“Seeing is believing,” the old adage goes. But it’s much too simple. To “see” can also mean to “understand” (as in “I see your point”), so “seeing” can also lead to disbelief, if understanding take you in that direction.
It’s the kind of verbal roundabout that no one relished more than the great American poet, Emily Dickinson. Not that she would have put it quite that way about seeing and believing. Her way was so much the more eloquent --and at the same time boldly, even shockingly original. With the arguable exception of Walt Whitman, no American poet innovated more radically than Dickinson, his reclusive contemporary. Her way with words, though --nearly antithetical to his-- was fuller of that supreme artistic virtue, surprise. While his burgeoning free verse bore multitudes of image and idea:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
Dickinson’s much more reticent poems, each cut and polished like an individual diamond, contain multiplicities. They are more nearly inimitable. Consider one of them:
I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –
The Eyes around – had wrung them dry –
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset – when the King
Be witnessed – in the Room –
I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable – and then it was
There interposed a Fly –
With Blue – uncertain stumbling Buzz –
Between the light – and me –
And then the Windows failed – and then
I could not see to see.
What have we here? Beyond the jolting persona of a narrator who can speak to us from the Great Hereafter, this little jewel of a poem begins with what seems a momentary irritant appearing at a somber, altogether conventional death watch: a fly happens into the room where mourners, in the minutes before the death of the afflicted, await with traditional Christian expectation that God (the King) will appear to host the newly deceased’s ascendancy on High. The narrator remembers too that, before her death, she had written her will, signing away all earthly belongings (that portion of herself that be “assignable”) in readiness for that same theophany.
But the King never appears. Only the fly, who suddenly, in the last five lines of this posthumous remembrance, assumes the leading role in a massive bait-and-switch. God is expected, but only the fly appears, interposing itself between the dying narrator and the light.
The Light. For Christians another name for Christ, the Light is ironically obscured for her at the moment of her passing by the “Blue – uncertain stumbling Buzz” of an insect who not only inspires revulsion as a feeder on rot and excrement, and as a carrier of disease, but who symbolizes the anti-Christ himself, a stand-in for Beelzebub, the Lord of the Flies. Dickinson certainly knew him well from his appearances in II Kings, the Testament of Solomon, the respective Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and Paradise Lost wherein, in Milton’s inverted hierarchy, none sat higher except for Satan. Quite by coincidence, the illustration at left appeared as the depiction of Beelzebub in Collin de Plancy’s Dictionnaire Infernal, published in Paris in 1863, a year after Dickinson wrote her characteristically untitled poem.
Its final lines raise the questions with which this essay began, about “seeing,” “believing” and/or “disbelieving. Literally, the sight of the poem’s narrator is fading; metaphorically, though, it’s the windows toward which she gazes that fail. The metaphor is not simply one of transference. It’s an acknowledgement that, archetypally, windows are eyes. (The word itself comes from the Old Norse vindauga, or “wind-eye.”) Symbolically, windows are portals through which mind and soul look outward, and portals through which light and truth from outside enter the mind and spirit within. Poetically, when windows fail, both directionals go dark.
And as they darken, our narrator concludes that she “could not see to see.” The verb seems oddly doubled. At the fateful moment, she realizes that she can neither literally see, nor can she understand --in the King's absence, and the Fly's uncertain, stumbling presence-- her posthumous destiny. The poem becomes a terse agnostic ode.
Dickinson was prolific. During a lifetime that ended in her fifty-sixth year, she wrote almost eighteen hundred poems, nearly half of them in a four-year period coincident with the American Civil War. Fewer than a dozen (and none of her best) were published during her lifetime in local, mostly ephemeral journals. (Her private letters, on the other hand, teem with her genius.) Her range of subjects was vast (she often alluded to her wide human “circumference”). Her outlooks, from poem to poem, typically contradict one another.
Which is to say that, throughout her work, she seems unbound by philosophical, religious or ideological preconception. While brought up in a mid-19th century tradition of New England Protestantism, Dickinson turns to religion more as a subject of poetic experiment. In one poem, she says she
. . . never spoke with God
Nor visited in Heaven –
Yet certain am I of the spot
As if the Checks were given –
Yet in another, she cautiously writes,
“Faith” is a fine invention
When Gentlemen can see –
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency.
“Let Emily sing for you,” she wrote in condolence to a friend, “because she cannot pray.” Indeed, her poem of the buzzing, uncertain fly treats the traditional Christian attitude toward death with a searing irony. But that outlook is no more consistent in her poetry than any other.
Dickinson’s range of subjects was vast (that wide "circumference" of hers). Yet it’s equally apt to see in her poetry a single, omnipresent subject: language itself. She approached, as the scholar Charles Anderson once noted, “like an explorer of new lands.” Acutely attuned to her own time, as well as history, ideas and human behavior, she nonetheless inclined –and this quite consistently—to allow ideas to yield to the power and vagaries of the English language. She used words, as Anderson put it, "as if she were the first to do so, with a joy and an awe largely lost to English poetry since the Renaissance. Also with a creator’s licence: coining with a free hand, boldly maneuvering her inherited vocabulary, collapsing the syntax, springing the rhythm, slanting the rhyme."
In the manuscript of one poem, we see Dickinson ending with the lines,
What confusion would cover the innocent Jesus
To meet so enabled a man!
But she ends it thusly only after trying out, in that concluding line, the adjectives religious, accomplished, discerning, accoutred, established and conclusive, before she settles on enabled. The meanings are different, of course. But it's words, not thoughts, that are preeminent for her. As E.M. Forster would later write: “How can I know what I think till I see what I say?”
And while experimenting with words, Dickinson also worked to eliminate as many of them as possible. She was a compulsive economizer. While her contemporary, Whitman, inundated his reader with language, building voracious (and at times almost limitless) incantations on the page, she sought maximum ellipsis, the tightest structural compression her language could achieve. Witness here, on the matter of psychosis:
One need not be a Chamber – to be Haunted –
One need not be a House –
The Brain has Corridors – surpassing
Material Place –
. . . . . . . . .
Ourself behind ourself, concealed –
Should startle most –
Assassin hid in our Apartment
Be Horror’s least.
Even words that one might expect grammatically are excised. Only the most essential ones remain.
Then, there's her metaphor. “The Brain has Corridors,” “Doom is the House without the Door,” “My Life had stood a Loaded Gun,” “Presentiment is that long Shadow on the Lawn,” “the little Tippler Leaning against the Sun,” “Pain has an Element of Blank”. . . the list goes and on and on, her jarring metaphors multiplying as we read. Dickinson’s figurative leaps, often so surprising and unexpected, match, in their vividness, the conceits of Donne, Marvell and the other metaphysical poets of the 17th century. What T.S. Eliot said of Andrew Marvell can as well be said of her, that she "plays with a fancy which begins by pleasing and leads to astonishment. . . . [She provides] a succession of concentrated images, each magnifying the original fancy. [In the end] the poem turns suddenly with that surprise that has been one of the most important means of poetic effect since Homer." Her metaphor may be the grandest element of her genius.
Still, surveying her various poetic innovations, Charles Anderson felt that her finest creative stroke was, not her jewel-like compression, nor her word play, nor her metaphoric boundlessness, but rather her having adopted, with deceptive simplicity, a traditional 4-3-4-3 hymn stanza as her most frequent metrical form. We see it here in the Bay Psalm Book’s version of the 23rd Psalm,
The Lord to mee a shepherd is, (4)
want therefore shall not I. (3)
He in the folds of tender grasse (4)
Doeth cause mee down to lie . . . (3)
and in Watt’s Christian Psalmody (a copy of which was in the Dickinson family library),
God moves in a mysterious way,
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.
The stanza’s rhythms (and attendant sentiments) were deeply familiar to the churchgoing Christian society in which the poet grew up. (Everyone was also familiar with the 4-3-4-3 meter that had prevailed in Mother Goose rhymes since the 17th century: “Sing a Song of Six-pence,/ A pocket full of rye; / Four and twenty Blackbirds / Baked in a Pie.”)
The rude simplicity of this sing-song meter –the same meter that anchors her four-stanza’d Fly poem-- was turned by Dickinson into a vehicle of poetic surprise, transporting her novel vocabulary, jarring images, intense compression and intricate ideas, instead of the ordinary banalities and platitudes of faith. Her poems were not, says Anderson, “traditional anthems . . . or pious psalms entuned in a Puritan nose," but rather "the thin pipings of praise that were still possible for an estranged modern religious sensibility, diminished, tangential, sometimes actually cancelled by doubt. . . . Her bold experimentations out from this center would have dismayed the formal precisionists from whose pious hymns she took her start."
Indeed, this “estrangement” --in a sense not confined to her lightly defiant tampering with words and forms—may be the single most important key for us, in our own very different time, to Dickinson’s durable poetic genius. “I’m Nobody!” she wrote sardonically (posing as a demure but questioning outsider),
. . . Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – Too?
Then there’s a pair of us?
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!
She may have been a child of relatively pious mid-19th century New England; but her work –for all its metaphoric fireworks-- emits a peculiarly 20th- and 21st-century sense of alienation. Critic Walter Sutton suggests that, while Dickinson inherited the Emersonian idea of nature as an illusion, there lay behind it, not the ultimately benificent Oversoul of Emerson and Whitman (a period remnant), but the abyss of an unplumbed self to be confronted with fear and courage.
How very modern.
WALTER WELLS, founding editor of The Fickle Grey Beast, is professor Emeritus of English and Humanities at California State University, Dominguez Hills. His most recent book is Silent Theater: The Art of Edward Hopper. See: www.emilydickinsoninternationalsociety.org, www.emilydickinsonmuseum.org, and www.edwardhopperhouse.org.
We’re encouraged so often these days to become unnerved by “nuclear threats,” “dirty bombs,” “weapons of mass destruction,” and by other equally apocalyptic phrases, that when I came across some old photographs of us as kids, on the beach in Alexandria, I remembered it had simply been the “atomic bomb” back then. Even the language of apocalypse seemed more quaint.
It was 1945, the best summer of my childhood. Among the old photos I'd found was this one: that's me on the right, with my sister Claudia and brother Zacky in Alexandria. The European war had ended in May, so our parents were relaxed and freed from anxiety, which reassured us in turn. While the sadness and dismay over reports from Auschwitz --mixed with incomprehension-- has never left me, I managed to put them aside that summer to revel in Hitler’s ignominious death. And I had cheered our British soldiers when the 8th Army, still in Egypt, marched past with pipes and drums. I was eleven. I had also been among the children selected to dance round the Maypole to the tune of ‘Come Lasses and Lads’ in front of Lord Killearn, the British Ambassador --another triumph.
War in the Pacific had therefore been remote and we could again enjoy holidays under clear blue skies in Alexandria, where bombs were only a memory. I was even permitted one day in Sidi Bishr to swim across the bay to Cleopatra’s island. My friend Mahmoud and I firmly believed that the square pool cut into the rock by fishermen out there had been the fabled Queen’s very own. Mahmoud assured me that she had bathed in that same pool, in ass’s milk. I doubted him, as it would have been difficult to land donkeys on such a spot. But he assured me that his sister was certain it was true. She too, he said, “tried to buy some ass’s milk from the donkey man in the street. But my mother called it ridiculous.” Mahmoud thought his mother unreasonable as his sister wanted only enough to wash her face.
While swimming back across the bay, we saw an extraordinary sight. The sky was filled with flying bits of paper like those the Pathé News had shown New Yorkers showering over their heroes. As we swam nearer, we saw that the beach had been invaded by newspaper vendors, unusual for that time of day, and that gusts of wind had blown pages of the Journal d'Egypte, the Egyptian Gazette, al Ahram and, I suppose, every other special edition, out to sea. One that fell near us had a thick black headline that read: ATOMIC BOMB ON JAPAN.
No one had ever heard of such a thing. Back on the beach, people were spelling out to one another what they had read, or thought they had. It was a single bomb, a tiny bomb, some said, only the size of a ball, or an egg. Yet somehow it had vaporized an entire city. We ourselves read words we understood, like “detonator” and “B29 Superfortress,” but there were new and puzzling ones: “uranium,” “chain-reaction,” “radioactivity” . . . .
Then autumn came, and everyone who was anyone, having summered at the sea, returned to Cairo, including my cousin, Albert, then a fit, sporty fellow in his twenties. Albert had, among other delights, resumed his regular visits to the Tewfikieh Tennis Club. He told me that, one day, while he walked from the Club across the Giza Bridge on his way back to Zamalek, an armed policeman stopped and arrested him. During the recent, more critical times, British soldiers had guarded the bridges over the Nile, as they do during wars. But once the 8th Army was deployed to Tunisia, on their way to Sicily, that task was left to the Cairo City Police, who did not normally interfere with passersby.
Albert was puzzled when this shawish seized his box of Slazenger tennis balls, as well as his racket. What made Albert furious was that he was made to carry the policeman’s rifle, which was old-fashioned and heavy, all the way down Fouad I Avenue and along Shagaret el-Dor Street as far as the caracol, or police station.
The station was hot and crowded and buzzing with flies, as well as with the children of plaintiffs and petty criminals, all fairly out of control. As soon as Albert appeared, even the beggars who slept in the corners and beneath the wooden benches awoke and held out their hands, open palmed. Wails and blessings came from everywhere--
In the name of God!
so much so, in fact, that they even captured the attention of the kaimakam, or captain on duty.
The Clement One!
The One and Only!
Blessed be His Name!
The kaimakam looked baffled as he unbuttoned his collar in the heat and swatted at the flies.
“Why is the European gentleman carrying your rifle?” he asked the policeman. “Take it back at once!”
“Sir, your Excellency” said the shawish who, trying to salute and obey all at once, dropped the rifle.
“What is this about?” asked the captain, sternly.
“I have arrested him, your Excellency, because he was carrying atomic bombs. I thought it might be dangerous.”
The Captain stared at the shawish, then, in exasperation, threw the tennis balls at him. “Fool! Donkey! ” he shouted. “Idiot! Apologize to the gentleman!”
“Forgive me, sir,” said the man. “I am poor, uneducated. I have never seen balls like these before. I wanted only to save the city. My wives are both sick, and my son has asthma. I am at my wits’ end.”
Albert, always a kind man, reached in his pocket and gave the shawish twenty piasters. The policeman took the money and kissed Albert’s hand. A chorus of criminals shook their shackles, and plaintiffs cried out--
In the Name of the All-Powerful!
He Who Forgives!!
while the children scrambled about for the tennis balls.
Finally, Albert gave everyone a piaster, and they all blessed him.
B'ism Allah, al-rahman al-rahim!
In any case, Albert, still vigorous in his nineties, has lived in Montreal for the last sixty years. He does, however, move to warmer latitudes in winter.
ELLIS DOUEK is the author of A Middle Eastern Affair, a book he describes as "strands of memory that weave between remembrance of dawn across the Nile, summers by the sea in Alexandria, and the seeming security and hedonism of it all." When he was nine, his mother insisted he take up embroidery --in case he ever decided to become a surgeon. He did and, after an extraordinary career, is now Emeritus Consultant and Surgeon, Ear, Nose and Throat, at Guy's and St. Thomas' Hospital, London. He is working on a book of professional memoirs.
Suzanne Bayon de Noyer
After many years away, this visit back home to South Africa had already been filled with stark contradiction. First Johannesburg (“Jozie”), with its lush suburban gardens and majestic villas, and its treacherous, gang-ridden commercial center. . . . Then Cape Town (the “Mother City”), a haven of peace and gentleness by comparison, with a formidable bureaucracy, almost unnavigable, even for so elementary a chore as renewing a long-lapsed driver’s license. . . . This journey back in time as well as place had already abounded in paradox and incongruity.
After leaving Cape Town and the alluring white sands of nearby Llandudno, we drove southeast through the town of Gordon’s Bay and along the Faure Marine Drive, which distinctly resembles the drive along the Côte Bleue outside Marseille. We passed another South African Navy base (its motto clearly posted: ‘Unchallenged at Sea’), then down along the Whale Coast route. But it’s not their season. Whales come to these waters in November, South Africa's late spring.
Two more hours driving and we reach the lovely Betty’s Bay; then up the rugged coastal terrain through Sir Lowry’s Pass, built by dedicated engineers, and slaves, no dynamite, hewed by hand and ordinary tool through towering ochre and red rock, mighty and towering natural promontories along Clarence Drive overlooking False Bay from on high. False Bay, which owes its name to early navigational history, seems a misnomer for the mostly placid waters of the Indian Ocean that begins here. But when the south-easterly blows, all hell breaks out, huge waves crashing on the usually serene shores full of fishermen, pitching their boats onto the rocks.
Still, this is the Garden Route, and we’re searching for the perfect Honepoort, a seedless, juicy white grape from the region. We drive past old farmsteads dotted about in the fynbos, the distinctive heathland vegetation that predominates here; and from this highland vantage, majestic views of Pringle Bay and Hangklip. Along smaller dirt roads, we see cavorting families of baboons.
As we drive on, pink fynbos lines the road, protea bushes spike the air, and a heron flies by towards the river. We’re speechless before the wonder of a white-lopped tidal pool. I think God should embargo such intense natural beauty; everyone wants to own it for himself. Wars, fighting, troubles, strife over all this boundless beauty. Fences, private roads, armed guards, police controls. . . .
We stop in the town of Hermanus, a beauty spot out of time, and settle in at Two Oceans restaurant for shrimp before heading off towards Stanford. Along the way, past large farms, we spot buck, ostrich, herds of cows, sheep, and giant blue gum trees along the Klein River. Swaths of farmland for miles and miles, wheat fields already harvested. Zebras graze on the way to Mossel Bay, and buffaloes, and Brahma bulls. Before the eyes, everything changes --except the beauty, the beauty remains.
Now we’re in the Wilderness, strange name for lush countryside, on one side of us lakes that resemble Interlaken; on the other, the sea. Rivers run down through mighty ravines into lagoons protected by sand dunes, the ocean crashing beyond them. On the shore, swimmers are warned of a dangerous undertow, with signs instructing them how to survive if pulled in and under.
We camp at Swartvlei, birds everywhere, sacred ibis, guinea fowl jostling on the grass. But no one jostling us, for the summer holiday has ended. There is a military-style camp for kids who salute their nation's flag in the early morning in disciplined formation, and line up to pray before meals. In this part of the country they speak Afrikaans. Life hasn’t changed much since official Apartheid. Tasks are still divided according to colour, and language barriers, and mostly miniscule wages.
Then on to Knysna, the ‘British’ area: a vast and beautiful lagoon surrounded by fine villas and new housing developments --little corners of Britain on the Indian Ocean, stone churches, fine greens, restaurants, traditional English pubs. As evening darkens, the bay at Knysna turns a glorious silver. Beauty, ravishing beauty. What to do with all that beauty?
And what to do after nightfall. First of all, avoid the highway. Night, we learn, brings with it frequent fatalities here: no roadway lighting whatsoever; pedestrians stumbling out of nowhere onto the road; soft, ill-adapted shoulders; cattle suddenly appearing in one’s headlights. So we stop and camp again. By dawn, the coastline’s beauty reemerges. Leaving early, we drive on to the Tsitsikamma Reserve, a magnificent nature park by the sea. Here, two more nights in the magnificence of this nature park by the sea. Well-organised chalets, a restaurant, beaches (for swimming safely), hikes up steep cliffs to watch dolphins swim by. Lots of well-preserved indigenous forest, giant yellowwood, stinkwood, fynbos, deer in the bushes, dassies (the indigenous “rock rabbit”) scurrying around.
At breakfast, I talk with Caroline, our Xhosa waitress. She serves us delicious scones. But she’s been up since 4am, cooking and selling pap en vlees (corn mix and meat) to other workers. She takes her son to an auntie to be looked after and brought to school before she travels here to work, six days a week. Her two other kids are with her mother in Plettenberg. For all her energy and dedication, she can’t afford to keep them.
In the village up the road where we stop for provisions, racial tension is high. The liquor store man, Afrikaans, hates the Chinese who have just opened the grocery store next door. The coloured man selling watermelon from his truck arrives, humbling himself before his white buyers. Formal apartheid may be a part of the past, but nothing really has changed here for centuries. Colour coding, poverty, racial injustice, hatred --all very much still here, and now.
On the road a sign reads, “Feeding of baboons prohibited, fine R500.” More vast farmlands, white owned; herds of cows with their black herders; blue gum and pine forests. . . .
Then the land becomes flat: arid plains that reach on for hours, past gigantic cattle ranches and tiny scrub bush. This is the savannah. Finally we reach Addo Elephant Park, dusty, enormous, not much to see at first, many kilometres of more scrub and savannah –and elephant dung that must not be driven over out of need to protect the dung beetles who lay their eggs in it.
It’s a vast domain, this stretch of coastal South Africa. Thousands of hills off in the distance, thorn bushes, a few zebra, herons, buck, a family of elephants loping towards their water hole at midday, lots of warthogs. We see herds of kudu. A buffalo crosses the road. Meercats play behind a bush.
Leaving the highway, we are back in civilisation on dangerous roadway leading to Grahamstown, the home of Rhodes University and over a hundred churches, mosques, synagogues and other religious edifices large and small. This ‘City of Saints’ has a rich and interesting history, as its Albany Museum attests. In the 19th century, it was a hub for the merino wool trade, an important commercial centre dispatching wool to England and Europe. Lithuanian immigrants and others from eastern Europe arrived by the hundreds, settling into Grahamstown’s fine Victorian buildings. Many became wealthy, then moved off to Port Elizabeth to expand their businesses in hides and skins, or tobacco.
Today, the once thriving centre of Grahamstown is derelict, sordid, and black. Whites have abandoned the centre (an oft-told tale), moving to the suburbs or to settle in around the edges of the University. There’s a strange, lost feeling again, things don’t seem right: a clash of lives, rich, mainly white students uptown, poor black people still struggling downtown, despair and frustration over the status quo --as in every main city (except Cape Town) through which we’ve passed.
There is a common denominator here. We spent our last night camping on a grassy, bird-filled lagoon at Kidd’s beach where, on weekends, the chalets and thatched-roof rondavels are booked solid with Fellowship and Christian groups singing and chanting and doing what religious groups do. Faith is the common denominator for many people in this country, though the multitude of denominations in South Africa is also a source of friction.
Finally, the drive to East London further along the coast, whence we would fly back to Jozie, an hour and a half by air; then home to distant France. East London also struggles. It has become a sprawling, industrial city with scenes straight out of Mad Max. Yet its shoreline, with some of the country's best beaches, feels out of bounds, unless you’re in the mood for a mugging. The smaller roads leading to the beaches are dotted with poverty and prostitution. Whites huddle in shopping centres and the wealthy go lunching in coastal hotels with well-protected swimming areas.
Overall, then, there’s a great life to be had in South Africa, if you can manage it. Everyone paddles ever harder to make a living in the face of a rising tide of dissatisfied peoples, now nominally equal, but coming of age in what is still a divided, hurting nation.
SUZANNE BAYON de NOYER is a South African-born artist and journalist who lives in the south of France. She taught English there for twenty years (“surviving the French system,” she boasts). Her most recent exhibition of paintings was held last autumn at the Chateau de Lourmarin in Provence. Her next –this summer, June, July and August—will be at the Can Cires Galleria d’Art in Sant Mateu on the island of Ibiza. www.cancires.com/galleriaING.html.
Villa Torlonia, Rome, September 3, 1939.
Duce was in an ill humor all day. He was cross with me before breakfast, then apologized. He was cross with me before lunch, and then apologized. Late in the afternoon, he informed me that I would be serving supper for his important guests because he didn’t trust the waiters to keep their mouths shut. He apologized for the lowly assignment.
But he was cranky again dressing for supper because his spats felt too tight. I pointed out that he had made a ball of his socks over his toes. He did that out of habit when he wore those Prada boots that were too big. Unbeknownst to him, the tailor had come in the afternoon to enlarge the waist of his pants.
When I entered the ornate dining room with the long, Renaissance table, Duce was hunched over it with General Badoglio, Count Ciano, and a thin man I did not recognize. Duce was moving a salt cellar across a map. Then he threw up his hands, saying only, “Hitler!”
He had been speaking unkindly of his German friend since news of the invasion.
“And only a week’s notice. How do you account for that, Ciano?”
“One does not account for what that man does,” Ciano said.
“Or the parties he invites us to! And, you,” Duce turned to the thin man, “our grande capo di spionaggio, you have waiters in every café in Berlin, and at least two, I believe, on Hitler’s staff. They heard nothing?”
“Excuse me, Duce,” the man responded quietly, “I notice your valet, not your waiters, is serving us. And I remind you, German generals do not shoot their mouths off in cafés to impress their mistresses.”
At that moment, I was placing minestrone in front of General Badoglio. He tapped the table sharply with his soup spoon. The thin man smiled at him.
I backed away and leaned against the wall.
“Forget waiters,” Duce said. “What about barbers? tailors? dance instructors? None of them heard anything?”
“On the contrary,” said the thin man. “A barber reports that Erwin Rommel tips generously. Goebbels becomes furious when trousers do not conceal his physical imperfection. Martin Bormann signed up for a tango class to please a girl from Argentina. “
“Pimps,” said Duce, “surely pimps hear things. From the girls about clients. And clients talk.”
The thin man said, “Yes, they do. German recruits, for instance. They brag to the girls about their weapons. They even try to explain how the newest ones work. A corporal drew them a diagram.”
“Impossible!” Duce threw up his hands again. “We knew nothing! Nothing, until Ribbentrop called Ciano a week ago.”
“Actually, I called him,” said Ciano.
“Why?” fumed the Duce. “Why does my foreign minister call Hitler’s foreign minister when my foreign minister detests them both?”
Ciano patted his lips with his napkin. “I called to say I’d heard that the invasion would begin on September first. “
Duce said, “You called to tell him?”
“Exactly,” said Ciano.
“May I ask how you knew?” Duce said with a sneer. Then he gave the thin man a hard look.
General Badoglio banged his spoon louder on the table.
Ciano said, “I heard it that morning from my Jewish tailor.”
Duce said, “Your Jewish tailor? Here in Rome?”
“Where else?” said Ciano.
“I will lose my mind,” said Duce. “Your Jewish tailor here in Rome? That’s even better than a little bird who whispered to you.”
Ciano said, “He did not whisper. While he measured a sleeve, he said he supposed that I knew that Germany would invade Poland on September first. What could I say? I said of course I knew. But how did he know it? He said he got it from a nice young German officer who was having a uniform made.”
General Badoglio said, “So the little bird was a German officer in Rome? Not one of our highly paid spies in Berlin?”
“As I said,” said the thin man, “German officers do not blabber --in Germany. Here they have loose tongues. When in Rome, they do as Roman officers do.”
Ciano continued. “While Hitler strutted around Rome last time, the young officer came to the Jewish tailor because of the man’s reputation. He’s earned it. Look at these lapels.”
The thin man said, “He liked the first uniform so much that he came back to have another made.”
Badoglio said, “Brilliant. Only a spy master could so deduce.”
Ciano said, “Duce, of course I reported to you immediately after speaking with Ribbentrop.”
Duce roared back at him, “And forgot to mention that it was you who called Ribbentrop! And you never mentioned the tailor and the officer.”
Ciano said coolly, “No need. You heard the fact.”
Duce said, “The fact. Yes, the fact. How did you get Ribbentrop to confirm the fact?”
“Simple,” Ciano told him. “I began an argument. I baited him. The invasion, I said, was premature. It’s a mistake to take on France and England. He started. ‘What do Italians know about war?’ then said something about our methods at Addis Ababa. ‘Mustard gas, shameful,’ he said. ‘Watch us in Poland. Get up early on the first.’”
The thin man pointed his spoon at General Badoglio, the hero of Addis Ababa.
Duce said, “We’ll teach him about war --when we are ready.”
Ciano said, “On whose side?”
Duce said, “Per amore di Cristo!, Ciano, do you forget the Pact of Steel, our axis with the Germans?”
Ciano said, “I prefer the French.”
“You would,” Duce told him. “The French are decadent.”
The thin man said, “We also have a tailor in Paris. Would you like more details about the Maginot Line”?
“The French!” said Badoglio. “The French make films to advertise the impregnability of their Maginot Line. Who needs spies.”
“But the films don’t show everything,” the thin man said. “ We might, for example, learn something from the new latrine system they’re installing.”
Duce said, “I am losing my mind!”
Ciano said, “I’d like you to keep something in your mind.”
“One more word about how I dress and, son-in-law be damned,” said Duce, “you’ll go home and tell my daughter you now have plenty of time to help her around the house.”
Ciano said, “It does involve dress. Next time Hitler rants about the Jews, remember, it was a Jewish tailor who spilled the beans for us.”
But he supposed you already knew.”
“No,” said Ciano. “He said that to flatter my ego. He is not only an artist with scissors but a master of diplomatic manners. “
I approached the table and said, “Your soup will be cold.”
Duce said, “I’ve lost my appetite.”
The other three rose, and I sensed that matters were ending prematurely. Not waiting to hear how they finished the evening, I went to the kitchen to inform the staff that they would have a feast.
Shortly after, I laid out Duce’s night clothes. He had still not smoothed the socks under his spats. I offered to find an emollient for his swollen toes.
He said, “Never mind. “
“But the pain will keep you awake,” I said.
“That pain,” he said, “is the least of my worries.”
DAVID RANKIN is a polymath: author, photographer, former championship baseball coach, and emeritus professor of English at California State University, Dominguez Hills. His publications range widely, from the highly regarded Style and Structure (1972) to Rod Dedeaux: Master of the Diamond (2013). His photography can be viewed at www.davidrankinphotography.com.
I do not wish to treat friendships daintily, but with roughest courage. When
they are real, they are not glass threads or frostwork, but the solidest thing
--Ralph Waldo Emerson
Emerson's idea feels utterly germane to those few of my own friendships that are authentic, that have genuine emotional depth and commitment. Most friendships --while they provide pleasurably good talk, warm feelings, and shared interests and insights-- are superficial. They bear the ephemeral quality of “glass threads.”
Recently, I’ve been dipping into Here and Now: Letters 2008-2011, an ongoing exchange between two major novelists, now both in their 60s-- Brooklyn's Paul Auster, and the Nobel Prize-winning J.M. Coetzee, born in South Africa and now living in Australia. Their letters cover a variety of subjects: sports, films, insomnia, the European Union, contemporary Israel, the Arab Spring, Beckett and, what intrigued me more than anything else, their thoughts on friendship.
Auster writes that men, including his own male friends, “tend not to talk about how they feel.” He says his friendships survive “for many decades in this ambiguous zone of not-knowing.” Coetzee contends that it's difficult for him to say anything interesting about friendship: for unlike “love and politics, which are never what they seem to be, friendship is what it seems to be. Friendship is transparent.”
Both these assertions are suggestive, provocative even --and questionable. I have never felt that a deep connection can be sustained when I know little about the internal life of a friend (and some men do open up emotionally), or that friendship is freer of intricate subtexts than politics or love are (it simply isn’t). Yet ask me what the nature of friendship really is, and I usually hit an almost impenetrable wall. The more one delves into it, the greater its elusiveness and ambiguity. We end up generalizing about friendship by using our own relationships as exemplars. Our definitions of friendship are based, necessarily, on our own experiences.
The one thing about friendship most striking in the letters, for me, is that these two authors have themselves created an honest, genuine one. These are two successful writers who share many interests, respect each other and, most importantly, have achieved a level of affection where Auster can refer to Coetzee as an “absent other,” to whom he talks in his head. Coetzee in turn reveals that he feels “a certain fraternal tenderness for you and your dogged, unappreciated bravery.” Those are sentiments rarely expressed in everyday friendships; they signify an intimacy between friends that never comes easily.
My own notions of friendship have shifted, subtly perhaps, over the years. In college, friendship meant a large circle of people, some much closer to me than others. We partied chaotically, drank tepid coffee in the college cafeteria, and hung out nights in smoke-filled, crowded Greenwich Village coffee shops like Figaro's. Sitting among longhaired, arty, jewelry-wearing girls, and Mexican-sweatered boys, we fumed and raged about the meaninglessness of life.
Much of our talk had the feel of performance —we dropped book titles, like Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling or Camus' The Rebel, and declaimed our noisy polemics against suburban materialism and conformity. We were young, noisily testing our half-baked ideas. Friendship, for the most part, meant affirming shared values and disparaging (almost in unison) the society from which we were, for the time being, completely alienated. Still, there were also times when I was able to talk, in a truly confessional fashion, to somber, tense Andy, or to bland, stoned Dick (who I knew barely heard me) about how our families stunted us --and, going deeper, our fantasies and insecurities about our uncharted future.
Over the years, those concentric circles of friendship disappeared, replaced by a full-time job, marriage, and fatherhood. I made a number of individual new friendships, some merely casual and social, others more intellectual than personal, a few intimate. Nothing was set in stone. Categories of friendship, and the degrees of feeling attaching to them, were always open to change.
Still, I know what intimate friendships feel like. They are time-tested, built on deep loyalty, and generally involve a number of shared interests and values. Most importantly, the moments of ennui and lack of connection that normally occur between two people are outweighed by the times where honest, deeply felt revelatory talk predominates. In intimate friendships we also ultimately commit ourselves to the other without analyzing and questioning the nature of the relationship each time we meet. Emerson believes that “a friend is a person with whom I may be sincere. Before him I may think aloud.” But even in the most open of these friendships, we still censor ourselves from being too critical of the other's limitations--otherwise, we endanger destroying what we have so carefully constructed.
It’s not always easy, of course, to hold back our criticisms. When we feel that a friend’s behavior is egregious or alienating, we either withdraw for a time or directly confront it. Either response can make sustaining the friendship problematic, if not impossible. The few times that has happened to me, I’ve found the loss of the other, oddly, more liberating than painful. I should have questioned the basis of the friendship earlier.
It’s difficult, at best, to sustain a profound emotional link to a friend. But when it happens, as it clearly seems to have with Auster and Coetzee, life is certainly made richer and more resonant in the process.
LEONARD QUART is Professor Emeritus of Cinema Studies at the College of Staten Island and the CUNY Graduate Center. He is contributing editor at Cineaste, co-author of a number of books on postwar film, and regular columnist for Massachusetts’ Berkshire Eagle. The book in question is Paul Auster and J.M. Coetzee, Here and Now: Letters, 2008-2011 (New York: Viking Penguin, 2013). See: www.facebook.com/auster.paul, www.paulauster.co.uk, www.wikipedia.org/wiki/J._M._Coetzee, www.nobelprize.org/nobel-prizes/literature.
As of our publication date this month, Groucho Marx would have been precisely 123 years, seven months and five days old. “But look, to be remembered,” he might well have cracked, “who the hell needs an anniversary?” Certainly not Julius Henry Marx, third of five sons born to Minnie and Sam Marx on New York’s upper east side well before the turn of the 20th century. With his brothers, he was destined for stardom. But Minnie called Julius “the dark one.”
And well remembered, Groucho is. (The word “immortal” sniffs and scratches at the door here, wanting in.) Besides the thirteen movies he made with his equally zany siblings, and his later television show, a solo affair called You Bet Your Life, he’s probably best known for having refused to join a certain private watering hole, quipping “I don’t care to belong to any club that accepts someone like me as a member” –or some approximation thereof, the verbatim having been lost in the fog of countless retellings. (Inspired by this cod self-deprecation, London’s exclusive Groucho Club first opened its well-protected doors in Soho in 1985.)
Not that he was insensitive to status and its slights. With a less well-advertised bon mot brought about by the manager of a swimming club on Long Island informing him that, despite his celebrity, Jews could not be admitted, Groucho snapped back: “How about my kid? He’s only half Jewish. Can he go in up to the waist?”
His quips, those Grouchoisms that have come down to us, are rarely mellow. They are legion. And many are aimed below the belt, combatively and priapically-- “Women should be obscene and not heard.” “A man is only as old as the woman he feels.” “Some people claim that marriage interferes with romance. Correct. Anytime you have a romance, your wife is bound to interfere.”
About the muscular Victor Mature, who had starred in Paramount’s Samson and Delilah, Groucho complained that he lost interest in any movie “where the leading man’s tits are bigger than the leading lady’s.” Having been sold a topical crème to prevent premature ejaculation, he shot back (when asked if it had helped): “No, I came rubbing it on.”
Though he’d left school at twelve, Groucho became something of an autodidact. He could wield his Freud as well as the next guy. One of his TV guests (so the recollection goes) was a woman who had given birth to twenty-two children. She explained to him sheepishly, “I love my husband.” “I love my cigar too,” Groucho replied, “but I take it out once in awhile.”
Now whether he did or didn’t really say that on national television (in the McCarthyite ‘fifties, no less!) is wide open to question --and therein lies the problem with much Grouchiana. Legend has it that he said it, and many claim that they heard it. But simple logic (it would have been deleted), a lack of evidence (tapes and recordings do not contain it), and Groucho’s own later denial do tilt the scale elsewise.
Groucho also, despite the numerous attributions, did not say, “I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin.” (That was Oscar Levant.) Nor, “Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana” (which comes from a 1960s textbook illustrating the problems of computers attempting to parse grammatical ambiguities). In all likelihood, he also did not say, “Alongside a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside a dog, it’s too dark to read.” But, in this case, he may have. And so . . . .
Alongside the frequent sexual innuendo (“and don't forget the exuendo,” he might insist), Groucho was also not averse to waxing philosophic. (Never mind his car.) “Money can’t buy happiness, but it lets you choose your own form of misery.” “Humor is reason gone mad.” “Blessed are the cracked, for they shall let in the light.” “I’m not crazy about reality, but it’s still the only place to get a decent meal.”
And when he thought actions spoke loudest, he did not hesitate –in one instance climbing atop the rubble of Adolf Hitler’s bunker in Berlin and dancing a two-minute Charleston.
Despite his formidable reputation (he did, throughout his life, remain Minnie’s dark one), he was not a stranger to self-deprecation, as his rejection of club membership suggests. “The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing,” he said, “and if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” “A child of five could understand this! Will someone please get me a child of five.” “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them. . . I’ve got others.” “No one,” he mused, “is completely unhappy at the failure of his best friend.”
