January 2023

The Stranger Face
of the Friend

Brian George

Brian George, Dark Head, 2004

I had overstayed my welcome at St. Peter's Parochial High School.
Its one virtue was its location in an ancient house, with many irrational crawl spaces. The smells of oiled wood and chalk dust were of more interest to me than my courses. Both teachers and classmates struck me as proof positive that the race did not evolve. Faith had pinned the intellects of some. Others had been locked in the cabinet of science. Of one thing I was sure: that the servants of Earth's cybernetic reich had been planning to remove my neocortex. Better embalmers than they had tried! It was difficult to get each scrap without damaging the nose.

My supernatural weapons were in storage. A wind preceded the philosopher's stone, whose energy had been hidden behind the two hands of a clock. My teachers were concerned about my psychological health. I did not dare to obey them; no, because whatever the consequences, a voice more frightening than any of theirs had also issued ultimatums. I observed myself from a corner of the Van Allen Radiation Belts. The voice spoke, and I did my best to perform the actions that it specified. There were times when I succeeded. There were others when this performance was only in my head.

"Drop your pencil on the floor," the voice said, "whenever you see the headmaster coming. He is a recruiter for Opus Dei, an evil sect, and he will almost certainly criticize your hair. Insist that he lead by example, as did Christ. Leave no evidence behind should you choose to hang him from a cross." Or, "Demand to know: If Mary had sex with the Holy Ghost, who is usually pictured as a dove, then why was Jesus born without a beak?" Had I not tried to behave? It was only by accident that I had broken such a large percentage of St. Peter's rules. I left, with a strong push to the back from a secret board of judges, at the end of my sophomore year.

A revolt against causality had been launched. Ghosts pointing to the collapse of the third dimension congregated. No act of will could restore my freedom of association with the Double, who was then present only in the form of an abstract shadow, as a threat made in a language that I did not understand. This was a language that only the dead spoke, the stellar dead, not the makeshift versions. I was alive, in a manner of speaking, a bit more here, a bit less there, though not in the sense that the Ancients would have understood the concept, not in the sense that I would later come to use the word myself.

I did not yet know enough, of course, to call this abstract shape "my Double," any more than I could pierce the psyche of a naked Siddha in a cremation ground, any more than I could grasp the instructions in the Egyptian Book of the Dead, however much they had been left specifically for me. I knew this Double only through his impact on my sanity, as a promise that I would get what I deserved. On the back of my head: cold breath. He was the sum of things unknown and abilities untapped. If this figure was close, his motives were obscure. I was not yet free to associate with him, only to go where his finger pointed. That freedom would come at the end of a long war. It would be necessary for a designated enemy to prepare the way for my breakthrough. The dream that we called waking consciousness was a joke, whose punchline had not yet arrived.

Victor Brauner, Oubli de la Mort, 1952

Current humans were just variations on the prototype of the object. They were person-shaped bundles of stimulus and response. They were designed to perform a set variety of functions. They were objects that could move, upon which corporations could hang the latest styles of clothing. Such humans were less real than the powers that consumed them, who were themselves only real in their own minds, by virtue of the shadows that lent to them their strength. Fate would orient the phallus of the wounded god. My socially- constructed self was a necessary evil. It was, as I would later come to understand, the contraction of an eight-armed sphere, the plaything projected by an earlier but still present state of omnipotence. Was I conscious? Not at all. Did my body not look much or anything like a sphere? These were no more than temporary setbacks, glitches in Enoch's gematria, permutations in the occupational status of the One.

Instructions had been broadcast from a star, from the depths of the night sky: "Get out!" It was time for a change. Milkweed pods, sprouting from the junk of abandoned lots, broke open. My sail
swelled. Bright with hope, I said goodbye to working-class South Worcester, a neighborhood of factories and railroad tracks. At the age of 15, I transferred to Doherty Memorial High. It was at the time a brand-new school, in the low, expansive style of architecture common during the 1970s. The complex of buildings was enormous, resembling more than a bit a shopping mall. The corridors were brightly lit and long, going off in all directions. Vast crowds migrated when the bell rang.

