|"Reflections and Repercussions" -- the memoirs of Si Lewen|
On the way to his appointment, my father discovered that he had forgotten his manuscript; He turned around, found his son unconscious and called an ambulance. Was it some sense of premonition which made him turn back, as well as hide the sleeping pills? I never asked him. Nor do I care to know the name of the hospital, but I was glad to be alive. I really did not want to die - just go to sleep, or far away. I remember Katonah Sanatorium, a pleasant enough place and euphemism for mental institution, and my therapist, a fellow refugee from Germany, who appeared overbearing. Besides, I was not ready to talk, to dredge up memories I did not care to remember. It was torture, especially the so called water therapy: ice cold water from a high pressure hose. Shock therapy? What was it meant to accomplish - ¬shock me back into reality? What reality? There was, however, a garden where, in a gazebo, I found refuge, and where another, a very motherly patient, found me one day. She talked quietly and asked questions gently and listened patiently, and then urged me to "get out of this place and try to get back to your painting".
Within 18 months I met Rennie. But it would take another 44 years to tell her what, in all our years together, I had thought too horrendous to share. Finally, Rennie would no longer have to wonder about her husband's nighttime tossing and occasional nightmare whimpers. She would now understand, also my fear of strangers, afraid even to attend a reception to any of my own exhibitions, or appreciate my own birthday observance, or applause following some lecture, wary to be the center of attention, in the limelight, afraid to be recognized. Finally, after 44 years, Rennie would know her husband.
Three years after the fateful Summer of 1982 on October Mountain, a half century after the more fateful assault, there appeared a rash of news reports of "police brutality and assaults" on civilians in various parts of the country. Evidently, mine was not an isolated case of the past. Governor Cuomo of New York State, in response, created a Commission in 1985 to probe into "police violence". After my many years of silence - I wrote to the Governor, as well as to Mayor Koch of New York City, recalling my experience and offering to testify in any inquiry, especially on the problem of any long range trauma and effects on the victim:
“I still dread going into New York City" I wrote, "suspicious of anyone, any stranger, shy of any social contact. I loathe not the officer, but myself - for being a Jew, a misfit in a place I was not wanted. The psychic scars from the assault still fester - they can never heal. The victim of a police assault inevitably grows suspicious of any representative of authority. Not only can the victim never forget, but he is unable to comprehend or accept what happened or why. For the remainder of his life he must live in a limbo, suspended between reality and illusion, where nightmare, horror and agony lurk just below the surface. The victim's world remains one of mostly bleak seclusion. His career and aspirations remain forever stymied. Because the police is, or should be perceived, as 'protector', a police assault becomes that much more traumatic and brutalizing than from an 'ordinary' criminal. A law officer who turns lawless violates a most sacred trust, and the authorities must become aware of what happens to the victim - even long after.“
My offer to testify, especially on any long range trauma, was never taken up. Evidently, the authorities - perhaps, the public as well - would rather not acknowledge that its Police, Officers of the Law, protectors of the public, defenders against crime, can, itself, turn criminal. However, I did finally learn that my assailant, Patrolman McLaughlin, had been dismissed from the New York City Police Department, but for the most absurd reason: "While assigned to duty in a rowboat on a park lake, permitted a civilian to enter said boat and conveyed him about the lake" the disposition read. A final insult: My ordeal - a pleasure ride? Previously, Patrolman McLaughlin had also been found "intoxicated and unfit for duty". I never thought that he was intoxicated, certainly not during the assault. He might have pulled the trigger of his gun if not for the many possible witnesses. Police victims have been shot and killed - in "self defense".
The assault, in fact, was never taken to trial in a Court. The “investigation” was strictly an internal Police Department procedure: No attempt was made to find any of the witnesses to the assault. Not even the two other patrolmen, waiting for the boat when it landed, were ever asked to testify. During one preliminary inquiry, for instance, I was interrogated about my wristwatch: "Where did you get it?" It was my parents' Bar Mitzvah present. Subsequently, I "lost" it, and never again could I bring myself to wear any wristwatch. Had I been assaulted by anyone other than a police officer, surely there would have been a real trial, a jury, witnesses, a thorough investigation. But no one, so much as said “I’m sorry”. It was not even thought important to inform me of the outcome of the inquiry. Forty nine years later, only after I had written to Mayor Koch, was I informed that my assailant had been dismissed and, I assume, also relieved of his gun. Eventually, I was to learn that some “deal” was brokered: Police Officer Mc Laughlin was to be dismissed but there would be no judicial trial. Evidently, even the Committee for German Refugees wanted to avoid any possible publicity.
