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Al Bliss

Article from India May, 2005

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Out of Slavery and into David

By Al Bliss

 

From New Delhi with love, April 2005. I squandered untold hours in the nations public libraries reading about the lives of the artists and scrutinizing pictorials of their work. When the urge hit me, I would close the book, leave the library and ride the freights to the neighboring slum. After I secured a dormitory bed and pocketed the shelter’s rules, I screwed about my new town. Learning the street grid, then the homeless hangouts, I found my way into the local library, whereupon I picked up where I had left off. 

 

Since there are no free libraries in India at least not the way we know them, I’ve got to steal my books or do without. I’m not above lifting reading material. In fact I’ve already boosted several paperbacks. But the larger pictorial books, the ones that illustrate the work of the visual artists, are quite cumbersome and preclude theft. Doing without the photograph in front and the lengthy caption beneath to instruct, I’m forced to imaginatively recreate the piece and come to my own judgment. In this case, I’ll write a brief letter to you disclosing my thoughts about Michelangelo’s “Slaves” and “David”.

 

Michelangelo’s method, hewing figures out of formless blocks of stone, was undoubtedly time consuming. I can see him day after day, in my mind’s eye, chipping off superfluous pieces of rock and carving delicate incisions into the stone, until the posing figure and the chiseled sculpture were identical. The striking feature about Michelangelo’s four “Slaves” is that they are semi-finished. Like the men with whom I ate and slept during my formative vagrant years, Michelangelo’s slave sculptures reveal but half the man at various stages of development, while the other half lays imprisoned within the stone. 

I don’t remember the names the artist assigned to them so I’ll call them Slave 1, 2, 3 and 4. All of the Slaves are bent forward as they struggle to get free of the rock.

 

Slave 1’s face is barely visible but what you can see of it illustrates excruciating pain as he attempts to twist and pull himself from the stone slab. 

 

Slave 2 isn’t much better off than Slave 1 but the viewer can make out more facial details, the beginnings of his upper torso and thigh muscles. 

 

Slave 3 has well defined frontal proportions but the back half is still encased within the rock. 

 

Slave 4 is nearly unfettered.  

 

For a work like “Slaves” the artist undoubtedly used vagrant models. Vasari, the chief contemporaneous biographer of Michelangelo, never admitted it. Perhaps he felt such a confirmation might graffiti the figures and belittle the artist. How foolish. Every time I look at Michelangelo’s Slaves, in print or in imagination, I know the artist used posing vagrants. I can tell by the disquieting anguish carved into their bearing and the stubborn resolve to overcome. Such powerful emotions are vagrant proper and could never be affected by non-vagrant models or feigned by accomplished actors.    

 

The carousel of Slaves circling my imagination suddenly stopped when I recalled the struggles that I had been through; rejecting materialism and beating conformity on the one hand and overcoming alcohol, Crack and cigarette addictions on the other. I then remembered the vagrant brothers that shared my woebegone addictions and my headstrong spirit.

 

But what was the connection between Michelangelo’s Slaves, my struggles to become autonomous and sober and my brothers’ struggles to surmount their difficulties?

 

Other statues like “Pieta” and “Moses” represent fully formed figures. The Slaves, however, are partial and incomplete. The artist deliberately left these four works unfinished. It appears that Michelangelo intended them to forever struggle after their full form.  It seems as if by hewing the figures but half way out of the stone, leaving the other half enclosed, he were subtly commanding them to incessantly twist and pull themselves free from their captive -- addictions, obsessions, melancholies and apathies -- stone. 

 

Michelangelo’s “David” represents a fully formed figure. Beneath David’s idyllic appearance, however, I see woebegone addiction and headstrong spirit – that tells me that he who had posed for David was once a vagrant slave. The claim is justified.

 

Perfection like David’s reflected in his tranquil yet evident muscles and revealed in his unaffected yet commanding pose occurs only after years of struggle and resolve. A divine form such as his, attained through effort and realized on the dais, comes only after excruciating pain and willful determination.

 

When I flip through frontal shots and blow-ups of this uplifting sculpture I’m inspired to become the Homeless David, posing before vagrant posterity with unflinching eternal eyes. Such an evocative mental figure -- carrying backpack and bedroll, bent forward as I struggle against the wind, my long chestnut brown hair blown back and my ragtag threads windswept, too – compels me to hew my personality as if it were made of marble, striking my stone with ever harder blows, enduring pain like I have never endured pain before, so that my superlative vagrant self will go on.

 

Foresight was Michelangelo’s genius. For he correctly anticipated vagrants freeing themselves from their respective prisons by willing themselves into stunning works of live art. Herein lies the secret of Michelangelo’s unfinished Slaves.

 

Out of their lifelong struggle to release themselves from bondage vagrants shall embody beauty sublime.

 

Out of their strenuous efforts to overcome the slavery of addiction and conformity they shall become – David. 

 

Al was born and raised in Newark, New Jersey. Was a construction worker and now currently homeless writing is articles from his own experiences over the many years sending them to Street News and other homeless papers. He had excerpts of his 2001, 3rd edition short story published in Harper’s Magazine, Fall 2001.

 

Al is in India giving us the real deal! He has juust finished his journals and looking for a publisher.

 

He can be contacted thumbtraveler@hotmail.com or mynakedvoice@hotmail.com

 

How Can I Bring About a Cult of Superior Vagrants?

Al Bliss

What are the conditions that make the great vagrant appear? Is enduring self inflicted poverty sufficient? What gauntlet must a homeless man pass through to become a vagrant of substance? Does abstaining from pleasure meet the criterion? What obstacles must he overcome to become a superior vagrant? Is being able to tolerate extended periods of loneliness enough?

