Category Archives: Literature

In Search of Elusive Metaphors

 The Art of Travel Writing

gulfofcalifornia
Gulf of California

TRAVEL WRITING IS JOURNALISM WITH AN EMPHASIS ON PLACE rather than events. It may or may not aim for objectivity, but almost inevitably it explores states of mind– that of the writer, and of the people who dwell along the path the writer wanders. It may even presume to convey the attitude of the land, on the assumption that nature speaks a language humans can interpret.

Apart from when it serves a utilitarian function– such as guiding tourists to exotic locales– the travel narrative stands alongside the novel, biography, poem, history, and essay as a genre aspiring to high art. As such, it requires of the author meticulous attention to detail and mood, an ability to vividly convey fleeting events, sensations, and thoughts, the capacity to sort out myriad impressions, to eliminate tedium, and to interpret information by placing it in various contexts, be they historical, environmental, or personal. Far more than news reporting, where the focus is on an issue, travel writing involves recreating an atmosphere, crafting a story imbued with dramatic tension and rendered in such a way that readers come away from it exhilarated, dreamy, despondent, amused, philosophical, or otherwise engaged.

Accomplished travel writing reveals emotions and behaviors, catching its subjects in intimate, unguarded moments. In this it resembles lovemaking. Readers will note whether the author’s attempts are adept or clumsy, sensitive or callous.

Revealed emotion is travel writing’s key. A journey’s essence must be unlocked, be it through astonishment at glimpsing a snow leopard, reverie induced by the discovery of scattered potsherds, or frustration and fear welling up from having to stop and dole out a bribe at yet another rebel checkpoint.

The critical element in each travel story is the writer’s thoughts, not the plodding details of how one gets from airport, to taxi, to hotel, to restaurant, to mosque, to moonlit shore– then back through winding streets to bed. Whole days of such monotony are better left as blurs across the writer’s canvas, while select moments stand out as flashes of color. Each detail rendered must be purposeful, an element in a scheme designed to surprise, delight, captivate, illuminate, sadden, or confound. Though the trip itself may have been random, nothing in the manuscript is left to chance. Every word is plotted, subtle phrasings are employed, humor is injected, glimpses of familiar places are afforded– all with the aim of seducing readers, enticing them to abandon their egos, follow a certain route, lose themselves to other ways of thinking and perceiving. Success is achieved when readers let their minds wander at ease through a landscape their bodies may never know, or when they eagerly revisit a known site, only too glad to see it in a new light, or from a different angle.

A fresh viewpoint is critical, for not a single castle, village, river bend, rock formation, back-alley brothel, wind-swept plain, temple, gorge, bridge, or slum has escaped being visited by English-language writers. An author seeking to publish a manuscript about, say, trekking to Machu Picchu must convince an editor (especially a jaded one, the most common kind) that their account is novel–even though it follows upon hundreds of other articles and books by writers who traversed the same trail.

To eschew banality, to somehow rise above the literary pack, is the travel writer’s greatest challenge. But in the effort to be original, the author must be wary of stretching too far, of becoming a poseur. Truth is essential. If any word in any account breathes insincerity, readers will turn suspicious, even hostile. They’ll reject a writer they suspect of posturing. Readers have no sympathy for adventurers who boast of facing danger when the thrills described seem cheap, the bravado contrived, and the threats unreal.

Certainly, though, the writer who tosses humor and cockiness into an account can afford to flavor it with a bit of braggadocio. But even in this mixture, at its base, there must be honesty, the most fundamental ingredient.

 

Travel writing with an emphasis on natural history:

Into the Wilderness: An Artist’s Journey, by Mark Mardon and Stephen Lyman

The Mysterious Lands, by Ann Zwinger

The Land of Little Rain, by Mary Austin

Desert Solitaire, by Edward Abbey

The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod, by Henry Beston

Never Cry Wolf, by Farley Mowat

In the Country of Grasses, by Terry Tempest Williams

Pieces of White Shell, by Terry Tempest Williams

 

 

— John Muir

Travels in Alaska

A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf

 

— Colin Fletcher

The Thousand-Mile Summer

(Arizona)

 

— John McPhee

Encounters With the Archdruid

Coming Into the Country

 

— Catherine Caufield

In the Rainforest

(the Amazon basin)

 

— Alex Shoumatoff

The Rivers Amazon

 

— Debbie S. Miller

Midnight Wilderness: Journeys in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

 

— Sam Wright

Koviashuvik

(Alaska)

 

— Dean Krakel II

Downriver: A Yellowstone Journey

 

— Peter Matthiessen

The Cloud Forest

 

. . . with an emphasis on culture or human habitat.

 

— Gretel Ehrlich

The Solace of Open Spaces

(Wyoming)

 

— Annie Dillard

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

(Blue Ridge Mountains)

 

— N. Scott Momaday

The Way to Rainy Mountain

(Oklahoma)

 

— Isak Dinesen

Out of Africa

 

— Peter Matthiessen

Indian Country

(U.S.)

 

— V.S. Naipaul

An Area in Darkness

(India)

A Bend in the River

(Africa)

 

— Thomas Bass

Camping With the Prince

(Africa)

 

— Mary Morris

Nothing to Declare

(Latin America)

 

— Rosemary Mahoney

The Early Arrival of Dreams

(China)

 

— Jan Morris

Destinations

(essays from Rolling Stone)

 

— Bruce Chatwin

In Patagonia

 

— Paul Theroux

The Great Railway Bazaar

 

— Marian Botsford Fraser

Walking the Line: Travels Along the Canadian/American Border

 

— Joanna McIntyre Varawa

Changes in Latitude

(Fiji)

 

— Jeff Greenwald

Shopping for Buddhas

(Nepal)

 

— Brigid Keenan

Travels in Kashmir

 

— Richard Shelton

Going Back to Bisbee

(southern Arizona)

 

 

. . . with a biographical or autobiographical emphasis

 

— Mark Mardon

Into the Wilderness: An Artist’s Journey (with painter Stephen Lyman)

(Yosemite National Park)

 

— John McPhee

Encounters With the Archdruid

(environmentalist David Brower)

 

— Curee Miller

On Top of the World: Five Women Explorers in Tibet

 

— Timothy Egan

The Good Rain: Across Time and Terrain in the Pacific Northwest

 

— Caroline Alexander

One Dry Season: In the Footsteps of Mary Kingsley

(West Africa)

 

— Stuart Stevens

Night Train to Turkistan

(China)

 

. . . with an emphasis on daring and hardship

— Tim Cahill

Jaguars Ripped My Flesh

(South America)

 

— Joe Kane

Running the Amazon

 

— David Smith and Franklin Russell

The Odyssey of an Uncommon Athlete

(North Africa)

 

— David Halsey with Diana Landau

Magnetic North: A Trek Across Canada

 

— Arlene Blum

Annapurna: A Woman’s Place

 

— Julie Tullis

Clouds from Both Sides

(Himalayas)

 

— Richard Bangs and Christian Kallen

Islands of Fire, Islands of Spice

(Indonesia)

 

— Galen Rowell

Mountains of the Middle Kingdom: Exploring the High Peaks of China and Tibet

 

— Eric Hansen

Stranger in the Forest

(Borneo)

 

 

This essay appeared on the website of the South American Explorers Club —a geographical and outdoor adventure society — as part of its writing guidelines for contributors to South American Explorer magazine.

 

A tragic, poetic, adventurous life: Rimbaud

rimbaudRimbaud, by Graham Robb; W.W. Norton & Co., 2000.
The original rebel poet adventurer

 

SAN FRANCISCO, March, 2001:  

 

Many Rimbauds have haunted San Francisco. Once this city was resplendent with Rimbauds reciting fiery, fragmented poems in dingy cafés, drinking and carousing, ingesting all kinds of dope, defecating and puking in alleys on their stumbling way home. The general populace appreciated them for channeling our Bohemian spirit with anarchist fervor and literary zeal. They were our anti-heroes.

