Astyages's Weblog

October 8, 2011

Dalton Trumbo and Feral Tom

Filed under: Uncategorized — astyages @ 4:55 am
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Dalton Trumbo and Feral Tom


David L Rowlands

(I wrote the following article on Dalton Trumbo about a month ago after watching a biographical documentary about the author; the kind of life he must have led as an ‘outsider’ reminded me somehow of a feral cat I once knew, so I wrote down my thoughts about ‘Feral Tom’ and have included them also as they seemed to me to go together)

I just watched the second half of a fascinating documentary TV program on ABC2, entitled, “Trumbo”, all about one of my favorite authors of (relatively) modern times… damn shame I missed the first half; I do hope they’ll show it again soon… perhaps on one of the other channels, although I don’t think there’s much chance of that happening really, as it’s a ‘load of leftie bullshit’…

For some of our younger readers who may not be familiar with the name, Dalton Trumbo is perhaps one of the most influential of writers this century, in spite of the fact that his work was usually credited under a plethora of pseudonyms because Mr Trumbo himself was suppressed, oppressed, repressed, unimpressed and depressed, not to mention frequently incarcerated, when not on the run or overseas, by the infamous Senator Joe McCarthy’s anti-communist witch-hunt.

Trumbo was so hated by the establishment that hate and smear campaigns against him were carried out so effectively that even his kids were systematically shunned and socially isolated even by the kids they went to school with, who aped their parents’ malicious gossip and social ostracism, systematically and completely refusing to speak to or play with them… His pre-teen daughter was so damaged by this treatment that she begged her parents not to make her go to school; treatment by medical health professionals was necessary, but who knows how effective? She seems, however, to be very sane and remarkably balanced now in her old age, but what she must have suffered!

Our younger readers may well ask, what was this witch-hunt all about? And why persecute anyone like this, let alone his kids, just because they didn’t like some of the things he wrote about, because it had a negative reflection on contemporaneous American society? Doesn’t the USA have ‘freedom of speech’, ‘freedom of the press’ and ‘freedom of association’? Well, the answer to that (said Sir Humphrey) is both ‘yes’ and ‘no’; yes it does in theory, but it doesn’t always pay to put the theory into practice… Even Socrates came a cropper when it came to criticizing his own society…

As a recovering anthropologist, I sympathize; they should put a government health warning on university courses in Social and Cultural Anthropology, stating that they could seriously damage your relationship to the society you lived in, unless, like Oedipus, you put out your own eyes… and simply choose no longer to see the world as it is, simply because it’s just too awful; far too oppressive; far too painful; and impossible to change…

You’d better cut off your ears too, or stop them up with wax, as Odysseus had his crew do, so they might not become entranced by the sirens’ songs and dash their boat onto the rocks. Odysseus himself of course, thinking man that he is, must first be tied to the mast and his own ears left unblocked so he was able to listen to those sirens’ songs… And Freedom, Democracy and Justice, the three most seductive sirens are closely followed by two pairs of twins: ‘History and ‘Mythology’ and ‘Anthropology’ and ‘Sociology’ and abandon hope all you who, entranced by their songs are lured onto the rocks of isolation and social alienation… for those who hear the songs of these seven sirens are given ways of seeing and understanding the world which often puts them at odds with even the society in which they may have grown up in and lived in all their lives, since analysis implies critique and in a scapegoating culture, anyone who offers any serious critique of it will be seen as ‘volunteering’ for the sacrifice, as was Dalton Trumbo…

Oh, and cut out your tongue too… The ‘Thee Wise Monkeys’ were right, only way to survive in today’s modern, western, postindustrial, capitalist-colonial-imperialist societies, is to ‘see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil’… And, since I write, and am ambidextrous to a degree, I suppose I’d have to cut off both my hands and possibly even my feet, ’cause I’m also that stubborn and persistent…

But what would be left of me but one big stump? A basket case?

Which brings me back to Dalton Trumbo… One of his best pieces of work was about a basket case and it made one of the most profoundly disturbing and effective anti-war statements I’ve ever read. “Johnny Got his Gun” is about a victim of a shell explosion in the trenches of WWI, who loses everything I’ve just mentioned. I should perhaps warn you that, although I’m not usually prone to nightmares, this slim volume gave me nightmares for weeks… I won’t spoil the story for you, but let you discover it for yourselves if you haven’t already read it… And the profoundly anti-war statement made by this book was so hated and feared by the McCarthy regime, that the book was banned for thirty years and its author incarcerated for many years too.

