On October 7, 2004 PBS broadcast a live performance of a Philadelphia Orchestra concert opening the season at Carnegie Hall in New York City. It was an all-Strauss concert that featured the tone poem Don Quixote with soloist Yo Yo Ma and the Four Last Songs sung by the soprano Renee Fleming. I remember seeing Caroline Kennedy in the audience.
I found the concert thrilling and moving. About a month later I was inspired by the concert, no doubt, to write the following letter to my imaginary friend, Brian: The Fantastic Adventures of Don Quixote. Events and experiences linger in my mind for months and years. I am reminded of the line from the song Dixie: "Old times there are not forgotten."
The letter to Brian was written days before the 2004 presidential election whose candidates were President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry. The closing line of the letter "skies above will be clear again" is a reference to the song "Happy Days Are Here Again," which is associated with FDR. I suppose the 2004 election also figured in the inspiration for the letter. Thoughts of the composer Richard Strauss mingled with thoughts about Bob Strauss, former Chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
November 1, 2004
Hey, buddy. Meddle in anything new in the past week? Did you experiment with any substances, legal or illegal?
I write to you once again from the culminating defeat you inflicted on me some time ago: namely, your demand that I go home and pledge to live for six months without visits to the Cleveland Park Library.
It's been a week of nightly peace. I spent an uneventful seven days, reading for the most part. I read Cervantes' masterpiece "Don Quixote." All of it: parts one and two. Well, not exactly all of it, in the conventional sense. I read the Cliff Notes version. People say to me, "Why do you take such an instant dislike to lengthy books?" I say: "I don't want to waste time." As Bob Strauss is fond of saying, "Why waste time counting your copper pennies when you can read the bottom line of a bank statement."
Supercilious academicians scoff at canned digests; they view them as a peril to learning. I see them as a valuable tool of enlightenment, if not a means to lighten a student's workload.
I like Cliff Notes, always have. They compress a mountain of pitchblende into a manageable "mole"hill. The editors of that series of literary summaries do an amazing job of precipitating their editions from the voluminous originals. Redissolving and reprecipitating time and time and time again, as it were, the Cliff Notes editors eventually arrive at a summary that is a fraction of the volume of the classic literary text. It's elemental, my friend.
Cervantes and I are similar in certain ways. He led a difficult life; he was frequently in trouble with the law and spent years in prison -- which for him, served as a ready-made "word laboratory." Upon the publication of "Don Quixote," he achieved fame and financial success, in his late fifties. Maybe I have something to look forward to. Maybe all is not lost.
In 1594 (at age 47) Cervantes was appointed taxgatherer for Granada. He was imprisoned at Seville for irregularities in his accounts, was released after three months, but was dismissed from the government service. He remained for several years in obscure poverty in Seville, trying to live on pen and ink. Then, wandering through Spain, he was arrested at Argamasilla. There in jail and in misery, says tradition, he continued writing one of the most cheerful books in the world. Back in Madrid, he sold to Francisco de Robles the manuscript of "The Life and Adventures of the Renowned Don Quixote de la Mancha." It was published in 1605, and now at last, after fifty-eight years of struggling, Cervantes touched success. The pesos just kept rolling in.
Like The Birdman of Alcatraz, Cervantes profited from his time in prison; he put his enforced isolation to creative use, completing, as he put it, "just such a book as might be begotten in a jail." Cervantes' prison sentences, in the final analysis, were "a good thing."
If the truth be told, in my own wayward fashion, "I'm having a blast" in my splendid isolation (when I'm not in a state of psychotic despondency). Yes, I could have studied hard in my school days and ended up a successful lawyer like Elliott Feldman, or an accomplished medical doctor like Michael Shapiro -- or even a Prime Minister, like Perry Rubenstein.
