RAGE FOR DISORDER: Loving The (Not So) Mean Streets of Manhattan

by George Wallace on March 24, 2012

      “you don’t run from a bear because you’re afraid; you’re afraid because you run from a bear”

The urban experience is an untidy one, full of contradictions. Thrills, dangers, bewilderments and enticements. Brutal confrontation and studied disinterest. Sometimes it hides what it possesses, lazes about boring and blind. Other times it can just explode in your face.

“Like a pig in a burlap sack,” said my North Carolina friend Otis Jernigan, who knew of such matters, on his one and only visit to Manhattan. “You know something’s going on inside but you can’t quite put your finger on it — then wham! This town can just rip right through the burlap and tear you up.”

Otis Jernigan was a pretty smart guy and, I suppose, he was going for the ‘gotta have street smarts’ thing. However, nothing bad happened to Otis while he was in New York.

Otis Jernigan went away thinking he now knew something he didn’t previously know. I think he just confirmed some predetermined ‘thank God I’m a country boy’ point of view about New York City that he‘d brought along with him.

It goes the other way, too.

Some city people run away from the urban experience — thinking they’re going to find some imaginary Key West where it’s possible to satisfy their blessedly anal ‘rage for order,’ the kind insurance company executive (and poet) Wallace Stevens championed.

I suppose that’s attractive to some. If you can just get all the elements in line and under control, you will have won at the human game. But me, I think there’s a rage for disorder in a lot of us, simmering or rash, that keeps us coming back to the city.

One guy who comes to mind is Peter Orlovsky, who used to preach about vegetarianism on that Cherry Valley farm he and Ginsberg ran upstate. Those in the know will tell you that Orlovsky wasn’t averse to sneaking out on occasion for a midnight hamburger run to NYC.

One way or another, the urban experience can be a two-faced, bi-polar, multifaced animal of major proportions. But it’s also “an outrage, a spectacle, an emblem of human ingenuity that seems frankly superhuman,” like Saul Bellows said.

Bellows was also a very smart guy.

So was William James, Henry James’ big brother. Returning home in 1907 to his native Manhattan after a lifetime traveling in the highest intellectual circles of America and Europe, he stepped out onto the mean streets of New York City and declared himself gob-smacked with the “courage, the heaven scaling audacity of it all… the great pulses and bounds of progress (which) give a kind of drumming background of life.”

     “In the center of the cyclone, I caught the pulse

     of the machine, took up the rhythm, and vibrated

     with it, and found it simply magnificent.”

William James wasn’t talking smack when he said that. He was a pretty smart guy. He grew up with folks like Emerson, Hawthorne and Thoreau at the dinner table. He was educated in England, Switzerland, Germany and France. He taught at Harvard for thirty years. He mentored Teddy Roosevelt, Gertrude Stein and WEB DuBois.

Heck, he was the father of American Psychology.

William even told his kid brother Henry — that’s right, the novelist Henry James — to stop with all the drawing room tedium, and write a book with ‘vigor and decisiveness of plot… and absolute straightness of style.’

Gotta like that kind of talk.

Truth, said old William James, is ‘what happens to an idea,’ it isn’t ‘an inert static relation.’ Another way of putting that is, truth’s the outcome of what you do to things, and what things do to you.

When it comes to love and fear, the truth of any experience — even New York — is what happens to you when you’re in the middle of it, not what you predetermine it to be. That’s why you don’t run away from a bear — or a city — without a good solid reason for it.

You’re not supposed to go in being afraid of it. You don’t poke it in the nose, either.

 

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