Letters at 3 am

I’m a one-person cult of Michael Ventura. One of the reasons I dig him is because of the people he digs, for example Robbie Robertson and Leonard Cohen and Eve Babitz. (Who is Eve Babitz, you may ask? See, that’s just it. Ventura knows.) And conversely, he is also dug by people I dig. For instance, Letters at 3 AM wears a cover blurb by Andrei Codrescu, who just happens to be one of my culture heroes.

Ventura is always quoting somebody interesting, like Thoreau who said, “You may do as you like, so long as it does not injure someone else.” (It’s hard to imagine two people with more different images than Thoreau and Aleister Crowley, but Crowley said, “An it harm no one, do what thou wilt.”) “The Witness Tree” is a powerful essay named after the Robertson song it discusses, which happens to also be one of my personal all-time top ten favorite songs in the entire world. I like Ventura because he talks about things that remind me of other books I’ve loved. His discussion of gambling recapitulates how it began as a shamanistic ritual that later became debased and corrupted, finishes up with unconventional conclusions, and calls to mind Bone Games, a very memorable book by Rob Schultheis.

Once in a while I have to disagree with Ventura. For instance, when considering the increased possibilities offered by the modern world for a relentlessly mobile lifestyle, I think he goes too far in saying the ability to move around is “a fact unique to contemporary life, and alien to every previous society.” There have always been nomads, troubadours, samurai, gypsies, cowboys, actors, and many other subcultures of people who refused to settle.

There is a lovely memoir of Stevie Ray Vaughn in here, and some quite important thoughts on topics familiar to such writers as Robert Bly and James Hillman, having to do with the true meaning of adolescence and the initiatory moment and what it takes to be a male in America these days. There is autobiographical material where we meet various disturbed members of the author’s family, and learn about their breakdowns and his own. We share his experiences and meet his friends on a cross-country road trip, and find out all about the real significance of oil.

Especially recommended are his reflections on the Vietnam memorial in Washington, titled “Standing at the Wall.” Not only is it a great piece of writing, but again I take it personally because the name of my first lover is on that wall. There’s so much in Ventura’s stuff to take personally, always. He comments on the wide open spaces and the relative importance of things in the West, “with its endless, beckoning vistas,” where he has driven “70 miles for a pizza, 500 for a party, 1,000 for a girl.” This got to me, since when I lived in Texas there was a fellow who more than once made the trip between Amarillo and San Antonio for a weekend with me. About something said by a concerned citizen on a radio call-in show Ventura remarks, “If I had the time or mental energy I’d try to differentiate between all the different kinds of ignorance needed to make that statement.” I sure know the feeling.

A major piece in this book is about one of America’s endless wars, and it explains how being against a war “doesn’t insulate you from its demonic properties.” We see how other dichotomies work hand-in-hand in an inexorable yin and yang configuration : police need criminals, social workers need dysfunctional families. Ventura points out the same diabolical symbiosis between peace activists and war. “As a protester you, like the soldier, are not quite yourself. You are yourself plus the war. If you lean too heavily on that role of protestor, when your movement has no more war to protest, you too will feel diminished, lost, less.”

Ventura observes that most Americans could not care less whether the Gulf War was right or wrong, worthy or ignominious After all, our own wonderful country was created with “tactics identical to Saddam’s lies, broken treaties, surprise attacks, atrocities, and the mass dislocation of former residents.” No, the morality of this particular war was not a concern of most Americans – the only issue was whether we pursued it successfully. “If we can’t be happy or good, perhaps we can be, in the street sense, ‘bad.’ This is not a feeling to be underestimated in a people hooked on violent entertainment, arrogant music, and the conflict of sports.”

