I was browsing the poetry section at Barnes & Noble’s the other day when I ran into one hell of a ballsy title. What Matters Most is How Well You Walk Through the Fire (1999), is a collection of poems by Charles Bukowski, published posthumously by his last wife who apparently thought that he walked through the fire quite well. It takes some cojones to pull off a proclamatory title like this without coming off as extremely pretentious, but in this case I think the implied compliment to the man is well deserved.
By bohemian standards anyways, Bukowski walked through many fires, walked them well and was justly proud of these achievements. For his lifestyle and for the incredible written product of his struggles he’s earned himself a solid spot amongst the heroes of 20th century Bohemia.
It’s hard to pin Bukowski down to a moral ideology, but it’s certainly not a stretch to see him agreeing that life’s first principle should be that what matters most really is how well you walk through the fire. For those of us who wish to follow in his footsteps — the footsteps of the bohemian — things aren’t quite so clear. What is “the fire” and what does it mean to walk well through it? Why should we think that this is what matters most? And what does this principle say about living a bohemian life versus a mainstream one?
The poems are worthy of the spirit of the poet and of the uncompromisingly bohemian life he walked. But it’s the title that grips me the most. The title is a (post-mortem) proclamation of real manhood and real living — not their usual softer compromises. Its claims amount to the declaration that life’s value is measured in terms of the currency of courage, strength and perseverance of its trials. These are traditionally masculine virtues and they call out a challenge to others to stand up and be men. Bukowski and Hemingway and Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac’s idealization of Neil Cassady stand straight-backed as the heroes of the American bohemian alternative to the blind machismo of the soldier or the suburbanized fatherhood of the rest of modern society. They call out on us to have the courage to be ourselves, to stand up for who we are and to remain ourselves through life’s tabulations. Bohemia’s strongest masculine ideal is to remain uncompromisingly dedicated to being who we really are or dream of becoming. Tell it that what you ultimately and truly wish to be is a suburban middle-management tv-addict or a well-functioning cog of a mighty military machine and Bohemia will respond by pointing out your self-deception. These alternatives (and others) are nobody’s ultimate ideals — just comprises of living — and unsavory ones at that. Bohemia strongly frowns on comprises and champions those who are willing to do without them.
I’ve never met anyone who really measured up, though then again maybe I haven’t been looking hard enough, deep enough … At some idealistic points in my own life I thought that perhaps I someday would (measure up), but that fantasy is slipping away from me as quick as indecisions and passed-up opportunities pile up behind me and define who I am.
I’m 29 and I’ve been waiting for that self-confidence to bubble and rise and flower into a self-fulfilled, self-rewarding bohemian manhood — waiting long enough to begin wondering whether that ship has long departed when the seas began rocking with a little less black and white. Long enough to begin to question the directions they gave me to this pick-up point — were they foolin’? Did I hear them wrong? Did they ever actually say anything at all? Did I put the words into the world and build mouths and unpronouncables around them?
The reality of it is that sometimes I do feel something personal and real and beautiful and free in some of the snapshots that make up my life. Last midnight, sitting on the second story walkway outside the door of my little Hollywood bungalow, drinking a beer, smoking a cigarette, reading street poetry in the hot summer night, scatting with Duke, enjoying a certain type of perfect moment, basking in the rare feeling of being the kind of man I’d like to be. Copies of my first book sit in a box inside and I feel good about this morning’s writing and the Sunday morning walk alone that inspired it. Somehow, I’m a dreamer and a real man, though I was always told that that was the one thing a real man couldn’t be. Then again, I’m under no illusions that it’ll be this way tomorrow.
The sneaking, not-so-romantic suspicion that, ultimately, the defining graces of men are not so different after all does manage to creep in on me under the curtain of bohemian cool. Maybe it really is true that what matters most is how well you could and did and do walk through the fire. Maybe stylistic aspirations aside, virtually no man can ignore the call of his gender to prove himself worthy of his manhood. The problem is that it?s not at all clear what counts as proof these days — not so much for society, which doesn’t really seem to demand it, but for us as individuals needing to justify the worth of our manhood. Not only do I have serious doubt about my ability to walk through the fire, I can no longer even tell what the fire is.
My father and grandfather earned their certificates of manhood in basic training, and cemented them in combat. They faced danger, learned to understand it and acquired the courage to push on through. When it was over they knew that they had walked through the fire and that they had it in them to be men in the world. Americans today, and worse yet, would-be-bohemians, usually don’t have that horrible luxury. War is too complicated today and god is on everybody’s and nobody’s side. Besides, resigning all of your freedoms — and particularly your moral decisions to somebody else – going to war is the most anti-ethical thing a bohemian-inspired could do. The soldier’s path is usually closed to us – and even when it isn’t, we suspect the humanity of the army clones that seem to go through it. That trial of fire produces a general type of man today that many of us simply don’t want to be.
Then again, it wasn’t Bukowski’s trial of fire either. His was the perseverance through a life of extreme poverty, homelessness and alcohol — most of all it meant successfully dealing with the most trying plague of the poor — each other. Bukowski’s walk through the fire is that of living in a ghetto that’s almost always aflame in some quiet desperate way. It amounts to the perseverance of yourself and your ideals despite the harassment of the flames that leap around you. He grew into a manhood defined by the ability to comfortably maneuver around the desolate (whores, bullies, addicts, bums, etc.) and to respect his own position in the world as a man walking his own path.
I won’t pretend that I live any type of heroic life — I don’t. I feel like a softie these days, living off my graduate teachership, so comfortable with my place in the world and with the little luxuries that pervade my life — maybe not enough to make me feel like a rich man, but enough to make me feel like a lucky one. I spend my weekdays and weekends alike in a flurry of writing, thinking, teaching, learning, editing ? but I have no clock to punch and can do it all at my own pace and by my own convenience. The little things in life mean a whole lot more. The small dinners with friends, the rare night out to see someone perform who you know on a personal level, really meaningful conversations that leave out the small talk, enjoying the tenderness of being in love.
And yet when I sit down with someone and we tell our stories, I always have some good ones that remind me that I’ve acted out my share of parts in this drama: Mescaline in the high desert, the acid-house in Budapest, the porn-house in Lima, the city of the dead in Cairo, visits to my father in prison
camp, running away from an inhospitable home and getting kicked out of it, getting mugged trying to follow in Hemingway’s footsteps in Pamplona, etc. etc. I’ve been around enough and walked through enough of my own fires to appreciate the outcome of the cooling winds on the other side. I have no intention of abandoning it all in favor of middle-class contentment, but I know that I probably won’t repeat the lifestyle of my 20s. I respect, but have no aspirations to relive the life of Bukowski. I don’t have the strength for its continual bashings, the addiction to force me to keep stumbling within it, or the lack of straight-world opportunities to escape it.
More importantly, while I don’t doubt that it matters how well you walk through the fire and that, indeed, it is important that you do walk through the fire and challenge your integrity, savoir-faire, real-world survival skills, creative understanding, etc. ? I don’t think that it really is what matters most. I?ve grown to admire the softness that comes with love and responsibility as possibly the deepest and most substantial form of being and have junked many of my artist-knows-best judgments. I?ve grown soft at “almost-30” and very happily so. And yet, soft complacency is the furthest thing from my mind. Fulfilling my creative needs and living my life with integrity requires me to keep challenging myself. There will always be fires to walk through and there will always be times when I?ll burn, burn, burn as the mad ones do ? but not to the ground as so many of them did. To me, what matters most is not how well you walk through the fire, but what kind of man you were before the flames engulfed you and what kind of man you become after wiping the ash off of your face.