Now, in a city that even Beat-era poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti concedes has succumbed to the sludge of corporate monoculture, Rimbauds are scarcely seen or heard outside of the Haight and a few other select neighborhoods that still make room for wretched visionaries and vagabond geniuses. Who here now even knows who the original Rimbaud was?!

rimbaud-premiere
Rimbaud

To loosely paraphrase and embellish upon the latest, most exciting tome in the always churning Rimbaud-studies industry – Graham Robb’s splendid Rimbaud (W. W. Norton & Co., 2000) – he was a teen literary terrorist of late 19th century France who famously sucked up to and came to dominate a married Parisian poet 12 years his senior, Paul Verlaine, who was smitten with the provincial lad’s radical verse, tender body, crude habits, irreverent attitudes, and vast, poetic insights into the nature of humanity, himself, and the written word.

Arthur Rimbaud shredded poor Verlaine emotionally, financially, and poetically (not that Verlaine didn’t try giving as good as he got), turned poetry on its head, gained ill repute as a sodomite, boozer and home destroyer, crossed paths often with the cops, and alienated every other poet and friend. He abruptly said “fuck you” to poetry at age 19 and went slogging around the continent and the East Indies, struggling to find work, constantly destitute, suffering countless indignities and hardships. He eventually made his way to mostly uncharted eastern Africa (Abyssinia/Ethiopia), there to take up trading – of coffee and arms mainly, and possibly of slaves, though Robb takes pains to note that while this latter “commodity” was being heavily traded in the region at the time, and Rimbaud certainly would have had contact with it, no evidence shows Rimbaud’s direct involvement.

_______________

With his radical verse he had tried to be a spiritual seer, but his vision took root too slowly among his poet contemporaries to do him much good; now he would strip away all spirituality, looking reality directly in its hard, cold, unforgiving face. Adventure and cash became his goals.

_______________

In his new career Rimbaud persevered and eventually excelled under the harshest imaginable conditions, becoming one of France’s most infamous explorers and adventurers, a man of extraordinary cunning and ambition, portrayed by Robb as hard-bitten but fair, often reclusive but engaging and even charming in social circumstances, respectful of and perceptive about his African friends, neighbors, clients, rivals and potential enemies, all of whom in turn respected Rimbaud. Though he complained bitterly of his circumstances in plain-prose letters to his mother and sister, he felt at home under African skies, no matter that his hair had grayed and his skin turned leathery. He emerged a master of the incredibly brutal trading game, constructed of the same outlaw mold (judging from Robb’s description) as contemporary American commodities trader Marc Rich, he of the infamous pardon.

Rimbaud, too, was on the lamb – from his pederastic past, from scandal, from anything even resembling poetry, from the draft board he kept eluding, from the clammy climate back home, from his implacable mother, from the sheer miserableness of his life. He had been a superior perceiver; alas, others (save Verlaine) did not share his perceptions, nor even understand them. With his radical verse he had tried to be a spiritual seer, but his vision took root too slowly among his poet contemporaries to do him much good; now he would strip away all spirituality, looking reality directly in its hard, cold, unforgiving face. Adventure and cash became his goals.

It’s a seamless life Robb vividly portrays, an enormous accomplishment. The great challenge for biographers has been to make sense of Rimbaud despite the distressingly slim documentation of his adult years and the marked difference in personas manifested by Rimbaud in his teens versus his 20s and 30s (he died agonizingly of a cancerous leg at age 37).

Invariably, every biographer comes to the question: Why did Rimbaud give up on poetry? And the answer to that question must serve as the transition from one Rimbaud life to another. Robb’s reply (in part): “Rimbaud’s interest in his own work . . . did not survive the failure of all his adult relationships . . . . Without a constant companion, he was writing in a void. . . . He might have felt in any case that his poetry had crossed the limits of communicability and turned into a simple waste of energy.”

Robb’s intimacy with Rimbaud’s poetry and the field of poetics shines in this work, and those who most savor textual analysis will feel amply rewarded by the book. But Robb’s skills transcend literary interpretation, gripping readers with his delight at historical sleuthing, eagerly filling in gaps with new information and insights and telling us where other biographers have gone astray (he’s particularly harsh on Enid Starkie, one of the first and most famous of Rimbaud’s biographers, who cleaned up Rimbaud’s image to suit Victorian tastes). Robb is both a master researcher and storyteller, having honed his skills on previous, highly acclaimed biographies of Victor Hugo and Balzac. He displays a poetic sensitivity not only to the vulnerable teen versifier but to the rugged adventurer, telling a well-documented tale sure to hold armchair adventurers in thrall with details of camel caravans, Koranic debates, bloody wars, secretive deals, intolerable climates, international intrigue, and daring escapades.

A sense of sheer delight at the subject matter pervades Robb’s Rimbaud. You sense his enthusiasm, and share it. He strips away veils of myth about Rimbaud, who since his death in 1891 has been romanticized to death. Careful not to take too much poetic license (unlike Jeremy Reed’s fabulously impressionistic Delirium, which goes overboard for a wonderful romp), Robb nonetheless breathes life into Rimbaud and all the remarkable characters in his Dickensian life.

From a queer perspective, one shortcoming of this work, as of all speculations on Rimbaud’s life in Africa, is it’s inability to track Rimbaud’s sexuality as a post-poet adventurer. Robb speculates a bit on the relationship of Rimbaud to an Abyssinian woman, Miriam, with whom the trader apparently had a liaison from 1884-86. But any hints of lingering homosexuality on Rimbaud’s part – apart from slim evidence of something between him and his long-time servant, Djami – have vanished. Says Robb: “In fact, there is no sign that Rimbaud had any lasting emotional attachment at all after 1886.”

While that may be true, the conclusion is unsatisfying. It is difficult to accept that the man who as a teenager flaunted his buggery and wrote paeans to the anus now had ceased to be sexual, or at least to take sensual delight in the Abyssinian and Muslim men who constantly surrounded him. Yet Robb, being a responsible scholar, dares not take readers into the realm of speculation, and we must be content for now, until some invaluable, long-lost correspondence turns up to help further demystify Rimbaud, to let Rimbaud remain sexless.

This review originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter, March 15, 2001

A Woman’s India

The Age of Shiva by Manil Suri, Norton, 2008.

the_age_of_shiva_manil_suriSoon after I started reading the novel The Age of Shiva by Bombay-born, Maryland resident Manil Suri — in which the fabric of India unfolds from the perspective of a young woman coming of age just after India’s liberation from British rule — I had to double check the author’s name to confirm that a man, not a woman, was the writer. So few men have the knack for conveying the mind, body, heart and soul of women convincingly, and this novel, written chiefly in the first person, convinced me from the outset that I was experiencing India from a Hindu woman’s point of view. Suri’s portrayal of this woman’s interior life pulses with verisimilitude, and his descriptions of the political and religious currents swirling around her afford a gripping, deeply penetrating portrayal of India’s complex clash of cultures. The novel, Suri’s second, following The Death of Vishnu, possesses the same potent combination of exquisite intimacy, vivid portraiture, rich cultural insights and powerful setting and storyline that enraptured me when I read Anita Diamant’s brilliant The Red Tent, which took me deep into the heart of woman territory in the days of Genesis.

Suri’s novel builds its momentum amid events of Biblical proportion as ancient animosities between Muslims and Hindus give rise to turbulent politics, yet Suri keeps his sharpest focus on the tightly regimented world of Meera, growing up in a family that has known too much of wars, mass migrations, and shattered dreams. The cloistering environment, suffocating traditions, and male-dominated society Meera must navigate as she seeks her own independence illustrate the challenges for Hindu women that persist even today. Meera’s family, after fleeing the new Pakistan for old India, must cope with rising Hindu Nationalism, virulent anti-Muslim sentiment, strict religious traditions, and sharply limited options for women. They’ve settled into some form of upper-middle-class normalcy, yet through Meera’s childhood and as she reaches womanhood, the currents of history and tradition sweep all around her, constantly threatening to ruin her life.

“Everyone knows the bride isn’t supposed to return to her father’s house for three months,” Meera’s new mother-in-law tells her after she marries a young man from a poor family and soon regrets being away from the comforts her father had provided her. Her life with her ineffectual, sad excuse for a husband, and her will to overcome the domineering of her father, all drive her to pursue her perilous course in a turbulent world constantly buffeted by Lord Shiva. But she is Parvati, Shiva’s wife, able to overcome the brute stupidity and dull egotism of males while basking in the sweet sensuousness and keen survival instincts of the females in her life.

In this global age of shifting fortunes and cultures, India looms huge on the American horizon, yet we barely know our new cousins. For many here, India is a caricature of smiling Ganeshas, intense yogis, high-tech call centers, Bollywood and Gandhi.  The Age of Shiva gets under the gloss, exposing the heart of India, connecting us emotionally and spiritually with our Indian kin.

The Unspoken Reason: Into the Wilderness

From Into the Wilderness: An Artist’s Journey (Artisan/The Greenwich Workshop; 1995). Artwork by Stephen Lyman. Text by Mark Mardon.
Lyman_Cathedral_Snow
“Cathedral Snow,” painting by Stephen Lyman

The wilderness holds answers to more questions
 than we yet know how to ask. — Nancy Newhall

 

On an especially clear morning in Yosemite Valley, on the north bank of the Merced River, Steve Lyman awakes from a night of slumber and for a long while remains stretched out in his sleeping bag, meditating on the scenery surrounding him. A sublime daybreak, he thinks, especially with craggy old Half Dome already exuberantly awake and busy catching and pitching back the first rays of a new spring sun. It is an image the artist has absorbed again and again on visits to Yosemite—this is his 35th trip to the national park in the last 17 years—but one that, as usual, fills him with an eagerness and anticipation verging on giddiness.

Why the feeling of such elation is hard to say precisely. Perhaps it’s that the monolith’s wise, wrinkled face, beaming down at him, beckons him to begin yet another backcountry adventure, promising myriad discoveries along the way. Or maybe it’s that after too long a period of winter dormancy in his northern Idaho home, he will once more be shedding the trappings of the artist’s workaday life to run and climb free in the wilds, reveling in the majestic Sierra Nevada landscape, testing his mountain-climbing reflexes, regaining his bearings, stretching his senses to the limit.

His body is groggy at the moment, not from sleep but from a winter spent tending to work, family, and community. But soon he will rebound as he treks cross-country toward hard-to-reach places recommended to him by Yosemite National Park historian and good friend Jim Snyder, who has explored pretty much all of the park and knows which hiking challenges will earn Steve the greatest scenic rewards.

Within hours after embarking on the trail, he’ll once again become fully alert, attuned to the subtlest natural phenomena: a tiger swallowtail butterfly emerging from its chrysalis after a long winter spent dangling from a twig, newly resplendent in its lemon-yellow and black-striped gossamer apparel; blossoms of dwarf huckleberry livening a stream side, that will soon be yielding sweet berries for hungry black bears; the long, noisy kaaaaa of a Clark’s nutcracker, flitting from tree to tree in search of a mate, its black-and-gray plumage stark against the snowy ground at timberline.

Perhaps the simplest way the artist can explain his high spirits is to recognize his intense attraction to mountains and all the living things that abound in them, like that of John Muir, his spiritual mentor. Through his explorations and paintings of the wild country of the American West, he exults in the variety and depth of feelings evoked by the Range of Light and its rocky kin in Oregon, Idaho, Alaska, and other rugged states.

Steve never ceases to marvel at the way a Yosemite landscape can emerge and vanish and re-emerge again as clouds and fog roll in and out of the valley. “It’s rather like a dream sometimes,” he says. “You turn your back, and the mountain’s gone.”

Lyman_Painting
Stephen Lyman at work in his studio.

With his artist’s eye, Steve sees the mountains and valleys as Muir did, vivid in shadow and light.

“Pale rose and purple sky changing softly to daffodil yellow and white,” Muir wrote of a sunrise in his first summer in the Sierra: “Sunbeams pouring through the passes between the peaks and over the Yosemite domes, making their edges burn.”

But even the urge to partake of such visual nourishment cannot in itself adequately explain why Steve so eagerly takes to the heights. It’s that old question: Why climb a mountain? The answer is not something that can be adequately expressed in words. The only way to understand what motivates a mountaineer is to seek out and engage the wilderness, for only in climbing the mountain does the answer becomes clear.

Many people have many ideas about what wilderness signifies. To those with a grasp of ancient history, it is the threatened remnants of the disappearing, primeval landscapes that once dominated this earth–Eden before Adam and Eve. For others of a scientific bent, it is a vast research library, field museum, and living laboratory all rolled into one. Legalistic minds tend to conceive of it as roadless areas undisturbed by motor vehicles, harboring particularly fine scenic or biological values worthy of public protection–areas where, as The Wilderness Act of 1964 puts it, “the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Mining, timber, and grazing interests eye public lands as a free meal ticket, a commercial bounty ripe for the picking. Certain politicians beholden to those interests see wilderness protection as an outmoded idea, a prime target for budget cuts. Romantics in the tradition of Muir look upon mountains, forests, deserts, prairies, and wild seashores as conscious, breathing entities, sensitive to the way humans and other creatures touch them. This surely gets close to the heart of the matter, the artist nods to himself, else why would so many people run to the wilderness with such a yearning, as though it were their lover?

For Edward Abbey, wilderness represented nothing less than liberation. “It is my fear,” he once wrote in his journal, “that if we allow the freedom of the hills and of the wilderness to be taken from us, then the very idea of freedom may be taken with it.” Thoreau, who Abbey revered, put it even more concisely: “In wildness is the preservation of the world.”

For some unlucky souls, wilderness is no comforting companion. Nature appreciation is a fine art that requires tutoring. Those who have never experienced the solace and grandeur of such untamed wonderlands as Yosemite, Alaska’s Denali National Park, Oregon’s Columbia Gorge, or any of a thousand other untrammeled places may all too casually shrug off the importance of wild country, or even come to fear it. They may consider undeveloped landscapes to be environments separate from and uninviting to human society, places alien, remote, harsh, and inhabited by fearsome creatures.

Such thinking is as old as civilization itself. The very idea of securing hearth and home from the forces of barbarism came about from people’s struggle with a wilderness vastly more powerful than themselves, that seemed always on the verge of overwhelming them. Prior to the marriage of science and technology in the mid-19th century, which gave rise to the industrial age, humans may have shaped the land–as did the Romans, Egyptians, Hollanders, and even Native Americans, in different ways and to varying degrees–but they never never became divorced from it in pursuit of their livelihoods. As individuals went to work in factories and started consuming packaged products, however, many became estranged from it., to the point that they grew increasingly indifferent to it or even contemptuous of it.

Great writers of that time, Thomas Hardy and Joseph Conrad, warned us against our new found sense of superiority over the wilderness, but not against our impending alienation from it. Ultimately, man was an animal and the wilderness a great, untamable beast. Try as we might, it was something we would not overcome.

Technological optimism has changed that idea dramatically. As farmer and philosopher Wendell Berry observes in The Gift of Good Land, until the industrial revolution, the dominant images in people’s minds were organic: “they had to do with living things; they were biological, pastoral, agricultural, or familial.” Now, he laments, people are referred to as “units,” the body as a machine, food as fuel, thoughts as “inputs,” and responses as “feedback.” In such a lexicon, where does the wilderness survive? Ours is a society that thinks it doesn’t need wilderness anymore, that believes people can invent their own life-support systems and artificial environments rather than having to put up with the inconveniences of nature’s cycles.

Yet we are also living in a time when people feel increasingly that something spiritual is missing from their lives, that the natural rhythms and cycles that formerly sustained humanity are breaking down. Correspondingly, there has been a noticeable rise in the number of messengers and their manifestations: Angels, The Light, and even extraterrestrials. Their message, however, is, at the core, always the same: something has been lost, and without it people’s lives can never be full.

To Steve Lyman, once again enjoying the freedom of the hills, what civilization truly needs in order to shore up its crumbling foundation is a universal acknowledgement that wilderness, in the final analysis, may be the ultimate salve for psyches wounded by humanity’s alienation from the nature that gave it birth. Muir himself expressed the notion that wilderness, like poetry, music, art, and religion, nurtures that part of us for which science cannot account. In the mountains, he observed, there are times when a person’s soul sets forth upon rambles on its own accord, without consulting first with mind or body. On such occasions, “brooding over some vast mountain landscape, or among the spiritual countenances of mountain flowers, our bodies disappear, our mortal coils come off without any shuffling, and we blend into the rest of Nature, utterly blind to the boundaries that measure human quantities into separate individuals.

