From Still Life With Woodpecker
by Tom Robbins

Published by Bantam Books, Copyright 1980
ISBN: 0-553-34897-3

"Ha ha.

"Victim? The difference between a criminal and an outlaw is that while criminals frequently are victims, outlaws never are. Indeed, the first step toward becoming a true outlaw is the refusal to be victimized.

"All people who live subject to other people's laws are victims. People who break laws out of greed, frustration, or vengeance are victims. People who overturn laws in order to replace them with their own laws are victims. (I am speaking here of revolutionaries.) We outlaws, however, live beyond the law. We don't merely live beyond the letter of the law--many businessmen, most politicians, and all cops do that--we live beyond the spirit of the law. In a sense, then, we live beyond society. Have we a common goal, that goal is to turn the tables on the nature of society. When we succeed, we raise the exhilaration content of the universe. We even raise it a little bit when we fail.

"Victim? I deplored the ugliness of the Vietnam War. But what I deplored, others have deplored before me. When war turns whole populations into sleepwalkers, outlaws don't join forces with alarm clocks. Outlaws, like poets, rearrange the nightmare. It is elating work. The years of the war were the most glorious of my life. I wasn't risking my skin to protest a war. I risked my skin for fun. For beauty!

"I love the magic of TNT. How eloquently it speaks! Its resounding rumble, its clap, its quack is scarely less deep than the passionate moan of the Earth herself. A well-timed series of detonations is like a choir of quakes. For all its fluent resonance, a bomb says only one word--'Surprise!'-- and then applauds itself. I love the hot hands of explosion. I love a breeze perfumed with the devil smell of powder (so close in its effect to the angel smell of sex). I love the way that architechture, under the impetus of dynamite, shedding bricks like feathers, corners melting, grim facades breaking into grins, supports shrugging and calling it a day, tons of totalitarian dreck washing away in the wake of a circular tsunami of air. I love that precious portion of a second when window glass becomes elastic and bulges out like bubble gum before popping. I love public buildings made public at last, doors flung open to the citizens, to the creatures, to the universe. Baby, come on in! And I love the final snuff of smoke.

"Yes, and I love the trite mythos of the outlaw. I love the self-conscious romanticism of the outlaw. I love the black wardrobe of the outlaw. I love the fey smile of the outlaw. I love the tequila of the outlaw and the beans of the outlaw. I love the way respectable men sneer and say 'outlaw.' I love the way young women palpitate and say 'outlaw.' The outlaw boat sails against the flow, and I love it. Outlaws toilet where badgers toilet, and I love it. All outlaws are photogenic, and I love that. 'When freedom is outlawed, only outlaws will be free': that's a graffito seen in Anacortes, and I love that. There are outlaw maps that lead to outlaw treasures, and I love those maps especially. Unwilling to wait for mankind to improve, the outlaw lives as if that day were here, and I love that most of all.

"Victim? Your letter reminded the Woodpecker that he is a Woodpecker blessed. Your sympathies for my loneliness, tension, and disturbing fluctuations in indentity have some basis in fact and are humbly appreciated. But do not be misled. I am the happiest man in America. In my bartender's pockets I still carry, out of habit, wooden matches. As long as there are fuses, no walls are safe. As long as every wall is threatened, the world can happen. Outlaws are can openers in the supermarket of life."

Within the normal range of perception, the behavior of objects can be measured and predicted. Ignoring the possibility that in the wrong hands almost any object, including this book you hold, can turn up as Exhibit A in a murder trial; ignoring, for the moment, the far more interesting possibility that every object might lead a secret life, it is still safe to say that objects, as we understand them, are relatively stable, whereas ideas are definitely unstable, they not only can be misused, they invite misuse--and the better the idea, the more volatile it is. That's because only the better ideas turn into dogma, and it is this process whereby a fresh, stimulating, humanly helpful idea is changed into robot dogma that is deadly. In terms of hazardous vectors released, the transformation of ideas into dogma rivals the transformation of hydrogen into helium, uranium into lead, or innocence into corruption. And it is nearly as relentless.

The problem starts at the secondary level, not with the originator or developer of the idea but with the people who are attracted by it, who adopt it, who cling to it until their last nail breaks, and who invariably lack the overview, flexibility, imagination, and, most importantly, sense of humor, to maintain it in the spirit in which it was hatched. Ideas are made by masters, dogma by disciples, and the Buddha is always killed on the road.

