ICH KUSS DIE HAND:
The Letters of H. L. Mencken
to Gretchen Hood
Peter W. Dowell, editor
(University of Alabama)
To those of us who grew up on a steady diet of Mencken, these letters --- written to a lady friend over a period of five years --- will come as a disappointment. Commonplace, mostly; discussing commonplace matters, such as Mencken's many and eternal medical problems or his less well thought-out feelings on a variety of current personalities (Al Smith, Herbert Hoover, Aimee Semple McPherson) and endless bickers about the weather. Added to this are the prejudices that emerge less veiled than in his columns for the Baltimore Sun references to "coons," "kikes, and "wops;" advice that Hood get "a good Jew lawyer" --- these overwhelm what few genuine amusing comments manage to peep in between the lines, Menckenisms such as the suggestion that after one performance, the soloists of the National Symphony be "hanged or otherwise."
Go back to RALPH's Top Pop Hits
THE DEFINITIVE ORIGINAL FOUR-ACT VERSION OF THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST
Ruth Berggren, Editor
(Vanguard)When Oscar Wilde traveled to America, he stated that the Atlantic Ocean was "disappointing." When he was taken into a saloon in Leadville, Colorado, he saw a sign that read "Please do not shoot the pianist. He is doing his best..." and called it "the only rational method of art criticism I have ever come across." Under pressure from his producer, Wilde cut the original four-act version of The Importance of Being Earnest down to three, eliminating such choice lines as:
You don't seem to realise, Algy, that when one is young one gets prizes for what one knows, and that when one grows up one gets prizes for what one doesn't know. A much better system. You must find it most convenient...
Nobody is ever shocked now-a-days except the clergy and the middle classes. It is the profession of the one and the punishment of the other.
Since the Importance of The Importance of Being Earnest is not in the structure, nor in this or that line being retained or cut, but rather in the arrogant wryness of the whole, we would suggest that it might be an error to make too much of Ms. Berggren's reconstruction. Wilde's style was to turn all issues of middle class morality on their heads, at the same time slipping in hints of darker deeds --- at least deeds that would appear to be darker to the Victorians, such as this most subtle reference to sodomy:
JACK: ... but what are you going to do to-morrow?
ALGY: To-morrow, my dear boy, I am going Bunburying.
JACK: What nonsense!
ALGY: It isn't nonsense at all. I will certainly Bunbury tomorrow if the weather is at all favourable.
JACK: I have never heard such nonsense in my life.
ALGY: I love nonsense.
THE KUNDALINI EXPERIENCE
(Integral)If you are looking for the kundalini experience (not the book, dummy: the experience), maybe you shouldn't. Those who have gone through it describe hot flashes, tearing headaches, tingling, numbness, disorientation, blisters, spasms, and
a rush --- a roar --- of white light [shooting] up from the base of my spine through and out of the top of my head. I was terrified, panicked, and thought I was dying...at times I would jump up from a sound sleep with the white roar. During this time I was mostly preoccupied with the certainty that I was either dying or going crazy.
The author is intent on reassuring readers that the experience doesn't have to be madness (although there is a section on how clinicians can differentiate between kundalini and schizophrenia) and, indeed, that it's common not only in yogic practice, but in other cultural traditions, such as the transcendent dancing of the iKung people of Botswana.
Those who want a how-to-do-it manual will be disappointed --- Sannella doesn't offer advice to those who want to go bonkers. It seems from the case studies, however, that the experience can be induced by the use of LSD, deep meditation, or "rebirthing," or can turn up spontaneously while you are having tea and crumpets. The Christian mystic, Saint Therese of Lisieux,
appeared to be in delirium, crying out against unseen and terrifying creatures. She tossed violently in bed, hitting her head on the bedboards as if some strange force were assailing her. These "convulsions," which sometimes resembled the contortions of a gymnast, were occasionally so violent that she would be thrown out of bed. There were rotary or tumbling movements of her whole body that were quite beyond her normal flexibility. For instance, she would spring from her knees and stand on her head without the use of her hands.
Sannella suggests that she was a closet kundalinist.
