Since the early years of this century, Greenwich Village in New York has been a mecca—not quite a refuge—for those who for one reason or another have chosen to live on the periphery (sometimes, but not always, the forefront) of American culture. But even the Village could not hope to escape history, and the tides of depression and war have left their marks on the sea-coast of Bohemia as elsewhere. MILTON KLONSKY here reviews the past decades of Village life, up to what appears to be its present dead-end.
Rabbi Joseph ben Shalom of Barcelona maintains that in every change of form, in every transformation of reality, or every time the status of a thing is altered the abyss of Nothingness is crossed. . . . Nothing can change without coming into contact with this region of pure absolute Being which the mystics call Nothing. . . . It is the abyss which becomes visible in the gaps of existence.
Once last summer I was crossing north on Sheridan Square, thinking of nothing; suddenly the green light turned red, and there, dodging in the middle of traffic with me, I caught sight of a man whose face was so blotched, pitted, and scabbed by disease that, modestly (having been ravished before by so many obscene stares), he cast his eyes down with the refined coquetry of a beautiful woman. Where did he come from? And what was he doing out there in the broil of midday?—this phantom escaped from the undermind! When I reached the curb, I looked for him up and down the seven streets that radiate from the hub of the Square. But he had already disappeared, leaving behind him only a sulphurous after-image which, even now, still burns and holds its shape. What a scream, I mean what a laugh if this image of mine were his only claim to being—yet I choose to regard him with a straight face.
Now in the rational light uptown, above 14th Street, which is cut off from the Village like the Ego from the Id, I would have seen him for what he was. “There is the world dimensional,” as Hart Crane called it, “for those untwisted by the love of things irreconcilable.” But downtown, everything obvious is immediately suspect; and, obviously, the most hidden secrets are dressed in the loudest fashion, if you know what I mean. Even the streets of Greenwich Village have so many twists, dead stops, gaps, trailing ends, and sudden inspirations out of blank walls that it sometimes takes years of free association to find your way around.
There is no straight way. Nobody wants to be tagged—you’re it! Intellectuals without glasses, poets in business suits, gynanders and androgynes, the shapes and figures blur and metamorphose like the images of a dream. Come out from behind that beard! Ovid, old Roman spy, you haven’t changed, who do you think I think you are—Sigmund Freud?
Where was I? I was standing on Sheridan Square one night waiting for the electric horse on Jack Delaney’s marquee to jump over the neon stile. But just as the lights turned, I saw, out of the corner of my eye, a drunk walk on his hind legs like a dog, stagger, fall on all fours, and heave up on the street. One of the Bleecker Street Goths who hang around this neighborhood pushed him from behind with his foot so that he slumped face down in his own stew. When he tried to jack himself up on his elbows, he was shoved down again, even harder than before. Standing there, I identified myself so closely with the poor croak that it was almost as though I had been kicked, and I who was sprawled out on the street with my head in vomit. But I knew it would be dangerous to interfere, so I swallowed my disgust and walked diagonally away across the Square.
Wherever you go you run into these young toughs, the “internal proletariat” of the Village, each one of them with a little fuse of violence smoldering under his shirt. They issue every night from the ranges of ulcerous tenements along Bleecker, Christopher, Macdougal, Sullivan, etc., in order to escape from the squalor of immigrant family life in crowded cold-water flats. Since the “nice” girls of the neighborhood are called in by their parents before the long Village night is even half over, they are forced to gather on the corners by themselves n male packs. Then to see Othello walking hand in hand with Desdemona, or the lay sodalities of fairies (a caricature of themselves), makes them ache with jealousy. They even grudge the sexual freedom of the Village artists and intellectuals who, like themselves, are barred from the commercial mills uptown. But here at least the artist and the conscientious objector to American culture have some sort of status. The Goths have none. Therefore, the drunk must eat his vomit.
Sometimes I’d come across them pitching coins against the wall of the Christopher Street poolroom and then, while the next pitch was held up until I passed, they’d look me over. Was I a Jew? How did I do? Did I show any fear? What was I doing here? Their philosophy is as hard as the cement under their feet. Everything is a racket; the game of life is to beat the racket; and anyone who says no is a liar or a sucker. Their true heroes are the bookies, the prize-fighters, and the racketeers who once rose out of their own ranks and now operate the Nite Clubs and park their Cadillacs in front of the poolroom. One question they can never figure out, and so what never fails to impress them, is this: why anyone with a chance to play for the blue chips uptown, or why any girl born with a privileged face, should choose to live in these slums? And every year they see new recruits coming down.
