Monkey see, Monkey do. So. What does Monkey see?
It started with Hermann Hesse’s Peter Camenzind. The narrator says:
“I’m not a poet. I did in fact write a few verses when I was in school, but I haven’t written anything for a long time.”
“Would you show them to me?”
“I’ve burned them. But even if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t show them to you.”
“They must have been very modern, with a lot of Nietzsche in them, I imagine.”
“Nietzsche? My God, here’s a fellow who doesn’t know Nietzsche!”
“No. How could I?”
He was delighted that I did not know Nietzsche, and I became furious and asked him how many glaciers he had scaled. When he said he hadn’t scaled any, I teased him as much as he had teased me.
How many glaciers had Monkey scaled? None, that’s how many. Monkey flew to Iceland to take a bus along the southern coast to the glacier called Sólheimajökull.
He’d put away a couple of cans of Egils Gull on Icelandair, half of his flight-time spent reading Audur Ava Olafsdottir’s novel The Greenhouse and the other half staring at other seat-backs, watching other people’s movies with the sound off. Movies are better when you can’t hear the music that tells you how to feel.
His driver had been waiting in the airport with a printed sign, Monkey, as he’d left the terminal. I am Monkey, he’d said, and she’d nodded, turned, and walked through sliding glass automatic doors into the parking lot. Now the two of them were in a maroon SUV. She was a silent woman in her early fifties with close-cropped gray hair. Monkey had taken an Icelandic course, but he didn’t try to make conversation. Not only movies are improved by silence. The two of them rode past lava fields and tussocks of grass at five-thirty in the morning on the way into Reykjavik.
Monkey’s hotel room was on the top floor, with a view of the North Atlantic. He left the curtains thrown open, stripped naked and lay down to collect himself for two hours, then dressed again and wandered down the Laugavegur to Tryggvagata looking for Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, the famous Icelandic hot dog.
“Are you sure you want one?” the tall, handsome boy at the counter asked him, smiling. “They are bad for you. They give you cancer.”
“Give me two,” Monkey said.
He walked to the Hallsgrimkirkja, a “Christian” church but transparently a monument to Leifur Eiríksson, a statue of whom is planted out front. Monkey sat in a pew, listened to the organ, and thought about: the giant spire of the church; William Golding’s novel The Spire, a story of the erection of a big tower dedicated to the power of the father-God; the AC/DC classic “Let’s Get It Up”; and the Hið íslenzka reðasafn just down the street, the Icelandic Phallological Museum. So much for the inside of Monkey’s head.
Monkey had quit drinking in 2004, he thought it was. He’d walked out of a bar in Central Square and couldn’t find his blue Volkwagen Golf Mk4. He’d come to in a taxi. The driver said, Hospital, sir? and Monkey thought: It had to end some time.
What’s the matter, drinking said, don’t you love me any more?
I don’t know if we can make each other happy, Monkey said.
But I am happy, drinking said.
I’m going to die, Monkey said. Last night I threw up blood. I fell again, this time walking across a street, in traffic. If I don’t stop drinking, I am going to die.
Yes, said drinking, that is true. But I am happy.
Fourteen years later, Monkey had put away a couple of beers in Karnataka after a long hard day of bicycling. The local water was of uncertain quality. He was thirsty. He then Kingfishered his way from Bangalore to Mysore, Mudumalai, Nilgiris, Pollachi, Munnar, Thodhupuzha, Alleppey, Vembanadu Lake and Fort Kochi, what a ride.
Now Monkey found himself in a bar in Reykjavik. The barman said, “The usual, sir?” and put two fingers of Jameson and a Tuborg in front of him.
Hesse asked him: How many glaciers have you scaled?
Henry Rollins told him, The material you work with is that which you will come to resemble. That one sentence was why Monkey had learned MIG welding, in order that he might work with and come to resemble flame and steel. All that cutting, grinding, drilling and punching, the vertical bandsaw, the belt grinder and belt sander, the hydraulic ironworker, tack welding and stacks of tacks, drag welding, fillet welding, butt welding, cutting and patching, rooster-tails of sparks thrown across the room by the angle-grinder, pounding headaches from arc-flash. All because he had read a sentence in a magazine.
