There has been much dying lately, writers of novels, princes of nations, captains of industry, but to my eyes the world seems most crippled by the loss of one perpetually penniless, marginally homeless, progressively toothless, absolutely irreplaceable San Luis Obispo philosopher.
Cayucos Creek was his cup of hemlock.
Even in dying Chris Gibson poses a Socratic question, for how are we to regard the death of a man who tells us so often that he wishes to die? As tragedy, or as the end of tragedy?
"I want to die," he wrote in an e-mail in 2003.
It was an alarming declaration to those of us who loved him, but Chris would not be Chris without alarming declarations. He was the one man I've known who never shrank from hard truth. My challenge was to meet his claims with equal weight, with opposing truth, and not with some platitude.
"Don't die yet," I feebly replied. "I'm waiting for the sequel to "Wages of Insomnia" (an essay Chris had sent to a magazine I edit). You're the next Emile Cioran, but you could do better. How's Piglet? How's Minnie? Who interests you these days in SLO Town?"
"Piggy's fine," Chris replied, "but I still want to die."
Now that he has died, these are difficult words in which to find solace for mourning. But they are Chris Gibson's words, as reliable as any ever spoken. If we give him a sugarcoated eulogy, he'll walk out on his own funeral.
Chris Gibson's gift and his bane was a fearsome intolerance for the substance of culture that can only be described by the technical term "bullshit." Possessed with a brilliant mind, he would subvert it to no bullshit, and since bullshit lubricates our society, that simple refusal excluded him from homes, from jobs, from schools, from fraternity, from security, from recognition.
Faced with the compromises that make such luxuries accessible, Chris just said, like Melville's Bartleby, "I would prefer not to." And this made him, for reasons I hope to be able to explain, an invaluable citizen among us.
Like many SLOpokes, I talked with Chris for hours in Barnes & Noble, on the sidewalks around the Downtown Centre, or at the disabled yellow pickup on Toro Street that he occupied with Piglet, his little black dog. We talked about philosophy, women, war, his violently interrupted childhood.
He launched into riveting stories of child molesters, drug addicts, guns and fires, or frenetic lectures on Wittgenstein, Bach, and nuclear physics in which, at the end, Wittgenstein, Bach, and nuclear physics would magnificently converge.
At first I didn't believe Chris Gibson could be true. He described outlandish facts about writers I had never heard of, and I'd go look them up. But everything he said checked out. Always.
After I moved to Chicago, I learned from his e-mails that he was an equally gifted writer. I had studied at the best schools and worked as a reporter for 15 years, but I could not put thoughts to ink with the eloquence and complexity of Chris Gibson, whose formal education fizzled out at Coast Union High School.
"Just finished reading 'Ulysses' for the sixth time," he wrote to me in 2003, "and have been spending more time shuffling the deck (dog-eared) of Wittgenstein cards between my ears, and I like that 'rifffffing' sound. I find the whirring of select memories, the footprints of that genius' walking, must be what the rocks along the greatest river of all hear as they inevitably descend the periodic table from mediocre stone to dull brown dust. It's what you hear and let your head and heart feel that makes your dust settle better. All my unwashed best, C."
Back at the Barnes & Noble, I would often find Chris in the clutch of hip young SLOhemians, who would occasionally try to adopt the grizzled street philosopher as a banner of their coolness. As the talk drifted inevitably toward bullshit, Chris might unleash a torrent of obscenity, his blue eyes smiling, until his admirers fled in embarrassment. More often than not, he regained his solitude.
Sometimes he excused himself from bullshit more gently.
When Minnie Driver and Josh Brolin were a hot Hollywood item, the star-studded couple often stayed at Josh's SLO ranch and visited the very Barnes & Noble that served as Chris Gibson's study.
Like every human who met Chris' dog, Minnie fell in love with Piglet. The starlet would rush toward Piglet, arms outstretched, bathing us all in an aura of celebrity. That is to say, bathing us all in an aura of bullshit.
While Minnie fawned over Piglet, and we fawned over Minnie, Chris just walked away.
I take pride in separating myself from perverse society, but next to Chris I am a tepid conformist. With his battle-weary wisdom, though, Chris let me know that was okay. When I landed a teaching position at the University of Chicago, he gave his blessing:
"You're in better straits now and you may heed my advice to remain within the 'fold.'"
I heeded his advice, but I envied his courage to evade any fold. I did not envy, however, the suffering it brought him - the insomnia, the loneliness, the anger, the physical pain in his back and his feet and his teeth.
I hoped that someday we might notice what his suffering offered us.
There are public figures who tell us more about ourselves than mayors and police chiefs and other smiling faces of officialdom. If Chris could not become a part of our society, he became its barometer. His existence in San Luis Obispo measured San Luis Obispo's existence.
Chris Gibson's gift and his bane was a fearsome intolerance for the substance of culture that can only be described by the technical term "bullshit."
How much around us is real, we might ask ourselves in light of Chris' life, and how much is bullshit? How much of our own lives belongs to us, and how much do we travel the ruts of some cheerfully decorated track that delivers us most quietly from the cradle to the grave?
Where the soles of Chris's shoes met the street, there was no docility, there was no compromise, that spot was real.
"I find myself tired more than usual," he wrote in 2004, when he turned 50. "I notice more shadows and fewer rays of sun. I'm sadder and more angry, but so are lots of folks. Yet I have a fuller perception of what are now clearly the habits of the world as 'I' know them to be. I find myself almost saying out loud, 'Ah, Bartleby ... Ah, Humanity.'"
Chris carried whole books in his head, novels by Joyce, poems by Pessoa, scripts by Pekinpah, and unwritten books by Chris Gibson.
"I am rigid with a desire to shoot forth like a green thing," he once wrote. But his thoughts were so integral to himself that he could no more write them, he said, than he could turn his anatomy inside out.
So his philosophy was written on his life. And it was hard philosophy. It made him want to die, but it kept him alive:
"I find myself reading Wittgenstein and Frege again. I haven't pursued that stuff, made it my 'material' in nine long years, so it's enervating to have it reach into me with the marvelous fingers I always yearningly remembered in my better dreams. In fact, I was sitting on the toilet (this is only six days ago) and suddenly I could clearly see the sense of W's famous Private Language Argument! This was the first time where I found myself saying, 'It is good to be alive.'"
I don't know what happens next. Maybe the world discovers a cache of Chris Gibson's writings. Maybe the world acknowledges his brilliance.
But the world invariably would get it wrong. Chris Gibson would become a celebrity, and the true Chris Gibson would walk away.
And there will be detractors working against his memory, all those who stand at the opposite end of bridges he burned to regain solitude.
What to do? I'll just carry on, I think. I'll live as Gibsonian a life as I can muster without ending up homeless or face down in a creek.
And I'll wait for the next e-mail he promised to send:
"I'll fondle electrons again when I have flowered some particularly rare slap in the face aimed at this place here where I am and always will be like in the end of 'The Shining' when the camera pulls back and you see Jacky Boy standing smiling in the photograph of the New Year's bash except the time frame I'm trapped in will be Mardi Gras three years ago and the camera recedes and there's me and my dog sitting on the planter wall in front of B.N. scowling and obviously unwashed."
And that is how I will remember you, my brother, sitting on the planter wall in front of Barnes & Noble, scowling and obviously unwashed, with Piglet snorting at the end of her leash. I wish I were brave enough to live my life with half of your integrity.
Jeff McMahon is on an extended sabbatical from SLO Town in Chicago, where he writes and teaches and rides the el. You can reach him at [email protected].