Van Gogh’s Ear II – The Last Words of Dutch Schultz
By Darran Anderson.
Palace Chop House. 12 East Park Street, Newark. 1935. A pair of hitmen from Murder Inc enter and force the bartender onto the floor at gunpoint. At the back of the restaurant, they approach and open fire on three seated men talking shop, two of whom, despite being hit, draw their revolvers. In the ensuing firefight, one of the assassins dives into the toilets and comes face to face with the Jewish mobster Dutch Schultz occupied at the urinal. Before Schultz can pull out his flick-knife, a shot rings out, narrowly missing him and shattering the wall-tiles. The second catches him in the chest, the .45 bullet ricocheting internally off his bones and through nearly every internal organ in his stomach. His assailant turns and flees with his partner into a waiting getaway car.
Critically wounded and running on adrenaline, two of the victims (Schultz’s right hand man Abe Landau and his chauffeur and heavy Lulu Rosencrantz) attempt to pursue, firing after them as they make their escape, almost killing several onlookers in the process. Already draining in strength, Landau flops onto a bin, clutching his throat in a vain attempt to staunch the blood spurting from his severed artery. In true Omertà fashion, he survives to give the police a fake name and address before bleeding out. Somehow with seven bullet wounds, Rosencrantz staggers back inside to what is now a bloodbath. In one corner, Otto “Abbadabba” Berman, Schultz’s accountant, numbers racket genius and friend of the writer Damon Runyan, lies dying. His boss is slumped at a table and raises his head to order Rosencrantz to phone an ambulance. The lieutenant demands change of a dollar from the barkeep cowering under the counter, makes the call (“Send me an ambulance, I’m dying”) and then promptly collapses in the booth.
Poets come in all sorts of guises from misanthropic librarians to paranoid megalomaniacs. Few were as unlikely or unintentional as the bootlegger born Arthur Flegenheimer. Even by the decrepit standards of the time, Schultz was a piece of work. He’d risen from a being an errand boy to stick-up artist to organised crime boss through simple Darwinian ruthlessness, all delivered with a personal and sickening touch. When a rival Irish gangster Joe Rock objected to him muscling in on his territory, Schultz had him kidnapped, hung from a meathook and tortured, personally rubbing gonorrhoea pus into the hostage’s eyes, permanently blinding him. Another adversary was found with his heart cut out. Outflanked by business rivals though and too unpredictable to instil mass loyalty, Schultz’s reign was as brief as it was terrible.
Spying in on police frequencies, the paparazzi soon arrived at the blood-strewn eatery and began taking photos of the crime scene before the wounded had even made it to the ambulance. Underestimating the severity of their wounds, Schultz heckled the photographers and tried to bribe the paramedics while Rosencrantz demanded milkshakes. Given their injuries and the rusted bullets used by their assailants, they were in effect already dead, they just hadn’t realised it yet. Before he expired, Schultz bestowed on the world a lasting gift, a dispatch from the edge of life, in the form of a rambling stream of consciousness monologue. Without it, he would have remained just another arcane name of the mobster era like Cockeye Dunn, Tight-Lips Gusenberg or the Terrible Gennas. Instead, the lowlife got his moment of high art, his own cubist-opera recital to rival Molly Bloom or Tristan Tzara. At the hospital, raving with a fever of 106 degrees and the morphine/brandy cocktail given to him to numb his pain, Schultz began his last will and testament. Like some unholy nativity scene, the police, photographers and medical staff crowded around the patient as he was interrogated. A stenographer transcribed his surreal outpourings to their questions.
To edit Schultz’s monologue is to misrepresent it. It’s the very freeflowing nature of his babblings that provides the impact. Here is the human mind cut adrift from reason. On the brink of expiration, his speech turns both haunting and mundane, both feral and humdrum. There’s a certain outsider art-style fascination with it, the voyeurs’ pleasure that we all get upon hearing people’s last words as if they give us some great insight into the void and as if they reaffirm to us our very condition of being alive, however temporary that may be. Regrettably, there’s no audio recording, just a dictation on paper which inevitably loses some of the tone of his sentiments. Maybe there’s nothing to learn about dying from Schultz’s last words, no enlightening pearls of wisdom to impart. It’s certainly no Tibetan Book of the Dead. To seek some kind of truth in everything however is an unfortunate consequence of the age of materialism. Instead, this is art for art’s sake and the heart-gouging, eye-defiling mobster is the unlikeliest of dandies.
