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April 2002

Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man

Jean Paul is an artist. I know that he is for he has told me so himself. Frequently. It is best not to argue with Jean Paul on the subject – he is prepared for disbelief and at the slightest sign of doubt he will launch into an impassioned diatribe. Jean Paul’s diatribes are something quite remarkable. If the diatribe is an art form then Jean Paul is a veritable Michelangelo of rants.

Jean Paul is a writer. Not only that, he is a genius, one of the great creative geniuses of our time. I know that this is so for he has told me so himself. Frequently. In truth he does have two or three half completed manuscripts laying about that he is working on. This is no sometime thing; in the thirty years that I have known him he has always had two or three half completed manuscripts that he is working on. The odd thing is that none of these manuscripts ever get completed and published.

He is eclectic. Over the years he has begun a dozen or more novels, several volumes of political advocacy, a philosophic tome, and a chapbook or two of poetry. The pattern is the same: They are begun bravely enough – Jean Paul is a rapid and prolix writer – until about a quarter of the projected work is completed. During the creative flush he will read extensively from the current work to anybody who will listen. And then, mysteriously, the work disappears from his conversation and, apparently, from his consciousness. No one knows what happens to these lost works; perhaps they are swallowed by one of those black holes that cosmologists are always talking about.

I first met Jean Paul some thirty odd years ago. We were both undergraduates. He was a year ahead of me in the university, and I was half a dozen years older than he – I had spent a wanderjahre that had turned into six. We met in a philosophy class, Professor Stillman’s lectures on existentialism. We had in common that each of us knew more and understood more about existentialism than did Professor Stillman. Stillman wasn’t all that old in years but he had an antique heart and a musty mind. None of the professors in the philosophy department cared about existentialism, however they had to offer a course in it because it was fashionable. Campus rumor had it that they drew straws to see who would teach the course and that Stillman had gotten the short straw.

College is a dangerous place for a young man. He arrives, filled with hormones and wild, uncertain emotions. Within the ivy-stricken halls hucksters await him, their intellectual vendor trays filled with causes, beliefs, and philosophies, tickets to anywhere. Concealed within the squalor of student residences lie intoxications and enchantments. Too often young men are swept off their feet, overcome by possibility.

So it was with Jean Paul. At that time the flower power revolution was still in full swing. Sex, drugs, and rock and roll offered the good life of expanded consciousness, as well as death by infected needles, and the diseases peculiar to unsanitary living conditions. The movement (civil rights, environmentalism, socialist revolution, peace, whatever) offered action, the joys of baiting the stodgy, and moral certainties. Some, indeed most, sampled the delights of flower power, and having sampled, went on to lapse into the soft, sleazy comforts of the air-conditioned nightmare.

Many did not. Some ended up in sanitaria or on the streets, their minds blown out on drugs. Others ended up in jail – Amerika was willing to condone revolution but not bank robbery. And some ended up working in mind-numbing dead end jobs, earning the wherewithal to support their chosen mind-numbing drugs and hobbies, selling their lives to purchase that with which they erase their lives. So it was with Jean Paul.

He worshipped at the altar of a tri-partite bitch goddess. One face of the goddess giggled and whispered expressions of mind-blown awe, a pipe in its left hand and a needle in its right. One face was contorted with screams of anger. Its left hand held a placard and its right held a rock. The third face had a bemused, blank expression. Its hands were poised over a keyboard from which endless reams of text flowed.

Drugs are universal; anybody, anywhere, can get stoned. The movement is choosier; one seldom sees CPAs and stockbrokers marching on the street, singing songs of solidarity. The university is a natural breeding ground for the movement; there is a near endless supply of young persons unhampered by the practicalities of earning a living, eager to project onto the world their unresolved emotional problems. And it is in the university that the third face of the bitch goddess finds her most ardent worshippers, for it is there that creative genius is idealized and idolized.

Jean Paul put his time in on the movement. He marched in protests. He issued manifestos. He got tear-gassed, received a few lumps on his head from a nightstick, and spent a few nights in jail. He also got laid a lot which may have meant more to him at the time. The adventures of life are all the better for having an erotic tinge.

For many people, perhaps most, there is a short period of time in their youth when they really live. Who does not know someone who was a star in a highschool sport and whose life thereafter was spent working in a gas station? For a few short years they truly lived; the rest of their life consists of passing time as they reminisce about their glory days. For many people their time of living is those days and nights of protest.

The movement gave Jean Paul emotional vitamins. It also provided him with a vocabulary of rhetoric. Movements of all kinds, be they political or religious, need a goodly supply of canned rhetoric. All movements have enemies; the rhetoric stock provides labels and characterizations for the enemies. There are values to be proclaimed and actions to be endorsed. There are manifestos to be written.