Ventura quotes Kierkegaard and agrees with the idea that thought without paradox is as foolish as love without passion. Paradox is meat and drink to Ventura, and I greatly admire his ability to let his own ambivalence show. Writing about strip clubs, he gets down to the nitty gritty: “Are you going to go home and think of that naked dancer while you hold the woman you live with? Don’t imagine for a minute that your lover doesn’t know. Not in her mind, where she doesn’t want to know, but in her flesh, where she can’t help but know.” Yet this kind of ethereal emotional damage is, as he admits, a kind of harm that is difficult to prove, and harm that certainly shouldn’t be actionable at law. Speaking of an activist anti-pornography housewife who appeared on TV he says, “She was talking about how bad it was for husbands to stop into places like the Kitty Kat on their way home from work. That was the ‘crime’ she felt so righteous about quelling.” At times like this I feel justified in claiming Ventura as a fellow ‘mystical libertarian’ – someone who doesn’t want to pass legislation to try and make people act differently, but who wishes and hopes they would be better.

Most of the time, however, he appears to be a liberal who sees things like socialized medicine as good solutions. Ventura is the only writer under whose influence I have trouble holding to my libertarian principles. For instance, as a libertarian I feel that people should be able to do what they want to with their own property, including their business if they own one. In the unlikely event that I were ever in a position to hire someone to sharpen my pencils, I’d want them to do it to my satisfaction or forget about being paid. According to strict libertarian interpretation, the owner of a business should able to run it as she sees fit. But Ventura reminds me that without workers, there’s nothing. “I’m willing to take my lumps in a world in which little is certain, but I deserve a say. Not just some cosmetic ‘input,’ but significant power in good times or bad. A place at the table where decisions are made.” It’s hard to find a decent argument against that.

In another place Ventura quotes Article IX of the Constitution and reminds us, “Just because a right isn’t stated in the Constitution doesn’t mean you don’t have it,” something any libertarian can definitely agree with. Then there’s his essay about Las Vegas, the most libertarian place on earth, and one which was destined to come into existence because the Spanish Conquistadors intuitively knew it four hundred years before, as they searched for El Dorado, the “city of gold and light, incredible riches, eternal youth, exquisite pleasures – an intoxicating city of riches and dreams.”

As Ventura sees it, “that’s the promise of Las Vegas : Anything.” (Once again, we’re back to “An it harm no one, do what thou wilt.”) “If, in Puritan America, you dedicate a city to the pursuit of Anything, and you put that city far enough away from everywhere – then Puritans will find a way across one of the most dangerous deserts in the world just to rub shoulders with Anything without ruining their safe lives.”

Ventura is against the concept of safe lives on principle. He is a devotee of wildness and chance, a unique brand of rowdy mysticism. “I have a passion for Anything and would love to write a piece saying the more Anything the better, because it’s what I feel in my bones. But the statistics on teen suicide say my bones may be bad wrong.” His ambivalence shows through again in another essay which approaches Anything from another angle, as a very large problem, in fact. He is forced to realize and to admit that Capital-A Anything is not only what keeps people sane but what drives people crazy. “Our everyday world is one of dreamlike instantaneous changes, unpredictable metamorphoses, random violence, archetypal sex and a threatening sense of multiple meaning.” We aren’t constructed to go that fast and handle that much contradictory input. “For a quarter of a million years we experienced this only in sleep, or in art, or in carefully structured religious rituals.”

Much of Letters at 3 AM is about our current Age of Endarkenment. “The world is aflood with dark psychic fluid.” Ventura maintains, and “everything’s stained with it.”

One piece is entitled “You, in Particular, Are Going to Die – No Matter What You Eat, How You Exercise, or How Much Money You Have.” It’s about the pervasive sickness of everybody in what ought to be the healthiest country in the world during this or any other era. He points out (in regard to Vietnam) “in ten years of a shooting war, fewer Americans got shot dead than during ten years of ‘peace’ in their own country.” He takes on the boogieman of the moment and wonders whether Illegal Drugs really are the awfulest threat there is. “Either one of these figures,(365,000 tobacco casualties, 125,000 prescription-drug mistakes), much less the two figures combined, describes many, many more than the total number of people killed by heroin, crack, coke, PCP, handguns and AIDS yearly.”

The crime inherent in illicit drug use is not, as the government claims, the health hazard, the fatalities, or the “cost to society” but the fact that people are altering their consciousness without asking permission and in ways that they themselves choose. That’s something our government is not willing to let us do. Alteration of the mind is criminal – unless, of course, it is done by the government.

