Undercover: Death May Be Your Santa Claus (04/22/76)

Death has meant good business for the publishing industry for some time now, but things are getting out of hand. After clearing away a pile of books that included Obituaries and Getting into Death (both fiction), a picture book about suicide, a guide to mourning, and an instruction manual on how to save money on your funeral (plan ahead), I turned for relief to a brightly jacketed new novel, Lisa Alther’s Kinflicks, only to be greeted by the last words of Henry James (“So here it is at last, the Distinguished Thing”—though I’d be willing to bet they weren’t quite his last words, which would have been, “Capitalize ‘Distinguished Thing'”), followed by “The Art of Dying Well” (first chapter title), followed by “My family has always been into death” (first line).However, none of the above can hold a candle (perhaps I should say, light a candle) to Stanley Keleman‘s Living Your Dying (Bookworks/Random House, 159 pp., $3.95, paper), which asks in its cover blurb, “Is there anyone alive who wouldn’t like to go to their dying full of excitement…?” (That odd phrase, “go to their dying,” brings to mind a book called This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, reviewed below.)

Keleman, one is informed, is an up-to-the-minute Berkeley therapist, described in his book as “renowned for his powerful charisma and gentle humanity,” which I take to mean he could really fuck up your head if he weren’t such a nice guy. He writes in a lulling, not to say numbing, manner, occasionally lapsing into baby talk (“There’s big dying and there’s little dying”). His basic message seems to be “whatever turns you on,” as long as it does, indeed, turn you on, and not, god forbid, “stop the ‘flow.” In other words, death too should be groovy—like everything else in the world, it’s up to you. Such solipsistic philosophizing in 12-point type represents, in terms of language as well as ideas, the final degeneration of the Emersonian tradition in American thought—for some reason, all of the flab has survived, and none of the muscle.

Then there is Gramp by Mark Jury and Dan Jury (Grossman/ Viking/Compass, 152 pp., $5.95, paper), a mostly photographic record of the decline and death of Frank Tugend, the Jurys’ grandfather, which provides an ambiguous counterpoint to Keleman’s nice-nelly directives. Tugend had worked as a coal miner and farmer, and had never had a serious illness, when at 78 he began to grow senile. Three years later, his mind nearly gone but his body still functioning well, he refused all food and drink, and three weeks later he died. While Keleman would presumably approve of Tugend’s wilfulness in deciding to die (“Today may be the last day of the rest of your life”), senility is a knottier problem; it is part of the flow, but it also inhibits good positive thinking (“Today may be the first day of the rest of your life, but you’ll never know it”).

The Jurys, however, have no axe to grind, save perhaps that of self-justification. Some people who have looked at Gramp have thought it disgusting—Tugend is shown losing control of his bowels, defecating on the floor, eating a napkin, wearing diapers, dressing in women’s clothes and undergoing almost total debilitation. In five separate shots he is shown as a corpse. What bothered me about the book was not the photographs, which I found interesting, but that the project was undertaken at a point when Tugend was incapable of understanding that his behavior was being documented for public display. It was impossible for me to read the book without imagining scenes far more grotesque than those mentioned above; it is one thing, after all, for a senile man to eat a napkin, and another for his relatives to shout, “Quick, Mark, the camera! Dan, the tape recorder! Gramp’s eating a napkin!” The Heisenberg principle probably applies here: given the childlike state of mind to which many senility victims are reduced, it may be that Tugend performed some of his more bizarre acts in order to please those who paid them so much attention.

That the Jurys kept Tugend within their family and shielded him from the loneliness and possible abuse he might have suffered in a nursing home was an honorable choice; that they then wrenched the private into the public may not be. It doesn’t seem to me that the right of privacy should be restricted to those who are able to assert it; those who cannot, in fact, may sometimes need it most.
[The title of this review was taken from a song by Mott the Hoople, 1969-1975. R.I.P.]

Three books of photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879) have come out over the last few months. The mo st striking is The Cameron Collection edited by Colin Ford (Van Nostrand Reinhold, 144 pp., $30), an 11″xl 3″ giant featuring enormous, darkly printed reproductions. The laboriously posed portraits show Cameron working conceptually in the mainstream of Victorian classicism; the men and women she shot—some of them, like Thomas Carlyle, famous, some her family and friends—appear here as rough-hewn gods, fully equal to administering the legacy of Greek civilization, not to mention fully equal to administering the world. It is powerful stuff; just paging through the book, which you can do for free at a library or bookstore, is an extraordinary experience. Julia Margaret Cameron by Helmut Gemsheim (Aperture, 200 pp., $20), a reissue of a monograph first published in 1948, includes a lengthy critical biography; but with few exceptions, the reproductions are flat, completely lacking the force and impact of the Ford book. Victorian Photographs of Famous Men & Fair Women (A&W Visual Library, 44 plates, $6.95, paper), which first appeared in 1926, offers a moving introduction by Virginia Woolf, another by Roger Fry, and notes by Tristam Powell; as reproduced here the portraits retain much of their life, though not nearly so much as in The Cameron Collection. Given the price, though, this volume can definitely be recommended; once hooked, you may find yourself saving for the better book.

