"Clown Face," October 28th, 2017, Studio 10 Gallery, Brooklyn, running time: 01:18:53.
Matt Freedman: I teach in Philadelphia--I have some Philadelphia connections here tonight. I usually take a bus that comes within a few blocks of the campus. I have to walk through two college campuses to get to school, and there's usually a gauntlet of various kinds of salesmen and hawkers along the way. A couple of weeks ago, there was a man standing a couple of blocks from the bus. He had a cardboard box with him and a small object in his hand. He held it out and said, “You want to have this? It's a Gideon Bible.” So, I took it.
Anybody want a Bible? I always wanted to do that.
A few blocks later, there was another man with the same box and he said, “Do you want a Bible?” And I said, “Yes.” And he gave me another Bible and I put it in my pocket. And then as I got to campus, there was a third man who said, “Do you want a Free Bible?” And I said, “Yes.” And I took it. I didn't know whether I was getting Bibles off the street or I was responding to some latent urge to be evangelized. These Gideon Bibles are very efficient. In the front they have a series of questions that you might need answers to like, “Are your friends failing you? Do you have a problem with God? Is there a steadfastness problem in your life?” And then there's a place you can look up the answers. You don't have to thumb through the Bible; you can get right to the correct passage and be on your way. And this makes sense. The Gideons are very practical.
By the way, I have more Bibles. Who wants one? You get a Bible! You get a Bible!
The Gideons were started by a traveling salesman and I think the first Gideon Bible was placed in Superior, Montana. Jude tells me there's nothing else remarkable about Superior, Montana, although there is a famous road that goes through it that opened up the West for pioneers.
Gideon himself was one of those scary old testament patriarchs. He was famous for leading an army into battle and winning against overwhelming odds, although his actual story is kind of wacky. After Gideon had spent the customary period of 40 years of fighting with people, God or an intermediary for God came to him and said he should raise an army and fight the Midianites. And so Gideon got together a huge army of 30,000 men and they began marching, and God came to him and said, “You got too many men. If you win, everybody else say it was because you had a better army, not because your God helped you out. You’ve got to cut down your army.” So Gideon went to his army and said, “Everybody who is scared, go home.” 20,000 guys went home, so he's left with 10,000 people. And God said, “Still too many. You gotta cut it down.” So, Gideon took his army to the water and told everybody to take a drink. And then he watched. And only the people who lapped up the water like dogs with their tongues did he keep in his army. And that left 300 men who liked to drink water by lapping at it. And that was the force that he went in to fight the Midianites with in the middle of the night, carrying torches and banging on drums to make themselves sound like there were more of them than there actually were and they won this great battle that they attributed to their God. This seems like a classic Orthodox problem. You set up an insurmountable requirement and then you work around it to get back to where you would have been in the first place if you hadn’t taken the trouble of paying attention to God. Maybe that's just my jaundiced point of view.
The Gideon situation was only the second intervention with evangelists that I've had in the in the past month. A few weeks before, I got a letter in the mail, hand scrawled, addressed to my name. Inside, was a passage from the Old Testament, Isaiah 53, which is the Servant Passage. I think I better read it. It says, “He was taken for prison and from judgment: And who shall declare that his generation? For he was cut off out of the land of the living: For transgressions of my people was he stricken.” Now this is a pronoun question; is this a singular or plural pronoun? Who is the servant? In the Old Testament the idea was this was the Israelites who were not going to be doing very well in this world, but perhaps would be rewarded later on. The Christians thought, well, this is obviously Jesus being foretold in the Old Testament, and to this day the Jews for Jesus will go to this passage. And that's apparently why it was sent to me. Somebody goes through all the Jewish names in the phone book and sends them Isaiah 53, just kind of a fishing trip to see what they get.
The first time this was used to get the first gentile convert to Christianity was by Philip The Evangelist, who was walking along a road in Ethiopia when he came across the Ethiopian Eunuch. A eunuch at the time was usually a man who served in court in some capacity. And he was reading this Isaiah passage and Philip asked him what was going on. The man said, “I am confused.” So Philip explained to the man that this was the foretelling of the coming of Jesus Christ and the man joyfully converted. It's sometimes pointed out that a eunuch is not a specific term of reference. There are lots of vagaries about what this means, so the idea that the first Christian convert was a sexual and ethnic minority stands in interesting counterpoint to the recent history of the fundamentalist movement in this country.
