Authors: Harlan Ellison
"These are the Fates, daughters of Necessity ... Lachesis singing of the past, Clotho of the present, Atropos of the future."
Plato, THE REPUBLIC
FOR SHERRI, WHO PICKED UP THE PIECES.
FOR LESLIE KAY WHO ARRANGES THE PIECES.
FOR LORI, WHO IS OPTING TO BE ONE OF THE PIECES.
There is an inscription on the lintel over the octagonal portal to Ellison Wonderland. It says:
Always look up.
Never look down;
All you ever see
are the pennies
There is a seven-headed dog guarding the octagonal portal to Ellison Wonderland. If you aren't nice, it will bite you in the ass.
Kilimanjaro is a snow covered mountain 19,710 feet high, and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called the Masai "Ngàje Ngài," the House of God. Close to the western summit there is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.
THE SNOWS OF KILIMANJARO by Ernest Hemingway
HAVING AN AFFAIR WITH A TROLL
One evening I met a young woman for whom I quickly developed carnal desires. We met at a party, I think. I don't remember now. It was a while ago. And I cut her out of the crowd and finally we got back to my house and it started to go wrong. Oh, not wrong in the way that once we were alone the sexual thing didn't seem to be working out: quite the contrary. She began getting misty-eyed. I could see that she was forming a fantasy view of the man who had swept her away to this strange and colorful eyrie. She was thinking ahead: can this one be THE one I've been looking for? And I didn't want that.
No point here in going into the reason I didn't want that; perhaps I was the wrong one for her on more than a casual basis, perhaps she was wrong for me permanently, perhaps it was a hundred different little things I sensed in the ambience of the evening. Whatever it was, I wanted to discourage the fantasy, but not the sexual liaison. I'm not sure there's anything wrong with that. But maybe there is. It depends where your concepts of morality lead you. For me, it was better to be upfront about it, to say there's tonight, and maybe other nights, but under no circumstances is this permanent.
And I tried to tell her, gently.
And that was wrong. Because it was hypocritical.
I wanted to have my picnic, but I didn't want to have to spend the time necessary to putting the picnic-grounds back in the same condition I'd found it.
(That isn't a casually-conceived metaphor; and it's quite purposely not coarse in its comparisons. To love well and wisely, I now believe, we must attempt to leave a situation with a love-partner with the landscape and its inhabitants as well off, or better off, than they were when We arrived. Like this:
(Walter Huston and Tim Holt and Fred C. Dobbs [sometimes known as Humphrey Bogart] are about to leave the mountain from which they've clawed their gold. And Huston says to Holt and Bogart, "We've got to spend a week putting the mountain back the way we found it." And Bogart looks amazed, because they are running the risk of being set-upon once again by Alfonso Bedoya and his bandidos. So Huston explains very carefully that the mountain is a lady, and it has been good to them, and they have to close its wounds.
(And finally, even flinty, paranoid Bogart understands, and he agrees, and they spend a week repairing the ecological damage they've done to the mountain that was good to them.)
So instead of trying to weasel and worm my way through an explanation that would have been no real explanation at all, I asked her if she would mind my sitting down and writing something for her. She said that would be nice, and I did it, trying to say as bluntly as possible with fantasy images what words from the "real world" would not adequately say. And this is what I wrote:
She looks at me with eyes blue as the snow on Fuji's summit in a woodblock print by Hiroshige. She says, "You're really different, really unique." Beneath the paleness of her cheeks the blood suddenly rushes and she only knows her nervousness has increased in the small room, though nothing has altered from the moment before. She does not understand that her skin and survival mechanisms have registered the presence of an alien creature. Her blood carries the certain knowledge. Like the sentient wind, she perceives only that she has crossed an invisible border and now roams naked and weaponless in a terra incognita where wolves assume the shapes of men and babies are born with golden glowing eyes and the sound from the stars is that of the very finest crystal.
To her fingertips come the vibrations of flowers singing in silent voices, telling of times before the watery deeps carried the seed of humanity. Her skin: absorbing the vibrations of unicorn's hooves as they beat the molten earth into gold. Her nostrils: bringing to her the scents of dreams being born. Her delicate nerve-endings: vital and trembling with expectation of oddness.
She sits with a troll, with another kind of creature, and her uneasiness grows. Cellular knowledge assaults her in wave after wave, and she cannot codify that knowledge.
