So, what if it is true that the future begins with the story-teller? Smart phones are obviously descendants of the communicators and tricorders and computers that Gene Roddenberry introduced to us in the original Star Trek series. George Orwell gave us timely predictions and warnings of the rise of fascism and authoritarianism in his novel, 1984.
If we truly wish to be a force for good, we have to take the evil bull by the horns and turn its momentum away from the future we seek to protect. Like Solzhenitsyn we may be gored in that bull-fight and end up spending time in the gulag. But those of us who choose to be writers, especially story-tellers, must take on that responsibility. What if ours is the story that changes the mind of a nation, like when the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn took on slavery and the unjust treatment of others who think that, because they are white, or have money, or are somehow smarter than everyone else, they have the right to abuse, take advantage, or even kill other people? What if ours is the story that turns the rich into selfish engines of greed as Atlas Shrugged obviously did?
It is a tremendous responsibility. It is a power we must not wield unwisely, even if our talent level is only that of the disastrously lazy Sorcerer’s Apprentice.
What sort of a story-teller will I be?
What sort will you be?
Where will I lead my readers (If indeed there ever are any)?
And where will you lead yours?
If any questions are important now during these days of self-reflection, isolation, and Coronavirus, it will surely be these. So, tell me what you think.
Today I am waxing on about the wonderful, mad, mad, mad genius of surrealist art, Salvador Dali. He was born in 1904 and died in 1989. And that’s really about all that I want to tell you about the physical parameters of his boundlessly creative life. He was alive in this world until I was already thirty-three. So, I got to see him on television and watch video biographies of him and his incredible artwork. Ones that included interviews. And if I get into his public persona, that will eat up the rest of his essay. Instead, I need to talk about his art, and how it modifies and magnifies what I am meant to be.
His most famous painting is the one that most clearly burned the image of melting clocks into our collective memory. He claimed, and others pretend to see it too, that it is a reaction to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. But when I look at it with the melting mask of Dali himself in the center, I see the artist’s perception of time in the spaces within which creativity moves. Time melts and has no meaning when you are painting and writing from an endless roiling flow of new ideas and notions. Time becomes as irrelevant in that context as the ants on the pocket-watch or the dead tree from which one deflated clock-skin hangs, There is no past or future, only the creative now.
And in that creative now, the artist sees himself. But if you look too closely, the self vanishes into the picture, the currently considered, fascinating work of art.
You see the boy with the hoop and wearing a sailor suit? That symbol, he always claimed, was his lost brother, the one who died before he was born. The one whose death made his parents decide to have another child. Without that brother, Salvador would probably never have been existing at all.
And do you see the disappearing bust of Voltaire? Or when you look closely at the slave market in the background, is it simply no longer there? Things that disappear… things that become other things… tricks of perception, the fooling of the viewer’s eye… These are what the artist actually wants you to see. Not the well-portrayed physical reality, but the ghost of the shadow of an idea that’s hard to define.
And then there is the idea of war. Two world wars that took place in the prime-time of his painterly life.
Life does crazy things to the sensitive, suffering artist, and it shows in his work if not in his public personality.
And consider the artist’s notion of birth and life and death. Narcissus suffers for the sin of love of himself. He becomes petrified with age, a narcissus flower growing from his head, now an egg, the symbol of birth and rebirth.
And here is an exploded portrait of his beloved wife Gala.
All the elements float eternally in the air.
And you can see inside each thing.
Inside the home is the wife and mother.
Inside the mother is the child.
Inside the child is the loaf of bread that keeps him alive.
Does the bread, then, stand in for God himself?
Dali and his work is not simple. It is deeply, incongruously complex. But that is surrealism. That is how it works. Without getting into other complex symbols and such Dali-esque puzzles like burning giraffes, eggs, and Venus De Milo with bureau drawers in her torso, that is how Salvador spends his Sunday with me. An artist beyond time and space, long dead, but still speaking to me. And teaching me beautiful, untold things and stories of things.
Today’s artworks for Saturday Art Day are all filled with random things put together by chance and whimsy in order to mishmash together some kind of point about surrealism. This would be because this is a surrealist blog, and I am a surrealist artist and writer. Either that or it is because if you put fish in your ears, the color of the sky changes to swirling gold and purple. Those are some powerful fish!
Of course, Surrealism is more than just a pile of random things. As Salvador Dali did it, the random images were made as realistic as possible and connected together. There was some reason behind the juxtaposition of these otherwise unrelated things (like the line-up of weird uncles you get at the Thanksgiving table when your great grandma had nine kids, seven of whom grew old enough to have families of two or more kids, and everyone within driving distance is invited to grandpa’s farm house for a big-family family meal (even if they had to put a second kids’ table in the storm cellar).
Of course, the meaning that ties it all together can be a secret or hidden meaning. Salvador Dali was deeply in love with his wife Gala, who was thirty years younger than he. He had an older brother who died before he was born, making him forever feel like a “replacement child”. These things are expressed in his paintings. Did you ever discern that from his paintings of melted clocks and discarded masks being kissed on the lips by giant ants?