In a parliamentary system, a candidate for Prime Minister, after losing an election, often returns to the party leadership or at least to a prominent seat in parliament. It doesn't work that way for a former Akin Gump paralegal who's been certified insane. For such a person, you make your own way: you compose letters, write memoirs, attempt to whittle debt to a manageable precipitate, find a righteous cause; sometimes a couple of federal agents might come calling, but not often (thank God!). In any case, when my long-term assignment at Akin Gump was over the partners kicked me to the curb, like a dog, preferring to forget not only The Termination catastrophe but also my own plays and misplays: my mutating personality during my three-and-a-half-year tenure at the firm; my opportunistic use of the firm's psychiatric consultant to obtain disability benefits; my inability to exploit my outstanding employment record at Akin Gump to secure another job; and my failure to win the support of my own family members. (I still think that my sister's ridiculous "revelations" to Malcolm and Earl cost me my job).
Then there was the litigation debacle in the DC Court of Appeals. Now, everywhere I go, I am faced with crowds who despair of the Court of Appeals and see in me all that might have been, all the what ifs. "The heartbreak of a lifetime." Sometimes people approach me and address me as "Mr. Precedent." "Freedman," they say, "there's no precedent for what those judges did. It's unprecedented, baby!" Some try to cheer me up and tell me, "We know you really won." Some tilt their heads, affecting a look of grave sympathy, as if I had just lost a family member. I have to face not only my own regret; I am forever the mirror of others'. A lesser man would have done far worse than go into seclusion and settle on a career of papery passions.
In the last thirteen years, debacle has followed debacle. In the uncannily-fitting words of Peter Carey's recent novel "My Life as a Fake," I "entered that maze from which thirteen years later, I have yet to escape."
What happened? What went wrong? It was defamation. It got into the wrong hands, and it was deadly. It was used to attack me; it was used to destroy me. Like radium in the hands of a terrorist, defamation is a readily-available and powerfully-destructive tool in the arsenal of the craven-hearted character assassin.
Considering the duration and extent of the attack on me, it stands out among examples of psychoanalytic character assassination. I was demeaned in public and private, in plain words and in jargon, in professional and lay circles. "He's always going to see psychiatrists. He must be crazy or something." It is hard to imagine a stigma greater than to be labeled mentally ill by leading authorities in psychiatry and psychoanalysis: leading authorities like renowned psychoanalyst Gertrude R. Ticho, M.D. and the late Jerry M. Wiener, M.D., former head of psychiatry at GW and past president of both the American Psychoanalytic Association and the American Psychiatric Association. "Your paranoia has crippled your life," Dr. Wiener told me in August 1993. "You expose yourself to the world with those letters you write! You expose yourself as paranoid." So be it. I'm psychotic in the world's eyes. As long as it keeps the pennies flowing, how does it harm me?
Defamation is potent stuff. It's a dangerous substance. It seeps into your bones, into your marrow. It sticks around for a long time. You could say it has a long half-life, even as it takes on a life of its own.
I have been told, implored, and exhorted to move beyond The Termination, beyond the defamation. "You need to get on with your life. You need to live in the real world. Not the world of past injuries, real or imagined. You must give credence and credulity to the present and the real, you must live in the world of empirical experience." So I've been told time and time and time again.
In a perverse irony, it was as if I had been sentenced to reality by others; and the only escape for me was a prison of my own creation, a prison -- or word laboratory -- in which my fantasies, the expression of my true self, could bloom.
I am reminded of a poem by the famed Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, who (like Al Gore's presidential aspirations) died in the year 2000:
"People were always telling me:
'You've got to live in the real world.' I heard it from parents and teachers.
To live in the real world, like a verdict.
What terrible sin could these souls have committed that their lives in this world should begin with a verdict:
You are sentenced to reality for life. With no possibility of parole. The parole is death."
Well, I have eschewed the confines of the real world, preferring instead the freedom of my own prison cell.
My loneliness is caused by my inner plight, for only the very few -- those who really matter -- seem to be receptive to what I say, and perhaps I'm not aware of even these few. Thus, I would rather be alone than together with people who do not understand me. In my solitude, I have new ideas and make new discoveries; since they are based on my most personal experiences (including the outrageous defamation to which I have been subjected), they are difficult to share with others (indeed, they are dangerous to share with others lest I draw the suspicious attention of law enforcement), so that, in the end, they only deepen my loneliness and the gulf between me and those around me.