The Ultimate Game
(Harper & Row)This is a supposed tell-all about Rajneesh, but if you are looking for steamy nights in the fleshpots of Antelope with toothsome California ladies barebottom under (or spread-eagle atop) Bhagwan --- forget it. Ms. Strelley was out of the hierarchy by then. She had joined earlier on in India, working directly under Ma Anand Sheela, who worked directly under (or atop) Baba Boobie Baby. Her tale is of organization and eighteen-hour days and the exponential growth of the operation until it was time to decamp to Oregon, which, she suspects, was all Sheela's doing.
Strelley's tale may be a tale of brainwashing and "cults," but not necessarily as an evil force, just one that takes you over so that you don't even think of the alternatives. You don't have time, for one thing. Ashramites were traditionally as busy as beavers: Baba Boobie Baby Beavers, that is. Theirs was a semiperfect neocapitalistic megacorp, working with no overhead, a markup in goods and services of close to 1000 percent, centralized under a man who combined the best and the worst of Rasputin, Lee Iacocca, Papa Doc, Uri Geller, and Groucho Marx:
I was particularly fascinated by Bhagwan's hands which seemed, in their rapid, graceful movements, to speak a silent language all their own...the Tibetans claim you can actually hypnotize a person with mudras, ritual hand movements.
Those who worked with Sheela were required to operate at the height of perfection. They specialized in magic, where the followers would wake up and an entire building would be dismantled and replaced by an entirely different (and perfect) three-story structure (constructed without hammer and nails). The most fascinating parts of The Ultimate Game have not so much to do with the souring of an organization --- where power and paranoiac fear led to the inevitable destruction --- as with the occasional tidbits of high comedy (the royal plumbing gives out and the sannyasins have a fine old time running into the master's house and dumping buckets of water on his holy but naked, soapy body) --- or the descriptions of life in India: for instance, a day in the life of the funeral-pyre keeper:
Ghat-keepers are always quite strange. Ours looked like the quintessential yogi --- his hair long and tangled and filthy, hanging in what look like dreadlocks, wearing only a loincloth. [He] sits beside the ashes, day and night, and sings or dances --- and probably smokes opium. In the West he'd probably be declared a yogi or guru just because he's so crazy.
FIELDING'S AFRICAN SAFARIS
Jane and Leah Taylor
(Morrow)The word "safari" commonly refers to a hunting expedition, but here the Taylors use it in the broader Swahili sense of "journey." They outline sixty-five exotic trips, including those for artists, backpackers, golfers, mountain climbers, the physically disabled, scuba divers, volcanologists, and writers. It's not cruise-line stuff: the ladies Taylor have some harrowing experiences of their own, including being damn near run off the road a dozen times in the Atlas Mountains east of Tangier (by dope dealers, no less).
Their five-hundred-word description of how to use an "eastern toilet" vs. the standard flush model is direct and to the point ("bolt the door --- if there is one"). It's one of the first guidebooks to devote a chapter to "Beggars and Hassling," with country-by-country descriptions. The writing can be a bit breathless:
Even more surprising is a report from Lake Victoria of a Nile perch, caught in a net, weighing 516 pounds!...In Malawi there is the opportunity, as study of the checklist indicates, to be the first person ever to record the sighting of a particular species.
But their taste and good sense are refreshing --- and fortunately, they don't try to hide their favoritism:
Since independence the Comoros have seen tourist numbers dwindle. They were never very great: 1500-2000 a year. Now they are down to just under 1000. Hotels, since the French gave independence, have reportedly suffered from lack of maintenance, but the visitor knowing that this is so, and preparing to make the best of what is available will find: personal security absolute --- crime, apart from petty theft, is nil; small beaches totally uncluttered by other tourists; excellent, excellent French food; an interesting nightlife; countless small shops in narrow (cars can't pass) shaded streets; and that, on leaving the islands, they have acquired a lifelong longing to return.
