quizzed me about what I’d studied and read, and he urged me to take his course that fall called “Modern British Literature”, where we’d read Heart of Darkness, among many other major late 19th century and early 20th century British texts. I can say now with clarity that this little exchange in that manually operated elevator, and the four subsequent courses I took with Said, and his friendship in later years, were the most important professional influences of my life. Said was, by a very long way, the greatest literary mind I have ever been in the presence of — and I would not be the critic and the writer I am without having known him and studied with him. All because I was reading Heart of Darkness in that place, on that day.
* * *
This personal anecdote has a powerful relevance to Conrad’s work, it seems to me. The two tales you have found in this book were written at different stages of Conrad’s career, they differ markedly in style, yet they are connected by virtue of sharing one of Conrad’s most crucial themes: a haunting and accidental union between two people who by all rights should never have met, and who have – often incomprehensibly — the power to change each other in radical ways.
Conrad leaves a deep mystery at the core of the special relationships that drive both these tales. In The Secret Sharer, we are never directly enlightened as to why the Captain feels such a deep kinship with Leggatt, his “secret sharer”; even more difficult to fathom is Marlow’s psychological imprisonment, in Heart of Darkness, within the ineffable relationship he forms during his brief exposure to the monstrous Kurtz. Indeed, the great challenge with which Conrad leaves us, as readers, is to come to some sort of conclusion on our own about these dark intimacies, to figure out what happens inside a person’s consciousness when he is altered by the personality of someone else.
These relationships are vague in origins but quite tangible on the page. While Leggatt is still clinging to the ship’s ladder and glowing with the phosphorous of the sea, our unnamed captain remarks that “a mysterious communication was already established between us two.” This mysterious communication will lead the Captain first to extend toward Leggatt a puzzling degree of blind trust and second to take extraordinary risks on his behalf.
Similarly Marlow is inextricably drawn to Kurtz (who is, like Leggatt, a murderer, but on a far larger and more ferocious scale). Part of Kurtz’s appeal are his words, his voice: “The volume of tone he emitted without effort, almost without the trouble of moving his lips, amazed me. A voice! A voice! It was grave, profound, vibrating, while the man did not seem capable of a whisper.” Notice that as with virtually all his subsequent exchanges with Kurtz, Marlow here reveals almost nothing of the actual content of Kurtz’s conversation or pronouncements. A bit later, Marlow is approached by the loathsome company manager, whom we might call a petty bureaucrat supervising the rape and plunder of a continent, and who wishes to go on record as deploring Kurtz’s “unsound methods”, even as he profits by them. Marlow recalls with disgust that he “had never breathed an atmosphere so vile, and I turned mentally to Kurtz for relief – positively for relief.” The unhinged local despot and murderer is a moral relief, compared to the European company man.
In both stories, we see formed a profound bond — based on little available information or personal context — through some invisible but irresistible moral imperative, some core and highly mysterious requirement of being human. Written very close on the heels of Heart of Darkness, Conrad’s major novel Lord Jim — which also features Marlow as narrator — offers a moment that sums up this mystery. Jim, a criminal like Leggatt and Kurtz, comes to understand the bond that has been formed between Marlow and himself, the bond that resides essentially in the willful act Marlow has made in attempting to understand Jim, and sensing this Jim looks at Marlow and stutters, in shock, “I — you — I…” These might be the three words and two dashes that in all of Conrad’s work best contain and evoke his central artistic and moral concerns.
* * *
If we are going to understand the bond between these figures, it is important to look at how the stories are told. The Secret Sharer is told in a direct first person narration, but the story belongs to Leggatt — it is his conundrum that drives the plot. For all the Captain’s maneuvering to protect Leggatt, the Captain is not the actor of this story, but the teller, and as he relates on to us, the readers, Leggatt’s story and the Captain’s own complex psychological reaction to it, a similar bond is formed between narrator and reader as was formed between the two characters in the tale.
Heart of Darkness multiplies this implied morality of narration, if we may call it that, several times over. Indeed, it is a frequently noted characteristic of Heart of Darkness that we have to do significant analysis just to determine what the story actually is and who is actually telling it. The telling begins, as it were, on the deck of the cruising yawl Nellie where four friends, who were once men of the sea and who still enjoy sailing together, are waiting at the head of the Thames for the tide to turn. The reader is addressed by an unnamed narrator, who sets up the situation before Marlow starts to speak. Everything that Marlow will say will come to us through this other narrator whose name we never learn.
So we can fairly easily see a three-layered narrative structure that goes from Marlow, to his companion, to us. But is this really Marlow’s story? Or is Marlow not in a similar role in relation to the real story here as the Captain is, in The Secret Sharer? This is Marlow’s story of hearing a story. This is the story of “a remarkable man”.