A woman I know with a large house keeps little nests of supplies – tissues, pens, scissors, hand lotion, post-it notes – at every place in the house where she might want to sit. Practical and time-saving as the idea may be, it definitely makes a cluttered environment. Hey, a person can do whatever they want in their own home, ya know? But at least one visitor to that house always feels a vague unease, amidst all the caches of goods arranged for the convenience of someone with no compelling physical reason not to get up and go fetch something once in a while. I recalled that sense of psychic discomfort when reading Ventura’s essay “An Inventory of Timelessness”, in which he makes some very interesting points about the hidden damages we wreak upon ourselves by our insistence on the continuous availability of everything. We suffer from a rapidly decreasing tolerance for delayed gratification of even the most trivial sort, and it comes with a very high price tag. Ventura counts every penny of that price.

Nowadays we tend to see our jobs as the rat race, the stressful ordeal against which, in order to survive, we must arm ourselves with good nutrition, plenty of healthful exercise, and meditational tape cassettes. Home is where we go to chill out and somehow recover for the next day’s onslaught of trauma in the workplace. But in another time, during his childhood, Ventura points out that the roles of home and work were in an important sense reversed. Home was a seething cauldron of emotional turmoil and physical violence, while work was the place men escaped to, to reclaim some illusion of order and a feeling that things made sense.

In Los Angeles I knew a husband-and-wife screenwriting team, both of them smart and hip and several other qualities that I don’t usually associate with religious zealotry, but they just up and turned into Bible-thumpers practically overnight. It was quite a shock. It set me to thinking. The spectacle of someone you know being “born again” is difficult enough to assimilate, but the possibility that it might strike both partners simultaneously is mind-boggling. It just amazes me that two people could get that way at the same time, and it probably doesn’t happen too often.

What happens instead? A unilateral conversion experience puts quite a strain on a relationship, and although many couples must have confronted such a dilemma, we don’t seem to hear much about it. One of the frightening alternative scenarios is presented in Ventura’s novel Night Time Losing Time: the unfortunate protagonist is actually deprived of his woman by Jesus as if the Naz were a rival suitor, just another guy with a cooler car or a smoother line of jive. This amatory method of dealing with the deity is reminiscent of a Leonard Cohen song that I’m pretty sure is a love song but can never determine whether it’s addressed to another person or to God. Like Cohen, Ventura ponders spiritual matters at great length. If there is a connection between religion and life, they want to know about it.

It is always a good idea for anyone to devote some thought to the relation between one’s professed beliefs and one’s practices. Are they aligned in some way that approximates integrity? Or do they barely overlap? Individually there is a gap between belief and practice; societally there is a gap between real spirituality and such clanking empty constructs as “Christianism,” and Ventura explores that difference.

An issue of Meshuggah carried his very informative look at the historical Jesus, the alarming differences between the various gospels, and the way that the Christ figure affects us today. Among the people of traditionally Christian lands, even the most confirmed atheist knows that Jesus is out there, lurking, somewhat like the AIDS virus. For anyone who has heard of him at all, the possibility always exists, no matter how miniscule that possibility may be, that some day, somehow, Jesus will get us.

Even better than his theological musings is when Ventura speaks of authentic spirituality: the intimate rituals through which friends confirm their mutual value; the spontaneously created altar; the magic that is all around if only we know how to see it.

At the end of Letters at 3 AM, prompted by readers who say he has complaints about everything but no answers, he offers Solutions to Everything – 38 of them to be exact. For instance, “Don’t chicken out about sex. Given that you’re with a consenting adult, do whatever you fantasize. This is much more important than quitting smoking.” Or have a rhododendron for a house pet. “They give much, ask little, have marvelous names, and they don’t shit where I walk.” In one of the Solutions, he devotes a considerable amount of energy to exhorting people not to drive like assholes.

Ventura can turn your perceptions inside out and present you with a whole new way of looking at something that may not totally convert you, but will never allow you to crawl back into your old way of looking at it.

Related: Leonard Cohen at Red Rocks 2009