From my perch at the corner of the Van Allen Radiation Belts, which some might describe as the doorway of my homeroom, I observed the drifting of the ghost-like students through the complex. In their
hunger, they migrated without knowing where they went. They saw without knowing what they saw. They heard without knowing what they heard. They felt without knowing what they felt. They consumed without knowing who or what they ate. By doing no more than shuffling from one foot to the other, they went in search of a symbol that existed before birth. They went in search of the key to industrial -strength sacrifice. They went in search of the loved bodies that they left on a crumbling shore. They went in search of the magnet of Mohenjo Daro. They went, without knowing more than the room number towards which they were turning. Such was the arcane path of their migration.

It is not that I believed that I was other than a ghost. I was, if anything, even more of a disembodied remnant than my classmates. Unlike
them, however, I could feel the breath of the emptiness that was waiting to engulf us, the emptiness that several ages ago had eaten our souls for lunch, even as we continued to be driven by our habits.

The school was by far the best in Worcester. It was located in an affluent part of the city, with some of the most challenging courses and the most demanding teachers. Even the students, children of lawyers, professors, and factory owners, were more articulate than the teachers I was used to. Until my junior year at Doherty, I am not sure that I had ever encountered a good teacher, not one, at least, that made me sit up and take notice. In sophomore English class at Saint Peter's, we had studied Joyce Kilmer's "Trees." In Mrs. Goldman's junior English class at Doherty, we analyzed T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland." I preferred the later poem. It was at Doherty that I began to recover from my childhood. I had known that my world was small, but I had not realized just how small it was.

It was there that I met the gruff but not especially lovable Mr. Sleeper, my Cultural and Intellectual History of Europe teacher, who confronted me with the large holes in my knowledge, who introduced me to Pico della Mirandola's Oration on the Dignity of Man, which had the effect of a depth-charge. It was there that I met Sue Castigliano, a teacher who intervened at a crucial turning-point in my development, who was present in a way that no previous teacher had been present. It was there also that I met Mr. Trippi, my senior-year art teacher, the enforcer of technique and the enemy of vision, who was demanding in a way of which I was not prepared to take advantage. To learn to create art, he believed, was no different from learning the elements of Euclidean geometry. There were principles, to memorize, and procedures, to perform. Like many would-be geniuses, I believed that such doglike obedience was for others.

Mr. Trippi was short, aggressive in his occupation of space, very plainly spoken, with wide, intense eyes. He had many of the traits that I associated with the first-generation descendants of immigrants from Europe, in his case Italy, of whom there were many in Worcester at the time. This was back when the American Dream—whatever the limitations of the concept—was something more than a myth, when a whole extended family could go from poor to affluent in a matter of two decades, so long as they believed, so long as they defined their goals in the image of this dream. To judge by his body language, you would think that Mr. Trippi had missed his calling as a bricklayer, until you noticed the flash of intelligence in the eyes or picked up on the scholarly references when he spoke.

Max Ernst, Revolution by Night, 1923

Mr. Trippi was proud to be an American, at a time when I was against the war in Vietnam. He was eager to continue to ascend through the ranks of the middle class, to display his success, to prove what he was worth. I did not see him as a person like myself, nor did I recognize that we acted from a similar urge to prove what we could do. I was by turns arrogant and withdrawn, contemptuous and scared. That I might be almost wholly uninformed about a subject was not enough to prevent me from passing the most absolute of judgments. Mr. Trippi was unwilling to admit that a student even had a right to an opinion. When he talked, Mr. Trippi would stand about a foot in front of you, and stare, unblinking, into your eyes. I would always end up looking at the floor, at the wall, at the ceiling, or out the window. He did not seem to notice or to care that nothing of what he said was getting through. He took my disengagement as an invitation to stare even more directly, to be even more insistent in the proving of his points, to stand a few inches closer.