If only I had a friend, a brother -- a Sancho for my Quixote -- to propitiate the protracted agony of my isolation! In Cervantes' book (at least so the Cliff Notes editors explain) Sancho concluded that the Don was mad (or half mad at least, what of his strange moods and vagaries), but he came to accept him. "I have stuck close to my good friend and kept him company this many a month," Sancho says toward the end, "and now he and I are all one." It is true, for they are two sides of one humanity; two sides of the same coin. The knight in his turn comes to respect the wisdom of his squire as better rooted, if not as noble, as his own.
I think of a letter that the French physicist Pierre Curie wrote to his great friend, whom he would later marry (it's legal in France) -- his collaborator in life and work. I consider myself a connoisseur of letters, Brian, and this one, in my opinion, is a beautiful one. "We have promised ourself (it's true isn't it?) to have at least a great friendship, one for the other. If only you won't change your mind! No promises are binding and these are the things you can't command. It would be a wonderful thing, however, and this I wouldn't dare hope for, to pass our lives close to each other hypnotized in our [impossible] dreams; your patriotic dream, our humanitarian dream, and our scientific dream." So it was that Pierre Curie settled down with his lab mate after years of playing the electromagnetic field.
Strauss once said to a collaborator: "We were born one for another and are certain to do fine things together." Of course, not all partnerships, as it turns out, go as planned or as hoped for. Something went fatally awry in my experimental trial with Strauss. Of that I can assure you.
In the end, it's true I suppose. I was an experiment on the part of Nature, a gamble within the unknown, perhaps for a new purpose, perhaps for nothing, and my only task was to allow this game on the part of primeval depths to take its course, to feel its will within me and make it wholly mine.
So much of my life has been an experiment, a trial: sometimes literally, mostly in a sublimated, symbolic way. My recent letter-writing campaign, for example, is a notable example of self-experimentation. The motive of my campaign was to establish, as a matter of law, that The Termination and its associated defamation constituted a federal civil rights violation; yet, sending out disturbed letters to strangers (my "materials and methods," so to speak) placed my liberty at risk. The campaign, or investigation, was very much comparable to the work of a scientist who, ignorant of the consequences, uses himself as a test subject in order to establish some scientific principle. In my case, the "substance" I investigated was defamation, a dangerous compound indeed.
I was, as it turned out, without competitors in my "scientific" investigation (needless to say). The reasons are not difficult to see. First, the task I had set myself -- to establish that I was a victim of a civil rights violation -- was difficult and tedious in the extreme; second, few people rated it sufficiently important to deserve such devotion, hard labor and time.
I was obsessed with the idea that the legal world in general was skeptical that what I claimed to be true, was in fact true at all. I was looking for what I later called "the kind of evidence which the law demands, that the defamation I experienced rose to a constitutional level." It is true that there were skeptics, but in a sense I was tilting at a windmill I had built myself. Isolated as I was from all but a select band of knowledgeable people, I was unaware that those who really mattered in the legal community had never doubted the reality of my claims and were as confident as I of their importance.
At least that is what I liked to believe. And, as you well know, I don't live in the real world. I live in a fantasy world of my own creation: a world of windmills and knightly adventures. Actually, the preceding two paragraphs paraphrase a few sentences from a biography of Marie Curie. Substitute the word "radium" for "defamation" and "civil rights violation;" and substitute the phrase "scientific community" for "legal community." (The phrase "tilting at a windmill" is in the original).
So, what is the profile of the lone investigator, the individual who will risk life and liberty to establish a principle, legal or scientific?
Oddly enough, early in his career, Freud used himself (and a friend) as test subjects in his experiments with cocaine. Scientific discovery, abiding fame, and expansive riches were his goal; unfortunately for Freud (and his very dear friend), the undertaking ran aground. Freud ended up killing his friend, unintentionally, of course; he didn't push the friend off a precipice, rather he administered too much of an alkaloid precipitate through an i.v. push.
