Copyright © Laurence Lockridge, 1994 All rights reserved From Shade of the Raintree By Larry Lockridge on The Dream of the Flesh of Iron --an early unpublished work by Ross Lockridge, Jr.-- (to, selections in facsimile: Planning Notes for The Dream of the Flesh of Iron) ~
From Chapter Five: The Dream of the Flesh of Iron
Bloomington, Indiana, 1934--1940
Selection, pp. 183-90
These recorded dreams and probably hundreds of others that didn't survive were only one tributary to the large poem he projected. Most twenty-four-year-old poets in the history of letters are still sweating out lyrics and pastorals, not yet stepping up to epic. Keats is an exception who proves the rule--he despaired of finishing his Hyperion. And epic writers themselves are often modest enough not to cross national boundaries.
But Ross Lockridge conceived The Dream of the Flesh of Iron not as an American poem but as a vast international epic--a spiritual history of twentieth-century American and European consciousness from 1914 to the present, from the First to the beginnings of the Second World War, with a prophecy of apocalyptic destruction.
This prophecy may have been a lucky guess. Rather than epic of an era, his poem is better understood as a psychomachia, the history of his own internal struggle with a dark muse.
Whatever the literary merit of this unreadable 400-page poem, it's a phenomenon. He gave it a simple plot with only three principal characters, but the episodes number a hundred thirty-four, and each character has a floating identity with multiple costume changes. In yet another variation on the Ross--Vernice--Hornbostel/Parsons triangle, we now meet the Dreamer, whom the author calls Freud's "Beloved Ego."
He pursues the Beautiful One, who is the object of the Dreamer's will-to-value in a convulsive world. She has something in common with what Freud calls the "ego ideal"--an image of perfection and aspiration that begins to form in early childhood in compensation for frustration and maternal withholding. She is also an exalted Eros. The Dreamer hopes for a love that can spill beyond ego, but the Beautiful One always eludes him. First she appears as a little girl in a park, much like Alicia Carpenter of Fort Wayne days; then variously as an actress in a high school theatrical, a factory worker, a danseuse, a midinette saying good-bye to her departing soldier, a Salvation Army Lassie, and--always in danger of taint--a burlesque entertainer, a vamp, and so on.
Wherever the Dreamer chases after her, he encounters the Rival, a Thanatos figure threatening Eros. (I'm sure Charlie Hornbostel and Jack Parsons would say their classmate is stretching things a bit.) As a paranoiac fantasy, the Rival is variously the rival suitor, the factory boss, the army officer, the rapist, the diplomat, the capitalist, and the face of Hitler that becomes nightmarishly larger and larger. He is aggression, ambition, violent sexuality, and death-wish.
The Rival as well as the Beautiful One is a component of the Dreamer's own mind: "Nazi Germany is after all the monstrous image of something the individual human soul is capable of." The Dreamer is himself a killer, and his other roles include a submarine officer, a soldier in the trenches, a cabby in a besieged city, a gambler at the roulette table, a spy, a pilot, a prisoner in a concentration camp, a falsely accused traitor. It's a violent poem, with nightmarish renderings of both great wars, and it is the author's tacit acknowledgment of his own aggressions.
Ross's illness of 1935-36 [scarlet fever] is behind the poem's bizarre symbolic action. All the world's machines have become ill, their iron surfaces encrusted like diseased flesh and their cores rotting. The Beautiful One asks,
Have you not seen
The sickness of the iron,
The strange disease that eats the flesh of it?
I saw the blue steel split
And burn like rotten wood
And they are afraid,
The fat bosses and the capitalists.
Dreamer and Beautiful One are both infected, and heroic pursuit is the search for a cure, always calamitous. If they are in a dirigible, it ruptures; if in a submarine, it implodes; if on a ship, it sinks; if on a train, it derails. As in the dreams Ross recorded, his hero, though of great aspirations, is often helpless and passive.
Freud and feverish imagination apart, where did all this come from? He's influenced by quest literature--The Faerie Queene, Alastor, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage--and by Keats's letter on Soul-making and Hugo's and Rimbaud's phantasmagoria. Fairy tales too; his poem isn't that far removed from his own juvenile Demon with the Fiery Tongue, where Cherry the Dreamer rescues Eloise the Beautiful One from the Demon as Rival.
And in drafts he alludes to Frankenstein as a touchstone. The Dream of the Flesh of Iron exploits the Gothic sensibility we've seen in his writings going back to high school days. It's a portfolio of Gothic conventions: womb-tomb fantasies, a chaste woman pursued by a man of satanic sexuality, the decay of social structures made literal in the crumbling of buildings, the protest of lovers against institutional tyranny, the rise of corpses from graves, the descent into the crypt of the unconscious.
But I discovered the main narrative source to be the futuristic novel by Serge Simon Held, La Mort du fer, read when he was ill back in 1936, of which only a few copies exist in the United States. He initially thought of writing a poem as "a series of fragments" based on this novel, in which French industry is mysteriously debilitated by a phosphorescent rot in all its iron and steel, leading to apocalyptic social dislocation and collapse. He later took this metaphor--a weird equivalent of the fallen sensibility he terms "materialistic"--and built his own plot around it.
