Philip Lamantia: Last Interview
by Garrett Caples
Note: In July 2001, I was asked to interview Philip Lamantia for a local Bay Area magazine. It was meant to be a puff piece for a general audience, but Philip took it quite seriously as an opportunity to discuss his spiritual life and its relation to surrealism and poetry. He felt his views on Catholicism in particular had been misrepresented by a few unscrupulous journalists and wanted to set the record straight. But interviewing Philip was difficult. He spoke not in paragraphs but in volumes, with labrythine digressions which sometimes never returned to the ostensible subject at hand. We quickly had to abandon the ordinary Q&A approach in favor of his writing and phoning in various remarks, from which I reversed-engineered questions. While I assembled these discrete units into a plausibly conventional journalistic profile, he continued to refine his statements and, occasionally, change his mind, for he constantly interrogated his own beliefs. Paragraphs appeared and disappeared. As both deadline and word-count loomed, I managed to pull together a version that had his approval if not his entire confidence that I’d made him understood. The point, in any case, was moot, for the publisher deemed the discussion too esoteric for his target audience and promptly killed the piece. Not long afterward, in October, Lamantia fell into a lengthy depression from which he never fully recovered before his death on March 7, 2005 at age 77. To my knowledge, this is the last interview in which he participated.
The mermaids have come to the desert
they are setting up a boudoir next to the camel
who lies at their feet of roses
A wall of alabaster is drawn over our heads
by four rainbow men
whose naked figures give off light
that slowly wriggles upon the sands
I am touched by the marvelous
as the mermaids’ nimble fingers
go through my hair
that has come down forever from my head
to cover my body
the savage fruit of lunacy
—from “Touch of the Marvelous.”
Philip Lamantia has been the subject of legend since he began publishing. But then, if you first appear at age 15 in View—a national avant-garde magazine of the 1940s—and immediately wind up in the company of war-exiled surrealists in New York City, you might be unable to avoid it. Being a child prodigy no doubt enhanced his early reputation, although it has possibly obscured the reception of his work. While it remains astonishing that a 15-year-old wrote the lines above, it’s perhaps more significant that, as John Yau once suggested in The Boston Review, “his poems were unlike anything else being written in America during the 1940s” (my emphasis). Their fevered eroticism and rejection of the academic formalism then dominating poetry were among the first salvos of what eventually became a literary revolution, culminating over a decade later with the so-called “Beat Generation.”
A fellow traveler of Ginsberg, Corso, and Kerouac, Lamantia is often classed as a Beat poet. His work, however, bears only slight resemblance to that of his friends, and even the short list of his other contacts—Henry Miller, Parker Tyler, Kenneth Rexroth, Paul Bowles—suggests the range of his literary genealogy. In terms of his poetry, his youthful encounter with André Breton, founder and chief theoretician of the Surrealist Movement, probably proved the most decisive. This is not to discount the importance of Philip’s association with the “Beats,” a term he rejects as a media creation, though we might say his exposure to surrealism and his role in SF’s late ‘40s anarchist scene was well matched to his friends’ rebellion against the repressive society America fostered after World War II. Beginning with Erotic Poems (1946), a collection of his early work written between the ages of 15 and 19, Lamantia published several landmark books: Ekstasis (1959), a group of sensuous religious poems; Narcotica (1959), a splenetic tour de force “demand[ing] extinction of laws prohibiting narcotic drugs”; and Destroyed Works (1962), a volume best described as a combination of both, seen through the lens of his travels in Mexico and his participation in Native American religious rites such as the Washo’s Peyote Way and the Cora’s tobacco rituals. While these works do share in the “Beat” use of colloquial speech and hipster jargon, they retain “the touch of the marvelous” Lamantia received from surrealism during his youth.
