About the creative process and some of the spiritual ramifications of it. “I poured myself out thro’ my tips” [i.e. fingertips, where the writer contacts his instrument, his or her pen or typewriter.] “What’s left?” So many of these Dream Songs have progressed into a retrospective mode—which seems strange to me for someone so young, in his forties at the writing of this poem, but of course ill and worn out. There’s much to be said for health, especially when you don’t have it. This retrospective, again triggered by thoughts of death, has an apologetic tone, too. “Anything I sang / I take back. Crimson is succeeded by black; / it is a fact.” Crimson is both life and sex, which gets established in the bit about Renoir painting with his penis, which comes soon after in the poem, and of course death is often symbolized by black, the no-color of no-life, which is looming, always. Art, brought into its very existence as an expression of the crimson, is so often motivated by the erotic. I caught on to the relationship between art and the erotic while walking through the Louvre one afternoon, not laser-focused on a work or three like I generally was, but rather just aimlessly wandering the palace halls and gazing around, drinking the thousands of paintings as a kind of broad, palace-encompassing emulsion. It had been there lurking in my consciousness all along, but I just quietly saw it: Oh. Now I get it. And it was both disappointing and exhilarating at the same time. All this high falutin’ goo-goo about spirituality and God and noble human achievement? Nah. Not really. Art was about men looking at women and painting their desire and lust, and their need, through images of women’s nude bodies. (There are a lot of nudes in the Louvre.) Later on in history, when women became recognized as artists, were permitted to even be artists, they painted the same things. Obviously, there’s a lot more going on in the art world, but overt or sublimated sexuality, if not the single most motivating factor, is sure one of them. But I think it’s the most important motivating factor. I wish I had figured this out when I was younger. It would have saved me some bruising heartache. Crushes aren’t about high-spiritual abstracted intellectual exaltation of ideal beauty made actual, turns out. Go figure. Something much more body-centered is going on. I always thought “heartache” and “crush” were a metaphors. I was a bit too damn brainy for my own good. We call it heartache because it’s physical. (John Barth writes about this in his story “Lost in the Funhouse.” By the time I made my way to that story, I had figured it out, but Barth confirmed it. Great, great story.) Anyway, just another of the reasons that I will always love France—it’s a culture a bit less burdened with all this Puritanical hoodwinking, the repressive politics of religious mind control. It’s incredible how effective that stuff can be, too. The Louvre taught me something important.
So this was the disappointment. The exhilaration came from the simultaneous realization that “physical” does not equate to “base.” Physical sexuality is an exaltation, of life, the human, the spiritual too. They’re not separate is the point. And there’s this: Peter Matthiessen, in The Snow Leopard, writing about the physical body, mentions that the moment of enlightenment for some ancient Buddhist holy person came while on the latrine. The spiritual and the physical meet full circle. Art is an expression of the physical and the spiritual, both. If it is to be valid, it has to incorporate it all. So, when the “blood banged” as it must do, B. is acknowledging that, but also asking forgiveness for it, because the physicality of life and the erotic does transgress our established and culturally enforced Puritanical notions of high-propriety. Well—fuck that. It’s just all part of the human, and thus the artistic deal. “‘I paint’ / (Renoir said) ‘with my penis’” That can be read as the most phallocentric thing imaginable, as if it is the centered monolithic maleness of the painter that gives rise to his artistic expression in the first place. But really I think all Renoir meant is that the universal erotic is his driving raison d’etre. He just expresses it like he does because he happens to have been born a dude. If you’re a French dude, you can say stuff like that out loud and everybody gets it. B. was totally on board in his art, but he’s in a doubtful mood here in this poem: I’m sorry if I offended anybody. I think I might have been a jerk.
His doubt extends further. Beset with a Puritanical doubt about the appropriateness of his un-Puritanical erotic improprieties—in his life and his art, which intersected—he apologizes for it and invokes Renoir as his excuse. At the same time he lets that Puritanical awareness effectively damn him, which a good Puritan is more than happy to do! “Pal, / in wars & loves when we lost ground, how shall / we know who it means?” Substituting “who” for “what” opens this expression up to much more than we would normally expect. What does it all mean? (The Puritan knows very well what it all means. If you don’t know, if you even have to ask, then good luck at the moment of judgement, you damned heathen.) Who am I? or better yet, Who was I? And even more: Who is this God, anyway? I think all these questions are implied. The answers are all left up in the air at this juncture, questions without answers. Whatever The Dream Songs established, he takes it all back. He was inappropriate. But he’s now lost.
The only thing left to say, is that it’s okay. We all have moments of doubt. When Mother Teresa died we read her journals for the first time and saw the tremendous extent of her doubts. This one happens to be frozen in time like an existential Popsicle.