From Captain Yossarian to Captain Stanley & Back
Yossarian was so well known by his pseudonym and he had so seamlessly tailored his being to being Yossarian that the name & man seemed inseparable; so much so that many people – even friends – didn’t know that Yossarian wasn’t his real name.
I don’t think this was totally by chance or some hasty decision on his part. He had indeed – in his own way – embraced the glorious absurdity embodied by the probably not-so-fictional main character in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 or at least the way this book allowed us to understand our contemporary cognitively dissonant reality.
Having just read other people’s moving memories and accounts of knowing Yossarian [here pictured with under-regarded artist Valerie Haller] at “Remembering Yossarian, ‘Original Hipster and Legendary Cartoonist’” on the Local East Village annex to the online New York Times, where a truncated version of this appears, makes you/me/one realize what a dodgy, game-playing muscle the brain is: from a hyper-realistic, in-medias-res, up-too-close now we get lazy-sloppy or just plain overloaded with sensory details & so your later memories of times & events begin to fade only to be filled in with our brain’s own version of Photoshop – things get tweaked & pimped. When you’re in the middle of the tumult your memory-visualization of an event will be quite different from that of an outsider who may detail it with all the verve of a tourist in Times Square for the first time. That is the exciting but lamentable side of living in the all-immersive present; the present makes cuckolds of us all with its persistent dominance & greedy need to suck all attention into its vortex & then leave you stranded, disillusioned, looking down at your untied shoelaces. I say this because some of the details others noticed in their contributions to “Remembering Yossarian” are sides of him that had gotten misplaced on my hard drive.
I find memorials, homages, & remembrances of someone now gone infinitely fascinating & they are sometimes so visceral that indeed the memories DO bring the dearly departed back like a hologram dancing in a crowded funeral parlor. That said, I don’t really like artist retrospectives; they feel like last-ditch efforts to come to terms with the fact that we want to make amends, apologize, ask for forgiveness for having not fully appreciated this person during their most living, lively & alive days. This is especially true of artists who have for years been forgotten, ignored, shoved into the trashbins of history UNTIL – they die! & then suddenly everyone is partaking of, listening, appreciating and purchasing this person’s work again. A retrospective stinks of a cathedral of regret & self-redemption; we hope that our presence will effectively wash away the sin of our ignoring that person in his/her lifetime. Ultimately, of what use is this to the person formerly known as a living artist-friend. But, if I am currently experiencing it correctly in its full Catch-22-edness, the death of someone like Yossarian almost brings him right back to life.
When good people die some will still have us believing it is god’s will or that this cruel joker works the stage in mysterious ways. In his cartoonist heyday, Yossarian would have drawn this Hack Entertainer as a disheveled R. Crumb type with far-away-eyed, Nordic, amazonian assistants – skinnier than R. Crumb’s ideal woman; Helmut Newton’s vision of the perfect woman would have done fine – performing in some run-down Catskills Borscht Belt joint with a bored, befuddled audience, clutching their frighteningly colorful & watered-down mixed drinks as they watch god mess up one trick after another & maybe his worst trick of all, pulling out a fist full of religious fanatics from his big hat, who are already at each other’s cantankerous throats before he even puts them down on the stage.
When AB, someone who thought he’d one day make films, jumped off a bridge into an Amsterdam canal I did not know what to do with the knowledge. When good DJ-friend VB gave up wanting to live [my interpretation] only a few months after I’d last seen him and a month after 9-11, I figured you were supposed to do something with this information – shake your head like there is no justice or somehow interpret a hidden message. Instead, I haplessly-helplessly posted something at an internet memorial site for the DJ that a mutual friend had set up for just that purpose. Plus I dedicated my novella, Spermatagonia: Isle of Man, about a man who orchestrates his own disappearance, to both VB & AB.