I think this obscure novel made such an impact because he happened to be ill when he read it, and it somehow projected his own debilitation onto the modern world. He would always think of materialism thereafter as a "disease." Though someone who liked cars and gadgets, he came to see the growth of industry as spiritual illness and literal blight. The fiery iron mills were like diseased hearts and the contagion spread deep into the ground and into people's skin and bones. The antidote to all this was a renewed spiritual link to the body and the natural world. He had emerged from his sickbed a worshipper of nature.
Not wishing his poem to be too "literary," he also drew on cultural history, the history of warfare, journalism, and science. His ambition was encyclopedic. Vernice photographed him in the basement writing the poem with copies of Life on the cardboard table. To enhance descriptions of women walking down a city street, he culled hundreds of words from the fashion pages of The Indianapolis Star. To give an insider's view of the City, he researched the engineering history of New York City. He was always working things up, filling pages with what he called "raw material."
In the opening episode, "Emergence," he puts to use a geology course he took in 1935, extending his childhood interest in rocks. He narrates the allegorical passage of the human ego through the stages of embryonic development, paralleling it with the evolution of species in various geological eras. Not having taken college biology, he makes copious notes on The Science of Life and botanical textbooks. We watch the human ego emerging from a prenatal lake of amniotic fluid, a "warm hydrosphere," traveling down the birth canal river and gasping for air, surrounded by ferns, cycads, great golden spore cones, giant dragonflies, fish, reptiles, birds.
Thinking this much of a muchness and worried that his poem might read like a biology textbook, Ross consigned dozens of stanzas to the cutting room floor.
My metaphor is apt: the principal nonliterary source besides Freud is cinema, especially the film he thought the greatest ever made, D. W. Griffith's Intolerance. He and Vernice joined the Campus Cinema Club in 1936, when he first saw this silent masterpiece of 1916. He observed that "several interwoven stories move slowly together, then increase in speed and interest, grow shorter and faster in pace, and at last approach a stupendous climax as history itself seems to pour like an irresistible torrent across the screen." Following Griffith, he mixes scenes in ironic juxtaposition, as when he narrates a strike of left-wing workers along with the collapse of the giant chandelier at the opera house, an image borrowed from another silent film, Phantom of the Opera.
In a draft of the episode "Borderland," he writes that "our consciousness is like a screen on which our own lives and their events and those of others--the world objective and subjective--are seen to flow and fade like the phantoms of the screen--and yet all retained in the imperishable celluloid of memory, the undying pictures." The poem has much the feel of a silent melodrama in which the hectic phantoms of the screen pour out their uncanny screams and unheard lamentations.
As for sources in the life of Ross Lockridge besides his illness and rudimentary romantic triangles, many are obvious and show he's drawing on whatever exotica he's experienced--I'm sure partly to take his mind off the fact that he's once again sitting in his parents' backyard. He would always find in the magic circle of writing a retreat from the domesticity he otherwise relied on, where he could give free expression to powerful, anarchic feeling.
At first the City is Fort Wayne, with its avenue of frame houses and elms, but it blends improbably with the Manhattan he did with Larry Wylie--ghettoes and skyscrapers and townhouses. A burlesque theatre is rather like the one he visited in Chicago; a cafe near the theatre of war smacks of Demory's in Paris; rioting workers are modeled on the right-wing Paris manifestations of 1934, except that the politics of the rioters have shifted to the radical left. The many episodes of warfare owe much to his trip with Lamorey to Verdun; a roulette episode comes from his lone visit to Monte Carlo; the "Ship of the Night" episode from his voyage home with Marion Monico aboard the Mauretania. A spy episode takes place in a room strikingly similar to his room at 19 rue Soufflot. The New Harmony Labyrinth, though merely Hoosier, is exotic enough to gain admission, transformed into the Iron Labyrinth of the Nazis' war and propaganda machine.
But the autobiographical dimension of The Dream of the Flesh of Iron is more compelling in what the author has omitted. Ross Lockridge conjures up his childhood scenes in Fort Wayne, but his Dreamer has no mother, no father, and no siblings! Tellingly, the house on Creighton Avenue is bereft of any familiar domestic face. I think the poem magnifies Ross's early sense of not quite connecting with his own family, not finding his place there.
In another sense, though, the mother is everywhere. She is the maternal lake of the opening poem, "Emergence," from which the Dreamer is born and to which he returns at the poem's end. Implicitly she is the prototype of the Beautiful One. Ross was seeking in this poem to break the memory barrier, to peer back into the period he called "The Unremembered." As he knew, Freud discusses intrauterine dreams and links the sense of déjà vu to the genitals of the mother, "the home of our nostalgia."
The poem is thus more pre-Oedipal than Oedipal. The Dreamer ultimately seeks to regain a total symbiosis with a maternal power, before any father intervened. The maternal aspect of the Beautiful One isn't balanced by any paternalism in the Rival.