The Village attracts its own from every state of the mind: some for the faded romance of La Vie Bohème; some to be free of their parents; some out of acedia or wanhope; some to trade in free love; some for art’s sake; some because they are zebras on the white plains; some to hide from their failure; some because they’d rather be in Paris; some to do something about it; some for a change of mind or heart—but almost all to escape from the stunning heat and light and noise of the cultural mill grinding out the mass values of a commercial civilization.
But not all who live in the Village are at home there. There are also writers, private secretaries, dancers, copy writers, actors, illustrators, and musicians on the make, who come down from the provinces to be close to the Big Time and leave as soon as they can. Graduates of the toney Eastern colleges for women such as Vassar, Bennington, Bryn Mawr, and the rest comprise one of the steadiest sources of recruits. But after a brief flurry of excitement and uplift, these also dry up fast like summer rain. And then there are the fellow-travelers of Bohemia, whose home base may be anywhere at all, but who keep up with the Village line through the auspices of friends. Not to mention an etceterogeneous muster of characters for whom any classification would be inherently contradictory.
The places where all these people live range from the plush and marble apartment hotels on the Gold Coast of lower Fifth Avenue to the cold-water tenements with communal toilets and no baths that once housed the masses of immigrant workers at the beginning of the century. Here and there a few of the old type of one-family brick houses still stand, relics of the Henry James and Lillian Russell era when Washington Square and its environs was the hub of New York society. Most of these have been split into two-or three-room flats, each one inhabited by its own colony of extraordinarily sensitive roaches with long, delicate, trembling wands and Hamlet-like refinements of indecision, a breed peculiar to the Village. The interiors are furnished in a style which, through the years, has become almost as standardized as Bronx Department Store Gothic or Terre Haute monde moderne: chairs and tables and couches wavering between junk and the antique like the houses themselves; framed reproductions of Rouault’s “The Old King” or Picasso’s “Woman in White” or that picture by Henri Rousseau of a lion in the moonlight sniffing the feet of a sleeping gypsy; floors painted red, yellow, green, brown; collapsible shelves loaded with books on psychiatry, books of modem poetry, books of prints by the Paris school, some second-hand or inherited, but most of them borrowed and never returned; and so on. With only minor changes, it is recognizable as the period style formed at the end of the First World War—the time Greenwich Village first became self-conscious-and reflects all the nostalgia for those good old days.
As seen from the fox-hole perspective of A the Village during the 20’s, America was a No Man’s Land, the haunt of the Cyclops. Only in Europe could the good life be found:
Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté,
Luxe, Calme, et Volupté.
The boulevards of Paris were as crowded with Villagers as Washington Square in the Spring.
By the 30’s, the spiritual homeland had shifted a thousand miles to the East amid the gilded domes and cupolas of the first Workers’ State. (It was at this time, incidentally, that young Jewish intellectuals from the outlying boroughs of New York entered the Village as a group.) The depression fell like an incessant damp, cold and miserable and everywhere. What remained of the enthusiasms of the 20’s was sublimated into political passion: Dionysius was reborn as Nicolai Lenin. And, conversely, the café and speakeasy society of those days was transformed into cafeteria society—Life Cafeteria, Stewart’s, the Waldorf—where, until far in the night, the history and destiny of mankind was measured out with coffee spoons. To the Bleecker Street Klans on the other side, who sat in the steam of tobacco smoke and watched these tables seethe and boil with Marxist pronunciamentos, appeals, denunciations, charges, and countercharges, all this talk and all this fervor were just so much sucker bait.
Still, in those first years the marriage of bohemian freemasonry and the camaraderie of the WPA was almost perfect. The open collar and the grimy pants served both as well. But afterwards the foundations of this union split so wide (corresponding to the political divorce in the Workers’ State itself) that, when the bastard Stalinist type appeared with his slogans, his cast-iron frame of mind, his dog faith, and his carefully cultivated mediocrity, it was a shock to recall his parentage. And the radical splinter groups that followed with their perpetual cries of “Rape!” and their tedious apocalypses—what could be expected from them?
By the end of the 30’s Lenin’s mummy had begun to stink.
Not the Revolution, but the Great War N itself—that was the apocalypse so much dreaded and so long anticipated it was al-almost a relief when it came. Greetings! “Baba badalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk,” as James Joyce said. But ah, those days of innocence! O lost Arcadia! I never saw so many drooping fawns and dying swans. The war put a stop to all that. And nothing could ever be the same any more.
