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The Johnston Letter, Volume 4, Number 5
OBAMANOMENON

By Jill Johnston
Copyright 2009 Jill Johnston

There it is, on page 128 of my yellowing paperback, the best line in Norman O. Brown's outrageous 1966 book, "Love's Body." I went crazy when I read the book. My writing synesthesia may have started right then. The book was circulating in the mentally deranged art world of the apple, along with "Black Elk Speaks," "Lucy Church Amiably," "The Politics of Experience" -- anything occult, heady, lawless and incomprehensible. Brown's preeminent line -- "in orgasm, all the splendor and misery of representative government " -- jumped into my head while reading a boring post-Obama issue of the Times, with Obama described as having a new "heaviness of demeanor," having "already taken on the isolation and the 'splendid misery' as Jefferson called it, of the office he'd won only moments before." Office/orgasm -- there you go. It's all over for him. Or was, until the inauguration, when he celebrated his misery again, and we all rejoiced in it. He has now hit the ground running, as the media has been fond of saying. But we won't see this extraordinary feat. Only his and our representatives will. And anyway we'll be preoccupied wondering whether we should put our last penny should we happen to have one under a mattress; or in my case if I can make it to a soup line. In the Norman O. Brown days nobody cared. Or I didn't. Artist crazies mixed with the rich in many pleasing ways. An oil magnate art collector figured in my life for a while. He sent me to Europe, just because I had never been before, and brought me to Houston in Lear jets for art openings. On one of these jet trips I met Marcel Duchamp's widow who became a treasured friend. I thought nothing of inviting my oil tycoon, French by birth and upbringing and said to be the richest man in America, to my derelict loft on the Bowery for a Chinese take-out lunch, not bothering to remove the dishes from their white box containers but leaving them in disarray on my round oaken lion-legged table, a gift from one of my poor friends who lived on East Broadway, the very table where I was sitting in 1963 and heard the news that JFK had been assassinated. The king was dead, and we had to wait 45 years for his next coming. In between we've had criminals, murderers, a well-meaning guy or two, a Hollywood star and a good economy steward. Of our murderers, this last one, whose reign we waited anxiously to end, actually committed genocide, and he's going to get away with it, despite Ralph Nader's urgent blog pleas to take the man to court. Ralph Who? What would Norman O. Brown say? On page 112 of "Love's Body" he tells us that "the consequence of having a king is having a history, that is to say wars, the purpose of which is to put down the historical action, the kings, of other peoples." So will Obama do as he pledged prior to his election and leave the Second Amendment intact, the people, men, with their frontier rights to bear arms and kill each other and others with shotguns, rifles, handguns, and AK-47s? Before kings and histories and wars there were women. Women are pre-historical. Brown describes us under his chapter entitled "Nature" as beings [for men] "to explore or to penetrate. The world is the insides of mothers. Geography is the geography of the mother's body. The world is our mother." Hillary could have used this to write the gender speech she was missing. I wanted to write it for her. But I like the kings too much. And she does too. The difference between us is that she wants their job, and I see them dead in office, their histories and writings the very stuff of my own splendor and misery. A better reference for Hillary could have been the work of that great 19th-century feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, her speeches and a biography of her collected in "The Search for Self-Sovereignty," subtitled "The oratory of Elizabeth Cady Stanton." You think Stanton was just an abolitionist and a suffragist? On the subject of marriage, she pre-dates and pre-empts by more than a century those Second Wave women who made the legalization of abortion the centerpiece of their movement. In 1856, Stanton wrote a letter to the National Women's Rights Convention concluding that "marriage stripped womankind of true virtue dignity and nobility." She spoke in favor of divorce, "because marriage was inherently unjust to women, it being a man-made convention." So I take it back as a reference for Hillary, who is only where she is by reason of her marriage to Bill. And that includes her qualifications as Secretary of State. The issue of abortion is defined by the institution of marriage, safeguarding births not corralled by men in their name. I was not so smart in the abortion era, and was seen mainly perhaps as a woman who left her own marriage in order to be gay. No, I left an abusive relationship (the nice way of putting it), and since it was 1962, the word gay was not in my vocabulary. With two small children in tow, I was thinking mainly pennies every day, and a mattress under which to put them. I led a drastic improvident life, hanging with other mothers living in unmarried destitution, writing responsible reviews for two publications, yet to learn of Norman O. Brown's literary madness, and not yet discovered by the rich artists and their wealthy collectors. I knew plenty of artists but not the ones who could take me places, and make me feel unnaturally important. What I needed was one of Queen Victoria's father's 50 charities, the one called THE LITERARY FUND FOR DISTRESSED AUTHORS. Her father was Edward the Duke of Kent and he died in 1820, just after Victoria was born. Dead royalty carry the hubristic magic of their undying future, their secret conspiracies to usurp the power of their fathers, as Brown put it, and the orgasmic excitement of the people, their spectators. "Gradually they lost all sense that the god is themselves, he is utterly projected," wrote Jane Harrison in her book, "Themis"; Harrison was one of Brown's 217 footnoted authors in "Love's Body," which consists of prose stanzas, or paragraphs, averaging seven to nine lines, sometimes less, or more. In his bibliography, 32 books by Freud are listed, with the next largest number, 15, by Fenichel, then 12 by Melanie Klein, the Viennese child psychoanalyst who died in 1945. A book by Klein in my library has countless references to Freud, in text or by footnote. If you don't know how Freudian Brown was -- and if I didn't in 1966 it made no difference to me, I read Freud uncritically at that time -- here is his outstanding clue, on page 47 of "L.B.": "The first act of the individual is incest with his mother." The two words, "his mother," I would have read conventionally, in my gender undifferentiated state, as meaning mine too. It seems hard to believe that word of Brown's book came to us in our disorderly art world through John Cage, whose own writings were perfectly Zen or personally anecdotal, often syntactically incomprehensible (arranged aleatorically), and who had essentially no truck with psychoanalytic causations, or any causation whatever. But John knew Norman at Wesleyan, where they both had visiting professorships at the same time. I heard they used to enjoy walks together. John could have taken one look at Norman's prose stanzas in "Love's Body" and swooned under the impact of their original layout, never bothering to read any of the words. I don't know. I visited Norman in California once. I called and was invited to dinner. He was disconcertingly withdrawn, his wife was unfriendly, and we failed to connect. I may have looked too pre-historical to him. It was not the best of my encounters with the men I admired. My best, excepting my French oil patron, is still my first. I was 23; he was 65 and English, recently retired as a professor of philosophy after 28 years on the Wellesley faculty. When you move with a truckload of books the way Ingrid and I did in 2007, and you browse among them, you can come across long-forgotten inscriptions. This one, in a book of essays on Alfred N. Whitehead, says, "To Jill with affection and with contrition for having inoculated her with the virus of philosophy -- a disease from which she has never recovered." He lived to be 93, and I visited him frequently, even during the 1960s, when I never mentioned Cage, Brown, or the "disease" of living in Manhattan in revolutionary times. In 2004 I wanted to meet Obama after reading his 'Dreams' book and seeing certain similarities in our origins. Now he is arrested in his representational imprisonment, and too busy trying to save us, as the script for kingship goes. "The king never dies.... Everything turns on the continuity of succession." Put differently, he is dead already. We waited a long time for the one worthy of such high entombment. But will he do anything about the Second Amendment?


©Jill Johnston. Previously published on www.jilljohnston.com. To read more about Jill Johnston, please click here. To read more of Jill Johnston on the Dance Insider, click here.

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