TALES OF TEXAS AND BEYOND
Charles A. Watson
(Cedar Elm Publishing)We suppose that all of us get scared at some point in our lives, that we'll pass on to our great reward, and that there will be nothing at all left to show for our brief passage except a block in the boneyard. Watson has been an accountant for fifty years and has decided that belles lettres will be his new avocation. We have here twenty essays as his proposed memento mori. It's not bad, as Texas writing goes --- tales of one-legged men on Pullmans, a corpse that came to life (his father was the town mortician), thoughts on DNA and nuclear plants, a recipe that calls for "boiled linseed oil:"
I came flying down the stairs and saw a sight only a few will ever get to see. The linseed oil had overflowed onto the kitchen stove and had covered the paint mixing instructions with a thick layer of goo...I stuck my finger in the goo to retrieve the instructions, but the stuff burned like fire and I dropped the pot. As the contents spread over the floor, the balloon burst on the ceiling, and some of the hot oil found its way down my neck.
Gene Fowler said, "Writing is easy; all you have to do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead. Watson needs a bit more bleeding time and, perhaps, the willingness to look into the dark, as well as the light, side of humanity.
THE FLORIDA KEYS:
From Key Largo to Key West
(Random House)There are anywhere from 40 to 100 Keys off the southern coast of Florida --- depending on who's counting. The word "key" comes from the Spanish word cayos (little islands). Key Largo was the locale of the famous Humphrey Bogart film --- no? No. It was all shot in Hollywood, complete with fake fog and wind machines.
The highest key is Lignumvitae (16 feet above sea level). The Lignum vitae tree --- also known as "holywood" or "brokeiron" --- was supposed to have originated in the Garden of Eden. The Keys have been damaged by man, says Ms. Williams, but the destruction would have been even worse if it weren't for mosquitoes, lack of water, hurricanes, palmetto bugs, and greed. Developers bought up 1500 acres of land on North Key Largo and were going to build a city of 100,000 --- but fortunately they went bust and the Nature Conservancy got the land.
Williams is a charming, knowledgeable journalist. Sprinkled about are suggestions about where to go for restaurants, rooms, snorkeling, and swimming. There are elements of testiness at the wanton destruction of the very fragile coral, and why not? Mostly though, Williams' facts delight and entertain:
The Torch Keys are named after the torchwood tree, which "burns green..and may have hallucinogenic properties."
When the great Hurricane of 1935 roared in; it destroyed one of the engineering marvels of all times, Henry Flagler's bridge that ran from Miami to Key West. And on bugs:
Mosquitoes are big here. They have been called the most reliable defenders of wilderness in the state. Sandflies are big. They are called "flying teeth." Palmetto bugs, the southern cockroach, are very big, and shiny, too. You'll see them in the best of places as well as in the wilds. At a pool party at an elegant home, a guest was heard to exclaim, "Oh, look at the little turtles!" as a family of these creepies lumbered across the patio. If you crush them, there is a terrible smell of almonds.
HORN OF THE MOON COOKBOOK:
Recipes from Vermont's Renowned
(Harper & Row)We suspect that the days have passed when all the vegetarian restaurants lived along University Avenue. All the food tasted like construction paper and the drinks had the aura of sassafras and rainwater. Ms. Callan, for instance, is willing to permit mayonnaise, mozzarella, salt, Parmesan, butter, heavy cream, and other fat-head products of the mainline world. She's quite tolerant --- but we would suggest that this cookbook is merely adequate, dull, and middle-of-the-road.
It's divided into six main categories: breakfast, soups, salads, simple meals, main courses, and desserts. She makes egg salad with eggs, mayonnaise, celery, parsley, scallions, and dill --- which seems a bit strong for the eggs. Who are we to second-guess a vegetarian restaurant owner --- but, frankly, we'd dump the scallions and dill and parsley (raw parsley never works in uncooked meals, anyway) and add chopped sweet pickles, cayenne and paprika. She also is willing to dump frozen peas in her potato salad, but who wants cold wrinkled little balls in their potato salad, we ask you?
