For years now certain friends of mine (chief among them is Godfried) have been saying I, as an at least former redhead, “must” read Still Life with Woodpecker (Tom Robbins). I finally picked it up, expecting to find that peculiar mix of silly non-sequitor, serious philosophy of life and love, and post-modern structure that Robbins shares with few other writers that I know (John Fowles comes to mind as one possibility). I was not disappointed.
Robbins’ subtitle is “a sort of a love story” and we get a relatively straightforward telling of that story: girl meets boy; boy seduces girl; boy goes to prison; girl pines for boy; boy and girl miscommunicate; girl goes for someone else; boy tracks girl down despite enormous odds and wins her back; they live happily ever after, even if they have lost most of their hearing. The periodic interruptions for meta-commentary on the author’s writing process do not detract from the story, and might add, depending on your point of view.
A friend of mine described Robbins as a hippy; I don’t know if it’s true, or even exactly what he meant by that, but it seems possible. There is more than a little share of that sort of silliness (note: I don’t think hippies are any sillier than any of the other people on the earth; but, they do have a unique brand of it). Redheads in the novel “are either descendants of demigods or are potential demigods.” There is also a wandering and complicated theory that ties redheads, pyramids, camel cigarettes, intelligent life from other planets, sex, love, and more together to explain the purpose of life, the universe, and a few other things.
You might say some of the philosophy Robbins espouses also falls in the silly category. Witness:
There are essential and inessential insanities.
The latter are solar in character, and the former are linked to the moon.
Inessential insanities are a brittle amalgamation of ambition, aggression, and pre-adolescent anxiety–garbage that should have been dumped long ago. Essential insanities are those impulses one instinctively senses are virtuous and correct, even though peers may regard them as coo coo.
Inessential insanities get one in trouble with oneself. Essential insanities get one in trouble with others. It’s always preferable to be in trouble with others. In fact, it may be essential.
Poetry, the best of it, is lunar and is concerned with the essential insanities.
In the last few months I have found a renewed appreciation of the moon, so I did not find these lines silly, but rather evocative of my own experiences. Further, I was reading Borges’ Dreamtigers at the same time as Still Life and heard unexpected resonances between them. (Struck by this almost outrageous juxtaposition, I actually started writing a post that compared the two books—until the challenge of making the connections explicit slapped me down. The connections remains in my subconscious; once again we have an example of the difficulty, if not the impossibility (?), of full expression of one’s thoughts and feelings.) Whatever the cause, some of Robbins’ thoughts find their mark. Another nice example comes with his comments on the volatility of ideas. Ideas, he writes,
not only can be misused, they invite misuse—and the better the idea the more volatile it is. That’s because only the better ideas turn into dogma that is deadly. In terms of hazardous vectors released, the transformation of ideas into dogma rivals the transformation of hydrogen into helium, uranium into lead, or innocence into corruption. And it is nearly as relentless.
The problem starts at the secondary level, not with the originator or developer of the idea but with the people who are attracted by it, who adopt it, who cling to it until their last nail breaks, and who invariably lack the overview, flexibility, imagination, and, most importantly, sense of humor, to maintain it in the spirit which it was hatched. Ideas are made by masters, dogma by disciplines, and the Buddha is always killed on the road.
Not profound, but certainly accurate and well said.
Read Still Life, and Robbins in general, because you want a fun story about which you can think if you are so inclined—redhead or not.