Hitting Rock Bottom

TLOS ANGELES, CA – JANUARY 24: Lisa Rogers, a homeless woman, carries her tent as she relocates her camp on January 24, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. According to a 2016 report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Los Angeles has the highest number of homeless people in the nation with close to 13,000 living on the streets. The annual Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count begins today and will continue through Thursday. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

To begin with, there are a hell of a lot more than 13,000 homeless living on the streets of Los Angeles. I would put the number at close to 5-10 times that many. I have just finished reading Sam Quinones’s excellent book The Least of Us: True Tales of America and Hope in the Time of Fentanyl and Meth, from which the following paragraph is taken:

We used to believe people needed to hit rock bottom before seeking treatment. That’s another idea made obsolete by our addiction crisis and the current synthetic drug supply. It belongs to an era when drugs of choice were merciful. Nowadays people are living in tents, screaming at unseen demons, raped, pimped, beaten, unshowered, and unfed. That would seem to be rock bottom. Yet it’s not enough to persuade people to get treatment. In Columbus, Ohio, Giti Mayton remembers a meth addict who was hospitalized with frostbitten, gangrenous hands, yet who left the hospital in midwinter to find more dope. San Francisco and Philadelphia, two cities with years of experience with heroin, are seeing users homeless and dying like never before. The dope is different now. Today, rock bottom is death.

Flirting With Death

It seems that, as time goes on, Halloween is becoming an ever more popular holiday. It has moved from being a children’s celebration to one that is equally observed by adults. In the Catholic liturgy, it is merely the eve of All Saints Day, which continues to diminish in importance as Christianity slowly recedes. The next day, All Souls Day—November 2—is the Mexican Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead.

What with all the horror films and Stephen King novels and Jack O’Lanterns, Halloween tends to flirt with death without really facing it. As a culture, we tend to stay in the outskirts of death without descending into the center of it. The skulls and skeletons we affect are free of putrefaction and stench.

When I was a student at Dartmouth College, I spent four years in the remote Middle Wigwam dormitory (later re-christened McLane Hall). To get to the center of campus, I had to pass along the northern edge of the Hanover, New Hampshire cemetery, which has tombstones dating back to the 18th century, as Dartmouth was founded in 1769. It was an eerie experience, especially when walking home at night after a movie, play, or visit to Baker Library. Yet it looked nothing like the fantasy cemetery pictured above. Even the much older Copps Hill Burying Ground in Boston, where Cotton and Increase Mather are interred, is nowhere near as nasty as a typical horror film cemetery.

We like to keep our cemeteries on the neat side else no one would want to visit them. That’s because we are forced to acknowledge death, but we’d rather not think about it. And when we do, we use typical horror themes to frighten ourselves before returning to normality. Among these are vampires, zombies, Frankenstein monsters, ghosts, hauntings, mummies, shock operas like Hitchcock’s Psycho, demons, goblins, and so on. In fact, most of these themes are wildly fictional and outside the experience of most everyone.

Absent from most of these themes is the real sting of death: a numbing sense of loss of our loved ones and the realization that we will not escape the same fate.

So celebrate Halloween by all means. I certainly do. This month I read Thomas Ligotti’s stories in Grimscribe and Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. And I just started Sheridan LeFanu’s Uncle Silas (1864).

The Author Foresees His Death

The Car Crash That Killed Albert Camus on January 4, 1960

Months before his death in an auto accident, Albert Camus wrote in his notebook words that prefigured how he was to end his life:

I don’t sleep all night, fall asleep at 3 AM, wake up at 5 AM, eat a lot, and, beneath the rain, take to the road. I don’t leave the steering wheel for eleven hours—nibbling a biscuit from time to time—and the rain doesn’t leave me either until I reach the Drôme where it lets up a bit over the heights of Nyons so that the scent of lavender comes to me, awakens me, and enlivens my heart.

