September 4, 2009 § Leave a comment
Here is Darran Anderson‘s recent article about writers’ disappearing acts:
Darran Anderson, “The Indian Rope Trick,” 3:AM Magazine 9 August 2009
October 1849. A dishevelled and incoherent bedlamite was found in some distress outside Ryan’s Tavern, a Baltimore drinking hole popular with corrupt canvassers and men of idle personage. He was wearing a variety of clothes seemingly assembled with scant regard to fitting or style; a palm leaf hat, a soiled silk coat and a battered pair of shoes. His hair was standing on end and his face smeared with dirt. Though presumed half-demented with drink, no traces of alcohol could be smelt or discerned on his person. This was no standard vagabond or panhandler. Instead, he was soon identified as no less than Edgar Allan Poe, poet, essayist and master of the macabre. His previous whereabouts were unknown. He’d simply vanished and reappeared, mysteriously afflicted and wearing the clothes of a stranger.
Whisked away to a sanatorium by friends, the writer’s condition deteriorated rapidly. Though he had been depressed and had taken to the drink following the death of his young wife (and cousin) Virginia Clemm, he had since cleaned himself up, joined an abstinence society and was working extensively on plans to launch his own periodical. The week previous, he had routinely left Virginia to travel back to New York City. What happened in those intervening days has never been revealed. In the hospital, the bedridden writer ranted and raved, slipping in and out of consciousness. He called out to his dead wife and an unknown “Reynolds” and begged those by his bedside to let him die. Finally in the early hours of the morning, without revealing what had happened to him, he gasped, “Lord, help my poor soul” and passed away. Faced with a vacuum that no rational explanation could fill, his close associates turned to fiction. His last panic-stricken words were altered to something more suitably lofty and erudite, in this case the following abomination; “He who arched the heavens and upholds the universe, has His decrees legibly written upon the frontlet of every human being and upon demons incarnate.” His death certificate was soon mislaid leading to speculation as to his cause of death, running the full spectrum of diseases and syndromes; epilepsy, diabetes, stroke, cholera, syphilis. When they ran out of genuine medical maladies, the gossip-mongers invented some of their own (“brain congestion” being chief among them). Soon speculation took a darker turn with tales of poisoning, laudanum overdose (Poe was a known opiate user) and the DTs vying with reports he’d been kidnapped, robbed and drugged (two shadowy figures had been spotted following him in the vicinity of a train station). Given the ghoulish nature of his writing, there’s the constant hint of something diabolical at work. Poe had stared into the abyss for too long perhaps and one day the abyss had noticed him.
Disappearing is an act with its own bewildering history (or anti-history considering it is a litany of what we do not know and perhaps never will). In 1587, the New World pilgrims of the Roanoke Colony (over 100 souls in all), in what would later be named North Carolina, vanished into thin air leaving only the word “Croatoan” carved onto a tree. In 1872, the Mary Celeste was discovered drifting in the Atlantic, a month after the brigantine had set off from New York for Genoa. Below decks, the ship’s cargo and cabins were relatively undisturbed but for the absence of her crew who were never seen again. In 1971, the bourbon-drinking hijacker D. B. Cooper leapt out of a Boeing 727 and into infamy with a parachute and a briefcase with $200,000 in ransom money. Entire regions of the planet have become feared for the prevalence of disappearances, as if some devilry were involved. Collectively known as the Vile Vortices, the Bermuda triangle in the Caribbean and the Devil’s Sea near Japan are the most notorious examples of the phenomenon. Some fates are more decipherable than others; the sailor Donald Crowhurst forging a circumnavigation around the planet descended into madness, writing hundreds of pages about time travel, God and the nature of being before stepping off his boat and into the sea whilst Amelia Earhart’s Electra vanished in the South Pacific with a final radio communication to their Howland Island destination, “We must be on you, but cannot see you — but gas is running low. Have been unable to reach you by radio. We are flying at 1,000 feet.”
Whilst it’s an occupational hazard for explorers to go missing, it’s surprising how many writers have gone forth to the great unknown. These days we’re largely used to writers as bourgeois academics writing stories about English teachers having affairs with students or the existential crisis of marriages set in second homes in Tuscany with deceptively enigmatic titles (The Bible of Forgetting, The Ironsmith’s Daughter ad nauseum). But what of the fuck-ups, those who struck out and never returned or simply had enough? The destructive impulse is passé, the stuff of adolescent folly and voyeurism goes the supposed consensus. And yet the literary past is littered with them, these missing in action. It’s not to gloat over nor celebrate nor condemn such lives in freefall rather it’s crucial to haul back their works and lives from the void. And while the mythology of self-destruction may seem old hat, it still exerts its magnetism; there is still always a voice in your head that cannot resist wondering where they went and why and maybe there by the grace of god…
At the heart of every writer lies a paradox. Whereas the other art-forms (music, theatre and film in particular) have a natural communal element, writing necessitates a monkish solitude but also a desperate clawing desire for recognition. The turbulence between these two states is the stuff that can make or break a person. Added to this are life’s natural disasters and the neuroses/bohemianism of creative types which have blazed a trail of glory and destruction from John Clare through Sylvia Plath and d.a. levy to David Foster Wallace. Whereas every successful writer’s path is more or less the same, every doomed one has a unique tale to tell.
