(This is a soliloquy for performance. It is based on a dream, which
is retold here. I hear Woody Allen's voice when I read it. I actually
wrote it with the thought of enacting it on the web, but time has kept
me from a more peformative presentation..)
I begin outside the dream but in my shadow, with my hostility. It drenches
my life in ways that are destructive and sometime ludicrous on the surface.
There is, for example, my lifetime experience of becoming irritated
and enraged by the sounds of eating. I have suffered this eccentricity,
which I (am proud to say) I share with Virginia Woolf, since childhood.
The sounds of my father slurping soup sent me into waves of anger. I
begged to be allowed to eat alone in my room. Later in life, I referred
to dining with certain people as eating before front-loading washing
machines with their doors ajar.
<Recorded sounds: A washing machine chugs and then there's the
sound of water spilling. A snippet of a Tide commercial.>
I know this is absurd, but knowing it doesn't change my feeling. Certainly,
too, my own habits are not exemplary and there's a clue in that. I am
a devourer, or in the parlance of 12-step culture, an addict, a compulsive
consumer of substances. I have devoured alcohol, tobacco, drugs, sex,
money and, yes, food. I even make a considerable portion of my living
as a dining critic
and I thank god for noisy restaurants where
the sounds of mastication and swallowing are blotted out by Muzak. Otherwise,
I would be specializing in the critical review of takeout food consumed
alone by me in a soundproof room, wearing earplugs to ward off the sounds
of my own ravaging teeth and smacking lips.
(Recorded sounds: The sounds of sloppy eating and screams.)
Now, when I tell people about this, they find it amusing. But they
don't understand how really hostile I feel. I now often sit with the
irritation, irritated by my irritation. I listen and watch as the food
is too enthusiastically consumed, the fork scraping the plate, the ice
clinking in glasses from which huge gulps are taken. My hope is that
something will be revealed about the sources of my disgust
Memories of my father and highpoints in the history of gluttonous consumption,
yes, but nothing that really explains it all.
I can psychologize it. I can say I see in the other the insatiability,
the continual sense of insufficiency, that plagues my psyche. My hearing
of high-volume gluttony, that argument goes, is an exaggeration in service
to my psyche's situation.
A crock! It's not simple projection. I hate that bullshit! I went to
charm school before graduate school, you know! And I know pigs when
I see them.
No, it's that bizarre habit of the world to literally present in the
environment what is disowned in the personal psyche: my insatiability,
my hunger, my feeling there is not enough. All embodied in an endless
parade of real-life smacking, finger-licking, slurping tormentors. My
life is filled with people with bad table manners.
Well, of course, you know how this unwelcome understanding that the
world's pigs are mocking my hungers makes me feel - especially when
I see someone else pigging out and my plate is empty or I'm measuring
my very life in teaspoonfuls. It makes me furious! But, honestly, I
don't know why! There are alternative responses. Why not collapse into
tears like a starving child in a Sally Struthers commercial? Why not
become pathetic? Why be so angry?
<Sound/Female Voice: Dinner-bell ringing/"Cliff, honey,
There! Do you see! I am called to my disgust. I go to the table expecting
to be devoured by disgust
Angry before I get to the table
They call this nurture?
II. The Habitation of Space
<Music: Tony Bennett's "Fly Me to the Moon">
My dream has a narrative, of course, but, like any drama, it also has
a stage, a place. It occurs in my parents' home, which might as well
be on the moon for all its relevance to most of humanity. It is the
house where my parents lived when I was in my twenties: an opulent house
on a fairway of Atlanta Country Club. There is no such thing, Gaston
Bachelard noted, as space that is not soaked in psyche. This dream,
therefore, is set not just in a home of the wealthy but, shall we say,
in a palace of devouring. Indeed, the occasion of my visit in the dream
is a holiday, probably Christmas, when my parents engaged vulgarity
at full throttle: money, liquor, mountains of handmade chocolates filled
with mama's favorite liqueurs, gift certificates to cosmetic surgeons
(no I'm not joking)
<Voice offstage: "Tell 'em what they've won, Johnny! A new
face!!!" Shrieks of excitement>
As I always have, I feel completely out of place in this house. What
is this with me? A given? The daimon? Let me digress a few sentences!
