On the Santa Cruz Fantastic
. . .
Not much happens anymore in Santa Cruz. I'm often told that it was once an enchanted city, as in Santa Cruz of the spellbound sixties (which supposedly lasted here well into the seventies), a place where the psychedelic passions reigned supreme, described by most as a kind of orgiastic blowhole that swelled up with and ecstatically released the collective, candy-colored fever dreams of a radical left coast hot for experience. Perhaps, but these days, with all the blissful California monotony, hardly anything worth mentioning. Except for this.
I had originally intended to write a punchy reappraisal of William Blake's critique of memory, his condemnation of any politics of pious nostalgia, any fashionable ethics of reverence for the suffering of originary victims. In short, detailing how Blake supplies the artistic punch line for a joke worked to the point of cliché in most history departments: sure, those who forget are condemned to repetition, but those who remember the past are condemned to repeat it too. Memory is a grave, Blake tells us, just as deadly as historical amnesia. What I had not yet realized was that an essay on the 'end of memory' was busy writing me into it as I labored in vain to craft one myself. I finally resolved to abandon the Blakean tirade after something fateful happened, something uncanny, during the final lecture of a course I was teaching at UC Santa Cruz last fall. Recorded here is a remembrance of that moment and the forces that conspired to make it real, a story shaped from within and about a public university in ruin, a taking stock of what remains as its institutional memory fades, of what might be redeemed and what should be forgotten, like the old defeats.
The story begins, as many fantastic ones do, with big time plans made on a big night of drinking. It was a couple years ago. My host was an old friend and bourbon enthusiast (not in the sense of an aficionado but merely someone who drinks a lot of bourbon) with blonde dreadlocks, a well-maintained physique, some piercings, expressive eyebrows, and facial features vaguely reminiscent of Iggy Pop's, a man whose chief delight takes the form of washing dishes in nothing but rubber gloves and a small pair of tweed lady slacks, worn as elongated shorts, the iced bourbon with a dash of bitters nearby, while listening to records many would deem “unlistenable.” This singular force, let us call him “Michael,” was working then as a teaching assistant in a literature course on the world-sixties. He tells me that The Professor, a local legend and character of note (in the literal sense, making an appearance in a recent novel by Jonathan Franzen, who supposedly lives around here), would be leading a pack of undergraduates deep into the woods early the next morning.
The destination was billed as a secret location once cherished by the late Norman O. Brown. William Blake led me to Brown's work and Brown's work led me to Santa Cruz. A faint echo of Brown's legacy still exists here, drifting in and out of different intellectual undergrounds. When his name is mentioned or, by chance, an old friend steps out of the shadows, I try to make myself available, and for this, I have been handsomely rewarded. The stories have the feel of old mainstays, neglected for years, finally seeing some action. These companions on the Dionysian path speak with urgency now, knowing that everything Brown helped build here, everything that seemed indestructible, is as tenuous as a palace made out of tissue paper. I had to go.
Michael says Brown and The Professor were close friends and often walked the wilds of Santa Cruz together. I already knew that, having read the professor's contribution to a collection of eulogies for Brown. I also came across a series of pictures in a student run literary magazine from the early seventies in which Brown and The Professor, “Chris,” at that time a lowly UCSC undergraduate, are seen arguing about Nietzsche while draining themselves at neighboring urinals. Around midnight, warmed by the bourbon, Michael e-mails Chris on my behalf, requesting permission to join the party, qualifying me as a dedicated reader of Brown and assuring him that I would comply with his Stalinist terms and most importantly, keep the secret.
A couple of records spin to completion, and Chris has not responded. A couple more and still nothing. To cope with what seemed like a terrible defeat (and expecting ample time to recover the following day), we resolved to end our session with a flourish, wiping out the last of the house's liquor supply. I set off on the walk home at three or so, loaded, feeling sublime, no longer thinking about the missed opportunity. When I step through the front door, the phone is ringing. It's Michael. Chris just replied. We're on for tomorrow, seven o'clock sharp, Chris's hourse, and no excuses. Michael is yelling now, the sloshing of words mostly indiscernible, though some do punch through: “the Fates!” . . . “That's a fucking rookie move!” . . . “Learn it!” . . . “Wilder!” . . . “Asterisk!” . . .
