PATCHEN: MAN OF ANGER & LIGHT by Henry Miller
THE first thing one would remark on meeting Kenneth Patchen is that he is the living symbol of protest. I remember distinctly my first impression of him when we met in New York: it was that of a powerful, sensitive being who moved on velvet pads. A sort of sincere assassin, I thought to myself, as we shook hands. This impression has never left me. True or not, I feel that it would give him supreme joy to destroy with his own hands all the tyrants and sadists of this earth together with the art, the institutions and all the machinery of every day life which sustain and glorify them. He is a fizzing human bomb ever threatening to explode in our midst. Tender and ruthless at the same time, he has the faculty of estranging the very ones who wish to help him. He is inexorable: he has no manners, no tact, no grace. He gives no quarter. Like the gangster, he follows a code of his own. He gives you the chance to put up your hands before shooting you down. Most people however, are too terrified to throw up their hands. They get mowed down.
This is the monstrous side of him, which makes him appear ruthless and rapacious. Within the snorting dragon, however, there is a gentle prince who suffers at the mention of the slightest cruelty or injustice. A tender soul, who soon learned to envelope himself in a mantle of brim-fire in order to protect his sensitive skin. No American poet is as merciless in his invective as Patchen. There is almost an insanity to his fury and rebellion.
Like Gorki, Patchen began his career in the university of life early. The hours he sacrificed in the steel mills of Ohio, where he was born, served to fan his hatred for a society in which inequality, injustice and intolerance form the foundation of life. His years as a wanderer, during which he scattered his manuscripts like seed, corroborated the impressions gained at home,school and mill. Today he is practically an invalid, thanks to the system which puts the life of a machine above that of a human being. Suffering from arthritis of the spine, he is confined to bed most of the time. He lies on a huge bed in a doll's house near the river named after Hendrick Hudson, a sick giant consumed by the poisonous indifference of a world which has more use for mouse traps than for poets. He writes book after book, prose as well as poetry, never certain when "they" will come and dump him (with the bed) into the street. This has been going on now for over seven years, if I am not mistaken. If Patchen were to become well, able to use hands and feet freely, it is just possible that he would celebrate the occasion by pulling the house down about the ears of some unsuspecting victim of his scorn and contempt. He would do it slowly, deliberately, thoroughly. And in utter silence.
That is another quality of Patchen's which inspires dread on first meeting‹his awesome silence. It seems to spring from his flesh, as though he had silenced the flesh. It is uncanny. Here is a man with the gift of tongues and he speaks not. Here is a man who drips words but he refuses to open his mouth. Here is a man dying to communicate, but instead of conversing with you he hands you a book or a manuscript to read. The silence which emanates from him is black. He puts one on tenterhooks. It breeds hysteria. Of course he is shy. And no matter how long he lives he will never become urbane. He is American through and through, and Americans, despite their talkiness, are fundamentally silent creatures. They talk in order to conceal their innate reticence. It is only in moments of deep intimacy that they break loose. Patchen is typical Then finally he does open his mouth it is to release a hot flood of words. His emotion tears loose in clots.
A voracious reader, he exposes himself to every influence, even the worst. Like Picasso, he makes use of everything. The innovator and initiator are strong in him. Rather than accept the collaboration of a second-rate artist, he will do the covers for a book himself, a different one for each copy. And how beautiful and original are these individual cover designs* from the hand of a writer who makes no pretense of being a painter or illustrator! How interesting, too, are the typographical arrangements which he dictates for his books! How competent he can be when he has to be his own publisher! (See The Journal of Albion Moonlight.) From a sick bed the poet defies and surmounts all obstacles. He has only to pick up the telephone to throw an editorial staff into a panic. He has the will of a tyrant, the persistence of a bull. "This is the way I want it done!" he bellows. And by God it gets done that way.
Let me quote a few passages from his answers to certain questions of mine:
"The pain is almost a natural part of me now‹only the fits of depression (common to this disease) really sap my energies and distort my native spirit. I could speak quite morbidly in this last connection. The sickness of the world probably didn't cause mine, but it certainly conditions my handling of it. Actually (the worst part) is that I feel that I would be something else if I weren't rigid inside with the constant pressure of illness; I would be purer, less inclined to write (say) for the sake of being able to show my sick part that it can never become all powerful; I could experience more in other artists if I didn't have to be concerned so closely with happenings inside myself; I would have less need to be pure in the presence of the things I love, and therefore (probably) would have a more personal view of myself.... I think the more articulate an artist becomes the less he will know about himself to say, for usually one's greatest sense of love is inseparable from a sense of creature foreboding . . . it is hard to imagine why God should 'think,' yet this 'thinking' is the material of the greatest art . . . we don't wish to know ourselves, we wish to be lost in knowing, as a seed in a gust of wind.
* So far Patchen has done paintings for Limited Editions of The Dark Kingdom and Sleepers Awake 150 covers in all. To date he has turned a deaf ear to suggestions that these remarkable productions be exhibited‹I, for one, hope he changes his mind. It would be a feather in the hat of any gallery to show these wonderful paintings!
"I think that if I ever got near an assured income I'd write books along the order of great canvases, including everything in them‹huge symphonies that would handle poetry and prose as they present themselves from day to day and from one aspect of my life and interests to another. But that's all over, I think. They're going to blow everything up next time and I don't believe we have long. Always men have talked about THE END OF THE WORLD-‹it's nearly here. A few more straws in the wall . . . a loose brick or two replaced . . . then no stone left standing on another and the long silence; really forever. What is there to struggle against? Nobody can put the stars back together again. There isn't much time at all. I can't say it doesn't matter; it matters more than any thing‹but we are helpless to stop it now.
"It's very hard for me to answer your questions. Some were Rebels out of choice; I had none--I wish they'd give me just one speck of proof that this 'world of theirs' couldn't have been set up and handled better by a half-dozen drugged idiots bound hand and foot at the bottom of a ten-mile well. It's always because we love that we are rebellious; it takes a great deal of love to give a damn one way or another what happens from now on: I still do. The situation for human beings is hopeless. For the while that's left, though, we can remember the Great and the gods."
The mixture of hope and despair, of love and resignation, of courage and the sense of futility, which emanates from these excerpts is revelatory. Setting himself apart from the world, as poet, as man of vision, Patchen nevertheless identifies himself with the world in the malady which has become universal. He has the humility to acknowledge that his genius, that all genius, springs from the divine source. He is also innocent enough to think that the creature world should recognize God's voice and give it its due. He has the clarity to realize that his suffering is not important, that it distorts his native spirit, as he puts it, but does he admit to himself, can he admit to himself, that the suffering of the world also distorts the world's true spirit? If he could believe in his own cure might he not believe in a universal cure? "The situation for human beings is hopeless," he says. But he is a human being himself, and he is not at all convinced that his case is hopeless. With a bit of security he imagines that he will be able to give profounder expression of his powers. The whole world now cries for security. It cries for peace, too, but makes no real effort to stop the forces which are working for war. In his agony each sincere soul doubtless refers to the world as "their world." No one in his senses wishes to admit being a voluntary part of this world, so thoroughly inhuman, so intolerable has it become. We are all (whether we admit it or not) waiting for the end of the world‹as though it were not a world of our own making but a hell into which we had been thrust by a malevolent fate.
What is the part of guilt here and what of innocence is difficult to say. In the case of Patchen I would use the term innocence, as did Jacques Riviere in referring to Rimbaud, and Wassermann in describing Caspar Hauser's plight. These individuals (the innocent ones) arouse the murderous instincts of their fellow creatures. By their very abhorrence of violence and the loathing which fills them at the thought of injustice, but above all through their overwhelming need of love, they awaken the hatred and persecution of those whom they call upon or mutely implore. This is the inexplicable phenomenon of human perversity. This is the mark of fate which distinguishes the leaders of mankind and sets them apart as doomed, makes them the tragic figures of history. Precisely because they disavow all responsibility for evil are they accursed. The law of the spirit seems to dictate that one cannot stand apart, that one cannot free himself until all are freed. Something in us rebels at the thought of separate, individual emancipation. All or nothing, it says, and thereupon sets about to crucify whoever dares violate the code. Men crucify the emancipators and defy their effigies. They believe and worship but stubbornly refuse to follow the way. This is the absurdity and incongruity of human nature, a nature which is impure. We belong to two worlds and rarely serve either faithfully. Only once in a great while does an artist (like Ramuz, for example)* have the * See The End of All Men (Présence de la Mort) by C. F. Ramuz, Pantheon Press, N. Y. courage to picture "the end of all men" and reserve for salvation those who loved the earth. Very, very rarely is an artist able to give us a truly "evil" character. Satan himself becomes a heroic figure and often a lovable one, certainly a comprehensible one who, as rebel incarnate, never fails to arouse our sympathies. The Saviors do not lend themselves to art successfully: they are outside the pale, beyond, as incomprehensible in their love as in their example. They have never become incorporated in the blood stream. Forsaking the world, they become as the idols they sought to destroy. This is human perversity. Throughout the ages it displays itself in the individual life, and now and then it bursts forth in cosmic waves of futility and self-destruction.