Even as a young child I felt embarrassed by the excesses of my parents'
spending, sensing, I guess, that the explosion of gifts concealed something.
As I grew older, I asked for less and my parents were mystified. They
replaced gifts with enlarging checks, until finally I could live half
the year or longer on my Christmas present. Now you see, of course,
how seductive all of this is. My sense of isolation, of living unconsciously,
of suspecting but never allowing myself to know that something was concealed
beneath my parents' material generosity became, in a word, quite profitable!
I became an unselfconscious devourer.
<Voice: "You are your mother's child!">
And so, in the dream, I am melancholy but I am there to reap the holiday
reward. I walk continually to the back of the house, through the laundry
room and maid's area, which lead to the garage. My errand is to keep
doors shut. Now, the reason for this is that I have a kitten and I want
to be certain he does not escape. So, I repeatedly walk back to make
sure the doors are shut and I keep telling my parents and my two brothers
to please stop leaving the doors open.
I leave the narrative again to examine the stage itself. Why, I wonder,
does my dream take me to the back of the house instead of to the front
door or the doors directly off the den or the kitchen? Why to the service
area of the house? I presume, for this house had no basement, that this
is - so to speak - the depths of the house (and depth, of course, can
be lateral as well as vertical). It is also the place I used to go to
hide when I felt overwhelmed. The house was always full of people, most
of them drunk. So, I would take walks to the back of the house the same
way I sometimes walk to a restroom in a restaurant, just to escape the
stimulation. I find comfort in bareness, it seems.
<Voice: "Cliff, sugar, do you think we should have a mural
painted in the lavatory?">
Yes, mama! Why not scenes from your last liposuction!
Fly me to the moon, really. What is constellated by all this excess,
this devouring, is a hunger for the bare - a tabula rasa, blank canvas,
empty page. I shut all these doors. I create a cloister. And there,
on the blank bare page, in the cloister, something pulses into life.
<Sound: Kitten mewing>
III The Clawed Image of Innocence
<Music: A few bars of Tom Jones singing "What's new pussycat.">
A kitten is the image of uninhibited, youthful expression: bounding,
playful, sweet-faced, cuddly. Of course, a kitten also has claws and
teeth and the instincts to rip canaries apart. In its sentimentalization
by song- and greeting card-writers, its violence is forgotten. I call
it a virtue that pornographers, though, do realize that a sex kitten,
a creature both erotic and innocent, is a dangerous creatue. There is
at times more wisdom in porn than in contemporary psychology, which
fails to acknowledge how much that is violent, erotic and dangerous
is given with birth.
<Sound: A kitten mews, a tiger roars, a couple orgasm.>
My mother loathed cats. In fact she loathed all pets. But she particularly
hated cats, which she called "sneaky" and "spooky."
So it is remarkable on the surface that, in this dream, she even permits
me to bring a kitten into the house. But, just as a certain amount of
violence, of transgression, comes with birth, so does this softness,
this playfulness. I mean to say, metaphorically, that the kitten - my
softness -- was present but unseen, unmirrored in any positive way,
in life. Everyone knew it was there but wanted it to go away. In fact,
and this is very important, the kitten is never seen in the dream until
the end. There is simply this awareness on my part that my kitten is
in the place of devouring and I keep trying to keep it in, to protect
it, to cloister it as best I can.
My mother, like the world, could not bear my softness. Nor my strength
for that matter. Another given of my life was a strong identification
with qualities that have been genderized as female: softness, imagination,
<Voice: Boys yelling 'Sissy!" A mother's voice chastizing:
"Act like a man!" >
What shame I lived in. My every day for years completely saturated
with fear and a hatred of myself so intense that my only comfort was
literally in fantasies of floating through the vacuum of outer space:
a corpse, a body that could not feel or decompose
could make only
an appropriate but unfeeling and silent presentation. I looked good.
My mother spent thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars trying
to change me - on psychologists, on activities after school. You see,
she tried to devour the kitten - like that awful initiation in the Mishima
story where young boys eviscerate a living kitten.
