A Song of the Cliffs

This is an ambitious, unwieldy fragment from 1993, then 1997, then 2001, then 2005. Interestingly, I still haven’t given up on it! I decided to publish it here on my blog so it will live somewhere, until it gets into my story collection. The one person who enjoyed “A Song of the Cliffs” was my dear friend poet Ann Vaughan-Williams, who lives in London and is just a train-ride away from the cliffs at Beachy Head. Partly as a result of her encouraging words, I decided this torso should find a home online. If you’d like to make your own suggestions on how to rework/improve the suicide-note story, you’re welcome to leave a comment below…or perhaps you’ll be inspired to write your own story/suite of poems…

Beachy Head

Beachy Head, England
December, 2199

I am going to put myself to sleep now for a bit longer than usual.
—Jerzy Kosinski

 

A female soldier from the Third Persian War     4 Dec. 2199

The hills stop abruptly as if sliced by a colossal carving knife. The fields drop, gape down to sea and rock. All those who jumped before stand with me, as if to give me courage, as we look out at a lighthouse that hasn’t beaconed in decades.

 

A teacher

All I wanted was a dog, a little one. That would have made the difference. I can’t keep up. Moths are spontaneously generating out of old bags of tea in unclean cupboards. The loo stinks and the whole place stinks of loo, no matter how much cleaner I pour in. All day I’m demolishing moths, bills appear on my screen, journals appear on my screen that I no longer read, my toenails are out of control, the phone hasn’t rung in weeks, I never ever hear from Father Paul. But I keep your hair in a jar, it’s holy and soft. Thank goodness you let me trim your young hair the last time you came by!
I couldn’t fight for myself. I always believed there would’ve been hope for me back in the twentieth century, people were kinder then.

 

A man

Dear Keyon,

I thought I was getting better. I hardly have anyone to turn to. I couldn’t even get excited about a voyage to Europa and Callisto.  I can’t stand this anymore. When i think i hit bottom it just gets worse. There was someone in my life for such a long time, and she keeps trying to reconnect, even though she found someone else. No one gets how bad this loss has been.  I’ve tried everything to feel better and nothing is working. Everyone just goes about their business. And I’m expected to show up for work. I know you have your own load. Tonight for the first time I realized I can’t go on. This is the only way. I’ve walked for hours to these cliffs. I hope they are high enough. I am anxious to see the other side.

 

A bedlamite with a tin plate on his arm 13 Dec. 2199

ABOUT PHYSICAL TORTURE: I’ve had acid put on my feet while I slept, and mosquitoes on my back. I’ve had a rope put around my neck and was choked till I had rope burns. I have endured beatings, some severe. I’ve been dropped on my head onto concrete. My neck was gouged by two different people. My education was sabotaged. I was molested by a neighbor when I was seven years old. First time I was gassed with poison I was 17. Knowing I would be looking for a way out, and not telling me what it would do to me they hooked me on t.c.o. When I tried to quit they poisoned me severely. Now that I’m at the Cliffs I know I can escape. I was terrorized into a nervous breakdown. Then I was raped. I’ve been framed. I’ve been robbed. I’ve had three m.r.n’s sabotaged and systematically destroyed. I’ve been unlawfully sued. I’ve been turned into a freak. I’ve been blackmailed with manufactured evidence. I’ve been a victim of mass psychological oppression. I’ve been made to nearly freeze to death without a blanket 70 nights in a row. I’ve been cheated out of all the basic Fundamental Human Rights you take for granted, I swear on all that I hold as good and true that what is written is 100% the truth.

 

A man, 56

Friends:
I walked in my sleep again. The same bad dreams of swans on fire and Mother’s inflated feet. In the emergency room everyone was sleepwalking. “You have a deep bruise,” said the sleeping doctor. “Rest,” he said, and wandered off.
Lesions on the mid-face and trunk. A proliferation of bacteria. Drooping eyelid and other complications. Unilateral pain. Tingling. Burning. The infection of the brain by parasites spreading dementia and quick decline.
Paleness. Confusion. Bone pain. Worsening of the lesions. Crackles in the lung, unease, numbness. The malignancy. A pernicious hoarseness and drooling. The beginning of disfigurements. Blindness.
Dear friends, they say people always change their minds as they fall, but I don’t know. I would have gone to the Golden Gate Bridge in America if it was still intact, but this will have to do.
Bodhi

 

A mother and her mongoloid daughter 13-12-2199

A magpie flew into the house the day my little girl was born, so we brushed her face with a rabbit’s foot to keep away the Evil One. For good luck we stole a bone and set it on a windowsill.
It’s no use going on, for with the new M.E.R.C.Y. laws sooner or later they’ll find out about her and take her to one of the Dignity Camps. I’d rather we end peacefully, by the old lighthouse.
I’ll leave this note on the edge, tidy in a shoe.
Look! An orange balloon! When I was wee I thought that all the stars were balloons that had floated up to the sky.

 

A young lady

Dear Vihaan,
Congratulations on your marriage. I hope you and Lathan find happiness.
By the time you get this you will probably have heard. Maybe you’ll get the news in the middle of one of your parties. I have come to the Devil’s Chimney.  I see your face, Vihann, I see only you.
I love you,
Aleydis

 

 

An old-fashioned poet

The decimation of Tashkent
did not stir up much deep lament—
don’t folks in turbans count for less
than Nicky, Peter, Ted or Bess?
The loss of Rome from Fire and Quake
was harder to assimilate.
But in our compound all went well
far from city, bomb and Hell.
You flew to work, you flew back home,
pollution lurked outside a Dome.
You had a child with flaxen hair
by filling out a questionnaire.
Everyone was smart, magnetic
fast at math and so athletic.
If bombs went off up on the Moon
the pundits would be feuding soon
in smooth and cultivated tones
while you went on with tea and scones. . .

