Dream of the Ice Age
The Dream of the Ice Age
Selections from Ode, Written on the Death of Safta Mamed, Age 5, including The Dream of the Ice Age.
Some people have noticed that an odd name, "Safta" has appeared my novels for over 25 years. The folder detailed the death of the last woman who died (Safta? Weird name) and her infant, the anencephalic. (Beyond Control, New York: Macmillan, 1975)
My middle name, Ellen said, with hesitation, is Safta....
I never heard of Saint Safta.
Dona Safta. She's against Don Pascual. She's for love.
(The Ice Cathedral, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984)
--Say me real name.
She squints at it in the book.
Do you, Safta Mamed, forsaking all others...
(Extinction, work in progress, 2001)
When I was in my twenties, several lifetimes ago, 1974, I saw the chance to live out a fantasy that I believe many people have had.
I took the advance Macmillan had given me for my first novel, Beyond Control, dropped out of teaching and -- I write the next part of the sentence with amazement -- moved to an abandoned motel in California's High Desert, forty miles from the nearest stoplight, in the hope of reaching spiritual vision. I was emulating Thomas Carlyle (my novel was dedicated to him) who had moved out to the solitude of Craigenputtock, Scotland, for that purpose.
I feel like adding, "I swear to God. I actually did that."
Even more unlikely, I had the Vision, and it even became the center of my writing to the present day, just like in a B movie. I became so ill that year, pursuing my vision, that pain itself shocked me out of my normal routines of thought, and I saw things differently. Perhaps that's all that had ever happened with the visions. Perhaps that had secretly been the method.
The motel was owned by a retired handyman named Emil Fisher -- five separate stucco cabins in the 1920s motorcourt style. Carlyle took Jane Carlyle, his wife, I took my girlfriend, Vivian Douglass, a 19 year old budding poet, Scottish, who spangled out in freckles the instant the desert sun struck her, and who had no idea what she was getting into. Viv and I could see sixty miles from our front or back windows. Our rent was forty dollars a month, utilities included. There were no addresses, just Rural Route Star One." We were on a party line. It was 110 degrees. When the sun crossed through the living room and touched Viv's phonograph records it melted them like candle wax. TV signals did not reach the High Desert, but you could get some country AM radio. The clearest station had Paul Harvey.
If the Unabomber had seen this place he wouldn't have had to go hide in Montana. The hollows between these yucca-covered mountains sometimes had men living in a cabin or shack, surrounded by barb wire, keeping chickens and a woman. Sometimes you saw a man wearing a sixgun, whether for good reason or just for obstinate pride at living "free" I never knew. We went to dances sometimes out in a ghost town whose bar opened up Saturday nights, where many of the men took advantage of our isolation to wear fancy Western pistols, dancing. Next to the register the bartender laid his own, only half in the holster. Sometimes I can't believe I remember all that right, but it's not the kind of thing I'd just imagine.
I built a bench to watch the sunsets from. Seated there, on the edge of the American continent looking in, I could see the sunlight fade scarlet off the Old Dad Mountains and the Chocolate Mountains. Beyond them there was nothing between where I sat and Denver but the tiny lighted islands of Las Vegas and Salt Lake City; and then beyond Denver, a thousand miles of grain with a few more city islands in it, and then Chicago. I sat on the edge. The evening wind blew as the desert cooled. Birds cavorted above me, making noises like electrical wires and sparks. Then utter darkness, stars, and in the light above our cabin door, the bats.
All day I wrote, for my editor, Amanda Vaill, at Macmillan, the final draft of Beyond Control. I simultaneously worked on a prose poem, Ode, Written on the Death of Safta Mamed, Age 5, which I quote from here.
I wanted to try thinking about the unthinkable. It was to be an Ode for all those hundreds of thousands of children who are always dying in the back pages of the newspaper, in forgotten countries, with unpronounceable names. I personified them all into one little girl, Safta Mamed, whom I had read about in Newsweek. She had been orphaned so casually, in some meaningless border skirmish or other in Bangladesh, I think. "The soldiers came and took my father. Then they came and took my mother. Please, Sir," she asked the reporter, "What will happen to me?" And she vanished from the pages of history.