Against all odds, we both arrive on time, reasonably equipped for the hike, somehow feeling fine, almost zesty. Only a handful of students bother to show up. They are waiting patiently for Chris in his rather impressive garden. Chris emerged at the appointed hour dressed in black, a customary look for this smallish, pear-shaped man with wild eyes and short white hair standing up on end, as if part of his morning routine involved fingering an electrical socket. I discovered, not long after we lit out for the trailhead, that his shape was not indicative of his physical capabilities. He scaled a barbed-wire fence with astonishing ease and went on to cover many miles in the late morning and afternoon heat without issue. This was indeed a man with secrets.
While he was marching steadily along, I was suffering.
The last vestiges of my bourbon drunk were burned away by the first hour of ascending sun, at which point the hangover dramatically asserted itself. Sweating liquor, stomach turning, I pressed on. Sensing weakness, or so it seemed, Chris pulled up alongside me. He introduced himself and immediately started grilling me on Brown's work. Cupcake questions at first, then the harder stuff. This culminated with him asking about Brown's profound reaction to an anti-nuclear rally he attended in the sixties. I knew all about it and responded expertly, providing details on the encounter and noting that his disgust with the pacifists became the foundation for his chapter “Fire” in Love's Body, but for the life of me, I could not place the author or the relevant text. Days later, it came to me, and I cringed: this was the story Chris referenced in his eulogy. Still, I handled his questions reasonably well, and without vomiting.
The conversation shifted away from Brown and toward his influences, in particular Blake and Jacob Böhme. A couple of minutes of talk on the link between Böhme and Cormac McCarthy before circling back to Brown and his relationship with some prominent novelists who also lived in northern California. Henry Miller was one such friend, often driving up from Big Sur to accompany Norman on many of his sojourns into the woods. As a testament to their friendship and shared enthusiasm for the sport, he later donated his prized collection of ping-pong paddles to UCSC. I told Chris that handling those paddles was my first order of business when I arrived in Santa Cruz. Pleased to hear it and with a wry grin, his wild eyes noticeably wilder, he began to reveal a secret about the famous donation.
Included with the paddles were Miller's legendary ping-pong ball cufflinks, cherished by the author and worn by him at his third and fourth weddings. Chris went on to tell me that the library's receipt of the gift depended on Special Collections -- "Spec Coll" -- agreeing to certain conditions established by Miller. One of these stipulated in firm language that anyone could borrow the cufflinks for occasions that called for something "fantastic." Chris encouraged me to take them out for a night but warned me about potential resistance from the librarians of Spec Coll, Keepers of the Cufflink Secret, disinterested in honoring Miller's wishes, content to keep the relic hidden away with the rest of the past's treasures. At first, they'll claim to know nothing, stonewall your ass, Chris said. Then, after you demand to see the terms of the donation and point out the provisions relating to the cufflinks, they'll spring a series of bureaucratic traps, ensnaring your request in a web of university paperwork and other inane formalities. Be careful, keep your wits about you; they're militants, he told me.
The fantastic possibility opened up by Chris's secret—a date with those cufflinks and springing them from their climate-controlled prison—hinged on the presence of institutional memory, the living bond that unites the ghosts of the past with the people who now sit at their desks and thumb through their books. For me, it took Chris returning from China, a cheap jug of bourbon, friendship, and luck, and it impressed upon me the significance of those forms of institutional memory that we cannot command and that every so often intervene and command us. The recall of information is only one base function of memory. How easily we forget that our institutional and individual memories are also the preserve of mysteries, often unpublishable, even unutterable, and because of that imminently perishable. Their continued existence depends on communions of the living. In order to survive they must take hold of us. Without destinies to alter, the mysteries wither and die.
Of course, this is a far cry from the glossy, heavily bureaucratized dumb-show typically associated with UC Santa Cruz and the idea of institutional memory. In the name of progress, the university here reduces the memory of its former enchantment to fodder for marketing campaigns, flashing the counter-culture hologram each time it needs to shift attention away from acts of budgetary terrorism. This is what the enchanted Santa Cruz has become. In the end, it's yet another way to lure and distract the dupes, young fools willing to pay already obscene and still escalating tuition costs in exchange for the promise of a mythic experience that went extinct over forty years ago. Nowadays this place is about as dull as its boxy, early-90's architecture—a tyranny of endless sunshine, swarms of electric cars, a grease-ball frenzy of new age politicians, teenage transients with cardboard signs showing their cracked, dirty palms to the downtown shoppers and European tourists, meth dealing surfers, anarchist bicycle enthusiasts, stoned grocers, and a geriatric intelligentsia being replaced by (and becoming) high-functioning bureaucrats, their formerly radical university now just another local institution getting balled and jacked by corporate expansion imperatives.
This is how, in his enchanting world-sixties lectures, Chris unintentionally collaborates with the expansion effort and cedes vital ground to the silicon left. I, Dr. Marut, audited those lectures for awhile. I stopped going after it became all too apparent that the course wasn't a study of the sixties so much as it was a provocation of the undergraduates to stage the sixties in miniature, within a controlled environment. It was equally clear that the professor cultivated this sixties atmosphere in the classroom because in truth, he was still there, living in the past, a Marxist variation on Walter Sobchak. Two thousand years of beautiful tradition from Spartacus to Chairman Mao? You're goddamn right he's living in the past. Forcing the rotten rags of sixties radicalism onto our glitzy Millennial surround results in little more than a narcissistic theater of liberal idiocy, with speakers speaking about speaking order and establishing inclusive, egalitarian rules for speaking, speaking truth to power, and about really being heard and understood and valued for their individual perspectives. Chris/Walter is not wrong; he will just never come to grips with how modern narcissism overwhelms and betrays his time-honored revolutionary ethos. The result of that ignorance is a degree of complicity with the university's nasty capitalist streak.
Consider his students, as they feasted on the simulacra, all enjoying themselves. While Chris was out of town for a conference, the undergraduates protested the midterm en masse. He returned a happy man, proud of his flock for conforming to rebellion. During the next lecture, he asked his audience about their recent coup. The exchange was darling. No one strayed from the script. Right as I, Dr. Marut, was drifting off, a young woman raised her hand and said something I will never forget. She gushed about how “life-altering” the incubated mid-term protest was and then proceeded to thank the professor for his lectures, especially the one on May '68. She confessed that up till then, she did not know that there had ever been “a revolution in France.” Chris was too busy beaming to notice this blasphemy of the temporal order. He moved on to the next eager speaker. The previous student went right on believing, and probably still believes, that the French Revolution was a Twentieth-Century general strike.
I do not mean to vilify Chris (he is the unlikely hero of this story, after all) or to suggest that his situation is in any way unique. We are all walking the tightrope between resistance and collaboration, trying to string a narrow path through the labyrinthine institutions that seek to swallow us up. Sometimes our intentions betray us, and our fight for balance precipitates a fall. Under present conditions, we must be patient, discrete, agile, seizing upon the possibilities that happen along without drowning in the vast, ever-rising oceans of institutional bullshit—slogans and seminars, team-building exercises and endless performance reviews. With these rare possibilities, however minor they seem, we sustain ourselves and stay afloat. They restore a fullness to the present otherwise drained by the constant urge to look backward or forward, to indulge in utopian future-planning or the restoration of an imaginary golden age, a fullness unknown to the new wave of corporate muscle that occupies the power positions of the University of California, unknown to the masochistic memory that hinders imagination, unknown to the mock revolutionaries who get off on the impossible struggle to make nostalgia the world.
Back to the hike.
