FORGOTTEN AMERICAN HISTORY

Forgotten American History: Samuel P. Clemson

Mr. Clemson’s short lived political career took advantage of the incongruous and mismatched period of nascent communication technologies and undeveloped zoning regulations at the turn of the 20th century. He came into great wealth via a variety of patents and mysterious business ventures, most notably the stationary car, a product which sold very little but at exorbitant price. Always the prudent manager, he invested money in up-and-coming housing markets. Whether intentional or not, the result was that he (on paper at least) held residency in 44 states.

Friends didn’t remember him having any particular political leanings, but he ran for public office anyway, on almost every ticket simultaneously, something not yet illegal (or, rather, not yet conceivable, and therefore unnoticeable). His immense surplus of private funds allowed him to dispense information across still costly telegraph systems and reach a voting public of millions. He won in 27 states and went to Washington to fill as many seats. What proved his undoing, however, were his underlying ethics and sense of moral obligation to the country that helped him succeed.

Committed to a fair representation of his constituents, he soon became a noticeably conflicted man, displaying tics and skittishness. He took the House floor multiple times per session, often contradicting and arguing with his own proposals — passionately and vehemently. Though he struck the occasional bipartisan deal, he fought himself tooth and nail every step of the way.

In order to ensure that he could not halt the progress of his own legislation (regarding federal funding for municipal projects in rural PA), Mr. Clemson reluctantly hired a thug, or assassin, to take out his opponent, namely himself.  Being aware of the plot, however, he countered by hiring another to eliminate the puppet master behind it all, himself again. Understandably, he embarked on a period of recluse-like behavior, wearing and switching disguises multiple times a day, using aliases and staying in cheap hotels.

Within months of taking office, he stopped showing up on the floor all together, and even around town. A murder was never officially reported. Some historians believe that Clemson merely began to inhabit the numerous lives he’d constructed, begetting children and families here and there across his properties the nation over, fading into roles and clothes, children and love and lies, dinner and breakfast and tea. Some uphold this as an appropriate conclusion to Clemson’s maniacal dedication to his constituents: literally becoming them, living out their lives as best he could.

The only bill he managed to pass in his brief stint as representative of 27 states was the construction of a large fountain in an undisclosed location, designed covertly in order to avoid the ire or even the faintest knowledge of himself. This missing fountain is still sought by Senators every year in a sparsely attended Congressional team-building pilgrimage across the Adirondacks. Today, there are tens of thousands of municipally constructed fountains throughout America, ranging from the functional to ornate and ostentatious. Obviously, some brazen historians foolishly assert that Clemson spent his twilight years not with his many wives and children, but rather himself alone, in search of that veiled and pointless legislation, one sip at a time.

 

Celebrity Training, Mon Amour:  David Bowie

In the months prior to filming, David Bowie spent upwards of 80 hours a week training to be a believable and authentic king of The Labyrinth. He hired numerous architects to construct a working model of the ancient puzzle, but no blueprint, schematic or rendering rivaled that immense and impenetrable knot David envisioned. All offered great complexity and technical nuance, yes, but lacked a sense of grandeur and mental brutality. How could he preside over this film and its subject matter after training with such meager and amateur mock-ups? What drivel!  He needed violence cobbled onto load-bearing walls and recursive spaces, not these humdrum twists and turns. In a rage, Mr. Bowie smashed his hotel room to pieces, singing all the while, then sent the architects packing — before plotting an elaborate escape, not from any trumped up garden path, but from the confines of his own head and body. Breaking out of this particular and perfect entrapment presented a worthy task. What, he sang, did he spend more time thinking about than the idea of what he thought about? What did he hate himself more for than hating himself in the first place?  And why, when he kissed someone, could he imagine his own face so clearly?  He reasoned, in fact, that his entire career had been accelerating toward this one act, the ultimate refusal of identity. Yet his rich experience with reinvention simultaneously presented a paradoxical foe: Bowie would play not only the well-trained hero, but also the wizened monster standing watch over his mind — and as such could easily forestall any deft maneuver to overcome himself.  These two Bowie’s were, to say the least, rather evenly matched. He predicted, however, that the standoff between himself and himself did not represent an intractable problem, but instead a glaring security loophole. He need only convince them to dance, then slip by in the midst of their embrace. What is a labyrinth anyway but a strict choreography, a series of foot positions, a graceful and precise collection of moves set to their own rhythm. David Bowie knew that he, more so than anyone else, could boogy his way out of the mind. Yet, with greasy leftovers in one hand and a strong drink in the other, singing “Dance magic dance magic dance magic dance, put that magic spell on me,” David Bowie tried nobly not to be himself, one shake of the hips at a time …and failed repeatedly, no matter how much he drank or crooned or swiveled.  In a moment of clarity or desperation, he resolved that the underlying reason he couldn’t escape from his mind, despite his fancy footwork, was not because his identity acted as impenetrable fortress, nor because the whiskey was 80 proof rather than 100, nor because his songs were inadequate imitations of his early work, but because he’d never been trapped at all, because he’d never really been inside his head in the first place, because David Bowie wasn’t real and didn’t in fact exist, not anymore or even ever, except as a perpetual attempt to not exist, a goal that he confirmed nearly every day of his life and a feat that he would, like everyone else, eventually accomplish, not just as pantomime or theatre but in actuality, the consequence of which would be that he’d leave behind only these attempts, that he’d be outlived by his own self denial, that the labyrinth is perfect because it cannot be escaped but instead must be entered, and so he made the first of numerous attempts to break not out of but into his body, to enter his life and be human against all odds, if only for a moment, if only as a gesture, if only as pantomime or theater, before it was too late and whatever that might mean. But what dance could possibly enable this? What contortion might finally make us human? What could ever separate the wall from its architecture, the music from its rhythm, the body from its presence? Imagine him alone in a hotel room, spinning slowly over the carpet with his arms around nothing, and wonder: could he so clearly picture his head when he kissed that empty space? To imagine the song is to imagine the blade: the resulting scar tissue is why Mr. Bowie wears such a ridiculous wig in the film. You have no power over me, he whispers, you have now power over me, you have no power over me — and of course he’s right, though it’s neither the solution nor the problem.

 

Celebrity Training, Mon Amour:  The Titanic

In order to prepare for James Cameron’s record shattering blockbuster Titanic, The Titanic first became itself, the famous sea vessel, and then sank in the ocean, killing thousands. Unsurprisingly, the ship has been accused in the press of hubris and dangerous self indulgence. One 1923 Tribune article asserts that “The Titanic recklessly recapitulated the tale of Narcissus, staring deep into the water, congratulating itself on both its own success and inevitable end, before finally collapsing in the deep, all for an as-of-yet unproduced film entirely about itself.” When interviewed, however, The Titanic responded with, “What actor doesn’t prepare this way? In fact, what else is there? In life, you’re either drowning or explaining what it’s like to drown. The amazing thing is that I, on the other hand, have managed to make the one exactly the same as the other. I have bridged narrative and finality, and through film I have been resurrected, brought back from death, twice now and in 3D. This isn’t narcissism, people. Why? Because I do it for you. Yes, by knowing me and entering my vessel, you too can be returned from cold waters, for I am The Way, The Truth and the Light. I am unsinkable.” When pressed about its rumored relationship with the iceberg, sporting a baby bump in recent photos, The Titanic looked away, wiped its portholes, and added, “So far as I know, from science and experience, and try as I might, one cannot drown in ice.”

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Dolan Morgan lives and writes in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.