Where Is Thy Sting?

Igor Stravinsky
Igor Stravinsky; drawing by David Levine

Crito: The attendant who is to give you the [hemlock] wants me to tell you not to talk too much…talking is apt to interfere with the action of the poison.

Phaedo, 63

NYR: When you went to Europe recently, Mr. Stravinsky, we heard that you were intending to go for good.

I.S.: For the better, anyway. At the time I left Los Angeles it already seemed too late for a phased withdrawal. The song was like Mace, but then, the air apart from radioisotopes must be better anywhere else, even in a coal mine. A major earthquake was predicted, too, and not merely by seismologists but by the religious protection rackets, which were transferring east to pray out the millennium and await the second option of chiliasm there; self-centered as it is to say so, in view of the probable devastations to and from atomic and bacteriological stockpiles, I would fall like Humpty Dumpty now, and being unable to make a “soft landing” break unmendably. A tidal wave was expected also, and since a few heavy showers can turn much of the city into “slide areas” necessitating helicopter evacuations, a really sizable inundation would wash the whole “songdom” and “gemurrmal” out to sea. Yet despite these and other catastrophes, actual and impending, no one got around to designating the State a disaster area until the mid-winter monsoons.

Even so, the most immediate hazard was the state of society. Whatever they were “on” about then, “speed,” “soul,” the recent invention of “youth,” people with anti-astronaut hairstyles were milling about my street in such numbers that even the ambulances—which siren by every few minutes normally, curtains raised, presumably to give the emergency patient a last look—had to find another route. Welcome as this was in terms of noise abatement, it attracted still more of the armed and uniformed men who were already so conspicuous that the neighborhood felt like occupied territory. Or worse than occupied territory. The xenon beams that search the stygian gloom of the polluted upper sky (“the smog is lofting”—Finnegans Wake, 593), and that supposedly “send up” film premieres, actually give one the impression of being near, or in, a concentration camp.

High barriers exist, in any case—and not only figuratively, the fencing of at least one private estate hereabouts apparently having been modeled on the Berlin Wall. A social war foments around them, moreover, and it could easily break into a shooting one, did break into one shortly before I left, when the police out-gunned a man hardly three hundred yards from my house. At about that time, as well, the American Legion started to campaign against my San Diego neighbor Professor Marcuse, an action I read as a warning to keep my peace about the war or risk being dealt with Chicago-style myself.

All the same, the final decision to leave came from a very different consideration.…

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