“Ferocious vulnerability” is a phrase that kept occurring to me while reading the letters between Shepard and Dark in their compilation called “Two Prospectors.” Yeah, old-fashioned prospectors with long red underwear and suspenders are pretty vulnerable and might be ferocious. (Other related concepts might be “fear-biter” or “counter-phobic,” which is what a counselor told me I was. Counselors are not always right, but they bring up interesting ideas.)
This oxymoron develops among those whose only defense is at least seeming tough, mysterious, maybe sinister: the young, the old, the disabled, the minorities, the stigmatized, and all the other needy people. Are there needs that can make a person INvulnerable? (Need to be in control?) Can a person be ferocious without being vulnerable? Isn’t ferocity a vulnerability of its own? (It’s a pretty good marker and may be one of the ways women get pulled towards tough guys.) Or is it possible to repair vulnerability without becoming callous -- confident simply because of being unfeeling? Shepard and Dark discuss these issues while nicely sailing on pot, but I’ve never tried pot and am not about to -- I save my money for books and cat food. As I get towards the end of the book, I see that they are persuaded towards my policy, though they lean more to dogs than cats. Sam hits bottom in a drug rehab group, his sentence for a DUI.
Sometimes I respond to vulnerability (my own and that of others) with ferocity. (My mother attacked me whenever I seemed weak.) Sometimes I’m disproportionate, becoming enraged over something no one else thinks is a problem. Are they callous or am I over-sensitive? The social consensus so far is the latter. Why get so attached? Why use up precious energy over something that can’t be changed anyway? But these two guys seem matched, to be sharing their vulnerability ruefully -- with or without regret.
Gurdieff (left) and group
Maybe the missing third force is consciousness: awareness of both vulnerability and of ferocity. (Pi and the Bengal tiger? This is just riffing. ) That’s what the Gurdjieff stuff seems to be about. There’s another remedy, which is simply leaving. Just not being in that situation, which Sam seems to do but actually doesn’t. Neither Sam nor John thinks of children as a burden. ( I decided early they would make me too vulnerable. How many plots turn on the threatened loss of children -- or the actuality? Remember that my earliest understanding of the world dates to WWII.) I would not be able to contain my ferocity, I would kill. I feel even for children who aren’t mine. I try to avoid knowing them because too many have died. (Valier culture considers avoiding children monstrous. Tiger mothers are the norm here.) But then I end up knowing them anyway. Shepard and Dark are entirely different: they love children, embrace and protect them, seem to feel that the children are the strong ones and it is they, the adult men, who suffer and are lonely.
My policy has been that “having stuff” is a vulnerability, because then it needs to be defended and maintained. When I’ve stayed with very wealthy people in ostentatious houses, I notice that they hire other people to do the actual work, but then must take on the work of supervising and double-checking the workers. They do not have the option of just letting the whole palace sink under the weight of dust and leaking pipes. (I do. Is that vulnerability or a kind of passive ferocity? Valier culture considers this flat out sin and grounds for intervention.)
Shepard and Dark are into stuff in different ways. Shepard has whole ranches and abandons or loses things. Dark lives on an economic edge but saves all the letters and photos. Dark esp. is a neatness guy. After living with and without family all sorts of places -- partly because that’s the necessity when making movies and staging plays -- Shepard comes back to the refuge of his stone porch festooned with roses on his Kentucky ranch .
As I read these letters, I stopped to hit Netflix, looking for whatever movie or play Sam is mentioning. Sam and John, like many other men of a certain type, were deeply into Kerouac, Beckett, Bukowski, but these two are the only men of that kind I know about who are so into Gurdjieff, whose movement could be compared to Scientology. I even looked up Gurdjieff, though I’m impatient with such thought systems, no matter how grounded and sophisticated they are. John and Sam never went so "high" nor so "low" as their heroes did, but their partnership was probably as strong as any. They quote the movement a lot.
Cassady and Kerouac
I hadn’t really watched or read any of Shepard’s “official” published writing. “Curse of the Starving Class” streams on Netflix, so I stopped reading to watch it. The pivot of the tale is what we would now label a veteran with PTSD self-medicating with alcohol. (Sam’s dad.) We used to just call them drunks and consider them wicked. After reading the letters, it’s clear how this real-life painful struggle has become art. But it never seems healing, at least for Sam. It’s all about the “long receding roar” of the frontier, of the heroism of WWII, of any real possibility of coming to terms. “Curse of the Starving Class” includes a redemptive conversion near the end, but it is too late. In real life, John, who married and protected Scarlett, their shared “mom” with her unconditional positive regard, comes closer to redemption. Even Sam manages to be a good father, even to the son he ran out on. But he can NOT forgive himself.
These letters en masse are all-of-a-piece, the attempts of two men to understand themselves -- even manage themselves. They are good about children and pets: tolerant, indulgent and mostly conscientious. They really NEED women as in one-at-a-time, but are easily overwhelmed by a household of females: daughters, wives, helpers . . . aaaeeeeiiiii. Many women confronting such men are seemingly compliant, but secretly eager to control them, partly for their own good and partly in order to guarantee resources for the household, like income. Dark outwits women by joining them in domesticity. (He cleans houses for a living during some of this time period and does most of the cooking and laundry.) Shepard, a hot commodity, is often on the run, sometimes trying to keep up with Jessica whose career is often hotter than his.
I suppose Shepard is the one with “ferocious vulnerability” while Dark’s is more like “evasive vulnerability”, which allows him to lower the barriers, including any cultural stuff about not being manly or assertive, which haunts Sam the Man, who worries that if he gets an airedale, it will make him look gay. Around here an airedale is a bear-hunting dog, so I don’t get it. He worries about that stuff way too much -- maybe he’s joking. After all, he lived with Patti Smith for a while.
The vulnerability the two men share still comes through from beginning to end. It’s powerful to write to an intimate as they do, rather than writing “into the dark night.” They do exchange their formal writing, awkwardly, since John knows that Sam’s writing is on a different planet, hooked into a reputation and different kind of skill.
Only once did Sam try to push John towards “proper” authorship, urging revision and that he tighten the writing up. Almost immediately he apologized, saying that he realized that John was doing a different kind of writing, for its own sake, for the pleasure of dwelling “in” it. But he did help John get one book published, “People I May Have known.” After reading the letters, one does feel these two men knew well at least each other. It is intolerable to think of them ending the relationship. I refuse to believe it’s possible.