Two friends of mine were driving on the Grapevine, which is a braided ribbon of highway climbing over the hills one hour north of Los Angeles. They were high school sweethearts, they had just gotten engaged, and they were in the middle of a knock-down-drag-out fight over something neither of them can now remember.
At one point, the bride-to-be had had it, she rolled down the window, and she chucked her engagement ring as far as she could.
As soon as she did, they stopped fighting. They forgot all about their squabble, and they yanked the car to the shoulder to find it.
But after hours, they couldn’t. Dusk fell and they had to give up.
They tried to laugh it off and told themselves they didn’t like that ring anyway.
But over the years that followed, on separate occasions unbeknownst to the other, they each rented metal detectors and headed back up the Grapevine in the hopes of remembering the spot and striking gold. But they both failed.
On their fifth anniversary, they once again happened to be driving up the grapevine. They laughingly confessed to each other they’d both been back with metal detectors. Then they tried to remember the spot. And they began to argue once again about exactly where it was.
Now heated, they pulled over, got out and started walking.
And there was the fucking ring...
Haecceity (hex-AY-idee) is our impulse to assign uniqueness to something despite the existence of identical copies.
It is the this-ness of things.
We gradually replace every cell in our bodies every seven years—each of us is quite literally a different person than the one we were when Obama was elected—and yet we have the sense that we are still uniquely us.
The Sistene Chapel might be restored over the centuries, but it remains in our minds the work of Michelangelo.
Despite a world where everything is duplicating itself all the time, where the very basest urge operating within every living thing is to simply procreate a copy of itself, we nevertheless have the insatiable desire for the genuine article.
“It succinctly captures most people's intuitions about authenticity that are increasingly threatened by the development of new technologies,” says Bruce Hood, chair of psychology at the University of Bristol.
But every day I watch my son grow attached to sticks and pieces of litter he brings home, and then devastate him when it’s time for the litter to go in the trash. Totaled cars, phones in puddles, and moving days demand these micro-funerals in our minds at the weigh stations of life’s relentless march forward.
Attachment to things we value, said the Buddha, and I’m paraphrasing, is an unending pain in the ass. The brutality of loss, or even loss through change, is a constant source of anxiety when we choose to assign meaning to things. But we cannot seem to stop doing it.
In my first month of grad school, I passed the dean on the street and he said, “hey Brendan, come meet Fiona Shaw with me.” Fiona Shaw is a powerhouse Irish actress of stage and screen and I leapt at the chance. At the talk, she spoke among other things about mastering accents for her screen roles, and specifically about the differences between English, Irish and American accents.
“It makes perfect sense that the British invented iambic pentameter,” she said, “because they are AB-so-LUTE-ly SURE that THEY are RIGHT.” We laughed hard. “The Irish, meanwhile, speak in D minor... wouldyoulikeacupoftea?” her voice trailed of into the distance so we could barely hear the word tea. “Americans,” she said, “emphasize possessions,” and she began pointing at imaginary things around the room, “house... car... boat...”
As Americans, nouns are our sickness. John Steinbeck explained why socialism never took root here by pointing out that we see ourselves “not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” We are cursed with a compulsion to assign meaning to things, but in so doing exclude the reality that everything will change. Time, the element that allows us to recognize change, is against us.
Everything we care about is in the very urgent process of rotting into the earth.
“In the end,” writes Alan Lightman, “you cannot defeat the odds. You might beat the house for a while, but the Universe has an infinite supply of time and can outlast any player.” That thing you love, temporarily held together on a molecular level by bubble gum and prayer, has an impending appointment with atomization.
So what the fuck do we do? We can’t all become Buddhists, we’re dyed-in-the-wool capitalist pigs whether we like it or not. So if we must assign meaning to nouns, the odd verb, and maybe a quality or two, I’ve tabled out how it might go down...
The challenge, therefore, seems to be welcoming the inevitability of change into the picture. Starting from the temporary nature of all things, and assigning meaning from there, seems to be the only sane way to have a shoebox of keepsakes.
We have to eliminate our notion of time as the enemy.
This thing I'm holding is future dust, and I know that now, before I've committed any emotion to it, but it will be here for precisely 100% of the duration that it will. And in that window, I will love it. After that window, I will fondly remember it and know that this time that it's gone was always on the way. And that it would arrive too soon, as it always does.
As it always does.
On the morning of October 15, 1908, Italian poet Filippo Tomasso Marinetti was speeding down Via Dormodossola in Milan. Rounding a sharp corner, two cyclists on penny-farthings blocked his way and he had no option but to veer into a ditch. His Runabout flipped twice and he was briefly knocked unconscious. When he awoke and was pulled to safety by the cyclists, he announced to them that having been a step away from death, he now knew we had nothing to fear from speed, that speed was the greatest thing to happen to man, and he resolved right there that his next move would be to launch an artistic movement.
Filippo Tomasso Marinetti was a nutcase.
Attending the wedding of some friends a few years prior, his toast took the form of an epic poem he'd composed for the occasion, entitled The Bleeding Mummy, which recounted, to the stupefied guests, the story of a pharaoh's daughter waking each night to beg the moon for her dead lover's body to be restored, so they could get it on in their crypt.
His play King Hoot depicted a decadent castle being overthrown by hungry peasants, who cannibalize their king and then have an orgy, but due to engorgement wind up vomiting up the king's body parts, which reconfigure themselves back to life.
His poem The Conquest of the Stars laid out the epic battle between the sea and the sky, and depicted the stars as offensively loitering in the balconies of the firmament.
In those days Art Nouveau was all the rage, and it drove him insane. As if in contrarian reaction to the half century of industrial progress that had transformed Europe beyond all recognition in just one lifetime, the artists of Art Nouveau exalted nature and the feminine. You can feel the dichotomy of the period at any entrance to the Paris subway system, where flowing curlicues and ornate decoration provide intense contrast to the deafening clamor of the iron horse below.
The future, it seemed to Marinetti, and speed, and machines, and war, and all things loud, and harsh, and mechanical, were getting a bad rap. "I suddenly felt," he would later write of his time laying in the roadside ditch, under his Runabout, "that all the poems, articles, and debates were no longer sufficient. A change of method was absolutely imperative: to get down into the streets, to attack the theaters, and to bring the fist into the midst of the artistic struggle.”
It was time for a manifesto.
He gathered his Like Minded People and they goaded each other into a deep loathing of everything old and traditional. They decided to love the future, to love technology, science and industry, to love war ("the world's only hygiene"), and to love originality, however daring, however violent. They proudly bore "the smear of madness," and resolved to destroy all museums, libraries and academies.
They were the original chaos Muppets of the art world.
The Futurist Manifesto would appear, through a family connection, on the front page of France's paper of record Le Figaro on February 20, 1909. “We stand,” wrote Marinetti, “on the last promontory of the centuries. Why should we look back, when what we want is to break down mysterious doors of the impossible? Time and Space died yesterday! We already live in the absolute, because we have already created eternal omnipresent speed. Up to now, literature has exalted a pensive immobility, ecstasy and sleep. We intend to exalt aggressive action, a feverish insomnia, the racer’s stride, the mortal leap, the punch and the slap.”
The Manifesto was hotly debated throughout Europe. The arts were meant to be a somewhat effete counterbalance to the dead-eyed and shark-like march of progress. The past was meant to be the subject of nostalgia, sentimentality and longing. To focus on the low and brutish and loud, and to reject the past masters sent a chill through quiet and snobby galleries across the continent.
The Futurist movement gathered steam and expanded into all the arts: literature, drama, the visual arts, music, architecture, photography, film, dance, fashion, advertising, and even cooking. Futurism became a juggernaut because it was not simply a collection of loosely connected aesthetic preferences, but rather a systematic interpretation of modern society that examined the elemental relationship between art and power.
The Futurists took over theaters and held Sintesis (Italian for syntheses), where they would sell ten tickets for one seat in the hopes a fight would break out. At showtime, they would only raise the curtain to the actors knees and then begin, drawing a surge of angry jeers and projectiles from the gallery. When they did finally raise the curtain all the way, they would attempt to perform all of Shakespeare's plays simultaneously, crowding the stage with a mad cacophony of shouting actors. They would cover the floorboards with soap to create amusing pratfalls during otherwise tender moments. They would cover some seats with glue, so that patrons would not be able to stand at the end of the night without disrobing. The real show, the Futurists knew, was in the reactions of the audience.
