Letter to Shelton Walsmith - 3 May

Shelton - 

What follows is a long self reflexive conversation that I have had with you for the last few hours. I appreciate being able to sequester your presence, more to have someone to write to about these things. That being said, please feel no obligation to read this. It is mostly me talking to myself while your ghost sat across the table from me at Quack’s and very politely endured. 

I write all of this because, like a kid who found a nest full of baby birds, I worry these insights might fly away from me. And I hope you won’t mind if I conjure audience with you in my mind as a sympathetic ear. I’m not asking for comment upon any of this or even asking you to read it. Consider it a prayer expressed within the ambit of your hearing. You have undoubtedly heard much of this from me before. 

Rambling Preamble that Can Be Safely Passed Over

You kindly asked me yesterday about the nature of the book I am writing, a synopsis - which is curiously to the point, for at its heart, what I am writing is a akin to one of the synoptic gospels. One of the myriad of provisional titles discarded was The Book of Jones: the Fifth Gospel. 

I often think of Rashoman and Citizen Kane - synoptic narratives about a singular person and the extraordinary event - being it a rosy crucifixion or a rosebud mystery or a revelations around a rape. That mythical mimetic mirror that art holds up to nature has been broken. We inherit these shards and fragments which we puzzle over like a bored prisoner over a jigsawed scene. And with that same post-coital sorrow of completion of the picture of the windmill in Spain or the child’s sled in the snow, the decadence of our late late too late modernity condemns to an inherited sadness of being. 

Maeterlink once wrote a weighty book called The Great Mystery in which he confidently stated that The Great Mystery is that there is no Mystery. As we look at this statement from the outside - exoterically -  it seems we are standing with Kafka on one side and Dorothy from Oz on the other. We either wait all of our lives to enter through the Gates of the Law (and die still waiting) or we reach the end of a great journey to experience the revelation that it was all a lie, a supreme fiction, a dream. 

But there is an interior - esoteric - understanding of Maeterlink’s Great Mystery that is analogous to the MacGuffin of Hitchcock’s films - it is a narrative device to initiate the action of the plot, the MacGuffin primes the pump - it is the propulsive force of motivation that suddenly inhabits the characters, gives them a Pulse. The Rosebud Sled, The Maltese Falcon, The Holy Grail, the never opened Letter or Briefcase. In a metaphysical sense, it is the turn from Ontology to Epistemology, from the study of why we are here - ultimately unknowable (or inexpressible) - to what we can know about who and where we are. In this metaphysical sense, the MacGuffin is language with it’s magician’s tricks of logic and grammar. 

I recite from memory this passage from The Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism by Llama Govinda’s (from which the hieroglyphs tattooed upon my body are derived): 

"If we reproduce in our intellect experience which according to their nature belong to other dimensions, we do something comparable to the activity of a painter who depicts three-dimensional objects or space on a two-dimensional surface. He is doing this be consciously renouncing certain qualities belonging to a higher dimension and by introducing a new order of tonal values, proportions and optical fore-shortenings, which are only valid in the artificial unity of his picture and from a certain point of view. 

“The laws of this perspective correspond in many ways to the laws of logic. Both of them sacrifice qualities of a higher dimension and confine themselves to an arbitrarily chosen viewpoint, so that their objects are seen from only one side at a time, and in the proportions and fore-shortenings corresponding to the relative position of the viewpoint. [...] 

“The use of logic in thought is as necessary and justified as the use of perspective in painting - but only as a medium of expression, not as a criterion of reality. If, therefore, we use logical definitions, as far as possible, in the description of meditative experiences and of the centers of consciousness, with which they are connected, we must regard these definitions only as the necessary springboard towards the understanding of the dimensions of consciousness of a different nature, in which the various impressions and experiences of different planes or levels are combined into an organic whole." 

The use of logic in thought is analogous to the use of the MacGuffin in film; it is a tool (a tricky tool like the Magician’s Hat) to justify the motive of the story. But most - including myself mostly - forget is the reductive sacrifice - as bloody as an Aztec ritual or the bed of Procrustus - whereby the higher dimension is made to fit into the lower. No matter how hyper-real this logical dimension seems, no matter how true, it is not the Thing Itself. Donald Roller-Wilson’s jelly and cigarette butt kitchen table. The finger points to the Moon but is not the Moon. The sign is not for sale. You can’t throw away a trash-can. The bowl full of water is not the river, the box full of air is not the wind. The word, ocean, is a thimble like noise that contains only a tiny drop of the surging, raging, flowing, ebbing oceanic Thing Itself.

Maeterlink understood the Mystery to his No Mystery. It is not about Nothing. It is about what cannot be said, what cannot be contained in the vessels or words and manipulated using the tricks of logic. 

Wendell Berry in Standing by Words writes about the importance of the vow, the oath and the promise (these not being synonyms). The sacred vow that is exchanged between two people is expressed as simply as possible by the “I do” or “I will.” Adding more words or constructing elaborate language around this vow diminishes its meaning. Truth and Beauty stand forth radiant with no need of any ornamentation or cosmetic. In Greek, the most essential idea of Truth is expressed in the word, aletheia, which means and “un-concealedness” and is etymologically broken down as, "the state of not being hidden; the state of being evident.” 

Beware that person who “really, absolutely, without a doubt promises” to do something for you. The more ornaments on the Xmas tree hiding the hole in the wall of the things and the more cosmetics on the rotting corpse, the more you can be sure there is fear, insecurity and doubt. 

Here is the laconic beauty in the Zen koans. Here is the cosmic humor of all the serious philosophers pacing around the Great Nothing and constructing sand castles of language and logic to compensate for their insecurity about not knowing. 

.The Meat of the Matter

Here are all of my words trying so desperately to explain what I am doing, opening up the trunk of my MacGuffin, like Pandora’s Box, filling the world with the enchantment of language. 

You asked me about a synopsis and if I knew how it was all going to end. And I answered as I have answered myself, with an architecturally symmetrical allegorical outline of a philosophical problem, 

How does a man understand his own death? 

And it’s not that this synopsis was a lie, but it was an evasion - my own private sand castle bright and shining at low tide. 

For the last few months, I have built it and rebuilt it, adding towers and moats and fine castellations all around. But as I wandered around within it, it was always an empty, haunted place. 

I listened like a father with his ear upon the chest of the stillborn child, attuned for the finest vibrations of Pulse, hearing in the end on my own desperate heart beat. Realizing that when I lifted my face from that skin, I took the warmth with me. It had never been alive. 

As an artist, I am sure you understand, know exactly what I am trying to say. I had no intention of abandoning my dead progeny. But I also didn’t want it to be animated merely by my own love and the love others have for me - like those clay turtles fired in elementary school art class or watercolors of a a duck that only a mother could love. It had to breathe and bleed and scream and laugh on its own. 

How much do you hang on the words of the intelligent stranger who wanders into the gallery and tells you what he truly believes, not knowing you either as the artist or as a friend? 

So here I am having having sold everything I own and sacrificed job, family, friends, and comfortable future to give birth to this dead thing. Over the last couple of weeks, I gave it a kind of Tibetan sky-burial, allowing the vultures and mental insects to feast upon it. I’ve been in a sickness about it, a nausea over my own sickening self, a dog that found the ripest greasiest pile of shit to roll in and took masochistic pleasure in just wallowing in it. 

But when the bones of it were revealed, I saw they were still good bones. Not just good. There were Everything. In the sky-burials, after the vultures have feasted on the bulk of the body, monks known as body-breakers come in and disassemble what remains. And part of their practice is to do this with laughter, jokes, clowning around.

So I disassembled what remained of my book with laughter. 

