Thomas M. Disch - Sermonettes
SERMONETTES 1999 - 20000
Cather's Opera Singers
I am a musical illiterate. Which is to say I can't play the piano or sight-read vocal music. Though I went to a parochial school in rural Minnesota where these skills might have been learned, there was an unwritten law that music was a thing for girls like sewing or twirling a baton. When it finally dawned on me that music was food for the soul I was already an old dog of fourteen years, confirmed in my habits as a mere listener. I listened to 78 rpm records of Tristan from the library and the Saturday afternoon broadcasts from the Metropolitan opera, but what George Bernard Shaw had done fifty years earlier, when he'd caught the Wagner bug, was as far beyond me as reading Homer's Greek. He'd gone to the British Museum and studied the score of the Ring Cycle.
The crucial difference between then and now was the invention of the phonograph. In the B.P. era - before the phonograph - you only had music in your own home if there was someone who could perform it Now with a twiddle of the dial the entire musical wealth of western civilization can make your windows rattle. We're so used to instant music that we can't imagine what music meant in the B.P. era-when Wagner was still controversial and ultra-modern, not a blast from the past.
All of this is by way of advertising Willa Cather's two great novels about the education of an opera singer in the musical America of a century ago: The Song of the Lark, which she wrote in 1914, and Lucv Gavheart from 1935, which is almost the clone of that first novel, but enough of a page-turner in its own right that it's slated to be a Hollywood movie sometime soon. Cather is mostly known for her books about pioneer life in Nebraska, and her two books about prairie maidens destined to be divas are not required reading in midwestem high schools the way Mv Antonia and O Pioneers once were. But for anyone who's grown up in Podunk and longed to fly off east, to civilization, nothing can equal The Song of the Lark for sheer Horatio-Alger uplift. Not just rags to riches, not just sod hut to skyscraper, but polkas to Parsifal.
Julius Caesar at the Met
With Handel's Julio Cesare, its last production of the season, the Metropolitan Opera has rivaled Pygmalion. It has brought a marble statue to life.
Giulio Cesare - .Julius Caesar to us - is an opera seria from 1724, with a libretto going back another half-century. Four hours long and stately as a papal benediction, it has the potential for being a major snooze. The Met's production is anything but. As one da capo aria follow another, each florid in some novel way, each singer offering her own Can-you-top-this? challenge to the last, the spectacle becomes a circus. The singers are vocal acrobats, tumblers, and contortionists, amusing us with feats of agility and strength.
Like a circus, too, are the sets by John Pascoe and Michael Stennet - prodigies of tinselly extravagance - as artificial and pricey.and silly as a baroque basilica on Easter Sunday. But the major glory of course, has to be the singers, and for its Julius Caesar the Met assembled a quartet of treble voices - one man and three women of remarkable suavity and flair.
Debuting in the role of Sesto, counter-tenor David Daniels managed from his first note to make one forget the gender-bending aspect of opera seria. He was never hooty like so many other counter-tenors, but sang in his own natural singing voice, an instrument he played like a Paganini.
The same was true of Stephanie Blythe as Cornelia, whose duet with Daniels at the end of Act One could have gone on forever, just as the words promise, and no one would have complained.
Sylvia McNair as Cleopatra had the lion's share of coloratura razzle-dazzle, and she was a one-woman chandelier. But the performance that wowed me most was Jennifer Larmore's in the title role. I'd always thought Janet Baker owned the role of Julius Caesar, but Larmore put her own distinct spin on it. While Baker is all stateliness and quiet pomp, Larmore is - how can I put it? - alien. She emits expressive sounds at the edge of musicality, shrill or raspy as the score commands. She is an astonishment.
But judge for yourself The opera will be aired next Saturday afternoon on Texaco's last Metropolitan Opera broadcast of the season, with two more evening performances on the 21st and 24th.
This is, possibly, a shameful admission, but I'm sure I'm not alone in confessing how, from a very early age - 12 or 13 - I wanted to be a villain. Or more exactly to play a villain. The Emperor Ming always seemed to me a better and more obtainable role model than Flash Gordon. I think I knew even at age 12 that Flash's blond hair and Lil' Abner abs just weren't in my stars. When I was fourteen and discovered Edmund in King Lear I'd memorized "Nature, thou art my goddess!" almost at a glance. And so it's been ever since.
Which means that if I were an opera singer I would want to be a basso, or a baritone at the very least, because they're the ones who get to play the bad guys. Iago in Otello, Mephistofeles in at least three versions of Faust, Dapertutto in The Tales of Hoffinan with his lascivious, seductive "Scintille, diamant!", and my favorite moment of bass villainy in all opera, Hagen's call to the Vassals in Gotterdammerung.
All this has become timely in an odd way since the Littleton Colorado High School Massacre, since the subsequent finger-pointing has all been directed at the "Trench-coat mafia" and the various ways in which the media glamorize evil for impressionable teenagers. I guess opera buffs should be grateful that the boys at Littleton had yet to discover Tosca or Don Giovanni or the Metropolitan Opera would have to start rating their productions like movies and TV. Opera - and opera villains - do have a lot to answer for. Hitler was a Wagnerite, after all, and I'm sure his black heart thrilled to Hagen's call to the vassals just as mine does.
It is, I would suggest, an intractable problem. The devil is a born scene-stealer. He is always going to upstage Faust and Marguerite in their trios, just as Falstaff - another great bass-baritone-will eclipse any tenor around him.
What's to be done? I would say: enjoy it. Ideally, on the CD from London/Perfidia called Bass Villainy, which includes the greatest bassos and baritones of all time in their signature roles. Titta Ruffo as Iago proclaiming his devotion to a cruel god. Tito Gobbi as Scarpia putting the screws on Maria Callas. Fischer-Dieskau as Hagan, Chaliapin as Boris, and some basso probably still unborn as Hannibal Lector in the opera by that name. This is, after all, an imaginary CD.
The history behind Khovanschina
At the recent revival of Moussorgsky's Khovanschina by the Metrolitan Opera, conductor Valery Gergiev and a cast mostly imported from Russia covered themselves with bravos, but you would never know, watching that production that Khovanschina is a vision of history without comparison in the history of opera. Beside it Verdi's Don Carlos is a crude swashbuckler and Wagner's Meistersinger a pep rally for the First Reich.
Khovanschina is about the fatal proclivity of law and order to congeal, tragically, into organized terror, with religion helping to fuel the flames. It's a vivid, accurate picture of Russia at the end of the 17th century, and no less on target about the Russia later decimated by Stalin's terror. But that's not the end of its relevance to our time. It's impossible, watching the self-immolation of the Old Believers in the last scene, not to think of the fires of Waco, Texas. And no need to stop there. For Slobodan Milosevic is re-enacting the same gruesome scenario with a vengeance.
The problem with the Met's production was the chorus, which had been left to do those things choruses do in all operas, time out of mind, marching in formation and milling about. There was no sense of what kind of people they might be, other than ancient. Only when they are burned alive, do we realize they are victims. The Met's staging obscures the fact that there are two distinct groups threatened with extinction - the Tsar's bodyguards, who are brutish, merciless, and fun-loving, and who manage to survive, and the Old Believers, who are ignorant bigots who get burned alive.
It is possible to stage Khovanschina so that these things are devastatingly clear. In fact such a version can be seen on the videotape of the 1989 Vienna State Opera production staged by Allied Kirchner, which a useful and recent reference book, The Metropolitan Guide to Opera on Video, salutes as "one of the best versions of any opera available on video." To which I can only say Amen.
I saw it on a tape checked out of the library, but the book, which is published by Norton, was a Christmas present and has proven as dependable in its way as The Joy of Cooking. Video is coming to be the best way to see opera, and certainly the cheapest, and the Met Guide is the only map of the broad terrain that already is out there to explore.
In 1955 Marian Anderson made history by being the first black woman to sing at the Metropolitan Opera. This year Renee Fleming made operatic history of a different sort when she appeared in the title role of Carlisle Floyd's Susannah: this was the first time that the Met has put on an American opera that had its New York premiere, in 1956, at the city's other opera house. Bravo, thank you, and it's about time.
Susannah is a work of modest scale, with a story taken from the Apocrypha, but with the plot toned down to sepia rather than heightened to Technicolor. In the Bible story Susannah faces death by stoning when two men testify they'd seen her commiting adultery in her backyard. In fact they'd only seen her taking a bath and then had tried to blackmail her into making love with them. In the opera, which is set in hillbilly Tennessee, Susannah is booted out of her church and then seduced by the minister, Rev. Blitch. There is no comeuppance for the perjured elders (who, in the Bible story, get sentenced to death by a gleefully vindictive judge). The flavor of Floyd's opera, overall, is of a Cavelaria Rusticana in overalls - with an identical tragic outcome: Susannah's brother Sam redeems the family's honor by killing the seducer.
Renee Fleming's singing was all moonlight, honey, and wistful longing, but she did not command the stage charismatically during long stretches of anxious silence, as an ideal Susannah must. She is a character who only mounts to lyric heights when she thinks she's alone, at which point her full, ripe soprano is the operatic equivalent to the biblical Susannah's naked body, a thing of pure sensuous beauty. For those few minutes, as Rev. Blitch, and the audience, eavesdrop on Susannah's soul, the opera is spellbinding.
The problem with operas in English, all too often, is that the words are quite as unintelligible as if one were listening to an opera in Russian or Walloon. In Susannah Jerry Hadley as Sam was the only singer for whom the Mets Title system was not an indispensable crutch for staying tuned to the story. I know, I know - direct and immediate apprehension of the text is not the point of opera. If it were, the Met would not be Sold Out so often. But when it does happen, what bliss! And what a good reason to keep faith with the idea of opera in English.
The Flving Dutchman has never been a favorite of mine, if only because I've never given it a fair shake. Till this season at the Met I'd never seen it on stage, nor had I listened to it all the way through with the libretto.
The synopsis had seemed a bit simple-minded-as though the plots of half a dozen operas that I love aren't just as silly, or plodding, if you don't dig into them. The truth is - I didn't get it.
Now, thanks to the Met's new production by August Everding, I'm in love with Wagner all over again, and he's a whole new composer from the Wagner I loved before. Younger, without the advantages of having heard his own later masterpieces. He's shorter-winded. The great moments come in bursts. Until the one truly great moment in Act Three when all hell breaks loose, and Wagner the Visionary Genius enters the history of music. Or so it seemed to me, sitting there, drinking it in at the Met. It's one of those productions when everything comes together. James Morris's Dutchman is Nureyev to the Margot Fontene of Nina Stemme's Senta. It's a strange partnering, since they are seldom on stage together and, even when they are, don't sing duets. For the longest time, after his second act entrance, Morris simply gazes at his victim bride-to-be, entranced. But his gaze is as sinister as Dracula's. In fact The Flying Dutchman is the nearest thing to Dracula on the opera stage, although without the italicizing of the Met's production I'm not sure I would have made that connection on my own.
Even more impressive than the two leads was the Met's chorus in Act III as it sang a bibulous welcome to the Dutchman's immense, silent, utterly unresponsive ship. The chorus becomes more and more aggressive and raucous - a Wagnerian chorus to rival those in Meistersinger or Gotterdammerung - but the ship just sits there, brooding, until like Dracula's coffin it starts to creak open, and then . . . But I won't tell. The finale as Senta bellows an ecstatic death wish and rushes off-stage to commit suicide is like a two-minute version of all the self-immolations by Wagnerian sopranos in the operas to come. But it was enough to make the Indian practice of suttee come back in style. Way to go, Senta, way to go! Of course, once you're out of the opera house and able to think about it, The Flying Dutchman seems as silly as ever. But it's opera, and you donít think about. You embark, and are blown away.
Romeo and Juliet
Back in February a newspaper editor invited me to offer my two-cents-worth as to what is the greatest love story every written. Well, I mentioned some of my own personal favourites - Anna Karenina and Vronski, Tristan and Isolde, Zhivago and Lara - after I'd seen the movie, Lara's theme used to trigger my tears as reliably as in were one of Pavlov's puppies.
The Russians seem to have produced more than their share of great love stories, which is why I could never believe, during the Cold War, that they were our enemy. Or, if they were, we were doomed to join them in a great funeral pyre, like Brunnhilde and Siegfried at the end of their romance.
It was "Lara's Theme," not the novel or the movie that really got to me. The details of the plot faded but the melody lingered on, proof that music is the food of love - and the house it lives in, and its raison d'etre. So it stands to reason that the greatest love story would be one that transcends words altogether, and my final pick was Prokofiev's score for the Romeo and Juliet. I hear the first note and for the rest of the week Prokofiev is with me round the clock.
As for the ballet itself, on stage, what can I say but bravo, thank you, encore, again, again. The first Juliet I ever saw was Galina Ulanova in the Bolshoi version at the old Met in the late 1950s. I'd slept on the pavement outside the opera house the night before in order to be sure of a standing room ticket, but one should suffer a little for love. And Ulanova was . . . as the song goes, "words cannot say. " She was pushing sixty at the time, but Claire Danes' Juliet, in the movie of a few years ago, seemed not a whit younger or more blossom-like or doomed. The final pas de deu in which Romeo dances with the (apparently) dead Juliet surpasses all other fleeting moments of tragic love. It's beyond all handkerchiefs. . .
. . . and recently it all happened again, with MacMillan's magnificent choreography, during the latest, still ongoing season of American Ballet Theater. This time it was Angel Corella's Romeo that made an indelible impression. Nureyev was good with Fontayne, but he was showing his years by the time he did Romeo. Corella is in his dewy prime, and anvthing he dances is worth spending a night on the pavement to see.
Giraudoux at Century Center
Within this last month The New Yorker came out with one of its classic smart-ass covers of all time - a panorama by Bruce McCall showing Times Square in some alternate version of the 1 930s where High Culture reigns supreme and the billboards advertise smoking jackets and escargots.
Like all good jokes there's a seed of sadness in this, for there really was a time when you might have expected a certain portion of the Times Square crowd to be wearing white tie and heading off to plays that featured Greek gods who speak in French poetry. Plays like Jean Giraudoux's Amphitrion 38 or Tiger at the Gate, both of which I recently had the pleasure of seeing in staged readings in the bijou ballroom of New York City's newest little repertory theater, the Century Center on East 15th St.
Those two comedies were part of a series of ten plays by Giraudoux and Anouilh that will be done as readings through June 30. As theatrical programming goes, this is as quixotic an undertaking as anything on McCall's New Yorker cover. Giraudoux and Anouilh have become theatrical pariahs, as was demonstrated a few months ago when the Times trounced a revival of an Anouilh comedy and declared all his works beyond the pale.
So much for civilized pleasure. Because that is what those playwrights abundantly offer - not to mention opportunities for acting - and actressing - in the grand manner. Even without costumes or sets Patricia Conolly was radiant as Jupiter's unwitting consort Alkmena, an advertisement for conjugal love written in haute bourgeois heaven.
For the two hours the play lasted I wanted her to be my wife, just as two nights later I wanted to commit adultery with Geneva Carr, who played Helen in Tiger at the Gates. Were there more air time, there would be a dozen other troopers to applaud, and a few to shake a finger at, but Iíll limit further plaudits to Brad Sorowsky's Troilus, who seems no more than fifteen but is already an adept .at the fine art of stealing a scene.
Next year Century Center intends to continue its series of full-scale productions of all of Ibsen's plays from Brand on. This one little theater has more sheer ambition than all Broadway.
The Death of the Musical
The first Broadway shows that I saw when I came to New York in the fall of 1957 were West Side Story at the Winter Garden, where Cats will soon be winding up its record-breaking run, and A Long Day's Journey into Night, with Frederick March and Florence Eldridge and Jason Robards as Edmund Tyrone, O'Neill's portrait of himself as a tragic young drunk. Actually, I saw Florence Eldridge's understudy, but I might have seen her, if she hadn't been sick that night, just as I might have seen Ethel Merman in Gypsy or Callas's Medea, if Iíd only known what I was missing.
Whom you saw when they were big and you were little is one of life's major yardsticks, especially in New York. I go back so far that I can lay claim to having seen Birgit Nielson's debut at the Met in Fidelio and one of her last Clyternnestras.
Artists retire or they die, and one can be philosophical about it. What is harder to countenance is the death of a whole art-form. Back on March 12 the Sunday Times published Frank Rich's interview with Stephen Sondheim on the melancholy theme of the death of the Broadway musical. It wasn't so long ago that Rich was the Times's leading theater critic, and Sondheim the reigning monarch of Broadway composers, so their joint pronouncement is as close to an official obituary notice for musical comedy as you could get. I can lay claim to the sad distinction of having been the Cassandra of that Troy, having published an article in The Atlantic Monthly ten years ago that quite accurately predicted the demise of all theater on Broadway except for waxwork revivals for the tourist trade. Sondheim has my condolences.
I have a harder time waxing philosophical about the ongoing extinction of another art-form that has been my home address for most of my adult life. But the fact can't be blinked away that literary science fiction, the so-called New Wave of the 1960s, is going down the same road to extinction as the musical comedy. Science-fiction won't disappear altogether, I daresay. Its icons will remain perennial staples of kiddylit, where the spaceman and the cowboy are good friends, as they are in Disney's Toy Story. But science fiction as an art form for thinking adults? That is a subjct for grad students with a major in 20th Century Studies.
NYU rent dispute
Long ago, when I first came to Manhattan, it was possible to find a cheap apartment For $32 I had a pair of unheated rooms in what is now Soho and was then little Italy. Part of the job of being an artist was finding such bargains. That's why so many artists come to be channeled into such new mid-life careers as carpentry and plumbing. The art market can accommodate only so many third- or fourth generation de Koonings or Franz Kleins, but a good electrician is always hard to find.
That sad fact of life is at the center of the city's latest rent control confrontation, in which NYU is trying to evict nine "artists" (including a food designer and martial-arts instructor) who've occupied university-owned lofts for almost thirty years at what are now stupendously low rents. The question before the courts is, do the nine plaintiffs have a moral, or legal, right to low-rent lofts just because they're artists? Even, it may be, bad artists? But certainly poor artists, who couldn't afford the going price of a 10ft one block east of Washington Square.
Ask that question, and at once the Bad Artists Defense League will bring up the examples of Rembrandt, who went bankrupt, or Sylvia Plath, who killed herself for lack of affordable housing and day care services. But does the world owe painters or performance artists a living in a way it doesn't owe it to people who work at garages and hospitals? That is debatable - and the debate's been going on since at least the time of Puccini's La Boheme, in which one failed artists of 19th century Paris can be seen inhabiting a 10ft that would rent for three or four thousand a month in today's market. Now La Boheme's Broadway spinoff, Rent makes the same point in its title and with just four letters.
One thing that productions of both the opera and the musical tend to gloss over is the fact that Rodolpho, Mimi and all their friends are destined to fail as artists. We rarely get to see Marcello's huge painting of the Red Sea, but he always imagined it to be a major esthetic botch. As for Rudolpho's poetry, he and Mimi may sing like angels, but only his closest friends will ever help him into print.
And that's the beauty of opera. Everyone's naked soul can shine on stage. Even the members of the chorus in Act 2-among whom a majority don't live in lofts subsidized by NYU.
The Blue Flower
Books are always coming to me in the mail. I have lots of friends who are writers and send me their books, plus I do a fair amount of reviewing, and then this last year I discovered eBay, which has added to the flow, but the other day the very rarest of book deliveries appeared in my P.O. box: two books that rd lent to someone years ago were returned, without a hint or a nudge, to the lender.
I know that it is a part of received and ancient wisdom that one should not expect a borrowed book to be returned, ever. And I don't. But in the heat of the moment, after Iíve been singing the praises of a particular author for perhaps a longer time than Miss Manners would sanction, it seems only fair to insist on lending the book to one's patient listener. And if that's the last one sees of the book, so be it.
In fact. that can actually be a good thing. A case in point. Recently I was on the phone with someone who was going to the hospital for an operation that would keep him bedridden for a week This invalid-to-be is someone who lives without a television, and doesn't ordinarily read novels.
Only poetry and philosophy and the really hard stuff. A modem saint - but even saints should be given some slack after surgery.
So I told him about Penelope Fitzgerald's novel, for which she won the Booker Prize, The Blue Flower. It is a droll account, in short, bite-size chapters, of the romantic passion that the German poet Novalis developed for a twelve-year-old girl, who became his fiancee before she turned thirteen, and died a year later. It is the least likely subject for a comic novel Iíve ever heard of, but ifs achingly funny, and one of the best biographical novels about a real poet ever written, and I knew my friend would love it.
Good novels about bygone poets are not as uncommon as you might think. Robert Graves did Milton, and Rose Macauley did Herrick, and Mann did Goethe. But Penelope Fitzgerald's may be the best of the lot. Anyhow I insisted on lending my friend the book, and just yesterday he called to say how much he'd loved the book-and to apologize that he couldn't return it because he'd enthused about it so much to a friend of his that he had felt obliged to lend it in turn.
Make a note: The Blue Flower. Penelope Fitzgerald. She was in her seventies when she wrote it, and about to die herself. But every page smells of springtime. Iíd lend it to you, but someone else has my copy.
Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey\Maturin Series
There are various ways of arranging one's life in some semblance of order-by decades - the 80s, the 90s, and the still nameless decade fast approaching - or by residence - That's when we were living on East 11th - or by jobs, or spouses. Or by authors. From my late 20s into my mid-30s I was reading Proust. He is not my favorite author by a long shot, but I was determined to have read the Remembrance of Things Past before I died, and I did, with time to spare.
Now I am one-third of the way through the 18 and still counting volumes of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey\Maturin series. At this point I know I'm going to go the distance - and that is a great feeling, like running in the New York Marathon after age 60. I can still do it: I can still stretch my attention span as far as any writer demands. And it's still fun.
If you haven't already been exposed to the virus, the Aubrey-Maturin series is a saga of naval warfare in the Napoleonic era featuring Captain Jack Aubrey and his faithful sidekick, the surgeon and master spy Stephen Maturin. The two heroes are as believable as Tolstoi's Prince Andrei and Pierre Bezuhov in War and Peace except for their unfailing luck in surviving so many nautical perils. Here is the real 18th century with all the sordid details you wanted to hear from Jane Austen but were afraid to ask. And at regular intervals there are set-pieces of action on the high seas so thrilling and so well-written that the literary part of your mind simply has to gasp. The higher escapism of the historical novel doesn't get any better than this, and the jackets of the eighteen paperbacks are weighted with more five-star citations than a rear admiral's unifonn. It was that - the extravagance of the applause from the onset of the series in the early 70s - that finally persuaded me to give the next few years of my life to Patrick O'Brian. But there I could be wrong. I might come to the end of this long road a lot faster than I did with Proust. Ordinarily I am a slow reader and easily sidetracked, but this time my foot is off the brake. I'm in volume seven and still reading at a gallop. This bowl of popcorn might not last to the millennium.
100 Best Non Fiction Books
When the Modem Library came out with its list of 100 Best Works of Fiction in English in the 20th Century I went over it like the Proust's Baron de Charlus cramming for his final exam in snobbery. Which ones had I read? Which did I own? What was missing the list and what was there only as an obvious concession to Political Correctness?
Now the Modern Library has produced another list to clip and xerox and cross-reference: the 100 Best Non-Fiction Books, and I must confess I've read only 18 of them, own a meager 30 - a much poorer score than with the fiction. I must confess, further, that I'm not that ambitious to fill in the gaps in my omniscience. Much as I admire Vermeer, I'm feel no keen shame at not having read his biography by Lawrence Gowing, 83rd on the list. Or the memoirs of Dean Acheson, #47. Or John Maynard Keynes' General Theorv of Emplovment, Interest and Money, way up there at # 10. I'm willing to be judged by the Great Scorekeeper with those omissions on my record, while I still blush to think I'll probably die without ever having read Don Quixote or Tristram Shandy.
Still and all, it's good to have such lists. Not only are they a source of self-esteem for books you have read (and totally forgotten) like Lewis Mumford's The City in Historv, # 76, which I once considered a work of towering genius; they also act as a gentle nudge to get a particular good intention down off the shelf and dust its spine. Which I've done now with my copy of Rebecca West's Black Lamb and Grav Falcon, # 38, and said to be the best book ever written about Yugoslavia.
The. greatest pleasure such a list affords is that of feeling superior to the compilers for having missed obvious masterpieces, like the Alice B. Toklas Cookbook, not to mention Julia Child, not to mention . . . well, hundreds of others.
But is it the same, really, with non-fiction? It's what we take in from such books that matters more than how fine they are as books. Einstein is important for mathematical insights beyond the ken of most of us, not for having written book #35 on the list, with the drab, grab-bag title Ideas and Opinions.
There's the rub: Ideas and Opinions. Ideas age, opinions shift. Art may be long, but non-fiction. . (alas for its authors). . has a short shelf-life
My friend and sometime editor, Michael Dirda, has just brought out a book called Readings with a selection of the essays from the Washington Post Book World for which he won a Pulitzer a while back. It is, on many counts, a book worth getting hold of, but there is one essay alone worth the price of admission. It is a simple list of one hundred books that Dirda, who has read almost every worthwhile book published in the 20th century, considers the most amusing comic novels of the last hundred years.
The compilers of other Best One Hundred lists tend to scant comedy and lavish their garlands of laurels on protegees of the Tragic Muse. The great books we're assigned to read at school aren't usually chosen with hilarity as the first consideration, and so even very funny books tend to be neglected and would be forgotten altogether if it weren't for archivists and bibliophiles like Dirda. I know from Dirda's other essays that his sense of humor can be relied on, and that trust is confirmed by those titles on his list that Iíve already read and laughed at, books by Nabokov, Salinger, Terry Southern, and another old friend John Sladek, who is on the list for his novel about the education of a killer robot, Tik- Tok.
But the real value of the list for me is as a shopping list for all the books I haven't read yet, some of them famously funny and already warehoused on my bookshelves - Aldous Huxley's Chrome Yellow, the novel Flaubert's Parrot by Julian Barnes, Benson's Mapp and Lucia, which was so droll as a TV series - but at least half of the titles on the list Iíve never heard of.
Number 25, for instance. Bullivant and the Lambs, by Ivy Compton Burnett, which Dirda footnotes as "brittle drawing room black humor." Or Sarah Caudwell's who-dun-it Thus Was Adonis Murdered, Number 66. Or Number 45, The Gate of Angels by Penelope Fitzgerald, whose novel, The Blue Flower, I recently raved about on this program.
Dirda's taste ranges from highbrow experimental stand-up comedians like Samuel Beckett to lowlife bawdry by Henry Miller. His list has a decided Anglophile bent, but it may be that the Brits write funnier books, on average, than we do. Of course there are some lamentable omissions, as there will be from a list of one hundred anything. Where is David Sedaris's extremely hilarious Barrel Fever? Where is The Jade God by Florence Prusmack, the William McGonagal of the romance novel? Funny? Oh my. Another time I will tell you more about the incomparable Florence Prusmack.
That book again: Readings by Michael Dirda, which is spelled D I R D A.
I am a staunch believer in the power of a bad example. I think every child should witness the unhappy fates of ogres and wicked witches at an early age and that teenagers should be given prison tours in which convicts rue the day in convincing ways. Then there might be fewer witches, ogres, and drug dealers in future generations.
Along the same lines I think there is no better way to learn to write well than to study the work of geniuses, of course - but also of those who write execrably. Not just a quick giggle at some prize blooper but earnest analysis of the worst examples.
For verse there is no more compellingly dire anti-poet than the 19th century Scotch bard, William McGonagall, a poet so bad his fame is almost as secure as Wordsworth's. But novelists of comparable awfulness are hard to find, since very bad novels tend not to be sustained at full-length. Bad novels exist chiefly as fragments and in manuscript form - except for those that are self-published. Of those few exceptions there is one that stands alone as perhaps the worst novel ever written at full length, bad enough to be considered wonderful. That book is The Jade God by Florence Prusmack. In 1981 it was submitted by its publisher Ashley-Ferguson for the Hemingway Award for Best First Novel of that year. I was one of the judges. And while I confess I no longer recall anything about the novel that won, or the runners-up, I have never forgotten The Jade God. Its pages are tattered with use like a family Bible, for whenever I teach a class in writing fiction, Florence Prusmack goes with me. I have delighted generations of students with monologues by Prusmack's Irish maid, Mrs. Muldoon, and I've brought down the house with the climax in Chapter 17, a scene worthy of the Three Stooges at their godawfulmost. Someday I'd love to record the whole thing on audio cassette. Meanwhile I am still looking for the Prusmack novel advertised on the back of The Jade God. The Sands of Desire. It recounts the youthful adventures of Ghenghis Khan, a young man who is, and I quote, "devoted to his mother, tormented with guilt about his wife, and obsessed with fiery passion for his beautiful blonde Hungarian mistress." Please, if you ever find a copy of The Sands of Desire, please let me know. For twenty years I have been looking for it without success.
Casey Jones Centenary
April 30, 2000, marks the centenary of the death of a legendary real-life figure in American history, the Illinois Central railway engineer who killed himself and wrecked a freight train in Vaughan, Mississippi, when speeding in an effort to make up for lost time. Iím talking about Casey Jones, of whom it is sung:
Mrs. Casey Jones was sittin' on the bed.
Telegram comes that Casey is dead.
She says, "Children, go to bed, and hush your cryin',
'Cause you got another papa on the Frisco line.
The rest of the lyrics can be found among the five anonymous ballads in the opening pages of the Library of America's two-volume set of Twentieth Century American Poetry, which has just been published and is already the conceptual Westminster Abbey of American verse, the place a poet would most want to be buried. If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.
These are just the first two volumes, and the poets, except for Anonymous, are lined up in order of birth, beginning with Henry Adams, born in 1838, died in 1918, and ending with May Swenson, who was born in 1913 and died in 1989. I was born in 1940, and I met May Swenson not long before she died, and so I had time to disgrace myself by gushing to her about what a big admirer of her poetry I was. She gave me this big smile and then asked what poem in particular Iíd admired And I had no answer. It's a lesson Iíve never forgotten and a trick that Iíve used myself in the same situation. Now, to answer her question: I really like "Riding the "A" - her poem about the "A" train. Which ends like this:
like the newest of knives
black crusty loaf
from West 4th to l68th.
in their prime
in a glide
It is an elation
I wish to pro-
Just that much, half the poem, was twenty lines, some no more than a word, or half a word, long.
A few lucky nonagenarians didn't even have to die to get to heaven. Karl Shapiro, Stanley Kunitz, and Josephine Jacobsen managed to make the cut ahead of many already dead poets, like Sylvia Plath and Frank O'Hara, who have to wait in the wings because they were later in the century. But rules are rules, and anyhow the dead get used to waiting.
Meanwhile, one last word in praise of Anonymous, for his ballad called "Claude Allen," which begins
Claude Allen he and his dear old pappy
Have met their fatal doom at last.
heir friends are glad their trouble's ended
And hope their souls are now at rest
The notes at the back of the book explain that Floyd Allen, Claude's pappy, opened fire in a courtroom where a judge had just sentenced Floyd's nephew to a year in jail. The judge, the sheriff, and three other men were killed. The Allens escaped but got caught again, and Claude and his pappy were executed on March 13, 1912.
So there it is, folks. Poetry. In the words of Marianne Moore (to be found in the second volume of the set), an imaginary garden with real toads in it.
W. H. Davies
Just about five hundred years ago the Scottish poet William Dunbar wrote a poem that has stayed in print ever since, "Lament for the Makers." The makers, in this case, of poetry, who have been done in by Death -
Death who has pitilessly devoured
The noble Chaucer, our fairest flower,
The Monk of Berry, and Gower, all three:
Timor mortis conturbat me.
The list goes on, while that last line in Latin tolls like a bell at four line intervals all through the poem. It means, "The fear of death disturbs me. "
It's a common refrain in poetry. In the same vein the poet and thief Francois Villon wanted to know, "Where are the snows of yesteryear?" In Villon's poem it was fair ladies being lamented. Death is omnivorous.
Among recent makers who deserve some lamentation this April (this is my bit for poetry month) is the Welsh poet and professional vagrant, W.H. Davies, who, about a hundred years, wrote heaps and bales and barrels of lyrics, some of the loveliest in the language. He became famous in 1908 when his Autobiography of a Super-Tramp, with an introduction by George Bernard Shaw, made him an overnight celebrity. For the next few decades he was a household name.
Now? He is pretty much in the snows-of-yesteryear category. He was never taken up by academia, because his poems don't need unriddling. They are, like William Blake's verses, immediately accessible and completely delectable, with the further spice of Villon's great ballades or Charles Bukowski's celebrations of a reprobate life, all of which spring straight from the primal innocence of the id; half Shirley Temple, half gangsta wrap, flowers and cyanide side by side.
But I can't back up my wild praise by quoting a prime example of Davies's genius, not till the year 2016, when he'll have been dead for 75 years and enters the public domain. Till then the holders of his copyright could sue anyone who uses more than a single line without paying a rather steep fee.
You think it's hard for a poet to for an audience when he's alive? It's even harder when he's dead.
Doctors as Poets
Most of the poets I've known have been grasshoppers, and quite a lot of them are of the opinion that the world owes them a living. One grasshopper poet I know gets especially peeved because a novelist can expect a year's wages for a single book while the average collection of poems, even by a name poet, earns peanuts, if that. Never mind how much time may go into the two kinds of efforts, and never mind how many copies actually are sold. Poetry is supposed to transcend all that.
That same grasshopper friend is married to a doctor. In terms of sheer sweat doctors surely have to count as ants. From their first required courses in Organic Chemistry and on through their internships they have to work at a pace that would br the death of most grasshoppers.
One of the wonders of the world of ants is how many of them also excel as grasshoppers. Think of William Carlos Williams carrying on his medical practice in New Jersey and earning a bushel of laurel wreaths at the same time.
Or read Blood and Bone, the anthology edited by Angela Belli and Jack Coulehan, with a hundred poems by medical professionals writing about their profession. With much contemporary poetry it's considered bad manners or plain ignorance to even wonder what a poem is about. Often that's because poets have nothing interesting or relevant to discuss. But doctors are never at that disadvantage. They've got a ring-side seat at the largest occasion of everyone's life. Which is death and the journey there.
Other poets can put in their two-cents on the subject, of course, but they rarely have a similar breadth of experience. Soldiers do, in a specialized way, and, not coincidentally, there is also a collection just out from Scribner's: From Both Sides Now, the Poetry of the Vietnam War and Its Aftermath.
What both anthologies prove is that the best poetry isn't necessarily written by credentialed poets. Anyone with enough literacy to write a letter home can write a poem. Kenneth Koch made that clear in his tutorials with kindergartners and people in nursing homes. It's like taking photos. All it takes is focus, and potent subject matter, and anyone can be the next Ansel Adams, the next Sylvia Plath. This is not an idea that is popular with poets, of course, but if I were a doctor who still looks into Palgrave's Golden Treasury from time to time, I would advise getting hold of Blood and Bone. For $18 in paperback, it's a better investment than a bottle of Geritol
I have a friend who is a pretty good poet and along with that as complete a parasite as is biologically possible without sharing someone else's digestive track, as tapeworms do. He hasn't had a job for most of his life, living off an inheritance and his spouse's salary. He is enviably prolific - there are poems from him in my email two or three times a week - but I don't think he tries very hard to publish them any more, so all that writing may be nearly as ephemeral as talk. And that doesn't seem to distress him. I can envy that too, if it comes from a genuine lofty indifference. For my part if I were going to be some little-read genius I would want at least a coterie of worshipful readers to cheer me on. Iíd want to be Rilke or Hart Crane, with critics arguing about my hidden meanings.
The one thing about my friend that gets my goat is something I can only call ingratitude. Not towards me (I've done him no favors) but to the world in general. He has maintained, into late middle age, that churlish contempt that is so common among bright teenagers, which can be summed up in the bumper-sticker, Evervthing Sucks. It is true that many things do suck, and Iíve given a lot of my own writing energy to deploring this or that particular instance. But everything, without exception?
Take shopping malls, for example. My friend has said withering things about malls and the people who shop in them, but American shopping malls are one of the wonders of modern times, cornucopias of commerce brimming with the whole world's abundance and, what's most wonderful, these cornucopias are everywhere. True, one needs money to dip into all that abundance, but the wealth on display is real, and it's widely diffused, and my friend does get his share of it, with very little effort on his part. So why such scorn?
He's like those French who sneer at MacDonald's as being the embodiment of American uncouth. They should read Roland Barthes' essay on how biftek and pommes frites represent all that is quintessentially French. Is it elitism, or is it plain old-fashioned snobbery, when other people's pleasures are dismissed as the rotten fruit of the consumer culture and one's own are accounted merit badges in connoisseurship? Pommes frites or french fries, it's all hot grease and potatoes and sometimes it's just what we need.
A Vacation in eBay
I don't like to think of myself as a recreational shopper, someone who heads for the mall instead of to such traditional sources of psychic comfort as the movie theater or the bakery. But in all candor I must confess that most of the clothes I am wearing right now - the Levis, the shirt on my back, and the sleeveless pullover pulled over that shirt - originate from a weeklong shopping spree at my favorite new mall - eBay.
A year ago I had never heard of eBay. My nearest shopping equivalent were local garage sales, sprinkled around country roads on summer weekends. I loved them, but they were not a habit, much less an addiction. I did stock up on cut-rate crystal bowls and vases and other such wreckage from the shipwrecks of local marriages. I even acquired a trumpet and a trombone, neither of which I can play. But I never went questing along back roads for such trophies.
And now, in a sense, I do. For eBay is the nation's - indeed, the globe's - garage sale, where all things saleable and mailable are being auctioned on the internet 24-hours a day, seven days a week. At eBay I was this close to a Whistler litho (being outbid in the last seconds) and I am the lucky winner of a pair of bedroom curtains, which cost fourteen dollars (including $3.50 for shipping) and which, now that they're hung, strike just the right rustic note. I can't say the same for my shirt" but caveat emptor, right?
My favorite shops in the virtual mall are the boutiques along Desolation Alley, where the most balefully unsaleable merchandise beckons to browsers with the pathos of hopeless dowdiness. Cupboard upon cupboard of botched ceramic bowls, whole orphanages of homely, unloved dolls, warehouses full of ties that are banners of surrender, and enough books to pave the entire Gobi desert. At eBay itís always Ozymandias' birthday.
But Cinderella is there every night, too. On my very first visit I saw that Whistler going for a song. I was overbid, but that planted the seed. Some things just aren't there, of course. There's precious little poetry this side of Rod McKuen and John Greenleaf Whittier, and most of the artwork that isn't awesomely tacky is just plain dull. But when has that not been true? The beauty of eBay is not in whatís there but, like the starry skies, its infinite extent. And nowhere in that vast domain is there anyone watching you and waiting to say "Don't Touch!"
Weightism: a Useful Prejudice
I am fat.
The reason I am fat is because I eat too much. The reason I eat too much is because I enjoy it. Knowing that being overweight is unhealthy and even, like smoking, a form of flirting with death, has never been much of a deterrent. Fat people have their own kind of fatalism. They would rather die than diet
The one thing that over the years has kept me from getting even fatter than I am has been vanity. I don't mind being fat, but I hate looking fat. I know what people think when they see my spare tire, because I know what I think when I see someone else's. "Slob," is what I think.
Then there's the frustration of shopping for clothes. Most stores don't stock beyond a 40 waist size.
There are the dirty looks from strangers forced into physical intimacy by one-size-fits-all seating on buses or in theaters.
The world has lots of ways of telling fat people they should lose weight, and the damnable thing is that the world is right. And so> from time to time, I get religion and go the gym and diet my back to. the suits I was wearing three or four years ago. Because it possible. All that's required for the great mass of fat people (like me) is will power and then staying power. And behind that, motivation.
The prejudice, so-called, that people have against those who are fat fat is the best motivation. The righteously obese claim that such prejudice damages their self-esteem and hurts their feelings. Indeed, it does and that's the point. That's what motivates.
The judge who recently declared obesity to be a physical disability, protected by law, ruled that one had to be at least twice one's ideal body weight to qualify as disabled. I still have a way to go by that definition, but if I were near that weight limit what a motivation to get some job insurance just by pigging out!
Pig out: is that a term that's destined to become politically incorrect? Will Falstaff join Shylock as a figure of controversy when he appears on the stage? Somehow I think he'd be the first person to laugh that idea out of court.