Take Hart Crane for example; an American poet still ludicrously underrated, who in hindsight stands as a kind of bridge between Walt Whitman’s world and that of the Beats, who rhapsodised about the fledgling New York cityscape the way the Romantics had about the Lake District, a man who for all his troubles (and there were few more troubled than Crane, wracked by drink and sexual guilt) was perhaps the very first to decipher the magic in the streets and skyscrapers and technology of the new age of modernity and describe it in a unique veiled even arcane language all of his own (elevators that “drop us from our day,” cinemas that were “panoramic sleights,” traffic lights “that skim thy swift / unfractioned idiom, immaculate sigh of stars,” a city with its “fiery parcels all undone, Already snow submerges an iron year”). Yet none of these factors were to save him when, wearing his pyjamas, he clambered over the railings of the SS Orizaba, midway between Cuba and Florida, having been spurned in his amorous drink-sodden advances to the sailors below decks and then robbed for his troubles, and leapt into the ocean. He was last seen swimming for the horizon.
Whereas Crane’s end, for all its sadness, had an anger and near-defiance to it (after all he swam away rather than sank), the last act of Lew Welch was a more resigned even contemplative affair. A member of the Beat Generation, the Arizona-born poet was enraptured with nature, in contrast to Crane, viewing the city as a monstrous thing. Embracing rural life, he gave up his advertising career, after spells travelling with Jack Kerouac (appearing in Big Sur as the hard-drinking Dave Wain) and working as a taxi driver in San Francisco. He sought to make a living as a fisherman, spent time on communes and wrote elegiac Thoreau-influenced naturalist verse (Ring of Bone being the most definitive collection). On the 23rd of May 1971, struggling with alcoholism and despondent over a failed relationship (he had had several nervous breakdowns in the preceding decades), he took his rifle, walked into the mountains of the Sierra Nevada and out of existence, leaving a note to his friend the poet Gary Snyder that reads in part, “I never could make anything work out right and now I’m betraying my friends. I can’t make anything out of it — never could. I had great visions but never could bring them together with reality. I used it all up. It’s all gone… I went Southwest. Goodbye. Lew Welch.” Today, when he is remembered it’s as the most mysterious of all the Beats, giving his works the vital resonance of a rare and cherished relic in contrast to the over-exposed works of his comrades.
Similarly neglected but just as gifted, the poet Weldon Kees parked his car by the mist-shrouded Golden Gate Bridge in the summer of 1955 and exited history. The dapper Nebraskan had wowed New York’s literary circles with his gentile poetry of the suburbs (his Robinson series of poems being his most acclaimed) in which devastating everyday encounters tap into the dark undercurrents of life; murder victims, decaying animals, moral corruption, all fuelled by the sense that no matter how respectable and refined a life, death still casts its inescapable shadow. A sense that the American Dream was but a delusion, the achievement of its goals a Pyrrhic victory. Gradually like some self-fulfilling prophecy, his life fell apart. He split up from his wife after she descended into drink-fuelled paranoid delusions and he struggled to find willing publishers. He disappeared with a sleeping bag, a watch and his wallet. Rumour has it, he resurfaced in Mexico. Given the Golden Gate Bridge’s notorious history as a suicide spot, reports of his reappearance seem like wishful thinking.
One character who did make it to Mexico was the writer Ambrose Bierce, creator of the glorious Devil’s Dictionary. A Civil War veteran, journalist and scourge of big business, Bierce chose at the sprightly age of 71 to enjoy his retirement not by gardening or playing bowls but by crossing the border, gun in hand, and joining the rebel army of Pancho Villa. He sent one final letter to his niece which read in part, “Goodbye. If you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags please know that I think that a pretty good way to depart this life. It beats old age, disease, or falling down the cellar stairs. To be a gringo in Mexico ah, that is euthanasia… I shall not be here long enough to hear from you, and don’t know where I shall be next. Guess it doesn’t matter much. Adios, Ambrose.” Bierce’s life and subsequent vanishing in the tumult of the Mexican revolution makes a fantastic story in the true sense of the word yet it also points out the danger in romanticising the fates of those who disappear. In absence of facts and explanations, their fates become infinite, subject to limitless speculation which may seem irresistible for the fan or casual observer but is unimaginably horrifying for the loved ones they leave behind. Whilst we envisage all manner of fantastical stories, they are left with untold horrors.
