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When I was seventeen I went to Paris with my French class. In Paris in the hotel courtyard our tour guide spoke to us and I became conscious and unconscious like Venetian blinds opening and closing rapidly because I was jet lagged. My head fell onto my chest and lifted and fell. The tour guide scolded me.
At night in the hotel we couldn’t sleep. It was very hot. We pulled the bedclothes onto the fat plaster balcony and lay there. There was my friend Maja, who had long legs, and an eighteen-year-old called Erin whose grandmother had given her this trip as a birthday gift. We were all intensely excited.
Across the way there were those faceted Parisian buildings. They were not very far from our balcony. Their windows were open. In one lighted window there were shapes the color of pit fruit moving. At length I became aware that I was watching a man and a woman having sex. We looked at them and discussed them, although it seemed incredible. This was the first time I had ever seen sex.
We couldn’t sleep on the balcony because its surface was too hard. We pushed the beds together and slept on one great form. I don’t know why we did that—it must have been hot. Sometime in the night Maja, who slept in the center, woke me and the other girl by yelling. The beds had drifted from one another under her very scant weight and she was falling between them, hanging in the white sheets like a paratrooper in a tree. It was very confusing in the dark. The next morning we teased her for it. That wasn’t nice.
Over time we have lost some of the sounds which skulls once stood for. These sounds are completely out of our conversation, which may surprise. We are used to thinking of ourselves as an entirely-present group of creatures, in permanent possession of any item which could have at any time be called a human’s possession—this is of course insane. We are neither a single aging body nor inheritors. It is possible to lose things.
Once the image of the skull meant:
Your own face
– You will be as I am now (repent!)
– You will be as I am now (celebrate!)
– You will be as I am now (this is the case)
– This is your true self ultimately
– This is your true self immediately
The nature of the phenomenal place or item where the image of the skull is located
– This place will cause your death
– This is a place to inter the dead / this is a place for the dead
– This place belongs to death / to the dead
– This thing is like death
– This thing causes death
– This is a harmful thing
– This is an evil thing
The nature of the one where the skull is located (this one is often an artwork of a transcendentally absent one, like a god)
– This entity has the actual attendants of death (time, change, temporality)
– This entity has the sentimental attendants of death (fear, wildness, cruelty, irresistibility)
– This entity has mastery over death
– This entity is Death
A statement made by the one who bears the skull
– I will cause your death
– I wish your death
– I am able to cause your death
– I have the actual attendants of death (time, change, temporality)
– I have the sentimental attendants of death (fear, wildness, cruelty, irresistibility)
The nature of the world
– Death exists
– At once life and death are the case
– Life is temporary
– Reality is hidden beneath illusion
– One [who was beloved] has died
– Remember this one who died
– This one here is dead
In our simple and fearful age, we use only eight skull sounds. All these meanings have to do with our fears for ourselves and our appetites for and against others.
Items and people:
– This will cause you to die (it wills your death)
– This will cause you to die (it has no will but is deadly)
– This thing can do you harm
I and thou:
– I am stronger than you
– I can cause your death
– I will your death
– I feel as if I am like death (I am ill, I am void)
– I have the sentimental attendants of death (fear, wildness, cruelty, irresistibility)
Our mouths remain the same. Our teeth and our tongues are as basically capable of forming each sound which has been lost as were our ancestors who used to describe the human skull in greater dimension than “others want what I’ve got. The strong eat the weak and the weak infect the careless and the merciful”. It is possible to use the language of skulls more fully than we do—but it is not done. Our only language is of overwhelming and submitting. Everything is described in the terms of overwhelm and submission—and everything which has submitted against its will plots to overwhelm.
Our ghost stories are about fear of the injured, fear of the done-wrong-by; “it will somehow make me to become like it”. The ghoul looks sick and sad. It is often a long-haired woman or a child who looks like a woman. It may actively long for the thing which you possess (life), and end the thing it longs for because it longs for it—or it may long for life by its very meaning; as the body of the beautiful woman is full of longing whether or not it actually longs, the ghoul wants your life by its nature. The woman is desired—we agree socially that she must be full of desire. I have life, which is the only thing worth having, and therefore the ghoul must want my life.
Some try to make friends with death. Our language system gives them two options: they can agree that they deserve to be mastered by death (they are unworthy of life, or they already have the qualities of the dead body, or, most ridiculous of all, that the qualities of the dead body are good or desireable) or they can submit to the future power of death in hopes of receiving its favors during life.
