I used to climb to where the Latin texts were shelved, on the top floor of a very tall building appropriately called Acres of Books. Shuttered in that stifling room, with dust baking in the light of a lone sealed window during a particularly humid summer day, I rummaged among the books to find what had been forbidden and not taught in school. In this way I discovered a school edition of your “Cena Timalcionis,” a chapter from that much maligned “Satyricon” which the Catholic Church during the middle ages had condemned and tried to destroy. Only fragments survived, including this portion, thanks to horny monks who must have hidden it for their own private pleasures. Swaying far above that conservative German city, with its beer gardens, its pretzel and sausage factories, I tallied up my money and bought that brown, scholarly edition of your work.
At home, I slowly translated the tale about two gay boys who found a free meal at a rich aristocrat’s banquet. Surrounded by male and female slaves, thick-headed body builders, arrogant soldiers, wealthy women heavily adorned with gold and jewels, platters of exotic food, buckets of wine, pots of urine and shit, all embalmed by incense and perfumes from Arabia, suddenly the room was silenced as the lord and master rose from his reclined position to recite a very badly written poem.
“So that’s what poetry readings are like!” I yelped. And ever since then I have ventured from one reading to another, hoping to find Trimalchio’s banquet of grotesque gluttony and decadent women, only to encounter respectfully attentive listeners and bewildered students tuning up the sound system. Here in Arkansas, Slams have all but vanished. The venue that housed them in town had a kitchen fire and the building was condemned, then shuttered up. And in Cincinnati, Ohio, Acres of Books was razed to the ground, replaced by a parking lot.
Michael Karl (Ritchie)
You set to verse your atomic theory, scientifically analyzing Nature as if discussing pixilation in a Seurat painting. Only when depicting horses dying in a plague did you become interesting, overtaken by a mad Vedic vision that opened earth to a chaos of neutrons, These days, science has split the atom and found even tinier components to being. They swim like dark specks in a squinting eyeball succumbing to macular degeneration.
The Latin professor loved to hold class early enough to hear the chimes from McMicken Hall. The sounds were fake, prerecorded on magnetic tape and played to recall the original ones that had been ripped from the throat of the university tower. Then he would rise and lock the classroom door, so no late students could get in. “Isn’t it amazing how right Lucretius was,” the teacher beamed as we slugged through another hundred lines of didactic atoms in motion, “without having recourse to labs or modern equipment.”
The Cold War was still on, and we lived in fear of nuclear annihilation at any minute. That may have been why I did not appreciate reading your scientific texts set to verse. If there was no guarantee of tomorrow, the only thing I could fall back on was what was happening today, and live for the present. Besides, I found no poetic beauty in your objective speculations, only a world decimated into random particles careening through space as everything collapsed into entropy. Even the sun was no metaphor for illumination, but rather for radiation and death.
Ah, but at that point the door to the classroom rattled, and a beautiful female, who was also a French major, insisted on being admitted. Finally somebody else had arrived for the professor to pick on. I settled back in my seat and enjoyed watching motes dance in the rest of the morning light.
No thanks to you,
Michael Karl (Ritchie)
Dear Aldous Huxley,
You were right. Once you open the doors of perception, you do not need any mind-altering drugs again. No matter how much I miss them, continuing their use is flatulent self-indulgence, because they really are part of a sacred ritual meant to connect you with what Emerson called “The Over-Soul.” Here in a Native American Sweat Lodge, guided by a shaman whom you trust to be trickster and comforter, you can confront your own, unique, inner demons, and grow wings to join angels of forgiveness.
Or so I would hope.
The problem with altering the mind is that it makes me stupid. And depressed! It’s like being suckered in by commercials that picture a delicious hamburger sandwich. As soon as you buy one and take a bite, its greasy morass always disappoints. These days, in cold sobriety I often feel as if I am having a delayed reaction, regressing into a helpless child—an autistic child abandoned among grown-ups who know how to change tires on a car, how to replace the filter in the air-conditioning unit, how to multiply and divide by eight. Sometimes I believe that my whole generation has regressed to infantile whining and vested self-interest. You predicted it, Dr. Huxley: test tube babies and sperm banks—everybody’s regressing to the 1950’s T.V. Quiz show, “Beat the Clock.”
You cannot will your destiny. Where you thought you were going may not be where you arrive. Soothsayers on “Entertainment Tonight” hold wakes for immortal icons no one believed would perish, but cryogenics does little more than freeze the skin. Dry ice will not dry your tears when someone you love dies. I know, because the wind has gone out of my sails and I am drifting aimlessly to earth where I took a bad fall. Let Jacob wrestle with an angel.
My generation was promised an Apocalypse. Well, where is it?
Michael Karl (Ritchie)
Dear Ayn Rand,
Knowing that where you were born didn’t matter in the New World, you encouraged rugged capitalists to ride roughshod over whoever got in their way. Railroads and skyscrapers thrived when those at the helm were egomaniacs full of themselves and ruthless in acquiring and administering power. If you weren’t strong enough to beat down the opposition, why were you sill alive?
Self-reliance worships self at the expense of community. Why is it raining so much here in Arkansas? Why are the streets flooded? What can the rice farmers do now that the crop has been ruined? Coal furnaces spew smoke into the air, clouding over and darkening the atmosphere.
Believe in superheroes then. Let windmills be uprooted by freak tornadoes. Enjoy the dimming hum as the powergrid goes down. I command you because I am still in command of the capital I. Without guilt, without shame, I have no responsibility to any one not as strong as I am. The weak deserve to perish where they were born—in the bottom of the well.
Ayn, you are the mirror image of Anne Frank, who, insecure about herself, growing up a Jewish fifteen-year-old under Nazi persecution, kept a diary that revealed the innermost feelings of the weakest among us about to be wiped off the face of the earth for being born where she had been. Ayn/Anne, sometimes people are not strong enough to defeat those circumstances of their birth to become whatever they want to be. Even if all they want is to be alive!
With all due contempt,
Michael Karl (Ritchie)