|Graphic by Darwin Leon|
THE TREE PROPHET
|Graphic by Darwin Leon|
TRACEY’S THANKSGIVING SUICIDE
DAVID ARTHUR WALTERS
I certainly understand why my next door neighbor, Tracey Flagler, may she rest in peace, opted out of her conditioned life in South Beach on Thanksgiving Day of 2007. I nearly did the same thing myself one New Year’s Day, so I have no right to blame her. Besides, what person in her right mind would want to live forever in the very world of circumstances that had made her so miserable? In any event, many reasons can be found for committing suicide.
Of course lunatics are not morally guilty of self-murder by reason of insanity. In their absence of mind they lose self-respect and the so-called instinct of self-preservation, and may therefore give effect to almost unimaginable scenes of self-mutilation and self-annihilation. Even an healthy individual might be momentarily seized by a heretofore repressed, fundamental anxiety, and suddenly be driven by a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach to her demise, throwing herself out of a window, for example, as a woman did during my lunch hour one day in Midtown Manhattan – fortunately the horizontal extent of her leap caused her to land on a taxi cab instead of the crowded sidewalk below.
Relatively sane people have many reasons to end it all. Notwithstanding the fact that thinkers have gone to great lengths to prove that suicide is irrational in itself, self-destruction may be a perfectly logical outcome of a person’s creed or rationale. Liberty is often cited as a sufficient reason to murder oneself if not countless others. People might kill themselves for some professed ideal, or to save the life of others, or perhaps to relieve caretakers of being a burden unto them. Suicidal libertarians might martyr themselves to demonstrate against and shame the authorities instead of assassinating them. Tyrants prize the lifestyles they have obtained at great cost to those who fear and envy them – indignant pride or wounded self-esteem has often provoked suicidal rebellion against one tyrant or another; although their suicide in itself gives tyrants little cause for remorse, perhaps the masses will take the cue and rise up against them. Greedy competitors in the war of all against all covet and hoard the things of this world at great cost to those who would rather make love than war – some people prefer not to set evil against evil, and kill themselves instead.
Abject poverty has always offered a civilized person a reason to embrace the ultimate poverty of death. Today’s religious individualism places the blame for poverty squarely on the I-god individual, who should prefer death to being cast on the street to be publicly shamed. Indeed, the rise of individualism in ancient Greece was accompanied by the increased discussion of suicide – discussions of the subject are believed to result in an increase suicide rate – not only due to social disorganization: if a man was his own best friend, he might rightfully put an end to a life that was not worth living as far as he was concerned.
Later on the Stoic schools condoned suicide, and even recommended it where immortality was disbelieved, for death was seen ever since the beginning of history as the cure for all ills. Unreasonable suicide was deprecated by reasonable men including Stoics, but many Stoics and Cynics who were indifferent to death as evil and life as good would not even scoff today at woman today who killed herself for breaking finger nail: the founder of Stoicism was said to have killed himself over a wrenched finger. A truly indifferent Stoic might do himself in even if he were happy; likewise an unhappy person might suffer indefinitely. Others simply saw suicide as a naked human right.
Homelessness is despised wherever money is God, and some people think God puts homeless persons on the street as a warning. Where money must be had to purchase love, not much can be said for love or for the value of money, and everybody suffers accordingly. And wherever expectations run high, disappointments are accordingly severe. In any event, there is no end to desire.
The bare necessities are never enough, and wants are multiplied with the supplies as advertised. Tracey Flagler, for example, had food, clothing, shelter and a bicycle, but that was not enough: she went to the movies, she watched television, she read magazines, and she served rich and famous people at the restaurant, observing them having a lot of fun, and she read prophets who said the purpose of life is to have fun, and Oprah agreed with them, and Tracey wanted more than what she had, and she didn’t get it, and the prophets said there was no such thing as death, and she apparently threw away everything she had along with the slim chance that everyone is supposed to have in this great nation of ours, the chance to get filthy rich.
We have lately heard that there is a hereafter where all is forgiven, that death is not final after all, that there really is no such thing as death for us, and that our souls are immortal. I happen to know that Tracey Flagler heard that rumor, along with rumors about reincarnation on self-created planets – I read about them in her diaries. I have no doubt whatsoever that it was a factor leading to her premature departure from this planet. A suicide with a reason to kill himself may as a matter of habit feel that he is virtually immortal even though he knows he will actually perish – he believes the future state, even nothingness, is something that will relieve him of his anxiety, hence in that respect nothing really exists for him.
Of course the Judeo-Christian religion scruples against self-killing, citing the sixth commandment against killing while engaging in the wholesale slaughter of foreign enemies who seemingly worship the same god. Remember, “Thou shalt do no murder” is the sixth commandment, properly translated; obedience to God might require one to kill enemies, and killing is not, legally speaking, murder. Mind you that there is no text specifically prohibiting suicide in the Judeo-Christian canon, but the religious still consider it a great evil, not only because life is said to be a gift of God for us to use but which we do not own, but also on the rational grounds that our will to live naturally causes us to fear death, to deem life good and death evil; hence life is the ultimate datum, the greatest good of all goods, wherefore we should revere it and refuse to drink the bitter tea.
According to Plutarch, a rational remedy was employed to cure a terrible affliction suffered by the maidens of Miletos. The ladies were, for some unknown cause, overcome with such a mad desire to die that they hung themselves before they could be prevented from doing so. A wise man moved that a resolution be adopted, that their bodies would be displayed in the shopping center; the malady ended upon the adoption of said resolution.
Besides, suicide costs the society a taxpayer, hence is a sort of theft from the commonweal. We note that, in 1807, twenty-eight Russians buried themselves alive to escape the census, which they believed was sinful.
Let it not be said that one should kill oneself or get oneself killed like the son of God in order to obtain some good, for thou shall not kill, and it is wrong to do an evil to get any good. We project our native instinct to live forever onto a higher personal power, which is a rational power by virtue of being personal, i.e. human: therefore we must find sufficient reasons why God commands us all to live. Suffice it to say that the evil is not in the suicidal act itself but in disobedience to God’s will. Keep in mind that God exists and that suicides will roast in hellfire forever. In fact suicide is high treason, a direct revolt against the almighty will of God. In effect suicide is blasphemous because it seems to detract from the belief that God’s will is in fact all mighty. Further, suicide is a grievous insult to humankind as such.
God does command a few worthy followers to martyr themselves in his name. Jesus was not, then, a suicide but was an obedient son – he would never have committed suicide-by-cop on his own. Yes, indeed, although we are sent here as sentinels, a few of us may be called upon by the Commander to abandon our post. Righteous suicide may be committed for the glory of God, just as humankind wages war against itself in the name of God for the improvement of the race. After all, religion is verily virtual suicide, a denial of that aspect of man’s brutal nature, which includes not only an instinctive urge to fornicate with any woman in sight but also to kill whosoever stands in his way, including his own self. Wherefore self-sacrifice for the love of God and contempt for the perishables of this world including the rotting flesh of the body bag of filth is sometimes warranted for the ascetically inclined.
Suicide is cowardly and ignoble, anti-heroic, a murderous act of sheer desperation. It is better to be killed by an evil-doer or tyrannical authority than to do evil unto oneself by self-murder if one cannot escape from its power. The noble person dies nobly, heroically confronting his undoing, while the ignoble person kills himself to escape what the noble person courageously endures. The suicide does not resist: he is afraid. He despairs and desperately takes his own life. Besides, if there is no afterlife, then this existence, no matter how miserable it might be, is better than nothing. It is better to be miserable than not to be at all.
That might very well be the ignoble and cowardly attitude, one that runs counter to the grain of human nature, which cries out for liberty or death. But most of us are neurotic enough to stick around no matter how miserable we might be, and, notwithstanding the stoical and cynical attitude of pessimistic skeptics, despite our suffering we may expect to be saved from our end right down to the bitter end, which some sweet-lemon prophets advertise as the happiest moment of our lives. The I-god prophets of the Me Era’s popular religious individualism believe individuals live forever at will, intentionally donning and doffing a series of bodies along the way – dying is simply a dramatic scene; death is a farce since there is no such thing.
A discontented person might just move to some other part of the world. But no matter where you go, although that part of the world might look somewhat different, it is the same old world, and there you are, with the same old history, and with the same old stuff to buy thanks to mass production. All of that is quite boring after awhile, and the stuff soon begins to look like so much trash, junk and garbage again.
As for another world, a netherworld or a hereafter which is presumably quite a bit different than this one because it is also inhabited by aliens from other planets who happen to wear medieval costumes as portrayed on Star Trek – why would people want to betake themselves to such a beyond with much of the same old baggage that weighed them down in this one? That would be the continuation of hell on Earth. As for me, I love myself well enough, but I would not take my historical self with me to heaven, I speculated, only to taint paradise and get the vicious cycle going again. History, after all, is to some extent a mistake. It would be best to be born again with the slate wiped clean. But if we arrive with our memories wiped clean, what’s the use of surviving? If I am not to remember my current self on that better planet, if I am to be purified of that naturalized and socialized individual that I think I am now, what do I, as I am, care about that place, other than to be confident that, before I am transported there, my conception of me will be forever laid to rest, even before my body is rendered personally irrelevant and arrives at its final resting place in a grave, or perchance is somehow scattered about – the Hindus and others would leave nary a trace of that sullied cloak behind. May my unsullied soul continue forever without me if it will, and may that continuance be no business of mine for heaven’s sake: Karmic regression or progression is not my concern if I may not remember what transpired before in order to know whether my present state as a werewolf or a demigod is better or worse than my past state.
All the reasons for and against suicide seem to add up to nothing for certain. If one does not embrace life as a premise to be upheld and revered in all circumstances, whether by commandment of a god or not, then a number of options present themselves. Given the warring history of the human race, the consensus seems to be that the quality of life is more important than life itself.
Tracey Flagler tried very hard to appreciate the quality of her life, which was no doubt better than that of untold millions of inhabitants of this planet, and the fact that she tried so hard makes it evident that it was not for her in the first place. She was young and attractive and passionate, a fun-loving girlfriend to her boyfriends; she was always able to find good jobs serving delicious food; she picked up hundreds of dollars in tips almost whenever she wanted to; she had a modest studio two blocks from a beautiful beach. But none of that was enough. She suffered terribly for the dearth of some ineluctable thing that she thought was the purpose and point of life, namely fun or joy. She never had enough fun, and thought the lack was due to a shortage of stuff. The pop prophets reinforced her faith in fun and in the notion that it can be purchased. Her notebooks reiterate endlessly the impoverished terminology of the instant success cult: I, want, fun, joy, me, feel, source, Oprah, money, stuff, famous, Madonna, eternal, rich, universe, attraction, vibrations…. And then there are the almost pathological perseverations, the fearful chanting of positive affirmations – unfortunately, we cannot make ourselves appreciate something simply by affirming the appreciation that we don’t really have over and over again.
The handwritten menus, the lists of ingredients in various dishes, that I found in Tracey’s notebooks are far more mouthwatering, and led me to believe that her life would have been richer if she had focused her intensely passionate nature on the objective details of things, on the consideration of other people, on the study of some liberal art she might have some interest in – a course in academic philosophy might disenchant her of the popular delusions.
At the bottom of Tracey’s being there was an awful want, a terrible desire, a craving so intense that only a Buddha or a withdrawing drug addict could fathom it. Of course the inchoate desire she suffered was not unique. We have it in common, but we manage to cover it up, put it on a leash, subdue it, repress it, ignore it, or just accept it and suffer it. Some suffer it more than others, and poor Tracey simply could not tolerate the suffering. She wanted to believe the hype that the purpose of life is a constant joy that can be had in hand, instead of admitting the truth, that human nature is suffering, and that without it even fleeting joy would be impossible. She had her doubts about the eternal joy business: she expressed her anger at the false prophets from time to time: “I HATE you, I HATE all of you!”
That is not to say that overt suffering is a good thing or that we should suffer needlessly. Freud was right: Neurotic people cling to their misery in self-defense no matter what paradise is promised. Sometimes we suffer only because we want to, although we don’t know it. I developed a habit of asking myself, when miserable, “Do I want to make myself miserable?” No? Then I dwell on something else, and that’s the end of that. Thoughts do influence matter, that much is self-evident, but the magic of positive thinking needs the right means.
Tracey thought a million dollars would afford her more leisure to have the kind of fun she wanted to have. Most of us without a million bucks would not mind having a million or more. If only everyone could get their hands on a million dollars, our world would presumably be a much better place to live in provided inflation could be held to less than two percent per annum. Yes, a million dollars would make room for more fun, but fun at doing what? If I had a million dollars I might quit my day job tomorrow and invest my time in saving the world with success books. Ideally they would be written, edited and published by yours truly, under my Three Stooges Publishing imprimatur. I already have the first book in mind, How to Make a Million Dollars for Somebody Else. I shall submit it for approval by Oprah Winfrey’s book club. I can see myself now, chatting with Oprah on her show, explaining how the world would be a much better place if everyone would try to make a million dollars for someone else rather than for themselves, and I shall suggest that she use some of her $2.5 billion to sponsor a brand new reality show called The Pot Latchers. I shall bring along Tracey’s One Million Dollar Bill coffee mug and some her catnip tea for people who like to see magic stuff, and I shall bring along Penelope, her teddy bear, too. Ten percent of the profits would go into the Tracey Flagler Foundation for Stray Cats.
Oh, Dear Tracey, I did not know you when you were here, but I know you well enough now, and I miss you. You were welcome here. You thought you were a weirdo; you thought that you did not fit in here because your craving was not satisfied, you felt nobody could make you whole or fill your hole. If only you had known that South Beach is for weirdoes, and that you would have fit right in here, we could have had fun suffering life together. We could have had fun riding in limos. We would have gotten on the Oprah show. We would have opened up an erotica boutique, a tattoo parlor, and a night club on Washington Avenue. Yes, we would have suffered, but we would have had a great deal of fun even thought that is not the purpose of life.
DAVID ARTHUR WALTERS
Tracey Flagler, may she rest in peace, was my neighbor. I barely knew her when she was with us. After I found her remains in her apartment, I thought she might be any one of us despite our differences. The soul is bared when the body is decomposed, a soul essentially simple, without height, breadth or depth, at once boundless, numberless, and one.
Reality when beheld from the right angle is an inexhaustible diamond mine no matter where an author might dig. Now that Tracey is gone for good, she is quintessentially as good a subject as her great idol, Oprah Winfrey, who was in Africa when she needed her, and who no doubt would have come to her rescue if only she had known of her desperate plight.
A ragged servant and a rich queen in this great log-cabin to white-house, or squalid ghetto apartment to $50 million mansion great nation of ours, are at most and at least born equal; and to that equality all are fated to return. Notwithstanding a final judgment on their accidental particulars as individuals, they are hypothetically not only categorically the same as an existential category of one, but are in the final analysis are substantially the same as well.
Although only individuals may apparently exist; although there may be no substantial continuity between individual things; although there may be no universals binding particulars; although the forms we perceive may be illusory, accidental configurations of matter; – still, in order to maintain our dignity, a wondrous exception must be made for our divine soul. Undoubtedly that soul is not merely nothing but a name for the Vanity of vanities: no, it is not an empty excuse for nothing but ignorance; it is rather the supreme personal being, the universal I-god who presides over the cosmic stuff. Withal, no man in his right mind is a nominalist in his own right.
Tracey was virtually alone in this crowded world. Her heirs if any were unknown, and the personal effects that survived her were seemingly too inconsiderable to make an estate of any interest to the state. In any event, the stuff in her apartment was up for grabs, thanks to our landlord – he left her door open for the Salvation Army truck. My fellow neighbors carted off a few of her things, but they missed what I discovered in the proverbial Field of Diamonds, that is, one’s own backyard. The hidden treasure was worth more than the million dollars Tracey had asked the Source for in Oprah’s name, money she needed to relax and have fun, to be free to be joyful every minute, free to be the proud proof of the success everyone wants, instead of scraping out a meager living as a hassled waitress for tourists and the occasional rich and famous people whom she wanted to join at table instead of wait on.
Although she wanted more than what she had, Tracey very much enjoyed her South Beach apartment. She left notes behind expressing her appreciation:
“I am glad to have a city and a place to live in and my health and my kitties – I’m glad to have that in my life. Success is based on enjoying and appreciating physical stuff. I begin by appreciating the stuff I already have. I appreciate South Beach and the beautiful ocean, the colors and the architecture of South Beach. I appreciate the beautiful things in my apartment: my TV, my overstuffed chair, my kitties, all of the cool colors, my plastic glasses, my Etch ‘O Sketch, my dry-eraser board. Yes, it is small compared to the mega-stuff I have asked for, and I feel stupid, but it is so BIG compared to what I once had. I am angry that I allowed myself to dream so big, yet I can harbor so much more in JOY than I used to be able to. Is there any reason that I can’t continue? Why cannot I continue to keep up my success?”
The apartment Tracey appreciated so much is in a small complex on one of the last half-dozen blocks of the blighted old South Beach ghetto that has otherwise been gentrified. It is barely a stone’s throw from the so-called chic scene on the southern extremity of the City of Miami Beach, the living end dubbed ‘South Beach’ by the promoters, where Tracey worked as a waitress, and is a mere block from Washington Avenue, the vulgar, drug-ridden nightclub strip favored by tattooed hip-hoppers and mentally ill vagrants. The rental property has an assessed value of one-million dollars and comprises three small two-story buildings, with four identical studio apartments to each building, squeezed into a perpendicular row from street to alley. Living quarters therein are dirt cheap: $750 to $800 per month; the equivalent of the first and last month’s rent must be deposited in advance as security.
A severely damaged sculpture, a tall monolithic wooden structure onto which an illusory resemblance of the face of Mona Lisa was slashed with a saw, stands out front in a small plaza. The sculptor sprayed it with graffiti and smashed the face of his creation before he moved out. The landlord, who complains that he has little money for maintenance because his rental profit has is taxed out of existence if he reports it, has not bothered to remove it. The plaza out front as well as the narrow yard and sidewalks all around the buildings are usually cluttered with trash thrown carelessly on the ground by tenants, and socks, rags and underpants tossed out of the windows of the apartment building next door, and dead palm leaves, sticky palm nuts, motor scooters, and a great deal of stinking dog excrement.
As we say in Miami, “It’s the stupid culture, stupid.”
A five-foot high, white metal picket fence runs along three sides of the property. The fence is for naught since the tenants could care less about keeping the gates locked because they want to let their drug customers get it, or are just afraid to lock them: a resident was stabbed into a comatose state recently by a homeless man who was angered at him for locking them, thus denying him a convenient easement from the alley to the street. Club-goers drop by occasionally and use the premises as a toilet, as do the huge dogs that live on the premises and on the block; the place has been likened to a kennel. One resident dog lover had to move out of his apartment and off the beach because it is illegal to keep pitbulls on Miami Beach. The dog, a pitbull-Doberman mongrel, was over-friendly yet presented a terrifying aspect as it played, tearing around corners of our buildings lickety-split to charge at any two-legged prospective playmate in sight. The owner, a waiter at a popular restaurant nearby, was a nice enough fellow, but his culture mandated shouting commands interspersed with key curse words at the dog at all hours of night, not cleaning up after the dog, and yelling Ebonics into his cell phone while pacing outside our windows when he got angry, using frightful gangster-rap talk.
When nature calls, animals respond. The sound of two ladies simultaneously talking on their cell phones woke me up late one night last week. With miniskirts pulled up and panties around ankles; they were urinating underneath Tracey’s stairwell, just below her neighbor’s window downstairs. I put the finely rounded brown asses of the two squatting ladies in the spotlight with my flashlight; they squealed, pulled up their panties in a hurry and scurried away. Late last evening, a couple came onto the property and took shelter from the rain under Tracey’s stairwell. Their groaning sounds awoke me, and I thought someone was hurting. I went to the window; the couple was obviously having consensual sex, so I retired to let them have their way. Of course some of the hundreds of vagrants who live in South Beach alleys sometimes sleep on our outside stairwells. And one homeless man regularly uses the outside electrical outlet to charge his cell phone late at night – if only he would not talk on it so loudly, nobody would care.
The large abutting building walling off the north side of our ground is an unlicensed hotel residence occupied by non-English speaking Hispanics, the majority of them illegal aliens. The shrinking economy is sending some of them back to impoverished Mexico as I write. They are a relatively peaceful lot. One of the, however, was dumping his garbage onto our six-foot wide lawn along the building, but we found his phone number on a takeout slip for tacos in the garbage – a phone call threatening to call the police and immigration resolved the problem immediately. Two large-bodied workers who place their shoes and socks on the window sill can be seen sleeping in one small bed from time to time. Another tenant therein plays raucous Mexican music for an hour each evening. In case anyone is interested in such details, the inhabitants without curtains may be viewed taking showers. Welcome to the Third World in South Beach.
Lawrence, my first next door neighbor, mentioned Tracey shortly after I moved into my second-floor studio in the building in front of hers – I could look directly into her place from my back window in the bathroom. He said she was a sweet girl, and that if he were straight he would definitely go for her, but he doubted he would get very far because, he said, she preferred black men, an assumption made from a handsome brown gentleman regularly seen at her door – why do we whites have to work so hard for our tans? Lawrence, a New Yorker through and through, apparently had no such color preferences. He said he had overheard Teddy, our Puerto Rican neighbor downstairs, making racist remarks on his cell phone; he said was deeply offended by such low-class talk, although he was otherwise impressed by Freddy’s linguistic facility, particularly his elocution and smooth tone of voice, as well as his ass.
I did not think Teddy’s voice was so smooth. He did not want to disturb his own family, so he was wont to come outside and yell into his cell phone below our windows. And then he liked to party with friends and a jug of wine on our stairwell. I spoke to him quietly about the annoyance, but he said he was the de facto resident manager; he said he did not care what I thought, that I should just move. I became the jerk who straightened him out the next night with a scene that included cops in the cast. He apologized through the landlord, and became quite the gentleman thereafter. He is now the head of a family of five including the dog, all cooped up in one room with a large entertainment center that thumps into the night until I call him or bang on his ceiling. He does try to be considerate, but our floors, which do not comply with the city’s soundproofing code, and the walls are paper thin and he loves drumming. And now he takes his cell phone to the street for long calls. He could be a very successful family man, a man with a house and loving family and a backyard for the dog, if only he would reach for the stars. But he reached for Section 8 housing, and turned it down after waiting 3 years – he did not want to raise his kids in a violent ghetto. So here he remains, with a brand new baby. I want him to be successful, but my own circumstances are certainly not a pulpit from which normal success can be preached without hypocrisy – I am presently a successful failure.
Lawrence and I became immediate friends, but he moved back to New York two weeks after I arrived, one reason being that he was angered by Teddy’s racket-making, another being that, although he was gay, he could not stand the “mean young gays” who live on South Beach.
I know my other neighbors even less well than I knew Tracey, whom I barely knew. I am a gregarious person, but my neighbors live on their own little planets and want to keep it that way. Indeed, when I greeted a neighbor who lives in the front building, and said that I did not know my neighbors, she said she did not want to know hers, and abruptly turned her back on me and walked away. I only know her from her orgasms when her boyfriend visits – she is a screamer.
I stopped greeting the two men who live in one of the back studios, as they are exceedingly sullen and gave me the impression that I am a gringo they would rather kill than say hello to. There is, however, one courteous fellow downstairs: Carmichael, a bodybuilder, nightclub doorman, and youth worker, but I rarely see him because he works day and night. And there is my sole neighbor upstairs, whom I rarely see because he works nights as well; thankfully, he is the quietest man on earth, and he put a welcome mat and plants on our shared stairwell instead of the customary bags of garbage.