“

To spend time in the wilderness, observed Marion Randall in The Sierra Club Bulletin of 1905, is to touch something vital at the core of the universe:

For a little while you have dwelt close to the heart of things. . . . You have lived day-long amid the majesty of snowy ranges, and in the whispering silences of the forest you have thought to hear the voice of Him who “flies upon the wings of the wind.” And these things live with you long after the outing has passed and you are back in the working world, linger even until the growing year once more brings around the vacation days and you are ready to turn to the hills again, whence comes, not only your help, but your strength, your inspiration, and some of the brightest hours you have ever lived.

The snowmelt on the rim of Yosemite Valley, Steve observes as he packs his gear and prepares to set out on his trek, has hardly swollen the Merced. The river’s low water line and placid current are what he would expect during summer rather than early spring. But in the wilderness, expectations are often confounded. That’s part of the backpacking allure: the surprise, the serendipitous discoveries. Indeed, Steve has come to understand that the best journeys are often those arrived at spontaneously, without the burden of detailed planning. Rather than plotting every leg of a hike from start to finish and then attempting to follow the route step by step, he prefers to arrive at the edge of the wild country with no clear itinerary, to camp there for a night and let the mountains’ spirit embrace him during his sleep. That way, in the morning, he can embark on a more spontaneous, free-spirited, and fulfilling adventure. The wilderness itself will point the way. He likes to let the mountains be his guide.

__________

 

The Fall of A Mountaineer Artist
Monday, April 22, 1996
stephen_lyman
Stephen Lyman

Wilderness painter. photographer, and philosopher Stephen Lyman, with whom I had the honor of collaborating on the book, Into the Wilderness: An Artist’s Journey, died in Yosemite in April, 1996, having met with a freak storm and an unlucky fall from a perch in the Cathedral Rocks area of Yosemite Valley. Yosemite has known many exceptional painters — Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Hill, and William Keith among them — and great mountaineers, from John Muir to David Brower. Steve Lyman ranks among these stellar personages for his love and devotion to the Range of Light, and for his ability to express that love through his art.

Into_The_Wilderness_BOOKAbove is the opening chapter of our book, Into the Wilderness: An Artist’s Journey. The chapter’s title, “The Unspoken Reason,” reflects Steve’s reluctance to say precisely why he journeyed into the backcountry. Such sentiments, he felt, could never be adequately expressed in words. “The Unspoken Reason” also, I feel, speaks to the question of why Steve, at too young an age, met his end in the valley that held such a claim on his heart.

My gratitude to former Sierra Magazine Editor-in-Chief Jonathan F. King for connecting me with The Greenwich Workshop and Steve Lyman.

Still Haunting After All These Years: Arthur Evans

It’s Witchcraft!

Arthur_Evans
Arthur Evans

“My goal in writing Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture was to create a better society,” says activist, historian, and philosopher Arthur Evans of the radical gay history published 20 years ago by Fag Rag Books and still in print today. “Every sentence in the book has a political edge to it. Some people view that as a weakness; I view it as a great strength.”

Evans’ tone on this recent afternoon in his tidy Upper Haight Street apartment, where he has lived since the mid-’70s, is one of both aggressive pride and bold defiance. No doubt he has his critics in mind when he touts his own work’s determined bias and intentional lack of neutral “objectivity.”

Though the first and undoubtedly most famous and influential of Evans’ three books to date (the others being The God of Ecstasy in 1988 and Critique of Patriarchal Reason in 1997), Witchcraft, which painstakingly documents centuries of persecution of gay and lesbian pagans by Christians and others, has never been regarded seriously by mainstream scholars, not even by those who are gay or lesbian.

Not that Evans has ever sought mainstream recognition or praise. On the contrary, he has always relished working outside academia. But operating in near isolation can be a lonely endeavor, bound at times to rankle even the most stalwart misanthrope.

Never has Evans harbored any great love for mankind. Which is not to say that, as an openly gay man, he hasn’t loved specific men, and maybe even certain classes of men (likely those who live up to his rigorous ethical standards, or whose marginalized existence as victims of persecution exempts them from critique). But for men in general, Evans holds a great contempt.

The males of our species, Evans has averred both in his writings and in numerous conversations with this writer over the years, are responsible for most of the ills of this world. The term he utters repeatedly with special contempt is “patriarchy,” generally coupled with industrialism, militarism, and organized religion, especially Christianity.

When such man-made institutions “were used to suppress what was called witchcraft and heresy” in Medieval Europe, insists Evans, they “actually created the grounds for reinforcing misogyny and homophobia in the modern world.

Midnight hags

Arthur_Evans_Witchcraft
Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture: A powerfully influential book in the gay counterculture of faeries, pagans, witches, and rebels.

Those who have delved into Evans’ Witchcraft understand very well that the image of “midnight hags” hunched over stew pots, muttering “double, double toil and trouble; fire burn and cauldron bubble,” is not merely Shakespearean artistic license. Rather, that sort of prejudiced characterization stems directly from the relentless campaign by Christians over the course of centuries to wipe paganism off the face of the earth.

The people who came to be called witches in Medieval Europe were believers in pagan gods. They practiced ancient agrarian rituals and celebrated human sexuality, including homosexuality. For this affront to the monolithic, sexphobic, and harshly intolerant Christian church, according to Evans, they paid a dear price.

“The term ‘witchcraft,'” says Evans, “originally derived from ‘wicca,’ a word that meant knowledge of craft or skill. A witch was a woman, or sometimes a man, who was skilled in the craft of communicating with the powers of nature, of conjuring them up. This could be good or evil, depending on the intentions of the practitioner. However, from the Christian point of view, it was all evil. They viewed it as a form of heresy, the hankering after false gods.”

_______________

“Being gay has spiritual and historical implications. When you create for yourself a lesbian or gay identity, you are creating meaning and history. Your sex life is not just something that you do in the dark in a corner, unconnected with value and meaning. It’s one of the avenues into your humanity, history, and spirituality.”

________________

Particularly repugnant to the Christians was homosexuality, adds Evans: “A lot of the people accused of heresy were accused because of their sexual practices, not primarily because they were advocating heretical dogmas.”

In a time when conservative gay Catholics like Andrew Sullivan hold sway in the gay community, preaching the gospel of assimilation while an adoring gay choir sings the virtues of Puritanism, writing about witches in relation to queer people still sounds, well, radical, and radicals these days are an endangered breed of political animal.

Yet, a surprisingly large number of queer people have not only read Evans’ book, but taken to heart many of its historical lessons. So profound has been the volume’s influence over the years, Witchcraft has assumed a place of primary importance in the annals of gay and lesbian history.

By the time Evans started work on Witchcraft during his first years in San Francisco, he had already established his radical gay credentials as an activist in New York City. He joined the radical Gay Liberation Front soon after the Stonewall uprising, where he and friends formed the Radical Study Group to examine the historical roots of sexism and homophobia.

“We didn’t have queer theory in those days,” says Evans. “We had something better: gay activism. I’m not a queer theorist, I’m a gay activist, and proud of it!”

Soon after, Evans and others founded the militant Gay Activists Alliance, where they engaged “zaps”- non-violent, face-to-face confrontations with homophobes in positions of authority.

 

 Sodom and SF

Eventually Evans wearied of urban life and politics, so he and his second lover, Jacob Schraeter, left New York in 1972 to live in a small wooded settlement outside Seattle that they named New Sodom. After two years in the commune, Evans and Schraeter moved to San Francisco, where Evans was to make his most lasting contributions to gay culture.

“In 1975 I helped create a group in this room called the Faery Circle of San Francisco,” says Evans. “We held rituals, trying to evoke the pagan sensibility of nature and sex.”

As he soon discovered, similar gatherings were taking place – by coincidence – across the country, with queer pagan groups in New Mexico, Washington state, and Texas.

“For the most part we were independent flowers popping out of the soil,” Evans laughs. “It was a really wonderful spontaneous outburst.”

Participants in the Faery Circle were the first to buy and read Witchcraft when it was published in 1978. The book got a further boost after 1979, when Harry Hay and friends formed “a gathering of radical faeries.” Soon, large regional faery gatherings were taking place around the country, with Evans’ book being widely read by the participants.

“The book reaches far beyond faeriedom,” says Evans, “either my early vision of it, or Harry Hay’s. The central theme of the book, and one that I think makes it relevant to every generation of lesbian and gay men, is its insistence that being gay is not just an isolated fact hanging in the air. Being gay has spiritual and historical implications. When you create for yourself a lesbian or gay identity, you are creating meaning and history. Your sex life is not just something that you do in the dark in a corner, unconnected with value and meaning. It’s one of the avenues into your humanity, history, and spirituality. That is the cornerstone of everything I’ve ever written.”

***

A celebration of the 20th anniversary of Arthur Evans’ Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture took place at 3 p.m. Saturday, October 24, 1998 at A Different Light Bookstore, 489 Castro St. in San Francisco. Evans encouraged those interested in queer history to first read The God of Ecstasy, a re-working of Euripides’ The Bacchai, which details the persecution of gays and lesbians in ancient Greece and Rome.

 

Arthur Evans died Sept. 13, 2011 at the age of 69 in his apartment in the Haight Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco. 

Hardest of the Hard: William Burroughs

Word Virus cuts close to William Burroughs’ granite core.

Word_VirusWas there ever a writer more hard-bitten than William S. Burroughs, either in person or in prose? Genet, a close contender, by comparison was flowery and sentimental. Raymond Chandler’s detective stories? Not nearly as crusty. Burroughs’ writing, as metallic and riveting as the bullet casings he left littering his real and fictional paths, reflected not only his ultra-cynical worldview, but his own emotional straight-jacketing.

Lise so many others enamored of the Burroughs mythology, I’ve read a few of his novels (Queer, Junkie, the third installment in his “Red Night Trilogy,” The Western Lands), digested articles about him, seen him in a few films, discussed him in literary circles, observed punk rockers and art fags idolizing him, heard his gravely recorded voice droning on about filth, drugs, boys, corruption, disease and death, and imagined him as the height of cool. But until recently, I’d never had a chance to dig underneath the myth.

So I welcome Word Virus: The William S. Burroughs Reader (Grove Press; $27.50, cloth; 1998), edited by James Grauerholz and Ira Silverberg. As the only anthology reflecting Burroughs’ entire literary output, from his teens into his 80s, the volume lets readers trace the evolution of Burroughs’ style and preoccupations over the course of nearly 50 years. Burroughs himself, shortly before his death in 1997, approved the final selections in Word Virus., thereby stamping the anthology with his imprimatur.

The excerpted writings, however, while showcasing Burroughs’ brilliantly caustic mind at work and fascinating in their enormous variety — the selected passages range from a previously unpublished collaboration with Jack Kerouac in 1945 to Burroughs’ Yagé letters to Alan Ginsberg in 1953, his alternately acclaimed and reviled novel Naked Lunch in the late ’50s, his experimental “cut-ups” from the late ’50s and early ’60s, his monumental “Red Night Trilogy” from the early ’70s to the late ’80s, and, near the end, his most sentimental writing – about his cat – from the mid-’80s — do not by themselves offer a satisfying grasp of Burroughs’ enormously complex motivations.

For that, readers need some backgrounding by the editors. Fortunately, adding immeasurably to the volume’s strength, Word Virus includes extensive biographical commentary by Grauerholz, Burroughs’ long-time editor, manager, and close friend (co-editor Silverberg, also a close friend from the early 1980s on, who served at times as Burroughs’ publisher and personal publicist, provides only a brief but illuminating editor’s preface). These reflections, largely journalistic and objective, at other times personal, cast considerable light on Burroughs’ state of mind as he moved from phase to phase of his career.

The commentary is also, simultaneously, adoring of the man. Grauerholz seems to want to humanize Burroughs, but he never really gets at the man’s emotions. He seems cautious, respectful, even over-protective. He and Silverberg were, after all, members of Burroughs’ extended queer family. We’re assured Burroughs had many deeply felt, long-lasting friendships and affairs, yet despite Grauerholz’ efforts, Burroughs still comes across as the stiff, coldly intellectual, emotionally crippled figure of popular imagining.

Shedding further light on the man, at the outset of the anthology, is a brief but excellent introductory essay by writer/scholar Ann Douglas, who analyzes Burroughs’ literary legacy and situates his work in relation to that of his peers, most notably his fellow Beat Generation progenitors Ginsberg and Kerouac.

“Cool, even icy in manner, acerbic in tone,” Douglas writes, “Burroughs once remarked that all his intimate relationships had been failures-he had denied ‘affection . . . when needed or supplied [it] when unwanted.’ He had not responded to his father’s sometimes abject pleas for love nor visited his mother in her last years in a nursing home.”

A little later, Douglas quotes a Burroughs’ line from Queer: “I don’t mind people disliking me. The question is, what are they in a position to do about it?”

The whys and wherefores of Burroughs’ tough shell are related, to some degree, by Douglas, Grauerholz, and Burroughs himself through his writing, which all focused, ultimately, on himself. We learn details about his accidental (if wildly irresponsible) killing of his wife, Joan, by gunshot; his rebellion against his privileged upper-white-class inheritance (he was grandson of inventor William Seward Burroughs, who perfected the adding machine); his first experience with morphine, when he was a mere 13; his fascination with hoboes and gangsters; and similar such details, all of great interest and a welcome contribution to Burroughs scholarship.

In this respect, to the extent any single volume can simultaneously magnify and dissect an author’s legacy, Word Virus proves moderately successful in penetrating the hardened Burroughs mystique.

Still, I can’t help feeling there’s much more to be said about why Burroughs comes across generally as such a desiccated crank-case. Even with this book, Burroughs’ psyche remains shrouded in mystique. Has his pop-culture persona been built on a foundation no sturdier than the bamboo scaffoldings Burroughs must have stumbled past often after drinking all day and shooting up nights in those crumbling Latin American cities he once haunted?

Perhaps Grauerholz, as both intimate friend and executor of Burroughs’ literary estate, could not or would not expose the innermost feelings of the man he so obviously reveres. Then again, he would know as well or better than anyone whether there was something to be exposed. Whether Grauerholz held back or not, the casual reader has little way of knowing.

What remains to be written, it seems, is a memoir about Burroughs that looks into the man’s eyes and asks squarely: “What did you feel? ” The problem is, maybe Burroughs never supplied a straightforward answer.

Quentin Crisp Quips

 The old queen speaks out on his nearly 90 years of camp.

 

crisp copyA long time ago, according to 88-year-old raconteur Quentin Crisp—one of the English-speaking world’s most visible homosexuals and a man renowned for rarely turning down party invitations—people had a lot more time for fun.

“In Edwardian times, things were fun,” he declares.

“Then, there was more idleness, more time to flirt with everybody, to hold conversations, have great dinners and all that.” Now, he laments, “everybody’s in a great hurry.”

“Fun” is the topic of the moment as Crisp fields questions, and he comments on it with special authority, given that fame is Crisp’s pastime and having fun his life’s work. He hobnobs with stars, appears in films and television commercials, commands stages in speaking engagements throughout the United States, cheerfully gives countless magazine and television interviews, poses endlessly for photographs and makes himself readily available for almost any social occasion in which his ready wit and striking appearance will lend extra cachet.

As he listens politely to an interviewer’s questions and responds with alacrity—all part of his job as someone “in the smiling and nodding business”—he sits in his cramped quarters on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, nursing a bad cough.

He’s lived happily in the same cheap rooming house, on the same block inhabited by a band of Hell’s Angels and their Harleys, since moving to New York City from London 15 years ago. That’s when he undertook, improbably but successfully, to remake his life in the United States at the age of 74.

“I was English before,” says Crisp in a raspy voice, articulating his words as precisely and majestically as a prime minister addressing Parliament, or perhaps a Shakespearean actor delivering a soliloquy, “and there’s no fun in England.

“I should explain,” he adds after a heartbeat, “that England is a vast, rain-swept Alcatraz. But America is fun because everybody is your friend.”

Well, almost everybody. Certainly he’s looking forward to his trip to San Francisco this month, during which he’ll promote his latest book, Resident Alien: the New York Diaries, yet Crisp is unsure how he’ll be received there, or how much fun the trip will be. San Francisco, he observes dryly, is the only city where critics ever gave his public talks bad reviews.

The gay population of San Francisco, writes Crisp in Resident Alien, “cannot understand my refusal to be an apologist, much less an evangelist, for homosexuality.”

“Gays have less hold on reality [than straights],” he says. “Homosexuals are people standing on the bank, watching other people swim.”

One can only imagine the reception he’ll receive this time, in light of a recent interview with The Times of London, in which he was quoted as saying he’d support an expectant mother’s decision to abort a fetus if she knew it was genetically predisposed to homosexuality.

“Homosexual life is horrible !” he says when asked about the statement, which he stands by. “All homosexual men spend all their days in public lavatories, and all their nights in dimly lit back rooms behind questionable bars. Do you think you want that to happen?”

Is this a form of Crispian humor? Or does Crisp truly feel this applies to all homosexuals?

“Well, not to lesbians,” he answers, “because they manage to conduct their lives in a more graceful way.”

Such statements may come as a shock to gays and lesbians who became acquainted with Crisp from his landmark 1968 autobiography, The Naked Civil Servant—or who saw the television film adapted from the book—and who prefer to see him as a model crusader, holding steadfast as an effeminate homosexual facing relentless persecution and fierce condemnation from society at large.

As British pop-music celebrity Boy George recently wrote in his review of Resident Alien for the London Daily Express, the Crisp of yore was “a queer Jesus for the 20th century, his cross was pink and massive, and he suffered persecution on a daily basis.”

It was in 1908, near the end of Edward VII’s peaceable, decade-long British reign, that Crisp was born and named Denis (a moniker that proved far too colorless for his liking). So, of course, while everyone in England was having such a jolly good time, he was a mere infant, not yet making the dinner rounds.

But never mind that: Soon enough, as he grew up to be the dandy he was and still is, he began applying makeup and lipstick, coloring his hair, painting his fingernails, outfitting himself in the dandiest garb he could scrounge up, and bopping about the streets of London for all the world to see.

Unfortunately, during the increasingly stuffy and tense Georgian times of his youth, England’s general populace found Crisp’s manner and deportment not only un-amusing, but reprehensible. He got a strong sense that life wasn’t very fun at all—though it had its moments. He resolved never to hide his identity even from harshly disapproving critics, who were legion in Britain at the time.
Crisp came of age in a time and place where to be homosexual was to experience extreme isolation. “Long before homosexuality was ever heard of,” he says, “I was swarming around the house saying, ‘Today I am a beautiful princess.'”

He felt himself to be “the one among the many,” and developed the notion that all heterosexuals were his “betters.” Taunts, jeers and threats of bodily harm followed him wherever he went, but he deflected these by erecting a sturdy defense of gentle wit, gracious manners and elaborate deference to almost everybody. He became, as he often said, “one of the great stately homos of England.”

Over time, Crisp became accepted, even coddled, by the mainstream. His style became fashionable. He now feels most at home among heterosexuals and conservative or apolitical homosexuals (he rarely uses the term gay, and then only with some discomfort). His acceptance by society at large has led Crisp to distance himself from his youthful, angry, rebellious persona. He now seeks only to amuse himself and others, not change the world. As he writes in Resident Alien: “I am concerned with the high gloss on society, not with its inner machinery. I am a freeloader, a dilettante, a butterfly on the wheel.”

Politics, Crisp says, is boring, the antithesis of fun. He’s never been political, merely demonstrative. He deplores the way everything nowadays has become politicized, especially the gay movement with its insistence on gaining rights. As he wrote in How to Become a Virgin, the sequel to Civil Servant, “Anyone who demands acceptance places himself in the same position as a girl who asks, ‘Do you really love me?’ Every mature woman knows where that gets her.”

Even now, despite all his protestations to the contrary, Crisp is a de-facto political figure, representing gays and lesbians who seek assimilation into the heterosexual mainstream. He’s an anti-role-model for activists and separatists, a pacifist and the darling of apolitical dilettantes. He merely wants to enjoy life and be friends with everybody.

In this regard, usually even die-hard politicos are willing to cut the funny old gent some slack. After all, this ostentatiously nellie fellow has stood up for himself—and, by default if not by intention, for all queer people—through a global depression, numerous queer bashings, two world wars and the continuing AIDS crisis. Who can blame him, then, if his wit has lost its former bite and relevance: He’s a long-term survivor, entitled to indulge in life’s frivolities.
Crisp very deliberately presents himself as shallow, as a product packaged to please others. He obediently goes where his handlers tell him to go, does what they want him to do. He has shaped his image to be passive and flaunts that passivity daily. When he leaves the house, he says, he empties his mind of any serious thoughts, making himself into a great wide-open vessel into which people feel they can pour anything.

“You know,” he says, “when someone asked Garbo what she was doing before her close-up, she said, ‘I’m emptying my mind.’ That’s what you have to do.”

As far as personal relationships go, he’s thoroughly democratic, opening himself to everyone and giving to everyone in exactly equal measure.

Has he had a significant romance?

“Oh, no,” he replies. “No, I couldn’t cope with that!”
But doesn’t he see relationships as a source of happiness?

“Oh, no,” he exclaims again. “I don’t think a relationship has anything to do with happiness. They nag you all the time! They say, ‘You’re not going to sit around looking like that all day, are you?’ And so you find yourself combing your hair for somebody you already know! It’s absurd!”

Then who are the people closest to him?

“I don’t think anyone is close to me. I spread my love over the whole human race. It’s threadbare, because I spread it horizontally, not in depth. I don’t love some one person more than all others.”

Does he feel that emotion called love?

“I don’t know what it means.”

Eschewing politics, avoiding emotional attachments, emptying the mind, being eager to please, dabbling in pop culture, letting one’s self be steered by others: All these traits characterize art in the postmodern age. Did Crisp deliberately set out to create such an artful effect? He doesn’t say directly, but probably he did, after a fashion. Like Warhol—in fact, long before the artist came along and created his Factory—Crisp set about methodically creating his own persona. He constructed himself from head to toe, and presented to the world an original, initially disorienting, but undeniably interesting and fun figure.

As Crisp wrote on the final page of Civil Servant, as a result of the “wall-to-wall puritanism” of his early years, he felt victimized and “constantly at the mercy of others.” This left him “crushed and seething with a lust for tyranny.”

His real power, he discovered, the weapon with which he fought back against his persecutors, was precisely his flamboyant sense of style, his willingness (to use a contemporary expression) to get in people’s faces.

With his appearance and mannerisms hypervisible and hyper-real, and his social patter spectacularly witty yet artificial, Crisp has turned himself into a walking challenge to notions of masculinity. He has come to embody the height of camp, with its stylized mannerisms and anti-butch, pro-feminine stance.

By caricaturing himself, Crisp makes both an artistic and social statement. As Richard Dyer observed in Only Entertainment:

“You’ve only got to think of the impact of Quentin Crisp’s high camp on the straight world he came up against, to see that camp has a radical/progressive potential: scaring muggers who know that all this butch male bit is not really them, but who feel they have to act as if it is.”

And what does he think of models of masculinity in today’s gay community?

“There was a gay restaurant in New York,” Crisp replies archly, by way of anecdote, “and if you went into it, the only reason you knew you hadn’t strayed by accident into a construction canteen was because all the men looked so clean. But they’d all got pre-ruined jeans on, tractor boots, kitchen-tablecloth shirts, and some of them even had tin hats—though they’ve never done any construction the whole of their lives!”

 

Quentin Crisp died in Manchester, England on November 21, 1999, at age 90

__________

This article originally appeared in San Francisco Frontiers newsmagazine in 1997.

Love Amid Decay: Marguerite Duras

 The LoverThe Lover, by Marguerite Duras

“I am worn out with desire for Helene Lagonelle. I am worn out with desire.”

 

The 1984 novel, L’Amant , by one of France’s most esteemed writers, Marguerite Duras, is a ravishingly beautiful work of art. Reading it, you feel you are looking at a dark-hued portrait of lovers embracing, faces and torsos radiant in gold-flake paint, surrounded by a mysterious and impenetrable jungle of blackness.

Deftly translated by Barbara Bray, The Lover flows in tropical langour, like a river through a jungle. It flows along just like a wide river, drowsy, thick with heat and mosquitos. You feel the long oppression of the days the way you would if you were on the river ferry, slowly drifting, the engine coughing and inhaling, numbing you into reverie.

Something about the book is like a series of still, sepia-tone photographs. It is like an old picture album. The images, faded, are sad. They belong to the jaded past.

Finished reading, you wonder where the day went, what was happening in the world while you were drifting, how you and the memories of a woman who was a girl in Saigon in the 1920s could have become so inextricably entwined that the present lost its meaning. Frozen smiles and stiff poses, like fractured shadows in a tropical forest, will have hypnotized you, then engulfed you.