But not, I swore, from memory, and therefore the Ode.
In the solitude of the desert, as I became increasingly exhausted from writing, Safta became so real to me she seemed to be in the room. I can''t describe how terrible it was, out there, as I continued, daily, reading the papers, trying to notice and remember and immortalize millions of starving and dying children. Watergate happened that year. Nixon quit. Vietnam was rapidly falling apart. I wrote and wrote. An Ode is the broadest of poetic forms and I put into Safta's Ode prose poems, news clips, journal entries, and her visits.
Suddenly it was winter and up in the yuccas there, snow fell, the wind started, 90 mile an hour sandstorms scoured the paint off the car doors in a night. Flash floods covered the roads with sand and pebbles. We were sealed in the motel room, writing, both of us, all day, all night, listening to the wind. Outside the windows, total black, as if we'd been sealed in a space station miles above the earth. It felt that way. Fine sand sifted in everywhere, we blew it off the insides of the windows, we ground it between our teeth. Viv, only 19, in over her head, burned out mentally before I did. Slowly, she withdrew. Our friend Mr. Fisher, that kind man, let her live in another of the motel's units, no charge. He kept an alcoholic girlfriend in a third, and a friend of his was dying slowly in a fourth, rent free, I'm sure. Living with the Fisher King in the Waste Land, the poet's wife Viv losing her mental grip -- everything that year had an uncomfortable, hyperreal quality. I had tried to slip outside real life, and I had succeeded almost too well.
A friendly critic, Jay Martin, had arranged a fellowship at the Huntington Library in San Marino, for January and February. We stumbled down from the desert into that self-consciously patrician place. Viv and I were both exhausted and ill, worn out with writing and with each other. She collapsed and moved back to her mother's. All our stuff was up in the Desert. I was now doing the final writing surge on Beyond Control and the Ode to Safta both, in an apartment which had nothing in it but the mattress and bedding, in which I lay on the floor. When the ulcer pain pulled my muscles out so I thought I was having a heart attack, the Emergency Room form asked whom they should call, and I couldn't think of anyone to write down.
I called Barbara. When the critic David Carrier recently interviewed me(Note1) -- which led me finally to talk about all this, after 26 years -- I told Professor Carrier I was in a sleeping bag, but I have now found photographs from when Barbara came up, and they show a less dramatic mattress and a stereo. She must have brought them. She is worth a novel by herself, and like Viv, she moved in and out of the Odes narrative. Barbara Johnson was -- to stay with T.S. Eliot -- an "Infinitely gentle/ Infinitely suffering thing." Her suffering was mental, a psychosis. Barbara lived on an inexorable upward manic track. The snapshots just found show that too. Every three months, the roller coaster slowly ratcheted up, up, through zones of childlike joy and near mystical excitement at ordinary life, to the giddy top; then free fall and the plunge down the other side into another locked ward. For Viv and myself, who had loved the characters Marilyn Monroe played in Some Like It Hot and Bus Stop, knowing Barbara was a shock. You hadn't thought anyone like that could exist in real life. You knew she couldn't take it forever -- and she didn't -- but that didn't cast a shadow over life with Barbara, quite the opposite, it lent intensity. Like many with progressive diseases, she was so grateful for the normal days, she lived them with heightened joy, and one shared that joy. Viv moved out, Barbara came back.
Illustration: Barbara Johnson (1944-1979) in the apartment.
"Some infinitely gentle, Infinitely suffering thing."
She poured into my empty room like sunlight, bringing her manic life and energy, she brought food for me, she nursed me. This time, she said, plaintively, "I'm going to keep my cookies together." From an eerie re-enactment of The Waste Land, my life once again changed into a bittersweet Billy Wilder comedy. But the excitement accelerated the upward climb of the rollercoaster car, the comedy's pace became frantic, and after only a week the poor thing vanished into another locked ward.
After that I lay on the floor too weak to go out, too sick to eat, for five days.
A woman came to my door. She was a librarian from the Huntington Library, bringing me Beyond Control's proofs, Amanda had mailed them to the Huntington. She saw me, the empty apartment, and without me saying anything, she came back four hours later with a casserole full of chicken and rice. I didn't know her, I never saw her again. I devoured that and fell into an exhausted sleep, the first real sleep in a week, and when I woke up, I had enough strength to go to a doctor.
It was during that healing sleep that I finally had my Vision, the Dream of the Ice Age and the ladder of love, which became the center of my work thereafter. All the women who had tried to care for me that year -- Viv, Barbara, and this unknown woman whom I never saw again -- had a part in it. I have included it in its entirety in two novels, Ice Cathedral, and a new book, Extinction. Safta herself appears in those two, and Beyond Control as well. I never bothered to publish Safta's poem, for the novels had absorbed it. For twenty six years I have never talked about the whole thing -- the Desert, Mr. Fisher, Vivian, Safta, Barbara, the vision -- it's all so Lake Poet, so tritely Romantic and Kublai Khan, but David Carrier, interviewing me last year, was curious. Director Ron Howard now owns the film rights to the books. I've been astonished to see dozens of copies of these old novels routinely for sale on the internet, at places like Alibris.com. (For a copy I signed in 1976, someone asked fifty dollars. I think they assume Im dead?) So here, for the record, are some fragments of the Ode, Written on the Death of Safta Mamed first draft -- to give the feel of it -- and the account of the Dream, written down just after I woke up. I make no claim for its literary merits.
Reconstructed from scraps, it was written on the backs of envelopes and scraps of paper. I saw it was the breakthrough and I was desperate to get it down. Disordered and some repetition. In text: "This was written immediately after I woke up, after seeing in my dream, the family trying to get up the hillside in the snow. The Ice Age."
It is a long speculation on Darwin. My Ph.D. was in Victorian studies, working with John Rosenberg, Steven Marcus, Jacques Barzun. Victorianists arguably spend more time than scientists studying the role culture played in the interpretation of Darwin's evidence. Darwin notoriously used Malthus, and a violent model -- a nature "red in tooth and claw." The novel I was finishing, Beyond Control, involved molecular genetics, so I had just been prepped by colleagues at Yale and U.C. Irvine about the latest on all those theories.
I make no literary claims for these notes. But if they seem like the wildest optimism, remember, I was hardly Pollyanna. It was written right after Watergate, as Vietnam fell, by a young man who had just spent a year forcing himself to meditate on murdered children, and who was now writing on the floor, in the dark, lying in an empty apartment with a bleeding ulcer, unemployed, completely alone. Its vision of Love's inevitable triumph comes in spite of all personal circumstances.]Ode Written on the Death Of Safta Mamed, Age 5
Can this small sail snap to an ocean's breeze?
Can this small net catch all the sea's thick swing?
Small lenses catch with love all light the Sun may bring
And mold it, burning, through their lucent skin.
Not choice. Burnt glass in fragments were it kept within.
So I, self's net, soul's lens, must either snap, or sing.
I lived in words as others lived in love and learned their names, their ways and how they went together, took them apart and put them back together, until I lost the sense of my corporeal identity, and I became a word.
And now, at my familiar voice, you wake, and stir the silence with your million wings -- speech of Saxon and Celt, speech of Viking and Dane -- you, most beautiful and powerful of all created things.
And with such friends, kind friends, I miss the mermaids less, and do not feel alone.
--writing in total dark, because the light bulbs pound into my eyes.
Floating; nothing seems quite fixed -- not that I am dizzy?
I am dizzy.
The chills, half delicious, half torture, like scratching a severe itch with all one's might. The chills are very good, really. One could make something of them. The sweat, chilly brow, upper lip, small of back. The air so cold in my nostrils but so hot around my forehead -- until the sweat comes.
