Thomas Edison and Vasil Golakov
In discussing the abrupt dismissal of long-time retainer I. Vasil Golakov from his service in the Edison mˇnage, a number of recent scholars--most notably J. Horslow and T. Rheims in a paper titled "Edison, Tesla, and Westinghouse: The Queer Undercurrents of Early Electricity"--have proposed that it was a homosexual advance upon Edison, on the part of the Bulgarian valet, that led to his sudden termination. Lesbian separatist theorist P. Valencia-Sven has taken this bold hypothesis even further, implying that it was Edison's stern denial of his own secret yearning for the strapping Slav that compelled him to expel Golakov from his household.
But the first translation of Golakov's letters from the original Bulgarian, by doctoral candidate L. G. Turo of Rutgers, sheds a novel light on these fanciful speculations. And although it is indeed likely that Golakov and Edison had an altercation on the day of the firing, there is scant evidence to suggest that the businessman-inventor and his faithful manservant enjoyed anything other than a purely platonic rapport.
Curiously, as the translation illustrates, the beginnings of the rift between master and domestic can be traced to an elephant execution on Coney Island.
When Edison offered to kill Topsy the elephant, in 1903, he had already lost the so-called "war of the currents." It had been a war of both commerce and science, and the otherwise successful inventor had lost calamitously on both fronts. Having campaigned bitterly to persuade the public that his direct current system was safer than its rival, alternating current--a technology harnessed by Nikola Tesla and owned by George Westinghouse--Edison was proved wrong by 1896, when alternating current won the day; and by 1897 he had sold off the last shares in his old electricity company.
But in the course of the public-relations battle he had adopted a perverse strategy: although opposed to the death penalty, he had promoted an electric chair that would use AC to execute convicts and thus showcase its lethality. And further to defame the rival form of current, he helped an engineer named Harold Brown publicly execute stray dogs, calves, and horses with AC--despite his own professed belief in kindness, later to be quoted by animal-rights advocates. "Non-violence leads to the highest ethics, which is the goal of all evolution," he said. "Until we stop harming all other living beings, we are still savages."
In any case, by 1903 the inventor had long since turned his attention to motion picture technology, then in its infancy. He had patents on some of the first motion picture machines: and when he heard there was an elephant in the area who was slated for execution he stepped in and suggested a lethal dose of AC. His men would both set up and record the electrocution.
Topsy, the elephant in question, was a disgruntled circus and work animal who had suffered the pains of forced labor, captivity, neglect, and abuse. She had responded by killing three men, the last of whom fed her a burning cigarette.
Simple shooting would not have been theatrical enough, for her owners, Thompson & Dundy of Coney Island's Luna Park, had decided to make an example of the rogue. (The execution of animals, an odd extension of a medieval practice, assumes of course that the animal is a moral agent, accountable to the law and therefore punishable in a formal and public context. It is noteworthy that the elephant was not being euthanized or exterminated, as a vermin would, but penalized for her sins against God and man by execution qua execution. The ramifications of this apparent subversion are multifold.)
To put a just end to Topsy, therefore, an effective method was sought. Poisoning was tried but failed. Hanging was next considered, then dismissed when the ASPCA objected. (Despite its unpleasantness, to say nothing of sheer difficulty, this method would be used in 1916 in east Tennessee, with a five-ton elephant named Mary.) Finally Edison made his offer; and ironically, though it was the unsavory nature of AC he would demonstrate with his movie, the ASPCA did not object to the method--perhaps because it was a new technology, and as such must be regarded as superior.
So Edison sent his technicians to the site of the execution and had them engineer and film the condemned animal's fiery death. They attached electrodes to her body, strapped on sandals and set up their camera. The brief filmstrip that resulted still survives, a few grainy, gray seconds. It shows the creature being led, swaying gently, to the place of her doom; there a white fire rages around her body. She collapses onto her side.
Edison himself was not present at the electrocution. As always, his attentions were claimed by a busy schedule. But according to Golakov, whose letters to a sister in Bulgaria were never mailed and therefore found their way into the boxes of household documents transferred to the Edison archives by the Mina Miller Edison estate, he was deeply fixated on the resulting filmstrip. The valet claimed that Edison--blithe, boastful, pragmatic to a fault and not prone to introspection or idleness--watched the filmstrip privately on a regular basis. He further claimed that Edison often conversed with it, addressing his remarks to the image of the dying elephant.
Here it should be observed that the footage, still extant and now publicly available on various Internet sites, represents an early example of what has since come to be called a "snuff" film, that is, a film that records the willful killing of an unwilling subject. Actual human "snuff" films have only very rarely come to light and exist in American culture chiefly as a mythic fetish object: but animal snuff films, whose production is not for the most part illegal, are relatively common.
In Golakov's voluminous letters a number of the Edison/Topsy monologues are rendered. Most were reportedly delivered late at night or in the small hours of the morning, when the businessman-inventor liked to work; at these times he alone was awake in the house and during pauses in his labor chose to closet himself in his study with one of his Projecting Kinetoscopes, watching as the blaze rose around the charring elephant's wood-and-copper-shod feet.
Frequently the monologues concerned matters of business and technology too arcane to be detailed herein: the vicissitudes of carbon filaments and ore extraction, efficiency improvements at the West Orange facility, various properties of nickel hydrate. But often they were deeply personal, and according to Golakov Edison must have found in the elephant a faithful listener, at least at first, for his talks began as tranquil ruminations that tapered into silence only when the businessman-inventor nodded off in his leather armchair. As the disquisitions continued over weeks and months, however, they took on an argumentative tone. It seemed the elephant had begun to rebuke the businessman and even had the temerity to dispute his assertions.
As Golakov presents them the conversations are of course one-sided, with lengthy pauses into which Golakov believed the burning elephant's rebuttals and queries would have been interposed. A typical excerpt from these enigmatic "exchanges," on the subject of Edison's fear of oral copulation/death, is set forth below.
"I won't do it. Filthy. Anyway, she-- ... No I tell you. No. You women are all the same. Selfish, and can't invent worth a damn. Harlots all. ... That, that wet thing...ugh. Like old cow's tongue, or pigs' feet. Disgusting. ... Makes her a slut, Topsy. Wantonness! Nothing less. A wife's duty lies in...do not interrupt me. ... I should have killed you three times if I killed you at all. ... Yes...yes...I know. I know. I am very sorry. ... I said I was sorry! ... Is it green? Are there fields? Oh: and is the sun bright?"
Yet Golakov's letters reflect nothing so much as a longing on Edison's part for the approval of the boiling elephant. It is not clear to what degree this imputation is a fiction originating with the domestic, whose mind was almost surely affected by his daily use of the diacetylmorphine cough remedies then sold widely by Bayer; certainly there have been no corroborating reports of any mental infirmity on Edison's part. But Golakov's documentation of Edison's most intimate personal habits, relationships, and opinions bears up well under close scrutiny and does reflect a credible familiarity with the businessman-inventor. Since the inventor had suffered a partial loss of hearing, it is not impossible that he may have welcomed the silence of a celluloid companion. And while almost certainly not accurate in all regards, Golakov's notations clearly have a documentary value in elucidating aspects of the event.
Leaving aside those conversations whose purely technical nature allowed for little comprehension by the layman, Golakov focused, in his transcriptions, on personal discussions he deemed would shed light on the businessman-inventor's private thoughts.
On occasion Edison appears to have conducted philosophical debates with the moving image, defending a rational humanism for which the roasting elephant berated him.