"Let me tell you a story," I say, and in few words explain the horizons of the land into which she has wandered.
Will she understand that mortals and trolls cannot mate?
It didn't go well with her. It was a sour relationship from the start. I wound up doing her damage, hurting her; she didn't hurt me. I don't brag about it, I'm certainly not proud of it, there was no notch cut in the stock of the weapon from the encounter. Machismo wasn't part of it: I hurt her and she didn't hurt me only because it didn't mean as much to me. I was a hard thing. Colder. She was vulnerable. It had to happen, I suppose. If I'd been a nicer person I'd have forgone the sex and sent her away at the start. I explain it now, by way of justification, by saying she is a born victim: someone waiting to be savaged by love. But the truth is simply that I am precisely like everyone else when it comes to love ... I am a child. I want my picnic, and I hate cleaning up the mess.
Pause. Go back to the start of this book, just before the beginning of this new introduction. Read the quote from Hemingway's "The Snows of Kilimanjaro." Do you know what it was the leopard was seeking? Do you understand why the creature climbed to that altitude and what happened to it? The answer to the riddle is the answer, I think, to understanding how to travel the road of love. I put the quote there, what has become a powerful literary metaphor since Hemingway first wrote it exactly forty years ago in 1936, because it seems to me to contain the truest thing one can know about traveling that difficult road. Friends of mine, around this house as I assemble this book for a publisher's deadline, don't seem to understand why that little parable, riddle, metaphor, whatever the hell it is, seems so eloquent, and so right for this book of kinda sorta love stories. I hope these words will clear it up for them. Probably not, though. I'm not too clear on this subject of love myself.
In fact, some years ago, when I was writing the introductions to the stories in an anthology I edited called DANGEROUS VISIONS, I found myself writing these words about myself and Theodore Sturgeon:
"It became clear to Sturgeon and myself that I knew virtually nothing about love but was totally familiar with hate, while Ted knew almost nothing about hate, yet was completely conversant with love in all its manifestations."
That was in 1966. Ten years ago. I've revised my estimates of both Ted's and my understandings of hate and love. It's been an interesting ten years for both of us, and if I were to take the toll today I'd have to admit grudgingly that I've had some of the parameters of the equation of love drilled into me by experts. And so now, ten years later, I set down these first few tentative thoughts about the subject, offering as credentials the stories in this collection.
I can tell you many things love is not. Telling you what it is comes much harder to me. When one feels like a novice, it becomes an act of arrogance to pontificate. Much of what I think changes from day to day. And I suppose by the accepted standards of success, I'm a poor spokesman. It seems the more experience I get, the less sure I become about anything where love is concerned. (I'm not talking about my three marriages and divorces. That's another thing, and peculiarly, it has less to do with my caution about this subject than more "informal" relationships.)
Lori and I were talking about this several weeks ago, and with what I take to be the normal curiosityof anyone merging his or her life with someone else's, she asked me how many women I'd been with. For a few days I wouldn't answer her. I wasn't hiding anything, I just didn't think she'd care to hear the real answer. Finally, I told her. "I tried to count up, one time about six years ago," I said. "And I used snapshots and correspondence and phone lists I found lying around in old files and desk drawers, and I had to stop when it got over three hundred. I suppose I've been to bed with maybe five hundred different women."
She didn't say anything for a long while, but I could see she was shocked. When I'd tried to take the tally half a dozen years ago, I'd been shocked, too.
I realize there will be guys out there who'll read that figure--five hundred--which I think is pretty accurate, and they'll react in one of several different ways. There will be assholes who'll think that's pretty terrific. There will be amateur Freudians who'll think it's sick. There will be professional sympathizers who'll feel sorry for me. There will be guys who can't get laid who'll think I'm lying, trying to trumpet some kind of bogus swashbuckler image.
Each view has some validity going for it.
But mostly, since I went through all those days and nights and people, since I was there (or as much of me as I had control of was there), I subscribe to the view that I was looking for something very hard, perhaps with uncommon desperation. I think I understand the psychological reasons I was on that endless hunt, and I submit there was less of deviation, perversion or obsession than of loneliness and a determination to find answers. I'm constantly perplexed at the dichotomous position of people who laud a student's seeking everywhere to find the answers to life, or creativity, or the existence of God, or the direction of the student's career ... who cluck their tongues and badrap the same attempts to discover the answers to interpersonal relationships by those who seek in every area that presents itself. If the true purpose of living a fulfilled life is in establishing meaningful liaisons with people, if it's part of that fulfillment to seek and find and give and accept love, then why should the search be looked on with such moral disapproval?
