Once in a great while, there is an exciting piece of literature that succeeds in being enjoyable, thought-provoking, and ground-breaking. John Haskell has created such a work with I Am Not Jackson Pollock. Haskell has written himself a collection of “creative meditations” that blur the line between actor and character, between artist and art, between who we are and who we desire to be. His comparisons of unlikely companions reflect the synchronicity of life and art and create the basis for the reader’s understanding that Haskell’s answer to the question “what is the meaning of life” and to the artist’s cliché “what is your motivation” are both “desire”.
In “Dream of a Clean Slate,” Jackson Pollock struggles with his personal and public selves. His trajectory toward failure leads him into a spiraling third persona who is determined not to fail as others desire him to but to find a path towards failure that will buck the stereotype and fulfill his own personal desire:
“And Jackson, in an effort to find something real and solid,
shook his head. Which was what they wanted him to do, and
the problem was, he didn’t want to do what they wanted him
to do, he wanted to do what he wanted to do, but because they
wanted him to do what he wanted to do, what he wanted...”
Thus Haskell sets the reader up for a psychological catch-22. If we desire to be different but others expect us to be different, how do we define our differences and our desires as our own and not as the desire to fulfill other’s desires? (Pause here and think about that one – it’s just the beginning…)
Desire takes the form of love and communication in “Elephant Feelings,” where an elephant cannot speak to its trainer, a sideshow freak is unable to communicate in the language of her lover, and Ganesha, the Hindi God, is unable to get a man to acknowledge or speak to him despite his repeated efforts to do so. All three characters desire the ability to communicate their love and to have it communicated back to them and all are thwarted in their attempts to fulfill the need.
In “The Judgment of Psycho,” perhaps the most enjoyable of all of the stories (although it is hard to qualify a “best” story out of this collection), Haskell retells the general plot of the movie Psycho and first blurs the lines between actor and character. Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh are given the motivations of their characters (Norman Bates and Marion Crane). Haskell gives us insights by using asides that involve the mythology of Paris and Helen to explain Perkins’ desires and an under-painted Vermeer painting to project to us Leigh’s fear.
“The Faces of Joan of Arc” continues the crossing of art and artist when we meet Renee Falconetti, whose desire to identify with her character’s pain causes her to lay on a bed of spikes; Mercedes McCambridge, who is the voice of the devil in The Exorcist, whose desire to stop drinking causes her to hate the part of herself that she begins to know as the devil; and Heddy Lamar, whose diminishing beauty and desire for authority cause her to shoplift.
While characters in the first stories struggle with the consequences of their own desires, in “Capucine” we see the first inkling of another way to fall victim to desire. Haskell briefly takes us inside the mind of Norman Morrison, who lit himself on fire outside of the Pentagon in 1965, in a startling comparison to the sense of hopelessness Capucine must have felt in her struggle to suppress all personal desires in order to fit the molds appropriate to other’s expectations.
“Glen Gould in Six Parts,” the only story besides “Clean Slate” that does not bother to plunge us into the seemingly unrelated asides that seem to be a hallmark of these stories, gives Gould the sensations and inner monologue befitting an autism sufferer. Haskell shows us his best technical moment with a clever, insightful, and functional description involving parentheses.
The “pure potential” of a young girl and her desire to please others is paired with the first dog in space, Laika, who has been anthropomorphized to share the same desire to please in “Good World." While the young girl disappears below the earth after falling in a well, Laika disappears above the earth, and neither of them are able to fulfill their desires. This pairing is additionally highlighted with a mention of Aristotle’s thinking behind virtue versus desire and the addition of an aside involving Shakespeare’s characters, Richard and Ann, who, trapped within the play, are destined to repeat the same scene and behaviors over and over as a consequence of habit and out of a desire to try and change.
“Crimes at Midnight”, the longest work, appears to be the centerpiece of the work as a whole. In this story, Haskell uses Touch of Evil and its players to again, blur the lines of actor and character as in “Psycho”, to recall the difficulty of communication as in “Elephant”, the desire to identify as in “Joan of Arc”, the catch-22 from "Clean Slate,” and the suppression of desire from “Capucine". This encapsulation of the previous desires into one story is further highlighted with asides including Lev Kuleshov, who created films that showed how perception can be skewed to the desired results, and John Falstaff (blurred again by bringing Orson Welles in as the character of Falstaff) and his desires to control and to maintain illusions.
The last story in the collection, “Narrow Road,” features the poet Basho and his pursuit for uninterrupted concentration and oneness with nature despite constant distractions from his assistant, Sora, and his bodily functions. Basho and Sora are paired with Fanny Brawne and John Keats, young lovers whose expectations for love are vastly different and yet, somehow, focus on the same result, and photographer Lisa Fossagrives, whose desire to be loved but not be in love returns us to Basho’s singular intent to remain focused on his own world.
There is not a story in Haskell’s threaded collection that does not bear re-reading. Each story has an uncanny epic-like ability to trap the reader within itself. It is nearly impossible to move on to the next without a serious contemplation of what we have been shown in these unpredictable pairings that only serve to cement our singular fate as emotional beings to pursue our desires regardless of the fear, anxiety, and unhappiness the pursuit will cause.