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What Then Is To be Seen In America?

It’s late afternoon, at a window booth in a small diner in Rutherford, New Jersey. Around 1961 or ’62. An older man with short white hair that is still somehow tousled let’s his face slip back and forth, his expressions alternating like a cracker jack toy between interest and confusion. He gazes over his coffee at the young, mysterious stranger who wanted to meet a famous poet.

"What then shall be seen in America?" William Carlos Williams asked.

"You’re invisible now you got no secrets to conceal," Bob Dylan answered.

This perplexes the old poet. No, he’s not confused by the comment, just curious, all over again, at the national disrobing the brash young man described. Williams had watched and listened for more than half a century as America decided to go public, all out there on the radio, then the television and the satellites. But he remembers, too, that there is

No one
to witness
and adjust, no one to drive the car

Williams really asked this question, what shall be seen in America? Not of Dylan, of course. The above is fiction. Sort of. But he asked it of another friend. The question’s a fair one for a writer who was also a physician, a real doctor administering to the flesh and blood and psychic grievances of the "devil-may-care men" and the "young slatterns" of New Jersey.

What restorative could be found among the natural things and the ideas in the things of America?

On any given evening the country is full of marketing wizards haunting the malls, pulling people into groups of a dozen or so behind doors that don’t lead to stores but to conference rooms. There these innocent passersby are asked probing questions about their likes and dislikes. There’s a theory, or there should be a theory, that this ritual is the true origin of all alien abduction stories.

But it’s just a focus group. Sometimes the groups are held in office buildings or hotels. Participants are recruited by phone, paid a small sum and a smaller dinner.

It’s the way we do our politics, too, all of the consultants and opinion researchers quite certain they are keeping careful and accurate tabs on America’s soul. It’s got no secrets, that’s right. Learning all our non-secrets, they’ll concoct secret strategies to tell them back to us. Since there are no secrets, their hope is they can tell the non-secret stories better than their opponents can.

These cocky advertising and marketing magicians are sober behind the wheel, witnessing it all. But what is it they are witnessing really but the virtual confirmation of their own naked ambitions? They’re not seers. Just more of the seen.

I don’t want to think this is true, and I’m proposing we find a way to argue with it. American composer Michael Pisaro wrote that Dylan’s 1965 release of "Like a Rolling Stone," which declared the end of secrets, "seems to have been the last moment in American history when the country might have changed, in a fundamental way, for the better."

Pisaro’s observation, made in a letter to the brilliant cultural critic Greil Marcus and quoted in Marcus’ book, Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads,continues:

…like a Geiger counter developing a will of its own, [the song] wavers between trying to record the coming quake and trying to make it happen. This is where the song stakes its claim on eternity.

I was twelve in 1965, so I can’t be convicted. I was playing catch in a friend’s front yard when my older brother came around and told me I needed to hear this (45 rpm) record. It was "Like a Rolling Stone." No one’s selling any alibis, but I have one. Anyway, this wavering between recording and making history sure sounds like my generation’s escapade of hope turned to confusing ambivalence. We thought we would make history, then, after Vietnam, Kent State, Watergate, the first Oil Embargo and the Nixon pardon, many of us decided we’d rather consume history than make it.

History, it seems, requires secrets and is unsettling to dreams.

Novelist Russell Banks, in his new, wonderful essay on our country, Dreaming Up America, writes that there’s not one American Dream but many. He details three:

There was El Dorado, the City of Gold that Cortez and Pizarro dreamed of finding. And then there was Ponce de Leon’s dream of the Fountain of Youth, where you could start life over again, and the New England Puritan dream of God’s Protestant utopian City on a Hill, the New Jerusalem…The Dream of the Fountain of Youth may yet prove to be the strongest of the three, since it carries within it the sense of the new, the dream of starting over, of having a New Life. It’s essentially the dream of being a child again, and it’s the dream that persists more strongly than the other two and is today perhaps the most vivid of the three.

Williams told a story once about Ponce de Leon and the Fountain of Youth. It’s in his book, In the American Grain, in the chapter, "The Fountain of Eternal Youth." It begins like this:

History, history! We fools, what do we know or care? History begins for us with murder and enslavement, not with discovery. No, we are not Indians but we are men of their world. The blood means nothing; the spirit, the ghost of the land moves in the blood, moves the blood.

Williams writes that our bloody past lives on in us, not as some abstract guilt, but as flesh and blood.

Men who do not know what lives, are themselves dead. In the heart there are living Indians once slaughtered and defrauded-Indians that live also in subtler ways…

Bending the river of history only slightly, Williams tells of Ponce de Leon gullibly believing a tall tale told to him by one of his slaves, a native woman of Puerto Rico. She spoke of a spring of eternal youth, located on a magical island called Bimini. Off Ponce went. He came ashore at Florida, but this time:

…the Yamasses put an arrow into his thigh at the first landing-and let out his fountain. They flocked to the beach, jeered him as he was lifted to the shoulders of his men and carried away. Dead.

Ponce died, but not the dream. You can visit the Fountain of Youth National Archeological Park in St. Augustin, Florida even today. The tourist attraction was established by Diamond Lil, or Luella Day McConnel, in 1904, who had come to Florida after being cured of gold rush fever in Alaska. Like Williams, Lil was a physician. She’d trained in Baltimore.

Williams’ gruesome story makes the moment of "Like a Rolling Stone even more tragic, if Michael Pisaro is right. Because another way to make Pisaro’s point about the lost opportunity of 1965 is to say that Dylan could feel a brief lightening in the blood, as if the ghosts of our murderous past offered pardon. The feeling was freedom, like a rolling stone.

But I’m not certain the opportunity of that time is lost. It was another verse of Dylan’s song that made me think of it.

Ain’t it hard when you discover that
He really wasn’t where it’s at
After he took from you everything he could steal

We are back in that place. Or a very similar place. Maybe we never left. Maybe it’s cyclical. I don’t know. Is this just another dream of eternal youth? I don’t think so.

What I’m suggesting is that we ask ourselves the question William Carlos Williams asked. "What then shall be seen in America?" We should not settle for our naked neighbors. We should look hard for the natural things and the ideas in the things of America. Imagination, not ideology.

Don’t listen to the sophisticates tell you you’re being romantic. They will not think that when the arrow hits their thigh. You are the seer in this game. So kiss like one. This is all a way of saying we must seize the day politically, even a chance at greater glory might depend upon that simple achievement. But we can’t forget the deeper truths of our own blood. We have nothing to lose but our ghosts. And they will not let us be until the least among us is free.

This is an exhilarating and frightening election year. But we could win this election and still miss the main chance. As Ponce de Leon said, we aren’t getting any younger.

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Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith