Diary

Terry Castle

Thinking about the three things I learned yesterday, courtesy of Levine Breaking News – a mysterious right-wing, LA-based, showbiz-obsessed website that sends me, unsolicited, ‘breaking story’ email updates several times a day. The first: Odontophobia is the fear of teeth. Good to know, but surely raises some questions. Whose teeth? What about that lady on the catafalque in the Poe story? Berenice: I think that was her name. Everyone seemed to love her teeth. And what exactly is a catafalque, by the way? I’m an English professor, but I have to admit, I’m not sure. Or was it Ligeia?

And then there’s the philosophical issue: is it possible to be afraid of one’s own teeth? Hard not to conclude that if that were the case, one’s teeth would chatter constantly – out of sheer self-reflexive existential fear and trembling. (Subtext in these opening paragraphs: having inordinate if not Martin Amis-like dental bills of late – on top of all the moving expenses – have decided to come out as auto-odontophobe.) Life really would be simpler without them. Just gum everybody to death. One’s own, one gathers, are going to outlast one. Obviously somebody’s idea of a joke. Hilarious! that some crumbling bone-pegs and a bunch of grotty fillings get to trump the warm, lovely, soft pulsating flesh!

Second new fact: In the average lifetime, a person will walk the equivalent of five times around the equator. Merely flag this one for now: subtly foreshadows, of course, sombre overarching Diary theme. Distract reader with Pooterish footwork. Oh, yes, that eczema on one’s feet – latest horror of middle age – has abated somewhat now. Thank you for asking. Stress-related. I think it’s mostly gone because at last I’m now moved into the new house – albeit into one paint-fume-filled room only; still sleeping on the air mattress. Javier, Raul and jolly crew of mariachi-loving daubers still working away in the others. Yesterday they brought in a tiny television and watched telenovelas all day long while patching and priming. Bathroom as yet unavailable; knowing looks going between them when they see me peeking in wistfully at the window. One has to slink away into tall bush at back of the yard, then somehow freshen up with the garden hose. Reminds me, like so many things, of my sad childhood – one much worse than Sonia Sotomayor’s.

And yes, it’s undeniable: packing up several decades’ worth of precious tat at the old place last month was hugely stressful, a Major Life Passage and all that. One’s pale, vine-withered, all-too-sensitive skin took notice. Nor did Blakey help matters when she said: Well, that’s how it started with my father. (We’re still legally married, btw; the ban on same-sex marriage voted in in the November election did not affect those of us who got married last summer.) B. my junior by 13 years. Which means when I’m 90 she’ll only be 77. Cracks in his heels that wouldn’t heal. Jungle rot. Then he never left his chair again.

Third new fact, speaking of rot: According to suicide statistics, Monday is the favoured day for self-destruction. Today is a Thursday, so does this mean that the strange new backyard in which I’m now sitting and noodling away on my laptop is in fact a simulacrum – some sort of bizarre posthumous reality? One is in Limbo, perhaps, with the Unbaptised Ancients? (That white wrought iron patio furniture – nice but also slightly funereal – might suggest as much.) But wait – isn’t that a barbecue pit over there? Oh, no: it’s far worse; I’ve ended up in – Hah! Just kidding!

Missing Blakey and dogs horribly, though. B.’s in Boston on some complex family business; Wally and Charlie in the kennel in Novato till the furniture comes out of storage and everything gets moved in. One struggles to keep oneself from phoning Gloria – W. and C.’s hirsute but kindly kennel-mistress – to ask yet again how they are doing. If only they could text me. Or maybe leave a little message on my Facebook Wall. Self-destructive thoughts when forced to admit they can’t. Like Susan Boyle, all one wants is to have one’s little life back.

B., thank god, seems fine. Calls frequently from Cambridge on the Crackberry; thinks I’m making an insane fuss about moving five houses up the street. Full of kind spousal forbearance when I tell her we desperately need expensive vintage-salvaged-wood kitchen ‘eco-hutch’ – I’ve just seen it on the Sundance Catalog website – with special digitally temperature-controlled rack for wine bottles. But she’s also taken to reading me bits of The Wisdom of Schopenhauer over the cell phone:

That human life must be some kind of mistake is sufficiently proved by the simple observation that man is a compound of needs which are hard to satisfy; that their satisfaction achieves nothing but a painless condition in which he is only given over to boredom; and that boredom is a direct proof that existence is in itself valueless, for boredom is nothing other than the sensation of the emptiness of existence.

If the immediate and direct purpose of our life is not suffering then our existence is the most ill-adapted to its purpose in the world.

But what about one’s all-time bummer favourite? That each step forward we manage to take is part of ‘an ultimately futile effort to keep ourselves from falling’. Or something to that effect (I’m dredging it up from newly-formed memory-sinkholes). Even I have to admit that the saying applies: my two whopper black eyes have faded, but the sense of frailty I’ve been feeling since I tripped in the garage a month ago and broke my nose (the day before the movers came) has not entirely dissipated. All too suddenly learned exactly what falling flat on one’s face meant.

Schope-a-Dope, the Misanthrope: nailed it as usual. You can walk all you want, dance into the whole stupid business with gusto – step-don’t-fall! step-don’t-fall! step-don’t-fall! – till one day you step and SPLAT!! you do fall. And then, of course, you don’t get up. Chances of such a mishap increasing exponentially, it seems, if you’ve already walked the equivalent of five times round the equator. Knees, if you will, go belly up. So it makes sense to worry. I’ve moved around a lot in my life – three years here, five years there, 15 years in the last place. (Yes, I know it was only five houses away.) Is this the last big move I’ll ever make? Will I be carted out of this particular terminus feet first? Head encased in the bubble wrap and ice?

And when, bloody bodkin, will I have my clothes back? Another day of no underwear. Must take grungy laundry bag to Bev’s again. Hoping single clean pair of jeans don’t fall down on the way there. Was a regular Capability Brown yesterday directing the hauling guys in the backyard – yes, take away that Grecian urn from Home Depot (legacy of previous owners) – but the risk of accidental self-exposure had been great.

For reasons I’ll explain in a moment, the new house is named Princess Diane; or The Princess for short. (Likely – I already see – to morph into La Principessa in Mapp and Lucia moods.) A classic double-decker San Francisco ‘Painted Lady’ – meaning a late 19th-century wooden domicile of cheesy touristic charm (and, some would say, tragical unhipness) combined with innumerable dilapidated surfaces in need of extremely pricey and time-consuming repair. A plummeting global economy seems not to have lowered the local cost of Lincrusta refurbishment.

Royal monicker commemorates a poignant moment in personal and civic history: that solemn evening – the end of the day that followed the death of Princess Di – when along with thousands of other stunned mourners one found oneself on Market Street, dead-marching from the Castro all the way to the British consulate at Market and Montgomery. Stretched out, as far as one could see: a vast, slow-moving throng of Di-worshipping gay guys and gal-guys, tremulous with grief and shock, eyes red from weeping. Some clutched single pink roses, others little tea-lights, gently cupped against the cold San Francisco night air. (Dank and freezing as usual, even in August.)

Two leathermen – severely and without camp, like two centurions – unfurled between them a billowy Union Jack. Stumpy-legged little lesbians moaning softly, wringing fat little fists at the loss of Her Loveliness, emblem of every sexy-confusing, perfectly coiffed Straight Woman one could never have. One found oneself blinking back tears. (Horrid old LRB, I seem to recall, never gave the Gorgeous One’s lamentable demise the respect it demanded.) Heart-rending scenes.

I was with Bev and my old girlfriend, Tiny T., the medieval viol player. Yes, we were very sad – as What Normal Person Wasn’t That Week? (There, callous mouse-pushers of Little Russell Street! – I’ve said it.) But even we had to laugh at the freaky-Frisco scene unfolding when we got down to the consulate. For there, at the microphone on a hastily assembled dais: the irrepressible Reverend Cecil Williams. Yes, the Reverend C. himself: beloved ‘minister, author, social activist’ (according to one of his numerous websites); celebrated ‘Founder and Minister of Liberation of Glide Memorial United Methodist Church of San Francisco’; world-esteemed ‘spokesperson for the poor and marginalised’; clarion-call ‘voice for human rights’ etc and dare one say, Local Blowhard and Publicity Hound of the highest order. Our very own Rev. Al Sharpton, in other words, but with hair less frowsty and vehement.

Back in the late 1970s, Williams was one of an embarrassing number of prominent Bay Area leftie muckety-mucks (Jerry Brown, Angela Davis and the soon-to-be-assassinated Mayor George Moscone and City Supervisor Harvey Milk were others) bedazzled by the ghoulish Reverend Jim Jones, charismatic leader of the San Francisco-based Peoples Temple cult, Elvis-style drug addict, ambisexual pussy-predator, and self-anointed ‘revolutionary socialist’ who in 1978 subsequently persuaded 900 or so of his followers, mostly poor African-Americans, to ‘step to the other side’ by drinking cyanide-laced juice in a mass suicide at Jonestown, the ostensibly utopian colony he founded (and named after himself) in the jungles of Guyana. His the greasy, goading voice from the megaphone: Let’s get gone. Having accomplished this pious job of work – as the older reader may no doubt recall – Jones then blew his own brains out in the swampy afternoon heat. Let’s get gone.