When I lie down and close my eyes I'll turn up and sideways in the dark, a foot above my bed. Then onto it. Pain will run around far below me in my legs, in a back left behind that still, sweating, grips the savage, lumpy bed -- two foam rubber cushions over it. My mind will be above it.
I began to wonder about fifteen minutes ago if this was what distinguishes us from apes? Not intelligence; but Love.
Darwin, working from Malthus and (unknowingly) from [Adam] Smith, assumed hatred was the evolutionary force. Hatred, and its ally, Intelligence, to direct the holocausts, which took our competition. So animals are capitalists in the end. That's Darwin.
But did we survive the Ice Age by Hatred? We are both these forces -- and many others. Which has made us Man? When I wonder how we came through the Ice Age night, I don't see a warrior with a stick confronting the gale: I see a mother snuggling a child, in furs -- my Safta?
In my dream I saw a little group traipsing over a frozen hilly field, toward the sun, the father helping the aged, the mothers carrying the children: quite literally see this. They're heading north -- I was afraid to tell you. It didn't make sense. Why north? But when it comes in the vision that way I should just set it down. I begin to see this force carrying on reproduction.
Built into the genes? It must be. Nothing of hatred is as vital -- as necessary to the continuing of the species as this.
Darwin had it all backwards. He's working from a Malthusian, from a naive capitalist model. Science proceeds in bursts of intuition -- or of cultural conditioning! Then one assembles the facts to back one's [originally intutive] argument.
Was early man competing with the sabre-tooth tiger? We were at first technologically inferior to fast, clawed beasts.
Love was our survival benefit. Nor were we smart enough to love: the mother didn't nurse her child because she said This will help the species.
The father didn't gather extra food for the nursing mother and the helpless child 3x his work saying This helps the species. Darwin wrong then?
Alternate model for evolution: an advance towards human love gave each species survival advantage. The reptile's advance is amniote egg. Mammals replaced reptiles [across the ecological niches -- at this time I still thought dinosaurs were ìreptilesî] because mammals put the young inside and mammals cared for the young. Periodically the earth inflicted some catastrophe [and then it mattered, who had protected the children more.]
It is Love that gives survival advantage. You dont fight the other animal hand to hand for its food; which of you survives the drought, thats the issue. Thats how it works....
Each time an advance in love precedes an advance in knowledge. Intelligence is only one of man's two strong cards, and it is the second. Unless somehow intelligence makes this extended love possible? Of course, the two lead back and forth to each other. But the evolutionary ladder is not competitive, it's cooperative. Not battle value, but survival value.
Thank you, Safta, the symptoms are back. Choking, spitting. One month and one week sick. Trapped in this apartment too sick to go out and buy food. Have run out of food. Would be in the hospital now if [the woman who] brought me Beyond Control from the publishers didn't see how it was and come back, four hours later with a chicken in a steaming casserole filled with some rice. How we got through the Ice Age.
Nor is this genetically impossible, that Love is a trait, in the genes, a tendency, developed by evolution. The species evolve toward the mammal caring for the young. Then to what we call in man, "Love."
Not by plan. Here we can indeed be Darwinian. The tendency we call love could be in the genes because it so plainly confers survival benefit; therefore those anthropoids in which it was less present, or recessive, would tend to die out. Survival of the fittest -- but what a Victorian idea of how the "battle" was fought Darwin had!
We need not hunt each other down. Nature hunts us all. Proto-man against proto-man in battle, and perhaps the Darwinian model would work. Little evidence of thatñand a great deal of proto-man at the mercy of more diseases and ice ages than arrows and spears. Let us remember those people, before our medicine, prey to all those things we've beaten very recently. The proto-humans that have the genetic tendency to see their sick children through it, will survive better than the clever proto-humans who can invent arrows and wheels but have not love.
