Beyond Plague Urbanism

Our most insightful urban commentators generally agree that the liveliest cities are those with greatest diversity. Diversity of activities, diversity of people. Jane Jacobs long ago highlighted the link between economic diversity and social vitality; how the former fuels the latter, how economic activity ensures the presence of people, concentrations of people, different kinds of people, who in assorted ways all help keep economic activity afloat.

Henri Lefebvre, in France, made pretty much the same point, if in a different register. He wasn’t so much interested in the economic forces that create diversity as how diversity creates dynamic encounters. Cities, for him, are sites of encounters, dense and differential social spaces in which people assemble. City spaces come alive through proximity, through concentrations of different social groups and activities, gathering in place. Lefebvre said the enemy of encounters—indeed the enemy of urbanisation itself—is segregation and separation, two profoundly anti-urban impulses.

Over past decades, the diversity that Jacobs extols and the encounters animating Lefebvre’s urban visions have had their work cut out. The form and function of our cities have been moving in the exact opposite direction. Jacobs emphasised the need for high- and middling-yield enterprises mingling with low- and no-yield enterprises. Instead, predatory city economies have throttled small businesses: high-yield has become the only asking price. Many corner stores as well as corner people have been forced out of business and out of town. Cities have become functionally and financially standardised, predictable and unaffordable, predictably unaffordable, sucking dry their vitality, their Jacobean life-blood.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 assailed world, killing and upending urban life as we once knew it, intensifying those existing pathologies. Economic distancing had been gnawing away at the urban fabric for awhile, executing the separation Lefebvre feared so much. Now, social distancing explicitly breaks into urban densities, crimping cities as sites of physical encounters. Suddenly, our new urban reality is one of de-encounter, a thinning down rather than thickening up, the dispersion and dilution of city life, its fear and avoidance.

As the pandemic raged, the rich who’d hitherto been colonising citadels everywhere, shaping them in their own crass class image, exited fast. Same story the world over: a wealthy urban exodus, a hunkering down by the shore, up a hilltop, at the country estate, anywhere without people. Between March 1 and May 1, the first two months of lockdown, 420,000 of New York’s wealthiest quit town. Manhattan’s Upper East Side emptied out by 40%. Denizens fled to second homes upstate, in Long Island, in Connecticut and Florida. “Farewell Poor People,” said the Daily Mail (March 19, 2020), catching the spirit of London’s select out-migration. Its most well-heeled populations similarly headed for rural sanctuary, paying up to £50,000 per month in rentals. British estate agents have since been inundated with requests for country mansions and isolated manor houses.

In times of plague, the rich outrunning the spread of infection has been a time-served tactic. In A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), Daniel Defoe describes the harrowing scenes of the 1665 “Poors Plague,” the bubonic epidemic that struck London, striking it unevenly. The famed author of Robinson Crusoe narrates his tale of the Great Plague through the lens of an alter-ego character, an independent merchant, H.F., who had agonised about whether to stay or flee London like his class peers. Eventually, unlike them, he decides to stay put, even ventures out, and walks the streets and bears witness to the mass slaughter of a terrifying disease few understood.

In 1665, Defoe would have been a five year old lad, so A Journal of the Plague Year is a novelistic invention—an artistic creation based on historical fact. Like the good journalist he was, Defoe did his research thoroughly, read meticulously around the plague, the books, pamphlets and scientific studies, and H.F. evokes graphic details reliably accurate and believable from the standpoint of an authentic observer: the desolate streets and parishes, the shut-up shops, the over-run cemeteries, the fevers and vomiting, the pains and swellings, the destruction of whole families and the reality of 97,000 Londoners perishing because of a bacillus now known to be a parasite of rodents, transported by fleas.

E5DA1552-9DBA-413B-8E86-42EB7AC82BF4

H.F. is a sympathetic, if eccentric, flâneur, both fascinated and frightened by the disease, compassionate about the calamities afflicting populations that bore its brunt, that suffered the greatest body count. Even the poor’s insurrectional tendencies found an understanding ear. At one point, he distinguishes between “good” and “bad” mobs, between dissenting peoples whose marauding cause seemed legitimate, and those who seemed to be acting because they’re deluded by false propaganda. This sounds oddly contemporary, a refraction of our own COVID-19 crisis moment, with growing economic inequities ripping apart society, cross-cut by ideological battles between mask wearers and right-wing anti-maskers, Black Lives Matter protesters and white supremacists. Separation and segregation here encounter one another. Our public life has fractured into trench civil warfare, even direr than in Defoe’s seventeenth-century.

Public space is a menace, a threat to public health, not only because of the spread of virus, but also because it is fraught with violence: “I can’t breathe,” is one expression, immortalising George Floyd’s dying words on a Minneapolis street, as a white cop pressed his knee into the black man’s neck. “Don’t shoot!” is another, after Michael Brown’s valedictory plea in Ferguson, Missouri, just as the police opened fire, heralding a spate of police killings of young, unarmed black men (and women). Such homicidal tendencies beget a few questions: What remains of the public realm? Is it for population-level wellbeing, for public safety? Or is it for individual liberty, the right of a person to freely express themselves?

Right-wing libertarians say forcing people to wear face masks in public is an assault on individual freedom, an infringement of personal liberty. It’s a perverse logic, another instance that unfettered self-interest is best; that a greedy drive for profit maximisation and unregulated consumer choice brings about a healthier, more robust society. It doesn’t. It’s a big lie, a foil for a selfishness that bears no responsibility for how it hurts others, economically or otherwise. The mask isn’t only a personal protective equipment: it’s there to ensure other people’s health isn’t put at risk. There have to be limits to what is deemed acceptable individual behaviour in public. There’s more need than ever for a social contract, for a democratic covenant in which everybody recognises duties as well as rights, accepts that our inner selves are constructed through a social identity.

It’s a touchy subject. Yet it’s an agenda Jean-Jacques Rousseau set himself over two and half centuries ago, forty years after Defoe’s Journal, and its basis remains instructive about what we still lack: “a form of association that defends and protects the person and goods of each with the common force of all.” “I had seen that everything is rooted in politics,” Rousseau said, “and that, whatever the circumstances, a people will never be other than the nature of its government makes it.” “Great questions as to which is the best possible form of government,” he thought, “seems to me to come down in the end to this one: what is the nature of the government most likely to produce the most virtuous, the most enlightened, the wisest, and in short, taking this word in its widest sense, the best people?”

These days, people are far from virtuous, enlightened and wise. As presidents and prime ministers bully, lie and peddle misinformation, stoke up hatred and division within society, they’ve rendered us stupid. They’ve destroyed our ability to judge truth from falsehood, good sense from (social) media nonsense. Some describe this as a denigration of our “cognitive immunity,” the destruction of our mental defence system, the ability to ward off pathological ideas, just as our immune system might ward of a pathological disease. We’ve got what we deserve, an anti-social contract, a model of government that has hoodwinked its populace into believing it is free, that it is upholding its individual liberty, when in actuality we’re enslaved.

Past pandemics—from plague in Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire’s Plague of Justinian, to Europe’s bubonic epidemics in the Middle-Ages and eighteenth-century, passing through typhoid and cholera outbreaks in the nineteenth, onwards to “Spanish flu” in 1918 and the latest COVID-19 epidemic—have all revealed underlying crises in their respective societies. Plagues sparked terrible tragedy, yet were often outcomes of crises, not initial causes, a symptom of something lurking within the culture, about to give, a growing malaise, soon to worsen. COVID-19 isn’t so different, exposing structural defects in our economy and politics, our encroachment into the natural world, our destruction of it, and how zoonotic diseases like COVID-19 now more virulently jump from animals to humans. When COVID-19 struck, our mix of under-funded public and for-profit private healthcare systems proved woefully inadequate to cope. The virus spread like the wildfire and flash-flooding evermore frequent in our midst. Another hurricane had hit, hitting our urban system particularly hard, which had long been in an endgame crisis.

Endgame happens when the rich displace the poor from the city’s checkerboard, when they banish all but a few pawns from their isotropic plane of business immanence. The game is up yet we continue to feign the moves. The Irish writer Samuel Beckett wrote a play called Endgame, a prophetic play about the end of the world. There he hones in on his peculiar specialty: claustrophobic confinement—although now, in our case, this confinement is engendered by a space-hungry, market-driven urban expansion. As buildings go up in cities, partition walls move in for millions of people. Speculative space opens up, dwelling space closes down, gets sliced up and subdivided to maximise rents and property values. Wealth for the few resonates as crampedness for the many, little squares for the pawns. Britain’s lack of affordable housing, as elsewhere, has pushed more and more people into tiny shoebox lives, and studies show how micro-dwelling negatively affects our health and happiness—even in “normal” times.

Beckett’s short story The Lost Ones gives us an unsettling sense of those walls closing in, with “one body per square metre or two hundred bodies in all round numbers…The gloom and press make recognition difficult.” Is this a vision of a death camp, or refugees in a transit camp? Or is it just the ordinary everyday madness of multi-occupancy in an unaffordable city, where rents have skyrocketed? Whatever the case, it’s an environment conducive to the spread of virus. Public space on the outside, shorn of people and finance, resembles another Beckett mis-en-scène, Waiting for Godot, with a main street (and its boarded-up stores), a tree, and a few vagrants hanging around. We can almost hear one of them grumble, as Estragon had grumbled: “We’ve no rights any more.” “We got rid of them,” sidekick Vladimir rejoins. “Well? Shall we go?” Vladimir wonders. “Yes, let’s go,” says Estragon. They do not move.

F26755FC-27E8-4F15-91B1-6BE022AB3EC4

History is maybe on our side, expressive of long-wave good news. Over the centuries, humans have survived tragedy through the incredible stoicism of not moving, of standing one’s ground, of resisting, of engaging in tremendous creativity. Wars, plagues and mass ransackings of cities in Ancient Greece gave us poetry like The Iliad, epic drama like Trojan Women, scholarship like Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War and Plato’s Republic. When bubonic plague hit seventeenth-century Britain, theatres closed and Shakespeare’s plays could no longer be performed. But none of this prevented the bard from writing them, from letting his creative juices flow, in the misery and isolation, penning such masterpieces as King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra.

In the mid-1850s, Marx lived through a cholera epidemic in London’s Soho, killing hundreds of people because of a contaminated water pump. Marx was destitute, had several children die before him, lodged in a truly dreadful, cramped apartment—this as economic crisis deepened and workers’ revolt dissipated. Nonetheless, he continued to work, never stopped studying capitalism, never let up writing Das Kaptial. He never stopped hoping, either, telling his comrade Friedrich Engels that “in all the terrible agonies I have experienced these days, the thought of you and your friendship has always sustained me, and the hope that, together, we may still do something sensible in the world.”

In the twentieth-century, disgust with an economic and political order that plunged us into two murderous world wars helped spark Surrealism, a revolutionary movement that affirmed its own extraordinarily creative dialectic. On the one hand came Max Ernst’s brilliant pictorial horror story, “After the Rain II,” painted between 1940-2, a hellscape of hope smothered by petrified and calcified structures, by corpses and decayed vegetation, by deformed creatures in a prehistoric premonition of our own COVID-19 fate.

23A8EAD1-E85C-4012-9D25-C015C6871018

On the other hand emerged an optimism, an art and literature that celebrated the dawn of romantic love, the primal form of the Surrealist encounter, epitomised by André Breton’s Mad Love. Fascist bombs rained on Guernica and Hitler’s Third Reich was about to stomp across Europe, yet Breton wrote: “I have never ceased to believe that, among all the states through which humans can pass, love is the greatest supplier of solutions, being at the same time in itself the ideal place for the joining and fusion of these solutions.” (Three decades on, John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme nodded in agreement. As racial hatred raged across America, its triumphant choruses sought “resolution” through love, as well as the “pursuance” of this love resolution.)

Perhaps what we’re experiencing now is an interregnum that progressives need to ride out, need to struggle through, sustain ourselves by hope, by a love supreme, by friendship, believing there’s light somewhere beyond the darkness, some way still to do something sensible in the world. This too will pass. Hopefully. Perhaps we can use the time alone, in quarantine, to think collectively, to reflect together on how we might reconstruct the public realm of our cities, even the public realm of our lives. Maybe we need to start by thinking up a transitional “public sphere,” incorporating the virtual into the real, developing online links with others, collapsing the social distance on the outside through time-space compression on the inside, via our computer screens, through the Zoom communities that continue to sprout.

In our private households, we can plot another public world, do it together, from the underground, as it were, where dissidents and activists have traditionally hidden out when the political going has been rough. There we might reframe the notion of “intimacy,” tweak its meaning in the interim. With Zoom, after all, not only can we look into people’s faces: we can enter into their homes, too, into their personal spaces, see the art on their walls, the books on their bookshelves, the family photos, share a strange sociability and camaraderie that helps us almost touch one another. It’s not ideal, not the same as face-to-face encountering; but let’s use it nonetheless, let’s try and find partial nourishment in this interregnum, by sharing ideas, launching discussion and reading groups, webinars and virtual gatherings, talk and debate and listen to one another, organise one another, forge solidarity in kind, if not in person. It’s a first-cut attempt at scheming a new beginning.

There have been hints of what post-pandemic cities might do to bounce back. Usually this involves smaller-scale design rather than any vaster public planning. The key issue seems to be ushering in fresh air into urban life, creating cities that flourish in the open, in the public realm, making them al fresco playhouses, bringing a touch of Ancient Greece back into our civilisation, when open-air amphitheatres became scenes of mass political and intellectual communion. Researchers indicate that we’re twenty-times more likely to catch COVID-19 indoors than outdoors. So there’s need to reimagine a different open-air public life, more resilient to future pandemic, with different spaces and places, accessible spaces and places, with commercial and recreational activities that not only entice people back into cities, but offer enough to make us want to stay, to feel safe as well as stimulated.

Design initiatives propose squeezing roads to widen pedestrian sidewalks, enlarging café and restaurant terraces; radiant heating and cooling technology can extend outdoor seasonal usages. Future cities will be a lot greener, more walkable and bikeable. Cars and car-oriented infrastructure will get scaled back. Abandoned lots and obsolete multi-storey car parks might flourish as urban farms, using hydroponics, providing cheaper, fresher produce for neighbourhoods, on their doorsteps, minimising food miles and distribution costs. Such innovations now seem de rigueur, standard repertoires in design game-plans. Ditto opening up streets and parkland to vendors and commercial activity, reanimating open-air city retailing, allowing it to be improvised and spontaneous—maybe like it once was.

After decades of “quality of life” campaigns, this would be an enormous volte-face for a city like New York. Since the mid-1990s, during Giuliani’s mayoral years, Business Improvement Districts have waged war on unlicensed street activities, converting Manhattan into a glorified corporate suburban theme park, funnelling people into the chain malls and cleansing the streets of grubby diversity—of food stands and street peddlers, of artists and homeless booksellers, stuff that brought vitality to many sidewalks.

Al fresco city life has always thrilled our most romantic urbanists. Their ideal visions invariably affirmed the outdoors, the street. They sat in cafés, wrote books, fretted home alone; but their real muse was without a roof, amid the crowd, out on the sidewalk—no matter the weather. It was an open-air intimacy, amongst strangers. Poet Baudelaire suggested we embrace the crowd, bathe in the multitude, take universal communion, find ourselves as we get lost in public, merging with the masses, though not too close. Surrealist André Breton recognised his great heroine, Nadja, enjoyed being nowhere but in the street, “the only region of valid experience for her, in the street.” Nadja, the phantom woman who’d chosen for herself the name “Nadja,” because in Russian it marked the beginning of the word hope, and because she, Nadja, was only a beginning.

Lefebvre’s urban encounters were likewise street-based and streetwise. For him, streets were modes of attraction and assembly, of union and proximity, of human co-presence. Jane Jacobs said the liveliest streets have the most dynamic choreographies—“intricate street ballets,” she called them—changing with the time of day, never repeating themselves from place to place. We’ve seen some of these choreographies adapt and change over past months, as dancers dodge and sway, twirl with other members of the ensemble, guarding social distance on city streets everywhere.

But Jacobs knew that sidewalks needed more than just urban design to keep them alive, more than a street bench here, a charming park there. Design alone, she suggests, can only go so far. We need a bolder vision of how to reintroduce public life. How might we recapture the diversity and vitality dear to Jacobs’s heart? Especially since her cherished small businesses and street corner societies have been heading towards extinction.

Local commerce needs life-support even more than it did pre-COVID. 21,000 British small businesses went under during March’s lockdown. The British Chamber of Commerce fears as many as one million little enterprises might collapse soon, leaving empty shells and boarded up main streets across the land. New York lost 3,000 small businesses during its March quarantine. Many Manhattan street corners, even in neighbourhoods like Greenwich Village, are boarded up and graffiti-splattered. Big retail chains have made conscious choices to elope. After years of plundering Manhattan, seeing off little independent competitors, sucking life out of many New York blocks, big brands like Gap, J.C.Penney, Subway, Domino’s Pizza lead the charge out.

BD12A8A8-3E01-4AE5-9310-D9E7508C2CF1

We need a public action plan that restricts private interests chomping away at the common wealth. In our largest cities, this common wealth has been squandered by conspicuously wasteful large enterprises, administered by elites who thrive off unproductive activities: they roll the dice on the stock market, dance to shareholder delight, profit from unequal exchanges, guzzle at the public trough, filch rents and treat land and property as a pure financial asset, as another money-making racket. Invariably, too, they dodge their fair share of the tax burden. They leech blood money out of urban territories and underwrite what might be termed “parasitic city” development, antithetical to the “generative city” that any public action plan would now need to reinstigate.

Accumulated wealth ought to be reallocated to benefit ordinary people and public infrastructure. Top of this plan’s agenda is making city life viable for little businesses as well as little people. There’s need here to impose some kind of commercial rent and business rate control. When urban economies thrive, commercial landlords jack up rents, speculate and inflate property markets, become the “monstrous power” that Marx recognised. “One section of society,” Marx said, “demands a tribute from the other for the right to inhabit the earth.” In downturns, when the economy dips, landlords prefer to sit on vacant property, leave their premises empty until they find tenants able to pay the market rent, the inflated market rent. It’s a double whammy that inevitably works both ways against less resourceful tenants.

