Swimming to Cambodia

This entry honors the memory of Spalding Gray, whose body was just pulled from the East River. I saw him perform once about ten years ago, thanks to my friend Crazy Dave who had won an extra ticket from the local NPR station.

For a couple hours last night I was plagued by the demon Anxiety. I call it a demon because it exists solely to torment, it can’t be reasoned with or bought off. The only way to neutralize its attacks is to give in, to laugh at its antics until it gets disgusted and goes away. So that’s what I did, and I was dreaming for quite some time before this imaginary being – whose name is oddly identical with my own – caught on and woke me up again.

But by then my sleeping self had gained the upper hand. This “real me” is far more familiar to my readers, I’m sure, than I am in my guise as the self-conscious author. That’s because (I’m guessing) your own “real me” is much the same: an androgynous shapeshifter who can be visible or invisible, single or multiple, who can fly, swim, leap tall buildings at a single bound, even occupy two places at the same time. Best of all, it can disappear. Here’s St. Emily (#255 in the R.F. Franklin edition – the new standard, because it preserves the orthography, spelling etc. favored by the poet herself):

The Drop, that wrestles in the Sea –
Forgets her own locality
As I, in Thee –

She knows herself an incense small –
Yet small, she sighs, if all, is all,
How larger – be?

The Ocean, smiles at her conceit –
But she, forgetting Amphitrite –
Pleads “Me”?

I had to resort to the Encyclopedia Mythica for Amphitrite: in Greek mythology, the queen of the sea. When Poseidon wanted to take her for a wife, she hid from him in the depths of the Atlantic Ocean, until betrayed by a dolphin. (Now the poem makes sense!)

I find it oddly comforting that sleep psychologists fail to agree on even the most basic premises: why we dream, why we even need to sleep. Actually, as a semi-professional bullshit artist and the proprietor of this perhaps ironically named weblog, gaps in official knowledge are, for me, something positive: resources to be exploited. Like a Daoist, I believe fervently in the necessity of the not-there, and I place great trust in the usefulness of the useless. Our second text this morning is from A.C. Graham’s translation of Chuang-Tzu, once again.

There is a place in Sung, Ching-shih, where catalpas, cypresses and mulberries thrive. But a tree an arm-length or two around will be chopped down by someone who wants a post to tether his monkey, a tree of three or four spans by someone seeking a ridge-pole for an imposing roof, a tree of seven or eight spans by the family of a noble or rich merchant looking for a sideplank for his coffin. So they do not last out the years Heaven has assigned them, but die in mid-journey under the axe. This is the trouble with being stuff which is good for something. Similarly in the sacrifice to the god of the river it is forbidden to cast into the waters an ox with a white forehead, a pig with a turned-up snout or a man with piles. These are all known to be exempt by shamans and priests, being things they deem bearers of ill-luck. They are the very things which the daemonic man will deem supremely lucky.

Graham uses this archaic word “daemonic” to translate shen, one of the prime attributes of the sage. He points out in the introduction that “Although Chuang-Tzu shares the general tendency of Confucians and Taoists to think of Heaven as an impersonal power rather than as an emperor issuing his decrees up in the sky, his attitude has a strong element of numinous awe . . . It is clear that Chuang-Tzu does not in any simple sense believe in a personal God, but he does think of Heaven and the Way as transcending the distinction between personal and impersonal (which would be as unreal to him as any other dichotomies), and of awe as though for a person as an appropriate attitude to the inscrutable forces wiser than ourselves, throughout the cosmos and in the depths of our own hearts, which he calls ‘daemonic.'”

So this daemon of Graham/Chuang-tzu is quite unlike the demon I was talking about a moment ago. Or so I would like to think. In Spalding Gray fashion I am looking back over my life, particularly the uncomfortable, shameful, and humiliating parts that I would like very much to forget. I am remembering the six years of purgatory beginning with my entry into the seventh grade, in which I suddenly found myself a social outcast. I say purgatory rather than hell because in fact outright tormentors were few, especially after my brother Steve, who was two years ahead of me, beat the shit out of a kid who had been reputed to be tough. Throughout junior and senior high school I was able to maintain a strictly pacifist, turn-the-other-cheek policy, safe under the nuclear umbrella of a big brother who could kick ass.

Well, I shouldn’t say strictly pacifist. I did drum on a mushhead one time, but that almost doesn’t count. Or at least it didn’t seem to at the time.

The mushheads came from a family of highly inbred, semi-retarded, grotesquely misshapen people who were as mean as they were ugly. They had heads shaped like toadstools (hence the moniker) and names out of Snow White: Skippy, Pappy, Happy and a couple younger ones whose handles I forget. When I was in the 11th grade and had long since stopped riding the school bus, one of them – I think it was Happy – took to following me through the town portion of my three-mile route home, heckling all the way. This took the somewhat surreal form of yelling “Heckle! Heckle!” and when he tired of that, “Heckle-Jeckle! Heckle-Jeckle!”

This was almost tolerable and indeed somewhat amusing – or it might’ve been if I hadn’t taken myself so doggone seriously. I would ignore the heckling until stones started to fly. Due to the fact that he and his brothers were born without wingbones (so their pediatrician told my mother one time), Happy couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn, much less the rail-thin frame of a bucktoothed wierdo bookworm who preferred walking to riding the bus. (Each of the mushheads had been barred from the bus for life, I think.) But when the stones started coming uncomfortably close I’d turn around and make like I was going to go after him, which was usually all it took to produce panic and an inglorious retreat.

I’m ashamed to admit that one time, in a vain attempt to drive him away for good, I ran back, grabbed him and shoved him to the ground. He lay in the middle of the street groveling and gabbling and thrashing about: think Gollum on a bad hair day. I’d be lying if I told you I felt any pity then. As best I can recall, I felt disgust bordering on active loathing. What a loathsome, self-centered creature I was! No wonder I didn’t have any friends.

To his credit, Happy remained undeterred in his heckling of the Dr. Jeckle Who Could Not Hyde. The daemonic was strong in him. I don’t know where he and his brothers are today, but I doubt they’re off getting mangled or blown up in Iraq. In fact, I’d be surprised if they aren’t living in reasonable comfort on S.S.I. Chuang-tzu again:

Cripple Shu – his chin is buried down in his navel, his shoulders are higher than his crown, the knobbly bone at the base of his neck points toward the sky, the five pipes to the spine are right up on top, his two thighbones make another pair of ribs. By plying the needle and doing laundry he makes enough to feed himself, and when he rattles the sticks telling fortunes for a handful of grain he is making enough to feed ten. If the authorities are press-ganging soldiers the cripple strolls in the middle of them flipping back his sleeves; if they are conscripting work parties he is excused as a chronic invalid; if they are doling out grain to the sick he gets three measures, and ten bundles of firewood besides. Even someone crippled in body manages to support himself and last out the years assigned him by Heaven. If you make a cripple of the Power in you, you can do better still!

Words to live by? Hell no. According to his friend Hui-tzu, these stories of Chuang-tzu’s are nothing but “useless words.” (Ah, to blog as uselessly as that!)

When I was a teenager I tried earnestly to take the words of Jesus to heart: “Turn the other cheek.” I’m afraid I succeeded only in becoming a hypocrite – a creature worthy of exorcism, as my would-be guru Happy undoubtedly perceived. In my twenties I added a corollary: “Turn the other cheek. It’s the best way to piss someone off.” Thus I was able to deform an idealistic piece of advice into something truly useful, the ultimate move in the game of social ju-jitsu. And in middle age I have deformed it still further, so that this once sublime dictum has turned into “Turn the other butt-cheek!” But that’s the best way I’ve found to deal with my inner demons.

Here at Via Negativa, especially, the joke is always on me, folks: drink up! Take yourself too seriously, and the next thing you know you’ll be feeding the fishes. Stay twisted and you won’t be in danger of Poseidon eyeing you up, and the priests at the temple to the river god will turn away in disgust. Even if Heaven ain’t happenin’, God don’t make no junk.

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