Disco trumpets rose, choral voices rose, it was like Heaven; silence opened and rivulet of chimes fell over the steady beating of a great heart...Ah shit, Ah shit, English thought, not you.
In the overheard lyrics of rcok and roll he often heard the sorrows and pronouncements of a jilted, effeminate Jehovah, and this song made even grander, more awful claims than most suggesting that Her love was profoundly uncontrollable and maybe not actually friendly--
Not you, I don't know you--
--as inexorable as the ocean eating the sands of the Cape from under his feet, willing to take forever, if necessary, to drown him. Nothing would lift him from the waters: "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" it was called.
Infinite disco love boomed, a wounded woman calling forth these bits of light to swarm over the walls. Her love was alive? It was monstrous. "I'm not here," English said out loud. "So shut the fuck up."
Not you, not you, not you--Crackling dance hall lumens circled...in a whirlwind. Voices--angels--saints--"Fuck it," English announced, "let's just blow it."
Denis Johnson, Resuscitation of a Hanged Man
I have been reading and re-reading the Denis Johnson book. LordOuch read it and told me he liked it so, I picked it up and it is one of those things that hits so close to home, yet I am not sure how to interpret some things in it. So I have some stuff to work out through the book and I will get around to those things that have to do with the meat of the book, but first...I read this passage and two things came to mind. The first, I love the song I think he is talking about Inner Life's (lead vocals by the amazing Jocelyn "Somebody Else's Guy" Brown) version of "Ain't no Mountain High Enough." The second, I thought I heard the voice of God once in a disco song as well (and that is what this book is about, a guy who hears the voice of God and he can't figure out if he should follow it or not...and in this passage he is trying to ignore it). Before I get to the Voice, one of the greatest regrets in my life is that I never got to go to the Paradise Garage. Years ago, I used to co-write a nightlife column for a local rag called Outweek and let me tell you having to go out EVERY FUCKING NIGHT is a special kind of hell. But the best thing about it (besides the free drink tickets and never having to wait in line to get into a club) was the afterhours places. At the time there were only two really good ones in NYC (not counting Save the Robots which was right next to where I lived and was a hole in the wall populated by tweaking Eurotrash): Sound Factory and The Choice. The Choice was run by two dj's Richard Vazquez and Joey Llanos (both of whom had connections to Paradise Garage)and people told me it was a lot like Paradise Garage, but it didn't have that same explosive mix of people (not as many artists, celebs, exotic people...most of the patrons were kids...and it wasn't as gay either which kept a lot of Paradise Garage people at Sound Factory). But, the music at The Choice was beyond intense. They had a rotating staff of dj's: Larry Levan (Paradise Garage maestro), Frankie Knuckles, Robert Owens, David Morales, Richard Vazquez, Joey Llanos, and probably more that I am forgetting about. So even if I never made it to Paradise Garage, I did get to hear Larry Levan mix pretty regularly (heard him at this other club Mars too a couple times)and like almost everyone who ever heard him, I thought he was genius. The Choice was always kept completely dark (except for the dance floor lights you could never see and you would always trip over people who were lounging in chairs you couldn't see...) so the light show was even more spectacular (tho it wasn't a very fancy set up...it was just used smartly) BUT the entire back wall was filled with speakers and the sound system was crushing. The sound was so pure, so clear, and the kind of music they played (the Paradise Garage classics like Love is the Message, Dr. Love, Hit and Run, Ain't No Mountain High Enough and the new sort of more ambient jazzy mellow house music) was filled with keyboards, pipe organs, flutes, and other ambient sorts of sounds that just floated like butterflies out of those speakers...and they could just be the most impossibly beautiful thing you've ever heard. Of course it didn't hurt to have done X which alters the way you hear anyway but one time it was probably around 6am or something and this song "Sueno Latino" came on. I stopped dancing and just stood there completely transfixed. There was nothing on earth I'd ever heard as insanely perfect as that song. It was God in that song. That was the only way to explain it because the sound had a dimension and a body to it...it was so full and expansive. It was almost like I could imagine crawling into it and turning into this ball of pure light...
After that experience, I made all my friends go to The Choice every weekend. Most of them didn't like it, because it had sort of a rep as a really druggy place and to be fair most of the people you tripped over were falling out of the chairs and passed out on the floor. The VIP room had a punch bowl or just a bottle of vodka out (you can't serve liquor after 4am so even the bottle of vodka was a risk) and you never knew what kind of funk someone put in there. But I never cared because of the music. I was searching the web for stuff about The Choice and there is very little, a number of posts about it being one of the best clubs of the time period (which I am not even sure when that was because the club was only open 2 years--I think most likely 1988-1990 or so) and it was right around the block on Third Street (between B&C) from my apt on Ave. B. The person who took a group of us to The Choice was a photographer named Tina Paul. She got us in and introduced to a bunch of people so we could come back (the club was "members only" but they let anyone it seemed). She was another person who had made a job out of going out: she snapped photos for Details(when it was still cool) and a bunch of other mags and papers. She was a real character and always seemed like she knew everyone everywhere. And she always had good stories to tell...
The thing that was so great about The Choice (and Sound Factory) was that most of the clubs we went to were gay clubs and they were predominantly white (though I did also go to places like Trax, La Escuelita, Sally's and The Doo Wop Club that weren't) and the afterhours places were more mixed. It was this incredible crowd of gay, straight, male, female (and everything in between), latin, afro-american, asian, and everything else all dancing side by side. People would clap and chant and yell or sing along when a song came on that they liked or whenever the dj did something particularly awesome with the effects. Or whenever a dj started feeling like a diva they would turn off the lites and stop the mix...people would start stamping their feet and usually some song everybody loved would come up next and the entire place would go apeshit. To hear some of what that sounded like check out number 417 from this page of streaming or downloadable DJ mixes. Also check out number 435, 411,and 101 on page 4 (I am especially fond of 411 and 101 as I was most likely there even if the mix isn't anything to write home about...these are the type of mixes I remember).What you can't hear on these tapes though is the way that the sound system shaped the music. The way that a good sound mixer could float the sound through the room and even just a hi-hat or a marimba could be all that it took to make a song the most moving heart pounding experience of your life. But at least, I have the memories. I know there are still clubs around where they play this stuff and every now and then I tune into WNYU (89.1 FM) for their house shows and what is scary is the same house songs are still classics and the new ones are all built on the old SalSol stuff...but house is a great music. It combines jazz, gospel, disco, funk, everything and the message of the music is love...love and happiness, love and heartbreak...you know the usual soul avenues, but it is so much more than just "dance music" and so many people write it off without ever having experienced it in its natural environment.
So here's the basic plot of Resuscitation of a Hanged Man: Leonard English is a semi-devout Roman-Catholic who attempts to committ suicide by hanging himself. English does not succeed but he feels that he has because he is in a spiritual crisis where he knows that he is alive but essentially feels dead. He leaves his home somewhere in Kansas moves to the gay mecca of Provincetown in the middle of winter. There he works as an all-night radio dj and part-time private detective for this guy named Ray Sands. In Provincetown he falls in love with this woman Leanna Sousa who prior to her involvement with Lenny was a lesbian. Leanna and Lenny do become a "couple" but clearly Lenny is more in love with Leanna than she is with him. One of Lenny's detective assignments is to spy on Leanna's sometimes girlfriend Marla and this feeds Lenny's obsession with Leanna. Also during the course of the novel Ray Sands dies of a heart attack, Marla and Leanna get back together which flips Lenny out, and another of Lenny's private detective gigs finds him trying to find a missing person named Gerald Twinbrook. Twinbrook is a painter who English was assigned to find by Ray Sands right before he died...Twinbrook is in many ways English's doopleganger. In Twinbrooks office Lenny finds writings and a file about some guy who was hanged in the 19th century and who a couple medical doctors tried to revive with electric current. Yeah, you guessed it, Twinbrook is found, dead from hanging. As all these events occur, English's grip on reality becomes more and more tenuous, after he breaks with Leanna he thinks that Ray Sands is the head of a para-military organization that may have kidnapped Twinbrook. When he finds Twinbrook dead, he realizes that his delusions are in some degree false. Then he sort of plunges into his own private idaho of more paranoid delusions where instead of Ray Sands being in the middle, he thinks God is trying to talk to him and that God is pushing him toward killing bishop Andrew. In one of the final scenes of the book, English dressed in Leanna's clothing and with Leanna's gun attempts to shoot the bishop from a row boat while the bishop is blessing the fleet. English misses the bishop (he may have knocked his hat off we don't know for sure) but ends up in jail where it seems he will probably be for a while.
I think that I know that it is a mighty horrible thing to be brought up right at death's door and stared in the face. There is none of you like me; you have no idea...
Denis Johnson, Resuscitation of a Hanged Man
Why did everything vibrate when he touched it?--strands of an indecipherable web, connections that shouldn't be there. The coincidences of his life assailed him. The walls of the world were soft; wherever he bumped up against them he pushed them through into inscrutable chaos and naked meaning and Heaven and Hell.
He feared he might be living out some myth seeking the goddess beyond the pale, entering the realm, being changed into one of its denizens, every footstep forward changing the shape of his soul, and every form of her dissolving as he approached.
He'd been reading Reflections on the Psalms lately, and he began to see in the defeated stoicism of [the]Pilgrim descendants the other side, the dark side, the prissy smugness with which C.S. Lewis had been managing to nauseate him. For these people, as for Lewis, God had probably been an Englishman, but a less and less familiar one, passing beyond dotty eccentricity into madness and vomitting up whales and storms. On some nights English saw them trolling the fog for forgiveness and seeking for Jesus among the dewey stones. Little truths continually came into his mind. Whispers from the center of his heart. All are martyred.Kill the Bishop.
He knew something big was going to happen, that he was at the slurring start of some grand opportunity or injury, like a person who's just lost control of the car on an empty street and entered the dreamy beginnings of an accident.
What if a person heeded all such inner rebop, would he be damned or saved? How quickly would a person's life progress along its lines if he followed every impulse as if it started from God? How much more quickly would he be healed? Or how much faster destroyed? Saints had doens that. Also mass killers and wreakers of more secret mayhem, witches and cultists and vampires and so on. I'm your God, come here. But you're standing in a storm, God. Yes, and I'm calling you to come here. But how do I know you're God? Because I'm all that's in front of you, and that was behind you is gone; choose the storm or you get nothing.
English saw himself standing up in front of a movie theatre with a grenade, crying, God told me to do this. Simone Weil wasting down into death on orders from her conscience in God, extinquishing, for herself, the whole world.
I am obsessed with this book. I have been trying to find some kind of analysis or something of it and I haven't found anything. There are episodes in it that confuse me, that I think are supposed to mean something but I can't figure out what. The only thing I have been able to find out is that it was written about the same time that Denis Johnson wrote "Jesus' Son" (which I have never read, but I have read about and found that they are semi-autobiographical stories about addiction etc.)and that Johnson considers himself a "christian" writer. Part of the reason I am so into this book is that I am currently trying to come to grips with Step 2 of the dreaded/loved/admired/feared/maligned 12steps. Step 2 says: "We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity." A portion of the work for this step is about defining your Higher Power for yourself and you are supposed to give it loving and benevolent qualities or that is at least what I have been led to believe by various 12step devotees that I've talked with.
The thing with Resuscitation is that I relate to a lot of it because in many ways my active addiction was like one long drawn out suicide attempt...duh...right I know. And by not using, I am completely at a point where I can relate to Lenny English's feeling that he really did kill himself. What is there that I believe in when everything that I thought I did couldn't fill this void that I felt and that somehow despite my best efforts the hole only got larger and larger until it sank my entire life. Now that I am avoiding the void by not using, what is there for me to believe in, have faith in. Using let me live in a completely faithless, self-less way...the only worry I had was where do I get my next fix. It was all a constant drama...and to say that this is "the only worry" is understating the hell that is that one obsession. But, by focusing on that I didn't need anything else, it is enough to build a life around.
I have never thought of myself as a particulary spiritual or religious person (especially since I was never baptized and can count the number of times I have been in a church on one hand). But since I am not convinced of the worthiness of my own life, or any of the projects that occupy me, and tend to focus on suffering (my own and others) as the human condition, I am constantly trying to find something that will give me faith, something that will make me believe there is a reason and a point. So I try and find it in art etc...and yeah the god that I find is one that is sort of benevolent, god is anywhere I find beauty, joy, peace, happiness, meaning, faith, anything that gives me one moment of something that takes me out of my head and connects me with a bigger world. Or makes me think I am alive...and this experience is usually a rush.
English left feeling unsure--was he now cleansed, and if so, of what exactly? What crud has the winds of absolution carried off, why did he still feel such grime in the creases of him? ...When you're this completely naked, he thought, much more naked than you'd be without clothes, when you're naked of all your signs and your moves, as naked, say as the minute you were born, then these thousands of lives going by will rake you.
But I completely understand English's God, who he believes through webs of coincidences is leading him down a road of ruin. The delusions that somehow the connections between Leanna, his love for her, her love for Marla and not him, Ray Sands, Gerald Twinbrook, Simone Weil, martyrdom are all sent from God to English and that English being a person of faith (that is someone who tries to figure out the meaning of things, I think that is what is meant by faith in the book...that somehow mere accident is not a possibility) is supposed to follow out the impulses and thoughts that these connections create, is completely understandable to me. There are several passages in the book where English states that there is no line between faith and delusion, that even if we know something is a delusion, it is all that is given and that we either believe in it or not. Belief and faith therefore can beget martyrdom, and insanity because there is no way of knowing if the delusions with which we fill our minds are going to be "benevolent."
The way I see this book is that it is about the aftermath of addiction. About rebuilding from any sort of complete loss...much the same way Name of the World was though in a more desperate sense. God can be anything, any and maybe all belief or faith can be a delusion. For me using gave my life a purpose, I believed in the pain that drove me to that point, I thought that was my destiny to live and probably die as an addict. There was nothing romantic about it, I just couldn't see anything outside of that. All the connections in my life between people, places, things, I somehow took as signs that I was living the correct fate. I think a lot of addicts believe that they were destined for addiction and when they first try drugs a lot of them say it was like finding that thing you have been searching for forever. So you see junk/speed/pot/liquor as your god and you do everything it asks of you and everything it tells you and you end up killing your own bishop...you martyr yourself on the altar of your own private faith and belief (whatever that faith is in). You are deluded but you believe and you have a purpose so your delusions are your reality(and maybe i did understand them as delusions even) but what can anyone do about that exactly when they are so confused?
Lenny says that he is happy to be in jail. Happy to be at the end of where his delusional thinking took him. He finally tells Leanna that the reason he did what he did was because "God is a wall and a universe." And she says he is like those guys who bleed on easter and he says he is still awaiting his conversion to which she answers you are the most converted person I know. I am not sure what this exchange exactly means, but a lot of what English did in attempting to kill the bishop was to get Leanna's attention (simple explanation he was trying to get the girl back). Also, his crisis of faith was that he didn't know whether God was Heaven or Hell, redemption or suffering. Part of his following out those impulses and thoughts that made all those connections in his life and was based on his not knowing either way. So by following them out, he finally reaches a bottom, he is no longer in that moment of not knowing or understanding because he has followed his faith as he understood it and I think there is a certain relief in having done that. Ultimately, I don't think he answers his quest but I think he understands his crisis more clearly. So by living out whatever it is one understands as fate or whatever it is one believes there is no way of knowing whether that belief is heaven, hell, benevolent, violent, loving, vindictive, whatever...fatih is a storm...the end.
So how do I understand that coming to believe in a power greater than myself will restore me to sanity? Junk is definitely a power greater than myself and through using it I repeated the same mistakes over and over again. God and belief are not guarantees of sanity. Faith and hope can be delusional. I am not saying 12steps aren't helpful, useful, but I don't understand how people see that god is their savior, that their Higher Power is only benevolent...faith can be a dead end as much as it can be an interstate...that is all I am saying.
