The Journal of Cultural Semantics Vol 34 Issue 4
The Journal of Cultural Semantics
Volume 34 Issue 4 Fall, 1985
In this issue... The Living Brentano: A Festchriftt
- Brentano as Rhetorical Theorist by Malcom Newmann3
- Brentano as Teacher by William J. Olson18
- Brentano and McLuhan by Sean O'Branon31
- Brentano and Western Literacy by Bruce King48
- Brentano, Semiotics, and Popliar Cliture by Abby Dunne82
- And Brentano's final article,
- “Birth, Death, and Rebirth in “The Story of
Emily and the Time Machine.”by Jerome Brentano93
Birth, Death, and Rebirth in
The Story of
Emily and the Time Machine
Emily and the Time Machine
by Jerome Brentano
Dept. of English, Syracuse University
The popular album by
Buddy Newkirk, former lead vocalist of the
Reptiles, presents us with an interesting array of signifiers, drawn from
diverse mystical systems in Eastern and Western philosophy and religion, all tied up
in a package with some suggestive science-fictional wrappings. This McLuhanesque
probe of the text is an attempt to uncover and contextualize what appears to
be both a very personal piece of music, and a commentary on Being in Time.
Recorded live as a letter to Newkirk and transcribed unedited.
About the author:
Jerome Brentano was a professor of English at Syracuse University from 1977 until his death this year. He was widely known both as a literary theorist and also as a critic of media and popular culture. This transcript was found among his unpublished papers.
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Birth, Death, and Rebirth in
The Story of Emily and the Time Machine
Dr. Jerome Brentano
taped 1/11/85 transcribed 2/4/85
Buona Sera, Arturo. It is I, Jerome, this Friday evening, January 11, 1985. It's 11:33 and I'm taping this in my kitchen. Upstairs you can hear the sighing of water in the pipes and there's that easy feeling of people being peacefully asleep in their beds, wafting the air - a rarity in this house. It's hardly a peaceful house. I think every other day we have Medea here, done in Sicilian dialect with a few Marx routines thrown in. I can hardly wait for you to come here, toward the end of the month, and see this place. Actually, you'd love this kitchen. It has the tackiest wallpaper, and the nicest furniture, which I guess is symbolic of something, though I haven't quite figured out what, yet.
To get down to basics, your tape of Emily and the Time Machine arrived yesterday afternoon. I have listened to it at least three times, and I've familiarized myself with as much of the material as possible, and would like to give you my feelings on it. First of all, lets get right to the point: I think you've just got something monumental on your hands, it is a real fucking masterpiece. Uh, I think of one of Blake's visionary books, like America, a Prophecy , or Moby Dick , and that is not idle flattery. For an infidel, you certainly know how to prophesy. I think the Holy Spirit must be in your veins somewhere, because you are just breathing fire and Pentecost. Really exotic, great work. And like any great work, it has flaws, but it is the flaws of greatness, and they are part of the greatness. One thinks of the David by Michaelangelo: the hands are too big, but who gives a flying four-legged fiddler's fuck, it's still a great statue. And that is how I feel about Emily and the Time Machine.
Your premise is excellent. There is more to us than meets the eye, and that's e-y-e as in the rubbery cameras we use to apprehend the universe, as well as I, ego, first person singular. It is intriguing, and fascinating. It took me a little while - I played it first on a small recorder, and then I used a big tape deck with headphones, which made all the difference in the world. When I played it in the car, coming home from class, it teased me and it fascinated me, but it didn't grab me immediately on a gut level, like some of the music from Magic Warfare , but it did grow on me. Within the first fifteen minutes I was hooked. And you had me. And then, again, I listened to it a second time, and everything was completely clear after that. The wonderful way the things dovetail and foreshadow each other and then flash back.
Everything is very connected. Like, oh, gosh, uh, a tapestry. A dream tapestry, I guess would be the best way to put it. Uhm..layers and layers and layers, I feel like it was peeling a metaphysical onion, uh, lot of tears, peeling that onion, pardon the pun, but, um, a lot of pain, Buddy, and uh, you have a great deal of courage to share that pain with other people, most people don't and that's why they're in hospitals or est or tranked up to their necks on Thorazine. But, you do and that's why it's art.
The musical style was quite something, because it's a shift from your earlier
work which is more folksy and Dylanesque, and I think maybe it's that
you're moving away from at least the shadow of that kind of Old Testament
moral righteousness kind of feel to something uh, more mystical, uh, more
eastern and Aztec and all that other stuff that is in Emily . What can I
say? It's kind of more drug-oriented psychedelic rock, I hear a lot of Jim
Morrison in there, Doors, Lennon, and when it did get into more what I guess you
call street rock, acoustic rock, it's not Dylan anymore, now it's kind
of Springsteen, it's that, uh, that kind of street-wise sad tattered cutup
poignancy of Springsteen and Harry Chapin, really acrid bitterness uh that
somehow still manages to stay lyrical. Lots of...Lots of drug stuff here, I mean
we're talking about
you can see echoes of glass and light? Right.
Well, we know what THAT means... All I can say is...that... um...if your mode of
experimentation led you to do this, then I want to give up the incense
and the rosaries and drop a bit of acid myself.
Um. Let's get into it. Uh...I don't know what inspired you to write this odyssey of the Poet going back into the past to find his lover...or his feminine part or his anima or psyche or whatever the heck...I can only deduce that it had to do with the recent loss in your own life on that very personal level... ah...what makes you an artist and not one of these adolescent kids beating off on a typewriter is that you've managed to take that very personal loss in your life and turn it into something transpersonal and universal reaching into other implications that have to do with the culture and us. I don't know whether the breakup came first an then it was Emily or Emily started and kind of foreshadowed the breakup.
