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The Tide, Part 2: Objective Chance
There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows, and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat;
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.
—Julius Caesar, IV.3.218-224
Aside from inducing me to let go of those techniques for generating poetry—by example, not instruction—Philip Lamantia also influenced my conception of being a poet. Prior to knowing him, I hadn’t thought being a poet meant anything at all; I’d met too many uninspiring people who were poets in some official capacity to cherish any romantic notions about poetry as a way of life. But Philip himself was ample evidence of poetic being as a possible aspiration. By “poetic being” I mean essentially what André Breton refers to in Mad Love (L’Amour Fou, 1936) as “lyric behavior” (“le comportement lyrique”). The history of poetry is, of course, rife with examples, but you needn’t do anything so obviously eccentric as, say, walk a lobster on a leash like Nerval, or sleep with your hotel room door wide open like Breton, in order to engage in lyric behavior. The question is more one of mental orientation than of any particular type of action you might take. Above all, you need to cultivate an attitude of expectation: expect the extraordinary, and it will occur.
Perhaps the most dramatic result of lyric behavior is the phenomenon Breton called “objective chance.” Objective chance is “an active synthesis of the subjective and the objective,” as Michel Carrouges puts it in André Breton and the Basic Concepts of Surrealism (Alabama UP: 1974, p. 191), a projection of subjective desire onto objective facts so as to manipulate them towards its fulfillment. This fulfillment is never entirely straightforward; that is, objective chance is an uncanny experience, employing those displacements and condensations typical of dreams and the unconscious, like a Freudian form of karma. Positing desire as a causality among occurrences whose conjunction reason would dismiss as mere coincidence, objective chance is an extremely irrational pursuit on its face, and yet the fulfillment of desire, in a culture of manufactured pseudo-desire, strikes me as the most rational aim possible.
In writing part one of “The Tide,” I experienced a minor but sufficiently blogworthy instance of objective chance. After I’d finished the first paragraph, it occurred to me to use the above quotation from Shakespeare as an epigraph, to cleverly underline the dilemma I’d faced over whether to work on my dissertation or hang out with Philip. Aside from seeming apropos, this quote has a personal significance for me. When I was kid, my grandfather, Ed Early, owned a small drugstore in Lawrence, MA, and he kept this quotation, neatly cut from a magazine, under a glass countertop where he still used to whip up various prescriptions by hand. One day I asked him about it and he told me he ran across it while faced with a decision. When he’d first opened his drugstore, it was located further downtown; some 20 years later, another pharmacist, about to retire, offered to sell his store to my grandfather. Ed couldn’t decide if he should risk moving from his long-established neighborhood store to take advantage of the bigger and better location, but the quotation made up his mind. Though largely of a technical turn, Ed had a certain lyricism; he was the kind of guy who’d invent his own door latch rather than buy one or keep his sugar in a medicine jar labeled C12H22O11. Or tune into a frequency and start sending Morse code, just to see who’s out there. As it happened, he made the right decision in light of the evolution of downtown Lawrence. Within a few years, foot traffic near the old location had all but dried up, while the new location near the highway allowed him to maintain the business until he retired in the early ’90s, well after most independent drugstores were gobbled by chains.
The fact that this quote and the attendant instance of my grandfather’s lyric behavior came to mind as I wrote about Philip isn’t particularly surprising. Given our 45-year age difference, Philip took a grandfatherly interest in my affairs, though ultimately he was more like a grandfather, mentor, best friend, and mischievous little brother rolled into one. Of the quote itself, I could only recall the first line and had no idea where it came from, so I popped it in Google, only to be directed to Julius Caesar, Act IV, scene III, lines 218-224. If I have read this play, it was at least 20 years ago in an undergrad Shakespeare course, so I didn’t associate the quote with its context and figured I’d better look it up. As it turns out, after they’ve murdered Caesar, Brutus is remonstrating with Cassius about where to engage the avenging armies of Mark Anthony and Octavian. Cassius, much to my surprise, replies: “Then, with your will, go on;/ We’ll along ourselves, and meet them at Philippi.” Naturally I was struck by the fact that the quote my grandfather prized was in fact an exhortation to go to a town named after Philip, even if the Philip in question was Philip II of Macedon, Alexander the Great’s dad. Were this merely an isolated coincidence, I wouldn’t have bothered writing about it, but clicking around Wikipedia, I was suddenly confronted with an additional fact. Of the two Battles of Philippi (42 BC), in which the armies of Cassius and Brutus were successively defeated, the second took place on October 23, Lamantia’s birthday as well as the date we met.
Perhaps italics seem excessive, but the rapid accumulation of coincidences in relation to the facts of one’s own life produces an uncanny feeling, and elevates the series into the realm of objective chance. I find that, despite his death, I’m always looking for a sign from Philip, and felt like I’d received one, but with it came those disquieting aspects of objective chance. For the inspirational, seize-the-day quality of the Shakespeare quote out of context is belied by the fact that the proposed campaign of Cassius and Brutus results in disaster, and Brutus commits suicide on October 23 to avoid capture. This hardly seemed auspicious. But then too I recalled a poem I wrote in 2007 but only published this year in Laurence Smith’s revived, online version of Caliban, called “Ten Ten-Line Poems for Philip Lamantia.” The last of these reads:
i don’t remember who
i was before we met
and now that you’re
gone where am i?
where there’s no
one like you and
the me i used to
be is equally
In other words, when I wrote this poem, I’d already asserted the fact that I’d undergone a voluntary death at the hands of Philip, for my conception of being a poet had transformed, as detailed in “The Tide, Part 1.” The sign from Philip was perhaps a confirmation of the rightness of the decision to hang out with him at the expense of my dissertation. In my earlier days as a poet, I wouldn’t have permitted myself to believe in such transmissions, but in the wake of knowing Philip this is precisely the type of irrational phenomenon I’ve grown to seek and expect. Is this interpretation correct? I don’t know. I eventually finished the dissertation—notably after he stopped hanging out due to depression—but crossing paths with Lamantia added many years to the process, more because he made me lose interest and faith in that mode of literary inquiry than the actual amount of time we spent together (which was nonetheless considerable while it lasted). It may strain credulity but the last time we hung out before the depression took hold was at dinner on his birthday in 2001. I’m less certain but pretty sure the last time I saw him altogether was on his birthday in 2004. Again, October 23 asserts its prerogative, commanding the tide like the moon.
The trouble with objective chance is, where does it end? Not long after noticing all of the above, I was at the offices of City Lights Books, looking at an old picture of Philip. Philip had been married to City Lights co-owner and retired executive director, Nancy Joyce Peters, and someone asked me, “What did Nancy look like back then?” I knew there was a good shot of her on Wikipedia, so I called up her entry. As the page came up, I was in for another surprise, for her birthday was listed as October 3. I’m sure I’ve seen this before, but having written the above, the date had a new significance, because I knew even before double-checking this was the date of the first Battle of Philippi, after which Cassius commits suicide. And too, getting to know Nancy after Philip’s death eventually led to another new chapter in my life, doing editorial work for City Lights. But that, of course, is a whole other story.