Sunday, July 26, 2009

Where were YOU the day Stravinsky died?

During my junior year in college – the one I did not spend merely torn between lusting not too successfully after women and wondering why I felt odd, unconscionable, never to be discussed or admitted things about men – make up your mind, Yohalem! – oh, my mind was made up; my mind was certain; I knew what I wanted - to want; it was just that my genitals did not always agree – I spent a lot of time smoking dope.

One of my dorm buds was Ken, loud, anarchic, thoughtful, ruminating behind a zany basso laugh copped from Howlin’ Wolf and honed with cheap cigarettes, also fond (so were we all) of concealing unsatisfied lust behind druggy philosophizing. He picked datura blossoms in New Jersey and we attempted that one day: unsatisfying. (Lakmé killed herself in Act III with this? I don’t think so.) Marijuana was better.

We were sitting one night in his room with some very effective weed, and he opened the little upper closet over his main closet (so were all rooms in Furnald Hall equipped), swung the door out, suspended a clear plastic cable from the catch, a heavy fishing weight from the cable. I stared and it spun and spun, a weight on a line. Sort of like the pendulum at the U.N. that, if you stare at it long enough, they say (whoever bothered to do this?), will change the direction of its arc in accordance with the spin of the planet – or the influence of the moon – or of the sun – or the Will of God – or some such principle. (A little green spaceman on Uranus eying us by scope, firing a gravity gun here and there, giggling insanely as we jump like electroshocked ants, drooling masticated matter from the corners of his mouth.)

And this fishing weight, this pendulum, Ken took between his fingers, making sure with his eyes that mine were fastened, fascinated, upon it (was it magic? Would it turn into a feathered bird? And sing and fly away?), and he let it go – and, you will hardly believe me – it swung! To and fro, side to side, on and on … slowly less and less (ah, friction! Trapped in eternal conflict with supernal Inertia! I feel a metaphorical Renaissance statue coming on – or a story by Italo Calvino, one of my great heroes at the time – Cosmicomics – they have just been reissued, by the way).

So back and forth and back and forth the dead weight ran on its all-but-invisible (occasionally sparkling in the shadows of an ill-lit snot-green Columbia dorm room) cable, coming ever so slowly to supreme, divine, rest. The earth, with barely an effort, held it fast then, a line from the center of the world to the lock on the little closet door above my head. The miracle of it all. Hit the bong again, bro. Saw a T-shirt the other day: “Bro-hemian Rhapsody.” That’s where we are.

His eyes on my eyes (spinning, whirling, whorling away I have no doubt), Ken lifted the cable again, drew it back, and let it go, grace of the arc, swoop and then up, symmetry and ration, all right with the world, music of the spheres (okay, arcs) (okay, maybe we do need some tunes, bro, actually…), and then, sublimely, all at rest, like Sophocles, the perfection of the knots unraveled and woven anew. The world without might go hang. Inside we had satori – and Jethro Tull – and another bowl.

Could the world be more perfect? I gazed, mesmerized. Rude Ken, for the moment gentle, looked kindly down upon me. He took the weighted cable in his wizardly hand, stared, all a-grin, into my eyes, and drew it this time, for a variation, back – towards himself – to let it fall east-west instead of north-south. A variation! An old thing made new! A wonder of the aeon! I smiled too, and waited for this marvel.

He let the cable go.

The dangling weight paused in the middle of the air.

Across the way, I awaited its coming (like a new Messiah, or at the least a new, improved, upgraded brand of Messiah).

It did not move.

It hung, frozen, in the air.

Gravity, rationality, inertia, the fourth force I forget what you call it – charisma? Animal magnetism? Zapitude? – stood still.

The pendulum was going nowhere, and would continue to go nowhere, while I, crosslegged on the carpet, struggled to keep my balance on the celestial dancefloor. The laws of the universe suspended! How could this be?

And then – and only then – sobering slightly, desperately, because elsewise I was going to choke and go under – my eyes sought the cable and followed it upwards to the fulcrum lock. When Ken pulled the taut cord to him, the open door above had moved too. It would have swung north to south, but it would not go east to west. When he let it go, apparently on the arc, in fact it was plumb, straight down from the handle. I was properly – utterly – magically – manically – gulled.

My shock – my wonder – my mortification – my ecstasy – were almost whelmed in his gusty, hideous, gorgeous, wolflike laugh. I did not know whether to be tickled or annoyed, cold sober or more stoned. It was a wonder and a revelation: the laws of the universe may not accord with your perceptions. Pay attention to the man behind the curtain.

All this came back to me this morning – God knows why – as something of a metaphor. The story, as one tells it. As Ken told it. While the teller speaks (or writes), while we allow ourselves to fall under the spell, we are not in our world (much less the real world, allowing for the sake of argument that there might be one beyond our individual perceptions); we are in the storyteller’s world, and for the sake of learning his or her secret, succumb without objection to this or that jiggle with our own notion of the real, allow the house of cards to be constructed before our dazzled eye and dwell in furnished splendor therein until the teller or some other external force huffs it down.