The Futurists tore shit down. Marinetti would welcome new artists to the movement saying, "we Futurists are young artillerymen on a spree, as we proclaimed in our manifesto, 'Let’s Murder the Moonlight!' fire + fire + light against the moonlight and war every evening against the aging firmaments, great cities to blaze with electric signs." They wrenched the direction of societal gaze from the bygone past to the bold a beautiful future. The Bolsheviks in Russia took it up as a favorite theme.
It was to be one hell of a century.
But then the atrocities of World War One that soon followed would fairly quickly render the Futurist love of war somewhat naive and childish. And the movement's nationalistic tendencies probably fueled the rise of Mussolini and Italian Fascism. And it's views on women and feminism were pretty gonzo. Futurism finally petered out in the wake of the horrors of the Final Solution, with George Orwell's 1984—a crucial anti-fascist, anti-futurism manifesto that instilled in public discourse an appropriate suspicion of nationalism, love of war and glorification of the future—driving the final nail. Thereafter, any depiction of the future has been dutifully cast as a cautionary tale.
For the relative innocence of its time, Futurism served as an important expansion of scope in the world of art, but it's popularity and subsequent delegitimization in the wake of two horrifying world wars seem to have stigmatized the future itself along with it, and made it something to dread. Hollywood unanimously considers the future a dystopian hellscape. The Matrix, Mad Max, Wall-E. Everything is going to be horrible. I write this eleven days before one of the shallowest and most horrifying examples of the worst of humanity will assume his position of the leader of the free world and probably promptly end it.
But every generation on Earth presumes itself to be the last. The biggest tenet of Christianity is based around the any-second-now return of its prophet, and most Republican foreign policy regarding Israel is intended to hasten these prophesied end times. Doomsday scenarios pervade the concept of our collective destiny, and a sad by-product of this is that it engenders a certain disregard for any future generation beyond our grandchildren. Which is partly an understandable function of human life expectancy—I would be hard pressed to give you the first name of any of my great-great-grandparents, and I doubt they gave the idea of me much thought—but this is also a pretty major copout.
What if, ten generations from now, the world isn't a dystopian nightmare of scorched Earth? What if there are still humans (albeit thirsty ones) striving to win their days, be better, lift the odd nearby spirit and tend their planet? What if it doesn't actually look that different than today? (Ancient Rome had banks and schools and jobs and restaurants and indoor plumbing, for Pete's, it's not like they were drinking blood from skulls.) And what if some of these future people are your direct descendants?
Focussing on the past, preserving its essence, longing for its return, lamenting the profanity of the present in favor of the its sacredness, these are all reinforcing the reality that we are marching backwards into the future. Yes, the future is a red-headed stepchild we inherit without asking for it... yes, it's a pain in the ass to tend to (my son Oscar takes baths like a golf ball, in a Home Depot bucket, it's fun for no one)... yes, the future may be pretty bleak regardless of our actions, but that's what everyone has always thought. It's a pretty tired paradigm.
Filippo Tomasso Marinetti may have been a certifiable lunatic, but his revolutionary befriending of the Future was a direct valentine to you and I, right now, from someone who would never meet us, across an uncertain century.
No one thinks that way. Most default to wallowing in the exquisite and self-centered misery of witnessing the end of the world, which then tacitly excuses all of our moments of paralysis when we could be looking after our great-great-great-grandchildren.
I'll leave you with a taste of that exquisite paralysis.
The late, great David Bowie's 1972 concept album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars opens with a ballad (in 6/8, the most persuasive of all time signatures) about receiving the news that we are all on borrowed time, called Five Years. Listening to it, one first goes into a reverie about how they would live if they found out the world would end five years hence. But then it dawns on you that he was ballparking armageddon it around 1977, and the whole enterprise feels quaint and silly.
Sure, Marinetti was a kook with a juvenile love of war. But I'm with him when it comes to championing the future, the greatest underdog of all.
And now... Five Years by Davie Bowie, who's album cover predicted the rise of Kanye West.
Pushing through the market square, so many mothers sighing
News had just come over, we had five years left to cry in
News guy wept and told us, earth was really dying
Cried so much his face was wet, then I knew he was not lying
I heard telephones, opera house, favorite melodies
I saw boys, toys electric irons and T.V.'s
My brain hurt like a warehouse, it had no room to spare
I had to cram so many things to store everything in there
And all the fat-skinny people, and all the tall-short people
And all the nobody people, and all the somebody people
I never thought I'd need so many people
Prior to 46 BC, no one in Rome knew what day it was. The calendar was tightly controlled by the priest class. They based it on cycles of the moon, and some years would have fifteen months, others would have eleven. Sometimes different priests would tell you it was a different day depending on how it might serve them. The first of the month would roll around a little more often for landlord priests, and priests in the senate always seemed to meet their deadlines.
The Federal Housing Act of 1949 allowed, finally, for the eradication of tenement slums. Until then, generations of underprivileged Americans would memorize the annual date and time of the sun's only brief appearance in their cramped, basement homes. Children would stay home from school to see it, and watch as the family pet stretched in the yearly rectangle of brilliance on their broken, chipped floors. Leaky tin roofs, dark passageways and rampant garbage-born illness had melted even the most conservative congressional hearts into legislating a chance for a new post-war life for the poorest Americans.
As these tenements were torn down, the wooden windowsills would often be found with two smooth depressions which had come from generations of women's elbows leaning out to enjoy the passing street life, exchange gossip across the way, and mete out verbal justice to the children below.
Now, federal money created the opportunity for new forms of urban housing that would bring prosperity to all levels of society.
Enter the Congrès Internationale d'Architecture Moderne.
Architecture, they knew, was a living, social art form, which had a profound effect on human life and the potential to solve the world's ills. The fourth CIAM Congress had taken place in 1933 on the SS Patris en route to Athens. Aboard, they analyzed thirty-four cities to determine solutions to the world's most pressing urban problems. The resulting "Athens Charter" committed CIAM members to push for "functional cities" with citizens housed in high, widely spaced apartment blocs.
This was their chance to use architecture to get society out in front of an overwhelming century of industrial and military progress.
Minoru Yamasaki was a 42-year-old unknown when he won the bid to design the Pruitt Igoe homes in St. Louis, Missouri—one of the first massive projects funded by this federal legislation. As a devout follower of the CIAM and its philosophies, he resolved to vindicate the Athens Charter with tall, spaced out, beautifully functional residence blocs.
The sun would pour into homes in these striking if somewhat brutalist high rises, and Pruitt Igoe residents would have better views than the wealthiest of St. Louis.
The city fathers were convinced they had solved their low cost housing needs.
But there was a fatal flaw in the design.
Pruitt-Igoe was to be mixed income and a beacon of economic integration, which to this day remains a crucial ingredient in a thriving city. But the same Federal Housing Act of 1949 that funded the homes, also subsidized mortgages for first time home buyers, and was a key component in the insidious epidemic of white flight to the suburbs in the 1950s. So Pruitt Igoe was subjected to 50% vacancies, and the money for maintenance and upkeep, that was to come from the rents, was always a shortfall.
Elevators broke and were never fixed. When roughhousing teens in the hallways smashed the lights, cages were installed around the bulbs to make them unbreakable, a challenge then accepted by the roughhousing teens, who would do everything they could to re-break them. Dark hallways, vicious poverty cycles, and callous government leadership led inevitably to rampant crime.
The brutalist nature of the high rises required functionality to be seen as beautiful. Without it, they became a monster.
Finally, on July 15, 1972, Pruitt Igoe was destroyed.
This iconic photograph of the homes coming down with the Arch of St. Louis in the background appeared above the fold in newspapers across the country and led to this moment being declared by many to be the death of Modern Architecture.
Minoru Yamasaki and the CIAM had tried to solve the world's ills but wound up making them worse. Yamasaki had attempted to simulate prosperity for the poor, hoping it would take and then domino through the rest of society's woes. But it didn't work. It pressed down on the bruise.
But wait, there's more irony.
One year after the destruction of Pruitt-Igoe, Yamasaki was overseeing the finishing touches on his crowning achievement: the World Trade Center in New York City.
At the dedication, he proclaimed, “the world trade center is a living symbol of man’s dedication to world peace... it should become a symbol of man’s belief in humanity...”
This poor bastard.