A Law Against Dogs
It isn't a polite thing to say - it is, in fact politely incorrect-but people with pets tend to be a little crazy. Sometimes it's a harmless form of craziness, what psychiatrists call paraphilia, such as a passionate interest in braids or cowboy boots, but it can get out of hand As when a little old lady decides to protect herself with a 90-pound Labrador retriever with a long leash and a short temper. If the same lady were to stroll through her neighborhood with a sub-machine gun and bandoliers of ammo, her neighbors would have reason to be concerned for their safety, but if her weapon is a beloved slave of another species, we're not supposed to raise an eyebrow, even when the darling weapon is fertilizing a sapling in the park or the lobby carpet.
Recently the Park Department started cracking down on off-leash dogs, and dog-lovers are up in arms. "Should we be deprived of all courtesy?" demanded one lady who runs with her off-leash deerhound every day though Riverside Park. Another said she was beginning to understand how Jews felt in Nazi Germany.
Well, this time I'm on the side of the Gestapo and Mayor Giuliani. Dogs are a big nuisance, or a small one, depending on their size, and people who can't learn to project their neurotic overflow onto dolls and teddy bears, should at least pay for the damage done to city parks by their pets. A quarter-million dollars annually, according to the Parks Department. The new fines on off-leash dogs might make a dent in that bill. An even better idea would be to enforce dog-licensing statutes - and to have dog owners pay for their licenses in proportion to their dogs' weight. It's the big dogs who take the worst toll on the parks - and on the carpets - so it's only fair they should pick up more of the tab.
Dog owners will protest, but then dog owners will always protest. One of the reasons they have dogs, after all, is because they would be barking all the time themselves if they were allowed to. That's what dogs are for, isn't it? -to do the things we don't dare do on the street ourselves.
A friend of mine has come up with the perfect solution for the Chinese menu problem. He redistributes the sheaves of menus that get left under his doormat to finance companies all over the country that are offering him a new un-asked-for credit card, using the postage-paid envelopes supplied by the finance companies. This way one unwanted deluge cancels the other, and he has a little glow of righteous pleasure every time to drops his contribution in the mailbox.
Dealing with telephone solicitations requires other strategies. I live half the time outside New York City, and the number of calls I get in the early morning or just at dinner time is dismaying. It does .no good to explode, or bark at them, cause they'll just hang up, nor yet or to ask politely to be taken off their list, because courtesy is just catnip to anyone hustling asphalt driveways to strangers over the phone. Or magazine subscriptions. Or seeking contributions to the Fund for the Friends of off-duty cops. Those people don't deserve courtesy. They should have their time wasted like they're wasting yours.
So what I like to do, when they ask in need a new driveway, is say, What a great idea! Could you just hold on a moment, I've got something on the stove? And then finish cooking dinner. Or, for a little more interactive fun, tell them what a lucky time they've picked to call because you've just discovered the most terrific poem - or written one - and you've got to share it with someone. Then recite one of your favorite chestnuts. At the end of the recitation, ask your caller for their honest heart-felt reaction to what you've just read aloud. Sound sincere and overwrought, so they think they've got a genuine borderline schizophrenic on the line.
But my favorite strategy, especially when dealing with a nuisance of the opposite sex, is to claim that I recognize her voice from an earlier call, and that the first time I was too embarrassed to answer all her questions, but maybe I might be in the market for a 900-number telephone friend, and this time I tell her just what I'm wearing, and the secret name she can call me in our intimate moments. Promise that you'll do everything she tells you to. Buy an asphalt driveway? Yes! If that's what she wants. Ask her what the largest possible acreage of Florida swampland you she's ready to sell you, and does it matter to her that you're only twelve, because most people think you must be at least seventeen, especially on the phone.
Recently, digging down through the strata of my desk, I came across a list of stories I'd drawn up for a science fiction anthology to be called Vastnesses. The title comes from my theory that the sense of wonder that SF fans so often cite as the heart and soul of the genre has to do with the its ability to evoke immense vistas-to paint landscapes of heaven that somehow convey not just how nice it is but how very, very big.
This is one thing that's actually more easily done than said. If it's done in the movies. Think of all the sense-of-wonder moments in Kubrick's 2001 alone. That huge spaceship as it docks beside the even huger space station. The final carnival ride to the other end of the galaxy. Or the moment when the mothership arrives, in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and dwarfs the mountain our heroes have been climbing for the last half hour of film time.
Of course, the movies were making audiences gasp even before King Kong, before Griffith built his own Babylon for Intolerance. And before the movies painters like John Martin were illustrating the more big-budget moments from Milton and the Bible. But for real vastness nothing beats music. A while ago I had a chance to hear Slatkin and the New York Philharmonic perform Sibelius's 5th Symphony and there are few pieces of music so sheerly, oceanically spacious. Messaien's Quartet for the End of Time is a contender, and Philip Glass's score for Kovaanisqatsi. although that has a whole movie assisting.
Be warned, however, that any expression of enthusiasm for the Immense Sublime, in whatever art, is going to be reckoned bad taste by the sniffier critics. The magazine Sight and Sound said Kovaanisqatsi was "arrogant bombast, provoking no response but "wow."
But in a dark bedroom, with a pair of headphones and a CD of Sibelius, anyone can be the king of infinite space, where there is just one word in every language. Wow.
The Volpes and their Tribe
Ever since the 18th century, one of the most popular genres of literature has been the criminal biography, along with its little cousin, the gallows ballad, the great grand-daddy of gansta rap. Henry Fielding's mock-heroic biography of the highwayman and fence Jonathan Wild remains English literature's greatest monument to bad boys and their sorry ends, but it's a tradition that is still maintained in our own time by Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, and a legion of songwriters and tabloid journalists.
There is one other sub-category of criminal lit that should be mentioned while the news is offering such a fine example of it - the stunningly lame excuse and the pratfall apology. The classic is the one from the young man who murdered both his parents and then begged the court for mercy because he was an orphan. The Menendez brothers actually had the moxie to recycle that one.
Now Justin Volpe has offered his mea culpa and we're given to understand that he'd repressed the traumatic memory of his crime until hearing the testimony of other officers at the trial. Also, he's sorry for the distress he's caused his family. Obviously a man of feeling.
The Times interviewed the stricken father of this shell-shocked soldier of the war on the streets, and Robert Volpe explained that Justin "more or less realized that a good man did something wrong." Now the elder Volpe, a former policeman himself, worries that jail will be a tribulation for his boy. "Justin," says his dad, "has got to have his five hugs a day. He's a people person."
And the capper - after speaking of all the friends and neighbors who've come round since Justin's guilty plea to offer hugs and flowers, the elder Volpe declares, "Justin is not being sentenced alone. He is being sentenced with all the people who ever knew him. "
For over-the-top dramatic irony Henry Fielding couldn't beat that.
Hillary for Senator
In 1948 my mother voted for Thomas Dewey-because (she told me then) she liked his moustache, which reminded her of Clark Gable's. That seems as good a reason as any I know for voting for Dewey, and pretty much on a par with my own for favoring Hillary Clinton in next year's Democratic primary election for the Senate.
Forget principles and policies. The politicians will themselves, after all For me the real, clandestine appeal of a Hillary candidacy is its potential for ongoing PG-rated melodrama. With Hillary in the Senate The Clinton Story won't be confined to reruns and the inevitable flurry of phony docudramas. It will continue in prime time for another six or twelve seasons or even longer, with the marvelous plot twist of turning the leading role over to the faithful, much-put-upon spouse and relegating the philandering scamp of a husband to the role of First Hubby. What karmic justice! what possibilities for the next generation of stand-up comics! What if there was a divorce - or she fell in love with George Will?
Best of all is the prospect of confusion to the Clintons' enemies. All those NRA-funded whited sepulchers of the Republican right will implode like ancient, booby-trapped B-52's. Imagine the rage of Ken Starr! Think of Hilary's contests, on Sunday morning talk shows, with the likes of Charlton Heston or how about, for a great diva duet, with Arianna Huffington? Even if one had no principles, one would have to vote for her for those dramatic possibilities alone.
My reasons for plumping for Hilary are as esthetic at base and as hard to defend as my mother's reasons for voting for Dewey. But a case could be made that those are the best reasons. Voters who didn't vote for Nixon because they just didn't like the way he looked were right. The fact is, there is no such thing as an informed voter, because the first concern of any halfway capable politician is to control his or her own image.
And that's why Hilary has my vote - at least in the primary. She has a great image - right up there with Jesse Ventura's. Like him, she has shown grace under pressure and lots of fashion sense. In the great soap opera of national politics she is a member of the family.
So far this summer the only movie Iíve seen in a theater has been the feature-length cartoon South Park, which I rejoiced in, not only for its blissful air-conditioning, but for the way it brims over with all things forbidden - obscenities, potty jokes, and genuine unequivocal blasphemy. Not to mention a slapstick X-rated romance between Satan and Saddam Hussein that has to be the most outrageous piece of ribaldry ever to be seen on a movie screen. South Park is the embodiment of the spirit of carnival and has been welcomed as such by everyone but Dr. Laura Schlesinger, and for all I know she loves it too, since she is probably a human being like the rest of us, and one of its characters is her moral doppelganger.
The one aspect of South Park that seems to be taken for granted is that it is the best original film musical to appear in years. Ever since Disney's Little Mermaid and Beautv and the Beast it's become clear that the future of the film musical lies with animation. It's just so much cheaper, and there's no need to compromise, at casting time, between a great voice and sylph-like beauty.
Even so, the cure may have come too late. The Broadway musical is so moribund, that the Tony Awards for the best new musical are an embarrassment of poverties. And recent musical cartoons like the Prince of Egypt and the animated version of The King and I have the same faults as the amateur-hour revivals we've been seeing here in Disneyland North. They are saccharine, religiose, and dopey - calculated to appeal to the save-the-rain-forest idealism of eleven-year-old suburbanites.
Part of the secret of South Park's success is that it returns the musical to its roots in revue, burlesque, and cabaret. And parody. In the 60's, as Broadway first developed osteoporosis, Off-Broadway responded with a series of splendid anti-musicals: The Boy Friend, Little Mary Sunshine, Dames at Sea and others. South Park is another pearl on that string.
But the primary reason for its success is Trey Park, who wrote the script, produced, directed, and is credited with creating most of the songs. The musical comedy hasn't seen such a one-man-band of an impresario since the days of Cole Porter. May he continue as King of the Carnival for ever. And ever. Hallelujah. Amen.
Hilary and Jackie
More and more, as I grow old and tight-fisted, I wait for movies to come out on videotape. Which is one reason it's taken me so long to see Hilary and Jacky, the much-acclaimed biopic about the cellist Jacqueline DuPre.
The other reason was that the movie's foreordained conclusion - the heroine's slow death by multiple sclerosis - might be good for an Oscar nomination but it did not exactly propel me toward the local cineplex.
I do commend the yideo, especially for its de-glamorized insider's view into the world of classical music. DuPre's long dying is just the tip of a whole iceberg of her miseries, which also include a failed marriage, a love-hate relation to the cello, and neurotic self-centeredness just this side of lunacy.
Like Tolstoi's great novella, The Death of Ivan lllitch, it might have had, as a sub-title, When Bad Things Happen to Bad People. And like Ivan lllitch it has an unrelenting morbid fascination.
Which led me to reflect how rarely drama ever deals with the most dramatic event, after falling in love, that most of us ever experience - the ordeal of a major illness. For centuries playwrights have had little to say on the subject. Not until Dumas fils La Dame aux camilias, which Verdi turned into La Traviata did the theate find its first fabulous invalid. Then, a little later, there was Mimi, in La Boheme - like Violetta, a sufferer from tuberculosis.
Tuberculosis became the preferred fatal illness of early 20th century writers. Eugene O'Neill made it the focus of two plays, and Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain is seven hundred pages about nothing else. But on the whole, writers, like most other people, have tended to draw the curtains across the door of the sickroom or to look the other way. Fictional sufferers, like those in real life, are expected to maintain a stoic silence, and to insist, like Jacqueline DuPre's unlikely ghost at the end of the movie, that everything will be all right, even though we've just seen proof to the contrary.
A final footnote. Hilarv and Jackie does for Elgar's Cello Concerto what Visconti's film of Death in Venice did for Mahler's 10th - it turns it into grand opera.
The first time I quit smoking was in 1965, after I'd read an essay by William Styron about the Surgeon General's Report, then hot off the presses. Thinking about the systematic mendacity of the cigarette companies, I got more and more aggrieved and flustered. The cigarette companies were making a product designed to kill me and earn them huge profits while they did so. Finally, just to spite the homicidal executives of R.J. Reynold's, I was able to quit smoking.
I imagine that most smokers - all but the small minority for whom smoking is, consciously, a slow suicide - feel a similar, simmering resentment toward those who have devoted their careers to keeping them addicted to their brand of death. And I imagine I was not alone in my serves-'em-right reaction when a Florida jury decided that smokers have a legitimate claim against the tobacco companies for all the ills their nicotine-raddled flesh is heir to.
Yes, of course, most smokers nowadays know cigarettes are bad for them, but they don't have only themselves to blame. For decades the tobacco companies have hired armies of legal, advertising, and p.r. talent with the single corporate goal of getting new customers to self-destruct.
But let us be candid about this. The object of all the various lawsuits against the tobacco companies isn't some just compensation for the victims. As well hand out a lottery ticket with each pack of cigarettes, in terms of justice. No, the long-term object is drive those companies into bankruptcy.
The companies surely know this, and so it's a race against time. First they have to divest themselves of all those subsidiaries they took as hostages - as when Phillip Morris swallowed General Foods whole - as a pre-emptive defense against the bankruptcy they're facing now. Since that strategy has failed, their next tactic will be to relocate their corporate headquarters to some off-shore safe haven with a government small enough to be affordable. What Congress should be doing, in anticipation of these moves, is to write legislation designed to keep their assets here in the USA until they have settled all claims from still unsettled lawsuits.
Investors will suffer. And so they should. They've known, just like the addicts, and the tobacco companies, what the product is designed to do. Thev had no compunctions on that score, and they deserve no pity in return.
Mobs, Passes, and Audiences
The Chinese government has been made to look foolish for its paranoia regarding, and tentative persecution of, adherents of the religious sect-cum-exercise program that goes by the name of Falun Gong. We can see its members on TV, going through their regimen like a slow motion army of nursing home residents, while their leader broadcasts, live from New York City, messages of sweetness and light-though somehow failing to mention that he is divine and that Falun Gong's exercise program is the key to universal, everlasting good health.
So long as such conmen are not preying on one's own children and neighbors, they are usually accorded the courtesy of polite inattention or genial dog-days banter, as is the case with the sect down in Georgia now building a new set of pyramids. But Falun Gong can summon up millions of demonstrators overnight, and who is to say that they will always confine themselves to imitating willows in a light breeze? I'd worry if I were President Jiang.
Often enough mobs do turn ugly. Witness the latest version of Woodstock in Rome, New York, with its prime-time mayhem of tents and trucks ablaze, towers toppled, and looters cavorting. Would it be unfair to suggest that some part of those attending had been drawn there by the promise of just such an outcome? People don't go to mammoth rallies just for art's sake. They go for the action, and if the pot boils over, so much the better. They can say they were there. For most people, now that the draft is over, being part of a rampaging mob is the nearest they'll get to having been part of history.
Which makes me wonder whether the right of assembly isn't another constitutional amendment, like the right to bears arms, that could benefit from an update. Admittedly, almost any large number of people can obtain critical mass. Carnegie Hall has been trashed when audiences there went bonkers. Perhaps the best system is the one we've got, where people agree in advance to become a mob and schedule the time and place - at Woodstock, or for a parade down 5th Ave., or in Times Square on New York Eve. Those who want to join the throng can do so, and the rest of us can watch the flames on TV.
Recently the New York Times ran an article about how the coyote has been expanding its range from the Southwest and the Rocky Mountain at the time of Columbus to cover, now, virtually the entire North American continent. Including my own back yard in Sullivan County. I've only seen him, or her, once, under the lower apple tree, but I knew at a glance that that was nobody's lost German shepherd in need of haircut. It was a coyote and it was under my apple tree and I was thrilled, as I had been when I first encountered a bear by the back door. Maybe I might have felt differently if I had a dog or a cat, but aside from assorted marigolds and irises, I let Mother Nature supply the flora and fauna.
Wolves have yet to return to Sullivan county, but when they do, the coyotes won't have to worry, because according to the Montana coyote expert, Robert Crabtree, coyotes and wolves have co-evolved in such a way that coyotes thrive when wolves kill off their older adult males. There is then more food for the pups.
There is an obvious Darwinian lesson that Serbs and Rwandans and other savage tribes may draw from this: don't spare enemy puppies. Humanitarian organizations believe otherwise, of course, and aggression against children is supposed to be a war-crime. But that did not stop Odysseus from hurling Astyanax, the infant son of Hector, from the battlements of the defeated Troy. Odysseus was a wolf dedicated to the extinction of coyotes. Were it not for him, who knows but that there might have been a sequel to the lliad named for the Troyans' great revenger Astyanax?
What this bodes for the long-term prospects of peace in the Balkan peninsula one must shudder to think. It is all very well to counsel forgiveness at the distance of another continent, but if! were an Albanian Kosovar of eight or nine years old, I think I might be drawn to stories offering a different moral-tales of the clever Coyote and how, over time, as wolves, a fiercer and stronger predator, became extinct, the coyotes extended their range over a whole continent.
Long ago, in my feckless footloose youth you could still travel safely in countries that were incredibly cheap. And so I did, and in doing so received proposals of marriage from virtual strangers in Mexico and Bulgaria, not to mention young men seeking a position as my valet in Belize and Turkey. It wasn't my good looks, my wit, my money or my pheremones that made me seem suddenly so much more marriageable than I'd been at home - it was my U.S. passport.
Since then I've visited Brazil, India, and Pakistan, touring for the U.S. Information Agency and lecturing about science fiction. Even from the fortified vantage of embassies and luxury hotels, those visits reinforced the lesson I learned earlier, that even the poorest U. S. citizen has a leg up on all but the Very Rich in the Third World, and even for them the first order of business is to find some way to live here. There is a reason for celebrating Thanksgiving.
The question is, how many people to invite to Thanksgiving dinner or the Fourth of July barbecue? Recently, a young man in Queens stirred up a hornet's next of controversy by posing that question on a billboard over an Italian restaurant in Sunnyside. "Over 80% of Americans support very little or no more immigration," the billboard says. "Is anyone listening to us?"
36% of Queens', and 55% of Sunnyside's population are immigrants, and so Queen's Bureau President, Claire Shulman, convened a press conference and officially denounced Mr. Nelsen's billboard and any suggestion that the invitation list for Thanksgiving dinner could become a matter of public debate.
It would seem to follow from Ms. Shulman's high-minded praise of diversity that immigration quotas and perhaps even borders are wrong. There are some few logically consistent souls who do maintain this and who think that the children of Botswana or Bolivia should have the same advantages with regard to health, education, and welfare as anyone born in the USA. Such consistency is heroic, and I applaud the moral courage of whose who maintain such principles and who would act on them by sending their own offspring on exchange programs to Cairo, Calcutta, and Karachi. I guarantee they would find one or two billion families eager to participate.
A Home for Elian Gonzalez
Almost by their very nature children pose a moral problem. Indeed, the most devisive issue of the present time, abortion, has to do with whether foetuses are people, and any number of other issues have to do with whether children are people.
Or, are they instead a special form of property, as slaves were once, who belong to their parents. Think of King Solomon having to decide what to do with an infant claimed by two mothers. Or think of Eli an Gonzalez, in a similar tug-of-war.
On the one hand ifs a safe bet that Elian might enjoy a happier childhood here than in Cuba, even if he has a really great dad. His late mother certainly thought so. On the other hand, couldn't the same be said for almost any child in Cuba, or thoughout the third world? Would it be a charity to kidnap all of them and bring them here?
What if it were possible to deposit any poor and unwanted child in a creche somewhere in Miami or Flatbush and know he or she would be taken care of! That, in fact, is now being done through much of the country thanks to new laws designed to deter infanticide by those reluctant to face the challenge and expense of parenting.
Such children, whether abandoned legally or found in a basket among the urban bulrushes, are destined to become the client population of the city's foster-care system and then are likely, according to Mark Courtney, a University of Wisconsin sociologist, to graduate into prison or welfare dependency. Courtney may officially deplore the system he documents but he is also a cog in the machinery that administers it.
And, a further dilemma, what is to be done with those who become serial killers before they're old enough to vote? Should their parents be made to pay stiff fines, as in the days of the Norsemen, or should the children be incarcerated as minors until they're old enough to commit mature murders for which they can be held accountable?