There is a particularly unattractive and discouragingly common affliction called tunnel vision, which, for all the misery it causes, ought to top the job list at the World Health Organization. Tunnel vision is a disease in which perception is restricted by ignorance and distorted by vested interest. Tunnel vision is caused by an optic fungus that multiplies when the brain is less energetic than the ego. It is complicated by exposure to politics. When a good idea is run through the filters and compressors of ordinary tunnel vision, it not only comes out reduced in scale and value but in its new dogmatic configuration produces effects that opposite of those for which it originally was intended.

That is how the loving ideas of Jesus Christ became the sinister cliches of Christianity. That is why virtually every revolution in history has failed: the oppressed, as soon as they seize power, turn into the oppressors, resorting to totalitarian tactics to "protect the revolution." That is why minorities seeking the abolition of prejudice become intolerant, minorities seeking equality become self-righteous, and minorities seeking liberation become hostile (a tight asshole being the first symptom of self-repression).

"Early in my career as an outlaw, it doesn't matter when, right after my first jailbreak, I helped hijack an airliner to Havana. Castro, that great fox, granted me sanctuary, but I hadn't been in Cuba a month before I borrowed a small boat with an outboard motor and putt-putted like hell for the Florida Keys. The sameness of the socialistic system was stifling and boring to me. There was no mystery in Cuba, no variety, no novelty and worse, no options. For all the ugly vices that capitalism encourages, it's at least interesting, exciting, it offers possibilities. In America, the struggle is at least an individual struggle. And if the individual has strength enough of character, salt enough of wit, the alternatives are thicker than polyesters in a car salesman's closet. In a socialistic system, you're no better or no worse than anybody else."

"But that's equality!"

"Bullshit. Unromantic, unattractive bullshit. Equality is not in regarding different things similarly, equality is in regarding different things differently."

"There's always the same amount of good luck and bad luck in the world. If one person doesn't get the bad luck, somebody else will have to get it in their place. There's always the same amount of good and evil, too. We can't eradicate evil, we can only evict it, force it to move across town. And when evil moves, some good always goes with it. But we can never alter the ratio of good to evil. All we can do is keep things stirred up so neither good nor evil solidifies. That's when things get scary. Life is like a stew, you have to stir it frequently, or all the scum rises to the top."

We're our own dragons as well as our own heroes, and we have to rescue ourselves from ourselves.

Who knows how to make love stay?

  1. Tell love you are going to the Junior's Deli on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn to pick up a cheesecake, and if love stays, it can have half. It will stay.
  2. Tell love you want a momento of it and obtain a lock of its hair. Burn the hair in a dime-store incense burner with yin/yang symbols on three sides. Face southwest. Talk fast over the burning hair in a convincingly exotic language. Remove the ashes of the burnt hair and use them to paint a mustache on your face. Find love. Tell it you are someone new. It will stay.
  3. Wake love up in the middle of the night. Tell it the world is on fire. Dash to the bedroom window and pee out of it. Casually return to bed and assure love that everything is going to be all right. Fall asleep. Love will be there in the morning.

"The most important thing is love," said Leigh-Cheri. "I know that now. There's no point in saving the world if it means losing the moon."

Leigh-Cheri sent that message to Bernard through his attorney. The message continued, "I'm not quite twenty, but, thanks to you, I've learned something that many women these days never learn: Prince Charming really is a toad. And the Beautiful Princess has halitosis. The bottom line is that (a) people are never perfect, but love can be, (b) that is the one and only way that the mediocre and the vile can be transformed, and (c) doing that makes it that. Loving makes love. Loving makes itself. We waste time looking for the perfect lover instead of creating the perfect love. Wouldn't that be the way to make love stay?"

The next day, Bernard's attorney delivered to her this reply:

Love is the ultimate outlaw. It just won't adhere to any rules. The most any of us can do is to sign on as its accomplice. Instead of vowing to honor and obey, maybe we should swear to aid and abet. That would mean that security is out of the question. The words "make" and "stay" become inappropriate. My love for you has no strings attached. I love you for free.