Well, such was my life until Doc said
“Son, you’re one of the Infected.”
They handcuffed, stripped and branded me,
there was no time to plan or flee.
They forced me into quarantine,
I felt like that sad Florentine
who went down deep into the Earth
a thousand years before my birth.
But at least he had a friendly guide,
I had no one on my side.
A sports arena and a cot—
this was my home, this my lot.
I hardly slept for all the noise,
families, kids, infernal toys
that bleeped and blipped the whole night long
and then at six that horrid gong!
But worse than all the idle chatter,
they never gave us reading matter.
So I began to lose my mind—
a thing, once lost, you rarely find.
They did more blood work, all agreed:
no harm in letting me go free,
but “freedom” meant a rooming-house
with bedbug, roach and sickly mouse.
I looked for work, clerks shook their heads—
some days I lived on milk and bread.
Since Eastern wars lurked in the dawn,
I thought the army’d need some pawns,
but at the Ministry of Discord
I was courteously ignored.
I sat in pubs for the Infected
where I never once connected.
The coup d’etat of ninety-three
at last got rid of Royalty—
now Good King Hal astutely rules
a large estate in lush Peru.
But funding’s gone for those in need,
it makes no odds how much you plead.
Flop-house days were never sweet
but they were sweeter than the street.
Then I thought of this white cliff
renowned in pop song and in riff,
I got to thinking of Release—
that “time” when everything will cease.
Preludes to the Afterlife
are played all thru our routine strife.
A taste of Death’s when you despond,
Death is watching others bond.
A hint of Death’s in notes you get
from Committees That Regret:
The Panel has decided
your petition is misguided. . .
I knew a priest once, Father Paul—
three years since he’s returned a call.
“I’m here to listen anytime”
he’d tell me while he drank his wine.
Very moody, very odd,
hardly ever mentioned God.
He loved to say “You’re not alone”
then loudly yawned into the phone.
Nature? Clouds? Where do we flit to
when a body’s work is through?
Is Death a general anesthetic
or wild and whistling and electric?
But light a flame, watch till it’s spent. . .
no one wonders where it “went.”

All we wish for, all we shun
from cradle to crematorium
is no match for that great Space
we always crave but can’t embrace
not in waking, not in dreaming
not till we fall to riptides screaming. . .

 

The acclaimed artist Steve “Trystan” Sweezey

Viveca, my love,
When you succumbed to plague, and our son with you, long ago, I grieved in a frenzy of self-pity but now I know it was better that you didn’t live to see this war and what has become of me.
It is most curious that my pushing of one button should be the cause of misery to so many millions.
I tailed the Uzbek jet. It was a passenger plane. Four hundred twenty-one people. I can’t write this properly, Viveca. I received the order to fire. I had to obey, I had no choice, otherwise it would have meant a court martial, do you see? I pressed the button. The airliner was hit, mortally, it took seven minutes until it slammed into a mountainside. And the thought of those seven minutes has occupied my life.
In a sanatorium after my breakdown, they encouraged me to draw. And so I took up painting, imagine, Viveca! And for years painting was to be my obsession. The war went on in Central Asia, but I was out of it forever. After my release I stayed in Mama’s little flat, in a room all to myself. I painted. I, the cause of all  this war, sat in a quiet room painting. I painted everything I had done. I painted panic, screams, above all screams, tried to get voices on canvas. Over and over. Giant canvases of screams, terrified eyes, blood, bedlam. The room filled up with these things, overflowed with them, soon I had to move out, to a bigger space in the suburbs. I painted like a madman, worked twenty hours a day, it poured out of me, I never abandoned my cabinful of sufferers, never. How much time passed like this? I do not know. But one day by chance my work was seen by someone. And then by another. And then by another. This third one owned a gallery, and bought six of my paintings. I was grateful for the money because I was running out of paint. He later offered me a show, and I accepted but all I wanted was to paint. The show led to other shows, I still had to get more horror out of me. Soon there were many shows, and many distractions, people began to disturb me. I got a cottage far out but even there they kept trying to see me. I needed to focus on my obsession. So I came to Sussex where they didn’t know me. I worked and worked until I collapsed.
I was institutionalized again. When I left the mental home, I had no more painting in me. And still I felt trapped in a cabin with all the innocents I had slaughtered. I could not paint away my guilt.
So I have come here to fall now. Fall as they did. This is my answer. What awaits me? Have I done penance enough for my crime? Wind blows mightily, all I need to do is stand on the edge and the wind will help me over. Viveca, my beloved!    –Steve

 

Interlude: A Closer Look at the Wreckage

Earlier
much earlier
rivers
bathed people quick ice-cold
above glaciers summer high
and miles   miles of wings     wide     long
where butterflies—

Correct: Man extracts the fang and tooth of nature
Incorrect: Cattle know no pain

Heat    rioting    rotting

Correct: The rain remembers green and coveted slopes
Correct: Valleys shape voices that shape valleys

The damage to light itself

Woods are pulled to desert
Words tremble on the verge

Correct: Ferries are waiting for evacuees to take them to the other side
Not Selected: Feral parrots flutter in the ruins of St. Paul’s

 