Sometimes the riddle of disappearance is solved. When her husband abruptly left her for his mistress in the winter of 1926, Agatha Christie went AWOL, provoking a nationwide twitching of curtains amongst Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple fans across Middle England. She was discovered 11 days later, lodging at a hotel in Harrogate, under an assumed South African identity, suffering from amnesia and a suspected nervous breakdown (an episode she hastened to discuss).
Within the last ten years, the fate of the masterful French aviator and writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (author of The Little Prince and Wind, Sand and Stars), who vanished flying a reconnaissance mission for the Free French airforce over the Mediterranean, has become slightly clearer with a fisherman discovering his ID bracelet and a diver locating his P-38 Lightning plane off the coast of Marseilles. Just last year, a former Luftwaffe fighter (and fan of the writer) Horst Rippert claimed he’d inadvertently shot down his hero in a dog-fight during the Second World War.
Rather than the traditional binary view of existence and identity, it’s clear there are vast shifting grey areas. Consider Arthur Rimbaud, “the savage of the Latin Quarter” and poetry’s great enfant terrible, who famously disappeared at least from Western eyes but in doing so appeared to African ones and whose later life became the stuff of rumour and myth (slavetrading, gunrunning, going Kurtz) to the extent it’s almost impossible to decipher the truth from the fiction. Or B Traven (of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre renown) who didn’t disappear but didn’t ever fully appear, remaining a curious cipher of a man whose true identity has never been established. Or M. Ageyev the Istanbul-based Russian emigre whose Novel with Cocaine became a literary sensation before he chose (or was forced) to disappear into obscurity (over sixty years later, his book was found in the abandoned hotel room of Manic Street Preacher Richey Edwards after he’d gone missing). Or Oscar Acosta, the drug-crazed “300-pound Samoan” Dr Gonzo from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas who was last seen boarding a coke-filled Mexican yacht with a number of extremely shady undesirables. Or Franz Kafka who on his deathbed instructed his friend Max Brod to incinerate his papers in an attempt to posthumously fade away (an instruction that thankfully Brod ignored, barely escaping Prague and the Nazi invasion with a suitcase filled with the writer’s then-unpublished works). J.D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon have so far successfully evaded the cynical all seeing eye of the modern world and it could be said that they just wish to be known (and unknown) on their own terms. It’s ironic that dodging the spotlight can make such writers all the more intriguing, the curious double bluff of fame; the more you hide, the more they (or we) want to uncover.
Of course the writers mentioned so far chose to disappear. There were many who had no choice in the matter. In totalitarian regimes, the first to go are nearly always the writers, being the conscience/trouble-makers of society (Lenin prophesised this murderous philistinism in a missive to the writer and Bolshevik Maxim Gorky when he castigated “the educated classes… who consider themselves the brains of the nation. In fact they are not its brains but its shit” and eerily warned him not to “waste yourself on the whining of decaying intellectuals”). It’s such a customary factor to dictatorships, this terrible need to silence, to make those who question disappear, that it becomes a noun: Zhen Fan in Maoist China, the Yezhovschina (“Yezhov’s Era”) in Stalinist Russia, the Nacht under Nebel (Night and Fog) of Nazi Germany, los desaparecidos under the right-wing juntas of South America. Some of the greatest cultural figures of theirs or any time (Osip Mandelstam, Robert Desnos, Bruno Schulz, Victor Jara, Sarah Powell, Jakob van Hoddis and on and on) were simply made to evaporate. “No man, no problem” in the words of Uncle Joe.
These are merely a few examples from the ones that we know. Then there are the writers whose names and works have been so deftly excised from history by their killers that we know nothing of them or their work. They die the first physical death but also a second death; that of forgetting which causes them to never have existed in the first place. The act of remembering thus becomes a revolutionary act, an act of defiance against the forces of death.
There is another more mundane but just as perilous a route to oblivion; that of sheer disinterest. Whether due to public taste (or lack of) or the woeful lack of vision of mainstream publishing houses, many writer’s legacies fall into disrepair or ebb away completely. Some are rescued by the admirable work of far-sighted publishers (Rebel Inc’s resurrection of Richard Brautigan and Sadegh Hedayat in the nineties for example or the recent Richard Yates revival) or by near acts of God (Janet Frame the great New Zealand novelist was only saved from a lobotomy by winning a literary prize). The question arises, who’s to save long neglected writers (say Delmore Schwartz, Chester Himes, Clarence Cooper Junior, Lola Ridge, Nathaniel West) from the death that is amnesia if not us? And to paraphrase that great architect of remembering the writer Primo Levi, if not now, when?