Book Reviews

  • FLASH HOUSE
  • EVERY THIRD HOUSE
  • FARLEY’S JEWEL
  • THE ANTHROPOLOGIST
  • FOSTER’S  DEPRESSION

The Above ↑ Follows Below ↓

FLASH HOUSE

Flash!

The Iceman has just finished a new novel by Aimee Liu.

Flash!

The novel is Flash House. The Iceman began the novel with a fifth of his favorite single malt. He is happy to report that he successfully negotiated the novel and the Scotch in the hours between midnight and dawn.

As the morning flashes through the raised eyebrow of a broken Venetian blind, the Iceman remembers that the flash of the novel arose in a rising sun far flung from that, which illuminated its fabled New Orleans sister. The house in Flash House is an Indian brothel circa 1949. The players are Americans, Indians, British, Chinese and Russian. The game is a tournament of shadows also known as “The Great Game” played by the powers jostling for position in the Far East at the beginning of the Cold War. By the end of the novel we will come to believe it a metaphor for the Cold War presently seeking the heat now frozen along our current axis of evil. McCarthyism is revisited. It sounds little different than the Bushism’s that presently crowd the airways. The degradation of the Flash House is also that of nations. Then as now, the world goes a little mad when its moral prerogatives are believed absolute.

The Iceman’s hangover is minor to middling. His believes the true depth of his intoxication is consequent of imbibing Ms. Liu’s narrative in a single sitting. Flash House is a page-turner, a corker, a splendid jewel found nestled among the Cracker Jacks.

The book is 458 pages, ostensibly comprised of 15 chapters divided into Books 1 and 2, spanning 22 months from March 1949 to December 1950. Closer scrutiny reveals a density of 83 subchapters, a Prologue and an Epilogue. Each chapter is comprised of a dual narrative structure. It is, in the main, told in the 3rd person, but roughly a third of the book (27 chapters, at final count ) is told from the 1st person perspective of a young girl enslaved by the Flash House. Mind you, the Iceman doesn’t remember making these counts but he was sufficiently on top of his game to have had pad and paper at least as near as his beloved Laphroaig.

The other major character is Johanna Shaw. Her chapters are often thoughts or dialogue reported from the 3rd person perspective of the omniscient author.

The plot revolves around the disappearance of Johanna’s husband, the correspondent Aidan Shaw, in the hinterlands of communist China and her adoption of the flash house captive, Kamla, possessor of the 1st person voice of the narrative. The first book deals with Johanna’s and Kamla’s attempt to locate the missing Aidan. Along for the trek is an Australian friend of the correspondent, Lawrence and Simon, the  Shaw’s little boy.  These four will bond as if a family during the course of their adventures. Lawrence will become Johanna’s lover and the children’s surrogate father and the complexities of each will eventually lead to disasters for all.

The main characters and the intrigues of the plot are richly drawn. Ms. Liu is a master of modulating the conflicts that seethe within each. She is equally adept at filtering the narrative through secondary characters no less deftly rendered. Of these, the Iceman’s favorite was Helen James, the mother of a character whose body is discovered in a hastily dug grave near the end of Book One. Helen James is a cameo of a few pages in a single chapter. Her summation of: “Once death has come and gone, the passage of time is irrelevant,” is a touchstone to the heart of the novel.

After other deaths have come and gone, Kamla restates a variation of this theme in the minor key that modulates wistfully in the Epilogue: “Through blind faith and bewildered longing, through that craving for some impossible goodness we had turned against one another.”

The Iceman will not reveal the surprises Ms. Liu saves for her denouement. Suffice it to say they are devastating and more than well worth the journey. He will however reveal that the time frame at journey’s end has expanded from two to fifty years. It is here that the uniqueness of Ms. Liu’s narrative is paid off in a sum quite beyond the expectation of mere addition. She is too fine an artist to beat one brazenly about the head and shoulders with her revelation, but if the Iceman’s guess is right, her narrative choices, at the close, are among the more brilliant in recent fiction.

The Iceman, of course, flatters himself to have been sufficiently astute to catch this final turn of the tale. Mayhaps, the revelation will surprise even Ms. Liu, but, then again, her inspirations were (most probably) not aged within the smoky peat of an Islay Single Malt. He will leave the discovery in question to the sleuth and Scotch within in each interested reader.

The Iceman is about to enjoy the reward of a much-deserved nap. He is about to imbibe a ‘hair of the dog’ that so faithfully companioned his journey across India to the shadows of the Himalayas. The Iceman is about to fall unconscious to the floor.

He commendeth the volume, unreservedly.

EVERY THIRD HOUSE

Donald Freed’s Every Third House is an eloquence transcending gender, race and time. Over the course of eighty-three chapters Freed fragments two decades in the lives of Black Panther leader Leon Hurley Howard, Vivian Battle and an American psyche still shaped by the political and social upheaval of the second half of the 20th Century.

The fragments comprise court transcripts, prison letters, FBI memos and a third person narrative that takes place in the two years subsequent to Howard’s release from prison in May of 1990. The court transcripts are presented vividly in the dramatic manner of Freed’s Inquest, his play on the Rosenberg H-bomb trial. The prison letters allow Freed to become the first person voice of the white poet, Vivian Battle and also that of black revolutionary, Howard (aka “Masai”). The FBI memos have the timeless imprint of state oppression and Orwellian “double speak.” Hoover had instigated a program called Cointelpro (Counter Intelligence Program) to battle against the Black Panther party. What he famously said of the party, that it was “the greatest threat to internal security of the country”, might as pointedly been said of himself. The Panthers were a Marxist revolutionary organization, but “black power” was only one element of its complex character:

“The Panthers are descended from every slave that was ever kidnapped (let alone the Indians and slave Masters and itinerant Honkies and assorted White Trash—Huey used to claim he had a Jewish great grandfather!)… Huey tried to change the equation. He tried to introduce respect into the vacuum between slavery and violence.”

At the height of their influence the Panthers’ newsletters reached hundreds of thousands in urban centers across the country. They were involved in a class struggle that sought to embrace all of America’s disenfranchised poor. Dilbert “Big Man” Howard was the editor of The Black Panther, the official organ of the party. Something of his size, Newton’s soul and Seale’s passion has found its way into the composite fiction of Freed’s Masai—Leon Hurley Howard.

An America that, into the 1950’s, could lynch black men with impunity would not tolerate black men with guns. Thirty of the Panthers were arrested in Sacramento when they arrived to protest legislation that was aimed at disarming them. Several of the Panthers were later shot to death during police raids of questionable legality. Bobby Hutton’s house was set aflame. He was gunned down by the Oakland Police during his attempt to escape the fire. He was seventeen. Fred Hampton was responsible for free breakfast programs across Chicago’s west side and the revolutionary act of establishing free medical care for the city’s poor:

“The FBI wasn’t afraid of a few niggers with guns (they loved it), what terrified them was law books, hot breakfast programs, free clinics, co-ops, sickle cell Anemia Programs, and, if necessary, yes, guns. Huey, like Malcolm, knew that the “Black” Revolution was a suicide love letter to J. Edgar Hoover.”