"Freud's need to assert himself -- which was part conquistador's daring and curiosity, part scientific tenacity and part the more down-to-earth but no less urgent preoccupation of a prospective young husband -- compelled him to seek some area of personal research the results of which would attract public attention. Two pieces of work seemed as if they might fulfill this aim. In the first instance he devised a method to assist neurological research by dyeing the nervous tissues with gold chloride, but although it won much praise, this method proved too costly to be practical. Secondly, he discovered the analgesic properties of cocaine, an alkaloid whose effects were little known in those days. Freud therefore deduced that it might have anesthetic properties also, and might be useful in surgery. But the ophthalmologist Carol Koller was the first to make systematic experiments with the drug, and it was he who became famous and successful as a result.
Freud's obsession with the desire to make a discovery of universal significance had consequences which proved damaging to his career. He experimented on himself with cocaine without ill effect, and decided, being completely ignorant of the dangerous nature of the drug, to prescribe it to his very dear friend Fleischl-Marxow who was suffering from morphine poisoning, as a result of taking morphine to relieve unbearable neuralgia. The unexpected result was cocaine poisoning: Fleischl-Marxow's protracted agony was punctuated by fits of excruciating pain for which ever-stronger doses of cocaine were prescribed until death finally released him. Freud's faith in the curative properties of the drug thus proved fatal. When cases of cocaine addiction began to spread through Europe, and to be diagnosed, he faced justifiably bitter criticism." Billa Zanuso, "The Young Freud," at 84 (New York: Blackwell, 1986).
Be that as it may.
It is said that more than Franklin Roosevelt, or even John F. Kennedy, Al Gore was raised to be President, to live in The White House. And we know where that political experiment ended up. It ended up in the Florida Supreme Court and beyond: speaking metaphorically, it ended up like Rubenstein on spring break, mired in a seemingly-interminable tennis game in a Miami Beach tennis court, without any means of transportation back to the home office (or the chemistry lab -- or the G-X blacktop, for that matter). It's called: "Life Beyond The Pleasure Principle."
Message for Vice President Gore. You need to reread your Freud. Perhaps you were not destined to be President; maybe you were destined to win the popular vote for President and lose in the electoral college. Perhaps the experience of crushing disappointment was your destiny, and that -- THAT -- you fulfilled.
If the individual's experiences, as Freud said, are a set of "fantastic variations" on an unconscious theme, perhaps the following incident from my childhood will shed light on the dark travails of my adult life.
In the spring of 1965, when I was eleven years old, I hit on the idea that I would make a scientific discovery of universal significance that would lead to worldwide fame. I settled on the notion that I would find a cure for poison ivy rash. I proceeded to collect poison ivy and rub it all over my face and arm: a topical application of ivy, as it were. You probably don't believe me. My childhood friend Mark Needleman (who didn't speak Spanish, by the way) was a witness. I developed a serious and painful rash in short order. I tried calamine lotion and an array of other lotions and potions. I didn't find a cure. Mark Needleman said: "You're crazy! You are so crazy! Who would infect himself with poison ivy in the hope of finding a cure?"
At one point -- and this is significant in its parallel to recent events -- my sixth grade teacher, Miss Kaempfer, demanded in alarm that I see the school nurse, Mrs. Heckman. Miss Kaempfer was afraid that I might pose a risk of infection to other students. Mrs. Heckman, the nurse, confirmed that I had a poison ivy rash, and that I did not pose a public health risk. "No medications were given, prescribed or recommended."
The child is father to the man.
It remains for me the man, as it did for Don Quixote, to make an escape from dreams to fact. My Cliff Notes summary of "Don Quixote" recounts the closing portion of part II of the book as follows:
The Don sets out for new adventures, but meets with a culminating defeat, in which the victor exacts from him a pledge that he will go home and live for a year in unknightly peace. The tired warrior consents, but his disillusionment dries up the sources of his life. He calls his friends to his bedside, distributes gifts, makes his will, disavows knight-errantry, and lets his spirit doubly ebb away. Sancho goes back to his family, and cultivates his garden in the content of a man who has seen enough of the world to appreciate his home. In the end his good-natured realism appears to triumph over the generous but fanciful idealism of his master, Don Quixote. But it is not quite so. The soul of the knight has the last word, in the epitaph that he left for his tomb: "If I did not accomplish great things, I died in their pursuit." The realist survives till his death, but the idealist then begins to live.
Check you out next week, buddy. Hopefully, by that time the skies above will be clear again.