In this period, I had great hopes for myself without knowing much of anything, without being able to do more than gesture towards my spiritual and creative goals. I preferred a more oblique approach to
self-discovery. Let us call this the method of "actively visualized self -deception." By imagining a larger space than the one in which I lived, I was, by fits and starts, able to gain some partial access to it. If this method was, to some extent, successful, I was not in any way prepared to prove myself to someone as militantly sure of his principles as Mr. Trippi. I would often stay up late, listening to crickets chirp in the field across the street from my house. The night was my idea of a good teacher. She did not bore me. She did not make me feel more limited than I knew myself to be, and I suspected that even her most absurd demands would prove more useful than yet another lecture about Raphael. Yes, I knew that he could draw. I also knew that Shakespeare was important.

Adolph Gottlieb, Black Enigma, 1946

In his Oration on the Dignity of Man, Pico della Mirandola had said,

    We have given you, O Adam, no visage proper to yourself, nor endowment properly your own, in order that whatever place, whatever form, whatever gifts you may, with premeditation, select, these same you may have and possess through your own judgement and decision…We have made you a creature neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, in order that you may, as the free and proud shaper of your own being, fashion yourself in the form you may prefer. It will be in your power to descend to the lower, brutish forms of life; you will be able, through your own decision, to rise again to the superior orders whose life is divine.

"Five centuries after his death," I thought, "how many of us have really come to terms with Pico's words? Other thinkers have said similar things, perhaps, but who has said them in so personal a manner, in a tone that both accuses and invites? I can hear his voice. As Pico says, I am a creature with no place to call my own. I will shape myself. I will test the rungs of Jacob's Ladder. My alienation is a role; it is not a disadvantage. Can I write a perfect college-level essay? Can I draw a good self-portrait? No. Many students at Doherty can, but what is that to me? I will burn with the Seraphim. I will challenge the Thrones. I will not be content to see out of two eyes. I will somehow find the talents that I need."

Pico also said,

    For a certainty I shall speak out (though in a manner which is neither modest in itself nor conformable to my character), I shall speak out because those who envy me and detract me force me to speak out. I have wanted to make clear in disputation not only that I know a great many things, but also that I know a great many things which others do not know.

Yes. Like Pico, I would speak. I would demand to express my mode of vision, however half-formed it might be. I loved the matter-of-fact nature of Pico's arrogance. Unlike Pico, I was not a prodigy. I was a child of the working class, who, in spite of several years of far-flung reading, had only just begun to come into his own. There were times when I experienced my stupidity as an almost physical weight, as a slowly constricting boa, as a virus that had begun to eat into my brain.
I had said to Sue Castigliano, "I feel that I am getting stupider by the day." She answered, "Why should you be any different?" Against all available evidence, however, I did feel that I knew certain things that others did not know.

Then, at 2:00 AM one night, with no warning that anything unusual might occur, I experienced an outpouring of creative energy, as explosive as a pyroclastic flow. To say that this outpouring was explosive is to only speak of its force. The quality of the outpouring—or near total lack thereof—must be seen as a separate issue. (Nothing to see here, Reader. You are getting very sleepy. When you wake, you will forgive the author for his teenage grandiosity. You will forgive his crimes against late 19th century Symbolism. You will see that he has set aside his ego. When you come to a sentence that begins "two things," you will obey without remembering a word of these commands.) Two things came from this life-altering experience. These were a 16-page personal epic and a series of labyrinthine, hieroglyphic drawings, unlike anything I had previously done. If these pieces were not good, they were maybe just good enough. An energetic vortex had popped open.

Brian George, Ships on a Violent Ocean, 2004

The space that I had entered, or rather, that had entered me, felt pregnant with both danger and the shadow of true vision. To what end should I stuff facts into my head when it could, at any moment, be cut off? I told my mother that I was ill, and I did not return to school for several days.

