the saddest prison in the world

Today I got my release papers from the Castle. Twenty years I served behind its shimmering walls, day after beautiful day, eating the finest food, drinking the best libations. Walking the silent parks under the great, dark trees. Each long, quiet day was an eternity. I was filled with dread and despair, and yet somehow I felt I would not die here. But I had begun to fear that the reason was that I had already died, and forgotten it somehow. And this was the afterlife, what some called “heaven,” and it was forever. Or perhaps I had never been alive.

But that’s what the Castle does to your mind. You stop being able to tell the difference between the living and the dead. There are others all around you, but most of them can’t see you most of the time. If you try to speak with them they frown and wince, as if there were a whining insect in their ear, or some other unpleasant thing. After a while you stop looking at them, because the blankness in their eyes is impenetrable. You stop trying to get any acknowledgment as you pass close to them in the street. I began to fling out my hands to ward them off when they came straight toward me, but my hands just passed through air.

I once read a story of a scientist who tortured a dog that he kept in a laboratory: every time it tried to leave its cage when he opened the door he would give it an electric shock. Finally when it had been shocked a thousand times or so he could leave the cage door open all the time, and the dog would simply lie inside the cage, its head on its paws, looking at the door, and never move. He left it for days without food and water, still it would not move. He had broken it. (I believe the scientist received some kind of military award for his work.)

The people in the Castle act in that way upon one another. They make you give up. Love, companionship, even the mildest amity – you can look and look but you won’t find it among them. You might as well try to befriend a rubber ball.

Whatever else you want, though, you can have. The Castle provides many pleasures. Every vista is a feast for the eyes. The air from the sea is sweet and fresh. And those pleasures are free. There are pleasures available at every price in the Castle, from low to infinite. The pleasures are all as light as air, and do nothing to make you feel alive.

I had long ago forgotten how or why I had come to the Castle. You never intend to come; you just end up here. I don’t remember now how old I was or what I was doing. The trick is that from the outside it just looks like a pretty place, where anyone might want to live. You wander in, intrigued, not realizing the Castle is built like a Venus fly-trap, and once inside you won’t find it so easy to leave again.

But I knew I would be able to leave one day. I understood it was a question of money; it’s always a question of money.

I served, I endured; I knew better than to seek release in pleasure, and so did not waste my time trying to alleviate the dullness of my existence with drugs or purchases. Every empty second yawned into eternity, but I piled them up, second after second, hour after hour, day after day, for twenty years. I grew older; everyone grows older in the Castle, although perhaps more slowly than outside. You don’t notice much outward change, you simply wake up one morning and realize that the time is gone – the time for romance, love, adventure, whatever you might have imagined life would bring. The Castle takes your time away so gently you don’t even know until it’s gone, as if your blood were being drained so gradually that all you felt was a slight fatigue that increased incrementally over time.

Then just the other day, the message came: we’ve gotten enough from you; you can leave now if you want to. Expect your papers soon.

I felt an indescribable sensation of pure joy, for one brilliant moment. And when I felt that, I knew I was still alive.

Almost immediately afterwards, however, the terror set in. Leave and go where? To do what? I knew the Castle, and how things worked here, and I was comfortable in every physical sense. I knew what each day would bring. I worked, and my work was dull, but I didn’t have to work very hard. Other than the pain of loneliness, my life was free of pain. Who was to say I wouldn’t be just as lonely outside, and suffer physical pain and deprivation too?

What would I find out there? Where would I live? How would I survive?

And today the papers arrived. I have them in my hand, and I know that if I’m to leave, I’ll have to walk away, just walk away from this place I’ve lived for twenty years, leaving everything behind, never to return. Just walk away with nothing, into an unknown world.

Now I’m standing in the doorway, with my freedom in my hand, but I can’t bring myself to step outside.

I feel only a surge of hatred for the scientist, and pity for the dog.

Or is it the other way around?


electric guitar solo

The white-bearded rocker onstage at the Fillmore has lost no ferocity, no longing, and only gained in skill. He is a little stiff when he jumps on the big licks, but – what a relief! – he manages it. A white-bearded man in the crowd near us is not so lucky – he topples during a song, and can’t get up. His friends circle him caringly, crouching to assist him, talking quietly to assure him and themselves that his heart is not going to stop or burst yet. The rest of us stand tautly around, tense, alert, like herd animals when a predator is near.

Earlier, as one song built to a prolonged crescendo of dark and impossible desire, there came to me two impossible moments now deep in the past. Two bodies covered with a film of red sand in a rug-lined Berber tent in the Moroccan desert, a blind world of blowing sand outside the billowing walls. Two bodies on a straw pallet in a guerrilla encampment in the tropics, a tin roof thundering with rain.

Only dullness was ever foreseen for me by my class, my country, my time: sated physical needs, procreation, a responsible job. Dull privileges forever beyond the reach of most of the people i encountered out there in the deserts, the rainforests, or the busy slums between them. (Except procreation, which just about anyone can manage.) I did not escape the dullness entirely; almost no one does, but there were moments, and in the background somewhere when i think of them now will be the sound of an electric guitar reaching flawlessly for a climax with all the age-old impossible desire of youth in the world.

i stayed in the room

where my friend who had gone into rehab 3 times in the last 5 years kept his 12-step manuals. The loneliness of these books, and the drabness of their conventional pieties made me sad. I missed drinking with him, missed not his slurring incoherence by the end of the evening but the soft buzz of pleasured nerve endings that killed the despair we might have felt at the world’s inability to be other than it was, and the sense of wry adventure we shared in mundane or exotic surroundings (we had traveled together in El Salvador and Colombia but he had lived with his partner for decades in exurban Long Island). I missed the great gift that drinking gives one, which i garnered once unforgettably from a character in a British TV drama: “When you drink, my dear, you are never bored. You may bore other people, but you are never bored.”