All of this requires words. None of it requires thought. Indeed, thought is not wanted. Thought creates doubt and wastes time. The good activist does not need to think; it is action that is wanted. Often it happens as it did with Jean Paul; the rhetoric remained long after the movement has been abandoned, rather like scars left over from long forgotten bar fights.

The bitch-goddess smiled upon him with her third face. Jean Paul had notebooks filled with story ideas, imitative poetry, and fragments of fiction. He hung out in coffee shops with other would-be writers in dark rooms thick with smoke and affectation. In these forays into literatopia he carried with a packet of smudged manuscripts that he handed over for reading to fellow would-be writers who handed him their manuscripts in return.

The Movement fell apart with the ending of the draft. Most of the peace warriors went on to become happy little fat consumers. Jean Paul couldn’t; he had too much anger within him. I never quite understood where the anger came from originally. Perhaps it was rooted in some unresolved freudian conflict with his parents. Then again, it may have been some genetic abnormality, some chemical imbalance in the blood. Scientists are good at explaining these things even if their explanations do change with each century. I like to think that it was fashion. Angry young men are always in fashion. As much as anything the anger of youth is a mask that is donned. The terrible danger with wearing masks is that sometimes they don’t come off.

In the end, though, it was the drugs that won him. He dropped out of school. He deserted the literary scene. His friends, if you can call them that, were fellow heads. The psychedelic art and the heavy metal faded away; the grunge and the drugs remained.

His heavy drug phase lasted a decade and then it went away. The odd thing about addiction is that it can release its hold on you. It doesn’t happen often and it takes its time but it can happen. I have known alcoholics who have stopped being alcoholics. Going on the wagon doesn’t mean that you aren’t an alcoholic; it just means that you aren’t drinking. Not being an alcoholic means that you can have a drink and it is no big deal.

That is about how it was with Jean Paul. One day he came out of the haze and looked around at the world outside his pad again. He was still a head. He’ll always be a head but he has stopped turning himself into a vegetable.

I lost track of him during his head years. I had gone my way, milking the capitalist system for some of its goodies. I ran into him some years later quite by chance. I was doing an article on the labor problems at a local factory; he happened to be on the line as I was being given the grand tour by the factory manager.

We hooked up and filled each other in on what we had been doing. He had been employed in a long list of scut-work jobs. The factory job was one of his better jobs. He had been a bartender, a pool boy, a pizza delivery man, and a night janitor. This was good for his literary ambitions. To be a literary success you must write grunge fiction. Grunge fiction is the pornography of the literary establishment. To do it well you have to have wallowed in the grunge yourself; you cannot write trailer park fiction from a Commonwealth Avenue brownstone. Jean Paul had been at a disadvantage. What, after all, does a good Jewish boy from the suburbs know about grunge?

Here in Amerika we are making a big mistake in bringing in Asians and Mexicans to do our scut work. Those jobs should be reserved for our druggies and ex-druggies, our would-be writers and our would-be actors. We are compromising our artistic future by going abroad for cheap labor.

I thought my life was less interesting. I was a paid flack, selling words to fill holes in trade magazines. I may not have been a yuppie but I did have a widening streak of yuppie consumption down my back. He was fascinated when he learned that I had contacts in the publishing world. It turned out that he was still writing. He rather shyly showed me one of his manuscripts. It was wildly undisciplined but I really can’t say whether it was good or not; I am not the man to judge these things. I promised to put him in touch with a publisher and I did; nothing came of it though.

I also introduced him to the internet. This was in the old days before the internet became one seamless whole. There was the arpanet, usenet, lots of individual bulletin boards, and various services. There was no world wide web and the technology was crude, crude, crude. It wasn’t all that easy to get hooked up and it could be expensive. What you needed in those days was access to a geek who could get you into the nets. I introduced Jean Paul to my favorite geek. Before long he had his own suite of geeks and he took off from there.

I didn’t realize that he would become an internet legend. I should have foreseen it. He had all of the attributes needed to be a voice in the electronic Hyde Park. He had the ability to effortly produce long winded rants. He had the arrogance that comes with the certainty of his own genius. He lacked common consideration for others, being the center and only resident of his egocentric universe. The internet is a natural venue for the crank and the crackpot; it has been kind to Jean Paul.

I see him now and then on the internet. He has web pages filled with half-finished fiction. Some of it may be good; I couldn’t say, myself; I am not the man to judge such things. His true metier, though, is the flame, the discussion group rant. It is a form that he has mastered.

I’ve never been there but I’m told that he has a hole to live in, a one room apartment under an overpass. He drifts from one scut work job to another. Within his hole he has his supply of pot and his second hand computer. He has made of his life an art form, and he is his own and only finest work. In his own way he is an artist.

This page was last updated April 7, 2002.
Copyright © 2002 by Richard Harter

table of contents
original stuff
April 2002