return to homepage
return to updates
and other Beasties
by Miles Mathis
The odd occasion of this particular missive to myself befell my eyes as I cycled home today, smilingly as ever (as most will be shocked to hear), pensively peddling my belled and basketed bike through the raucous sidestreets of Taos, returning from some terribly interesting rendezvous which will remain secret. As I traversed a relatively less-raucous stretch near the high-school playing fields, a stretch which cut in half a wide swath of encroaching desert, I looked about me to see how my friends the prairie dogs were doing on this fine late-summer day. Several fat specimens of this little sun-bleached beaver squeaked at me and hurled themselves at their holes, forgetting for the nonce I was an eternal ally.
No doubt they found something offensive about the rolling reflectors on my wheels, as their larger and more ferocious non-cousins—the real dogs—also did (which real dogs, seemingly free to roam all streets in Taos, possibly as a warning to possums, always misread the signs of bell and basket, taking me for some sort of guileless gull, tasty of ankle: blind were they to the heavy stick in my basket, which I enjoy bringing down upon their fanged heads as much as they enjoy raising those fangs to my delectation). Be that as it may, it occurred to me to wonder what sustenance these fellow furry creatures of mine, these burrowing tawny beavers, could obtain in that blasted plain, where nothing could be spied (at least by me) but yellow dirt. Not a bush nor a weed, neither sage nor stunted mesquite nor prickled dandelion, and therefore also no grasshopper nor cricket nor other beetle to munch thereon.
My mind as sharp as usual, I quickly espied the answer: these clever beasts were sucking the dregs and lees from the bottles and cans lying about in spectacular numbers, gifts thrown by an admiring and charitable street audience, passing at all hours in their hurtling automobiles. No wonder the golden furries were fat: who would not get round and flush living on nothing but beer and soda pop and the occasional remnant of a KitKat bar? Oh, the high life! Oh, the bon-vivant ease of a snug hole and a firmly established welfare!
These successful ponderings could not help but lead to others, and I looked to the charitable audience aforesaid, even then passing in a rumbling cloud of diesel and ash, adding a touch of goodwill to the field of prairie dogs with a donation of near-empty Budweiser bottles, complete with carrying case. I was gratified to think the beaveritos need not strain themselves carrying each bottle down the hole separately! [A thought: those subterranean abodes of the beaveritos must be simply stiff with recyclables. I will suggest at council that some kind person pitch a large plastic recycling bin or two out the window in this region next time they think of it. I am sure the little people underneath are as environmentally conscious as the rest of us.] Looking at this giving and full-hearted audience driving by, I say, for a moment I could not fathom how they could afford the Cyclopean 4x4’s and Whale-sized dualies, the eight and ten-cylinder, fuel-injecting, fuel-imbibing, fuel-expectorating Leviathans and Molochs that lumbered by me all the live-long (glorious) day, sounding like Satan himself removing a lodged pit from his gullet. [A memory: It seems like only yesterday that I could tell the difference when I was about to be passed by a dumptruck, filled with the waste of hundreds, or a bus, carrying many dozens of heavy children, muling and puking, or a vehicle containing only a single person and hauling nought. Today, the difference cannot be told: all are required by law, apparently, to sonic equivalence (perhaps for the benefit of the elderly crossing the street, who do not want the inconvenience of adjusting their hearing aids—and for whom, admittedly, small quiet cars were a unconscionable danger)]. But how do the generous and altruistic masses, so thoughtful toward the beaverish as to all creatures above and below, how do they afford such sonic equivalence, however beneficial it may be to the old and deaf? More than this, how can they afford the gas to achieve it? Can they have really become that profligate with their charity, that they will spend half of every paycheck to announce their coming to the hard-of-hearing, to prevent unnecessary accident (perhaps, it now occurs to me, they may also think to benefit the birds, mice, rabbits, and various and pied ungulates, all potential roadkill, who now can hear them coming from acres away, even with no touch of brake or illegal use of horn).
While it is certainly not fantastic that my four-wheeled brothers may indeed have become just this spiritually wide and grand (after all, many of them have read Ken Wilbur) I think it is more likely that there is some new tax write-off that will explain it. Our government has never expected all people to reach such heights of self-sacrifice, and it has always known that it is its solemn and eternal duty to encourage them, particularly through the tax laws. The IRS has ever been our friend in this matter, led wisely by a dutiful and ever-scrupled Congress, with foresight for all generations of hard-of-hearing to come. Being an economic babe and terribly negligent reader of the newspapers, I must have overlooked the new encouragements to such sacrifice and other-feeling.