THE PSYCHOLOGY OF SPIRITUAL GROWTH
Mary E. Carreiro
(Bergin & Garvey)"The Brothers and Sisters of the Inner World" have evidently blown in from the Gentle Wind Retreat in Kittery, Maine. This tome that has little to do with psychology, something rather evasive to do with spiritual growth, and a great deal to do with carping about false prophets. Evidently the "Long Age of Darkness" --- 75,000 years in duration --- is nigh about over, and our souls are momentarily to balloon off elsewhere. All the New Age doodads, meditations, and spiritual trips are in vain:
People who search the East for gurus and masters would find as much spiritual wisdom in Detroit or Cincinnati as they would in most parts of India. Just as useless is munching granola, going to school, or doing psychotherapy: psychotherapists as a group are very unhealthy, with some 90 percent suffering from severe personal problems. The pathology of some psychotherapists is so severe that they might well become dysfunctional if they were unable to project their problems onto their clients on a continuous basis. So, most patients are seeking help from people who are too sick to help them.
The Psychology of Spiritual Growth suffers from what we might call the anchorless statistic, a round number floating about on a gentle wind without the secure chain of foot-notes. Ninety, eighty, fifty, thirty, and even twenty percents all come and go, babbling not about Michelangelo but, instead, about our lousy school systems:
Schools claim to be learning environments. They claim to offer students a place to learn. Yet education damages over 80 percent of the school population each year...Good students with good grades are rewarded because they do not make many mistakes. This type of student constitutes about 20 percent of the world population involved informal education.If you go to the last chapter looking for their mode of soul growth, good luck. The most you will find is promise of many more volumes out of Kittery, Maine, on the same subject, with, perhaps, the ultimate answer, or at least twenty percent of it.
PERMANENT NEW YORKERS:
A Biographical Guide to the
Cemeteries of New York
Judi Culbertson and Tom Randall
(Chelsea Green)Permanent Parisians was an elegant survey (with pictures) of some of the interesting gravestones of Paris --- including those of Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison. Now the authors have set their sights on the final resting places in and around New York City. There's Nellie Bly and Diamond Jim Brady and Moms Mabley and Bet-a-Million Gates and Theo. Roosevelt.
It may say something about New York vs. Paris --- but somehow the burying grounds here are not as enticing nor as fun as they are over there. There are a few winners: a quite fetching naked workman (complete with a sledgehammer hiding his own little hammer) atop the grave of automaker Walter Chrysler; a funny little mise en scène on attorney Samuel Untermyer's sepulcher; a neo-Islamic mausoleum for Dr. Clark W. Dunlop, his wife, and his parrot; a mosaic that reads Imagine in the John Lennon memorial garden.
The real dillies are not the pictures, but the short and snappy two- or three-page sketches of the famous: composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk, Malcolm X (Dick Gregory is quoted as saying "He was the first to talk about the size of the elephant on my toe"), reformer Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Louis Armstrong, and Horace Greeley (the one who gave the advice, "Go West, young man, and grow up with the country" --- he stayed and apparently died right there in the smug and stagnant East). The word "cemetery" is from the Greek koimetérion --- a place to sleep. Elaborate maps are included for self-guided tours.
POSTERS OF THE WPA
(University of Washington)It's fascinating, when you think about it: the many novel ways that F. D. R. invented to get people jobs and paychecks. One of the most diverting was the WPA Federal Art Project, which produced posters, silkscreens, and ads for the Federal Theatre Project and announcements concerning almost any public project. 35,000 different designs were completed, and more than two million posters were produced --- although DeNoon was able to cull only 2,000 for this volume.
What is interesting is (a) the variety of subjects represented and (b) the large quantity of second-rate design that turned up (and we are getting the best of it here). "Register Now --- Informal Study Group," "Mobilizing Michigan," "Be Clean in Everything That Concerns Your Baby," and "Syphilis is a Dangerous Disease But It Can Be Cured" are hardly the stuff of Toulouse-Lautrec (although one entitled "Keep Your Teeth Clean" is close).
The self-designation of a person as an artist (everyone who applied had to be given a job) could subvert most any aesthetics. There are some interesting graphics and design that did make it, for many of the contemporary designers were directly influenced by the Bauhaus and the Armory Show of 1913. As the WPA was phased out in WWII, several posters were put out as propaganda, including some fairly disgusting caricatures of the Japanese ("Salvage Scrap to Blast the Jap"). There's also one, put out by the San Francisco junior Chamber of Cormmerce, that has us looking down the barrel of a cannon. The message is: "Let Me Do the Talking!" --- R. R. Doister