Monday, April 2, 2007


It was love at first sight.

Second sight, too, for that matter.

And a few years later, third sight.

I not only don't expect things to change, I have a fresh copy of Joe Heller's archetypal novel, Catch-22, at bedside and had indeed begun my fourth venture inside its labyrinthine and mischievous pages. This was to have been the week, the Golden Oldies week in my review series for the Montecito Journal.(See link below)

Then the package came. I'd actually forgotten making the order and so, when I saw on the label, from The New York Review of Books, I openly wondered what they were sending me and why.

They were sending me The Horse's Mouth, that delightful romp by Joyce Carey, and an all-but forgotten classic by a woefully undervalued author, Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, by Angus Wilson. Thus had I resolved Golden Oldies through the cruelty of April. (BTW, I have never found April to be even mean spirited much less cruel, and I like to think of it as some personal flaw in Eliot for having rendered April with such distaste.)

I made the mistake of browsing the first page of The Horse's Mouth.

Love you like a brother, Yossarian. Identify with you all over the place, and I willget back to you. Promise. If I had a cell phone, I'd make your number--1-800-catch-22--the first on my automatic dial. In a lovely, catch-22 of its own that you'd appreciate, Gulley Jimson, the fine artist of such epic proportions in The Horse's Mouth, so got hold of me that I'm even checking to see if he nicked my money clip.

Jimson may or may not be a great artist; such things are always difficult to tell, even more so when they appear as characters in books, plays, films. A writer giving the mantle of greatness to a fictional artist runs the immediate risk of undermining our credibility. Somerset Maugham saw this in his character, Charles Strickland, whom we are to assume was a fictional rendition of Paul Gauguin. In his novel, The Moon and Six Pence,Maugham expertly skirted the issue of calling Strickland great by having another character realize, when seeing Strickland's nude portrait of his wife, that Strickland had done more to his wife than paint her. Roiling with jealousy and betrayal, the cuckolded husband is about to destroy the canvas but, at the last moment, relents because even he can see its inherent greatness as art.

I do know Jimson's on-going vision, which seems a plausible rendition of the way that kind of artist would look at the world about him. Also known to me is the way Jimson's art has him in thrall to the point where he thinks only of it. His survival techniques center on how to come by paints, brushes, canvases, or other surfaces on which to render his massive visions. Gulley Jimson will lie, cheat, steal to get the money to buy the tools that will allow him to catch his vision, to trap that lightning in the bottle of his imagination.

He is accordingly gritty, not to be trusted, probably not one to be down wind from for too long. He is a reminder to all of us who have visions that we must check in frequently with an assessment of our own progress. Have we seen any of the on-going miracle before us? Have we looked hard enough, leaped high enough, bent low enough? Have we trod the boundaries of sanity, hoping to get closer to our subject, to send back a message of what it was like inside that insanity? Have we made the connection that insanity is as much a part of the human condition as sanity? Gulley Jimson's great influence was William Blake, arguably a squatter in the wretched buildings of insanity.

As a kind of parting gift, one of my two mentors gave me the exercise of imagining I were a Mars probe, sent off to a remote locale to collect artifact and data, then send those back to Earth so that those here could understand and make use of the information to be gleaned from them.

Don't get me wrong about Yossarian. He surely saw the insanity and duplicity of war. the enormous bureaucracy of deceit and self-interest that moves the young as though they were pawns on a chess board of political gain. Joe Heller, his creator, was gone before Mad King George came to power and established his own catch-22, his version of the Tar Baby. Yossarian has become nothing less than Jungian archetype, and so I set him aside with a wrench in my gut. But Gulley calls as the Sirens called.

No comments: