Monday, May 16, 2011

My Personal Myth - Artist and Outsider

By James Curcio
In the Immanence of Myth, I wrote a great deal about the impact that the symbolic characters of Dionysus and Lilith have had on my life. I felt that this would be the most accessible way to bridge the gap between old and new concepts of what mythology is, or can be. We also spoke about our personal mythologies, as some of us have been on this site as well, over the past few months.

However, I didn't provide many underlying myths which have no specific literary or historic origin.

So I'm going to share a bit of my past history with you, awkward as it may be to be so open with an unseen and unknown audience. Or maybe it's easier this way. After all, the confessional has an intentional element of anonymity to it.

MS PAINT FTW

This kind of perspective tends to have more meaning to the author than it could for someone else. That is the reason I chose to keep it out of the book. But I will share these things with you, the nameless, faceless public, if for no other reason than it helps to demonstrate what I mean when I talk about living mythology, or how deeply it permeates our lives, our motivations, our histories, even our bodies. In other words, I'd much rather this make you wonder about your own story or myths, rather than fixate on my own. I only know my own, when it comes down to it, but I really don't need you to stare at my reflection for me to believe I exist, anymore.

So, here's a salient personal narrative: the origin of the myth of myself as an artist.

I was born the only child to a single mother. My father was excised, you might say, at the age of four. Despite his statements to the contrary - occasional phone calls from out of nowhere, promises that never manifested into anything tangible - he never reappeared in my life, and died in 2007 of leukemia. His life and death left little impression on me except  the sadness of losing something you never had. I'm not sure if there's a word for that in English, but it's an unusual feeling.

I have always had a proclivity for creativity. You might call it a fixation. I've always had a sophist streak, and I've always resolutely "done my own thing." My mother has plenty of photographs of me as a very young child drawing, typing at a typewriter, practicing my moody artist stare, slumping under a gravestone with a devil's mask on. (Alright. She set that last on up, but I believe the others were spontaneous.)

I can look back and say I was always an artist. But certainly I didn't think of it that way. How can someone be driven to do something so socially detrimental and personally reckless as proclaim they're an artist or writer and, heaven help them, try to make a living doing something like that? It's ludicrous.

I'd like to find some of the roots of that belief, and like most roots, it meanders. Many of them are long. Come along, if you like.


My mother was a photographer and artist. I have many memories of growing up with nude models or photographs around the house, and from that I got a strong association between eroticism and creativity, rather than eroticism and guilt, as so many other people seem to have. I don't mean the photographs were lewd, though there's a sexualization process that occurs whenever a photograph involves nudity. My point is, she wasn't a pornographer. (Or at least not in my presence). But I never saw anything shameful or dirty about nudity or basic sexuality. I didn't realize what a gift this was until I was older.

It rendered an effect - and I would say a generally positive one - on my orientation, especially in regard to women. I've had the hunch that many men develop misogynistic tendencies due to the social forces that pull them to be a part of the "men's society," as such there is separation anxiety from the mother and the male must distance himself from all signs of what are perceived as feminity. At one and the same time, many heterosexual men are terrified by the power women have over us. There are many examples I could provide from extent tribal societies to support this claim, but let's just say that it's something I've also observed within our own society, and I decided to stay on the "Mommy" side of the fence.

Which is not to say I didn't psychologically separate from my Mother - though I did so probably later than many - but rather that I decided never to associate myself with anything simply in terms of it being perceived as masculine or feminine. If I want to wear pink I'll wear pink. If I want to strap bull horns to my head and wrestle greasy, sweaty men...

Eh. I can happily say that's not something I want. But by God, if I did...

Even the rhythms and schedules of my body seem to be geared towards fugues and periods of intense creativity, when they are listened to, and physical and mental instability and misery if they're not. I've always been nocturnal, or at least given to burst of energy late in the night. This, too, has always been the case, and nothing short of strong drugs can change it for any period of time.

Mixed Media Drawing 2003
As a child this meant stealing sharpies and drawing pictures all over the walls of dinosaurs doing battle with one another, or grabbing twine and stringing up all my stuffed animals - I had a whole menagerie and naturally they all had personalities and back stories - and pretending I was a spider from Mirkwood. "I'M A SPIDER!" My Mother's girlfriend at the time, if I remember, got furious, and chased me around the house because I refused to take a pillowcase off my head. I can't remember exactly what the thought was, but I think I may have been a knight. That's just how kids play. I'm not saying there's anything unusual about how I played. But so many have it beaten out of them, others grow out of it.

I didn't do either. (Though I'm not wearing the pillowcase right now, because I can't wear it and type at the same time. Plus, people get the wrong idea when bald white guys start putting pillowcases on their heads.)

The point is, in fundamental ways, who I am hasn't really changed at bottom. It never has and I can't imagine it ever will.

As I've grown older this has become more of a problem in a society focused entirely on widgets and dollars. As I entered adolescence, this was of real concern to my mother and her girlfriends, who realized, as I began to, that there may not be a ready-made place for me in society, once I left the nest. This concern was prescient, but futile. At the age of 32, I'd say that if nothing else I am fully committed to my narrative, no matter where it may lead. It is simply too late to try to start at the beginning and re-write the script. I've got it right here and nowhere in it does it say "entertainment lawyer" or "database programmer."

When a person is a certain way, certainly if they're like me, the more you try to push them to be unlike themselves, the more firmly they grasp a hold. As I grew older, male peers tried to acculturate me - play these games, don't play these, wear these colors, not those - and I resisted. When they try to enforce their "rules" with violence, I rebelled first simply by ignoring them, and finally by caving in to their methods and defending my right to play with whom I wanted, how I wanted, with violence myself. They left me alone.

I had a real fixation on science as a child, and devoured information. When I was into dinosaurs, I learned everything I could. When it was sharks, I learned all their Latin names and wanted to know which sharks evolved from what predecessors. Their fierceness was part of what attracts young boys to such things, but I also remember feeling a kind of reverence for their beautiful, single purpose. All predators share this trait, and this fearsomeness, the desire to embody it, is part of that attraction. Sharks never cease moving, prowling, hunting, devouring.

I suppose this was around second and third grade. Teachers thought I had a learning disability. I couldn't read at all, until my mom started reading me The Lord of the Rings and I discovered something that captured my imagination. I jumped to a college reading level seemingly overnight. Again, this is a personality trait that hasn't changed since day one. If I'm not engaged, not a single word gets in, no matter how much it might make my life easier, or how much I might wish it were otherwise in the circumstances.

I imagine it is this way for many of us, and our education system is simply woefully inadequate. Children shouldn't have to be tricked to learn, they are engineered to learn. Of course, the nature of what they're primed to learn is very different at different ages. At any stage, not boring the living crap out of them is a good place to start.

Yeah. It's a lobster smoking a cigarette.
What? Does that feel like a non sequitur to you?
I'm sure it's not. I'm sure it has profound
psychological significance.
(Notebook sketch)
My mother, as I said, was an artist. But she made great sacrifices to keep me alive. She did whatever had to be done, including taking house painting and tedious drafting jobs in locations where the fumes gave her incredible headaches and, for all we know, central nervous problems. As the years passed - up until recently, thankfully - she had to give up more of her creative pursuits for the sake of our mutual survival. I do remember  she once told me that I was the primary reason she stayed alive. I'm not sure how some people would react to that but for me it struck me, as the years have passed, simply with a deep desire to make my life count for something. It has to be something beyond toil, eating shitting and dying like the sharks, or else what was that sacrifice for?

At first, I didn't plan on being an artist. The myth began, rather, that I would be a great scientist. I had an excellent science teacher in 6th grade that got me into astrophysics, and physics in general. I loaned college physics books out of the library, figured out what I could with tutors - like a friend's father who worked for NASA - and got interested in fission and fusion reactions. I wanted to help design a generational starcraft. (Of course, I was really into Star Trek: The Next Generation at the time. And even back then, I'm pretty sure I thought Wesley was a dork, Data wasn't fooling anyone with his "I can't feel emotions" thing, and it was a little... queer that Picard kept a real riding saddle in his quarters "just in case.")

Then, another fork in the road. I took a test which in our public school determined the future course of our academic careers. I placed high enough to be on the honors science and math track, but the teacher and I didn't get along, and she put me in the lowest rung instead due to "emotional troubles." I lost any and all interest in science and became absorbed by fantasy and art once again.

As I grew older, I found myself falling in with the typical outsider groups that form in high school. My attention was equally divided between girls, fantasy novels, guitar, roleplaying, and philosophy and occult books. Dorktopia.

All of this was leading towards a certain crisis point.

Hee Haw
Throughout my childhood I had a close relationship with my Grandfather. Or so I thought. I was his only male heir, and to him, that was a big deal. He was a high ranking mason, and had become wealthy by his own hand. (Life insurance. His first company went bankrupt but the second took.) He once owned a farm, which is to say a large plot of land, with Arabian horses. I got to ride them though it was my cousin and aunt who became the equestrians.

That's not really relevant. More to the point, which'll become clear eventually, my Mother and Grandfather always had a very tense relationship. He was abusive - emotionally and, in the distant past, physically. Money still remained a method of control, as it often is between those who have it, and those who don't. When she didn't do what he wanted her to, she would be penalized. By proxy, so would I, though I didn't understand at the time. Money is also used as the great legitimizer. If something can be monetized, it has value. If it can't, it cannot possibly be of value.

Eventually, a subtle tug-of-war that I was only vaguely aware of as a child between my Mom and her Dad was threatening to put us out of a home. We moved to the country with my Mom's girlfriend at that time. It may not have been a log cabin but in some ways it wasn't as far off as you'd think. Our source of heat was a wood stove. Eventually we graduated to coal. I remember a great deal of shoveling coal on cold mornings, and seemingly endless lists of chores. Some may have learned quiet discipline, but again, my contrarian nature was what it was. Shoveling coal for our mutual warmth was one thing, but If I could find a token means of resisting her authoritarian nature, I would.

It's hard to say what it is that makes one child one way and another another way. Parents with multiple children must all experience this. Even when put in the same environment or group of situations, one kid will say "yes" while another says "no." And at the very bottom of our personality is that basic answer, though what we mean by it may differ. When I said "no," it was always followed with "here is what I want to do, instead." Or, "tell me why I should do this thing."

Don't worry. I'm going somewhere with this.

A day came, after my sixteenth birthday, that I visited my grandfather. He sat me down and told me that it was time. Time for what? I wondered. He launched into a speech about the time for boys to become men. And he asked me what I was going to do with my life. (As if a sixteen year old would normally know such a thing.)

The Muse
As it so happened, I did know. I proudly proclaimed - I'm an artist. At a given time, maybe I'll be doing music, or writing, or visual art, or all of them. Maybe working on films in some capacity. But at bottom I'm an artist and a philosopher. That's where my passions are, and it's the only way I know to be and find meaning in my life.

His face turned red. He screamed at me for an hour, telling me I would "shovel shit all my life." It's still unclear exactly what he meant by that particular phrase, but he repeated it enough that I remember it to this day, still remembered with this visceral sensation of confusion. Some of the other words he used I did understand. That I was a loser, a failure, and that I would always be a failure.

He disowned me that night, and I never saw him again, until the day of his death, when I looked on his urn but still only had the chance to recall him from photographs. I tried to remember the countless summers I had spent in his presence. He taught me to fish, to shoot. I'm sure he would've taught me to drink, if given the chance - he was a real champion at that - he also taught me to golf, although I'm not quite sure how golfing is more valuable than painting. But all I could think of was that night he told me that I would never succeed at anything, that I may as well kill myself then and there and spare us all the trouble.

He used those words.

Much blood family is dead now but those who survive try to minimize it, saying that he just lost his temper, maybe he didn't mean it. But I know that of all the things he said to me growing up, he meant nothing more than the words he spoke to me that night. This society wants nothing to do with my "kind." (Also his word.)

I attributed the brief hospitalization that got me started on Join My Cult! to a bad reaction to Prozac and a breakup, but I can also paint a straight line from those words to the crisis that put me in there. I could draw a line, even, from that moment to the present.

There is no way he could understand my psychology so well as to have done it intentionally, but with those words my Grandfather ensured I would become the embodiment of what he was most terrified of my becoming. I guess if any of you have gotten some use out of my creative work, you can thank him... though of course he just set the hook.

However, it never positioned me as being against sound business sense. I made many attempts to learn and succeed in the world of business, and in the process I have learned a lot about advertising and marketing, about pricing strategies, about competition and cooperation, about management. But at the bottom of it all it's been like infiltrating enemy headquarters and learning their methods. From that day forward, though I had been primed for it since my birth, my goal has been to prove him wrong.

So, sometimes when people ask me what I do, I say I am keeping the family business alive. They smile and nod, or ask "what business is that?" They probably assume I mean a rat compacting factory or something.  When they ask me that I give them something particularly confounding to chew on a while, generally some gibberish invented on the spot. Teleportation. We've been working on teleportation for generations. The truth is just that it's a long story. Did you make it to the end?

Do I need to draw a line between the stars, and paint a constellation? Our myths determine our motivation, our purpose, our meaning.

Grandpa liked to drink. So to that end, I say "Cheers, Bob." I'm having a glass in your honor at this moment. You helped make me the incorrigible bastard that I am today. I very well otherwise could have been stuck doing something tedious, like working as an engineer. Maybe I'll die in a gutter yet, but at least at the best of times so far, it's been goddamn weird.

And I hope it gets a lot weirder before the end.

This is what happened in my notebooks for classes I didn't particularly like.
It's also an example of why I don't illustrate the comics I write when I want them to be GOOD.



Pre-order a copy of The Immanence of Myth, published by Weaponized in July 2011. (Or sign up to be notified of its release on Amazon.com)

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