This time he was attempting to honor prosperity as an inspiration to humankind, that we all might be galvanized to achieve. But the twin towers were perceived by some as monoliths of imperial oppression and the west’s self-centered optimism, and they sustained, as we know, a horrifying, tragic end.
How do you solve a problem like poverty?
The answer, in the 21st century, is scare quotes.
The question is in fact: how do you "solve" a "problem" like "poverty?"
In the 21st century, if you are a part of the solution, you are a part of the problem.
You can no longer solve a problem by solving it.
That's what the Modernists attempted, but they were just too far downstream.
These days, you need a lot more imagination.
Artist Jenny Holzer installed a large electronic billboard in Times Square in 1982 and used crude LEDs to flash provocative messages to the tourists below. One of these messages has lingered with me for the 17 years since I first saw it. "Private property created crime." Four simple words that detonate the fabric of American society. If the Modernists were too far downstream on economic disparity, then the invention of private property is the headwaters of the issue. Jenny Holzer knew where to begin.
The ballad of Minoru Yamasaki teaches us that unless you're standing at the headwaters of an issue, merely to "solve" a problem is to risk exacerbating it with your inevitable blindspots.
In the 21st century, we must view issues from orbit, locating them in their rightful place along vast rivers of time.
Otherwise, if you are a part of the solution, you are a part of the problem.
Leopold and Anna Maria Mozart were determined to have family, with a daughter named Maria and a son named Johann.
It took them seven tries.
Johann Leopold was born in August of 1748 and lived almost six months. Maria Cordula was born the following June but lived less than a week. Maria Nepomucena was born the next May, and lived two-and-a-half months. One year later Maria Anna was born, became known as Nannerl, and emerged from the biological gauntlet of 18th century childhood to live to 78 years old. A son, Johann Karl, and a daughter named Maria Crescentia followed, but neither would live beyond three months. Their seventh child and final child was born on January 27, 1756 and they named him Johann Chrysostomus Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He would live 35 years.
Leopold and Maria determined themselves to push past the world's most unimaginable pain five times to finish the family they started. The Mozarts were finishers. The Mozarts could close the deal.
Maria was irrepressible and funny. She encouraged little Johann Chrysostomus's love of scatological humor. So much so that when he composed his 1788 canon Difficile Lectu in F Major, he included the quasi-Latin lyric "lectu mihi mars," which, when perceived phonetically in German, became "Leck du mich im Arsch," or lick my ass.
Leopold was phlegmatic and unemotional and cried in front of Johann Chrysostomus only once.
Johann was sitting at his father's desk, composing his first concerto. Being five years old, he repeatedly mashed the pen into the bottom of the inkwell, thus dripping globs of ink onto the page as he attempted to write. Undeterred, he smeared them with his palm and continued to scribble his notes on top, so that the page at first glance was just a big blue-grey circle of ink. When his father came home with his friend herr Schachtner, little Wolfgang showed him the composition, and the men laughed at the sopping gallimaufry of ink.
But then Leopold examined the smears and the smudges, and he realized the chords his son had scribbled on them were perfect, they were in key with one another, and the music was complex and beautiful. In a time when, to Leopold's great chagrin, the notion of miracles was generally ridiculed, here he had one living in his house. His son, the survivor, the boy who lived, was a prodigy. And he burst into tears at the glory of it.
Thereafter, to Johann Chrysostomus, life was incomplete without music.
When he and his sister Nannerl would carry toys from room to room in their house, he demanded that they accompany themselves with a march on the fiddle. When his father brought him around Europe, demonstrating his prodigious skills to wealthy merchants and princes, Johann demanded to play exclusively for music experts.
And somewhere in his childhood, perhaps when he got a taste for eliciting emotion from his otherwise stoic father, he realized the opposite was also true.
Music was incomplete without life.
At night, after dinner, Johann would practice concertos both he and his father knew. Leopold was an early-to-bedder and liked to drift off listening to Johann's ever more miraculous ivory tickling. But Johann, knowing how his fastidious father ticked, and perhaps encouraged by Anna Maria's love of a good joke, would build to a crescendo at the end of a piece, deploy a dramatic ritardando to stick the landing... and then leave off the last note, close the lid, and go to bed.
And reliably, Leopold, tortured by this, indecent in nightcap and gown, would stalk down the stairs, slam open the lid and pound the last chord.
The Mozarts were finishers. The Mozarts could close the deal.
But Johann Chrysostomus learned in childhood, that there is a difference between when something is finished and when something is complete.
He learned to forcibly crash space into Leopold's listening experience and in so doing, impel him to participate. Emotion, he realized, was teased out in the negative space, in the spaces between notes that only became complete when heard by a human.
Years later, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, as Johann Chrysostomus became known to the world, deployed this technique as he wrote what many believe to be the greatest human document, The Marriage of Figaro. The count and the countess are larger than life aristocrats, always accompanied by a melodramatic scraping of bows. The count brings whole bass notes into every scene he enters. But Figaro and Susanna, the servants we're all meant to fall in love with, glide and float over roomy and plucked staccato. He seemed to use pizzicato, the muted, deadened plucking of violin strings, to indicate the notes that our hearts should play.
In De Vieni, Susanna's fourth act aria, we know that Susannah knows that Figaro is watching her wait for the count, but we also know that Figaro doesn’t know that she knows, and it’s all a touching rouse to win his love back. And the pizzicato notes below her voice work the tumblers in the locks around our hearts, and they crack open to help her.
The Pizzicato Effect occurs when an artist deploys sudden negative space, a muted note at the most surprising moment possible, to yank us in by the hearts. Right when they have earned the right to cash in, they instead blast a hole in their work and yank the audience in by the short and curly hairs of their souls. Wolfgang learned early that to merely finish a work was nothing when compared to allow for its completion only when it was witnessed. The best artists aren't saying "I matter," they are saying "you matter." Johann's nightly concertos were incomplete without his father flying down the stairs to play the final note, accompanied sweetly by the giggles of Anna Maria.
The Mozarts were finishers. The Mozarts closed the deal.
On our honeymoon in Oaxaca, Emily and I rode the bus with an Australian pharmacist. She told us of a shellshocked young couple that came to her shop early one Saturday asking for a morning after pill. The dosage required two different pills to be taken at the same time. "Take both of these right now," she told them. They nodded, looked at each other... and each took one. Concatenation is the order in which we experience events through linear time. Simultaneity is the relationship between events that we perceive are happening at the same time. Our anal retentive left brains organize time in a linear fashion to fit it through the keyhole of our consciousness. Our tripping balls hippie right brains, meanwhile, seem to know that every event in history is still happening right now, somewhere in the universe. I can't say for sure that I wouldn't have done the same thing as the stricken couple in the Australian pharmacy. Two pills. Take 'em now. Divide them up. Down the hatch. The past: erased. When I've watched a glass spill, my brain has revved to 5,000 frames a second, watching the teeter the tip and the splash of every drop I had planned to enjoy. And I have felt, in the same moment, the sudden funeral for my next ten minutes that now will be spent cleaning it up. It's as if the more you don't want something to be true, the less you perceive the concatenation of time. Or perhaps the more emotional you are, the more simultaneous life feels. Great movies whizz by. Funerals and burials are a rich mind cocktail of an un-had future and a bygone past, and go by in kind of a blur. A morning at the DMV takes weeks. Breathing hard, desperate for a solution to last night's youthful indiscretion, relieved at the clear instructions of an authoritative pharmacist, I think I too would have taken that pill. Down the hatch. The past: erased.
The massacre and death that so marked World War Two
Left Americans racked with bad shell shock and sorrow.
But progress in the sciences and especially in flight
Led all of them to believe in a much brighter tomorrow.
The problem was that airplanes just could not break Mach One,
Or the invisible barrier known as the speed of sound.
The Aircrafts combusted the closer they got
And put pilot upon pilot in a burial mound.
The PhDs warned of an infinite drag
As molecules stacked up in front of the plane
And test pilots would faint as G-force moved their blood,
So to approach the sound barrier was deemed flat-out insane.
But one captain among the brand new air force ranks
Beheld not a wall, just a steep hill to climb.
If bullwhips and bullets could pass through the drag
Then for man and machine it was a matter of time.
He knew with jet engines, if a man could hold on
And climbed super steady, he could slowly ease through it,
But would need a young pilot with no wife or child
‘Cause no sensible human would say they would do it.
Along comes Chuck Yeager who’s hand-eye was legend
Through violent shaking and blackouts and red-outs.