These poor auto owners of Taos, who, we are told, are among the least fortunate in the State and Union, cash-wise, cannot be purchasing these giant—though safe and magnanimous—trucks, vans, SUVs, and hummers on credit. An hourly wage at WalMart or Applebee’s cannot pay back a $40,000 loan, short of grand theft, employer blackmail, or phonesex on the side, and surely the banks know this. No, it must be a business expense, allowed and encouraged by all governmental agencies and NGO’s from top to bottom, which explains the magnificent and principled use of such large engines, tires, multiple exhaust pipes and shiny tangled aft-machinery, and high-octane fuel, all for the good of the elderly, the aurally handicapped, and all wild and domestic things that are foolish enough to attempt locomotion without a large vehicle surrounding them.
In fact, I imagine that many studies were done, with all necessary vigor and rigor, proving this was the most efficient and thoughtful manner of solution. Easier by far to refit the cars than the non-cars, since the former category is so much larger. After all, we could hardly afford to equip every cow and chicken, every old man walking to the cigar shop, every runaway child or hamster, with a rollbar, airbag and 360-degree bumper. Infinitely better and wiser to mandate, legislate, and fiscally underwrite sonic equivalence; and since there is no silencing of a dumptruck or freight train, well, our answer is obvious. After all, the real danger is these stealth-cars, bell-less bicycles, and other death machines that can pass the house or the shop without our knowing of it.
These two problems solved at last, I decided to look at the third and thorniest, even as I passed the last stretch of road nearing my own adobe (a local anagram for abode, I am told). With the wind still in my hair, and my hair still on my head in this decade before dotage, I thought it was time to solve a problem that had knuckled me for years. That being, where do the intelligent now take sustenance? I had found that the prairie dogs, living in a field of seeming waste and dearth, had yet become fattened to a glorious degree on drive-by charity. These varminticules, though not the least brainy of all creatures, were not the most brainy either, and yet the subtle lord (or alien overlord—we are writing from Taos, I repeat) had given them their daily rusk, or six-pack of Schlitz empties, as the case may be, just as with the “fouls of the air” and other Biblical fauna. Might not the same be said of those claiming to be, or actually being, the most brainy? Might there be some secret source of fiber and calories, some manna arriving in mysterious manner from the heavens, or from a passing manned contraption, the being inside unaware or even contemptuous of the crumbs he was strewing?
I have often thought that our field of yellow dirt is now emptier than at any time in the long history of human desertification called civilization. Old T.S. could not have imagined such a Wasteland. Carlyle, prescient sage that he was, wasn’t even close. Nietzsche, he might have imagined it, pretty near, but he never could have fathomed living through it. What were the Germans of his time compared to the Beavers and Cleavers of ours? Living amongst such lifeless growths as the Turner Prize, the Museum of Modern Art, or just about any random second of TV, radio, internet, or other media source, the yellow dirt is now so devoid of nourishing bug or beetle it might be nuked nightly with no discernible effect. The fears for an atomic exchange have been nullified by zombifying everyone before the fact, like an inoculation. America has cleverly avoided the possibility of a loss of art in wartime, as in Dresden or Baghdad or Hiroshima, by not producing any. In such a situation, insurance is a superfluity. If America weren’t holding a number of Old Master works, it could suffer the next deluge with no loss or claim. Decades have gone by with nothing for the Muses to drag from the flotsam. Future centuries will look back on the 20th century like we look back on the 9th, John Scotus alone on a curragh in a dark empty ocean. Carlyle said of America in 1850 that it was, “eighteen millions of the greatest bores the world had ever seen before” and it is doubtful we can get on top of him by making that 300 millions instead. Nor has England or Europe kept any of his aristocracy, by birth, worth, or otherwise. They have followed the American scheme into spiritual and aesthetic nullity, a commonwealth or union of phantasms, of vultures great and vultures small, where even Oxford dons sell cans of excrement and Cambridge feeds MI6. Even Carlyle’s “beaver”—the honest tradesman—is a rarity, now obsolescent. He cannot compete.
This admitted, the manna somehow remains. We brainiest of prairie dogs keep dragging the unbroken bottles below and straw out the last drops of liquid clinging to the sides. We lick the foil wrappers for chocolate knowledge, and somehow do not perish for years (until we droop or drop from drunkenness or vitamin deficiency). We may not be nourished into a state of great effort or effect, but we can still look sleek at times, standing outside the hole on a sunny day, squeaking at intruders.
What is this manna? It is the past. It is the past that we are taking the last sugar from, the last hoppy crusting. The writers and artists of the past tossed their dear garbage out the window, often in a thoughtless drive-by (though sometimes as a purposeful gift), and we are attempting to recycle it for them, via our empty bellies.
Woe to us and to them, the job we are doing. The ground has been poisoned by too many developers trying to drive us into even less valuable lands, and our feet sting and bleed. The crows worry us constantly, in ever greater black bands, and of course we lose a tithe or more to the street itself, not looking as we scramble. Our only solace is underground, where we can huddle and nuzzle and listen to the roarings and coshings overhead, sucking the last moisture from the occasional can of Falstaff or Colt45 or MountainDew.
Yes, the true artist of any sort has become like the whooping crane or mountain gorilla—a few dozen lonely individuals lost in the clouds or the bush, rearing their rarest offspring, hoping to be spared for one more generation. Blake asked, “Doth the eagle know what is in the pit? Or wilt thou go ask the mole?” And we now have an answer for him, since the eagle has retreated to the pit for shelter. The mole, snuffling and blind, has inherited the world, and has left his hole to the eagle.
Near the end of the 19th century, Hardy said of his hero Clym, “He seemed to look upon a certain mass of disappointment as the natural preface to all realizations.” Hardy and Carlyle and Nietzsche and Tolstoy and the rest are now considered pessimists, but think you how joyous and gay they would have been on every living day had they known, fully known, exactly what they had the fortune to predate? Hardy’s character sees hardship as a preface to what?—realizations. Realizations! Hardy and Carlyle and Ruskin and all the rest could gritch and grouch, but they were published. In their time the eagle still had a claw in the media. Where is the journal now that would publish them, or any eagle? Stuff and nonsense, it doesn’t exist. The blind moles have inherited the press from top to bottom. The eagle can self-publish on the internet—a pit that—hardly a realization. More a virtualization. Soon the mole will have that, too, and the final margin will be lopped.
Do I bid you clip your wings and huddle closer? No. Do I bid you look on the bright side, and think how much worse it may be after you are dead? No. Do I bid you into any false happiness or depression, some resignation East or West, black or white, God or Devil? No. I bid you leap from your burrow and tear the skies with an aquiline shriek, tossing your beautiful garbage willy-nilly to the winds. If it falls on no publishers’ or galleries’ heads, let them live manna-less, as they should. The seeds of art, like prairie dogs and eagles and even glass bottles, have a strange way of persisting, even in the most inhospitable climes. You will look across the desert and not understand its life, but it lives nonetheless. Just where you will gaze in greatest dejection and hopelessness, most fearing the pit, the empty, lifeless, end of all things, even there the fat beaverito will raise his silly head from his sandy hole and squeak at you for your impertinence.
It is not yours to publish and gallerize, to consign and conscript, to worry and maunder. It is yours to do, in as perfect and imperishable form as possible. The Muses will see to it that that which should not perish does not. You are just a pawn, and will be moved about with a plan, you can be sure, though you won’t be able to keep pace with the often invisible Queen. Nor has she time to pepper you with a constant line of patter or encouragement. To every duh and buh she will have no answer, expecting you to keep moving on the last order. If you don’t leap over castles in great els or zip across the entire board at an angle, don’t thereby throw a fit and refuse to budge. Such pieces really are thrown from the field as a nuisance, or snatched by the great hand.
It did not hurt Vincent that he failed to impress the current publisher and gallerite, that his checkbook was not balanced or balanceable, that his bed was rumpled, his pants and shoes unstylish, his love-life unfilmable, his name unknown to the papers, unpronounceable by the loselry in America. His order from the Queen was do, and he did. Even with an ear and half he heard better than anyone else with two ears. He went exactly where he was supposed to go, and when he was supposed to go. Not every appointed move is pretty or pleasant: this we would know even without any known religion or text.
And now, Vincent’s worth is in what he did, not in what some fool paid for it. Had none of his paintings ever made it to auction or museum or book, had they all remained in a hundred poor man’s lofts, looked at only by the children and upstairs maids, his worth would be none the less; nay, it would be greater. Since in that case he would have avoided the analysis of a million morons, the bad reproductions on a billion coffeecups and billboards, selling a trillion useless and shoddy products. In the lofts he might hope to have touched truly a few in a quiet place.
