Dear Bernard, Your winter birthday approaches (--do you think in terms of particular months, seasons, constellations?) as here in Melbourne summer's hottest days (& nights) seem to be passing. Impossible sometimes for me to concentrate on reading & writing --mind you, I dont make it easy for myself in my non-aircon, tin-roofed, weatherboard! Even so, the journey continues... Richer --e.g., the fascinating 'Bob Dylan' movie, I'm Not There, seen recently --and poorer --e.g., Norman Mailer's death late last year. (And no sooner said than one of I'm Not There's stars, Heath Ledger, has reportedly died in L.A. --tragically young, 29. My sadness at that news undoubtedly fueled by the parallels with our Timmy's death five years ago... Ledger's art & young-man's emotions irrevocably entwined (--a once-in-a-generation talent, like James Dean, according to Travolta)... Found dying, if not already dead, in his L. A. apartment --'accidental death' almost worse than intentional or expected. What a waste --and waste there is & always has been among our 'best & brightest' --war, illness, drugs --whatever, & forever... Of course, "he leaves a legacy"... Dont they all? Do we need reminding of Kerouac, 47, robbed of his three score & ten...)
(February.) You've been with Dylan from the beginning... 1965 when you bought the first vinyl? I thoroughly recommend I'm Not there, though is it showing outside the art-house circuit? If nothing else you'll enjoy the sound-track (there's also a covers' CD). Dylan's a fascinating subject for a bio-flick, as this film is misleadingly described --actually, it's a series of interwoven fictions at the centre of each of which is a surrogate or pseudo Dylan. The film's thesis, & possibly Dylan's, is that authenticity or the real is gained & maintained by an aware subject's mercuriality, and the evasion of stable bureaucratic identity is how it's achieved. The film's fictions are projections of Dylan's media persona, illustrations of themes from his songs, & biographical snippets. Consummate artist that he's been, Art & Life equally represent him. It's the fate of celebrity --Kerouac, unsurprisingly also mentioned in the film, a casualty of the phenomenon (too literal a believer perhaps).
Cate Blanchett's Dylan, aka Jude Quinn, is superlative mimicry --cheeky & also poignantly instructive. She perfectly reproduces the Dylan from David Pennebaker's historical footage of the early 1960s British tour --her acting is almost like channeling! From the signature Dylan hairstyle & chainsmoking to speed-king foot-tapping & pot-head sniggering, she has the character down pat. The portrait careers through naturalism, farce & satire in its astonishing facsimile. For my money, Cate Blanchett's Jude Quinn is the drawstring of the entire ensemble --for the fictions to work, the facsimile was essential. Her casting is a canny director(Todd Haynes)'s coup de grace! And just as fellow Aussie Heath Ledger's film-star character Robbie Clark, hated, as it happens, by the folk-singer he plays on screen, slides calamitously between relationships, so does I'm Not There slip between fiction & history, fulfilling that experience of the Real required of 'the Dylan film' by those who feel they 'understand' him!
Now here's the neatest connection to Norman Mailer : given that Mailer was in my mind & often popping into conversation during this period, it felt like a synchronicity when, in the middle of I'm Not There, Robbie Clarke, at the big Hollywood party, identifies him through the throng, across the room. There's Mailer, he says. For the life of me I thought the constantly thwarted wife was about to seek him out --maybe she was, but the camera finds husband & girlfriend first and Mailer is lost in the Hollywood night.
Speed-reading Advertisements for Myself (my first & probably most influential Mailer --five shillings Corgi paperback bought 42 years from the great little Paperback Parade in Southampton), I'm impressed all over again. Part of the reason for that is his intention & ability to impress --one feels his fire and his texts are firing : those 1940s pieces, the war-stories, & the 1951 Man Who Studied Yoga... what am I trying to say here? --something about energy, creating an equation for egotism where egotism is the energised individual's antenna to the world, which characterised poets & novelists of that period, including the Beats --and Mailer's delightfully pugilistic yet confidential & charming Evaluations - Quick and Expensive Comments on the Talent in the Room (p339) is a register of that...
For example, of Jack Jones; "Like Styron, like myself, like Kerouac, he has been running for President as well as sticking at his work, and it was near tragic to watch the process as he imprisoned anger, and dwindled without it."
Of Capote; "He is tart as a grand aunt, but in his way he is a ballsy little guy, and he is the most perfect writer of my generation, he writes the best sentences word for word, rhythm for rhythm."
And of our man; "Kerouac lacks discipline, intelligence, honesty and a sense of the novel. His rhythms are erratic, his sense of character is nil, and he is a pretentious as a rich whore, as sentimental as a lollypop. Yet I think he has a large talent. His literary energy is enormous, and he had enough of a wild eye to go along with his instincts and so become the first figure for a new generation. (...) For a while I worried about him as a force from the political right which could lead Hip into a hole, but I liked him when I met him, more than I would have thought, and felt he was tired, as indeed why should he not be for he has travelled in a world where the adrenalin devours the blood."
And so on; Mailer's perspicacity arraigning Bellow, Algren, Salinger, Bowles, Bourjaily, Brossard, Vidal, Broyard, Willingham, Ellison, Baldwin. Scandalously, no women in his text but Mccarthy, Stafford & McCullers in the footnote along with Burroughs, then unknown, wagered by Mailer to "rank as one of the most important novelists in America and may prove comparable in his impact to Jean Genet."
(March.) I think Advertisements for Myself is where I first read the names of Brossard, Broyard & co., before I scored the Protest anthology... The book is also the home of his White Negro piece, his Reflections on Hip & the famous The Hip & the Square (a forefunner of Susan Sontag's Notes on Camp?) --the fifty page section, Hipsters, should always have been part of the unfolding Beat story : psychologically acute, sociologically & politically resourceful.
I was ten-thousand miles from Home but with my Kerouacs & Advertisements for Myself, deep into the freedom of the poet-artist-Beat-adventurer's world. Melbourne was my 1966-67 Beat heaven!
What is it now, do you ask? It's where I am & able to catch my breath (my life) in retrospect -- to see those seasons again; survey the writings, the diaries, the books in the way I've been promising myself for years.
One of several references I discovered I shared with Retta, when I met her in 1967, was The Village Voice Reader : A Mixed Bag from the Greenwich Village Newspaper (Grove Press, 1963). We both had copies bought in Melbourne the preceding year. Daniel Wolf was its editor & Mailer partly financed & wrote for it. Did you know it? I didnt see a copy of the actual newspaper until Betty Burstall placed copies on the tables of her Cafe La Mama in Carlton, Melbourne, 1967/68.
The Reader puts me right into the middle of a world, vibrations of which were everywhere by the mid Sixties; it's still hilarious, and its history haunts. Though I would be leftism's first fellow-traveller for years to come, the particular clarification of that anthology (for example, Mailer's "Hip is an American existentialism, profoundly different from French existentialism because Hip is based on a mysticism of the flesh", pp49/50) was in terms of its alternative to communism's alternative, producing a phoenix out of the post-war angst & alienation. Even today I think it's an alternative to Corporate man & woman as zenith of success!
Kenneth Tynan hoped, in a brilliant contribution, ostensibly reviewing Advertisements for Myself, that some day Mailer would resume his socialist faith (p124) --fat chance if "community" now declares for middle-class respectability & prissyness instead of embracing the dangers the collective of true individuals will always present to the political status-quo!
Tynan's quote from Mailer actually doesnt reflect what socialism would be for an English intellectual, then or now --it's excitingly contradictory or enigmatic : "As socialists, we want a Socialist world not because we have the conceit that men would therefore be more happy... but because we feel the moral imperative in life itself to raise the human condition, even if this should ultimately mean no more than that man's suffering has been lifted to a higher level." Hmm --suck on that, corporatists of left & right!)
It's fair to say that Janine Pommy Vega, to whom you referred in your last letter, is Old Guard by the above standard! Her beat-wandering seems eventually to have led to the anti-American world-view (minus the USSR, pro-what one wonders? : the Hugo Chavez-Mahmoud Ahmadinejad world-view?) if her contribution to a particular on-line web-site means anything, keeping company with 9/11 conspiratorialism & the rabid rest of it. Summarising her trip in an essay, Revelations of Companionate Love (published in Johnson & Grace's Girls Who wore Black, Rutgers, 2000), Mary Damon notes, "Since her return to the US (punctuated by long periods of travel in the interest of mountain climbing and spiritual pilgrimage/tourism), Pommy Vega has lived in rural upstate New york. She has continued her devotional practice by teaching writing workshops in the prison system. While her work and life no longer manifest a belief in the redemptive possibilities of romantically loving one man [her essay focusses upon Poems to Fernando (City Lights, 1968) in which SPV addressed the grievous loss of her husband, the Peruvian painter Fernando] but rather in being of service to incarcerated people generally (...) she practices a "poetics of service" through a continued contact with the abject, the outcast, and the poetic(...)"
