Stanley Cavell, 91, has died. He was my guide, along with Harold Bloom, into Emerson and Thoreau. His influences included Wittgenstein, and Austin, and a range of popular mediums including photography, movies and music. He filled my life with a succession of essays and books as exciting and relevant as any written during the past five decades. A few tributes trumpeting his brilliance are listed below. If you don’t know his work, give him a look and you may want to read more.
From the The New York Times, from the The New York Review of Books…Google Cavell’s books on Amazon. A lifetime of stimulating, human questioning of the big ideas, discussed in penetrating ordinary language, awaits you.
“Three-fourths of philosophy and literature is the talk of people trying to convince themselves that they really like the cage they were tricked into entering.” – Poet Gary Snyder
This is an excerpt from my unpublished travel book, part of a series of vignettes.
The Babylon Club is open and there’s a chaotic clash of beautiful Asian ladies and a scattering of Thai hipsters, expats and visiting foreigners. You’d never believe it, unless you were here to witness the scene that unfolds every night. It’s what brought back all the old foreign farts, especially the Americans. Most of them went through Vietnam. Now they’re collecting pensions and sowing the last of their sperm bank. A lot of them had Asian Romance curled into their genes before they’d had real girlfriends, a return visit guaranteed, at least for the die hards, the ones who believed in the 60s, who knew acid wasn’t just a leisure drug. It was the Burning Bush.
Emerson, Huck’s escape, Thoreau’s escape. Such people have watched four decades of the Real America evaporate before their eyes. Those that should and could live in the East now, content to jump into the flow, roll with the waves, lock in to the clock in their mind and body, for all it’s worth, or die trying. Like where Dylan sings, “We’re gonna drive until the wheels catch fire and fall off.” That Dylan unconsciousness, summoning Kerouac’s lonely highway. Three beers or a few straight shots of Mekong Whiskey will burn out the old farts’ fire for the night.
It chills me how many old men I see at the hospital and recognize them as night prowlers. Standing up from a table for them is damn near as embarrassing as looking in the mirror. The ticking clock, nearly God Damn frozen already, including their privates. But give credit where it’s due. If it weren’t for the inventor of Viagra, there would be a hundred thousand fewer old men living in Asia now.
Let’s see now, The Tonic Rays band is cranking up. Tasty musicians and magicians. You can get enough 60s music here in one night to awaken a month of memories. Now here’s two grinning punk Thai hipsters circling two Chinese girls. Fun seekers are staring hard now, and what do they see? This old guy with baggy jowls, flaccid muscles around the biceps, white hair, a paunch belly and lips so frozen they forget how to smile, a cardinal sin in the Land of Smiles. I ask myself why do I look this way? Who’s that? It has everything to do with that rainbow-colored, psychedelic wheel that’s spinning around the day-glow Buddha image behind the bar, garish as hell, postmodern religious symbolism, perfect for the Second Millennium, right? Buddha and Marley. And Elvis, and you name it.
With time, you’ll walk in my shoes too, punks, just liked I’ve walked in yours, to far better music if I do say. Why does all the good music go back to my generation? I’m in paradise now. We’ve got the Marley portrait behind the bar, the green, red and yellow Rasta colors everywhere you look, the white and red Chinese lanterns swaying high in the trees, Chinese and Thai hookers, even more amateurs prowling around, wives and lovers, horny young and old men, all nodding to the Rasta beat. It astounds the Asians how the old farts are even awake this time of night, much less looking for the sweetest ladies here.
Tonight there’s something new. Israeli Army soldiers, probably on leave, close-cropped black hair, still tensed up in military postures, plus a few Afghanistan War exes, all with the same brooding, silent pose, unsure around the casual, fun-loving, friendly Thai lovelies. One American, a giant of a man, a walking oak tree, circles a table of Thai ladies several times. Thinking he sees the future, he grabs a tiny Thai lady and throws her over his shoulder while spinning in circles. Her girlfriend, rising only to his belt buckle, screams at him to put her down – “she’s afraid.”
The Jolly Green Giant puts her down, embarrassed, gives her a monstrous wai with both hands clasped, chastised, as thought balloons appear inside his comic skull – he doesn’t have a clue. He was just playing out a movie scene.
I can’t take my eyes off the light’s rich, yellow glow from the table candles infusing the glasses and beer and liquor bottles scattered around, turning the tableau into a liquid underwater still life. The place is a Chinese poem, scrolling, scrolling. Sing song girls. Crossroads. My wife is into her second Blue Margarita as a chorus of Eyeeees! erupt from her and her niece when they see the eyes of the two Israeli soldiers focused on the niece, newly enshrined in her uplifting bra. A semi-blind man suddenly stands beside me, not saying a word. He stares straight ahead. Silent. Impassive. His empty beggars cup speaks for us all.
The Israeli doesn’t realize he could have a beautiful Thai wife with only an hour of decent conversation and some karma. He smiles weakly and nods. The Chinese girls at the next table, real beauties, what used to called “road flowers,” are wearing tight miniskirts. Their ivory-white skin casts a glow as they get up and start to boogie around their table, throwing back shots of tequila, arms raised, stabbing upward into the night air. Movie star auras. One flicks a look through me, which thrills my heart and sends a faint signal to my past. Ok? In the surface of things is the heart of things. I’m not dreamin’ about sweetcakes in the sky. Come on, all of it.
My little secret is that this, my life, is working out exactly like my dream. If only I could be young forever–and always in love, the love of the hunter under a spring moon, forever. Copyright@Roy Hamric
YANGON, Myanmar — A few long, wispy hairs dangled from the chin of the old, brown-robed monk. The skin on his hands was polished like dark parchment. Wearing a brown conical peaked cap, he looked like he was from an earlier age.
Hope for a better life
At mid-afternoon on the day I visited the temple, spiritual reverence filled the air. Streams of pilgrims, both men and women wearing the traditional longyi skirts, supplicated themselves before the golden stupa and the smaller temples and shrines, some of which are believed to house symbolic Nats, or spirits. Families placed mats on the ground and set out steamed chicken, fried bananas and cups of sweet milky brown tea, preparing to spend the day.
The light surrounding the stupa casts a poignant spell. To say the stupa is golden misses it entirely. The air around the stupa is golden. The air seems to sparkle, the brilliance enhanced perhaps by the 1,383 gemstones embedded in the stupa’s surface and especially by the single, radiant 76-carat diamond placed at the top of a diamond-filled orb, which I fancied I could actually see while standing at the exact spot where the old monk had placed me.
“It’s a nice view,” he said, his teeth dark yellow from tea and betel nut. Earlier, the monk had walked me around the temple complex. People paid him reverence and gave him space. Jathei (hermit) monks, a lineage of solitary wanderers, are highly respected for their use of herbs and potions to treat people’s physical and psychological ailments.
Many Jathei monks are homeless, roaming through rural Myanmar. Sometimes they can be spotted at their forest retreats by the small, round huts they build from twigs and large leaves. He said his last retreat was in the forest near Taungbygone, 20 miles north of Mandalay. He’d started walking toward Yangon two months earlier. This would be his last visit to the temple, he said, because he planned to move deeper into the forest.
A few steps removed from the diamond’s sparkle was a shrine to Thanga Min, the king of the Nat spirits. Nat worship is the belief that spirits can exercise a good or evil power over a person or a place, such as homes, trees, hills or lakes. There’s a saying that the Burmese people play it safe: They practice Buddhism for the future life and give gift offerings to Nats for problems in this life. A moment later when I turned back toward the monk, he was gone. I had wanted to ask him more about his life. I searched through the crowd, but he had disappeared.
A country of extremes
From the temple, I hailed a taxi, a 1956 Toyota. I had promised myself a dinner at the Strand Hotel, one of the legendary hotels of the East. The driver, named Htin Swe, was another one of those Myanmar citizens you frequently meet who describe themselves as university students. They are typically in their late 30s or 40s. They explain their studies are incomplete, through no fault of their own. Myanmar universities are usually closed more semesters than they are open, a sign of the fear the ruling military junta has of students and the people. In 1988, the junta, now known as the State Peace and Development Council, gunned down more than 2,000 students, men, women, children and monks during a demonstration in Yangon.
I asked Htin Swe what he studied.
“I am an English major,” he said. “Ahnoma topeeah.”
“Onomatopoeia? ” I said.
“Yes. The Highway Man,” he said. “Fenimore Cooper. American. Shakespeare very different. Robert Frost. Two ways to go.”
Like most of Myanmar’s ordinary citizens, Htin Swe was a poignant mixture of sincerity and arrested development, emblematic of a people and a country with enormous potential that’s been trapped in a time-warp closer to the ’50s than today’s world.
When the concierge swung open the high wooden doors of the Strand Hotel, built in 1901 by two Armenians, the Starkie brothers, I entered a world light years away from everyday Myanmar life. Recently remodeled, the hotel had retained its distinctive colonial-Asian charm and elegance with a shiny, black grand piano dominating the lobby. The natural oak and rattan furniture featured white cushions. In the nearly empty dinning room, leather-bound menus and heavy white parchment paper were stamped with the Burmese lion emblem. Delicate purple flowers sat in crystal vases on each table, and a young woman played a lilting folk melody on a xylophone.
The menu listed barramundi over glass noodles, Myanmar venison, seared Myanmar River prawns in green curry, sesame coated tuna rolls, golden crab cakes, peanut biscuits and more.
Looking through the window at the boulevard that ran parallel to the Irrawaddy River, I saw fenderless trucks sputtering along, belching black smoke, stacked with freshly cut teak trees still oozing oil from their base. Men with bulging calf muscles strained at rickety trishaw pedals, trying to dodge potholes. Students in red skirts and white blouses walked home carrying plastic book satchels.
The stark contrast between the refined Western inner world of the Strand’s elegance and the outside world of daily Yangon street life still seemed very colonial British.
Clearly, Myanmar is a country of extremes — of haves and many have-nots. Average citizens have little money or opportunity and have been repressed for decades. However, the country is slowly opening up to tourists and travel within the country is easier. The feelings you take away from a trip to Myanmar are deep, running an emotional gantlet from awe to sorrow.
As I left the Strand Hotel, I thought of the old monk at the temple. I had tried to take his picture, but he wouldn’t allow it.
“I will remember you,” he said. “You will remember me.”
He was right.
Roy Hamric writes about Southeast Asia for newspapers and magazines.
Denis Johnson, my generation’s Graham Greene and Ernest Hemingway, a prolific and beautiful writer who had a key to the confused hearts and minds of people derailed by life and who lived in worlds filled with tragedy and oftentimes transcendent beauty died at his home in California on May 24, 2017. He wrote many books which will stay with you forever. His own life started as a spiritual and mental struggle that was dominated by the fringes of American evangelical religion. He understood its believers’ rock solid spiritual search, their urge for apocalypse, their assurance that we live in a fallen, irreparably damaged world. He left us luminescent novels and nonfiction (See Angels, The Stars at Noon, Tree of Smoke, Jesus’ Son, Seek (nonfiction) . Read any book he wrote as if it’s a holy testament to flawed humanity, a paean to each soul’s blind rush to mortality, a prayer to language to reveal truth, and you will have come a small distance to where his spirit and art lived.