Reading the transcript, you’re firstly struck with its antecedents in literature, however illusory. You sense in his words the Dadaists and their Surrealist offspring with their cult of the unconscious and the accidental, employing all those Freudian methods from slips of the tongue to dream interpretation, all those melting clocks and ghostly mannequins. There’s Antonin Artaud tapping into the Holocaust and collaborationist guilt like it’s the national grid and blazing and shrieking like some unhinged desert prophet before an assembly of well-dressed Parisian dignitaries. And where else would you encounter a dying mobster ranting about French Canadian Pea Soup than in the novels of Richard Brautigan? Schultz probably never read a book. He, more than likely, thought writers were all cunts. But that’s the strength of Schultz’s last words; they have side-effects he never intended.
Another is that he inadvertently point out the limits of art, the borderlands beyond which lies madness. Set yourself adrift too much and the whole artifice of language and memory begins to collapse in on itself. The nonsense of his speech is consciousness itself coming apart in slow motion, throwing up words as wreckage, the flotsam and jetsam of a life misspent. The monologue alters emotion continually like a tour through the phrenologist brain map. For a man with such a violent disposition, the presence of threats are no surprise (“Shut up! You got a big mouth!”) nor are garbled orders of a “business” manner (“Come one, get some money in that treasury. We need it. Come on, please get it. I can’t tell you to. That is not what you have in the book”). Things take a turn for the truly bizarre though. Suddenly, he reverts to childhood “Cocoa know thinks he is a grandpa again. He is jumping around. No Hobo and Poboe I think he means the same thing…You can play jacks, and girls do that with a soft ball and do tricks with it…Oh, Oh, dog Biscuit, and when he is happy, he doesn’t get snappy.”
His mind begins to flitter between global and infernal affairs, the newsstand and the Bible: “Please crack down on the Chinaman’s friends and Hitler’s commander. I am sore and I am going up and I am going to give you honey if I can. Mother is the best bet and don’t let Satan draw you too fast.”
Then there are vague hints at crimes and Machiavellian schemes discernible in the mess, “Let me in the district fire-factory that he was nowhere near. It smouldered. No, no. There are only ten of us and there are ten million fighting somewhere of you, so get your onions up and we will throw up the truce flag. Oh, please let me up. Please shift me. Police are here… The shooting is a bit wild, and that kind of shooting saved a man’s life. No payrolls. No wells. No coupons. That would be entirely out. Pardon me, I forgot I am plaintiff and not defendant.”
What is surprising is how haunting it is. Who’d fail to feel the poignancy of a grown man (however malevolent he was in life) aware that he is dying, begging “Oh, mama, mama, mama. Oh stop it, stop it; eh, oh, oh. Sure, sure, mama. Now listen, Phil, fun is fun. Ah please, papa? Give me something. I am so sick. Give me some water, the only thing that I want. Open this up and break it so I can touch you. Danny, please get me in the car.”
In the end, it all comes apart at the seams and random images are thrown wildly together, a radio with its dial jammed on search (yet even then he never squeals to the cops as to who shot him), “The Baron says these things… Come on, open the soap duckets. The chimney sweeps. Talk to the sword…”
There have been similar examples of a mind collapsing publically and irredeemably; Nietzsche’s carthorse, the harrowing diary of Vaslav Nijinsky, the sad case of Rosemary Kennedy. And they disturb us to our core because they suggest no matter how brilliant a mind, how privileged a life, how prodigious a talent or how giant an empire, it all falls down and nothing you can do can stop it.
If you take the image of poems as word machines, with some being ingenious little pocket clockwork constructions like William Carlos Williams’ works or some steam-powered colossus like The Wasteland, Dutch’s is a machine out of control. It still has a function though, it shows us what happens when the act of dying does what Blake and so many others tried to induce in visions and drugged stupors – it cleanses his fabled “doors of perception and everything appears as it truly is: infinite.” And what a terrible discovery it is, not angels appearing in London gardens or some hippie utopia but a chaos that a man would lose himself in. Fascinating experiment though it is, you could argue the same thing happened to James Joyce when he built the monstrous labyrinthine contraption Finnegan’s Wake and his genius fissioned and went into meltdown in a vast implosion of language. Both are perched like signposts right at the edge of the abyss. Beyond this point abandon all reason. Beyond here is only the junkyard of ideas and words. Beyond here lies madness.