A young man with a suitcase contemplating the foam below

Dayesi,
With my Father—and at his expense, of course—I have traveled. How do I look? I’m filming this for you: so you will see the work you’ve done.
In Paris the boys are wearing Mars boots and flaunts and riding about on little jeepneys, just like you. In Cairo, a city of thirty million, a mess of mosques reaches up to a dirty sun: I left my father dozing in the Holiday Inn and wandered through reeking shantytowns for hours until I found a youth who would help me forget you for half a crown. Afterwards he asked for my watch and I told him to fudge off. In Delhi one of my father’s business friends took me to a bowling alley. All I could do was think of you and remember how graceful you are at anything athletic, so I tried to imitate you. All the Indians laughed at the English ladybug. We spent a week in the Cantonese countryside. While my father talked business in the icy lobby of the Hyatt I toured with a group by landrover. We came upon a massive fish market teeming with strong brown youths like you, but it wasn’t they who excited me, no, no, it was the smell: the whole place smelled powerfully of you. Life is for the young.
Dayesi, I was never good enough. When I started exercising, when I added hair, when I changed my name to be more hip for you—it didn’t matter, there was nothing I could do, there was nothing.
Lately a mother went over the edge with her deformed daughter in her arms. The innkeeper at the White Horse told me tourists were taking pictures of the dead child’s expressive face staring up as it was being devoured by crabs and insects and whatnot. Bodies stay down there for days. Scooping them up is no priority with all that’s gone wrong.
In Bangkok, after an interminable meal, I wandered thru the gardens of the Imperial. A cat began to follow me. I told it: “Don’t! I’m nothing, why are you following me? Dayesi longs for others.” So this mustn’t be called suicide, since you have already succeeded in demolishing what was left of me. But still that cat followed me. “Why are you following me?” I repeated. “I’m nothing. So I thank you, Dayesi, for helping me to know my place. I will leave this camera on the edge. Will it pick up the body break-up, do you think? This is for you, so enjoy. I’m going to dive. See me dive. Athletic!

 

A young seer

Beachy Head Dec. 21, 2199

Dear Mohammed,
When you went to your cave in the mountains, did you ever get lonely? My name is Alicja and I am thirteen, and all my life I have been your servant. At first when my Gift was discovered it was a blessing for my family, with my father and brothers on the dole, that was six years ago, when they found out that everything I said would come to pass really did come to pass. I was put on Channel One, and this caused people to be excited, and overnight all my family could live with enough good things. Only they stole my childhood. I told the world three years ago about Mt. Etna, I described the beings on Triton long before the astronomers found them, I predicted the fires of Teheran and Tashkent. But no one has listened to me when I greeted, no one has thought about what has been taken from me. The Wonder of Humankind is a quill who’s got no friends, who’s never had dolls or sat in a treehouse or sucked on popingel. So I often think of you when you went to your cave to pray and when God called you to be his prophet. Was it ever lonely? I have had one last vision, and this one I can’t bear.
I saw the earth overgrown with plants, I saw butterflies and dragonflies, deer and rabbits and toads. I saw Sun and great big clouds, I something of the world my great-great-great Grandpa remembers. But I saw no grownups or boys and girls. I saw the Houses of Parliament spread over a field covered in ferns and moss, a world of serpents and turtles and crawling things. The dogs, free of their masters, explored the crumbling theaters and empty stations. Sheep without shepherds wandered, wounded. Ornamental birds and ravens became the cities’ lords. The only human speech still uttered was what the oldest parrots could recall: Hello world! I’m Merlin! Wow! Hello world! Wow!
Twenty billion people are asking Where is Alicja? I think I don’t know where Alicja is, or where she will go. But I’ll leave this note on the edge.
I want you, who sit next to God and talk to Him, to ask Him to forgive me for what I’m about to do, perhaps He will understand and bring me to Him to console him if He mourns and greets and help Him turn His eyes to other Worlds.
Alicja

 

Father Paul on Christmas Eve, to his counselor

Dear Seraphina—

I know how hard you worked to help me heal.
If it hadn’t been for you I’d long ago have quit.
When you hear about me, don’t give up, please.
It’s just that even when I cover my ears
the news gets worse: in Asia a million corpses left to rot,
and Rome destroyed, while in Britain one man

wallows in years of couch introspection—one man
comes twice a week at five hundred crowns an hour to heal
a hurt inflicted long ago, clean out the rot
that spreads inside the mind and never quits,
even in sleep: ten years of insights that go in one ear
out the other. . . no, I won’t stay on just to please.

Perhaps you’ll miss the turmoil of my case, but—please—
(now it’s me who’s counseling you): I’m just one man,
there are more out there who need an ear,
who need a way to heal and can be healed
and, unlike me, they will not quit,
they will not waste your time by talking rot.

We built a Byzantine basilica with all my rot:
rich mosaics of dream, spires of lapsus linguae, pleasing
to the mind of an intellectual kind of man
who seeks a couch and shelter from the world, quits
the fray in search of understanding if not healing,
a soothing female voice and well-trained ears.

Did I progress or did we go in circles?—How my ears
freeze in this wind! An old-time lighthouse rots
among the rocks ahead: too late for it to heal,
they ought to knock it down, it’s no sight to please
the eye of any wholesome or morbid man
bent on falling off the edge of England. . . “Quitter!”,

I never felt a true Calling, now all I know to do is quit.
Two steps more and these ears
will hear just my own voice crying out to no man,
no Son of God—that’s all a myth, let’s face it, dead and rotten.
I’ll just drop into empty expanse—please,
let that be the long-sought healing.

I trust you won’t judge me for quitting this place, rotting
with war and pestilence—inside me I hear only pleas
to stop the pain, a pain no Son of Man can heal.

 

An aged gentleman

Dear Samaritan:
Indeed you were there when I needed you. Near the precipice your number stood out on the lone phone box with the message WE’RE ALWAYS THERE, NIGHT OR DAY. I phoned you, but my arguments were better than yours. Samaritan, you have not studied your history or your biology.
I am not going to recycle any of my arguments here. This world no longer seems like home to a civilized man who remembers the way it was. I am one hundred forty-one years old. I have lived enough. I cannot imagine what Earth will be like in a century from now for billions of the unborn.
Please do not condemn me. The work you do is worthwhile; you must get results with some. Your voice sounded so young. The voice of a generation I am out of touch with. I hope you will accept the enclosed donation and trust that it will do something to help save the lives that are meant to be saved.

