Lotus Eaters for Public Consumptionby Gary Lain
(JEF Press, 2012)
Harold Jaffe’s new collection OD portrays an intriguing selection of public figures as drug users seeking solace and exalted states of experience. Detailing the drug use and eventual overdoses of an eclectic group, including Marilyn Monroe, Bela Lugosi, Billie Holiday, Freud, Hendrix, and Walter Benjamin, Jaffe tempers these insightful and often darkly humorous investigations with compassion, treating these public figures as individuals, as talented though troubled human beings seeking escape from an untenable existence, from reality as officially constituted.
This easily accessible and fast-paced collection is also one of great emotional range. The opening text, “Bela Lugosi,” is a campy and fun read in which the gracious, morphine-injecting Count on his deathbed exchanges identities with an activist chameleon Lon Chaney, who after a successful horror film career again fakes his own death to resurface as Mother Teresa. The text “Abbie Hoffman” moves with the same manic energy as Hoffman, he being a product of a time now gone of “gears, pistons, big noses, and humans who moved their arms when they walked.” Abbie, “the prince of rascals,” no longer able to gain purchase with his form of zany activism, takes his own life in an overdose. The rock star flame-outs of “Jim/Janis/Jimi” are rendered with a ragged, jet-lagged edge that vividly captures these young musicians as lonely and fragile, overwhelmed by forces beyond their control. Jaffe’s “Walter Benjamin” is a complex yet brief and eminently readable portrait of the influential Frankfurt School philosopher and flâneur. A gifted social theorist who wandered Paris, collecting impressions, composing his vast and unfinished Arcades Project entirely of quotations, Benjamin “seemed incapable of making the right choice. … When Benjamin refused on principle to compromise, he should have compromised. … He manifested potently (impotently) what he subtly demonstrated in both Proust and Kafka: that place at which weakness and genius coincide.” The text segues into an absurdist riff on Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist” (“who simply could never find anything he liked to eat”), then ends by claiming that Benjamin in fact did not commit suicide by overdose. “He shot morphine into his left thigh because he never found anything else he liked to inject into his left thigh nearly as much.”
A more somber register is felt in the deeply sympathetic “Lady Day,” which ties the drug addictions of jazz singer Billie Holiday to institutional racism and the burdens of “living in the world.” Also sympathetic is Jaffe’s text “Jean Seberg,” in which Seberg dies of an overdose after suffering a campaign of slander as a focus of the F.B.I.’s COINTELPRO program, which targeted activists. Jaffe’s text “Marilyn Monroe” accounts for both Monroe’s “two-dimensional radiance,” her status as a supreme object of desire, and her loneliness and her inability to find meaning in her life.
Jaffe’s new collection is rendered with great literary skill and ingenuity; it’s also a deeply compassionate, funny, readable, and insightful look at important and influential cultural figures who sought refuge, solace, and finally escape through drugs. Never moralistic but deeply moral, OD shows us the men and women behind the mask, returning them to us as part of our own cultural legacy.