Thursday, November 17, 2011

R. D. Asks an Interesting Question

Remember R. D. Laing? The Politics of Experience? In a Laing book I never tackled back in the day, but which I now have in front of me--The Facts of Life, c1976--R.D. somewhat friskily proposes (formatting is Laing's):

If you were to die now,
and be reconceived tonight
which woman would you choose to spend the first nine months of
your next lifetime inside of?

Monday, November 22, 2010

Las Manos: Golgotha, 1959

In 1959, Easter fell on March 29th. Twelve days before, on Tuesday March 17th, during a period of a fifth grade public school day given over to “religious education,” a ten-year old Lampson Tymers sat forming, with toothpicks, a depiction of Golgotha on purple construction paper.

The toothpicks were of the flat-sided variety, which facilitated building the mass of the hill on which the three crosses stood; each of these were then easily formatted by carefully snapping off sections of the toothpicks and aligning them at right angles to the main stem of the crosses. The bodies of Jesus and the two thieves were left to the imagination. But Lampson didn’t feel the need to use his imagination; the main thing was to finish the assignment within the time alloted.

Some school-supplied version of white “Elmer’s glue” was applied to the toothpicks before laying them onto the construction paper. Not being the neatest of children nor very good at craft-oriented projects, it’s quite possible Lampson’s fingers got increasingly sticky with the glue as he botched the right angles of the crosses, a discomfort, along with a mild vexation that his Golgotha didn’t look as good as that of the crisply attired pretty girl across the aisle, that would not relieved until he made it home an hour or two later, when he could wash his hands in soapy water and dunk his brain in comics or television.

These would be the least of his problems, as he was soon to find out. Toothpicks, crosses, Easter––all of these came together over 51 years ago, along with a certain transgressive act––something he'd done earlier that same day––the consequences of which would divide his still evolving consciousness into a before and an after. Like most transgressions, it was only transgressive because it was perceived as such, but the consequences for Lampson were cataclysmic nonetheless.

That’s why, even today, Lampson remembers his toothpick crucifixion. With a cinematic dovetailing of event, probably due to the deft editing capabilities of memory, he had just completed his Golgotha when he was called to report to the head of the six-grade class, normally presided over by the assistant principal of Amelia R. Lutz School, Mr. Gaertner.

Mr. Gaertner was a tall, young, athletic man, whose head, topped by an army-regulation buzz cut, was too small for his body. Although essentially kind and patient, he was somewhat feared because it was to his office George Sting, the principal, usually delegated issuance of discipline when needed. George Sting was an unprepossessing man of indeterminate middle age, short of stature and suffering from male pattern baldness.

Lampson’s older brother, already in junior high school, had made a joke of the principal’s name, calling him, “Big Sting,” as if George Sting might be some kind of Dickensian terror to the kids, but this was far from the truth. The principal was actually a rather timid man, hoping things at Amelia Lutz would go smoothly, like they usually did, every single day. It just so happened Lampson’s father was acquainted with George Sting; they were both members of the same chapter of the local Rotary club.

On this Tuesday, however, both he and Mr. Gaertner were absent, attending a conference.

Being summoned, Lampson instead reported to the sixth-grade class––in mid-session just as his fifth grade class had been––headed by a substitute teacher, a middle-aged be-speckled dark-haired lady, who, as he entered, motioned him over to the desk, from which she pulled a lower, right-hand drawer. Laying within it, was a brown paper towel, with two words scrawled upon it, in ink:


In spite of the ink bleeding outwards from each letter, the phrase was very legible. To Lampson, it seemed to scream loudly from its confines in the narrow drawer. He was surprised none of the boys and girls in the class appeared to hear the the paper towel screaming, or were even much aware of his standing there, alone, in front of the class, suddenly numb with the realization of the majestic awfulness of the moment.

Calm and collected, the substitute teacher looked Lampson straight in the eye.

“Did you write this?” she said. What could Lampson do but say, yes, I did, because he had written it. Confession over, the substitute teacher smiled at him, said thank you, and sent him back to his class and his toothpick Golgotha.

To say that Lampson’s own Passion was about to begin would be inappropriate, self-aggrandizing and bad metaphor-sizing: the events that followed those of 3/17/59, although offering cup after cup of lonely anguish and repeated bouts of self-inflicted mental flagellation, climaxed in no rolling away of any stones, no meeting of any Mary in any garden, no touching and confirmation of any wounds by any disciple Thomas, no resurrection, and, finally, no redemption at all.

[to be continued]

Friday, June 11, 2010

Josef Hofmann denounces "rag-time," 1909

In his book, Piano Playing, With Questions Answered, published in 1909 and reprinted by Dover Publications in 1976, the renowned master of the keyboard has this to say in response to the question: Do you believe the playing the modern rag-time piece to be actually hurtful to the student?

"I do, indeed, unless it is done merely for a frolic; though even such a mood might vent itself in better taste. The touch with vulgarity can never be but hurtful, whatever form vulgarity may assume--whether it be literature, a person, or a piece of music. Why share the musical food of those who are, by breeding or circumstance, debarred from anything better? The vulgar impulse which generated rag-time cannot arouse a noble impulse in response any more than "dime novels" can awaken the instincts of gentlemanliness or ladyship. If we watch the street-sweeper we are liable to get dusty. But remember that the dust on the mind and soul is not so easily removed as the dust on our clothes."