These are the problems we shrink from every night on the Evening News. There are solvable, but the solution is so unpalatable that were I to propose it here it would be accounted mere science-fiction. To wit, all those who would like to be parents should first be licensed, like pet owners or people buying handguns, and only those who can demonstrate fitness for the task would be allowed to raise a family. Lacking that, we will have to keep hiring more Solomons for our family courts, because the problem is not going to go away.
The Year 2000
George Washington died on the 14th of December, 1799, seventeen days short of the century mark. If Iíd been him I would have hated missing just a few day or two of the nineteenth century by such a narrow margin. And I certainly intend to be very careful as the days dwindle down to a precious few this year. I understand that Death is not someone we can bargain with, but it wouldn't seem at all fair to have got this close and then to miss that last rolling over of the 9's and the 1riple sunrise of zeros on History's great slot machine.
I'm sure I'm not alone in this. At the end of the nineteenth century, the only important person to die in 1899 was 74-year-old Johann Strauss, while the list of those who survived into the year 1900 by a few months includes John Ruskin, Steven Crane, Friedrich Nietzsche, Oscar Wilde, and Arthur Sullivan. Surely that shows the healing power of curiosity.
Once we round the next big bend, assuming that we do, there will be the problem of deciding what decade we are living in. A century ago Ruskin and Crane and that lot could have congratulated themselves on having survived into the nineteen hundreds. But us? Neither the two-thousands nor the twenty-hundreds will do, and the first decade of the 21 st century is a mouthful.
When an editor at the Boston Globe called to pose that the question I suggested the Naughties, naught - N-A-U-G-H-T - being the standard English term for zero. It would make a nice progression to go from the over-the-hill Nineties to the innocence of the Naughties and then to the teens. The catch is that "naught" is just too un-American ever to catch on here.
Another writer polled by the Globe suggested the oh-oh's, but can you imagine someone in the year 2042 reminiscing about what it was like when he was a kid back in the oh-oh's?
The main snag with all these suggestions is that any likely candidate has probably already been thought of by hired brains in corporate think tanks and then copyrighted as a trademark, who will a sue anyone else uses it.
Bob Dole said it first, on a Sunday morning talk show just after Indecision 2000. With his usual refreshingly candid petulance, he suggested that Republicans boycott the Inauguration. Meaning George W.'s Inauguration, of course, since Dole was expecting the Florida recount to eventuate in that calamity and not a decisive ten or fifteen vote margin of victory for his guy. But sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, and Democrats might want to follow Dole's suggestion if the throne passes to George W.
How can the Inauguration ceremonies, however conducted, be anything but an exercise in riot control? Better to dispense with the usual parade altogether and show film clips of the happy multitudes of yesteryear, then cut to a quiet indoor swearing-in before an invitation-only audience. Clinton will probably want to be there, but the First Lady might prefer to take the opportunity to be Senator Clinton, especially if her other Democratic colleagues from the Hill decide to take up Dole's suggestion.
An alternative snub that Hillary might prefer would be to arrive late at Bush's first State of the Union message. Is she required by law to attend? She may still remember how the Republicans refused even polite applause the last time her husband, then under the shadow of impeachment, addressed the Houses of Congress for his last State of the Union message. Now the shoe will be on the other foot, and if in the days ahead the Democrats wind up one vote shy of a 50-50 tie in the Senate they can still philibuster. I expect that for the next few years we'll all be learning a lot about the ways Robert's Rules of Order can be used to bring Congress to an ever stiller standstill, a logjam for the millennium.
Late in the campaign the Nation - a magazine not notable for its sparkling cover art - got off the single defining image of the 2000 campaign. It showed the head of George W. morphed into the familiar features of Mad Magazine's Alfred E. Newman. The last neat touch was George W. campaign button, which said simply, "Worry."
You bet we will.
Anti-vaccinationists in Idaho
The state of Idaho, which is rapidly replacing the Deep-South as the American Heart of Darkness - Idaho, home of black helicopters, Christian Identity stormtroopers, and berserker patriots, has found a new way to be benighted The state's Christian Coalition has mounted a jihad against the anti-American practice of vaccination, because the public health system keeps records on the children it vaccinates and members of the Coalition would rather see some expendable percentage of their offspring come down with polio than to find them listed in the computer files of the Federal anti-Christ.
There is something of tragic grandeur in a zealotry that can go to such lengths to be true to a dumb idea. One thinks of Medea killing her children to spite Jason, or better yet of Jephthah offering up his daughter as a burnt offering as a kind of thank-you note to the Lord for his victory over the Ammonites. I always had a feeling about Jephthah, as I do about Abraham and Isaac, that this parent is just a tad too willing to sacrifice his offspring. It was Jephthah's idea, after all, not the Lord's. And it's the same in Idaho. The kind of parents who would crusade against the vaccination of their children are the kind that go ballistic about their right to spank their kids as hard as ever they can. And not a few such parents, I'm sure, would gladly follow Jephthah's example, even without being granted a victory over the Ammonites.
There should be limits set to what people are allowed to do in the name of privacy and/or religious toleration. Bombing abortion centers to protect the unborn is one such limit. But preventing children from being vaccinated-or keeping them from receiving vital medical assistance-because of their parents' religious scruples should be another such limit.
On the other hand, parents who would rather school their children at home rather than see them sullied by contact with non-believers should be given every opportunity to do so. With such an educational disadvantage the most die-hard know-nothings of the right wing will be stuck in Idaho permanently. Only their brighter, prodigal siblings will escape to civilization, and the non-Idaho part of the world will be a safer and quieter place.
Noah Sails Again!
Back at the dawn of time, in 1964, I went to Mexico to write my first novel, settling in the town of Amecameca, where the only other people who spoke English were two young Mormons performing their missionary duty. They were as hungry to speak our common language as I was, and being missionaries and sizing me up at once as an infidel, they began to instruct their captive audience of one in the principles of Creation Science.
Iíd been on the debating team in high school, and I enjoyed ramming the irresistible force of Darwin into the immovable object of their faith in a universe that began only some six or eight thousand years ago. The Rube Goldberg contraption by which they tried to square Noah's Ark with the entire geological record was a marvel of crackpot ingenuity. After six months we parted on the best of terms, their faith undiminished, and mine destroyed. My faith, that is, in the force of reason.
I realized that they believed their Creationist arguments no more than I did, that what they enjoyed was their contest with Mr. Smartypants Know-It-All from the Sodom and Gomorrah of New York City, and the more whopping the absurdity they had to defend - Noah's Ark was their favourite the more fun it gave them.
What they were really defending, I can see now, was their way of life. Ranching and farming, big families, the straight and narrow, Kansas and Nebraska.
And that to my mind, is what the latest fufaraw is about in Kansas, where Charles Darwin has once again become the Enemy of the People. The fight isn't about Evolution versus that 0l' Time Religion. It's about How are you going to keep them down on the farm? So-called "Creation Science" is the equivalent of a Confederate Flag tattoo. It says, "Yankee, Go Home." Itís a raised fist, not meant to be argued with, but respected - and feared. As an intellectual edifice Creation Science may be on a par with the bankrupted, tumbledown ghost towns of the High Prairie, but it does teach, better than Darwin, one invaluable lesson. Get out of Kansas, kids, get out before dark.
The 10 Commandments
Recently, my local newspaper, upstate, did its readers the service of publishing the ten commandments as a preface to various letters to the editor on the same timely theme. Most readers were in favor of the ten commandments and their being posted on classroom walls across the country in an effort to discourage students from killing each other.
My own feeling is that students shouldn't kill each other. But reading the ten commandments in the light of the recent schoolroom crisis and congressional debate, I must confess that I have some reservations.
Not with the first commandment, especially. I am the Lord thy God, thou shalt have no other gods before me. Okay, he says so, we obey. And since he doesn't give his name - Allah, Jehovah, Jesus - there's no controversy.
But what about the next one? No graven images. I can live without graven images myself, but what about the Vatican ceiling? It's pretty nifty, especially now, after its Japanese-funded restoration. Then three, don't take God's name in vain. Which means not only don't say Zounds! but don't invoke Divine Authority in matters of public debate.
Four says remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. Wal-Mart must close on Sunday? No Sunday Times? No movies? No subways? Better put that to a vote. Five. Honor they father and thy mother. I do. They're both safely dead and both of them nice people. But what if your Dad was Timothy McVeigh or, Saddam Hussein? The bible doesn't deal with that.
Six. Thou shalt not kill. I don't. I never have. A good commandment. So's the next, thou shalt not commit adultery, and the two after that, against stealing and lying. Four reasonable commandments in a row, with which the penal code agrees.
But most interpreters of the commandments tend to include other shalt-not's in these category, so that adultery includes premarital sex. Which means that all those kids with single moms - and they're getting to be a majority these days - could have some self-esteem problems with this commandment. Perhaps schools should get parents' written permission before posting that one.
As to lieing and stealing, presidents have lied, and tele-evangelists have engaged in gigantic real estate scams. Surely, they knew about the ten commandments, and it didn't stop them. Perhaps they felt they had an exemption. Most sinners do. Maybe we should add a post-script when the commandments are posted: this means You! One left. Thou shalt not keep up with the Joneses. Don't even think about your neighbor's ox, or ass, or wife. This sound like what Orwell calls a "thoughtcrime" and, in fact, the God who wrote the ten commandments bears more than a passing resemblance to Big Brother. But that would be blasphemy and I didn't say it.
A Bonus for Languages
If I were a grown-up - that's to say, a parent with kids Ė Iíd be the kind that wanted my offspring to accomplish more than I managed to. Iíd expect them to excel at the 400 meter dash, play the piano in a way that let me nod off gratefully, and most of all Iíd like them to be polyglots, speaking French so well they wouldn't be sneered at anywhere in Paris, reading Dante without a pony, and absorbing Wagner without ever having to glance at the libretto or supertitles.
Unhappily this doesn't seem to be what today's younger generation wants for themselves, because despite new technologies that should make learning languages easier, and with travel cheaper than it's ever been, the number of students studying foreign languages is declining steadily. Fewer colleges demand it either for admission or graduation. Soon Coke and Pepsi will be the only soft drinks for sale in the global village, and English the only language spoken.
