The End of Tusitala

RLS (Seated Center, Rear) and His Household in Samoa

His nickname in Samoa was Tusitala, “The Teller of Tales.” He had gone to Oceania for his health. It is not known what the exact nature of his illness was, but it seemed to be hereditary. His mother died of an apparent stroke at the age of 38. When he died on on December 3, 1894, Robert Louis Stevenson was only 44.

I have just finished reading the letters that RLS wrote to his friend and sometime editor Sidney Colvin between November 1890 and October 1894. They have been published as The Vailima Letters, named after the author’s estate in Samoa. In them, he writes about his frequent illnesses, his involvement in island politics, and his intense efforts to make money by writing novels and stories. In those last four years, he wrote:

  • Catriona (1893), aka David Balfour, a sequel to Kidnapped
  • Island Night’s Entertainments (1893), aka South Sea Tales
  • The Ebb-Tide (1894), co-author Lloyd Osbourne
  • Weir of Hermiston (1896), left unfinished at the author’s death
  • St. Ives: Being the Adventures of a French Prisoner in England (1897)

At times, Stevenson’s letters rise to the level of poetry. In March 1891, he writes:

I said I was tired; it is a mild phrase; my back aches like toothache; when I shut my eyes to sleep, I know I shall see before them—a phenomenon to which both Fanny and I are quite accustomed—endless vivid deeps of grass and weed, each plant particular and distinct, so that I shall lie inert in body, and transact for hours the mental part of my day business, choosing the noxious from the useful. And in my dreams I shall be hauling on recalcitrants, and suffering stings from nettles, stabs from citron thorns, fiery bites from ants, sickening resistances of mud and slime, evasions of slimy roots, dead weight of heat, sudden puffs of air, sudden starts from bird-calls in the contiguous forest—some mimicking my name, some laughter, some the signal of a whistle, and living over again at large the business of my day.

In May1892, this description of clouds appears in the letters:

As I rode down last night about six, I saw a sight I must try to tell you of.  In front of me, right over the top of the forest into which I was descending was a vast cloud.  The front of it accurately represented the somewhat rugged, long-nosed, and beetle-browed profile of a man, crowned by a huge Kalmuck cap; the flesh part was of a heavenly pink, the cap, the moustache, the eyebrows were of a bluish gray; to see this with its childish exactitude of design and colour, and hugeness of scale—it covered at least 25°—held me spellbound.  As I continued to gaze, the expression began to change; he had the exact air of closing one eye, dropping his jaw, and drawing down his nose; had the thing not been so imposing, I could have smiled; and then almost in a moment, a shoulder of leaden-coloured bank drove in front and blotted it.  My attention spread to the rest of the cloud, and it was a thing to worship.  It rose from the horizon, and its top was within thirty degrees of the zenith; the lower parts were like a glacier in shadow, varying from dark indigo to a clouded white in exquisite gradations.  The sky behind, so far as I could see, was all of a blue already enriched and darkened by the night, for the hill had what lingered of the sunset.  But the top of my Titanic cloud flamed in broad sunlight, with the most excellent softness and brightness of fire and jewels, enlightening all the world.  It must have been far higher than Mount Everest, and its glory, as I gazed up at it out of the night, was beyond wonder.  Close by rode the little crescent moon; and right over its western horn, a great planet of about equal lustre with itself.  The dark woods below were shrill with that noisy business of the birds’ evening worship.  When I returned, after eight, the moon was near down; she seemed little brighter than before, but now that the cloud no longer played its part of a nocturnal sun, we could see that sight, so rare with us at home that it was counted a portent, so customary in the tropics, of the dark sphere with its little gilt band upon the belly.  The planet had been setting faster, and was now below the crescent.  They were still of an equal brightness.

I could not resist trying to reproduce this in words, as a specimen of these incredibly beautiful and imposing meteors of the tropic sky that make so much of my pleasure here; though a ship’s deck is the place to enjoy them.  O what awful scenery, from a ship’s deck, in the tropics!  People talk about the Alps, but the clouds of the trade wind are alone for sublimity.