Growing (Up) At 37 by Jerry Rubin (M. Evans, 208 pp., $7.95). “For the first time in history,” Rubin says at the end of this miserably written account of his experiences with currently fashionable consciousness movements, “we are talking about creating the total human being on a mass scale, as we develop ourselves in all aspects of our being.” That, of course, is the language of fascism. Rubin may be too softheaded or too uneducated to recognize it; his eagerness to turn himself over to virtually any New Human outfit sufficiently organized to file articles of incorporation with the State of California does not contradict the politics he promoted in the Sixties, it merely confirms their banality.

Mailer and the Times of His Time by Jonathan Middlebrook (Bay Books/Bookpeople, 192 pp., $4.95, paper). Sycophancy masquerading as criticism: that all quotes from Mailer are set in much larger type than Middlebrook’s text is indicative of the perspective at work. The cover, which shows Mailer looking something like a tie-dyed Roman senator (inexplicably posed against a background of what I take to be an orchard in the San Joaquin Valley), is really quite remarkable.

The Thomas Berryman Number by James Patterson (Little, Brown, 256 pp., $7.95). It’s not easy to achieve the suspension of belief necessary to a political murder mystery when an author misquotes Bob Dylan’s most quoted lines and thinks Nashville is famous for a place called Tootsie’s Orchard Lounge.

Golfing for Cats by Alan Coren (St. Martin’s, 154 pp., $7.95). A book in the great tradition of Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog (though some will be reminded of the ground-breaking work of Robert Benchley, such as Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea; or, David Copperfield), this collection of pieces from Punch contains the funniest writing I’ve read in ages. There are at least three masterpieces: “The Short Happy Life of Margaux Hemingway”; a discussion between an Oxford tutor and a TV-addled student on how to make Hamlet into a cop show (or, suggests the student, “The Six Million Dollar Dane”); and a stirring “Open Letter to Alexander Solzhenitsyn,” inspired by an alleged news item announcing that the exiled Nobel Prize winner had forgone settling in Norway “because the tax laws would mean he might pay up to 50% tax on his Swiss bank account deposits.” “France allows resident writers two tax-free years,” offers Caren helpfully, “but… the literary establishment would reject you on the grounds that you had never written a novel entitled A Rock, A Tree, A Chair and running to either (a) five thousand words, or (b) five million words; and the intellectual establishment would reject you on the grounds that you knew nothing about (a) Communism, or (b) Alfred Hitchcock.” Coren claims, by the way, that his book is totally un-related to either golf, cats or the Third Reich (a swastika dominates the cover); these are, he has discovered, merely the most salable subjects in the British literary market. Well, he doesn’t fool me. I know an allegory when I see one.

This Way For the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, by Tadeusz Borowski (Penguin, 180 pp., $2.95). Short stories about Auschwitz, first published in Poland in 1948, and translated by Barbara Vedder with the grace and acumen typical of Penguin’s “Writers from the Other Europe” series. Borowski was part of an inmate elite that survived by doing much of the dirty work of the camp, such as the removal of infant corpses from the cattle cars that daily brought new fodder to the crematoria. He writes:

The train has been emptied. A thin, pock-marked S.S. man peers inside, shakes his head in disgust and motions to our group, pointing his finger at the door.
“Beth, clean it up!”
We climb inside. In the corners amid human excrement and abandoned wrist watches lie squashed, trampled infants, naked little monsters with enormous heads and bloated bellies. We carry them out like chickens, holding several in each hand.

Borowski’s point of view shifts constantly in these stories; what connects them is his struggle not to let go of what happened nor of the part he played: “…with a tremendous intellectual effort,” he states finally, “I attempt to grasp the true significance of the events, things and people I have seen. For I intend to write a great, immortal epic, worthy of this unchanging, difficult world chiseled out of stone.”

An epic it is not, for epics are defined by the sense of freedom and possibility they convey; this book, like most modern Eastern European fiction, is defined by its compression and by its feel for confinement. Like the life Borowski describes, it is fiction in extremis.

One cavil. While I realize death is in this year, it is perhaps going too far for Penguin to send out review copies of Borowski’s book “with the compliments of the author.” He committed suicide in 1951.

Rolling Stone, April 22, 1976

3 thoughts on “Undercover: Death May Be Your Santa Claus (04/22/76)

  1. Jerry Rubin & Abbie Hoffman richly deserve the insightful,courageous condemnations that G.M.has dished out to them…..Many of the emigre professors linked these Yippies to the fascist youth movements of Germany..G.M.as far as I can tell is the only baby-boomer/rock critic to demonstrate that level of historical acumen..

  2. I’ve thought for years that Mott got the “Death may be your Santa Claus” concept from something Jack Kerouac wrote, but I can’t find any confirmation of that source now. Maybe Kerouac quoted Rev. Gates’ song at some point and gave me that idea.

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