In the middle of the 1980s, the Reagan economic boom years, Wallace Shawn wrote a play called Aunt Dan and Lemon. Shawn is known as a character actor who plays peevish little men (in Woody Allen's Manhattan, he's a scholar visiting New York City for a conference on linguistics) but is better known for playing himself in the art-house movie hit (back when there were still exclusive art-house movie theaters) My Dinner with André. He's also the son of William Shawn, a former editor of the New Yorker.
Lemon, a young invalid without many years to live, relates the most significant events of her brief life in England. She talks about her mother and father; their friends; the wild, swinging, hypersexual '60s -- in which she observes more than participates -- and her parents' best friend, Aunt Dan. Aunt Dan is a woman whose gender and sexual identity are more ambivalent than ambiguous, but it's her moral definitions that are of greatest interest to Shawn. Aunt Dan tells the susceptible Lemon the story of Mindy, a woman "who would do almost anything ... to get hold of money." Mindy once coaxed an American tourist, played by Shawn in the original production, who had won 100,000 pounds in the casinos to pay her 60,000 to have sex with her. Mindy also tells Aunt Dan, in a scene re-enacted on the stage, of how she once got a man to bed, and then murdered him, for money. It's a revelation that drives Aunt Dan into lust for Mindy on the spot.
Shawn wrote an appendix to the play, explaining the ideas and experiences from which it emerged. Shawn expresses his conflict with the notion of comfort, describing how when people become predominantly concerned about their comfort, their moral sense diminishes, inevitably.
He writes about a woman he meets at a dinner party, who tells him that she dates gangsters: "She describes in detail the techniques they use in getting other people to do what they want -- bribery, violence. I'm shocked and repelled by the stories she tells. A few months later I run into her again at another party and I hear more stories, and this time I don't feel shocked. I'm no longer so aware of the sufferings of those whom the gangsters confront. I'm more impressed by the high style and shrewdness of the gangsters themselves. I begin to understand how difficult it is to be a successful gangster and what extraordinary skill is in fact required to climb to the top of a gangster empire. I find myself listening with a certain enjoyment."
It is that feeling of enjoyment that alarms Shawn in the middle of the 1980s, with Manhattan on powerdrive and the struggles of the underclass viewed with indifference and disdain by the warriors of the Reagan Revolution. He sees around him friends who have given up the moral convictions they once held in order to fully enjoy and rejoice in their privilege. He sees how likable these people are, how "they begin to blossom, to flower." They exude self-confidence, no longer made graceless by whipping themselves "by morality's lash." They are "truly comfortable."
However, because Shawn isn't one of the comfortable, whenever he thinks of self-confident people, he reflects on "the marvelous self-confidence of Hitler."
Shawn's play and essay, the relationship between comfort and morality, the booming '80s, dates with gangsters -- these all nag at the mind not long after the Hell's Angels rode into the Central West End for the signing of leader Sonny Barger's autobiography Hell's Angel: The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and the Hell's Angels Motorcycle Club at Left Bank Books. It was a perverse affair, with plenty of choice photo-ops ("Angel Eyes," RFT, May 31). The Memorial Day late-afternoon crowd at Duff's nibbled at their quiche and sipped their Chardonnay with a mixture of fear and exhilaration as the chic Angels, in their regalia of faded jeans, windburned faces and tattoos applied to hard muscles, smoked cigarettes and drank beer -- courtesy of Left Bank, the result of a miscommunication between club members and Left Bank co-owner Lisa Greening -- but then, who was going to explain this to them and cut them off?
The Angels were on best behavior. Nobody got stomped. None of their women got slapped or even called "bitch." No Nazi swastika tattoos were exposed, a fashion statement the Angels made de rigueur in select circles back in the '60s. Their bikes were noisy but beautiful, shining in the soft light of a spring day. There was a good turnout for the "bookstore with a soul" as Left Bank is sometimes called. There were those who came to gawk, to thrill at the pleasure of being close to real outlaws, drawn to the allure of evil. And there were those there to honor one of the most violent and feared "clubs" -- as they insist on being called -- in America, to pay 23 bucks for the book and shake Sonny's hand.
Left Bank prides itself on its adherence to the ideology from which the store emerged when it began some 30 years ago in the midst of '60s activism: social justice, racial equality, feminism, gay rights, a repudiation of corporate and militaristic hegemony, a mission to "serve the people" -- a phrase that actually appeared on their complimentary bookmarks. "We often represent the silenced people of this country," says co-owner Kris Kleindienst, but then, she herself has a hard time explaining what that particular liberal slogan has to do with the Hell's Angels. "I guess you could question if the Hell's Angels are really silenced," she defers, "but they don't really use written media."