Police broke into Hampton’s apartment while he slept, and shot him twice in the head. He was twenty-one. It is for provocations such as these that the organization was originally deemed The Black Panther Party for Self Defense. Freed ran with the Panthers and knows of what he speaks. Huey Newton was best man at his wedding. Hoover’s Cointelpro used agent provocateurs, espionage, disinformation and psychological warfare to disrupt party advances. The FBI sought Freed’s silence and possible murder by distributing flyers in San Francisco suggesting that he was an undercover cop, ie.: “Donald Freed is a Pig.” Freed survived and remains one of America’s premier playwrights. It is a great pleasure to report him, as well, to be among America’s finest novelists.

The main characters espouse Sartre in their declarations of freedom but they remain rooted in a Faulknerian past: “a past that is not even past.” Despite its populist pretense, America has long been locked in a rigor of class, power and wealth. Each is taken for granted among those who inherit and possess them. These same will use the lower classes as cannon fodder at the least threat to their own status quo. Freed’s metaphor for this rigor is the New Haven “Green.” Masai had been convicted in an alleged conspiracy to kidnap Nixon’s Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger. The courthouse in which he was tried sat squarely on the Green. In Freed’s hands an earthbound metaphor takes metaphysical flight:

“The bells ringing out over the pitiless Green that had, like the churches and bells, stood for the imposition of order—level, horizontal, cut, squared, measured, surveyed and laid out for the Churches to sit on—so that while the Green spread laws and order and reason like a carpet over the earth, the Churches and their bells reached up vertically, piercing and centrifugal in a Great Chain of Transcendent Being rocketing up into the Empyrean heaven toward the God of the New World, like a lightning rod of supplication and prayer, a lightning rod that, the poet promised, ran like an invisible stake down through space into the ground of the Green so that the vertical and horizontal vectors of law and order and reason smashed together to shake every house in the village, every house in the world. That is why, the poet taught her, the bells must break the dark silence of the night when the Green has disappeared so that sleepers many not escape into dreams and nightmares of unreason and anarchy… in the ticking increments between the echolalia of the complementary and overlapping warning of the bells and the eternal return of God’s message down the lighting rod of History into the Green, then out radiating and radioactive into every body in the land…”

There are moments of hallucinogenic intensity when each is caught in a divide that howls back through the centuries preceding their humanity: “The monster’s eyes rolled red and up, his whole great frame began to tremble and heave like a beast trapped on the fault line of an earthquake.” When the Pleistocene is discovered to be only yesterday, we have, as Freed avers, been called human beings too soon.

Freed is a revolutionary and a classicist. It’s a volatile and beguiling admixture. He is as apt to cite a passage from the Orestia of Aeschylus as he is to contemplate Das Kapital. Gilbert Murray’s translation of Euripides’ Electra is a running theme throughout the text. In one absorbing construction the murder of Clytmenestra plays off against the dream flight of Masai as hunted slave. Few moments in literature are as sublimely horrific as Orestes’ recognition of his mother’s expiring humanity: “… she opened her bosom bare, she bent her knees to the earth, the knees that bent in my birth and I… Oh, her hair, her hair…” There is also a stunning moment, drawn from the prelude to another “literary” murder. Desdemona’s “Willow Song” evokes a universal sympathy worthy of the Verdi aria that succeeded the Shakespeare and the Avatamsaka Sutra that had, by a millennium and a half, preceded it:

“You remember the Willow Song?”

‘”The poor soul sat sighing by a sycamore tree…”

‘”Sing all green willow…’” Kelly shuddered. “It reminds me of—”

“I know. Shh…”

Then they slept. And in their dreams they were together and sometimes alone and then, again, with Masai or Eleanor Battle or Doctor Irving, Frenchie Ledoux, all of them together—the gray ghosts of Yale and the stone skeletons from the cemetery with all their skulls and bones. Bone of their bone and flesh of their flesh—Lil’ Joe and the epigone of all colors smoldering sparks under the smoke—as if their overlapping, intertwining, interpenetrating dream actions had been shot day for night or filmed by the glow of the Los Angeles inferno; as if the auteur of the dreaming were not just the two women with their arms around each other under the ship’s quilt but that it was Masai’s dream, too; Joe’s and the poet’s mother and even the other one’s father, along with all that was once flesh and blood here in this self same cottage. Bone of their bone and flesh of their flesh. The dreamscape was as empty as the white Maine snowfields outside that ran without break down into the white ice of the lake and then—blink the other eye and it was the smoke and flame of Los Angeles and the New Jerusalem combusting. It was all of them and everything together, flesh and bone, as the two women lie in their embrace starting and twitching—moaning laughing and sobbing—now alone, then together, as the long winter night accomplishes.”

We are each in that “self-same cottage”—each in Freed’s Every Third House. From the floorboards to the rafters, this house is a subversion and every inch a masterpiece. In an era when the government desires access to our library cards, Penmarin must be applauded for bringing the work to its press. Freed’s dream prose is the history from which those of us that drew breath in the 20th century must exhale it in the shock and the awe of the 21st:

“because the waking Historical day is the actual nightmare… the work of art is the real reality slipped into the interstices of the Official Calendar…”

The “shit storm” and revolution that the novel prognosticates may well, in fact, arrive. American penal systems have been a gulag for young black men long before such a charge was levied during the present contretemps between the Tigris and Euphrates. It is clear, as well, that a black population too poor to evacuate the inundations companioning a Category 5 hurricane might as well be incarcerated for all the freedom their poverty affords. But the revolution with which we are left to contend is one of the heart. Early in the book we find a lovely passage presaging the novel’s conclusion:

“The girl, Kelly, peeked at Vivian’s face. Beautiful, she thought, noble: drawn, pale, no make-up, brave big gray eyes; watched the poet’s brave eyes leading her to the window, gray eyes riveting deep into the Green, focusing like an archer who draws a long bow—a twenty year long bow—and unleashes an arrow of longing for another shore.”

In the end Vivian Battle lays down her arms and Masai, like Dr. King before him, has been to the mountain top but will not cross to that other shore. These are artistic inversions of the highest order. Vivian’s injunction to: “Please, God, let me do no harm… at the least and at the last let me do no harm.” is, as well, of the highest moral order and is one in which the world stands desperately in need. Astonishing! Freed’s achievement is of a resolute literary authority and not to be missed.

FARLEY’S JEWEL

Farley’s Jewel: A Novel In Search Of Being–has found one.   I am delighted to disclose that I was the author’s room mate during a fondly remembered college year, early in the 1970s. Jon Ferguson is not Professor Larry Farley, “PH.D.D.E.F.G.H.I.” but rather the “omniscience” behind Farley’s thoughts and the thoughts of his students as he poses the many questions that Farley asks each to consider.  Farley’s lectures and his student’s interior monologues provide one of the delightful structures of the novel.  When Farley wonders if “things” exist outside of their “appearances,” he elicits the great Kant’s “Thing-in-itself.” One student is contemplating his lust for another in a confused litany of CAN’T, and KANT, and CUNT; a second is admiring the Professor’s curly hair, while yet a third is pondering why Farley appears to make the world more complicated than it “appears.”

