Brown: The Last Discovery of America (6 page)

BOOK: Brown: The Last Discovery of America
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Was I too eager to join the conversation? It is only now I realize there is no conversation. Allusion is bounded by Spell Check.
After such a long education most perceptions authentically “remind.” And I’m not the only one. The orb Victoria held in her hand has passed to her brown children who, like Christ-children in old paintings, toy with the world a bit, and then, when no one is looking, pop it into their mouths. The only person I know for whom the novels of Trollope are urgent lives in India.
It is interesting, too, to wonder whether what is white about my thought is impersonation, minstrelsy. Is allusion inauthentic, Ms. Interlocutor, when it comes from a brown sensibility? My eyes are brown.
Cheeks of tan?
Most bookstores have replaced disciplinary categories with racial or sexual identification. In either case I must be shelved Brown. The most important theme of my writing now is impurity. My mestizo boast: As a queer Catholic Indian Spaniard at home in a temperate Chinese city in a fading blond state in a post-Protestant nation, I live up to my sixteenth-century birth.
The future is brown, is my thesis; is as brown as the tarnished past. Brown may be as refreshing as green. We shall see. L.A., unreal city, is brown already, though it wasn’t the other day I was there—it was rain-rinsed and as bright as a dark age. But on many days, the air turns fuscous from the scent glands of planes and from Lexus musk. The pavements, the palisades—all that jungly stuff one sees in the distance—are as brown as an oxidized print of a movie—brown as old Roman gardens or pennies in a fountain, brown as gurgled root beer, tobacco, monkey fur, catarrh.
We are accustomed, too, to think of antiquity as brown, browning. Darkening, as memory darkens; as the Dark Ages were dark. They weren’t, of course, they were highly painted and rain-rinsed; we just don’t remember clearly. I seem to remember the ceiling, how dark it was. How tall it seemed. The kitchen ceiling. And how frail we are! What used to be there? A shoe store? A newsstand? I seem to remember it, right about here . . . a red spine, wasn’t it? Have I felt that before? Or is this cancer?
At last, the white thought, the albin pincer—pain—an incipient absence, like a puddle of milk or the Milky Way.
The glacier knocks in the cupboard.
Why is cancer the white ghost? Why are ghosts white? And what year was that? Which play? Well, obviously it’s Shakespeare.
Lear? Cymbeline? Golden lads and girls all must . . .
Death is black. Coffee may be black, but black is not descriptive of coffee. Coffee is not descriptive of death. Can one’s life be brown? My eyes are brown, but my life? Youth is green and optimism; Gatsby believed in the green light.
Whereas there is brown at work in all the works of man. Time’s passage is brown. Decomposition. Maggots. Foxing—the bookman’s term—reddish brown; reynard. Manuscripts, however jewel-like, from dark ages, will darken. Venice will darken. Celluloid darkens, as if the lamp of the projector were insufficient sun. College blue books. Fugitive colors. My parents!
She doesn’t remember me.
If we wish to antique an image, to make memory of it, we print it in sepia tones—sepia, an extract from the occluding ink of the octopus, of the cuttlefish; now an agent for kitsch. Whereas the colors, the iridescent Blakes at the Tate, are housed now in perpetual gloom, lest colors be lifted from the page by the cutpurse sun. The Kodachrome prints in your closet—those high-skied and hopeful summer days—are dimming their lights and the skies are lowering. Would we be astounded by the quality of light in 1922?
Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
The prince had always liked his London, when it had come to him.
And it had come to him that morning with a punctual, unembarrassed rap at the door, a lamp switched on in the sitting room, a trolley forced over the threshold, chiming its cups and its spoons. The valet, second floor, in alto Hindu cockney—and with a startled professionalism (I am browner than he)—proposed to draw back the drapes, damson velvet, thick as theater curtains.
Outside the hotel, several floors down, a crowd of blue- and green-haired teenagers kept a dawn vigil for a glimpse of their Fairie Queen. Indeed, as the valet fussed with the curtains, they recommenced their chant of:
Mah-don-ahh. Mah-don-ahh.
Madonna was in town and staying at this hotel. All day and all night, the approach or departure of any limousine elicited the tribute.
Mah-don-ahh
was in town making a film about Eva Perón (both women familiar with the uses of peroxide. Not such a bad thing to know in the great brown world,
oi,
mate?).
I was in London because my book had just come out there. My book about Mexico. Not a weight on most British minds.
Did I ever tell you about my production of the
Tempest
? I had been to the theater the previous evening. Not the
Tempest
, but the new Stoppard, and I watched with keener interest as the Asian in front of me leaned over to mouth little babas into the be-ringed ear of his Cockney hire. One such confidence actually formed a bubble. Which, in turn, reminded me of my production of the
Tempest
. (South Sea Bubble.) I would cast Maggie Smith as Miranda—wasted cheeks and bugging eyes—a buoyant Miss Haversham, sole valedictorian of her papa’s creepy seminary. Caliban would be Johnny Depp. No fish scales, no seaweed, no webbed fingers, no claws, no vaudeville. No clothes. Does anybody know what I’m talking about? Ah, me. I am alone in my brown study. I can say anything I like. Nobody listens.
Will there be anything else, sir?
No, nothing else, thank you.
Brown people know there is nothing in the world—no recipe, no water, no city, no motive, no lace, no locution, no candle, no corpse that does not—I was going to say descend—that does not ascend to brown. Brown might be making.
My little Caliban book, as I say, bound in iguana hide, was about Mexico. With two newspapers under my arm, and balancing a cup of coffee, I went back to my bed. I found the Book section; I found the review. I knew it! I read first the reviewer’s bio: a gay Colombian writer living in London.
What the book editor had done, dumb London book editor of the
Observer
had done—as Kansas City does and Manhattan does—is find my double or the closest he could find in greater London. It’s a kind of dopplegänger theory of literary criticism and it’s dishearteningly fashionable among the liberal-hearted. In our age of “diversity,” the good and the liberal organize diversity. Find a rhyme for orange. If one is singular or outlandish by this theorem one can’t be reviewed at all. Worse than that, if one is unlike, one will not be published. Publishers look for the next, rather than the first, which was accident. But the
Observer
wasn’t even within bow-range. Their gay gaucho was clueless.
The liberal-hearted who run the newspapers and the university English departments and organize the bookstores have turned literature into well-meaning sociology. Thus do I get invited by the editor at some magazine to review your gay translation of a Colombian who has written a magical-realist novel. Trust me, there has been little magical realism in my life since my first trip to Disneyland.
That warm winter night in Tucson. My reading was scheduled for the six-thirty slot by the University of Arizona. A few hundred people showed up—old more than young; mostly brown. I liked my “them,” in any case, for coming to listen, postponing their dinners. In the middle of one of my paragraphs, a young man stood to gather his papers, then retreated up the aisle, pushed open the door at the back of the auditorium. In the trapezoid of lobby-light thus revealed, I could see a crowd was forming for the eight o’clock reading—a lesbian poet. Then the door closed, resealed the present; I continued to read, but wondered to myself: Why couldn’t I get the lesbians for an hour? And the lesbian poet serenade my Mexican-American audience? Wouldn’t that be truer to the point of literature?
Well, what’s the difference? I do not see myself as a writer in the world’s eye, much less a white writer, much less a Hispanic writer; much less “a writer” in the 92nd Street Y sense. I’d rather be Madonna. Really, I would.
The Frankfurt Book Fair has recently been overrun with Koreans and Indians who write in English (the best English novelist in the world is not British at all, but a Mahogany who lives in snowy Toronto and writes of Bombay). Inevitably, the pale conclusion is that brown writers move “between” cultures. I resist between; I prefer “among” or “because of.” You keep the handicap. After all, it has taken several degrees of contusion to create a jaundice as pervasive as mine. It has taken a lifetime of compromises, the thinning of hair, the removal last year of a lesion from my scalp, the assurance of loneliness, the difficulty of prayer, an amused knowledge of five-star hotels—and death—and a persistence of childish embarrassments and ever more prosaic Roman Catholic hymns, to entertain a truly off-white thought. Here comes one now.