 

Age and gender unknown

I’ve got no dreams left.
My brother made it, I failed.
I want death so much.

 

Another Interlude: At Sunset

We’re looking forward to a journey, crushed liver
twenty-seven broken ribs,
a journey
to that undiscovered country, bring us to the brim,
the fishermen like mice below and a lighthouse dead for decades.
Need someone to talk to? Day or night,
we’re always there, so choose LIFE and CALL US,
poor Tom shall lead thee,
within a foot of the extreme . . .

lungs collapsed, damaged spleen

We’re looking forward to a cliff
whose high and bending head looks fearfully, electrodes on the body showed
it suffered . . .
as day mulls into night
as hills and waters rock the gulls
to undreamed-of serenity,
a pair of running shoes points out to sea,
It’s only the edge of England
but it looks like the edge of the world

and there’s a note:
“I feel certain I’m going mad again.”

Neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain

Keep the porch light lit for those expected late,
wait for them by the window fingering curtains,
wait alone for the constable’s call
(Family often have an inkling says the coroner)

Light candles, buy carnations and take them to the edge.

“I feel I can’t go through another of those terrible times and I shan’t recover.
I know that I am spoiling your life.”

Carefully choose a friend, a rabbi, a priest, someone who is likely to listen.

We’d like you to call someone, now. You are not alone.
Crushed spleen, twenty-seven broken ribs.
“If anyone could have saved me it would have been you.
I don’t think two people could have been happier.”

Act your old age. This won’t hurt.

 

A woman 25 Dec 2199

I was just bored with everything & eight years of treatment did not ease my addiction in fact it got worse & I had to get away had no one left in London so I went off to France with the money I came into after Mum died & I opened a creperie in St. Malo I don’t know what I expected I thirsted for something but from the first day on first it was the movers imagine I’d moved into a quaint walk-up in the old quarter & I offered the two sweat-soaked Young Men refreshments when their work was finished one was Algerian the other Nigerian & I plopped down between the two & giggled and they grinned worked their hands under my skirt & I threw rubbers at them & they laughed and tossed them out & the Nigerian took me from behind the Algerian from the front & we did it there in the sitting room ah moments of insane wedlock & one of them said “This is the closest two men can get and not be ladybugs!” & when it was over I made them Turkish coffee oh that was my first day in St. Malo & I’d thought things would be different why didn’t the treatment cure me France is dark now with Arabian and African machos my first August I binged on eleven in one weekend an army corporal on leave from the Central Asian Wars a goateed tea importer from Brest a diver with the whitest teeth he was sixty but looked thirty-nine after just one procedure and there were more I can’t remember them all why didn’t the treatment work I couldn’t stand the emptiness I couldn’t but I won’t go on & on because listen whoever reads this listen it happened in the train one night he was wearing a Jo-burg Olympics T-shirt & shorts & sandals he had a criminal sort of face the other passengers were sleeping & he grabbed my hand & pulled down his pants “We’ll go to the loo” I whispered but he shook his head & we did it there among the sleepers it was degrading it was beautiful males have never loved me even though I’ve been with 2,000 or more I was no more than a release for them not all males are that way just the ones I want & that night I got home I couldn’t bear the solitude of my flat the relentless stillness & that night I got a message from the only person I still correspond with & she wrote that a priest we have both known for years Father Paul has leapt from the cliffs in Sussex I was stunned he would give such solid advice such a comfort she mentioned drink and possibly he’d tested positive but he was a well-liked man & seemed so sane I can’t understand what the world is going through & he wasn’t the first there was Bodhi Malone the media personality of course & so many others no one ever gave me a good reason to go on perhaps it was foolish of me to expect that from the treatment but what I want to tell you who are reading this and don’t give a damn is that the Cliffs began to call me as well I can’t put into words how I felt or words would make it small & so I got on the next train to Sussex I hurried because I heard they want to close off those Cliffs to the public forever too much death but I thought I’d try & the old barman in the pub looked at me perhaps he could sense something & we began to talk he even asked me my name & I thought how new really novel in this world a barman asking your name & I told him I lived in Brittany & he said lovely country there’s nothing like it left over here but I didn’t feel much like chatting yet I was moved by his humanity & he didn’t look at me the way most Males do & I almost forgot to feel alone but once again I heard the wind out there & I walked out of the pub without a word I ran towards the Cliffs & the grey sea was heaving & the rocks were waiting & what I heard as I stood out there was like a faint choir of all the jumpers before me & all the jumpers to come & I’m looking over the edge & the water & the dead lighthouse where the lights must’ve gone out half a century ago & I know I need to do it now now otherwise I won’t I can’t delay it I have always been courageous the rocks down there look miles away & suddenly I hear the voice of the barman from the pub it’s his aged voice like thunder he’s calling my name I don’t know why but at last someone is calling my name “Aviana! Aviana!” he’s shouting & running towards me at last I am hearing the sound of my name & it’s something more than a caress or a fondling it’s something more than a moment of insight in treatment or even the lights of meditation for in the end all that is solitary and pointless but this man is calling my name and it is a beautiful sound as I hover on the edge between the known world & the depths—

 

The Frenzy of Renown: A Book That Can Change Your Life

Belisarius

Justinian’s General Belisarius, now a blind beggar, recognized by one of his former soldiers

 

Yeats’s Byzantium is starting to look better every day. I say this as someone who has always fantasized about traveling back to medieval times, and specifically Constantinople circa 1100 A.D., but also as someone living in the celebrity-obsessed U.S.A. circa 2016 and looking back nostalgically to a time in history when pre-existing class conditions, and the absence of any notion of upward mobility, meant that people were confined to the caste where they were born with no fantasies about becoming “stars,” unless they were nobles or monarchs or maybe in the military or the church. The advent of the idea of a meritocracy, which began especially after the American and French revolutions, meant that anyone could aspire to anything. The process of democratization only accelerated in the 19th and 20th centuries, so that, when I was growing up, it was common to see TV people hovering over a newborn and exclaiming, “Just think, he could be president someday.”

At one time that’s what I wanted to be. First, mayor of San Francisco, then senator, then governor, and finally the White House. I was about twelve then. Later, when I started writing poetry and stories at fifteen, I believed I would be the most beloved author in history. I was sure that when I turned fifty, telegrams from all over the world would arrive to congratulate me, as they did for Thomas Mann when he turned fifty . . . All my life, at least since the age of twelve, I have been plagued by the wish for honor, but it is only now, in my mid fifties, that I am able to come to fully grasp, delve into, come to terms with, and attempt to heal the fantasy of fame. In my adult life, this preoccupation has often taken the form of not being able to accept my immediate reality/circumstances/situation—including work, relationships, creative life—with the knowledge that there were not thousands of approving onlookers and clapping hands. A life outside the limelight was not worth living. I suppose it’s a bit like the reverse of the 1990s film The Truman Show. Unless paparazzi were documenting my life, unless I was being talked about and praised, there was no point in going on. When I was twenty-one, I remember saying to a very wealthy young lady in New York, “Only celebrities matter.” She didn’t approve at all.

From the psychological point of view, the origin for this need is clear: I was given up for adoption at birth; I received little praise from my adoptive parents; I had few friends growing up. But even though I have understood my motivations for some time, what has recently helped me more is to have a greater awareness of the very concept of fame, recognition, and status.

Fortunately, over the past thirty years, some very good books have come out on this subject. Alain de Botton’s Status Anxiety is a witty, smart, fun book. He has also produced a memorable documentary based on his book, available for anyone to watch on YouTube. Even more important, I think, is the massive tome The Frenzy of Renown by Leo Braudy, a professor at USC. It look him ten years to write the book, from the mid ’70s to the mid ‘80s. I have just finished it, and it felt like it took me ten years to read: it’s over 600 pages of small print, and no Kindle edition available. But it was abundantly worth the effort—or I should say, mostly, the pleasure. Until Braudy wrote The Frenzy of Renown, there had never been a history of fame compiled before. His main thesis, which I touched on in my first paragraph, is related to Botton’s, but of course predates it: the concept of fame has been around since the time of Alexander the Great and, especially, the Romans, but it was only in the 18th century, with the coming of liberté, egalité, fraternité, that ordinary people felt they could aspire to anything, be anyone. That was that time of the Enlightenment. Prior to that, for over a thousand years after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Europe lived in what some have called the Age of Faith. The Church was dominant in ordinary people’s lives, with its teachings of piety, humility, and selflessness; bliss (or damnation) came in the Life to Come, whereas this life was all about tilling the soil, being virtuous, and knowing one’s place. From St. Augustine’s Confessions:

 

If I were given the choice of being universally admired, though mad or wholly wrong, or of being universally abused, though steadfast and utterly certain in possessing the truth, I see which I should choose. I would not wish the approving voice of another person to enhance my pleasure at the presence of something good in me. But I have to admit not only that admiration increases my pleasure, but that adverse criticism diminishes it. When this symptom of my wretched state disturbs me, self-justification worms its way into me, of a kind which you know, my God. But it makes me uncertain . . . You have not only commanded us to be continent, that is to restrain our love for certain things, but also to maintain justice, that is, the object on which to direct our love. Your will is that we should love not only you but also our neighbor . . .

 

Vanity, the need for praise, is a form of lust—not exactly how we define lust nowadays, but a refreshing concept to consider. And for a thousand years this sort of teaching held sway. In the late Middle Ages, with Dante and Petrarch, we have the beginnings of a more modern concept of honor, a revival of Roman ideas within a Christian framework. Men (for it was usually men) were given permission to find honor in this world without having to wait until the next. There was now nothing ungodly about striving for fame and praise. We don’t usually think of Dante as modern, but with him began the fusion of “the Christian emphasis on the afterlife with the classical urge for earthly fame and honor.” And Leo Braudy continues:

Dante [was] the first writer of the Middle Ages to write at length of himself and of the fame of his work, the poet most conscious of reputation and its meaning in the present and the future, the exile whom Ernest Hemingway seven hundred years later was to call (with self-exonerating glee) “the Florentine egotist.”

And he contrasts this with a description of Fame from Chaucer’s “House of Fame”:

On a dais sits Fame herself, who seems at once both tiny and tall, with as many eyes as birds have feathers and as many ears and tongues as beasts have hairs. Around her the Muses sing of Fame. On her shoulders stand Alexander and Hercules… Fame dispenses her favors with total arbitrariness and instructs her herald Eolus, the god of wind, to blow from the trumpet named Slander or the trumpet named Praise as the whim takes her.

A bleak view of fame, and Dante and Petrarch held different opinions on the matter, as  did Boccaccio and much later our very own Founding Fathers and Napoleon and Byron and Lincoln and P.T. Barnum and Hitler, all extremely self-conscious and ambitious self-promoters, who developed our own modern concept of fame, which has reached its apogee in the years after World War Two.

I say that The Frenzy of Renown can change your life because with its abundance of ideas, its thoroughness, and the relentless way Braudy has of pursuing his study through the ages, the reader is taken on a historical and sociological journey like no other, and given a complete picture of how we have arrived at our own contemporary notions of fame, honor, and recognition in 2016 A.D. I don’t doubt the book took ten years to write. The author’s patience, restraint, and erudition are extraordinary. I see why there is no Kindle edition (though there should be): this volume is not much in demand by casual readers because, of course, it takes time and dedication to get through, and in scope resembles something the Victorians might have envisioned and brought to completion.