When poet-singer-friend LT, who at one time seemed on top of this world, gave up the ghost if not totally by her own hand then to some extent having forsaken the will to forge onward, I decided to interpret this as something to transform into a gift of some sort & so I eventually wrote the liner notes to a posthumous CD, Summer Virus Night, of one of her live performances released in Germany, far from her native Chicago or her adopted NYC. But that clearly felt like trying to do right at the wrong [too-late] moment, trying to make amends for not noticing the warning signals, for ignoring her or whatever.
When artist friend CB died 2 years ago only 2 months after she had stayed with us in Amsterdam I wanted to shake her back to life just so I could give her a piece of my mind [although that may not have been enough since a piece of nothing is pretty much still nothing]. I wanted to tell her that she had no right living so unhealthily because now she was no longer living to laugh with & my daughter Paloma now has one less inspirational artist-mentor-teacher…
When last year high school friend JM hung himself in his Buffalo, NY basement I could not come up with a way to make that death resonate beyond its sorrow into something inspirational, instead it just continues to linger in the back of my mind like a trashed, abandoned car in a desolate parking garage, next to a failing shopping plaza.
When you’re still young, older people will corral you, arm around your neck, pull you in close so you’re forced to inhale their mysterious breath as they harangue you with annoying bits of re-chewed wisdom and foreboding: as you grow older you will begin to experience more and more people around you dying off and this will gain a certain ambiance of normalcy as you yourself gradually revert back to your original bald, naked state of total helplessness. They don’t usually put it that way, but you know what they mean.
They usually leave you with one last worn-out gem: You only have one life, so live it to the fullest… Which I interpret as doing something creative with the knowledge of someone’s passing, something loving like turning a bomb crater into a swimming pool for the young, like each death is a long-stemmed flower in search of the right vase.
When Yossarian died, it was different from the other friends who had died. I could only conjure up joyous moments of hanging out, bad jokes, laughably horrible movies & cringing levity employed as somewhat effective strikes against the annoying acknowledgement of our own frailty & the fact that we live our lives in one illegal sublet after another. Here is his interesting “One-Legged Terry” piece he wrote for the same Local East Village site.
I think of jokes Yossarian would have told on his way to death’s door – knock-knock. He’s queuing at Heaven’s Gate, squeezed in between the velvet ropes, the partying hopefuls vying for the attention of the doorman. At the entrance to Heaven’s Gate he’s greeted by a surly bouncer who takes one look at Yossarian, puts his arm across the entrance & says: “Proper attire required.” Ten minutes later, Yossarian returns with a car tire – which, we find out, is the currency that gets him into the club.
Or I can hear him riffing: “I’m not dead, I’m just a really good actor who can hold his breath for a really long time” or “I’m just rehearsing for my part as a dead man on a cold slab for an episode of Six Feet Under” or … well, you get my drift.
His jokes were part flat-footed Borscht Belt – the failure of the joke itself becomes the joke – and someone like Andy Kaufman, somewhere between easy and uneasy laughs accompanied by an uncomfortable or unresolved moment of reflective silence, because if there was one thing he was good at it was laughing away all that concern & tedious sobriety – there’s that levity that fortifies us against the absurdity of life again. Maybe a last joke about how contagious death is; how everybody gets it but nobody ever complains about the symptoms or that the only cure for death is a belief in the afterlife.
If Yossarian is buried in a coffin I would recommend one in the shape of a bathtub and I’d fill it with all of the gag gadgets & weird rubber duckies, strange novelty items like urinating salt & pepper shakers, anti-headache soap, a transistor radio shaped like a toilet, stuffed animals that fart when you squeeze them, a cooking apron with fake breasts, tools whose utility escapes you, toys made in countries that may not even exist any more, useless things – if he didn’t have it I would have gotten him the umbrella you clip onto a cigar so you can smoke it in the rain just to hear his chuckle one last time.
His surrounding himself with a dusty constellation of novelty items and gag gifts had something to do with their glib uselessness as if he had purchased them to fully appreciate their cosmic pointlessness & then later he’d defuse, dismantle & demystify them. Their frivolousness served as a mocking counter-friction to the heavy burden of our everyday lives in a world undergoing rapid decline. He simply assumed that his mission was to distract us from that fact, if only for a few hours, once a month, for about 15 years in my case.