What is the means of discovering our lost sounds? Maybe to discard this idea of overwhelm-submission. Certainly the idea should be discarded, as it does not accurately describe reality. I think a more useful strategy, however, would be to fatten our definition of longing. To strengthen our longings, to allow them to grow and develop, would stretch us out of the appetites we have become and into human beings.
They were starving in a luxury hotel in Madrid. They were starving to death. Below the window there was a brilliant purple geometry, a cafeteria lighted with a little bit of neon around the edges, where the young business people ate at some hour. She looked down on it, holding the several heavy curtains aside. The light was gray and water went up to the window like distant headlights. She returned to bed.
The friend left. The young business people carefully went home and then came out again. Music from cars. She hadn’t seen rain of this type for eight years; in Los Angeles it either rained or completely didn’t. In the day, probably early, she had walked among the smooth frigid pavements. A kiosk quietly held up the poster for a Bond movie. She bought thick tights at a Wolford shop and asked if she could put them on right away. The shopwoman didn’t understand what she was asking and when she tried to indicate the act of pulling on tights the shopwoman curved behind the counter and lifted a shopping bag so she went to the dressing enclave and put the tights on and left. She carried the paper shell inside which the tights had been curled until she passed a public trash can.
At night she walked out of the hotel and happened on a gourmet grocery, small and tall. Its doorway was painted red. In that respect it looked like a wooden puppet. She bought a can of capers and a baguette and slices of ham wrapped in wax and a bag of oranges and a jar of olives and two small bottles of wine. She went into the store again and said “Argento, argent,” and dug with her hand at the jar of olives until the grocer brought out a box of picnic forks. She paid for it and said Thank you and the grocer showed that the greatest thank you would be for her to leave.
At the hotel the friend was watching Blackadder on the television. Green heavy curtains. They realized they had nothing to open the wine with so they called the desk. They incised the bread with their thumbs and pressed the ham into it—the ham shrank and frilled like fabric sinking in water. When the lobbyboy arrived with a corkscrew they showed him the can of capers and he said he would come back. In the morning they watched Al Jazeera and applied almond oil to their midlengths and ends. They got the almond oil free from work. They pumped it onto their palms and met their hands over their hair at its middle and drew their hands down and repeated the process.
Maybe you remember Elliot Rodger. He committed a mass shooting in Santa Barbara in twenty fourteen. Before heading out the door that evening, he emailed his parents a 141-page statement about his life, all of whose pages I have read more than once. I read it when the newspeople put it online (which they did very promptly)—Rodger and I had lived in the same neighborhoods in the San Fernando Valley and must have visited the same shops and walked the same routes. On some day before the spring of 2014, we must have sat in the same Barnes and Noble at the same time. I lived in San Francisco in the spring of 2014 and I was very cold and tired, and I wanted to go home to the south.
I read Rodger’s statement again this November when a man committed a mass shooting near here. These days I live in the Valley. Rodger refers to places I see each week and a land I am surrounded by. Let me tell you about this land, in November, in twenty eighteen.
November has the Santa Ana winds. They are hot and dry. You’ve read about them. This year they come in the night. I am awake in Woodland Hills when they arrive. Woodland Hills and Calabasas are side-by-side in the Valley below the Santa Monica mountains. In the night the mountains are silent and black and heaving with sage and lemon sage and other wild herbs. Distant homes stand in light on the far hills like the Northern Corona (clear as a bracelet from Calabasas where you and I stand now).
Look at the soft immense curtain of the Santa Monicas. Inside it, there is a canyon called Topanga which leads to the Pacific Coast Highway and the water. At night Topanga is a cold alley. The library is black under its folkloric eaves. The cantilvered homes are black and their rubbish, their discarded kayaks, dented paper lanterns, knotted strings of Tibetan flags, red and blue and yellow but black in the dark, shape themseves around the deep feet of the houses’ stilts. Rubbish growing in shapes with the hairlike roots of the white alder and the breathing sagebrush.
The Santa Ana winds are pushing through all of this like surf.
The Top o’ Topanga Overlook is a slant into the lids of green mountain trees and, beyond, the bright system of lights of the Valley. People go here after dark to have sex or to see the stars. Raccoons climb straight up the torsos of the live oaks to emerge suddenly from the manzanita blossoms and terrify.