We arrived at our destination around the noon hour, a site that lived up to the otherworldly hype. The walk in was complicated by the need to trespass on municipal land—going over rusty fences and through locked gates—but the walk out proved more intense. Our path was a century old road in the process of being reclaimed by the earth, an almost post-apocalyptic landscape of scorched grass and dead eucalyptus trees, the traces of pavement caked in a shocking amount of mountain lion shit, which if you don't know is a very unsettling shade of white. The final obstacle -- all that stood between us and the coastal highway where we had left a car -- was a gnarly, tick-ridden thicket. Soon as we got to the road, we began picking off the first wave of tick intruders. Chris told us to have our lovers carefully inspect our bodies as soon as we got home. The woman I loved, who I moved to Santa Cruz to start a life with, had recently left me. At home, hours later, alone, in the bathroom, surveying my flesh, looking for parasites, I, Dr Marut, finally registered the blow. I do not know why exactly; there is just something about digging blind into the filthier crevices of one's body that makes a lonely situation a lot lonelier. I discovered two ticks in all, one making a home in an armpit, the other burrowing into the small of my back.
About six months later, I finally approached the militant women of Special Collections and put in an official request for a date with the ping-pong ball cufflinks. The occasion was the final lecture of a course in which I played the French Hegel, a feat also made possible by the mysterious side of institutional memory. Without a direct line back to Alexandre Kojève's famous seminar series, that form of Hegelian intellectual jazz is impossible for outsiders to learn. Lucky for me, my own guide, who I saw perform the piece three times, was once a student of Jean Hyppolite's, one of the original seminar participants. Georges Bataille, who both organized the meetings and helped convince Kojève to lead them, claimed that the Russian émigré's riffing on and spot translation of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit was the summit of human intelligence, the ultimate in contemplation. He was right about that. The reason why is yet another well-kept secret.
I explained to the leader of the Spec Coll militants -- let's call her “Beth” -- that the subject of my lecture was an essay by Roger Caillois (the other individual responsible for setting up Kojève's seminar) on “The Natural Fantastic” and that I needed my outfit and the theme to match. I then made an official request for the cufflinks. Internal meetings were held and e-mails volleyed back and forth, but in the end, the resistance was minimal, nothing like what Chris had warned me. I was, after all, friendly with at least two of these women. One of them was Beth. She once sent me an e-mail that she characterized as “starchy” (I'd call it “downright mean”) which shamed me for not writing her in preparation for a talk I was due to give in the conference room inside Spec Coll on UCSC's unparalleled collection of Trianon Press Blake reproductions—a rare privilege. Thing is, I actually had e-mailed her about it, but somehow she overlooked the message. People tend to act a lot nicer after fucking up like that. Beth's colleague “Janet” also happened to be the mother of a woman who recently entered into a domestic partnership with one of my closest friends. They met and romanced many miles away, at random, in Brooklyn. What are the odds, right? A billion to one? Well friends, take it from Ret Marut: in this world, that is good enough.
After some negotiating with Beth, it was agreed that I would pick up Henry Miller's cufflinks an hour before the lecture and return them before noon the next day. It was further stipulated that I would pose for pictures. When the time came, I was hoping that Beth would not be around. Maybe someone else would take the photographs, or maybe I would get away without having to honor the commitment. Relief washed over me when I saw that Spec Coll was desolate, with the exception of one rather attractive woman about my age, who I had never seen before, sitting behind the desk. I approached and informed her, with a mild degree of urgency, that I was there for the ping-pong ball cufflinks, which I saw sitting in a box to her left. She didn't even look back at me, instead reached for a phone and buzzing Beth, who then emerged from a back room followed by what seemed like the entire Spec Coll staff.
The women all acknowledged and laughed about how obviously uncomfortable I was as the pictures were snapped. They joked about the prom feel of the photo-shoot and talked about similar experiences with their sons. What they didn't know was that this really was the first time since prom I'd allowed myself to be photographed smiling for a camera. I find the custom humiliating and insane. That day, for them, I went along. Such is my love for these women and the depth of my appreciation for the work that they do. They were kind and genuine, rare qualities in a simulacra world. Spec Coll was a shelter from the storm.