"I am Man. Man has his own destiny! ... Impractical, I'm afraid. Exhumation and shipping alone... ... I have no time for messing about with your bones, my stubborn pachyderm. ... Commonality? With every breath each of us on this earth inhales a molecule from Caesar's final respiration. And likewise a molecule from Brutus's breath, as the traitor raised a hand to stab his noble emperor. Does that make us Caesar? Does it make us Brutus? ... Children, oh, hmm...I have several myself; barely remember their names. What? You had none! You trudged under a yoke all the days of your...what? False pachyderm! How you lie! Animals do not dream of that which has not transpired. A pachyderm cannot dream of her unborn children. ... Observation, clearly. I am Man; I can see. I have seen for myself how insensate you are. A pachyderm is not given to flights of fancy. ... There is no God in the Church, no: not there. But I begin to see Him. I see Him nonetheless. ... Contradiction? Fie! Leave me be. I have work before me."
In the months leading up to the incident that brought about Golakov's dismissal, the conversations he records become increasingly agitated and hyperbolic. Indeed a sort of rageful ecstasy is manifest:
"How you shame me! You torment me with your humility! ... Murdering pachyderm! I know well what you did. You are no saint! ... Do not play the victim, my crafty friend. Do not play the innocent! ... Together, you say? Together! Yes we will!"
At some point, writes Golakov, despite this antagonistic dynamic the elephant evidently became a sort of priestly figure or godhead. Before her ghostly image, the businessman-inventor would kneel to pray, meditate, and ask for absolution.
Edison was still a freethinker then; it was only circa 1920 that the inventor would begin to speak publicly of building machines to communicate with the dead. In his early life the brash businessman openly ridiculed religion and notions of a soul and an afterlife; yet he had a chronic weakness for magicians and occultists and was an admirer of both Madame Blavatsky and well-known billet-reader Bert Reese.
In fact it was not long at all after his dismissal of Golakov that the businessman would execute an abrupt about-face in terms of his religious leanings: and in the final decade of his life, far from being the outspoken atheist of his youth, he would ridicule those "fool skeptic[s]" who dared to doubt the existence of God.
Certainly it is true that his second wife Mina, eighteen years his junior, was a staunch Methodist sometimes said to have believed the doctrine of evolution to be the work of Satan the deceiver. But Edison did not always hold the female intellect in high esteem, and he is unlikely to have been swayed by the young woman's pious fundamentalism. It is probable that his conversion had its genesis elsewhere.
In any case, it is Golakov's intrusion upon his employer's devotions that seems to have precipitated the termination of his employment. The valet had for some time been pilfering from Edison's personal supply of cocaine toothache drops, which he then used in combination with his heroin cough medicine to produce effects of euphoria and allay anxiety. (He recommended both popular tonics to his sister.) On the occasion in question, a quiet evening in late September, he had ingested both remedies in some quantity, alternating quite neatly between them. As he sat quaffing a nightcap in Edison's closet (the closet featured a slatted door), he had a good view of the scene in the study.
"The giant's stately presence," writes Golakov, "had Mr. Edison transfixed.
He laid himself out on the floor in joyful submission to the flickering vision, and he spoke to her as he always did, but with more emotion. "How you glow, noble beast, in the infinite moment before your own death!" He rested his forehead on the rug and trembled. "How many times have you died? A thousand times you have died, a thousand and a thousand. I have seen it, like the millions of stars in the sky. And still you speak to me: you hold me in your dead eyes. I know your terrible power." Rising to his feet, hands clasped in supplication, he choked back a sob as he said this, and I began fearing for his sanity. "Yes: yes: yes. You are the Savior. But I see now that you do not forgive me...what did you say to me? ... I hear you. You say: I do not forgive. You say: This is my gift to you: I will never forgive: now and forever, you are not forgiven."
At this moment, according to the valet, Edison began weeping piteously. In his own state of artificially enhanced excitation, the valet apparently felt compelled to leap out of his hiding place; and shocked by the sight, the businessman-inventor fell flat on his face, only to recover when his burly valet lifted him off the floor.
What passed between the two thereafter is not indicated in Golakov's reporting. Likely Edison recognized that the valet's volatile disposition and rampant exploitation of substances had become a liability. What is known for certain, from the household accounting records, is that I. Vasil Golakov left the mansion the next day: and he was never admitted through the Edisonian doors again.
Little is known of the valet after he left the inventor's employ save that his abuse of narcotics continued unabated; for a scullery maid complained to Mrs. Edison twice in the ensuing months that the former assistant was begging for tonics at the servants' entrance to the kitchen.
Golakov's final words on the subject of Edison and his elephant, from the last surviving letter to his sister, clearly suggest it was the drug-addled Balkan, not his employer, who was spiraling into dementia. For after he "leapt out" of the closet to "rescue Edison" from himself, he alleges, the inventor launched into a spirited homily:
He said: "Don't you understand, Golakov? I have seen the future. I have seen in the paradox of her suffering the last end of man...yes, she was a murderer, but so are we. And I saw in her eyes the longing of all men for a far better place, for a place where man was both no longer cruel and no longer wanted retribution for cruelty; for a place, indeed, where man was not man at all. Yes, Golakov, that was what I beheld: the true and final emancipation of man. For at the end of history man will shed his humanity. Man will be man no more. And this alone will allow him the grace for which he has always longed."
Whether or not there is a grain of truth in the chaff of these epistolary ravings only Edison could tell us. But certainly one wishes to issue a caution to critics in the mold of Profs. Horslow and Rheims, who, when faced with the evidence of the new translation, may despite it cleave stubbornly to their attribution of homosexuality to the eastern European tippler or indeed the businessman-inventor himself. Should these critics choose to see in the elephant a "symbol" of either heterosexual denial or repressed homosexual identity, they are of course free to do so; and no doubt, in that case, the elephant will have spoken to them as eloquently as she spoke to poor Golakov's Edison, who saw in the dying beast myriad glorious reverberations of his martyred Christ.
Girl and Giraffe
Girl spent the first nine months of her life as a ward of one Ronald Ryves, a sergeant in the Scots Guards. This was the early nineteen-sixties in Kenya, where the Second Battalion of the Scots Guards was stationed to fight a mutiny in Dar-es-Salaam. It was the tail end of the British empire in East Africa.
A man who had adopted Kenya as his home, name of George Adamson, wrote about Girl in his autobiography. Girl was one of his success stories whereas her brother, Boy, was an extravagant failure; yet Boy was the one that Adamson deeply loved.
Adamson lived a long life, long and rough and mostly in a large tent in the bush, a tent with a thatch roof and dirt floor, full of liquor and books. He smoked a pipe with a long stem; he sported a white goatee and went around bare-chested in khaki shorts, a small, fit man, deeply tanned. He was murdered in his eighty-third year by Somali lion poachers.
Joy Adamson, his wife and the famous author of Born Free, had been stabbed to death a few years before. She bled out alone, on the road where she fell.
They were somewhat estranged by the time of Joy’s death. They had cats instead of children—George had raised scores of lions while Joy had moved on from lions to cheetahs to leopards—and lions and leopards could not cohabit, so George and Joy also lived apart. They maintained contact, but they were hundreds of miles distant.
When Girl and Boy were nine months old the Scots Guards brought them to the plains beneath Mount Kenya, to a farm where a British company was filming Born Free. Along with twenty-two other lions, Girl and Boy had roles in the movie. Afterward most of the lions were sent to zoos, where they would live out their lives in narrow spaces. But Girl and Boy were given to Adamson, and he took them to a place named Meru, where he made a camp. This was red-earth country, with reticulated giraffes browsing among the acacia and thornbush. Zebras roamed in families and the odd solitary rhino passed through the brush; there were ostriches and an aged elephant named Rudkin, who plundered tomatoes.