I remember Mahler, the young Gustav Mahler when he wrote his Kindertodten
Lieden-songs about dead children-and his wife would just bite her nails
when he'd be stooped over the piano, doing these really weird chords, and
Gustav, please don't do this.
Oh, mama, he says,
worry over nothing. And of course, no sooner did he finish the song cycle,
when his own two children died, they drowned, and his
wife really never forgave him for that, like , you know,
You are really tampering
with the primal forces, Mr. Beal, and, you know, it's
death of my
children in 3/4 time, not too good for poor old Gustav.
The reason I like Emily so much, being a real Dante freak, was um...its
kind of your version of La Divina Commedia. Only its has nothing to do
with Catholicism, but more to do with altered states and going back through the
past lives or the bits of past consciousness through the...through thought,
through the Time Machine, and going back to where
your baby was yours in
Atlantis. And that's what Time Machine #1 started off with. And you
went right into Cape Fear, which is very interesting because of the
dissonance, you use a lot of the dissonance and overdubbing and polytonality
even in your work here. I like Cape Fear. It was kind of a warm-up
number. I especially liked the inversion of MacBeth, you know,
tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, and you went “yesterday and
yesterday and yesterday." and then
creeps past this petty pace, usw.
as if the past and the future are both just dead ends inside the human skull and
there's no way out of it,
no way out of my mind, you say. Time is exile,
and solitary confinement, which seems to be...uhm...recurring over and over again,
in this work. Time time, time.
You go on to Emily, your Beatrice figure in your Divina Commedia,
changing, and all the strange incarnations, in this phantasmagoric roller
coaster ride. And it's interesting because she's always there in each of
the songs, even when she's not being mentioned by name, even when, say, I
think it's in White Subway, she's even Isis trying to stay the
crocodile. You make reference to
I saw her shooting the crucifixion so
she's Mary Magdalene and
sinking the Spanish Armada so she's
Queen Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen, so a goddess and whore and the virgin queen
and all that Triple Goddess good stuff. Men always go back, whether it was
Petrarch with his Lara or Dante with his Beatrice, they try to go back through
the ideal woman when it's not really woman as woman so much as the soul trying to reach, as
in all pre- patriarchal cultures, that power and reconnect the imagination, the
feminine psyche, anima. Anima. It's another nice Italian word that Jung copped
and tried to make like it was his own, but boy we've got all these Italian
pedagogues somewhere saying,
Carl, what the hell do you know?
I'm glad you called her Emily. Because it makes me think of Emily Dickinson, that archangel of interiority and this whole...what the heck can we call it, oratorio? I don't know what the heck to call it, this druggie Carmina Burana, whatever this thing is, its Emily as the prophetess certainly suits being the heroine of it.
Your work is best, and I want to say this right off, your work is best when it is
totally grounded in gritty, everyday reality. The word must be incarnate to be
sacramental, if you'll pardon this Baltimore Catholicism on my part. And,
uh, when you bring these really, uh, I guess esoteric-they weren't at one
time in our culture, but they've become esoteric-ideas to the forefront, and you have that knack of putting it in just
everyday stuff, like a guy going on a trip, or strumming his guitar, or you know,
reading science fiction on the IRT waiting for my stop to come. That is when
your work is best.
Uh, you got the next couple of songs, I guess three songs, coming up in which
most of the nuts and bolts of your cosmology are presented. And first is
I've Been Walking Alone. I canÉthe wonderful thing about these things
is that I can see you in them, and I can almost see the video as it's
happening. I see you with your guitar slung over your shoulder, with the
backpack and your down jacket.
It's another ending to another show,
you say. I don't know whether you mean that literally, whether you're
the Poet leaving a concert or whether it's the breakup of a romance or some
other charming thing.
Um, but always
another ending to another show, the whole thing of movies,
there's so much of movies in here, life is a movie. I dunno, maybe you've
been watching Siskel and Ebert a lot on television. Maybe they're
actually St. Peter and St. Paul and the Pope doesn't know yet, so please
don't tell or the poor man will just drop dead of a cardiac.
But uh, I liked this song because...um...the details which were solid and fleshed
out which prevented it from getting,
what the hell is this, you know?
Most people who try to write mystical music it's like, uh, setting the
Tibetan Book of the Dead to a tango, you know, it doesn't quite come
off. But you being still an ex-Catholic, having a bit of that good old Aquinan
stuff in you, with the senses and everything, kept it there. I'd like to go
over some of the...I guess the bridge thing, which contained your beatitudes
toward life and here we go, let's see:
There is no being, there is only pattern. Now that sounds like Buckminster
Fuller who said that man was more of a process than an entity. And it seems that
the soul is very fluid, it's not something solid or individual but is
capable of, like the old man of the sea, changing into all sorts of things. So,
maybe our concept of Being and Existence, ah, has got to change, because, the way it
is now, this single solid concrete number one identity (as Jung called the primary
personality) is pretty much bankrupt and can't cut it anymore. And all these
other, uh, voices inside us demand to have their moment on the stage to sing their
song. And if they don't, I think we're just going to go into a spasm of
anguish that's pretty much going to wipe us out.
Here we go.
There is no Beginning, only before and after. Well, you've always told
me that you think that time is cyclical, round, so that there's no starting
point of a circle and that's it. So, you know, you don't begin, it just
happens and then there's the before and after of it because it always
happens, its happening now and its happening somewhere else at the same time,
so, uh, pretty strange stuff.
No Spirit, only Matter. Now you are...um...I think this whole notion of
the closed system, hm? Nothing outside of it, uh, I would, there's this
wonderful line in To the Lighthouse, in which the professor and his
young assistant are playing on the tennis court, and he just
comes out with, he's been working on a paper about, uh, thought being physical.