There is something exhausting about the story of the young white woman in Saigon. It is the way the 15-and-a-half-year-old French girl and the older Chinese man she meets weep when they make love, the way their need is so desperate they cannot be happy. They are exhaustingly, painfully unfulfilled, the way the French are about love.

There is something French, too, in the peculiar attention paid to fashion, to the oddities and extremes of clothing, especially of the girl, while she is still pretty, before her face has grown old at 18, while she is standing on the deck of a ferry on the Mekong River, wearing a threadbare silk dress, a pair of gold-lame high heels, a man’s brownish-pink fedora with a broad, black ribbon. Somehow in the sweltering tropics, where all the colors melt into milky green pools, the girl has found a way to stand out, partly by her white skin, but more by the clothes she wears as an act of defiance.

The book is a dreamy postmodern fantasy of escape through sex from madness and provincial bigotry. The escape is that of the French girl from her mother who lives a life of despair, self-deception, depression, jealousy, and dementia. The surrender is to the passion and wealth of an elegant Chinese man with a limousine, a financier who smokes opium, who has been to Paris and knows its refinements, especially in the matter of making love.

The most remarkable aspect of the story is the strength of character of the young woman who is its central figure, her amazing capacity to retain love for people who are weaker than she is.

She loves her mother, a manic-depressive uncomprehending in her meanderings through life, unaware that she is decaying in the heat and humidity and humiliation of her existence, and that everything she touches decays with her. She has adopted a noble air, an ungainly farce. In the haze of her existence, she is able only for a moment to give a half smile when she notices her daughter has dressed herself in an interesting fashion, one that might even merit praise. But praise is not forthcoming. In the blankness she inhabits– in the hole of despair out of which she cannot climb– her bitterness turns to sadism and she undresses and beats her teenage child.

Duras treats the mother’s madness ironically, with a melancholy understanding and generosity of spirit that dispels revulsion and arouses pity. The mother is not loathsome, but innocent, a victim. She has been done in by the harshness of the world, and her daughter is strangely sympathetic.

But while the girl merely abides her mother, she loves her younger brother poetically, without reserve, though with some sadness and condesension. He is beautiful but not bright, romantic but dull-witted, but terribly fragile. Sadly, she knows, her brother, in all his wild, mysterious appeal, is like a glorious blossom that blooms overnight, then dies the next day.

The girl also loves her older brother, no matter that he’s brutal, corrupt — a crude, dissolute man, stupidly dependent on his mother and sister — a wastrel. And still she loves him, even as she fears him, because, in a different way, like his mother and his brother, he is helpless.

The girl loves the man who possesses her, her lover. Their love is erotic, immediate, carnal, unrestrained. It is physical, tumultuous, and devastating. Their love encompasses the sweating of bodies, tears flowing out at orgasm, and the rumpled, spent sheets of sex.

The girl loves other young women, especially the beautiful, remote, 17-year-old Helene Lagonelle. This love eclipses all her other loves, even that for her younger brother. It is the aching, gnawing, impossibly unfulfilling love of desire:

I sit on the bench . I’m worn out by the beauty of Helene Lagonelle’s body lying against mine . . . . Even the body of my younger brother, like that of a little coolie, is as nothing beside this splendor.

The girl’s passion for Helene Lagonelle is so intense she longs to giver her physical pleasure — by giving Helene over to her Chinese lover. She wants Helene to cry out with pleasure in her presence, to do as she wishes, to give herself where she has given. She does not know that she is capable of giving Helene that pleasure herself. It is not within her range of experience or understanding. This makes us sad. It is possible she is afraid Helene will withdraw at her touch. This makes us sadder still.

MargueriteDurasMarguerite Duras was born in Indochina in 1914, in the town of Giadinh. Not coincidentally, the story parallels the life of Duras herself. The setting in Indochina is one she knows intimately, having been that 15-and-a-half-year-old girl beginning her studies at theLycee de Saigon in 1924. The story is set mostly in the early 1920s following the decline of French domination of the territory that is now Vietnam; it jumps forward occasionally into the 1940s with the occupation of the peninsula by Japan and, as well as into post-World War II years in France.

The Lover is fraught with a tension and an unburdened yearning that makes it fairly crackle with breaking energy. It is a most extraordinary journey along a winding river of passion. It ultimately flows out into the sea, that vast accumulation of experience where Duras resolves her story.

– Mark Mardon

Burroughs for opera lovers: Erling Wold’s ‘Queer’

Reviewed by Mark Mardon.

Erling_Wold's_Queer
A scene from Erling Wold’s “Queer” chamber opera.

Brilliance characterized every facet of Erling Wold’s Queer on opening-night, April 11, 2001, at ODC Theater in San Francisco’s Mission District. From conception through execution, the chamber opera based on the William Burroughs novel more than did justice to Burroughs’ spirit – it rekindled that spirit vividly for the audience, a sophisticated crowd that paid rapt attention to every subtle nuance of inflection and expression from orchestra and actors alike.

Truly the night belonged to composer Wold, whose latest, possibly greatest work follows previous chamber operas A Little Girl Dreams of Taking the Veil (1993-94) and Sub Pontio Pilato (1995-98) and a host of recordings, chamber pieces, and New Music-style electronic experiments. The concept of turning a classic of queer literature into a post-postmodern chamber piece, complete with on-stage orchestra and what amounts to a singing William Burroughs, dares to be taken seriously. In lesser hands, it could have turned Burroughs’ dry humor and desperate longings into farce. But the combined prodigious talents of Wold, stage director Jim Cave, dramaturgist John Morace, conductor Deirdre McClure, choreographer Cid Pearlman, lighting designer Clyde Sheets, and costume designer Hank Ford, together with a stellar cast, orchestra, and crew, skillfully brought life to Wold’s idea, turning Queer into an exceptionally well-rehearsed, well-executed, inspiring work of high art.

Wold’s composition for trumpet, guitar, piano, synthesizer, violin and contrabass, flawlessly executed by an orchestra including Wold on guitar, creates an atmospheric, classically based soundscape reminiscent of works by Philip Glass, David Del Tredici, and Ned Rorem; aptly, the Village Voice once described Wold as “the Eric Satie of Berkeley surrealist/minimalist electro-artrock.” Here, though, minimalism and melody go hand in hand, with lovely passages, including suggestions of Mexican mariachi music, offset by sections more mood-setting than melodic. The various passages cohere into a gorgeous tapestry, as intricate and interesting as any woven textile.

Part of Queer‘s appeal is its marriage of modern music with a text dear to the hearts of queer literati. It would have been easy to parody Burroughs using his own words. Fortunately, the caustically funny Burroughs temperament came across dazzlingly in the characterization of William Lee – Burroughs’ alter ego – by Trauma Flintstone, who turned in a bravura performance. Flintstone was a joy to experience as Lee, singing passages in recitative and flowing across the stage in hot pursuit of his love object. At times he soared in touching, elegant arias – usually just after he’d downed a drink or two, or tried to get his hand down Allerton’s pants and been yet-again rejected.

Not only did Flintstone exhibit rich vocal qualities and a prodigious feat of memory – he sang practically the entire libretto, whole passages expertly pieced together from the text of the novel – he convincingly personified the novel’s chief protagonist. He did this not by imitating Burroughs’ style, but by channeling the writer’s corrosive spirit with seeming effortlessness. Flintstone is a natural for the part, with lanky body, balding head, growly voice, and an apparently innate ability to tell fanciful yarns illustrated with expansive hand gestures and quirky facial tics.

Flintstone brought to the role natural charm, an easiness in body language, a measured pace, and inner motivation outwardly manifested by apt facial expressions, vocal tones, and gestures. His comfortable stage presence allowed him real interactions with his fellow actor/singers. Hints of music-theater training emerged in his vocal style, suggesting a potential for affectation and exaggeration, yet Flintstone nailed the operatic form, bringing heft to his performance and grounding it in the meaning of the text, rather than letting fly simply for the sake of melody.

Shane Kramer ably carried off the challenge of serving as Lee’s mostly unresponsive love object, Eugene Allerton, a young man of sullen good looks and aloof (not to mention alcoholic and heroin addicted) behavior. At first Kramer seemed an odd choice for the part, being perhaps older and more rugged in appearance than the novel suggests Allerton to be. Rather than a corrupt pretty kid, Kramer embodied the character of a jaded young tough, sullen in the way Brad Davis was as the sought-after sailor/sex object in Querelle. Yet Kramer pulled it off well, keeping himself aloof, disinterested, but never wooden. His sexuality always was palpable, and you could understand why Lee obsessed over him.

Lending lusty weight and powerful vocals to various character parts was Ken Berry, his acting and singing abilities indispensable to the overall tone and success of the piece. This is Berry’s second production with Wold, after playing the father in Wold’s A Little Girl Dreams of Taking the Veil.

Dancers doubling as characters – the lovely Stacey Em Jackson, Zenón Barrón, and Norberto Martinez – popped in and out of the scenes, gracefully, artfully merging dance and drama. At one moment they served as foils and counterparts to Lee’s lusty imagination; the next they were creating evocative tableaux on the wide, deep, beautifully lit stage. The set, with benches, tables, and bar at the front of the stage and an alluring bed toward the rear, allowed much space for the dancers, and choreographer Cid Pearlman made great use of the openings. Barrón and Martinez paired off frequently in sensuous dance-play that formed a continual backdrop to the goings on with Lee and Allerton. Especially in the second half of the show, together with Jackson, they infused the production with a sexy perfume of teasing, come-hither looks, and slow-motion seductions.

Queer, the chamber opera, conveys the story of a queer American bum south of the border in the 1940s as artfully as Queer, the novel. One might have expected a musical version of the book to incorporate grunge rock, or jazz, or blues, or tango – but a chamber opera? It works, and that’s all the encouragement anyone should need to check out this instant classic.

 

Erling Wold’s Queer played through April 22 at ODC Theater, 3153 17th St. Phone (415) 863-9834.

‘Out in the Castro’ — Eureka!

The old guard of San Francisco’s gay liberation movement reunite in Winston Leyland’s Out in the Castro, 2002.

 

out_in_the_castroSAN FRANCISCO: A charming reunion, fit for the history books, took place in early December, 2001, at A Different Light Bookstore in the Castro. An assemblage of mostly old-guard GLBT writers, politicos, activists, photographers, preachers, journalists, editors, and artists cozied up to the lectern to proudly unveil their new work, Out in the Castro: Desire, Promise, Activism (Leyland Publications, 2002; $24.95, paper). Editor Winston Leyland, the local publishing legend, was present in the flesh, presiding over his book’s contributors like a literary hen clucking over her brood.

The place was packed with spectators, old and young and in-between, all greeting one another like family. In the newly refurbished, nicely re-arranged bookstore, it felt homey – perfect for deep immersion into the rich cultural and historical life of that part of town we call Gay Central, the nexus of queer life in San Francisco, despite its increased commercialization and tourist-centered businesses, and the squeeze put on low-income residents.

For those of us who’ve lived in gay San Francisco a while, and those just joining us who want to get a sense of where we’re all coming from, Leyland has performed a great civic service. In inviting essays and art from the likes of Anne Kronenberg, Jewelle Gomez, Frank M. Robinson, Harry Britt, Susan Stryker, Jim Mitulski, Sister Dana van Iquity (aka Dennis McMillan), N.A. Diaman, Rink Foto, and many other stalwarts of the local queer scene, Leyland has rounded up a priceless bunch of colorful, inspiring characters for our boundless enjoyment. Not everything they have to say is profound or poetic – but much of it is. Not in every case were the contributors lead players in local politics and culture – but very often they have been and still are. These are the very people who have recorded and shaped our core culture for decades – not just in the Castro, but city-wide. They have been our friends and neighbors, co-workers, teachers and leaders on many fronts. To bask in their glory at a reading or through their printed words and images is to be warmly welcomed into the bosom of gay San Francisco.

In the book, when poet/essayist Justin Chin grumpily declares he’s outgrown the Castro (in “Death of the Castro”), he reflects a sentiment common to many who’ve lived to experience the neighborhood’s changes, and disapprove. Yet despite his ho-hum assessment – “The Castro has become a few blocks of expensive T-shirt and clothing shops, juice bars, yuppie eatery chains, and trendy neighborhood shopping and dining. Thrilling, huh?” – clearly the Castro has ingrained itself in his poetic psyche: he longs for the place to be the way it was in March 1990, when he alleges it still had the power to dazzle.

Since Chin is relatively young-guard, and his tattooed style at odds with the prevailing sweater/Gap esthetic in the ‘hood – and since he didn’t appear at the reading – it was left to older, not necessarily wiser heads to more generously tout the Castro’s virtues.

Former Supervisor Harry Britt, looking every bit the statesman, started off by apologizing for a less-than-stellar essay, a piece about Harvey Milk that had been written for another publication. That’s okay, Harry: you made up for it by noting that San Francisco has become (to use a phrase by writer Hakim Bey) a Temporary Autonomous Zone – a secure place where queers can enjoy a fair amount of freedom to be themselves. Some might say that’s just another term for gay ghetto, and they might be right. But as Britt noted, it was in the Castro ghetto that Harvey Milk rose to prominence, becoming a symbol of freedom for lesbians and gay men world-wide.

Solid settings for Milk’s saga are provided by historians Susan Stryker (“How the Castro Became San Francisco’s Gay Neighborhood”), and Jim Duggins (“Out in the Castro: Creating a Gay Subculture, 1947 – 1969”). They do an admirable job of tracking the evolution of Eureka Valley (aka The Castro), from its working-class Irish Catholic roots to its becoming the focal-point for a revolutionary gay-rights movement. Leyland opens the books with their pieces, giving readers ample preparation for the more personal perspectives to come.

Harvey Milk is central to Anne Kronenberg‘s recollections (“Everybody Needed Milk”), since she personally experienced the stresses, strains, triumphs and tragedy of working alongside the “Mayor of Castro Street.” So, too, was Frank M. Robinson (“Castro Street, That Great Street”) up front and center to the spectacle – and his account, among all of the contributors, is one of the richest in detail, colorfully capturing the hippy-ish flavor of the Castro in the 1970s, during the heyday of gay lib. It is from him that we learn of the large role played by hippies in the development of the Castro – that Harvey Milk was, in fact, a hippie from New York City. Robinson, who’d worked as a reporter for the underground press in the Haight Ashbury, got caught up in Milk’s campaign and the subsequent euphoria – and tragedy. His personal perspective puts us vividly up close and center in those heady, extraordinary times.

Things get even more personal in the reminiscences of Blackberri (“Andy’s – Center of the Universe”), who moved to the city from Nebraska in 1971, at age 21, and ended up working at and eventually owning Andy’s Donughts in the Castro, before going on to buy a leather bar, The Bootcamp, on Folsom Street. He was friends with Cosmic Lady (aka Janet Planet), and personally experienced the cosmic presences of the Cockettes, the Angels of Light, Divine, Sylvester and a host of other queer notables. [see correction]

Also on the scene from the late 1960s on was writer/artist N.A. Diaman (“Living in the Castro: A Gay Writer Reminisces”), who tellingly remarks that when he first moved into the Castro, the total rent for his flat was $140 per month. It’s a time long gone, but his descriptions of establishing a gay household during those days is not all that far different from today’s ordeal.

Among the young-guard contributing to the book is Katie [Zak] Szymanski, assistant news editor for the Bay Area Reporter, who profiles a member of the old-guard: her boss, Publisher Bob Ross, noting that he “anchored for good in San Francisco” in 1956, fresh out of the Navy, and joined with the throngs of gay men who would cruise his corner at 20th and Castro. The concise story of his creating this newspaper, and its 30-year history at the center of gay politics and culture, is one you won’t find anywhere else.

Photography holds a prominent place in Leyland’s Out in the Castro – with spectacular results. The images balance and illuminate the text, making the book a joy to browse or read straight through. If you’ve been here very long at all, you’ll recognize the faces, places, and events. The photographers include Rick Gerharter, Rink Foto, Freddie Niem, Greg Day, Crawford Wayne Barton, and Marc Geller, all of them first-rate and well known for being in the thick of things, capturing images that by now have become legend. Even the surprising absence of images by Daniel Nicoletta – undoubtedly the most acclaimed queer “scene” photographer in San Francisco – and Jane Philomen Cleland does not diminish this book’s powerful impact. It’s a reunion in print well worth attending.

 

This article first appeared in print in the Bay Area Reporter.