While the war was going on, every night in the Village was Saturday night. Soldiers and sailors of all the Allied armies jammed the bars and the main streets of Greenwich Village hunting for a wild time. But that time was gone. With the moral dikes broken everywhere, and the whole country engulfed by the flood, the Village, strangely enough, was left high and dry. All the tabooed “dirty” words had been rubbed clean by everyday use. Of course there was as much freedom in the Village as before; but since this was equalled and even surpassed by Main Street, where was the defiance and the revolt against convention which, previously, had been the spur? The celebrated Village campaign for sexual independence had ended in a strange victory: free love was driving the professionals off the streets. And the baby-faced V-girls walking arm in arm with sailors down Broadway were wearing their mothers’ high heels. In this situation, only the operators of the honky-tonks on Sheridan Square and in the side alleys made sure, somehow, that the sinister reputation of Greenwich Village was preserved.
The good old days when nobody had a job and nobody cared were over. Even the panhandlers who wander down to the Village from the “smoke” joints on the Bowery would touch artists and intellectuals on the street who were never good for a nickel before. And now that there was so much money around, apocryphal stories of the Depression were revived with nostalgia: how this musician had split his personality and collected four pay checks from the WPA music project as a string quartet; how someone else had lived off the Waldorf Cafeteria for a year by demanding a free cup of hot water for a second cup of tea without buying the first, and then, by pouring in enough ketchup, had brewed a thick bowl of tomato soup on his table, etc., etc. But for the majority of Villagers, rejected by the Army on psychoneurotic grounds, the slush money to be had uptown was irresistible; and, without too much loss of face, some erstwhile bohemians were even able to join the great herd shoving at the trough. This was not altogether a betrayal of principle. It was, I think, a means for absolving the secret guilt of not being in uniform. For them the despair within had at last been equalled by the hysteria without, thus providing a precarious common ground for a modus vivendi. But a return later on to the past life was almost impossible, as most had, in the meantime, contracted a new apartment, an analyst, a wife, or other expensive habits.
Perfect circles of friends drifted apart and disappeared like smoke rings. And one by one the old hangouts were lost. George’s Bar (the ancestor of the San Remo today) was taken over completely by sailors and their quail; and even the last remaining forum of cafeteria society, the Waldorf, fell to the Bleecker Street Goths, who now had it almost completely terrorized. Boredom followed everywhere you went: boredom, barroom hysteria, confessions regretted by morning, cracked marriages, affairs over in a week, violence for reasons forgotten during the violence. . . . Then the war suddenly ended.
After the block parties and the parades under the Arch, it was wry to see the new recruits to the Village come down expecting to find the Golden Age of the 20’s or the Silver Age of the 30’s, but hardly prepared for this, the Age of Lead. Morale was worse than in the army. It was impossible to rent an apartment without “pull” or a great deal of cash. Through their GI loans, some managed to open new book shops with a room in the back; and there you could see them sitting all day and part of the night surrounded by second-hand books and piles of old literary magazines—Partisan Review, Kenyon, Sewanee, View, etc.-chatting with friends and customers most of whom came to sell rather than to buy. A dull business, once the edge had worn off.
What they had dreamed while regimented in the army was a vision of the palmy days of Paris Bohemia with a slight admixture of the American Frontier—but by now, alas! the Left Bank had been eroded by sentiment, and the frontier had contracted to the five senses of the individual. The underground names and passwords of a generation ago were already shopworn, with the new ones kept under the counter. It was also harder to break into certain Village cliques by mere brilliant talk and the flash of personality alone. Somehow the crass slogan of American business—“How much does he make?”—had been taken over by the Village: “Where does he show?”—“What has he published?”—the bark of an official dog. Artists and poets did their “work” like everybody else.
During the war, Greenwich Village had been exposed as never before to the total glare of American mass culture, a light that had long blinded everyone with excess of light. Then, with the liberation of Paris, came the first influx in five years of the new paintings by Picasso (with their cartoon shapes) as well as work by Braque, Bonnard, and young French painters such as Dubuffet; the poetry of Eluard and the cryptograms of Queneau; and, most astonishing, the Existentialist philosophy of Sartre and Camus, which drew heavily for its examples on the tough-guy heroes of American fiction and gangster movies. The anticipation was nothing compared to the let-down. And when European artists and writers again came to America, guided by their customary arrogance toward the natives, they were given a close look. They were like us—only smaller, fussier, dingier, and even (O Ghost of Henry James!) more innocent of the facts of life. Despite all their bitter experience, they had not yet been through the mill of a total commercial civilization—and that was the Real Distinguished and Distinguishing Thing. Their day and night were not ours.
Europe had already probed the nerve ends of modern art to the points of their most exquisite attenuations, from Mallaré to Proust, from Redon to Mondrian. By seeking to re-barbarize their own culture through American jazz, movies, comic strips, etc., European artists and intellectuals had in the end redirected America up its own alley. (A final irony is that, even in this, America is still following the lead of Europe.) But now there was no turning back.
