(Note: Section 3 of this essay has been revised and reposted.)
Danny and I had lost touch several times before, only to have our friendship spring mysteriously to life again. I thought back to a reunion that occurred in 1977, when Danny and I had been out of touch for most of the five years since high school, which had about it an uncanny aura of fatality.
During the year of our engagement, Lisa was living in Narragansett, Rhode Island, in a small house by the ocean. The house had a large window that looked out on a bay. At sunset the bay would be transmuted into gold—a rippling sheet of it. The bay was wide but only a few feet deep, so that fishermen with their fly rods would sometimes appear to walk on water. The year was enchanted. It was a time of everyday wonders. Allowing ourselves to be blindly led, we put our faith in coincidence. That something did happen was sufficient proof that it was also meant to happen. If, during a stroll to gather sea shells, we came across a piece of aluminum on the shore, scorched and twisted, then it was no doubt a scrap of “Skylab”; it had fallen there for us to find it, and was asking to be transmuted into art. If we sat down at a table in an out of the way café, then the person sitting next to us would, almost certainly, be the friend of a friend of a person that we knew in Boston.
Salt freshened the air. The sea cast a spell. Roads were utterly black at night, as we found when, on more than one occasion, we managed to get lost. We laughed to find that we could not see each other, or our hands held in front of our faces. The eyes of unknown creatures opened in the forest. A small cottage by the sea in what is the smallest state in the union seems the perfect place for us to begin a life together. At dawn, it was time to get up, if we chose to do so, after making love while still half-asleep, or analyzing the symbols of each other’s dreams. In the distance, now and then, we could hear the screeching of a fox, as he ran in and out of the derelict chicken coop, as if, by some act of will, he could once more cause the chickens to appear. Work was not an immediate concern, and there was nowhere that we especially had to go. Birds acted as alarm clocks. By slow degrees, the sun would wash into the room. It was into this stage set that my friend quite unexpectedly stepped. Out of nowhere, he appeared.
One day when Lisa, her housemate Paula, and I were driving down a highway, Paula turned to look at a hitchhiker and then shouted, “Whoa! Look at that freak! He actually thinks that someone is going to pick him up.” On a traffic island stood an unshaven creature dressed entirely in black leather, with a long skeleton earring. His thumb was out. His expression: an arrogant sneer. There was something oddly familiar about him. “Wait a minute,” I said. “Turn the car around. That's no freak. That's one of my closest friends from high school!”
In retrospect, our reunion consisted in our listening to Danny tell stories about every good thing that anyone in New York or Rhode Island had ever said about him. At a dune on Narragansett Bay, we had spread our beach blanket out, for a lunch of cheddar cheese, grapes, and sourdough bread, washed down with vodka and orange juice from paper cups. He talked, and we responded. It is odd that I didn't stop to register the dynamic of this communication at the time. This was Danny before the fall. He overflowed with energy. His metaphysical balloon was still inflated. His eyes were alive. His heart still seemed to beat, and his intellect had not yet been cryogenically preserved. His stories were, in fact, amusing.
His experience in the New York S&M scene, where slaves would pay good money to be whipped or to lick his boots. The time his girlfriend Risa made David—a schizophrenic mathematician, who would later become their pet—clean the kitchen floor with a toothbrush. Risa’s interest in having sex in laundromats and phone booths. His desire to perfect a form of art that existed only in—and for—the pure realm of the intellect. How all connections to the external world should be oblique. His photographs of disasters to be hung with explanatory texts that did not make any reference to the disasters that they explained. His expanding circle of famous, almost famous, and soon to be famous friends. His exhibitions at Franklin Furnace and other alternative art galleries, which, however obscure to the masses, were well respected by the Calvinist Elect, by the inner circle, by those in the know.
At the labyrinth’s heart, howled the ithyphallic Minotaur. Soon, the debt that the race owed him was scheduled to come due. “Useless feeders” were to provide for his material support, as well as to replenish his supply of male and female virgins. After the ritual touching of the head against the ground, each would offer his/ her tribute in the way that was most appropriate. True feedback was the province of some fraction of a percentage of an already super-select group.