Now then, since the ubiquitous “I” is our main subject, I am eager to say something about my appreciation of some things. What do I appreciate about my physical environment? I appreciate the beach most of all. If it were not for the beach itself, South Beach would be nearly worthless, at least in my opinion as a frustrated beach bum. Well, yes, I appreciate the Art Deco architecture when the sun falls upon the pastels in a certain way, although I consider the ornamental style superficial and cheap on the whole. As for function, many of the buildings were barracks, and might better have been torn down long before being put on the historic preservation list. My apartment complex is unusual, not Art Deco ornamented. I appreciate my studio, but I liked it better when it was almost bare inside. I do not require much stuff to be an enormously successful failure. I am leery of owning luxuries, preferring to view them when they are in someone else’s possession, or when displayed in museums and picture books. For me beauty really is in the mind of the beholder. I am complex within but a minimalist without. I have furnished my studio with a few things from the alley, and with a TV and microwave from the much smaller, hotel room I had lived in before the hotel was purchased by the usual greedy developers eager to get their hands on some of the surplus capital buyers have ripped off from labor or borrowed from banks. The vulgar residents of that unlicensed hotel, which served several drug dealers and prostitutes well enough, were precipitously evicted to make way for the gentry; holdouts had their doors kicked in by off-duty Miami Beach cops. The hotel sits empty two years later. I got a TV and microwave off the landlord.
My most useful possession is the used computer my generous friend Darwin gave me after I wrote his ‘Manifesto on Cubosurrealism’. I also have plenty of books to appreciate, titles such as The Deconstruction of Literature, Fathers and Sons, The Way We Never Were, Ten Philosophical Mistakes, Suicide, The Egotists, The Pursuit of Loneliness, The Success and Failure of Picasso, The Myth of Male Power, Becoming Mona Lisa, The Lonely Crowd, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Great Cons and Con Artists, Magister Ludi, and The Skin of Chagrin.
Tracey was all alone when she suffered her breakdown, too depressed even to reach out to her high priestess, Oprah, perhaps the only person in the world who might have saved her with a talk. Chatting on her cell phone failed to relieve her loneliness, so Tracey had turned it off for good.
The Pursuit of Loneliness, copyrighted in 1970, claimed that American culture, with its economy based on greedy individualism, was at the breaking point. The problem with the striving for money is that its value is inflated, from a tool facilitating exchange to a digital symbol of power; thus the lust for easy money distracts people from actually producing and distributing the basic goods and services and the better environment that everyone needs. As for the liberated American woman, she is still manipulated to live for the convenience of men, who still cultivate violence at home and abroad.
The Lonely Crowd, copyrighted in 1961, suggests that our “other-directed” contemporary individualism may be more flexible, but in fact is as conducive to conformity as the “inner-directed” or tradition-bound individualism we associate with the legendary “rugged individual,” whose common morality was implanted in early life by authority figures. Now that relative affluence has been obtained for the majority of Americans, the problem is less and less with squeezing out a living from the natural environment, and more and more with profiting from other people, with whom everyone is increasingly in touch by mass media, which of course serves the rigid organizations needed to harness the new flexibility. Rapidly changing fashions, instead of enduring morality, is the contemporary rule for other-directed people, who are, on the whole, and especially if they are rootless Americans, more friendly and shallow, wasteful and insecure than the inner-directed traditionalist of old. A survey of people on the street or review of any popular magazine rack or an audit of casual conversations belies the notion that contemporary persons are unique individuals in any way – if anything, they have been over-socialized. So we are virtually zombies, possessed consumers. We have more and more things to choose from, but the choices are not ours; we want something else besides all that, but we really don’t know what that is, or quite how to get it, and we lose faith in the whole shebang not to mention our idols and gods.
One of Tracey’s letters, penned shortly before her departure, illustrates the postmodern milieu:
“I want to be proud. What is pride? What is being proud? What do I want my definition of pride to be? Pride is in visible, external success, the proof of greatness. Since I want pride, I lack pride and must really hate myself. I want greatness but am not great. If most of the people in the world died today or went to prison unfulfilled, I believe they might still be great, but they were unable to recognize their greatness. Is that the meaning of failure? For me it is because I know these processes, I know the secrets of the universe and I still screw up. I don’t care about those people who don’t know they are great – I care about me. What is it all for? We could die in a week and what is it all for? What do I want it to be for? I wanted to be able to be happy in every moment, to choose stuff in every moment and have that lead to greatness. Why, why, why? For the fun of it, that’s why. I wanted to feel that way, to have joy, and I saw famous people feeling that way, having fun. Everybody wants money and fame so I figured that if I could have that it would lead to joy. So I wanted to be great. If there is no proof of greatness then what is the point of being here? Why bother? Because they tell me all this stupid crap, like I can create anything I want and am a genius creator, et cetera et cetera. And then I look at my stupid life and the fact that I can’t even exist without some weird, intense pattern of thought taking over, and I sometimes think we are all so full of crap, so full of crap that life is really futile.”
I have retrieved a few of Tracey’s things and have suitably positioned them around my place to get to know her better. In addition to her secret stash, I have her big brown teddy bear named Penelope, a Voodoo charm, the dry-eraser board, a cute little bowl, a large mug decorated all around with the image of a one-million-dollar bill, fifteen boxes of tea, and books entitled The Millionaire Mind, Pathfinder, Self Matters, What Color is Your Parachute, and Basic Spanish Grammar, along with representative samples of her subscriptions to O – The Oprah Magazine and Oxygen.
The Salvation Army will pick up the rest of Tracey’s stuff next Friday. The stuffed chair is a prize but the neighbors do not want it, as it is very large for small studios and rooms, and one would need two men and a truck to get to move it.
Tracey’s somewhat dated books are in mint condition, as if they have never been cracked. Opening The Millionaire Mind at random, we find this tidbit from a multimillionaire’s mouth, for digestion by success-seekers:
“We feel power and control…. It’s a sense of power. You become king within reason. I have a small corporation…. Those that don’t agree with me can resign…very democratic.”
The Pathfinder’s subtitle is, ‘How to Choose or Change Your Career for a Lifetime of Satisfaction and Success.’ We learn that “part of the reason so few people have truly satisfying lives is that they simply do not have tools adequate to the task of designing such a life.” The author provides us with the tools, after noting that “most of us would not be willing to live such a life for very long, even if we could design it.”
Self Matters addressed the subject of ‘Creating Your Life from the Inside Out.’ The author assigns us our first task on page 63: “Beginning right now, with only the second chapter of this book, I am asking you to take a huge ‘time out’ from this scramble you call life, and to focus on the one doing the scrambling: you. I am asking you, demanding of you that you focus fully and unapologetically on you.”
What Color is Your Parachute would have us know that there is a job out there for you: ‘Write This on Your Forehead, There Are Always Vacancies Out There,’ reads the rubric on page 19 of the 2006 edition.
As for Basic Spanish Grammar, facility in Spanish is often essential for getting a low-paying job in Miami. ‘Bilingual (Spanish) required’ reads the Help Wanted advertisement.
Practice makes perfect. If Tracey did not read these books, still in pristine condition, those of us who have read them and are still stuck in a rut might not blame her: we known what to do but don’t do it, for that is the very nature of the rut.
Honore de Balzac would certainly appreciate Tracey’s million-dollar coffee mug in the wee hours. I’m drinking my coffee from it as I write, and with this wish, that Tracey Flagler returns from The Beyond to sue me for stealing her secret. I shall raise the defense that her last testament left her estate to finders-keepers. And then I shall gladly cut her a settlement check for the cool million dollars she wanted so badly that she did not notice it beneath her feet, just as I did not look down at the roll of hundred-dollar bills my right foot stepped on the other day while strolling along Washington Avenue – I cursed at the felt impediment and kept on walking; a homeless man ran across the street to pick it up the money: “Oh, my God!” he exclaimed. God, indeed!
I was taught not to look down, but to keep my head always held high, and to look upwards, at empty space, when I prayed – perhaps that is why I have faith in Nothing instead of in things. I appreciate the fact that that poor man who looked downwards got the bankroll – I did look downwards at the Equinox gym one day during my free trial and found a $100 bill on the gym’s floor.
Oh, yes, appreciation: I appreciate even more the fact that my studio has six windows. I appreciate the marvelous webs spun between the palms and the buildings by the crab spiders. I appreciate the two little trees the landlord planted outside my window. They were knocked down by hurricanes several times, but they took root during the last two, untroubled seasons. Butterflies, duly camouflaged with yellow wings, flit about the yellow flowering leaves on a background of dark green leaves, and a noisy blue jay has taken up residence in one tree – when I answer with a song from my flute, he takes off for awhile. I used to look out of my window above the bathtub when showering, to appreciate the sight of Tracey’s favored fluffy kitties sitting in her window – stray cats also sunned themselves on her doorstep, dreaming of another bite to eat from her generous hand.
Yes, I appreciate South Beach, my apartment, and the things in it. I imagine Tracey Flagler felt some joy in her circumstances, just as I have joyful moments in mine. But who is Tracey Flagler, and who am I? That remains to be seen.
To be continued
Photo Credit: Sketch by Darwin Leon
I seldom think of Billy nowadays lest I grieve for the paradise never quite had in the late Sixties and early Seventies. We certainly had high hopes in those psychedelic days. I was more or less a weekend hippie when I met Billy, but basically a square kid from the Midwest.I met Billy, a distinguished philharmonic musician and music professor, at a popular bar in our neighborhood on the Upper West Side, where he was wont to appear in his tuxedo after concerts. He was much beloved by his many friends. He began to experiment with drugs other than alcohol shortly after I met him, which was no fault of mine although I did introduce him to Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine . Reefer madness led to acid-headedness, and so-called THC soon proved to be his downfall.
It was beside the point what the drug really was in those days as long as it got you high. In fact it was ketamine aka horse tranquilizer, a sedative Timothy Leary associated, along with LSD, with the eighth or mystical circuit of the brain. Ketamine got you out of this world, and the pills were relatively cheap, which was a good thing because you had to drop one every hour or so to stay aloft.
One late night, at a party in his apartment, Billy showed us a rocking horse someone had given him, said it was his Trojan horse, and that “THC” was his “master.” Then he went into the bathroom. We found him washing one hair at a time in the shower. He said he wanted to get himself perfectly clean. Hydrogen was the fundamental element, he explained. And he said he was hearing the undertone of the universe as well, “the sound of the silence,” he called it, saying it was almost B-flat.
Six months later, shortly before he leaped to his death from the Beacon Hotel, he told me he was convinced that he was the “messiah from the East,” that I was the “messiah from the West,” and that we were destined to change the world. He said Madame Blavatsky had contacted him from the Other Side and asked him to join her there for a while, so he could return reincarnate and save the world. He was a gentleman when he crossed over, taking his fatal leap from the rear of the building.
I would eventually manage to repress the memories of that era of flowers and love and other material and spiritual intoxicants. My friends said I was “copping out” shortly before I painfully withdrew from The Scene to Miami Beach. They said I was making a big mistake, that I was gifted, that I had a special calling to be some sort of spiritual master, that I was abandoning the Revolution, so on and so forth.I met a pot-smoking Jewish American Princess in South Beach, a photographer and porno starlet. I returned to Manhattan for a week’s stay at her Midtown loft above a whore house, and then went on to Waikiki after she gave me a flute and kicked me out of her bed, because, she said, her career was her “paradise island,” more important to her than any man, and she could not “afford to be distracted longer than a fling.” Besides, she complained, I got her hooked on Russian cigarettes.
I took the suggestion to heart, went directly to JFK, settled down in Honolulu, and eventually moved to the Big Island of Hawaii.
I experienced a few flashbacks and relapses into transcendental spheres after my relocation to paradise. I even dropped some blotter on the North Shore of Oahu one night, yet for the most part I clung desperately to a woman and a job. Mind you that I still drank beer for good measure, and took a toke or two of Kona Gold, Puna Butter, and Maui Wowie here and there.
The old adage in Hawaii was “Real Estate is the basis of all wealth.” But the avid pursuit of property was not in my constitution, so I did not pursue a fortune. Indeed, I let a small fortune slip away when I refused to take a sure shot at becoming a millionaire by buying a lot in the Kona Heavens subdivision from the German developer. My denial of things spiritual was relatively successful as well. I suppose I was almost a zombie, going through the usual paces: eat, excrete, work, drink, and fornicate.
#Fifteen years after I had fled from horse tranquilizer madness to Hawaii, an odd couple of spiritual weirdoes provoked me during one of my artistic relapses. I was sitting cross-legged on the lawn of the Kona Inn on Big Island, sketching the bark of a palm tree, meditating on the actualization of an Intelligible in material form. Someone approached me from behind.