In the past, these debased forms of popular culture had been something to be poked with a long stick. Now that they had acquired such foreign respectability, their very coarseness was subtly admired. O Polyhymnia, sacred slut, sing for us (if you don’t mind) of the furious drives of Dick Tracy, L’il Abner, and Moon Mullins struggling in their boxed and aimless worlds; and of the shadowy Olympus of Hollywood where the old forms of Greece are overthrown by a mechanical Prometheus; and of the soap dramas on the radio where the drabness and stupidity of life is celebrated, and the movements of the bowels are announced with trumpets. . . . Maybe the old alienation of artists and intellectuals in America could be adjusted by a common bondage. Maybe this was the way out at last. But even if this were true, the sad fact remains that a way out is not necessarily a way in, nor is “culture” a revolving door.
The way of alienation is the Jew’s badge of Greenwich Village, a way apart that orients itself by negation. Life here is the ghetto life, indrawn, with its own tastes and smells, rank and dark and protected as an arm-pit. The native loneliness of Americans is so intensified in the Village that, paradoxically, it becomes a social cement that holds it together. For what is feared even more than alienation from American life is self-alienation, the loss of identity in the melting pot, reduction to the lowest common denominator of dollar and cent values. It is from this fear that Greenwich Village protects its own. Under cover of the most ideal persuasions of self-denial, there is always a private need.
The radical movement of the 30’s was engaged not only with politics but with more personal considerations: political parties were places where you met and made your friends. And the same function was served by the arty societies of the 20’s. But times change—now’s now and then was then.
Free and easy love in the Village is a thing of the past. The night wanderer from bar to bar searching for the rare encounter finds only wanderers like himself, always on the prowl, always restless, never satisfied. The more intellectual can spend hours sitting in the gas chambers of the New School, bored to extinction, but hoping to meet a true friend in such cultured atmosphere. The fairies are the most driven—their nervous cruises down 8th Street, 4th Street, the Park, and back again are like a man pacing up and down a room. And even when all these find what they want and still want it, the gossip spreads so fast and the Who’s Had Who in the Village is so faithfully compiled—although nobody cared enough to snoop before—that a lasting relationship is rare.
If the most important single event in the erotic life of Man during the past century has been the gradual disappearance of animals from the cities and farms, then the next—although probably there is no connection—has been the emergence of Woman to the rank of full and equal partner. Women in the Village are often as aggressive as the men, who are inclined to be somewhat backward as a result. The illusion of emancipation, however, satisfies most. On the corner of Greenwich and 6th Avenues stands the House of Detention, or jug, for women, which hides its grim interiors behind the facade of an apartment house—even numbered, 10 Greenwich Avenue: a demure symbol and monument of the suffrage movement. Like the men of Greenwich Village, women here suffer from the fact that love is not an immolation of the self, but the proof of it: Copulo ergo sum. And those causes and movements which once supplied additional proof are no longer viable.
Without any unifying political or artistic center, the Village has fragmented into small groups who go to the same parties, hold the same views, and know each other too well. The Society of Neurotics Undergoing Psychoanalysis is the only one at present with something of the old catholicity, yet with this important difference: it is a secret society, and the membership is hidden even from those who belong. Still, it’s a connection. And it takes only a minute for those who are, or who have been, or will be analyzed to smell one another out. First, the shy query: Have you been analyzed? Then: How many years? And next: Who is he? How much does he charge? And then: What party?—Freudian, Reichian, Adlerian, Horneyan, Jungian? This last question is charged, and the wrong answer can explode any further conversation.
For when the political cliques of the 30’s lost their passion and died, they never really died but rose to the bosom of the Father and were strangely transmogrified. Psychoanalysis is the new look, Sartor Resartus, but the body underneath is the same.
A competent analyst can read their minds like a book by Freud, which is what some of them become after two or three years on the couch. The desperation, however, is real. Looking into themselves, they’ve seen the Gorgon. It does no good to pat its ugly snout, or to feed it lump sugar. The monster sits deep inside covered by the muck of the undermind and with its eyes always open. In order to charm it to sleep, or to pierce its heart by a sharper insight, they lie on the psychoanalytic couch in a dark room with Perseus on his rocker behind them, his pen in hand, taking notes. O why was I born with a different face? Why can’t I find a lover? or a job? or a friend? Why don’t people admire me? Why do I hate the sound of clocks? Why can’t I dream? Why can’t I get up in the morning? Why do I bite my toenails? Why don’t you ever say anything? 0 tell me it’s true and it’s not true! Show me the open way! Make me feel that everything will be all right. So it goes on. Job, covered with boils and sitting on a stone in the field, asked the same questions.
