The Sad Life and Untimely Death of Arnold Hitler:
Who Put The Devil In Evelyn's Eyes?
Please forgive my forwardness in writing to a stranger, but I was moved to contact you by the article in Newsday.
Names are curious things, our joy and sometimes our burden. Mine is Evelyn Brown, the surname calling up that common color, common in frequency, but also in content. It is, as I was teased in school, “the color of shit.” Evelyn, on the other hand, is not so common. It has a certain dignity, yet it is a diminutive of Eve, the mother of us all, and the mother of all sorrows. I have often felt firmly rooted in my last name -- and branching out in the myriad directions of my first.
Arnold Hitler. How you must have suffered with that weight on your back. Yet I write you for this reason: I, myself, find it attractive and exceptional – not only in its rarity, but for the extraordinary assignment it carries.
I’d love to meet with you and talk further, to compare, as it were, our birth-given tasks. If getting together interests you, please call me at my studio at LI6-6097. I’m there most days. Hope to hear from you.
Evelyn Brown’s name was on her mailbox, in the shabby hall of a six story apartment house on Hunt’s Point Avenue in the South Bronx. The name-card featured a gleaming black snake slithering around the uprights and through the apertures of the five letters, its texture minutely rendered, its every scale depicted. An astonishing introduction. But what did it mean?
Neither bell nor elevator worked, she had assured him on the phone: he should walk up four flights and knock at 4B – which he did.
The door opened instantly – for having seen him out the window, she had been waiting, hand on knob. The moment was startling, like anything too surprisingly close or quick. And they were startled both.
She looked at him and thought “Yes”; he looked at her and thought the same. He had expected middle-aged. But that she was not -- rather a slim and gorgeous twenty-five, dressed all in black, her blond hair short in front and long behind, her midriff provocative below a truncated tee, her long legs shapely even under jeans. It took Arnold a few minutes to gather all this in, or rather to believe it.
What more there was to be said pulsed privately in each heart, as the disoriented two made their way through the headlong chatter of orientation. Arnold agreed to the “grand tour” of her studio, and his astonishment at the mailbox herpetology was multiplied a hundred fold by the objects on walls, tabletops and easels.
“This is my World Disaster Room,” she said, as she escorted him into one of the three studios, once bedrooms, in the apartment.
Arnold gazed around a dark red chamber whose walls were plastered with images framed and unframed, on canvas and cardboard, on postcards and calendar pages. The music of their meeting seemed to have modulated from bright G-major into portentous f-minor.
“These are visualizations of the many catastrophes of many Noahs. If you look carefully, you’ll see his ark or airship or tank or bunker in every image. How else could we go on?”
Arnold inspected a succession of tourist postcards from many cities: Seattle, Venice, Paris, Rome, New York, Buenos Aires, Toronto, Berlin… Each had been painted over with fire or flood, many had suffered a typhoon or an earthquake, toppling its buildings, burying its monuments. The Eiffel Tower lay on its side, crushed and bent by a steaming meteor in a neighboring hole while Noah and his raft depart northward across the Seine. Evelyn pointed out the fine details with pride, while her guest absorbed the show with horror. On another wall was a painting he recognized, and he seized upon it, hoping to change the subject.
“That’s Bruegel’s Icarus,” he noted. “‘The ploughman may have heard the splash, the forsaken cry. But for him it was not an important failure.’” And indeed, the ploughman had traversed a few feet further on. But now he was transfixed, staring at the boiled out lake, with the ship in flames, and the human meteor, Icarus, smashed and burning in the bottom mud, with the black mailbox snake eating at his liver.
“Ah, but it was an important failure,” the artist advised. “And it continues to be so – human hubris. We are beginning to notice it in Vietnam, wouldn’t you say? So I updated Mr. Bruegel.”
She led him to another wall which displayed a series of maps, all in flames.
“This is my history of modern American imperialism – all the places we’ve bombed since the Second World War.”
Arnold inspected the cuttings—maps overlayed on bucolic calendar scenes (each with its ethnic Noah): China, Korea, Guatemala, Indonesia, Cuba, the Congo, Peru, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, all carefully labeled and dated.
“The boys love these.”
Arnold thought she meant the Pentagon boys, the ones with the toys. He looked at her again anew, those long delicate fingers, those intense blue eyes.
“And here,” she continued, “are the 26 largest nuclear plants, in order, A through Z. You will notice that their power ceremonies are in the process of being consumed by eternal fire.”
The illuminated letter painted in the corner of each power company brochure breathed out light and fire which spread over the plant, and the corporate text in a riot of joyous flame.
“Die Gotterdämmerung,” she observed. “Valhallas ablaze. Fire’s power of creation and destruction, divine and demonic. You’ll notice fire is a big part of my art. It’s hard to paint fire. And water, cleansing water. Arnold, you look upset. Listen, these disasters have their redemptive side. In all these images, the world is not extinguished: there’s a transient, what?, reintegration into formlessness – and then, perhaps, a chance for new life or a new man. Noah. The other side of horror is a new moment, no?”
Arnold was reeling too much to answer. He felt simultaneously drawn to this woman – and repulsed.
“Ready for more? Here’s my Manifest Destiny series.”
She led her guest over to group of famous American paintings and portraits, torn with ragged edges from some sacrificed history of American art.
“They’ve been ‘altered’ as the veterinarians say, all these ghosts of American civilization – I burn away their memory so regeneration may occur.”
Arnold focused first on the Gilbert Stuart Washington that had overseen his every elementary school classroom. It’s wig was on fire, and it’s jaw replaced by a photo-realistically rendered image from a text on reconstructive facial surgery. It was labeled “Papa Loved Me, But He Died.” Given her bent, he was not surprised by the fire and exchange of heads on the Remington scenes of the Indian Wars, and the Catlin portraits of emaciated chiefs in Auschwitz stripes and feathers. What he did not expect were the animals of Hicks’ Peaceable Kingdom devouring one another across the food chain as the landscape flamed, or the drowning masses trying to cling to Winslow Homer’s boat, as the inhabitants hacked at their fingers while coastline volcanoes erupted. Even more surprising were Georgia O’Keefe flowers gored by Georgia O’Keefe skulls, Franz Kline shapes shaping themselves into black, flaming Munchean deathsheads, Jackson Pollack swirls swirling out of the chimneys of crematoria – all empowered, as it seemed, by landscapes in flood and flame. Georgia O’Keefe? Manifest Destiny? Strangely, the most disturbing image of all was an Audubon painting of a pair of bald eagles, the male flying above with a swastika in its claws, while the female fed a baby swastika in the nest. No fire or flood here, just the wind bearing the national raptor aloft.
“What’s with the swastika here?” he asked his beloved, now perhaps demoted to hostess-only.
“Don’t Hitlerize, dear Arnold. Throughout the ages, the Hackenkreuz has represented the Supreme Deity in its compass quadrants, its visualized motion around an axis. It is movement, the coincidence of horizon, nadir and zenith in the mystic center, the action of the Origin on the Universe. And you thought it was a swastika, shame on you. I want to rehabilitate the sign. So do the eagles. So do you.”
“To get people off your back about your name.”
“How do you know that?”
“How could I not? Come have some dinner.”
She led him into a small kitchen, smelling faintly of roach spray.
“In honor of your name, I’ve prepared a vegetarian meal: German pancakes stuffed with German meatballs made of textured vegetable protein, Ba-Tempte kosher sauerkraut to honor any possible Jewish ancestors, German potato salad; sourdough rye from the Bread & Puppet Theater’s big demo last month; and a nice German chocolate cake for dessert. OK with you?”
The good humor of the menu put him back at ease, even with its strong under-whiff of satire. Satire at whose expense? At the moment, though, he was more concerned with the lithe, gay figure serving him.
“Life and health, spiritual energy, Heraclitan fecundity, libido, transformation and regeneration, purification and destruction of the forces of evil, all on this little table in the South Bronx. In the middle…” she struck a match and lit the candle… “…fire, the alchemical element which operates at the center of all things. Fire and life, metabolism: life must feed on life to keep alive. Amen.”
He hadn’t realized she was saying grace.
During the meal, he told his story—of idyllic Mansfield and difficult Cambridge and his bizarre introduction to New York. She seemed fascinated. He spoke of his reaction to her art, of his resistance to this massing of landscapes focussing on suffering, and not on the glory of nature.
“I’m attracted,” he said, “to imagery that assumes good in the world and offers hope—if not salvation—from the evil in human history. I’m thinking a great deal about religion now, and it‘s all involved with language...semiotics…words…”
“Words like Hitler?”
“Words like Hitler, and other expressions that get thrown hurtfully…”
“That’s why I wrote you.”
“Your name. Come, Mr. Hitler, let’s go visit the Evie room, and then we can have dessert.”
“But we’re having dessert right now. German chocolate cake.”
“There are desserts and desserts.”
She took his hand, hauled him out of the chair, and led him to the second of the studio rooms, this one smaller and painted in black.
“Does your landlord know about this paint job?”
“My landlord has never been seen – by anyone. Rent goes to the BVM Corp, and they never say thank you. Exhibit One: Evie and the Serpent, a series of 8 X 10 photos taken by my ex-boyfriend, and decorated by yours truly.”
In twelve time-lapse poses, a nude Evelyn Brown reached for, received and brought towards her mouth a painted apple, given over by a painted snake coiled in a painted tree. Arnold had never seen such a beautiful body, willowy yet opulent. This was the woman standing close at his side. This was the woman who was in some way interested in him. His penis began to rise, his breath to quicken.
“You like the serpent?” Evelyn teased.
In fact it was a wonderful serpent, cousin to the one on the mailbox, yet larger and even more dazzlingly rendered. But Arnold felt caught ogling. He gave her a playful punch, and then a short, happy squeeze. There. He had touched her. His groin stopped pulsing, and deflated.
“Notice the evolution of the apple,” she advised.
And indeed, the apple in each painting, though barely a half inch high, contained micro-paintings of human fallenness. From the eating of the apple and the murder of Cain in the first and second photos, to the horrors of Vietnam in the last, the series demonstrated the greed and perversity of Homo sapiens with ineluctable momentum. The pernicious bloom culminated in a thirteenth work, “Evie and the Apple”, a cut-out canvas, painted in oil, of Evelyn’s face, larger than life, biting into a four inch apple whose crimson surface was large enough to display accurate portraits of twenty-seven brutalists hidden in its sheen. Head to head, cheek to jowl, there were Nixon and Nero, Atilla and Kissinger, Luther and Torquemada, Franco and Napoleon – two times thirteen male heads crowding a lone female face, closest to the biting teeth.
“Who is that? That woman?” Arnold asked.
“No!” For some reason he was hurt. Or horrified.
“She was not a good person.”
He decided to pass.
“Next we have ‘Evie the Nazi’,” she said, clearly changing the subject.
And yes, there were a series of 11 X 18 blowups of Evelyn in Nazi regalia – shirt painted brown, armband, jodhpurs, boots – giving a stiff arm salute at Kitty Hawk, the Delaware River, the Grand Canyon, the construction of the World Trade Center, and in the midst of an astonished crowd on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
“What’s with all this Nazi stuff?” Arnold asked.
“I’m a skin-head chick,” Evelyn replied nonchalantly. “Didn’t you notice?” She flicked her short front hair at him, then shot her hand up in salute. “Sieg heil! Heil Hitler! Hey this is great. I’ve never had a real Hitler to heil to.”
“Cut it out.”
“I’m not kidding.”
“Well, you’ve got the wrong Hitler, let me…”
“I’ve got exactly the right Hitler. I’ve got a Hitler in tension with his role, as I am in tension with my own. Being a Hitler is forcing you to explore some deep places, nicht wahr? Being a skinhead likewise. Evie the Nazi – it’s a shot of history directly into the vein of my life. How will I ever understand human evil unless I live it? Read about it in books? This is a religious act, my nazism -- my inquiry into Supreme Being and the possibility of redemption.”
Arnold was stunned.
“So you paint all these disasters…”
“Exactly. I get to be the perpetrator of the disasters. I get to reenact Hitler and Attila and Caligula and General William Tecumseh Sherman right here at li’l ol’ 2168 Hunt’s Point Avenue – and I can understand – just barely – the madness. I can try on the costume of inhuman cruelty, and grope around in spiritual darkness—where I find my own roots tangled with those of the world ash. How do you get to yours?”
“My roots? I don’t know.”
“Well, you’ve come to the right place. I’ll help you. How would you like that? Ambiguity and paradox – ready for that?”
Who was this woman, he wondered, her belly button calling to his tongue, her lips calling forth his breath and saliva. But where was that naval connected? What words came through those lips? Was she not truly Eve -- Eve plus serpent in one? Yet she seemed so wise; he felt shallow in comparison. How did he get to his roots? He didn’t, that’s how. Vapid. Flighty. Theoretical. This was the real thing. Ambiguity and paradox.
“Hölderlin said we have to master what is innate in order to achieve great heights.” She quickstepped around behind him and squeezed his guts so hard he felt his anus protrude. “What’s innate? What’s in there?”
“I…can’t…talk,” he sputtered.
She let him go.
“Pretty strong, huh?” She flexed her biceps. “Here, feel.”
He was bashful. More likely frightened.
She came around front, softly round wound around him, and kissed him on the lips.
“Now that you know who I am, let’s fuck.”
She took his hand, and led him into the third and final studio, white walls empty except for a frieze of doctored photographs running above the molding on all four walls. In the center of the room, a king-size bed.
“I sleep here. It keeps me clear.”
“You mean nothing on the walls. Except for…”
“The Halo. I call it The Halo. You can look at it later. First you have to look at me.” She took off her tee, and lay down on the bed.
“I never make love in a room containing unassimilated religious symbols.”
Very sophisticated, he. Pathetic. But self-esteem has to regroup somehow.
“Uh-huh. I get it. He doesn’t want to fuck. He wants to be more spiritual. OK, art-seminar. Hope you don’t mind if the lecturer is topless.”
“Good. I knew you wouldn’t. We begin with a quiz: what famous photographer does this sequence remind you of?”
“Excellent, but only an A- answer for the Harvard boy. His name was actually Edweard. Ed-weird. What’s in a name? But pretty close. Ed-weird Muybridge of the most excellent The Human Figure in Motion. Can you see what those figures are doing?”
Arnold had to fingertip the wall, stand on tippy toe, and squint.
“They’re not the same figure, like Muybridge’s.”
“Give that man a cigar for between his legs. What are they?”
“The first New York Marathon, two years ago. 10,000 runners. I put up my camera and shot every 50th one that came by. The sequence starts here – that’s the winner. Two hundred little pictures, two hundred and one actually – I wanted to get the very last even though he was 10,0017th.”
“Why is it The Halo? Just ‘cause it goes around the top of the room?”
“It is The Halo, Arnold Hitler, because it represents Suffering Freely Entered Into, my theme song, dontcha know. These men are saints of a debased order. They are all seeking death, seeking to entice that death by exhaustion of the first Marathoner in 490 BC, the one who delivered his message to Athens, the one who gasped “We won!”, and expired then and there – poop! -- for maximum effect.
Their message, of course, is not to their community, but to themselves: “I did it!” But this shrunken thought is even more endearing to me, the refracted message of a futile, superhuman effort. They have arrived at the end of their struggle, and wouldn’t we all love to be there?
But more interesting is to study the sequence as a whole. Collectively they might be impersonating the catastrophic and declining history of our race, each 50th one clearly more decrepit than the one before—from Mr. Winner over there to the wrecks at the end, carried by their friends past the finish line. Not a pretty picture on that wall, don’t you think? But the driving rain was great, the helicopters chopping overhead sounding just like their brothers over My Lai, the crowd cheering – look at them wearing their plastic bags and squinting at their stop-watches!”
“The same crowd behind every runner.”
“Ain’t it the truth, ain’t it the truth?” She did a great Burt Lahr imitation. “While the halo is usually understood as a crown-like circle, there is also the tradition of halo as sphere containing the blessed object. You can see this parodied in Hieronymous Bosch – all those curious beings enclosed in transparent glass globes -- Jerry’s image of determinism caging each of us inside his mode of being or destiny, paradisical or damned. So Arnie, if you are plumping for a halo by mightily resisting little Eva here…” She rubbed her breasts against his arm… “…you might …just… reconsider…” She unbuttoned her jeans, and wiggled out of them, Venus for her Adonis.
“I’ve been saving this room for you.”
“What about your ex-boyfriend – the one who took the pictures?”
“We always did it at his house. My studio, Arnold Hitler, was sacred, impenetrable space -- till you came along.”
“Stop calling me Arnold Hitler.”
“Is that your name, or not? I could call you Walther von Stolzing.”
“Eva’s sweetie in Die Meistersinger, Adolf’s fave. All that wonderful stuff about heilige deutsche Kunst.”
“Holy German Art.”
“Jawohl, mein Herr. But you’re not stoltz enough. You should be more proud of your name. I’m gonna call you Arnold Hitler, and you are now lying in Eva’s bed in the room saved for the coming of Arnold Hitler.”