“You must join us,” a male voice firmly announced.
Startled, I turned to behold a young man and young woman, dressed in robes flowing from neck to ankle. I was alarmed by the pair’s glimmering, pastel auras. I wanted none of that, so I stowed away my sketch pad and arose.
“No thank you,” I said as I walked away. I added, not to be rude, “I have other plans.”
“You belong with us,” the woman sang after me. “Come, come with us.”
“Yes, come, come with us,” her companion repeated. “We know who you are. Do not deny yourself. The world needs you. Come with us.”
Weirdoes! I thought, not looking back. They wear no malas; they smell sweet instead of sweaty. The color of their robes was not right for Rajneesh. They’re not from Oregon, I concluded: They must be from Findhorn; the Big Islands’ geomagnetic features attract them like iron filings.
I hurried across the street to the bookstore, chatted with its owner about the weirdoes around town, and perused the local newspaper, West Hawaii Today. An advertisement therein announced that The Quintet would soon appear at the Kona Surf Hotel. I lived nearby, at the Surf and Racquet Club.
“Egads! That’s Billy’s quintet!” I exclaimed, the hair standing up on the back of my neck. “They still exist! What are they doing way out here in the middle of nowhere?”
The Scene I had long repressed flooded me with an eerie emotion as I cruised home in what my wife had called my “cream-colored yacht with a brown foreskin,” my Mark IV Lincoln Continental. Then I heard the inner music again, as if the entire orchestra were in my head, reciting Billy’s favorite symphonic tone poem: Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra.
I had been awakened by Strauss’ heroic tone poem on a Saturday morning many years prior, in my illegal sublet next door to a temple on Central Park West. I must have been hallucinating, because my stereo was off and yet every instrument was sounding inside my head. I had no idea of what I was going to do that day. I was in some sort of trance; no doubt from the ketamine residue from the previous night’s carousing. I put on my clothes and walked into Central Park, having not the slightest idea of where I was going. All the while, the symphonic poem played out; it was as if I were the music. I was barely conscious of anything besides the music as I strolled along in my daze.
I exited the north end of the park and soon found myself before the Theosophical Society’s bookstore on East 53rd Street. Although I was acquainted with Madame Blavatsky’s occultism, I was not aware of the bookstore’s existence until that day. The music ended as I stood there; and for a moment I heard nothing but the sound of the silence. The plate glass of the front door of the shop had been smashed. I saw some fine clothes neatly folded in front of the door, next to a pair of shoes. Turquoise jewelry was laid out on top of the shirt.
It slowly dawned on me: I was looking at Billy’s clothes! What a coincidence. What would he be doing here? The lights were out in the store, for it was closed. I looked through the broken plate glass, and there stood Billy, naked, with his arms stretched upwards and palms open. He looked into my eyes and said something. Finally, I could hear, as if I had been underwater and had just surfaced:
“David, people are not going to understand this. Do not stay here. Get out of here. Go to my apartment and get rid of the THC.” (We still were not aware of that it was ketamine, and we could have cared less).
“Oh, my God!” a woman shrieked from a window in the flat across the street. “God bless him, he’s just a baby, a newborn baby!”
“David, leave,” Billy reiterated in a calm and collected tone. “They are not going to understand this.”
I left and walked back to Billy’s apartment on West 72nd. By the time I got there on foot, another one of Billy’s friends was already inside the apartment. The police arrived. No drugs were found. Billy had been taken to Bellevue Hospital, duly ensconced in the mental ward, where we visited him three days later. He seemed quite at home there despite its inhospitable appearance and the odd behavior of his fellow inmates, which gave us the feeling that we might go mad if we stayed for long.
“Billy, you’ve got to tell them you were doing drugs,” said one friend, “or they will hold you here indefinitely. You’ll miss the tour to India.”
“I like it here,” he replied. “Look, look down the hall there….”
“Oh my God, there’s a rat!” I exclaimed.
“Not that,” Billy said. “Just look. What does the hall look like?”
“Remember the hall in 2001?” He asked, referring to Stanley Kubrik’s 2001 Space Odyssey. “Don’t you see? I’m going to cross over soon!”
Billy did tell the doctor he had been doing drugs before he jumped through the plate glass window. And he was discharged in time for the India tour. While there he visited the Theosophical Society in Madras, dropped some ketamine, got into his cross-legged Buddha pose and went catatonic. Billy was booted: India was none too pleased with the onslaught of flower children in those days.
Back in New York, one of his arms remained partially paralyzed, so he gave up his musical career and sold his instruments. We were relieved when Roosevelt Hospital accepted him as a mental patient; we hoped he would recover himself and his career. While there, he preoccupied himself with Euclid’s theorems. He did not like the psychiatrist, and curled up in a fetal position when the doctor visited him. He was discharged after a few weeks because, we were told, he was in no immediate danger, that beds were desperately needed for those who were, so he had to go. A few months later he was dead.
The Quintet survived, as his species, so to speak. I visited the quintet when they came to Hawaii. Their hairs had already turned gray. We did not speak of the good old days. I seldom do nowadays. The Sixties Era was a tragedy for many of us. Billy’s ghosts still haunts me from time to time. Maybe there is a higher plane on which he still exits. Enough said.
Chapter from HELENE, Living Novel
By David Arthur Walters
I am that I am, I-am-I, I am Me-Me, My Idol, My Self-Replicating I-Doll. I love Me before all that all may love Me, the All-One, before all others, and preferably only Me Alone, or else. I am the Subject of subjects, the Point of Existence, the I-god, and I, unlike the object-god, am located at the Centre of the universe and everywhere at once because I am the Centre and the Surround. I am the Sun about which My All revolves, and the Brightest Star in My Heavens, the Light in every eye, the One that outshines the others and blots them out at high noon. I am the Morning and the Evening Star, the Sun that rises and sets on the world yet stands still. And I am The One and the only Daughter of My Father within, with whom I am One, He who provides Me with heat and light, and My Mother is My Immaculate Space, the Womb where everything conceived is all about Me. My Life is a Praise-Seeking, Popularity Contest that I must and always will win in the end for My Will shall be done in My Heaven and on My Earth. My World is Video Game roundly applauding My Every Move. Life and liberty without Me has no merit, wherefore My Life is the Pursuit of My Self on My Stage, the Pursuit of My Eternal Life, Absolute Liberty, and Unadulterated Attention. No Wrath can be greater than Mine when I am scorned, or when another is compared favorably with Me, for I am a Jealous I. Behold My Gold Star on My Trailer! Bow down before ye enter or ye shall surely hit thy head! The World is My Mirror and My Mirror is My stage, wherefore rate My Shows well or feel My Rage. What others think of Me defines them, so let them think well of Me, and if My Critics don’t comply with My Truth, that I am the Most Beautiful of them all, then let them be damned to hell, for I really don’t care about anyone who does not serve My Purpose. I take everything personally because everything is Mine and the really Big Shew is all about Me. Behold! The world stage is My Space, My I-Space, My Face Book, My Superficial Super Face and Farce. My Persona, My Personal Project, projects Me. My Mask effortlessly amplifies My Glorious Being so the whole world may wonder at the Mystery of Me, the Very I who am I, the Nothing from which Being flies. Behold! I am I. (The IAMI Chronicles)
“Helene is right,” declared Paul’s old friend, Dr. Sagwell, after hearing Paul out over martinis at the Di Lido on South Beach. The doctor, down from New York on vacation, was a third-generation Freudian analyst with a lucrative West End practice. “You’re the narcissist, and not she as you have described her, at least not in the classical sense. She is, apparently, an histrionic personality.”
“Yes, a somewhat hysterical drama queen. It’s too bad she’s away – I wish I could meet the light of your life.”
“That she is. She has taught me a great deal about myself and the possibility of unconditional love. As for drama, I think women were created to make scenes. They seem to live on their emotions. Aren’t they all hysterical?” Paul posed a rhetorical question, twirling the olive on the toothpick in his martini.
“Many are, when provoked. Women typically have little choice but to act out their frustration dramatically when confronted by dominant male power; that is, to put on a show instead of actually castrating a man.”
“Ouch! After I read about a woman who had done just that, and then drove away with her husband’s penis in the glove compartment, I was afraid to go to sleep when my first wife was awake. She once grabbed a knife and came at me when I got drunk – I had torn a door off its frame. When things were going well between us, she said she thought of using the opportunity to cut me in my sleep, and I feared I might lose my tool, although that might have done me some good considering what I did with it after the divorce.”
“I don’t blame you for fearing her, for one should not tear down doors nowadays. Cheroot? It’s Cuban.” Dr. Sagwell extracted two cigars from the front pocket his cream-colored blazer, and offered Paul one.
“No, thanks, I quit smoking, or rather smoking quit me, but thank you.”
“You are very welcome. You know you don’t have to inhale.”
“I must inhale.”
“All right, then, if you must not, but I am going to smoke, if you don’t mind.” Dr. Sagwell put one cigar back in his pocket, and lit the other.
“Mmm, smells good. You know Fidel banned smoking in public.”
“No! What got in to him?”
“He’s a control freak, of course. They say he and Chavez are lovers, and that Fidel posed in a red dress for him. Anyway, I always figured it was better to bash things than people. Things are worthless, really.” Paul put the olive at the end of the toothpick in his mouth, laid the toothpick in the ashtray, and grimaced slightly. The memory of his first wife pained him – history is a big mistake, he thought.
“You were behaving hysterically when you ripped the door down, somewhat like the woman who smashes glasses when she gets upset. Better not to bash anything or anybody, Paul, you know that. It’s better to be kind to people and not to frighten them. Anyway, times have changed, and the physical symptoms of the war between the sexes along with them.”
“If there were really a war between the sexes, we wouldn’t be here. What we have are battles.”
“Well put,” Dr. Sagwell declared, and took a long pull on his cigar – Paul noticed that it was about eight-inches long, counting the ash, and perversely imagined that his Freudian friend, who regularly conducted “psychological research” in Upper West Side gay bars, was sucking on a brown cock. “I mean to say that men don’t have the upper hand they once had,” Dr. Sagwell resumed after blowing three perfect smoke rings. “Hysteria is no longer a term of diagnostic nomenclature. It was once used to refer to the conversion of psychological conflicts into such physical symptoms as paralysis of a limb, sleepwalking, and the like. Now it’s a pejorative term for the excessive emotional venting of so-called feminine frustration. Liberal males are often referred to as hysterics, cowards who would defend themselves with neurotic government regulation.”
“So the stereotypically hysterical women had a hysterectomy, and hysteria is no longer in the manual,” Paul said smilingly, rather pleased by his rephrasing of the doctor’s academic manner of speaking.
“Yes, Paul, the wandering-womb disorder has been converted into HPD.”
“HPD? Oh my goddess!” Paul’s eye was caught by the bikini-clad bathing beauty passing them by on her way to the pool.
“Histrionic personality disorder – a disorder often confused with narcissism. The histrionic person is a sort of drama queen.”
“Please elaborate, Doc,” Paul requested as he gazed at the beauty’s undulating hips. Her nicely rounded, Sun-browned buns seemed to make a complete circle in her wake as she placed one high-heeled sandal directly before the other, making her way forward with head held high. She had that curious expression on her face, not quite deadpan, but rather zombie-like, or more like a vampire. She must be a model, he speculated to himself. Paris Hilton’s lithe, nude body suddenly came to mind – she’s the only live wire among them, he reflected, envisioning her naughty smile.
“Your Helene wishes to be the center of the world,” Dr. Sagwell nodded benignly. “She craves approval and admiration, and, consequently, is obsessed with keeping up appearances, especially her own. The obsessive-compulsive disorder often appears with HPD. Indeed, OCD appears as her compulsion to play the same part over and over again.”
”She’s a clean bug – everything must be spotless. Dirt calls out to her from behind refrigerators and from inside air-conditioning ducts. She says that what I call cleaning is not really cleaning, just pushing the dirt around. She strives to keep herself clean and attractive at all times, even when she is cleaning out ducts. She’s like the movie star depicted trekking through a dense jungle, clean as Ivory soap, fully made up and with hair set. She reminds people of Jean Harlow.”
