James Ross Kelly
I was there and your portrait hung in front of me, the 1886 one I’m sure it was, an exhibition at the Fogg Museum in Cambridge, Mass., late June early July 1973. I came once a day and sat there and looked at your art and I would generally smoke some pot before I did. There were many other paintings of yours—“Irises,” perhaps; I don’t remember the others. Your paintings now are as familiar as my heart.
I was apartment-sitting for my English professor and contemplating a move
back to Oregon, where I thought I could work for a year and then return to
school. I remember all of it too clearly, the Fogg and my own fog of swimming
the exciting oatmeal of the 1970s. You, however, are there. They say it is your
last self-portrait. Auctioned in 1939 at Gallerie Fisher in Lucerne, Switzerland. It was one of the works branded as degenerate by the Nazis, confiscated and sold. The winning bid was $40,000 by a Dr. Frankfurter. You had given this painting to your brother as a birthday gift. I must tell you, if it is any consolation, my father killed Nazis for one year all through the landscape that you loved. There is a picture of your painting at the auction. Some asshole in a white coat is holding it up. It is better that it went to Switzerland I suppose, but it was bad that the Nazis profited.
So, Vincent, this is of course not about you but about me, perhaps a little bit about 1973, and me telling, among the things I tell, this horrible thing I did. Unlike you and the unfortunate incident with your ear, you could recollect none of it. I remember this all too well. At the same time, your painting of yourself seared me somehow. You clearly painted your aura. Blue shimmering pale blue through your coat and your red, red hair and beard, the air was on blue fire very clearly.
I broke up with Jane there in Cambridge, my lover my good coed girlfriend, my lovely woman companion paramour committing adultery we were, in my car, in motels, and eventually living together after I left my wife. And my wife divorced me a matter of weeks later. I walked around Cambridge, mildly hipped out, two years of college and the Army behind me. Literature, art, film slipped through me—I saw The King of Hearts a dozen times at the Central Square Cinemas with its then-novel two screens. Most every day while your exhibition was at the Fogg, I stopped by and sat on what I remember as a marble bench and looked at you. I knew the thin blue air was on fire all around me. I did not know if I was partially responsible, but there was an inkling inside me that I was.
I paid for Jane’s abortion in late March. She came to me, told me she was pregnant, said she wanted to have the child to carry on a part of me she thought she could not be a part of. Mildly, gently and in a seemingly caring manner I explained I couldn’t do it. I wasn’t ready. Then I did a despicable thing. In my college-boy English-literature assumption I closed the deal by reading her James Joyce’s “A Little Cloud” from his book of short stories, The Dubliners. The protagonist, a news writer in Dublin, meets in a bar with a friend back from his journalist job in England. The story ends with the protagonist coming home to his small child wailing an infant wail signifying the end of his opportunity as his friend was capitalizing upon his own. Domesticity stopping the pursuit of his art. This closed the deal for poor Jane. Scarcely sixty days after Roe v. Wade, an English professor’s husband who was a gynecologist set up an appointment in New York City, as abortion was still verboten in Massachusetts. This is how I, an agnostic college boy-man, sacrificed my first-born child on an altar of convenience and self-absorbed selfishness. My Celtic ancestors were required to crush the skull of their firstborn and bury the infant under a cornerstone of their first home, to achieve prosperity. I believe now, Vincent, that what I did was virtually the same thing, though I knew thenof no practice and no such intent, thinking the child just optional protoplasm.
We, the hip, we the revolution against our material culture, all of us disgusted by modernism gone wrong in the 20th century, we thought the burning blue open sky around us then, a static insouciant deterministic notion driving all—what we were, was all we were. There seemed no possibilities of an inherent intellectual mistake about who we really were.
There was, of course, much more to it. I sat there daily in front of you, I suppose, knowing that was the closest thing I could get to greatness right then, and that it was tangible, and that, of course, did not work out so well for the either of us. I saw what you got in the end was a continuum, a colossal imprint.
Much later I knew it would have been more honest if I had cut off my own ear and wrapped it in sterile gauze and taken it to my first wife and apologized, and told her the truth of her IUD and the countless abortions we had together contrary to her own Catholic, go-to-Mass-every-week Catholicism, and I should have been regretful of that even if the IUD was her idea. She, a nurse looking a little like Jackie Kennedy, would never have divorced me had I not strayed. She met me by the Charles River to serve divorce papers because she now was in a love affair with a man who four months later would leave because he had impregnated another woman. Oh, we played loose and fast and listened to wild rock and roll, Vincent, and slept around and tried to out-bohemian any of your colleagues, but this is how we failed.
Ah, Jesus, Vincent, I’ve come to see this as my socially venial act of murder, unconscious of the reality and void of moral consequence. I premeditatedly pulled the switch as an out-of-touch warden in this prison we have outside of jail; pulled the switch without a sentence, without due process, pulled the switch by paying with my GI Bill check. As I watched some asshole in a white coat take lovely Jane away into a white sterile room in New York City, I and others began the phalanx that now totals sixty million for our nation. The necessary modern notion of family planning, unhinged from premodernity and the time of ancestral contiguity—a thinly veiled eugenic notion of choice preempting responsibility.
I stopped something that had a purpose that I was not actually unaware of. Yes, it took Jesus to forgive this in the near-death ether of spiritual expanse—it took thirty-three years for this to happen. It took me raising two sons and loving them above all else and reflecting on how could I have not loved this one as well. I wonder: Would I have thought differently had I read Ken Kesey’s take on this in 1971?
You are you from conception, and that never changes no matter what physical changes your body takes. And the virile sport in the Mustang driving to work with his muscular forearm tanned and ready for a day’s labor has not one microgram more right to his inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness than has the three months foetus riding in a sack of water…How can abortion be anything but fascism again, back as a fad in a new intellectual garb with a new, and more helpless, victim?*
This comes finger-pointing out of the past. Abortion had been challenged by Christendom since the Didache of the first century. Abortion was anathema to life. But we had captains in our revolution to give us a hand with abject morality. World War II made life and death arbitrary and relative; Vietnam continued this nightly in our living rooms. Life has become in America similar to what the Nazis thought, in the sense of an orderly deterministic march to and over the edge of humanity. A clean park was more important than a babe in the arms of its mother. The Liberal Fascism that has held sway was nailed by the father of hipsters. Sadly, then I was lock-step with this march the other way.
published in Rock & Sling Winter 2018
*Excerpt from an interview with Ken Kesey by Paul Krasner. The REALIST Issue Number 90 – May-June, 1971 pages 46-47