Sometimes it seems that surrealism’s most enduring influence on popular culture is the non sequiturial distance between image and identifying text. When it comes to this art of disjuncture, the Belgian painter René Magritte was a master (see his 1930 work The Key of Dreams).
In college I was seduced by Magritte’s paintings of trees and nighttime illumination, and in Le Seize Septembre I found the best of both worlds. The painting shows a tree at the last moments of dusk, only the crescent moon shines not from above but from the heart of the tree, casting a strange light onto the surrounding ground. People have commented that the moon of September 16, 1956, did not look like this from where Magritte was painting: it was actually four days shy of full and much larger.
But it’s true that nature abhors a vacuum. The void of rationality behind Magritte’s choice of title for this picture I eventually filled in for myself.
A year or so out of college I bought a water-stained copy of a Magritte monograph at Avenue Victor Hugo—a used bookstore on Boston’s Newbury Street that is sadly long gone—together with a pocket paperback of Alan Watts’s The Wisdom of Insecurity.
Having been raised Catholic, I was at that moment embarking on a life of not believing any dogma but still needed evidence in advance of line-item purging. Watts—a British Zen Buddhist who gained renown in the San Francisco Bay area in the fifties and sixties—had something of a renaissance in the eighties, and people said that you had to read his books, especially The Wisdom of Insecurity (1951).
At that time, I had incorrectly thought that you had to know what you believe in order to write fiction. I also felt insecure about desiring to be a writer given that I was raised in such a financially and intellectually impoverished household. When you come from a poor family in which nobody read, there’s a lot to pick up. Sometimes it seemed it would take another lifetime to uninstall the faulty programs and do things over the right way.
This was a time when everything seemed to be talking to me. On my way to the subway from my apartment on Charles Street I’d pass a store that is now Beacon Hill Cleaners and may have been as well back then (I can’t remember). Possibly it was a real estate agent or insurance company; whatever it was, it always seemed to be closed. But visible inside the glass storefront was an antique coin-op scale—the kind you stand on—promising “Your Wate and Fate.”
I laughed every time I passed, especially because I had just encountered the Evelyn Waugh quote “All fates are ‘worse than death.’ ” At 22, I felt I had to decide something about how to live but did not know what. I had taken out of the library The Divine Milieu, a book by the Jesuit cheerleader Teilhard de Chardin, who wrote: “However marred by our faults, or however desperate in its circumstances our position may be, we can, by a total re-ordering, completely correct the world that surrounds us, and resume our lives in a favorable sense.”
I could read Catholic fiction writers like Waugh, Graham Greene, and Muriel Spark till my eyeballs spun, but this period of my life was the last kick for Western theologians. Completely correcting the world that surrounds us while Ronald Reagan was still president? I called BS.
But was the Watts way the answer? I hadn’t studied Eastern religion in college, so Watts’s proscription of living in the present was new to me. “The power of memories and expectations is such that for most human beings the past and the future are not as real, but more real than the present,” he counseled. This misplaced focus of attention meant we were forever miserable, hungering “for the perpetuity of something which never existed.”
Watts attributes the modern anxiety he saw as widespread in the postwar years to the separation of the “I” from the “me,” as we get with the “conscience” in Western religion—and, for that matter, with the further slicing out of id, ego, and superego in Freud. “To be secure means to isolate and fortify the ‘I,’ but it is just the feeling of being an isolated ‘I’ which makes me feel lonely and afraid. In other words, the more security I can get, the more I shall want.”
If we buy into capitalism’s perennial future, we are sucked into “a fantastic vicious circle which must either manufacture more and more pleasures or collapse—providing a constant titillation of the ears, eyes, and nerve ends with incessant streams of almost inescapable noise and visual distractions.”
Here Watts seemed to me spot on, calling to mind John Berger’s discussion of the images of then-contemporary advertising (what he called publicity) in his 1972 book Ways of Seeing (which incidentally uses Magritte’s The Key of Dreams on its cover): “Publicity is always about the future buyer. It offers him an image of himself made glamorous by the product or opportunity it is trying to sell. The image then makes him envious of himself as he might be.”
I didn’t ever want to be envious of my future self. I really did want to believe and live in the present. But how could you be a fiction writer and not constantly travel between the past and the future, trying on different perspectives to tell the story that is true? I shared what Somerset Maugham professed in A Writer’s Notebook (1949)—that he was “made up of several persons and that the person that at the moment has the upper hand will inevitably give place to another. But which is the real one? All of them or none?”
And besides that, what about the anxious and security-seeking people who were depressed, suffered from schizophrenia, had emotional and behavioral problems? This was the time right before Prozac, when the talking cure and Freud were on the outs but there was nothing to fill that void.
I determined that the Watts way was for the strong, not the weak. Despite his rules for living, Watts’s self-destructive alcoholism accelerated his death at the age of 58. His three marriages fell apart partly because of his serial infidelity. Let’s just say he had issues.
For all the things Freud had wrong about our neuroses, he famously declared that the goal of psychoanalysis was the transformation of “neurotic misery into common unhappiness.” I remember thinking bleakly that that was about all you could expect out of life.
What a muddle! How do you find a view of the world that drew in Christian compassion and forgiveness, the pragmatism of Freud, and the freedom from insecurity that Watts believed would set you free?
Because reading Watts coincided with looking at Magritte, the names of his pictures took on greater meaning. By coincidence, I was looking at Le Seize Septembre on September 16, the day I decided to set aside my spiritual inquisition and just live life. I thought: Maybe I could try to live in the present at least one day a year.
It’s comical how we trivialize with our designated national holidays, thinking about things we should be cognizant of on a regular basis all but once a year. Like with Arbor Day in the spring, when schoolkids go out and plant trees in order to give corporate sponsors free media exposure. Trees—which for Magritte factor into the search for the absolute—are working 24/7 to suck in our carbon dioxide. We owe them big time.
On that first Seize Septembre, rather than change the way I lived, I acknowledged that, like Watts, I am one of the weak who will not have an answer for life. I seemed to grasp what I would later read from the psychologist and critic Adam Phillips: “We know almost nothing about ourselves because we judge ourselves before we have a chance to see ourselves.”
It’s funny that I’ve maintained this personal holiday for so long. All I can say is that Google calendar helped a lot. In New York it’s easy to mark the day because September is rife with gestures of remembrance. There’s September 11th but also the Jewish holidays, which, for those with an ungaraged car, make for the longest stretch of alternate side parking suspensions of the entire year. And these school holidays coincide with hurricane season, when, contrary to the blue-sky clarity of September 11, 2001, it’s often overcast and humid in the five boroughs—a moody environment to induce introspection.
This year, Le Seize Septembre fell between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which begins at sundown today. After so much grayness, it was finally a sunny though humid day in Manhattan on the 16th. I sat in the sun in one park and then got up and walked to another park where I also sat in the sun. Try as I might, I could not stop my mind from drifting back to Le Seize Septembre over many years of my life. What the past teaches is how new and different the present always feels—a complete and utter mystery cloaked in darkness, but with the advantage of a slender crescent of waxing moon placed to guide you, just so. §