On the campus of Outlaw College, professors of essential insanities would characterize the conflicting attitudes of Nina Jablonski and Leigh-Cheri as indicative of a general conflict between social idealism and romanticism. As any of the learned professors would explain, plied with sufficient tequila, no matter how fervently a romantic might support a movement, he or she eventually must withdraw from active participation in that movement because the group ethic--the supremacy of the organization over the individual--is an affront to intimacy. Intimacy is the principal source of the sugars with which this life is sweetened. It is absolutely vital to the essential insanities. Without the essential (intimate) insanities, humor becomes inoffensive and therefore pap, poetry becomes exoteric and therefore prose, eroticism becomes mechanical and therefore pornography, behavior becomes predictable and therefore easy to control. As for magic, there's none at all because the aim of any social activist is power over others, whereas a magician seeks power over only himself: the power of higher consciousness, which, while universal, cosmic even, is manifest in the intimate. It would seem that a whole human being would have the capacity for both intimacy and social action, yet sad to say, every cause, no matter how worthy, eventually falls prey to the tyranny of the dull mind. In the movement, as in the bee house or the white ant's hill of clay, there is no place for idiosyncrasy, let alone mischief.

A romantic, however, recognizes that the movement, the organization, the institution, the revolution, if it comes to that, is merely a backdrop for his or her own personal drama and that to pretend otherwise is to surrender freedom and will to the totalitarian impulse, is to replace psychological reality with sociological illusion, but such truth never penetrates the Glo-Coat of righteous conviction that surrounds the social idealist when he or she is identifying with the poor or the exploited. Since, on a socio-economic level, there are myriad wrongs that need to be righted, a major problem for the species seems to be how to assist the unfortunate, throttle the corrupt, preserve the biosphere, and effectively organize for socio-economic alteration without the organization being taken over by dullards, the people who, ironically, are best suited to serving organized causes since they seldom have anything more imaginative to do and, restricted by tunnel vision, probably wouldn't do it if they had.

"When we're incomplete, we're always searching for somebody to complete us. When, after a few years or a few months of a relationship, we find that we're still unfulfilled, we blame our partners and take up with somebody more promising. This can go on and on--series polygamy--until we admit that while a partner can add sweet dimensions to our lives, we, each of us, are responsible for our own fulfillment. Nobody else can provide it for us, and to believe otherwise is to delude ourselves dangerously and to program for eventual failure every relationship we enter."

"When two people meet and fall in love, there's a sudden rush of magic. Magic is just naturally present then. We tend to feed on that gratuitous magic without striving to make any more. One day we wake up and find that the magic is gone. We hustle to get it back, but by then it's usually too late, we've used it up. What we have to do is work like hell at making additional magic right from the start. It's hard work, but if we can remember to do it, we greatly improve our chances of making love stay."

The word that allows yes, the word that makes no possible.

The word that puts the free in freedom and takes the obligation out of love.

The word that throws a window open after the final door is closed.

The word upon which all adventure, all exhilaration, all meaning, all honor depends.

The word that fires evolution's motor of mud.

The word that the cocoon whispers to the caterpillar.

The word that molecules recite before bonding.

The word that separates that which is dead from that which is living.

The word no mirror can turn around.

In the beginning was the word and that word was


Yes, this is the book that revealed the purpose of the moon. And while it may not have disclosed exactly what happened to the golden ball, it stated plainly why the question needed to be raised.

Objecthood was by no means our only major theme. There was, for example, the matter of the evolution of the individual, how evolving is not accomplished for a person by nature or society but is the central dimension of a personal drama to which nature and society are but spectators. Wasn't it made clear that civilization is not an end in itself but a theater or gymnasium in which the evolving individual find facilities for practice?

When the mystery of the connection goes, love goes. It's that simple. This suggests that it isn't love that is so important to us but the mystery itself. The love connection may be merely a device to put us in contact with the mystery, and we long for love to last so that the ecstasy of being near the mystery will last. It is contrary to the nature of mystery to stand still. Yet it's always there, somewhere, a world on the other side of the mirror (or the Camel pack), a promise in the next pair of eyes that smile at us. We glimpse it when we stand still.

The romance of new love, the romance of solitude, the romance of objecthood, the romance of ancient pyramids and distant stars are means of making contact with the mystery. When it comes to perpetuating it, however, I got no advice. But I can and will remind you of two of the most important facts I know:

  1. Everything is part of it.
  2. It's never too later to have a happy childhood.