Yea, if you bless me with anything, ye unknowable powers, let it be avoidance of such watered down vulgarity, of death by over-familiarity. It may seem like a piece of fantasy or wild optimism to refuse it now, as things stand, but grant me the artistic boon that my work never hop across the screensaver as the token and bought logo of some future Bill Gates, some future beaverish bozo. I burn that bridge also before I come near to it: I advertise no rich man or woman, with image or word, and if any think to do it, remember from this very sentence that I damn you to your face, you future clueless and faithless Leviathan! If my work should stand at the top of your page (in any way) let it stand as a curse upon you and your empty enterprise! May your business fail in spectacular fashion, and may the worthies of the day (if there be any such) mock you in extravagant and public display. It will not be slander, since I here confirm it as true, with my very lips. You, Sir, are an outlandish fool: you know nothing of art, and deserve nothing of art. I and all true artists shun you and cast you out. Begone! and return to your pathetic dungeons and coinage. Use Pino for your PR if you will, or the Devil. You can probably get the Devil for cheaper.
But enough of devils and dunces. I speak to my own choir and no other. Yea, Candelled Choristers, Eagle-robed in blue, laugh as you cleave the clouds on your great wings, for the pinions were grown by your own body, and cannot be taken from you until you are caught at last: and even then they are yours. So are the works that you scatter to the four winds and to the keeping of Aurora. Laugh, for you created them and no one else. They can be stolen or destroyed, but only you could create them, come what may. They can be destroyed, but the fact that you created them cannot be destroyed. The action is not undone by its ending. A thing that has happened, will have happened forever. It is a fact for all time. Though no trace of it remain, no record of it be made, it did happen. This is but logic; it takes no faith or religion. “It happened” is a true sentence, and cannot be made untrue by any dervish or devil, by any philosophy or theology. What care you if future fatheads know your every schedule?—your life will have been lived whether they have it on authority or not, whether it is writ down in proper language or not. At the worst, even a bungling future Bill Gates, falsifying your every word and deed and image, cannot change “It happened.” The past cannot be altered. Only the present view of the past can be altered, as in Orwell. Big Brother can tell us that Leonardo was an ugly dwarf who molested baby elephants and painted with pig’s blood, but that cannot affect Leonardo, it can only affect us. The past has the distinction of being utterly untouchable. The record of the past can be touched—is as grubby as anything touched by man—but the record of the past is not the past. Absolutely nothing about the past can be changed, hence regret, but also hence my point.
This must be as satisfying as anything, excepting possibly the indestructibility of matter. Come what may, we are free of those two sins at least: we cannot destroy matter or the past. Many scrupulous individuals have breathed a sigh of relief upon recognizing the former fact; they must also recognize the latter. Take heart, your potential extent of error is somewhat less than you thought. Nor can your enemy err as extravagantly as you give him credit for. Your work, for good or ill, is permanent. If ill, you can erect the grandest monument in praise of yourself, it will not matter: the act was done and cannot be undone by talk or letter. If good, your enemies can slander you in all countries and languages, it will not matter: the work itself stands untouchable. “It happened,” and no amount of slander can un-happen it.
And this is why your laughter is neither delusion nor resignation, illogic nor insanity. Like a berserker you can race onto any field, even the field of death, with a whoop and a grin. Every day is a good day to die; which means, likewise, that any day is a good day to live. A day that is not worth dying on is a sacrilegious day, hardly worth getting out of bed for.
As an example, some will have tripped over my first sentence in this missive to myself, where I peddled “smilingly” and then “pensively.” What, both? they will ask, doubting my full command of the language. Yes, you can smile while thinking, as I think I have proved in the sentences between that one and this one. Pessimism is not the necessary outcome of all thought, no matter how deep or consistent. Nor is every complainer or hater a pessimist. The greatest haters and complainers are the greatest optimists, since only someone who saw some hope of, or road to, improvement would bother complaining. Those who think everything is awful and always will be do not waste effort complaining or hating: what would be the point? You hate because you love. You hate those things that threaten those things you love, precisely.
In the same way, anger and desire are most needful, and to be accepted with a laugh and whoop. No prayer for release from these things has ever been heard, or shall be. Only the prayer, “thank you, Great Unknowable, for my desire and anger and hatred and complaining and dissatisfaction and incompleteness and grumpiness and lust and hunger and earmites and so on. Without them I wouldn’t ever wake from my stupid dreams: might as well be a phantasm already, wasting the Unknowable’s time with a constant cuddle.” The Great Unknowable, like any other boyfriend or girlfriend, can’t be jerking you off all the time, playing with your hair and quelling your thumb-sucking fears. The GU has some right to expect some work from you, in return for such things.