A carrot option for municipalities is to offer landlords tax incentives to release commercial space at more affordable rents, making it worth their while to see rents reduced. Yet there are harder alternatives, too, bolder policies that might be pursued, which necessitate a stick. One could be the creation of a “living rent” program, a landed counterpart to the living wage ordinances already passed in a lot cities around the world. A living rent would be a rent that enables small business owners to earn a living, to pay for a lease in accordance with their modest income streams. In a property market designed not to screw everybody, potential small business concepts might actually become real practical endeavours; little entrepreneurs are encouraged to take the risk, to go for it. A living rent would allow landlords to receive a rent-controlled return, a fair return, not an extortionate, parasitic return, subject to taxation at an appropriate rate. Leases would be negotiated over five year terms. At each renewal, living rents would be recalibrated according to the tenant’s past and prospective future earnings. Refusal of landlords to comply to living rent ordinances would mean that the municipality sequesters the property, procures it as a public landlord.

Imagine, in such an incubating culture, what little generative activities might flourish. By themselves, they’d be modest ventures. But scattered around a whole city, they’d collectively add up to a lot. They’d signal the return of the re-skilled worker in the city, empowered in their labour-process, answerable to themselves as well as their locale. These artisans would pioneer little start-ups the likes of which we’d already begun to glimpse, pre-COVID. In grungy, abandoned areas of town, we’ve seen micro-breweries and distilleries prosper in small-scale fabrication units. Let’s hope they continue to prosper, and have others emerge alongside, post-COVID: bakers and candlestick makers, bookbinders and printers, potters and carpenters, furniture repairers and cheese-makers, welders and sculptors, clothes and craft producers, artists and urban farmers. We can imagine them together, bringing a little diversity and curiosity back into the ’hood, adding vitality to an everyday ordinariness of grocery stores and corner delis, who’ll now equally be able to make the living rent.

Meantime, city officials need think hard about what they’re going to do with the glut of office space remote home-work now betokens, the new norm for the privileged white-collar employee. Much of this office space was speculatively built, produced by over-accumulated capital, colossally unnecessary even at the best of times. Now, at the worst of times, we have it, looming large, a dark cloud hanging over urban space, threatened with devaluation. It’s a lesson in how to kill a city, to make large swaths bland, the kind of blandness only money can buy. But here, again, imagine how vast open-planned floors could be rezoned and converted into affordable individual dwellings and family homes, with real space between partition walls, fitted out with balconies and breathable outdoor terraces. City governments could obtain the leases or the freeholds of these premises, recruit local architectural practices to engage in innovative designs; local construction companies might undertake the actual rehab itself.

Importantly, some of this affordable housing would need to be set aside for younger people. Since lockdown, millennials have undertaken a mass urban exodus, too, and this flight out continues everywhere, from New York and London, to Paris and Tokyo. Even before COVID-19, younger people were wilting under the pressure of exorbitant big city costs, enduring tiny domestic spaces because of the wealth of amenities outside, on their doorstep—the bars and restaurants, the theatres and art galleries, the cultural attractions, the sheer energy of flocks of people, the sense of opportunity. Yet given that many of these attractions remain closed today, costly big cities have quickly lost their lustre. Their bright lights have dimmed. Many millennials have left, some opting for cheaper small towns, others working remotely from their parent’s home, wondering if they’ll ever return to city life again.

It says a lot about our civilisation, about what’s gone wrong: young people fleeing cities because they’re too expensive, because the high cost is no longer worth the hassle, that the city’s promise has been a let down. It equally bodes badly for our urban future, when so much young creative capacity decides to up sticks, leaving a worrying urban footprint in its wake. Historically, cities were places where young people always flocked to, went there to liberate themselves, to grow up in public, as independent adults, beyond the grasp of their parents. The city was an existential rites of passage. Now, it’s an exit from a no exit. As the cost of living soared, the city’s romance was already talking about alimony.

Anybody who has ever watched French nouvelle vague cinema, directed by the likes of Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut and Louis Malle, will have felt this urban romance, imbibed its moody atmosphere. Much of the dialogue and action in these films unfolded in the street, in the everyday public realm, on a café terrace, up and down the boulevard, day and night. The city was a site where young people fell in and out of love, argued about politics, read books, discovered themselves, extended themselves. In cities you broadened your horizons, deepened your whole being. Few young people went motivated by money. Indeed, cities were places where the young preferred to be poor, because there you led a richly adventurous life. And the cold water affordability was part of the bargain, a fair exchange.

The city itself was portrayed here as a sort of Great Book, as a seat of higher learning, as an open-air library where one learned, received a humanist education about how to be a public person, with civic rights and responsibilities. There, almost unwittingly, you engaged in what the American educational philosopher Robert Hutchins once called “The Great Conversation.” How to initiate a Great Urban Conversation nowadays? How to get people talking again about the city in humanist terms? Not just map it on a moneyman’s spreadsheet, or run it through a technocrat’s algorithm. The Great Urban Conversation is to dialogue around our collective destiny. Might we find the civic leadership courageous enough, visionary and intelligent enough, to step up to the plate, to accept this challenge, to help us discover a new urban social contract together, to make our minds as well as our cities generative again? It’s hard to tell. Some days it seems impossible. Yet despite the apparent hopelessness, I can’t quite give up the ghost, can’t quite give up hope for a time beyond the coronavirus, beyond what we have now, beyond Trump, beyond Johnson—for a time when our urbanism might inspire rather than plague us.

*NOTE: I am very grateful to Bill Morrish, at New York’s New School, for helping me frame this discussion. Many of the ideas here are his own put into my words.

Posted in All | 1 Comment

September 11

Today, September 11, is a terrible date in New York’s collective memory, a day of mass death and destruction surpassed only by the coronavirus. But September 11 is also awful for New York in another sense: seven years back, the city’s great humanist critic, Marshall Berman, died of a heart attack. New York seemed smaller after Marshall’s death. Few modern thinkers ever thought about their hometown the way Marshall did. 

EDC4B3D7-4EB5-4741-A15E-D3A33FEF866D

I got to know Marshall well when I moved to New York at the millennium. He was enthusiastic about my coming. Terrif, he said, New York needs people like me, newcomers who care about it, who have the emotional resources to care, who open themselves up to the city, embrace it, who willingly want to live here rather than just grudgingly work here. He said as much in his co-op board letter, recommending my wife and I for the tiny apartment we were buying, seven blocks south of Marshall’s. I’m not sure the board really understood what he meant. I remember him saying, shortly afterward, something like: you have to love New York for its faults, you have to learn how to live with its faults, embrace them, embrace everything, warts and all. You have to look the negative in the face and live with it. Marshall knew I knew this was Hegel’s maxim, the speculative German philosopher who taught Marx plenty. In 1807, Hegel said: “Spirit is a power only by looking the negative in the face and living with it. Living with it is the magic power that converts the negative into being.” 

It was classic Marshall, his energy of thought. It was how he could be a positive critic, a man whose life and thought derived its strength from the depressive position, from the critic as artist. “The life of the spirit isn’t the life that shrinks from death and keeps itself untouched by devastation,” said Hegel, “but rather the life that endures it and maintains itself in it. It wins its truth only when, in utter dismemberment, it finds itself.” This is maybe why Marshall could write such memorable lines like: “Even as New York fell apart, it rose.” I wonder now, hearing Marshall’s voice in my head, whether he was really warning somehow, telling people something we should heed, something I thought I was able to heed: looking the negative in the face and living with it, not walking away from it.

I’d learned so much from listening and reading Marshall. The pages of his masterpiece All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, devoted to “Modernism in the Streets,” are particularly inspiring, some of the best Marshall ever wrote. He was proud to have written them: “People have especially enjoyed my take on Baudelaire,” he said, “on the connections between metropolitan life and inner life.” “I’ve had many happy hours ‘doing’ Baudelaire, bringing out his romance of a city of crowds, vibrating with mutual fantasy and desire.” “Baudelaire imagines a new form of writing that is also a new form of urban development,” Marshall said, “and also a new form of democratic citizenship, and also a new way of being alive.” 

I’ve often wondered whether this is Baudelaire talking, or Marshall. I’m rooting for Marshall. He makes Baudelaire better, more hopeful, less exclusively French, more universal, more eternal: so long as we have cities, Marshall’s Baudelaire will always lurk around some dark corner, even at its darkest hours. As ever, it’s an interpretation that comes with a dialectical twist. “We can hope, as Baudelaire sometimes hoped, for a future in which joy and beauty, like the city lights, will be shared by all,” Marshall said. “But our hope is bound to be suffused by the self-ironic sadness that permeates Baudelaire’s city air.” 

I hung out a lot with him in my New York’s years. He always made an effort to see me. He incorporated me into his daily life, which revolved around childminding, looking after his son Danny, a little boy back then. We’d sometimes sit in the park, at the end of my street, West 93rd, across from the Turin apartment building. A gap in the wall led to a path up to the kids “Hippo Park,” to a family of hippopotamuses wallowing in a soft foam lake. I’d sit on one hippo while Marshall sat awkwardly on another larger hippo, the pop hippo. It wasn’t most people’s idea of great intellectual, sitting on a hippo in a tie dye t-shirt on a summer’s morning, in a pair of shorts and sandals. But Marshall wasn’t your average great intellectual. 

C7BB2E1A-33B9-4A8C-A4D4-556B626DA2C7

He sometimes pointed stuff out, indicated across the street, to somebody who once lived in that building over there, to some incident a while back in the park here, when you couldn’t walk around after twilight. To see kids back in the park, he said, was wonderful. He could remember a time when there were no kids. You can’t understand everyday city life, he said, without kids. And you can’t understand kids in cities without playgrounds. Grace Paley knew that, he said. Some of his happiest moments have been in playgrounds, with his own kids, seeing other smiling families, moms and pops of all colors, talking all kinds of languages, goofing around with their kids.

Marshall loved Grace Paley because of kids. He quoted a Paley line in many pieces he wrote, the same line, over and over again. I guess it spoke to him somehow. It said something about kids, and about his cherished, long lost South Bronx: “the block is burning down on one side of the street, and the kids are trying to build something on the other.” The twin plagues besieging New York and America nowadays would have tested Marshall’s optimism. He never did live to see Greta Thunberg’s generation. But he may be right yet: those kids across the street, in the charred ruins we’ve left them, are trying to build something else. 

We miss you, Marshall

Posted in All | Leave a comment

Easy on Main

Earlier this week I was fortunate enough to participate in a Zoom book launch of Mindy Thompson Fullilove’s latest creative endeavor, Main Street. I plead guilty to a certain partisan partiality here, because I wrote its foreword. A hundred-plus kindred tuned in across global time zones, drifting in from Japan and France, the UK, onwards over both US coasts. But the real epicenter of the encounter was Orange, New Jersey, Mindy’s hometown, base camp for her political and educational exploits. If ever there were any awards for a New Jersey “organic intellectual” (in the Gramscian sense), Mindy would bag the lot each year. Friends, family, and a diverse array of people touched and influenced by her work, several New Jersey town mayors included, all joined in the party, feting Mindy.

Main Street appears as another instalment of Mindy’s attempt to ward off bad urban karma. She may hail from the East yet acts like the Good Witch of the North, knowing that behind every evil spell lies a counter-spell to undo it, one that can change the course of the hurricane. She knows that while there are plenty of evil spells fracturing US neighborhoods, counter-spells can unite them; that while evil spells create division and hate, counter-spells spread joy and love; that while evil spells turn life into a dark puzzle, counter-spells unpuzzle, make life collectively human and thrilling.

One of Mindy’s best spells is no hocus pocus. It insists that communities discover what they’re FOR, find something that might bring people together in a positive sense, affirming the creative, not merely denouncing the negative. Part of this magic is earthily unmagical; it asks communities to look within themselves, to see what they’ve already got, to reclaim their hidden assets, not just commiserate their more obvious deficits. It’s as easy, and as complex, as ABCD—Asset-Based Community Development. Find solidarity, celebrate your achievements, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant.

Such a spirit infuses Main Street, her companion volume to two previous hits, Root Shock and Urban Alchemy, the fulfilment of an urban trilogy pursuing the theme of what’s wrong and what’s right about urban America. Scott Fitzgerald said in The Crack-Up that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.” Under the awful presidential watch of Trump, this is the agenda Mindy has now set herself.

Mindy’s text was written before Covid-19 assailed the world, killing and upending social life as we once knew it. But with its priority accorded to acts of human kindness and community solidarity, Main Street’s program is crucial during crisis. Implicit within its pages is the message that those old inequities, the short-term greed and divisions that pervade our society, that have been manufactured by our leaders, can no longer cut it; business-as-usual economic distancing must never return. As I write, not a few of Mindy’s Main Streets will see their commerce on the brink of collapse, if they haven’t collapsed already. An early victim was her beloved Irish pub, Coogan’s, in Washington Heights, shutting its doors under New York’s March lockdown, never to reopen. (A special part of Mindy’s book launch was presenting a “Love my ’Hood” award to Coogan’s former owner Peter Walsh, a man now pledging to fight for small businesses throughout the land.)

Some of the wonderful characters she introduces to us may also be no more. And yet, Mindy shows us why these Main Streets lived on so vibrantly in the first place, and why it is vital for our public health that we keep them in life. At a time when presidents and prime ministers bully and sprout lies, Main Street assembles a series of gentle voices and honest testimonies. We listen up as Mindy scours the Main Streets of a hundred and seventy eight cities in fourteen countries. Her avowed mission is nothing less than “to discern the contribution of Main Street to our collective mental health.”

Mindy’s Main Streets are full of cells and soft tissue where streets are arteries that need to flow to nourish the entire body politic. But Main Streets need independent structuring as well, a particular set of architectonics in order to function healthily. They’ll require clear demarcations, specific relationships to surrounding buildings, and definite borders—borders that are open and porous, that loop and curl into backstreets, that have walkable links and accessible transit connections all around. Main Streets need to be discrete though not too discrete: they can’t be ghettos hacked off from the rest of the city, engulfed on all sides by busy highways.

Mindy has drifted through a lot of Main Streets, walked them, observed, talked to people, ordinary people as well as professional practitioners. While she got to pace many miles of New York’s Broadway, ate French patisseries as a flâneuse in Gay Paree, sipped çay in Istanbul, and chilled in Kyoto’s dazzling Zen temples, her real concern is Main Street, USA, the more modest main stems of provincial America. There, she paints her canvas as sensitively as Edward Hopper, touching up with a few hues he left out. She has us journey to Baltimore and Brattleboro, Charlottesville and Cleveland, Memphis and Minneapolis, Salt Lake City and St. Louis. Many more of her Main Streets are closer to home, in New Jersey—in Asbury Park and Englewood, in Jersey City and Livingston, in Maplewood and Newark, in Tenafly, and, of course, in Orange.

She even pays homage to Sauk Centre, Minnesota, with its daddy Main Street of them all, the Main Street Sinclair Lewis used for Main Street, his 1920 allegory of the narrowness of small town USA. “Main Street is a frustrating book,” Mindy writes near the end of her own Main Street. Carol Kennicott, Lewis’s protagonist, “is perfectly good and perfectly inept,” she says. “But the narrator’s deeper impatience is with the status quo and its ability to suck the life out of good people who want to make things better.”

It’s hard to imagine life getting sucked out of Mindy. During her launch, she read out passages from her book, and we got a flavor of its paean to the complexity and diversity of human life, to the beauty of it, but also to the difficulties of it. While listening, I could visualize Mindy strolling through Main Street America on a sunny Sunday afternoon, looking and hearing, interrogating the cityscape with compassionate embrace. For my bit in the evening’s proceedings, I suggested that if ever she needed a theme tune for these jaunts, and for her book, I’d like to propose Thelonious Monk’s “Easy Street.” It’s a number that bobs along with the same playfulness, the same lyricism, the same dissonant chords and off-kilter rhythms of urban daily life itself, and of Mindy’s evocations of it.

Nonetheless, there’s a little dialectical twist to the jaunt: Easy Street is something of an ideal rather than a reality these days, a vision that’s economically and politically under fire. Easy Street’s sweet life won’t come about easily. None of this, of course, was lost on Monk himself. We might remember that “Easy Street” appears on his album Underground, released in 1968, a year as racially fractious and fraught as our own. Its sleeve image has become almost as famous as the music inside—Monk at an upright piano, in his beat-up subterranean lair, coming on like Ralph Ellison’s invisible man, a resistance fighter and urban guerrilla glaring at the camera, telling us he’s taking no more fascist shit.

It’s quite probable, then, that for Main Street to become Easy Street, for love to trump hate, we’ll need to engage in similar combat, in some kind of struggle and resistance, battling the injustice and autocracy everywhere in our midst. And so I think Mindy leaves us with a vision of urbanism and society not only worth endorsing and cherishing, but also something to fight for, to struggle over. Thank you, Mindy, for giving us such a precious gift of hope, a tool kit for our post-pandemic future.

 

Posted in All | Leave a comment

ANDRÉ GREGORY — Living With His Art

Review Essay of André Gregory, This Is Not My Memoir (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, November, 2020)

Ah yes. My impulsiveness had its consequences, my dear Mr. Brack”
—Ibsen, Hedda Gabler

Theater director André Gregory has had an eye gouged out in the blockbuster Demolition Man, been ankle deep in Martin Scorsese’s holy waters, raving as John the Baptist, and menaced as the creepy missionary in Mosquito Coast; yet his truer to life screen persona is the ageing hippie twiddling his beads at the beginning of Vanya on 42nd Street, bobbing along merrily in the midtown throng to Joshua Redman’s jazz groove “Chill.”

