You don't live this long and not have tales to tell.
Without honesty we are lost.
As I'm dragged kicking and screaming into my ninth decade, I'm tossing a handful of belated merci beaucoups to some of the people who kept sending my life off in unexpected and ever more interesting directions. You’ll find no enemies here – I'm lucky to have had so few! – but instead a smattering of the places, relatives, friends, associates, wives, fiancées and lovers to whom I owe. . . well, everything.
Given the state of the world's ecology, economy and polity, there is little to be optimistic about. But, thank the muses, there is still the miraculous treasure house of the arts! A hint as to how they have survived is contained in my letters to Sophie Langdon and Henri Pousseur. Taken together, they explore my transformative experience of art as a trans-generational channel of communication. As I wrote to Sophie in 1982, I'm more and more convinced that art is primarily a transmission of energy whose sources are unknown. . . .Those of us who practice it with any success are channels through whom that energy flows.
When I later discussed this with Henri, he responded, "But of course! You and I were channels for the energy that had flowed through Blake and Dowland." It is a mysterious and inexplicable phenomenon, which in turn embodies a riddle, cogether with its solution, that has long been with us: Et in Arcadia ego: From pre-history onward, the discovery of art has been the creative response of humankind to the shocking discovery of mortality. . . .In the face of death, art's duty—indeed, her raison d’être—is to recall absent loved ones, console anxieties, evoke and reconcile conflicting emotions, surmount isolation, and facilitate the expression of the unutterable.
You'll find all the letters listed BELOW, in chronological order. For those to Pat, Helle and Joyce (un faune), parental guidance is recommended. They are shamelessly intimate, but this is not an occasion for British understatement—an unerotic autobiography is nothing less than a lie! To those readers who may feel embarrassment, I apologize; but any excesses are those of generosity rather than of meanness, vindictiveness or self-justification. Whenever these letters are read, reputations will be enhanced rather than diminished. Since this will become my intellectual, emotional and aesthetic last will and testament, I want to do full, uncensored justice to those whose contribution to the quality of my life at a particular moment was, in some way, definitive.
You're listening to the opening of Charles Ives' Third Sonata for Violin and Piano in an evocative performance by Sophie Langdon and Paul Roberts that I recorded in the Wigmore Hall in 1985. In her Philosophy in a New Key (one of the books that changed my life), Suzanne Langer wrote in 1941:
Because the forms of human feeling are much more congruent with musical forms than with the forms of language, music can reveal the nature of feelings with a detail and truth that language cannot approach. [cf. Et in Arcadia Ego, sup.]
So thank you, Sophie and Paul, for a performance that so perfectly embodies the sometimes contemplative, sometimes passionate, but always lively and vivid re-creation of a former time and place to which these letters can only aspire. If you'd like to know more about this sonata and the circumstances of its composition, go HERE.
The photo? Imagine a sunny summer afternoon half a century ago, deep in a San Francisco wood, where my beautiful fiance Chris and I pointed the Leica at each other's loving faces. As so often happens in this fugitive world, the photos were to outlast the passion.
For the boring biographical details, you can go HERE and HERE
Take up thy bed and walk How my father qualified for sainthood.
You made my mother and sister swear that they would never tell me what you had done because you didn't want me to grow up feeling indebted to you.
Womb with a View Thank you, Provincetown, for starting me out with an inexhaustible cultural legacy.
What Provincetown promised to me was an intimate community where you knew everyone and most everyone was interesting.
Thank you, Irving Goleman . . . for the beginning and the end of wisdom
Professor Goleman was a sad, hollow-eyed Jew who carried the world on his stooped shoulders.
Call him Jack . . . Thank you for introducing me to Charles Laughton and to Life with a capital L.
In the eyes of a dutiful preacher’s kid just starting college, you were glamorous past emulation.
For Joyce: La mort d'un faune . . . et la naissance d'un chat sauvage
One warm summer night we wandered about the estate naked and hand-in-hand, finally nestling together overlooking the San Francisco Bay, the radiant city spread out before us in a luminous arc. If I had known that someday you would be one of America's foremost lesbian scholars . . .
For my ex-wife Pat . . . to celebrate your Long Night's Journey into Day.
Back in the 1950s Pat and I were part of the laid back Berkeley scene – not the wildly beat, compulsively druggie contingent, but a casual, relaxed extended family who migrated with easy familiarity from coffee house to coffee house and from bed to bed.
Thank you, Jim Armstrong . . . for raising high camp to its ultimate elevation!