Damon finds parallels between this Beat Generation woman and certain medieval mystics. Any critique of modern times would probably describe the increasing popular interest in every alternative to spiritually deficient & creatively shackled materialism, including, of course, the medieval ascetics & mystics whose example may well be reanimating contemporary monasticism & asceticism in all faiths. After all, our own delight in Buddhism & Taoism & contemporary alternative lifestyles has rather a lot to do with the dancing figures of the Han Shans, Issas, Bashos et al --thus Kerouac, Snyder, Ginsberg, Whalen, Kyger & all!
I'll leave it there for now.
Love as ever,
Dear Kris, Good to get your latest. You're in fine form, as usual. I must tell you I've never read Norman Mailer. Is that a big omission? I'm sure there are many others. Where you went in your reading, I usually followed --Emile Zola, D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, W.C. Williams etc... I think when you were reading Mailer I was veering towards Europe --nouveau roman... I've never read anything when i should have done! And now, living in the desert that is Weymouth, I'm right out of things.
Talking of being out of things : today I find myself thinking I'm turning into Dad --I've been gardening. First I was pruning the hydrangea in the front garden, cutting out last year's dead blooms --now there's no chance of frost burning the stems. I did it in the morning sun. Then, in the afternoon, I followed the sun around to the back and mowed the lawn. I know it's too soon to say but I think I've got the gardening bug and found the merit of work! I'm getting to know why Dad enjoyed it so much. The only mystery being that for someone who spent so much time in the garden why it wasn't a more wonderful place & space? Anyway, I've found that I'm able to garden. Never thought I would. I've passed through a barrier. To spur me on I have a few new books on gardening. Stanley Kunitz says in The Wild Braid (Norton, 2005), when asked what was happening in his garden at the end of March, "All is stirring. Hope is stirring." (p113) Kunitz who, at a hundred, has forty years on me, gives me hope! Wonderful.
I've been reading Wendy Johnson on gardening in Tricycle magazine for a number of years. Buddhists make wonderful commentators, and now I have her book, touted as forthcoming for ages --Gardening at the Dragon's Gate (Bantam, 2008). I would've liked more about Suzuki and Buddhism interspersed, as Ed Brown did in his Tomato Blessings and Radish Teachings (Riverhead Books, 1997), but it's still a great book. I was hoping Wendy Johnson would do an Ed Brown in my imagination. Both are students of Sunryu Suzuki, one a cook, one a gardener.
Funny how some dreams stick and others don't. Lately I can remember a dream of the Dalai Lama --we were playing fruit-machines together! I also dreamed of Gary Snyder --he was hanging out with Joanne Kyger. Just glimpses. The most memorable, tho', was a dream in which I was living at a Zen monastery type of place. I had my own rooms there. All my books were there, shelves and shelves of them, of which the other monks were jealous. So, one night, to bring them down a peg or two, I urinated over their collection of books and paintings. In the morning, as you can imagine, they were pissed off and wanted to punish and harm me in some way. But some Theravada monks arrived just then to save me. I seemed to recognize one of them, but back when I knew him he was a Korean Zen monk. "You've joined the Theravada monks now, have you?" I said to him. He just smiled and nodded, eyes knowing and twinkling. I felt saved. On waking, and for the next day, I felt well-disposed toward the Theravada. But soon after I was pleased to still be in the fold of Soto Zen!
Reading To Meet the Real Dragon by Gudo Wafu Nishijima (Windbell Publications, '92) and Dogen Zen (Kyoto Soto Zen Center, 1988), particularly the essay Dogen Zen as Religion by Uchiyama Roshi, have helped me keep on track. I've also been watching a DVD, Zen Meditation, from Throssel Hole Buddhist Monastery --very helpful.
Recently received a stash of DVD's from Wisdom Books, the pick of which was Zen Buddhism : In Search of Self. Filmed at a Zen temple in Korea, following a 90 day retreat by two dozen nuns. Love their grey robes! I know that's shallow but I've always loved that grey colour. And their socks! Korean Zen is softer, or should I say not as harsh as Japanese Zen. But the Soto Zen of Throssel Hole and Roshi Jiyu Kennett seems especially right and sane to me. So much for my current direction. Don't think I have time for other stuff, Christianity, Bede Griffiths. yoga etc. Life is short. Need to get a grip and be more focussed. I know you always say 'one doesnt preclude the other', but....... I know also that Kerouac went from one to the other and had a strong feeling for both. But I aint he. I'll be on the train to Hexham. And maybe stretch the Buddhism to include the Taoist trail...