In the late 1980s, Gregory began reenacting Chekhov in the boarded up Broadway jewel, the ruined Victory Theatre, giving the Russian country estate a grungy New York makeover. He’d persuaded a small group of celebrity actors—Julianne Moore and Wallace Shawn included—to show up in their spare time to rehearse Uncle Vanya, actually for years, in a marathon odyssey that often performed complete run-throughs in front of family and friends. In 1994, Louis Malle shot the entire play, in the dilapidated New Amsterdam Theatre, a space that once housed the Ziegfeld Follies. Built in 1903, four years after Chekhov’s play premiered, there Malle and Gregory borrowed a little corner of the crumbling theater, gnawed away by rats, to create beautiful art in the ruins.

549DBAD1-724D-4C5C-BD66-C57468600259

Gregory himself is something of a maestro of ruins. He’s directed many plays in ruined theaters, ruined castles, ruined men’s clubs, ruined riding stables. Why so many ruins? he once wondered. Probably because he’s a director allergic to formal theaters. In New Amsterdam’s ruins, Gregory’s actors chat to each other, complain of being tired, pour tea, set up the table, arrange the bench, organize the chairs, the sofa. “Drink?” actor Phoebe Brand asks Larry Pine, who plays Doctor Astrov. “No. No thank you,” Pine replies. “I don’t want it somehow.” “A little Vodka?” wonders Brand. “Not today,” says Pine. “How long have we known each other?” Pine enquires. “How long,” Brand says, “Lord, let me see…Eleven years. More.” “How much have I changed?” Pine asks. “Very much I think,” says Brand, “your looks have faded.” “Ah,” Pine laments, “I have become a different man.”

Then, all of a sudden, Malle’s camera shifts. Now we can see what Brand and Pine were seeing: a tiny audience before them, with André Gregory on the front row. He’s grinning like the Cheshire Cat. We’ve been watching Chekhov for a while; the play had already begun, even before we realized it. Doctor Astrov and Marina were dialoging the opening act, in a brilliantly seamless shift between the street and stage, between modern life and modern art. Gregory said this “was what it feels like to live a life”—not just perform one. Now, he’s written a book all about it, about his theater of life.

***
The Cheshire Cat springs to mind because of Alice in Wonderland, Gregory’s first great experimental success of the 1970s. But we also sense this Cheshire Cat grinning at us in This Is Not My Memoir, Gregory’s new “autobiography,” written in collaboration with the theater scholar Todd London; his dizzy and wondrous life, “filtered over time through the prism of selected memory.” Occasionally, he’s just as elusive as Lewis Carroll’s fabled cat, vanishing when we’d like him to linger longer, to say a bit more about himself and his ripping yarns. On the other hand, this is what makes This Is Not My Memoir such a great read, so tantalizing, so wonderful in its lightness of touch, in the sort of fullness it conveys in its absence.

Maybe this is what Beckett meant by “Not I,” where his mouthpiece defines herself similarly through a negative, feeling inclined to let out a scream. Gregory knows this scream only goes so far: after all, This Is Not My Memoir is no Aristotelian catharsis, no emotional release, no bleeding heart laid bare on the page. The telling of Gregory’s life, like the performing of his theater, is more Brechtian in its “V-effekt,” keeping readers sufficiently at arm’s length, letting us understand rather than get too emotionally attached. Then again, perhaps this is just Gregory being mischievous with that other Brecht maxim: “SIMPLER AND WITH MORE LAUGHTER.”

And This is Not My Memoir is a genuinely funny book, even if sometimes it’s a painful read, a schizoid tale of two André’s: a struggling one, the portrait of a frustrated artist as an angry young man, and a mature Everyman, who later finds peace with himself, a way to live with as well as in his art. We can guffaw out loud at rookie André’s outrageous mishaps, at his theatrical birth-pangs and romantic excesses. But the main narrative thrust of this Bildungsroman is of a man at war, frequently with himself.

There’s another battlefront going on in This Is Not My Memoir: a war against Gregory’s father who’d gone so far as to escape tyrants, son says, only to end up as one himself. Dad was rich, Zelig-like, cozying up to both communism and capitalism, aiding Trotsky, exporting furs to the US, becoming Moscow’s main man for the dodgy German chemical cartel I.G. Farben (immortalized by Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow). He quit Soviet Russia for Weimar Berlin, made a fortune in Marlene Dietrich’s city, drove a fancy car, worked to reunite with his wife, stuck in Russia, while carousing with a glamorous girlfriend, a dancer at the Berlin Opera. After Hitler came to power, Gregory’s parents fled to Paris, where André was born, in 1934, later traveling to London, and onwards to America, to New York.

How did his father do it? son asks. “Did he cut deals to get out? Was he a calculating and lucky survivor, a rat, or both?” One problem for Gregory, and this emerges early on in This Is Not My Memoir, was guilt, that he was a privileged trust fund kid, a dependent, living off the back of a Jewish businessman father who may have collaborated with the Nazis. It’s a dreadful skeleton in the family closet. And yet, thanks to dad, never having to fret about earning a living, son could throw himself headlong into art. He could be absorbed by theater as dad had been absorbed by business.

Mother and father were great survivors, says Gregory, yet lousy parents, “negligent and self-absorbed, petty and often mean.” “My mother was witty, stylish, and sarcastic,” he says, “but for all the romance around her, she was, to me, unknowable.” Gregory’s father passed away a few years after his son’s global success with My Dinner with André. On the sly, he’d replaced the Marc Chagall he’d bought in Paris in the 1930s (fake as it turned out) with a My Dinner with André poster. Not long afterward, aged eighty-four, about to croak, father and son finally found some kind of reconciliation. “We are alike, you and I,” dad admitted. “You build a role the way I build a building.” Son could have been a great lawyer, dad commiserated. Dad hated son marching on Washington, protesting the Vietnam war. Yet it didn’t matter what side we’re on, dad said. “What matters is that we are both men of principle. And that we stand by our principles.”

Decades on, André has stood by his principles, though his lack of a real father figure has always had son on the look out for a mentor. Bertolt Brecht, the German director and playwright, was an early one, dead before Gregory got to him—only just. But Gregory did manage to get to Brecht’s widow, Helene Weigel. A two-week pilgrimage to East Germany in 1958, to visit Brecht’s famed Berliner Ensemble, turned into a transformative two-month sojourn. Weigel found him a little apartment, introduced him to the actors, had him over for tea, was incredibly hospitable, maybe even tried to seduce him. Gregory, so wrapped up in Brecht’s theater of miracles, in a scary city, devastated by war, swarming with toughs and Soviet tanks and goose-stepping East German soldiers, hadn’t noticed. An affair with Weigel? What had he missed? He was only twenty-four, and “didn’t realize that women in their fifties had sex.” “Don’t pay any attention to Bert’s bullshit and theoretical nonsense,” Weigel teased him. “Just look at the work. Look at the work, and see what you see.”

Gregory’s other enduring influence was Jerzy Grotowski. His theories and provocative plays with the Polish Laboratory Theatre stunned audiences everywhere. Mythical and mystical with a long wispy beard, Grotowski was a guru who became Gregory’s friend, mentor and brother all rolled into one. At first, Gregory knew Grotowski only by reputation, and by the latter’s Towards a Poor Theatre, released in that heady year of 1968. By then Gregory had already experimented with poor theater himself, having a string of misfires in regional theaters.

In Seattle, he’d put on Max Frisch’s Firebugs, a drama about two clown-faced arsonists pretending to be traveling salesmen, modeled on Hitler and Goebbels. Everywhere they went ended up in flames, like Gregory’s production—brilliant yet excessive, it was too much for a little theater to take. In Philadelphia came Rochelle Owens’s Beclch, about a bored suburban housewife who runs off to “an Africa of the subconscious,” where she fucks the locals and eats them. Gregory’s audience wore masks to transform them into jungle natives; musicians stood in a mud pit; a chemist friend of Gregory’s created a magic potion smelling of rotting flesh; a few drops gave a putrid smell so intense that it permeated the theater’s carpets and upholstery; people vomited. It created such a scandal that Time magazine ran a four-page spread on Beclch; the drama became a big drama, an overnight sensation, and Gregory an enfant terrible. The play sold out for weeks. But the theater’s board, terrified by its notoriety, fired him.

Then Watts, an African American neighborhood in Los Angeles that had revolted in 1965. There they wanted a director who could work with the school board, put on a few quality productions to turn kids as well as adults on to theater. André was their man, hand-picked by none other than Hollywood icon Gregory Peck. André opened with Molière’s Tartuffe, casting the young unknown black actor Lou Gossett to play Tartuffe, who would kiss Elmire, his white lover. The scene bothered the powers that be. Gregory took the kiss out. But the repressed desire only aroused audiences even more, such that the Catholic Church shut the play down.

He planned Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle next. But wasn’t Brecht a “dirty commie”? So Gregory switched to Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie; how could that offend? Only after he had cast a black actor as the Gentleman caller. People in high up Hollywood places didn’t approve. The mogul George Cukor tried to persuade Gregory to ditch the black guy; Gregory, appalled by the racism, told him where to go. Peck got wind. They met. He, too, tried to gently dissuade. Soon a heated argument erupted, and Peck “slugged me,” Gregory says; “another regional theater, another disaster. Three strikes. I was out.”

***
Every great artist, it’s said, has the sense of provocation. Gregory knew he was provoking, knew he was challenging theatergoers as well as theater owners; he probably knew he was blazing a trail of scorched earth for himself, coming across like Stephen Dedalus, James Joyce’s young artist hero: arrogant, angry, and arch. “I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely and as wholly as I can,” Stephen had declared, and journeyman André concurs. He would never kowtow to any power, institutional or otherwise. Not so fast: Stephen’s friend Cranly reminded how all budding artists come to grief against reality’s hard facts. Thus for Gregory: “I was thirty-three,” he says, “and couldn’t get a job as a dogcatcher.”

As his dream of being the new Stanislavski lay in tatters, the dean of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts invited our dogcatcher to do a six-week workshop with the school’s first class of graduating students. What could he teach? Why what else but Grotowski, improvising and doing drills with a well-thumbed copy of Towards a Poor Theatre. “If the theater cannot be richer than cinema,” said Grotowski, “then let it be poor. If it cannot be as lavish as television, then let it be ascetic. If it cannot be a technical attraction, let it renounce all outward technique.”

Grotowski’s productions, like Gregory’s, never played to the mass theatergoers. Rehearsals lasted for months, sometimes years; actors underwent fiercely disciplined training, learning how to use their bodies in strange and demanding ways, contorting them, becoming the props as well as the stage; voices were adapted to create disturbing sounds, used as music in the face of an elimination of music. Audiences, too, were compelled to overcome themselves, to transcend their limitations, to enter into an emotional and metaphysical dialogue with the actors.

Inspired by Grotowski, Gregory and his loose cohort of graduating NYU students formed the Manhattan Project, after the US’s atomic weapons program of the 1940s—as peace-loving irony and because they were sure they’d bomb. Instead, they created one of biggest theatrical hits of the 1970s: Alice in Wonderland, bringing a little Polish Laboratory Theatre verve to New York’s shoestring avant-garde scene. Reworking the kids classic as post-’68 adult agitprop, actors and audience took a giddy psychic trip down the proverbial rabbit hole. The stage became a dream space in which explosive laughter and delinquent lunacy mingled with a sinister atmosphere of edgy unease; those present plunged deep down into unconscious terrors.

If the madness was exaggerated, if the Mad Hatter really was mad, it was only to stress the reality of our scarily mad world. A cast of six invited you into Alice’s underground; audiences entered a bleak converted Lower Manhattan chapel via a makeshift rabbit hole. Alice’s sudden size changes were achieved through skilful body manipulation; umbrellas became trees; people croquet balls; actors descending underground literally did fall; legs became rungs on ladders; tables a house; arms a hookah puffed on by a caterpillar who’s an actor on the backs of four others, forming a mushroom. “Our production concept might be said to be this,” Gregory says: “How could a group of children limited to a padded cell create an entire world.”

Alice in Wonderland ran for four rollicking years. The Manhattan Project had eight years of “mind-bending fun,” of experimental globetrotting, playing in a Berlin Riding Rink, an abandoned Italian 17th century dungeon, and an onion and garlic packing factory in Persia. Days and nights were full of laughter and wonderment, bringing hysterics to audiences wherever they went. But somehow, by 1975, the music was over; there was no other side to break on through to. Fun and magic gave way to argument and resentment. The crew disbanded, acrimoniously. The end of the Manhattan Project was André’s end, “a death for me,” he says. At least for a while. He gave up directing, seemed to give up everything. “I had had success after success, internationally and at home,” he muses, “but something was wrong. There was something I was still unable to express.” So began the wilderness years, his journey into a midlife crisis, closer and closer to mental collapse.

Curiously, around this time Grotowski had also walked away from theater, dropped out, entered into a new phase, experimenting with what he was calling “paratheater.” He retreated to a site thirty miles outside Wroclaw, the staging for his “Laboratorium” paratheatrical projects. A lost Gregory went there to find himself, discovering a huge, magical forest “with a group of forty Polish rebels and hippies Jerzy had gathered for me.” “I was unmoored from anything I knew,” he says. They camped out together, started work at sunset, improvised throughout the night, formed and reformed groups, played out small scenes, communicated with their bodies and sounds, not with words. When the sun rose, they sang and danced and went off to eat a breakfast of bread and jam, cheese and tea. Nothing ever tasted as good.

What was amazing about these workshops, Gregory recalled in My Dinner with André, “was how quickly people seemed to fall into enthusiasm, celebration, joy, wonder, abandon, wildness, tenderness. Could we stand to live like that? I mean, maybe we’re just simply afraid of living?” These encounters had people follow the “laws of theatrical improvisation”—do whatever your impulse as the character tells you to do—except now, André says, in the improvisation, the theme is oneself: you are character; you have no imaginary situation to protect you, no other person to hide behind.

My Dinner with André was Gregory’s own paratheatrical interlude, his most famous work, a crucial transitional point; “poor cinema,” we might call it, a low-budget adventure. This is Not My Memoir is reserved about My Dinner with André. It’s almost as if Gregory is conscious that it is well-trodden ground, that he’s said a lot about it already, that the film speaks for itself, now more than ever, that he never stops talking about himself there, tells all. Besides, Gregory is clear: his current book isn’t a memoir; he didn’t want to work over the past again, not in its entirety, that this was selected memory on show. Why read this book when you can just watch the film. Everything he says in My Dinner with André is true anyway: he really did go to Grotowski’s forest, did eat sand with a Buddhist monk in the Sahara, was buried alive in a mock Montauk graveyard. He really was a husband and a father who put himself, and his art, before everything else, before anyone else.

He does tell us that the film’s genesis was a phone call from old friend Wally Shawn, saying something like, “Listen, I know what you’re going through, and when I’m your age I don’t want to go through it myself. So in order for me to prevent that, what do you think of the two of us sitting together, you telling me your stories, and out of that we might create a talking heads TV show?” Wally spent countless hours transcribing Gregory, paring down his dialogue into a script—one of the longest screenplays ever, perhaps the longest speaking role in the history of film! They managed to raise enough money, and persuade Louis Malle to film it.

Malle told Gregory that the camera sees everything, that Gregory needed to “talk faster.” This would take his mind off acting. He needed to become “André,” “a character who is driven, obsessed, and narcissistic, who delights in the sound of his own voice.” Was this the real Gregory, or an actor pretending to be “André”? One major reason why My Dinner with André touched audiences, challenged and charmed in equal measure, was that this process of finding oneself isn’t the exclusive domain of André: it’s the plight of all of us. Are we playing roles in our lives, performing in front of others? Or are we being true to ourselves, affirming our authentic selves?

When My Dinner with André appeared during Ronald Reagan’s first-term, Gregory thinks the film’s alarm bells about creeping fascism and corporate totalitarianism went unheard. We thought it bad enough then under a Hollywood B-actor’s watch. What to make today of André bemoaning the modern world’s incapacity to express real feeling, overwhelmed by air-conditioning and political-conditioning, by feverish right-wing demagogy. People no longer have time to think, André said, no longer want to think. André spoke about alienation like a young Karl Marx, only now its twenty-first century mystification: “We’re all bored, and somebody who’s bored is asleep. And somebody who’s asleep will not say no.” “But has it ever occurred to you, Wally,” André confronts his friend, “that the process which creates this boredom that we see in the world now may very well be a self-perpetuating unconscious form of brainwashing created by a world totalitarian government based on money?”

“You see, Wally, the trouble with always being active and doing things is that it’s quite possible to do all sorts of things and at the same time be completely dead inside . . . if you’re just living mechanically, then you have to change your life.” It’s time to stop acting, quit performing, be done with the clatter and bullshit around you, inside you. “I think there comes a time when you need to do that,” André says at the end of My Dinner with André; the restaurant has emptied out; all the other diners seem to have left hours ago; Satie’s Gymnopédie #1 starts to play. “Now maybe in order to do it, you have to go to the Sahara, and maybe you can do it at home. But you need to cut out the noise…”

***
Sitting on the beach at Truro, Cape Cod, an octogenarian Gregory has finally learned how to cut out the noise—from his life and from inside his head. The noise has been silenced by radiant light, flooding into his twilight days, now shared with his second wife, filmmaker Cindy Kleine, the creator of “powerful, weird and wonderful documentaries.” She’s twenty-four years his junior. Yet they’re both talkers, love the same movies, laugh at the same things, love one another enough that an ageing André at last loves his life, appreciating what Picasso said as the Grim Reaper haunted: “It takes a very long time to become young.” Kleine has given Gregory something Scott Fitzgerald thought impossible in America: a second act.

1F0E11EE-BF7E-4E06-B641-F9D9887CB061It was she who’d brought him to Cape Cod, where, from Longnook dunes, he now stares out to sea, overwhelmed by its beauty, by an ocean reflecting the blue of the sky, by the reddish hue of the sand. “The water’s azure and aquamarine mix with colors I’ve never seen before. I weep.” He gazes at the light; it’s pure Edward Hopper, who’d similarly adored the light and colors, building his little house nearby, in South Truro, perched on a cliff overlooking the bay; “and, again,” says Gregory, “tears come to my eyes.”