In My Life as German and Jew Jacob Wasserman writes: "Toward every author the nation adopts a general attitude which determines the freedom of his soul, the sureness of his bearing and an element, very difficult to define, of spiritual rhythm and controlled power. To be accepted without reservations is indispensable for him: for his work and craft alone fill his hours and years to overflowing with restraints and anguish, not to mention the hideous difficulties of every-day life. If he cannot feel that the warmth he emanates generates new warmth, then nature collapses within him.*
This statement, aimed at a whole nation by one who was both a German and a Jew, contains a terrible truth for every American who is both an artist and a human being. Every incipient artist in America, every genuine one, quakes at the thought that he will never be accepted as he is or for what he is but only in the measure that he toadies and compromises, betrays his true self. What a prospect for one who is about to deliver himself! Do I exaggerate? One has only to read the biographies of our famous authors. One doesn't have to go that far their books, always revelatory, are one long confession of the ceaseless warfare between the sensitive and the insensitive.
* Published by Coward McCann, N. Y. 10
Patchen uses the language of revolt. There is no other language left to use. There is no time, when you are holding up a bank, to explain to the directors the sinister injustice of the present economic system. Explanations have been given time and again; warnings have been posted everywhere. They have gone unheeded. Time to act. "Stick up your hands! Deliver the goods!"
It is in his prose works that Patchen uses this language most effectively. With The Journal of Albion Moonlight, Patchen opened up a vein unique in English literature. These prose works, of which the latest to appear is Sleepers Awake, defy classification. Like the Wonder Books of old, every page contains some new marvel. Behind the surface chaos and madness one quick ly detects the logic and the will of a daring creator. One thinks of Blake, of Lautreamont, of Picasso‹and of Jacob Boehme. Strange predecessors! But one thinks also of Savonarola, of Grunewald, of John of Patmos, of Hieronymous Bosch‹and of times, events and scenes recognizable only in the waiting rooms of sleep. Each new volume is an increasingly astonishing feat of legerdemain, not only in the protean variety of the text but in design, composition and format. One is no longer looking at a dead, printed book but at something alive and breathing, something which looks back at you with equal astonishment. Novelty is employed not as seduction but like the stern fist of the Zen master to awaken and arouse the consciousness of the reader. THE WAY MEN LIVE IS A LIE! ‹that is the reality which screams from the pages of these books. Once again we have the revolt of the angels.
This is not the place to discuss the merits or defects of the author's work. What concerns me at the moment is the fact that, despite everything, he is a poet. I am vitally interested in the man who today has the misfortune of being an artist and a human being. By the same token I am as much interested in the manoeuvres of the gangster as I am in those of the financier or the military man. They are all part and parcel of society; some are lauded for their efforts, some reviled, some persecuted and hunted like beasts. In our society the artist is not encouraged. not lauded, not rewarded, unless he makes use of a weapon more powerful than those employed by his adversaries. Such a weapon is not to be found in shops or arsenals: it has to be forged by the artist himself out of his own tissue. When he releases it he also destroys himself. It is the only method he has found to preserve his own kind. From the outset his life is mortgaged. He is a martyr whether he chooses to be or not. He no longer seeks to generate warmth, he seeks for a virus with which society must allow itself to be injected or perish. It does not matter whether he preaches love or hate, freedom or slavery; he must create room to be heard, ears that will hear. He must create, by the sacrifice of his own being, the awareness of a value and a dignity which the word human once connoted. This is not the time to analyze and criticize works of art. This is not the time to select the flowers of genius, differentiate between them, label and categorize. This is the time to accept what is offered and be thankful that something other than mass intolerance, mass suicide, can preoccupy the human intellect.