On the bus coming back from Philadelphia that day, I sat next to a woman, and because the bus was very delayed, we fell into a conversation. She told me that her husband had just died. She was very sad. I told her my sad stories, and then she told me that she had to write a speech for the upcoming Yom Kippur service. For some reason she'd been invited to talk on the subject of martyrs. I'm not a very good Jew, so I didn't know that there's a whole field of martyrology in Jewish tradition. Especially on Yom Kippur, you tell the Stories of the Ten Martyrs, which are pretty exciting tales about ten men who, at least in the collapsed history of the Old Testament, suffered excitingly horrendous deaths for their faith. This includes the death of Rabbi Haninah, who was wrapped in the Torah and then wet wool was placed between his body and the parchment of the Torah and he was set on fire. The wet wool was to keep him from burning too fast so they could make him suffer as much as possible. His followers gathered around Rabbi Haninah to try to give him some comfort. And he told them that he could see the letters of the Torah flying to heaven and he was comforted. They told him to open his mouth so that the flames would enter his body more quickly and his suffering would be less. He said, “That's not how God operates. He will take me when my time comes. I cannot hurry my death. That's not according to God's plan.” When the executioner heard this, he was quite moved, and he removed the wet wool from the apparatus so that the flames would consume the rabbi more quickly. And then he jumped into the fire himself.
The other notable incident from the Ten Martyrs was Rabbi Yishmael, who was extremely handsome, so handsome that the daughter of the Governor was in love with him and she begged her father to spare him, but her father said, “No, I can't do that.” So she said, “Well then, could you cut the skin off his face while he's still alive and stuff it with straw so I may gaze upon him?” That's what passes from Old Testament love story.
I was thinking about these holidays. I think about the fact that this is just a few days before Halloween and about the problems of cultures with different traditions merging. Jewish kids are often told that they have their own Halloween—Purim--but that Halloween itself is a Christian ritual and should not be something that the Jews partake in. And of course, fundamentalist Christians like Pat Robertson say that Halloween is Satan's Day and should be ignored as well. Somebody is still celebrating. Somebody is a Sexy Nurse, but it shouldn't be Christians or Jews. Yet somehow it persists.
My grandfather was born in Dokshitski, Russia, literally. He spent his last years in Miami Beach in modest apartments and hotels, which are now all fancied up for the Miami Basel Art Fairs. But during my grandparents’ time Miami Beach was a kind of dismal place. My grandfather was somebody that I didn't have much of a relationship with, because of his thick accent and his foreign ways, but he was a gentle man. The only time I ever saw him upset was one Christmas. It happened to be Christmas; that wasn't a day that was very eventful for the family otherwise, but some highly acculturated relative came to his apartment and wished him a Merry Christmas. He became agitated and jumped up and shouted, “How can you wish me happy Merry Christmas? Millions of Jews were murdered on Christmas!” a number of sons and younger cousins settled him down and said, “It's okay, grandpa. You can wish somebody a Merry Christmas in this country.”
But Halloween is an occasion for all sorts of hooliganism. For graves to be uprooted, tossed aside. Often, there are attacks on Jewish communities, especially in Europe. We live in a synagogue, an ex-synagogue, and one evening, during the first few years we lived there, around Halloween, in the evening, police trucks pulled up in front of our building; armored cars, vans and so on. These men leaped out in full body armor; helmets; machine guns. They took up positions on the front steps of the synagogue with their dogs and they stayed there all night. Naturally, we went outside to ask what they were doing, and they said they were protecting us from terrorism. They were part of something called Operation Hercules, and their job in the years just after 9-11 was to pop up unexpectedly in places that were high priority terrorist targets, like synagogues on Halloween. We explained that this was no longer a synagogue, it was simply a building that once had been a synagogue, but was now an artists’ studio. They answered in a true Talmudic fashion that, “It looks like a synagogue, and if it looks like a synagogue. It doesn't matter if it is a synagogue. It still could be attacked.” They guarded our non-synagogue off and on for a couple of years, and then, probably when the overtime pay for Operation Hercules ran out, they stopped coming by. So far, so good.
Halloween does have its roots in Pre-Christian pagan activities. A harvest festival called Samhain in Ireland involved lighting bonfires, wearing costumes, and basically running around trying to fool the dead. It was a time when the line between the living and the dead was thinner than normal and there was more danger operating in the world. People wore costumes to protect themselves. I'm wearing one--this is my David Lynch costume--for protection.
There was a man named Stingy Jack who was a worthless old reprobate who drank too much. Gambled, swore, pulled tricks on everybody he could, including the Devil himself. One day he tricked the Devil into climbing a tree, and while the Devil was up the tree, Stingy Jack drew crosses around the base, which meant the Devil couldn't come down. And the Devil screamed and yelled, but Stingy Jack said, “You can only come down if you promise me that I can never go to Hell.” And so the Devil did, and Stingy Jack erased the crosses and the Devil came down.
Stingy Jack lived out his life as a miserable reprobate and when he died he went up to the Pearly Gates and knocked. St Peter said, “No way you're coming in here. You lived a worthless life. This is for God’s elite, that he may delight in them.” So Stingy Jack went down to Hell and sure enough, the Devil was good to his word and said, “You can't come in here. We made a deal.” Stingy Jack said, “Well, it's very dark. I can't see. How do I get away?” So, the Devil took a burning ember from the fires of Hell and gave it to him. Stingy Jack had his favorite food with him, which was a turnip. He held out the turnip and put the ember into the turnip and he walks the earth to this day with the flaming turnip to light his way seeking rest, which will forever elude him. When the descendants of Stingy Jack moved to United States, they discovered that the pumpkin was much bigger and easier to carve than the turnip. And that is when our tradition of the Jack-o-Lantern emerged.
Not far from our house in Queens is a cemetery where Harry Houdini, the great magician and escapologist, is buried. His real name was Weiss. He is in the family plot where he's buried with his sister, brother and I think his parents, but not his wife. His wife was not Jewish and according to whichever biography you read, she is not buried with him either because the Jews didn't want them buried together, or because her Christian family didn't want them buried together. But in any case, she's several miles away. I’d like to think that they wander the earth trying to get back together. For years, every Halloween, his bust at the gravesite, a beautiful bust that the American Magic Society put up, would be destroyed. It's still up there right now, but because he died on Halloween Eve, it's obviously ripe for all sorts of shenanigans.
We went out there once and I did this card trick for Houdini. I don't know if I can do this now. Scott was telling me about white glove magic, but this is the only magic trick I know and you can't do this with this with gloves, at least I can’t.
Oops. That was a Gideon Bible app. So if anybody wants a Gideon Bible app, please, take one.
Houdini, in addition, was a great enemy of fake mysticism. He had lost his mother, who he was very close to, and he investigated the possibility of communicating with the dead, but he decided it was all a bunch of bad magic. He had become very good friends with Arthur Conan Doyle, who like millions of other parents had lost a child in World War One. Doyle did become a believer and their friendship foundered on Houdini's irritating habit of proving that “contacts” between this world and the next were usually a matter of very bad magic tricks.
Besides his interest in magic and escapology, Houdini was interested in all things having to do with vaudeville, including what we are doing a version of here, which are lightning sketches, a tradition of drawing and talking at the same time. It was highly stylized at the beginning. There were very specific drawings you would do, very specific stories that you would tell. I went to the Library of Congress in Washington where Houdini’s collection of cheap little How to Make Lightning Sketch books are stored. I put on gloves like these so I could touch the crumbling paper. The books were filled with one drawing after another that you could emulate while telling the appropriate stories.
For example, you would write the name--let's see if I can do this—"Cohen”, and say, “I saw a man named Cohen”, and then the name turns into a libelous image of an old Jewish man named Cohen. The most interesting picture, or a story, that I found was this: There once was a pretty girl named Lulu. She had a round face. She loved to wear hats with bows. She had a beautiful, long, swan neck, big dark eyes, curly hair, little button lips. Everybody told her that she should become a movie star, but she didn't want to be a movie star. She did, however, have some interest in show business. She ran away and wasn't seen again for years, until she returned with the circus… as a clown.
AAHHH. You've all seen that a million times. Conversion trick.
The modern circus as we know it dates back to the late 18th century, to the English cavalry. There was a dashing rider named Phillip Astley. After he was discharged from the service, he like many riders, began putting on trick shows in front of crowds in London. What they would do was they would ride back and forth and perform military maneuvers, which are impressive to the lay public--to this day you can see the Lipizzaners in Vienna. Phillip, mostly by circumstance, wasn't able to ride his horses back and forth in front of the audience. He didn't have enough room. So he rode in a circle. It's turned out to be a much better way to get the audience around the animals. And he also benefited from the fact that at this time David Garrick, great master of the stage in London, was trying to raise the prestige of the art form of acting by ejecting the mimes and jugglers and acrobats who filled in between scenes of Shakespearian performances, apparently. And these mimes and jugglers and acrobatics had nothing to do, so Ansley hired them to perform between the horse riding stunts. These became the first circuses and he basically franchised himself out. I think eventually he went broke.
The first modern clown, as we think of them, was Joseph Grimaldi a couple of decades or so later. An Englishman, but the son of an Italian performer, he was a famous pantomimist, but he began to develop his clown character, putting on certain makeup and face paint, and a distinctive hairdo that is similar to what we think of as a modern clown’s. he innovated interactions with the audience, making fun of the audience, playing, being acrobatic and generally becoming an institution. Such an institution that his nickname, Joey, is how clowns are commonly referred to still to this day. There's even a Clown Church in London. There's an annual Grimaldi Memorial Service and there is a clown in the stained glass as I understand it. Grimaldi himself had a miserable, tragic life. His father abused him. His young love died. He had a brother who ran away to sea at the age of six, came back for one day and one night, and then disappeared immediately, never to be seen again. He had a son who was also a talented clown, who died in his twenties of alcoholism. By the time Grimaldi died in his fifties, he was a broken man physically and spiritually. His edited notes were collected and organized by a young writer named Charles Dickens, who helped begin the tradition, or the notion, we have of the sad clown, the clown with the sadness behind the smile.