That light has even illuminated the artist in him—not the director of plays, which tend to be sad affairs, but the novice painter, joyously engaging with the world anew, even as it politically falls apart, undergoes a Biblical meltdown with tyrants and plague. In painting watercolors and drawing in pencil, Gregory has learned how to look again, at trees and bicycles, at old typewriters, at telephones and film-projectors, at colors and tones, looking in childlike wonderment. To paint is to love again, Henry Miller had famously said, at a similar ripe old age.

“To live and love, and to give expression to it,” Miller reckoned, “one must be a true believer. There must be something to worship.” Gregory has become a true believer, has learned how to do both, to paint and to love, perhaps is still learning. He’s found something to worship, a woman and an avocation. “I love doing something I don’t know how to do, returning to a ‘beginner’s mind’.” He’s again like Stephen Dedalus, Joyce’s young artist, only now Gregory’s an old guy, a Bloom; in Ulysses, the protofascist headmaster, Mr. Deasy, fears Stephen won’t last long as a teacher; it wasn’t his vocation. “A learner rather,” Stephen rejoins. “To learn one must be humble. But life is the great teacher.”

Sixty seemed to have been the turning point for Gregory, some kind of ontological break, a rift between an angry man and an Everyman, a wiser man who’s graduated with honors from life’s great teachings. It was a turning point punctuated by grief, by the death of wife Chiquita, after half a decade’s battle with breast cancer. Some of the most moving parts of This Is Not My Memoir have Gregory tell about his marriage to Chiquita, “the quality and taste of life with the woman I shared it with for thirty-three years.” They were always terrific friends and supportive of each other’s desires and needs. And yet, the poignancy jars, when he admits: “We didn’t, though, talk about the most important things: what was going on between us.” We dug a hole for ourselves, he says, “a hole of silence and evasion.”

When Chiquita died, Gregory had already been rehearsing Uncle Vanya for a while. Could he return to it? He felt so alone, so grief-stricken, that he called the Vanya actors to see if they might work again, maybe for another eight weeks, do it for sad André, help release him from the pain of mourning. Malle himself was ailing, had undergone open-heart surgery. But he agreed to come, to film the valedictory run-through. (It would be Malle’s own cinematic farewell, dying the following year from lymphoma.) It was “an exquisite experience,” Gregory says, filming our Vanya, New York-style, not just recording the play but capturing the company’s walk to the theater, the coffee breaks between acts, the exit afterward, the whole spontaneous feeling of an event that had been rehearsed for years.

A3A1DC25-3626-42E2-9A13-C12C0628219D

“Great!” says director André, re-entering the frame right at the end, putting his arms around his actors, smiling. It’s our Cheshire Cat again. Malle’s camera continues to run even as the curtain goes down, or would have gone down had there been a curtain. It was Gregory’s greatest theatrical achievement, and somehow he knows it, even back then, talking brilliantly about it in This Is Not My Memoir, the best section of his endearing book. (Grotowski knew it, too. After watching Gregory’s Vanya, he’d said, himself staring death in the face, “you don’t need to see any more theater. See this film every day, and you will understand the nature of theater.”) It was like Gregory had said all along: “Vanya is a rehearsal that gets deeper and deeper until you forget it’s a rehearsal.” “What can we do, Uncle?” Sonya wonders at the close. “All we can do is live,” she sighs. “We will live through a long row of days,” she says. “And through endless evenings. And somehow we’ll bear up.”

Gregory is bearing up to the final countdown rehearsing Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, his ongoing project, a sequel to the Master Builder’s great fall. Gregory is still standing, planning on premiering Hedda at 103. If he doesn’t make it, his wife, he says, will kill him. There’s no promise he’ll ever finish. But no matter. Isn’t the joy of work in the doing? he asks, in the process itself? In Ibsen’s play, the eponymous heroine says, “I mean, for me, it’s a liberation to know that an act of spontaneous courage is yet possible in the world. An act that has something of unconditional beauty.” Hedda is talking about the suicide of a former lover; but for Gregory this act of spontaneous courage has been life itself, an unconditional beauty—in spite of it all. It’s taken him a long while to realize it, to watch himself blossom, finally be himself. We see his late Blooming self unfold before us at the close of This Is Not My Memoir. What kind of scandal might old man Gregory stir up with Hedda Gabler? We’ll have to wait and see, be as patient as his rehearsals, knowing that, if nothing else, by opening night there’ll be one less virus in the world to contend with.

Posted in All | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Surrealist Encounters—When We Could Still Have Them

In June 1933, launching the first issue of the Surrealist magazine, Minotaure, [1] poets André Breton and Paul Éluard conducted a survey that posed two questions to its readers: “What do you consider the most important encounter of your life? To what extent did this encounter strike you as being fortuitous, or preordained?” These questions seemed to be a mould for some special pass key, one that could unlock a buried treasure trove of the mind. Once unearthed, a profound emotional response is triggered; nobody is immune from it. Doesn’t everyone, if they really thought about it, have an encounter they’d consider the most important of their life?

What would Breton have said himself? Maybe it was his encounter with Nadja, the luminous adventure he’d recount in his “novel” Nadja, from 1928? Somehow he’d be effected forever more. He had never seen such eyes before. Was Nadja fated to enter his life? Nadja, the phantom woman who’d chosen for herself the name “Nadja” because in Russian it marked the beginning of the word for hope, and because she, Nadja, was only a beginning. One of the strangest romances ever written, Nadja leads us into that liminal zone where dream and reality blur and where we’re left wondering if any of this really happened at all—this infatuation with a woman, this infatuation with the streets of Paris.

Often we’re not sure if Nadja is a person or an event or a metaphor for the Surrealist city itself, or just a figment of Breton’s fertile and sometimes febrile imagination, an unconscious wish-image. Perhaps it’s all those things. “Who is the real Nadja,” Breton wrote. “The one who told me she had wandered all night in the forest of Fontainebleau with an archaeologist who was looking for some remains which, certainly, there was plenty of time to find by daylight… I mean, is the real Nadja this always inspired and inspiring creature who enjoyed being nowhere but in the streets, the only region of valid experience for her, in the streets?”

And yet, she was real. Nadja really did exist, a twenty-something woman, semi-destitute, alone, a beguiling presence, perhaps a bit mad. Or maybe she was made mad by a world ill-equipped for her, a woman free from conventional appearances and conventional discretion, from conventional behaviour, a woman, Breton said, who seemed to “foment a private conspiracy” inside her own head, inside her own imagination. Nothing about Nadja’s sense appeared common.

Hailing from the curiously named Saint-André, a commune now part of metropolitan Lille, in Northern France, Nadja’s real name was Léona Delcourt, born 1902. In 1919, aged seventeen, she’d had a fling with an English soldier, who’d stuck around after the Great War, the result of which was Marthe, Léona’s illegitimate daughter. The birth, in 1920, caused a scandal; not wanting to bring shame to her family, Léona immediately escaped to Paris, leaving baby Marthe with her grandparents. The mother had to save herself somehow. Léona was now her past. Her only future was Nadja, her new beginning. [2]

E6AAA343-428E-4010-B487-4092A3554409

With no high-school diploma and little means, in fragile health (asthmatic) and with few prospects, Nadja lived in a shabby rented room at the Hotel Becquerel, rue Becquerel, in Montmartre. Her ambition, never realized, was to work in fashion. She refused a job offer in theatre because of insultingly poor pay. She sat in cafés instead, often writing letters, walked the streets, occasionally went to the cinema; for a while she had an elderly male “benefactor.” One time Nadja was arrested at the Gare du Nord for transporting two kilos of cocaine in her handbag and hat, bought in the Hague. Never an addict, nor any kind of real trafficker, she took the risk only for the money. Still, it was clear to the police then that she was a psychologically troubled young woman. They questioned her at the 18th arrondissement’s police station, releasing her later without charge. (One of the few written records of Nadja’s existence—still officially “Léona Delcourt”—is this police report, from March 21, 1927.) It had been the autumn prior, out on the street, late on a gloomy, idle afternoon, that Nadja and Breton first set eyes on each other.

In Nadja, the encounter was recorded as October 4, 1926. But Nadja’s letters to Breton, of which a dozen or so are beautifully preserved as part of Breton’s Archive, the encounter may have actually been on October 7. Why did Breton, so meticulous a man, say October 4? And why, too, did he say along rue Lafayette, when, in another of Nadja’s letters (January, 27 1927), she recalled the site of the encounter as near the entrance to the Saint-Georges métro station, almost a mile from rue Lafayette? Perhaps it was Nadja who’d misremembered? We’ll never know. Yet this is how Breton memorably described their coming together:

[A]fter stopping a few minutes at the stall outside the Humanité bookstore [rue Lafayette] and buying Trotsky’s latest work, I continued aimlessly in the direction of the Opéra. The offices and workshops were beginning to empty out …[and] people on the sidewalk were shaking hands, and already there were more people in the street now. I unconsciously watched their faces, their clothes, their way of walking. No, it was not yet these people who would be ready to create the Revolution. I had just crossed the street whose name I don’t know, in front of a church. Suddenly, perhaps still ten feet away, I saw a young, poorly dressed woman walking toward me, she had noticed me, too, or perhaps had been watching me for several moments. She carried her head high, unlike everyone else on the sidewalk. And she looked so delicate she scarcely seemed to touch the ground as she walked. A faint smile may have been wandering across her face. She was curiously made up, as though beginning with her eyes, she had not had time to finish… Perhaps I had never seen such eyes. Without a moment’s hesitation, I spoke to this unknown woman, though I must admit that I expected the worst.

Yet she did respond. And it wasn’t the worst. She smiled, Breton noted, “quite mysteriously and somehow knowingly.” (His italics.) She claimed to be going to the hairdresser, which, he sensed, was a lie. They stopped at a café terrace near Gare du Nord and there Breton “took a better look at her.” “What was so extraordinary about what was happening in those eyes?” he wondered to himself. “What was it they reflected—some obscure distress and at the same time some luminous pride?” They talked, awkwardly, hesitantly, for a while, and arranged to meet again the following day. About to part, Breton wanted “to ask her one question which sums up all the rest, a question only I, probably, would ever ask, but which has at least once found a reply worthy of it it: ‘who are you?’ And she, without a moment’s hesitation: ‘I am the soul in limbo’.” [3]

There’s something charming and chivalrous about Breton’s tonality here, about his whole portrayal of Nadja, the touching passages he’d eventually put down in a book she always knew he’d write. “You will write a novel about me, André,” she’d said. “I am sure you will. Don’t say you won’t. Be careful: everything fades, everything vanishes. Something must remain of us…” I’m moved each time I read words like these. Breton seems honest about trying to enter Nadja’s mind, about entering into her desolate space, on her terms, genuinely out to understand his attraction, their mutual attraction, their fleeting Surrealist encounter, enduring for an eternity.

Perhaps encounters like these are really modern encounters. Or are they already archaic in our pandemic age? They symbolize, symbolized, what the Surrealists called the “new spirit,” a thoroughly urban spirit, were men and women “freely” encountered one another, by chance, by objective chance, out in the public realm; never, certainly, on equal terms, but the gaze would cut both ways, would look back. People watched one another, lost and found one another, did so amid the throng. It was the stuff of modern poetry as well as modern life. In one of the last letters Nadja ever wrote to Breton (January 27, 1927), she, too, remembered seeing him for the first time, in the memorable scene he had described, “with a blank look on your face,” she’d said, standing out in the crowd “like a ray of calm grandeur.” The radiant light seemed to get “caught up in the curls of your hair.”

When Breton wrote Nadja he was thirty years old, only six years Nadja’s senior. They belonged to the same generation, living out an interregnum between wars. Perhaps they sensed the impending doom. He’d quit his medical studies; and, while fascinated by medicine, especially psychiatry, he had no more pretensions about practicing it—indeed about practicing any profession. By the early 1920s, Breton had already vowed to devote himself exclusively to literature, art and Surrealism. Surrealism would be his day as well as his night job. He’d suffer financially for it, but stuck throughout to his belief that “there’s no use being alive if one must work. The event from which each of us is entitled to expect the revelation of life’s meaning—that event which I may not yet have found but on whose path I myself seek—is not earned by work.” (Again the italics are Breton’s.)

The other thing about Breton was that he was already married. He tells Nadja this but somehow she’d guessed. She probably recognized this marriage was kaput, was effectively over. Breton had met Simone Kahn in Luxembourg Gardens and they’d wed in 1921. She’d been a frequenter of La maison des amis des livres, along rue de l’Odéon, in the 6th arrondissement, the nation’s first female-owned and run bookstore, Adrienne Monnier’s passion. Simone interested herself in art and the avant-garde and so her liaison with Breton was always likely to happen. She’d participated in early Surrealist ventures around unconscious “automatic writing.” But she and Breton drifted apart, eventually divorcing in 1931, though they remained on amicable terms.

She knew all about her husband’s thing with Nadja, and was, to a certain degree, complicit in it. She and Nadja spoke at least once to each other over the telephone. And Nadja wrote to Simone. Breton told Simone about Nadja. He told her what he and Nadja did together. They met in cafes. They wandered the streets. They talked. They argued. They fell silent. Breton recounted the first kiss, their debut evening together, in a flea-bitten hotel, how they took late-night trains beyond Paris, to provincial faubourgs, where everything was closed and there was nothing to do, nowhere to stay.

Breton lends Nadja his books, hoping she won’t read them. One was Les pas perdus [The Lost Steps], a series of essays published in 1924, an important Surrealist opening gambit, bits and pieces on artists and figures like Max Ernst and Marcel Duchamp, Lautréamont and Jacques Vaché; some are collaborative commentaries written with Philippe Soupault and Louis Aragon—“L’esprit nouveau,” for instance—as well as a position statement on Surrealism’s relationship to Dada. Nadja is intrigued, bemused by its title. “Lost steps?” she queried. “But there’s no such thing!” Her life, however, would suggest otherwise: it was full of lost steps; or at least full of past footprints she’d taken care to efface, purposely wanted to cover over. It’s evident that their affair is stormy. We know it from the letters she’d write Breton, frequently shifting between the formal and informal, between vous and tu, depending upon mood. Nadja rarely bothered with punctuation.

Many bore the letterheads of the cafes she sat in. Café Terminus at Gare St. Lazare was a favourite; another was Café de la Régence, along rue Saint-Honoré; elsewhere, Chez Graff, near Place Blanche in the Pigalle, a café Breton didn’t much like, despite being near to his own apartment at 42 rue Fontaine; ironically, its location today bears his own name: Place André Breton. Another haunt was Café Wepler, Place Clichy, immortalized by Henry Miller, a regular in the early 1930s, who’d always hope to encounter some acquaintance or another there, if only to bum a meal.

In one letter (October, 9 1926), only days after they’d first met, Nadja tells Breton: “I’ve some things to say to you, come and listen to me this afternoon around 5:30pm at the little café on rue Lafayette. There’s a misunderstanding between us. I will explain it to you. I want to see you again—Nadja.” (Was the French postal service almost as good then as our e-mail today? Or did Nadja deliver her letter by hand?) In another correspondence, Nadja kisses the page in red lipstick, leaving her luscious pouting imprint, alongside the inscription: “C’est moi.” “GARDER SUR VOUS!” is emblazoned overleaf. “It’s me.” “KEEP IT WITH YOU!”

056B4B6D-49DA-47E7-B461-8E422393D269
Nadja makes pencil sketches in cafes, too, doodling and designing mysterious creatures from her dreams; she never had the inclination to draw before encountering Breton. Some sketches are naïve; others move and intrigue him. Nonetheless, he keeps them, seemingly all, for the forty remaining years of his life. “Nadja has invented a marvelous flower for me,” he wrote. It was “La fleur des amants”— “The Lovers’ Flower.” “It is during a lunch in the country that this flower appeared to her,” Breton said, “and that I saw her trying—quite clumsily—to reproduce. She comes back to it several times, afterwards, to improve the drawing and give each of the two pairs of eyes a different expression. It is essentially under this sign that the time we spent together should be placed, and it remains the graphic symbol which has given Nadja the key to all the rest.”

8F809ADB-3CAA-4100-AD77-9D166B46AFC4
Nadja evidently loved Breton. He was her “Saint André,” her “Lion-King,” paired with herself, Lionne, after Léona, the “Lionne-Reine”—the Lioness-Queen. Breton is deeply affected by Nadja. And yet, he knows, when he’s writing about her, recalling what had happened to them over that late 1926/early 1927 period, so paltry a time-span, that he didn’t truly, deeply, madly love her. How did he know?

“I had not been granted the realization until today,” he mused in the closing sequences of Nadja. It had been a car ride they’d taken together, returning to Paris from a trip to Versailles. Nadja was beside him. Suddenly, without any warning, she pressed her foot down on his, on the accelerator, and tried to cover his eyes with her hands, “in the oblivion of an interminable kiss, desiring to extinguish us, doubtless forever.” They might collide at full speed, with one of the splendid trees lining the route, in a frenzied test of love, of two lovers deciding to spectacularly end it together, in a poetic suicide pact. But Breton hadn’t yielded to the desire and it was clear then, at that moment, how he really felt, perhaps how he’d always felt, about Nadja.

She was, for him, a concept of love, an abstraction. Was he a rat, a sleaze-bag, leading her on this way, using her as literary grist? Perhaps. For he loved her intellectually, as a sort of metaphysics. On November, 8 1926, Breton wrote his wife Simone, explaining himself, typically cryptically, outlining to her, and maybe to himself, what might be this thing called love: “I don’t love her,” he said. “She’s only capable of calling into question all that I love and the manner in which I have to love.”

