A Loss of Ego
Now sleeps he with that old whore death . . . Do thee take this old whore death for thy lawful wedded wife?
Norman, born sign of Aquarius, had been in Mexico when the news came about Hemingway. He had gone through the New York Times to read the well-turned remarks of notables who for the most part had never cared about Papa, not that much! and had one full heart-clot of outraged vanity that the Times never thought to ask his opinion. In fact, he was not certain he could have given it. He was sick in that miasmal and not quite discoverable region between the liver and the soul. Hemingway’s suicide left him wedded to horror. It is possible that in the eight years since, he never had a day which was completely free of thoughts of death.
Of course, he finally gave a statement. His fury that the world was not run so well as he could run it encouraged him to speak. The world could always learn from what he had to say--his confidence was built on just so hard a diamond. Besides, a British lady columnist passing through Mexico with him thought it would be appropriate to get his remarks on the demise. This, after all, was special stuff--the reactions of one of America’s best-known young novelists would certainly be appropriate to the tragic finale of America’s greatest living writer. So with thoughts of Hemingway’s brain scattered now in every atmosphere--what a curse to put upon his followers!--Norman coughed up what was in effect a political statement. He had no taste in such matters, and a pedagogic voice for public remarks; leave it that he inveighed gracelessly on how the death would put secret cheer in every bureaucrat’s heart for they would be stronger now. He had, of course, been thinking that Hemingway constituted the walls of the fort: Hemingway had given the power to believe you could still shout down the corridor of the hospital, live next to the breath of the beast, accept your portion of dread each day. Now the greatest living romantic was dead. Dread was loose. The giant had not paid his dues, and something awful was in the air. Technology would fill the pause. Into the silences static would enter. It was conceivable that man was no longer ready to share the dread of the Lord.
Are we poised for a philosophical launch? There may be no way to do anything less. We will be trying after all to comprehend the astronauts. If we approach our subject via Aquarius, it is because he is a detective of sorts, and different in spirit from eight years ago. He has learned to live with questions. Of course, as always, he has little to do with the immediate spirit of the time. Which is why Norman on this occasion wonders if he may call himself Aquarius. Born January 31, he is entitled to the name, but he thinks it a fine irony that we now enter the Age of Aquarius since he has never had less sense of possessing the age. He feels in fact little more than a decent spirit, somewhat shunted to the side. It is the best possible position for detective work.
Forgive him, then, if he takes mild pleasure in conjunction of dates. John F. Kennedy had made his declaration concerning the moon not six weeks before Hemingway was dead. The nation, Kennedy decided, “should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. . . . This is a new ocean, and I believe the United States must sail upon it.” Presumably, the moon was not listening, but if, in fact, she were the receiving and transmitting station of all lunacy, then she had not been ignoring the nation since. Four assassinations later; a war in Vietnam later; a burning of Black ghettos later; hippies, drugs and many student uprisings later; one Democratic Convention in Chicago seven years later; one New York school strike later; one sexual revolution later; yes, eight years of a dramatic, near-catastrophic, outright spooky decade later, we were ready to make the moon. It was a decade so unbalanced in relation to previous American history that Aquarius, who had begun it by stabbing his second wife in 1960, was to finish by running in a Democratic Primary for Mayor of New York during the hottest May and June he could ever recall. In sixty days he must have made three hundred speeches, he appeared on more radio and television than he could remember, walked streets, shook hands, sometimes two or three thousand hands a day, worked fourteen hours a day, often sixteen, went on four and five hours sleep, and awoke on many a morning with the clear and present certainty that he was going to win. Norman was lazy, and politics would make him work for sixteen hours a day the rest of his life. He was so guilty a man that he thought he would be elected as a fit and proper punishment for his sins. Still, he also wanted to win. He would never write again if he were Mayor (the job would doubtless strain his talent to extinction) but he would have his hand on the rump of History, and Norman was not without such lust.
He came in fourth in a field of five, and politics was behind him. He had run, when he considered it, no very remarkable race. He had obviously not had any apocalyptic ability to rustle up huge numbers of votes. He had in fact been left with a huge boredom about himself. He was weary of his own voice, own face, person, persona, will, ideas, speeches, and general sense of importance. He felt not unhappy, mildly depressed, somewhat used up, wise, tolerant, sad, void of vanity, even had a hint of humility. Somewhat disembodied spirit. He burned something in his soul those eight weeks of campaigning, but he was not certain just what he might have squandered. Nonetheless, he might be in superb shape to study the flight of Apollo 11 to the moon. For he was detached this season from the imperial demands of his ego; he could think about astronauts, space, space programs, and the moon, quite free of the fact that none of these heroes, presences, and forces were by any necessity friendly to him. No, he felt like a spirit of some just-consumed essence of the past, and so finally took the liberty to christen himself Aquarius. It was the perfect name for a man who would begin the study of rockets. The water-bearer traversed the earth and breathed the air: three elements were his medium, solid, liquid, and gas. That was kin to the rocket. Apollo 11 would leave the earth, travel on the combustion of its liquids, and traverse space. What indeed was space but the final decompression of a gas? On such unscientific thoughts did Norman, sign of Aquarius, travel.
In the middle of his Mayoralty campaign, a story had appeared whose small headlines stated that he would receive a million dollars for doing a book about the astronauts. It was a peculiar story, because the sums listed in the journalistic details added up to $450,000, and this second figure, while certainly too generous, was not vastly inaccurate. Actually, Aquarius would be lucky if he were left with any real money at all, for he was in debt from having made three movies (for which he had put up the cash himself) and he calculated that with the restitution of consequent borrowings, and the payment of taxes, he would have enough to live and think for a year. Not so bad. He had only to write a book about the moon shot. Small matter. It would be as easy to go to the Amazon to study moon rocks as to write a book about these space matters, foreign to him, which everyone would agree is worth a million dollars. In fact everyone thought he was worth a million dollars already. Contributions for his campaign to the Mayoralty stopped on the instant the story appeared. He did not know whether to bless the gods, the Times, or somebody in the office of his agent.