Desire and anger and all the rest did not arise by some genetic accident or mistake, by some Luciferian secret tweek at the end of creation, like a piss in the pie. Since you don’t know what the fuck is going on 99.9% of the time, it is best to assume that those who made you do know what is going on, whether you call them Nature, or God, or the Mitochondrian tinies, or the Medi-chlorian ghosties, or the Comrades from Rigel or Aldebaran. If one of your arms were totally useless, you can be sure it would drop off of its own accord; likewise, if desire were such a hindrance to you, it would evaporate in short order, with no airy prayers from your lips. So the logical thing to do, once your IQ reaches the point you think it already is, is to begin listening to your desire and anger and so on, as the subtle Muses they are. If they do not always ask you gaze at your navel or eat sugared almonds, maybe it is not their fault but yours, for expecting such asinine tasks. You can be sure that you will not be asked to stand on one foot for long spells or pull towels through your bowels or say the same word over and over till you fall asleep: these requests only come from accidentally tuning into the idiot channel. But your Muses may set you some difficult tasks, to be sure, tasks which, like Vincent’s, don’t always allow you a shave and $40 haircut before setting out.
In fact, that is a lovely test, for those who still hear occasional static from the idiot channel (as we all do—it is a powerful station, pumping out the wattage from all times and places in the past): can you see anyone admirable actually doing the things you think to do? Vincent did some strange things, but I don’t remember him ever doing anything in letter or spirit like standing on one foot or tying himself in knots or suchlike. Nor did he ever flee his desire or anger or any emotion. In a calmer way, and as a completely different example, neither did Goethe. Can you see Goethe saying Om for an hour, hoping to see God, or sitting on a pillar in a diaper, looking holy for it? These are signs of spiritual desperation, not far different from popping strange pills or trying to buy redemption through penance or indulgence. The fact that they are Eastern instead of Western means nothing. A fool is a fool, in Calcutta as well as Calgary, and no amount of new words and poses is going to change that.
Sloth, like anger and desire, may possibly be a positive message from the Muses at times, but it may also be a sign of deafness and waywardness in regard to the Muses. Which is to suggest that those who spend hours and much money lying on bamboo mats listening to their breathing and their shakras and whatnot, may simply prefer that exertion to the exertion of actually doing something. It is far easier to count breaths and heartbeats, and self-massage your pressure points, fore and aft, than it is to learn to paint or sculpt or play the piano or guitar or sitar. Or to learn to read and write, or to learn just about anything. It is easier to listen to someone tell you find your center and be your ancient self, than it is to listen to the Muses tell you to get off your fat ass and work hard. The Muses have never told me to be centered or stay on my center or any of that chaff: they always tell me to dare to get off the center, to fly out into the void, off-balance as much as possible. Useful Muses don’t send you to bed, they let you sleep your fill and then they spin you out into the realms of chaos, testing you to see what you can handle. You already know your center, you have been sleeping on it and in it for only they know how long: your job is to explore the non-center, to increase your boundaries: first to crawl, and then to walk, and then to dance the widest possible worlds. This is not done by crawling endlessly about the center, Oming and drooling in a faded diaper. It is done by daring what you did not dare yesterday. By going where you did not go yesterday, by questioning what you did not question yesterday, by getting louder, bigger, taller, more graceful in every movement, on balance or off. The Muse’s job is not to herd you always toward the center, like a naughty child in pre-school; her job is to throw you continually into deeper water, until, at last, all water is your center, and all land and air. You will not need to return to your little bed at night, since everywhere will be your bed and comfort.
So suck the subtle dregs from the faded bottles at your feet, and, like the wisest prairie dog, leap across the yellow dirt at top speed with a happy squeak, mindless of the circling crows and vultures, the giant knobby wheels that mean to crush you, by accident or purpose. Leap and prance, and call yourself an eagle, and your prancing flight, for your joy will only increase with your radius from the hole. Your feet will seem lighter, your fur glossier, your nose wetter, your very yelp more melodious, for the exercise. And when the shadow stoops, at last, bite it with a gleeful viciousness, for the crow and vulture are cowards. Your teeth are not just bottle openers.
If this paper was useful to you in any way, please consider donating a dollar (or more) to the SAVE THE ARTISTS FOUNDATION. This will allow me to continue writing these "unpublishable" things. Don't be confused by paying Melisa Smith--that is just one of my many noms de plume. If you are a Paypal user, there is no fee; so it might be worth your while to become one. Otherwise they will rob us 33 cents for each transaction.