By happenstance the other day I received from an ex-girlfriend a manila envelope full of manuscript pages I wrote 15 years ago, about eight years before the death of my father.
As I skimmed them I was struck by how unfamiliar the writing was. It was as if some stranger had on a lark decided to copy my style, my phrasings, my vocabulary. Very much like me, but not me.
I went over the material carefully, one page after another. Gradually I sensed a dark, unintended undercurrent. My sentences were meant to be conversational, but too often they were stilted and inhibited, the words of a man incapable of speaking freely and accurately about his past, and most especially how he felt about it.
My writing, I was disappointed to see, had all the authenticity and conviction of a filmed confession of an American prisoner of war in North Vietnam. It was all about my self-preservation, not the pursuit of truth for its own sake.
One of the pieces was a fictional conversation I had with an imagined professor of literature during a lunch at The White Dog Café, on Philadelphia’s Samson St., near the University of Pennsylvania. The professor—who’s named Stephen—had just returned from a literary conference in Paris. On the flight, he said, he’d read in Le Monde a long article on William Burroughs.
“There exists but one theme for Burroughs,” Dr. Steve said. “To travel in space—and here he means literary space, of course—it’s necessary to abandon all old verbal smut.”
“What in hell is literary space as opposed to actual space?” I asked.
“It’s an esoteric and wholly inpenetrable academic concept, my friend. Anyway, Burroughs insists that ‘You must learn to exist and to live without religion, without country, and without allies. You must learn to see what is in front of you without prejudice.’ And of course that includes the contemplation of being dumped by the woman you love.”
“I prefer to forget that awful experience,” I said.
“A mistake, I assure you.”
“The chicken is good,” our cute waitress announced, her pencil above her order pad.
“Bring me a thick, juicy burger. And fries,” Dr. Steve said.
“The same,” I said.
“I know exactly how you feel, John. The year after my first divorce I spent a lot of time hanging out at a low-life bar outside Cambridge. This was after I finished my thesis and passed my orals. I got friendly with some bikers who didn’t know what I did or where I lived.”
“The Invisible Man!”
“Or the alienated man. But these bikers were okay, actually. Nice people, except for the sociopaths. But it rather quickly got boring. Then for a while I dug out my phone list and spent a lot on long distance talking to old friends at Chicago. After the reminiscing, it fell flat. Because those old, good times were gone and nothing could resurrect them. Plus they were living in their own little cages, and wouldn’t come out even if they could.”
Dr. Steve described an awful thing he’d seen on TV a while back. A documentary on Thailand, or Burma. Coolies transporting a bunch of cats. Days and days on the jungle trail giving the cats no food or water. When they got to the restaurant where the cats would be eaten, they refused to leave their shitty bamboo cages. They had to be pried out with sticks. Perhaps they sensed what was coming.
“We become so accustomed to the misery at hand that we are loath to make a change, even for something better,” Dr. Steve continued. “And that’s what I did. I went through a long period of wallowing in my grief. Saturated myself with it. I watched the same movies over and over. Taxi Driver. Little Big Man. Dr. Strangelove. Dead Calm.”
“Why those?” I asked.
“There’s some depressing thread there. And I read Death On The Installment Plan, and the rest of Celine. I re-read all of Bukowski. Then I resumed my more serious reading. Joyce.”
“No, Dubliners, Portrait, Stephen Hero. I was struck in the Nestor episode of Ulysses with Joyce’s ambiguity of the Latin amor matris. Subjective and objective genitive. Could mean either a child’s love of his mother, or mother’s love for her child. Now Burroughs insists we must abandon discourse of mother, of love. Even though it’s the only true thing in life. But then…”
“Amor matris is something that you have never experienced, right?”
“You can’t miss what you’ve never had,” I said. It was a rote answer I had at the ready, whenever the subject came up.
“How old were you when your mother ran off?” Dr. Steve asked.
“They tell me ten or twelve months.”
Dr. Steve nodded. “Sometimes I wish my mother had fled to find a new life. But where was I?”
“We must abandon discourse.”
“Burroughs, yes. Again he says we must learn to see what’s in front of us without prejudice.”
“Like an objective photojournalist?”
Dr. Steve laughed. “Who can ever be truly objective? But here’s the thing, John. In Nestor Stephen Dedalus says his childhood bends beside him, which is to say that he sees himself in the moment as two different people, child and man. And then he says,
‘Secrets, silent, stony sit in the dark palaces of both our hearts: secrets weary of their tyranny: tyrants willing to be dethroned.’”
“Ha!” I said. “My tyrant was never willing.”
“But perhaps he will be,” Dr. Steve said, “and he’ll depart when you finally see him clearly—without prejudice—for who and what he is.”
* * *
Relevant excerpt from the Nestor episode in Joyce’s Ulysses:
In long shaky strokes Sargent copied the data. Waiting always for a word of help his hand moved faithfully the unsteady symbols, a faint hue of shame flickering behind his dull skin. Amor matris: subjective and objective genitive. With her weak blood and wheysour milk she had fed him and hid from sight of others his swaddling bands.
Like him was I, these sloping shoulders, this gracelessness. My childhood bends beside me. Too far for me to lay a hand there once or lightly. Mine is far and his secret as our eyes. Secrets, silent, stony sit in the dark palaces of both our hearts: secrets weary of their tyranny: tyrants, willing to be dethroned.