As you probably have already surmised, the clown character that Grimaldi created is very similar to the clowns that appear in the commedia dell'arte tradition, the Italian comic tradition; the touring bands that used pantomime and masks because in Italy, pre-unification Italy, there were so many different dialects and languages being spoken that you couldn't really speak to the crowd. You had to act from the body out. There was Harlequin…there were basically a set group. There was Pantaloon, there would be an old man. There'd be a young, clever servant, There would be a desirable girl. There'd be the clown, Pierrot and there'd be a Zanni. Zannis are similar to Joeys. Zanni comes from gianno, or Everyman, It was very much--there's a lot of class-based structure within these stories. I once saw an elaborate diagram that showed how the power dynamics and class dynamics and sexual dynamics of commedia dell'arte animated themselves over and over and over again into one satisfactory incarnation after another.
Pagliacci, the opera, is the same story. It's about a troupe of traveling performers. It's the first sort of meta-story that I know of. The performers are acting out this drama of the cuckolded old man, the scheming servant and the simple fool. In the meantime, the actors themselves are playing out the same story in their own lives, and the confusion of the acting and the reality culminates in people getting stabbed and dying on stage and the comedy being finished.
Artists of all sorts associated themselves in the Romantic Era with Pierrot, especially. The clown as mime, usually with nothing but a black skullcap and that characteristically frothy white suit with black spots. Bowie said, “We are all Pierrot.” All sorts of performance thought of themselves as Pierrot.
Jerry Lewis, who just died, was particularly susceptible to the notion that he was the quintessential sad clown with depths far beyond what we can possibly plumb. He made a couple of movies about clowns and circuses, only one of which I've ever seen. Only one of which, apparently any of us will ever see. The first was called 3 Ring Circus. It was early in his career. He was still teamed up with Dean Martin. They are a couple of GIs who get mustered out of the army and they're both broke because Dean Martin's gambled all their money away. Jerry wants to join the circus and become a clown and he's got a job there, but first he has to be a lion tamer. So there's a whole scene where he's bad lion tamer. Eventually he works his way up to becoming a clown, basically because he almost kills himself on a high wire act.
Meanwhile, everybody is falling in love with Dean Martin, including Zsa Zsa Gabor, who is the hot head attraction. She's a trapeze artist in the circus and a heartless character. But she and Dean hit it off. Of course, the head of the circus is another beautiful woman who also falls in love with Dean Martin. So, Jerry's in love with Dean, Zsa Zsa is in love with Dean, and Dean is scheming to try to get the circus to make more money by instituting gambling on the carnival side, but this is against the ethics of the circus. This is the only circus with ethics. So, he leaves and Jerry and everyone is heartbroken, but they decide to put on a show for a bunch of orphans, and Jerry is doing all these zany acts and all the orphans are smiling except one; the cutest, saddest orphan, sitting there with her head in her hands and her polio braces up and down her legs. You can see her life story in a moment. Jerry's sitting next to her doing one funny thing after another, and everybody's laughing, but the little girl is stone faced until she sees that Jerry is crying. He's crying because, of course, he has lost his friends. And when she sees that he's crying, she starts to laugh and she says, “The clown is crying! The clown is crying!” and everybody's happy. Just then Dean Martin drives up in a big car and he gets out and he begins to sing and everybody's happy.
But Jerry was quite enamored of that image of the clown crying behind the smile. He made a movie called The Day the Clown Cried, which is apparently, legendarily, the worst movie ever made. So bad it's never been released. And whatever remains of the tape is discarded some place. People have seen the script and some people have seen it, and the story is remarkable, but apparently, the execution is worse than the story. Jerry is a sullen, selfish failed clown in pre-Nazi Germany, who really doesn't care for anybody but himself. He somehow insults a man in power and he sent to a concentration camp, but he's a Christian and so he's doing something-his life is not in danger, but he notices every day trains come in with Jews who are sent to a different part of the camp. One day as he's walking around the edge of his area he sees a bunch of Jewish children by the fence looking miserable, so he makes a face at them and they look back and they smile and he begins to draw on his circus skills as a clown, entertaining the children. And they're very happy. A guard comes and punches him, but for once in his life, Jerry has a purpose and he continues to perform for the children. The authorities realize that this is keeping the children docile, so they allow him to continue until the day that the children are to be sent to the gas chambers. Jerry understands what's going to happen. He understands how terrifying this will be for the children. So he stands in front of them and he performs and they laugh and they begin to march to the crematoria and he marches with them, still performing, until they all disappear into the ovens. Apparently, it's worse than it sounds. And so nobody's ever seen it. But that's the story as I understand it.
You might've seen that the cover of the New Yorker this week was a forest with a clown looking out the trees. And if you look twice, you realize it's You-Know-Who; our President Trump, as a clown. This is something---over the last few years there's been an epidemic of creepy clown sightings. There are people dressed as clowns lurking at the edges of forests at the edges of towns. At first it was sort of an urban myth. But of course, once people heard about it and realized how easy it would be to renact this myth, “real” clowns started showing up--so much so that all over the world, in New Zealand and in Russia, there are new laws on the books against dressing up as a clown and lurking.