Don Quijote is about a man who reads so much that he drives himself insane.
The bus turned onto Route 1 at the rotary at Lake Raudavatn. At 417, at the Reykjanesfólkvangur, the bus crossed into the southern region. They passed Hveragerði, they drove through Hella and Hvolsvöllur and Asólfsskáli. They pulled over at the Skogafoss and hiked to the top, within sight of Eyjafjallajökull, a volcano which had last erupted in 2010. For now, it was covered by an ice cap.
The driver let Monkey off the bus, alone, near Sólheimajökull. Graham Greene had said: There is a splinter of ice in the heart of a writer. Now, in order to work with the material ice, to resemble ice, Monkey began to strap his crampons onto his boots.
Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and maybe sometimes a glacier is just a glacier, but not for the six hours Monkey was strapped tight in his harness climbing deep into a moulin or front-pointing his crampons into a wall of blue ice on his way back up. Years of neuronal warping in his prefrontal cortex as a result of jammed-open dopaminergic re-uptake channels made Sólheimajökull not only seem but be a dream of Meltzer’s schizophrenic ice cap.
Monkey had been turned on to Donald Meltzer, a Kleinian psychoanalyst, by The Apprehension of Beauty: The Role of Aesthetic Conflict in Development, Art and Violence. January and February of 2016 had been good months in reading. Minsky’s Society of Mind, the Maisky diaries, Türcke’s Philosophy of Dreams, Naomi Segal’s new translation of Anzieu’s Skin-Ego, Lattimore on the Oresteia, and a paperback Ed McBain police procedural, and two bound volumes of old Adam Warlock comics. Also a lot of articles about starling behavior: birds turning in unison as analogous, at least for the purpose of mathematical analysis of flock dynamics, to phase transitions, “like metals becoming magnetized or liquid turning to gas,” or “crystal formation and avalanches—systems poised on the brink, capable of near-instantaneous transformation.”
Meltzer gave an interesting lecture on the claustrum, he worked it up into a book later. What is the claustrum? The simplest way to explain it is: You aren’t surrounded by assholes, you are trapped inside of one.
This world inside . . . that one mainly encounters in the patients who come for analysis is the compartment inside the rectum, which at best is a good boarding school and at worst is a concentration camp. . . . There also hangs over it an atmosphere of terror which is not explainable by the actual dangers that are evidenced in this compartment of the claustrum. . . . One gets the impression that over this claustrum there hangs the danger of being expelled into schizophrenic illness. And schizophrenic illness, I must say, is probably the worst thing in the world. At a terribly early hour in the morning on Radio 4 there has been serialised a book called The Worst Journey in the World. It’s a journey made by three men in Antarctica, going to get some penguin eggs, from the Emperor penguin, in order to study the embryo. It’s a fascinating book, but I must say the description of life at 40 and 50 and 60 below zero on the icecap is emotionally like schizophrenia, the worst thing in the world. And I think that is the anxiety, the dread, the terror that hangs over all the proceedings of life in the claustrum, particularly of this rectal compartment . . . this claustrophobic anxiety, the nameless dread of being expelled from the claustrum into the schizophrenic icecap.
Sólheimajökull is an outlet glacier of the Mýrdalsjökull ice cap. Monkey hung there by scythe-like ice-axes, so excited he began to slur his words and was concerned he might have had a stroke, but it was only his neck and his face cramping. He was on the ice cap. It didn’t feel like dread. It was striped white with sun-crust and black with volcanic ash, like television static. Deep inside, it was a jewel-like blue.
“You must be the luckiest man in the world,” Monkey’s glacier guide said. “A private tour on the sunniest day of the year. Will you go down into that hole, that moulin, with me? Are you game? This is what I was planning to do for fun on my day off. I can’t believe I’m getting paid to do this.”
Monkey’s guide was a wiry, balding, tattooed Englishman who had dropped out of college and broken up with his fiancée after a surfing trip in Australia had changed his life. Now he lived in a trailer near a gas station on the southern coast of Iceland, just off the Þjóðvegur or Hringvegur with a view of the Vestmannaeyjar archipelago, where the volcano Eldfell had last erupted on Heimaey in 1973.