There is a circle apart, however, even from the Village which is itself apart, where all the answers kiss the questions and all those who are afflicted with wanhope or acedia can make peace with themselves. I mean the jazz-narcotics coteries, the “hipsters,” so-called. These are drawn from the spiritually dispossessed who form the underground of Village life. Since they are unalterably against The Law, they have their own rites and passwords and worship their own forbidden God—The One Who Puts Out The Light. The Hipster societies—if they are such, since nobody in them thinks they belong—may be considered the draft-dodgers of commercial civilization, just as Villagers, in general, are the loyal opposition or “conscientious objectors.” They take no stand, for any stand would have to be inside the group and therefore against themselves, against their negative principle. The mood which infects them all is, perhaps, a tender American version of that underground nihilism which erupted in the forms of Dada and fascism in Europe-anti-art and anti-morality. What they believe in is benzedrine, “tea,” and jazz.
Jazz and “tea” (marijuana) form a bridge to Harlem, the other ghetto uptown, and many on both sides use it to cross over. The midpoint is 52nd Street where all the cats, black and white, can get together in the cellar clubs to dig the latest jive and to hear Dizzie or the Bird or the Hawk blow their valves. Black jazz is the only art whose moods and ecstasies reflect their own, whose pace is equal to the terrible inner speed of the drug. When marijuana loses its drive there are some who learn how to saddle and ride the “horse” of heroin. But once on that nightmare, as everybody knows, there is no dismounting until the other side of the Bar has been crossed. For such release, life itself is a handicap.
Around the track of all these gyres and circles in Greenwich Village, no matter where we start from we arrive at the same place in the end—beside the point. Without a common focus, images are fractured on everybody’s point of view; and meanings shift without pivotal reference. The boundary between inner and outer reality is blurred. What is real or good or beautiful is a matter of taste. Since for our time, and in the Village especially, truth itself has become a sentiment, the search for an Absolute is maudlin. All the beards of authority have been cut off, and anything goes: Ovid is Freud is Karl Marx is Joe Gould is I AM. Which brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Sheridan Square and environs, like a barber’s pole forever disappearing into itself.
I cut diagonally away across the Square, leaving the drunk on the sidewalk, and headed for the cover of darkness in the movies. The theater was packed, people were standing five deep behind ropes, yet, somehow, probably because I was alone, the usher signaled for me to follow as soon as I arrived. While we were walking down the aisle, a sudden blow of laughter from the audience struck me so hard that, even without knowing why, I laughed along with the rest.
My seat was in the middle row, the best in the house, and, what was even more uncanny, two others right next to it were vacant! I smelled them, I looked under them, I felt them—nothing was wrong. But why wasn’t anyone coming down the aisle? There was another blow of laughter, and then another even harder, the effect augmented by itself. I looked up at the screen. A man was being hit over the head by a lead pipe. Although he seemed in agony, every time he screwed his eyes and made mouths the laughter from the audience became louder. A woman was whispering behind my back! I turned around, but quickly she looked the other way. ME? Now the whole house was screaming. A blindfolded man was about to walk into an open sewer. I shut my eyes, but his after-image remained. The beam of the inner eye cast his figure on my mind with as much power as the projector upon the movie screen. As I wavered, two women in gray and black came down the aisle. There was no other way out. I ran up the stage, and, while my shadow wavered on the screen for a moment as though undecided whether to follow, plunged into the abyss of nothing. The man tore the bandage from his eyes and clutched at me as I passed. But the film of reality which separated us was as wide as the abyss itself.
Down Fifth Avenue and under the Arch I ran to the cement circle in Washington Square. It was a bitter night without stars or a moon and the park was deserted. But from nowhere someone called “Klonsky!”—my name. I saw him then as he came loping towards me, his face so flat and black I could hardly separate the features. “Give me some skin, man,” he said, “I want you to dig some of this new charge.”
Ah well, ah well, it was my friend Saggy, an old viper out of Harlem, always frantic, always high, the kind of tea-pusher who’d pull a hype on his own mother if he knew who she was. Under his sleeve his wrist was pocked with a thousand bites of the needle. He took out a long white fuse of tea from his pocket and bit open one end. Then he lit up with a deep sigh of smoke and, as the image of the burning match reflared upon his eyes, I saw in that sudden flash of insight that they were pitch-black! they had no whites!—like the sooty fire-place with the orange flame burning inside it before which I am writing.