For the surrealists, “the marvelous” serves as shorthand for the unknowable but ultimate liberation, a union of conscious and unconscious thought, attainable only through the fulfillment of desire. No mere narcissistic project, this revolution of the mind implies a transformation of society and indeed life itself, in its attempt to surpass the rational, anthropomorphic structures language imposes on the world. Yet language is our sole means of communication, indeed the very medium of cognition; the “surrealist use” of language thus most often expresses itself through non-rational employment instead of rational functioning. (Surrealism is the language of the unconscious, language alienated from its function as a tool.) “Touch of the Marvelous” embodies such employment through its reconciliation of opposites. “The mermaids,” mythological to begin with, are not, as we’d expect, floating underwater but “in the desert”; here these creatures somehow function over sand, perhaps with “their feet of roses.” The hard to imagine footrose may then mask the fact that the mermaid’s defining characteristic is her lack of legs, and therefore feet, in favor of her fish-like lower body. Similarly the “four rainbow men,” whatever they are, “give off light” instead of cast shadows, as would most ordinary “figures” in a “desert.” My point here is not that such logical objections disrupt the poem but rather, they don’t. They in fact make its poetry, detailing an image that we can’t quite see but whose visceral impact we feel through the accumulation of sensual particulars. Similarly the third stanza seems to present an orgy, yet specifies nothing. The eroticism of multiple mermaids, fingers, hair, and “the savage fruit of lunacy” is quite distinct from more overt sexual acts depicted, say, in “Howl,” where “the best minds of my generation” are “fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists.” While Ginsberg’s line opened the door to uninhibited sexual expression in poetry, Lamantia’s eroticism has a metaphysical quality beyond the individual sexual act, toward an exultation of erotic love as a whole.
Since the 1966 publication of Touch of the Marvelous, his definitive selection of early work (slightly expanded in 1974), Lamantia has published his Selected Poems 1943-1966 (1967); The Blood of the Air (1970); Becoming Visible (1981); Meadowlark West (1986); and Bed of Sphinxes: New & Selected Poems (1997).
Having emerged from a lengthy withdrawal from poetry, Lamantia had recently begun writing again when I met him on October 23, 1998, his 71st birthday. He had a physical vigor and conversational energy that belied his years, and it wasn’t long before some fellow poets and I began meeting with him on a semi-regular basis, contributing our knowledge of the contemporary scene in exchange for Philip’s voluminous discourses, ranging from Egypt to opium to his recent reconversion to Catholicism. This last proved most intriguing, especially given Breton’s expressed animosity to the Church. A profession of faith to a Christian religion, moreover, isn’t the easiest way to reestablish contact with what is now a fairly nonspiritual poetic avant-garde. But Lamantia’s never been about marketing. This is the same man who, at the Six Gallery in 1955, during possibly the most famous single reading in the history of American poetry, read none of his own work but rather the poems of his best friend, John Hoffmann, who’d died mysteriously in Mexico in 1952. Philip clearly does what he wants when he feels the time is right. In a recent conversation, he focused on his faith, particularly in relation to his life as a surrealist poet.
“There have been times,” said Philip, “when I considered my relationship with surrealism over. When I returned to SF in the late ‘40s, my poetry underwent a complete 360˚ turn, under the influence of Rexroth. I wanted to write more ‘naturalistic’ verse, very little of which I ended up keeping.”
What, then, of the mystical poems of Ekstasis?
“I wrote much of Ekstasis during my initial conversion to Catholicism, in the early fifties, though I eventually drifted away from the Church. I didn’t quite have the philosophical sophistication I have now, in terms of understanding mysticism. By ‘mystic,’ I mean the experience of having something previously unknown reveal itself to you, a direct communication with God. One in which you feel God’s love in an ecstatic, physical way.”
Is the mystic, then, equatable with the marvelous?
“In Ekstasis, I wrote ‘Christ IS the marvellous!’ so yes, I felt a continuity between surrealism and mysticism. I believe that erotic love and spiritual love are essentially the same. Take the word ‘passion’; it indicates both the saint’s experience of God and the lover’s experience of the beloved, and with good reason. The use of the same term shows people knew this at one point, but it’s been forgotten.”