The glacier guide didn’t speak a lick of Icelandic, and he didn’t understand why Monkey had gone to the trouble of taking an Icelandic course. (Neither did anyone else. —Hvað segir þú gott? Monkey tried to say. —What did you say, I thought maybe you said something in Icelandic, where did you learn that word, that is quite a good word to be knowing, it is amazing how many words you know. But your pronounce-iation is very bad.)
“Come on,” Monkey said. “They can’t all speak English.”
“I wouldn’t know,” his guide said. “This is the most I’ve talked in a year.”
His guide had spent a year walking on ice, alone, speaking to no one, watching his own seat-back movie with the sound off. He had not been expelled onto the ice cap. He had learned there is a world elsewhere.
Monkey got it, at least he thought he got it. He had once had a girlfriend who’d said: You like me soft and bunny-like, I like you cold and hard and certain. Where was she today? Somewhere else, that’s where. And he was here.
Once you welded, and were fire and steel. Now you climb in ice, and are ice. Like those paperbacks of The Avenger (“The Glass Mountain,” “Murder on Wheels,” “The Sky Walker”), the Kenneth Robeson pulp stories from the ’40s you read whole boxes of in Clay County, Kentucky on holidays while your grandma Bessie made soup beans and cornbread and your father stared out the window at the hills.
In the roaring heart of the crucible, steel is made. In the raging flame of personal tragedy, men are sometimes forged into something more than human. . . . He turned into the person we know now: a figure of ice and steel, more pitiless than both; a mechanism of whipcord and flame . . . his pale eyes, like ice in a polar dawn.
The sunniest day of the year, Monkey’s glacier guide had said, not altogether cheerfully. News outlets confirm that July was the hottest month on record in Reykjavik. (When does the record begin? Monkey wondered if it might be Ari Þorgilsson’s 12th-century Íslendingabók, but Fahrenheit wasn’t invented until 1724.) Some New York Times headlines from 2019: “Documenting the Disappearing Glaciers of Iceland,” “What Worries Iceland? A World Without Ice. It is Preparing,” “Iceland’s Prime Minister: ‘The Ice Is Leaving,’” “Iceland Mourns Loss of a Glacier by Posting a Warning About Climate Change.”
“It’s a melancholy profession you’ve chosen,” Monkey said. “It’s like working in an office in a burning building.”
“Yeah,” his guide said. “It’s not lifetime employment.”
Earth’s atmosphere, its skin, the membrane between inner world and outer space—that is the wall our deluded kings and princes, the great powers of this world, should be rebuilding, such that heat can escape into space before all that was solid melts. Huitzilopochtli would like a word.
What are you supposed to do about it? You can change, but it won’t do any good until almost everyone else in the world changes, which looks less likely with each passing day. Maybe you are surrounded by assholes, after all.
Ice-climbing was harder than Monkey had anticipated. He’d had more fun than he could stand. It’s not fear, he’d told himself as he dangled high above the ice, it’s not fear, it’s excitement.
Monkey often told himself: It’s not pain, it’s only information.
Why do you torture yourself? a social worker had once asked him, and he’d asked her: If I don’t do it, who’s going to do it for me?
The animal snatches the whip from its master, says Kafka, and whips itself so as to become master.
The climbing had been hard, his enthusiasm was admirable but he hadn’t known when to say enough. Not climbing now but walking on the flat, at the extremity of his strength, he had fallen and begun to slide toward a crevasse. The guide had thrown his own body between Monkey and the abyss. No real harm had come to either of them, but Monkey had slashed his palms open on the wet, glassy ice. He got to his feet, he took hold of his ice-axe and walked. Twenty minutes later, he squatted to do a press-up over a flowing rivulet for a clean drink of melt, and found his blood had frozen his axe to his hand.
My blood froze the axe to my hand. This is the sentence you flew here to find, Monkey, a sentence that would have made sense a thousand years ago, like those examples from Mitchell and Robinson’s Old English, remembered from your school days.
Harold is swift. His hand is strong and his word grim.
Grind his corn for him and sing mē his song.
Hē swam west in storm and wind and frost.
Hē is dēad. His bed is under him. His lamb is dēaf and blind. Hē sang for mē.