Some years ago I jogged each night in Calabasas, up and down the hills. The sprinklers screamed on and lit my legs. Houses expelled their dryers’ steam. On the tops of hills the whole sky doubled and touched me, closed over me like a sheet when I was a child and my parents would make the bed over me. Coyotes chanted.
Dry at night in Calabasas. The smell of rocks in the desert. The homes’ skylights glow from inside. The pine’s hot trunk at the foot of the hill—pine above me like a kind silent god, immediate father of sheep and weird knowledge. A father who births sheep and letters.
In the day in November in the Valley the Anas grab the orange trees in the gardens beside the pools. The scent of the orange trees is in your head, as far back as your sinuses. Come down my old neighborhood to the grocery and the houses on Mulholland—the foothills haired like boars or yellow horses. This is the border between Calabasas, where there is money, and Woodland Hills, where there is less. Look up there. The gigantic tarps hanging from the houses on the cliffs. Construction was stopped in 2008. Ozymandian tarps, rolling blue in the airs.
The front yards of the ranch houses of Woodland Hills—the gradiant birds-of-paradise flowers and the two billion hummingbirds and the cereus cacti standing on the high shoulder between roads. In November some bougainvillea remain on the branch and some are dry on the ground, still very pink. The dry bougainvillea jump in the Anas, and the white petals from the blooming trees too and the purple twists from the jacarandas and the toasted pink roses and the green leaves the gardeners cut.
The sidewalks are not so accessible in Southern California. The city planners did not expect you or I or Elliot Rodger to travel on foot. Some hills break off in rocks and dust, and below the sheer hillsides and jutting prickly pear there are white blocks of stone the size of legs in the center of the path, there as if they’ve never been elsewhere. Go toward Ventura, the main street of the Valley. The palm trees glitter like car-dealer bunting in the winds.
The land is calico with autumn. The gingko is green and yellow. CVS, Coffee Bean, sex shop, brow threading. Lizards teleport onto the sidewalk as you walk. Huge banks of lavender. Lantana and butterfly weed. Wind goes up the cypresses. Diamond-cut grit all the way from the Mojave sinks into the corner of your eye.
The flashing egg-shaped leaves of the olive trees. The children deep down in the field at Taft, below the road. The girl-eye of the hawk. The meat-red skins of the palms drop into traffic. The blue-gum eucalyptuses are peeling, too; their bark is sliding down amid the fennel on the angled verge beside surface streets like men on ice.
Shadows swell around the stones of the San Gabriel hills and you are surprised that the evening has come so early. In the heat you had forgotten it is November.
I read Rodger’s henlike account of his life this November and then the wildfires start. Taft fills up with fire refugees. The college in Woodland Hills shelters the horses from Topanga. Calabasas evacuates. I wipe the green matter from the windowsills and it smears black. At Starbucks a woman moves the dust mask from her mouth and tells us that road signs on the 101 are twisted and the power lines are down.
Burned trees look strange in the months post-fire. They have the shape of trees without leaves, but they are absolutely black. You can drive through them in the hundreds before you recognize what it is you are driving amongst. They look like winter trees, and it is January; even in Southern California, some trees are bare before springtime. It is only that they are so black. There is new chapparal on the ground around them, a roll of chapparal like the wave which passes over a mammal’s fur in a breeze or stretch. It rains generously this January, and the garbage cans are knocked down the flooding streets, and the winter jasmine blossoms.
My mother read to me each night of my childhood. I think this is how I learned to read—certainly I don’t remember being taught. I can’t remember a time before I could read, just as I can’t remember a time before I could speak. No one taught my mother, either, and no one read to her, and yet like me she can’t remember ever having been without her letters.
When she read to me, she read to me books that I chose and books that she chose. She read her old favorites and she read faddish things and she read children’s books and books for adults. She read Wind in the Willows and Animorphs and Ramona Quimby and A Christmas Carol and Little Women until Beth died, and every word of The Lord of the Rings.
My mother worked at a magazine and we didn’t get to see each other during the day or immediately after school; maybe this is why the language of stories has affected me so phenomenally—maybe this intensely happy association of stories and she-is-now-here has taught me that stories are my mother and that I am stories, because of course I am my mother. Maybe instead the same thing which cosseted me up to literacy, and my mother before me—this tendency toward words? Or toward the signs of letters? Or toward sound?—is the reason I am as I am. Whatever the case, I am fundamentally a story person.
Recently I’ve had cause to consider what this means. Story people are not alike. That we read gives us very little in common, less than if we were theater people or gallery people. I’m not prepared to describe the substantial differences between story people, but I’ve begun to develop an idea of how I was experiencing stories as a child, and how this differs from the experience of other story children.
At the moment, I identify three different methods of experiencing story. In my view, any of these may be applied to any form of story, and children typically read favoring one method strongly over the others. That is to say, children who read using the method of Novel tend to read all stories using the method of Novel.
Novel: involvement / escape / participation in alternate humanity in the lived world
Fairy Tale: a re-experience of the lived world with new, poetic terminology
Myth: a first / prime / original experience of the lived world as poetry
The child who reads using the method of Novel may, as far as I can understand it, be performing many actions with the lived world as she reads—she may be learning or refining feelings relating to lived events. She may be adopting a new habitat, rejecting her lived world. She may be experiencing others’ lived worlds with the intimacy unique to writing. The novel is a tremendous category of experience which I don’t fully understand and don’t wish to fully understand—I didn’t use Novel as a child and I don’t use Novel now as an artist of novels and stories. Altogether, I would term Novel a human action, something which has to do with a person’s experience of the lived world and the implications those experiences have had and will have on the person’s life in the world (this can refer to much more than her actual choices in and decisions about the lived world, of course; a person’s experience of the lived world may be one of transcendental human empathy).
The child who uses Fairy Tale re-experiences the lived world in new, poetic terms. “Poetic”, in my use, is that which uses language to divide the real thing from its appearance, historical actions, function or role in order to represent the thing or its meaning more accurately. The child who uses Fairy Tale re-experiences her own life and comes to understand the lived world as 1. a space which can be articulated and named 2. a place in which the identity of a thing may be understood both as its appearance in the lived world and as a translated thing in hypothetical events 3. as a place full of things which can be re-created (referred-to, if you like) and remain themselves. The Fairy Tale is a codifying action (the naming of things, research into things) and a mystical action (the thing becomes other than itself and remains itself; the thing can be considered outside the lived world although it is without doubt a thing inside the lived world). Tangentially, it is my opinion that codification is inherently mystical.
The child who uses Myth experiences the act of poetry before she experiences the lived world, or as a ground for her experience of the lived world. To use Myth is to experience the lived world as a story; to assume that every thing and sensation and event in the lived world must be interpreted in the moment of experience as being both real and unreal, literal and symbolic, bound in time and immortal.
To use Myth honestly—to use it as the Mythological Child uses it—you must believe that all things simulate and repeat themselves and that the act of simulation is a real thing being described by its inability to describe itself. That the thing cannot exist fully in any single state of being, and that it tries to remember itself and assert itself impossibly, that in fact the thing appears impossible, is the state of reality for the Mythological Child. Essentially, for the Mythological Child this state is both impossible and true. In a legitimately Mythological myth, we are meant to fully believe that a mummy dressing resurrected the literally real and literally dead Osiris, and also that these things did not happen and there is no such person. In the legitimate myth and in the method of Myth, reality cannot be described using the shapes of the lived world. The action of Myth is religious—it is reverential and reflexive. It admires the thing and rediscovers the thing.
Picasso, Minotaur Caressing the Hand of a Sleeping Girl with his Snout, 1933
Its vegetarian mouth is open. In films little diamonds tilt from velvet pouches. Fingers manicured for close-ups raise the little diamonds and light shows the diamonds’ white grids. Light makes each facet oblique. Diamonds seem to sparkle because they are serially made blank by light, and their relief into transparency as they wheel out of light seems like glitter.
The minotaur weighs over the woman. The hairs of the hide along the bridge of its nose meet at the center. The bull’s head is larger than a man’s but the bull’s head is full of round and flat teeth made for pulling the white-rooted, wet-rooted stalks from the field and mashing them in the mouth like a warm grinding mill.
The minotaur has hands like a man. The head of a man, the head of a bull, the hands of a man, the minotaur’s hands … the ridiculous size of masculine bodies, their hardness packed in flesh and hair, like a truck engine wrapped in a sweater …
The minotaur’s curled head is made of edgy shapes, trapezoids and rough hair which at the limits of the head can be seen-through as the minotaur moves: between the black point or black curve and the slope of the animal head is the wallpaper, the moonlight on the wallpaper, the minotaur’s shoulder.