“And all the long days, I kept asking “Why are we running?”
Wulf Zendik (1920-1999) began working on “a Quest Among the Bewildered,” his first full-length work, in 1957, at the artistic height of the Beat Generation. Set in both the Hollywood Hills and the Left Bank of Paris (where Zendik moved in 1958 to be with his lover, a French ballerina), the story told here is, above all else, personal. Zendik wrote not as a detached observer, but as a man willing to get himself dirty, willing to admit to his own unresolved contradictions. This constant struggle — which echoes throughout the book — brings a level of intimacy that is shocking but never sensationalistic, and gives “Quest” an enduring sense of humanity, even as it bristles with palpable rage. And there is rage aplenty here, not the easily overlooked pettiness of adolescence, but a blistering, almost biblical righteousness that demands to be acknowledged and obliged. It is the rage of a man who knows that life is worth fighting for, who realizes that it’s all too easy to simply accept all that has gone before. It is also the rage of a man who comes to understand that the ultimate answer is love, and “Quest” is equally filled with a lover’s quiet tenderness. Zendik’s affection for women is obvious — stories of past and present relationships are recounted with a poignancy that is unforced, thoughtful, genuine. These welcome interludes are woven throughout, and provide some of the book’s most haunting, beautiful moments.
“a Quest Among the Bewildered” is also an iconoclastic portrait of the people and places of this legendary era. Among the cast of characters: dancer/painter Vali Myers and poets Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, who Zendik met in Paris through a junkie-poet friend. It’s here that another facet of Zendik emerges, as we see him in contrast to the more famous artists of the time, who sought to portray reality without judgement. Zendik recounts their differences in this telling passage about Ginsberg: “Reading me, he said ‘I don’t like to be shouted at, talked to so much.’ Then dear Allen, don’t stop; let me see you look up; understanding misery, you accept misery — but not its pain; hurts inside so much and there’s the pills and powders and smoke and juice and life continues misery. Shouting and talking? Hell man… maybe I should get a big drum and a uniform.” Nothing else captures quite as well Zendik’s sense of moral purpose, his courage in the face of both the mainstream and the sanctioned counterculture.
Thematically, “Quest” is presented as a sort of non-linear kaleidoscope. Events are relayed in a mixture of narrative, poetry and stream-of-consciousness prose, with intimate details mixed alongside large-scale social observations. In and of themselves, these individual sections are fascinating — open to almost any page and you are quickly enveloped by Zendik’s tough, passionate mind. But the true impact of the book is cumulative. Sections that at first appear to be offhand or unrelated build suddenly into larger patterns, with each razor sharp piece adding to the beautiful, devastating whole.
But what is that whole? It’s not so much a single, sustained argument, although Zendik’s attacks on greed and conformity are as accurate, compelling and gutsy as they come. It is more the revelation of a man, a dropping of the veil that separates the artist and his audience. Instead of handing us a finished account of his inner journey, Zendik presents us with the journey itself, in all of its turmoil, loveliness and sorrow. The amazing thing is that it all comes off not as an act of self exhibitionism — the sort of public self-parody that’s so popular today — but as an act of will and extreme moral courage. What are we left with in the end? Not with answers — this book offers no easy solutions to the problems of being human. Instead, we are left with an honest example of the rocky process of self-discovery, and the sheer determination to ask the necessary questions, wherever they ultimately might lead.