I became obsessed with the idea of the "façade." Worcester's skyline was no more than a series of cardboard cutouts. How strange it was that they had no other side. They held back surging currents, the waves of a black ocean. To peek behind them was to plunge into the depths. I could not stop myself; I peeked. To believe that the city had more substance than a stage-set was to fall victim to a form of hypnotic propaganda.

The Institute of Oceanic Flux sent agents to recruit me. Their instructional method: dreams, quite often long. These provocateurs were somewhat less active during the day. In their terrifying bird -masks, they would observe from behind my shoulder. Should they reach out, they were anything but gentle, and their claws would feel like vice-grips on my arm. These presences were my protectors, my guides to the great society whose branches stretched far off into the dark. Tangled beyond belief, and anxious to be fed, its roots were a bloody map traced by the transmigration of lightning. I would be taken by the hand, led layer by archeological layer down through the flames of collapsing civilizations, the walls almost falling on my head, until, at the last moment, a small passage leading to the next stratum would be found. Snakes would whisk me across epileptic floods. The knowledge found in these chaotic states was not meant to be accumulated; it was meant to be spent, to be only partially grasped. I could barely do that much.

Sego Canyon petroglyphs, Utah, 6000 BC

Images led to images. The chains of association sprawled in all directions. Was this vision or schizophrenia? Few meanings could be solidified. As this alternate space grew, I had to give myself instructions: "Remember, you must eat. Put cheese on crackers. Pour milk in glass. There are your shoes. Do not stare at the floor. Do you think that your shoelaces are going to tie themselves? Why are you looking at your body from the corner of the room? Put your eyes back in your head." Sadly, no supernatural presence would appear on call to help me with a math exam, nor would the World Snake lend me the courage to ask Claudia Mulalley for a date.

"Sheathed in an iron glove," I said, "let the hand of Fate, as in the 1914 painting by de Chirico, with a thunderous click put its finger on the chessboard." Already, and how many times, had the stage-props of the 20th century been swallowed by the ocean, on one of whose waves I rode? Only fools could believe that the First World War had begun in 1914. I saw my body in a trench, parts gone, decommissioned. One self, out of hundreds. So much for my avant-garde movement, my unpainted paintings, my unwritten books. My heart was cold. There were no tears in my eyes.

Let the Untermenchen believe that each thing happened only once, and only on a particular date, as if this war was somehow special because we had forgotten all the others. It was "a" world war; by no means was it the first. Through the mists of ancient history, I saw catastrophic die -offs, mass exterminations. Soon my genius would transform and systematize the dissociation of Pierre Lunaire. The moon was a vehicle. The true sun was black. Pursued by implanted memories, we were pawns lost on a flood plain of spent symbols, the victims of atomic bioengineering, the playthings of omniscient beasts. We were the horizontal shadows thrown by a vertical geometry. Our bodies were not other than symptoms. Our brains were the materialized fallout left from the sabotage of the Hall of Records.

Eugene Berman, The Gates of the City, Nightfall, 1937

I had discovered a poem by Cesar Vallejo that in part reads, "You people are dead. But what a strange manner of being dead. Anyone might say that you were not." These were my thoughts, exactly. Each night, I continued my back-breaking work on the scaffold of a Micronesian volcano, producing a few more pages for my journal, a few more drawings. As the weeks drifted by, I let a large amount of homework pile up. When I was able, finally, to yank my attention back to school, I brought the 16-page megalomaniacal epic to show to
Mr. Sleeper, and I brought the best drawings from this series to show to Mr. Trippi. (Bad teachers! Metaphysical pretenders! Guides who could not read a map!) Neither of these mountebanks seemed to understand their job, to play the role that I assigned them. Mr. Sleeper liked three lines. Certain metaphors showed "promise." Mr. Trippi did not seem to be amazed. As Vallejo had warned, these people were
dead, but so strange was the manner of their being dead that I had been tempted to assume they were not.

