08 August 2012

Ode To Gore Vidal: On The Archetypal Hero

A hero’s passing is one of life’s most difficult coincidences. These are people who are not everyday participants in one’s life – not in the same way that friends and family might be. Their reasons for being heroes, of course, will outlast their physical being far into the future, and this part of them might be a daily presence – comforting, inspiring, reminding us of what greatness looks like. But the passing of their person, or rather, the news of their passing, strikes a sustained and resonating tone, within the chamber of the heart, that sings of the mortality of more than life; it is the transience of ideas, of ways of perceiving, of bygone eras. The ending of someone who was bigger than life, by virtue of their effects on so many other lives, is calamitous to the collective soul of humanity.

Looking back, the first echoes of a fallen hero for me were those describing the death of John Lennon. My awareness of the world at that tender age was not so much in tune with the tragedy of the loss, but with the ironic senselessness that entangled that event. It would not be until I received the news of another Dead Beatle that the death of anyone other than my mother elicited tears from my eyes. They were so unexpected as to cause me to wonder at my ability to care, after some years of youthful detachment and disinterested self-involvement.

In the interim, though, there was the news of the imminent demise of self-described “composer/sociologist,” Frank Zappa, due to prostate cancer. This was depressing because he had announced a crazy plan to run as an independent candidate for the presidency of the United States in the 1992 elections, and the prospect of his mad genius shaking up the process was the most invigorating proposal that U.S. politics had ever entertained. Of course, Gore Vidal was another artist who ran for political office – twice losing, despite impressive showings. He was not so much of an outsider, with his close ties to the Democratic Party. Yet he held the exact same distain for the two-party system that Frank Zappa did.

Compare the words of Gore Vidal:

“There is only one party in the United States, the Property party … and it has two right wings: Republican and Democrat. Republicans are a bit stupider, more rigid, more doctrinaire in their laissez-faire capitalism than the Democrats, who are cuter, prettier, a bit more corrupt – until recently … and more willing than the Republicans to make small adjustments when the poor, the black, the anti-imperialists get out of hand. But, essentially, there is no difference between the two parties.”
 to Frank Zappa’s statement that 

“...the Democrats stand for nothing except “I wish I was a Republican” and the Republicans stand for raw, unbridled evil and greed and ignorance smothered in balloons and ribbons. So that’s really not much of a choice and it’s nauseating to watch Democrats make speeches because they all wish they were Republicans.”
Then came the next George... The death of George Carlin not only kicked me in the proverbial balls (I don’t actually have any) and brought me deep sorrow for the state of a universe without the guidance of his wisdom, but it represented a coincidence that could have been nothing short of the very synchronicity that I had just concluded writing my book about. The writing of that book had awoken in me a great awareness – a sensitivity that I had sensed from time to time, but had not made much sense of – of connectivity.

Here, again, a link joins one event with another, one man’s passing with another man’s, as Gore Vidal was very much of the same mindset as George Carlin, who once said,

“There is a certain amount of righteous indignation I hold for this culture, because to get back to the real root of it, to get broader about it, my opinion is that my species -- and my culture in America specifically -- have let me down and betrayed me. I think this species had great, great promise, with this great upper brain that we have, and I think we squandered it on God and Mammon.”
The quote could be attributed to either of these great dead thinkers.

Now that I was paying attention, the column of noted passings marched forward with Howard Zinn and Studs Turkel, as the Dedication and Apology that begins my book about synchronicity points out. One of the main threads of the book, Kurt Vonnegut, had already moved on in the before time, previous to the process of my awakening, during a time when I cannot recall hearing of his death, so his does not actually belong in this hit parade. But I miss his ingenuity terribly, nonetheless.

Travel and the forging of a new life in South America caused me to miss some important death-bell tolls, I am sure. Awareness waxes and wanes. But because I began writing about happenings in the world again just before the year 2011 was rung in, a new waxing brought me the news of a man named John Ross: “investigative poet,” beatnik rebel, gonzo journalist reporting from the heart of the Mexican serpent, who I had not known of before, and yet, I know that I did. It seems that synchronicity finds a strong voice in death...

The next Earth-shattering occurrence that reverberated in my soul was the murder of a Latin American icon, the beloved folk singer, Facundo Cabral, who was caught in the crossfire of senseless Guatemalan mafia violence in July of 2011. It was the Latin American version of the death of John Lennon all over again.

The loss of the beautiful Wangari Maathai in September followed (I am still carrying the tree seed that will be planted in her name when I find a suitable place, someday, somewhere), and then, in December, Christopher Hitchens stepped off into the ether.