 Late in our college career, I remember Jon musing about the absurdity of discussing Being and Time with a pregnant classmate.  This same absurdity dogs his Professor during a sabbatical taken to produce a computer program of Heidegger’s Dasien and in most of the conversations he has with his wife, Carol.  Times change but absurdity abides.

 Dasien is a term which Heidegger likens to a “…clearing in the forest,” a nothingness which  allows the features of the trees to manifest to consciousness. Heidegger’s conception of Dasien is one of the pristine constructions of early Phenomenology and a nascent Existensialism.  Its gemlike quality is Farley’s jewel.  Beyond judgment, morality, and guilt– it simply “is.”

 One of the most startling moments of the book concerns his dog Freda’s encounter with a small rodent in the red desert of southern Utah :

 “Around the dog’s head the earth turned to a halo of dust. Then the dog sauntered back with the taupe snug between her jaws.  She stopped on a spot that was somewhere beyond good and evil and let the warm little body fall in front of her master’s feet.  One of Farley’s jewels, he thought genuflecting and for a moment he watched death glisten in the light of noon .”

 Farley comes to see that his being in the world is the world in his being.  The Jewel that he polishes is both interior and exterior for he can find no logical distinction between the two.  Peering out into the crimson vastness of Bryce Canyon:  “… he watched lizards scuttle and small birds loop between the shale totems, and he heard the hole in the earth below him whisper infinity into the horses ears.”

 The Upanishads and esoteric Buddhism have long predated these same eternal echoes.  The Hindu’s Net of Indra, Tu Shun’s Ocean Wave and Fa Sang’s parable of the Golden Lion are each encounters between the infinite and the quotidian. Farley asks us to think of people as waves on a shore or birds in flight. “Just try. See if the world feels different. See if you feel different in the world.”

 Throughout the book Farley questions the priority of what man takes to be his grasp of the world. Farley is not as certain as Pinzias and Wilson that cosmic microwaves are evidence of galactic evolution: “Farley stared at Freda in a curl on the kitchen floor.  He wondered how many light years there were across the galaxies inside her skull.”

  It is clear to the Professor that self-conscious thought is only a sliver of consciousness and perhaps the most confused and worst part of it. The naming of names is the disease of Adam. He quotes an unnamed citation (Nietzsche?) to his students.  “Even what is here called usefulness is in the end only a belief, something imagined and perhaps precisely the most fatal piece of stupidity by which we will one day perish.” One thinks, as well, of Wallace Stevens: “Throw away the lights, the definitions /  And say of what you see in the dark.”

 Whitman often heard immortal longings in the call of a wood thrush or saw the infinite in the wings of a gander. Here is Farley on the flight of a hawk:

“When the hawk looks over the land is it in itself or is it a mere looking? Not looking out and then back in, but just out.  Looking out builds no I. Looking out lasts until it stops looking. Until the light goes out and it retires to nest.  Here is no death.”

 Jon’s novel is one of great and enduring riches. No where is this more apparent than in his handling of Farley’s mother’s Alzheimer’s. Farley’s wife challenges his cold acceptance of his mother’s loss of identity:

 “Lost it. No. Lost what? Lost the right to order lunch in a restaurant? Lost what time it is? What day it is? Who’s  coming to dinner? …Who decreed that these things need to be known in the first place?… There never was an it.  My mother’s relation to the world has never been a constant.  Ditto for everybody.  A cloud isn’t an it.  It’s a big whirl…My mother’s world now is a new whirl, a different whirl, a less common whirl, but it she hasn’t lost.  It was never there in the first place.”

 In the book’s most experimental pages Ferguson conjures Faulkner’s Benji of The Sound and the Fury to make us feel the disconnect of an Alzheimer’s patient.  He then continues the disconnect in dialogue between Farley and an old student to suggest that the distance between his mother’s world and our own is closer than we would otherwise comfortably suppose.

When my own mother passed away in the twilight of Alzheimer’s I recalled Proust’s description of his grandmother’s mortal remains. Had I, at the time, read Farley’s Jewel I would have, as well, recollected the jewel of Farley’s singular moments with his mother, at the novel’s end:

“You see her eyes slowly close and you rise and pull the curtains then you return to the bed and sit with your right hip near her head.  You watch your right hand lay itself on her silver-blue hair while the fingers feel for scalp and you watch them curl and uncurl and gently dig.  You see her eyelids cringe but you doubt it is pain; you imagine they are working toward sleep.  You watch her and now feel the fingers of both your hands rub the heat that is her head and you see the body and at the same time you feel the tears in you swell and pop and drip.  They come warm and fine; you know you won’t be talking together any more that day.

 There are days when you stay on a bed with a head in your hands like an opal until you feel it sleeps.”

 The book is published by Cincus Puntos Press, El Paseo , Texas . I purchased it for a penny on the internet. It is easily worth one thousand one-hundred and ninety-five times the price I paid–which is to say the $11.95 of the publisher’s asking price. Seek it out.

THE ANTHROPOLOGIST

Jon Ferguson’s The Anthropologist is splendid  anthropology and a masterful follow up to Farley’s Jewel. In Jewel Ferguson’s Professor Larry Farley was in search of Being.  More prosaically, Ferguson’s Anthropologist, Professor Leonard Fuller is in search of Leonard Fuller:

He wants to go back to the beginning, to the first moment Leonard Fuller remembers being Leonard Fuller… He doesn’t know what it was. Was it a what or was it a when? Do all whens become whats as soon as the moment passes? Are there no whens? Is temporality one of man’s lamer inventions? Is When I was a kid always What I remember about being a kid?

Farley, Fuller, and Ferguson are aging ‘boomers.’ They are each aware of their palpable decline and have the good sense not to morn their losses:

Fuller noticed that eye contact and age were inversely proportional: the older you became the less people looked at you… He knew his body was no longer appetizing…. he was certain, couldn’t stand up to other bodies she could find on the market. He was old meat; the expiation date on his label had expired…

As does the author, Fuller enjoys music:

He has a shelf full of records that he bought during and shortly after his college years and since he has been living alone they are his principal company. As he puts it, “I have a shit load of great friends and they only talk when I want to listen.”

Fuller lost his 2nd wife in traffic accident:

They, wife and minivan, hit a tree – a tree hit them – one night while they were coming home from her aerobics class. A patch of ice was deemed responsible for bringing the three together. So the police said, anyway. Fuller had been devastated at the moment, but later realized that maybe people over fifty are better off living alone.

With his first wife he sired twin daughters. She left him for a psychiatrist with whom she had an affair.

Fuller couldn’t have been happier. His wife had somebody to talk to and the psychiatrist had somebody to screw. Every now and then it was the other way around. So Dolores said anyway.

Leonard Fuller is reminiscent of Joseph Heller’s Bob Slocum. Both regard their lives and the world through an ironic glass, darkly. The Anthropologist is Ferguson’s 2nd novel in English. Something Happenedwas Heller’s long awaited follow up to Catch 22. Slocum and Fuller are at times painfully cynical–but never less than acutely honest:

Everything’s already been said, but since nobody listens, it doesn’t hurt to repeat things from time to time…

Fuller’s Anthropology is his minor hope for his students. In the very least he might make one or two question the unquestioned superiority of their own culture:

the only way Americans would stop thinking they were the center of the universe was by showing them from a very small age that their culture and values were but one possibility in a vast multi-colored world.

Beyond this he knows that teaching is a fool’s errand. He is happy to award an A+ to any student who has the temerity to simply complete his assignments. Teaching is not the challenge it once was. Looking for engagement of any type he discovers something between his sheets that ought not to be there…

He smelled nothing unusual but he did find a strange foot-long reddish-brown hair near the pillow on the side of the bed he didn’t sleep on…. He hadn’t had anybody in that bed for months. And the last person, Sarah Fletcher, a student from years before who was now a divorced graduate assistant, had short blond locks.

The anthropologist Leonard Fuller now becomes Detective Leonard Fuller. His secretary, Sharon Juppit becomes his Dr. Watson or perhaps, “his girl Friday.” The mystery of the mysterious red head and her adventures in Fuller’s bed provides the first of two narrative threads that wind their way through the maze of the Anthropologist’s many musings.

Sharon is the most likable character in the book and grounds the ethereal Fuller to the terra firm of the campus quad.

She was sixty-four years old, weighed way more than a tenth of a ton, looked to be descended from every shade of chimpanzee (as Fuller once said to her when she asked him what to put down on an application form under RACE, “Look Sharon, figure it this way: your mother and father each had two parents who each had two parents who each had two parents…and we’re only back to 1850. Try going back about ninety million years – and that’s a low number. Good luck on trying to figure out what race you are…. After Sharon had worked in the the Anthropology Department for a few years, Fuller asked:

“So Sharon, who’s the finest professor on campus?”

“You are.”

“Why’s that?”

“Because you’re the only one who knows how full of shit he is.”)

That knowledge frees Fuller to occasionally celebrate the heroes of his chosen discipline:

Mircea Eliade was a wonderful man… I had the pleasure of taking a class from him in Chicago before he retired… He says we all have things that are sacred to us and other things that are profane, that is, that are not sacred. What is sacred for one person can be profane for another and vice versa. What is sacred for one culture is profane for another… For some of you, it might be the label on your jeans. The ‘Tommy Whatever-his-name-is” brand might be the only one you’ll wear. Or maybe it’s Calvin Klein or Reebok or Nike. In any case, those jeans have special meaning to you. Not only the jeans, but how you wear them – low, below your underpants. Maybe your underpants are sacred too. You know something is sacred for you if you wonder where you’d be without it. Without your jeans would your self-image suffer? Would you feel you were a lost sheep? Would you feel less than whole…

So what does all this mean… to be human is to have a sacred side. Eliade found it everywhere he looked. To understand this is to begin to understand other cultures and other civilizations. Look at what is sacred. Respect it. Don’t think only your culture is special….

People will give their lives when what is sacred to them is being threatened. Just look at the Middle East today. Look at all religious conflicts. Maybe if politicians understood what Eliade was saying, they would approach conflicts differently. Maybe they’d get to the real reason people tie dynamite around their waists…

Then as a grace note to the futility of his efforts he adds:

I suggest you all read Eliade’s book. It’s on your semester reading list. It’s short. And like I said, he didn’t complicate things. Next week we’ll have a look at Edmund Leach. Any questions?”

No questions.

His instruction to his daughters was delivered with as much dispassion:

They had no religious upbringing other than Fuller’s stories about what people believe all over the world. They got tastes of Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Shinto, Navajo, shamanism, Unitarianism, Darwinism, Marxism, Nietzschism, Capitalism, Walt Disneyism, and a few glimpses at local African and Polynesian metaphysical inklings. Fuller laid a few samples out on the table and neither girl wanted the whole meal.

The 2nd narrative strand concerns one of his secretary’s sons. Fuller confesses his egoism for never asking after him and then asks after him:

“Not bad. The kid that was in jail is out now on good behavior.

He’s back in Albuquerque with his girlfriend.”

                    “Which one was that?”

                    “Rufus, the oldest.”

                    “How could one of your kids end up in jail?”

                    “You’re the anthropologist…”

                    “As long as he’s not robbing liquor stores…”

“The problem is, the rap stars don’t need to rob the liquor stores, but kids like my son do so they can wear the white hats and fur coats, drive the shiny cars, catch the fast women… make that shiny women and fast cars. I don’t hear any politicians talking about that.”

The red hair and delinquent son are two pegs on which Ferguson hangs his plot. But the plot is not the point. Early in the novel he contemplates the use of memory. His girl friend had suggested that fish have a four second memory. A fish bowl is less boring for a fish if after four seconds it always appears new.

We all only remember what we remember. No matter who we are we don’t remember what we have forgotten.

In Farley’s Jewel, Ferguson had linguistically experimented with consciousness by invoking his mother’s Alzheimer’s. In The Anthropologist he plays with the instinctual similarities between man and fish:

But fish are born knowing how to swim. They have a memory that goes back to…back to…back to…just like we do…an instinctual memory…how to suck…how to chew…how to swallow…how to defecate…and then the cultural memory…the symbol…the flag…the word…the Tommy Hilfucker jeans…the star…the cross…the stop sign…the bowed head…blood…the Super Bowl…the Rose Bowl…the fish bowl…values…birth rituals…baptismals…school…mating rituals…death rituals…the collective memory that says this is sacred and that is profane.

And then, as if to belie the relativity of  Eliade’s dichotomy, Ferguson gives us a hint of his own feeling of the sacred in two beautiful meditations:

Is the four second memory a guarantee against suicide? If you forget everything after four seconds is there never enough time to decide that life is no longer worth living? Does a goldfish ever knowingly, willingly, leap out of its bowl…her bowl…his bowl…to put an end to this swimming, eating, defecating party? For it is a party to which no one is invited but everyone comes. Everyone we know of, that is. Leaving the party is another story. Hemingway wasn’t invited but he knew when to leave. With a four second memory he no doubt would have kept swimming up and down the cool rippled stream. But he remembered what it was like when he had whatever he knew he would never have again. Or maybe he didn’t want it anymore. Maybe he no longer wanted what he remembered having and could think of nothing new worth having. Maybe he had pain. Maybe the only new thing was pain and the memory of painlessness was such that pain had to go and the only way of kissing it goodbye was blowing the brains around the riverbank in Ketchem.

This first meditation on the author of For Whom the Bell Tolls is the precursor of a second  which I believe to be the heart of The Anthropologist. The Hemingway title is taken, of course, from Donne’s famous poem. We all know for whom the bell tolls. It is at the bell’s behest that we discover the common ground of our humanity At this juncture in the book Ferguson introduces us to a campus gardener, Juan José Carlos Rodriguez. Fuller often speaks to him on his way to and from class.

“I had intended to talk to you today about Edmund Leach, the famous English anthropologist… But as I was walking to campus this morning, I decided to talk about somebody else who, contrary to Leach, is never discussed in academic circles. His name is Juan José Carlos Rodriguez. He is a gardener here on campus. Yesterday he was planting pansies along the walkway outside the building you’re sitting in. I decided to talk about him instead of Sir Edmund Leach because he has been more of an influence on my thinking than Leach has. I don’t say this to diminish the importance of Leach, but to amplify the life of Juan José Carlos Rodriguez.