Police violence against civilians apparently is a chronic occurrence and only occasionally becomes publicly known. In 1999, in response to yet another wave of “police brutality” reports, I wrote to Attorney General, Eliot Spitzer:
The various reasons and solutions for police brutality that have been offered in its long history seem to skirt the obvious: Arrogance, the arrogance of power, may well be fundamental to the possibility of brutality. Give a man a deadly weapon and the
authority to use it, and sooner or later this power may be abused. Add to it some deep seated hatred for no matter who, a tendency for quick and overwhelming rage, and you have a combination which sooner or later will claim its victim.
Authority, however, does not care to be advised or questioned. The manner in which my “case” was handled (and probably that of countless others) has little in common with justice: One kind of justice for the affluent, and another for the poor, the underprivileged, those who are merely assigned a lawyer. “Equality before the law” then becomes unattainable for the poor and unprivileged. It is they who fill the jails. But the sense for justice, for fairness, appears to be universal, imbedded already in the consciousness of children, perhaps the first and fundamental “human right”. “I apologize”. “Please forgive me.” Only a few small words, yet they can bring about an almost miraculous healing, perhaps even forgiveness. Unfortunately, authority will not readily acknowledge a wrong, apologize or asks to be forgiven.
It was the destruction of my dream of “America” that, perhaps, caused the most persistent trauma. This dream had sustained my childhood amid the anti-Semitic assaults in Germany, and then finally arriving in my “promised land” had that dream beaten out of me on a sunny, Sunday afternoon in Central Park. It took the far worse horrors of war and revenge – extracted from surrendering Nazi soldiers - that restored some semblance of self-respect. I was able, finally, to resume my art career, a career which was originally snuffed out in 1933. But no matter how seemingly successful, the second attempt was not to last. The assault, the insult of injustice, and fear of human contact came stalking back: Step by step, I had to retreat into seclusion and ultimate obscurity, first from galleries and exhibitions; and finally - declaring my work “no longer for sale” spelled the end to my career.
Retreating into work, brought about an explosion of creativity, a blooming of imagery and images I could never before have imagined, perhaps even attempted by anyone not cloistered into his own self-made world. No longer in need to satisfy expectations, my work was free now, free to explore regions perhaps never before encountered on any artistic itinerary: Change, transfiguration, mutation - often producing some most unexpected progressions, juxtapositions, even contradictions. Not a commodity of the market, subject to its appraisal. I was free now to see and accept my work, but I could not accept its maker. Uprooted and rootless, I could be anyone, any place, any time. I was free, my art was free to go anywhere, wherever it would lead. “Menage a trois, with muse” the sign to my work-shop read. I, alone, ought not to be considered responsible for what I created.
However, I had to face the reality of literally thousands of canvasses filling and overwhelming my work space. What happens to them once I pass away, became in my later years an ever more nagging question. I had to face it and let my daughters know: “When I pass away”, I informed Rennie, my daughters and grandsons “you should feel free to dispose of them as you see fit. Whatever. Continue giving them away, or sell them. “Some foundation, a museum should take them over”, they suggested. “Great! But if all else fails, have them hauled to the nearest garbage dump.” “Never”, was the family’s adamant reply “never will we take your work to a dump, never!” “It would be a pity, yes, but no one has the right to burden children beyond one’s lifetime” I answered.
Who can know what the future holds. Who could have known that as a result of early abuse I would turn into seclusion and create an art of “transfiguration, without a beginning or end”, and without precedent. Fate? It might turn an avowed Atheist into a believer of , perhaps, even divine purpose and design. A lifetime had passed since Fichtengrund where, after yet another caning from a brutal Prussian teacher I tried to imagine myself as two - one, a mere observer of the other. As I write these thoughts now, I realize that they first form in my mind in the third person - “Si” instead of “I”. It feels more comfortable. Draft after draft of these writings predecessors (there were many) proceeded in this manner, in the third person. “It sounds affected”, cautioned Rennie, and so I finally switched to the more acceptable first person “I”, but never comfortable with the sound or feel of it.
In the mirror I do not see myself, but only its asymmetric reflection. And neither, I believe, does anyone else, nor do we really know ourselves except its reflection. Only once did I attempt a selfportrait - during that first “glorious” year after coming to America. But within a year I tore it to pieces and got rid of it. Or so I thought. Rummaging through not only old and musty memories, but also through old and forgotten portfolios, I discovered - or rediscovered - the very first picture I had preserved - one man’s procession toward a fiery mountain. More recently in yet another portfolio I discovered the self-portrait from 1936 - yes, torn to bits. But evidently I had not discarded the pieces, but reassembled myself - in a most cock-eyed manner against a background of Burned Sienna.