Nadja established Breton as the magus of Surrealism; his bewitching book set the high bar of the Surrealist love encounter, and of how objective chance might underwrite this encounter. The encounter strikes. Sometimes it strikes. It strikes like a meteor. Like a rain shower immediately bursting into flames. In post-pandemic times, will it ever strike again?

 

ENDNOTES
[1] Minotaure was the Surrealists’ “Artistic and Literary Review,” running thirteen issues from June 1933 up until the onset of the Second War War in 1939. Founded by a young Swiss publisher Albert Skira, whose eponymous press had that year opened an office in Paris. Breton and Pierre Mabille assumed editorial direction. The pedigree of contributors is staggering, running like a Who’s Who of the modern movement. The list of artists illustrating Minotaure’s lavish frontispieces is alone enough to set the remarkable tone: Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, Salvadore Dali, Joan Miró, René Magritte, Henri Matisse, André Masson, André Derain, Max Ernst, and Diego Rivera. We’ll never see the likes of Minotaure again. Then again, maybe we will.

[2] The Dutch novelist Hester Albach once went in search of the real Nadja, and produced an affecting homage, a sympathetic biography with fictional flourishes, translated into French as Léona: héroïne du surréalisme (Actes Sud: Arles, 2009). Albach tracks Léona’s enigmatic existence and traces out a life that would end in 1941, aged thirty-eight, in a Bailleul mental asylum, not far from her birthplace. She’d been interned since Spring 1927, certified as hysterical and maniacal, likely schizophrenic.

[3] This translation is Richard Howard’s 1960 Grove Press rendering of Breton’s original French: “Je suis l’âme errante.” I’ve always thought that “the soul in limbo,” while poetic, was never quite right. It somehow casts resigned light on Nadja’s tragic yet more affirmative response: “I am the wandering soul.”

Posted in All | Leave a comment

Over the Rainbow — Pynchon and the Pandemic

Toto, I have the feeling we’re not in Kansas any more…”
— Dorothy, arriving in Oz

CE0B9AB2-7B18-445B-B8ED-35FC3D041DBC

Maybe it was all those rainbows in lockdown that got me thinking about Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon’s masterpiece from 1973. His rainbow had been there all along, on my bookshelf for more than thirty years, lying unread. I’d heard plenty these days about virtual reading groups tackling Moby-Dick, discussing Ahab’s monomania alongside the President’s. But Melville’s Great White isn’t a patch on Pynchon’s V2. Here was a book, and a man, for our times, a maestro. He’d made self-isolation a life-form, paranoia a permanent mode of being, quarantining himself for a half-century or more, avoiding everybody in his splendid velvet underground. I remember the old days, when I lived in a broom closet on the Upper West Side, when you could venture out without fearing crowds, happily strolling down Broadway to Zabar’s. Back then, I’d even discovered where the great recluse actually lived, on West 81st Street, twelve blocks down from me. But it’s only now, years later, that I seem really ready to deal with Pynchon’s rainbow, to enter his Zone and get it, to finally feel its curve, unmistakably.

They say you can’t hear the killing. It’s a silent death. If you hear the explosion you’re still alive—this time. But what about the next one to drop? Early on in Gravity’s Rainbow, the mad neurologist Doctor Spectro explains, “Imagine a missile one hears approaching only after it explodes. The blast of the rocket, falling faster than sound—then growing out of it the roar of its own fall, catching up to what’s already death and burning. . . A ghost in the sky.” The virus is like this ghost in the sky, a silent passing. You don’t know until afterward, once the coughing starts, the fever begins, exploding after you’ve already been hit, catching up to what’s already death and burning. The rainbow is the pandemic’s trajectory, the curve under which comes life or death.

The English statistician Roger Mexico and servicewoman Jessica Swanlake lie awake under the threat of this rainbow, snuggled up in bed, their affair in hiding, hearing a rocket strike close by. Their hearts pound. Will the invisible death train spare them? My wife and I have wondered likewise these past months, lying awake in bed, in quarantine, our hearts pounding. Outside, the traffic stopped. We talked about the day’s news—the bad news, the numbers, our fears, what will happen tomorrow, another day having passed. After a while, we stopped talking, just listened together in the silence.

From my bed comes an urge to run lose like Tyrone Slothrop, Pynchon’s alter-ego anti-hero. The British and American military are running psychological tests on him in London, Pavlovian experiments. Yet he wrenches himself free from their grip, and embarks on a search for himself and a rocket in the Zone—in the ruins of Occupied Europe. It’s 1944-5, the War is officially over, yet somehow battles still rage. In the Zone, reality isn’t what it appears. There, a destructive military machine morphs into a destructive economic machine, squabbling over war spoils, trying to cash in on rocket technology. Industrial cartels (ICI, Shell, GE, Agfa, I.G. Farben) scramble for a piece of the peace.

Slothrop’s knows it’s a scam, that there are sinister forces orchestrating it all, out to get him, never coming clean. Today, we’d place the pharmaceutical, medical insurance and techie cartels at the top of this roster of schemers. Plots get overlaid with counter-plots, about which ordinary mortals have little inkling. Slothrop’s right, of course; but the problem here is that reality follows one of his “Proverbs for Paranoids”: “If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.” Another problem seems our big problem: “There’s nowhere to go, Slothrop,” someone warns him, “nowhere.” And it’s true, a pandemic means literally that: it’s everywhere, and we’ve no place to hide, not for long anyway, notwithstanding one’s privileges.

The Zone unsettles in war’s aftermath. Perhaps it is unsettling because, as we ease lockdown, it mirrors our own disarray and chaos. We bury the dead while convincing ourselves the worst is over. A crisis of truth-telling, a battlefield of unknowns and imponderables, of information blockage. Science versus anti-science. Public health paling beside private gain. In our Zone, free-floating anguish prevails.

Slothrop chased the rainbow from point to point. Its arc reduced itself to a series of equations, to aerodynamics and electronics, to propulsion and insulation, to guidance systems. His quest was for a rocket—an “R”—with a serial number 00000, pointing northwards. Epidemiology has its own “R” factor, pointing outwards, exploding everywhere. This is the reproductive value of a virus, how infectious it is, the average number of people a single individual might infect with it. Our quest is for a R-0 or below (an R-negative), suggesting the virus’s passage is diminishing. An R value above 1 is bad, since infection is spreading exponentially, being silently passed on to an ever increasing number of persons.

Maybe Pynchon, our Laureate of intrigue and paranoia, should write his next book about the pandemic, calling it R. After all, he’s already written a V., as well as a sort of V2, Gravity’s Rainbow. Why not R-Zero, about a search for an epidemiological Holy Grail—a Coronavirus vaccine? An older rocketman Slothrop might engage in this latest mission, peeling back the investigative layers it’ll likely necessitate, haunting the laboratories and corridors of institutional darkness. The novel might try to resolve the conundrum of our times: entropy, the measure of disorganisation in a closed system, the collective chaos resulting from cosmic heat-death. It might be a field guide to entropy management, offsetting our thermodynamical gloom.

In the 1850s, German physicist Rudolf Clausius said the entropy of an isolated system always continually grew. Order and predictability gradually decline. In an early Pynchon story, “Entropy,” from 1960, the character Callisto thought this an adequate metaphor to apply to our lot. “He was forced,” Pynchon says, “in the sad dying fall of middle age, to a radical reevaluation of everything he had learned up to then; all the cities and seasons and casual passions of his days had now to be looked at in a new and elusive light.”

Callisto confronted entropy the same way Pynchon confronts it: by hermetically sealing himself off, constructing in his apartment a tiny enclave of regularity in the city’s chaos. It’s one mode to survive a pandemic. But it mightn’t be the most resilient method to maintain healthy human relations. Perhaps the other solution is the alternative Pynchon touts in the final part of Gravity’s Rainbow—a counterforce, a dialectical ballet of force meeting an opposition, a collision that establishes a new order. “Creative paranoia,” Pirate Prentice reminds Roger Mexico, “means developing at least as thorough a We-system as a They-system.”

A counterforce is scattered throughout the Zone, even throughout our Zone. It’s there to disarm and dismantle the Man. Melvillians believe Ahab is the Man, the avatar of our times, the narcissist who eventually sinks his ship. Yet the masochistic nazi rocket captain Blicero–“White Death”—seems more representative of our demented political incumbents, who climax in tyranny, in seeing giant penises launch into the sky, photo-shooting the countdown. As the rockets rain, falling at nearly a mile a second, there’s still time, Pynchon says, if you need comfort, to touch the person next to you, that there is always a hand to turn the time. This thought alone is enough to bring on a moment’s soporific calm—before another restless night.

 

Posted in All | 2 Comments

Remembering Spalding Gray

Spalding Gray, who died in 2004, would have been 79 on June 5, 2020. Here is my personal remembrance of a sadly missed storyteller and artist.

I was so excited waiting in line to enter. I was there early, eager and jittery. The line was long. People straggled out onto promenade next to the Thames. I hoped C. would arrive soon. It was our first real date together. Friday evening, the day after my thirty seventh birthday. I’d bought two tickets to see one of my heroes perform at Royal Festival Hall, on London’s South Bank, someone I’d never seen live before: Spalding Gray. The line was edging indoors, and I knew that once we were in, in our seats, and Gray had commenced, cleared his throat for the first time, nobody would be allowed late entry. I began to get tense as seven-thirty struck. The show was due off at seven-forty-five. Still no signs of C. anywhere. I got worried. I’d have to choose soon. Go in alone, or be loyal, wait for C., and, if she’s late, miss the show. I got really edgy as seven-forty approached. She wasn’t about. Maybe she’d mistaken the venue?

***

I remember the previous evening telling her all about Spalding Gray. Who was he? she’d wondered. How to describe what he did? I wondered. He was a monologist, I said. What’s a monologist? she said. Someone who sits behind a desk with a glass of water, I said, and, without props or fancy effects, for an hour-and-a-half talks about themselves in front of an audience. Oh, she said. He tells stories, I said, that make people laugh and think and sometimes cry. He tells of his everyday adventures, his inner thoughts, his doubts and hang ups, his euphoric moments. He’s hilarious, I said.

But, listen, I said, he’s no stand-up (or sit-down) comic: this is profound existential and psychological inquiry, “a way of taking full responsibility for my life,” Gray says, “and also a more therapeutic way of splitting off a part of myself to observe another part.” People can relate to what he says, I said. They find him funny—darkly, ironically, hypochondriacally funny. Here is ego and id dialoguing with one another, doing it in public. What Gray says is both rehearsed and improvised, structured and destructured, depending on his mood, depending on the audience’s reactions. No monologue is ever the same, even if it’s the same monologue. It’s always a work in progress; the wheels spin each night.

Gray comes from Barrington, Rhode Island, I said; but his angst, his self-dramatizing hyperbole, his arrogances and insecurities, make him, for me, quintessentially a New Yorker. “For thirty four years I lived with you,” he once said of his adopted home town, “and came to love you. I came to you because I loved theater and found theater everywhere I looked. I fled New England and came to Manhattan, that Island off the coast of America, where human nature was king and everyone exuded character and had big attitude. You gave me a sense of humorbecause you are so absurd.”

Gray made New York home in 1967. He got involved with its underground experimental theater community, under Antonin Artaud’s and Jerzy Grotowski’s spell; and with Liz LeCompte, Gray’s girlfriend at the time, joined Richard Schechner’s Performance Group. A few years on, he and LeCompte broke off to form the Wooster Group, headquartered at a grungy loft space, the Performing Garage, along Wooster Street in SoHo. The troupe and the venue quickly became the springboard for Gray’s monologue career. What if I spoke my own words, he wondered, instead of somebody else’s? What if I used myself to play myself? What if, he joked, “I began playing with myself?”

The Wooster Group became Gray’s first audience. He’d perform short monologues in front of its members, twenty-minute stints in which he’d unearth childhood memories and reminiscences of his mother, her decent into madness and eventual suicide at fifty two. These performances, sat behind a simple wooden table, became the beginnings of public autobiography. Each day, “when I’d come in for rehearsal,” Gray said, “they would ask me to tell it [the monologue] again, and I did, while Liz taped it. Each day it was embellished and edited and grew as a text until at last we transcribed it.”

The big break through came with Swimming to Cambodia, a watershed monologue, still his best-known, a virtuoso performance mixing personal and political history—the story of a genocide, a film about that genocide, and Gray’s bit role in that film about that genocide. Gray became the US Ambassador in Roland Joffé’s 1984 Oscar-winning The Killing Fields, about two New York Times reporters who’d uncovered the US’s secret bombing of Cambodia in the early 1970s. The covert campaign was designed to drive the Vietcong out of Cambodia yet instead only stirred things up. The Vietcong retreated to the Cambodian bush, hitched up with a bunch of ruthless guerrillas—the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot—who then initiated the worst auto-homeo-genocide in modern history, the said Killing Fields.

Gray’s monologue was about this movie and this real human tragedy. Soon afterward, his monologue about this movie became a movie about his monologue. In November 1986, director Jonathan Demme shot two consecutive performances of Gray’s Swimming to Cambodia before a live audience at the Performing Garage, as close as you could get to being there without actually being there. At first Demme wasn’t turned on. “Before I’d seen Spalding perform,” he confessed, “I was horrified at the idea of being trapped in a room with just one person speaking at a desk. I didn’t want to see him, even though everyone kept telling me how much I’d love him. When I finally did go to one of his shows I was instantly won over.”

The film’s prologue is my favorite scene. There, we track Gray pacing Lower Manhattan’s streets, notebook under arm, en route to his performance. He looks like the struggling artist he is, or at least was then: forlorn, a bit down at heel, traipsing across Canal Street amid speeding traffic, piled up garbage and graffiti, greatcoat collar turned up; a Dostoevskian underground man fighting off his existential chills. But there’s a slyness about him, too, a sprightliness to his gait, an air of anticipation and optimism, bobbing up and down merrily to Laurie Anderson’s jaunty soundtrack. Moments later he approaches the steel entrance door of the Performing Garage, with its green sign overhead almost winking at us. Next thing he’s on stage, sat at trademark desk, sipping water, taking a deep breath, ready to begin.

This was 1980s New York. Living for the city in that decade had been rough. Fiscal crisis still bit deep into public budgets; factories were closing; decline and hard drugs expressed themselves out on the street, scarred the city’s fabric, even as Wall Street boomed and financiers laughed all the way to the bank. Ironically, crisis meant that abandoned old industrial spaces, like the Performing Garage itself, were affordable for a while, to struggling artists who sometimes made great art amongst the debris, in these ruins, without hot water.

I remember seeing this same 1980s New York cityscape before, elsewhere on film, in My Dinner With André, which similarly starts off with a theater guy—Wally Shawn—trudging through Lower Manhattan, similarly in a greatcoat, similarly surrounded by blight, litter and bleak emptiness, similarly crossing Canal Street. As Wally walks we hear his voice-over dialoguing with himself, telling us of his artistic woes: “The life of a playwright is tough,” he says. “It’s not easy, as some people seem to think. You work hard writing plays, and nobody puts them on. You take up other lines of work to try and make a living—acting, in my case—and people don’t hire you. So you spend your days crossing the city back and forth doing the errands of your trade.”

I told C. that evening how my acquaintance with Gray first came about through Marshall Berman, through All That Is Solid Melts into Air. Marshall said Gray’s early play, Rumstick Road, developed between 1975-8 as part of the Wooster Group’s Three Plays in Rhode Island, was “a powerful confrontation with home and with ghosts.” Rumstick Road, after Gray’s childhood home address, tries to understand his mother, her malaise and gradual disintegration, his family as well as Gray himself, as a child and as an adult, as a man-child—“to live with what he knows and with what he will never know,” Marshall said. Its dialogue speaks to anybody who’d lost somebody, especially one’s mother. In Rumstick Road, Gray for the first time talks directly to the audience, dramatizes his dreams and reveries; there’s dance, abstract movement and music; original reel and audio recordings of his mother and father and grandmother, even of his mother’s shrink (with Gray miming his words); and photos and slides of his family and two brothers, all seemingly hunky dory in suburban Rhode Island, circa 1950s.

Rumstick Road, said Marshall, suggests that “a kind of liberation and reconciliation is possible for human beings in this world.” This liberation can never be total, Marshall thought, “but it is real, and earned: Gray has not merely looked into the abyss but gone into it and brought its depths up into the light for us all. Gray’s fellow actors have helped him: their intimacy and mutuality, developed through years of work as a close ensemble, are absolutely vital in his labor of discovering and facing and being himself.” Still, the play, and the actual experience of his mother’s suicide, would remain an open wound for Spalding Gray. How could it be otherwise? For much of his youth, he remembers trying to help his mother through long periods of depression. She might suddenly turn to him and ask: “How shall I do it, dear? How shall I do it? Shall I do it in the garage with the car?”

***

An emerald apparition approached, flapping in the breeze, a blast of verdant light, arriving just in the nick of time, with barely a minute to spare. She was wearing her new green jacket, bought that very afternoon, especially for the occasion, a special occasion almost missed. But she’d made it, apologized for her tardiness. So much to do today, she said, and she took time out to go clothes shopping, too. Had to run all the way across Waterloo Bridge. She was here, C., and now we could both go in, take our seats, ready ourselves for the monologue Spalding Gray was calling It’s a Slippery Slope.

FFBBB811-D9FD-4393-8D71-0D18E9AC77F3

It was a packed house, over a thousand people. I never knew he had so many UK fans. The atmosphere was electric. I had to admit, and did admit it to C., that I was terribly nervous; not about being with C. so much, but nervous that she might be disappointed with Spalding Gray, that she wouldn’t like him. And I was nervous he’d fluff his lines, that something would go wrong, and I would be disappointed. There was a sudden hush, and then he appeared, discretely, very unspectacularly. Yet there he was, sure enough, Spalding Gray, in the flesh, wearing a red and gray checked flannel shirt. He sat down and paused, calmly took a sip of water, looked up, and then, in a dulcet voice very familiar to me: “The first mountain I ever remember seeing was framed in the pane of my geometry class window at Fryeburg Academy in Maine in 1956.”