And then the the young man, his student objects, saying,
well, that's so
cynical. He says it's not cynical, it's a fact, and then when the
little twit is about to object, the professor glares at him and says,
Thought is meat or something like that and, um, if thought
is actually matter, then of course thought can change matter. And the possibilities
of that are well, maybe interesting to explore. I wonder if we have the guts to do
No madness, only laughter. Which I suppose means
let go and enjoy,
which we don't, we would just rather lock each other up.
has been brought from without...and all that's within. Without
and within, or something like that. You know, it's like we have
swallowed the gods and we puke up the sky. There's something very similar
that Norman O. Brown said, in I think Life Against Death or Love's
Body, I forget which book, but he took, um, Freud's thought, and he placed it alongside
Greek mythology, and Christian theology, to try to give it a new perspective. And he
said that Freud somehow missed the boat. Uh, Freud, I remember said,
Where id is,
there shall ego be. But Brown says, no, it's where Ego is, there shall
Id be, because ego is an extension of id and id is actually the outside that's
inside, and that's the big secret, you know, the outside IS the inside, and
there's no difference.
I mean, once you accept that, you're completely at home and nothing can really frighten you anymore. Nothing can panic you. There's nothing to hate anymore, because there's no Enemy, there's no division. All is one. And that's the big secret. And that's why we build cities and systems and stuff to protect ourselves from that, because we can't handle that. You really can't. I guess its safer to have an enemy, or something.
There is no inspiration, only repetition. I guess no new ideas, only new
patterns of old thoughts which are continually reprocessed.
No enlightenment, only decision. Once again, well, you don't believe
in the descent of the Holy Spirit, because there's nothing outside the
System which will open our eyes, but only the knowledge that comes through
choice and action I believe there's another line in this song that says,
You are what you do.
No truth, only precision. Well, I remember Jackie Zeichner once saying to
God, he said, you know with that William Hurt face with those rimless
glasses of his, and you know that just, trying to make his face as blank as
possible, he loves doing that because it makes people think he's a zombie
when he's one of the most sensitive, intelligent people who you'd ever
want to meet. He just looked at me, he was trying to provoke me, you know, he
God. Ultimate truth is so boring. I go really, Jackie? like, I go,
boy, this guy thinks he's Kirilov in Dostoyevsky's The Possessed,
right, so what's his hang up? And then I...he gave me a little wink, and I
had to think about that. What does he mean? I guess, um, something that I read
about what 'ole D. H. Lawrence said, that every moment has its own god, and the idea is
to find the god within the moment. And that's what you mean by precision, I mean
just defining the god for the moment and then letting the moment pass and letting
the other god come and defining that one.
And I liked one of your last lines, of course,
The Serpent and the Birth of
Vision. Which of course is of course, god help us, back to Christian
mythology here in the knowledge of good and evil and Old Nick in the Garden but
probably, also allusion for the first time to the serpent that eats its tale
i.e. time, which just keeps recurring over and over again later on in
And then, something wonderful happens. You, he's either put himself, put
behind the loss of this relationship, or is getting ready to go on the road,
it's ambiguous, but whatever it is, the music gets really perky and he/you
sing Come Along. Which is really first rate, and fun and one of the few
genuinely joyous pieces in Emily. And I like that because its kind of a
rallying cry for seekers.
Ancient ruined temples, prophets, in your sleep, which of course is a
foreshadowing of things to come in, uh, White Subway and Equals. I
really have to, once again, commend you on your arrangement of material. It just
comes, everything's just going down, not quite like a hall of mirrors, but like,
I don't know, it's just right.
Then we go into Cape Fear II and this is even weirder than Cape
Fear because you not only get the sense of disillusion, you know,
she's not the girl she used to be, you know, top that with
you're not the god you used to be. To me. Not only dissolution, but
dis-soul-lution, just melting, in fragments, and also, reference for the
first time to the
icy waste, and very interestingly enough, in the Pit in
Hell, the eighth circle, excuse me, the ninth circle- can never get those
circles straight, it's like some New Jersey turnpike interchange down
there-but way down there in the pit, that's where Cain is, and Judas and all
the real people who turned their back on life and grace and humanity. If you
want...I don't think you've ever read the Commedia, I'd like to share
some passages with you someday, it's just brain-frying stuff.
It's amazing that somebody who lived so long ago could see certain things developing now, like, the Logical Disaster. Some of the passages in Hell just read like uh EPA reports. Really frightening things, when you talk about that Icy waste.
Eh, you know, it's ah 11:57 my accent, it a-comes out now, you should hear me at one o'clock in the morning. Honest to god sometimes I can't speak english, I have to start talking Italian because like one part of my consciousness is just shutting off, and you know, like, the Blood speaks at this point.
But, um, the ice that is alluded to here will later, uh, shall we say, come into its own in Titanic, with the big mountains of ice. Big, big big.
Then we come to a song called Equals. It's beautiful, and I liked it,
but when first heard it, I didn't understand it, because I was just
listening to the tune. The second time I heard it, I played it twice to get all
the words, and this reassurance from the Voice of our Ancestors, the Old Gods
and Godesses, the old Bards, and the thing about them is they're just as human as we
are now. I mean,
we are just like YOU they say over and over in the song,
they just had the gift of prophecy, Buddy, that insight, that love of imagination. I
dunno. Faith? That leap of faith? Hm..
And it's not that the world has become dead, it's our eyes that have gone
dead, Buddy, you know. I think we're stifling the
crying priestess buried
in our minds, as you put it. You know, we talk about the miracles of the
Bible and all that, you know in Ezekiel and John on Patmos, I mean, what did
they see? Were they these special people that could see things like that? No.
They were just in tune to things. Moses saw an ordinary bush. I'm
absolutely convinced that it was just an ordinary bush, but for him it
was so flamingly, blazingly THERE, that it seemed on FIRE. And in fact, it WAS
on fire, because his mind said it was. So, poof. There it went. And,
gosh, maybe all miracles were like that. It would be wonderful if we could do
that again, but...what the heck.
