Mad at the World

William Souder’s extraordinary new biography of John Steinbeck has thrown me back into my youth in ways I’d not imagined possible. I’ll explain in a moment. “Mad at the World: A Life of John Steinbeck” is a nuanced and scrupulous volume and it’s also a study in depth psychology without the turgid rhetoric of Jung and Freud–it’s a book about a life of ambitious heartbreaks. It is quite frankly one of the best biographies I’ve read in years ranking alongside Richard Ellmann’s “Oscar Wilde” and Candice Millard’s “The River of Doubt” in its shrewd and empathetic treatment of the doubts and drives inside a creative human being.

Of my youth I’ll just say that between the ages of 22 and 27 I lived the driven torture of “the imagination” often hiding in lonely places just to afford the luxury of writing without income. All writers have these periods I think but Souder brings out the exquisite, clarifying, haunted precision of early seeing that hurts, fascinates, and ultimately makes one who’d deign to write. He brought back for me the loneliness of perception, the cold wind of it. One night at twenty I went out, got down on all fours in a cemetery and chewed the grass because Lorca said something about it in a poem. Yes I was blind. Yes the moon was up. Yes I was wildly alive.

“Mad at the World” is not a staid biography, it’s almost a nonfiction bildungsroman about a man who was richly alive with all the triumphs and tragedies inherent in a writing life. The cliche is “warts and all” but Souder gives us Steinbeck’s blemishes with the light and space to take them in:

“One of the mysteries of writing is how it sometimes happens in spite of everything. Many writers cannot bear distractions. Steinbeck, always brittle and impossible to be around when he was in the middle of a book, had been fiercely protective of his writing time, and nobody who knew him even a little dared interrupt him when he was working. Maybe being alone with his dying mother felt perversely like the kind of isolation he craved. Or perhaps he discovered at last that writing well is impervious to the noise and clamor of everyday life. It happens. Life (or death) taps you on the shoulder, interrupts what you’re doing, and suddenly you find that nobody has been bothering you but yourself. Indulgences disappear, instincts take over, mistrust of your own work fades, and the tendency toward self-doubt is carried away. And so it was with Steinbeck in that terrible time. He actually enjoyed himself while writing Tortilla Flat and the short stories that fell so easily onto his pages. It did not seem possible that this was the beginning of everything. But it was.”

One may say an open hand is nearly always empty but fate has other things to give and it’s sometimes a tenderness, an illuminated private station and Souder shows us how it worked for John Steinbeck. For my money this is one hell of a compelling book about a writer’s life, the lived life of the unaffiliated places inside.

One night, blind and alone in Helsinki, Finland I found a frozen spoon in the snow. I talked to it. Said: “we’re in equilibrium. It all balances.” It was snowing hard.

The Wind in Syracuse

I started the day with rain in a dish.
There’s always a place like that.
It’s a short lived complex structure.
Mind-house with leaking roof.
Up river someone is singing.
Steinbeck’s ghost.
You can smell the rotting wood.
A patch of garden; damp earth.
A solemn stove rusts in the woods.
Call me what you will,
Friends, enemies.
October winds pass through.
Every day I’m closer to creation.

I once held Enrico Caruso’s shoe…

I once held Enrico Caruso’s shoe…

This is a very strange life. I was presented with the great tenor’s shoe. It was heavy. In fact it was the heaviest shoe I’d ever held. To think of the man above it melting spheres by singing aloud the scribblings of Puccini, the shoe anchoring him to earth…

**

Ah, the buttermilk in the far north…

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Let us be as voluble and engaging as the magpies.

This is a very strange life. Fish swim through our souls. Outside our doors ants are preparing for winter.

**

I kid you not.

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My neighbor walks about like a man who might shoulder a palanquin.

This is a very strange life.

Keep the television off.

Avoid the warehouses of rage and loss.

I had a complicated dream last night…

I had a complicated dream last night. I was in a crowded city. There was unrest as white people like to call it. When I woke I understood the mirror of the subconscious had shown me the waking world but without the usual surrealism.