What was left behind, of course, what was undigested, were claws and
teeth and bones - like Mother Kali's necklace of skulls. The brittle
reminders of the death of my broken heart. Memento mori. Devouring without
reservation or inhibition. I think, truly, of young animals killed and
buried, then exhumed so that their skeletons can be studied. I often
yearned to be burned alive. I read constantly about the Holocaust and
witches in Salem.
IV What is Devoured Devours
In the dream, I close and reclose the doors. The indifference of my
brothers and parents who clearly want this kitten, this sissy thing,
to disappear wearies me. Eventually, I become agitated. Night falls
and I plead. "He'll be lost outside," I tell my parents. "Please
don't open the doors." I am afraid to go to sleep.
<Music:The unaccompanied cello pieces by Bach, play throughout
the next paragraph>
Why must the soul be reclaimed in darkness and despair? Here my
dream becomes a dream inside a dream: pure blackness of night beheld
outside the mouth of the house, the garage flung wide open. The darkness
levels everything: opulent object and manicured lawn disappear into
the same blackness. Sight means nothing. There is nothing to see. Everything
is comprehended more viscerally and, all at once, I am aware that my
heart is full of the deepest longing for
I'm not sure. And then
I hear the sound of my cat crying. I do not see him. I hear him. I cry
out for him
and he comes racing into the garage and jumps into
my arms, upon my chest, purring like my own heart. I am blind to this.
It is all by touch and sound
<Over the music: "Tiger, tiger, burning bright
The lights - of awareness? -- come on in the garage. My parents are
there. My brothers too. I'm trembling. I am in such a rage. My brothers
attempt to calm me, tell me I am being silly. I fly into my parents
and begin literally clawing off their faces. I am devouring them. A
cannibal! And I am screaming: "The one thing that matters
The cherished thing
I am wracked by sobbing. In fact, I could not stop crying for nearly
an hour. It is an experience similar to the cat's leaping into my arms
in my dream: a deep recognition in my body of something that I've known
but never felt so intimately, like the first time you take your pulse
and realize how the unseen runs your life. I don't mean just that my
softness was unappreciated, abandoned, uncontained, unmirrored. I am
speaking of my rage, the unseen furor pouring through me. Yes, when
my heart was banished, I resorted to the anodynes of the addicted. These
were like immuno-supressants to keep the body from rejecting the cold
presence of the heart's absence, to preserve and maintain my necessary
anger. You need anger when you've lost your heart. You have to fight
for everything. You always expect to be rejected, dismissed: devoured
<Sounds: The rain>
I cried for an hour, maybe longer. Such grief
not for the loss
of any fantasies I had about my childhood. Nor explicitly for the beating
cat-heart, soft-footed and clawed, but for the years of hostility and
anger in the expectation, always, always of being devoured and having
to fight to avoid it. How many tried to reach me - an ex-wife, several
lovers, many women, abandoned friends, teachers, therapists, clients,
finally even my own mother, ravaged by stroke
devoured by her own
heart and brain, rendered speechless, left only with her own purring
heart and a mouth turned by the angels of pain from a sneer to a soft
smile. I know this. At times I call it my imagination, the way one reads
the smile on the Mona Lisa's face. Others scoff when I say that. They
know it is real. I know it is real.
<Sounds: A restaurant>
Addiction, or as I prefer to call it, "the suffering of the stolen
heart," ultimately deprived me of the capacity to drink alcohol.
I don't mind not drinking so much. God knows my state of mind has been
permanently altered. What I mind, now and then, is that I can't raise
a toast. I feel silly raising a glass of water in a toast. And it would
feel sillier still to throw a goblet of water onto the floor after a
particularly exuberant toast. Still, I think dining with others in itself
is a toast of sort, a hymn of praise, one that has long embodied both
my need to connect but, at the same time, raised my hostility in the
face of expected rejection, my devourment.
Here is my toast:
In a dream,
in my body,
I found my heart,
as animal as cat.
I thank the devouring mothers
I thank the pain
By being orphaned,
I found my mother.
I had no other choice.