Girl had been fed all her life, but she took readily to the hunt. Her first kill was a jeering baboon, her second an eland with a broken leg, her third a baby zebra. From there she took down a full-grown cow eland and was soon accomplished. Meanwhile Boy did not feel moved to kill for himself; he merely feasted off the animals she brought down.
So Girl became a wild lion, but Boy did not. Boy remained close to Adamson all his life, often in camp, between two worlds. Though he made forays to the wild he did not vanish into it: and on one occasion, hanging around camp while people were visiting, he stuck his head into a jeep and bit the arm of a seven-year-old boy. This boy was the son of the local park warden; soon an order came down for Boy’s execution.
But before Adamson could carry out the shooting—he was busy protesting to bureaucrats, who declined to listen—Boy was found under a bush with a porcupine quill through one eye and a broken leg. If not euthanized on the spot he would have to be moved; so Adamson sat on the ground beside him until the veterinarian could fly in, by turns sleeping, drinking whiskey and brandishing his rifle.
After a surgery in camp Adamson prepared for an airlift. The two of them would live on a private property of Joy’s while Adamson nursed Boy back to health. And curiously, though Girl had barely seen her brother for a year, she emerged suddenly from the bush as they were loading him into Adamson’s pickup to go to the airstrip. She jumped onto the back of the truck, where Boy lay sedated and wrapped in a blanket. No one was able to entice her away, so they began the drive to the airstrip with Girl along too.
But on the way she spotted a young giraffe by the road and was distracted. She jumped off the pickup. She had become a wild lion; wild lions are hungry.
This was the last time Adamson saw Girl and the last time she saw any of them. Afterward, when Adamson returned to Meru, he would search for her fruitlessly.
Boy grew irritable in temperament after the surgery, due to the steel rod in his leg; and who among us might not become cantankerous? Two years after he and Girl were parted he suddenly attacked a man named Stanley who had tended him with gentle care through illness and injury. Adamson heard a scream and went running with his rifle to find that Boy had bitten deep into Stanley’s shoulder; he turned and shot his beloved lion through the heart and then tended to his friend, who bled to death from a severed jugular inside ten minutes.
In Adamson’s autobiography the end of Boy is well-described while the end of Girl, who lived out her days in the wild, is invisible. Happy endings often are.
But there is one more report of Girl outside Adamson’s published writings. It was made by a man who claimed to have visited Adamson in his camp the year before his murder, one Stefan Juncker based in Tübingen, Germany. Juncker said he had made a pilgrimage to see Adamson at Kora, where he was living with his final lions. Since Adamson constantly welcomed guests to his camp such a visit would not have been uncommon.
The two men sat beside a fire one night and Adamson—in his cups, which the German implied was not rare—became melancholy. He remembered a time when he had not been alone, before his wife and his brother had died. He remembered his old companions, sitting there at the base of the hills among the boulders and the thornbush; he remembered all his lions, his women and men.
His brother Terence, who had lived with him at Kora, had in his dotage discovered that he had what Adamson called “a talent for divining.” By wielding a swinging pendulum over a map he could determine the location of lost or wanted things. This included water, missing persons, and lions, which he correctly located about sixty percent of the time. Adamson was skeptical in theory, not being much given to magical thinking, but had to admit that his brother’s method led him to his lions faster than spoor- or radio-based tracking. It was inexplicable, he said, but there it was.
Since Terence had died of an embolism two years before, he no longer had a diviner.
At this point Adamson gestured toward a flower bush a few feet away. That was where Terence lay now, he said. And there, he said, turning, over there by a tree was Boy’s grave; he had buried his dear lion himself, though others had dug up the corpse later to have proof he was dead. He had been forced to rebury him several times.
The German was disturbed. He did not like the fact that Adamson had laid his brother to rest a stone’s throw from a killer.
There was much that science had not yet understood, went on Adamson, about the minds of lions and men and how they might meet. Divining was one example—had the lions somehow told Terence where they could be found?—but he had also known others. In fact, he said, he would tell of an odd event he had once witnessed. Over the years he had thought of it now and then, he said; and at this point a warm, low wind sprang up from the Tana River and blew out the embers of their campfire, sinking them into darkness.
He had thought of it over the years, he repeated, but he had mentioned it to no one. He would tell it, if the German could keep a secret.
Of course, said the German.
It was when he was first taking Girl out to hunt. This was in Meru, he said, in the mid-nineteen-sixties. Of course now, more than twenty years later, Girl would have to be long dead.
All your stories end with someone dead, said the German.
All my stories? asked Adamson.
He and Girl had been walking through the forest together and had emerged into a clearing, where they surprised a herd of giraffes browsing. The herd quickly took off, galloping away before Adamson even had a chance to count them, but they left behind a gangly foal without the sense to run. Perfect prey. It should fall easily. It stood stupidly, blinking, backed up against a large tree.
Girl charged, with Adamson standing by proudly. She had made several kills in the preceding days and he considered her a prodigy.
But abruptly she stopped, pulling up short. Her ears were flat; then they pricked. She and the foal seemed to be studying each other. Adamson was shocked, bordering on indignant, but he remained in the copse. Possibly she sensed something wrong with the giraffe, he thought; or possibly there were other predators behind it, competition in the form of a clan of hyenas he could not see.
As he waited Girl stood unmoving, crouched a few feet from her quarry. Then the giraffe reached up slowly and mouthed a branch with its mobile, rubbery lips. It chewed.
Adamson was flabbergasted. Possibly the animal recognized his lion as a neophyte hunter: but how could it? Giraffes were not insightful; they had the dullness of most placid grazers. Either way, the animal should be bolting. Girl would be on him in a second, fast as light.
He could only see Girl from the rear; her tail twitched, her shoulders hunched. He could not see her face, which frustrated him, he told the German, for a lion’s face is extraordinary in its capacity for expression. What was she waiting for?
Then again, he thought as he watched the stillness between them and held his own breath, the foal was going nowhere. Maybe Girl was hypnotized by the future: maybe she saw the arc of her own leap, was already feeling the exhilaration of flight and the impact, the smell and weight of the foal as it crumpled beneath her, as she dragged and wrestled and tore it down, worried the tough hide and sweet flesh. Possibly she was waiting, pent up and ready.
But no. Girl straightened; she relaxed. She sniffed around the foal’s long legs. She jumped onto a dry log. She yawned.
And the giraffe kept eating, munching and grunting softly. It shifted on its feet; it stooped down, head dipping toward Girl and up again to the branches, where it tore and chewed, tore and chewed with a complacent singularity of purpose.
There was sun on the log, glancing across the nape of the lion’s neck so that her face was illuminated, the rest of her in shadow. She licked a paw and lay down.
Adamson, squatting in the bushes, stayed put. His body was still but his mind worked hard, puzzling. He considered giraffes. Terence had a weakness for elephants; himself he was strictly a lion man. But giraffes, though morphological freaks, had never interested either of them. Artiodactyla, for one thing: the order of camel, swine and bovids. Not suited for long-term relationships. Strictly for riding, eating or milking, really. He pitied them, but not much. They were no refrigerators in nature; meat and milk had to keep themselves fresh.
After years in the bush he saw all animals as predators or prey. The tourists that came through his camp wanting to pet the lions? Now those were strictly prey, he mused.
Then, recalled to the present after a pause: No offense.
None taken, said the German heartily.
In fact the German felt a prickle of annoyance. The flight in, on a single-engine Cessna in jolting turbulence, had made him squeeze his eyes shut and pray silently to a God in whom he did not believe. For this?
An old alcoholic, he thought angrily, with poor hygiene: that was all. He had been eight years of age when he saw Born Free, living in a claustrophobic bourgeois household in Stuttgart. His father was fat as blood sausage and his mother used a bottle of hairspray a week. He thought Adamson and his beautiful wife were like Tarzan and Jane.