The brilliant scripts and music plots for your Compendium Cliché Productions transformed parody into an art form that created a whole new universe.
Thank you, Erik Bauersfeld . . . for starting a creative pattern that would recur for the rest of my life.
Between us we are credited with having "kept radio drama alive in America in the 1960s", but the happiest moments of all were between about 2 and 4 a.m., when we retired to your apartment in the Berkeley hills and quietly drank our way into oblivion . . .
The Future Lies Behind! Thank you, Mort Sahl . . . for telling it like it was
All those up-tight right-wingers who made life in Fifties America a tightrope walk over an abyss became larger-than-life caricatures on Mort’s colorful canvas.
The Rest isn't Silence. . . it doesn't exist! or, Spending an Age with Cage
My association with John Cage began on March 30, 1959 with a performance that went into the history books.
Thank you, Helle . . . for my only offer to become a toy boy . . .
Helle was most appreciative. “You English aren’t supposed to be very good at this,” she said, “I almost refused.”
“I’m glad you didn’t,” I replied with the utmost sincerity. “Are you sure it was swimming that was your Olympic specialty?”
"There’s nothing more exciting than something you don’t know!"
A memorable quote from one of my dearest friends, poet and professor Eric Mottram. In his case it was remarkably little.
Thank you, dearest Mary . . . for the second half of my life.
Sometimes a fool for a pretty face hits it lucky and falls for one with a beautiful mind behind it.
Thank you, Norman Mailer . . . for showing me that autobiography is the only kind there is.
After three days of his company I could only echo what Steven Marcus said in his introduction to the Paris Review interview: "One is impressed by his extraordinarily good manners."
Thank you, Sophie . . . for teaching me to believe in miracles (and in myself).
You were to become a channel of creative energy, from some mysterious source, that would continue to nourish my brain for the rest of my working life.
Thank you, Henri Pousseur . . . for "a leap into the void ".
When I was putting together the tape for Tales & Songs I felt as if I were plugged into some energy bank of tremendous force.
A Plague on All Our Houses! Neely Bruce has seen the future, and it sucks!
Neely is a jolly Jeremiah who sees the world collapsing about his ears and devotes his enormous talents of genre and collage to propping it up a little longer.
Thank you, Grateful Dead and John Meyer. . . I’m eternally grateful!
If the air check that I made that night had been saved, it would be worth a bank manager’s ransom. The names? Phil Lesh and Jerry Garcia. The rest is history.
Thank you, John Kenny . . . for an open-ended lifelong collaboration.
We were able to adjust to each other’s musical instincts and learned to read each other’s signals at a subliminal level. . .
Thank you, Jonathan and Shelagh . . . Our tours still hold vivid memories.
There were half-a-dozen huge bowls of freshly-caught shrimp set out at long tables, from which they seemed to leap straight into our mouths . . .
Thank you, Luciano Berio . . . for opening a portal that you weren't quite able to close.
I loved your music and loathed your public persona so much that nothing would have given me greater pleasure than mixing your Sinfonia at a posthumous memorial.
Thank you, John Thorne . . . for being equally particular about your methods, your materials and your metaphors.
Food writing’s shameful secret, wrote John Thorne in his seminal essay, “Cuisine Mécanique”, is its intellectual poverty.
In Memoriam Ned Paynter . . . a multi-talented and easy-going genius who made the best of a bum deal
" I don't ask, 'Why me?' Why not me? I don’t feel any grievance. It was nothing personal. "
Five Scientific Sonnets . . . for unscientific occasions
What freshly minted torment is to be
The plunder and the price of ecstasy?
Dreams . . . transcribed immediately upon awakening (perhaps)
Eisenhower sits down at his computer. It is in a long bare room where American Ex-Presidents spend eternity, managing their web sites. There is no sound except the gentle clatter of keys.
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd tow'rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
The Tempest Act 4, scene 1, 148–158
I've read almost all of your letters, aloud, sharing w/ Lena. We're sitting just now in our little cottage in Sweden, laughing and tearing up (I think at the "right" places). Your writing sings!
[From] one of your old pals from when we were much younger
From the Guild of Food Writers Newsletter
Saying Thank You
John Whiting has created a fascinating, though mostly non-food-related, addition to his much-feted website www.whitings-writings.com. The new site pays tributes to a number of people who have played an important part in John’s life, and he reports that he has already had numerous hits, some from as far afield as Russia, France, Italy and Romania. You can read John’s eloquent tributes here.
John Whiting can be reached HERE