Sept/Oct 1999 Salon


by Stanley Jenkins

My beloved speaks and says to me: "Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away."
Song of Songs

On Sunday afternoons in Washington Square Park in August it is difficult to avoid the awareness that life is a remarkably well organized and integrated diversion. The magician calls our attention to the right hand. All the real stuff takes place in the left.

In any case, today it's a crossing of chasms in the park and the tourists are our real guides. Their preternaturally clean clothes. The way they stay close together. The looks of fascination and revulsion--and above all, unwanted recognition. They alone, perhaps--these tourists--are qualified to reflect for us New Yorkers the message of the spectacle.

It's like this: In the fountain is a large man in a white dress. Weighted pendulums of the same white fabric, gray now from having been drug through the dirt and the water all afternoon, hang stupidly from the sleeves of his dress which seems meant to approximate the fashions of the gay nineties of the previous century. In one hand he holds a paper cup with a blue Parthenon emblazoned on it to collect the change he uselessly attempts to bum (New Yorkers are not so easily entertained). In the other, a bottle of Colt 45. Indubitably, he is crazy. He is wearing a plastic mouse mask and creates a white wake in the water with his walking. He does not lift his feet.

I've seen him in the park for years. The costumes change but it's always the same sad, meaningless routine: silently and artlessly walking in circles in the fountain, seeking payment. Always the same. But in the stares of well-groomed tourists from suburbs outside of Kansas City or Minneapolis he is made remarkable again. It is the pointlessness of his performance: it convicts us.

But of what? There is really no great secret. There is a pageant in the park--and it is us. We are all in the parade and would prefer to live forever in Disney World. He is a reflection for those who have eyes to see. He is an icon--in the old sense, in the sacred sense--a highly stylized distortion of reality that points to what is always hidden in the real. Let's face it: it is illusion and make-believe and dress up and fiction that we love. And we fear what we have not fabricated.

This is, of course, an old realization. And it is always true that there is never anything new under the sun. Every adolescent confronting the inanities and hypocrisies of his parent's world knows as well as Plato that what we agree socially to call reality is the magic lantern shadows cast on the cave wall--and sooner or later, at some point in our lives, if we reflect at all, most of us come to the conclusion that even individual identity is in some sense a mere mask. Or as Rimbaud, the quintessential adolescent, put it: "I is someone else."

There is something about a Sunday afternoon in the park in August, however, that makes this realization seem important. And the fact that from time to time it becomes important to us reveals how unimportant it is to us the vast majority of the time. Finally, it is not the fact that we live our lives playing make-believe that is interesting--but that we don't particularly care. We prefer it that way.

And not for nothing.


The Saturday before last I got married. As I watched my bride approach across the gangplank aisle, listing dangerously with her tuxedo-ed father as if some wild, sea-venturing maenad recklessly willing the danger of almost falling overboard into the pews, braving the roiling of red carpet and flower foam and the maelstrom of Mendelssohn--as I watched my wild-eye love approach--(O that wicked smile!)--I became aware of the rigidity of my legs and the obscene effort it took to control my face. Like Odysseus tied to the mast I had unplugged my ears and willed the wild music. It was not easy to stand.

I am laughing now in recollection but was not then. I was terrified. Allowed no diversions. Despite my own monkey suit, a man without a costume.

But it was not Medusa whose gaze fixed and froze me the Saturday before last. It was not the serpent haired Medusa whose look threatened to shatter me like frozen glass. And strictly speaking it was not the loving eyes of my beloved. (The lovely eyes of my beloved!) It was something else.

Oh, there are doors the weak should not open! There are veils the cowardly should not rend. Or at the very least, the small should provide themselves with strong ritual protections--prayers and amulets. The secret names of archangels. It's laughable. We are old skins for new wine. Frightfully fragile in our finitude.

In the end, it is really no wonder we prefer make-believe. At the risk of making myself ridiculous, let me tell you what I seem to know: love is ferocious and if she were to stand before us too long unrobed--her face unmasked at last--we would not be able to live for the violent splendor and majesty of her holiness. We would be annihilated in her beauty. Swallowed in the face of the woman clothed in the sun.

It's true.


To leave Washington Square Park on a Sunday afternoon in August is to leave with a certain sense of relief and gratitude. We are not so pathetic and base in our self-deceptions and illusions as wise. The man in the fountain is perhaps the key to charity--what our ancestors called "humility."

Which is to say, I think this is something I know to tell you; that is, if I could just stop laughing: Reality--Ultimate Reality--lies very close to the surface--it is a passion play away--closer to us than we are to ourselves. We bear it in our hopeful distortions. We make room for it in our performances--everyone of us an actor.

And in the pointless fictions of our lives, our hopes, our dreams, our ideals--in our every falsification of what is merely here--love touches us, heals us--and does not destroy.

It becomes human.


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