Of course, he was not displeased that everyone thought a quick book by him--magazine, hard-cover, paperback, foreign rights, and syndication--was worth a million. While Aquarius had never been accorded the respect he thought he deserved as a novelist, he had been granted in compensation the highest praise as a journalist. People he had never met were forever declaring in print that he was the best journalist in America. He thought it was the superb irony of his professional life, for he knew he was not even a good journalist and possibly could not hold a top job if he had to turn in a story every day. He had known such journalists, and their work was demanding. They had first of all to have enormous curiosity, and therefore be unable to rest until they found out the secret behind even the smallest event. Since Aquarius had long built his philosophical world on the firm conviction that nothing was finally knowable (an exact and proper recompense to having spent his formative years and young manhood in searching for the true nature of women) he had almost no interest in the small secret behind a small event. (There was invariably another secret behind that.) He preferred to divine an event through his senses--since he was as nearsighted as he was vain, he tended to sniff out the center of a situation from a distance. So his mind often stayed out of contact with the workings of his brain for days at a time. When it was time, lo and behold, he seemed to have comprehended the event. That was one advantage of using the nose--technology had not yet succeeded in elaborating a science of smell.
But calculate for yourself the small ails and woes which came upon Aquarius when he went to visit the NASA Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston two weeks after the conclusion of his Mayoralty campaign. The first and most unhappy truth was that there were no smells coming out of NASA. It was hardly the terrain for Aquarius.
He had grown up in New York. He understood cities, particularly big cities, he had looked forward to getting to know a little of Houston--now, draw near to his vast pleasure in discovering that the Manned Spacecraft Center was not in Houston at all, but located about twenty-five miles south in the middle of that flat anonymous and near to tree-impoverished plain which runs in one undistinguished and not very green stretch from Houston to Galveston. Farther east as he would soon discover was Seabrook, Kemah, and Texas City south of that, then Galveston on the Gulf. Raunchy, sexy, hot and brooding, houses on stilts and old shacks--that was the Gulf of Mexico. He liked it. If he lived there, he too would write like Tennessee Williams. Tennessee, he discovered by this visit, was a natural and simple recorder of the elements.
All that, however, was miles away. MSC (the Manned Spacecraft Center) was located on a tract of many acres, flat and dry as a parking lot, and at the moment of entering the gate past the guard, there was no way to determine whether one was approaching an industrial complex in which computers and electronic equipment were fashioned, or traveling into a marvelously up-to-date minimum-security prison, not a clue to whether one was visiting the largest insurance and financing corporation which had ever decided to relocate itself in the flatlands behind a fence, or if this geometrically ordered arrangement of white modern buildings, severe, ascetic, without ornament, nearly all of two or three stories but for an Administration Building of eight stories, was indeed the newest and finest kind of hospital for radiological research. But, perhaps it was a college campus, one of those miserable brand-new college campuses with buildings white as toothpaste, windows set in aluminum casements, paths drawn by right angle or in carefully calculated zigzag to break the right angle, and a general air of studies in business administration, a college campus in short to replace the one which burned in the last revolution of the students.
In fact, it was the Manned Spacecraft Center, MSC, the home of the astronauts, the place where they were given the bulk of their training in Mission Simulators and Docking Simulators, the Center from which Mission Control would direct and collaborate on their flights, the astronauts’ brain on earth, to nail it thus crudely, when they were up in space. And if this assembly of buildings looked as we have said like the worst of future college campuses, all-but-treeless, milk-of-magnesia white, and composed of many windowless buildings and laboratories which seemed to house computers, and did! why the error was in fact natural. For when Lyndon Johnson, then Vice President, succeeded in getting the unmistakable plum of the new Manned Spacecraft Center located in Texas on land he just happened to know about south of Houston owned by some nice fellows named Humble (Humble Oil & Refining) and ready for the Federal Government to purchase reasonable--reasonable a word capable of being reasoned and expanded with upon occasion--why this purchase might even have a clause inserted that the buildings to be constructed must be capable, in the event of the demise of NASA and the Space Program, of being converted without difficulty into an adjunct of Rice University in Houston. Could it be a crypto-campus after all! Let no one say that Lyndon Johnson was not a super local patriot always working for TALC (Texas Association for the Advancement of Local Culture).
Recognize then how much this Manned Spacecraft Center would honor Aquarius’ sense of smell. Outside the Spacecraft Center, he could not say that his situation was improved. The immediate suburb, Nassau Bay, which housed many of the technicians, engineers, and executives in NASA, was situated on the other side of NASA Highway 1 from MSC, and was built around a body of water called Clear Lake. Nassau Bay and adjoining suburbs like it were all new, their roads laid out in winding turns so absent of surprise that you could recognize they came off the French curve of the draftsman. If these homes were architecturally reasonable, built in sedate earth colors for the most part, charcoal browns, subdued clay-orange, stone-colored tans, houses which were modern but restrained adaptations for the most part of Swiss chalets, Tudor and Elizabethan, with hints of hacienda and ranch corral, they were nonetheless without flavor or odor. Aquarius was discovering that we cherish the sense of smell because it gives us our relation to time. We know how old something is by its odor; its youth, its becoming and its decay are subtly compounded to tell us at once--if we dare to contemplate mortality--how much time has been appropriated by such a life.