Man's first defense against illness was just love. Chicken casseroles. Our greatest adaptation to the climate, any climate, was not fire, but love. By love we survived that ghastly "natural" world -- at least, the tribes that loved, survived. The others, I imagine, were found dead, slumped over their wheels. Wheels aren't much good against a virus. Not even a bow and arrow.
Nursing, however --
The "flower" cavemen -- of course they took care of their sick. That gives survival benefit. Bacteria don't respect physical strength more than intelligence. Put Muhammad Ali in a room with a flu in it, he gets flu. Letting microbes decide which of your tribe stays or goes -- by casting out your sick -- would destroy the tribe, in the end. The microbes work by chance, and they love children -- you lose your young Alis or Einsteins. You'd never know. The tribe's indiscriminate love of children saves you there.
I begin to think we are separate from the apes not in intelligence, as much as in Love. That's what got us out of the trees. Our ability to work together. We were not the Smart ones. We were the ones that Loved.
What raised us then was not brains, but our ability to Love.
Then it matters, Safta? Me writing here, the Reader struggling along with me? What have you given me, Safta? Meaning for my life?....
I will die. You will die. But it -- our Love -- since only your love keeps mine alive -- survives.
From the David Carrier interview:
George Leonard:When the Age of Reason, in the person of Linnaeus, accepted for us the name Homo Sapiens, it was an 18th Century Rationalist's cultural misinterpretation of the evidence. Homo Sapiens implied we survived because of our superior intelligence. Yet the more likely reason for our survival was that we are Homo Amans, the ones who loved. Some other human line may well have been smarter. Since this has been the point of all my work, before I return to Safta's 1975 version, let me reprint here the concise 2000 version I told Carrier:
David Carrier: And that dream has some close connection to Extinction?
George Leonard: Extinction is like Dickens' Christmas Carol, it's good news about human nature. Consider the growth of what scientists call, neutrally, 'parental investment'. When we look at the sequence -- fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds/dinosaurs, marsupials, mammals -- we're struck by the way in each case, more care is invested in the infants. Every slice you make through the fossil record, there is more of this trait in the world, 'parental investment'. Finally, in humans, it evolves into what we call 'love'. The objective, dispassionate fossil record says that love continually increases in history. In the dream, Kessler first realizes how crazy that is. It's the opposite what we expect. Changes supposedly help the species survive. Yet in each stage, the infants are becoming harder to care for, more of a drag on the parents, and the care is taking longer and longer, until you reach the human infant who can't survive alone until a minimum of eight or nine years of parental care have been poured into him.
The computer makes it easier to explain this. Animals survive by adapting and the price of our infinite human adaptability to every ecological niche is that we come into the world unprogramed. Absolute adaptability requires absolute programmability. The price is that the kid arrives with so little on his hard drive it takes a decade to program him. Humans are a shift from hardware to software. That means the genetic fluke for love had to come first -- it is what precedes, and drives evolution. Love, the predisposition to parental investment, has to come even before the adaptability and the programmability. It's the necessary condition for them. So evolution has constantly been favoring love. Every slice you make in the geological record, you see more and more of this trait, 'parental investment,' until in human beings it has evolved into love. Love is the Tao. We ourselves, personally, may not win, but there is satisfaction in knowing that our team is winning, that Love's triumph has been constant, and inevitable. That's science, not faith. And mind you, I'm not pollyanna. My novels have as much intimate knowledge of violence as people can reasonably stand. All this comes to you in novels which I wrote by meditating on photographs of bikers with their brains strewn around the room. None of that side of life is scanted, yet this was my conclusion.
The dream took this version, in Ice Cathedral (p. 169). I didn't dare tamper with it much. Kessler, an intellectual who kills for sport, for the challenge and joy of it, lies wounded, hunted by the police, protected by Ellen, a girl he once befriended, and by Ellen's Mexican mother:
In his illness Kessler lost the sense of where he was. The fire's arching shapes transformed the room and made it strange....
Kessler lay on the pillow, breathing the warmed moistened air; healing... knowing he would survive. He breathed more deeply. He closed his eyes.
