The King of Kings in the Place of Places, 1969
Welcome back to the Place of Places, a chapter-by-chapter analysis of William Saroyan’s 1972 memoir, Places Where I’ve Done Time. Today we get existential pondering the King of Kings in the Place of Places, 1969.
Although this book was published in 1972, Saroyan wrote it in 1969. We are nearing the end of the book now, and this is a chance for him to flex the philosophical muscles that he first grew in the 1920s and ‘30s. The chapter begins, “One has heard of the King of Kings. Surely there is also such a thing as the Place of Places. For us, that would be the world of course, or more accurately the earth, although there are Christians and Moslems who affect a preference for another place, and a better life than the mortal life…Essentially the Places of Places is not Heaven but the world. And one is here to notice, to experience, to know this simple truth.” This echoes his themes in The Time of Your Life, where in the introduction he instructs the audience: “In the time of your life, live.” When it comes to mindfulness, Saroyan was once again ahead of the mainstream trend.
The term “King of Kings” actually has a complicated history. Most Christians would associate it with Jesus. However, it has a longer history than that, utilized by Middle Eastern monarchs from about 1200 BC. And around 100 BC, the emperor of Armenia, Tigran the Great, began using the title once he conquered Syria. Armenian kings around 1000 AD revived the title. The term in and of itself is controversial historically, given who chose to use the title and who was given it. For the purposes of this chapter, it is likely exclusively referencing the Christian God, but we don’t want to rule out Saroyan’s ability to make esoteric and subtle references, especially when it comes to Armenia.
He goes on to explain that we are stuck in these bodies with these minds at this time. And we are given no choice but to live. “And what a place his body is. What an unbelievably tough, muscular, enduring, fantastic place it is, all charged with billions of secret impulses, memories, longings, expectations, compulsions, fears, loves, annoyances, anxieties, absurdities, inclinations, revulsions, and so on and so forth very nearly endlessly. In each man’s body are of course the bodies of all other living, moving things, from the beginning, from the one-cell form of life, to the extinct mammoth of millions of years ago” (Places Where I’ve Done Time).
Here we have echoes of Saroyan’s early works, like the story, “Six Hundred and Sixty Six,” from 1936’s Inhale and Exhale and later renamed, “Ben.” In this story he examines the entirety of human history that led to the point when he, in the form of the narrator, Ben, was born, and how amazing it is that he came to be at all. He writes, “It was myself, they who asked, and myself who answered, and it was in the street, in the city of my life, and we were many, six hundred and sixty-six, a multitude, myself alone among the multitude of myself, and suddenly the six hundred and sixty-five shouted, Do you love life, do you love it? And I said, Yes, all moments of it, those of pain as much as those of joy, those of beauty and those of ugliness, the moments of grace as much as the moments of gracelessness, allness I love. Came the germ, cocky with mightiness, male, arrogant, laughing, tipping his hat to the emptiness. Good morning, Ben, he said, I'll see you in a quarter of a century. Good morning, I said. And I saw him spring like a wrestler upon the loveliest of his opposites, embracing her with the ferocity of God, kissing the universe, driving away from him all emptiness, drawing into himself all form and grace and energy, absorbing her, laughing with madness of joy, turning to me to shout, In a quarter of a century, Ben.” And with greater and greater urgency, the first life forms come to be, then human civilizations that rose and fell, until eventually Ben is born to the same world of that same germ. For Saroyan there was a real interest in patterns, rhythms, and cycles. This is clearest in his early works, but then becomes revived in his memoirs. This is the arena where Saroyan dips occasionally out of simplicity and into deep philosophy and sometimes into a Biblical style of writing that differs from his writing in the 1940s and 1950s.
To Saroyan, the World and the Soul are synonymous, as one creates the other. In this chapter he writes, “A man is himself in the Place of Places, alive in the other Place of Places, the little runt of the Universe, the Earth, with its marvelous Toy, which man himself made, the World. How strange the word is, how strange the idea is. Places, places, places connected by paths and roads and streets and highways, and finally by ships following sea lanes and by airplanes following air lanes.” This idea of pathways, roads, and streets was always appealing to Saroyan. He loved to travel, by air or by car, and cherished the connections he made with other cultures. In the end, he felt, everyone was basically the same, living their lives with similar concerns even when their governments tried to divide them. In previous chapters in this book, we find him remarking that though other cultures’ practices could be strange, ultimately, he felt comfortable around them because he saw past those superficial differences. He also notes in Short Drive Sweet Chariot, “The Americans have found the healing of God in a variety of things, the most pleasant of which is probably automobile drives.”