There's actually a word for the fear of clowns, which is coulrophobia. Nobody is sure where it comes from. It doesn't really mean anything. There's some theory that it has something to do with the Greek word for stilt walkers, but it's become the term of art for anyone who's afraid of clowns. Of course, it's reasonable to be afraid of clowns because they are such grotesque figures. They exist in a kind of real-world uncanny valley, with their exaggerated features and body parts; big nose, big ears, exaggerated expression. They don't register as fully as human, and yet they are, which causes us great distress.
I had a professor at the University of Iowa, a very benign man named Byron Burford, who painted very elegant, somewhat stale pictures of cows and barns and also clowns and carnivals. As a young man he traveled, first with the Tom Mix Circus, and then with these magic shows that involved terrible gore. I've never--I haven't been able to nail down the name for them, but they were just enormous blood--letting riots. People would be chopped up and arms would be cut off and it was all quite exciting, according to Burford. He never quite got over it.
My friend Scott, who's here, told me about a contemporary magician, Richiardi Junior, who had a conventional act, but he also had a Gore Act that was quite popular. The sawing-the-woman-in half trick involved actually sawing the woman in half, apparently. Guts would go everywhere and you were invited to come up and look. I don't know if it was him or another magician, but if he was in town for too long, every time he did the act on a new day the person he sawed in half had to have different color hair for every show. He was changing the wigs on his assistant to maintain the stage fiction that people were being murdered. He got picketed for the offensiveness of his act. But eventually he received a kind of poetic justice. He died of infection from a wound in his foot--He was diabetic---caused by a scratch from a tiger in his act, So, he had an Achilles' heel in his foot. Which makes you wonder about whether that was what happened to Achilles himself--it was just a staph infection.
You're probably reminded of the grand guignol performances in theaters in Paris at the turn of the last century that lasted, I think, until the middle part of the century. They came out of an attempt to create natural theater. There was a theory that theater should not be artificial, but that it should somehow reflected the real world. But they soon realized that the reality that the audience really wanted to see people stabbed and disemboweled and generally blood going everywhere. Grand guignol somehow reached through the artifice and mannerism of the stage to something real and powerful and arousing. So arousing apparently, that in the theater private boxes were discretely set up that you could go into if you were sufficiently aroused by the performance that you had to find some sort of release.
Guignol is the name of a puppet that was devised by a itinerant dentist named Mourguet around the turn of the 19th century. Dentists at that time were not trained in anything except the art of grabbing and pulling teeth out of mouths, which was very painful. The actual job of pulling a tooth was performed for free. What they charged for was the patent medicine designed to relieve the pain from the removed tooth. In order to keep his patients as calm as possible Mourguet began putting on puppet shows, drawing on the commdie dell'arte tradition. Guignol was a sort of Harlequin puppet. There was a Judy puppet too and they performed the familiar story of being cuckolded and beaten around the head and neck. The show played over and over, the same as the Punch and Judy shows that you see in England to this day. But these Guignol shows were also popular in France.
The main reason we're probably afraid of clowns in this country today, the main reason they seem to have fallen to such a low repute, is that there was a man in Chicago 30 years ago named John Wayne Gacy who murdered 33 young boys and buried them in various parts of his house. He was a contractor and he would hire runaway kids to work for him and Gacy would take them back to his house and strangle them after assaulting them. He was arrested, and as the details of his life became known, one of the more horrifying aspects of his career was that he had created a character called Puddles the Clown who performed at children's parties. Apparently, Puddles was very benign, but this character-- this double life of the murderer and the clown cemented itself in our consciousness.
My father was a doctor in Chicago and was actually the man who had to interview Gacy before his trial so they could determine whether he was responsible for his acts. In Illinois at the time there were still the possibility of being not guilty by virtue of insanity. You needed a psychiatrist to say that you didn't know the difference between--you couldn't be responsible—because you had no understanding of the consequences of your actions. Gacy was a very smart, incredibly manipulative man. He was determined to convince my father simultaneously that he was smarter than everybody else, but also not responsible for his actions. But my father didn't actually believe that a doctor was the person to decide who was or was not responsible. So he just filed a determination that Gacy was perhaps insane, but could be held responsible. Gacy was convicted and given the death sentence and he lived on death row for years painting pictures of Puddles the Clown, which are now available online for thousands of dollars. Every Hanukkah he would send my family carefully made card with a picture of a Menorah on the front. It said on the outside, “ A joyous festival of lights to you and yours, Dr Freedman” On the back, he very carefully wrote “A Gacy Card” and on the inside he would slip a piece of paper and write in kind of casual scrawl, “How's it hanging Doc?” He eventually was executed.
In Portugal there are a number of urban myths surrounding clowns. One is called the Clown Face Story, in which somebody is walking late at night and a gang--perhaps of clowns--perhaps they're not clowns, it's unclear, besets their victim and asks them to make a choice between three options; one, death, second, a horrible beating, or third, “Clown Face.” Everybody always picks “Clown Face” because it doesn't sound as bad as a beating and certainly better than getting killed. Turns out though that Clown Face is when you stick a knife in the edge of the mouth and you rip it up and you create this horrible scar. It's called the Chelsea Smile or Glascow Grin and I think it's the face that Heath Ledger was given when he played The Joker.
