"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, January 18, 2020

‘I Was At Woodstock’ And Other Fairy Tales

A friend whose wife was a fabulist said she lived ‘on Capitol Hill’. Although her simple, unrenovated 30s barracks in Southwest Washington was in view of the Capitol, it was far from it.  She hedged the borders of the official district; and since she was but a stone’s throw from the restaurants and cafes of Pennsylvania Avenue, the Folger Shakespeare Library, and the Mall, why not include herself in Capitol Hill cachet?
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A colleague who lived on the low-rent side of Massachusetts Avenue told others he lived ‘in Spring Valley’ because he crossed the street every day and walked among the elegant, old, beautifully-landscaped properties there.  The cafes and restaurants on that side of the street catered to both his neighborhood and the much larger and wealthier one on this side; just as the shopping center on his side provided lox, bagels, prime rib, and pastries to everyone.  Why not, then, claim residence in Spring Valley instead of the more pedestrian, bureaucratic, family-oriented American University Park?

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Mary Beth Lucas, nee Rosales had married two American millionaires, lived simply but well in her South American hacienda, and had spent her life distancing herself from her indigenous past despite her dark complexion, narrow-set eyes, raven-black straight hair, and Indian nose.  She had, despite the catty bitchiness of her white Spanish-heritage neighbors, managed to rebrand herself as a European-American far from the Andes as could be and as civilized and pale as they.

Because her Indian past was so evident in her features, she could not dismiss it entirely; but she found ways to at least marginalize it.  If she could weave a fabulist story about her childhood, it might well displace reality.  She, an Indian ‘nigger’ from the highlands, daughter of brujos and llama-herders, descendants of the Quechua, Inca, and Aymara, but, thanks to a missionary school very American in dress, language, and attitude, could get by; and so from a very young age began to create her own history.  She was so successful at historical fungibility, that even though she looked like the most untamed and uncivilized Amazon Indian, she was thought of otherwise.

This reformism and cultural transformation was never easy, for the ‘nigger’ slur trailed her for years.  Her marriages to the crème de la crème of Philadelphia and New York societies, said her vixenish neighbors, were thanks to chicanery and her blatant trickery of men whose forbears had married too many first cousins to think properly.  Her first husband had always had a ‘thing’ for dark, exotic women, and fell for Mary Beth at first sight.  There was nothing niggerish or off-putting about her., he thought.  On the contrary, he saw her as an Amazon queen, extracted from the jungle, honed and sharpened on the altiplano, and offered to European society as indigenous royalty.

Her second husband was no less struck by her indigenous beauty and enamored of her primitive heritage; saw in her European potential, and debuted her into the European society of the capital.  Mary Beth saw the opportunity and ran with it.  She knew that she could not ever really have the key to their club – one whose members only had to show up white, well-dressed, and with a touch of Seville in their speech to be admitted – but thought that if she acquired the accouterments of social success, she might be considered.

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So thanks to her second husband’s connections and the generous, entitled divorce settlement form her first, she was launched – or rather launched herself – into the world of  entertainment.  Of course her world was rather rural and unpretentious compared to that of Buenos Aires or Rio, but it was significant enough to draw attention; and – the theme of this story – provided her with ample opportunity for embellishment.  While her achievements were modest, her description of them was no less than Hollywood; and the more she claimed and proclaimed, the more her stories were taken as gospel. 

She had, thanks to her storied silver tongue, charisma, and husband-facilitated contacts, transformed her modest beginnings into things of spectacular interest.  She had been the impresario of the stage appearances of Sting and Bono; she had produced the Latin versions of Kristofferson and Garth Brooks; she was responsible for the spectacular sound-and-light show of Independence Day whose headliners were Abba and Richie Valens.

Or so the story went; but it never traveled very far, only to the outer limits of  European Latin American society, to Argentinian parilladas and Paraguayan harp concerts, and to gullible Britishers who came expecting more from South America than that poor, benighted, corrupt, and desperately poorly managed continent could ever deliver.  Mary Beth was a legend among these hopeful, diversity-minded, but ultimately gullible young men from Scotland and Wales. 