This is the beginning of the ‘Rodriquez Mediation.’ It appears at the beginning of chapter eight approximately midway through the book. Fuller will employ Rodriguez in the denouement of the mystery of the red hair in the book’s final pages. That denouement is a delightfully absurdist conclusion to a fine novel. I will leave it to the reader to discover it and the second half of the book on his own. It is as abundantly rich as the first and concerns itself with second narrative strand to which I earlier alluded. The ‘Rodriquez Mediation’ takes up the whole of chapter eight and is among the finest half dozen pages that the author has penned. Initially it is simply one man’s story. But no matter how simple the man no man’s story is simple. Rodriguez’s story is one of tragedy and strength–it is a tale of the earth by a tender of the soil. Fuller narrates it as it was narrated to him some twenty years before.  Its force and loveliness is one not diminished by time. In these xenophobic days it is always useful to remember that the enemy at our gate is also our neighbor. I can think of no finer encomium than concluding with Ferguson’s own prose at the conclusion to this pivotal chapter of a most remarkable novel.

The first reason I tell you about Juan José is to get you to respect the campus gardeners, most of whom have similar stories. When I was your age, a gardener was an invisible man. He was ‘a gardener’ and nothing more. He had no life attached to his gardening. I saw him outside of time like one sees the desk one is sitting at or the hamburger one eats at McDonald’s. One does not see or feel the tree that was chopped and the logger that chopped it and the factory workers that cut the wood or the designer who designed the desk and so on. One does not see the cow that was slaughtered to make the meat patty or the tomatoes that were harvested for the ketchup or the wheat that waved in the field to make the flour for the burger bun or the workers who picked the tomatoes or swept the floor in the bun factory. Every person you see and each thing you touch has a history, an infinitely complicated and unfathomable history. No one asked to be born in Juarez, Mexico into dirt poverty. No one asks to be born who they are and where they are born and into the circumstances they are born into. Nobody, not queens, not presidents, not ditch diggers, not priests, not prostitutes, not pretzel makers, not professors. Every creature on the face of the earth has their own story to tell. I ask you to respect that story. You don’t have to agree with it or like it, but at least respect it and understand its complexity.

The second reason I have told you about Juan José Carlos Rodriguez is so that when you study social sciences you should never forget that you are dealing with real people. Every statistic is made up of real people. Every cultural tradition is practiced by real people. Every belief is believed by real people. Every god that is talked about and every moral notion that is plastered on the planet comes out of the mouth of a human being. Every pair of shoes that are made, every meal that is cooked, every house that is built, every war that is fought, every kiss, every murder, every smile, every fart, every book that is written, every film that is made, every song that is sung, all this comes from people.

And now, what are people? What is a person? Anthropology is supposed to be the study of man, but what is a man? I ask you to respect man. I ask you to remember that the social sciences are about real human beings. But what are real human beings? Do I know? Do you know? Does a doctor know? Does a physicist know? Does an astronomer know? Does a biologist know? Does a chemist know? Does a priest know? Does the Pope know? Does a policeman know? Does a judge know? Does a psychiatrist know? A university president? A mother? A father? A senator? A terrorist? A drug dealer? A rap singer? An opera singer? Bob Dylan? Jennifer Lopez? Prince? Madonna? Michael Jackson? Michael Jordan? Bill Clinton? Dan Rather? Jay Leno? God? The Devil? The anthropologist? Edmund Leach? Juan José Carlos Rodriguez? Does anybody know what a human being really is?

My best guess is no. No, nobody really knows what a human being is.

Why do I guess no? Because if I can teach you one thing, if I can get you to think about one thing, it is to step back and try to get a perspective on everything you believe, every moral value you espouse (including the label on your jeans), everything you consider important and true, every goal you give to yourself and the world. Ask yourself where your ideas come from. Ask yourself why you believe what you believe. Look around you and what do you see? If you open your eyes you will see a lot of sheep with a lot of different colored fur. You will see American sheep. You will see French sheep. You will see Catholic sheep. You will see Jewish sheep. You will see leftist sheep, right wing sheep, Christian sheep, Islamic sheep, Buddhist sheep, atheistic sheep. You will see herbal healing sheep, sports sheep, cinematographic sheep. You will see journalistic sheep, literary sheep, television sheep, fashion sheep…and bhhaaa, bhhaaa, bhaaaa.

So what does this tell you? What does it tell you about human beings? What does it tell you about ANTHRO-pology? What answers does it give you? Does man have a soul as most religions would have us believe? Is man a materialistic machine as most scientists would have us believe? Is the truth somewhere in between as many compromisers would have us believe? Or is the truth somewhere way, way, outside? Has this dichotomy got it all wrong? Maybe there is neither soul nor matter. Maybe man is something very other.

And did man evolve? But evolution implies evolution toward something. Who can prove that man or the world or the universe is evolving toward something? And why is man the measure? Why does man judge everything from HIS point of view?

Do you know why? Because what the hell else can he do? So when he judges his own knowledge and intelligence it is always he who sets the rules. Maybe this is why he needs gods. To tell him if he is right or wrong. But if they are his gods he is right back where he started from, looking at himself in the mirror and babbling about men being this and men being that.

So when you walk out the door today look for a gardener. When you find one, you will see a man, a deep man, deeper than you or I will ever know.

Then look for the sheep, the colorful various sheep. Which color are you? Or are you a horse? Or a wild animal?

Thank you for attention. See you next week.”

FOSTER’S  DEPRESSION

Foster’s Depression is the latest novel that author Jon Ferguson has recently shared with me. I say latest and recently because it was written half a dozen years ago and he has probably written as many more in the interim.

The novel is a delight. It is relatively short and its plot and characters easily apprehended in a single sitting. Its themes, however, are more disquieting and will resonate with the thoughtful reader for a much more extended traversal of time.

Aside from the depression of the title numerous social maladies are observed and commented upon. Our culture’s obsession with celebrity begins the novel. Foster who has not spoken to anyone for a year and a half awakens from his catatonia and becomes a hit on the national talk show circuit. As each show limits the discussion to sound bites and the sensational, he decides to tell his story in a more illuminating media–he decides to write a novel–Foster’s Depression.

He explains that he was not depressed because of his loveless, sexless marriage–that would make for a very depressed populace, indeed. Nor was the depression the hackneyed fear of mortality which companions a mid-life crisis:

I was bored with myself at thirty. “Bring on something new” has always been my mantra. And nature didn’t let me down. Before I knew what had happened I was sporting a sloping belly, grey temples, bad eyes, and pains every time I woke up.

He then relates that his job is no more or less challenging than most of those secured by his fellows in the workplace. Most of us fall into positions we occupy for a lifetime before we fall out of them at death or retirement. Nor do the social maladies of the world overly concern him:

My “depression” had nothing to do with people starving in Africa or tidal waves or terrorists bombs or the war in Iraq or September eleven, or any other insane events that mug our poor brains daily. I put all this lunacy in the same basket because it’s been going on since the beginning of time. Of course it stinks and of course the world is a cesspool. But at age fifty, it was nothing to get depressed about.