No, but they sometimes use pool cues.
"There's a massive social history here," Kleindienst contends. "They are an outlaw group. They're not the Ku Klux Klan, for example -- they're a different type of outlaw group. It's a part of the social history of this country.
"They certainly have done some reprehensible things. We didn't want to imply that we endorsed shooting people and harming women." She and her colleagues were more concerned that a rival motorcycle gang, or "club," might arrive for a turf skirmish in the sleek Central West End. "It was a semirisk, but we've certainly taken risks before. We just like to take them in things we believe strongly in, so this one was" -- she pauses at length to figure out exactly what this one was -- "we weren't as wholeheartedly excited as we might be by somebody else.
"We did see it though as no one else is gonna do it. It's kind of that free-exchange-of-ideas thinking, I suppose."
But given Left Bank's lefty principles, and the Angels' jackbooted ones, especially with regard to women, what sorts of ideas did Kleindienst and associates think were going to be freely exchanged? "Yeah, we have these concerns, too." She pauses for a very long time, then emits a frustrated sigh. "We overcame those concerns because it's this piece of social history and here's the man speaking for himself, so...."
Left Bank is selective about the social history it represents, however. Last year the store had the opportunity to play host to former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger for a signing but chose not to, as Kleindienst told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Jerry Berger, because Kissinger was a "war criminal."
Kissinger, making policies that rained terror on millions with all the force the world's pre-eminent superpower had to offer, makes Barger and the Angels look like a bunch of street punks in comparison, but is the difference here just the economy of scale: Kissinger and the U.S. government terrorized and murdered more people than Barger and the Angels?
"Oh no, not like that, no," Kleindienst pleads. "I've never thought of it that way. I thought of it more in terms of the state, me personally" -- here she takes a long while to collect her thoughts again -- "an instrument of the state as opposed to someone the state would just as soon pulverize."
An old Richard Pryor routine comes to mind, the one where he talks about the making of Stir Crazy, which was filmed in a prison in Arizona. Pryor recalls his outrage at finding so many strong, young, vital black men incarcerated. But by the time the shoot was over, he thought, "I sure am glad we got prisons."
Aunt Dan and Lemon has some relevance as well. Aunt Dan -- and, in turn, her acolyte Lemon -- obsesses over Kissinger, whom she considers a great man, one who has trained himself to go beyond the heart's response to, say, the aftermath of a bomb's hitting a village, to the mind's understanding that if that village hadn't been bombed, "some of those same people would have been marching tomorrow toward the next village with the grenades and machine guns they'd stored in that pretty little church we blew up...."
Aunt Dan reasons that Kissinger needs to do things that aren't nice so that individuals living in civilized societies can be nice, and comfortable.
The degree of comfort the U.S. has achieved in the '90s boom makes the '80s appear to be an age of paupers by comparison. Furs and Nikes are worn with a spirited "damn-your-political-correctness" flair. For entertainment there's Gladiator, which depicts a populace distracted from civic concerns by spectacles of violence; there's Hannibal, the sequel to The Silence of the Lambs, whose cannibal hero people could hardly wait to read about again; and American Psycho, a novel despised for its misogyny when it appeared at the start of the '90s (some of those shrill feminists were just unsympathetic to those graphic depictions of women being dismembered, again and again and again) but, when it reappeared in 2000 on film, directed by a woman, was praised as "stylish."
Art is distinct from life, though the separation is less obvious all the time. Outlaws are romantic. Evil is alluring (Milton couldn't solve the conundrum that Satan, naturally, has all the best lines). But that's art. Art isn't the place to go for morality. It does suggest where the moral conscience resides, though. "All leftists have a dose of rebel in them, or they couldn't be leftists," Kleindienst suggests. There's "an automatic sympathetic response to a rebel, which you then revise with more information."
Either the owners of Left Bank decided to keep themselves blithely uninformed, or they just couldn't resist this one-time date with gangsters.
One image remains from the Memorial Day festivity. Standing on the corner of Euclid and McPherson, waiting for the bus, was a sailor in full Navy dress uniform. Unlike most of those on the street, he wasn't caught up in fascination with the Angels, as if they were exotic creatures at the zoo. Rather, he was thumbing through the paperback copy of a book, the content of which is of less significance than its title: The Death of Outrage.
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.