Happily, I have a solution to the problem that might actually work, at least in New York City. and its schools. In businesses where being bilingual is a plus, why not give a weekly bonus to anyone who can habla espagnol or deal with Arabic-speaking customers? Now that the city has become a magnet for foreign tourists it would make good business sense to offer them what Americans abroad have so long taken for granted, waiters and salesclerks and doorpersons who are comprehending and comprehensible. Undoubtedly, at the upper levels of wheeling and dealing, language skills are factored into salaries, but why not reward polyglots at every level of employment? If people knew there'd be a monetary reward for learning irregular verbs language departments might find their enrollments rising - instead off acing slow extinction.
Such a scheme would give a natural advantage to anyone who already was fluent in a foreign language, but isn't that fair? Being bilingual isn't just a social grace. It's a skill that requires constant honing. I say that as someone woefully unhoned. I admire those who keep their tongues tuned quite as much as I do those who have gym bodies. I just don't think that virtue should have to be its own reward.
We live in an age of permitted theft. From high to low thieves feel they are entitled to take what they want, so long as they really, really want it. Bush steals the election, and young rap fans use Napster to do their shoplifting electronically. Its hard to blame them (the rap fans, that is) when the music they steal may feature "tracks" that the recording artist acquired by "sampling," the preferred euphemism for theft among working musicians.
. Writers, notoriously, do the same thing, of course, and one of America's most notable writers has just received the National Book Critic Circle's Award for a novel in which she was caught filching from one of America's still more notable writers, Willa Cather. It was only a few choice sentences that she pilfered, just something to lend some period flavor to Sontag's historical novel (which I won't advertise by naming here). Ifs not as though she can't write choice sentences of her own, when she makes the effort. But she did not offer any acknowledgement of her borrowing, so she must have thought her borrowing would pass unnoticed Did she suppose Cather would take it as a compliment?
In the sense that plagiarism is the sincerest form of flattery.
I have only been in Cather's situation once (that I know of), when some twenty years ago I agreed to be a judge for PEN's annual contest for Poets in Prison. Among the large sheaf of poems I was given to winnow for winners was one that seemed vaguely familiar. In fact. it was one of my own, with its first lines carefully amended to avoid instant recognition. I confess I was delighted, and though I did not recommend my revised poem as a finalist, I did write to the author to share my astonishment at the trick of fate that had connected the two authors of our poem so much against the odds. He never replied to my letter, and Sontag has not had much to say, either, about her debt to Cather. She has had the modesty not to make the usual claim of the plagiarist who gets caught, that he ( or she) had confused his (or her) notes with his (or her) own original work. That always registers as a lame excuse, so why bother? Better just to brazen it out. as Sontag has done. And it works. Already she's received an award for Best Novel of the year. Perhaps President Bush will decide she's ripe for honors at the next White House Awards Ceremony. And if there's a cash prize attached perhaps Cather will get a suitable percentage.
On Friday March 10, 2000, my friend of almost forty years and sometimes collaborator, John Sladek, died in our old hometown of Minneapolis. Well, almost Minneapolis. A suburb thereof. He moved back to Minnesota, from London, in 1983, leaving behind a wife and daughter, and now a granddaughter, too.
It's a long story, as they say, but not, to my mind, long enough. He was 62, as I will be myself in just a couple of years. At 62 Patrick O'Brian had barely begun the 20 volumes of his Aubrey\Maturin series, and Frank Lloyd Wright was just getting started. At 62, Arnold Toynbee was still ten years from finishing A Studv of Historv, after which he would enjoy a long retirement.
Of course, artists can die even younger than 62, and those who are prodigies of death, like Schubert and Keats - dead at age 31 and 26, respectively, are rewarded with a special dying-young celebrity. But we manage things differently these days, and it's only rock stars and race car drivers who die in such haste. If you factor out AIDS.
I think my almost namesake Dylan Thomas got it right when he advised us to "rage against the dying of the light" He died at age 39, drinking himself permanently under the table at the White Horse Tavern down along 8th Avenue, and like others who use alcohol as a means of suicide he does have himself to blame for the dying of his light.
But in John's case it was just bad genetic luck. His lungs became gradually less and less elastic-pulmonary fibrosis. For a while he lived on the hope that he might be assigned a place in the waiting line for lung transplants. Isn't it dumbfounding to think that there can be such a procedure? But within a few days of his learning that that was not in the cards he just sighed away his life.
Once you've been dead long enough it doesn't matter how old you were when you went, especially if you left a heap of work behind you, like Schubert, or van Gogh, or John himself, who amassed a fairly hefty bibliography. John shared the secret wisdom of all novelists: there are 365 days in a year, and if you write two or three pages every day, you will have a couple novels to show for it every year. The trick is, you 'must never stop.
Audubon in the Bathroom
Every once in a while, along with the chickadees, finches, titmice, and nuthatches who are regular visitors to our birdfeeder in the country, a hummingbird will come by and absolutely upstage everyone else for as long as it takes him to discover all the commotion has been about sunflower seeds, which hummingbirds have no use for.
I am also visited, with about the same frequency, by small flocks of wild turkeys, ten or twelve at a time, as amazingly big as the hummingbirds are amazingly little. They probably are delicious, but Iím not one for hunting. Lord knows Iím no vegetarian, just a squeamish sentimentalist.
Audubon, however, who did such great paintings of turkeys and hummingbirds, had no such compunctions. He hunted for sport, and for his table, and for his specimen collection, and there is no better monument to the spirit of that hunt than the body of Audubon's work - not just the paintings and the famous prints made from them, but his writings as well, which have just come out in a 900-page collection from the Library of America.
Audubon is the Theodore Dreiser of ornithologists, with a keen eye for the knavish behavior of blue jays and the erotic quirks of wild turkeys. In his day the interior of the continent was one great whirr of feathers, and his prose descriptions of his field trips convey the wonder of the national aviary - the nation as aviary - better, really, that his paintings, which can look, all too often, like studies in the art of taxidermy.
Readers who are not bird fanciers might still like to check out the footnote attached to page 82, which has been excerpted - a rare distinction for a mere footnote-in a recent issue of The American Scholar. In it, Audubon tells of how he was summoned to the boudoir of a young New Orleans heiress for a demonstration of his artistic prowess. It is a tale that Casanova would have plagiarized if he'd had the chance, and I only believe it because I know the author's accounts of the sometimes unseemly behavior of crows and blue herons to be entirely reliable. I have seen them do those things myself.
John James Audubon: His Writings and Drawings is the perfect urban surrogate for a birdfeeder and the ideal accessory for any unscale bathroom, since it serves the same basic function as a book of cartoons, and will last years longer.
In 1892, at the age of 19 and still a freshman at the University of Nebraska, Willa Cather published her first story. It's called "Peter," and you can find it in her Library of America collection, Stories. Poems. and Other Writings. In three pages "Peter" tells the sad tale of a Bohemian immigrant to the New World, once a violinist in the Prague state theater, now a farmhand working for his bully of a son. When he finds he can no longer play "Ave Maria" on his violin - which his son wants him to sell - he snaps it in two and then blows out his brains with the son's shotgun.
Except for having been penned by a woman destined to be one of the country's greatest writers, "Peter" is an archetypal adolescent cri de Coeur embodying a 19-year-old's prophetic witness to the lonesome fate of any artist in a world of soulless Philistines. I wrote some poems and stories to that effect myself in my younger days, and so did Shakespeare, and Goethe - and Keats, Schubert, and Sylvia Plath have all carved their initials memorably on the mossy trunk of the death-wish tree.
But now the U.S, Congress with the help of the Surgeon-General, David Satcher, is going to do something about this unhealthy situation, which is caused, researchers have discovered, by the easy availability of guns! Guns account for 60% of all suicides, and researchers in California have found that people's risk of committing suicide in the first week after purchasing a gun is 50 times greater than for the population at large. Of course, it might be because people buy guns in order to commit suicide, in which case, what does the study prove? Only that people who really want to commit suicide look for the quickest and most fail-safe way to do so.
The fact is, in Japan and Sweden, where guns are rare, suicide is common. There is simply no way Congress, the Surgeon-General, or an army of well-intending social scientists can legislate that most drastic freedom out of existence. From a suicide's point of view, that is one of the chief attractions of suicide: it is an inarguable way of saying Mind Your Own Business! And who hasn't shared that sentiment?
But I would point out to any intending Romeo or Juliet that if they hurry off to death's great privacy too soon they will never, ever know the bliss of scuba-diving - or any other sublime pleasure still untasted - and that would be a tragedy in its own right.
I recently was informed that I am not a likely candidate for Alzheimer's disease because I've been a lifelong reader of novels and worker of crossword puzzles. It appears there is a strong counter-correlation between those pastimes and Alzheimer's. The skeptic in me does wonder whether cause and effect might not work in the other direction. People who can't remember from one day to the next who's who in War and Peace won't invest their time in Tolstoi, and those who can't recall that Mineo's first name is Sal and that the nene is a goose peculiar to Hawaii will find crosswords a pursuit too trivial to bother with.
Not me: I am an addict of the New York Times daily crossword, and of the double-crostic that appears in the Times Magazine every third Sunday. I have solved them religiously for something like thirty years, only funking their challenge when I'm beyond the reach of the Times - or sometimes on a Friday or Saturday, which are the toughest puzzles of the week.
Twice I've known the people who appeared in the puzzle, and I immediately phoned them to let them know of their incredible celebrity. For a long time I hoped that I might be honored the same way - not, of course, with the regularity of novelist Umberto Eco or the spy Mata Hari or the Art Nouveau designer Erte. Their names must have been adopted with crossword puzzle fame especially in mind. But Disch is only five letters, and all of them but the vowel have good terminal possibilities. Still, it's never happened.
Except once, when my younger brother Gary made a personalized crossword for my birthday. Gary is a crossword professional. He's had his work in Games magazine, and even in the Times. Not a crossword, but a puzzle of a kind that he invented. And soon enough he's going to have a whole book of puzzles for sale in those racks of paperbacks beside the checkout counters in supermarkets. After that, knock on wood, there'll be infinite sequels.
There is one problem, however, with having a brother who is a professional puzzlemaker. No matter how good any of the rest of us are at Scrabble (and we have a long family tradition), no matter how lucky his other siblings may be in the letters they draw, Gary always wins. It's like being ten years old again and playing with a grown-up who isn't going to give an inch. In fact, sometimes, playing with Gary, who is eight years younger, I wonder if maybe I'm not already coming down with Alzheimer's. He always wins.
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