A disconcerting way of being absent from gym
Among the many things for which I admire - nay, venerate - Edward Gorey are his darkness, hilarity, hand-lettering, and vocabulary. When I found myself recently with the opportunity to visit the Edward Gorey House in Yarmouth Port, nothing could stop me. I mean literally the fact that my muffler had broken in half on the way to Cape Cod and I was at some risk of dying of carbon monoxide poisoning did not stop me. Must. See. Gorey. House. And see it I did. In a state of stupefying anxiety, but still. Somehow that seems suitable.
My visit was brief and my anxiety somewhat distracting, but one thing that immediately struck me was this: Edward Gorey must have seen everything differently. Everything. Because how else does this happen?
These are from the unpublished Les Passmenteries Horribles, "a textless saga of various ornate tassels, and the creatures, both human and otherwise, that they victimize." No one else on earth would have looked at a tassel and thought, "Hmm. Ominous." What this demonstrates to me is a total lack of interest in compromise. Gorey saw menacing tassels and by golly he drew menacing tassels. What is the point of giving people a sense of unease regarding tassels, you might wonder. Well, as Ben Franklin once said, what is the point of babies. Who cares? It works. The world needed menacing tassels.
Because Gorey was such an uncompromisingly weird genius, so unique and unknowable, it feels strange to see evidence of his having been a human person. The bathroom at the Gorey house is Gorey's bathroom, with Gorey's toilet and Gorey's shower. I rather felt that Gorey would not have liked that, and would not have liked us all poring over his things and his life and his rough drafts. And yet all I came away with from the Gorey house was just a sense of Gorey being more Gorey than I even knew - and that's all. He remained unknowable as a person, as he probably would have preferred.
In a display case, there's a typewritten letter from his school to his parents, in which the teacher complains, "He has a disconcerting way of being absent from gym." And in another: "I might add that Ted has also been reported for creating a disturbance in music." You could see these youthful hijinks as a way of knowing "Ted" before he was "Edward Gorey" . . . if not for the wording. What Gorey's teacher wrote about him is in itself Goreyesque. He was never "Ted." Instead, he sounds like he was the Doubtful Guest of his school. The DG does, after all, wear Converse sneakers. Perhaps young Gorey was missing gym because he had run down the hall to put his nose to the wall. It's not improbable.
There is a book of interviews with Gorey called Ascending Peculiarity in which he consistently refuses to commit to anything aside from his love for Balanchine and cats. You would think you'd learn something about him in all those pages. There's even one interview that's just a list of straightforward questions:
What is your greatest extravagance? Things acquired at yard sales.
What is it that you most dislike? The results of fear and greed.
What do you dislike most about your appearance? Everything but my toes.
If you could choose what to come back as, what would it be? A neutrino.
So, okay. You might feel you know things about Gorey now. These answers seem genuine or at least like genuine jokes. But then there's this:
On what occasion do you lie? Almost any.
And there he goes again. Whatever he says or does or writes or draws only ever comes down to this: Gorey is Gorey, no more, no less. To return to the ongoing burning debate with my co-worker (see tag at bottom of post): this is one case where I don't think the existence of the Gorey's unpublished work gets you any closer to him anyway. And this is one case where I'm grateful for that. Like Mary Poppins, he never explained anything, and that suits the magnificent strangeness of his work. To his list of venerable qualities, I'm happy to add ineffability.
Photos from inside the Edward Gorey House taken with permission by moi. Go visit! But get your muffler checked first because you never know when that thing is going to rust in half.