“They said Harlow had more beauty than brains.”
“Not a bad thing to say about a woman if she has lots of brains. Helene’s very intelligent, that’s for sure. However, she just does not have her brains cleanly organized, even though for her cleanliness and order is everything. She does look like Harlow sometimes; especially in white surrounded by white, which I think is her favorite color. She uses several gallons of bleach every month.”
“Aha, she would like Russian Suprematism,” Dr. Sagwell, a collector of modern art, denoted. “Malevich’s white square on a white background. White is not a color, you know, it’s all colors in equal proportion, the death of all colors, purity.”
“I know. She’s no square. She’s curvaceous, like the petal of the white Narcissus.”
“And that is the shape of Moby Dick, the great white whale that pulled Ahab to his doom, just as Persephone was pulled to Hades when she plucked the narcotic flower.”
“Ahab is gone for good, but Jonah rose again,” Paul took the cue, “just as Persephone rises every season to fertilize the earth. Helene’s a beauty; at least she is my star. I think the name means beautiful, the shining beauty, or something like that. Helene’s the one who moved a thousand ships to war.”
“As a matter of fact, the histrionic person is naturally more attractive than others. She may be quite successful in show business or some other showy type of work – they can be great salesmen, entrepreneurs, and might even preside over large companies. Unfortunately, speaking of lithe bodies, the histrionic person’s excessive concern with her appearance may take the form of anorexia.”
“What kind of friends would the typical histrionic woman have?” Paul wondered what category he was in.
“Well, let’s see…. The histrionic woman often tends to associate with friends whose uncomely appearance accentuates her beauty; she is personally insulted if they are compared favorably with her. Not that you are ugly, Paul, but you are a bit of a slob.”
“Just the usual white trash that blows down to Florida for the winter,” Paul said, nodding towards the bleary-eyed and disheveled panhandler stumbling along the boardwalk and yelling curses intermittently. “So the wandering womb has wandered afar, perhaps to take up a professional acting or sales career.”
“Indeed, and in that career she careens from role to role, wandering far and wide. Beware, she can be extraordinarily seductive.”
“But she rejects sexual advances.”
“Then she has something in common with Narcissus. Perhaps the mirror no longer flatters her. How old did you say she was? She might need more confidence in her body as she ages, or rather in her lovemaking ability. Still, she keeps you on the hook, eh?”
“Tell me more about the histrionic personality.”
“The descriptions are redundant,” Dr. Sagwell declared after taking another pull on his cigar, “but I’ll go on pedantically if you please. The histrionic is flighty, emotionally shifty and shallow, and tends to panic. Easily bored, she cannot sit still, she is impatient and demands novelty at all times. She does not have the patience to follow procedures for long, to concentrate on mathematics, for example, or, for that matter, to hold a regular job for long, for the master-servant relationship does not suit her grandiose notion of herself.”
“I think you’ve got her pegged. Funny, I really get a kick out of her. She is somebody, an eccentric.”
“So are you, my friend. Since she craves approval, she cannot stand the slightest criticism, flies into a rage over the slightest slight. And she tends to blame others for anything that goes wrong – and a lot does go wrong, for her protagonist role requires crisis after crisis, one tragic scene after another. That is very exciting of course.”
“She drinks plenty of wine.”
“Ah, I would like to share a few glasses of fine wine with her – I’m sure the experience would be enormously entertaining.”
“Her wine has gotten cheaper and cheaper, so I think it’s the alcohol she’s after,” Paul stated.
“Aren’t we all? But then there’s the culture.”
“She will only drink out of the right kind of glass.”
“Good. A histrionic person may use alcohol or prescriptions drugs to bolster her sense of power, her self-esteem – illegal drugs will not do since they are contrary to the authority she complies with for its approval.”
“Yes, that’s my Helene, all right. She said anyone who smokes a joint or toots a line of coke can’t be a friend of hers, although she says she tried coke once and liked it so that would be her drug of choice if she did drugs other than the prescribed pills she pops.”
“If she is as you have described her, she matches the general definition of the histrionic personality. We’ve all got a bit of that in us. It’s all the rage today, the culmination of modern individualism.”
“She cannot help the way she is. She is only manic in public – she says she is terribly depressed when alone.”
“She is deeply wounded and battle scarred. Be careful, Paul, for the deeper a relationship with a excessively histrionic person, the more pathological it can be. But I think you can handle it as a narcissist.”
“How rude! I daresay I am not a narcissist!” Paul haughtily emphasized, feigning indignation although he felt only slightly insulted.
“Ah, there you go, my friend, with your own histrionics.”
“So what’s the prognosis, doc?”
“Not good. The social trend, with its self-esteem movement, feel-good religions, the therapeutic faith of the self-help cult, fosters and bolsters the histrionic disorder associated with narcissism or extreme ego-centrism.”
“Yeah, but people can change. Otherwise you wouldn’t be in business.”
“This is a hard case to crack, Paul. It’s nearly impossible to get them into psychotherapy unless they believe it’s their own idea and that it will boost their self-esteem. Unfortunately, self-esteem for its own sake does not improve performance. If someone actually believes the world revolves around them, why should they change?”
“I knew a dancer once, the most arrogant and vain person I’d ever met, totally caught up with himself in the mirrors, always upstaging the rest of the company on stage. Man, what a show off! On Christmas Eve, his girlfriend came around to the studio, asked him to close his eyes because she had a present for him. He did, and she pulled a ball peen hammer out of her purse and smashed him three times in the face, breaking his jaw and giving him a concussion. She was sentenced to five years in prison, and it took him a long time to heal, with jaw wired shut and all. After that, he was the nicest sort of fellow around, a humble, sympathetic fellow, always ready to help out.”
“What in the world did he do to her?”
“She was a Born Again. He took her to a Dianetics meeting, where she said she was brain-fucked by Satan himself.”
“Hmm, that is most fascinating – thanks for telling me that story.”
“So maybe a big shock will cure histrionic people. I would not want to see Helene hurt – she’s been beaten down by the rich bastards she married – but when she gets depressed, she is easier to get along with. ”
“Maybe she is easier to dominate when she is down, so you prefer that? To beat hysterical women to humble them, or even to give them a good slap as in the old movies, is no longer Kosher – scientific shock therapy is seeing a comeback, however, because it really works.”
“What about group therapy? She loves groups.”
“Group therapy provides an audience and aggravates the tendency to put on a show.”
“What about drugs? Her M.D. gave her a prescription for Zoloft but she wouldn’t get it filled.”
“Maybe there is nothing wrong with her, maybe she’s just under-medicated!” Dr. Sagwell exclaimed with mock exasperation. “As I said, it is unlikely for someone with the histrionic personality disorder to submit to therapy in the first place, and drugs that purport to alter the personality are rejected out of hand. Anti-anxiety drugs are acceptable, anything that elevates the feeling of power. Again, a few drinks might do the trick. Would you like another martini?”
“Three martini’s a crowd,” retorted Paul.
“I’ll have another,” Dr. Sagwell said and flagged a waiter. “Your South Beach portions are much too small. Cognitive behavioral therapy might do your friend some good. One histrionic analysand of mine, a man, practiced focusing on mathematics and symbolic logic, and that helped. Art therapy is useful if disciplined, but then again that can reinforce the obsessive-compulsive habits. We are dealing with deeply ingrained characteristics here, with so-called bad habits. I would recommend several years of deep psychoanalysis.”
“I’ll bet you would.”
“I regret she is out of town. I would be charmed to meet her, I’m sure.”
“She is extraordinarily charming. You should see what happens when she grandly enters a ballroom and walks across the floor. Before she heads for an exit, she has in fact become the center of that little world. It is amazing how the power gravitates toward her – every potentate in the place head towards her for an audience.”
“Then she might make good use of her habits, make peace with her eccentricity and become a successful star, or the head of her own company, but even then the interrupting bouts of depression will not go away, for her heady flights will cause her balloon to burst with the slightest prick. Perhaps you could hold her down, as you are in love with her, and make mad passionate love to her.”
“I used to think of that. I was afraid that I would not perform well for her, that I would come before I came, and she would laugh at me, put me down. But she has put me off so many times that I have grown cold on the idea. Sometimes I think she is a lesbian.”
“She probably thinks you are gay by now. You both might prove otherwise. Believe me, she is bringing you out of your narcissism, Paul. She does not get the attention she does without knowing something about people. She has social skills. She knows you are a narcissist. Her social perspicacity recognizes your retreat into writing as an art for the sake of art for what it is, a preoccupation with yourself. Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?”
“Never, but sometimes I get horny when I am writing, and have to take a Vaseline break.”
“There you go, and with a modern convenience – Dali would be proud of you. You once wrote that what one writes about really does not matter, that no matter what the subject matter is, the art produced is a self-portrait.”
“Yes, but of course the art may do more to conceal the self than to reveal it – in any event, may it be finely done. Besides, who really wants to know himself, as the Delphic oracle advised? I am thinking of writing a story about a portrait painted so true to the self that its subject takes his own life in horror.”
“Ah, shades of Dorian Gray, the beautiful youth with a rotting soul. But I recall that he murdered the artist who painted his portrait – stabbed him in the neck several times, I believe, and lost no sleep over it. And his remorse over the actress Sibyl Vane’s suicide was merely momentary, for the hedonistic narcissist lacks empathy – he must distract himself from his self with his art of living, which might include committing every sin known to man and piling up treasures from the four corners of the earth.”
“But no matter how pretty his portrait, it is bound to express his cruelty in one way or another, to reveal the awful secret of his soul,” Paul added, impressed as always by his friend’s literacy. “Yes, the picture changed after it was painted, I recall, and revealed cruelty around the mouth, and then dripped blood, did it not? Alas, I forgot that my story had already been authored.”
“It is a prehistoric story. You might write it another way.”
“I don’t think of myself as a writer. Writers are a lot of scribbling scratchers. I am Paul Bowman, the greatest author the world will ever or never know. Authors are augmenters, founders, fathers, impregnators.”
“My, oh my – so writers are just scribbling scratchers, and authors are self-moved creators. Paul, just admit it – you are a narcissist through and through. You don’t care about your subject matter or substance, or humankind for that matter, but only for the illusive unity you see in your reflections, in the illusory unity of your individualism. Helene saw right through you, and perhaps it’s the style of your vanity that she understands and admires…. Oh, dear, please do not grimace like that, my friend. I mean no offense.”
“I appreciate your analyses, but this one is too close to home. I don’t like being analyzed by a friend when the portrait drawn is that of a selfish bastard.”
“I did not call you a bastard. If an author is a founding father etymologically speaking, at least you are your own father. Still the truth should be told to one who loves the truth. You have often said that every great author loves the truth.”
“That depends on what it corresponds with. I prefer my truth to be consistently coherent with the high regard creative critics have for authoritative authors.” Paul was yet again amused by his phrasing as the vodka loosened his tongue, and he thought he might author an experimental novel in a drunken state, or author an illustrious epic while stoned on opium if he could get his hands on a cache of the lustrous green waxy paste. “I’ll have another one too, with two olives, please,” he announced to the waiter, who had tardily arrived.
“Ruthless Tamerlane loved the truth – however it could only be told by the elders of a special tribe – anyone else was beheaded for its telling.”
“Ha! They should have told him not to go north, like Napoleon did after him. I must say that his towers of skulls were certainly truth in advertising. Truth sets the soul free inasmuch as it kills the beauteous form celebrated by Oscar Wilde, who said Form was the beginning and the essence of everything, and set Beauty ahead of Truth and Morality. I remember that it was the truth about Love – that it needs illusion – that killed Sibyl Vane; for when she gave up acting to love Dorian Gray, he found her simple love revolting, and he callously spurned her. It was her dramatic portrayals of heroines that he loved, and not her substance, although her physique, like his, was most beautiful to behold. In any case I am insulted that you would side with Helene’s perspective, that I am somehow immoral, and your implication that I am perverse like Oscar Wilde and his self-portrait, Dorian Gray; that I am, in a word, a narcissist. What is your motive, anyway? Was Freud right in his pessimism? Your diagnosis seems sadistic to me.” Paul’s face was turning crimson; he felt like assaulting his old friend – the alcohol was taking its toll. There was some truth in the doctor’s friendly analysis, enough to twinge his conscience – Wilde said the conscience makes egotists of us all.”