It was, however, as an insult artist, as a master of the snide retort and the potent put-down that he achieved near-perfection. “I have nothing but respect for you –and not much of that.” “I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening –but this wasn’t it.” “I never forget a face, but in your case, I’ll make an exception.” Then again, these are lines from the films, and mostly farcical films at that. “He was always ‘on,’” his brother Chico said of him. “He would insult a king to make a beggar laugh.”
The Fickle Grey Beast’s dear friend, the late Dave Fine, recounted earlier in our pages his youthful encounter with Groucho long ago in the stands of Gilmore Field in Hollywood before a baseball game. At his father’s urging, he’d gone down to the box seats at field level, waited till the great man turned to him, and asked tentatively, “Are you Groucho Marx?” “No,” was the growling reply he got, “are you?” It was Groucho’s way.
Years later, when the journalist, Richard J. Anobile, approached an aging Groucho about a Marx Brothers book he was preparing, and asked him whether he might consider writing the introduction to it, he got an extended version of the same reply. Groucho snarled, “You’re invading my privacy and you have no right to do anything with our films! My brothers and I will have our attorney sue you. We have nothing more to talk about. Goodbye.”
A little later, Anobile called him and politely persisted: “I’ve gone over the various contracts for your films and am positive I can proceed without your approval.” The writer recounts the conversation, in which Groucho replied,
“What’s this book going to be called?”
“Why a Duck? The title is taken from a scene in your first film.”
“It would probably be a better seller if you called it Why a Fuck?”
“Well, I’ll discuss that possibility with my publisher but in the
meantime I’d still like you to do the introduction.”
“Okay, but you can’t use my name.”
“What should it say: ‘Introduction by an Anonymous Marx
“Say what you want, but you can’t use my name!”
After another short while, it was Anobile’s phone that rang.
“Long distance calling Mr. Anobile. Will you accept a collect call
from Groucho Marx?”
“I guess so.”
“Hellooo! I like the piece I wrote for your book so you can use
my name on it, as long as my name is bigger than yours.”
“No problem, no one has ever heard of me.”
“If you play your cards right, it’ll stay that way.”
“And so,” wrote Anobile, “began my acquaintance with Groucho Marx.”
It was an acquaintanceship that would lead not long after to a second book by Anobile (and by Groucho, though this time their names are the same size; Groucho’s does come first however). It’s a compendium of photos, letters, print memorabilia, and extended interviews entitled The Marx Brothers Scrapbook. “As Groucho and I got to know each other,” says Anobile, “I began to realize that there are few performers who are alive today who can give us an impression of an era long gone . . . . [and] by one of America’s greatest humorists.” Anobile devoted the next few years to the pursuit.
The Scrapbook contains interview-recollections by each of the five Marx brothers as well as writers, producers and directors with whom they worked. The most numerous –and vivid— of those recollections, though, are Groucho’s. They are not only as valuable as Anobile had hoped, but they leap from the page with all the verve and wit and temerity of the more compact Grouchoisms we’ve come to know.
Of their early days in vaudeville, for example, when the brothers had to augment their meagre earnings, Groucho recalled:
. . . by this time I was pretty sick of sandwiches and bananas. Chico
was playing the piano for a music club in Pittsburgh and doing a lot
of fucking. Harpo was a bellboy. He didn’t have any specific talent
and he couldn’t talk well.
You see, I could talk. Chaplin once said to me, “I wish I could
talk on screen the way you do.” The last time I met him was when
[in 1972] they gave him the Oscar. We were both at the same party
and he came up to me and said, “Keep warm.” I knew what he meant
by that because when you get old like us you get cold. I never forgot
that . . . .
But back in the early days,
[i]n every town we’d stop at, we’d go first to the poolroom and
then find a hotel. Chico would offer to play anyone in town for five
dollars, and he usually won. I think it was in Winnipeg, in Canada,
when I decided one day that I wasn’t going to hang around the poolhall.
Instead I went for a walk down the main street where I came on a
nickelodeon. I think they charged 10 cents to get in. It was a real dump.
Chaplin was doing an act there called A NIGHT AT THE CLUB. I
never heard an audience laugh like he made that audience laugh. I
went back to tell the boys about him. “I just saw the greatest comedian
in the world. I don’t know who he is, but you have to meet him.” We
had to leave for the next town but we managed to get acquainted with
him there. He was getting $25.00 a week and was dressing with five
other guys in one room. The stink of stale makeup was awful . . . .
I remember once when we were all in Salt Lake City. We went to
a whorehouse. But Chaplin was so shy that he wouldn’t go with any
of the girls. So he spent all evening sitting on the floor playing with
the madam’s dog. . . . When we got to the West Coast he was offered
a job in the movies by Mack Sennett. You’ve heard of him?
Anyway, he didn’t take the job and when I saw him the next time
I asked him why. He said, “Nobody can be good enough for $200 a
Five years later I went back to California and he was living in a
huge home and fucking all the leading ladies. And he became the
world’s greatest comedian.
As things happened, the storyteller himself didn’t fare so poorly either.
WALTER WELLS is Professor Emeritus of English and former chairman of American Studies at California State University, Dominguez Hills, and editor of The Fickle Grey Beast. The book referred to, from which the article's extended quotations and several of the pictures are drawn are drawn, is Groucho Marx and Richard J. Anobile, The Marx Brothers Scrapbook (New York: Darien House, 1973). A detailed and entertaining account of Groucho’s alleged “cigar” remark to the woman with 22 children is available at www.snopes.com/radiotv/tv/grouchocigar.asp.