After that we go to
White Subway, which is very interesting because you
take...um...the chord progression to
Time Machine but you just give it a
kind of train feel to it, and I like that because once again, here we are in a
New York subway. Now of course, what you're doing is that, you're
mainlining down Western Consciousness going back back back back back à la
Altered States not so much evolutionary lines, but, um, archetypal
lines. Ancestors' lines. I like the white sub-rap. I also like the way you
start off, you just go,
Which is one of your favorite words, I've known for all these years, that's one of your favorite words because it's a creation ex nihilo, I guess that's where we all have to start. Nothing.
Thought lines are train lines...it's real good. Subway. The Sub-way. Interesting that we never pick apart our words but you know when we say we understand something, which means we have to stand under it. The underworld. Jung with a subway token, that's really cute to see...Jung on a subway. There's an interesting story about Jung.
He always tried to get to Italy, you see. I love these Krauts. They always try to act like pagan guineas but they can never pull it off, cause they're too uptight, so whenever...he got as far as Zurich, you know, and he got on the train platform, and he collapsed, he kept fainting, just kept having these fainting spells. Freud too, just could not take Italy or Greece. He just couldn't, you know, no matter how much he tried to write about pagan gods, but you know, Italians and Greeks were pagan, naturally, so we have no real trouble when we go to Germany, but we freeze our balls off so I guess we're even all around.
Love your lyrics. They're very good, They're that kind of T.S. Eliot
simplicity, that honed precise kind of everyday language.
Check your broken
whimpering widow piety. Which I'm afraid is what passes for religion
in our society. And then,
If we haven't been in this very same place, we
wouldn't understand each other. as if we're all going through
this damn thing over and over and over again. I liked your rather scientific
of the archetypes.
Broken I guess, sensory experiences that are,
the diffraction of space, I think you called them.
Not carved in
stone, which is good, because if they were, they'd be idols, and you
know how idols have fucked us up for the past four thousand years. Um, kinda raw
goods floating around out there floating through us, washing over us, kinda like
floating pieces of psychic DNA that we convert into our dreams, reveries,
imaginations, but we give the shape to it, we. I guess that's why Gardner called
the Poet in Grendel, the Bard, he called him the Shaper. The Shaper.
Out of the future, out of the suburbs, into the urban past. Living like a
monster in the heart of the city. Yup. You'd like a short story by
Flannery O'Connor, called, The Heart of the Park, which is kind of
like this, not exactly, but kind of paralleling some of your themes, uhm, she
later incorporated this into her novel called, Wise Blood. But
there's this really degenerate Southern City, I think um, probably Mobile,
but it's a fictitious version of Mobile, and in the middle of the city is the Zoo, and there's this zookeeper
named Enoch Emory, who made a great discovery in the museum house.
And he wants to show it to this jaded man named, in the story, Hazel Wickers, who will later become Hazel Moats the man who tries to run away from being a prophet in O'Connor's novel. And what is in the museum, in the very center, of the city, in the heart of the park, in the heart of the urban soul is a glass case with a shrunken man in it.
It seems this poor son of a bitch fell into the hands of Aborigines in Australia, and he somehow got on their bad side, so they cut his throat, drained him of every drop of blood, and they shrunk him, and they sent him back to civilization and said, now don't you ever come and fuck with us again like this. And so as a kind of warning, they put this shrunken man into, um, under a glass case and, um, that's just what we all are.
We're all shrunken heads or as you would call it I guess,
Angels, cause we justÉI guess we've limited everything that is
human to petty and stupid and vulgar and so we get exactly what we deserve in our lives.
We fell out of time, we fell out of space, we lost our synch with the
world. And I think in every religion the notion of salvation is to be in
synch. Dante in the Paradiso says,
in His will is our peace. And
the wonderful thing I think you'd like about the Commedia is that
it's not, the whole notion of salvation, is not a matter of moral
perfection, but of insight, vision, and of marrying your will to the larger will
of life. Not even this biblical servile obedience, which I know gets your goat,
but life in general, and, yes, we all want to get back in synch.
I was really surprised when this train with the yellow glass windows, when it
does its time bit and sees the mythical cities of the Old Testament, Ur and
Chaldea. And I like that very much because, uh, I happen to detest cities
myself, I call New York necropolis because I think that's where most of our
dead thoughts collect and walk around and act like zombies at hot dog stands as
it is. Quite the opposite of Joseph Campbell's line in The Hero With a Thousand Faces, which is
the latest incarnation of beauty and the Beast are waiting on the
corner of Fifth Avenue for the light to change. Sorry Joe. We're fresh
out of Beauty.
I like the way you phrase it,
we came down from our caves, down out of the
savannahs, and the primitive wonder of being hunters and gatherers and
we built these metropolises where of course, as in every city, TIME is MONEY.
And it's good of you to use the Old Testament cities because I like you to
remember who founded them: People like Cain and Lamech and
Nimrod, the fratricides and butchers and blasphemers. And they're the
direct result of the murder of Abel and it eventually led to Babel where our
language was confounded and we were scattered to the four corners of the world.
Then you did something else. I wish you'd have evoked Egypt a little more. We just come to Egypt and it blows up with this frigging volcano. If it is a volcano and not some bomb. I don't know how this part of Egypt goes up in smoke, but it is the death of the Old Religion. And, um, you make one passing allusion to the city by the Palisades, which is of course, New York, but you get into that more in the next song, Moving Clox.
Now I was wondering why, when you were plumbing the old gods and the archetypes, why you didn't use the Roman pantheon, which are like where I'd be coming from, or the Norse or Celtic gods, which is where you, as an Irishman would be coming from. I had to think about that. And then I remembered that (pardon the coughing) your whole novel and Emily, as part of your novel, is about parallelism, so there had to be parallels between the Old World and the New World here in America. And all the Old Testament cities and people were the North American Indians, which you know, that's what the Mormons say.