He’d clutch fast the yolk no matter how the plane shook
His only thought being to get the damn lead out.
October fourteen, nineteen forty-seven,
Chuck turned up to fly with a hairline cracked rib.
He fell off a horse on a ride with his wife
But for fear of a grounding decided to fib.
The PhDs on the ground thought he would die
And hugged him too hard as he boarded the plane
Which was bolted to the belly of a B-twenty nine
And climbing in caused his rib all sorts of pain.
The Bell-X1 nose was shaped just like a bullet,
Liquid oxygen sloshing and frosting the rear,
Not built for control nor outfitted with chutes,
Just two minutes of jet fuel to get through the fear.
Only forty-four years after Kitty Hawk’s test,
Yeager dropped from the bomb bay and opened the throttle
His head snapping back with gargantuan torque
Just like riding the cork of a popped champagne bottle.
But at point nine six Mach, only four shy of sound,
His instruments started to spin and crap out.
His blood was now gathered in back of his body,
It was all he could do not to puke and pass out.
But something inside him knew he now had a choice,
A steady climb upward would no longer work,
He could either now quit, and just glide back to safety,
Or slam down the gas and give the yolk a big jerk.
Thirty seconds of gas now remained in the tank,
Not quite enough really to blast through the wall,
But a voice, deep inside him, at that point said “Fuck it,
If I die now, at least I’ll be having a ball.”
A far less well known instance of a man who said fuck it
Happened in the forlorn late career of a man
Who’s post-impressionist paintings eventually rocked the Paris arts scene
But almost killed him in the process – his name? Paul Gauguin.
And before I get too far in let me say very quickly
That despite being breastfed, I went to state school for college.
So when people at nice parties name their favorite post-impressionist
I say “ahhh of course” but I’m just feigning the knowledge.
So on behalf of any readers in the crowd from UMass Boston,
I have Bing'ed post-impressionism so we could all up our game,
And in order to use it well at a fancy cocktail party
One must understand its origins or risk appearing lame.
First Freud said that humans were a product of our mothers
Influenced by environments, less nature more nurture.
And the Realists began to look for clues in our surroundings
Every simple noun now fodder for a would-be soul searcher.
Then the Symbolists felt this was completely on the nose
And rather they preferred to lift and highlight certain things,
A vase in a painting made emotionally radioactive.
For THIS was the way for us to tug on heart strings.
The Impressionists were like that shit is juvenile drama.
We aren’t who we are because of cups and wheel spokes.
WE’LL paint stacks of hay and watch behavior of light
And we’re only going to use tiny, visible brush strokes.
And then the post-impressionists said “oh, aren’t you so honest?”
We’re going to make skin blue because FUCK YOU...
And that’s where our man Paul Gauguin would finally land.
“Art is either plagiarism or revolution” he famously said.
He was the patron saint of egomaniac artists who die penniless,
But turn out to have been right about the talents in their head.
His greatest enemy of all was the Paris arts scene,
which taunted him for mediocre work and endless hustling,
“I’m a great artist” he once said to his wife, who couldn’t stand him,
“It’s because I am that I have had to endure so much suffering.”
Routinely, he’d depict himself as Jesus in his paintings,
To signal to the world that he was basically doomed
To suffer at the hands of philistines who didn’t get him,
Because of his specialness ... And ruin loomed.
He longed desperately for a time before his own,
Before colonization polluted paradise to the palm frond,
And he knew his chance was here with the world expo in Paris,
perhaps otherwise known as "l’exposition du monde."
He built a stall next to the entrance the way an uninvited rockband
Would play the foyer of a Quizno’s at South-by-Southwest,
He made enough Francs to set sail for Tahiti
Leaving everything behind that made him feel so oppressed.
Everything was great for a couple of solid years
But by the end of eighteen ninety-seven his body began to fail.
His hand would often jerk as he stood and tried to paint
He’d cough up blood onto the canvas, and if he stood too long, grow pale.
And finally... riddled with debt, and abandoned by his friends,
Swindled by art dealers and extorted by his wife,
A broken ankle would not heal, and syphilis run amock,
Gauguin brought arsenic up the mountain to take his life.