“There, there, I meant no insult. Still, you might be right about my motive, for there is a god and a devil in each of us.”
“Dualism is the more logical explanation of holy ambiguity, as the Zoroastrians knew very well,” Paul could not help noting. “Theodicy is casuistry compounded, the most absurd excuse for hypocrisy ever conceived to justify the Vanity of vanities.”
“Freud, as your Intellectual Excellency must know, placed love’s headquarters in the ego, and thus libido explains not only the id but everything, with the pleasure principle. Freud’s concept of narcissism held that the motivating power of libido or love-energy was withdrawn from objects and placed in the self. The narcissist is psychologically immature: he is an adult baby. Of course the narcissism of the child is necessary for its development as an integrated individual, and the adult is never rid of narcissism – indeed, our culture cultivates it in everyone, and having fun or pleasure, the pursuit of happiness, is the sole aim of life nowadays. But the pleasure principle failed to account for the will to destruction, so Freud posited a death instinct or destructive principle. I apologize for giving you offense, but such is human nature, and it is our nature to overlook faults in our friends, Paul, and even to love them for their faults, for what is the category of one by itself but nothing notable in itself?” Dr. Sagwell calmly put down his cigar and clasped his hands together in a church-steeple, a habit formed during the conduct of his séances.”
“Okay, that’s really a mouthful. But the sadist in you may not destroy my ego, leaving me with hardly a stick of the raft over troubled waters to cling to. The ego is a fiction – the ego does not otherwise exist, nor does the superego and id. You may enjoy that familial trinity if you will….”
“Why familial?” Dr. Sagwell interjected curiously.
“Chant the name of the id or mother, the superego or father, and the ego or son, amen. But never mind that. I hit the bottom of Being long ago. I, sir, settle for Nothing. Nothing is good enough for me. In fact, Nothing is perfect. Just think about it if you can: Nothing is permanent and non-denomination. Yes, I have faith in Nothing, not in Being. The rest is Art, so put your pleasure in the capital Ego if you wish, but I shan’t. Note well that my Nothing is capitalized.” Paul was wounded: he was quite the skeptic, more than capable of making bad of good and good of bad, but he could not stand nor make good of negative criticism himself, and, when his touchy ego was touched, he withdrew into his sacred Nothing to lick his wounds with vacuous ignorance.
Dr. Sagwell frowned with patronizing concern for his friend. “If only you could see yourself.”
“My self is, is, it is nothing! And that’s good enough for me.”
“Perhaps we should change the subject to something more trivial.” Dr. Sagwell was not about to change the subject – he was enjoying the mental calisthenics, and he believed the exercise would do his friend some good. “You have a beautiful mind, Paul, and, as always, I want to take advantage of it. For me, you are therapeutic. Anyway, there is nothing immoral about narcissism, although it is not appreciated when taken to the extreme. After all, narcissism is the norm: Every one is fascinated by his own self, and each secretly harbors the notion that he is the best person in the world, well-deserving of its acclaim from time to time.”
“But I don’t think I am a narcissist! My god does not say, ‘Thou shalt love Thyself alone.’ I do not love my self alone. I have a great deal of empathy for people, at least in the abstract – I seldom give beggars a quarter, but I am sorry for them. I certainly hate seeing people suffer, except in fiction, and I switch channels when they are hurting on the news.”
“Paul, again, I speak of the classical sense of narcissism. And I mean no offense, so please rest easy. We need fuzzy logic for fuzzy terms. These labels have fuzzy edges, and we all have our share of the elusive definitions, no matter how abnormal our bit parts make us seem to be. Think of it this way: a histrionic personality is an extroverted narcissist rather than an introverted one.”
“By classical narcissism, don’t you mean the Freudian sense?” quizzed Paul, after taking a deep breath and relaxing back into his chair.
“No, I mean the mythical sense of Narcissus, the beautiful son of the nymph, Liriope.”
“Liriope – what a lyrical name. Narcissus was the fruit of her rape, eh?”
“That is the gossip. Ovid simply said she declared the mighty river-god, Cephissus, to be the father of the child, conceived on the banks of the river that goes by that name.”
“You are certainly are well-versed,” observed Paul.
“Ah, my boy, you are well versed yourself. Would you like to hear a sonnet from Millay? South Beach brings it to mind – it is so lovely hear.”
“Yes! Please recite one!” Dr. Sagwell had introduced Paul to Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poetry many years prior; now he gathered himself together, took a deep breath, and recited:
When Man is gone and only gods remain To stride the world, their mighty bodies hung With golden shields, and golden curls outflung Above their childish foreheads; when the plain Round skull of Man is lifted and again Abandoned by the ebbing wave, among The sand and pebbles of the beach, - what tongue Will tell the marvel of the human brain? Heavy with music once this windy shell, Heavy with knowledge of the clustered stars; The one-time tenant of this draughty hall Himself, in learned pamphlet, did foretell, After some aeons of study jarred by wars, This toothy gourd, this head emptied of all.
“Thank you Doc, that is truly lovely. You amaze me. What an amazing memory you have for lines, and a well-rounded education, too. I know you studied acting at the university – maybe you should have taken up the stage.”
“I did not like the limelight – I’m too much of a narcissist. It takes one to know one, my friend, and I am one myself, as I tried to warn you many years ago, when I got out of advertising and found my dear self in psychoanalysis, but you did not know what I meant. I don’t need to tell you that we must do our best to acquire and maintain a well-rounded education, based on our historical cultural foundations, of course, and to do that we must remember these things well. Ovid’s Metamorphoses, by the way, is a work of great beauty and substance, a happy conjunction that the poet, incidentally, noted his Narcissus lacked.”
“Ovid’s version of the Narcissus myth upheld the correspondence theory of truth, the notion that truths affirmed must be verified objectively to be true. Narcissus was beautiful, but the beauty he loved was not his own substance or self but merely his reflection in the pool. He loved form over substance, the insubstantial form he could not embrace in itself, for its abstract beauty was destroyed by his slightest touch – his delusion could not stand reality, hence the blind seer had told his mother at the outset that her child could not survive the recognition of his self, and would live long only if he failed to recognize himself.”
“What is the self?” Paul asked, a bit tipsily. “Is it a myth? Does it exist at all, in the sense of substance? And what is substance without form, or matter without something material in hand, except nothing? Is not the self a vain concept, and otherwise than that, nothing at all? How can it be experienced, except by reflection, flying ahead of every fleet-footed thought that would recognize or apprehend it?”
“Paul, it’s a good thing these martinis are small, because I can see we have a ways to go to get to the bottom of things.” Dr. Sagwell sighed. “The self is a myth, but that does not mean there is nothing to it – otherwise I would be out of business!” he laughed. There is a great deal of truth in the myth,” he reflected, “although we might not know precisely what that is, given the ambivalence and ambiguity of our nature – every affirmation is upheld by a denial.”
“So the truth is what we say it is? Was Narcissus the only one who believed he was beautiful?”
“Everyone believed he was truly beautiful, especially his most trusted friends. But his beauty was sacred, untouchable, and when admirers wanted carnal knowledge of his bisexual beauty, when they reached out to him, he vanished into the woods, and then he found his reflection in the pool when he stopped to drink of it. He did not know that he was in love with his own reflection. He would willingly have died to unite with it, but that unison would have destroyed his body and its reflection. And in the end it was his fate to die as foretold, for when he touched the pool and his image was distorted, he realized he loved his own shade, had been deceived by his own reflection, but his image returned to order, and he was doomed to be consumed by his passion.”
“From nothing he came and to nothing he went.”
“Precisely, Paul, and I find that quite comforting.”
“But how can you, as a Jew?”
“As a Jew I have a choice, and I choose no afterlife. And by temperament I am more of an orthodox Buddhist than a Jew.”
“I’ll drink to that.”
“Sigmund Freud was keen on the classics,” Paul catered to the doctor’s profession.
“But it was Anna,” Dr. Sagwell reflected, referring to Freud’s daughter, who had mentored him briefly, “who got me keenly interested in Narcissus.”
“She introduced you to Marilyn Monroe?”
The good doctor, disturbed by the sudden mention of the star’s name, fumbled with his cigar, shook his head negatively and said, “I regret that I mentioned that to you. Please never write about it. I would rather let all that rest in peace, her death being a black day for psychiatry. But since you mentioned her, it occurs to me that your friend Helene has certain characteristics in common with her. I hope I have a chance to meet her some day. You said she is in New York? What is she doing there?”
“She went up to see if she could obtain funds from her children’s trust.”
“So they are well off, but what about her fortune?”
“Yes, according to the trust provisions, they are both prospective multimillionaires, but their father had made no definite provisions for Helene. She sacrificed her alimony when she married her second husband, whom she believed to be wealthier than he.”
“But of course. What about him?”
“He turned out to be con man, and he in turn, indicted after pulling off an Enron swindle, left her high-and-dry in a Texas hospital near the President’s ranch, beaten to a black-and-blue pulp. She returned to their Ft. Lauderdale mansion and got a retraining order, but the estate was seized by the court. She was ordered off the premises, and landed in South Beach.”
“Fascinating!” exclaimed Dr. Sagwell. “And I presume she seems undaunted?”
“How did you know? Seems is the word. She acts the part of the stoic noblewoman. She suffers terribly when alone, but she holds her head up high in public. Her social life seems to be one grand accident, of which she is the leading lady. She does her level best to make a go of it alone. I am proud of her, but want her to make a living at socializing because it is too much of a farce as it is, so many of the cast are phonies, really.”
“Has she any professional acting experience?”
“Well, no, but when she is bragging about the great reception she receives everywhere she goes, even at the scenes of her automobile accidents, I humor her and suggest that she take a screen test and few acting lessons as well, so she will become not only famous but rich as well.”
“And her response?”
“She agrees. My facetiousness goes over her head. To admit otherwise, or to suggest that she is a frustrated hysteric, would knock her off the high horse she likes to ride. ”
“I don’t think so. She would patch herself up and get back on. She knows she is histrionic, just as she knows you are a Narcissus,” Dr. Sagwell declared.
“All right, I am confused. What’s the big difference, anyway?”
“Unlike the histrionic personality, who needs an admiring audience, Narcissus did not need anyone at all. Indeed, he rejected his lovers, withdrew from society and loved himself alone.”
“But is not that the case with us all? For whom do we really love when we love another but our own self, and what else is life but that love?”
“My point is that the mythological Narcissus did not need other people to supply him with admiration. He was born beautiful, he was virtually the god of beauty, much admired and desired by the loveliest members of both sexes, but he would not love any one of them. Indeed, he could not stand his many admirers, or rather none of them were as beautiful as he was, and he wanted and must have the best to himself, namely himself, so he withdrew from them and pined away over what no subject can have in itself, his own self as an object, for the only way one can know and love oneself is through others, wherefore he withered up and died for the lack of a self. On the other hand, the egotistical people commonly called narcissists cannot bear to be by themselves. They cannot live alone, although they usually wind up alone because people cannot bear their vanity. Although they seem to love themselves, they are driven by self-contempt to seek the praise of others. And keep this in mind, that….”
Paul was no longer listening. He had eaten only four olives all day, was woozy from the vodka, felt like vomiting, and he suddenly leaned over and did so, which attracted attention and disgust all around, for South Beach may be famed for its hedonism, but it is no puking Oktoberfest beer hall, especially not on the Di Lido Hotel’s beach patio.
“Paul, what’s the matter?” Dr. Sagwell was concerned, reached over and put his hand on Paul’s shoulder.
“Oh, I was hungry and I feel sick, I’ve got to, I’ve got to….” Paul tried to get up but slumped back in his chair, then leaned forward again.
“No, no, don’t try to get up, relax, breath deeply, don’t worry, it’s all right. We’ll get some food in you pretty soon.”
“Oh, oh, I’m sorry, oh God, it’s the blackness, got to get to the bathroom, please….”