Surprisingly enough, Donny and Marie can be right about some things. And you also mention that the Iroquois were the last remnants of lost Atlantis, and also, however, the white settlers who came here. They're the Puritans saying that they're the New Israel, the Elect. And the Old Testament, and I guess that's how it works itself out as well. As for the Egyptians, those pyramid makers, well, their parallels are in South America, of course, the Aztecs and the Mayans and the Incas. They built pyramids as well. They look a little different, but basically they're the same: the same obsession with calendar systems, the same kind of sun worship. So these twoÉ what can I sayÉ cultural pools that have formed America now are linked geographically and archetypically and that link is Atlantis, which Plato, who was no gossip monger, claimed was this big fucking continent in between those two worlds. So it was the bridge, the stepping stone. Pretty interesting, pretty interesting stuff.
Humor will crop up in your work at the most welcome times, to take some of the
edge off, and it does in this song when you say
Just remember, baby, it's
her movie too which broke me up. And I think, my wife up too, if I
remember right. You see, my brain is mush right now, it's getting toward one
o'clock, so I could think it was Emma Goldman listening with me. Don't listen
to me, I'm just a raving maniac right now.
The last line sums up your philosophy, I think, that
subjectivity is the price
of being free. For you, um, the world is an amorphous chaos that only we
give shape to in our heads. And that is probably the most inalienable right to
you, the right to do that, outside of any constitution, dogma or anything else.
Which is, same as it ever was, the poets' creed.
Time Machine #2 is the most seamless segue and it fits perfectly. Then you
go into Moving Clox Run Slow, which is, of course, an allusion to
Einstein's Theory of Relativity, which is that, as you know, time slows down
as you approach the speed of light. But I think it might also refer to a kind of
interior clock, kind of when we become moving clocks, that is, we
don't want to stay still in one form of thought pattern, or something, and
let go and kinda go for the whole ride. Time will slow down for us, and may be
less oppressive and malevolent. That's kind of what I pick up from the rest of
your work...this is another journey back in time along ancestral lines. Not a
cultural one, however, but a personal one. What we have here is a typically..see
Madison Avenue...Yuppie New Yorker caught in his own little plastic lifestyle, I can
almost see the place, white sterile decor, dead relationship,
somebody to get
burned with. Again, I love the earthy touches in the work-t makes the song
This shit means nothing to me. Just like the melody, this warped bitter,
dammit-here-I-am- stuck-in-this-hell-hole kind of thing. I like the allusion to
Let's Make a Deal, you bounce up and down, you say you've won the
prize. Which is like a debased parody of the ancient rituals of putting on
feathers and makeup and becoming the gods which we flash back to later on in
I'm the shaman, I'm the child in the wilderness, I'm
the Mind you always dreamed of...I'm something you can't deal
with. Which is creativity. And as you've said, in America, if we
can't sell it, we don't want to know about it. Because if we did, that
means there'd be something greater than our own values.
Flashing back to the Iroquois was good. It's interesting. It's a tribe that is usually portrayed in a negative light, one thinks of the Last of the Mohicans, with Uncas. And Magwa was the head nasty in that one and he was an Iroquois, I think, or a Mohawk but the New York tribes have never gotten the big write up lately that say, the Pueblos and the Hopi have. So I found that refreshing, and it's also fitting, because they were the Native Americans around the New York area. I think your wanting to go back to native lifestyles has less to do with Rousseau's noble savage kind of nonsense, as just the Native American ability to turn everything into religion. I mean, everything. And...um...for us whitefolk, it's only something you do for an hour on Sunday between yawns. And for them, everything was religious because they were one with nature.
Um...some really touching imagery about the
Eye of god watching us; the hand
of god was upon our backs. and of course, the masks, which, being an Italian,
appeal to me because of the Commedia del Arte which is just full
of le masquerie. And there's an old man who...um ...here in
Syracuse...and he had a Commedia del Arte troupe and we talked one afternoon.
And he said,
You know, the man who will not wear a mask for a moment ends up
being a hypocrite the rest of his life. It was kind of,
Please, uh, let me write that down, sir, and please don't say that I ripped
that off from you, which will be good. But wearing masks lets all our other
personalities come out. And we're not trapped in one mode of being. And
therefore, we don't have to be so fucking lonely. You know?
And life is prayer. Pantheism. We are the universe, we are the gods.
ago, you say,
we gave up the power to change what we saw, the power
to take what is there and make it what it should be. Which is of course,
the imagination, and we really don't have imagination anymore. And without
imagination, Buddy, well, time becomes a trap. That's why our lives are
walking nightmares, because we are stuck with history instead of fiction. History, as Joyce
said, is the nightmare we're all trying to wake up from.
Because time, Buddy, is the only dimension that is totally subjective. I mean, look at all the fucking different calendars we have: The Julian, the Gregorian, the Russian calendar, the Arabic calendar, the Jewish calendar. Hell, during the French Revolution they created their own calendar. Remember the Pirates of Penzance, where Frederick had his birthday on February the 29 so he's 24 years old, but he's not because he's really six. So the pirates say, because leap year's every four years. It's crazy like that, but that's the way time is.
And that's contained within our thoughts. In fact, it's the only dimension-not like matter, or space-that's a preconception which we try to force upon the universe. No wonder we get slapped in the face all the time. I mean, God created eternity, Man created time, and he's been paying for it ever since. I mean, I mean, every second is a little death knell, Bud, because we've been exiled from our own heartbeats. And the world becomes transmogrified.
There's this great line out of Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury.
Mr. Compson gives Quentin, his son, a watch, before he goes away to Harvard, and
he tells Quentin that this is the reductio ad absurdum of all human
endeavor, and he goes on and on in this really gloomy monologue which I think
you'd just eat up anyway. And then he says,
you know, Christ wasn't
crucified, he was ground to bits by the gears of a watch. Whew.