So why was he depressed? What precipitated the silence and his descent into catatonia?

It was because of a snake. I didn’t even used to like snakes. I still don’t really. But here’s what happened:

Foster goes on to explain that while pushing his daughter in a stroller he came upon the blackened body of a deceased snake. It had been run over by a car and its snaking days were now a thing of the past. You see a road kill, you perhaps feel remorse for its loss of life and maybe a nudge of your own mortatliy but then you and your life move on.

On the second day passing the same spot he noticed there was considerably less of the snake. Road kills make a tasty repast for crows and their ilk not to mention the flies and creeping vermin that would make short work of our own flesh were it made available. All of this was still part of the observational normal.

On the third day things had taken a new turn for the snake and for Foster–neither of them good:

As we approached the spot where the snake had perished, I expected to again apprehend the snake’s remains. I looked down, forward, backward. There was nothing there. Had I gone too far? Not far enough? Neither was true. Simply there was nothing left of the snake. Absolutely nothing. Even the blood had been washed away. I froze at the sight of the clean snakeless street and felt right then and there the first tiny beads of something begin to clog my pulpous skull. Brothers and sisters, princes and ditch-diggers, dogs and cats, friends and enemies, in three days that snake had gone from happily cruising around the neighborhood to absolute nothingness… No corpse. No carcass. No coffin. No stain. No nothing. That snake was gone. Nothing. NO THING! ZERO! NILCH! NADA! NIENTE!… The next morning at breakfast I just sat there over my plate of scrambled eggs and stared ahead with my mouth open. My wife tried to talk to me. She turned on the TV and radio. She laughed. She shouted. She slapped me. She swore. She threw water at me. Then she called the doctor.

Thus begins Foster’s depression, proper. Sartre explored this same phenomenon in his first book, the justly celebrated Nausea. Antoine Roquentin’s observations also drew him into the darker corridors of a doubt that called into question the objects in world about him and his very being in that same world. Both Foster and Roquentin in the world of their respective novels have extreme encounters with nothingness. Both are called upon to question the basis of language and how language is the very basis of their being-in-the-world and the world-in-their-being. Without words to socially construct reality everything blends into a world without seam or separation. Anything might be something other–Roquentin’s fingers might be worms on the ends of hands–a red scarf blowing in the wind might be a piece of undulating red flesh. For Roquentin these alternative observations fill him with loathing and revulsion. For Foster the only response is silence.

Hitchcock explored a similar malaise when the James Stewart character loses his love and then his mind in the fevered Vertigo of that eventually became the film’s title. His lost love is named Madeline, which is also the name of the famed cookie that companion’s a cup of tea which erects the vast architecture of Proust’s A la rechere du temps perdu–A Remembrance of Things Past.

Hitchcock’s film was taken from a French novel, D’entre de morts (From Among the Dead) that was specifically written for the director on the speculation that he might be intrigued into a filmed production. Each of these themes and authors are archly Gallic in their enrapture. So we should not be surprised to discover that along with Beckett, the author of Foster’s Depression writes novels in French as well as English. We might, however, be surprised that the James Stewart character in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, is named John Ferguson. He is also known as Scottie to his friends. The most telling appellation is, however, related by his girlfriend, Midge.

The film opens with a chase, high across a series of roof tops in San Francisco. A criminal leaps to a sloping gable and scrambles up the side of the roof. A uniformed cop closely follows and successfully traverses the gap between the buildings. Detective John Ferguson is less fortunate. He slips on the shingles and in the last instant grabs a protruding gutter that frames the roof. The cop returns and offers his hand. As his hand inches toward Ferguson he loses his footing falls to his death. It is here we first experience the famous Vertigo effect developed for the film. Bernard Hermann’s score brings the sequence to a close as the Detective’s eyes bulge in terror at the body sprawled in the depths beneath him. The next scene shows the Detective recovering from his experience–but the point must be made quickly and emphatically before the plot sweeps us away. We never see Ferguson rescued. Metaphorically he is left suspended over the abyss throughout the motion picture. His girl friend’s name for him is exact and precise. She calls him–Johnny O.

Forster explains his own encounter with emptiness:

I didn’t see the people because all I could think about was the moment when they wouldn’t be there. When doctors would be in front of me I wouldn’t see them. I should say that I saw them when they weren’t there.

One of the delights of the novel is a commentary from the peanut gallery of the normal that separates each chapter of Foster’s observations. Its a device that also separates the the first person narration of Foster from the author and one that will later bind each to the other and to his readers, as well. Toward the end of Foster’s Depression Ferguson and Foster question the agon of their own assertions:

 Isn’t there another bottom line? The one that is below the one just drawn? The one that says I’m full of shit for judging 50-Cent, Mariah Carey, and the Terminator. Of course the impulse is strong, but if I think about it, why does my judgement have one more iota of value than the judgement of one of Madonna’s desperate groupie fans or Terminator’s bloodthirsty fans?

Foster ultimately leaves the final word on judgments to the “normal” commentators that are inserted between his own narration in short chapters of there own:

The idiot flips out over a little useless foot long snake. He stops talking. He stares at the wall for a year and a half. Talk about wasting away your life.

It might be noted that foundation of Zen Buddhism is predicated on the seven years that Bodhidharma remained staring silently before an equally blank wall. Foster’s silence is relieved by the nocturnal visits of a nurse, who not unlike Garp’s mother in Irving’s The World According to Garp mounts her patient’s nocturnal erections.

In religious parlance Foster’s fundamental doubt is sometimes called the dark night of the soul. In Buddhism it is a prerequisite for Satori–the ability to see the diversity as oneness and the oneness as diversity–byodo soku shabetsu and sabetsu soku shabetsu. In India it is called Prajna or the opening of the third eye which binds the division between the other two and between the divisions which define, dissect, and dismember the world. The Prajna vision acknowledges the world’s nothingness–Sunyata. Prajna is, however, companioned by a religious impulse–Karuna. From the Buddha’s Prajna he knows there is only the Buddha and there is nothing against which to measure his dukkha or suffering–so his suffering departs in the cloud of its illusion. From the perspective of his Karuna he must work among his fellows as if their suffering was real even though he knows that they are not. It is here we sense that compassion underlying Foster’s Depression:

I remember that the first while that I was wherever I was, I thought a lot about love, in particular my love for that snake. I was, in all likelihood, the only creature in the universe to have witnessed its end. Only I was in a position to pay homage to its life and death. Every time I thought of its shredded guts on that warm summer street, its blood caked to the blacktop yet shimmering in the morning light, I was filled with overwhelming love and devotion. I was its last link with anything. I knew that if I went, it would really be gone. With love comes responsibility, in my case the responsibility of being the only survivor to hold the deceased in mind. I had to keep it there, alive in thought like a last yellowing photo of a long defunct great aunt in a family album… When my wife brought my daughter to visit, I didn’t see my wife, but I did see my daughter, just like I saw the snake when I stared at the white wall.