After a couple of moments I knew he was going to be just fine. Skiing no longer became a gray area: now it was a Gray area, a tale of a mid-life crisis, of a man trying to find his balance in life and on skis, a man who, no matter what, “was always a little bit not present.” “I’m tired of being a VICARIAN,” Gray told his partner Renée. “I want to live a life, not tell it! I want to turn right on skis!” At a ski lesson, he’s the only one in class who can’t turn right. Right, left, right, left, they all went, snaking gently down the bunny slope. While he: left, left, left, then right, left, right…then bam, down he went, into the snow. Just a simple shift of weight was all you needed, and you could turn right, then left, then right again, and left—“Oh my God, Spalding,” his inner cheerleader voice began saying, at those rare moments of equilibrium, “you’re skiing!” Then: CRASH! He’d be in the snow again. “If I was not whole and completely there and balanced on my skis,” Gray said, “I would be DOWN! The mountain would HIT me hard.” A metaphor about existence, maybe, for a life full of sharp twists and turns, hard bumps and tight corners. You need to be able to wiggle every which way to keep your balance.  

There was a lot going on in Gray’s life just then. Before long, the monologue took on a serious, almost painful tone. Off piste, things were more unbalanced. He spoke about his own suicidal tendencies, fantasies about how he was going to do it, now that he was fifty two himself, the age his mother ended it all. “I was reversing my history,” he said. “Mom was no longer going mad, my inner kid was going mad and saying, ‘Hey, Mom! Hey, Renée, look at this—look at what it looks like to go crazy.’ The craziness manifested itself in imitations of Mom’s behavior, or my actually becoming like her.” He said he was beginning to act up in public places, much the same way his Mom acted up. “I’d be muttering to myself,” he said, “and involuntarily shouting out.” Yet this was New York City, and nobody really noticed or cared. Or if they did notice, they joined in. “I can remember screaming in the streets at night,” Gray said, “and hearing my scream picked up by other people who passed it on down the street for blocks and blocks. What started out as real panic was turned into a performance by the people.”

When I heard this, I thought it a tremendously affecting eulogy to New York. The city could participate in a collective reenactment of Aristotle’s Poetics: acting out tragic drama, people engaged in a public catharsis, like Aristotle suggested theater should be—a communal release, a cry for HELP, a cleansing of tragedy. “When Mom let out a few of these yelps in a Rhode Island supermarket,” Gray said, “they put her in a straight jacket and gave her shock treatments. If Mom had lived in New York City, she’d still be alive today.” This was the killer line. Cities should release repression rather than enforce it. There, in the streets, we bring our worst feelings to the surface and work through them as a public.

Gray’s personal life was getting complicated and self-destructive. He confessed to an affair he’d had, was still having, with a younger woman called Kathie; and she was pregnant with his child. But he doesn’t want the kid, doesn’t want to be a father, tells Kathie “get rid of it.” He acts crummily, is in denial. On a whim he marries longtime girlfriend Renée, consummating a relationship they’d begun in 1979, hoping it would extinguish the burning hot affair, and refreshen a stale relationship—Renée, like Liz LeCompte before her, wasn’t only Gray’s confidante and lover; she was also his theatrical soulmate and creative advisor, almost his business manager. Yet the affair hots up even more. Renée has had enough, hears about the pregnancy, leaves Gray, clears out of their SoHo loft. Gray goes to see Kathie and his eight-month-old son, Forrest, and suddenly has the exhilarating experience of fatherhood; a new life as a family man beckons. “Bending over him, I looked down into his eyes, and fell in. I did not expect the gaze that came back, it was absolutely forever. Long, pure, empty, mere being, pure consciousness, the observing self that I’d always been trying to catch was staring back at me; they were no-agenda eyes.”

Kathie moves into his loft with her seven year old daughter, Marissa. Now, with  Forrest, they were a foursome; domestic chaos is thrust upon him. But it’s maybe a first glimpse of real happiness, even of contentment, of being there and only there. And there it seems like he’s come to life again, earned the sort of liberation that Marshall had hinted at; never total, but real. Out skiing in Vermont, at the end of the day, at the end of his monologue, alone in contemplation, he skis through the twilight like a demon. Left, right, left, right he goes, tucking behind a seventy year old man, who is “skiing the most beautiful, carved, Tai Chi-like turns.” “And later I bid him farewell,” Gray said, “knowing I have seen both a person and an apparition, the spirit of the future.”

Gray thought he was undergoing a meltdown, was self-destructing, disintegrating. But instead he brought new life into the world, rejuvenated, grew up, accepted responsibility for his new creation, and for being a grown up. There was a split and then a fusion, a passionate embrace. For that he gave himself a big high-five. “I knew now,” he said, “that I had to stay alive to help this little guy through.”

***

Exiting the auditorium I was dying to know what C. thought. She could see I was ebullient, thrilled by the experience, absolutely not disappointed. But what about her? I’d heard her laugh a few times, giggle at Spalding a bit. Then she turned to me and said she’d really enjoyed it, didn’t understand everything, but that he was great. She said he was special. He was brave, she said. You mean confessing in public? I said. No, not really that, she said. It’s just the idea of sitting there alone, at a desk, talking to lots of people without anything. That was a brave. There’s nothing to protect you from flopping. It’s so low-tech, isn’t it, I said, in a world saturated by technology. Nobody would ever believe it possible. Engaging an audience like that.

We’re so used to seeing flashing images, shifting images, loud, pulsating music and dramatic effects and gimmicks. We’ve almost lost the ability to sit still and listen to somebody tell a story, one human being communicating with other humans beings, without mediation, through language and nothing else. It was how Wordsworth said a poet should address their audience: “using the language of real men,” “a man speaking to man.” It was why Gray didn’t really like his monologues becoming films. It was real life he was after, not reel life. Although, you know, he’s a bit weird, isn’t he, C. said, a bit strange. I guess it was true. Most people I love are strange, a bit weird somehow.

Years later, she told me what she liked most about things then, about seeing Spalding Gray and others, was how it was all new and unknown to her, a great adventure; being exposed to it was a thrill and a pleasure. That was what was most important, even if she didn’t get it all, or even if she didn’t like everything. I mean, she said, he was a shit toward his old girlfriend, Renée, wasn’t he, how he’d betrayed her, cheated on her, abandoned any sense of loyalty. It was all immediate gratification for him. Selfish, just about him, she’d said, any woman could see that. His monologues were definitely stories for guys. He’s a bit too obsessed with sex, she’d said.

We did see Spalding Gray perform again a couple of years on, at the Lincoln Center, after we’d moved to New York, a new monologue, Morning, Noon and Night, about a single day in the life of his new domesticity, Gray’s Joycean moment. Now, he became a sort of Leopold Bloom, an ironical Everyman. He’d had another kid, another boy, Theo, only a few months old, moved to east end of Long Island, to the quaint town of Sag Harbor, buying an old house next to a whalers’ church, straight out of the opening scenes of Moby-Dick. It was a strange Odyssey he’d recounted that night at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, a charming, less conflicted and angst-ridden tale about the daily round of fatherhood, bike riding with Forrest, eating ice cream together, meals and bath time with Theo, an ordinary life made a little less ordinary through the wave of Gray’s magic wand.

But then something terrible happened. In June 2001, he was in Ireland celebrating his sixtieth birthday, out driving one night with friends, along a deserted country road, with Kathie at the wheel and Spalding in the back. Out of nowhere, at a sleepy junction, a speeding mini-van, driven by a local vet, struck them head-on. Gray, who wasn’t wearing a seatbelt, broke his hip and smashed his forehead against the back of Kathie’s head; both were unconscious for a while. Kathie seemed okay, suffering only bruises and minor injuries, nothing permanent. But Gray couldn’t walk; his head swelled up. He had hip surgery, sciatic nerve damage, which left him with a numb foot.

Bone fragments pressed against the right frontal lobe of his brain, the part that enables you to think reflectively and maintain steady focus. It seemed he had brain damage. Titanium plates were fitted. His face was disfigured and he could no longer walk properly, no longer hike nor ski. Nor, apparently, could he do his monologues as before. Gray sunk into a deep depression, deeper than ever. Meanwhile, he decided to sell his old Sag Harbor house, the one lovingly depicted in Morning, Noon and Night, buying another newer and bigger property nearby, more practical for his enlarged family. Immediately, though, regret seized him. Selling it had been “catastrophic.” He tried to buy it back. But the new owners weren’t interested. His depression worsened. Then he started to leave suicide notes on the kitchen table.

Gray had been a depressive most of his adult life, like me. In early 2004, when I was living in France, I learned he’d finally gone through with it, had committed suicide. It was a bitter blow, crushing for my own wobbly midlife. With his watery disappearance in New York Harbor, after throwing himself off the Staten Island Ferry, in bleak mid-winter late one night, part of my New York drowned, too. Poor Spuddy Gray. He could tell a life but couldn’t quite live a life. How he tried. I hope it doesn’t happen to me.

 

Posted in All | 1 Comment

BEAT CITY 4 — Emancipation of the Shufflers Passing By

“If you ride around on the subway with Jack,” Kerouac’s friend “Davey” Amram remembered, “or just go out on the street, he would talk to everybody, be natural and real with anybody.” “We used to walk around New York’s streets for hours,” said Amram. “One time we were hanging out with Allen Ginsberg, and there was a guy we met on the Bowery. He was a full-time wino named Buddy.” They all decided to go to Allen’s place with Buddy, and read poems. “I just listened,” Amram said.

They sat up all night. Ginsberg read his poems and Buddy, supping wine, would say, “Yeah, that’s pretty nice. I can dig that.” Then Kerouac read out his own and “Buddy would flip out and scream with laughter and slap his knee…he liked Allen’s poems, but he really identified with Jack’s. And Jack said, real quietly while Allen was reading a poem, ‘These guys are where I get so much inspiration from and learn so much from. They are the true poets of the streets’.” [1]

When Kerouac starred on Steve Allen’s Plymouth Show in 1959, the host asked Jack “How would you define the word ‘Beat’?” Kerouac didn’t hesitate in his response to Allen, saying, shyly yet assertively, “sympathetic.” He wasn’t being frivolous; Kerouac meant it and we can hear this sympathy resonating in his long blues prose poems, like Bowery Blues, dated March 29, 1955.

The Bowery was one New York landmark that captivated Kerouac and the Beats in their gnostic search for human truth. (Burroughs lived at number 222 in the mid-1960s, in a windowless apartment he called “the bunker,” really an old locker room of the former YMCA building.) For most of the twentieth-century, the strip, running from Third Avenue at East 6th Street and Cooper Square, down to Canal Street in Chinatown, was America’s most notorious skid row. Its flophouses and bars and sidewalks literally flagged out the end of the road for many denizens, a final port of call for the castoffs and casualties of Great America. It was an eternal source of attraction and repulsion for Kerouac, of sorrow and pity, and if we listen to the Bowery Blues in Poetry for the Beat Generation we can feel that pathos, as well as the compassionate embrace, for Bowery bums and winos, for lost souls like Jack’s buddy Buddy.

Interestingly, there’s a wonderful cinematic document of the Bowery from Kerouac’s time called On the Bowery, produced the same year as On the Road (1957), by indie filmmaker Lionel Rogosin. It’s a peculiar documentary, one part actual footage of the winos and bums and rag and bone men of what the Bowery’s own Mission Minister said was “the saddest and maddest street in the world and that might be an understatement”; many of the most vagrant vagrants we see carted off in a police paddy-wagon; they’re better off behind bars.

Yet the other part of Rogosin’s film is overlaid with performing actors, like Ray, from Kentucky, a dead ringer for Neal Cassady, who even worked the railroad before his luck ran out and he hit the bottle. Ray befriends Doc Gorman, once a genuine doctor but now a wily street veteran, an old rogue who scams his way through life, preying off the likes of Ray in dive bars and crummy SRO hotels.

The other looming presence, casting a dark shadow across much On the Bowery, is the overhead El, then in the process of being torn down, a redundant giant somehow adding further grit to Rogosin’s already gritty camera, as it pans images of real streets and real soup kitchens with real human flotsam and jetsam. At the end of On the Bowery, one old crony muses, watching Ray bidding them all a “final” goodbye, “Everybody tries to get off the Bowery.” To which his pal, shaking his head knowingly, adds “He’ll be back!”

8CAD7688-96B4-4784-95AC-627F09563CFA

“LATE COLD MARCH AFTERNOON,” Kerouac begins Bowery Blues, “the street (Third Avenue) is cobbled, cold, desolate with trolley tracks.” He’s sitting in the Cooper Union cafeteria, in its “Foundation Building” at Cooper Square, composing his poem, penciling impressionistic lines against a muzak, which, he says, is “too sod.” It’s an overcast, chilly, melancholic day, and Jack seems to feel the melancholy in his bones, gazing out the window on to Third Avenue, observing “cold clowns in the moment horror of the world.”

In those days, pretty much anybody could wander in and out of Cooper Union, an arts and science institution founded in 1859 by wealthy New York industrialist and philanthropist Peter Cooper. Cooper was prominent in the Gilded Age, an anti-slavery liberal progressive, a fervent believer that education should be free and open to all. Since inception, Cooper Union was intended to be an East and West Village community resource; its library and cafeteria were open late so working folk could eat and borrow books after hours, when their day’s toil was done. Cooper Union’s shibboleth back then was that every accepted student be granted a full-tuition scholarship.

Over the years, Cooper Union formed three Art, Architecture and Engineering Schools, though in 2014 it abandoned its long legacy of free education. These days, Cooper Square is dominated by the main campus building, at number 41, a controversial glitzy post-modern, deconstructed structure, costing 100 million dollars, accelerating the gentrification of the neighbourhood. Melancholy Beatsters, scribbling poetry in pencil, aren’t very conspicuous anymore.

“A funny bum with no sense trys to panhandle,” writes Kerouac in Bowery Blues, “and is waved away stumbling,/he doesnt care about society women embarrassed with paper bags on sidewalks—Unutterably sad the broken winter shattered face of a man passing in the bleak ripple.” “I shudder as at the touch of cold stone to think of him,” says Kerouac, “the sickened old awfulness of it like slats of wood wall in an old brewery truck.”

The same broken humanity that occupies Rogosin’s frame populates Keroauc’s prose: seafarers who’ve jumped ship, “bleeding bloody seamen…/sad adventurers/Far from the pipe/Of Liverpool…/Streaked with wine sop”; others “who’ve lost their pickles on Orchard Street”; and “old Irishmen/With untenable dignity/beer bellying home…/Paddy McGilligan/Muttering in the street…/Sad Jewish respectable/rag men with trucks.” The whole damned lot “with tired hope/Hope O hope/O Bowery of Hopes!”

“The story of man,” Kerouac says, “Makes me sick/Inside, outside,/I dont know why/Something so conditional/And all talk/Should hurt me so.” “And I see Shadows/Dancing into Doom…God bless & sing for them/As I can not.” “Then it’s goodbye/ Sangsara/For me,” he writes in the concluding stanza. Sangsara is the Buddhist cycle of birth and death, the continuous wheel of suffering. Does Jack want to give up and die that cold March day? It appears so. “Okay./Quit,” he says. But he doesn’t quit. Instead, Sangsara is his epiphany, his insight into life’s impermanence, into the reality of his “non-self,” revealed to him on the Bowery: “He’ll be back!”

The strangest thing about the Bowery was that it was an area of New York that successive artists and writers dug most of all, finding creative stimulation amongst the human commiseration. Amid the grunge and desolation, a ragged community of dislocated and creative odd-balls discovered a certain liberty. A big attraction, needless to say, was the neighbourhood’s cheapness. Artists undertook quasi-legal rehabs of former Bowery industrial lofts, giving them work and living space at relative low cost. Jack’s photographer friend Robert Frank loved the Bowery and set up home and shop there in 1968, at number 184. (In 1980, he moved around the corner, onto Bleecker Street. By then, though, as rents began to soar, he and artist wife June Leaf spent most of their time up in Nova Scotia.) [2]

200DA0F8-38E7-4B25-A763-631893AF243F

But it wasn’t just the low-cost that enticed. When Albert Camus came to town in 1946, like Sartre and de Beauvoir the year prior, it was the Bowery he wanted to see first: “Night on the Bowery,” Camus wrote in his journal, “Poverty—and a European wants to say: ‘Finally, reality’.” Sammy’s Bowery Follies, at 267 Bowery—a self-avowed “alcoholic haven” since 1934—was one venue Camus particularly adored and spent time in, drinking and mixing with Bowery bums; at Sammy’s, whose last orders came in 1970, vaudeville really required no stage. On the Bowery, bare life lurked, existentialism was on the street, expressed itself in dive bar banter, especially after dark.

One of the city’s best jazz-joints, the Five Spot Café, likewise found cheap haven for awhile on the Bowery, between 4th and 5th Streets, staging jam sessions with jazz’s greatest—like Bird, Monk, Mingus, Coltrane, and Ornette Coleman, who’d just transplanted himself from the West Coast. It was one of Burt Glinn’s favourites venues to photograph. Here’s his luscious shot of Davey Amram blowing his French horn, before the Five Spot’s racially-mixed audience, a minor miracle in the 1950s.

70AA6F65-C152-4BCB-B331-F8A2076F053C

JACK’S OTHER GREAT HYMN to pavement pathos and hobo rags is MacDougal Street Blues, penciled June 26, 1955. Its three “Cantos” embody almost all Beat street sensibility and wisdom. Kerouac’s street becomes something transcendental, a world-beyond, a wild wilderness for Bodhisattva meditation. It’s a shifting scene full of sidewalk strollers eating ice cream on a lovely June Sunday afternoon, struggling Greenwich Village artists selling their wares, eccentric winos and chessmen of Washington Square, homeless bums panhandling and old bohemian barflies, like the legendary Joe Gould, holding court in the Minetta Tavern, corner of MacDougal and Minetta Lane. All the while, overhead, Kerouac says, “is a perfect blue emptiness of the sky.”

The goofy foolish
human parade
Passing on Sunday
art streets
Of Greenwich Village

Slow shuffling
art-ers of Washington Sq
Passing what they think
Is a happy June afternoon
Good God the Sorrow
They don’t even listen to me when
I try to tell them they will die

Unrepresented on the iron fence
Of bald artists
With black berets
Passing by
One moment less than this
Is future Nothingness Already

The Chess men are silent, assembling
Ready for funny war—
Voices of Washington Sq Blues
Rise to my Bodhisattva Poem
Window

Parading among Images
Images Images Looking
Looking—
And everybody’s turning around
& pointing—
Nobody looks up
And In
Nor listens to Samantabhadra’s
Unceasing Compassion

Why are you so tragic & gloomy?
And on the corner at the
Pony Stables
Of Sixth Ave & 4th
Sits Bodhisattva Meditating
In Hobo Rags
Praying at Joe Gould’s chair
For the Emancipation
Of the shufflers passing by

Joe Gould was one of the most infamous Village street shufflers, immortalised in Kerouac’s early New York days by New Yorker reporter Joseph Mitchell. In 1942, Mitchell had written his celebrated profile of Gould—“Professor Sea Gull”—and one can speculate whether Kerouac had ever read this piece. Mitchell was of an older generation, a Village denizen himself, a street-smart journalist, who, like Kerouac, was an intrepid urban legman, with sympathies for the downtrodden. His New Yorker “Profiles” were the last time the Condé Nast magazine would ever write about poor, ordinary, non-celebrity people. Mitchell did so with considerable literary dash. (His great hero was James Joyce.) Joe Gould became Joe Mitchell’s masterwork; and “the penniless and unemployable little man” even became a kind of alter-ego for Mitchell.

Gould, wrote Mitchell, “came to the city in 1916 and ducked and dodged and held on as hard as he could for over thirty-five years.” He “looked like a bum and lived like a bum. He wore castoff clothes, and he slept in flophouses or in the cheapest rooms in cheap hotels. Sometimes he slept in doorways. He spent most of his time hanging out in diners and cafeterias and barrooms in the Village or wandering around the streets or looking up friends and acquaintances all over town or sitting in public libraries scribbling in dime-store composition books.” For years, Gould said he was at work on his epic masterpiece, “An Oral History of Our Time,” and for that he was always on the cadge for money, for contributions towards “The Joe Gould Fund.” Gould said this was his life’s endeavour, going about the city listening to people, eavesdropping, and writing down whatever he heard that sounded revealing, no matter how idiotic, obscene or trivial it might be to others.

He claimed he’d already amassed millions of words in this Oral History, filled hundreds of composition books, scattered all around town, hoarded for safe-keeping by assorted friends. He bragged it was a study of modern America as historically important as Gibbon’s treatise on ancient Rome. Yet before Gould died, in 1957, of arteriosclerosis and senility, aged sixty-eight, Mitchell came to recognise something he’d long suspected: the Oral history didn’t exist, had never existed. Gould’s entire oeuvre amounted to just a few bad poems, a “chapter” on the death of his father—written, rewritten and revised over and over again—together with a gibberish disquisition on how tomato consumption spread a disease Gould called “solanacomania.” But that was all. Nothing else. He’d duped everybody, Mitchell included.

9A00C900-933D-4B3C-A75A-08A0DFA57E7A

In 1964, more than twenty-years after his first assignment, Mitchell completed a second and longer New Yorker piece about this enigmatic little man—“Joe Gould’s Secret”—revealing the awful truth. [3] At the same time, Mitchell anticipated his own awful truth, his own secret, finishing his article with a confession: he’d been at work on his own version of Gould’s oral history, a Bildungsroman novel, autobiographical, about a young man coming up from North Carolina to conquer New York’s reporting world, a man who falls in love with a woman and with a city. This man would poke around every one of city’s hundreds of neighbourhoods, in a soul searching mission, a quest for self-discovery, not in “the lofty, noble silvery vertical city but in the vast, spread-out, sooty-grey and sooty-brown and sooty-red and sooty-pink horizontal city; the snarled-up and smouldering city, the old, polluted, betrayed, and sure-to-be-torn-down-any-time-now city.”

Mitchell had provided a disguised synopsis of a promised book, a book he’d never write, seemingly couldn’t write. Meanwhile, his 1964 profile, revisiting Gould, was valedictory, the last thing Mitchell wrote. Up until his death in 1996, Mitchell came almost every day to his New Yorker office, typed away, immaculately attired as ever, in collar and tie and trademark hat, yet produced nothing more, no more Profiles, no novel, not anything. What had he been typing away at all those years? Nobody knows.

SOMETIMES, WHENEVER MITCHELL received mail addressed to Joe Gould, he’d forward it to the Minetta Tavern, Gould’s home away from home. [4] There, each evening, the Village vagrant got a free spaghetti and meatballs dinner, made from leftovers, his sole meal of the day. In an unspoken agreement with the proprietor, he was the “authentic” house bohemian; and clientele usually bought Gould a glass of wine or a beer or a martini. His best-known antic was imitating the flight of a seagull, hopping and skipping and leaping and lurching about, flapping his arms up and down and cawing like the sea bird. He claimed he’d long ago mastered the language of seagulls, learned it in boyhood, when he spent hours sitting at Boston harbour.

One time Mitchell received a letter from a neighbourhood artist called Sarah Ostrowsky Berman, warning of how Gould was “in bad shape.” The writer said she felt “the city’s unconscious may be trying to speak to us through Gould. And that the people who have gone underground in the city may be trying to speak to us through him. People who never belonged anyplace from the beginning. Poor old men and women sitting on park benches, hurt and bitter and crazy—the ones who never got their share, the ones were always left out, the ones who were never asked.” Perhaps the Beats, too, had heard this city’s unconscious speaking out—Kerouac hadn’t called his crew the subterraneans for nothing, once saying homeless underground people had good reason to cry, for everything in the world is stacked against them.

Kerouac had written movingly about homelessness in his debut novel, The Town and the City (1950), an adolescent Bildungsroman the likes of which Mitchell couldn’t quite pull off, where alter-ego Peter Martin attempts to exorcise ghosts of his small town past in Galloway (Lowell), only to have to confront the equally troubling demons of big city (New York). One raw Sunday afternoon in winter, Peter finds himself on the Bowery, “when the cold ruddy light of the sun was falling on dusty windows and streaming through El girders black with soot, he saw three old men, old Bowery bums, lying on the pavement against a wall trying to sleep, on newspapers.”

He stops to look at them. “They looked dead,” Peter says, “but then they stirred and groaned and turned over, just like men do in bed, and they were not dead. He thought of what must have happened to them that they slept on the pavements of November, and that their only belongings in the world were the filthy clothes that covered them. It also flashed through his mind that they were old men as well, rheumy-eyed, sorrowful, sixty or so, shaking with palsy, fixed against the weathers and miseries as though driven through with a spike, sprawled there for good. He had to walk away, he cried.”

Around the time Peter cried, his creator heard in person the city’s unconscious speaking out through Gould, knowing Professor Seagull’s notoriety first-hand; Burroughs also remembers witnessing Gould’s seagull act. Indeed, not long after Mitchell’s profile first appeared in The New Yorker, both Kerouac and Burroughs had Gould cameo in their jointly-written novel And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks. That was in 1944, and the Minetta Tavern was then their local hang out; Gould’s Village was similarly the Village of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs. It was likewise the Village of their mutual friends, Lucien Carr and David Kammerer, the two principal characters—real-life characters—fictionalised in And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks. In August 1944, a nineteen-year-old Carr had stabbed to death Kammerer, fourteen-years his senior, in Riverside Park on the Upper West Side, dumping the body in the Hudson. It was front-page news, an older-guy-stalker impulsively killed by a younger victim in a drunken quarrel.

In those days, Kerouac and Burroughs were unpublished unknowns; the former had yet to go on the road and the latter’s drug habit was still soft. For decades their novel remained unpublished, the manuscript even thought lost. But it resurfaced, eventually getting published in 2008, with chapters sequentially written by Mike Ryko (Kerouac) and Will Dennison (Burroughs), in a remarkable recreation of wartime bohemian New York, a sort of Beat pre-history, Beatnik life and times avant la lettre. And there, in all his mad, eccentric glory is Gould, too, whose table at Minetta’s Ryko, Dennison and their girlfriends often shared. They said they frequently had “a good time listening to Joe Gould and basking in the suggestive dialogue around him.” Sporting his cane, Gould sometimes followed them to parties, participated in their haphazard drinking and drifting, in their talk-ins and poetic excess.

Today, everything here, Mitchell’s stories included, sound like period pieces, a tale of another era when Gould-like eccentrics, urban cast-offs and subterraneans found a little space to exist in the city. It was an era when they were tolerated and occasionally encouraged, when they had some underground as well as a few overground haunts to roam in, their own secret language-game, muttering the city’s unconscious. Gould had its history in his head. The Beats spent the following decades trying to transcribe those words on the page, in poetry and prose. If there was a singular impulse, perhaps we can think of it as a body of work dedicated to the emancipation of street shufflers who once passed by—passed by before they were chased away.

 

NOTES

[1] I’m citing Amram from the wonderful testimonies of Jack’s Book (1978), compiled by Barry Gifford and Lawrence Lee. David Amram is still with us today, ninety this year, and well-known as a composer and conductor of orchestral and chamber works, many bearing a distinctive jazzy penchant. In his early Beat days, he wrote the musical score for Frank’s Pull My Daisy, and was a young sideman (French horn) for Thelonious Monk and other jazz stars. Later, Amram composed film soundtracks and worked with the New York Philharmonic as a composer-in-residence. In 2002, his Beat remembrance, Offbeat: Collaborating with Kerouac, appeared, followed five years on by Upbeat: The Nine Lives of a Musical Cat. Amram’s other claim to fame was to appear with Kerouac (and Philip Lamantia and Howard Hart) at New York’s first ever jazz poetry reading, at the Brata Art Gallery on East 10th Street. The historic event was organised by poet Frank O’Hara, who’d later achieve notoriety with Lunch Poems, published by City Lights in 1964.

[2] Kerouac and Frank, just two years apart in age, were like two peas in pod, outsiders both, with roaming “eyes” for “American-ness”; the former, of French-Canadian extract, the latter, a Swiss-born immigrant. When Kerouac wrote, in his famous introduction to Frank’s The Americans, that “after seeing [Frank’s] pictures you end up finally not knowing any more whether a jukebox is sadder than a coffin,” you could say much the same thing about Kerouac’s prose. In April 1958, he and Frank undertook their own road trip together, from NYC to Florida, described in Kerouac’s essay “On the Road to Florida.” “It’s pretty amazing,” Kerouac said, “to see a guy, while steering at the wheel, suddenly raise his little 300-dollar German camera with one hand and snap something that’s on the move in front of him, and through an unwashed windshield at that.” After awhile, “I suddenly realised I was taking a trip with a genuine artist and that he was expressing himself in an art-form that was not unlike my own.”

[3] Joe Gould’s Secret became a film in 2000, staring Stanley Tucci as Mitchell and Ian Holm as Gould. The atmosphere of Greenwich Village in the 1940s is beautifully evoked, yet the movie only scratches the surface of the deep and complex psychologies of both Joes.

[4] Minetta Tavern first opened its doors in 1937 and lives on—though is much less rougher around the edges, reinventing itself in 2009, to attract a more upmarket and tonier crowd. The tavern’s website says, “Since its renovation, Minetta Tavern has best been described as ‘Parisian steakhouse meets classic New York Tavern’.” “The Tavern,” the site continues, “was frequented by various layabouts and hangers-on including Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, Eugene O’Neill, e. e. Cummings, Dylan Thomas, and Joe Gould, as well as by various writers, poets, and pugilists.” Yet at $22 for a glass of Chardonnay, and $33 for a “Black Label” prime- cut beef burger, the only layabouts and hangers-on these days ascend from Wall Street.

 

Posted in All | Leave a comment

BEAT CITY 3 — Goofing at the Table

My favourite Beat diner image is an inspiring black & white shot, taken in a long lost Lower East Side diner.

90CF1089-F783-480E-A335-0808BAABF6E1

In the photo, we can see Kerouac (left, front on) sat at a booth with poet friends Allen Ginsberg (glasses) and Gregory Corso (wearing hat), musician David Amram (tooth-picking), and actor Larry Rivers. Rivers seems to be the centre of attention, doing most of the talking, relating some yarn or another. Gripped, Kerouac and Ginsberg are grinning.

The quintet were taking a break from filming Robert Frank’s Pull My Daisy, a twenty-six minute miracle scripted, with an ad-lib narration, by Kerouac himself. The 1959 film is an improvised alchemy that relives scenes from the ordinary madness of the life of Neal Cassady with his wife Carolyn. Frank said Pull My Daisy “was made by non-professionals in search of a freer vision.” Kerouac said of Frank, in his introduction to the Swiss photographer’s masterpiece, The Americans, from 1958, a roving series of black and white images of postwar America, “You got eyes.”

The impulse of Pull My Daisy, like so much Beat art, is a city of poets who are ordinary people and a city of ordinary people who are also poets. In grungy affordability, they mix the artistic—the late night parties, the jam sessions, the beautiful sociability of fellow-travellers, Ginsberg and Corso arguing about Apollinaire (as they do in Pull My Daisy)—with the everyday familio, in lofts and coffeehouses. The diner, of course, was one place where this commingling became most commonplace and epic. Poetics there tapped the taken-for-granted, expressed a vernacular as ordinary as the diner’s counter and grill in the photo, with its “BUTTERMILK” plaque on the sidewall mirror. For its literary hub, the Formica table, with stock items of the Beat trade: cups of coffee, salt and pepper pots, a Ketchup bottle, cigarette packets, scraps of paper. The overall impression of the image is earthy and youthful, happy and fraternal, full of promise for what lies ahead. But there’s a presence of the moment, too, a now, of being there and only there—spontaneously captured by photographer John Cohen’s lens. That’s what seems inspiring: unselfconscious being there.

I’ve never seen any caption for this photo. But if I were to give it one myself I’d call it Goofing at the Table. Webster’s Dictionary says “goofing” means “to spend time foolishly,” playing around, behaving sillily, goofing off school or work, killing time, idly avoiding one’s duties. Goofing here comes across as something pejorative, as dead time, as wasting one’s time, as being somehow unproductive. And yet, for the Beats, goofing signifies something else: a richness, a virtue, the poet’s muse, a moment when the senses are fully alert—when, as Allen Ginsberg says, “lightening strikes in the blue sky.”

“Goofing at the table” is actually a line from Mexico City Blues, Kerouac’s best-regarded set of poems, written in the Mexican capital between August and September 1955. He was shacked up then in a hut along Calle Orizaba, on the roof of a building where William Burroughs once had an apartment. (Burroughs had shot and accidentally killed his wife Joan there, in a drunken party stunt, playing William Tell with a water tumbler.) “I took a little dobe block up on Bill’s roof,” Kerouac said, “2 rooms, lots of sun and old Indian women doing the wash…perfect place to write, blast, think, fresh air, sun, moon, stars, the roof of the city.”

In “candlelight in a lonely room,” high on morphine and marijuana, Kerouac scribbled the 242 choruses (stanzas) of Mexico City Blues, riffing on memories of his late father and older brother Gerard (dead aged nine of rheumatic fever), on past New York kicks, on Nirvana and Buddhism, on Mexico and dope, climaxing with a lovely paean to bebop giant Charlie Parker, “the prefect musician,” who, “with lidded eyes,” “looked like Buddha.” Kerouac explained at the start of Mexico City Blues, “I want to be considered a jazz poet blowing a long blues in an afternoon jam session on Sunday.” [1]

Here, then, in that Sunday afternoon jam session, are Choruses 80-83, hooting a few glorious notes to the American diner:

[80th Chorus]

“GOOFING AT THE TABLE/‘You just dont know.’/‘What dont I know?’/‘How good this ham n eggs/is/‘If you had any idea/ whatsoever/How good this is/Then you would stop/writing poetry/And dig in.’‘It’s been so long/since I been hungry/it’s like a miracle’/Ah boy but them bacon/And them egg–’”

9F1338AE-002D-4D4F-8A22-4E1722FD8455

[81st Chorus]

“Dem eggs & dem dem/Dere bacons, baby/if you only lay that/ down on a trumpet/Lay that down/solid brother/’Bout all dem/bacon & eggs/Ya gotta be able/to lay it down/solid —/All that luney/& fruney”

[82nd Chorus]

“Fracons, acons, & beggs,/Lay, it, all that/be boppy/be buddy/I didnt took/I could think/So/bepo/beboppy/Luney & Juney/—if—/that’s the way/they get/kinda hysterical/Looney & Boony/Juner & Mooner/Moon, Spoon, and June.”

[83rd Chorus]

“Dont they call them/cat men/That lay it down/with the trumpet/…I call em/ them cat things/ ‘That’s really cute,/that un’/ William/ Carlos/ Williams.”

This last allusion is to Beat godfather poet, a reluctant kindred soul. Williams was of an older generation, a man of two personas: one half “square,” straight-laced professional; the other, his shadow self, a radical experimenter, a “hip” creator, the man who inspired the Beats. By day, it was Doc Williams, the family practitioner of native Rutherford, New Jersey, where he delivered 2000 babies and cared for countless patients in a medical career spanning 1910-1952. By night, and at spare moments, “Bill” Williams scribbled verse, became a major innovator in American poetry, a leading twentieth-century literary modernist, contemporary of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound; yet unlike them, not a wordsmith of the scholastic meter but a bard of the vernacular voice.

Williams’s masterwork is the long poem Paterson, after the New Jersey city, Allen Ginsberg’s birthplace. Paterson spans five books, written between 1946 and 1958; its refrains follow the flowing rhythm of the city’s Passaic River with its dramatic Great Falls. The Passaic and Paterson became for Williams what the Liffey and Dublin were for James Joyce, both a place and a person, a metaphor and medium through which the personal and public merged into one great epic universal. “A man in himself is a city,” said Williams, “beginning, seeking, achieving and concluding his life in ways which the various aspects of a city may embody.”