But it didn’t work, the next morning he woke up in a daze
Under a palm tree with the worst hangover in the world,
He stood up slow and dragged his sorry ass back down the mountain,
To his studio where he flopped into a chair, and then hurled.
The mail had come, a book, sent by his frenemy Van Gogh
Sat on the table, maybe it contained some inspiration,
Clutching his gut he heaved himself across the room to grab it,
and opened it but found some horrifying information.
It was by the now forgotten English poet Gerald Massey,
Played here by Christian Bale, it was about Egyption gods,
And One of them, named Horus, had uncanny similarities
To Jesus but eight hundred years earlier which was odd.
His father was a carpenter, his mother was a virgin,
Angels foretold his birth and he was born in a manger,
Three distant kings followed a star to see this little NICU
And the Horus story as a grown-up only gets stranger.
He healed the deaf, the blind and lepers, taught in parable,
He loved the poor and prostitutes, and even led a chorus
Was crucified, between two thieves, then rose from the dead,
And on the third day entered Egyptian heaven... HORUS!
And the whole December twenty-fifth birthday thing was total garbage
Made up by Constantine in A.D. three twenty-five
Who wanted to draw box office away from Pagan Solstice
To insure his brand new Christian faith would survive.
And Gauguin, when he read this, about lost his damn mind
He’d been a good French Catholic since the day that he was born,
This messiah he disguised himself as in his paintings was a reboot,
Jesus. Wasn’t even. A Capricorn.
He sat in his hut, catatonic, not moving.
The empty bottle of arsenic still sat on the table
Even in suicide he was a mediocre failure
And now this book had made his whole existence unstable.
But then out of nowhere, a childhood memory returned,
His schooling was parochial, his parents were religious,
A lecture on existence by the famous French arch bishop
Felippe Antoine Filiberre D’upan-loup, played here by Lloyd Bridges.
A religion, he had taught, must answer three basic questions,
Answer them and feel free to start your own one too
Where do we come from, why are we here, what happens when we die?
“If you can tackle those conundrums you are free,” said Dupanloup.
Gauguin was decimated by the book Van Gogh had sent him,
Losing his religion left him morbidly bereft,
But now this memory made something feel so incomplete,
He realized that maybe he had one last painting left.
It would be called “D’ou Venons Nous, Que Sommes Nous, Ou Allons Nous”
He’d paint the answers to these questions, his suicide prolong,
and with a sudden surge of energy he put the brush to canvas,
And recklessly it led him to a glorious swansong.
In those days painters would spend months preparing for a work,
Color wheels, perspective studies, essays and tableau.
But Eschewing a sketch, Gauguin just blast his wet brush to canvas
Rather than his usual careful plan to zing Van Gogh.
The unanimous notion of his own mediocrity
Had been his constant enemy in the Paris arts scene
But now he let that go and howled to the moon “fuck it”
Blast through his self-mythology and emerged completely clean
It was the sum total of everything he’d ever done,
And when he finally finished got a lump in his frail throat.
He felt its magnitude could be compared to the gospels.
He rolled it up and made off on two canes to meet the mail boat.
As he watched it float away taking his masterpiece to Europe
He realized he was no more a man who must rely
On others to answer for him life’s most important questions
Where do we come from, why are we here, what happens when we die.
And in that moment on the dock, his body a broken shell,
Gauguin the redeemed man decided not to kill himself.
He’d said the words and shed his ego, painting from the truth...
Back in his hut he put the Massey book up on the shelf.
Parisian critics had the sense this painting was a triumph
But accolades from Paris were simply now no longer needed.
He had his mojo back because he and Chuck Yeager knew
When you are down, and say this phrase, you cannot be defeated.
The PhDs on the tarmac, they all heard together
The giant boom they all figured meant Chuck Yeager’s end
But the funny thing is, when you decide to say "fuck it,"
The universe turns out to be your best friend.
The TV show Right This Minute featured my video about shaving your Adam’s Apple!
And here’s the original video…
The frozen tundra of 21st-century artistic possibilities stretches before us. Madness lies in every direction. We know directing is the only option for an intrepid, citizen-philosopher, bon vivant like ourselves (or so we like to think)… but directing what?
To whom must we communicate? What message? Over what production elements are we compelled to bear influence? Can we ever start a family? Hopefully this handy chart will help.
Click to enlarge. Download the PDF here.