I have a friend who is a poet immersed in the question of whether one person can truly know another. At work a couple weeks back, mulling the question over, I asked a no-nonsense professor I admire if she believed one human being could, truly, know another human being. I expected the professor to cock her head and think the question through, contextualize and qualify it, and then produce an answer steeped in the appropriate history and wisdom, citing as evidence passages from Aeschylus or Shakespeare. But that didn’t happen. Not even close. Instead, instantly, the professor’s face lit up. “Yes!” she blurted. “Yes, I do! I do believe one human being can truly know another human being!”
I assumed the person she was thinking of was her daughter, of whom I had often heard the professor speak fondly. It wasn’t until later, replaying our conversation in my mind, that I realized she could have been thinking of anyone, or many ones. For all I know, she was thinking of the Dalai Lama, or of Salvador Dali, or of all the terrific, knowable peoples of El Salvador. So deep was my assumption, I hadn’t even bothered to ask. And I assumed it was her daughter because in the darkest hour of the darkest night, when the gods go mute and it is my own heartbeat only that I hear, I confess I side with the part of my poet friend that believes no one knows anyone, not truly. I allowed the professor her daughter because I have my own kids and so know the power children wield to make us believe anything, like they are worth fighting wars for, or that we can know them, truly.
My friend’s poems break my heart, every time, as they’re meant to.
I say all this because Eldridge Cleaver won’t leave me alone.
Generally, I do not want to know writers, especially writers whose work I admire. This is because writers can’t live up to, in real life, what they have accomplished on the page, even, maybe especially, non-fiction writers; their corporeal selves are no match for their art. Their corporeal selves, in fact, drain their art. This can’t be helped. Writers are human, which is not their fault. Writers on the whole are no more greedy or petty or cruel (or altruistic or generous or kind) than the rest of us. Still, it’s impossible to separate, once the person is known, the person from the writer. So when the person disappoints, as persons do, the disappointment gets transferred, even if unconsciously, to the person’s art. This is true for the living as well as the dead, as hagiographers know. A few years ago, I read Haffenden’s biography of Berryman. I haven’t been able to read a Dreamsong since. That is a major loss, akin to a Catholic losing a saint. There are exceptions. Some of my best friends, as they say, are writers, including the poet I’ve been speaking of, and I run in circles where it’s inevitable I’ll meet others. But by and large, my interest in writers is limited to their arrangements of letters on the page. And because the arrangement of those letters on that page to me is sacred—I am certain literature has saved me—I do not want my relationship with it fucked with.
Soul on Ice is a collection of letters—love, descriptive, polemical—, essays, little vignettes, and an extended allegory or two written while Cleaver was serving the second of his long prison sentences, this one at Folsom. At its worst, the book is overwritten, bizarre, unintelligible, pathologically homophobic, and patronizing, to be kind about it, towards women. At its best, and much of Soul on Ice operates on this level, it’s smart, funny, lucid, prescient, and fierce. As a cultural critique of American society, especially as it relates to race and class and macro power dynamics circa the1960s, there’s nothing quite like it. Cleaver writes (and receives; we get both sides) love letters to his radical lawyer; essays on the Vietnam War, the Ali/Patterson fight, the murder of Malcolm X, and the police state, both domestic and international; vivid, deadpan descriptions of prison life; and literary criticism. The work is grounded in outrage; its literary genius is that Cleaver comes off not just as intellectually impressive but, more important rhetorically, as likeable. Hells yeah I’ll join the revolution.
After getting out of prison with the help of Norman Mailer and others, Cleaver became a major player in the Black Panthers, their Minister of Information. As such, he was also by default a player in American pop culture, and a cultural heavyweight in the Bay Area, where the Panthers were headquartered and where I grew up. For a high school kid like me, living in the Haight with a single, feminist, heroin-addicted, reading-obsessed, Coltrane-listening, welfare queen mother, the names Cleaver and Seale and Newton, even a decade after their Panther heyday, were, if not ubiquitous, certainly familiar. But by the time I finished high school, in 1983, Cleaver had transformed, after much legal and political drama, from a Black Liberation revolutionary on the lam in Cuba and Africa to a Christian evangelical conservative Republican. He renounced his past. He joined the Mormons, and then the Moonies. And then, like many a poor soul, genius and plain alike, he got got by crack. Soon, he was but a spectacle, unkempt on the streets of Berkeley, laughed out of City Council meetings.
Next post: Why I like Eldridge Cleaver and may truly know him, despite his having been a fag basher, misogynist, serial rapist, and Republican.