Friday, February 2, 2024

No Matter From the Heart

“Woe, destruction, ruin, and decay; the worst is death and death will have his day.” 
-- William Shakespeare, Richard II, Act III, Scene 2

Books die. Damned, damaged, abandoned, ruined, waterlogged, molded, abused, burnt. They go out of print, go unread, unremembered. Some survive. Most don't. Most don't deserve to survive anyway. Just think of the forests of antiquated manuals, promotional tie-ins, faded popular fiction, junk porn, Reader's Digest Condensed, Disney dreck. Requiesce in pace, forgotten bestsellers et al. Few published books survive a season let alone a generation and frankly even fewer should. Most books, like all authors, like all of us, like all things -- spoiler alert -- die. "Thou know'st 'tis common; all that lives must die." (Okay, maybe not Charo. Charo will never die. Besides being a great classical guitarist and perfect wig-stand, she's changed the year of her birth more often than her lip color, so I'm pretty sure she's actually H. Rider Haggard's She. Day that woman finally grinds out her very last "cuchi cuchi" -- watch out! The stars will go out one by one.) 

Cicero insisted that the memory of a life well-spent is eternal. Oh? Okay. Maybe. Nice thought. Though eternity seems an unrealistic expectation for anything, Earth for example, or humanity certainly, let alone the good name of dear Aunt Gladys. Also -- remembered by whom? Should such a thing as remote posterity still even be a possibility hereafter, ours would seem just as likely to remember Ted Bundy as Fred Rogers. Philosophers can get a bit wishful with the absolutes. In particular I don't know that Cicero is to be trusted on this subject. A bit smug, Cicero, bless 'im. He was always sending billet-doux to posterity-- pretty successfully, as it turned out -- confident we'd want to know his every thought on nearly everything, including death. Not wrong as it turns out but a bit overbearing at the best of times. Personally I've never gotten over learning that the great stoic was in fact a fat gambler who repeatedly married for money. No Cato he. Very much a do-as-I say-not-as-I-do-kind of guy. Stoics and stiffs of all sorts in my experience tend that way. The person who publicly disapproves of your second doughnut privately huffs nitrous while watching Punishing Step Mom porn. Trust. (One of the closeted gay boys I was boning in high school was from a relentlessly and very publicly pious family. I will never forget the afternoon when a bunch of us skipped school and he decided to show us the drawer his parents kept their kink in. SO many toys. SO much porn, just as Father God intended.) But unlike even the life very well lived indeed and more like good furniture, good books are built to last more than a day and mostly do. Not all. Some are lost -- see Homer's Margites, or damaged -- see Sapho's output all but entirely lost, or just stripped for parts like all those ancients now known only for quotes. Think also of the poets remembered now for the one anthologized example of their work, or even a line because you know only God can make a tree. Or so at least we thought before DNA and 3D printers. The fact is that there is plenty of stuff we admire now simply because, against all odds, nobody broke it. So, in addition to being the final repository of humanity's highest hopes, greatest achievements, and most enduring monuments, posterity turns out to be a bit of a junk-shop.

Don't know that I'm the person to weigh in on what should or should not survive of the great western canon.  In my lifetime I've seen any number of immortals shunted from the Pantheon, mostly for cause and or limitations of space. Can't argue with the need for a more representative selection, and there have been a number of "new" candidates for whom I've cheered most heartily. I've also witnessed some pretty rum characters put forward as worthy of recycling for reasons not altogether persuasive, at least to me, but then I'm not on the committee -- any committee. I have however been on committees just often enough to know it is not work for which I am much suited anyway. Not that anyone's asking anymore.  Turns out that the obscure-old-white-gay-guy is pretty well represented already in cultural matters across the board (see also: church music, community theater, library art-shows, local orchestras, western swing dancing, etc.)

Actually, I think we are living in something of a golden age of the reissued book. Publishers like NYRB and the Library of America, -- created within my memory -- have led something of a revolution in the rescue and reprinting of often neglected classics. The opportunities to read great books from less familiar names, periods, and places has never been so great. This has been one of the primary reading pleasures of my recent life, and a lesson to me as well; never assume there are no more great books yet to be read, no more great names among the dead of whom I have yet to hear. Happens all the time. Honest.