Dr. Sagwell went to Paul’s side, gently pressed him back in his chair, and helped him put his feet in another chair.
“Paul, listen to me, you’re going to be all right but you’ve got to take it easy for a few minutes.”
“The blackness, it’s the blackness, the uh….”
Paul went limp. Dr. Sagwell stood over him and raised Paul’s eyelids wide with his thumbs and did not like what he saw. He took his cell phone from his beach bag and dialed 911.
Photo Credit: Betty Davis & George Brent in Dark Victory (1939)
Painting by Darwin Leon
From Tracey Flagler, a Living Novel
By David Arthur Walters
Between Matter and Spirit
“I want to be part of the pulse of life, not a weird and ashamed outrider,” Tracey Flagler had scribbled in her confessional journal some time before she left South Beach for good. “I want to be proud of being here, knowing that I can be connected to the source and deliberately choose and control my focus just like I am doing right now with this pen and paper. I am proud of people with HUGE physical success, like Madonna, and that would make me proud of myself. I want others to be proud of my success as I teach them how to focus and get exactly what they want. I wish so much that I had physical proof of my power to create success. Why? So I could relax. Why would I relax? Because I had succeeded.”
If only I had known about my neighbor’s dire emotional strait before I had found her dead from an overdose in her apartment, I would have invited her over and channeled George Berkeley for her edification. Then she would have known that one does not have to die to get rid of physical obstructions, for physical objects do not really exist, therefore she could have remained alive and succeeded without such stuff once she was convinced that the goods she wanted were within her. She could have been a successful failure in material terms. Indeed, she could have been all-powerful and instantly successful without a thing to show for it. But alas, the foolish commonsense notion, that matter exists, and that plenty of matter or the money to buy it must be had to prove one’s worth in this great nation of ours, persisted in her mind, despite her transcendental inclination towards what she called the source, the source in which she supposed she would completely relax and enjoy in particular the absolute joy she craved so much that she would rather die without it.
Yes, Tracey thought she would have to cop a lot of stuff to make a buy; but deep down within she knew better. She knew that all the stuff in the world would not buy her the fix she really wanted, and in the end she chose the fatal alternative and left her world behind. While rummaging through her apartment after she passed, I found a dog-eared and heavily underlined copy of the transcript of Oprah Winfrey’s September 16, 2003 conversation with one of her idols, Madonna, wherein Madonna presented her new, post-cabala side. That the old, material-girl side persisted on the other side of the coin was evident in her apparent belief that stuff really exists:
“MADONNA. Basically, the idea is that I have all of these things that money can buy, but I realized that those aren’t the things that make you happy, that make you feel fulfilled, and – and that nothing in the material world will ever make us happy.”
The material girl noticed something was missing – her fans may be glad that she realized it after she got rich, instead of before: She was not in charge of her life. She was defined by her circumstances; she did not know what her place in it all was. In fine she was a successful shipwreck. And now she is finally getting her island together. The birth of her daughter gave her cause to wonder what she would teach her, and it dawned on her that she did not know what to say for sure. She found the popular version of cabala and she learned that people are personally responsible for everything that happens to them, whether for good or ill. There exists, Madonna informed Oprah, “an all-giving, all-loving force. You can –you could call it God…. When we disconnect from this force, we – that’s when we have chaos…that’s when we invite pain and suffering into our lives.”
Armed with this finding, Madonna decided to write stories that would teach children to identify with their good side and to consider their bad side as an opponent to be defeated. She would fain teach them “about the laws of cause and effect” and thus inspire them to do good deeds, to give them cause to share, with good effect.
Oprah tentatively approved. She thought the new Madonna seemed to be a gentler, kinder sort of person, and blessed her books on the air, augmenting the fact that whatever Madonna does will sell well.
What was the secret of Madonna’s physical success? I asked myself. Well, for one thing, she had a strong will, she was persistent, she never stopped dancing, even after she ripped her innards apart and was sewn back together.
I had no idea who Madonna was when I first saw her taking class at Joy of Movement on Broadway and Lafayette: “Don’t you know that song, Borderline?” a dancer responded after I asked, “Who’s that girl?”
Madonna let it all hang out, and I liked that. The only tool a dancer needs to do her thing is her body. Of course dance sells sex. What’s wrong with that? Aren’t we all sex buds? Isn’t sex the reason for our existence? That must be why sex feels so good. Shall we not unite one day in a gigantic eternal orgasm? Many of our parents said sex was bad, that we should not do it, that we should not touch our thingies. Naturally boys wanted to be bad and girls wanted to be naughty.
Madonna was your average girl, of average height and build, nothing really spectacular, and she had an average voice, but she put on a damn good show with what she had. She gave you the impression that the average girl could make it if she had the gumption. “This may be crap but our job as dancers is to make it smell good,” dance master Luigi liked to say. And Madonna made it smell great. I sympathized with her when the cheap shots found in the dumpster were used to deny her uppity housing at the Dakota: How absurd! Who would want to live where Rosemary’s baby was born, anyway? And what hypocrisy! Major dope dealers shared an apartment there.
There are dumb dancers but not all dancers are dumb. Some dancers become doctors of medicine and philosophy and the like, but bookish professional dancers are few and far between. Still, a good dancer has sufficient animal intelligence to survive and move ahead of the pack, and Madonna obviously had plenty of that. But now she wants the permanent wisdom that has somehow been occluded by the dynamic material world. She gave birth to a daughter and named her Binah, and she wants to do the right thing now, to do her duty for the sake of her child. She noticed something was missing. What could that missing something be?
Perhaps she lost her ethical self while winning the world, I speculated. I closed my right eye, rolled my left eyeball upwards towards my third eye, took a deep breath, and whispered as I exhaled: “O, my Spirits, I call upon thee. Pray tell, what was Madonna missing?” I felt my left brain going into a light trance as my alter ego became the medium for a spiritual conference: the spirits of Immanuel and Baruch showed up:
IMMANUEL: She was missing her Dear Self. Out of my own love for humanity, a love which is by definition ethical, I am willing to admit that Madonna’s care for her child is for the sake of her child and performed out of love for her child and a natural sense of maternal duty. But her love for another self, like anyone’s love for other selves besides their own, is essentially selfish. Anyone who loves another should know that she in effect loves herself.
BARUCH: Only the intellectual love of GodNature will liberate her from her bondage to limited selves. Once she understands her circumstances and accepts the necessity of her predicaments, her comprehension of GodNature will be assured and the cabala lore rendered moot. This is, after all, the only world possible, and as such it is the best of all possible worlds.
IMMANUEL: My friend, you are a godless Gottfried.
BARUCH: I beg your pardon?
IMMANUEL: All right, then, which is better: to be raped a hundred times by African pirates, to have one buttock cut off, to run the gauntlet in the Bulgar army, to be excommunicated for monstrous deeds and abominable heresies, to be whipped and hanged in an auto-de-fé, to be dissected, to be slowly smothered by glass dust, to be Sisyphus in Hades heaving his stone forever, to be a galley slave to eternity, or to sit around on your thumbs doing nothing and be bored to death?
BARUCH: Whatever happens to us, it is best to be reasonable and to accept it stoically instead of chasing after rainbows in hopes of finding pots of gold at every end. Our happiness and well-being are not in enslavement to the passions, nor in the pursuit of transitory goods that we believe will make us happy, or in related superstitions, but rather in the harmonious intellectual calisthenics of a perfectly consistent, systematic philosophy.
IMMANUEL: Nothing is perfect.
BARUCH: Only if nothing exists is it perfect. God is confessedly perfect, and therefore Nature must be perfect as well: careful reasoning informs us that Nature and God cannot be conceived as distinct things because then each would be limited by the other; God would have then contradicted himself with Nature, hence God would be imperfect. Wherefore God and Nature are one, as GodNature, and the infinite attributes we perceive are merely the innumerable modes of the perfect Nature of Supreme Being. In fine, the best we can do in the best of all possible worlds is to cultivate our intellectual garden.
IMMANUEL: Cultivating an orchard would be more fruitful, practically speaking. We have natural restraints beyond which our understanding, trained by nature, may not obtain. Metaphysics is impossible because the unknown is inconceivable. The ideal world is an illusion, and to dwell on it, no matter how logically, contradicts reality. The perceived world must exist in its own right; otherwise, we would be unsure of our own existence. Madonna would do well to cultivate her daughter and leave the metaphysical nonsense to the cabalists, or to historians who teach the history of the absurd.
BARUCH: The absurd may lead to her blessed enlightenment. One eventually learns that waiting for Godot or praying to God is to no avail. GodNature is surd or deaf to our pleas, for the world on the whole is already perfect, and when we realize the joke is on us, and laugh out loud, we are freed. I too believe Madonna should attend to her daughter Binah, but in both senses of the name.
IMMANUEL: What does binah mean, again? I know we have spoken on this subject before, about the ten sefirot, and about the belief of certain cabalists that it is our duty to recreate God.
BARUCH: Binah means between, the power to distinguish between ideas. Binah is the third of ten sefirot, the womb of understanding, associated of course with the power of understanding.
IMMANUEL: Aha, the analytic. And then Madonna may help others pick up the sparkling shards and put Humpty Dumpty back together again so the cannon may be set upon the wall to defend us from self-contradiction. Once this task has been completed by all, paradise shall be fully restored. However that may be, it is better to presume that God exists transcendentally and to do the 613 mitzvahs rather than sit on our thumbs and exercise our imaginations.
BARUCH: We do nothing on our own. Madonna along with the rest of us shall proceed as determined.
IMMANUEL: She shall do what is willed, whether that will be her own or not. At least I give individual liberty the benefit of the doubt, my friend. Unfortunately for the humanity I love so well, every one does what they will and no one really obeys the stern command of duty to do the right thing no matter what. The thing that Madonna feels is missing is her Dear Self, and the reason she misses it is because she, like everyone else, is basically selfish, but she has been preoccupied with performing for other people, the fans she loves, and that has distracted her from the real object of her love, her Dear Self. We shall find that her love for her fans is for her own sake, if we analyze it carefully enough and synthesize the results. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as virtue anywhere in the world, for every performance is motivated by what one wants for her Dear Self, whether she knows it or not. When actions are performed for one’s own reasons or causes, it makes no difference whether they are benevolently directed towards other selves or greedily directed towards one’s dearest self: in either case the actions are not, by definition, ethical, hence are not virtuous.
BARUCH: Immanuel, you are too cynical!
IMMANUEL: No, I’m realistic, a cool observer of the truth of the matter at hand.
BARUCH: So cool that your colleague Friedrich believes you are a deformed idea-crippler, not to mention a cold-hearted bastard.
IMMANUEL: Maybe he is your colleague. Did he call me a bastard? Then he is a selfish bastard, as far as I’m concerned, and his popularity proves my point. No matter what he thinks, duty is done only by those who act according to the rational authority of an impersonal moral imperative rather than pursuant to some private inclination of their own, including the barbaric lust of for power. Friedrich is irrational: he knows nothing of true virtue and thinks virtue lies in the will to power.
BARUCH: How can virtue be true and not exist? I think you have contradicted yourself. And what happened to saying of others what you would have them say of you? I would think you would appreciate the fact that he, like you, looked around and found no virtue in the world. Only his imaginary superman was capable of virtue.
IMMANUEL: Not Christian virtue, which requires a personal and humiliating crucifixion so the impersonal law can be fulfilled. God’s law makes no exceptions for persons.
BARUCH: But God’s love is in every person. The universal scheme is God’s love expressed.
IMMANUEL: Spoken like a true pantheist. Of course a pantheist is nothing but an atheist. At least the youth corrupted by Friedrich loved a charismatic superman in lieu of God, while your narcissistic youth love only themselves, thinking God is within each person of the plurality.
BARUCH: You mistake me as far as things go. I do not love things as if the deity were in them.
IMMANUEL: But do you love the thing-in-itself?
IMMANUEL: You know, the underlying thing, the unknown thing-in-itself, the Thingie.
BARUCH: Do I love the unknown? How would I know? I do know that daily life was so hollow and futile for me that I decided to discover whether or not the good life existed. By that I mean a life of continuous and supreme joy to all eternity. I found neither good nor evil in the things that I was anxious over. Along the way I discovered that self-esteem is the highest thing we can hope for.
