The Brink January 8, 2011Posted by The Typist in New Orleans, Rebirth, Recovery, Sun Ra, The Narrative, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK, Writing.
Today’s literary tidbit is courtesy of Marco who sent this on to me as an example of Something Not To Read while I was posting something else indicating I was perhaps less than cheerful. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s public recounting of his “crack-up” isn’t the typical confessional piece of someone who’s gone completely over the brink. This isn’t William Styron’s Darkness Visible, a chronicle of the descent into near madness. No white coats or shock treatments or pill cups from Nurse Ratchet; just a withdrawal from it all and a deep peer over the brink that lies inside all of us. And some quiet time to think about it all.
I’ve hesitated to post this essay but it would seem to answer a private question from one reader who wishes to know how I’m doing, or rather what I’m doing. Like Fitzgerald, I’m trying to figure it all out somewhere on this side of the brink, and not in the monstrous way Fitzgerald resolves it. My problem, or rather my solution, is quite the opposite.
I wrote a lot in college and right after (somewhere I have a poetry manuscript, alas, but there’s always hope the cockroaches and mildew have gotten to it), but as I fell into journalism I wrote less and less and typed more and more. I wrote perhaps a half-dozen poems over 10 years when some line stuck itself in my head, only because I never stopped reading poetry. I wrote a theme for the Washington Mardi Gras that led my co-worker to ask me what I was on in college, but they used it anyway because it was good. I started a novel but didn’t get far. Mostly, I read and went about the business of life: small children, a series of houses, rungs on a Jacob’s ladder to the conventional American heaven on earth.
Then something happened one afternoon August 29, 2005. Something literally snapped and it wasn’t just a string of Mardi Gras beads hanging from my rear view mirror. The experience of Katrina and the Federal Flood, witnessed from 900 miles away, didn’t so much break something as steal something away from me. Call it faith: faith in anything. I looked at the social contract and it appeared to have been written in another language with its own alphabet. All the threads that tie us into society from the family up to the nation state snapped at once. All bets were off and the rules became as bizarre of those of Calvin and Hobbes’ ball game, made up on the spot to suit the situation.
And somewhere in all that I lost the ability to lie to myself.
I could no longer convince myself that what I witnessed was an anomaly and not the way the world worked. When all of your assumptions about life and society, even those one mocked (religion, the government) were proved to be made of thin tissue that could not stand up to the flood waters, when confronted with all of the lies required to live as a decent, respectable human being in this place and time, it was more than my mind could handle. I struggled to assemble some new organizational scheme, some way to make sense of the world and myself.
This isn’t the same as suggesting I could not or cannot today deceive myself. We’re all much too good at that. It’s as deeply wired into the survival instinct of modern man as any carry over from our days with sticks and skins. It just became impossible to keep up for long. Eventually all such attempts—societal, professional and even personal–fall apart. It’s a personal, interior version of the film Liar, Liar, and it is not particularly funny.
It also doesn’t suggest that I’ve lost the ability to lie to others, to put on the mask appropriate to the situation. I still have responsibilities I can not just walk away from. I have to hold onto a job and pay all the bills that come with decades on the treadmill. It’s just that over time things start to leak out, especially once you’ve started writing in a public forum like this. Not just the piece about the broken beads, suggesting some extraordinary connection beyond coincidence, which someone–say a future employer–might find disconcerting. There is the piece long ago where I announced I am (as almost everyone in this town is) a racist, but one who has recognized the disease I inherited from my family and city and from which, like an alcoholic, I will spend the rest of my life in recovery. Then there are my occasional posts expressing my obvious dissatisfaction with my current career and carefully never-mentioned-by-name employer, the Counting House.
What the Hindu’s call the veil of Maya was torn away, the illusions proved not to be something mystical, a natural by product of our creation from some greater soul but rather the cheap tricks of a casino lounge magician, the chicanery of politicians we agree with. We were all having such a good time; it wasn’t worth trying to puzzle out how it was done and spoiling the moment.
When the underpinnings of your world suddenly shatters, when even the convenient fictions of every day life prove to be just a drapery in front of something more monstrous that you imagined in your darkest moments, something is going to happen. One in a million people becomes the Buddha. Sorry, not me; not this time around. Most become suicides, substance abusers, or aimless drifters standing on the corner all day with a stare fixed on some distant point but no idea where to go.
Some become writers, madly cataloging their thoughts and creating fictions knowing that is what they are doing but knowing it is of their own creation, an extension of the preservation impulse that raised the gods up out of the muck and gave them names, the stories told around the fire that animated the stars. The author and editor of TheRumpus.net Stephen Elliot has an excellent essay titled “Why I Write” in which he talks about “the scream,” the sudden realization that you have something you must say, a impulse so powerful it comes out (must come out) as a shout. This is my shout, not a cry for help but something like the fierce, instinctive howl that came out of my throat once when cornered by a pack of feral dogs that scared them away.
I should probably be writing this privately as a journal entry somewhere, or as a letter to some specific individual who will (or will not) understand. That’s how things like this are handled, right? Except that as with the alcoholic or other twelve-stepper, if you’re going to succeed at healing yourself you need to stand up and announce to the world: I am a terrible liar. And given the path I’ve gone down, once I decided to post the story quoted above about the broken beads and all that has followed, what is the point of writing to myself or an audience of one when there’s a whole world out there to remake, millions of pieces to rearrange until they make sense and become something beautiful?
I am very fond of the jazz and performance artist Sun Ra, who used to speak about “the shield of beauty” which I have come to understand as something like the shield of Perseus held up to the Medusa. Writing is my shield of beauty, without which the monstrosity of the world would destroy me. It’s that simple. And that complex. And if I don’t spend the rest of my life at this, well, there’s always the bottle, the razor, the silent man sitting in the chair in the corner thinking and doing nothing, but who—once you are this conscious of the decision involved—would chose those?
So, that’s why I’m here. Why, curious reader, are you?