Translation is another deep subject for another day and dive, but it too seems to be booming, thanks largely to smaller presses like Archipelago Books, Pushkin Press, etc. One wonders if translators are any likelier to eat any better than they used to. One do hope so. They are certainly doing  hard and admirable work. I never thought someone new would take on the whole of Chateaubriand's Memoirs from Beyond the Grave, but some good soul named Alex Andriesse is doing just that. And the great Russia scholar and historian Douglas Smith is likewise engaged with the whole massy weight of Konstantin Paustovsky's autobiography and we are all better for it, friends.

I'm curious to know more of the process of selection and resuscitation. How is it that I could sell books for a living for thirty+ years and never have heard of, let alone read Benito Perez Galdos until just a few years ago? Makes me a little ashamed of my narrow provincialism, frankly. More though it makes me glad to be reading now. So how did new translations of "the Spanish Dickens" happen in just the last decade? Who financed that? Who decided to publish Tristana in English again? And why that novel? I should very much like to know.

Back in the bad old days of hierarchical criticism, before the French so kindly taught us that road-signs, matchbooks, and symphonies were all just "texts," I had a snobbish taste for what were then called "minor" writers; important enough to see reprints, but never so important as to sit with the Gods on the syllabi. These tended to smaller oeuvres, shorter or unfashionable forms like personal essays or poetic dramas. My minor masters were all about aesthetic fuss; style over subject, le mot just more than all the words until we run out. Think Leigh Hunt and Max Beerbohm and Harold Acton and Siegfried Sassoon. Nowadays my minors are mostly ghosted -- as in gone --the boys anyway. Some of the ladies have had a better afterlife, say Ivy Compton Burnett or the English lady novelist with the movie star's name, Elizabeth Taylor. My idea of a good minor time may not be yours, but there are plenty such still to be had on the shelf at the bookstore, from Fleur Jaeggy to Robert Walser, just to mention the Swiss.

All this thriving and surviving can not hide the fact though that in America at least books are in danger yet again. The shrieking harpies of Moms for Liberty, Citizens Defending Freedom, and other far Right misnomers and intentional antonyms are padlocking public libraries and burning PTAs to the ground as I write. Same mob as always, same lies, same agenda to "save the children" from the queers and the commies and the colored. Now the yahoos are chasing drag queens out of story-times and silencing women and the differently gendered, and yes, of course these same self-righteous primitives are banning books.  Always just a day or so away from burning books, and then people, this crew.* 

The other threat is of course the ironic triumph of thumb-typing. If everything one might say in a TikTok caption is just as important as every and anything ever written, then it is harder and harder to justify Shakespeare. 

And the Bard, he is very much on my mind:

Sonnet 73

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang. 
In me thou see'st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest. 
In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consum'd with that which it was nourish'd by. 
This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

Milton, an old friend and coworker, long retired from the bookstore, died recently. Presumably named for that other English poet, Milton was nonetheless a Shakespeare man, through and through. Read Shakespeare. Studied Shakespeare. Worshiped Shakespeare. Wrote about and thought about and talked about and quoted Shakespeare.

Sad story. When it came time for Milton to retire from the Receiving and Tagging Department where he'd worked for ages, he decided to have a bit of a splash out and give a public reading from the critical Shakespeare manuscript he'd been working at for decades. If you knew Milton at all you were at least a nodding acquaintance with his great unfinished book. It was part of his person and always on him in one form or another; usually in his tote as part of the unsorted shock of newspapers, random clippings, free magazines, old books, whatnot and jetsam that he lugged everywhere. (I was privileged to read a very brief bit of something to do with Iago once. Well beyond my critical faculties.)  Milton was not a bold person, in the time I knew him he never struck me as the type to stand up and address a room. Nonetheless he decided before he left the bookstore for good that he would give a lecture on Shakespeare.

The Events people put Milton's Shakespeare lecture on the schedule and promoted the lecture on the website and such, the way they do. I was closing the evening of Milton's event, but still planned to attend at least part of his presentation. Come the day, two people had called in sick and the phones were busy. Events were upstairs in those days and Milton came down twice to check in with me. Nervous as anything, he was. When the event was scheduled to start I was on the phone without a hope of getting free anytime soon. When I finally managed to end the call it was a good fifteen minutes after he was meant to start. Milton came back to the desk. No one came. I told him I still wanted to hear what he'd planned to read but he decided to just go home. He did.

Saw Milton at the bookstore no more than a week or so ago. He looked fairly hale and hearty for his age -- at which I can only guess. I'd seen him in the bookstore regularly since he'd retired, though it did take awhile for him to drop back in after the night of the reading that never was. Always had his bag with him full of papers and notes and this, that, and the other and presumably at least part of his unpublished, unheard Shakespeare book. We still talked about the book occasionally. He still worked at it. Usually we spoke of other things.