Ryan Bloom, the editor of the last volume of his Notebooks, sets up the scene:

Struggling with his writing, Camus sent a letter to Catherine Sellers in which he wrote: “To work, one must deprive oneself, and die without aid. So let’s die, because I don’t want to live without working….” On December 30 he wrote a line to Maria Casarès regarding his return to Paris, which, had the line been written in one of his novels, would certainly have seemed to stretch believability: “Let’s say [Tuesday] in principle, taking into account surprises on the road….”

And it was on the road, five days after these words were written—January 4, 1960—that the dashboard clock of Michel Gallimard’s 1959 Facel Vega HK 500 stopped ticking at 1:55 PM. The clock lay in a nearby field. Fragments of the wreckage spread almost 500 feet. A tire sat alone on the scarred cement. Drizzle dotted the road. A black leather valise lay in the mud, tossed next to the tree around which the car was wrapped.

And so died one of the greatest minds of the Twentieth Century.

Under Our Feet

As we tread upon the ground, we tend not to think of what lies beneath our feet. I thought about this after I wrote yesterday’s blog post entitled “Mission Creep.” The small size of the cemeteries at the Santa Barbara and Santa Ynez missions in Southern California troubled me because of the large number of bodies said to be buried there. The Catholic Church did not sanction cremation at that time, so literally thousands of bodies, mostly of Indians, were interred over a 65-year period in these small burial grounds.

I live within walking distance of Kuruvungna Springs, a place where the Tongva or Gabrielino Indians congregated f0or ceremonies or just a fresh drink of spring water. It is entirely possible that as I walk along Santa Monica Boulevard and the streets feeding into it I am walking on the bones of Indians who died in the area—at least those which weren’t carted away by dirt haulers as the area was built up with multi-story commercial and residential buildings.

And then I thought of a great English writer who thought the same way. The quote is from an essay by Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682) called “Hydriotaphia, urn-burial, or, A discours of the sepulchral urns lately found in Norfolk ….” The 17th century English is hard to read, but I promise that it is rewarding.

In the deep discovery of the Subterranean world, a shallow part would satisfie some enquirers; who, if two or three yards were open about the surface, would not care to rake the bowels of Potosi, and regions towards the Centre. Nature hath furnished one part of the Earth, and man another. The treasures of time lie high, in Urnes, Coynes, and Monuments, scarce below the roots of some vegetables. Time hath endlesse rarities, and shows of all varieties; which reveals old things in heaven, makes new discoveries in earth, and even earth it self a discovery. That great Antiquity America lay buried for a thousand years; and a large part of the earth is still in the Urne unto us.

Though if Adam were made out of an extract of the Earth, all parts might challenge a restitution, yet few have returned their bones farre lower then they might receive them; not affecting the graves of Giants, under hilly and heavy coverings, but content with lesse then their owne depth, have wished their bones might lie soft, and the earth be light upon them; Even such as hope to rise again, would not be content with centrall interrment, or so desperately to place their reliques as to lie beyond discovery, and in no way to be seen again; which happy contrivance hath made communication with our forefathers, and left unto our view some parts, which they never beheld themselves.

Sir Thomas Browne

The reference to Potosi is to the fabulous silver mines at the Cerro Rico (Rich Hill) of Potosi in Bolivia. The mines are at an altitude of approximately 13,300 feet (4,050 meters).

Wherever we may go, we are walking a very few feet above the remnants of the past. We tend to forget this as we follow the latest trends and knock ourselves into a digital frenzy that only hastens us to our own grave.

John Donne’s Last Poem

John Donne (1572-1631)

The last poem by John Donne, written while he was dying, is one I have read and analyzed many times since I first encountered in college. It’s rather somber, but also magnificent. I have included notes at the end.

Hymn to God My God, in My Sickness

Since I am coming to that holy room
Where with thy choir of saints for evermore
I shall be made thy music, as I come,
I tune the instrument here at the door,
And what I must do then, think here before.