Ragtime was in its glory in 1909. It certainly was a very good year for Scott Joplin; published were one of his most experimental and forward looking pieces, Euphonic Sounds, along with the melancholy tango, Solace, one of his most personal. Joseph Lamb, mentored by Joplin, had his second and third rags published by John Stark in 1909: Ethiopia and Excelsior Rag. The same year saw several masterpieces by James Scott, including Grace and Beauty and Great Scott Rag.

Hofmann's "answer" runs the gamut from cultural elitism to barely concealed racism. The pianist/arbiter's stance is a potent reminder of what Joplin and company were up against in those days. For shame, Josef!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

What is it about Seymour?

After re-reading Perfect Day for Banana Fish, Raise High the Roof Beam Carpenters and Seymour, An Introduction, I have these thoughts about Perfect Day for Banana Fish.

In my memory, I had a number of things very wrong about the story. Seymour has not just been married, he’s been married for 6 years. Also, Seymour is not happy (my mind had merged his state of mind on his wedding day (Raise High the Roof Beam Carpenters) with that of his on Banana Fish day); he is in crisis. Naturally, Salinger is not direct with this, but this time ‘round, Mr. Glass came across to me as a very sad man at the end of his rope, this being most strongly expressed by the snippy little exchange about his feet with the unfortunate woman in the elevator.

What’s he so unhappy about? Why should Mega-sensitive-Zen Poet-Mystic-Holy Fool commit the ultimate selfish act of suicide and furthermore commit it within three feet of his wife, creating a horrific traumatic event she’ll never get over? The banana fish parable may be a clue to this or it may not. The story itself, one suspects, is a koan of sorts. Or, the parable may be a total red herring—just a funny story for the kid. But if it does mean something, well, what?

First, the title. It’s a perfect day for banana fish in the sense that it turns out to be a good day for Seymour to talk about them with one of J.D.’s magic children and then, in the emotional zenith of the piece, have the magic child actually spot one. That’s what the little girl does—she sees one in the water, carrying away about six bananas. At which point Seymour—in pure Zen joy—kisses her on the arch of her foot. I think something invisible happening in the reader’s head between this smack on the foot and the bang of the pistol is the “meaning” of the story. As for what banana fish stand for, I think it’s more Buddhist imagery. Salinger slathers this Buddhist business, like too much peanut butter on a Ritz, all over these Glass stories. I never got much with the Buddhism myself, except that back in the mid-sixties, when I last read this stuff, this level was taken very seriously, as if Salinger’s entire oeuvre was some kind of religious text to be decoded. The banana fish story was key, and I thought I had it nailed then, but of course I didn’t, and I’m clear now that Salinger doesn’t want it nailed (even though he keeps diddling with it anyway in the later stories). However, if you want to assign meaning, I think that, just as a Buddhist text states that we are “all primarily Buddha”, Seymour is saying we are also all primarily banana fish. It’s simply being human to be a banana fish, but it’s also the unenlightened state being inner “full”, whereas the enlightened state is inner “empty”. That is, emptying oneself of all transitory emotions and such—so that the lotus blossom will open inside your head and all that stuff. I think Seymour hasn’t made it to this state; he has remained a banana fish—full of emotions and transitory cares and everyday nonsense—and he’s stuck in the cave, so: a bullet to the head.

What about Buddy, in Seymour, an Introduction, saying he wrote the damn thing? Well, I, for one, am not so pleased about this little gambit. I think the smarty pants author is messing with the head of the average youthful, needy, Salinger reader, who wants some answers. Anyway, the game is this. If Mr. J.D. Salinger writes the story, we have the omniscient author, who was right there on the beach, in the ocean with Seymour and the little girl, in the hotel room, hearing the whole banana fish thing, seeing Seymour blow his brains out—he’s just reporting the events to us. But when Mr. Buddy Glass says he wrote it, well, that rips omniscience. Buddy wasn’t there, he just made the whole thing up, possibly as mere cathartic therapy in the wake of his brother’s death. No wonder someone says it’s more about you, Buddy, yeah, you being the most normal and unsaintly of all the Glasses; it’s your inner Seymour, not the real Seymour. Yours, Buddy, you who are really J.D. Salinger; so we’re back to square one: it’s just a story. Ha. Ha.

My pique at these Glass stories is probably just a banana fish’s resentment that the holy man author turned out to be just to a banana fish, too. If anything dates these pieces I think it’s the Zen element, which was hip and trendy enough in the mid to late fifties with the Beats, people over in France, and just about all academic intellectuals for Fellini to make fun of a Zen-o-phile in 1960s La Dolce Vita; naturally, in that film, the intellectual blows his brains out. I doubt that Salinger was a full fledged Buddhist or even a seeker. When he gets hold of, say, a Taoist parable or one of Seymour’s double haiku--or Franny's endless prayer--he seems more a sentimentalizer.

June 29, 2005

Friday, October 23, 2009

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Honker flip

Only in Britain

Here's an issue of Classics Illustrated I'd sorely like to have, my being a fan of Tchaikovsky's opera, The Queen of Spades, which was based on the Pushkin tale adapted by CI above. But this issue only appeared in Great Britain, possibly because of the British film version of the story released in 1949 as a kind of horror movie.