I say that The Frenzy of Renown can change your life because, having come through this journey, you might never think of status and recognition the same way again. The book, in fact, is so important and so dense, that I wouldn’t be exaggerating to say it needs to be reread, preferably once every few years. It’s not just about fame. It’s about us—our history, our morals, our foibles, our lusts. And along the way the reader encounters many gems. Here are just a few:

Cicero was probably not the first to wake up at the top to realize that the hunger for recognition is rarely satisfied with any particular object or honor. In 60 B.C. he is clearly suffering from the consequences of his discovery of the hollowness of fame.

*

Caesar fell, arranging his toga so that even in death he would have control over his image.

*

Real appreciation, truly filling, truly satisfying, occurs only when the audience is God.

*

In a sense Francis of Assisi was the Crusades brought home. Instead of liberating the Holy Land, the places of Christ’s birth and ministry, the Franciscan rule brought the meaning of that life out of the cloister, out of the hands of glory-seeking crusaders, and into the world of the towns. His fame would be a fame of the spirit, capitalizing on the theater of earthly life in order to deny it.

*

So much Greek and Roman biography and autobiography was lost in the Middle Ages, not through some willful attempt to erase the past but because the individual details of someone’s life, what made him interesting or exemplary to Greeks and Romans, were less important to the monk copying ancient manuscripts than those timeless attributes that fit the pattern of a Christian soul.

*

[T]he increasingly popular French word for fame, renommée, literally “renamed,” indicates the potential separation of the writer from his royal, aristocratic, or merely wealthy patrons to achieve a status of his own.

*

Boswell’s elaborate self-examination makes him a prime modern case of those who believe that fame and recognition will satisfy their desires to be complete, “uniform,” and filled with character, only to discover that nothing is really sufficient to satisfy the hunger within.

*

The modern preoccupation with fame is rooted in the paradox that, as every advance in knowledge and every expansion of the world population seems to underline the insignificance of the individual, the ways to achieving personal recognition have grown correspondingly more numerous.

*

The more dependent on the audience’s approval the performer seems to be, the more the audience is monarchical itself, approving or disdaining in part to titillate itself with its own power.

*

[T]o be talked about [to be famous] is to be part of a story, and to be part of a story is to be at the mercy of the storytellers—the media and their audience. The famous person is thus not so much a person as a story about a person—which might be said about the social character of each one of us.

*

Secular failure was called sainthood in the Middle Ages.

*

Is it any longer possible to do one’s work, whatever it may be, without periodically opening the most impersonal and high-minded ideal only to discover inside the grinning skull of ambition? The fear that something is done not for itself but for what it may mean to others is implanted in our brains by every glimpse of advertising, publicity, and news trumpeting the constant need to slather product with hype, face with makeup, and event with interpretation.

*

St. Augustine’s paradox: After all the sins have been purged, only the sin of pride remains. And after the sin of pride has been purged, the last and most difficult sin to purge is the pride in being humble, the desire that an audience witness (and applaud) your contempt for it.

So we’re back to Augustine, which is fitting. At no point in Braudy’s book does he suggest humanity was better off in Augustine’s time, or Charlemagne’s time, or Justinian’s. And yet sometimes I do fantasize about stepping out of my meritocracy, my fame-obsessed America of 2016 A.D. and living in a simpler time. Archie Bunker’s song (remember?):

And you knew where you were then

Of course, you don’t have to go far back in time to experience the worst aspects of the Middle Ages. Imagine North Korea today, about the worst place one can conceive of. In this society, no one needs to worry about becoming a celebrity. In this kind of society, there is by definition only one celebrity. In a totalitarian state, Braudy writes, “the leader absorbs and thereby replaces every individual desire for recognition.” But, perhaps romantically, I tend to think of authoritarian Constantinople circa 1100 A.D. as a lot more benign than North Korea. I know they had plagues and short lifespans and they were intolerant in ways we can’t begin to comprehend. And I know the world smelled a lot worse than it does today.

But I can’t help believing something was lost when the Age of Faith gave way to the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, when Augustine was forgotten and Augustus once again triumphed. We’re not living in “love thy neighbor” times—well, most of us aren’t. Faith versus Humanism. For me personally, for whom the urge for recognition has been damaging for close to forty years (and as if that weren’t bad enough, I attended high school with a conceited fellow who became a renowned novelist, and I apparently graduated in the same college class as our current head of state), Augustine’s words still have resonance. His words give me hope. Humanism might just be a dead end, bequeathing us the likes of P.T. Barnum, Paris Hilton, Donald Trump, and Bill Cosby.

The Biological Half-Sister I Never Got to Know

 

Samantha

Bio half-sister Samantha Havens in the early ’90s.

As I wind down work on my memoir about adoption, I realize that one character will not be appearing until the end, and then only a little: my biological half-sister, Samantha Havens. Why only at the end?

The memoir, Fallen David, chronicles my childhood with my adoptive parents, Henry and Vera Frankel and my accidental discovery at the age of seven that I wasn’t theirs. It wasn’t until 1990 that I asked my father for more information. When I found out that my birth parents were Marcia Cranston and Frank Verges, it was easy to track them down. The book tells about our reunion and its aftermath.