No, I guess not.
There’s a certain amount of “so what?” that comes with middle age. But is that brown thought?
Thus did literary ambition shrivel in my heart, in a brown room in a creamy hotel in London, constructed as a nineteenth-century hospital and recently renovated to resemble a Victorian hotel that never existed, except in the minds of a Hispanic author from California and a blond movie star from Detroit.
Eve’s apple, or what was left of it, quickly browned.
Christ, a white doorway . . .
was Bukowski’s recollection of having taken a bite on the apple. When Eve looked again, she saw a brown crust had formed over the part where she had eaten and invited Adam’s lip. It was then she threw the thing away from her. Thenceforward (the first Thenceforward), brown informed everything she touched.
Don’t touch!
Touch will brown the rose and the Acropolis, will spoil the butterfly’s wing. (Creation mocks us with incipient brown.) The call of nature is brown, even in five-star hotels. The mud we make reminds us that we are:
In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return into the ground; for out of it wast thou taken . . .
Toil is brown. Brueghel’s peasants are brown, I remember noting in a Vienna museum.
In his book
Abroad
, Paul Fussell reminds us how, early in the twentieth century, the relative ease of modern travel and boredom allowed moneyed Americans and Europeans to extrude the traditional meaning of the laborer’s brown and to make of it a glove of leisure. What the moon had been for early nineteenth-century romantics, the sun became for bored twentieth-century romantics. The brown desired by well-to-do Europeans was a new cure altogether: tan.
There is another fashionable brown. An untouchable brown. Certain shrewd ancient cities have evolved an aesthetic of decay, making the best of necessity. Decrepitude can seem to ennoble (or to create) whomever or whatever chic is placed in proximity—Anita Ekberg, Naomi Campbell. The tanned generation, a.k.a. the Lost Generation, gamboled through the ruins of the Belle Epoque. The
cardinali
of postwar drug culture—Paul Bowles, William Burroughs—found heaven in North Africa. It’s a Catholic idea, actually—that the material world is redeemed; that time is continuous; that one can somehow be redeemed by the faith of an earlier age or a poorer class, if one lives within its shadow or its arrondissement or breathes its sigh. And lately fashion photographers, bored with Rome or the Acropolis, have ventured farther afield for the frisson of syncretism. Why not Calcutta? Why not the slums of Rio? Cairo? Mexico City? The attempt is for an unearned, casual brush with awe by enlisting untouchable extras. And if the model can be seen to move with idiot stridency through tragedy, then the model is invincible. Luxury is portrayed as protective. Or protected. Austere, somehow—“spiritual.” Irony posing as asceticism or as worldly-wise.
One of the properties of awe is untouchability.
Silènzio,
the recorded voice booms through the Sistine Chapel at five- or ten-minute intervals.
Do not speak. Do not touch.
Even resurrected Christ—the White Doorway Himself—backed away from Mary Magdalene’s dirty fingernails. Don’t touch! I would have expected a Roman Catholic understanding of time to accommodate centuries of gaping mouths, respiration, prayer, burnt offerings—and reticence—offering the exemplum of a clouded ceiling to twentieth-century pilgrims. After all, we live in time. Our glimpse of the Eternal must be occluded by veils of time, of breath, of human understanding.
The human imagination has recently sustained a reversal.
One would have expected the pope, as the preeminent upholder of the natural order, to have expressed reservations about the cleaning of the Sistine ceiling. The pope, however, in a curiously puritanical moment, gave his blessing to a curator’s blasphemy, which was underwritten by the Japanese fetish for cleanliness. The blasphemy was to imagine that restoring the ceiling might restore the Vatican’s luster. The blasphemy was to imagine that time might be reversed. The blasphemy was to believe that time should be reversed.
BOOK: Brown: The Last Discovery of America
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