At some point, he gave up on art & cartooning, stopped engaging in a certain kind of critique, avoiding the trappings of cultural depth; not that he was a surfacy-shallow guy or anything. Nothing like that. He had simply given up his membership to the rat race. I remember how I had to bug him for many months and haircuts before he’d let me reprint some of his classic drawings in my book of short stories, Wiggling Wishbone. & any ambitions I may have had regarding a “best-of” book of his drawings were always quickly kiboshed with some deflecting wisecrack. I really liked his view, his take, on reality – a fascination-revulsion of the popular tropes, the givens, the traditions of normalcy in our society –the notion that those proposing to save the nation were actually destroying it.
He had a fascination for the simulacrum – although he would have called it something else & I can almost hear his joke where he confuses simulacrum for speculum. He was fascinated by our eternal fascination for empty preoccupation, a state as I understand Baudrillard may have described it, in which we are held rapt by the voluptuous visible and disregard anything beneath the surface. But you had – at least I did – the sense that somewhere along the line – before I met him – he had dived deep & had touched bottom & had, upon resurfacing, come to the conclusion that that bottom was not a happy place to be dwelling. No bottom-dwellers we!
He was profoundly disappointed in progress & skeptical of the powers-that-be who had screwed up any hope that may have been clinging to progress. He had simply let go of something – an urge, anxiety, unrequited love, gravity – so that very little mattered & in that letting go he could periodically savor or enjoy things like shared laughs with friends.
He was – I can hear him laughing it off – a bit of a Buddhist, actually. He clearly had his own way of saying: Renunciation is not giving up the things of the world, but accepting that they go away. [this illo to the left shows the emerging culture of surveillance and that part of its attraction is the eroticism – coming while monitoring – of voyeurism in the name of patriotism].
A stand-up Buddhist actually, who transforms samsara into some kind of Yiddish baked good, a knish with an infinite shelf life – chuckle-chuckle. In any case, I sometimes pursued this letting go of his as a dogged interviewer should but always came away feeling that he was right: it doesn’t matter as he’d hand you a joint, a cognac, then we’d watch a movie & then take you out to dinner.
He took me & XX out to eat probably 100 times; I’m not exaggerating and once in a while we’d get it into our silly heads to treat HIM up there in that restaurant – where was it? – along Long Island Sound somewhere with all the seafood and the gloriously decrepit atmosphere & OK, I would have that 3rd beer – saying “no” rarely registered with him, he just didn’t hear it – before you could respond, that beer would already be served. That was truly a magician’s magic. But in the time I took to drink that beer he would somehow excuse himself, elegantly out-maneuvering me & XX and he would have already paid by the time I got up to the register to try to pay the bill.
& as we got up from our table, he may very well have left behind a novelty severed finger wrapped in a generous $20 tip on our table for the waitress.
During the writing of my new book, YODEL IN HIFI, I came across the Electronic Yodeling Pickle & this definitely made me think of him. & so, back in 2010, I sent him an email with the link. Although he did not respond, I figure he got the email, clicked on the link, thought it hilarious & probably ordered one immediately, wondering who he could please with this rare gift.
Yossarian the character & Yossarian the friend both embodied the essential black humorist dictum voiced by Heller in Catch-22: “live forever or die in the attempt.”UG
bart plantenga is the author of Beer Mystic, a novel that circumnavigates the globe in a unique pub crawl. He is also the author of Wiggling Wishbone, Spermatagonia: The Isle of Man, Paris Scratch, and NY Sin Phoney in Face Flat Minor. His books Yodel-Ay-Ee-Oooo: The Secret History of Yodeling Around the World and Yodel in HiFi and the CD Rough Guide to Yodel have created the misunderstanding that he is a yodel expert. He is also a DJ and has produced Wreck This Mess in NYC, Paris and now Amsterdam for 26 years.