But that is why i think John Berryman (who drank too much and ended as a dreadful suicide) has always had the last word about boring:

Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.
After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,
we ourselves flash and yearn,
and moreover my mother told me as a boy
(repeatingly) ‘Ever to confess you’re bored
means you have no

Inner Resources.’ I conclude now I have no
inner resources, because I am heavy bored.
Peoples bore me,
literature bores me, especially great literature,
Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes
as bad as Achilles,

who loves people and valiant art, which bores me.
And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag
and somehow a dog
has taken itself & its tail considerably away
into mountains or sea or sky, leaving
behind: me, wag.

you and i

You and I are caged birds. And all these people surrounding us, every one. Our tragedy is that more than half the cage was built before we were born, and we cannot dismantle it. Worse still, though, is that the rest of it we build ourselves and even the awareness that we are collaborating does not stop us from strengthening the walls of our prisons.

Look at you. You live with a constant, sometimes faint, sometimes painfully strong sense of disappointment. You get what you want, and discover in the process of getting it that it is not what you thought it was, and thus not what you wanted. You lose the people who mean the most to you because you do not mean as much to them as they to you. You continue to be dogged by the idea that wherever you are is not where you ought to be, or where you want to be. It is not the warmth-generating, heart-center of things. You stand outside looking in at a world that perhaps only exists in your imagination, but means more to you than the real one.

In thinking this way you finish the walls and floor of your unfinished prison, and yet how are you to stop? The idea that life is forbidden you sits deep at the center of your being.

Look at me. I do not wish to write melancholy decipherings of the bourgeois mentality. I do not wish to write sensitive, delicate descriptions of emptiness. I am well aware that the opportunity to feel most strongly about what is not present in space and time is a luxury you and I do not share with most of our fellow human beings.

If we cannot be at the center then we must create a center where we are, but we cannot forgive or forget the utopian world that does not exist. You mourn, I presume the right to rage at the idiocy and injustice and waste and cold-hearted malice of the world that is.

Oh– but we still see the cracked beauty that shines from a filthy street under its streetlamp moon, or the promise in a dark, silent, vista: unbroken ranks of trees, the mist swirling off them, standing beyond a butchered forest. We still feel the warmth and life of other souls stirring under the layers of rank mud heaped on our psychic lives. It is not just rage and sadness, but joy too that we feel, as our hearts beat wildly against the bars of their prison, the only life they know.

parable of the devil in the glass

I was finishing my second glass of wine at the bar. Perhaps i was slightly drunk. But when i looked into the bottom of the glass i saw a hideous face, all screaming mouth full of sharp teeth and tiny, rage-maddened eyes staring back at me. At first i was shocked, and then after a moment i recognized it: the visual incarnation of a mental process. I knew this devil. It was the howling face of a mocking creation. Its message was that happiness might be for others, but it was not for me. “You will strive for happiness,” promised the devil, “and it will turn to pain. If you do attain it, it will not be for long; it will vanish, and i will be waiting, and you will hear me shrieking with laughter at your defeat.”

This revelation that i had a personal demon bent on my psychic destruction brought a strange reaction. “Well then,” i replied, “that’s fine, i believe what you say, but you will never get to hear me beg for mercy, you will never see my spirit broken by my fate. I will never give you the satisfaction of admitting that you have defeated me.”

It may be an odd thing to argue with a condition of one’s own existence, but it made me feel better.

I could feel the defiance rising in me again as i looked into the glass. I know what to do, i thought, and shook the lees round inside the glass to break the image up. But it recomposed itself quickly and perfectly, still horrible. So then i tried drinking off the last of the wine, but when i set the glass down i could see it still. So i looked away and laughed, and tried to concentrate on the dance floor and the music. Still it was there, but it didn’t seem to matter as much. Then, just as an experiment, i stared directly at it until my eyes blurred, but that was also temporary. Whenever i could see clearly, the demon was there.

Finally i gave up trying to be rid of it. I could still it see there, out of the corner of my eye, but life rushed in around it and filled up the empty space it had created. As my field of vision widened, my demon came to seem more and more insignificant: a tiny face of howling fury trapped inside glass.

surviving and thriving

I have seen the world as a mugger poised around a future corner, his blackjack ready to crack down on your skull.

And as a ship entering a tranquil bay, full of guns and soldiers preparing to disembark.

And as a poison I needed to take in controlled doses in order to survive. Ultimately, of course, you know it will kill you. You just try to forestall the mortal effect as long as you can.

We all want to thrive, not just survive. I can only thrive by throwing open the doors to Elsewhere and drawing strength from the world that blows in. Until Elsewhere is as real as here and as present, until it fills the same space, the solid emptiness of here, with its obverse fullness, a pregnant cloud full of rain.