Pre-Jonestown, the Reverend Cecil was pretty tight, I guess, with his fellow man of the cloth; he defended Jones in the press (as did Harvey Milk) when local journalists started getting alarmed by sinister stories coming out of the mysterious enclave in South America. On YouTube you can actually watch a creepy little TV clip from 1976 – shot during a visit to San Francisco by future First Lady Rosalynn Carter, then campaigning on behalf of her husband, Jimmy Carter, who was elected president that year – in which a beaming Rev. Cecil stands shoulder to shoulder with his deranged colleague, both of them warmly applauding Mrs Carter.

At the consulate, unsurprisingly, the Reverend C., now the elder statesman, was in full preening flight. Jonestown forgotten; every man his own amen corner. Yet if appropriately hortatory and grand, he also seemed a bit fuddled. Kept referring to someone he called ‘the Princess Dah-Anne’. Didn’t say it just once either, but repeated it a whole bunch of times; all the way through, in fact, his rambling and apparently spontaneous address to the crowd. Dour suits from the consul’s office looking disconcerted. Polite tugs at the Reverend’s dashiki sleeve – unheeded. Was it possible he didn’t know who she was? Yes, this poor lady – this Princess Dah-Anne – had somehow come a cropper; though how and under what dramatic life-circumstances seemed to have eluded the Reverend. Didn’t he watch television or read Vanity Fair? And what about the equally unfortunate Dodi? All CW seemed to know was that whenever a candle-lit procession of thousands came down Market, it was his duty to grace the occasion with words of spiritual uplift.

The lady’s name stuck in one’s head, for who could forget such a moving scene? Even as the Rev. Cecil reminded us, in all his wonderful holiness, that the Princess Dah-Anne was now eternally at peace, even singing with God’s seraphic choir, the Castro’s legendary Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence – beefy gay guys in nuns’ habits who venerate The Hunky Jesus and turn out in force for every Pride march – were working the increasingly restive crowd: shaking their pop-bead rosaries and warbling rude jests about Charles and Camilla and the tampon. The Reverend seemed unaware of the blaspheming Sisters – though, it’s true, might not have got the jokes even if he had been. A few overwrought misfits were now also shrieking and booing. Local screamers. Rev. Cecil sailed on, eyes transfixed by the television truck that had suddenly arrived. The Sisters wore glittery make-up of some sort that created little sparkles on their skin: the Fairy Scintilla. And despite the sadness everyone felt, it was magical.

Now more than a decade later, hoping my new home, the second Princess, can provide her own kind of solace. Show that laughter through the tears is possible, even though one’s irreversible decline has begun. Might it even be possible, I wonder, to face down the impinging decrepitude – if not exactly with pleasure, then perhaps with a certain spry insouciance? Simply laugh and refuse it – as one might a suspicious-looking package?

Not that one would escape the inevitable blast; but wouldn’t one at least feel a little better during the defenestration? More intact psychologically? Our Princess Diane was built in 1874, after all – survived the catastrophic 1906 fire and earthquake – and I have to say she still looks pretty fabulous for her age. Granted: has had lots of work done. (It goes on even now.) But so what? Never say never. She even went solar a few years ago. Became a full-fledged Zoroastrian. With a topee.

And it’s true, one’s funky little neighbourhood, midway between the Castro and the Mission, still brings its share of joyful daily surprises. A few days ago I saw a tall, thin, white-bearded man with a cane walking down the street and it was Havelock Ellis. I suppose you think Ellis died in 1939. Well, he didn’t. And he’s in great shape, too. Still working on his sexology. Doesn’t worry a hoot about people saying he’s outmoded. Likes living in the States. Still a urolagniac too! Later the same day I saw the Queen Mother, riding a Segway and looking bonny and regal in a sun hat.

James Ensor is also here – though in his case, alas, only in a printed form. I love him! You know, turn-of-the-century Flemish painter of weird Belgian carnival scenes. Big catalogue from current Ensor show at MoMA arrived the other day from Amazon and instantly supplanted IKEA catalogue as favourite glossy picture book of the moment. Fun to see again, of course, all those surreal pre-Lenten revellers. Goofy grinning hyena-people in masks and fake noses. Some wearing cardinal hats; others, clownish Belgian lace bonnets. Grimacing devils with rotting mongrel-teeth. Goggle-eyed crones and monkey-men. Chalky-looking pierrots. Drunken spirochetes. E. coli bacteria with legs.

But the paintings that I hadn’t seen before have been eye-openers. The skeleton ones, for example. Bittersweet vignettes of bone-men and women engaged in banal human activities. Marvellous vanitas titles too. Skeletons Trying to Warm Themselves. (Three of them in top hats and shabby clothes huddled round a wood stove.) Skeleton Examining Chinoiseries. (Elderly seated connoisseur-skeleton in Flaubertian dressing-gown studying silks in cosy library.) Particularly awesome: scabrous-delightful Two Skeletons Fighting Over a Pickled Herring. These two, you feel like you know them. One’s academic colleagues etc, etc. That idiotic hat. Also what it’s like to clamp your jaws together that way. Loosening bottlecaps with your teeth is no doubt a bad idea, but sometimes it’s the only way to get them off.

James Ensor, ‘Two Skeletons Fighting Over a Pickled Herring’ (1891)

Not that we don’t have skeletons of our own here in the New World. You need only go a few blocks down to the Mission (still overwhelmingly Hispanic) to encounter tons of jolly-slash-gruesome Day of the Dead imagery. Skeletons in sombreros playing guitars or taking baths; dancing, flirting, giving one another haircuts at the barber’s shop. They’re everywhere in fact – on posters and T-shirts and taquería signs, even in the form of miniature papier-mâché figures in store windows. All entertaining enough in a way, of course. Posada and Manilla, the two Mexican master-engravers who gave the fine old Día de los Muertos imagery its modern graphic form in the late 19th century, were no doubt astute if raffish critics of the human scene. Daumier-like. But maybe I’ve just got jaded by too many calaveras wearing Pancho Villa hats. They’ve ceased to deliver any jokey-macabre hit. Like the omnipresent graffiti and now-fading OBEY stickers on telephone poles – local boy Shepard Fairey has gone on to better things since his big-deal HOPE poster for the Obama campaign – they’ve become a visual cliché for me, part of the usual SF street décor. I barely notice them.

With Ensor: just the opposite. It’s partly the weird contrast between the warm fleshiness of the paint – all that luscious pinky-yellowy-rosy impasto – and the arid, humiliating subject matter that delivers said galvanic shock. Despite having lost their corporeal cushioning, E.’s squelettes still have needs and emotions and (no doubt louche) predilections. Mad hopes and visionary gleams. They’re dreamers of a sort – as full of psychology as Sargent’s Madame X. Just like us, in other words. So it all goes on. You can bet on it: were these the skeletons of today, instead of those of a century ago, we’d see some of them loafing around in coffee shops with their laptops, trying to write screenplays.

But I also love the portraits. Myself in 1960 – Ensor’s risible depiction of himself in cravat and elegant suit with a skull-head in place of a face? Edgier than Hirst ever was. My Aunt Asleep and Dreaming of Monsters awfully good too; you can see the demons. I blush to mention the several nice, never-before-exhibited portraits of myself – Rotund Lady Packing Up Book Boxes; T.C. Trying to Find Black & Decker Drill; Would-Be Butch Thing Installing New Toilet Seat – but there they are. (Ditto that pellucid little still life with the lightbulbs and new extension cords I got at Target last week.) It’s flattering to be painted – even in transit – by a great artist.

And maybe there’s a lesson in it all. The Turneresque Adam and Eve Expelled from Paradise (1887) may be my new favourite among his works. No skulls or skeletons in this one: there weren’t any, you’ll recall, before the Fall. Just a big orangey-yellow swirly blob in the sky (God) with several spidery admonishing tentacle-things. God seems to be pointing down with one of them at Adam and Eve – two absurd little naked figures running off in the bottom right-hand corner.

The cartoon rendering of our First Parents is exactly what I love about it. They’re so Damn the Torpedos, Full Speed Ahead. No foot-dragging or moping around together, à la Cranach, under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, waiting to see if God might change His mind. No sad ambling off like Milton’s Adam and Eve –

The World was all before them, where to choose
Thir place of rest, and Providence thir guide:
They hand in hand with wandring steps and slow,-
Through EDEN took thir solitarie way.

(And needless to say: no Just a minute, Adam, I have to have a twinkle.) On the contrary, Ensor’s A. and E. are hauling ass! Eve slightly ahead, stealing a look back on the fly to make sure guilty hubby is burning rubber too. Eeek! Eeek! Sweetie, hurr-eeee! He’s right behind us!

Granted, the two of them are just starting out on the five-times-around-the-Equator business. They will undoubtedly have to slow down later. Yet to come: the jungle rot, the dental problems, the predations. Arthur Schopenhauer – ne’er-do-well great-great-grandchild, 84,538 generations on – not yet a blot on the landscape, but will be.

But in the meantime – in the Here and Now – it’s inspiring just to see them move – and so beautifully. Blasting it like a pair of sprinters off the blocks. You end up feeling good for them, paradoxically exhilarated. You know it’s hit them; they’ve suddenly grasped what it is they have to do. Namely: make a new home, in a new place. Before the gig is up.