But Kirsten had disapproved of this trip and she was probably right: nothing more than a mid-life crisis.
The smoke from Adamson’s pipe was spicy. The German was disgusted by smoking—frankly any man fool enough to do it deserved what he got—but he had to admit the pipe smelled far better than cigarettes.
You were saying, the German reminded him. Girl and giraffe?
Yes, said Adamson softly.
The old man was frail, thought the German, with the ranginess of a hungry dog; his muscles had no flesh between them. He had nothing to spare.
So Girl had lain there on the log in the sun, dozing while the giraffe moved from tree to tree. The sun crossed the sky and clouds massed, casting a leaden grayness over the low hills. Adamson stayed seated in the scrub, drank from a flask and puffed on his pipe. There was a silver elegance to the day, which was unusually mild and breezy; he listened to the wind rattle the branches and whisper the dry grass. Birds alit in the trees and moved off—he noticed mostly black-headed weavers and mourning doves—and Girl and the giraffe ignored them. The shadows grew longer; the sun was sinking. Adamson began to feel impatient, pulled back to camp. He had things he should do before dark.
It was almost dusk when the giraffe moved. It ambled over and bent its head to Girl again, who stirred.
While it is not true, said Adamson solemnly to the German, that giraffes never lie down, as legend has it, it is true that they do so rarely and for a very short time. And never, he said, in his experience, did they lie down at the feet of their predators.
And yet this was what the foal did.
It had been a good day, said Adamson, and raised his glass.
As he talked the German had built up the fire again and now he saw the flames reflecting off amber. He was regretting his choice. It had been this or Mallorca, where his wife was now tanning.
The foal lay down deliberately, said Adamson, right beside the dry log. It was deliberate.
And Girl stretched her legs, as a cat will do, luxurious and long, all four straight out at their fullest reach like table legs. She stretched and rose, jumped languidly off the log, and paused. Then she leaned down over the foal and sank in her teeth.
The movement, said Adamson, was gentle. The foal barely struggled; its legs jerked reflexively but soon it was still.
Later, he said, he almost believed he had dreamed the episode. But came to believe, over the years, that a call and answer had passed between Girl and the giraffe: the foal had asked for and been granted reprieve. She had given him a whole afternoon in which to feel the thorny branches and leaves in his mouth, the sun and shade cross his neck, his heavy lashes blink in the air.
It was a free afternoon, because all afternoon the foal had been free of the past and free of the future. Completely free.
It was almost, said Adamson, as though the possibilities of the world had streamed through Girl and the giraffe: and he, a hunched-over primate in the bushes, had been the dumb one, with his insistent frustration at that which he could not easily fathom, his restless, churning efforts to achieve knowledge. Being a primate he watched; being a primate he was separate forever. The two of them opened up beyond all he knew of their natures, suspended: they were fluid in time and space, and between them flowed the utter acceptance of both of their deaths.
They had been together, said Adamson, closer than he had ever been to anyone. They had given; they had given; they had shimmered with spirit.
Spirits, thought the German, glancing at the luminous dial of his watch: yes indeed. Bushmill’s, J&B, Ballantine, Cutty Sark, and Glenlivet on special occasions.
This was in Kenya in the late nineteen-eighties, decades after the Mau Mau rebellion brought the deaths of two hundred whites and twenty thousand blacks. A new homespun corruption had replaced the old foreign repression; fewer and fewer lions roamed the grasslands of East Africa, and the British were long gone.
One of the birds was lame, struggling gamely along the perimeter of the fence. The bird was large, a soft color of blue, and rotund like a pheasant or a hen. Its head was adorned with a crown of hazy blue feathers, which had the curious effect of making it seem at once beautiful and stupid.
A family watched the bird. It was a small family: a mother, a father, and a little girl.
The fat blue bird had white tape on one knee and lurched sideways when it stepped down on the hurt limb. The little girl sat on the end of a wooden bench to watch the bird, and the mother and father, tired of walking and glad of the chance for a rest, sat down too.
This was inside the zoo’s aviary, an oval garden with high fences and a ceiling of net. Here birds and visitors were allowed to commingle. Black-and-white stilts stood on straw-thin legs in a shallow cement pond and bleeding heart doves strutted across the pebbly path, looking shot in the chest with their flowers of red.
The little girl watched the lame bird solemnly as it hobbled around the inside of the fence. There was something doggedly persistent in the bird’s steady and lopsided gait; it did not stop after one rotation, nor after two. The little girl continued to gaze. At first the mother and the father watched the little girl as she watched the bird, smiling tenderly; then the mother remembered a household problem and asked the father about it. The two began to converse.
The zoo was soon due to close for the day and the aviary was empty except for the family and the birds. Small birds hopped among the branches and squawked. Large birds stayed on the ground and sometimes made a quick dash in one direction, then turned suddenly and dashed back.
A keeper came into the aviary in a grubby baseball cap and clumpy boots. The little girl asked her why the lame bird did not fly instead of walking. The keeper smiled and said it was a kind of bird that walked more than it flew. “But can it fly?” asked the little girl. “Could it fly if it wanted to fly?”
The keeper said it probably could, and then she moved off and did something with a hose. The mother and father talked about flooring. The little girl got off the bench and followed the lame bird, clucking and bending and trying to attract its attention. It ignored her and continued to walk along the inside of the fence, around and around and around.
The aviary was not large so each circuit was completed quickly. But the bird did not stop and the girl did not stop. After a while the father remembered his life outside the aviary, his office and car and his stacks of paper. His presence in the aviary became instantly ridiculous to him. He got up from the bench and told the little girl it was time to go. The little girl said no, she was not ready. She wanted to stay with the bird. The father said that was too bad. The little girl tried to bargain. The father became angry and grabbed the little girl’s arm. The little girl began to cry and the mother waved the father away.
It was several minutes before the mother could fully comfort the little girl. During this time the father left the aviary and opened his telephone. He paced and talked into the telephone while the mother sat on the bench with the little girl, an arm around her shoulders. He waved to the mother and pointed: he would wait for them in the car.
The mother told the little girl her father loved her very much, only he was busy. He had stress and pressure. He did not mean to frighten her by grabbing. The little girl nodded and sniffed.
When the little girl was no longer agitated her mother wiped the tears from her face and the little girl looked around. She told her mother she could not see her bird anymore. Her mother put away her tissue and then looked around too. The bird was not visible. Through the leaves in the trees came a glancing of light; the stainless steel dishes were empty. The water in them was still.
The mother looked for large birds on the dirt of the ground and did not see them. She stood and looked for small birds in the green of branches but did not see them either.
“Where is my bird?” asked the little girl.
The mother did not know. She did not see the lame bird and she did not see the other birds. She did not even hear them.
And yet time had barely passed since the birds were all there. The mother had barely looked away from the birds, she thought now. She had only attended for a few minutes to her child’s brief and normal misery.
“It’s time to go, anyway,” said the mother, and looked at her watch. “The zoo is closing.”
The little girl said that maybe the birds flew out at night, through the holes in the net into the rest of the world.
The mother said maybe. Maybe so.
As they left the aviary the little girl was already forgetting the bird. She would never think of the bird again.
There was almost no one left in the zoo, none of the day’s visitors. But it seemed to the mother that the visitors she did see, making their way to the turnstiles, were all walking with a slight limp, an unevenness. She wondered if they could all be injured, every single one of them debilitated: but surely this was impossible. Unless, the mother thought, the healthy ones had left long ago, and what she now saw were the stragglers who could not help but be slow.
Ahead of her the limping people went out and vanished.