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For those who had caught on to Mary Beth’s marvelous fantasy and loved her for it, her deception was only theatrical, Grand Guignol, and operatic and never devious.  She was their hero, a woman who eschewed reality, was creator of fantasy, and a magician who could make observers see what she wanted them to see.

Such deceptive women are everywhere.  Thousands of years of patriarchy and male authority have led them to such theatrics.  Women since the first human settlements have figured out how to survive in a world where they had to rely on men for food and shelter, who died in childbirth, and who were afforded the leavings of the table. 

Shakespeare knew this well, and Cleopatra, Volumnia, Dionyza, Goneril, Regan, and Tamora were the result.  Yet the most alluring are those who are self-deceiving as well as deceptive, those who can fool themselves as well as others.

Margaret Fitzgerald was one of them, a woman who had never been to Woodstock, never done acid, never loved the one she was with, and never abandoned the rectitude and Biblical insistence of her minister father.  Yet, thanks to American Utopianism and youthful, exuberant, credulous optimism, her claim to have been at Woodstock and in the hippy communes of the Oregon coast, to have tripped with the freaks of the East Village, and gone overland from London to Mandalay were accepted, reported, and loved.  She became a Sixties icon even though she had never moved out of Bayonne, New Jersey.

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How was this operatic deception possible? Was no one fact-checking?

Of course not, for if America can be characterized by one thing, it is by fantasy, vaudeville, Barnum and Bailey, Las Vegas, Hollywood, and illusion.  It was as easy for Mary Fitzgerald to weave her story of Sixties’ adventurism as it was for Walt Disney to create Fantasyland.  Because everyone expected the Sixties to be anti-establishment, spiritual, freeing, and hyper-creative, selling her story of community and belonging was easy.  It was what was done by a person of her age.
Ivan’s Devil in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, says
So against the grain I serve to produce events and do what's irrational because I am commanded to. For all their indisputable intelligence, men take this farce as something serious, and that is their tragedy. They suffer, of course ... but then they live, they live a real life, not a fantastic one, for suffering is life. Without suffering what would be the pleasure of it? It would be transformed into an endless church service; it would be holy, but tedious (The Devil – Ivan’s Nightmare, Brothers Karamazov)
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Dostoevsky’s Devil is a vaudevillian, a comedian who serves to spice things up.  What would life be without me? he asks. “It would be holy, but tedious”.

Margaret Fitzgerald and Mary Beth Lucas were cut from the same cloth – irreverent, unholy, deceptive, and a barrel of fun. Nietzsche claimed that the only validation of human life in a meaningless universe was the expression of pure will; but the mirror image is also true.  If there is no permanence, no fixed pole of morality or code of righteous conduct, then anything goes.  Weaving fanciful tales, editing  the past, creating one’s own amalgam of truth and fiction is not only existential but fun.  And who can deny that especially in these dismal, censorious, humorless times, a bit of vaudeville is not welcome.

The chaste, the purposeful, the moral, and the decided are today’s heroes; but history and Shakespeare have exposed the vanity of this false rectitude.   Mary Beth and  Margaret are today’s heroes – amoral, unpretentious, and unconcerned about fakes news. Reality and fiction are fungible, they both knew, and the more operatic and stage-ready the play, the more pyrotechnic the lighting and displays, and the more fanciful the denouement, the more ‘realistic’ the story.

Tennessee Williams understood this best. Laura, Alma, and Blanche were fabulist heroines, women who lived in fanciful worlds, who were consigned to live in isolation because of them, but who fought to throw off their pedestrian traces are the most memorable characters of the American theatre because their fanciful dismissal of the real, prosaic, ugly world is the Nietzschean answer to despair
I have loved many women in my life, but only memories of Alma, Blanche, and Laura and their avatars remain. Love other than with the fanciful, impossibly idealistic, and hopelessly melodramatic is not love at all.

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