When a mutual friend announced on social media that Milton had died, I was shocked. When I returned to work I mentioned his death to some of his surviving coworkers, to his old boss, to the company's CEO. Asked if anyone knew any next of kin. Records were checked. None on record. Nobody knew. Someone recalled that Milton had had a brother? Didn't know the man's name or frankly if he was still alive. Hadn't Milton owned a house? With Tenants? Nobody knew who they might be now. No one knew who to offer our condolences. It happens. Death doesn't always leave us convenient means to mark the passing even of people we knew, and in the end how well did I know this old man? Don't know that I knew him any better than the people with whom he worked every day for years.  Would not presume to say that he intended that I should, but he did like a quick confidence, did my friend Milton.

I hadn't know Milton that long before I learned, I believe all in the same brief conversation, that Milton was gay, that another, very quiet elderly man who worked in the Fiction Department had been his lover for some time in the seventies, and that the great love of Milton's middle age -- a different fellow altogether, not at the bookstore -- had died years before in the Plague. Milton was quick to confess, at least with me, presumably because I was obviously gay in a way he'd never really been at work, but he tended to be a bit sketchy about the details. I pressed him occasionally to expand on his autobiography, but he never seemed terribly comfortable sharing anything he couldn't frame as an anecdote. He liked a bit of shock as well. He would tell me something he thought fairly scandalous, and then grin through his bushy moustache in a way that suggested one had been shown something secret and frankly naughty, and then he would laugh -- too deep a laugh to be described as a giggle, but in that range emotionally. I was asked more than once by Milton if indeed he wasn't rather a dirty old man? I was always quick to agree and to suggest that he was soiling the innocence of my otherwise untroubled mind, and then I would giggle with him. That was very much our routine. We both enjoyed it enormously.

A number of people at work with whom I shared Milton's passing mentioned his many eccentricities and traits, thrift being chiefly notable among the the latter. More than one person mentioned Milton's lunch. This usually consisted of whatever canned goods were on sale at the Bartell's Drugstore up the street, and I do mean anything: cold canned beans, yes, but also cold canned pasta, green beans, and at least once a can of cherry pie-filling. Saw that with my own eyes. Milton also brought back even less likely cans from his visits home to his natal place in Virginia. I won't say canned possum, but only because I never personally saw these things, but I am reliably informed that some of that shit was particularly disquieting. His lunches were mentioned pretty consistently by everyone who remembered him. One friend told me that that phrase, "Milton's Lunch," had actually become a family catchphrase for anything rather unsavory being served.

Another indication of the strength with which he held onto a nickel was his aforementioned collecting of any and all printed matter so long as it was free. He was a great one for coupon books, free newspapers (remember those?) free magazines, Xeroxes  -- if free. He liked free. Milton amassed the written word as birds feather nests; he took what he found, kept what he chose, clipped and bent all those words to some secret purpose, and mixed in many words of his own. I was never in his home. No idea what that looked like so I won't indulge in speculation beyond saying I assume his living spaces looked very much like his canvas and plastic travelling bags. I'd bet good money. 

He did share one secret with me that I've kept until now. I've debated divulging this information even here, not because I think it either shameful or wrong but simply because I don't know to whom he might otherwise have confided this part of his life and again they may know more than I. Still, I offer what I know in anticipation of someone else actually coming forward with what I would hope to be some tangible part of the record. 

Milton spoke regularly about both the Oregon and the Stratford (Ontario) Shakespeare Festivals. Not sure how many performances he actually attended, presumably "for lack of purse," but he knew all the personnel past and present and followed seasons closely, particularly the Canadians. He loved Canada for a number of reasons, Shakespeare being just the most obvious. In fact he went North just as often as he could. Many of his best stories had their origin there.

 I think he was probably retired before Milton told me specifically that he was an amateur photographer. I'd no idea. He seemed almost entirely a man of words, "Words, words,  mere words, no matter from the heart; th' effect doth operate another way." (Cymbeline.) This does not preclude an interest, even a preoccupation with images. Quite the contrary in my experience. All means of making beauty and making it to linger, no? Well, Milton it seems had very specific beauties in mind, and these he found mostly in Canada, first in the classifieds and later online. The reason other than Shakespeare or poutine for his many trips across the Northern border was to visit his beauties.

I understood his hesitation even if I didn't share it. He was of a generation born before decriminalization, before Stonewall and Gay Liberation and Marriage Equality and all the other advances that have allowed us to live less in fear and more in our own skins. Milton's life was a very quiet one to begin with, and what he himself called his "private life" would remain largely that until the end. I do not believe he was at all bothered that other people should know that he was gay, I just think his life was such that the subject tended not to come up most of the time, with most people. Worth remembering that he brought it up to me. I was glad of the connection to his life and experience and I firmly believe he was glad of a knowing audience.

And so, his pictures. On the face of it there isn't anything very novel or inspiring about Milton's pictures. He hired good looking young men, hustlers, and had them pose in various stages of dress and undress. He took pictures in parks and amusement arcades and in hotel rooms. He took what I would estimate to be many hundreds, perhaps thousands of photographs across a number of decades. When he finally showed me a few pages of this from an album, I was struck by how much of what I saw was surprisingly candid, even casual. There were plenty of obviously posed shots, but there were half again as many of men drinking, smoking, laughing, sitting on a motel chair, or a bed, or a park swing, a bench, on the grass. Some of the pictures had a quality of Nan Goldin's work about them, nothing like the aesthetic sophistication of her work but that same sense of close observation of an intimate but not necessarily erotic or dramatic moment. The most striking thing, other than the repetition of subjects over time, was the sense of familiarity. It actually felt as if the photographer knew these men.

From what Milton told me, he did, some of them anyway. And that was the most interesting aspect of Milton's hobby, of his secret. He was genuinely curious about these young men and their lives, often spending whole days with them, doing tourist things, visiting local landmarks (free,) having not very expensive meals together, talking. No idea how much if anything of what they told him about themselves was true. Sex work does not necessarily thrive on veracity. Milton's curiosity though seemed to me, and evidently to a number of them, quite genuine. He developed relationships with a number of these men, relationships that may or may not have involved physical intimacy other than that mediated by the camera. When we last talked about this part of Milton's life he lamented that he could not manage to maintain contact with a number of his Northern friends, first during a long illness of his and then during the pandemic. He was quick to express concern about how they were doing. He was not, it is worth noting upset that he hadn't had the chance to see and photograph them again. 

"We've become friends," was the phrase Milton said often and with the greatest satisfaction. I believe he meant it. He came to understand something of addiction, and homelessness, and mental health issues none of which he might have understood had he not made friends with his subjects. That he both objectified and shared history with a number of these men was less a contradiction that a cliche I suppose. Don't doubt it happens all the time. An acquaintance who did sex work in San Francisco years ago once told me how much he genuinely came to care about the men he saw as his "regulars." Makes sense. Fundamentally Milton was kind, offered kindness and had it back, not always but often. 

Only once did he show signs of having had a violent encounter. I asked him how it had happened and he told me.  It was unusual. Understandably it had frightened him badly and left him deeply depressed. Touchingly, some time later he told me one of his friends from Canada had made a point of getting in touch after he heard what had happened and made a point of telling Milton it would be okay and that he hoped to see him again.

I decided to tell this part of Milton's story because like his book of essays on Shakespeare, I fear this part of Milton's life will now be lost. It mattered very much to him, whether he told anyone else about it or not. It mattered because he mattered, his life did, does. I've no idea if any of Milton's pictures survive. No idea if his book ever became a book or even enough of a book as to be recognizably a book. Maybe it is still somewhere in his house, in a trunk full of notes, like Pessoa's The Book of Disquiet. Perhaps there is someone as I write organizing Milton's effects, sorting through his papers, arranging his photos, preserving his past. Maybe not. It is entirely possible that we have seen the last of my old friend Milton and all his works and deeds, his art, his mind, his hobbies, his lovers, his friends. 

And that would be a shame and a loss. 

Some of the books that die were never really born and no one to mourn them save their authors and sometimes no one left to mourn their authors either. "I'll note you in my book of memory" then. I'll note the loss of all I knew and all I did not, all he never let me read, all he never showed me or told me or confided in me. I can still hope he had kept those confidences elsewhere. 

Whatever else, he is not unremembered. 

"Remember thee!
Aye, thou poor ghost, while memory holds a seat
In this distracted globe."

*Hardest lesson of my adult life: evil, ignorant fuckers seemingly never sleep let alone die and their fascist fuckery abides. Fight the Right -- 'cause Lord knows they are still trying to erase us.