Or Joshua 11:18, Joshua made war a long time with all those kings, a thoroughly modern sentence from 1611. My blood froze the axe to my hand. Monkey smeared mud, snow, and volcanic ash on his wet, cut palms. The two of them, he and his guide, walked back past the lagoon to the bus.
After the long bus ride back to the city, Monkey had a sulfurous, geothermally heated shower, listened to Gould playing Bach’s toccatas for an hour, then on his aching ankles stumbled downstairs, leaning against the guardrail.
“The usual, sir?” the barman said. He’d already put it on Monkey’s table in front of him.
—I never understood the extent of William Burroughs’ drinking problem, Ted Morgan said, until one night in London in 1972, when I noticed that he was wiping his eyeglasses with a slice of bread.
Monkey had grown tired many years ago of apologizing for his affection for Burroughs, but he could admit that “St. Louis Return” was not top-shelf liquor. Its first line: “(ticket to St. Louis and return in a first class room for two people who is the third that walks beside you?)”
The authoritative predecessor folded into that first line of “St. Louis Return” is Burroughs’ constant companion T. S. Eliot and The Waste Land. Burroughs even gives the last words of his last novel, The Western Lands, (“T—W—L—”) over to a ventriloquization of Eliot’s “A Game of Chess”: hurry up please it’s time hurry up please its time.
The old writer couldn’t write anymore because he had reached the end of words, the end of what can be done with words. And then? . . .
In Tangier the Parade Bar is closed. Shadows are falling on the mountain.
“Hurry up, please. It’s time.”
Eliot himself was no different. Maybe The Waste Land is the most extreme example possible. “You! hypocrite lecteur!—mon sembable,—mon frère!” Hey, you! Who said that? Baby, how you been?
Who is the third who walks beside you? —For Burroughs, it was Eliot. For Eliot, it was Ernest Shackleton (“the party of explorers, at the extremity of their strength, had the constant delusion that there was one more member than could actually be counted”). For Shackleton himself: “During that long and racking march of thirty-six hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia, it seemed to me often that we were four, not three.” Shackleton died shipboard, from a heart attack; Scott died on the ice; Cherry-Garrard lived to tell the tale. “Deep is the well of the past,” writes Mann in his Joseph tetralogy’s Prelude: Descent into Hell. “Should we not call it bottomless?” But if the past is bottomless, how shall we be expelled from its claustrum?
And Monkey? He was back in Keflavík, waiting to board his plane, when he overheard two men talking about yardages and learned that there are sixty-five golf courses in Iceland, a country of 360,000 people. Blessed are those who hear and obey, Monkey thought. He listened to the two men discuss the The Arctic Open “under the midnight sun” at Akureyri Golf Club. The maximum handicap for male tournament entrants was 24. —Gosh, Monkey thought, I bet I could do that. He thought about how he’d rather play golf with Gerald Murnane than read Murnane’s books any day. And he thought, not for the first time, of the publishing joke: the sure-fire best-seller When Lincoln and Kennedy Played Golf with their Doctors’ Dogs.
—He is here at last, the ibis-headed god, cleverly disguised as an ibis. Monkey has flown, like an ibis, to Lee County, Florida, to play golf with his father. It’s not a thinking man’s game. It’s wet and green here, it’s hot. The singular is plural, the present is the future; and our future is heat. He hears a hawk screeing high in a giant pine tree, he sees gigantic red and yellow tropical flowers. His father says we’ll skip the seventh hole, there’s an alligator in the water hazard. Ibises wander everywhere. Monkey hits a condo, then he hits another one. I can’t play this game, he thinks, but I don’t care; then he sinks a long, tight putt. That was for birdie, son, his father says, smiling. Last month, Monkey’s father had two small heart attacks, the second one while on the operating table, not the worst place to have a heart attack. It was a bumpy ride, his father says, before going on to describe the shoddy flooring of the local emergency room, and how the hard rubber wheels of the gurney bumped over the poorly laid, uneven floor-tiles: a bumpy ride. The two of them, Monkey and his father, drive home from the golf course in his father’s black Mustang with its top down. At every red light, kids in tricked-out neon muscle-cars offer to drag-race them. They’re having so much fun.
Flight attendants, prepare for take-off.
Monkey see, Monkey do. He closed his eyes.