Now, I’ll bet you’re all wondering what he’s written under that plethora of pseudonyms, eh? Well, apart from books he wrote movies, here are the titles of just a few of them, “Roman Holiday”, “The Brave One”, “Johnny Got His Gun” (of course!) and, one of my all-time favorites, “Spartacus”… but there are dozens more (at least!), so if I’ve whetted your appetite for more, all I can say is, “Happy Googling!”

Oh! And:

“I’m Spartacus!”

***** ******* *****

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a cat I knew… No, I haven’t reverted to the beatnik slang of the ’50s, I mean a real cat; a stray I brought home at the age of about seven (me, not the cat! The cat was probably significantly older!)

I’d just found it wandering the streets in the neighborhood, and, impulsive as I was then, I couldn’t resist a childish impulse to pick it up and cuddle it… But it didn’t want to be cuddled… not one bit! It bit and clawed and scratched at my face in its efforts to regain its lost liberty, yet I kept it cuddled so tight to my chest it couldn’t get away… Maybe it was scratching partially in an effort to breathe; I didn’t really notice at the time; but by the time I’d carried it the twenty-or-so yards to our back door, excitedly gasping ‘Can I keep it, Mum? Can I keep it?!” my face looked a bit like a red tartan shirt; criss-crossed with broad red weals.

Needless to say, Mum wasn’t exactly ‘enthusiastic’ about the idea, but after much persuasion, I made her promise a saucer of milk for the ‘poor critter’, and she made me promise I’d put the animal down and let it go if it wanted to… But I hung onto it until the saucer of milk was delivered, because I just knew that without some inducement, Tom, as I’d (very originally) thought of calling him, would be off like a rocket; and I’d gone to so much trouble to get him here, this durned animal was gonna be my friend if it killed me (And it might have if I hadn’t eventually let go!)

Now the word for lost and abandoned cats in the UK is ‘stray’, and in that environment that name suits most of them… But not Tom… Tom was a huge black and white cat with partly white legs and a white underneath; it’s face was mostly white with a perfect ‘pirate’s eyepatch’ over its left eye, which also bore a scar right down from its forehead to its cheek through its eyelid; fortunately for Tom the ancient wound had not been deep enough to actually injure the eyeball itself. When I first came out to Australia some thirty years ago, I found a cartoon strip called ‘Footrot Flats’, written by a Kiwi, I believe, in the Sunday paper, which featured a cat by the name of ‘Horse’… As soon as I saw Horse, I realized I was looking at the reincarnation of Tom. Almost as big and as strong as… well… in the northeast of England, lets say, a pit-pony, if not a horse.

Yep! ‘Stray’ is too tame an adjective for Tom; for Tom, the word has to be ‘feral’: Tom was most definitely a wild creature and most definitely his own master. He would not stay in the house very long at all, ever, but as he was lapping up the milk on that first occasion, he was too busy to object too strenuously to me stroking his back. As soon as he finished his milk, and some of our other cat’s cat-food which I used to bribe him to stay a few minutes longer, he was off out the back door, which Mum wisely insisted on keeping open. (Our other cat had another very original name; it was a black kitten we called, of all things, ‘Blackie’, who’d arrived in a similar manner to Tom, though with less blood!)

After that first time he’d come round of his own accord quite regularly, at first every week or so and this gradually shortened to every few days, and then gradually it became every day as visiting us to bludge food had became a habit with him… but he would never ever stay long; as soon as he’d eaten his food, drunk his milk and had his petting session, he was off out again; no way would he ever stay in overnight, though he roamed around the house like he owned the place…

The thought occurred to me even at that time, that Tom must have been ‘on the road’ for a very, very long time… since he was a kitten most probably, I thought; yet he’d not only survived, but thrived (actually the correct word is ‘throve’ as the past participle to the verb ‘to thrive’, but the spellchecker won’t let me use that!) and now here he was, big and strong and incredibly tough… But very canny, very smart and extremely non-trusting too… Not only ‘feral’ but ‘streetwise’ too… At one and the same time I admired him for his incredible strength and independence, yet pitied him for his inability to either express his own more tender emotions, nor allow such emotions to be expressed at or upon him…

Now, something close to half a century later, after having been homeless myself for several years and having discovered the virtual impossibility of ever being able to properly re-integrate oneself within ‘society’ again, I’m beginning to know just how he feels…

***** ******* *****

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