The current version of the Elite was labyrinthine in its complexity, mirror upon mirror, with each contradiction serving to generate a good half-dozen others. Among those that had gathered to applaud him were the following: Post-Marxian Deconstructionists, Fluxus Paint-by-Number Hedge-Fund Managers, Raw Meat Installation Artists, Op-Art Vegans for the Reduction of Earth’s Population to a Sustainable 1 ½ Million, Neo-Abstract-Expressionist Stamp Collectors, Dada Outreach Coordinators for the Bilderberg Group, and Anti-Art Crusaders for the Transformation of the Name into the Brand. As if we were living in an age before Copernicus, Danny announced himself as the sun around which the Earth and all other planets must revolve. Hard evidence had accumulated. It could not be denied. Fresh from the experience of a revelation, he pulsed with a kind of messianic zeal.
It was not at all clear why I was so disturbed by the August, 2002 conversation. As Danny had pointed out, this was all so much ancient history, and, the details about the move to Belize aside, it was not as if I had learned much of anything new, or even seen some fact from an unexpected angle. To find that someone has become still more of what he had been should not shake one’s faith in the coherence of the world. The conversation nonetheless disturbed me. It disturbed me enough that, while washing dishes the next morning, I seemed to be in a fog, and allowed a large pool of water to accumulate at my feet. It spread over half the kitchen floor, which I did not notice until my wife let out a yelp. My slippers were wet.
I had avoided meeting with Danny for the past 10 or so. For the most part, had avoided even thinking about him, at least at any length. True, once in a while I might be tempted to remember some guffaw-producing mutual outburst of black humor, a shared Eureka moment of insight into contemporary art, or a key crisis that one or the other of us had talked the other through. But then I would stop and say to myself, “No, there is no point to this at all. He is only a Minotaur, and not fully human. No good can come from getting sentimental.”
The problem could be stated simply as: What is wrong with my own psychology that I should pick such an apparently soulless creature as a friend?
I was once a Boy Scout, and the Boy Scout Oath reads, “A scout is Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind, Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty, Brave, Clean, and Reverent.” I was generally a good judge of character, and, with the exception of Reverence and Obedience, I still expected my friends to put these virtues into practice. Perhaps, though, there were several other “Brians,” at least one of which I did not really know, and did not want to confront. To secure his supply of bioenergetic fuel, it would seem that the narcissist can employ a kind of radar, which allows him to spot the germ of his own pathology in others.
Thus Danny had been able to probe into my wounds, and to confirm that they were not due to any actions on my part. For example: my relative obscurity as an artist and a writer was due not, as might appear to be the case, to the fact that I did not bother to send manuscripts to publishers or to exhibit unless invited; no, it was due to the ignorance of the rest of the human race, which had, almost certainly, been getting more pronounced. It was possible that the Minotaur was a kind of missing link, the psychopomp to an otherwise lost world.
He was a conduit for the spirits of the dead, the eater of all public sins, the debt collector, to whom blood is due. He was the key to an alternate version of reality, where, across the black mud of the flood-plain, ran my own dreams of omnipotence, wild, and free as the wind.
The secret was as follows: if you looked with sympathy on what the Minotaur held in contempt, then, bit by bit, you could just make out the features of your own hermetically sealed face. It was only necessary to view each detail in reverse.
See, over there are the factories of Worcester, as they were in the 1970s, when smoke still puffed from the gigantic stacks. This was no place for an artist and a writer to grow up! You had no desire to stand for eight hours at an assembly line, day after day, 49 weeks out of the year, and had some degree of contempt for those who did. Again, you can sense the alienation that you felt. Now, those humans are too stupid to have jobs, having voted for politicians that have sent them all to China. Quite oddly, however, you do not regard yourself as more intelligent than they. You mourn for the city that once gave you birth. You have come to appreciate its freight yards and its loading docks, and you love those with whom you had shared a now vanished way of life, however inadvertently. Now, the factories have become a part of the archeological record. The assembly lines have stopped, and pigeons fly in and out through the jagged glass of the windows.
See, over here is History, and over there is Prehistory, in the child’s textbook version. Lacunae separate the one Earth from the other. The labyrinth exists in time as well as space. Like the Earth itself, it turns, and it can be difficult to see what is up around each corner, or to remember what you had done around the last.
(Illustration: Paublo Picasso, Blind Minotaut Led through the Night)
--New posts every 2-3 days on my blog Masks of Origin