And what the hell does this even mean?
The Little Fool?
Subtitled; a novel of limited intelligence?
And it is a colored-pencil drawing of a candle, an empty skull, a budgie, a book, and a weird little goofy ghost dressed like Mr. Peanut… without the monocle or spats… does that make him naked?
And a pencil? Why?
Can you tell from my artwork that I chose a career of being a public-school English teacher over becoming a commercial artist or a cartoonist? Or that I was the victim of a sexual assault at the age of ten and then never told anybody about it until the guy who assaulted me was dead? Or that I was so afraid of my own body when I was young that I eventually had to become a closet nudist as an adult? And what does my artwork have to say about all of that?
And do you understand why Salvador Dali is an artistic hero of mine? And I love the movies of Stephen Spielberg for the exact same surrealist reasons?
If you regularly read this blog, or even just look at the pictures, you may have seen all of these pictures and heard all of these ideas before. I didn’t make this post from anything new. The only thing that is new… is how I randomly chose to put all of these things together in a way I haven’t done before.
I am spending Thanksgiving week at home in Texas by myself, except for the dog. The rest of my family is having a Thanksgiving meal together in Iowa (hopefully, if the weather doesn’t have other plans) or on a road trip to Central Florida, a trip I was supposed to also attend. I simply cannot travel to either place. My arthritis is too bad to sit for long car rides, and in the Trump economy, school teachers can’t afford air travel. So, I had to practice being selfless once again. They needed to do these things, and I had to talk them into doing these things without me. My misfortunes can’t be allowed to ruin my family’s grace and peace, not when I can still give gifts of myself by allowing them to go and do without worrying about me.
I can’t actually say that I learned to be selfless and encouraging from Fred Rogers. He was really only one of many such teachers, a list headed by my maternal grandfather. But in a way, he is responsible for giving me the tools I use to make things like that happen.
Yesterday I went to the movie “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” at the Music City Mall in Lewisville. I can drive those few miles. And I freely admit to crying through a good portion of the movie. It is not really a sad movie. It is not actually a biopic. It is based on a real article in Esquire magazine by journalist Tom Junod. It is a partially fictionalized story about how the innate goodness of a man like Fred Rogers has a profound impact on the journalist, and all of the rest of us as well, through that act of caring and loving and gentle being-just-the-way-you-are. There is no doubt about it, when Tom Hanks, channeling Fred Rogers in the restaurant scene, asks for one minute of silence to think of all those people who have had a hand in making you who you are, he looks directly into the audience, he looks directly at me individually, and the entire theater is dead silent as everyone is doing exactly what the movie character is asking you to do. It was a singular moment in cinema that I have never experienced before. It touched my soul.
I left that movie theater feeling amazingly fulfilled. Was it because it was an excellent movie? It definitely was excellent. Was it because of the wonderful way Tom Hanks brought Fred Rogers back to life even though he looks nothing like him? He definitely made that happen. Or was it because the movie invoked a true angel, a once-living hand of God now gone from this world? Because Fred Rogers was that for so many kids for more than 800 episodes.
I must confess, when I was a teenager, I didn’t think much of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood“, though I saw some of those first black-and-white episodes, back when King Friday and Daniel Striped-Tiger were new. If I had to watch kids’ shows on PBS, which I often did because of younger siblings and cousins, I much preferred the color and the Muppets in “Sesame Street”.
But when I had been a teacher for a few years, and had to search hard for ways to communicate and teach for use with South Texas middle-schoolers, I began to see the true genius of Fred Rogers. He never talked down to kids. He never lost patience, even when things went wrong. He was always trying to keep it simple, even when the point he was making was as metaphorical as talking about keeping a “garden in your mind”. He was understandable. He was welcoming and relentlessly nice. And it wasn’t a TV character. It was really him.
I can’t really say this was a movie that changed my life. But maybe it did. I cried silently during a large portion of it, not because of the sad parts in the movie, but because I recognized so much of myself in the journalist waking up to the need to be as real and honest and able to connect to other people as Fred Rogers always did.
So, my conclusion to this essay that may be a movie review, or possibly an homage to Fred Rogers, is really quite simple. Thank you, Mr. Rogers. I really like you, just the way you are.
It seems sometimes, in a Judaeo-Christian society, that we are a constantly being scrutinized by a rather harsh all-knowing God who rewards getting the faith-words accurately correct, to the letter, and the faith-based actions perfect, without a single mistake. And He punishes missteps of word or deed with pain and suffering and the potential of an eternity in Sheol or Hell. And that is a tough God to live with. He is like a teacher who uses his or her God-like powers to reward or punish to lead his students all down an exacting, narrow path to a destination that does not have room for everyone when they arrive.
It doesn’t take long in childhood for a highly intelligent person to realize before childhood is over that this cosmology is actually a load of horse pucky. It didn’t even take long for somebody as semi-stupid as me.