Meanwhile…

The little dog who’s getting old just tipped over his breakfast dish preferring to eat off the floor. “Good for you!” I thought.
“Age has its privileges!”

Meanwhile…

October and the leaves are coming down. My friend Jarkko called the falling leaves “death’s butterflies” which has always struck me as apt.

Kurt Vonnegut Jr. department, “and so on…”

Musing: Donald Trump is a Disney fascist, duck strutting, quacking, really not much to look at.

And so on…

It was a moderate despair like rain in a cup…

It was a moderate despair like rain in a cup and not the full blown Titanic. I mean that’s how he lived his life, dripping spots of sorrow onto his wrists to see if it was cool enough to feed the infants or share with anyone, really. Small cups of darkness and a stupid song or two in mind, sometimes sung out loud and sometimes not.

Trump brought the supersized American disdain for decency right to his door. The cup didn’t work anymore. He tried opening the windows, then closing them. He tried old prayers.

He’ll vote of course. He’ll continue to pray for better times.
One thing he knows for sure: the days of middling despair sure were a privilege.

Thinking of Kenneth Koch

Thinking of Kenneth Koch

I am a sad man do you understand?
Seeing I was blind and on vacation
A man climbed a palm tree
And brought me a coconut
But handing it over
He warned me to beware
Of the devil–do you
Understand? People
The world over
Think the blind are possessed.
I’m guessing this
Doesn’t happen to you.
You bend to the pavement
Pick up pennies,
Write your name
On park benches
Or better yet
Someone else’s name.
In general it’s a good day
When they don’t call you a monster
Or a friend of one.

Head in the Clouds

I tend to read compulsively though not canonically. African folk tales, history of science, D. H. Lawrence, old white men, young Latinx women, Russian history, eco-theory, contemporary poets from China. And things happen, my soft shell crab of a mind is fed. I learn that Abraham Lincoln came home from Gettysburg with a case of the small pox, that he infected his black servant who died, that behind every story we thought we knew there’s another one having to do with disability and illness and injustice. Speaking of Lincoln and disability I’ve recently learned while reading David S. Reynold’s “Abraham Lincoln in His Time” that on the frontier in Lincoln’s boyhood violent fights often involved gouging out the eyeballs of one’s opponent and that victorious fighters used to flaunt the enucleated eyes of their victims. Lincoln did not participate. I knew that blinding thieves was an old juridical practice dating back to the Greeks, but I’d no idea blinding the guy in the other corner was a popular entertainment in Illinois.

Seeing such things Lincoln developed rectitude. That emergence made him the greatest of men. Not perfect. But moral.

I put the words disability, illness, and injustice together because in a society without moral leaders these wanton circumstances feed each other. But you know that. If you’re reading this blog you already know.

Compulsive reading…not long ago I re-read Robert Graves memoir “Goodbye to All That” in which he narrates how he turned his back on England after the debacle of the First World War. He hoped he could find a better garden much as contemporary Americans tweet about where they want to live now that the USA has seemingly devolved into a fascist stock yard. Anyway the following passage caught my attention–Graves and his wife Nancy are living in Islip, post-war, and everything is going to hell:

“The Herald spoiled our breakfast every morning. We read in it of unemployment all over the country due to the closing of munition factories; of ex-service men refused reinstatement in the jobs they had left when war broke out, of market-rigging, lockouts, and abortive strikes. I began to hear news, too, of the penury to which my mother’s relatives in Germany had been reduced, particularly the retired officials whose pensions, by the collapse of the mark, now amounted to only a few shillings a week. Nancy and I took all this to heart and called ourselves socialists.”

That this should strike one as familiar and smoothly contemporaneous speaks to the corruption and contagion we’re now forced to endure.

