I was academically introduced to the concept of the “it” in Georg Buchner’s unfinished play Woyzeck, where a man is terrorized by a vague unnamed force which lays in wait for him in the bushes. I had no idea what this “it” was – a ghost, a demon or what – until it dawned on me over the years that it was, as simply as I can put it, a primal force so overwhelming that we must instead coddle ourselves with poor facsimiles such as sports, work and travel.
In other words, our consciousness is so puny and small-minded that instead of blossoming toward truth, justice and beauty, we drink and have sex. John Williams is succinct in his reflections on our futile struggles at the conclusion of Butcher’s Crossing: “You get born, and you nurse on lies, and you get weaned on lies, and you learn fancier lies in school. You live all of your life on lies, and then maybe when you’re ready to die, it comes to you — that there’s nothing, nothing but yourself and what you could have done. Only you ain’t done it, because the lies told you there was something else.”
It is hard to overstate the writing craft of John Williams; his narrative is clear and precise and his characters compelling while his ruminations on our place in this world are profoundly vertiginous. Butcher’s Crossing is the story of a group of men engaged in the slaughter of buffalo:
It came to him that he had turned away from the buffalo not because of a womanish nausea at blood and stench and spilling gut; it came to him that he had sickened and turned away because of his shock at seeing the buffalo, a few moments before proud and noble and full of the dignity of life, now stark and helpless, a length of inert meat, divested of itself, or his notion of itself, swinging grotesquely, mockingly before him. (151) Sometimes at night, crowded with the others in the close warm shelter of buffalo hide, he heard the wind, that often suddenly sprang up, whistle and moan around the corners of the shelter…at such times he felt a part of himself go outward into the dark, among the wind and snow and the featureless sky where he was whirled blindly through the world. (200)
It was a long hill, the town another hundred miles, when the shot rang out, pulling the van sideways like we’d been hit by a low bull. I swung the wheel against it, thinking there was some kind of battle ahead, a force to contend, something big and threatening, and pulled over. ‘What the fuck was that?’ Mike’s eyes were wide.
‘I think the tire blew.’
The rear tire was in shreds; the spare was threadbare.
‘You need new tires, man.’
The jack was broken and the bolts fused.
We sat and drank and finally got the tire, off bolt by bolt, and I thought about how much I loved my van.
Micaela says I’m pushing it, but while watching Guided by Voices last night at Asbury Park’s famed The Stone Pony, I was thinking that Bob Pollard was a Mark Twain superstar kind of guy.
Click the image below to see him nail Tractor Rape Chain. True, he got so drunk that he not only told the audience to “Fuck off” more than several times and played I am a Scientist twice, but also fell down in a heap at the end. But I stick to my theory, based not only on his out-spoken, sardonic nature and belligerence, but Bob as an exhaustive, creative force. And he drinks a lot too.
Mark Twain: A Life by Ron Powers is an intimidating work not only from its physical weight (3 pounds of text) but more from the iconic burden of the man. Mark Twain, as he himself wrote, lived “in the midst of world history”, charging through an epoch of change, realizing many of his dreams, and yet suffering through as much misery. He captained steamboats at the outset of the American Civil War, mined for silver in Nevada during the Comstock Lode, and went on speaking tours world-wide, all the while developing the “American” voice in literature, a life famously beginning and ending as Haley’s Comet appeared in the sky. He was a witty, demanding man and deeply reflective, offering rebukes to governmental policies that would ring true even today. “I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land.” But most interesting of all, he had plans for many unrealized books, including a follow-up to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Twain wrote in his journal: Huck comes back, 60 years old, from nobody knows where & crazy. Thinks he is a boy again & scans every face for Tom and Becky.
Tom comes, at last, 60 from wandering the world & tends Huck & together they talk the old times; both are desolate, life has been a failure, all that was lovable, all that was beautiful is under the mould. They die together.
Sadly, Twain outlived much of his immediate family, surviving his wife and three of four children.