For my father the torments of family romance were secondary--Ross Senior, during the Oedipal years, wasn't a full rival. He always slept alone and Elsie, after the death of Bruce, lavished attention on her youngest son. The awe Ross Junior felt at his father's energies in those early years, and the fun of historical vagabondage, had slowly been yielding to unspoken resentment at having to wield his pen for the greater glory of this midwest Thucydides. And with self-defining scrutiny, he hoped not to become the same well-intentioned push over. He would always insist on the "Junior" in his name, which was otherwise not his own.
The Boss at the Mill offers the closest parallel to Ross Senior, since he was personnel manager at Wayne Knitting Mills during a strike. But I don't hear much of our Indiana orator in this speech:
--Listen, you little bitch, I guess you know
That I own half this mill and pay your wage.
If there's one goddamned thing that I can't stand,
It's to see little workin' sluts like you
Playin' the priss. Oh, Hell, I guess you want
To have me make the offer plain and fair.
Well, here it is, by God. I don't mince words.
There's somethin' about that pretty puss of yours
That makes me want you bad.
In effect Ross Junior tries to write his father out of this poem.
The Dream of the Flesh of Iron is structured as a homecoming, but ironically to a home without domestic associations. After free-falling through two world wars and the cultural life sandwiched between, the Dreamer returns to the City to find it, like most of the planet, in ruins. Eventually he carries the lifeless body of the Beautiful One back to the primordial maternal lake. She revives, and as the Dreamer sinks into the warm waters, embraced by a white radiance, her "great eyes are shining with love and hope."
He doesn't exactly drown. "The Dreamer rises into some more august day, with the knowledge that the Quest for the Beautiful One never ends and that the Dream can never be ended in the heroic fight which the Soul carries against its antagonists."
But before coming to these straits, the Dreamer has had a confrontation less programmatic, where I believe we find Ross Lockridge, Jr. breaking through the persona of this universal Dreamer, grasping for a personal identity, and seeking deep in his memory for the early attachments that elude him. Near the end, the Dreamer confronts the Rival, who has abducted the Beautiful One to the top of a crumbling skyscraper. "For a moment the Dreamer feels a temptation to surrender the dream entirely rather than feel the agony and the fear." But he gathers strength from sight of her and flings the Rival off the roof. He must then confront the elevator shaft.
The moment in Ross's midteens when he panicked near the top of the industrial chimney at the Indiana University power plant had turned up in his dreams. He wrote up one as a "symbolic prose poem" that he then recast in Spenserian stanzas for the climactic sky scraper episode. He was in the top story of the Woolworth Building in downtown Manhattan, looking into a profound shaft where ladders were dangling. "I had been deceived in the ladders, and instead descended by a chain of old miscellaneous abandoned articles which clung flimsily to each other by their own projections."
He falls but catches himself "on a trunk whose contents spilled crazily into the void. Books, papers, marbles, clocks, vases, pictures, pencils, and typewriters--and all unbelievably old and decomposed--were loosed in my descent . . . I reflected that I had seen all of these objects many years before, but thought them erased from memory . . . I could see the floor now far below me, and in my frantic desire to reach it loosed a veritable rain of articles. These fled through the air turning and jostling one another and--wonder of wonders--struck the floor without noise, bounding again and again into the air. I turned my mind to salvaging some of these treasures, which, in the remarkable mutations of time, had found their way into this unremembered nerve of the building.
"And it was as though I lived my childhood all over again. At length I found myself on the floor clutching in my arms a load of old letters, shining marbles, books, locks of hair, and tarnished gold coins which with an unutterable hunger of regret I knew I could never bear away with me."
Triggered by sudden fear of death, this is a hunger for a personal past forever lost except in the "celluloid of memory, the undying images." This is Ross Lockridge, Jr., not a universal Dreamer, looking once again at his old marbles and books and the miscellanea of the Creighton Avenue house and in sorrow recognizing limits to repossession. He returns in time to recover sources of old memories that have all along, without his knowing it, informed the structures of his emotional life. Sadly, they have the appearance of debris.
They are probably tokens of a still deeper nostalgia that doesn't reveal its object--the mother, absent from the cast of characters and transmuted into the maternal lake. She is buried, I think, in what Ross calls an "antique preexistence"--those early years when children most require the presence of their mothers and when he may somehow have missed his own.
This poem was not the format in which such recognitions could be pursued. Estella had bluntly told Wanderfell she didn't like The Illuminations--that pretentious descent into the diseased unconscious--and he burned it. Vernice never advised Ross in this way--she always had total faith in his powers--and he cheerfully went ahead with his book of nightmares, onto which he tacked a positive if macabre ending. His poem risked the dangers Wanderfell described when he repudiated his earlier work as a "massive edifice" of sick dreams. "The great thing, Raggleton, is to live in other people, in all people."
In seeking a universal Dreamer, Ross Lockridge explored the dangerous idealism he had himself warned against a few years earlier. When all human selves are absorbed into the single self, that self is ironically diminished. He had written a long work unlike anything in the canon and had purged himself of it. The Dream of the Flesh of Iron is a cautionary tale he writes to himself. It is a nightmare of grandiose self-projection and emotional isolation--and the kind of poem he shouldn't write again, just as the illness it narrates is not to be endured again. He would soon turn to creating another cast of characters, which would reflect a greater range of his sympathies.
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