Along the path to the exit the cages seemed empty to the mother: even the reeds around the duck ponds faded, and the signs with words on them and images of flamingos. The mother looked upward, blinking. In the sky there was nothing but airplanes and the bright sun.
The mother’s eyes felt dazzled. The sky and the world were all gleaming a terrible silver. How she loved her daughter. Urgently she took hold of the little girl’s hand. She felt a brace of tears close her throat.
Why? It had been a fine day.
The Mekons, Mercury Lounge, New York City, September 12, 1997
The day I went to my first Mekons show was a hard day, for it was the day I had to dress up as a giant strawberry. This was for a protest outside an overpriced gourmet food store on Broadway; I was a strawberry holding a sign. I was a strawberry with social convictions who wished to secure protections for strawberry pickers in California.
At the time I was in my twenties and attending weekly meetings of a workers’ party, at which I sat wearing lipstick and platform shoes on folding chairs between large, sad men with industrial burn scars. At these gatherings I felt—not irrationally since I’d never worked a union day in my life—like a bourgeois pig. I came from a white-collar family; I lived in a co-op in the West Village; by day I wrote grants for a nonprofit group and by night I wrote books. I believed the underdog should rise up, but I wasn’t much of an underdog myself. The one time I ever worked on an assembly line was because my mother owned it.
Still, distress and fear at the workings of power were always with me, nagging; so I was flailing around to find a useful outlet for this. This was how, one cold afternoon, I came to be encased in a foam strawberry suit in Soho.
While waddling around in the company of my fellow protesters—with none of whom I ever actually succeeded in having a decent conversation—it occurred to me that if a friend of mine came anywhere near this protest it would be to enter the very store we were picketing, where a small log of goat cheese could be purchased for the price of an orphan in Botswana. (I myself had eaten that goat cheese. It was tasty.) My friends were mostly writers and artists who viewed activism with ironic detachment; and even though, like me, they were progressive in their politics, they felt no duty to participate. None of them would stoop to donning a strawberry. I was alone among strangers, itchy with awkwardness. I did not want to be holding up my poignant sign with someone else’s words on it; I did not want shout out someone else’s slogans, which always seemed reductive and ludicrous no matter how true they might be. I did not want to look like a Fruit of the Loom commercial. I hated my self-consciousness and the instincts that made everything earnest look like cliché: but there they were, insistently surfacing.
The culture of dissent, as I encountered it, had always grated on me this way, whether it was the insularity of labor activists or the hippiedom of environmentalists. Yet a sense of social morality lay over my shoulders like a wet blanket and sporadically I felt compelled to try to court change, nudging myself into niches where inevitably I then felt out of place. I was a prisoner in my ill-fitting fruit.
Having shucked the fruit suit, I made my way on foot to the nearby club where the Mekons were scheduled to play; the whole way I struggled to shrug off the lingering sense of being an idiot. I wished I was just going home to hunker down, eat a pizza and watch Law & Order. But I had listened to the Mekons for years by then—to their early punk records, their folksy post-punk ballads, their drunken sea shanty agit-pop, their rebel-country foot-stompers—and was curious to see them live; their songs stuck like catechisms.
Besides the tickets were already bought. Inertia carried me.
At the front of the Mercury Lounge was a bar area that allowed customers to fraternize with performers, if the performers so chose. Waiting for the show to begin I saw Jon Langford making jolly in a group in the corner; I stood with some friends a bare few feet from Tom Greenhalgh, who was gaunt and devilish handsome quaffing what looked like some kind of a gin drink. (Gin and other spirits figure prominently in the Mekons’ lexicon.) I wanted to think he was smiling at me and briefly envisioned a life filled with Greenhalgh, booze, music and prominent cheekbones. I believed I might levitate. But suddenly Greenhalgh turned away. I thought I saw an expression of distaste cross his face; I smelled something faintly rancid. Then I realized it was the afterscent of the strawberry. It had been worn by many others before me.
A few minutes later they all took the stage, nasty, British, and not so short. Immediately they were bantering combatively, badgering and mocking each other with funny insults—a sharp, sometimes sexy badinage that secured them at once in my affections. I was smitten.
Each Mekon had charm; each Mekon was articulate and stinging, sarcastic and wise. And in the music and the gentle cast of dim lights and the warmth, from the very first seconds of the first song, I saw what it was to lose my reserve and the shame of my own bad dancing. I forgot the shock it can give onlookers suddenly to behold me, enthusiastic and in the throes of a seemingly private rhythm. I laughed at these hovering opinions and felt how they vanished. Because here was thrill; here was the delight of complete submission. I forgot the constant pressure to be distant from all things, for the world was glowing. What force! I thought. What dust we are, what blood. We stand swirling in the middle of time, the pillars of our separate identities transformed into rivers: we shuck our skins and join the chaos of the endlessly redeemable soul.
It was as though I had speed or coke in my system, although in fact I had tepid light beer.
And I knew, standing there in a daze, that though I was far past the years of teen groupiedom, I was as one with all groupies. I understood them. And I wanted not merely to sleep with a Mekon, but, more than that, to be one. The Mekons were far more than me, elevated—and yet I did not begrudge them this; rather I wished to partake of it. They were what I would have hoped for in myself had I been made of rock-star stuff, and had I not been the type who suffered white-knuckled fear when forced to sing karaoke. (That the Mekons never actually reached rock star status, despite a devoted following, was nothing short of tragic but did not diminish my admiration.) I saw made flesh in the merry band from Leeds a kind of ultimate social and artistic persona, one that fulfilled all my wishes about myself in the world and answered all my regrets. They stood at the crossroads where the mundane met the divine; they were the culmination of a secret and subversive idea. They were not music alone, though the sublimity of music would surely have been enough.
It was not incidental that they were an overtly socialist band with strong opinions, opinions they did not hesitate to offer up with just enough snarky wit to save them from seeming simplistic or hackneyed. Their politics and their aesthetics seemed to coalesce into a perfect whole; whereas I, ten years later, would still be struggling for the balance that would infuse my work with a political center without reducing it to a dull polemic. Nothing could have been more enviable to me.
And what I felt, listening to their nostalgic dirge to Western civilization that was always also a call to arms—they sang about the fall of Soviet communism, the opium trade, the first men on the moon, the arms race, miners’ strikes—was a kind of rapture. I imagine worshippers in an ecstatic faith must feel this, caught up in a frenzy and given over to a vision of paradise or of boundless mercy. Standing in the crowd, where almost everyone seemed transfixed, I was suspended in a sheerly idealistic moment. The actual fell away and the ideal was embraced, not by one of us but by many. An imagination of justice, somehow, was present and felt: within the arc of the songs a feeling of infinite freedom was loosed on us all.
This at least was how I felt—as though my heart was breaking and I welcomed it; as though joy and grief were a hair apart. I felt certain, for once, of not being alone in longing.
When the show ended and I had to go home, I felt no time had passed. I bought tickets for the show the following night, and from then on, until the day when I moved across the country, saw the Mekons whenever they played, in New York or New Jersey. I never spoke to any of them, though they were fairly approachable: my awe was such that I would have been struck dumb.
In the weeks and months afterward I became a defender of the faith. If I played a Mekons album for a friend and it met with indifference, a quick disappointment would lodge itself in my skin like a splinter. I would be forced to dismiss not only the musical tastes of the friend in question, but, in all likelihood, the immortal soul; within me diagnosis and condemnation would occur. Poor spirit, I thought. Poor thing. Too small; too mean; too slight.
For to understand the ascendance of the Mekons was to fathom infinite possibility; to see the goodness of the Mekons was to acknowledge the persistence of luminous particles in the dark.
Eventually I gave up on the strawberry and lent myself to other, less overt forms of advocacy, finally conceding that, much as I was not cut out to be a sexy socialist rock singer, neither was I cut out to march and wave banners in front of Dean & Deluca. Whatever anger I had did not express itself in groups but in solitary work. This felt like a copout for some time, but it also felt inevitable. Even if, in my dreams, I was someone else entirely, I had to agree to be myself when awake: or life would stretch on far too long.
The Mekons, like all musicians, are lucky. They run little risk of being accused of stridency, of didacticism, of arrogance: for everything is forgiven them in the powerful and euphoric joy that music, unique among the arts, can bring. Their audiences, unlike for instance my readers, are primed for abandonment—liquor in their stomachs, blood running thin, floating in a womblike embrace that invites direct political speech in a way that other forms, including literary fiction, do not.
But something I first understood that night has strengthened me in the years between then and now: the certainty that cynicism is finally deeply boring, that all great things are shot full of anger, sadness and remorse.
The band turned twenty and then twenty-five; they were middle-aged and still, to me, captivating. They made albums that were almost gospel, and I loved them more than ever. “And there’s no peace/On this terrible shore,” they sang in 2002. “Every day is a battle/How we still love the war.” For me they would never lose their novelty. And years after that first show at the Mercury Lounge, in my own house in the desert far away from anywhere the band ever plays, the Mekons test formerly performed on so many unwitting guests has fallen into disuse in favor of less lofty criteria to determine personal mettle—“Does he tolerate my snuffling pug dog?” for instance, or “Does she frown disapprovingly at my food-smeared toddler?”
But I never fell out of love, and I continue to feel a nagging distrust of those who, given the chance, fail to see the singular beauty of my heroes.
Becoming Darth Vader
The year of Star Wars I was eight. It may have been the year I worshipped my classmate Pam Guse, pronounced Goose-y, who wore train tracks on her teeth and large, round glasses with peach-colored plastic frames. I had neither braces nor glasses then but I believed that if I had both I might also have a chance of recapturing, in my own lesser person, the magic that was Pam Guse. My own large front teeth were unrestrained by orthodontics and therefore crossed over each other to create an impression I will call "chortling rabbit." I spoke loudly and laughed often, producing a sound that my mother implied, with a measure of disapproval, resembled the honking bray of a donkey.
Rabbits, donkeys; I was approachable and familiar, the opposite of lovely and serene. I wanted to be liked by everyone. Pam Guse, on the other hand, had a placid, laid-back demeanor. She rarely seemed eager to please. She had her own pantheon, of course, her own personal altar of proud and lofty figures, chief among them, at that time, Farrah Fawcett. Although my long-term memory is poor, I remember clearly one of Pam Guse's shirts, which was white with red and orange horizontal stripes. It was cotton and had a hood that hung down her back; the drawstring at the collar was red to match the stripes. Come to think of it, the shirt I remember so clearly may have been my shirt, bought to emulate one of Pam Guse's shirts. My mother says I used to come home from school in tears, sobbing the ragged-voiced refrain Pam hates me. Pam hates me. There were days, apparently, when that was all I said.
But it may not have been that year. It may have been the year when dimpled Anka Popa from Romania and I went behind the green wooden shed in the copse beside the school to kiss boys. We were entrepreneurs. For each kiss we demanded as payment either a candy necklace or a handful of gum, which to me was contraband since my father-who at that time, I believe, may have smoked a Meerschaum pipe-had outlawed gum-chewing in the house. Or maybe it was the year when I took a swing at Cary Linden, the red-haired boy who I seem to recall was already planning, in fifth grade, to be an architect when he grew up. I hit Cary Linden thinking I was the boss of him, and possibly even swaggering away with a boastful air. Not much later he sauntered up to me on the street and swiftly punched me in the stomach. I ran home crying.
I think I was a crybaby.
Or then it also may have been the year I won the long jump, or the year I slipped on the track running the 400 and filled my right knee with deep grooves of black gravel, which it still carries. It may have been the year when Cary Linden and his cronies, with nary a care for clichˇ, actually did put earthworms in my hair, causing me to emit piercing shrieks. We had what they called a healthy antagonism, Cary Linden and I. It may even have been the year when, at a Brownies meeting-within our Brownies hierarchy there were various bands of fairies, and in my time I had been leader of both the red-and-yellow Kelpies and the emerald-green Pixies-I was discovered to be harboring head lice. My mother, a practical, cautious person not given to frivolous embellishment, insists to this day that the lice were the size of cockroaches. The way she tells it they were running around in circles on the top of my head like prize fillies at the Kentucky Derby.
Whether all of these were in fact just one year, and whether that was the year of Star Wars, is lost to me forever. At some point my brother got a light saber, I know that much. In previous years, for Halloween, he had been a pirate named Don Dirk of Dowdee, with a plume in his cap. I had always been a fairy-princess-queen, a triple whammy of bet-hedging. Should some insufficiently humble unbeliever say, glancing at the delicate silver-and-gold crown my father had fashioned for me out of a mesh of pipe cleaners and bulbous Christmas ornaments, What are you? A princess? implying, I knew even then, a rank pretender to the throne? I could wave my scepter and scoff: Not just a princess. Also a queen. For obvious reasons, I could not be only a queen; queens were old, and often ugly.
Should the same arrogant unbeliever further say, Oh, you're just a princess-queen? I could point to my wings, made of white nylons decorated with glued-on glitter and stretched over artfully molded clothes hangers, and say, I am, in addition, a fairy. I ruled over the land and sea, but when the chips were down I could also turn you into a toad. I was a spiritual as well as a secular leader. Let mortals beware.
There we were, Josh a pirate, me a fairy-princess-queen, and my little sister Mandy the Frankenstein monster. And then the loud starry darkness in the theater, the action figures, the light sabers, and Josh went from pirate to Luke Skywalker. He would go swashbuckling around the house sowing the seeds of fear. The light saber wavered and sliced, warbled and swooped precariously near tabletops and shelves, a threat to trinkets everywhere. I wish, for the sake of narrative, that I could say it was the light saber that struck my sister in the eye, prompting a panicked run to the Hospital for Sick Children in the family Toyota. In fact it was a plastic medieval sword that Josh wielded while encased in his plastic knight's armor, a menacing combination. Half-blinded by the visor of the helmet, he would stagger around stabbing at the air with a poignant desperation. My sister paid the price.
(She was not permanently maimed, though; of the three of us, as I write this, she is the only one who still has 20/20 vision.)
I was bored by the light sabers, being a girl, even though, as a girl, I was also a tomboy, skinny, dirty, stringy-haired. I was the kind of tomboy who threw tantrums when she didn't win. (As a result she often won.) This was the lesson learned: You can try to strong-arm them, as I did with Cary Linden, and that may be effective as a temporary measure, a brutish demonstration of force. But then what happens is they walk up to you later, when you've grown lazy and complacent, and cave in your stomach with a fist. Or you can whine them into submission, a tack taken by many a desperate wife over the centuries. There's the iron fist and there's the velvet whine, with its sinister, deadening stamina. The superior efficacy of the whine, over the long term, has yet to be understood by U.S. foreign-policy makers.
I was bored by the light sabers then and I am bored by them now, after a quarter-century. Watching the movies as an adult, the light-saber fights were the only parts through which I fast-forwarded. I like my symbolism more covert.
As a prepubescent it was easy to identify with Princess Leia, so obviously virginal, so obviously disinterested, and always being saved. Object not subject, she was saved right and left; though she did occasionally fire off a gun, she never did much saving herself. She did, however, remain calm. No girlish squeals for Princess Leia. Earthworms would have presented no challenge to her composure. She was a better, more seamless tomboy than I was but still, of course, only ornamental, window-dressing in the shining world of the heroes.