If through indifference and inertia we can create human as well as atomic bombs, then it seems to me that the poet has the right to explode in his own fashion at his own appointed time. If all is hopelessly given over to destruction, why should the poet not lead the way? Why should he remain amidst the ruins like a crazed beast? If we deny our Maker, why should we preserve the maker of words and images? Are the forms and symbols he spins to be put above Creation itself?
When men deliberately create instruments of destruction to be used against the innocent as well as the guilty, against babes in arms as well as against the aged, the sick, the halt, the maimed, the blind, the insane, when their targets embrace whole populations, when they are immune to every appeal, then we know that the heart and the imagination of man is no longer capable of being stirred. If the powerful ones of this earth are in the grip of fear and trembling, what hope is there for the weaker ones? What does it matter to those monsters now in control what becomes of the poet, the sculptor. the musician?
In the richest and the most powerful country in the world there is no means of insuring an invalid poet such as Kenneth Patchen against starvation or eviction. Neither is there a band of loyal fellow artists who will unite to defend him against the unnecessary attacks of shallow, spiteful critics. Every day ushers in some fresh blow, some fresh insults, some fresh punishment. In spite of it all he continues to create. He works on two or three books at once. He labors in a state of almost unremitting pain. He lives in a room just about big enough to hold his carcass, a rented coffin you might call it, and a most insecure one at that. Would he not be better off dead? What is there for him to look forward to‹as a man, as an artist, as a member of society?
I am writing these lines for an English and a French edition of his work. It is hardly the orthodox preface to a man's work. But my hope is that in these distant countries Patchen (and other now unknown American writers) will find friends, find support and encouragement to go on living and working. America is immune to all appeals. Her people do not understand the language of the poet. They do not wish to recognize suffering‹it is too embarrassing. They do not greet Beauty with open arms‹her presence is disturbing to heartless automatons. Their fear of violence drives them to commit insane cruelties. They have no reverence for form or image: they are bent on destroying whatever does not conform to their pattern, which is chaos. They are not even concerned with their own disintegration, because they are already putrescent. A vast congeries of rotting sepulchres, America holds for yet a little while, awaiting the opportune moment to blow itself to smithereens.
The one thing which Patchen cannot understand, will not tolerate, indeed, is the refusal to act. In this he is adamant. Confronted with excuses and explanations, he becomes a raging lion.
It is the well-off who especially draw his ire. Now and then he is thrown a bone. Instead of quieting him, he growls more ferociously. We know, of course, what patronage means. Usually it is hush money. "What is one to do with a man like that?" exclaim the poor rich. Yes, a man like Patchen puts them in a dilemma. Either he increases his demands or he uses what is given to voice his scorn and contempt. He needs money for food and rent, money for the doctor, money for operations, money for medicines‹yet he goes on turning out beautiful books. Books of violence clothed in outward elegance. The man has uncommon taste, no gainsaying it. But what right has he to a cultivated appetite? Tomorrow he will be asking for a sea-side cottage perhaps, or for a Rouault, whose work he reveres. Perhaps for a Capehart, since he loves music. How can one satisfy a monster such as that?
That is the way rich people think about the starving artist. Poor people too, sometimes. Why doesn't he get himself a job? Why doesn't he make his wife support him? Does he have to live in a house with two rooms? Must he have all those books and records? When the man happens also to be an invalid they become even more resentful, more malicious. They will accuse him of permitting his illness to distort his vision. "The work of a sick man," they say, shrugging their shoulders. If he bellows, then it is "the work of an impotent man." If he begs, and entreats, then "he has lost all sense of dignity." But if he roars? Then he is hopelessly insane. No matter what attitude he adopts he is condemned beforehand. When he is buried they praise him as another "poet maudit." What beautiful crocodile tears are shed over our dead and accursed poets! What a galaxy of them we have already in the short span of our history!