I remembered long ago, when I worked at the Showdown in Austin, I was sending out those God is… stamp detournement postcards. A few of the regulars were on my mailing list. One of them asked my about them, about who B. Jones was, and I explained it to him. He said, you should write a book. I told him I was planning to someday. Then he said, I bet it’ll be really funny. This gave me some pause. I asked, why do you say that. He replied nicely, because you are always saying really funny things, clever, witty kind of funny. I thanked him. That was very nice of him. But then I reflected: my vision of the book was dark and brutal, with relentless cruelty. The funniest thing was the expression on a rabbit’s face as it was being crucified (I described it as having a Humphrey Bogart face - funny to me.) But obviously not something any one else would find as funny. Years went by. Every so often, what he said would come back to me. And after twenty years or so, it has come to haunt me. 

There with the disassembled bones of my book before me, I wondered how I could arrange them to create something that would laugh. 

Laughter seems like one of those Magician’s Tricks I often refer to. I can perform the trick. I can make people laugh. In fact, after years of service and performance behind the bar, it is second nature to get people to smile with a witty remark or snappy banter. But it’s automatic. I reach in the hat and out comes a funny rabbit. Laughter ensues. it’s a trick with many variations. But to sit alone in a room with the rotting bones of a philosophical story about the sad and gruesome death of the better part of my self, externalized as a character named Bonesy Jones and “make it funny” was a task I didn’t figure myself up to. 

Like when you’re eating Thanksgiving dinner with a lot of distant relatives and your mother asks you to “do your horse impression,” a histrionic highly physical performance that never fails to make your family laugh uproariously and which you are dead certain will go over like an offensive awkward and pathetic wet pair of socks dropped on the dinner plates of my distant relatives. 

With these thoughts running through my mind, I picked up Don Quixote. As I read those pages that I have read so many times, I began to enter into what I call the “interiority of the work.” I first noticed this when I was memorizing poems. After I had memorized it and had recited the lines hundreds of times over, after I had learned it by heart, I found that there was a part of me that enacted the poem, saying it aloud or in my thoughts, and there was another part of myself that was listening - and listening closely. This listening self was able, as it were, to step out of its passive role and enter into the interior architecture of the poem as it was being spoken into being. There is something profound and mystical in this experience. The spell or the capacity  of the words to conjure forth in my mind a structure, a hut, a temple, a cathedral, a house, a room, a cage, and then allow this deeper self - an entranced, sleepwalker kind of self - to float through the open door of the poem and glide down it’s passages. It was a revelation. As if I had discovered a hidden passageway behind the bookshelf and could now wander”behind the scenes.” 

Such was the case now with Don Quixote. His madness was to externalize his internal vision of the world as it should be - according to him. The ordinary became transmuted into the extraordinary. The triviality of everydayness becomes the mythic elements of the quest. These are not profound revelations about the Quixote. What was revelatory to me was how the bones of my dead book shivered and shook as I carried them with me into the Quixote. The long shadow of this first of all novels in the Western European world seemed to animate those lifeless bones of B. Jones like nothing else. I felt a Pulse. 

The critical insight was this: Don Quixote is, like B. Jones, deadly serious. And he suffers one cruelty after another. There is a subtle sadistic joy in how Cervantes creates one excruciating narrative machine after another for the poor Don to be delightfully tortured upon. Sancho is, of course, the cynical realist. He sees no giants, there is little enchantment in the world for him. He wears the long suffering face of a Spanish Buster Keaton. But we, the Ideal Readers, watch from the outside with great amusement as the two banter with each other. As they suffer, we laugh. As Chaplin said, close-up for tragedy, long-shot for comedy. The long-shot here is our belief that Don Quixote is mad. Like Sancho, we are dis-enchanted. Unlike Sancho, we stay put in the trivialities of our everydayness, take comfort in them, wear our trousers rolled, eat a peach to disturb the whimpering universe, maintain the long-shot. 