It was easy to remain Princess Leia across and beyond the years spanned by The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. I went from tomboy to jock and gone were childish things like dress-up, potions, and singing The Sound of Music; almost overnight the looseness of play vanished and the strictures of competition took its place, the channeled rigor of performance. My high school was determined to make children into pillars of the establishment, determined first and foremost to instill in children the unswerving conviction that they were born to lead. In its defense, it taught Latin and Greek and Beowulf and Chaucer in middle English, and there were teachers there, some of them gentle fossils, others eager newcomers, who honestly believed they could instill a passion for learning and who, in so believing, themselves became romantics and were loved.
This was when we first grew familiar with non-food brand names, when clothing was identified with manufacturers and video games and portable technologies began their triumphant emergence into the mass market and were instantly known by their trademarks, Sony Walkman, JVC, Pac-Man. Now it happens much earlier, needless to say, infants formulate their first phrases to include the words Sega and Microsoft, but the early '80s were only the first glimmer of dawn in the era of personal electronics and universal branding.
Still, despite being told I had been born to lead, which meant, chiefly, growing up to be a banker, a lawyer or a captain of industry, I remembered what I had learned: there is safety in distance, safety in remove. While it was true that, as a fairy-princess-queen, I had been a world leader, it had always been an inherited title. Striving for such a position was out of the question. A royal is not a politician. I was perfect and unimpaired as an observer; I left it to the imperfect, the frantic, the boisterous to do the hard, messy work of empire building.
One speaks with unchallenged authority only about oneself. This is why so many writers, seeking authority, write only about familiar things; it is why, contrary to popular opinion, the bravest writers are those who take as their subject matter that about which they know almost nothing. It is why I, in writing about Star Wars, actually write only about myself, why, in fact, I, like many who attempt the so-called personal essay, seize upon any outside stimulus as carte blanche to expose myself to all and sundry, naked, writhing, and frankly none too clean. Clearly the personal essay is an ideal venue for the airing of dirty laundry, the foisting of self-indulgent reminiscences upon an unsuspecting, innocent readership. In writing a personal essay I remind myself of a cat, proudly depositing at its owner's feet a small, pink baby mouse with no head.
If we were not all voyeurs at heart the personal essay would have no home. But luckily our culture's love of stories is firmly entrenched, and any love of stories is a love of voyeurism, since to read a story is automatically to become a voyeur, to savor the act of seeing from a secret place. If we could, we would watch the whole lives of strangers bundled into two hours-that is, those parts of their lives that would fill us with a mad compulsion to express ourselves, be fulfilled, and seek glory, not those parts that would send us back to bed whimpering.
Quite often when I leave a multiplex after seeing a movie I have the distinct sensation it has taught me nothing I did not already know, shown me nothing I could not have imagined for myself, but has exhorted me, mostly through its soundtrack and cinematography, Express yourself, be fulfilled, and seek glory. By contrast I seldom leave a multiplex thinking I have been encouraged to Contemplate, empathize, and share all you have. It's apparent that Hollywood has given itself the job-rhetorical, propagandistic, full of ecstasy-of pressing all citizens into the service of advancement. It is not certain what kind of advancement is generally being urged upon us, the specifics are vague, but I'd hazard a guess it's something in the American Dream family: self-love, self-improvement, the massive personal accumulation of wealth.
Sometimes it's simpler: I leave the theater with the heartfelt conviction that I should be better groomed.
But it's noteworthy that Star Wars-with its childish yet prophetic vision of smart-aleck boy wonders, monsters both cuddly and ugly but always integrated into daily life, and everlasting, intergalactic human-race Diaspora-emerged at a moment in the late '70s when Hollywood had, for a time, been turning away from exaltation, setting itself a grittier, more realistic task. Its ebullience subdued by the cultural disillusionments of Vietnam and Watergate, Hollywood was suffering from a sort of erectile dysfunction of the urge to propagandize, and as a result producing subtle and exceptional art on film. For the most part the actors of the '70s were less immaculate than those of decades before or since; the heroes were less superhuman, the villains less subhuman, the soundtracks less hysterical with grandeur, and the cumulative effect certainly less self-congratulatory and patriotic. (Outer space, as a setting for movies, attracts the most grandiose sound-tracks-Thus Spake Zarathustra, for example-which is natural since it is, of course, both the final frontier and a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. Outer space gets to be both ancient history, lost in the boundless void of the universe, and the prophetic vision of a future of infinite dispersal: tiny we roam across the sands, ten million light-years hence.) So Star Wars came, both through and despite its intended message about virtuous small rebellions, to tell both '70s Hollywood and the viewing public: No. Let there be an end to this foolishness.
This is no way to prop up an empire.
That the world of Star Wars was also a prepubescent world, where the heroes were clean, earnest and sexless and the truths about good and evil simple, made it the perfect propaganda for all ages. In the far-distant past and the far-distant future, good American boys with mom-'n-pop values, gay English butler robots for companions, and apes for copilots will save the universe from merciless domination by ruthless, impersonal forces. There is hope yet, my friends, for despite what you see outside these cinema walls, in the far-distant past and in the far-distant future we, you, I, all of us, will save America from itself.
Darth Vader, dark Vater, dark father, unmistakably, was the most erotic figure in the Star Wars family and the only tragic one, and because of this he had a terrible beauty.
To state the obvious about Vader, he was a faceless man behind a ferocious black mask, protected by his anonymity. Endlessly a cipher, endlessly an intrigue, he was the only question Star Wars posed to its audience, the only mystery presented. We might imagine behind the mask the face of Hitler, the face of a monster, the face of a machine, a skull with gaping eye sockets, or far, far more, something horrifying and primeval, beyond words as well as beyond sight, unspeakable. There was no end to what we could imagine, and for that reason the mask was, needless to say, far more compelling than anything that could ever be behind it, as is the way with masks. And, arguably on a more mundane level, Vader was also the ultimate sellout: possessed of all the powers of the Force, holding the key to enlightenment itself, he chose to use his genius for evil. He was, among other things, a lampoon of Adam Smithian enlightened self-interest: in a preview of '80s ideology, he made selling out look sexy. At the helm of the expansionist Empire, he was untrammeled Id, an embodiment of lust for power and for domination.
But Vader also seemed absurdly trapped in his throatbox and his cloak of gloom. He prowled around self-consciously, almost, it seemed, wearing his mask in public shame, or wearing his shame in the form of a mask. It was as though he was too discreet to show himself, perhaps out of simple reluctance to inspire repulsion. And, as many suspected and was finally confirmed, all he was really hiding was a maimed face. I always had an inkling, watching him stride around in glum determination, that Vader wore the mask because he was vain, and chose to inspire fear rather than repel desire. Alternately, I speculated, maybe his face was not awe-inspiring at all. Maybe it was just a plain face with a flattened nose, a weak chin, and rabbit teeth. Maybe Vader needed the mask because without it he was just a man you passed casually on the street.
Lord Vader was an aristocrat, and as such he had poise, elegance, and good manners. Even when inflicting the death grip he was calm and composed. He kept his counsel; a man of few words, he chose them carefully, played his cards close to his chest. His mystique was dependent upon it. A voluble Vader could not have commanded the Empire; a chatty Vader would not have caused military men to quake in their boots. There are those who can smile and smile and be a villain, but Vader was not one of them. His power was the power of silence.