Thus if the teller says: You are in a shop, buying an egg, and the woman at the counter is a sheep – you will believe it. And if you walk towards the egg on the shelf where the sheep has set it, and the walk goes on for quite some yards, even over a stream, you will believe that. And if the egg when you reach it is as tall as you are, wears a waistcoat, and debates you on the meaning of words, you will believe that. Because you are in the story, and it’s a good story, and Lewis Carroll has told it awfully well. But mostly because you know – your mind (even unstoned) is trained to believe – that the effect, which is delicious, derives from this total surrender.

And the teller surrenders to – you hold the power to respond or not – to make him a conjuror or a fraud, based on his success, which you supply. One can tell tales in solitude, but it’s not the same. Yet every writer, to some extent, must work in solitude – and try the magic later.

So when the teller tells his tales, true or untrue, his magic quotient rises (and his self-satisfaction) the more as we believe, and our doubts are concealed so that he might remain a shaman. For he himself comes (I think) to believe the tales invented, or borrowed from other sources, embellished, ornamented, recast (as reality is always recast) as tales for telling, sagas, ballads, chronicles (not mere annals) before the listener who maintained (as perhaps he did not realize) the shaman's magic by pretending to enchantment – a mutual thrill.

Did he believe his own stories? I forgot to ask. It was enough for me that the pendulum continued to swing in the proper direction, or that if it stood still, he had a credible (if unscientific) explanation.

Oh yes, and Ken?

Ken dropped out. “My condolences,” I said, not knowing what to say. “I’m not sure those are in order,” he replied. Nor, in retrospect, am I.

But he still hung around Furnald Hall, and over Easter Vacation took off for Mexico with a freshman named John, in search of sights and booze and women (probably no dice) and weed – the Kerouac road trip we were all (thirty years too late) aspiring to. Their money was stolen in a bad weed deal, and they had to phone John’s wealthy parents for more to get home. They resolved to drive all night, top speed, and the highways of Mexico are not well lit. They hurtled around a mountain where some idiot had parked an unmarked, unlit van, engine trouble or out of gas or hiding from the federales, who knows now? a comedy of errors, except they both died instantly.

I learned about all this when I came upon a little group of John’s friends, sitting in the third floor hall, ominously quiet, loudly silent, oppressively mourning. Nobody spoke. My first thought (happily not aloud) was: They’re as devastated as I am by the news! I’d just read in the Times that Igor Stravinsky was dead.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

What if Mary Tudor lived 20 more years?

Mary Tudor does NOT die of anguish at the loss of Calais (or whatever killed her) but drags on a weary existence till, say, 1578, when she dies, aged 65, childless, succeeded by her sister Elizabeth, aged 45, a bitter, frustrated spinster who has had to lie and live alone in country houses all her life.

England becomes thoroughly Roman Catholic (again), as the small Protestant group is increasingly marginalized. Elizabeth has been obliged to become Catholic, but makes a deal that her claim to the throne is not affected by this, her father's will still being the law of the land. She has also declined the hand of the Duke of Savoy, who marries Margaret of Valois instead (as he did in actuality). In fact she continues to hold aloof from the marital sweepstakes, which suits Mary just fine. Mary even beheads the Duke of Norfolk for secretly trying to get Elizabeth to elope with him.

Philip II, however, is without a legitimate heir after the death of Don Carlos in 1568 -- he is unable to marry a subsequent fertile wife until Mary Tudor's death -- by which time he is a gout-ridden 51. Don Carlos, however, has been married to Elisabeth of Valois, and before his complete descent to insanity, has succeeded in fathering a child -- let's say a daughter, Isabel, destined in time to succeed her grandfather as Isabel II of Spain. (She will marry her cousin, Albert of Austria.)

Unsupported by surreptitious Protestant aid from England, the Protestant insurgencies in both Scotland and the Netherlands wither and die. Parma, undistracted by the Armada, takes Den Haag and Amsterdam. John Knox is burned at the stake by order of Mary, Queen of Scots, who marries her first cousin, the widowed Duc de Guise. Mary Tudor, alarmed by all these French forces in Scotland, disinherits Mary and proclaims Lord Darnley the heir to England after Elizabeth, encouraging him to marry Catherine Grey. (They have one son, the future Matthew I.) Willem the Silent is executed in the square of Antwerp. Henri de Bourbon is slain fighting a civil war with the Guises over the throne of Henri III of France. The Duc de Lorraine (husband of Henri II's second daughter) becomes King Charles X. The Armada is sent against Turkey and captures Thessalonika and Rhodes, though not Constantinople (because they can't get past the Dardanelles).

The restoration of a unified Catholicism throughout the West prevents all doctrines of individual human liberty and scientific data from getting very far. North America north and west of Florida is ceded to France. New Paris, at the mouth of the Verrazano River, becomes its metropolis. All the Jews in Europe flee to Turkey. So do the few surviving Protestants.