For a while, when I was ten years old or so, I enjoyed going around to the other kids at school and dumping this little koan on them: There are only forty people in the world, and five of them are hamburgers. I relished seeing how they reacted, and they generally did so by declaring that the statement was stupid, that moreover I was stupid. I always took this as confirmation, in turn, that they themselves were stupid.
I don't know how I came across it exactly, but I do know (and knew before this sort of thing was Googlable), that it is one of many completely nonsensical things that Don Van Vliet, who died today, said in the persona of Captain Beefheart. It is also one small bit of the nonsense that helped me early on to orient myself in the world. Medieval schoolboys would have been learning the forms of syllogism at around the same age; I was learning nonsense, and though I would later study logic, that early training stayed with me, and remains my primary orientation.
So it doesn't quite capture it to say that today I lost an idol or a hero or something like that. I am not a musician, I've never tried to sound like Howlin' Wolf, and I have no idea what it is, musically speaking, that makes Trout Mask Replica a masterpiece. What I lost was one of the important sources of a sensibility: one on full display in the ad for Lick My Decals Off, Baby, where the simple listing of the names of LA neighborhoods, for no apparent reason, resonates in my head with as much deep sense as modus ponens.
I'd been thinking a lot recently about the premodern, probably religious sources of what in the 20th century would come to be spoken of as 'surrealism', 'Dadaism', and so on. We speak as though these popped up out of nowhere, as though they were reactions to an unprecedented moment of crisis in human history.
'Surreal', I think, is a cop-out adjective, like 'interesting', or 'neat'. It is often used in reference to Van Vliet. It is not that it is completely inaccurate, but only, it seems to me, that the Beefheartian variety of nonsense, probably unlike Dali's or Breton's, is deeply rooted, timeless, not at all a reaction to any particular state of affairs in human history. That's part of what caused me to start channeling it, I suppose, long before I was really doing anything like taking up positions on the crisis of modernity, &c.
I'll develop this more later, perhaps. For now, I'll just say it's really too bad he's dead (I had read a few months ago about a possible comeback), and that I am not looking forward to the all-too easy eulogies of him that testify to how weird, surreal, and out-there he was.