Perhaps I'm advocating profligacy, but I don't think so. Discovering the nature of love is infinitely more complex and exhausting than, for instance, learning how to be a brain surgeon. But the smug, self-satisfied moralists think it's precise and proper for someone to spend fifteen years learning how to ease a subdural hematoma, yet twisted, sick and sad for someone to spend the same fifteen years learning how to ease his or her loneliness. Answers to the former can be found in medical textbooks and in O.R.s all over the world; answers to the latter slide and skitter and avoid discovery save by chance and steady application to all possibilities.
The search is as important as the discovery.
(And therein lies the core of the answer to Hemingway's riddle about the leopard.)
Lori seems to feel as I write this, that even if I don't have the answers. at least I've had a greater opportunity to find the answers than those who deny the search, settle for whatever's handiest, and then spend the rest of their lives with secret thoughts and open frustration.
On the basis of her view, and the fact that I trust her opinions most of the time, I'm plunging ahead with this essay on love. I hope to God she's right. If she's wrong, and I've been merely a profligate, indulging myself in adolescent sex-antics, I'm going to look like a righteous schmuck by the time this introduction is completed. If I don't already.
Ambrose Bierce has two definitions of "love" in THE ENLARGED DEVIL'S DICTIONARY (Doubleday, 1967, and a sensational book). Bierce, a cynic beside whom I look like Pollyanna, writes this:
Love, n. The folly of thinking much of another before one knows anything of oneself.
Love, n. A temporary insanity curable by marriage or by removal of the patient from the influences under which he incurred the disorder. This disease, like caries and many other ailments, is prevalent only among civilized races living under artificial conditions; barbarous nations breathing pure air and eating simple food enjoy immunity from its ravages. It is sometimes fatal, but more frequently to the physician than to the patient.
People reading my books, most particularly the introductions in my books, think I am the reincarnation of Bierce: that I am a mean, pugnacious, constantly depressed or alarmed sonofabitch into whose life the sunshine of affection has never cast its effulgent glow. Fuck you, I say politely.
Even the most drooling of the Jukes or the Kallikaks* should be able to perceive that someone who manifests such volatile feelings about injustice, racism, stupidity, mediocrity and general negative bullshit in the Universe has his times of joy and happiness and noble dreams that soar aloft as one with the greatest aspirations of the human race. Those who read my works and remember only the stories and essays that deal with blood, lust, violence, death, disfigurement, pain, depression, smarmy sex and ka-ka do me a disservice. Also, they are sick and ought to be "put away," if you catch my drift. I have written dozens and dozens of kind, gentle, happy, funny stories and introductions. But do they remember those? Do they? Huh, I ask you, do they!?! Not on your cryonic crypt, they don't! All they remember are stories such as "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" or "The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World." All they recall when my work is mentioned are the shrieks of torment coming from my characters.
When the truth of the matter is that I'm basically a very happy fellow. Funny, too. I adore small children, dogs of all breeds, Barney Miller and Richard Pryor and George Carlin and M*A*S*H, noodles, the humorous novels of Donald Westlake. (Noodles have always seemed hilarious to me, go figure it.) For instance, I got a letter today from Debe (No Last Name Given) at Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois; and she went on you wouldn't believe about being a fan of my writing, but how disturbing it all was, how I always seem to write sad or mean stuff. "Is there another side?" she asked. "We all have our demons. But tell me more of you. You must have some light, some happiness, something good that you cherish?"
Now, see! There you go. A perfect example. Here's this young woman (I presume she's fairly young from the writing and the content) who encounters me in a series of books and gets all grunched out of shape because she thinks I'm downcast, and she wants me to spill the beans on myself, to tell her what makes me smile and laugh and love.
And apart from wanting to keep some personal feelings to myself--Gawd, you're a greedy bunch, no matter how much I blather and reveal, you're never satisfied--the things I do unleash are frequently as happy as they are miserable. But when I try to look on the bright side, and pass along the lucent limbus of my personal joy, everyone who remembers those screams of anguish comes down on me like a tsunami, accusing me of being maudlin and saccharine.