Friday, March 20, 2015

Judy Garland, Henry James & Guy (& Guy's dad) - or, The Ecstasy of Influence

The first words that occur: I like rooting for geniuses who don't always get it right. That is, I like geniuses I can love no matter what they do. But it can't just be any genius. They have to pull me in like someone I'm in love with: involuntarily, a little frighteningly. With some of the resistance of terror: of getting maybe more than I can handle. That gets a little closer. But there's an even more intimate relation being played -- a sense, somehow, of seeing something central that you don't understand but which infuses you with a kind of silent intense heat of identification. You feel yourself not exactly laid bare, but talked to in a way that no one else has ever been able to do. It isn't a complete identification: you don't think you're them, exactly, but, as I like to say about a very few people whom I know and have known in my personal life, you feel like you're from the same solar system (different from this one) -- maybe even the same planet - and you don't feel that way with anyone else. 

But from here on you have to get maddeningly specific. Maddening because you know you'll never be able to nail it.

Judy Garland and Henry James are the top two human examples I have in my life of this kind of genius. The only other object of similar love is a place, not a person - actually, more a condition than a place: New York City. "Condition" is the right word, really -- in fact, "condition" weds my immersion in New York to my immersion in Miss Garland and Mr. James. Because my relations with Garland and James are equally conditions of being. I am in a universe particular to them, which affects me in every dimension, very much like New York. Except, unlike New York, I can have it up to the proverbial HERE with Garland and James. (I can never get enough of New York.) Not everything they do is wonderful. And/or I can consume so much of them I am made literally physically ill. Cut the effin' intensity, Judy! Can't take it. Get off your cloud of gorgeous subordinate clauses, Henry! They're thickening in my throat.

In other words, there's some dread here. But I don't know that ecstasy ever comes without that.

I can cut to the Garland chase in a couple ways. First is, memories of Andy Hardy movies on '50s tv (and probably all the other early MGM black & white movies featuring her, like "Everybody Sing" and "Presenting Lily Mars") wherein my tiny child eyes fixed utterly and endlessly on the Judy Garland creature every time she appeared. I just couldn't not look at her. This is even outside the musical part. It was like watching a carefully tended white fire take human form. Alive beyond the mortal. Almost painfully riveting. 

And then there was the voice.

Given a chronic steady diet of my father's high baritone tight sensual vocal vibrato (presumably starting prenatally when my ears formed and could begin to hear the outside world thru my mother's womb), I was sort of unwittingly prepared for Garland when I finally heard her. Vibrato (like handwriting, which for me it invokes) has always startled & galvanized me. Sometimes it feels like the only thing I care about. Garland's vibrato, like my father's, had a kind of viola-sweet largeness -- still tight, though, irrepressibly tight, athletically regular. I could feel it in my throat. It both fed and taunted me. I've never wanted anything more in my life than that vibrato. 

Oh, there's too much else to say. I'll end the Garland part there. You've probably already felt the hot ember of it.

There's a connection to my father in Henry James too. My father stuttered very badly as a little boy. It coincided with his having been wrenched out of the USA at about the age of 6 (he was born in 1913) & taken by his German parents, right after the first world war, to Germany where his mutter und fater wanted to reunite with their families for a few years. America to Germany and back again (he returned at about the age of 9) rocked him badly. His stuttering was surely at least partly symptomatic - certainly aided & abetted by it. I also stuttered badly as a child and into my early adulthood. And, like my father, I was musical and verbal. I've come to realize there was a kind of nonstop inner fluency in both of us -- which only we knew about, because we literally couldn't give it voice. Only in writing, and in singing (and, for me, playing the violin) could we get some purchase on it. I learned later that Henry James and his father stuttered badly at different times too. With, I think, a similarly consequent flare-up of pent-up fluency in both. So much had to get out!

But I didn't come across Henry James until my late 30s, early 40s. One of my alma mater Middlebury College's bedrock policies (which has since changed) is that if you majored in English Literature, as I did, you read only English authors. James, if he even appeared on their curriculum, would have to have been corralled with the Americans, with almost none of whom (except 20th century poets, whom I read in a transgressive American poetry course once) I had any real acquaintance.

But if I'd come across James when I was in my 20s, I doubt I'd have had any patience with him. I don't actually remember how I finally stumbled into him. May have been (having by then lived in NYC a bunch of years) prodded by my ever-intensifying love for the 19th century in New York, and London -- but at some point I picked up something he'd written - might have been a European travel piece - and it was like me as a kid in front of the black & white tv coming upon Garland. I fell into a kind of trance over his cadences. He was speaking a language intimately familiar to me. His writing - which I heard as internal speech - became inseparable with, and an embodiment of, an ideal of psychic and verbal grace - every bit as consuming as Garland's viola-like power & timbre. Inseparable, too, from some sense of how I saw myself & wanted to live my life. (I became an aficionado of the whole James family - which is a whole other bottle of brown sauce. They all riveted me.) Somehow, in Henry's example, I'd found a beating heart which felt very like my own.

Ah, yes. Somehow that brings me to 'it.' Garland and James could not have done anything but what they did. I wanted a life like that. I now insist on it. No separation between outer & inner. The spirit made flesh with every breath. They were & are my beacons for this. 

To end here is to end too easily: But that's enough for now. 


No comments: