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the making and unmaking of person

An Old-Fashioned American Revival
by Dana Wilde

Horse Medicine by M.C. Dalley, American Zen Association, New Orleans, LA, revised edition 2003; 234 pages, paperback, $10.95.

My text today is from Henry Miller’s 1954 book The Time of the Assassins, in the pages where he speaks of the power of the poets:

The modern poet [Miller says] seems to turn his back on his audience, as if he held it in contempt. … He seems to forget that he has a totally different function than [the mathematicians and physicists] who deal with the physical or the abstract world. [The poet’s] medium is the spirit and his relation to the world of men and women is a vital one. His language is not for the laboratory but for the recesses of the heart. If he renounces the power to move us his medium becomes worthless. The place of renewal is the heart, and there the poet must anchor himself. … The danger which menaces him is the abrogation of his powers; by betraying his trust [the modern poet] is surrendering the destinies of countless human beings to the control of worldly individuals whose sole aim is personal aggrandizement. (58-59)

In this passage, Miller is speaking of his contemporaries who, likening themselves to modern scientists, believed they were working with material “beyond the comprehension of most educated people” and as a result deliberately, sometimes contemptuously distanced themselves from their own audiences. They fashioned linguistic contraptions hardly anyone could understand, and believed that language’s obscurity implied its greatness.
     These mid-20th century poets believed with all their intellect that art was the heir apparent of religion, whose credibility science had by then demolished by exposing its infidelity to certain facts. Art would be the savior of the human spirit (whatever abstract meaning the word “spirit” might have – in fact, better not to use it at all, or at least to pretend politely that it did not refer to anything real even when it was used by agreed-upon heroes such as Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound or T.S. Eliot). And being a fancified version of science, art would take the cerebrum as its central organ of apprehension. What deep thoughts we pretended to think when we read The Waste Land, Finnegans Wake, “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter,” and “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction.” We thought thoughts, and thought of thoughts, and thought our thoughts deeply thought, thinking any remaining confusion would be cleared up by further thought.
     About the time World War II subsided Miller could be heard singing and yodeling like the solitary reaper in the distance, and could not at first be ignored. Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs felt thoughts detonate in ranges deeper and wilder than any astronomers yet had figured, and equipped only with the moral and spiritual desolation left by the war, paddled madly for the further ranges with the energy of tumultuous Walt – who still in imagination felt sick about lectures and graphs of the sky and preferred the mystical moist night-air itself, even though it wasn’t until 1925 that any scientist caught a glimpse of his heels and showed the universe was larger than the Milky Way.
     The Beat frenzy was painfully adolescent, but it was forward motion. The prose of On the Road vibrates and burns in a way that spoke to the hearts of the postwar young, as Dante’s entryway to heaven burns beyond the limits of Virgil’s rational understanding in hell and purgatory. Kerouac’s predecessor was Miller, who about that time was explaining in The Time of the Assassins what Arthur Rimbaud had done for poetry and the human spirit. “Rimbaud refused to become something other than he was, in his office as poet, in order to survive. Our poets [on the other hand] are jealous of the name but show no responsibility of their office.”
     And Burroughs, taking responsibility for practically all the failures of modernism, set himself to dismantling the morality of language, which was the morality that gave us hundreds of million of deaths and atrocities in 70 nightmarish years of war from 1914 on. Talking assholes, wine, cunts, yage, cartwheeling homoerotic death, howling rage at Mammon and institutionalized violence. Immoral trash! When Charles Bukowski told similar-sounding stories about drunks it appeared to be the truth of human existence itself – bitter, ironic, funny, ugly, seedy, nightmarish. The message of them all was: We are living in our own shit. Maybe no one had said it better than Samuel Beckett, but in the background was Henry Miller singing about it, and making the case it was supernal.
“I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive.”
     From a certain distance made of class, romance and language, poverty looked noble, and Bukowski made even the retching illness of the alcoholic seem to have greater spiritual potential than a career in insurance. Ginsberg, Kerouac, Corso, Creeley, Cassady and Kesey took the will to intoxication – to disorder all the senses, in Rimbaud’s prescription – for an incarnation of the spiritual quest, dharma bums. Only the moral energies of those who saw the shit for what it was could be trusted to tell the truth. “The place of renewal is the heart, and there the poet must anchor himself.”
     The spiritual life is hard, though, and the American will to accelerate everything gave rise to some frenetic books that were starting to miss the point, such as Richard Fariña’s Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, which was like driving drunk in a go-cart, and Bob Dylan’s Tarantula which made less sense than Finnegans Wake and might have been an early sign of wheels spinning in submission to the cerebrum. In the 1960s nearly every young educated person aspired to be a poet, artist, intellectual or revolutionary, or all four, and people started overdosing on the speed. Fariña died in a motorcycle crash on publication day.
     Even then the assumption that the rational mind guides all experience was lurking like an underwater ledge and had waylaid everybody but Miller. Big Sur seemed farther and farther away. The word “spirit” got lost and its replacement was politics. The meaning of Miller’s sentence for a long time was so obscure as to sound antique: “[The poet’s] medium is the spirit and his relation to the world of men and women is a vital one.” By the 1970s, the battle for socioeconomic justice had superseded the battle to lift the human spirit, and the era of multiculturalism and victim resentment budded then blossomed like pond algae. The poets, intellectuals and revolutionaries of the ’60s, burned out by the quest for instant enlightenment – which, they discovered, could be attained through neither ratiocination nor mescaline – moved in the ’70s and ’80s back from the land to the suburbs and joined Union Mutual, the universities and PBS; they turned their attention to the all-seducing economy, personal and global.

* * *

M.C. Dalley’s life in Paris in the 1980s and ’90s, as depicted in Horse Medicine, appears to resemble Henry Miller’s life in Paris in the 1920s and ’30s, as depicted in Tropic of Cancer. In fact, Horse Medicine initially looks a lot like imitation Miller. The narrator of the same name as the author is preoccupied with sex, and describes its particulars without qualm and with enthusiastic crudity. He drinks more than is good for him and spends most of his scarce budget on beer and wine. He writes passionately and has no publisher. He cannot hold down a job. He cannot purge his apartment of a marauding mouse. People irritate him to no end, women drift constantly in and out of his physical consciousness, and he careens from one emotional encounter to another – from his affection for his young teenage daughter, to his lust for his girlfriend du jour, to his knotty resentment of his estranged wife. Like Tropic of Cancer, Horse Medicine is a book about daily life. And like Henry of the Tropics, Dalley glimpses amidst the everyday shit, signs that le paradis n’est pas artificiel.
     It could be another imitation. But, like On the Road and Naked Lunch, it carries a weirdly authentic energy, as though Dalley were trying to tell the truth about something instead of aggrandizing his CV. And more importantly, it depicts a step untaken by Miller, and also untaken by his literary descendants—every day, Dalley goes to the dojo to meditate.
     This too may seem like a cliché from the ’60s. Another throwback pretending in the post-Reagan era to imitate the delusive fantasies of Alan Watts and the Woodstock bums. But the surprise is this. Not only does Dalley go to the dojo to meditate, he does it without fail – each chapter of the book begins with him jumping or falling or dragging himself from bed and rushing down to the dojo. In fact the novel anchors its action, both external and internal, in Zen practice. In a way the book is an aspect of Zen, all things being – as Miller said, and Kerouac intuited, and Dalley hints – one.
     This is a step Miller and Kerouac were not, because of their circumstances, equipped to take. They lived at a time when scientific rationalism had run roughshod over institutional religion but had not replaced its actual human functions; in their time, art had the potential to redeem the spirit, but with modernist literary aesthetics acquiring rationalist structural flaws, the possibility that the actual religious teachings – the real teachings, not the prefab housing the churches and mosques purveyed – had any validity existed only as a glimmer in the distance for Kerouac. “Dharma” – what could that crazy, gone word mean? Something sensed in the energies of the world.
     The next step would be to get Kerouac’s glimmer of light into focus, jettison the dependence on alcohol and drugs to provide energy and, later, get clear about what exactly the rational mind can and cannot do – which religious adepts from Buddha through Dante already knew. “A man’s gotta know his limitations,” says Dirty Harry as the car of the guy who thought himself clever explodes.
     The trouble is, hardly a book that actually expands into the ranges of the heart was written in America between the 1950s and 1990s. I am talking here about the uplifting of the human spirit, as William Faulkner pronounced it, not the tickling of the cerebrum. Countless human beings and the culture itself have been betrayed in the postmodern sellout to industrialized poetry and deconstructive nonsense that Henry Miller foresaw.
     And then along comes Dalley, another literary outsider in a line of descent that runs from Poe, Baudelaire and Rimbaud to Henry Miller through the Beats, and at a further fringe, to Philip K. Dick. Horse Medicine is the book Dick might have written if he had not been A) alone for so long and B) skewered by a beam of pink light which injected cosmic knowledge (he said) into his brain in March 1974. But characteristic of the 1970s and ’80s, the chance was missed. In 1982, Dick too died early.
     Dalley, like Dick in his later novels, dives directly into the shit. But unlike Dick, he melts the rational boundaries of fiction – not by the pure loneliness of imagination, but by engaging himself in the religious teaching that predated scientific, and human, knowledge in the first place. This is a step Dick missed because of science’s demolition of religion which dominated the intellectual consciousness of the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. To treat matters of the spirit, Dick had to come in sideways through scientific rationalism and the science-fictional imagination’s toying with the darkest possible personal confusion. But the step to religion was the next natural motion of the literary spirit after Miller and the Beats, which Dick sensed but could not practice. Instead of making a religion of the Land of Fuck (like Miller), or wandering off into the mountains in hopes of being struck by lightning (like Kerouac), or failing to negotiate the quantum transition from the rational and emotional to the spiritual (like Dick), Dalley actually goes to the dojo every day and leaps.
     Any sensei or sheik or Orthodox monk will recognize this as spiritual progress. Extremely slow progress, no doubt. But that’s the nature of the game. A kalpa by any other name is just as long, a period of thousands of years or more, and as Buddha points out over and over in the teachings, it takes kalpas of kalpas of practice to achieve enlightenment. Meanwhile, desire – the cause of all suffering – is unavoidably at hand.
     And true to the human spirit trapped in its own cycles of karma, Dalley, unlike Miller, is not the happiest man alive. The prose of Horse Medicine is sparer than Miller’s and bears a striking resemblance to the blunt, pathetic verbal irony of Bukowski, for whom suffering is a given. Dalley does not deny or conceal the morass of his spirit or the grittiest details of his vital relation to the world of men and women. However he sees and utilizes women’s bodies, or hits the café for a beer after sesshin, or grouses, or frets, or thinks bad thoughts about his needy ex-wife, he expresses the world as he actually experiences it – not as the local suburban feminists would like him to represent it. Horse Medicine, like Tropic of Cancer, is a report of an encounter with the truth of the shit. Dharmaliness is not next to godliness, as Miller, Kerouac and Dick also knew. “The merit and worth of Zen,” goes the epigraph to Chapter 2 by the Zen master Ikkyu, “really lies in whorehouses and wineshops.”
     Rimbaud, Miller and the Beats had the whorehouses and wineshops in focus, but lacked, because of the rationalist currents of their times, access to masters who knew the path’s direction. Their followers for several decades missed it in favor of politics and paychecks, but Dalley has picked up the trail, and it is in the ancient teachings. Every day he jostles with the part-time Buddhists to get a seat for the master’s kusen.
     At one point in Horse Medicine, the sensei, addressing the sangha, or members, but probably speaking sideways to Dalley, observes that Americans seem to make only so much progress in their spiritual practices, and then they stall out.
     Take the American publishing industry, for example. In the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, Tropic of Cancer and Naked Lunch, written by Americans, were literaria non grata in America. Despite the acuity and power – you might say, the moral acuity and power – of these books, it took mighty legal and social struggles to persuade American publishers to handle them, but for decades they allowed the censorship process to abrogate their powers in what amounted to a general shirking of responsibility. Like cats out of the bag, these two books are still with us today, but by the 1990s the motion had stalled and even regressed, and for years Horse Medicine could not find an American publisher.
We Americans are clean people, and have been since the time of Jonathan Edwards. We do not like our spirituality, especially our notions of Buddhism, mixed up with drinking, fucking, broken marriages, stalled spiritual progress, dying senseis, and guerrilla warfare against mice – elemental components of Dalley’s world. Religion, after all, is sacred, and the sacred is pure, and pure means clean, and since we are religious people at heart, we are therefore sacred, and therefore clean, and if we are Buddhists, or fantasize ourselves as Buddhists, we of course do not talk about sex or its sloppy juices, or listen to “Buddhists” who do.
     “This is not a book. This is libel, slander, defamation of character. This is not a book in the ordinary sense of the word. No, this is a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art, a kick in the pants to God, Man, Destiny, Time, Love, Beauty … what you will.” And because of this – this being Henry Miller’s prophetic description of a book he never read – Horse Medicine is the next significant book to occupy that peculiar literary place which is outside American letters, yet inside the core of actual American values, expression and experience.
     It is in other words an honest treatment of the heart, in all its filth and potential. “‘BUDDHISM IS NOT ON ONE SIDE,’” shouts Dalley, “‘AND LIFE ON THE OTHER, for Christ’s sake. It’s not a museum around here!’” and rushes off to the dojo to face the rensaku, the blow on the shoulders that returns his attention to the way. Horse Medicine is not another laboratory experiment for university professors of theory and politics; it’s a renewal of a strand of American literature whose anchors in the recesses of the heart we could not survive without.
     The French, who have recognized the authentic when they see it since the discoveries of Poe and, later, Miller, noticed Horse Medicine first, and Luc Boussard first published it in Paris in 2000. And the American Zen Association in New Orleans, with no hint of self-aggrandizement, has brought the book home like a blow on the shoulders. Maybe now we can wake up and face ourselves again in the morning.

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diaries and memoirs translation and her retinue
the book of revelations and epiphanies working class sweat
the making and unmaking of person the corpse reads classics letters

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