One question Schultz’s sudden conversion into an artist raises is where does it all come from, this thing called art? Certainly, the roots of inspiration are difficult to describe. Norman Mailer referred to writing as “the spooky art” precisely because of this. Countless times, poets have struggled to give form to this ephemeral thing. Blake, for one, believed imagination to be the “body of God.” In true human fashion, the common reaction to a failure in semantics or comprehension is to reach for the most outlandish theory possible to fill the gaps. Just as the blind spots in science are filled with the ever-reliable concept of God, the fact inspiration seems to evade a rational explanation results in the assumption of the poet as some kind of shaman, some font for divine inspiration. It’s the cornerstone of the Romantics for example, the parents of modern verse, this idea of heavenly openness of mind that Keats called “Negative Capability” (and his “Mansion of Many Apartments”) in his letters. The poet as saint, the artist as an antenna that picks up on this mysterious inspiration thing that’s just floating around in the air around us. It’s an idea not without its attractions. It sets poets out as unique visionaries and yet it suggests if this stuff is out there, maybe anyone can learn to channel it and so is both elitist and democratic. It’s considerable flaw however is that its advocates seem to be singing from the same hymn sheet as all manner of quasi-spiritual horseshit peddlers of say Blood and Soil school or that old chestnut the Church.
Sometimes poets believe it themselves. So you get Yeats trying his hand at clairvoyance and automatic writing, falling hook, line and sinker for parlour tricks like ectoplasm and table levitation. Hugo Ball talking in tongues in his cardboard cubist costume at the Cabaret Voltaire. Coleridge in an opium trance writing Kubla Khan, the spell broken by the mysterious and maligned “person from Purlock.” Or the leather-kekked Lizard King Jim Morrison, so blissfully frazzled on LSD and whiskey he thought a Native American Ghost Dancer had inhabited his soul. All entertaining and interesting in a myth-making kind of way but true, well who knows?
The patently unromantic idea of the work ethic gets brushed under the carpet. We want our heroes effortlessly blazing like young literary gunslingers rather than scribbling away at a desk nine to five even if it is an illusion. Think Bukowski. Chances are you’re conjuring images up of the pock-marked lothario typing with a bottle of Reisling in his hand. The drunker he gets, the more he’s connected to the heavenly dynamo of inspiration in the sky. Same for Brendan Behan. Or Hemingway. Of course, we’ll turn a blind eye to the fact that most works of genius are created pre and post-intoxication in bursts of studious concentration and contrary to the myth most work produced whilst fuck-faced tends to be drivel (as nearly anyone who has tried writing whilst drunk, stoned or high has found much to their shame). Or that they tended to be assholes with drink in them or indeed that it killed them in the end. We’ll turn a blind eye because we want to believe in genius, in hedonism and because we know deep down the only thing worse than drunkenness is sobriety (but I digress).
Schultz’s speech is just a neurological accident then, a curious by-product of the mind’s synapses firing blindly as the body fights a losing battle. Just as Monet supposedly invented modern art by having cataracts. Yet the blunt scientific explanation fails somehow, the reduction of everything to chemical processes never truly satisfies. Imagination has to be more than electrical signals in the brain. The exaltation of reason from the Industrial Revolution onwards may have given us the modern world but it’s not enough. And haven’t we had enough of the ever-rational domestic middle-of-the-road poets that dominate today, that were unwittingly born with Larkin (minus his redemptive cynicism) and who would countenance nothing more otherworldly or intoxicating than a skinny latte and a copy of The Times? The supposed foremost poet as an embarrassing uncle trying to be down with the kids should have us screaming for the shamans to return, the poetes maudits, the bullet-ridden gangsters even if need be. Charlatans though they may have been, they were anything but the stale, logical and hopelessly out of touch specimens we’re expected to exhalt these days. These people don’t speak for us, bring back the damned.
