(The eye, altering, alters all) -- William Blake
One of my more engaging and creative young Chinese students (a girl of 13 years) recently started an essay with the following title: ‘Imagine that you are someone’s shadow for a day.’ In the first paragraph, she asks, “Can you choose whose shadow are you or would you just come into existence when someone is born or when the person first goes into the sun?’
My student soon strayed from the seed she had planted and devoted the rest of her essay to the more conventional idea of not letting other people dictate the terms of your life or indeed ‘overshadow’ you by being ‘better’ at this or ‘better’ at that. (This syndrome seems to apply especially to siblings and the relationships between high-flying parents and underachieving offspring). The essay was effective enough: rah-rah affirmation mingled with her built-in sense of mischief and playful disorder; alas, it did not go in the direction I had hoped when the first paragraph caught my breath.
I get ideas from things that were not really intended to serve as ideas. I can be standing in front of a station somewhere or beside a street kiosk, and someone will mutter the one line I have been waiting for all my life, even though it has nothing whatsoever to do with what the person is actually talking about. I feel it in a cosmic sense, like that day long ago at a Greensboro, N.C. convenience store when I bought a 6-pack of Schlitz Malt Liquor tall boys at 9 a.m. and said to the blank mound of countenance at the cash register, “You know, I don’t usually do this sort of thing,” and she answered in a pleasantly stoic and sepulchral tone: “I’m not here to judge you. I’m just here to take your money.” Like the boatman on the Stygian River. Or the Warden at the Tower of London on execution morning back in the days when Henry VIII was murdering his wives, old friends, and faithful servants.
Or when, in Genova, Italy, one evening after I had just got off a U.S. Navy battleship and wandered into a bar with the guy who was, in effect, my commanding officer (I was a civilian, on the ship to teach university-credit English composition to sailors who wanted it), and, as we stood there with our drinks, an ordinary-but-somehow-beautiful Italian woman walked in with her friend, noticed me and casually said, “Buona sera” (good evening) and ignited something in my spirit that announced, “You must study Italian” -- a decision which changed my life entirely. It really was that simple. The twilight evening, the friendly woman, the melodic voice, the magic words.
It is recorded that Hemingway got the phrase ‘lost generation’ (which he used as an epitaph for his 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises) from Gertrude Stein (novelist and Parisian literary lioness). According to the story, Stein overheard a French garage owner derisively telling his young employee, “You are all a lost generation.” It became a symbol of spiritual disenfranchisement for a whole pack of American writers wandering about Europe after WWI, drinking too much and ‘trying to find themselves’ (always an American preoccupation).
The point is that spontaneous verbiage from a glorified grease monkey who may or may not have ever read a novel in his life -- and who probably forgot what he had said by the time he lit up his next Gitanne -- switched on a chandelier in Stein’s mind, which in turn morphed into an epiphany for Ernest Hemingway.
Not to go off on a tangent but I believe that the genesis of art has little to do with ‘originality’ or ‘creativity’ (not even sure what those words mean; you’d have to ask a progressive school administrator) -- and everything to do with perception. Lateral thinking. Connecting the dots. Whatever you want to call it. The artist is looking at the same world as everybody else but just sees it differently. Poets and painters, mathematicians, physicists, architects, engineers, mafia godfathers, and successful serial killers do their entrepreneurial business in basically the same way: they recognize opportunities, golden chances, where ordinary folk don’t. They see wormholes in the universe that the others are blind to. They figure out ways to escape from prison while the other convicts serve out their sentences.
And all of them are the best thieves in the world. As one of the masters declared (the line is usually attributed to T.S. Eliot): “Good poets borrow; great poets steal.” What this means, in my opinion, is that they recognize the value of what is right under their eyes. Like Zuckerberg, and Jobs earlier on.
More than a few live on the edge of nightmare, and some embrace their inner electric cobwebs hungrily, like adrenalin junkies dangling from the tops of 60-storey buildings or bungee jumpers plunging down, down, down toward the yawning asphalt until a sudden jolt flings them upward. They cannot resist the nest of cobras that swivel in their souls nor put on ear muffs to blot out the sirens among the cliffs that filled the head of Odysseus.
And what is more, the most primitive part of us wants the nightmare to be real. There is not a thoughtful person among us who has not tried to imagine the jaws of a crocodile or the fang and claw of the tiger. What would it be like to die that way, as millions of other animals have? That is the moment of armageddon that we all secretly want. The ultimate perversity. The embracing of unbearable flames. The twisted longing of the human for barbaric sainthood.
All these things go through the brain behind the office worker’s tofu and plain yogurt-colored face, who with his smart watch counts his steps back and forth between toilet, canteen, cubicle, and toilet again, canteen and toilet and copying machine, and back to the cubicle. But behind this flavorless existence lurks the shadow. And in those shadows reside, on poised haunches, the monsters I have spoken of.
I have always been sympathetic to Jung’s ideas about the collective unconscious. I also like his take on Shadows. They pursue us, these shades that come from the mists of primordial mush and the fog that hides the lusty bray, venomous hiss and agonized shriek of prehistoric combatants -- our distant interlocutors from whose dead-of-the-night twitchings our own unscratchable longings and obsessions arise and yearn to be dug and ripped open with mad fingernails.
They did not know us -- we hadn’t been born -- but part of us remembers them...except that we can’t quite put our finger on it, can we? We cannot recall it clearly anymore than a newborn baby remembers drunken violence and abuse in the home. But...he/she does remember, only not in a way that can be articulated or entered into the Big Data machines because it preceded speech and the necessary symbols to create a history.
But they have been moving in us all the while we’ve set about building our pretend civilizations, and at the core of the human animal thrives the gore and manure of a past that is near to being infinite, all of which resides in the buried dreamworld of the modern homo sapiens, and plagues the human heart with its myriad of inarticulate yet throbbing urges.
All of this planted itself in my mind and began crawling about when I first glimpsed Chinese Emily’s essay. All associations I have that involve shadows.
Years ago, back in Gainesville, FL, when I was working on the ‘creative’ thesis (a book of poems) that would get me an M.A. degree, I wrote a poem long since lost, regrettably, in which I tried to capture a baby’s perception of his parents. Train whistles signifying departure was the theme of one of the four sections, as I recall. The rest is only a haze now.
Except for the last section. You see, before I was born my mother and father must have made love hundreds of times. It was back in the days just after the war and before birth control. There was a lot of ignorance about sex, and people had all sorts of ideas as to how to avoid getting the woman pregnant. A common solution was for the man to pull out at just the last possible instant, soaking up as much ecstasy as he could while yet managing to avoid emitting the fatal dose.
And with Mom and Dad for a while it worked. But then, like a worm in an apple, along came I.
Years later, when I had learned to think, I sat out in the grass by the tombstone factory in Martinsburg, West Virginia which was right behind our house. I sat there and watched all the shadows dancing on the silvery stones. It was as if they were putting on a show for me, trying to win my attention.
My Mom had told me once, when she was unwinding tales about her marriage (re: ordeal) with my sea-faring artist of a Dad, that I was conceived in just such a fashion and that somehow I had managed to latch onto her womb’s moonlight and climb back in, whereas all the others had drowned in the sheets. She said I must have badly wanted to be born.
That day in the tombstone pile, I imagined I was seeing all my unborn brothers and sisters saying hello to me. They too had wanted to be born: Gretchen, Robert, Jane, Mary, Richard, and the others, the many others, but they were not.
Or not until that morning when they danced for me, and I understood that they had been near me all along, like elves playing in the darkness.
Siblings of the shadows.