Susan says she is not a religious person, but she has a high regard for religion, and she doesn’t like to see it downgraded or made fun of. And Saul Alinsky, a Chicago “social activist” said that “Seeing is Believing” should be taken a lot more literally.
On the ground floor of the Zoology building there’s an exhibit of various types of fauna. A great collection of shells — incredible shapes, colors, textures — placards invoking exotic geographies, Japan, South Seas, oh everywhere. A little crab crawled out of one shell — they arranged it very lifelike. Then on to the little birds — carefully laid on their backs so we could see the brilliant colors on their chests — bright yellow, blue, red — little tags around their feet with the pertinent information. You look up suddenly and see the big stuffed birds, their feathers a little dusty, eyes a little glassy, big hawks, owls. Walking over to another area big jars with what looks like little plastic babies suspended in water — very lifelike. Stand there looking at them it begins to percolate — this is the human part of the exhibition, these are the human fetuses. For a long time I hold out for the fact that they’re skilled models. But no one could make these tiny fingers, toes, ears, the little bodies held onto a diagonal plastic tray by strings tugging at the skin, wrinkling it, so that they seem to be floating toward you — eyes, mouth all there, mute.
There’s of course more than one of these jars, to show age, sex, different factors. I’m standing there, watching, participating in a ritual of my culture, you might say. And I’m trying to imagine that in my culture the people who did this are considered normal, that this is part of a well rounded education. And like any normal person I’m looking, and feeling my insides struggle with the fetus that’s still inside me.
It’s been a creamy green spring day. I’ve been reading two books, diatribes against the Stalinism of the Soviet regime (among other things), by the wife of one of the best 20th century poets, Osip Mandelstaum, who died in a Russian prison camp in the ’30s.
The word ‘crimson’ perceived at first in a general way through the positive shades of meaning attached to it in everyday language and folklore, is later seen to refer to the warmth and reflected glow of the source of inner light in the Hermitage painting [Prodigal Son by Rembrandt]. All that really matters is the inner light. This and only this is important.
Unfortunately we all come to experience the extreme mutual estrangement which results when speakers of the same language no longer form a real community. It can reach such a pitch that people entirely cease to understand each other.
Sitting and reading in the lounge area of the “Health Sciences Library.” Fancy for the doctors-to-be, some chairs with real pretty blue cloth seats. Air conditioned just a little too much to be comfortable, light coming in from outside through beige curtains. Most of the health scientists are studying at desks separated into compartments by wooden dividers as in “The Cave” at Verde Valley. (No blue seat cushions, no beige curtains there!) I am always convinced that everyone is staring at me in these places, knowing that I’m not their kind, and I hunch my shoulders and dart my eyes around suspiciously, in the hopes that at least one or two people might go in for a little staring.
After a few hours of dipping into Stalinism I go to attend an afternoon performance of Sartre’s “No Exit.” I get lost and come in late to the small basement theatre, and have to climb up on the side of the platform to sit in a creaky chair with a wicker seat that puts me much too close to the person sitting next to me. We both shift around uncomfortably, hoping that more space will somehow arise.
I don’t know if you remember the play — it’s about three people who have died and gone to hell — a man and two women of course! Their punishment of course to be locked in a room together to torment each other eternally. As I came in the valet was showing the first guy in. The valet had braces and very shiny brown hair. The actors were being very professional and declaiming, here and there punctuating their strange ways of speaking with frozen studied gestures. Later in the play intense physical contact between the actors seemed like that heavy plastic coating, varathene I think, that is put on tabletops, or used to preserve wild flowers. The actors seemed to shrink from each other and extend out this liquid plastic medium, hoping it would do the job. I try to imagine and remember the strange terror of acting — fear of losing your identity and yet the incomprehensible desire to abandon it completely. In most acting the seam of these two desires is painfully evident — a jerky melange of shrinking and extending.
The best acting strangely enough is in the part of the lesbian, a hard part to pull off in this “Southern Part of Heaven.” She has a remarkably clear voice and doesn’t seem to need to declaim, her hair pulled off her face and her eyebrows penciled, arched.
The play seems to me heavy handed, with all of its pointed references to the Human Condition; but it’s an appropriate counterpoint to my hours with Joe Stalin. (Stalin and Mandelstaum both goats, and Sartre, a crab). The last line, as if at the outset of a Five Year Plan or Great Leap Forward, is a terse, “Well, let’s get on with it.” The lights go off, then on, and the crowd (about 15 people) manages to clap once or twice, not enough time for bows from the actors; I think how their seams must be aching, the stitches pulling out before they’re healed. They wouldn’t want to come out and bow to me alone, clapping frantically like those few grim-faced ones at Soviet ballets, dragging the stars again and again to the stage, for one last bow. Anything can be used to torment, even (especially?) the adulation we think we want so much. And what’s more fitting for “No Exit” than No Bows?
Outside is striking in Kodacolor, the new leaves outdoing themselves in the late afternoon sun, a few folks frozen statuesquely on the broad lawns. I was to meet a friend for dinner, but it’s late, she isn’t outside, I think we’ve missed each other, and then I see her down the walk, walking away, and she turns toward me. We wave, and walk towards each other, me doing little abortive hops and skips, unwrinkling.