These are the hero-deaths that stick out in my mind through the years. The list is perhaps a bit arbitrary. There must be other heroes whose passing marked my life, but none as vividly as these.

And now, we have Gore Vidal. Yes, he was pretty old, and no, his death was not a sudden, unexpected, tragic tearing away from the world of a gifted and useful individual by accident or disease or the random lunacy of the universe. But this kind of loss is no less painful, as it marks the impending extinction of a class of literary characters made up of the likes of Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson, Saul Bellow, J.D. Salinger, Kurt Vonnegut, and Joseph Heller. Of course, Mr. Vidal didn’t see it like this. With his great depth of historical perspective, he understood the conditions and characteristics of the world in very practical terms:  

“You hear all this whining going on, ‘Where are our great writers?’ The thing I might feel doleful about is: Where are the readers?”
  Damn if he isn’t right. Observing the United States from where I am now, which is Uruguay (the feisty little country squeezed between Brazil and Argentina), it seems that fewer and fewer young people who are immersed in the trappings of a faltering empire; of a great country that never allowed itself to become true to its ideals of “freedom and justice for all”; of entrenched militarism, commercialism, racism, and irrational fear of “other” – fewer youths, for whom history has been fractionalized and then reformulated into a pixilated shadow of its former self, can connect the dots to see the real roots of the social problems that plague the United States today. Politics only grow more and more obscene, angers seethe and explode in horrendously inappropriate carnage, those who turn their frustrations into civil action are belittled and written off as irrelevant, and people just don’t know what to do.

Well, if the lack of demand for heroic writing has brought about a shortage in the supply of heroic writers, musicians, and other artists in the United States, then I suggest that those who crave inspiration seek it from elsewhere. And when it comes to the kind of creative vision that can support people through difficult social circumstances, Latin America excels at producing artistic heroes.

Literature from the movement known as the “Latin American Boom,” which emerged during the 60s and 70s, is politically charged, challenging literary conventions with devices such as non-linear time, multiple perspectives, inventive word play, and sprinkled with necessary obscenities. The most famous of the boom writers are Julio Cortázar of Argentina, Gabriel García Márquez of Colombia, Carlos Fuentes of Mexico (a hero who passed away in May of this year), and Peruvian author, Mario Vargas Llosa. Other Boom authors include Augusto Roa Bastos of Paraguay (his novel, I, the Supreme has been compared to James Joyce’s Ulysses),  Manuel Puig of Argentina (Kiss of the Spider Woman), José Lezama Lima of Cuba, José Donoso of Chile, and Mexican author and photographer Juan Rulfo.

The older generation – Argentines Jorge Luis Borges and Ernesto Sabato along with Chilean Pablo Neruda, to name a few – might also present some greatly needed fresh perspectives to many U.S. readers.

As for contemporary Latin American literature, the list is far too long to get into detail here, but it would have to include Octavio Paz, Jorge Volpi, and Cristina Rivera Garza of Mexico; Jorge Franco and Fernando Vallejo of Colombia; Isabel Allende and Alejandro Zambra of Chile; Santiago Roncaglio of Peru; Eduardo Galeano of Uruguay... (with apologies to all the other wonderful Ibero-American literary heroes who should also be on this list – not to mention all the musicians and other artists!)

As the phoenix arises out of the ashes of death, new heroes emerge from the passing of others ...or are they all actually one and the same, the heroic archetype, the guardians of the power of the immortal written word...?

[image: Phoenix on the portal of Nadir Divan-Beghi Madrasah, Bukhara, Uzbekistan, via Wikipedia]

Spin. July 1991
Signs Of The Times, by Bob Gucciani, Jr.
The image of Frank Zappa as a mad scientist has, like a stubborn vine, so entwined itself through the garden of rock n’ roll mythology that its origin is completely indiscernible.

The Guardian. Wednesday, 1 August, 2012
Novelist, playwright and essayist with a complete mastery of the scene he described

we fear what we don’t understand. 27 September, 2008
I cried when I heard that George Carlin had died.

A.V. Club. 2 November, 2005
During his nearly 50 years in show business, George Carlin has been a radio announcer, anchored a comedy duo, done a Las Vegas residency (from which he was fired), appeared in movies, guested on TV variety shows and talk shows, starred in a sitcom and a kiddie show, recorded multiple gold albums, and penned a string of linguistically playful one-liners that get quoted routinely.

we fear what we don’t understand. 8 August, 2012
I honor the following individuals who have passed away in the time since I originally wrote this book.
Esquire. Wednesday, 1 August, 2012
The late great iconoclast and Esquire essayist, now dead at 86, on God and writing and disease and his legacy and more

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