In the early ‘90s, when I was living in Spain, I made a trip back to the States and met more of my birth parents’ relatives, including Samantha, a year younger than I am. Our father (how odd to put it this way: “our father”!) Frank Verges, after leaving the young Marcia Cranston to take care of her pregnancy situation on her own in 1960, went on to date many other young women, and one of them was Penny. What the two of them shared was guilt: both had given up children. Frank (through Marcia) had let me go; and Penny had let go of a child whose whereabouts are still, to this day, unknown. This fact from their pasts—so I am told—was the glue that held them together, for a time, a very short time. They married, and less than a year later, Frank took off again, leaving Penny behind with a daughter, my half-sister Samantha. Penny had to raise Samantha on her own, with rare visits from Frank after the divorce. In the ’80s father and daughter began to get acquainted a bit more (both lived in California, she in the north, he in the south). And then in ’90s I came along. Samantha—usually known as Sam—was living in Sacramento when I first met her. She had a tall, serious husband, Lyle (a lawyer, I think) and three children. Our meeting was pleasant. We had lunch in a beautiful restaurant by the river and toured the capitol. We were a large party: my birth parents and I, Sam and Lyle and their three young children. We toured Sacramento as one big, awkward blob, and Sam and I had no chance for a tête-à-tête or anything remotely resembling a tête-à-tête. What was she like? I’ll say it again: pleasant! She had a friendly, warm, candid face. She talked a lot and very, very fast, and didn’t listen much. It was a struggle to wait for her to stop talking so you could get a word in edgewise: you really had to plan carefully when to jump in—she was an express train going by, oblivious to everything. I’d always wanted a sister when I was little. Not a brother, but a sister would have been perfect. Could it be that even when I was seven or eight I sensed that she was out there? Nothing much happened in Sacramento except sightseeing. I thought it was an all right start.

I moved back to the States three years later, in 1995, and around that time we met again, when my birth parents rented a house in Laguna Beach. She was visiting for a few days with her children (by that time she’d already divorced her husband). I was excited to see her. I went up to her in the living room and asked when and how we could find time to talk and get to know each other. I was struck by her manner: she seemed guarded, cautious around me, evasive and puzzled when I asked questions. Later that night my birth father said, “Obviously a lot of sibling rivalry on her part, and almost none on yours!”

It wasn’t until many years later that we met again, in Frank’s old Fullerton house this time. I was not good company: my adoptive father had just died a few weeks before and I was grieving. Once again Sam was very, very talkative, and I couldn’t help noticing how much she loved her beer. Her beer-guzzling boyfriend loved his liquor even more; he was an L.A. transplant up to the Central Valley, who, when he had enough liquor in him, would begin pontificating about urban planning, baseball, Eastern Europe, and related topics. She was like an empty vase next to him, needing to be filled up, always playing the role of the co-ed hungry for knowledge about the world, hungry for instruction by strong male figures. I know I’m using an overused phrase—“no there there.” And I almost want to delete it. So I’ll take something from Ibsen’s Peer Gynt: a character who compares himself to an onion; you peel and peel and there’s nothing at the core. I could have said to her, “I might go to Peru to spread the Gospel and father eighteen children,” and she would have said, “Oh! Nice, when are you leaving?” and her big, open face would have looked at me untroubled. I could have said, “Now that my adoptive father has died, I have no one and wish to end my life, do you have any suggestions on how to do so?” and her big, open face wouldn’t have looked concerned or the least bit emotional, and she would have fired away questions, cheerfully asking to be fed more facts and opinions on suicide as she drank her beer. Nothing of substance ever really got started.

I complained (to some people) that she never tried to reach out to me, include me in her family, invite me to be an uncle to her children. But I myself didn’t reach out, and didn’t particularly care. I didn’t care, but I wanted her to. Biological siblings—whom adoptees have no history with—are like dog littermates. When your puppy is weaned and whisked away from “brothers” and “sisters” there is no ceremony, no expectation of later bonding, nothing. They just go their own way. Samantha and I are littermates.

My birth father—a heavy smoker, drug user, and diabetic—began showing signs of senility several years ago. I lived thirty miles away and saw him often. I tried to communicate to Sam—still in Davis—how badly he was failing; it took her a long time to catch on, but when she finally did, it wasn’t long at all before she took charge. She helped him sell his house, and moved him up to Davis. After that, I always had to hear news about him from third parties. With all the money she’d inherited after the sale of his house, Sam took an extended tour of Europe. Then she bought a house in Oregon, and he went along (he had to, now that he was declared incompetent). There isn’t much left of the old man. He talks a bit, walks a bit. The last time I spoke to my sister, six months ago, she was in an awful hurry to get off the phone, and as for him, he only had the strength to chat for a few seconds: “I’m stuck here at the house, lost my license. Not much to do. Well, okay, bye.” She promised to text me their new Portland address, but I didn’t hear from her again.

A friend said to me, “I’m sure she’ll call you when he dies.”

Samantha. Who is she? Who are her children, my “nephew” and “nieces”? I don’t even know their names. Sharon, Brenda, Brandon, Brennan, Brandy? Who knows? I doubt they remember they have a biological half-uncle. Why would they?

This is what many reunions are like.

 

 

THIS EDEN, THIS HELL, I SUCK ON HER NECK: THE CAMBRIDGE COMPANION TO THE LITERATURE OF LOS ANGELES (Cambridge University Press, 2010)

Cambridge CompanionI’ve just finished this marvelous collection of essays.  I heard about it after I googled “John Harris,” the well-known Los Angeles poet who is now unfortunately suffering from dementia and confined to his home and even bedridden. His name appears in a list of search results, one of them a passage from this book. When I saw the title, I knew I had to read more about the city/county/mini-country I’ve been living in for twenty years. Yeah, twenty years! I arrived from Barcelona in September, 1995, just three years after the riots (called here the Justice Riots), as the whole world was awaiting a verdict in the O.J. Simpson trial, in a time before cellphones and email, when a few cool youngsters had pagers.

I was shocked to learn that the first printing press didn’t come to Los Angeles until the 1830s. I was surprised to learn LA is the twelfth largest metropolitan area in the world. After reading this volume cover to cover, I feel a new kinship with and curiosity about my adopted city.