The 12 steps also try and make you feel ashamed of what you did in your active addiction, but to me, that was the only time in my life that I was honest on a deep and meaningful level. Previously, I'd totally swept all my problems and crisis and crap under the rug and said "doesn't matter" but by acknowledging that they mattered and that they mattered to such an extent that I couldn't function anymore I was honest. I believed in those symptoms, I believed that I deserved every shitty thing that happened and I am not ashamed of either using or anything that I've done. Yeah, some of it sucked, and I know I hurt people I love, and the whole fiasco hurt a whole lot more than the original problems did...and I ended up hungry and in my own sort of cell but was I happy to be there, cuz I could see the shit in my life and how much I believed in it...so I don't know what is intended to be the message of this book. But I am so fucking glad I read it.
Though one thing does sort of worry me, and this is only because I am paranoid about my shrink experience. The way English thinks, the whole web of coincidences in which God is the "chief conspirator" ...that is much akin to the way I think. The whole thing about finding connections and making meaning out of them. It has been with me forever but I have a new term for it which I took from Benjamin: "secret affinities." In other words, underlying and subterranean connections that are meant to be mined and explored...I can see how this is sort of manic thinking and I get scared that sometimes without knowing it I could fall into a void. I mean it already did take me there once, how do I know it will not end there again? Once you've been tripped up, there is always the possibility of falling again. Okay, I admit it, I'm afraid of faith, I'm afraid of believing. I admire a character like Lenny English who can have faith and belief even when he knows they are dooming him. In the book, Lenny says of his employer Ray Sands that it is hard to come up with a judgement against him because it is hard to condemn a man who can love without hope. This statement comes after English watches Sands with his wife Grace who is prematurely senile (like my grandmother was) and for whom Ray Sands obviously still feels love and fondess. But that is a big thing, how do you love without hope, how do have believe and have faith without the hope of "transcendence" and that there is some kind of reward for suffering. Yeah, I know this is all so juvenile...
WASHED IN THE BLOOD (Freakwater) When I'm dragged through the mud For a last time Then I know I'll be washed in the blood Way down at the bottom of a slippery slope When I start my decline Fast waters flow I'll be lost in the flood I hear angels Behind my shoulder Telling me have no fear I hear voices of the long dead whisper in my ear Telling me everything I want to hear When I'm dragged through the mud For a last time Then I know I'll be washed in the blood Way down at the bottom of a slippery slope When I start my decline Fast waters flow I'll be lost in the flood Down by the river Where I often strayed Heard a little voice calling And I was so afraid Down on my knees Where I often stayed You go down three times You gotta come up saved When I'm dragged through the mud For a last time Then I know I'll be washed in the blood Way down at the bottom of a slippery slope When I start my decline Fast waters flow I'll be lost in the flood
Okay, so now that I've spilled my guts about all this crap I've been thinking about. I did a little research...it seems to me anyway that most of Resuscitation of a Hanged Man and the issues it raises about the absurdity of faith are taken from Fear and Trembling. Leonard English calls himself a "knight of faith" and Leanna says from Kierkegaard right, then he responds, that no he only heard a priest mention it. But if you look at the ink that has been spilled about the knight of faith vs. the knight of infinite resignation and Kierkegaard's account of Abraham's sacrifice...it totally is the ground covered by the Johnson book. This is one really good discussion about the difference between the two and the paradox of faith. The whole ethical issue about the knight of faith is also interesting...and how do you account for crackpots and the insane which is sorta what the Denis Johnson book asks, this issue is raised (sans DJ)in this essay. Here's another one on the paradox of faithin Kierkegaard. All interesting reading but I can only take so much.
And then sometimes you wake up in the morning and you read an e-mail or something and you realize that all your problems are really not that important. I mean, I could have a child that needs me, I could have used drugs while I was pregnant and I could have lost my child, or he or she could be forced to deal with a lifetime of problems from my using...I don't have any of these. I am so fucking lucky to be able to worry about the things I worry about and whine about what I whine about.