Whilst my physicians by their love are grown
Cosmographers, and I their map, who lie
Flat on this bed, that by them may be shown
That this is my southwest discovery [1]
Per fretum febris [2], by these straits to die [3].

I joy that in these straits [4] I see my west [5];
For though their currents yield return to none,
What shall my west hurt me? As west and east
In all flat maps (and I am one) are one,
So death doth touch the resurrectión.

Is the Pacific Sea my home? Or are
The eastern riches? Is Jerusalem?
Anian [6] and Magellan and Gibraltar,
All straits, and none but straits, are ways to them,
Whether where Japhet dwelt, or Cham or Shem [7].

We think that Paradise and Calvary,
Christ’s cross and Adam’s tree, stood in one place.
Look, Lord, and find both Adams met in me;
As the first Adam’s sweat [8] surrounds my face,
May the last Adam’s blood my soul embrace.

So in his purple wrapped, receive me, Lord,
By these his thorns give me his other crown;
And as to others’ souls I preached thy word [9],
Be this my text, my sermon to mine own:
Therefore that he may raise, the Lord throws down.

[1] The southwest discovery is the passage to the Pacific through the Straits of Magellan.
[2] Literally, “through the straits of fever.”
[3] After passing through the straits named after him, Ferdinand Magellan died in the Philippines.
[4] Note how Donne uses the word not only in its literal geographic sense, but also meaning a difficult passage.
[5] West is the direction of the sunset and south the direction of fever.
[6] The Bering Strait.
[7] The sons of Noah, referring to Europe, Africa, and Asia respectively.
[8] Part of his punishment for his disobedience.
[9] Donne was Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Plain Things

The Poems of Borges Have Always Moved Me

Whenever I feel out of sorts, nothing brings me back faster than re-reading Jorge Luis Borges, particularly his poems. Here is a sonnet from his 1974 collection In Praise of Darkness, translated by Norman Thomas di Giovanni:

Plain Things

A walking stick, a bunch of keys, some coins,
a lock that turns with ease, useless jottings
at the back of books that in the few days left
me won’t be read again, cards and chessboard,
an album in whose leaves a withered flower
lies pressed—the monument of an evening
doubtless unforgettable, now forgotten—
and in the west the mirror burning red
of an illusory dawn. So many things—
a file, an atlas, doorways, nails, the glass
from which we drink—serve us like silent slaves.
How dumb and strangely secretive they are!
Past our oblivion, they will live on,
familiar, blind, not knowing we have gone.

The thing that confused me at first was the poet seeing in the western sky a strange mirror of an “illusory” dawn, which, of course, is rising in the east. That sort of thing is so typical of Borges, who delights to introduce mirrors into his works. So he looks west to see signs of an approaching dawn. Yes, I suppose that is possible. A bit tricky for Borges, though, who, by this time, was quite blind.

Although he was not to die yet for some twenty years, the thought of death was never a stranger to Borges.

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.

Dia de los Muertos

Dia de Los Muertos Celebrants at Cabot’s Museum in Desert Hot Springs

In the Catholic liturgy, today is All Souls’ Day, which the Mexican culture has enriched with its Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. The Mexican feast day is much healthier than our own Halloween: Families go to the cemeteries with a picnic lunch, which they eat by the grave of their loved ones. Years ago, I was on a bus between Mazatlán and Durango on November 2 with a number of villagers headed to celebrate. The bus was full, so I helped a young mother hold her baby from time to time as she tended to her other children.

We see death as an embarrassment, some kind of failure. Too bad, because we all die; and that death is part and parcel of our lives. We deny it at our own risk, because when we least expect it, to springs out like a jack-in-the-box and catches us all unawares. One of the strengths of Mexican culture—and I believe there are many—is that people do not try to sweep the inevitable under the rug.