Early on in Paterson, Williams offers advice to the would-be poet: “Say it! No ideas but in things.” Stick to the concrete; keep direct contact with the external phenomenal world; write it from actual experience, from events and objects; express how real people talk, how they sound. Kerouac and Ginsberg, especially, took heed, worked through Williams’s homily. In 1950, Ginsberg, then a young unknown of Paterson, wrote to the old maestro who’d just written a poem about Paterson. Williams was so knocked out that he replied, saying, “I’m going to put this letter in my book, do you mind?” “Gee,” Ginsberg said, “I’m going to be immortal because I thought he was immortal.”

Ginsberg’s letter, letting rip about himself and his New York writer pals (like Kerouac), made it into Book 4 of Paterson. Ginsberg also sent along a few of his own poems. “I do not know if you will like my poetry or not,” he wrote Williams, “that is, how far your own inventive persistence excludes less independent or youthful attempts to perfect, renew, transfigure, and make real an old style or lyric machinery.” As it happened, Williams didn’t much care for Ginsberg’s poems. But he saw the potential, and was typically gracious and encouraging. Six years on, with his epic Howl, Ginsberg learned Williams’ lesson. “The whole point,” he said, “is that from the subjective babble, meandering, thinking, and daydreaming you’ve got reality all of a sudden, shifting and becoming aware of the actuality outside, just like Williams was writing about actualities.”

This, too, is what Kerouac meant by “laying it down solid”: digging immediacy, finding the right note, blowing it, getting it down on the page, in ink, in pencil; a poet cat man, “sketching” honest feelings from actuality: the taste of dem eggs & dem dere bacons, the hunger, the joy of food, gobbling it all down greedily. “I made a pome out of it,” Kerouac says in “Goofing at the Table.” Indeed he did. No ideas only things; simple, ordinary stuff rendered artistic, made poetic, brought alive. Such is Kerouac’s poetics, like his prose: a depiction of sensations and experiences, the restless search to give ordinary life deeper meaning and freer expression. Sometimes he didn’t even know himself whether he wrote prose or poetry. Either way, he said, he wanted to be sincere.

The analogy with jazz is nowhere more evident than when you hear Kerouac reading his poems to musical accompaniment. His best poetry recording, which includes “Goofing at the Table,” along with other choruses of Mexico City Blues, is Poetry for the Beat Generation—Kerouac’s collaboration with pianist and TV talk show host Steve Allen, released again in that big Beat bluesy year of 1959.[2] The history of the recording harks back to December 1957, when Allen first heard Kerouac read at the Village Vanguard, Greenwich Village’s legendary jazz venue. Kerouac was on an up-curve then: the previous September, On the Road had received a rave review in the New York Times, and the novel was a bestseller, Kerouac a big star.

Vanguard’s owner, Max Gordon, thought Kerouac’s voice might click at his jazz club, so he engaged the beatster for seven evening shows. Drunk on opening Xmas night, Kerouac discovered he’d forgotten to bring On the Road. “He leafs through lots of little pads filled with the tiniest hand-lettered notes,” Village Voice reporter Tony Ortega recalls (“Jack Kerouac Live at the Village Vanguard,” The Village Voice, December 25, 1957). “When I write I print everything in pencil,” Kerouac tells Ortega. “Swigging from an always handy drink,” Jack is nervous, fidgety and sweaty that night, before a full house. About to go on stage he decides not to read to music, to go it alone, to read jazz without any jazz. “He slurs over the beautiful passages as if not expecting the crowd to dig them,” says Ortega, “even if he went slower.” But they do dig him, his whirlwind fifteen-minute stint. “The applause is like a thunderstorm on a hot July night.”

Steve Allen dug Kerouac, too, asking afterwards if he could accompany Kerouac at the piano for the second show. He did, and from that night’s performance came the idea for Poetry for the Beat Generation, as well as a guest appearance on Allen’s Plymouth Show, where Kerouac read with tremendous emotional depth the closing sequence of On the Road—“nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody beside the forlorn rags of growing old.”[3]

1C1CE851-B272-41D0-8C06-42D2A46E46E1

For the recording of Poetry for the Beat Generation, Jack remembers “going into the studio to meet Steve at 1P.M.” He came carrying a massive suitcase full of loose manuscripts. Allen asks Kerouac, “‘What’ll read?” “Anything you want,” Kerouac says. Allen begins stroking cords on the piano. “They were pretty,” Kerouac says. Reaching down into the suitcase, he digs up at random some typed sheets, shows them to Allen who says, “OK.” Allen starts to play, signals to the sound engineer, and they roll. Between cuts Kerouac takes a hit from his Thunderbird wine, passing it to Allen, “who drank with charitable gaiety.” “He was nice,” Kerouac says. “We finished the session in an hour. The engineers came out and said, ‘Great, that’s a great first take.’ I said, ‘It’s the only take.’ Steve said, ‘That’s right’, and we all packed up and went home’.” And here, for all to hear, is Kerouac and Allen’s spontaneously improvised GOOFING AT THE TABLE: https://youtu.be/3mw-xI0UUt8

There’s a little coda to this tale, telling us a few things about Kerouac’s America and why the Beats were beat with it. Although Poetry for the Beat Generation was recorded in March 1958, it didn’t make vinyl until June 1959. Why the delay? The problem was Dot Records, who produced the recording and were scheduled to distribute the album. But after hearing the disk, company president Randy Wood decided to pull the project, turning prissy, saying he thought certain passages “in bad taste,” and that his company “would never distribute a product that’s not clean family entertainment.” Wood’s reaction struck many as bizarre. If clean family fun were record companies’ primary motivation, much of rock ’n’ roll history wouldn’t exist. Even Dot Records’ vice-president Bob Thiele was bemused. While Poetry for the Beat Generation clearly isn’t for kids, Thiele said, neither are Walt Whitman or e.e. Cummings. But should that invalidate their artistry or genius?

After his tiff with Wood, Thiele quit Dot, taking the master tape of Kerouac and Allen’s recording with him. A smart move. The rest, we might say, is music legend. With Steve Allen, Thiele founded the Hanover label, really a vehicle to give Poetry for the Beat Generation a public hearing, finally bringing to melodious life the goofy jazz cadences of Kerouac’s voice and poetics. Thiele would soon establish himself in jazz annals, heading up Impulse! records between 1961 and 1969, producing many stellars like Charles Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, and, perhaps above all, John Coltrane, most famously A Love Supreme. A year before he died in 1996, Thiele released a memoir whose title bore Louis Armstrong’s famous hit: What a Wonderful World.

IF KEROUAC’S VERSE SPEAKS a jazz register, we can hear the musicality of the city, too, the joys and melancholy of urban life, its camaraderie and loneliness, its blues. Often, like Williams’ Paterson, or Baudelaire’s Paris, the city itself became the subject of the poetry, Kerouac’s mindmatter muse. Mexico City Blues is one obvious example, yet so is San Francisco Blues and Washington D.C. Blues. Sometimes Kerouac narrowed it down even more, unique in his oeuvre in that he wrote poems about specific streets, such as Bowery Blues, MacDougal Street Blues and Orizaba 210 Blues (the latter about a single building, on whose roof he once lived). Along the way, he penciled “Tangier Poems,” “Haikus in Berkeley,” as well as “Pomes on Doctor Sax” from hometown Lowell. The city, as such, was Kerouac’s standard measure, its idiom his pitch. His was an aural as well as oral gift, a refined sense and sensibility for the street, and, as I’ll discuss next time, for its unrefined habitués.

NOTES

[1] Grove Press published Mexico City Blues in November 1959, after Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights rejected it. Grove was a tireless supporter of Beat literature and owner Barney Rosset was close to both Kerouac and Ginsberg. He pumped much of his own family fortune into promoting literary experimentation and free expression, winning landmark court cases against the censorship of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (the latter also in 1959). Meanwhile, Rosset brought the European avant-garde to American audiences, notably Jean Genet, Samuel Beckett and Eugène Ionesco.

[2] Coincidence or not, it’s worth remembering that the other great American blues poem of the decade, Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, likewise hailed from 1959.

[3] Other accounts report that Kerouac had a disastrous week at the Vanguard and his stint was prematurely terminated. It’s hard to know who to believe. Voice’s Tony Ortega implied that Kerouac went down really well—one bartender called Jack “a beautiful cat.” What seems clearer is that showbiz Steve Allen was sufficiently impressed to want to cut a record with Kerouac.

Posted in All | Leave a comment

BEAT CITY 2 — On the Road and On the Sidewalk

THAT ARTISTIC ROMANTICISM I spoke about last time evoked the thrill and possibility of urban life. Inscribed in the art, in the activity of that age, in its human poetry, was something about the city itself; how the creative energies of artists and writers were nurtured in city, were nurtured by the city. At the same time, Beat culture helped shape this energy, helped nurture this urban communion for awhile. In other words, it both tapped and enriched the energies of the post-war American city. Yet it came with a few contradictions.

One was the sense of liberation embodied in Beat books like On the Road, which marvelled at blasting across the great American plains, journeying coast to coast, in cars and on buses. Such was “the purity of the road,” the freedom “of moving and getting somewhere, no matter where, and as fast as possible and with as much excitement and digging of all things as possible.” “There was nowhere to go but everywhere,” Kerouac says. To move meant “leaving confusion and nonsense behind and performing our one and noble function of the time, move. And we moved!” At one point, Neal Cassady shouts “we gotta go and never stop going till we get there.” “Where we going man?” “I don’t know but we gotta go.” [1]

But to get there you needed to arrive someplace, and that someplace, that there, was invariably a big city—a Denver or Los Angeles, a New Orleans or Chicago, a New York or San Francisco. Thus the dramatic tension underwriting On the Road: between the road-going and what happens afterwards when the car is parked, or when you get off the bus, touch sidewalk, and hit the bar or diner. At these moments, the immensity of the road shifts gear into the intensity of the city. And there, in neutral, protagonists inevitably had to confront themselves.

On the Road affirms this fluidity between road-going and big city, moves between a purity and a profanity, and that includes a profanity of the city within the self. The city is where the Beats worked themselves over, often turning this working over into an art form. They revelled on both flanks, loved purity and profanity, dug the immensity of the road as well as the intensity of the sidewalk: “Suddenly I found myself on Times Square,” Kerouac says early on in On the Road. “I had traveled eight thousand miles around the American continent and I was back on Times Square; and right in the middle of the rush hour too, making me see with my innocent road eyes the absolute madness and fantastic hoorair of New York with its millions and millions hustling forever for a buck among themselves.”

And yet even back then this peculiar conjoining between road and sidewalk was coming unstuck. Not only through the commercial upscaling destroying cheap rents, but also through the same moving impetus that powered On the Road cross country. The development promises of mobility and liberty that Kerouac revealed to a whole younger generation were, for instance, the same development promises that the era’s titanic expressway builder, Robert Moses, revealed to a whole nation. We’ve seen Burt Glinn photographing interior Beat spaces at night; by day, Robert Moses was blasting bulldozing his way through entire cityscapes, with little concern for what lay within. “When you operate in an overbuilt metropolis,” he liked to boast, “you had to hack your way with a meat ax.” Suddenly, road and sidewalk were moving in opposite directions, wrenched apart by a deadlier dialectic.

Several of Kerouac’s most cherished neighbourhoods, like the West and East Villages, would have been butchered by the mighty meat ax had Moses’s multi-story Lower Manhattan Expressway been realised. But the plan was quashed, largely because of a coalition of vociferous residents, led by the legendary urbanist Jane Jacobs, who’d mobilised to “KILL THE XPRESSWAY NOW!” By the early 1960s, Manhattan’s West Village had been designated a slum by city planners and government officials. The data proved why. It was overcrowded and run down, in the way of the automobile, the modern future.

In February 1961, a month after the manuscript of Jacobs’s famous book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, had been submitted to the publisher, a campaign to save the West Village was unleashed. Jacobs was chip off the Beat’s own block. A Beat mom, we might say. She even liked to tipple gin in an old Beat watering hole, the White Horse Tavern, along her Hudson Street block. (For a time, Kerouac lived above the tavern, in a tiny apartment.) Jacobs wrote lovingly about grubby streets and busy sidewalks and workaday neighbourhoods. Cities aren’t reducible to statistics and population densities, she’d said, to something “officially” mapped. There’s a lot more going on, as the Beats knew, a lot more there there, a lot more Wow!

One thing Jacobs insisted upon, like the Beats, was that cities need hearts. Big cities usually have more than one heart. Yet always these hearts beat at crowded intersections, have corner stores and corner cafés, corner bars and corner public squares. And hearts thrive off diversity not homogeneity. The liveliest city blocks mingle high and middling yield with low with no yield enterprises. But as the decades were to unfold, high yield steadily became the only asking price, forcing many corner enterprises and corner people out of business and out of the neighbourhood. Bustling city hearts, once saved from Moses’s wreckers’ ball, increasingly got economically razed (raised) by financial investment. Out of the old vibrant mix came not much mix: city hearts were ripped out, became functionally and financially standardised, clean and predictable the way they are today. Their blood ran thin. Their hearts no longer Beat.

“ACROSS THE STREET you can see the ruins of New York already started,” wrote Kerouac, perceptively, in his introduction to The Beat Scene. He’s watching the old Globe Hotel, on the corner of 44th Street and 8th Avenue, being torn down. “An empty tooth-hole,” he says, “right off 42nd Street,” making way for something fancier. Kerouac would have been standing somewhere near Times Square, on a street corner “sketching,” as he was wont to do, looking around, feeling and listening, depicting streets like a painter would but doing it with words, creating verbal images from scenes and sounds, “slapping it all down,” he says, “shameless, willy-nilly, rapidly until sometimes I got so inspired I lost consciousness I was writing.” Much of what Kerouac was seeing and sketching was already history, about to be razed and forgotten, rebuilt anew.

For awhile, though, there was no better place to sketch than Times Square. The Square marked journey’s end somehow, the road’s terminus; at the same time as it staked out the beginnings of another adventure, another voyage, down a rabbit hole into the city’s bowels. Times Square was Beat home-ground, where they held court, where the world of road-going encountered the crossroads of their world. This was where the city’s heart throbbed. Things here were chancy and risqué, spontaneous and wondrous, a giant antechamber off which a myriad of other hidden chambers led, full of hipsters and hustlers, castoffs and bums, lost kids and street punks, pimps and prostitutes, buskers and poets, lonely underground men trying to fight off the existential chill, seeking kindred company.

On the corner of 42nd Street and 7th Avenue was Grant’s cafeteria, “our favoured dining place,” Kerouac says. “For 65 cents you get a huge plate of fried clams, a lot of French fried potatoes, a little portion of cole slaw, some tartar sauce, a little cup of red sauce for fish, a slice of lemon, two slices of fresh rye bread, a pat of butter, another ten cents brings a glass of rare birch beer—What a ball it is to eat here!” Twenty thousand customers a day, he reckons, fifty thousand on rainy days, one hundred thousand on snowy days. “Operation twenty-four hours. Privacy—supreme under a glary red light full of conversation—Toulouse-Lautrec, with his deformity and cane, sketching in the corner—You can stay there for five minutes and gobble up your food, or else stay for hours having insane philosophical conversations with your buddy and wondering about the people.”

F24E77B9-5CA6-4193-8C03-2F9635F45C37

“Why does Times Square feel like a big room?” Kerouac asks.

“There’s a whole floating population around Times Square,” he says, “that has always made Bickford’s their headquarters day and night.” Bickford’s, another popular cafeteria, nearby at 225 West 42nd Street, “the greatest stage on Times Square,” Kerouac calls it. Under its glowing submarine light, “many people have hung around there for years, man and boy, searching. God alone knows what, maybe some angel of Times Square who would make the whole big room home, the old homestead… civilisation needs it.”

F19E9524-2136-4EC4-A07F-CC9862B4CA15

In the old days, Beatsters went to Bickford’s in search of the mythical Herbert Huncke, the poor, shady Times Square hustler, the original, almost archetypal Beatnik, the Raskolnikov of 42nd Street, a quintessential William Burroughs junkie. In the 1940s and ’50s, Huncke haunted Times Square and Times Square haunted him. He “used to come in and out” of Bickford’s, Kerouac says, “in an oversized black raincoat, looking for somebody to lay a pawnticket on—Remington typewriter, portable radio, black raincoat—to score some toast (get some money), so he can go uptown and get in trouble with the cops.” The poets came to Bickford’s “to smoke a peace pipe, looking for the ghost of Huncke or his boys, dreaming over the fading cups of tea.”

Bickford’s was a Beat Mecca, and “if you went there every night and stayed there you could start a whole Dostoevsky season on Times Square.” So the road did eventually lead to the whole world, just as Kerouac said, led into Times Square. Its streets took you onto the sidewalk, and that sidewalk spilled into the diner, a terrain the Beat’s made their own. They made its down at heel banality somehow literary, casting neon-light on low American culture and highbrow existentialism, blending Maxwell House with Prince Myshkin. It was probably the last time we’d ever see high and low culture mixing, public and private spaces flowing into one another, coming together in a city that was still accessible, open and brimming with cheap thrills. The greatest trip of all.

 

NOTES

[1] These citations, like all others I am using from On the Road, are taken from Kerouac’s “Original Scroll,” his “uncut” first draft version, hammered out on rolls of teletype paper. In the eventual “novel” edition, published in 1957, a lot of the juicier action is edited out; and the names of protagonists became fictionalised. But the usage of real names—including the narrator’s—together with full disclosure, makes the unexpurgated On the Road more graphic, rawer and wilder. Read as a memoir, everything sounds more convincing, madder, and even more inspiring. Then, too, the fact that the book has no real storyline or structure hardly matters.

Posted in All | Leave a comment