Why bats are often happier than poets
“We are using our own skins for wallpaper, and we cannot win.”
This was among the quotes we had on our office wall, in the old days at the Idler maga. Since media mediocrities are currently obsessed with issues of attribution and plagiarism, let me quickly admit that I knicked this line from John Berryman (1914–72), the American poet. (Dream Songs, no. 53.) Now, Berryman said he took it from the German poet, Gottfried Benn, and my fact-checking department has traced this to Benn’s essay, “Artists and Old Age” (of 1954, translated in Primal Vision, page 206):
“Your art has deserted the temples and the sacrificial vessels, it has ceased to have anything to do with the painting of pillars, and the painting of chapels is no longer anything for you either. You are using your own skin for wallpaper, and nothing can save you.”
Benn was in turn mischievously interpreting a remark by Thomas Mann. And, Mann was commenting on a very old theme which, arising within the trunk of the Classics, branched through every European literature. Artists, according to this ancient meme, must be tough, not least on themselves.
Or as I might explain this to a fact-checker: “We can never be free of the ancient world, unless we become barbarians again.”
That’s another quote, from the same wall. It is from Jacob Burckhardt, in his Historische Fragmente. (Do you want the original German? I have it here.) Though truth to tell, I had nearly attributed it to Emil Staiger. (Shows you the importance of checking.)
We are becoming barbarians again. And so we are using our own skins for wallpaper, as perhaps Berryman came to appreciate most fully as he leapt from a Minneapolis bridge, into the Mississippi River. (Fact-check alert: “He didn’t land in the river, but near the second pier on the west bank, then rolled fifteen feet down the embankment. But as the autopsy showed, he would have been dead by the time his body made contact with the river itself. Please correct.”)
Berryman was an alcoholic. (You cannot libel the dead.) He was arguably manic, but unarguably depressive. (“Bi-polar?”) He was a deeply unhappy man, in the grimly uncongenial environment of modern American academia (which had already hog-tied literature and art, and was working on music). He burnt through three wives (if we have counted correctly). He was even cast, by the fashion of his generation, into the sadly inappropriate role of a “confessional” poet, when he longed for escape from his own skin. (Confessional poets often kill themselves; Berryman, to his credit, outlived most of his contemporaries.)
A distressing ego he may have had, but there were other facets. Many students remembered him as tirelessly devoted, both tough and kind. As poet he was a painstaking craftsman, whose turns, breaks, and very gravid pauses, show him fanatically avoiding the easy way out. He’d worry himself sick about keeping jobs, and paying bills, and keeping the very families he was about to abandon. He’d drive himself to the border of his sanity; then crack, and hit the bottle; brag, womanize, fight, slather, lie; and make an excruciating ass of himself.
His last, posthumous book, Delusions, &c (far from his best, and burning out around the edges) was also his most interesting. In de-tox in 1970 he’d had what he called a “sort-of religious conversion.” Instead of an abstractly transcendent God, he came suddenly to think that God might be Personal; might be interested in each human fate; might be capable of interceding in individual lives. He hit the bottle again; quit, hit, quit; struggling, apparently, against this idea. And finally he left that garbled, fragmentary, versified witness to something partially understood.
O gentle reader, pray for him. He was one of the innumerable lost: men and women of huge gifts, able to sing, but given no song; given instead freedom without purpose. It is, if you will, not entirely distinguishable from that “American Dream” that we heard invoked too many times in two recent political conventions: the self-made man in the land of laissez-faire, where nothing is impossible and “history is bunk.” (Which is not to condemn a little entrepreneurship.)
The “dream” stands unknowingly opposed to, “gather from the air a live tradition” (Ezra Pound, plagiarizing Dante through Villon). The critique here is more fundamental than, “You didn’t build that!” (when the real horror is often that they did). Men cannot lift themselves by their own ankles; they need that current of air to fly. They need even to be pointed and launched towards the Heaven. They need pillars to paint, and chapels, too. More than a country, they need a civilization.
Forty years have now passed since his passing. I remember from adolescence the thrill of Berryman’s “Henry,” and the strange architectonic of his Dream Songs; the hard poetical pedagogy in Berryman’s Sonnets, and the high lyrical pitch of his Love and Fame. (Though, Mistress Bradstreet made no sense to me.) I remember him showing me to the door of Emily Dickinson, and cutting a new trail through the Forest of Arden. And then, how I puzzled in the crash of his Delusions, and how he lay crumpled in a vaguely Catholic heap, after his Icarian fall. (Let God alone judge him.)
Turning a few more pages through the Dream Songs:
Bats have no bankers and they do not drink
and cannot be arrested and pay no tax
and, in general, bats have it made.