You know, eternity is that way we experience time when we're in synch with
everything. But we've fallen out of that. That's the bad news. But the
good news is that if you can fall out of something, you can fall back
into it, if you only know how. I wish we'd think about that a little more;
maybe we wouldn't be such crazy people. You go into something
and found dead/we are the lost and found dead which reminds me of that
line in, I suspect it's an allusion to 1984, O'Brien tells
Winston and Julia “You are the dead,” because they know the
lie of the state. And...um...even if they have
the truth within themselves, and whatever small rippling effect they can have,
isn't going to change the Beast all that much. But they're like prophets in the
land of athiests, “We are the dead.”
I don't know if we're the lost and found dead people - you know, we got lost and somebody finds us dead - or we're the lost and found dead, like Bartleby the Scrivener, the dead letter office. I imagine this great big storage room where all these dead souls are, and all people's articles are stored, mismatched in identical shoeboxes. And throughout eternity people come in with these slips and they try to reclaim their belongings but everything's all mixed up and it's very bureaucratic and unpleasant and altogether not much fun.
Side B was a real asskicker. Um, Time Machine #3 was the best one simply
because it was the eeriest. It just ends,
And you're nowhere... kind
of Rod Serling Twilight Zone kind of feel to that. And then we come to
something - I've got to just get down on my knees and genuflect - it's the
best thing you have ever written or done or anything. Titanic.
Uhm, why is this so magnificent? Well, because nothing is out of place. Because the event itself is the symbol, not an event studded with symbols but the event itself is the symbol and even if people... You see...everything preceding Titanic is just fine, it's very good work. But you see Art, I've talked to you, and I've read the same books that you've read, and I'm interested in the same kind of things that you are in, and so I could pick up on a lot of these things. But how many people would do that? How many people have had the privilege of talking to you? And you know, discussing your outlook on things? All these...I don't think that people can connect with all these ah, no no! Oh. Boy, the heat just came on and I'm blowing away. I've got to gain more weight, Art, what can I say. But I don't know if people can connect to all the gods and the archetypes that you've mentioned, but they can, I think, connect to the Titanic. I mean, my god, it's just what, 1910 that thing went down under? Not too long ago, I mean, there are people still alive that were on the Titanic. It's very, very relevant still. A Night to Remember, as the book said. I won't be ashamed to tell you that when I heard it, for the first time, I cried, because it was that poignant.
Now why did it have that effect? Well, because you managed to create a real
person in that song, someone you got to know. I guess, Art Newkirk in a previous
incarnation, as this scientist in the early teens, an American expatriate in
Ireland who gets a letter from his estranged lover after an absence of eight
All is forgiven, come back to New York. And there's
something else in this song that doesn't usually appear in your work - you
are one of the great apostles of Free Will that I've ever encountered-but
the fatalism, the sense of foreboding and doom and destiny throughout Titanic is
just like nothing I've ever seen in your work before. Uh, It's
heart-wrenching stuff, a kind of uh, that Philip Nolan resignation,
far, far better thing... He knows he's gonna die, so what the hell. But it's like, the moment that
scientist steps aboard that ship, he knows he's not going to see Emily. He knows
he's not gonna make it. But hey, let's go through it anyway. Uhm.
As usual, you managed to include your jagged- edged irony which...it fit...in
there, your little swipes at the bridge builder and the railroad magnate (uh,
which you'll want to check. I think the Roebling who went down on the
Titanic was actually the bridge builder's nephew) but, the real beauty of
that song is all those very concrete details: The smell of the diesel oil,
that's always there, which just ties in naturally to the next line about
the technology that supports you that comes naturally out of that very
casual detail. Uhm, the scientist standing,
Well, here I am, Emily, with a
drink in my hand, that's how you remember me. That two-edged
yeah, I guess I used to drink before but that's how
you're going to have to remember me now because I'm going down with
this ship. Ha ha ha. And also the usual Irish feline grace of making
even nihilism seem humorous in which,
lifeboat drill? In the middle of the
ocean? which just borders on that fine line between screaming and laughing,
because it's so absurd.
Uhm. Your reading, or reciting - don't know if you ad-libbed all this, or if
it was scripted-but whatever you did, there is just the right amount of
detachment in your voice. It's almost as if he's dead already and
he's just reliving his life for the sake of the story. But those little
Huh, it's a game. They're going out onto the squash
courts with their pajamas. And they're playing with the ice. Just
that little bit of laughter, in like, god, that's funny, that's cute,
let me forget that we've just gotten a big rip in the side of our hull and
the pumps are going, let me forget that for a moment. Just, a lot of little
moments like that throughout your recitation which give it its power.
There's a strange cameraderie here on deck. We've managed to round
up most of the booze, scotch and the bourbon - there was a bit of cynicism on
your part. There really was a great deal of nobility on that ship, uh,
albeit that there were swine who forced the poor people to
ride in the bowels of the ship so they would drown first, but, there were moments of
real gallantry and heroism. Uh...one small thing. You will want to check the dates
on the Potato Famine. Minor technical point.
The wonderful sequence in which, starting with Mother Ocean, you're so cold, you know it's the whole notion of the cold and the Water Ice. That kind of northern consciousness-American-Anglo- Saxon consciousness-being very cool and rational and dying, this ship, everybody dying in the North- West Atlantic, symbolic about a way of thought. If you don't read into that, it's okay, they're still drowning in this place and even if nobody makes that connection. It's still a valid detail unto itself.
The overwhelming sense of lonliness that colors Titanic, I mean when
he's walking on the promenade of A deck saying,
so far from home, so far
from you, so far from salvation. And then finally to lose the struggle
and get sucked down by the sinking ship with all the other lost souls at the
bottom of that icy sea, uhm, saying
I loved you Emily. Did you ever really know
That's just very moving. You are to be commended on writing a heartbreaker
that manages to...it's not sentimental, heartbreaking, but it approaches
tragedy. It approaches,
Oh lonely death on lonely life, what Captain Ahab
says just before he goes out for the last time to meet the white whale.