What else may I have forgotten or mislaid? Probably much which I no longer remember, probably for good reason. Santayana was wrong: It is not forgetting but remembering which condemns us, far too often, to repeat the past in vengeance, violence, war and trauma. How many generations of hatred did my assailant, for instance, reach back before it exploded in rage that one sunny Summer afternoon in Central Park? Some day, perhaps, the means may be found to induce some form of amnesia - a total erasure of some specific trauma. Until then, victims of brutality seem condemned to live their lives in the depth of their silent stricken underworld they share in common with victims of torture and rape. Such victims all feel humiliation and shame (it is too degrading) and guilt ("was I the cause?") as well as loss of faith and trust in their fellow men, and finally, disbelief ("who will believe me?"). To reveal our fellow men capable of the most unspeakable had, perhaps, better kept unspoken. And yet, the trauma grows within, like a blossoming, putrid boil which the bearer tries, again and again, to escape - anywhere, any place, restlessly roaming about the world, and in his art, if he is fortunate to have an art.
1936, the year that ended my dream that was "America", I found escape not only in the silent dark bowels of movie houses, but I also discovered the Planetarium of the Museum of Natural History. It provided a silent darkness of a different kind - opening regions of not only vast stellar configurations, but even vaster possibilities and probabilities. This fascination with "what is out there" had started long before: Again and again, I would find myself "lost in stars", and wondering about origins, not only of stars and galaxies but of myself. Soon after World War II, reports began to appear of space objects from outer space. "UFO" arrived - to touch the public imagination and possible concern. I devoured every report, not only about "unidentified flying objects", but especially, about contacts with "extraterrestrials". What I had imagined my own very private world, seemed to have reached global dimensions.
The proposition that "we are not alone", appeared to me not only acceptable but, ultimately, true. Not only are we not alone, but contact, I was sure, has been far more universal than even imagination would allow, perhaps from the earliest beginnings and throughout history. If not direct physical then surely some mental, psychic contact - an intrusion of ideas and imagery, call it imagination, inspiration, dreams or hallucination. Where do they originate? Out of nowhere, out of nothing? They must have some origin. Out of one's own or some common heritage? Surely. But, these intrusions may also have a more profound and distant origin - distant in both time and place. The feeling of "being possessed" had always troubled and followed me. Possessed by what? Intruded by whom? This sense of possession and intrusion began long before that strange, sequential dream journey in Japan. From earliest beginnings, I could never shake free from the sense of being possessed by something or someone - "my muse"? If possession and intrusion into mind, why not also visitations of a more substantive nature? What if, truly, we are not alone, but have had contact, occasionally and here and there, from earliest beginnings?
There may be people who, literally, are out of this world, strangers and “misfits", alienated aliens, who do not "belong", lost and forever restless, but sensing an overwhelming bond to "something out there", and troubled by some strange "cosmic consciousness". Perhaps we did not all, or only, descend from primates alone, or by way of Neanderthal. Perhaps, there have been visitations, intrusions and infusions which have turned some into restless searchers for worlds beyond the here and now. This notion of extraterrestrial origin may be either one of the more outlandish and newer exotic mental aberrations, or perhaps not: "I may be a misfit here, but certainly I must belong somewhere, elsewhere, out there, perhaps". It became a comfort - ¬"alienation" and "alien" taking on a new and no longer troubling connotation. "Accept reality", I was often advised, most condescendingly. But what if my reality unfolded along other dimensions and proceeded in a different cadence, and was of a different kind.
I was indeed an alien in alien lands, an exile no matter where. My original birthplace, my "homeland" (Poland) I never knew nor cared to know; I was “unacceptable” in Germany; France was only a temporary stopover on the way to America. And America - the land of my dreams - had betrayed and demolished these dreams. I was an alien, and alienated I could see the rot beneath the glamour, haunted by the specter of a world brutalized by the arrogance of power, but inspired also by a universe of yet unimaginable possibilities, as well as moved by the unfathomable, the inexplicable, as well as wonder and mystery beyond the ordinary and the readily acceptable. I insisted on seeing connections where none seemed obvious, and the world as a continuous and continuing process.
What was I searching? Identity? What I found may only have been my own restless spirit which left its imprints on my art. Neither intellect nor reason was the driving force of my life or the work that sprang from it. "Transfiguration" was its primary dynamic which, ultimately, appeared to effect my very existence. Ethics and esthetics not only moved me but may prove the most potent humanizing force and redemption of bare, raw reality. Art in all its various manifestations is what separates man from beast and is the voice of our dreams. Man himself may well become his own ultimate work of art: a continuous process dreaming up and recreating himself to ever greater perfection into the image of his dreams.