No matter how hard they look, researchers never found any evidence that anybody ever did this in Portugal. But the legend persists, as does another story about a street fight between two popular clowns, Batatina and Companhia. Apparently on their live kiddie TV show one day they got into a horrible fight, a physical fight that grew out of their pantomime act, and they had to be taken off the air because they were beating each other up. And then they went to the streets and began to perform this famous melee over and over again. Last weekend we were in Lisbon, Jude and I, and Michelle and Adam over here too. And I had a set of things I wanted to do. We were there to see a movie, but before that, there were famous things to do in Lisbon. Besides the clowns, there were trams to ride.
They have little pastéis that are made out of egg yolks. Apparently back in the day, priests and nuns and monks had to starch their uniforms with egg whites, which left them with a lot of egg yolks and they made lots of custards and when business got bad, they began selling them to customers on the street and now these little treats are the quintessential breakfast food in Portugal. We did eat some of them and they are tasty.
I wanted it to go up the tower in the castle of San Jose—Jorge--at the top of a hill in the middle of Lisbon. Lisbon is very hilly. That's why they have all the trams. They bought them, I think from San Francisco at the turn of the century. At the top of the Ulysses Tower is a camera obscura where you can see the entire city laid out upside down in front of you.
Ulysses, or Odysseus, when he was traveling back from Troy, took ten years. He stopped at islands along the way and at each place he had adventures, fighting Cyclopes and so on. One beautiful woman after another would fall in love with him and he would spend some time with her before moving on. He passed the Sirens and had himself tied to the mast so he could hear the Song of the Sirens and not be tempted to jump, as everyone else would do, and throw himself on the rocks.
Only one other man, incidentally, ever survived contact with the Sirens. Orpheus, the greatest musician in the world, was taken on the Argo when it sailed with Jason to get the fleece. They had to pass the Sirens as well. And he was told to play louder and more beautifully than the Sirens in order that they might pass by. And he did. His mother was Calliope, the muse of harmony. She had the most beautiful voice in the world. I was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art last night and sure enough, there was a picture of Calliope on a vase with her name written in Greek--which is legible--giving wine to her son who was going off to fight the Trojan War.
Odysseus fought his way back to Ithaca, where he grew up, to be reunited with his wife, who was fighting off her suitors. I read this story over and over as a child and I was quite enamored of it, especially--Ulysses had red hair-with his wife's name, which I thought was Pen-a-lope, as I'd never heard it pronounced out loud. Pen-a-lope sounded like a properly exotic Greek name for someone married to Odysseus. I was quite disappointed a few years later when I was watching Wacky Races on Saturday morning TV and there was a recurring character named Penelope Pitstop, who was the most banal, uninteresting hot rodder imaginable, but I realized it was the same name I had read in the Odyssey and that Odysseus’ wife was not this exotic creature named Pen-a-lope, but some drag racing bimbo named Penelope
In any case, Odysseus, before he went home and slew all the suitors, was marooned on yet another island with another goddess who was in love with him, a snake tailed enchantress whose heart he broke, but before he left Zeus told him to found a city on this land and that became Lisbon. Lisbon, which is the second oldest city, second oldest capitol at least, in Europe, after Athens itself.
What we did do when we were in Lisbon was go to a town named Sintra outside the city. Also very hilly. Dotted with palaces that were mostly fixed up in the previous era of great disparity of wealth at the end of the 19th century. There's the Palace Quinta do Relogio, which is the Palace of the Clock, although there's no clock there. Madonna just bought it. Next to that is the Quinta de Regaleira Palace, where we wandered around for several hours. It was owned most notoriously by a man named Monteiro the Millionaire. He was born in Brazil. He was immensely wealthy. Became even more wealthy speculating in coffee and precious metals. He returned to Portugal and interested himself in all things exotic and intellectual. He owned the world's most complicated watch, the Leroy 01. Leroy made it. This hand-held watch could tell the time in 125 different cities. On the back there was a rotating image of the sky. It could tell you the positions of the stars on any day of the year, in the northern skies of Lisbon and Paris, in the southern skies of Rio de Janeiro.
The property has a number of deep wells connected by tunnels that open up into waterfalls. You can go down and at the bottom of the wells are these geometric patterns on the floors, which were apparently initiation sites for various esoteric groups that he was a member of; The Rosicrucians, the Masons, the Knights Templar.