But silence does not come easily to all of us. For me there is only one answer to all social problems and irritants: nervous, trapped, irritated or bored, I talk. In addition, thrilled, overjoyed, pleasantly content among friends, I talk. Confused, ambivalent, hesitant, agitated, I talk; I also talk when scared, angry, hurt, anxious, impatient, restless, morose, despondent, smug, curious, contemplative, playful-in a word, awake. When the back-and-forth of talk is good, I listen, too, of course, and when the talk is shallow or predictable I float, registering the words and idly foreseeing a response but not listening deeply, thinking not about the past but about the future: what will be said next, how it should be said, and more often what will likely not be said, whether the difficult things to say and to hear should be said and by whom, and what should never be said at all. Sometimes the daydreams of conversation are not as relevant as this, and talk produces a landscape far away, a landscape shimmering with the fragments of words, the suggestions of words, the memory of words gone by.
It seems to me sometimes that I am surrounded by Vaders. The Vaders are the ones who do not wear their hearts on their sleeves, who protect themselves from exposure. They do not display themselves in all their weakness to disarm would-be detractors, adopt a deceptively submissive pose to fool fearsome opponents. They do not broadcast their flaws, do not reach out to others by seeking and embracing a communion of weakness, of understandable frailty. (Many is the friend I have made this way, when we saw, in the turn of an instant, talking, that we knew each other best not through our successes but through our failures and our wry awareness of them.) Vaders do not make inappropriate remarks at dinner parties, let down their guard in drunken moments to reveal the wanting soul within. The Vaders are too smart for that, and they know which side their bread is buttered on.
The Vaders know about masks. They use them well.
And of course, the strongest of the Vaders rule the world.
If what is sought first and foremost is empathy, it is hard to be Vader. A Vader must seek, before love and often to the exclusion of love, authority. A Vader is a formalist, who must be persuasive not in content but in form: he doesn't have to persuade you he's correct in a matter, but he does have to persuade you to act as though he is. Might does make right, in fact, insofar as end effects are concerned, and this is something Vader knows. Quibbling over details is for children; ethics themselves are for children, an elaborate game played by the powerless. The powerful have little use for morality except as it applies to their lackeys, and possibly as a pet aesthetic, a pretty and self-legitimating idea of rectitude; hence, as cynics know so well, the social compact of the law restricts the actions of all of us except those who are, neatly, beyond it.
Vader has an erotic charge just because he gets what he wants. Others may protest that when they think of Star Wars and sexy they think of young Harrison Ford, who as Han Solo played the part of a Harlequin Romance hero, a rough-talking mercenary who treats our heroine Leia with gruff, arrogant disrespect before revealing, at the eleventh hour, a heart of gold beneath the leathery macho facade. But for me the Han Solos of the entertainment world are old hat. In the first place they're predictable; in the second, they want nothing, finally, but a good obedient girl for a wife. Sassy backtalk is only an aphrodisiac.
Vader, on the other hand, does not have any transparent desires, except, one assumes, ruthlessly to command, judge and punish. Vader is opaque save for his menace, his propensity for killing underachievers on the spot and destroying whole planets by remote control. If it weren't for his genocidal tendencies Vader would be a laughing matter, and admittedly I don't really personally believe he blew up that whole planet.
And the silent man breaks our hearts as he dies, as we watch him-bound up in the tragedy of his own silence-leave a world that, after all, barely even knew him. Remember the poignancy of Vader as he lay dying, having sacrificed himself for his son, finally exposed as a father, a human, a mortal, his now-horrible but once-handsome face ravaged and half-eaten up by machine. For Vader, exposure could only mean death.
At a certain point in my twenties I began to wonder if it was possible to be relentlessly exposed and still command respect. I saw how some of the women and men I encountered would hold themselves in check, how they, unlike me, would not tell everyone everything about themselves at their earliest convenience. These people were cagey about their desires and their foibles, with whole libraries of secrets and aces up their sleeves. Instead of riotous storytelling and rushes of disclosure, they had a style that was deliberate and reserved; they designed the way they presented themselves to others, carefully doling out tidbits of self over time like so much PEZ from a collectible dispenser. Their masks were well-wrought. And these people could not be taken for granted. As friends or as acquaintances, they were islands in a chilling sea whose treacherous shoals had to be navigated with care. Intriguing but untouchable, they could be seen and heard but not felt or known; they were perennial strangers with whom one could fall in love again and again but never be intimate. And they tended to be people whose names, in their professional lives, had about them an aura of the sacrosanct, inspiring awe, trepidation, and sometimes seven-figure movie deals.
And also at a certain point it became clear to me that there are no meritocracies in the world; that in the arena of cultural production, as in any industry, power goes very simply to those who demand it.
When I realized that-an easy lesson for many, but apparently a difficult one for me, raised by loving parents and sheltered from threats both large and small-I came to understand that I was not a contender in the action-packed galaxy. I had carved out for myself a comfortable and ultimately passive niche. Although I did not resemble a princess in any particular, did not live like a princess, had no poise or austerity, no subjects, no servants and no white gown, I was still a princess wannabe: I watched from a point outside the field, waiting eternally for the true games to begin, waiting to ascend a private and, of course, imaginary throne.
It is no simple task to become Darth Vader. For one thing, what happens to the people who knew you before you wore the mask? How do you face them in your newly forbidding garb? It takes years to build a house of friends, a house of kindness, warmth, familiar sympathy. If you become Darth Vader overnight, does the house stay well-lit, its welcoming rooms suddenly rendered alien by the presence of a prowling and enigmatic host? Surely the friends will laugh when you don the black facepiece, when you begin to hold yourself aloof and wander, cloaked in darkness, up and down the house's shadowy corridors.
Or you can transform yourself slowly into Vader, acquiring, bit by bit, the habits and accouterments of mastery and distance. First the cloak, then the boots, next the gloves and light saber and finally the helmet; first the pregnant pauses, then the brevity of speech, and finally the heavy breathing. This way your friends will have time to adjust to the metamorphosis, and though increasingly uneasy, even alarmed or outright frightened, they may not resort to ridicule. You will inspire distaste, you will receive referrals to mental health professionals, the house may grow quiet and dim, with dust along the tabletops and sofas, but the laughter that comes of shock at the absurd will probably be absent.
Some of us, it would seem, are unable to bring ourselves to cultivate distant mystique. Some of us, in the end, hold our friends dearer than cloaks and daggers, hold the houses we live in closer than the sprawling and holy temples we might like to build; some of us stay forever on the brink of being Darth Vader, dreaming of the power we might, in some other galaxy, command but finally, perpetually, forlornly abdicate. Some of us wait eternally for that moment when, inspired by rage or desperation or pride, we will emerge from ourselves like butterflies from cocoons, our colors lit brightly for all to behold in the radiant space of the air. We wait to become something we have never been; we wait, like almost everyone else, for a sudden and redeeming grace.
And then, needless to say, there is the question Why? Why is it desirable to be Darth Vader instead of a quiet watcher from the balcony or the cheap seats? Are weakness and fear of anonymity at the bottom of it all, at the base of every struggle for power and renown? Or can a poignant idealism light the sacred fire of ego, as Hollywood and free-market capitalism often wish to tell us, and somehow propel us flailing into the realm of greater good? Is the will to leave an imprint on the universe always a shallow and selfish will?
About a mile from my house in the Arizona desert, on the other side of a straight, fast two-lane road that rushes with eighteen-wheelers and jacked-up pickups decorated with shotgun racks, there is a towering mound of petroglyphs, pictures of suns and antelope etched on stone by natives now gone for many hundreds of years. When I see them I do not think of the will to power, the clinging, striving individual soul that wants to promote itself beyond its fellows. When I think of the desire to make markings on rocks that will outlast us all, I think of solitude and sadness; I think of those who have gone before and those who will follow us. I think of a soft finger touching a rough stone, and the stunning light of a star I can see in the night sky, a star that died thousands of human lifetimes ago.