I could easily come up with another half dozen passages that impressed me. And I am all the more impressed becau8se today is my father’s birthday. Were he still alive, he would be 108 years old. But, alas, he died at the age of 74—which, to be precise, is my present age—a fact which makes me ever more conscious of my own mortality.

The Past Goes Up in Flames

Frederick Catherwood’s Drawing of Maya Ruins at Chichén Itzá

I wanted to write about the Notre Dame de Paris fire yesterday, but I held back. All I could have said at that point is, “What a horrible shame! I am completely aghast!” It needed me to sleep on he news before I was able to put the event in any perspective.

That perspective, as it comes to me now, is that our past is always and everywhere going up in flames, collapsing under the wrecking ball, or being abandoned and overgrown. The City of Los Angeles, for example,  is under the sway of greedy developers who think nothing of bulldozing our history. Much of the history of motion picture production in Hollywood is gone forever, with just a few isolated buildings such as the Chinese and Egyptian Theaters, the Lasky-DeMille Barn, and the Post 43 American Legion Theater standing out from the architectural Kleenex boxes.

Have you ever heard of the seven wonders of the ancient world? They are (or rather were) as follows:

  • The Lighthouse of Alexandria, Egypt
  • The Colossus of Rhodes
  • The Mausoleum of Halicarnassus
  • The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus
  • The Statue of Zeus at Olympia, Greece
  • The Hanging Gardens of Babylon
  • The Great Pyramid at Giza, Egypt

How many of these wonders still exist? Only one, the Great Pyramid. All the others were destroyed by natural disasters and other mishaps over the centuries and millennia. All the great cathedrals of Europe are vulnerable to fires, terrorism, floods, and what have you.

Overgrown Maya Ruins at Copán, Honduras

My visits to Maya ruins in Guatemala and Honduras in January brought home to me in the most vivid way the fragility of the past. I keep thinking of Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias”:

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

How many other cultural landmarks will disappear during our lifetimes? I have visited Notre Dame twice and marveled at the sheer artistry and magnificence of the place. I hope that the French succeed in reconstructing the interior, the roof, and the spire that were destroyed in the conflagration.

Fastest or Farthest

Adolphe Menjou and Marlene Dietrich in Von Sternberg’s Morocco (1930)

I wonder if I misremember the scene: Marlene Dietrich writes with her lipstick on her vanity mirror, these lines from Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Winning”:

Down to Gehenna or up to the Throne
He travels the fastest who travels alone.

When I searched for the still of the scene, I only came up with a mirror on which was written, again in lipstick, “I changed my mind.” I would obviously have to see the film again to refresh my memory. I know the words are in the film somewhere, and the quote has stuck with me—though sometimes I remembered it as “He travels the farthest who travels alone.”

I like to travel alone, but I think I would much rather travel with Martine or my brother Dan or one of my friends. Unfortunately, Martine thinks I’m much to adventurous in my trips. She claims that anti-malarial medications like Chloroquine or Aralen do not agree with her. Otherwise, she is an ideal travel partner who is genuinely interested in the places I like to visit. The highlight of our travels together was our trip to Argentina and Uruguay in 2011.

My brother is also an excellent travel partner: We tend to agree in advance on the places he wants to see and the places I want to see. Thus far, we have gone on only two trips together: Mexico in 1979 and Ecuador in 2016.

My friends are more problematical in that none of them would dare to visit a Third World country whose language they don’t speak. I always imagine introducing them to Maya ruins or South American volcanoes or Icelandic fjords. But I imagine them as being versions of myself before I started on my travels—all eager to travel to exotic destinations and devil take the risks! Alas, they are not like me. They are irrepressibly themselves. And that’s why they’re my friends.

So I suspect that most of my future travels will be by myself.

“Tell It Slant”

Poet Marsha de la O

It was my day at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. Yesterday, I went with Martine and two friends: All my time was spent in coordinating when and where we should meet, eat, and greet. At such a large, centrifugal event, people tend to separate going to different locations based on their various interests. So today I returned—but this time all by my lonesome. It was an altogether different experience. I bought several books, and for sheer enjoyment attended two poetry readings at the Festival’s Poetry Stage, sponsored by Small World Books on Venice Beach.

