David and Judy,
As Fate would have it, my daughter has become a Beavis and Butthead fan. We went to Kate and Marcus’s house for dinner recently, and they gave her a Beavis and Butthead key chain to play with, a little novelty that at the touch of a button plays such witticisms as “Ass-wipe!” and “Let’s break something!” followed by the characters’ trademark snickers. Sylvia, who is nearly three, couldn’t quite comprehend the words, but sensed that they were silly and a little evil. Whenever silence would descend on our conversation, she would press the button, we’d hear “What a dick!” and she’d smile.
Every time I take a book out of the library and the librarian consults the computer to determine my past crimes, I expect her to discover the Gary Snyder book I lost two months ago. But it never appears on the screen.
I wonder: Is the library so inept that it forgot about the book? Or did some humanitarian find it and return it — not knowing my name, and perhaps not even knowing how to read — out of sympathy for me, or for Snyder, or out of some blind sense of justice? . . .
There is a shadow economy of abandoned objects. Every day in the U.S. alone, 13 million dollars’ worth of valuables are mistakenly left in homes, offices, and museums. This is equivalent to all the soap sold in America in one day. In this Economy of Forgetfulness, no money changes hands, the “buyer” doesn’t feel as if he or she has “purchased” something, and the “seller” never gets rich. In many ways, it is the opposite of capitalism. . . .
Yesterday I ran into my homeless friend Ben when we converged on a small pile of Chinese accounting texts in a garbage can at the corner of Thirteenth and Third. We’re both neo-Marxists, and he told me his Latest Theory: “You know those people we think run the country — the Rockefellers and the Morgans and the Du Ponts? It turns out they don’t run the country. The ones who really run the country are the media moguls: Murdoch, Turner, guys like that. The media don’t work for the ruling class; they are the ruling class.”
“And now they have the young people thinking that computers and CD-ROMs and e-mail are some big revolution!” I said.
“And they still control everything!” Ben concluded.
A department store called Bradlee’s is opening up on Union Square. Although the store hasn’t opened for business yet, it is full of employees — some doing construction, some setting out merchandise. Today when I walked by, they were all standing across the street from the store, looking up at it. Someone told me there was a fire, but I couldn’t see anything — not even a wisp of smoke. I guess they were waiting for the store to burst into flames.
There was a festive mood among the employees, as is occasioned by any sudden break from work, but also a hint of fear that Bradlee’s would bum to the ground. One small flame, if it grew, could put 120 people out of work. I sensed two thoughts warring in the employees’ minds: Maybe I’d be better off losing this job, versus, It’s hard to find any job these days.
Here’s a religious pamphlet I wrote to hand out on the street:
You feel there is a greatness within you. You know there is a greatness within you. You feel limited by the constraints of earthly life and long to break free, but you are weighed down. “Is there any way to lift this burden of sin and grief?” you wonder. “Must I merely slave through life as someone’s executive assistant, then moulder forever in the grave? Is this all there is?”
Something inside you — the stirring of a small voice — tells you this is not all there is.
“But whose voice is it?” you wonder. “Where does it come from?”
Then one day, the answer comes to you:
That inner voice — that subtle, elusive whisper telling you there is a vastness, an eternity within you — comes from tracts like this one, tracts that are filled with total lies.
— A message from the Church of Cold, Hard Reality
Here’s something I never realized: Reading in today’s Newsday about the 1958 quiz-show scandal, I discovered that it was not illegal to rig a game show! There was no law against it. (And why should there have been? No one was hurt. It was just a TV show.)
Yesterday I got an idea for a whole new conspiracy theory: Kennedy shot Oswald! Here’s how it happened: Over his real head Kennedy wore a false crown consisting of a wig, a small chamber holding a calf’s brain, and a gun operated by remote control. When he reached a predetermined point outside the book depository, Kennedy fired, killing Oswald instantly. The recoil from the gun knocked Kennedy’s “head” apart, so that it appeared he had been shot! Oswald was buried with a huge state funeral at Arlington Cemetery, while Kennedy put on makeup and face paint and became . . . Lyndon Johnson! At last he had the Democratic majority he needed so he could quit fooling around and really pursue the Vietnam War.
I just finished reading your essay on photography in the St. Mark’s Poetry Project Newsletter. I, too, was fascinated by that odd Metropolitan Museum show The Past as a Shadow, and even brought my wife to it. There was, as you say, something misbegotten about the show, as there is about most exhibits at that museum. The Metropolitan has defined itself so narrowly as the home of Great Art (particularly great old art, the way Greece is on your left and Egypt on your right as you walk in) that almost nothing seems to belong there — except perhaps The Magic of Degas, or something equally obvious. As I walked through the photography show, I found myself constantly thinking, But is this art? And is it great art? It’s basically a bunch of eccentric, fairly rich guys pointing a box at a hippopotamus, pressing a button, and hoping for the best.
So why did I like it so much?
The accidental nature of photography is part of its allure, I think. In 1835, the West stumbled on a technology that taught, inadvertently, the wisdom of Taoism: that the highest art is doing nothing. A shipbuilder spends two years on a ship; then the photographer tells him, “There, stand in front of it.” Snap! “Got it!” And it’s on to the next picture. Let the saps at the Art Institute frame them.
Thank you for your postcard from Venice. I, too, am traveling — in Poughkeepsie, the Venice of the U.S. — and so am in a position to write you a travel letter. It is the day after Thanksgiving, and we’re staying at my brother-in-law’s large, cool house on a hill. The soundtrack to this visit is Christmas songs on tape. A bland chorus sings carols, relieved only by Nat “King” Cole, who, when he arrives, seems to have invented sincerity. Then, when the tape gets really boring, my in-laws turn it off and listen to football. I don’t know who’s playing — perhaps the Pirates versus the Sphinxes.
Last night, when everyone was asleep, I crept downstairs and watched a movie about Jesus on cable TV. Jesus was played by an average, Long Island–type guy, but he was constantly weeping — he was a sensitive Jesus — and his voice cracked when he yelled at the Philistines (depicted here as sour-faced, greedy Orthodox Jews who spoke with English accents — a universal sign of villainy). But this Jesus gathered stature as he went along, and by the time he had risen from the dead he was quite lovable.
When the movie ended, an unctuous guy — a minister — appeared on the left side of the screen as the credits rolled on the right. The minister was striving to convince me to give my life to Jesus, so that He might enter my heart. I tried to change the channel, but the channel wouldn’t change. I tried twenty times, but all I could get was this channel and a blue screen that said “Video.” Finally, I surrendered and listened as this guy said a prayer, which I was supposed to echo, preferably on my knees next to my TV set. It began: “I believe that Christ died on the cross, rose from the dead, and came to save all men. . . .” But I didn’t believe it — I mean, I didn’t exactly disbelieve it either, but I couldn’t repeat the prayer. Still, I closed my eyes and felt a radiance around me. Maybe Jesus gave me a break and entered my heart anyway.