Virginia Woolf, Old Age, and Mexico
Part I
Carlos Amantea
When you first met with me after college, I was running an art gallery in Greenwich Village and, during the winters, living what I thought to be a perfect life in southern Spain, on the shores of the Mediterreanean. Who would guess a lifetime --- forty years --- later one could find me running an art shop in Venice, California and living what I think to be a perfect life on the shores of the Central Pacific in the winters. We certainly do move and change changelessly, don't we? It all came about because when my life turned stupid ten years ago, I invented a new country to discover --- and named it Mexico.

And here I am, ten years later, creating, creating enough work to keep me busy and alive: my workers and I are trying to build a home (I studied Keats and Shakespeare and Chaucer in college --- I should have studied Frank Lloyd Wright, Antonio Gaudí, and the physics of large structures).

With all good will, we have set to work designing a structure that, we hope, will not fall down immediately after construction. As I work with them, I get to know these ten Mexicans, people twenty or thirty years ago would have driven me quite batty. They make every excuse that exists in the universe not to do something that smacks of work (I can't find the shovel; there isn't a wheelbarrow available; I couldn't find the bolt; it's almost lunch-time) and I find myself joining them in a few more excuses (it's too hot; my shoulder hurts; I'll be leaving next week --- why worry?)

All the while I am spending four months a year immersed in a new, strange language. I've had a chance to speak English a total of three hours in the past two months; the rest of the time, I get to be a six-year old --- struggling with new words, new constructs, new phrases, words right out of Rome from 2,000 years ago: "Fui, fuiste, fue..." How funny it is to speak without pronouns. You don't say, "he goes." You say "goes," and the he is understood by the case of the verb. And they use it all backwards. When I call Juan to bring me the shovel, he says "voy." That means, "I go." But he is coming towards me, not going away. I finally figured that it means "I am going away from where I am now to get over there to you." All that in the word "voy" --- pronounced "boy."

And then there are the adopted Americanisms. They no longer have fiestas. They say, "Vamos a un party." A truck is un trucke, a panel truck is un panel, and underpants are either chorss or bikinis. "To watch" has been pulled from the English and conjugated into Spanish. Thus, when people take leave of each other, they say "watchémos," which means "we'll be looking out to see you again."

All the while, there is a strange new disease lurching about Mexico, one that has migrated down from the north. When you are looking about for some one to dig a foundation, all the workers come down with something called "miratelly". This is drawn from the words "mirar" (to look at) and "telly" (the television set). I heard this from my worker Julian, who said he was suffering from miratelly most terribly this week --- soccer, most likely. Julian is a consummate liar, anyway. He tells me, for example, that there is a soup that the old ladies in his village make; a soup that is very cheap, very refreshing, and very nourishing: a soup that comes from the one animal they have too much of. It is called Sopa de Sancudos --- Mosquito Soup.

§     §     §

I have been rereading Virginia Woolf. I see her as one of the first novelist of what we might call the daily suicide school of writing --- vide, "I can commit life daily, but I can only commit suicide once." It pops up, a literary jack-in-the-box, in every one of her books. She tried so many times to kill herself that I feel we should honor her long, painful survival --- despite all the moths in her head. At the end, they say, she stuffed a large stone in her pocket and went off down the hill to the creek and lay down in the water, a 20th Century Cordelia. Only it wasn't a mad prince that had driven her potty --- it was the mad, stupid world, on the brink of yet another mad, stupid war.

Still, dotty as she was, she was able to write so winningly, so gently, so pure English:

    Miss Hill is on the side of the ladies. They sigh things off and they smile things off, but they never seize the silver table by the legs or dash the teacups on the floor. It is in many ways a great convenience to have a subject who can be trusted to live a long life without once raising her voice.

    Her loves were vegetable, and her lanes were shady...She changed from one charming house to another, and several distinguished literary gentlemen paid her compliments and came to tea. When the dining-room ceiling fell down it did not fall on her head, and when she took a ticket in a lottery she did win the prize.