In his mind he saw a strange picture: a small family, cave people, dressed in furs, climbing a snowy hillside during the Ice Age, heading north. He was not sure why but he was certain it was north. They were the sort of people that made those paintings of the mammoths in the caves. He did not see that; he sort of knew it, somewhere....
In the scene the man had advanced up the hill; Kessler could see his path behind him in the drifts. The old woman was helping the young woman step through a drift across a fallen log. A branch of it stuck up. It was hard for the small young woman to cross, carrying the baby, and the old woman helped her. The man stood, watching. He was not impatient. He was waiting for them. He seemed to have enough to carry in his weapon. The older woman, the girl's mother, also carried something. It was dark and growing to night. Kessler felt the urgency and knew that they must keep their pace. He did not feel that they were in great danger. Just that it was slow, and difficult, and they must keep their pace.
He knew, watching them, they would live. The Ice Age. They would survive. He would survive. He felt calm and at one with them. It was an intensely calming feeling, to think of that scene. Kessler opened his eyes and looked at his women taking care of him and their baby. The ice was outside, but he would survive. His women would bring him through. Hunters got hurt, got sick. Ellen loved him and Ellen's mother loved Ellen. They would bring him through though he was so sick. The baby whimpered and Ellen turned it towards the fire's warmth. She seemed happy. She had said she was. Was happy 'loving" the baby.
He, Kessler, was still outside that emotion, "love." But he believed in it now. He drowsed. How could he not believe in it? It was something he physically felt, like the fire's warmth. He seemed to be on the brink of a thought but could not go over. Perhaps it was just the drugs, or the delirium. He was not used to illness. But when he closed his eyes he saw again the picture of the family that was going to survive the Ice Age. Not because of fire, or the hunter's weapon, though those doubtless helped; but because of "love." It made no sense for the hunter, with whom he identified, but who was not him, to keep the woman around and her baby, after the sex was through. Yet he waited for them to catch up. Certainly it made no sense for him to keep the baby. But otherwise the race would not have survived. Kessler could see that the hunter was waiting. He could travel faster without these women. In the picture he seemed to have taken on the wife's mother, too. Somehow Kessler knew it was the woman's mother, not the man's. And why didn't the woman throw away the baby? It slowed her. She could not get over that log. They seemed to be having trouble reaching wherever they had to reach, and it was growing dark. The baby had done nothing for her but make her sick and slow for nine months while they foraged for food. She would be better off without it; the hunter would be better off without it. But if they had thrown it away there would have been no human race. It must be in the blood then. There would be no human race without it. Something in the genes. The hunter and that woman climbing that snowy hill in the growing dark would not be thinking of the human race, but of wherever they had to reach. Kessler opened his eyes and saw Ellen warming the baby she thought was his, and her mother steaming the seawater. The room smelled faintly of salt, and of pine: salt from the water and pine from the resins on the driftwood Ellen had collected. It was from something nautical that had been wrecked or ripped and it had been pinetarred. He lay in the bed. In the warmth, he could almost feel his body healing itself.
Kessler closed his eyes. The scene did not come. Instead he saw Ellen and her mother as they were, in front of him. Smith had been wrong. It was not all hypocrisy. Ellen's 'love" existed; and it was the power. The saber-toothed tiger was probably as little threat back then as the shark was now. But infections, pneumonia, flu -- the tigers were no threat compared to them. If one tribe had him and his spears, and another tribe Ellen, and if Ellen's tribe nursed its sick, it would outlast Kessler's. Or, more, if one tribe threw away the cumbersome babies, the slow pregnant women, which tribe would survive? By now it was in the genes. All the creatures probably survived, not by killing each other but by surviving the Ice. Protecting the babies.
The more they protected the babies, the more edge they had to survive. Fish, reptiles, mammals, on a ladder up to Ellen....
He had said, when he found that killing felt natural and right, that he should do it, then. Get down to nature. Now he saw that Ellen's love was natural too. If people naturally liked to kill and love, no wonder human beings went crazy.