In the Fall of 2001I went to live in Provence, thinking I would write about my father, Guido Teunissen, at the home of a Dutchman who was connected to Guido's circle of friends in Holland during the War but who had moved to southern France post-war. But I arrived just after the 9/11 attacks, as it turned out, and I was paralyzed, unable to get down to work.
I settled in a tiny village of no more than one hundred souls, in the shadow of the plateau where the great Provencal writer Jean Giono created a community of visionaries, all passionately dedicated to the land and its people. Over the eight months I lived there, that land and its people stitched my world back up again, through the deep succor of the relationship between humans and the natural world that embraced them.
During my stay, instead of the book about Guido and the War, I wrote an unpublished memoir of my sojourn in Provence. Along the way, it came to me that Guido surely had guided me to the land of Jean Giono, since I discovered a way of life that expressed the values Guido held dear. Here's an excerpt from that memoir about a visit I paid to Guido's old homestead in France, where he went to live in the mid-1960's, after nearly 20 years in the New World, spent in New York, Mexico and, for the longest stretch, on the wild coast of Big Sur, California.
Guido stayed in La Maurie for ten years with his girlfriend Nico, a stern, spare, chain-smoking, workaholic virago from East Germany. They lived a Spartan existence, which suited them fine. “Hospitality here is ‘help yourself’,” he wrote in another letter.
“There are no formalities. All is simple at La Maurie; we always travel third class. Meals are done up in the healthy style not in the bourgeois style. There are plenty of books (field rations) – and also music (guitar, gramophone). The selection is spicy: black and white, from Armstrong to Bach, and little in between. Each house has a real open fireplace and the wind, which blows where it wills, comes wandering up sometimes through the fire. So there is no "safety first", as a pair of jackasses have already experienced (and then the next morning hastily vacated the field). That is our Safety First – otherwise we would have long since had a parking lot and perhaps even a church here.”I had long been meaning to make the pilgrimage to my father’s old homestead. A few weeks after arriving in Provence, the call came from Nico: she was in La Maurie for one of her annual visits from the States. If I wanted to see it, I’d better come right away.
I remembered suddenly that the owl was my father's favorite animal, perhaps – the thought struck me – his totem. A yellowed postcard of Albrecht Dührer’s drawing of an owl graced a cupboard in his diminutive trailer in Holland, where he lived the last thirteen years of his life, commanding attention immediately upon entrance. A family album handed down to me by my mother contains several photos of Guido in Big Sur with his tame western screech owl, Hibou.
Guido's intention was to establish a “children’s village” at La Maurie, a “learning place for all young people for whom the freedom to determine their own lives is still innate.” It would, he hoped, inoculate its students against the empty charms of a commercialized society. In another letter to Jünger (whose Romantic notion of the “lone Anarch” standing against a corrupt world had first lured my father to Jünger’s gate in the Black Forest and a friendship that spanned nearly two decades), he wrote:
“We think we can fish a few originals out of the ca-ca and ‘expose’ them here. But who are we? Wherever I have journeyed and knocked on the door, it was always only the cave of the Cyclops Polyphemus, where mass production gobbled at random whatever came to hand. And Nobody can escape from there, unless he sneaks out under a sheep's pelt.”La Maurie received its first student, the son of a U.S. Army officer stationed in Heidelberg who had fled Communist Hungary and landed in Big Sur, California under my father's wing a decade before. Guido wrote Jünger:
“At the moment we have a three-year old German-American boy. He came a few weeks ago fresh out of a military Occupation quarter in Hanau with a serious case of television poisoning (secret illness, not yet in the medical lexicon). After just a few days, his mania for shooting every living thing in sight (aiming postures, as well as distortions of the face while emitting inimitable sounds – pow, pow, pow) has receded and the patient is calmly sitting in the meadow and ‘looking at all the flowers, how they are growing.’”
A few more children did come to spend a while under Guido’s tutelage, but after several years the experiment fell apart. He wrote to Jünger in despair,
“Europe is for us an exile on our own soil... I like to take risks, but never to speculate. Now here everything has become a great speculation. This is no Archimedean Point! Quite the opposite...We have risked much, as only God knows. Unless the signs change, we face a Robinson Crusoe existence here—which is not alluring, even though it’s like God in France.”
It became his obsession. He envisioned a kind of world community bound by ribbons of magnetic tape, whereby the wisdom of the ages would mix with conversations between friends and reportage of current events, cultural curiosities, and an eclectic assortment of music and theater to bring humanity to a higher consciousness.
In its conception, it prefigured the Internet, and indeed, Guido can be heard on several tapes prophesizing a world-wide information community created by linked computers – this, some twenty years before the World Wide Web.
Eventually, he amassed a collection of some 3,000 tapes, of which only 10% remain, dispersed among the various places he called home. On my last visit to my father, he told me that there were still tapes of his at La Maurie. I asked Nico about them and without a word she led me over to a moldering pile in a dark corner of the Goethe House. There they are, she said, pointing to a cardboard box on the floor, those are Guido’s tapes. Perhaps I might find something of interest among them.
I lugged the musty box back to the studio and commandeered a battered cassette player of ancient vintage. After his death, I had found several tapes of Guido’s among his meager estate in Holland; from this experience, I knew that what I was beginning now would be a long and wearying process.
The tapes consist of a chaotic, polyglot (French, German, Dutch, English) mixture of snatches of 20 to 30-year-old transmissions from the BBC, French music radio programs, pirated recordings of Lord Buckley’s madcap hipster soliloquies, Bob Dylan ballads, Huddie Ledbetter’s last sessions, a potpourri of jazz and classical music, and a smattering of Kafka, Melville, Grimm fairy tales, Goethe, Michel de Montaigne, and other assorted literary treasures read in Guido’s deep, measured voice, hypnotic and compelling. These are interlaced with conversations Guido had over the years with various friends and family at La Maurie, in Amsterdam, Germany or America, on his travels or on the phone. Some are quite clear; others are fuzzy and warbled, degraded by the passage of time.
“With the pen I am always only a specialist in original sin,” Guido wrote Jünger. “When I do have something to say it is never in writing. I have only living dialogue.” These words came back to me as I listened through dusk and long into the night.
I had entered a time machine. Absent the visual dimension, my senses stripped down to only one, the recordings drew me into their intimate embrace by my effort to imagine their surroundings. These audio journals opened a cleft to the past; slipping through, I became enveloped by the immediacy of long ago. Emerging through all the chaos were some gems, delivered with Guido’s aphoristic pithiness:
On the closing down of the “Whole Earth Catalog” – which was a revolutionary document in its time – and what Guido perceived as the selling out of the group that produced it: “They made $9 million USD and went off, just as if you caught the Bird of Paradise and boiled a little soup from it and everybody gets a little drop. And that’s the pity.”
On Alan Watts, who popularized Zen Buddhism in the States and whom Guido knew (the tale is told that he once spent thirty days with Watts, fasting on a houseboat in Sausalito harbor): “He was a good speaker and showman. He was there at the start of Esalen [Institute], but bailed out after two years – that’s how it goes in the States. As soon as something is built, it rots.”
“Why?” someone asks him. “Because it has no roots. It’s not deep; it’s shallow. In America there’s no memory of the whole story. Americans have no concept of Adam: the American dream has no roots in the situation of man. America is really a new country in every way. It is the only country in the world that grew from its beginning to its end without really reaching its peak. It has come to decadence without ever really coming to a point of culture.”
He adds, “America cannot make it on its own. It will need the old world, and it will have to come to a point where it is ready to accept what comes from the old world.”
Yet he speaks on another tape of America being his true home – there was “more breathing space” in the States; he found “more hospitality and curiosity” there: “I saw their longing for something more, their questioning and searching for what was missing. Why were they so empty and lonely? What had gone wrong? A whole nation that has for several generations gambled everything on one thing” – by this Guido meant materialism – “no wonder, after all that one way traffic, no return, non-stop, not even allowing themselves to look around or back. Whenever we met people, the only thing I could tell them was that I neither was that greedy, impatient nor fanatic; neither did I want to settle for half. I had brought along some values, which had gotten lost in the eager fever. Ask anyone what it means: integrity, dignity, respect, trust, loyalty, humbleness, gratitude. In Europe as well as in America those concepts are misunderstood, thrown over as a weakness and a disadvantage.”
He ends, “I still love legends and fairy tales and I still believe in the art of living – that means a real thing to me, not make believe.”
La Maurie was to be the embodiment of those ideals, the new Noah’s Ark Guido was trying to build: “Things are bound to change. If there is any future at all, it will be here. La Maurie doesn’t have to be swept clean – it is already clean, ready for the new way.”
But he feared it was a quixotic quest, one to which he was not equal: “Before, an allusion was made that I was a realistic magician. That counts only however with the greatest possible limitation. I am the most minimum of all things – not only as magician, but also as Waldgänger, as carpenter, sandal maker, as Willy-Nilly philosophe and even now as baby-sitter – in short, an entirely too small Rumpelstilskin that, if he ever has a word, he has to scream it.”
Once long ago in Haiti, Guido had been accosted by a figure like an oracle, an “old coal-black Negro (he was even a coal-man to boot), who came toward me in Haiti’s bush, [and] posed the question of the time: ‘Watje foh??’ He had to repeat it a half a dozen times until I understood him. Although he only asked me…what I was doing there, the question remains standing. Not ‘to be or not to be’ is the question, but rather: Do we or don’t we?”
My auditory marathon was nearly done. The clock was creeping toward tomorrow and I was growing weary. On the tape, Guido was talking to a young Frenchman who was struggling to understand him. “I think you are a little crazy,” the young man says, “But you are sincere and very interesting.”
Then Guido’s words jolt me upright: “I don’t know what is going to happen to this beautiful earth we are on. Subconsciously, I have brought everything I have found of value here, not only books, but tools, too. Here you can make a boat” – he means it figuratively, as well as literally. “I am outside of everything. I am nothing. But I have my heart in it still. We are all isolated now – hypnotized into isolation by the media. We are the ‘Last Men’; what comes now is so terrible that we don’t even want to think of it.” I feel he is talking directly to me across the divides of time and death, warning me of this epoch of terror and catastrophe.