The novel is steeped aplenty with candidly humorous observations of what there is not to love about the world. This is most aptly suggested in the nihilism that his second wife directs at their daughter:

It was “No” when she wanted to put on her basketball shoes. (My wife insisted she wear sandals.) It was “No” when she wanted to help wash the morning dishes. It was “No” when she spilled orange juice on her goddamned useless one dollar t-shirt. It was “No” when she wanted to eat her cereal in front of the TV. It was “No” when she wanted to ride her tricycle in the house. It was “No” when she wanted a candy bar after breakfast. (When my wife finally said yes, it was “No” when she wanted to take the wrapper off herself.) It was “No” when she wanted to hold the candy in her lovely fingers. It was “No, look at you” when she smeared chocolate all over her mouth. And it wasn’t even nine o’clock yet. In all I counted one hundred and forty-eight “No’s”. The kid’s only awake about ten hours a day. That’s fifteen “No’s” an hour. And I wasn’t even home all day.

Ferguson seems to have the most fun with his Doctors. Doctors and scientists have become the priests of our secular worlds. Each is invested with years of spiritual instruction from the modern day seminary known as the University. Eventually Foster decides to return to the world. To effect his re-entry he must converse with his psychiatrist. Note that the response of his nurse to his return to language and sanity is the same as his wife to his imposition of silence and insanity:

I got out in February 2005 on good behavior. I never messed with anybody and finally I decided to talk again. One day a nurse was changing my sheets and I said, “The sheets in here have been wonderful.” She immediately called for the doctor.

Then begins the glorious interlocutions between Foster and his Doctor:

He asked me what my daughter’s name was again.

Gloria.

How old is she again?

She should be about five now. Depends on how long I’ve been in here.

And your wife?

Oh, what is she…? Maybe forty-one.

No, I mean her name.

Glenda.

What does she do again?

Last I knew she was scrubbing toilets.

You mean she is a cleaning lady?

No, I mean my memory of her is someone who scrubs the crap out of toilets.

What else?

She keeps a clean kitchen.

And?

She wears a lot of green and orange.

I remember that when she came here she was wearing green. Why didn’t you talk to her?

Do you really want me to tell you?

Yes.

Because I didn’t see her.

I don’t understand.

I’ve been in here how long?

Almost eighteen months.

Okay, for almost eighteen months people were phantoms for me. Their reality was only in their not being what they’re supposed to be.

What are they supposed to be?

People. But I didn’t know what a person was anymore.

Schopenhauer actually went through something like that. Did you ever read Schopenhauer?

No. But I’m glad to hear it. I know I’m not crazy. I just stepped out of the world.

What brought it on?

The world.

Can you be more precise?

Well, if you want to know the truth, a snake.

Do you – or did you – have snakes?

No. I saw a small one dead on the street. The next day I saw it again. Most of it was gone. The next day I came back to look at it again. There was nothing there.

I’m not sure I understand. Certainly you’ve seen many dead animals in your life. Why did the dead snake cause you to lose touch with the world.

I suddenly realized that it had gone from life to death to nothing in three days.

Does that matter?

If you’re the snake it does?

But we’re not snakes.

Yes we are.

Ferguson does a good job humanizing his doctor. His is not just a fool or foil to be eliminated by Foster’s dialectic. The doctor answers Foster’s queries with good sense, a good sense of humor, and a healthy skepticism to the questions that his patient poses. In Chapter 12 his “normal” readers or literary interlopers are specific in their response to the questions posed and answers pondered:

They better not let this guy out…

Well, they do. Foster gets his own apartment. Gets a job cooking hamburgers at a local grill. He starts seeing his nocturnal nurse romantically and basically gets on with the world–one’s option’s aren’t unlimited in this regard. He finds himself strangely compliant and not prone to confrontation:

To tell you the truth, I haven’t disagreed with her about anything in the eight months I’ve been out. Actually I haven’t disagreed with anybody about anything. There’s nothing to disagree about. What comes out of a person’s mouth is like water shooting out of Old Faithful: you don’t agree or disagree with it: you watch it, listen to it, and try to make sure you don’t get wet.

When Ferguson returns to remembered conversations with his Doctor we realize that along with his affection for his daughter and his desperate memory of a small forlorn reptile–he is the heart of the novel:

So you think I’m full of shit.

Of course you are.

Are you sure about that?

No, but all signs point to yes.

What might those signs be?

That you you think you know what you’re talking about.

That you think you’re sane.

You don’t think I am?

You’re fine in this world, but this world is insane.

Can you clarify what you mean?

You’re a psychiatrist. You’re supposed to have answers. You give answers. But there are no answers. If you’d admit there are no answers, I might take you off my list.

What list?

Of the insane.

So the sane have no answers and the insane do.

You might put it that way.

Normally it’s the other way around.

Precisely. That’s why the world is insane.

And what about you?

I have no answers. That’s why I shut up for a year and a half.

What do you have?

A daughter that I want to see.

Do you think she is sane?

For now. But it probably won’t last. She’ll probably start believing in garbage by the time she’s in second grade.

Do you believe in garbage?

If you don’t believe in anything, you can’t believe in garbage.

You believe in nothing?

My daughter.

For now…

Yes, for now.

And what will happen when she starts believing in things?

I don’t know.

We’re not there yet.

When you get there?

I guess I will still love her because I know it won’t be her fault.

Whose fault will it be?

Nobody’s.

Nobody’s?

Nobody’s at fault. This it what nobody understands. Nobody asked to be who they are. Nobody asked to have the mind or body or neighbors that they have. Nobody asked to be born into this or that culture. Nothing is more obvious, but nobody understands it.

Except you…?

You tell me. Do you know anybody else who says this?

Not in the same way.

There you go.

I’m not sure we can let you out.

I’m harmless. Far more harmless than most. When you see the world as I see it you have a tendency to be nice to people.

Why is that?

Because people can’t help being what they are. It makes you tolerant.

Do you tolerate me?

Of course. You and traffic accidents and the weather.

And do you love these people and things you tolerate? If you love your innocent daughter, do you love the innocent rest?

Yes.

But you said other people are full of shit.

Yes. There’s no contradiction.

Anything else you’d like to tell me today?

Why don’t you tell me what you’ve been thinking about for the last eighteen months?

I’ve been working here in the hospital.

So what have you been thinking about?

 I haven’t had time to think about much else than my work and my family.

That’s part of the reason I stopped talking.

To make room for thinking?

If you want to put it that way.

(It was funny. The doctor didn’t say any more that day. But he came over and gave me a little hug and then walked out of the room.)

There are some wonderful interactions at the grill where Foster works. He draws his characters with affection and insight into the contradictions that one thought often follows with another. The dialogue and diction of his fellow grillmates is spot-on and worthy of an earlier master who marked twain on Mississippi river boats. He warmly draws scenes with his first wife and his current girl friend, the nurse of his nocturnal visits. It is with her that Ferguson ties a nice knot between the Thantos of the snake and the Eros of his phallus. I will leave that discovery for readers who wish to find it in its proper context at the novel’s conclusion.

The Buddhist makes peace with the nothingness of life because life and nothing are seen to be the same thing. In a Prajnaparamita Sutra, the disciple Subhuti queries the Buddha if there is any distance between an enlightened man and an unenlightened man? The Buddha answers that there is “no distance whatsoever–none at all.”