I've been singing. That's the song that has stuck with me most, and I run
bits and pieces of the dialogue in my head. It's just the best thing
you've ever done. And you have every right to be proud, not only in the
concept, but in the execution. When he says,
I see the hands/hands in the
water reaching up/hands in the lifeboat reaching down as the music just
comes in under the spoken word and the bed takes over, perfectly. Just
perfectly. Wonderful job of mixing. From start to finish, uh, without
reservations, magnificent. And, um, thank you for letting me hear it.
Now for the rest, I don't want to seem that I want to make the rest of your tape seem cut and dried, but its getting late and my eyes are like hanging out of my sockets here.
The most powerful thing out of Titanic is, I guess, the indictment of just
being a member of an extremely corrupt society, I mean, you can't help being
born, you can't help being born into a really shitty society, but somehow
you get tangled up in the web anyway, even with the best of intentions. And when
the scientist wanders the deck saying,
you know, I'm a scientist, but
I'm also a member of this wonderful regime. And we built the Titanic, I
built the Titanic, as if I drove every rivet myself personally, as if I drew
graphs, stresses, safety factors. That little bit of irony on your part
because there wasn't that much safety on that ship, you know? And how
the technology we use is what eventually corrupts and destroys us.
We, because, you see, Art, there's this really sick, sick, sick, sick tick, sucking the blood out of the cerebral cortex of the western mind, that has convinced us that somehow we are not part of the natural process. We stand away from it, and therefore to exploit it, and to do whatever we want to it is perfectly all right. However, since we are, in fact that part of the natural world that is in fact the consciousness of the natural world, what we do, actually, is maim ourselves and eventually commit suicide. Every form of technology does that. I mean, with the Industrial Revolution, we managed to turn work into drudgery, we broke up the basic equality of the sexes that had existed, if not culturally instituted, at least in the everyday working reality of the family on the farm. You know, ma and pa did the chores equally, and they really weren't up on their high horse. But when Pa had to sell himself as a slave, to go work in the factory, and Ma stayed home, well that bred resentment, that just aggravated a lot of western gender disequilibrium and a whole lot of stuff there. And we built machines so that we could make our work easier, but we alienated ourselves from our bodies, so now we're hopelessly addicted to our machines, and daily become more like rubber dollies. And now we're hopelessly addicted to television, and so our imagination is going down the shithole and we're going to be hopelessly addicted to computers, and there will go linear thinking, so I don't know what the hell's going to be left. Maybe we should just, you know, turn in our keys and become amoebas or something. Amoebas with tennis shoes and Walkmen. Because, um, ain't much left of our humanity at this point. But who knows. Maybe we'll wake up and start Charlie Manson I love you clubs or something.
On to the rest of your stuff here. Genius Gone Insane, has a nice haunting
quality, I know that title is a line from something, but it escapes me at this
hour. Bottom of the Well is good. Brain Death has one of the best
lines, and most Newkirkian lines I've heard:
I'm tired of explaining
things to you motherfuckers. You know, believe me, I can empathize with
that. You've been to the MLA...
Nothing Humanly Possible what with all the Swedeborgian stuff before this,
this certainly brings a kind of humbling note to your vision, like,
No, I am not Jesus of
Nazareth, and I cannot raise the dead and I cannot, uh, save the cursed.
Interesting thing I found about Nothing Humanly Possible is that it's
the same chord progression that you used for On the Trail of Mars, off
Magic Warfare, pretty much, it's just arranged a little differently.
Waiting for Fall is really nice, it's one of my favorite pieces on
the tape, but, ah, it's a little too high for you. Though again, you are
trying to give that straightjacket kind of feel of this man going through the
torments of the damned, as he remembers what could have been in The Fall, and
He just like Me, now if she's got somebody else and that
doesn't sit too well.
Time Machine #5 was just wonderful because it just keeps getting faster and faster and faster at the end. At first I thought that should have been included earlier, because so much of what was going to happen after Emily and Walking Along is incorporated in the last Time Machine, but then I thought, well no, because the whole thing is a circle anyway. So what the heck. It really doesn't matter.
So that's pretty much it, except for the final Emily which is, you know, sums it all up, and uh seems that the Poet going back in time didn't find what he wanted to find, and I'm sorry for that. Uh, I'm sorry there was no beatific vision.
Uhm, please, allow yourself to be blessed every once in a while, I know it's
hard, because like Rilke said,
every angel is terrible, and usually
blessings are these wonderfully, beautifully wrapped things, like pretty
birthday presents, with a dark jack-in-the-box inside, so you open it up
thinking its, wow, maybe some canned fruit or a new tape recorder or something
and out pops the graying jack-in-the-box,
Grrroooohr. Oh. Fancy meeting
you again, Porginello. Ciao. But as Camus said, happiness too, is inevitable. It
Now. That is all that I could glean from it, and I'm sorry to have rambled so much, as I have tried to prepare myself as best as possible, uh, before I started this tape, I really didn't have the time to write anything to you, but I want you to know that this has definitely gotten under my skin, um, I think this will always be a part of me now. I know that's really pretentious kind of talk but its true, uh, I know the last tape you gave me is a part of me, and I thank you for that.
One of the interesting things about your philosophy, I don't know if it's
a contradiction but there's a certain paradox. You're into matter so
much, and you know the Thereness of things, and the metaphysics of flesh, as
Marcuse said, but everything seems to be
we've got to get into the time
machine and change things all the time. And maybe its because, uh,
you're the tragedian and I'm the comedian, because in comedy we like to
take things as they are every once in a while and just enjoy them for what they
Hm. You know, that's what the whole thing's about. You know that, with
the wonderful kaleidoscope we call our heads, there is so much you can do inside
all these worlds you can make, but as far as connecting, you say,
there is no
common vision, and I guess that's true, but what does unite us are the,
well, I wouldn't say mundane, but more fleshy things.