The pathways that he appreciated were also evident in his art, which usually took the form of abstract line work. In the 1960s, the lines were typically connected in a circuit or there was one continuous line. Early on in his life, he abandoned religion, but his spirituality remained, feeling that humanity was connected in many core ways. These pathways were like an eternal pulse, and though he didn’t have a huge number of intimate friendships or relationships, he did rely on a larger oneness to make sense of the world.
In I Used to Believe I Had Forever, Now I’m Not So Sure, he writes, “The Bible figured in the life of my family. I had heard that the Bible was the word of God, and so I believed God had written it. It didn't matter that I didn't have a very clear idea as to who or what God was. Without needing to have a clear idea, without needing to define God, I believed I knew who God was, and somewhere along the line I began to believe that not only had He written the Bible, He had written all books. I therefore believed the Word was God's. I was rather well along in years before the obvious thrust aside the mythical, the marvelous, and in a sense the more deeply true, if superficially false. God, as such, wrote nothing as a matter of fact —not the Bible, not the dictionary, not any other book, not even the word cat. Men wrote. They wrote the Bible, the dictionary, the books, and cat. Boys, as such, didn't write the books, and for the most part they didn't read any of them, either.” One of Saroyan’s great talents was being able to recreate the naivete of childhood in such a relatable way as to show the readers how we learn and change as we grow up. He excelled at putting recognizable pieces together to build an adult person. In this case, he demonstrates a sort of fall from grace as he decides that Man made God, until he ultimately concludes that God is contained within men.
In his first hit, The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze and Other Stories, he explores the existential vigorously. The tone of most of the stories is fairly serious, especially compared to his later more light-hearted stories published in magazines and in My Name is Aram, for example. At 26 years old, when that first collection was published, he had some very serious things to say. In the title story, he writes, “It is only in sleep that we may know that we live. There only, in that living death, do we meet ourselves and the far earth, God and the saints, the names of our fathers, the substance of remote moments; it is there that the centuries merge in the moment, that the vast becomes the tiny, tangible atom of eternity.”
In the story “Myself Upon the Earth,” he writes, “The earth is vast. And with the earth all things are vast, the skyscraper and the blade of grass. The eye will magnify if the mind and soul will allow. And the mind may destroy time, brother of death, and brother, let us remember, of life as well. Vastest of all is the ego, the germ of humanity, from which is born God and the universe, heaven and hell, the earth, the face of man, my face and your face; our eyes. For myself, I say with piety, rejoice.”
In the story, “And Man,” he writes, “I had seen the universe, quietly in the emptiness, secret, and I had revealed it to itself, giving it meaning and grace and the truth that could come only from the thought and energy of man, and the truth was man, myself, moment after moment, and man, century after century, and man, and the face of God in man, and the sound of the laughter of man in the vastness of the secret, and the sound of his weeping in the darkness of it, and the truth was myself and I was man.”
Still a young man in 1934, he implements the vocabulary and rhythms of a preacher in his writing. He wasn’t that distant from his childhood in Fresno, going to church with his family. He was also thinking deeply about the loss of his father, a preacher. As time distanced him more and more from the religion of his childhood, his writings tended to have a less Biblical quality. Coming to terms with his father’s life was a key part of his young adulthood, from going to New York to follow his father’s footsteps to writing about fatherhood even before he was a father.
There is also imagery that reappears in Saroyan’s work. One example is the egg, which is very symbolic to him and also in the broader literature canon. In the story “Yea and Amen” from Inhale and Exhale, a chicken’s egg is compared to God, and as the narrator can’t find the egg he is looking for, so too can he not find God. The egg symbol makes an appearance in several of his early stories. The eternity of a circular shape is one appealing image for him, and the concept of a seed creating life is another that he implemented in many of his writings. Saroyan was interested in legacy and the egg suited him well as a metaphor throughout his career.
To bring this full circle from 1934, a chapter in Letters from 74 Rue Taitbout from 1969 reads, “Anybody: We met in Oslo in 1935, again in any number of other cities, from early in September of 1908, in Fresno, to yesterday, July 31, 1967, in Paris. You were never a stranger, although I had no idea who you were. So don’t go, but if you must, say hello to everybody.” His focus on patterns, cycles, and the metaphysical was a key piece of his life’s work, though that level of depth was and continues to be rarely appreciated by readers.
This chapter allows the reader to take a journey through Saroyan’s belief system, which promoted peace, sometimes at odds with the way he actually lived his life. While earlier chapters in this book are more concrete, these last few chapters are starting to take on a more conceptual description of his growth as a person.