The more I think through the problem to its solution the more I believe that there are logical principles – psychological, physical, spiritual -- that “trap” the pleasure hound into becoming a self disciplined, goal oriented super vagrant. For example, just like 1 + 1 = 2, so too voluntary suffering plus a disciplined will equals greatness. 

This is what I want to know: How much longing must a street man willingly endure before he equals a John the Baptist? How much anguish must a vagrant deliberately experience before he totals up to a Thomas Merton? How much prejudice must a homeless man permit before he adds up to a Mohandas Gandhi? 

I believe in a spiritual ranking system. The religious ascetic, though high in my pecking order, is beneath the super vagrant. However, I strongly believe that a street man of substance must pass through the religious ascetic phase in order to become a super vagrant. With that said….

 Why is a “sadhu,” “yogi” or “maharishi” regarded as holy? What makes these individuals different from the rest of us? Is it their rigorous discipline? A pious disposition? The ability to resist temptation? Book learning? Or do these individuals have a special voice that reaches into the divine’s ear? If I sound disrespectful it’s because I am. For what good is holiness unless I and those for whom I write can be holy, too? 

I’ve come to India to ascertain how a homeless person of no significance can become a homeless person of great significance. Must the future vagrant leader do as I’ve done, cut himself off from family and friends in order to identify his mission? Must the woman of purportedly no significance endure fatigue and ridicule, as I have done all these years, until she recognizes herself as a new voice of a new vagrant era? And finally, must this vagrant leader acquire fame before others can hear the message? 

 If I should become famous through my writings, such fame is useful to me only in so far as I can inspire and instruct more vagrants. It’s for this reason that I want to be translated into every third world dialect, and read by every slum dweller in the so-called “developed countries,” too. My ultimate dream….

 Homeless Renaissance – the sun around which all of my writings revolve, may sound untenable to absurd. But once the so called “insignificant man” finds the strength to overcome his hedonism the glorious period of human creativity will thus begin. For such vagrant men and homeless women, feral humans through and through, are humanity’s only hope for a long and lasting prolific future. Unsullied by the toxic effects of civilization, unhampered by the demands of social conformity, these glittering lighthouses of untamed humanity represent our best and only shot of surviving as a species. 

 Bright, bold and fearless, these are the personality characteristics I have beheld among the homeless both here in India and abroad. It’s a small minority who embody these traits, to be sure, but a powerful, resplendent one. It’s a fledgling cluster of vagrant men and women, unsure of their value to Nature and uncertain of their importance to life but a cluster that has the potential to reenergize humanity. 

When I see Jaipur’s vagrants strutting the pavements, for example, I recollect Ralph Waldo Emerson’s thoughts on self reliant men and women and get inspired all over again. When I lean against a tree, observing the subcontinent’s forest campers, I lovingly recall the radical individuality of Henry David Thoreau and his time spent in the woods of Walden Pond and I want to join the campers now, today, immediately. 

When I behold the ingenious creativity of the brown eyed Indian vagrant, I feel the closeness of Frederick Nietzsche’s blond beasts, and imagine Jaipur’s vagrants as tomorrows Over Vagrants, and boy does that confirm my gut feeling that the future belongs to vagrants. When I sit next to a hobo traveling by train third class, my mind turns over the themes that preoccupied Jack Kerouac, sublime men and gutsy women traveling the globe searching for fun, adventures and self-knowledge, I feel so incredibly glad to be alive and nomadic. 

The shelters and missions back home don’t teach the value of self reliance, individuality, creativity and hobo traveling. In a well thought out essay, “Experimental Shelters and Provisional Missions” I indicated what emergency domiciles must do to stabilize the personalities and enhance the skills of their chronic tenants. Published in a number of non-profit newspaper and magazines, the work got enthusiastic reviews but was roundly ignored by the directors and officers of shelters and missions. 

Mission employees back in the states don’t show the brothers and sisters how to take advantage of their dire circumstances, turn the table around and use their daily sufferings to become super vagrants. I know what goes on behind mission doors because I lived the life. Shelter personnel never teach the sisters how to reinterpret their condition so that loneliness and penury are construed as gifts instead of curses, as ways to become vagrant strong instead of predicaments to cry about. And over here in Jaipur, Indian vagrants have to fend for food, clothing, shelter, and hygiene supplies, which should be thought of as the proper way to develop the virtues of cunning, resourcefulness and patience.

I routinely asked the officers and the directors back home why they don’t teach the brothers how to reinterpret the value of poverty, restlessness, and self contempt but always got a bunch of cockamamie replies. The officers want the brothers working on a job, which anesthetizes a homeless man’s creative vitality and mitigates his natural aggressiveness. The directors want the sisters slaving for a paycheck which stifles her innate propensity to non-conform. Reintegration into the social mainstream rarely happens – just look at the recidivism statistics -- but does retard the homeless renaissance that I envisage. When the willful vagrants that I envisage finally arrive…and they will come because the pendulum of homelessness must swing the other way. When the intrepid street men that I picture finally appear…and they must appear because the fecundity of human life depends on their coming. When these powerful vagrants finally emerge on the scene they will restore beauty and luster to the human landscape.

Because of their proximity to bright, bold and fearless super vagrants, today’s emotionally backward vagrants will give way to the self assured and the proud; drug and alcohol abusers to the saint and the hero and aimless behavior to daily, weekly and monthly goals.

Where I’m doing everything I can to instigate the fall of homeless hedonists and bring about a cult of superior vagrants, India’s leaders, like those in the United States, seem to be doing everything they can to fortify pleasure hounds and promote the virtues of sleepy contentment. Where I’m pulling out all stops to ensure the emergence and development of strong, fecund vagrants, the directors and officers of shelters and missions seem to want the weak degenerate to persist.

I’m in the middle of a major battle.

From Jaipur with love, May, 2005 

 


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