In 1909 Charles Peguy penned a morceau for his Cahiers de la Quinzaine which described the then imminent debacle of the modern world. "We are defeated," it begins. "We are defeated to such an extent, so completely, that I doubt whether history will ever have to record an instance of defeat such as the one we furnish.... To be defeated, that is nothing. It would be nothing. On the contrary, it can be a great thing. It can be all: the final consummation. To be defeated is nothing: (but) we have been beaten. We have even been given a good drubbing. In a few years society, this modern society, before we have even had the time to sketch the critique of it, has fallen into a state of decomposition, into a dissolution, such, that I believe, that I am assured history had never seen anything comparable. . . That great historical decomposition, that great dissolution, that great precedent which in a literary manner we call the decay of the Roman decadence, the dissolution of the Roman Empire, and which it suffices to call, with Sorel, the ruin of the ancient world, was nothing by comparison with the dissolution of present society, by comparison with the dissolution and degradation of this society, of the present modern society. Doubless, at that time there were far more crimes and still more vice(s). But there were also infinitely more resources. This putrefaction was full of seeds. People at that time did not have this sort of promise of sterility which we have today, if one may say so, if these two words can be used together."*
After two annihilating wars, in one of which Peguy gave his life, this "promise of sterility" appears anything but empty. The condition of society which was then manifest to the poet and thinker, and of course more so today (even the man in the street is aware of it), Peguy described as "a real disorder of impotence and sterility." It is well to remember these words when the hired critics of the press (both of the right and the left) direct their fulminations against the poets of the day. It is precisely the artists with the vital spark whom they set out to attack most viciously. It is the creative individual (sic) whom they accuse of undermining the social structure. A persecutory mania manifests itself the moment an honest word is spoken. The atmosphere of the whole modern world, from Communist Russia to capitalist America, is heavy with guilt. We are in the Time of the Assassins. The order of the day is: liquidate! The enemy, the arch-enemy, is the man who speaks the truth. Every realm of society is permeated with falsity and falsification. What survives, what is upheld, what is defended to the last ditch, is the lie
. * See Men and Saints, Charles Peguy (Pantheon Books, N. Y )
"It is perhaps this condition of confusion and distress," wrote Peguy, "which, more imperiously than ever, makes it our duty not to surrender. One must never surrender. All the less since the position is so important and so isolated and so menaced, and that precisely the country is in the hands of the enemy."
Those who know Kenneth Patchen will realize that I am identifying his stand with Peguy's. Perhaps there could not be two individuals more different one from another. Perhaps there is nothing at all in common between them except this refusal to swallow the lie, this refusal to surrender even in the blackest hour. I know of no American who has as vigorously insisted that the enemy is within. If he refuses to play the game it is not because he has been defeated; it is because he has never recognized those phantoms created out of fear and confusion which men call "the enemy." He knows that the enemy of man is man. He rebels out of love, not out of hate. Given his temperament, his love of honesty, his adherence to truth, is he not justified in saying that "he had no choice" (but to rebel)? Do we find him aligned with those rebels who wish merely to depose those on top‹in order that they may hold the whip hand? No, we find him alone, in a tiny garret, riveted to a sick bed, turning frantically from side to side as if imprisoned in an iron cage. And it is a very real cage indeed. He has only to open his eyes each day to be aware of his helplessness. He could not surrender even if he wished to: there is no one to surrender to except death. He lies on the edge of the precipice with eyes wide open. The world which condemns him to imprisonment is fast asleep. He is furiously aware that his release does not depend on acceptance by the multitude but on the dissolution of the world which is strangling him.
"The situation for human beings is hopeless," did he say? In Albion Moonlight this desperation is expressed artistically: "I want to be a carpet in a cat-house." Thus, to use the title from one of his own poems, 'The Furious Crown Conceals Its Throne.' Thus, to paraphrase Miro, persons magnetized by the stars may walk in comfort on the music of a furrowed landscape. Thus we take leave of our atavistic friend, the poet, doomed to inhabit a world that never was, never will be, the world of "flowers born in shining wombs" For flowers will always be born and wombs will always be radiant, particularly when the poet is accursed. For him the beast is always number, the landscape stars, the time and the place of creation now and here. He moves in a "circle of apparent fates,"ruler of the dark kingdom, maligned, persecuted and forsaken in the light of day.
Once again the night approaches. And once again "the dark kingdom" will reveal to us its splendors. In the middle of this twentieth century we have all of us, none excepted, crossed a river made of human tears. We have no fathers, no mothers, no brothers, no sisters. We are returned to the creature state.
"I have put language to sleep," said Joyce. Aye, and now conscience too is being put to sleep.
Big Sur, California