Their passion was obviously real, and their professional militancy, so intimidating at first, became inspirational. Up till then, I had refused to tell Beth who told me about the cufflink secret. Before I left, she pressed me on it. I folded. In the end, it did not take much. I am still scared of her. And just like prom, I was warned by Beth, nervous parent, to not get drunk with the cufflinks or go to bed with the cufflinks after the big event.
Soon as I walked out of the library, I asked myself, would Henry Miller want the wearer of the cufflinks to obey her repressive command or go hog wild? That question led to bigger ones. Who commands my loyalty in all this? Beth and Chris or Henry and Norman? By what right does the Spec Coll militants keep such objects entombed, denying them access to their living destinies? And who appointed Chris the sole guardian of Norman O. Brown's holy spot in the forest? Why let these keepers of institutional memory pull a knowledge that does not belong to them out of common circulation? Why not blow the lid off the whole thing, keep the cuff-links and return convincing fakes, then make it all known—Henry Miller's true wishes, the location of the secret site? (I am sure you understand by now that the article you are reading is a not insignificant violation of their sacred trust, but what compelled me to write it has nothing to do revealing secrets and everything to do with keeping them.)
Looking fantastic, the students arrive for the final lecture. Most are ornately costumed, many of the gentlemen come in drag, and others have painted faces, a couple carnival masks, and a few furry creatures. I begin by reading the first paragraph of the “Natural Fantastic:”
As opposed to fairy tales or to the Marvelous, which involves a world of enchantment, of constant metamorphoses and miracles where everything is always possible, I think the Fantastic presumes a well-ordered universe ruled by the immutable laws of physics, astronomy, and chemistry. This world is one in which like causes produce like effects, and which consequently excludes the slightest chance of miracles. The fantastic appears as the disruption of a natural order that is deemed impossible to disturb. This natural order, not to say nature itself in the strong sense of the word, can be defined only as a form of regularity so fundamental that it is beyond the reach of any manipulation. By definition, it is so strong that human skill can modify it only by obeying it.
I went on to ask, by the grace of what limitless boredom, of what well-ordered world, which seems to prohibit such happenings, will the fantastic emerge? Everywhere mediocrity asserts itself as a permanent force, there is something quietly accumulating, voluptuous, getting heavier, the power of the fantastic swelling in reserve, ready to burst. The more boring it gets, the more powerful the fantastic becomes. Our Santa Cruz is no longer an enchanted world, the Marvelous sixties when every radical dream appeared to be within reach. The old regime of enchantments has been supplanted by a city ripe for an emergence of the fantastic. We need only surrender ourselves to The Fates, who will handle the rest.
As soon as I said all that, I realized it was true and began to reflect on all those twists of fate I had yielded to—the move to Santa Cruz, the French Hegel lessons, and the bourbon adventures with Michael, the hike with Chris, the charmed Spec Coll bond. How had all these episodes combined to write this story, to use my own life and so many other lives as blank pages? In the midst of the lecture, I remembered the last conversation Michael and I had in Claremont, nearly seven years prior. I was moving to Chicago. He was staying in Los Angeles. We were not close friends at that time, but even then, both of us understood that our meeting was not accidental. I assured him on saying goodbye that somehow I knew that our story was not over. It was only the beginning. We wouldn't see or speak to one another again for a couple years. When we were reunited once again, this time in Northern California, neither of us was surprised.
During that quarter long performance of the French Hegel, the truly transcendent moments did not elicit pleasure groans or applause. They froze the room, everyone perfectly still, locked in, not making a sound. That's just how it was on the last day, when I removed my hands from the pockets of my sport-coat and began gesturing wildly, speaking words that were not mine about a fate I could not own. The darkened room fell silent, the masked students motionless, time slowed to a stop, and that is when I saw it, what they were all looking at -- Henry Miller's ping-pong ball cufflinks.
They were glowing.
Ret Marut may be reached through his agent at email@example.com