That's why I guess in my tradition we say
Body of Christ we don't say
Soul of Christ or
Thought of Christ but
Body of Christ because
it's really in our bodies that the true unity, if it ever's going to
happen in the planet, will take place.
Though, well, oh, we get hungry, you know, and we all have to go to the bathroom, and we all have to share a blanket with somebody, every once in a while, hear the surf. Taste cheddar cheese on whole wheat crackers, you know. Those things will unite.
I remember Yeats saying the difference between comedy and tragedy was that, like, human beings were these reservoirs lined up next to each other and tragedy likes to break the dikes and watch this great flood of passion come out whereas comedy likes to build these little cottages on the dikes and have everybody over for tea.
Um. That's more the things that are coming out in my work, hopefully in
novels that, god willing, I'll be able to write in about 10 years. One thing
I've always admired about you is that inner confidence you have that
working on it, I'm working on it, it's good, I know it's good, and
if they don't understand it, well, fuck them. I know know it's good,
and, one day it will have its say.
I remember Gregor Mendel, that wild Augustinian monk who came up with modern
genetics, he labored for years on ten thousand pea plants getting it all right,
getting the evidence right, and he put it all in his notebooks, and there must
have been hundreds of them. And um, he became abbot, in extremis, he
became abbot, of his monastery, and he knew, when he died, that those books
would just either be neglected or destroyed. He had already been ignored by some
of the quote unquote finest minds of his time, when he presented the case for
genetic law. But he told his nephew
I don't care, I'm not worried, my
day will come. And I will be vindicated. When he died, he died very
peaceful man, and unfortunately he called the card right, because the next abbot
burned the books. It wasn't even out of malice. I can forgive an Inquisitor, but an
asshole, never. I mean, he just didn't know what the hell they were.
Oh, no, they're not useful just take them out and throw them in the ashheap.
So here I am. I'm going to be 55 on the 22 of this month, the Feast of St. Vincent, the martyr who gave his life for a vineyard, it seems fitting that that's the kind of saint that would fall on my birthday. I feel like I'm 80, Art, and I don't know, I keep writing and writing and writing, and improving and rewriting, and it's a very thankless job. I don't think I need to tell you that, very few friends, I hardly see Clara as much as I would want. And, I don't know if any of it will be of any worth. But I straighten my shoulders, as spindly as they are, and press on, as best I can, gosh. Lately I've been thinking that the real opus major in my life should really Be my life, I mean it's really the strangest thing about writers. They'll agonize over every little word, these splotches of ink on peeled skin off trees, but they'll let their own lives become hack work, you know. I don't want that, I'd like to have a little finesse and style and grace and beauty in my own life. I mean it should be as well written as a story.
So we'll see. I think I'll try that which is always best. Huh. The one thing I regret in our friendship is, um, oh, not doing more ordinary things, you know? I'm not sure we've ever gotten over being teacher and student. I know I have this Bob Cratchit air about me that drives you up a wall as it does most people, but, um, you know, just take it, just take it as, um, well, take is as an overweight mind trying to do ballet warmup exercises or something, something along those lines. Pink bodysuit and tutu and the mismatched ballet shoes on a bicameral medulla.
I would have liked to have walked with you on the piers of Asbury Park when you played down there, that would have been a real nice Kafkaesque experience we could have shared. Or meeting you again at Umberto's in Little Italy. Or lying on the grass in Central Park waiting for Shakespeare tickets, or something. I like you very much. I've never been able to get close to you, I guess because of our divergent cosmologies, but Italians don't really give a hang about that. Um, I only hope you take much much of this sputtering with a good deal of tolerance and affection What can I say? I admire you very much, I honor what you try to do and the way you try to live your life as honestly as possible-your commitment to your work, to trying to, I guess, make this poor forked animal try to realize that what is in the soul is the same material that makes up the stars as well as the earth. Gotta have a good sense of humus. Ooh. Sorry. Bad. That's really all I guess I'll say.
I know, um, we won't ever be close. And even now, when I say like,
really love Art, I feel I really profane the word because I think of it
as an intrusion, or an impertinence on my part. But you are a great soul and you
are a good man, Buddy, and just allow yourself to be happy, a bit, sometimes. I
know that sounds hypocritical coming from me, concerned as writers are with the
telling moment, the signifier that Brings It All Back Home,that tiny object, moment, turn of phrase
or inflection that suddenly reawakens everything, writing is like a Time
Machine, and its craft is finding just such devices, and it could be a mere
bagatelle, just letting everything come back in one unpleasant Proustian rush. And
there you are again, just two scuttling claws on the bottom of the sea. But, you
know, who knows. You might find Emily again in the Time Machine. Oh, Chronos...
you....you...Odysseus of Brooklyn.
Um. Gosh, I think I'm taking so long to finish now because hopefully you'll not have shut this off or thrown this in the garbage pail, but it's hard for me not to kind of use humor as this bullfighter's cape, especially around people that I think I've, wouldn't say offended, not in your case, but that I might annoy. Oh enough of this nonsense, actually.
So, there's much you can do with this, and I hope you explore as many options as possible. And now I sound like John Houseman, because my throat is so raw from talking. It is twenty of two, I'm normally not up this late. And I thank you for your time and patience. Mr. Hart, you are an ambulance chaser not a lawyer. And in signing off, I wish to say don't let entropy eat your socks, and hopefully I will be hearing more from you soon. Goodbye, Mr. Newkirk. Ah.
Thanks to our departmental secretary, Dora Finney, for her perseverence in the face of what seemed an unending spool of tape.
And to my wife, Clara, for sleeping through it.
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