But how, I asked, does surrealism, or poetry more generally, relate to this conception of the erotic?
“In Mad Love, Breton said he had no interest in any art that didn’t produce the same ‘shiver’ in him the erotic did. This is what I’m talking about. Except that I equate poetry and eros with the mystical experience. I imagine this isn’t a popular attitude today, but I think it adequately describes the type of thing I’d call ‘poetry.’ Much of what passes as poetry today I have no interest in, whether it’s automatic writing or collaged from a newspaper. Both activities were important parts of surrealism, but they’re outmoded, at least at the moment. If the poem is not written in a state of passion—what we used to call THE ZONE—then forget it.”
So then, what is the major difference for you between surrealism and Catholicism?
“As you know,” Philip replied, “Breton despised the Catholic Church. He was an atheist-materialist. Yet he often was ‘accused’ of being a mystic, and he did evoke ‘the spirit’ in his political and poetic discussions, so much so that several Catholic intellectuals found surrealism’s aspirations identical to their own. They equated God with the marvelous, as I did in Ekstasis. Also, in the ‘50s, when it came out that Michel Carrouges, who Breton claimed wrote the best book on surrealism, was actually a Catholic, it led to one of the biggest rifts in the movement. Several younger members left, because Breton was reluctant to throw Carrouges out. But the fact is that orthodox surrealism does reject Catholicism as such.
While I officially reembraced surrealism in 1970, and almost exclusively appeared in surrealist controlled publications, already by 1982, I no longer considered myself an ‘orthodox’ surrealist in any way. When I wrote the poems collected as Meadowlark West in 1986, poetic surrealism served as only one element.”
Is there now no contradiction between surrealism and Catholicism?
“I find no contradiction,” Lamantia stated matter-of-factly. “But you have to understand that there are still plenty of orthodox surrealists out there who’d disagree. Perhaps you could call me a ‘mystic surrealist,’ if anyone would understand that, since both words have been corrupted. One thing people miss about surrealism is that it evolves, even as it stays the same; Breton said as much, considering it something that predated his discovery and yet adapted to the times. It’s the same with the church. It changes but remains unchanged in essence. My sympathies are with the innovative yet traditional side of the Church, the mystical tradition that’s often been overlooked or forgotten.”
In concluding, I asked Philip his thoughts on the role of poetry in contemporary culture.
“Like mysticism, poetry aims to reveal what is unknown to us, but also to make us conscious of what is already inside us. This is what Plato meant by ‘unconscious knowledge’; the ‘unconscious’ wasn’t a psychological concept for him but a matter of knowledge that had yet to be revealed. Surrealism, having thrown open the relation between the unconscious and the conscious now for me germinates the seed of the ‘surconscious.’ This is a third term in a triadic structure of thought, as articulated by Wolfgang Paalen, where unconscious and conscious cease to be contradictions. We live now in a state of idol worship of a science enslaved by technology, despite the insistence of scientists from Paracelsus to Einstein on the central role of inspiration in their work.
As with Poe and Milton, passion is qualified as the central sun of poetry—indeed, analogously, the human and suprahuman erotic, the active and creative principle, attains infinite degrees of transformational power. Poetry has yet to recover its function as a conductor/vehicle of essential knowledge (gnosis). Passionate love is the lever for the poet and saint; androgynous union: source and culmination in renewal of vital energy.
Designated ‘The Magnificent’ by André Breton, the symbolist poet, Saint-Pol-Roux, reminds us: ‘Poetry is nothing less than the renewal of God’s original activity.’ It is a traditional saying (hermetic): ‘The root of heaven is on earth.’ Saint Catherine of Siena: ‘Desire is infinite.’ By analogy to the above triad, I suggest ‘The past is in the future.’ Furthermore, mystery illuminates the marvellous in all things and surreality inhabits the marvellous mystery at the core of all and any reality.”
Copyright © 2005 by Garrett Caples; all rights reserved. This interview appears with the consent of the Estate of Philip