Conrad was by some reports (though not all) a man who was uncomfortable with people; he was apparently capable of being gregarious in groups but he could also come off as awkward, shy, and gloomy. Later biographers have revealed that he was subject to fits of temper that led him to be abusive to his family. He never lost his thick accent, although he had achieved the heretofore unimaginable feat, as a foreigner, of being certified as a captain in the British Merchant Service. It is not clear why he chose, among his five or six languages, to write in the one he learned latest in life: English.
This drama of language and culture and belonging also has its play in Heart of Darkness. You’ll recall that Conrad goes across to “the continent”, to “the sepulchral city” to gain employment, with the help of his aunt. The city in question is Brussels, and the country is Belgium, which controlled (with unparalleled brutality and savage looting) the entire Congo region. These facts indicate a powerful atmospheric and literary situation that Conrad never once makes explicit to the reader: that Marlow, an Englishman, has spent this entire story, until he reaches Kurtz, among French speakers. In addition to the other narrative complications we’ve explored, we must add the fact that the story has been “translated” by Marlow from French into English, that it took place, as it were, in French. And when Marlow considers why Kurtz has bestowed on him all Kurtz’s horrible visions, he concludes that it was “because he could speak English to me.”
In other words — always, other words, other languages, other forms of uncertainty — in other words, the painful, ruinous, almost lethal redemption that Marlow implicitly claims for himself — having undergone Kurtz’s own trials and lived to tell of them –- resides not only in the successful conveying – the honest evocation – of the story, but in the English language itself. Knowing as we do the facts of Conrad’s life – his parents’ early deaths after imprisonment by the Russians; his travels; his time on the sea – there is something very moving about his profound connection to the English language, to his commitment to it as a vehicle of redemption, even for Kurtz, who, having finally found an English speaker, is freed to tell his horrifying truth.
Speech is Kurtz’s, and Marlow’s, timely savior. When Marlow rises at midnight to discover that Kurtz has left the ship, and encounters him, standing thin as death in the tall grass, trying to return to the tribesmen who are loyal to him, Marlow succeeds in diverting him by saying “’You will be lost… utterly lost’”:
One gets sometimes such a flash of inspiration, you know. I did say the right thing, though indeed he could not have been more irretrievably lost than he was at this very moment, when the foundation of our intimacy were being laid – to endure – to endure – even to the end – even beyond.
That this unlikely intimacy would endure, long past Kurtz’s death, and transform Marlow, is why he tells the story to others –- with their own intimacy and their own capacity to change. The story Marlow “hears” is Kurtz’s story. Marlow never really tells us what that story is:
I’ve been telling you what we said –- repeating the phrases we pronounced -– but what’s the good? They were common everyday words – the familiar, vague sounds exchanged in every waking day of life. But what of that? They had behind them, to my mind, the terrific suggestiveness of words heard in dreams, of phrases spoken in nightmares.
The story resides in the end “at the heart of an impenetrable darkness.” It is all of Europe at its most corrupt. It is the ruination of a once-fine (though highly mistaken) European intellect; it is the absolute debasement of a self-serving high-mindedness. It is brutality and madness on a scale and of a depth even greater than what a 19th century Englishman would attribute to a shaman wearing antelope horns and dancing around a fire. It is the savagery that Marlow discovers (and that Conrad himself discovered in the Congo, a life-altering experience that helped make him into a writer) and that, he sees, lies hidden in the darkness inside each of us. Most of all, for Conrad, there is the moral achievement, amid all that debasement and violence and terror, residing in Kurtz’s peculiar ability to convey all of this, all of the madness and lust and savagery. By being able to speak it, to show it, he is somehow redeemed: he is “a remarkable man.”
That is the “story” of Heart of Darkness and you really don’t get to it until the very end. Indeed, we journey toward it in a structural way – from the Nellie to Marlow to Kurtz – that is almost miraculously mirrored in the structure of the novel itself, which travels from Europe up the Congo River, stopping at the Outer Station, the Middle Station and the Inner Station, where we find Kurtz, and ivory in unimaginable quantities, and destruction, and speech.
* * *
 Conrad had a friend who had a yawl (a two-sailed boat of yacht size similar to a sloop or cutter, but with a small third mast far aft, near the rudder) named Nellie, and thus came the name he used in his novella. However it is also worth noting, an irony of literary history, that the only other significant novel in English preceding Heart of Darkness with the same configuration of distancing narrators, is Wuthering Heights, and the central narrating figure in that story, the equivalent of Marlow, is the maid, whose name is Nellie.