The Buddhist, like Nietzsche, takes God out of the mental equation because if He exists He is no less empty than His creation. For if the answer to the question of God’s own creation is moot–that He be without beginning or end–the same can be argued for those He created.

Even in the face of the eternal the Buddhist is keenly aware of time–its defining companion. Neither Ferguson nor I are Buddhists–practicing or otherwise. My younger brother, however, spent ten years as a robed and ordained Zen monk at a monastary near Idylwild, California. From him I always sensed the beauty and grace of the Buddhist notion of anicca–impermanence:

We are always leave taking–always saying goodbye.

It suggests something of my affection for Foster’s Depression that I have quoted it so extensively. It won’t do to have a review exceed the length of that which it reviews so I will conclude with Foster’s final interview with the Doctor. It is one of the most touching and best presented arguements in the book–which is to say it is very good, indeed.

What I mean is what if everything that all mankind has ever had in its head is false? What if what goes on the the human spirit – whatever the hell that means – has nothing to do with truth? What if the whole idea of true and false is just an invention of the human mind? Dogs probably never ask if something is true or not. In fact, nobody would ever think that what a dog thinks is true. A dog’s judgements are a dog’s judgements and nothing else. Neither more, neither less. Only a fool would imagine they are “true”. Well, what if it was the same for man. Of course we are able to function, do things, have relationships, and so forth. But we can easily do all this and not be right about what we think and believe, just like a dog does. We could easily go through life with nothing but wrong judgements. The whole animal kingdom does it. And what if man is no different from the rest of the animal kingdom? What if what he thinks is also only partial, full of holes, temporal, and limited by his perspective? What if no thought has ever actually grasped the truth?

This is what you thought about the most?

Yes, I’d say so. As I would lay in bed and look at the ceiling, I would try to imagine the world in different ways. One way was just that: a planet on which the creatures who live have no need for truth, just like lions and tigers have no need for truth. They’re thirsty, they drink. They’re hungry, they go after the gazelle. Somebody they don’t like enters their territory, they growl. Their beings function in a universe totally outside of all notions of true and false. And they function fine during their time on this earth. Ditto for fish, butterflies, cows, monkeys, and psychiatrists.

It’s possible.

It’s possibly probable.

It’s possible.

It’s possibly probably almost certain. What are the odds that the human mind is the only mind capable of truth? Very small.

Unless you put God into the picture.

Exactly. But if you take God out of the picture, the odds are next to nil that the human head is capable of truth. The only reason civilizations started popping off about truth was because they threw omniscient Gods into the picture and put man just below these omniscient Gods, hence giving man – good men, “intelligent” men, perceptive men – a shot at knowing the truths that the Gods knew. But if you take away the Gods, you’re left with a creature that might build better nesting grounds than the tigers and eat more elaborate food, but who is still roaming the jungle with a mind like a tiger’s.

So you think that the idea of a thought being true or false is a human invention.

Yes. We live in our world and it works for us. A seagull lives in its world and it works for it. No truth in the seagull head. No truth in the human head.

So we’re all crazy…

I think crazy is a judgement that makes no sense. A seagull isn’t crazy. A seagull is what it is. Crazy doesn’t have anything to do with seagullness or seagullhood. Same for man. He is what he is. Crazy has nothing to do with him. I would say we are “limited”. That’s a better word. And we’re too stupid to realize that we’re limited. Our brains are not capable of getting out of themselves to get a perspective on what they do.

Who cares?

Nobody.

So why do you care?

I don’t really. My idea won’t change anything about anything. You’ve always asked me what I thought about for those eighteen months and I’ve told you.

Might some thoughts not be closer to the truth than others?

I doubt it. They might be more like my own or your own and hence we might like them better, but closer to “the truth”…, I doubt it.

And?

And so what if there is no truth? What if the notion of truth itself is an invention of the human head?

Then I guess we live with lies.

 But what if lies too are an invention of the human head?

I think it’s time we say goodbye.

So do I. Doctor, it’s been an honor and a privelege.

For me as well. Your wife will be here at eleven.

Thanks for hooking up a ride.

Your daughter will be with her I presume.

I imagine so.

Goodbye Ted Foster.

CLASSICAL MONOLOGUES

The Iceman has just finished Leon Katz’s “Classical Monologues: From Aeschylus to Bernard Shaw, Volume 1, Younger Men’s Roles.”

It is wonderful! The Iceman is soon to embark on Volume 2, “Older Men’s Roles.” He has little doubt that it, too, will prove wonderful! Volumes 3 and 4, (for the ladies), are due out in the fall of 2003 – the Iceman is of exceeding confidence that these will be wonderful! Wonderful!, as well.

The Iceman’s normal want is to embark upon these reviews three or four sheets to the wind. He has found, however, this author’s scholarship and career to be of such sobering stature that he will, instead, do the unconscionable – he will write the review before uncorking and imbibing the bottle in question!

The four volumes exceed over five hundred monologues. Shakespeare is absent by design. The Bard is readily available and his omission allows for a more formidable collection of the more celebrated and obscure worthies than would otherwise be possible. Roman drama is absent from volume 1 but Seneca is well represented in volume 2. Eliot’s famous citation for Marina: “Quis hic locus, quae reio, quae mudni plaga” is there in Mad Hercules:

“What place is this? What realm?”

One would expect (and is not disappointed) in generous samplings of Marlowe, Cornielle, and Racine. One is delighted to discover that the great speculative martyr of the Renaissance, Giordano Bruno is represented by a foray into comedy. Who knew?

In the presence of the Inquisition Bruno had historically intoned:

“You pronounce sentence upon me with greater fear than I who receive it.”

Earlier, in the comic spirit of “Il Candelaio,” Bruno had asked a prospective lover to:

“Quench the passion that consumes me and which I cannot believe will lessen even with death.”

Our knowledge of the Inquisition and the subsequent auto-da-fe, renders the comedic pronouncement more telling than the merest of amusements. Later, in Volume 1 we contemplate Byron contemplating Manfred in anticipation of the romantic turbulence about to engulf his century:

“And thou the bright eye of the universe,

That openest over all, and unto all

Art a delight – thou shinest not on my heart.

These are some few favorites from dozens that could have, as easily, been selected. Background information on the authors, plots, characters and intentions preface each selection. One wanders through these woods at the threat of civilization and an education surpassing several lifetimes. Mr. Katz offers his selection from the purview of the celebrated one he presently entertains.

The Iceman raises his empty glass in salutation. He recommends to all and sundry the intoxicating collection herein, assembled. 

Listen now, oh my minions.  Save such nickels and dimes as to appropriate the sum sufficient for outlay and purchase.  Buy these volumes! Put off thy thirst until thou can raise thy glass in tribute  with the treasured tome in hand.

The Iceman commendeth each volume with a clarity of mind that is rare in his reviewing experience – he finds, therefore, (with scarcely a drop in sight) his glass full to overflowing.

 

JESUS CHRISTS (LINK)

HAROLD PINTER’S “WAR” (LINK)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Portal for New Writing