    A pony cart seems a handsome return for looking out of the window, and yet if we consider what it must be like to sit at the same window, year in, year out, hoping that a dog may trip up an old woman, or that the cobbler's little girl may break the jug in which she is carrying him his beer in order that the Americans may rejoice in the simplicity of rural England, one feels that to smash the window, strangle the doctor, and hamstring all the ponies in Berkshire would, as they say in novels, be the work of a moment.

    "But I suppose I am the least romantic person that ever wrote plays" [she said]. "Do write good English, Mr. Payn, and for Heaven's sake, don't go and marry for love!"

§     §     §

My current hero, Blaise Cendrars, suggests, somewhere in Sky, that you can take a Mexican, and fit him in black shoes and a white shirt and stick him in a taxicab and make him a taxi driver and think he's part of the 20th Century --- but he has in his head and his heart some of the strangest, otherworldly stuff going. Jesús has worked for me for five years, and I know him as well as anyone down here. He wears Los Angeles cholo baggy pants and playera (t-shirt) down to his knees. He tells me that a bruja --- a witch --- has put a curse on his family's house, and they will have to move from there or they will begin to die, one by one. He had a backache, I claimed it was from hauling my wheelchair around (with 180-pound me in it) but he said no, it was another curse, and to prove it, he had his sister break an egg and she found a white spot on the yolk and then his back-ache went away. My very sensible Jesús, talking such stuff that I want his sister to break an egg on my shoulder to see if she can make this goddamn arthritis go away, the stitch in time that wakes me at all hours.

Mexico is still animal country --- as opposed to our sanitized North American cities with their codes that prohibit the raising of anything but noisy dogs and cats --- and I was thinking the other day of the country sounds I most favor, the chickens and geese and the boat-tailed grackles and the turkeys and especially the donkeys, with their sweet long drawn out cry of despair. We English-speakers write it as "Hee-Haw," but nothing could be further from the truth. It is, instead, a pained AIEEE-AIE-AIE, ending in a soulful OH-OH-OH. I am reminded, whenever I hear a donkey, of that great passage in Cendrar's Sky on asses and Saint Copertino the flying saint (he could levitate backwards --- which is what attracted Cendrars to him: Copertino was the only backwards-flying saint he has been able to discover in years of research on flying saints.)

    As a lad his eyes...were fixed on heaven, his mouth agape, he kept stopping, and starting, silently, obstinantly, zigzagging like the donkey who turns the mill or staggers beneath his burden, and slips backwards on the steep hill and gets beaten for his pains. Everyone has seen these little donkeys in Italy, skinny creatures who walk as if they had sprained their ankles, half-smothered beneath their load, their backs rubbed raw, the sores on their haunches kept constantly open by their master's crooked stick and the swarms of blue-bottles; they hang their heads down lamentably, their heads with those atrophied wings, the angelic eyes of the ass, one of which is often broken and the other ocellated with a cyst. The little creature is the very image of humility and resignation, but have you ever put your arms around one of these donkeys' muzzles? Their gaze is unfathomable. Under their frizzy skulls, great philosophical thoughts are churning, as well as plenty of lively humor, a repressed wildness, and something strangely fraternal, which makes them wink their eyes and smile.

    ORISON: Prayers that we may go to Heaven with the asses O Lord.

When Cendrars is writing about the stars, he waxes even more poetic:

    All these dead suns, these posthumous rays which take millions of light-years to reach us, asteroids, fragments of dead worlds, shattered and exploded, old moons, flawed and cankered, crusts sores, blotches, cold lupus, devouring leprosy, sanies, and that last drop of pearl-like light, the purest of all, sweating at the highest point of the firmament and about to not a tear nor a dewdrop, but a drop of pus. The universe is in the process of decomposing and, like a cemetery, it swarms with becoming and smells good. The stars are unguent-bearing and throb feverishly, each ray carries seeds sown in the brain of man, and they are the seeds of destruction. Grey matter contains sunspots that eat into the whole circumference of the brain. It is an index of disintegration. Thought is a pestilence.

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