What I like about listening on YouTube to the wisdom of Alan Watts is that he gives us an alternative way of seeing the universe and ourselves. This he can offer through his studies of Eastern and Buddhist philosophies. Everything appealing in John Lennon’s signature song “Imagine” comes from Lennon’s love of listening to the lectures of Alan Watts. He is obviously a wise-guy.
Alan Watts teaches us the pathways that lead to finding yourself, who you truly are, and how you fit into the universe as a whole. When Carl Sagan says that we are all made of star-stuff, he is not only telling us what is literally true, as the elements our bodies were formed from were literally made in the nuclear forges at the centers of stars that later exploded in nova-bursts to scatter the elements across the skies of everywhere. He is also telling us that what Alan Watts says is metaphorically true, that everything in the universe is part of the same thing and we are all one in this way.
There is plenty to worry about in my little life. I could easily drop dead at any time from any one of my six incurable diseases or even the return of the skin cancer I beat in 1983. I suffer from the consequences of disease daily, as I have for many years now. My sins are many. I broke my promise the other day to never show you the horrors of my naked body on this blog. I constantly eat the wrong thing and continue to do things that I know are bad for the environment and the health of my body. I am prejudiced against racists, stupidity, and the actions of dedicated Trump-lovers. In many ways I deserve God’s wrath and brutal correction. I have come to truly believe that climate change is going to end life on Earth. I am horrible.
But I have learned from Alan Watts that all of those concerns mean nothing. I don’t believe in Heaven or an afterlife. But I do not fear death. I am one with the universe. And the universe goes on even if I do not. And I will always be a part of it, even after I am no longer alive. The universe has a mind and is intelligent And I take part in that because one small part of that intelligence is me, and lives in my head.
There is comfort to be found in the words of Alan Watts. And living in pain as I do, I really need that comfort most of the time. That is why I have attempted to share a bit of that comfort with you.
Carl Barks was born on March 27th, 1901. So, today is his 118th birthday. If you have no idea who I’m even talking about, then you were never a kid and a comic book fan in the 1960s. Carl Barks is both Uncle Scrooge’s father and Donald Duck’s stepfather.
That’s essentially true. A large part of my character as a junior high school English teacher was based on what I learned about mentoring from Scrooge McDuck and about teaching important facts from Gyro Gearloose.
Carl was not immune to criticism. Cartoonists get blow-back, a fact of life. But he overcame it with a wry sense of humor and interesting views of how you pursue goals in life. He had a firm sense of fair-play and justice. You could get actual morals to the stories in a Carl Barks’ duck cartoon.
The characters were not perfect. They all had glaring flaws, the heroes right along with the villains. Of course, the villains never learned to change their ways, while the heroes often learned to improve themselves by working on the weaknesses, and it wasn’t all about becoming a gazillionaire (a term I think Barks may have invented).
I even learned a good deal about adventure story-telling from Carl Barks’ comic books about Duck people doing ducky stuff that was really about people doing people-y stuff in the real world. Yes, people in the world around me are very Carl Barks’ ducky.
So, happy birthday, Carl. 118 years young. And he’s only been gone from our world since August of 2000. He still talks to me and teaches me through his Duck comics.
I am certainly no expert on the Golden Age of Comics. I was, in fact, born the year that the Golden Age ended. I am a child of the Silver Age (1956 to the early 1970s) and those were the comics I grew up with. But I admit to a fascination with the initial creation of the characters I love, including Batman, Superman, the Flash, Captain America, the Phantom, Steve Canyon, Wonder Woman and numerous others who were first put on the comic book pages in the Golden Age. And being subject to comic book prices that zoomed upward from a dollar an issue, I was bedazzled by the ten cent price on old comics.
Comic books owe their creation to the popular newspaper comic strips from the Depression era and WWII wartime. Originally, comic strips were gathered and printed on cheap paper. Dick Tracy, Prince Valiant, Terry and the Pirates, Flash Gordon, and other adventure strips would lead to the war comics and hero-centered comics that would morph into superhero comics.
Some of the artwork in Golden Age comics leaves a lot to be desired. Especially original, straight to comic book publications that were produced fast and furiously by publishers who would open one week, produce three issues. and go out of business three weeks later. But in the mad scramble, some truly great artists formed the start of their illustrious careers, Will Eisner, Hal Foster, Milt Caniff, and Bill Elder learned to master their craft in the newspaper strips, and all later created comic books and graphic novels. True geniuses like Jack “King” Kirby and Bob Kane and Jack Davis grew directly from comic book studio madhouses into comic-book-artist immortality.
As with most things that have a Golden Age, the truth was that later comic book eras were superior in most ways. But this Golden Age was the foundational age for an American art-form that I truly love. So, flaws and warts are overlooked. And some of these old ten cent books on super-cheap paper are worth huge amounts of money if you still have a rare one in mint condition. Ah, there’s the rub for a manic old collector guy like me.
Most of the Golden Age comic book images used for this post were borrowed from the ComicsintheGoldenAge Twitter page @ComicsintheGA. If you love old comics like I do, you should definitely check it out.