Slowly, with an expression of deep thought, Mr. Trippi examined each one of the several dozen pieces. He said almost nothing. Here and there he pointed out some detail that he thought I might want to change. He would like to see more color. Had I thought of doing these on a larger scale? In retrospect, there was nothing he could have said that would have been adequate, or enough. This could even be seen as a highly sensitive response. It is unfortunate that things did not stop there. What happened next brought a quick end to my experience in the class. It led me to block out whatever it was that he might have had to teach.

Returning to his bull in the China shop mode, he insisted that I stay after school for the next few days to complete the assignments I had not turned in. These were a color chart and a still life with some fishing nets, driftwood, a piece of cloth, and a bottle. This was like asking that I should do one of those paint-by-number versions of Gainsborough. Blue Boy, a masterpiece in a box. A painting to be hung above a couch. If I was an artist already, why would I want to pretend to be one, to learn skills whose only purpose was to please my bourgeois relatives? Like Miro, I wished to "assassinate painting." Like Breton, I believed that "Beauty will be convulsive or it will not be at all."

My teacher's words, as few and measured as they were, had unsettled me more than I was willing to allow. I was not, in fact, a shaman. I could not travel by choice from one place to another. No, I had to be carried. As my model, Rimbaud, had advised in his 1871 letter to Paul Demeny, I had done my best to derange my senses, but I seemed to have messed up on the systematic part. I had not distilled any poison into its quintessence. I had not come out the other side of madness. I was not yet a voyant. My explorations led only to the knowledge of how much I had left to do. If I did have some experience with vision, if I did feel the beginnings of some subtle form of guidance, I was not, as of yet, an artist or a writer. After school, I hung around for several hours, trying to imitate the grain on a piece of driftwood. I did not return to class for the rest of the semester. Later in the year, I was allowed to submit an independent body of work, and I squeaked by with a C.

Mr. Trippi came and went, like a mastodon in the moment before the glacial crags descended. He was, of course, guilty of bad timing, a flaw in any teacher, but also of violating the first commandment, which reads, "Do not disrespect the Daimon. The primordial twin has no sense of humor." Like many adolescents, I could be faulted for a pathological inability to listen. I had not yet found a way to take from each teacher what he or she had to offer, and always, always, I demanded something else.

Now, at the age of 66, there are times when it seems that all perspectives have reversed. Death is not what we call death, life is not what we call life, nor are the two set in a simple binary opposition. What was large shrinks to the scale of a small toy, as I study the young "Brian" through the wide eyes of his Double. These physical events then appear in a ghostly light. These unimportant echoes then speak to their subtle aspects.

Shortly before graduation, Brian ran into Mr. Tsang, his art teacher from junior year. Mr. Tsang said, "What happened with Mr. Trippi? He was upset that you dropped out of his class. He thought you had talent, and he was doing his best to try to toughen you up, to teach you how to focus. You wouldn't look him in the eye. You wouldn't answer when he asked you simple questions, and then you just stopped doing your assignments. He couldn't guess what he'd done wrong."

During the next few years, after Brian had moved to Boston to go to art school, he would return to visit his family once or twice a month.
There, he would sometimes see Mr. Trippi, wandering among the statues of the 19th century heroes, wandering by the Dollar Store and the Paris Triple-X Theater, wandering along the concrete margins of
I-90, wandering among cars in the parking lot of the Worcester Center Shopping Mall, blown here and there, an autumn leaf.

An infinite ache would spread upwards from Brian's solar plexus to his heart and then finally to his throat. Was this shrunken man the monster who would stare into his eyes, whose hateful words had sent him running out the door? Was this the fascist who had interrupted his early training as a shaman? Was this the demiurge whose finger snap had once broken his connection to the dream? No, he was just a retired high school teacher. He often looked quite serious, having found out that his wife was very sick.