My favorite of he two readings I attended was by a Ventura County poet named Marsha de la O. With her husband Phil Taggart, she published a poetry journal called Askew. Under the masthead, she quotes a line from Emily Dickinson, “Tell the Truth But Tell It Slant,” based on the title of the following poem:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

Marsha de la O read from her latest collection, Every Ravening Thing, published by the University of Pittsburgh Press. In the cool of the morning, it was nice hearing powerful verse in the dappled light of the Poetry Stage. The audience wasn’t as big as some of the sessions of more “general interest”: The people who were there were there because they wanted to be, and because they loved feeling those frissons caused by the magic of poetry.

Marsha de la O’s Latest Collection of Poems

Following is one of the four poems de la O read this morning:

Space-time Tsunami

If most of the universe is dark energy,
why should we be any different?

Pick a wave, any wave—it’s just energy in motion,
shock, or plasma, or the wide ocean shrugging
its shoulders when space becomes time
and ‘time is not the root of our problem’.

The good ship Charon’s anchored offshore, laden
with otter pelts—soft gold they call it.
Our tsunami strikes during the Napoleonic wars,
but what’s California to Napoleon
that he should weep for her otters?   Nothing.

I had a friend who raked her fingers through my hair, gathered
a hank in a great knot, Hey, Strange Attractor, she used to say,

my binary star, my pristine, my flammable—how we orbited,
each to each.
I had a friend who convened the dead. When we spoke,
water seemed to leave the beach—the sea scrolling backwards and her,
strolling right out onto newborn land—that reckless.

Hey ferryman, come on over here, ferry, ferry, ferryman …

We now exist as thirteen egrets in the canopy of a tree
so far from water that at first they look like
paper lanterns
to the observer who has no place to stand

and still I walk through the great hall of swallows swirling
like Valkyries, like volute, like alley oop,

we do not speak, I’ll trail after for a hundred years.

 

 

 

Serendipity: Daguerrotypes

A Daguerrotype Portrait

John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood were not known as photographers, yet I was greatly interested by Stephens’s description of offering to create daguerrotype portraits of some of the female inhabitants of the City of Mérida in Yucatán on their second trip to Mexico around 1840. The following excerpt is from Volume I of Incidents of Travel in Yucatan.

The ceremonies of the reception over, we made immediate preparations to begin. Much form and circumstance were necessary in settling preliminaries; and as we were in no hurry to get rid of our subjects, we had more formalities than usual to go through with.

Our first subject was the lady of the poetical name. It was necessary to hold a consultation upon her costume, whether the colours were pretty and such as would be brought out well or not; whether a scarf around the neck was advisable; whether the hair was well arranged, the rose becoming, and in the best position; then to change it, and consider the effect of the change, and to say and do many other things which may suggest themselves to the reader’s imagination, and all which gave rise to many profound remarks in regard to artistical effect, and occupied much time.

The lady being arrayed to the best advantage, it was necessary to seat her with reference to a right adjustment of light and shade; to examine carefully the falling of the light upon her face; then to consult whether it was better to take a front or a side view; to look at the face carefully in both positions; and, finally, it was necessary to secure the head in the right position; that it should be neither too high nor too low; too much on one side nor on the other; and as this required great nicety, it was sometimes actually indispensable to turn the beautiful little head with our own hands, which, however, was a very innocent way of turning a young lady’s head.

Next it was necessary to get the young lady into focus—that is, to get her into the box, which, in short; means, to get a reflection of her face on the glass in the camera obscura at that one particular point of view which presented it better than any other; and when this was obtained, the miniatured likeness of the object was so faithfully reflected, that, as artists carried away by enthusiasm, we were obliged to call in the papas and mammas, who pronounced it beautiful—to which dictum we were in courtesy obliged to respond.

The plate was now cleaned, put into the box, and the light shut off. Now came a trying time for the young lady. She must neither open her lips nor roll her eyes for one minute and thirty seconds by the watch. This eternity at length ended, and the plate was taken out.

So far our course had been before the wind. Every new formality had but increased our importance in the eyes of our fair visiters [sic] and their respectable companions. Mr. Catherwood retired to the adjoining room to put the plate in the mercury bath, while we, not knowing what the result might be, a little fearful, and neither wishing to rob another of the honour he might be justly entitled to, not to be dragged down by another’s failure, thought best to have it distinctly understood that Mr. Catherwood was the maestro, and that we were merely amateurs. At the same time, on Mr. Catherwood’s account, I took occasion to suggest that the process was so complicated, and its success depended upon such a variety of minute circumstances, it seemed really wonderful that it ever turned out well. The plate might not be good, or not well cleaned; or the chemicals might not be of the best; or the plate might be left too long in the iodine box, or taken out too soon; or left too long in the bromine box, or taken out too soon; or a ray of light might strike it on putting it into the camera or in taking it out; or it might be left too long in the camera or taken out too soon; or too long in the mercury bath or taken out too soon; and even though all these processes were right and regular, there might be some other fault of omission or commission which we were not aware of; besides which, climate and atmosphere had great influence, and might render all of no avail. These little suggestions we considered necessary to prevent too great a disappointment in case of failure; and perhaps our fair visiters were somewhat surprised at our audacity in undertaking at all such a doubtful experiment, and using them as instruments. The result, however, was enough to induce us never again to adopt prudential measures, for the young lady’s image was stamped upon the plate, and made a picture which enchanted her and satisfied the critical judgment of her friends and admirers.

Our experiments upon the other ladies were equally successful, and the morning glided away in this pleasant occupation.

My Early Career

Yes, That’s Me at the Age of 18 Months

Now that you’ve seen me without a stitch of clothing on, and facing you with the situation, I thought I’d bring you up to date about the second home of my young life. When I was only a little over a year old, my Mom, Dad, and I moved to Lake Worth, Florida. As I was much too young at the time, I have no memory of my first trip to the Land of Sunshine. My Dad worked for the city, which is a southern suburb of West Palm Beach, and my Mom had her hands full with the above illustrated hedonist.

Unfortunately, my father did not have the best of times in Florida. His job was to remove the bodies of dead and rotting alligators. Now Dad had a tricksy stomach, so instead of job satisfaction, he was mostly involved in projectile vomiting at the time. The move to Florida was declared a failure, so Dad insisted that the family relocate to the Hungarian neighborhood of Cleveland, on the East Side’s Buckeye Road. Which is what we did.

My third home was the second floor of a duplex at 2814 East 120th Street. I was able to put down some roots there, as we were to remain there until 1951, after my brother Dan was born. Since I didn’t know a word of English, Mom and Dad figured we should relocate to the suburbs, a few miles east of Buckeye Road. It was time for me to learn English and become a red-blooded American. Which I proceeded to do, with such dispatch that after three more years, I was no longer regarded as a problematical retard with a funny accent.

BTW: My Mom adored the above picture. She showed it to all my girlfriends….

 

“Wind, Water, Stone”

A Poem for a Very Windy Day

As the lights are going out in parts of Los Angeles because of high winds, I am reminded of a poem by the Mexican Nobel-prize-winning poet Octavio Paz (1914-1998) entitled “Wind, Water, Stone.”

Wind, Water, Stone
By Octavio Paz
Translated by Eliot Weinberger

for Roger Caillois

Water hollows stone,
wind scatters water,
stone stops the wind.
Water, wind, stone.

Wind carves stone,
stone’s a cup of water,
water escapes and is wind.
Stone, wind, water.

Wind sings in its whirling,
water murmurs going by,
unmoving stone keeps still.
Wind, water, stone.

Each is another and no other:
crossing and vanishing
through their empty names:
water, stone, wind.

The poem makes me think of the game of Paper, Stone, and Scissors. I love the final stanza which brings the three elements together into a satisfying whole.