My attempts to tell the cruel, sad and terrible tale of Bonesy Jones died under the weight of its enormous gravity before it even had a chance to take a deep breath. It was all obituary masquerading as biography. It truly was shaping up to be the longest suicide note every written. 

I should have known when nothing was coming easy, when the writing was a like a gravedigger shoveling down into hard rock - the language increasingly resistant to expression. 

I realized the Charles Bonesy Jones was similar to Don Quixote in that he saw a world of bones where others saw a world of flesh. Of course, the drama of his life was in discovering a way to live in this world of flesh and to maintain a hold on the integrity of his vision, The Bone. Like those encyclopedia transparencies that remove layers of the human body or the layers of a cell, he found a way to overlay the transparency of this superficial world of the ordinary the we are all condemned to live within over his profound vision of the world as an extraordinary revelation. 

My difficulties with earlier iterations of his life were that I was writing from the outside, from the long-shot, as a semi-omniscient narrator. What dawned on me as I ventured into the interior of The Quixote was that the Pulse that was missing was my own. Here was the curse of the synoptic evangelists, for I didn’t figure any reader would care for my presence within the story - except as a sort of invisible narrator. Like Howard Hawk’s theory of the camera - I never wanted to draw attention to myself. 

But what would Don Quixote be without Sancho Panza? It was a quote about The Quixote by Edward Dahlberg that finally set the hook: 

“The critic is the Sancho Panza to his master, our Lord Don Quixote, the artist. Sancho is no bread, butter and beer realist. He too sees and knows with the magical folly of the heart that there is knowledge before reason and science, a secret wisdom that is prior to logic - the vibrant god-telling PULSE. "There are reasons of the heart of which Reason knows nothing," said Pascal.

“There are no abstract truths - no Mass Man, no proletariat. There is only Man. When the Pulse has been nailed upon the crossbeams, lo, Reason gives up its viable breath and becomes a wandering ghostly Error. Truth and folly are ever about to expire, so that we, like our beloved Sancho Panza, kneeling at the deathbed of Don Quixote, must always be ready to receive the holy communion of cudgels and distaffs for the rebirth of the Pulse.”

And there it was: the rebirth of the Pulse. The way out from being the Wandering Ghostly Error. If Charles Bonesy Jones is Don Quixote, then I must be Sancho Panza. As I inserted myself into the previously dead scenes, everything came to life. Words flowed again like water, natural and without effort. And it was so obviously right from the moment I stepped into the story as a character. I had previously been writing in the Third Person: Jones was walking down the road. Now this became Jones and I are walking down the road. And I excluded myself from Jones’ thinking. The only way I could express what he was thinking was by having him talk to himself or whenever he encountered another. But most of his experience, especially as he is dying, is solitary. Now, I am there beside him and we are constantly talking, arguing, discussing. He is a chatty Cathy, having been left alone for too long. Most of the time I am just listening, sometimes wanting him to just shut up. But writing down every word that is flowing from the river of language coming out of him. 

Most importantly, now when Jones sees a devil on a cross, or a footprint of a fugitive god, or the Skull of a God, I am there with him but perplexed and puzzled, worried over his sanity, because what I see is a scarecrow on a stick, a dead rabbit or an ordinary boulder. And it all is smiling in the shadow of Don Quixote and Sancho, with echoes of the existential sad clown predicament Vladamir and Estragon, the physical courtesy and mannered pratfalls Laurel and Hardy, the verbal acrobatics of Abbot and Costello, the American humor of Jim and Huck. 

Since I stopped to write here in San Antonio, my pat answer (as mentioned) to, “what are you writing?” has been: the longest suicide note ever written. And that sensibility only resulted in giving birth to a pile of lifeless bones. My new glib answer, reflecting this Quixotian breakthrough, is to say I am writing the longest punchline to world’s saddest joke. 

If you made it this far, my friend, I thank you. I can’t tell you how much it means to have a conversation with you in my mind. 

I hope you have a productive day -

Your friend -