Enter one such figure – Old Bull Lee, el Hombre Invisible. William S Burroughs knew the potency of the unknown even if it was all an elaborate hoax or a happy accident. He too wondered where it comes from, becoming obsessed by what he called the “ugly spirit,” that destructive drive that brought him to near-ruin, that caused him to kill his wife and neglect his doomed son. You can see it as a cop-out, shaking off responsibility for his own heinous actions by blaming some kind of curse but the idea lingers. In one sense, his writing is an attempt at redemption, to explain and dig himself out of the hole but then writing may be just be another facet of the ugly spirit and not its antithesis. Part of the problem rather than the solution.
It’s no real surprise Burroughs feel under Schultz’s spell. He came across the mobster’s last words in a book entitled The Desperate Years: A Pictorial History of the Thirties by James D. Horan and returned to it again and again. It was one of the default settings in his mind, like the lure of heroin and bug killing and his poor lost wife Joan Vollmer wearing a bullet hole on her brow like a tilaka. He incorporated the scenario into a play, a manuscript and a sound collage, juxtaposing a reading of Schultz’s ramblings with reels of Vietnam reports and robberies. In a way, Naked Lunch is his non-linear Dutch-style revisiting of a stage in his life when he was strung out on dope. Most importantly Schultz would inspire Burrough’s use of cut-ups (and his comrade Brion Gysin to say nothing of Bowie or Lennon). The creation of randomly generated narratives, words and phrases by splicing up and reassembling journals and newspapers and whatever else he could get his hands on was something that enthralled him far beyond mere literary gimmicks. Like Celtic soothsayers who claimed to see the future in the spilling of entrails or the flight patterns of rooks, Burroughs found that his cut-ups had prophetic and enlightening qualities, that somehow the future wanted itself to be found and, like Schultz, he was somehow channelling messages from beyond. It didn’t matter that there are no prophecies in Schultz’s speech except the mind and body screaming “I am dying.” To Burroughs, Schultz had broken through and was communicating with the evil spirit. If it appeared to be gibberish, it was our fault in failing to translate what he was saying.
Meaning is in the eye of the beholder. Burroughs studying Schultz’s transcript as if it were the Rosetta Stone is just a natural human inclination to discern patterns in the chaotic; the same as people seeing shapes in clouds or Rorschach inkblot tests, Martian rocks, celestial nebulae or clay. They are illusions but enchanting ones. Such mirages encourage us, however temporarily, to see everything afresh and add a vital sense of magic to a world starved of it by the drudgery of work and politics. Thus the thinking goes; if you’re perceptive enough you can pick up poetry and meaning in the most routine of things. It is we, the readers, who create the art in Schultz’s speech maybe even more than he did. It is this that is the fulfilment of Keats “negative capability” an openness not just to some dubious spiritual realm and the very real places that lie beyond the light of science but also an openness to the world and everything going on around you from the gutter to the stars. To take the everyday and place it in a context, like Duchamp’s urinal or Craig Raine and the Martian school’s endeavours, that enables us to re-see what’s beneath our eyes.
There are countless other types of found poetry akin to Schultz’s ramblings: it can be found in email spam, talk radio shows, the melancholy songs of drunkards , phonecalls or physics textbooks. It can even be latent in existing poetry: take W H Auden’s September 1st 1939 which has been given a second life by apparently predicting the fall of the Twin Towers.
As for Schultz, his luck ran out. Shortly after delivering his spiel and having receiving last rites, he slipped into a coma and died two hours later. There were just three people at his funeral; his mother, sister and wife (in stark contrast, there had been 19,000 at fellow crime-lord Dion O’Banion’s funeral a decade previous). His vast hidden fortune has never been uncovered and regular searches are made for it in the mountains of upstate New York where it was believed to have been buried in an airtight safe. In the afterlife, he’s done more than haunt beatniks. He’s made cameos in Francis Ford Coppola films, been weaved into freemason conspiracies and inspired industrial dirges and avant-garde jazz operas, leaving his very last words of his closing act ignored and ironic, “Let them leave me alone.” They never will Dutch, not for your sins.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Darran Anderson is an Irish writer. He moved to Scotland after watching The Wickerman and currently resides in Edinburgh.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, March 9th, 2009.