The Knights Templar have a very complicated initiation tradition that is connected to their own destruction. They were originally founded as a group of impoverished warrior monks to protect travelers on their way to the Holy Land in the years before and after the Crusades. They were famous for their ferociousness in battle, but they began to develop a secondary and more important practice, which was as a kind of bureaucratic Travelers’ Aid Society. They in effect became bankers. They invented all sorts of systems where you would give them all your money in your hometown and you could travel to the Holy Land with a piece of paper that you would redeem for your money when you reached Palestine, thereby making yourself less of a target for robbers. They began to amass great wealth, not only because of this, but they were very popular tithing recipients. So much so that they became immensely wealthy, and highly suspected.
In 1307, Phillip the Fair, King of France, decided they were too powerful. The year before he had exiled all the Jews for the same cause: they were accused of being a state within a state that had become too powerful. Phillip began to circulate rumors that the initiation rites of the Knights Templar involved various blasphemous acts such as spitting on The Cross, indecent kissing and various other undesirable actions. The Knights were all gathered together on Friday the 13th-- which is apparently the beginning of that sad tradition--and burned at the stake. It appears that it wasn't just trumped up charges that Phillip had come up with. The Knights did have actual rituals that involved spitting on The Cross, because part of their preparations for their wars against the Saracens was that they assumed they will be captured and tortured and forced to commit blasphemous acts. And since they knew they would have to commit them, they had to prepare themselves to execute these acts without sinning in spirit. So, they had to learn how to spit on The Cross without actually rejecting the cross. It's very careful theology. It was good enough for the knights, but it got them in trouble in court, eventually.
At the top of the hill in Sintra is an old Moorish castle. “Nothing but walls,” as the tuk-tuk driver told us. It was begun in 7th century, just after the beginning of the occupation of the Iberian Peninsula by Moorish soldiers and politicians that lasted for 300 years. They were eventually evicted, and the buildings became sanctuaries for various religious groups that were on the outs. They're very beautiful. It's quite something to be walking along the edges of these parapets and looking out across the valley. There are also these carefully preserved burial sites that had been uncovered and screened over with glass and meticulously preserved. Shards and ritual objects were left by the bodies. But right in the middle they have stuck plastic Halloween skeletons, I guess to indicate that these were in fact burial grounds, but completely breaking the spirit of the moment.
The last day we were in Portugal we were taken to a small club on a small street on the waterfront to hear Fado. Fado translates roughly into “fate” or “destiny.” It's a Portuguese folk music tradition. A man or woman sings, accompanied by acoustic guitar and Portuguese guitar, which looks like a mandolin. It has six strings and then another course of six strings on top and you play it two strings at a time. It sounds a little bit like a harpsichord. The songs are all about sadness and longing. They sound a little bit like country music songs; “I thought we were two, but it was just me.” “I'm a prisoner of the night. That's why I cannot choose who I sleep with.” Our friend who had taken us there said, “All Fado singers are poor and broke and failures. You cannot be anything but that. Fado was born in the ghettos, the Moorish and Jewish ghettos of this country, and to sing Fado, you have to pour your heart out.” Jude asked our host, because a man was singing when we walked in, if a woman could sing Fado, and he said, “Yes, but she must be a prostitute.” I looked this up and apparently the greatest Fado singer of the 19th century was Maria Severa, who was a prostitute, and was the lover of Count Vimioso. She sang beautiful Fado before dying of tuberculosis at the age of 26. The Fado singer Baretto gave Jude a CD, on which he wrote, “To Jujie One kiss”. He sang, then a woman, very nice-looking woman with her boyfriend, got up and sang, then another man sang then Baretto sang again. They would have gone on all night singing sad, lonesome songs.
The movie we were in Portugal to see is called End of Life. It's about five people who are at various points along the continuum at the end of life. It begins with nine minutes of the camera on the face of this man; Ram Dass. Ram Dass used to be Richard Alpert. He and Timothy Leary discovered LSD as Harvard professors and Alpert as a result of his trips became a deeply spiritual man. He went to India, found a guru and adopted his new name, which means Servant of God. Twenty years ago, he had a stroke that has locked him in a wheelchair and affected his speech with some sort of aphasia, but he still has the power of a guru and a college professor. The filmmakers asked him “to take us on a spiritual journey.” For nine minutes he stares at the camera, twitching, occasionally he takes a drink of water. It's hard to tell if he's thinking or not thinking, preparing to speak or trying to speak. He clears his throat. He takes a sip from the glass of water again. Finally, he says, “In this culture, most people are afraid of death.”
And then the rest of the movie sort of proves that. Later on, though, Ram Dass explains his notion of what death is like: It is the body letting go. It's no longer needed and the spirit, the soul, begins its new adventures. He’s speaking slowly, hemming and hawing. He's basically having sex with death, is what it sounds like. It sounds quite delightful if you're willing to go on that particular spiritual journey with him. When you have aphasia, you normally lose all but specific content words. You lose language words, grammar words. You can communicate, but not in a grammatically proper way. Somehow, Ram Dass has avoided that.