IMMANUEL: There it is again – the Dear Self. And what is self-esteem?
BARUCH: Self-esteem is the joy of knowing one’s power.
IMMANUEL: Good grief. Neither good nor evil without, but omnipotence within is the thing.
“Gentlemen,” I interjected, “excuse me for interrupting, but may I say something? Harry Frankfurt, my professor of philosophy at Princeton, professed that there should be nothing shameful or unfortunate about our self-love, for we are told by an author of the greatest authority that we should love our neighbors as we love ourselves, therefore self-love is not an enemy of virtue at all, but is rather its prerequisite. The ardent manner in which we love ourselves is the best model for loving others, so let us love them as enthusiastically as we love ourselves. By self-love Professor Frankfurt did not mean self-indulgence, for to serve the best interest of another might require self-restrain: merely indulging him might not be in his best interest. Is not this the way to go?”
My question put an end to the séance; the spirits fled, leaving me alone with my own thoughts. If only Tracey had not gone off to find her soul, if only she had fully understood that the material girl had become a spiritual girl because she had a soul in the first place, I thought, she would be with us today.
Print by Darwin Leon
David Arthur Walters
Helene was resolved to never, ever speak to Paul again. That would not require much resolve, she thought, because she could really care less about him, despite their five-year “friendship.” Why should she? She was herself her first and main concern.
Paul was attractive to Helene for his intelligence but he was a loser in her opinion, “just a street person.” His horrible childhood had caused him to retreat into the darkened corners and cellars on the fringes of society, either to read books in his room or to drink beer at the pub. His mind was admirable but his body repulsed Helene, even though he was far better looking than the hoggish looking hedge fund operator she had been married to – high society had wondered how she, a beautiful, finishing school graduate, could have married such an ugly creature.
Paul, besides being hairy and sporting a beard and otherwise being sloppy like the absentminded intellectual that he was, had very little money; he wanted to study and to write so did not want to work full time and support a household. His health was deteriorating and he had no health insurance or life insurance. Indeed, he was lucky Helene would give him the time of day, let alone invite him over for dinner every once in awhile to practice her excellent cooking skills. She had let Paul know shortly after she met him that she wanted to marry again, but only to a “clean-cut, very generous” man, so that left him out even thought he was generously affectionate. He pretended to himself that he did not get the picture she had of him; he got it but he did not want to be in it.
Given the circumstances, she would not let him lay a hand on her; she turned into a frozen tuna whenever he showed affection, at the beginning of their relationship when he still imagined she was sexy. If he accidentally touched her, she cringed as if on the verge of being brutally beaten again by a husband. She let him know her feelings about sex—it was in itself a filthy, dirty, disgusting act, she said, and it would “never happen” between them. Paul soon lost interest in seducing her, not so much because of her prudish pretenses but because he discovered from a bartender that she got drunk in his bar on occasion, and picked up all sorts of men for very brief encounters. And he knew she had a longstanding relationship going with a wealthy 75-year-old man, who flew her to his side all over the world every few months or so. Besides, Paul had a steamy relationship going with a 60-year old Russian pole dance teacher who looked half her age—she was a good example for her students, who tried to look sexy while she was actually sexy, the sexiest woman in the world as far as Paul was concerned.
In sum, Paul considered Helene and himself to be just friends. He did not realize what dear friends they would become over the next decade, and how that friendship would mold them into good people. For once and for all, he wanted to be a friend true to the root of the word itself, i.e. free. He would do his best to be her friend no matter what she did. To be her friend he realized he could set no conditions given her many boundaries—hence his experiment in unconditional love. She had in fact warned him time and time again of her “boundaries,” and whosoever violated them could not be her friend. He had better not, as she put it, “cross the line” with her, for she had been brutally abused by her former husband and was in the process of getting even with him.
“I am a vindictive person,” she proudly stated one night while showing him the photographs of her battered body—she had mounted the photos in her family photo album. “He put me in the hospital for two years, and I’ve turned his hard drive over to the F.B.I. He’ll rot in jail for a long, long time when I get done with him!” It would not be long until he was confined at Clinton Prison in upstate New York thanks to the hard drive she turned over to the F.B.I.
The reader should know by now that there is no arguing with Helene when she has gone beyond her second glass of wine. When contradicted, confronted, or frustrated, she assumes an arrogant and haughty attitude, and, if her interlocutor persists, she flies into a tempestuous rage. She views others according to their uses; that is, her relationships are based on interpersonal exploitation. Seemingly devoid of empathy, she is either unable or unwilling to acknowledge their feelings or to identify with their needs. Moreover, she is envious of others or thinks they envy her. Indeed, she wants nothing more than admiring attention from others, to be treated favorably, as a special, unique person, worthy of every priority, wherefore she tends to exaggerate her talents and achievements and to be obsessed with fantasies of unlimited fame, fortune and power.
Furthermore, when inebriated, Helene is a hardcore right-winger who believes the last President Bush was the greatest president in U.S. history – Vice President Cheney is her arch-hero. She habitually resents blacks, Hispanics, Jews and gays, and despises homeless people. But when sober, she is rather the contrary of self-glorification and mean-mindedness: she is self-effacing, sincere, charitable, and empathetic albeit with a trace of militancy—the sight of a wounded soldier is most likely to cause her to burst into tears, patriotic tears that she generously calls to the attention of others so that they not be wasted on herself.
She might even pass for a liberal when sober, although she, a student of speechmaking, is still unwilling to give President Obama, a man of color, the slightest credit for the tax benefits she has received as a result of his liberal advocacy or for his florid rhetorical flourishes, although she likes nothing more than to be admired by a black man, and has even said, “Once you go black, you can’t go back, that’s why every Southern family has a secret.” Above all, with her natural blonde hair, blue eyes and white skin, she loves to shine like the Sun in a crowd of black men, where the extension of the slightest courtesy or compliment renders her day exceedingly glorious.
Paul had drawn up a list of rules to follow to be Helene’s friend:
1. Never disagree with Helene or contradict her. Listen intently to everything she says and express agreement with it although you may not believe a word of it. Be exceedingly patient, accommodating and understanding to keep the peace. Above all, never criticize the Bush administration.
2. Flatter her constantly. Appear to be awed by her looks and by everything she does. But never offer intimacy. Do not make remarks that might in any way detract from her self-image. Especially avoid using the word ‘fat’ in any context. Never talk about harsh reality unless casting her as its star.
3. Be very generous: Give her something unique, something she cannot get anywhere else – your unconditional love.
4. Be independent. You may want something from Helene, but do not need anything. Take what you really want if you can, but do not be upset when you do not get it. Just walk away or give her the silent treatment and wait for her to come around.
5. Remember: Helene cannot be fixed because she doesn’t want to be fixed. Any attempt to heal her or cure her of herself will surely alienate her. She may ask you for help and advice, but she will always do exactly the opposite simply to prove herself superior. You may help her more by recommending that she do the opposite of what she should do in a situation.
6. Last but not least, when she cooks, do what she says, just shut up and eat.
On the other hand, when her drinking bottles of white wine, Helene did her best to cross what she perceived to be Paul’s lines, that is, to somehow offend his sensibilities. To do that, she assumed the role of a blonde, blue-eyed, Nazi. On one particular night, around the bottom of her second glass, she started in on the homeless people, how awful they were and how they were all mentally ill and how decent society should expunge them, concentrate them in camps for the mentally defective. Paul did not flinch, mainly because the farther away he himself became from being homeless, the less sympathetic he was with their plight. In fact, he feared that he, like Ronald Reagan after he met Nancy, was becoming a neo-conservative.
Well into her third glass, Helene lit into the Jews, and said she was sick and tired of their cowardly whining about the Holocaust, as other peoples had suffered and did not make such a big deal about it, and she expressed her spite for Israel’s persecution of Palestinians. She knew that Paul’s father had been a Jew and had lost half his family in the Holocaust, so she figured Paul would be offended, but Paul knew what she was up to and let it slide, though he believed remembering the Holocaust was important to the future of the human race – but he did not have much faith in the State of Israel, as he thought it was turning Jews into their worst enemy: right-wing fascists or virtual Nazis.
And then she lit into gays, notwithstanding the fact that she loves one prominent gay man as her best friend in the world.
“I am sick and tired of all the gays on CNN,” she said, pointing at a man appearing on the television. “They don’t have what it takes. They have to sit down on toilets.”
“How do you know he is gay?” asked Paul.
“Just look at his big mouth,” she said, smiling maliciously.
“Well, he does not have a goatee.”
“What does that have to do with it?”
“A goatee around the mouth looks like a woman’s….”
“Stop! I don’t want to hear it!”
Helene went on to the blacks—in accord with her training at Southern Belle Finishing School, she skirted the N-word, but the denigrating implication remained constant. She commanded Paul to change the television channel because there were too many black people on CNN. Paul complied, but then there were black people on the next four channels including Fox News, much to the expressed disgust of Helene.
“Change the channel! No, not that! Change it! No! There, you see, they’re taking over now that they’ve got themselves a president!”
She was finally satisfied with the program on penguins around the South Pole.
Rather than play along with her any longer, Paul decided to change the subject and to exceed one of her boundaries, to “kick her in the shin,” as he called it, and even, if necessary, to write off his unconditional love experiment as a failure, although he doubted that would happen.
Since Helene frequently pointed out that she had been brutally beaten by her former husband, Paul asked her why he beat her.
“It must have been something I said,” she flippantly said.
“Maybe getting a man to beat her was her way of conquering him. A gentleman would not be thus defeated – perhaps gentlemen marry shrews to prove their mettle,” Paul thought, deciding to keep that politically incorrect idea to himself.
“Helene,” he said out loud, “I hate to change the subject, but have you ever heard of Carrie Nation?”
“No. Is she black?”
“No. Carrie Nation was badly abused by her husband, and she was commanded by God to go out and rid the nation of the leading cause of abuse. In fact she went down to Miami and spoke on the subject before the largest crowd in its history.”
“I’ve never heard of this woman, this Carrie Nation, and if she had spoken down here I would have known about it from my involvement in women’s shelters. You must be making her up.”
“It was a hundred years ago, in 1908. Carrie saw what was causing most of the wife-beating and immorality, so she grabbed an ax and started smashing saloons. Eventually the dangerous drug was prohibited.”
Helene’s eyes flashed as her face reddened. Paul had obviously pushed the wrong button: Helene drank wine every day, and she would not brook any criticism of alcohol.
“Alcohol is not a drug!” she exclaimed. “It’s perfectly legal.”
“Is marijuana a dangerous drug?”
“Yes. It invariably leads to the use of hard drugs.”
“You have said many of your friends smoke pot.”
“They’ve exceeded my boundaries, so they are not my friends anymore. If they use drugs in front of me I will report it to the police, and I have many friends in the police department.”
“Helene, do you really believe marijuana use leads to the use of hard drugs?”
“It does. I have seen statistics. The numbers don’t lie like liberals.”
“Most kids today are introduced to drugs through their parents’ medicine cabinets.” (Paul knew very well that Helene used sedatives).
“That’s a lie concocted by the liberal media!”
“When I was a kid, we had our mothers’ diet pills and sedatives available, but most of us used alcohol. When the Mexicans turned me on to pot, I did not like it at first, nor did I like cocaine or acid – I was introduced to those drugs because of alcohol, as once you drink, you might as well try other things. The principal of my grammar school recommended me to AA when I was in the fifth grade.”
“I don’t want to hear it! You are wrong!”
“Helene, I wrecked two marriages with my drinking. Fortunately my families went on to better things without me. As a professional you must know that the consumption of alcohol is the chief cause of abuse. What we need around here is another Carrie Nation.”
“How dare you! Get out of my house! You are an abuser! Get out!”
Helene glared at Paul furiously and grabbed her empty wine bottle by the neck. He stepped quickly through the door, and heard the bottle smash into it behind him. Helene had resolved never to speak to him again, and Paul resolved to honor her resolution. But there is something more to the both of them than what we have seen thus far in this living novel, something underlying in their human nature that will give the lie to their resolutions and neuroses, bring out their true selves and bring them together for good.