Reading Eric Alterman’s “Lying in State: Why Presidents Lie and Why Trump is Worse: one reads the following:

“Like Woodrow Wilson during the latter stages of his presidency, Roosevelt was not at all a well man during his final election campaign. But FDR proved so adept at hiding his infirmities that his personal physician, Dr. Ross McIntire, confided in his diary, “It made me doubt my accuracy as a diagnostician.” In December 1944, just a month after his final election victory, a new physician, Dr. Robert Duncan, conducted a thorough examination of the president and gave him only a few months to live. This prognosis was apparently due to a “hardening of the arteries of the brain at an advanced stage.” We can see at least one important result of his infirmity in the fact that, according to biographer Robert Dallek, “Roosevelt’s cardiologist ‘begged Eleanor time and again not to upset her husband’ with complaints about State Department appointments of anti-Communist conservatives.” 14 It so happens that these appointees were the very same people who slammed the door shut on refugees from Hitler’s Holocaust. The question of whether his health affected his performance at Yalta cannot be put entirely to rest. FDR could work for only a few hours at a time during his final months during his final months, and he was hardly at his best when he did. In retrospect, however, the problems that arose with the Soviet Union in the aftermath of the war did not result from Roosevelt’s having been hoodwinked at Yalta, much less from any nefarious attempts to undermine him by pro-Soviet members of the US delegation there, as so many have since charged. Rather, it was that in securing the best deal he could, Roosevelt apparently lacked the energy to tell anyone—for example, his vice president—about what he had agreed to and why he had done so.”

Again history is startlingly near. Illness, public relations repression of same, disability behind the curtain, a feckless medical establishment lining up to disguise FDR’s true circumstances, all combining to “lose the peace” as we might say.

Does Trump even now how ill he is? Do his apologists and crackpot doctors care? What are we losing on the world stage because of this pandemic driven denial, charade, canard, con-man cathexis?

Here’s another passage that caught me recently. This is from Edmund Wilson’s “To the Finland Station”:

“In 1891–92, the famine and the cholera epidemic that followed it brought the intellectuals into the field. Tolstóy at sixty-three set an example by turning in with all his family and working his head off for two years: he and his sons established hundreds of soup-kitchens, and he tried to get the people on their feet again by distributing seed and horses. Vladímir Ulyánov, however, according to one of his friends, was one of the only two political exiles in Samára who refused to do anything about the soup-kitchens, and he would not belong to the relief committee. Our only knowledge of his position at this time is derived from the indictment of a Populist opponent, who declares that Vladímir welcomed the famine as a factor in breaking down the peasantry and creating an industrial proletariat.”

Lenin is seen here rooting for starvation. Sound familiar? Trump was going to tear off his shirt and reveal his Superman costume while Americans are falling ill in record numbers and oh yes, many are starving. Of course for Trump he wants Industrial Proud Boys, not a proletariat. But his behavior is strikingly similar to the heartlessness of Vladímir Ulyánov.

I’m reading during a pandemic.

Here’s a passage from Leila Lalami’s “The Other Americans” which grabbed at my disabled child’s heart:

“Yet the sense of being different never completely went away. The fault lines usually appeared when I was asked what church I went to, or when my mother spoke to me in the school parking lot, or when the history teacher asked a random question about the Middle East and all eyes turned to me for an answer. It didn’t help that my parents weren’t getting along and that there was constant squabbling at home. Every time a door was slammed or a dish was smashed, I locked myself in my room and listened to music. I dreamed of growing up, going to college, escaping the desert. “Why do you always have your head in the clouds?” my mother would ask.”

Head in the clouds indeed.

Poems help…

I wish I could sit with you Father Time, Mother Eternity. Maybe we’d drink tea from tall glasses as I did when a boy in Finland–Russian tea, the candles shining through.

Damask and silver, twilight. Together reflecting on the small, beautiful, ineluctable joy of seeing animals, their eyes.

**

The dictator has broken all the gramophone records but one. He plays it for his dinner guests: wolves howling. When the record is over he starts it again. Stalin as disc jockey…

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Father Time, Mother Eternity, how do I shake these blues?

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My friend, the poet Jim Crenner wrote: “Life is like a game of chess. Death is like two games of chess.”

Once, playing with a friend in a Greek taverna, a spider walked across the board and we both decided it was a draw.

**

I wonder if Stalin ever played his record backwards?