The Tzompantli, or Skull Rack, at Chichen Itza

The Aztecs and Maya used to fight wars among themselves and their neighbors for the sole purpose of capturing prisoners who were sacrificed to the gods. At Chichen Itza, there was a large platform called the Tzompantli, or Skull Rack, to hold a pyramid of skulls of these sacrificial victims. There were a number of grisly rituals connected with these sacrifices, such as cutting out the heart of victims with an obsidian knife and kicking the body down the pyramid steps, skinning the victims and having the priests wear the skins. There was even some cannibalism. Eventually, with the Spanish invasion, these rituals were suppressed; but the celebration of life’s fragility became a part of the culture.

Maybe this is what Trumpf is afraid of by these “invasions” from Latin America. He’s afraid for his own head, perhaps. They can have it.

 

The Death of Boris Vian

CD Cover of Boris Vian Song Collection

There is a myth that the French are contemptuous of everything that the United States stands for. They might be now, seeing how how our country has sunk to Stygian depths since November 2016. But there have been many exceptions, consisting of key figures in the arts who have paid homage to American art forms. In the case of Boris Vian (1920-1959), the contributions have been in the form of music (he was a jazz trumpeter who knew Duke Ellington, Hoagie Carmichael, and and Miles Davis), literature (detective and Oulipo), and translation (Raymond Chandler and A. E. Van Vogt).

I have just finished reading Vian’s Mood Indigo, the English title of L’Écume des jours. It is an inventive work of the Oulipo school of literature. It starts out as a manic love story and becomes ever more somber and even tragic as the characters come to sad ends. It is reminiscent of works by Raymond Queneau and Georges Perec.

Vian died at the age of thirty-nine of a heart attack while watching the credits of a French film adaptation of his novel I Spit On Your Graves. You can see the credit sequence by clicking here. Reportedly, Vian cried out “These guys are supposed to be American? My ass!” and collapsed in his seat. He died en route to the hospital.

He had a point, it looks a lot more French than American. It’s a pity we lost him, because he was a real friend to American literature and jazz.

 

Serendipity: Raven Brings Death to the World

Tlingit Myth: Raven Swallowing the Sun

Now that I have resolved to explore the Inside Passage of Alaska and British Columbia, I have become interested in the many native peoples along the route. And also that means I have a renewed interest in Franz Boas, who spent so much of his career studying the Kwakiutl, the Tlingit, the Bella Coola, the Salish, and others. From Boas’s (edited) Folk-Tales of Salishan and Sahaptin Tribes (1917) comes this tale, from the Nicola Valley, of how death came into this world:

Coyote was travelling, and came to Raven, a bad, selfish chief, who wanted to make everything difficult for other people, and easy for himself. He wanted the game for himself, wanted long winters, and he did not want man to be immortal. Coyote questioned him as to why he wanted people to die. He said, “If people were immortal, there would be too many. Let them become sick and die.” Coyote said, “Why should they die? Death will introduce sorrow into the world, and sorrow is very hard. If they die, what will become of them? Where will they go? Let them be sick, but not die.” Raven said, “No, they must die. I do not wish our enemies to live forever. If the people should become too numerous, there would be no food, and they would be hungry. It is better for them to die.” Raven’s people supported their chief, and clamored for the people to die. Raven, Crow, Fly, Maggot, and many others wanted people to die, so that they might feed on corpses. Coyote said, “Let people die for a while, and then come back to life again. Let death be like sleep.” Raven said, “No, if they die, let them die for good, and let their bodies rot.” At last Coyote agreed, and said, “Well, it is ordained that people shall die when their time has come. Their bodies shall be buried, and their souls shall go to spirit-land; but this will only be until the world changes again, when they will die no more.”

Shortly after that, Raven’s daughter became sick and died. She was the first to die. Raven tried to restore her to life, but failed. Then he wept because of his daughter. He went to Coyote, and said, “Let us change what we said before. Do not let people die and remain dead forever. Let us change it!” Coyote answered, “No, it is settled now, and cannot be altered.” Thus it happens that people die and are buried.