At the end of her life. Jude’s grandmother, who lived to be 102, lived in a rest home in Louisville, Kentucky. She was okay, despite becoming increasingly fragile. She read the stock prices every day. She could tell you what her stocks were doing down to the last penny, but she was so appalled by the high cost of everyday life in late 20th century America that her daughter would sneak into her house before she moved, and then into her rest home room, and would put price tags on everything that she consumed at 1955 levels. She wouldn't drink a can of Coke unless it cost five cents. They sort of collaborated, colluded together, on this fiction.
There was another man at the rest home who had been Cactus, The Silent Clown on the T-Bar-V Ranch children's TV show that Jude in all the children in Louisville, Kentucky grew up watching. Cactus was a sort of a hillbilly clown. He wore overalls and a cowboy hat and big glasses and the only thing he ever said was, “How-dy!” and then he would shut up while they played the T-Bar-V Ranch song, which had a tune something along the lines of the Battle Hymn of the Republic. You could approach Cactus the Clown in his wheelchair in the rest home and he would say, “Howdy!” for you, but he could say other words too. He sort of had reverse aphasia. As a young man he only had one word, but as an old man, he could speak many words.
The equivalent of the T-Bar-V Ranch in Chicago was the Bozo the Clown TV Show. Bozo the Clown was a more conventional commedia dell'arte figure in many towns that carried versions of the show. I didn't get to see the program very often, but it was where I was introduced to the circus life and the sound of the calliope. A calliope, the steam powered organ that we associate with the circus, was developed for use on steamboats and steam locomotives to produce incredibly powerful warning alarms. You could hear a calliope whistle four or five miles away. Traveling circuses, that used steam engines themselves, adopted it for their organs. You cannot modulate the quality of sound, just the volume of the sound, but we think of that when we think of circus.
I'm not done.
It turns out that people in the circus don't say “calliope”. They say “calli-ope.” Same problem I had with “Pen-a-lope” and “Penelope,” also “epi-tome” and “epi-tome.” Epitome still sounds wrong. Even Orpheus’ wife who was sent to Hades and Orpheus went to rescue her—Eurydice--I always thought was “Eura-dice,” and “Eurydice” doesn't sound right either. There's a little rhyme that’s supposed to help you distinguish between “cali-ope” and “calliope”: “Proud Folk stare after me. Call me Calliope: Tooting joy, tooting hope, I am the calli-ope.” This is actually a corruption of a poem by Vachel Lindsay, the first performative poet in the 20th century, who used to sing his poems to an audience and have them participate with him. He had a poem, which I will excerpt, called the Kalyope Yell; “Proud men eternally go about, slander me. Call me the “Calliope.” Sizz. Fizz. I am the Gutter Dream. Tune-maker, born of steam, Tooting joy, tooting hope. I am the Kallyope, Car called the Kallyope. Willy willy willy wah hoo! See the flags: snow-white tent, See the bear and elephant, See the monkey jump the rope, Listen to the Kallyope, Kallyope, Kallyope!
The most requested gag in the circus is the Clown Car. A car drives out and one clown after another gets out until your mind is boggled. Somebody tried to calculate how many clowns could fit in a car. You need a sturdy car to fit all the clowns in to start. You strip all the seats and barriers out of a Ford Escort and you get 120 cubic feet. Your average American Clown is five foot eight inches tall and weighs 158 pounds and can fold up into about three cubic feet. So theoretically, you could get 40 clowns into a clown car. But somebody actually tried to calculate what would be more significant than the clown size, which is Maximum Clown Hilarity. Maximum Clown Hilarity is a function of Standard Clown Size plus Clown Politics, General Survivability, Wacky Props and Improvised Pratfalls, Goofball Mugging, Generalized Anarchy divided by the Relative Hilarity Threshold of a six year old boy or girl.
The Poet Laureate --Stuart gave me this---of the United States, Kay Ryan, once said that a poem should function like a clown suitcase, a suitcase that you open up and then pull out one thing after another. A ton of stuff. A poem is an empty suitcase that you can never quit emptying.
Sorry about this Scott. You can't see this, but I'm making magic over here.
When Stevie Wonder was 16, he wrote a tune he couldn't think of the words for. He took it to the 1966 Motown Christmas party, and he played it for an older man. Smokey Robinson was touring with the Miracles, and had produced a number of hits, but he was sick and tired of the life on the road and wanted to retire. But he listened to the song and there was a riff that reminded him of the calliope and so he wrote a song for the tune; Tears of a Clown. He loved songs about smiling faces belying tears. It was a big hit and he went on the road singing it for years before he could quit again and go home to his family for good.
There’s actually a line in Tears of a Clown about Pagliacci, a terrible rhyme. ”Just like Pagliacci did, I try to keep my sadness hid.”
Turn me off.
Matt Freedman and Tim Spelios have been producing their Endless Broken Time drawing, talking and percussion performances at Studio 10 gallery in Bushwick, Brooklyn since 2015. Ancestors, machines, and philosophy are told and illustrated by Freedman and take their irregular rhythm and form from the aberrant and improvised syncopation of Spelios’ broken time drumming.
© 2020 Matt Freedman
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