Mr. Trippi was the unacknowledged catalyst, the distorted face of the friend. Brian asked for certain lessons. Mr. Trippi offered others. He taught more than he knew. He was the left hand of a broken god, an irrational number, a stray quark, Phi's infinite recursion, the flawed avatar who had all along been important to my subject's growth.

Victor Brauner, The Poet in Exile, 1946


At cross-purposes, wearing constellated masks, two actors perform what they are scheduled to perform, and they may not turn to applaud each other's skill, even as death's birdsong can be heard. They just turn their heads aside. In the amphitheater that looks like downtown Worcester, they do not notice how the small waves lap the lower steps. They do not notice that these waves are getting bigger, that dolphins are circling the pretzel stand, that their feet are very cold, or that their shoes had started to squeak many centuries in the past. In spite of our great freedom, it is difficult for us to be other than who or what we are. Collapsing the wave function, by violence crafting a location for the socially-programmed self, we pull one story from the oceanic flux of all potential versions of that story.

We would far prefer to believe that we are conscious. We would far prefer to believe that our talents are our own, that our names are not detachable. We would far prefer to believe that the ignorant hear what we say. We would far prefer to believe that our actions all make sense, that we know where we were born, that a luminous tide was not waiting to retrieve us, as though it were possible to have an "up" without a "down," or a shore without a seabed. No artist should ever feel misunderstood. No teacher should ever feel that his gift has gone unvalued. Things should happen when we expect that they will
happen. How troubling it is that they do not.

It would be so much easier to come equipped with all we need to know at birth. To forget, of course, is the reason we have chosen to be born. There are crimes that a nonexistent culture once committed, wells that we filled with blood. There are books we wrote on the wind that we grew too drunk to decipher. There are suns we threw into the bowels of the deep. There are gods that we dismembered, orphans we indifferently let starve, close family members that we struck down in a rage. There are vehicles that we miniaturized so as to tuck them in our pockets. We have accidentally turned these pockets inside out.

In moments of sudden illumination, we can, on an almost tactile level, feel how all the bits and pieces of our story fit together. The satisfaction that we feel, however, may be anything but complete, for the whole of the story can seem to have happened to someone else. The Perfect watch from the upper benches of the atmosphere. To themselves, they appear hunched over and attentive, with lamp-like elbows pressed on lamp-like knees. To us, the Perfect are no more than abstract points, just barely visible, but we can sense that they have some say in how the drama will be judged. We would probably go blind if we looked at them directly. It is a good thing, then, that our eyes just barely work.


Share This Page

View readers' comments in Letters to the Editor


Brian George is the author of two books of essays and four books of poetry. His book of essays Masks of Origin: Regression in the Service of Omnipotence has just been published by Untimely Books at
https://untimelybooks.com/book/masks-of-origin. He is a graduate of the Massachusetts College of Art, an exhibited artist and former teacher. He often tells people first discovering his work that his goal is not so much to be read as to be reread, and then lived with.
For more of his writings in Scene4, check the Archives.

©2023 Brian George
©2023 Publication Scene4 Magazine






January 2023

  Sections~Cover · This Issue · inFocus · inView · inSight · Perspectives · Special Issues
  Columns~Adler · Alenier · Bettencourt · Jones · Luce · Marcott · Walsh 
  Information~Masthead · Your Support · Prior Issues · Submissions · Archives · Books
  Connections~Contact Us · Comments · Subscribe · Advertising · Privacy · Terms · Letters

|  Search Issue | Search Archives | Share Page |

Scene4 (ISSN 1932-3603), published monthly by Scene4 Magazine
of Arts and Culture. Copyright © 2000-2023 Aviar-Dka Ltd – Aviar Media Llc.

sc4cover-archives-picSubscribe to our mail list for news and a monthly update of each new issue. It's Free!


 Email Address

        Please see our Privacy Policy regarding the security of your information.

Thai Airways at Scene4 Magazine