Names and titles that keep coming up: Joan Didion, James M. Cain, The Day of the Locust, Raymond Chandler, the novel Ramona, T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain. I have read some of Didion’s essays, but until now the other items on this list were either unfamiliar to me or barely familiar and not much more. Since the first printing press didn’t arrive until the 1830s, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the emphasis here is very 20th century. Not much happened before that, at least not much that has lasted. I enjoyed the discussion of the Californios, in one of the book’s early essays. I learned about Daniel Venegas’s novel Las aventuras de don Chipote o Cuando los pericos mamen, “a picaresque novel published by a Los Angeles newspaper, El Heraldo de Mexico, in 1928. Here for the first time we find the term chicano in print to refer to working-class mexicanos in the United States.” It’s a novel about the exploitation of the working class—published by a Spanish-language paper, in 1928! I don’t know if I’ll ever have time to read it, but it sounds fascinating, as does the story collection Cuentos californianos by Adolfo Carrillo. Who reads this now but a few scattered scholars?  And yet these books must open contemporary readers’ minds to a now distant and forgotten part of California history. I’m sure we’re not expecting to get something as groundbreaking and exciting as Cien años de soledad, but these books are of historical and sociological interest, at the very least.

Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man (from the 1960s)—a novel I have read, but a long time ago—gets a detailed analysis. A passage is quoted, about “minority LA” harking back to “the tacky sleepy slowpoke Los Angeles of the thirties, still convalescing from the depression, with no money to spare for fresh coats of paint . . . Mexicans live here, so there are lots of flowers. Negroes live here, so it is cheerful.”  Russell Berman goes on to say, “For Isherwood this romantic poverty provides an alternative to the antiseptic modernization that he sees devastating the city.” The romantic poverty of LA? Not a point of view that one hears much about anymore, but if one looks at it in historical context, it’s intriguing: after all, A Single Man was written some fifty years ago by a British expat.

Los Angeles as the new Eden, the city of the future!—or, conversely, the city that exemplifies more than any other the decadence of America in the 20th and 21st centuries and the failures of the capitalist system. Los Angeles should be celebrated for turning its back on the old models of urban planning like New York and Paris!—or, conversely, LA as a chaotic, nightmarish mess, the graveyard of the American Dream, a monster noisily dying from an overdose of greed and hedonism. This sort of binary can be found throughout the book.

Though he is alive and well and not old, I hadn’t heard about poet Sesshu Foster until now. Here is an excerpt from one of his prose poems:

Los Angeles is my city, I sucked on her neck, gave her purple hickeys before she backhanded me out of a car at 35 MPH on a turn in Highland Park. From a street corner, all the Chinese signs in Alhambra declare her love. Korean signs of Koreatown are just another word for feelings. Beautiful hair of Vietnamese noodles. Wonderful smile of oranges sold at East LA on-ramps. Big bottles of pigs’ feet & giant kosher dills on the counter at every corner store . . . Babies, shot in the head, not knowing how to love, how to write their names. They cry too much. Their parents cry too much in churches.

Stunning, gritty, a heady bouquet scent of LA life—I need to read more by Sesshu Foster.

The only weak link in this informative and inspiring book is Bill Mohr’s “Scenes and Movements in Southern California Poetry.” He doesn’t go very deep, the way most of the other essays do. More than any other piece of writing here, his work feels like a hastily complied survey and collection of names. Take this sentence:

By the final decade of the twentieth century and into the first decade of the twenty-first, one could assemble a tantalizing anthology comprised only of university-affiliated poets: Gail Wronsky, Tim Steele, Ralph Angel, David St. John, Steven Yenser, Sarah Maclay, Cecilia Woloch, Harryette Mullen, B.H. Fairchild, Christopher Buckley, Dorothy Barresi, the late Dick Barnes, Robert Mezey, Molly Bendall, Patty Seyburn, Carol Muske-Dukes, Robert Peters, James McMichael.

Instead of pointing out trends, how poets incorporate the region’s dreams and nightmares into their work, instead of any hint of poetry in this writing about poetry, all we have is this dismal list. And where is Judith Hall?!? She’s in Malibu, she commutes to Cal Tech, she won a Pushcart Prize, she’s lived here for years. What was Mohr’s agenda? I only know him, by the way, as a “historian” of the LA poetry scene; presumably he’s written some actual poetry as well? Let’s hope it’s better than his prose. Anyway, he has nothing about the long era(s) before World War II. He almost completely leaves out Latino poetry.

On the whole this is a great book for anyone wishing to know more about a fascinating and no doubt neglected subject. Interestingly, on the cover of this book we see a photograph of the Malibu fire of the late 1970s: fire in the background, shadowy figures moving along the beach in the foreground. Riots, conflagrations, earthquakes, freeways, hucksters, smog,  greed, Manson!—but also the sea, the mountains, endless palm trees and pools, the sand, the sound of Mexican Spanish and Vietnamese and Chinese and much more, the smells from the taco truck and the Thai eateries of Thai Town: that’s the terrific aftertaste I have from this book. Now I need to dive into Mildred Pierce—I mean the book (like everyone else I know the film); I want to explore Adorno’s thoughts on SoCal; I want to see what happens in Boyle’s Tortilla Curtain; I want to lose myself in Chandler. The chapter about film has also opened up doors. Maybe I’ll sit back, click on Netflix, and relax with Terminator 2, which till now I’d never even thought to watch. Writes Mark Shiel, “While the film was most remarked upon for its pioneering computer-generated imagery and its budget of over $100 million, it arguably derives more meaning from the real city it maps out, through a shopping mall and suburban streets in Sherman Oaks, along storm drains and freeways, out into the desert, and back for a showdown in a Fontana steel mill.” The strip malls, gangs, parking lots, the emphatic rawness of hip-hop, the guns, the dying palms, the millions, the Hollywood freeway at 3 a.m., the mansions, the faint weird trickle of the so-called LA River, the drought, the drought!, the coyotes prowling through the suburbs of night, the millions . . .