Cheese, Mirrors and Bears: In Frederic Tuten’s Cave

Today is Frederic Tuten’s 80th birthday and so I want to use this post to celebrate my friend and the brilliance of his fiction. Tuten’s work reflects the beauty of life and art, like sunlight on a rippling surface, with a humanism and pathos that we need in these dark times. Only Tuten could have written ‘Self-Portrait with Cheese’, a remake of Plato’s analogy of the cave from his Republic as part of a story told by a person with a non-reflecting mirror for a head to his lover (who has cheese for a head) about a group of bears who abandon their cave-home for the circus only to escape to another cave where they find the mirror-narrator and take him in only to be driven from this new home (and back to the circus) by his tedious lectures on humanity (and their art, of course). This is a surreal story full of salmon, sardines and works of art – from Goya in the Prado to Tuten’s friend Roy Lichtenstein in the exhibition Conversations with Surrealism (for which he wrote the story). To honour Frederic’s dazzling fiction, I reproduce a selection from his story interspersed with a modest helping of Lichtenstein’s surreal works that inspired it. Thank you Frederic and happy birthday!

“Darling,” she said, “I think I’ve heard enough of this wonderful tale for the day—and the evening, too. If you don’t mind.” Sometimes, I have noticed, a person has to be in the mood to be tricked. Or needs a heavier grade of oil. So I tried again. “Actually, it would hurt my feelings not to continue,” I said, pointing this time not to the sky but to my heart, or rather to the general area under which it was invisibly doing its work.


She leaned back in her chair, a hank of blond hair falling over her face like a golden tail over a dry bone. A dry white bone with one eye that saw through mirrors and intentions. Leaned back, as if to say, Continue if you must, but don’t mind if every so often I gaze up at the sky to marvel at the herrings in their thin sea. I took the hint gracefully—manfully, I suspect they would have said in olden times—and I braved my way ahead. “They were very unhappily bored, those bears, and, to make the story short, one night they escaped the cages and the circus itself.”


The details of their escapade I held back for another time, another garden, another city—perhaps for another woman, one more easily aroused by tales of devil-dare and derring-do. “Fled the towns and villages and the sandy coast and straight up into the mountains, where they soon found a new cave for their home, one as deep and cozy as their last and in even a more remote, desperate region, shunned by campers and other thrill seekers. There they settled down and began their new, free life. Just the three, except for me, who, lost in the mountains and starving and desolate, was amazed, when, just as I was ready to give up the flesh and let my soul decide its own way, I stumbled upon the family of bears drunk on berries and honey.


“In a little clearing by a rapid stream they were, half awake and half in the lazy drowse of their inebriation, and belly-up in the sun filtering gently through the pine branches. They quickly discerned that I was not a hunter or bear-catcher, that I was a solitary, lost being, myself wary of my own kind—humans, that is—and happy to have run into them and not a tribe of dancing, mouth-frothing green snakes, so abundant in those wild regions. “They took me in, literally. Gave me a corner of their cave and a bed of pine needles, and they let me share their food—the water I drew myself from the cold, so cold, and so clear stream. They smelled of chocolate, as I remarked earlier, smelled like giant chocolate bears you would wish to take a bite of. So comforting their aroma, at night, when we all went to sleep, when I wanted something familiar of home to reassure me that I myself had not become a bear, a wild animal who had once been trained to perform stunts, to entertain.


“Slowly, I learned that they could speak. Not loquaciously, not fluently, not with a broad vocabulary, not with nuance, but well enough to say what they wanted to say and to send their thoughts to me across the dark cave. Ursula Minor, as I called the baby bear, was the least articulate and perhaps the most mature in thought. Ursula Major, the papa, spoke most directly, but without subtlety. Ursula Mater was the most rounded in speech and mind, and the most attractive of the three, with a silver streak running down her furry cheek. “Theirs was a happy home. The salmon ran like water. Berries dropped into their mouths, the honey was inexhaustible and the bees careless. They liked each other, admired each other’s integrity, were glad to be a family. But they were growing bored, growing despondent, sometimes even glum.


My unexpected appearance gave the lift that novelty gives, but after a month of me the novelty wore thin, like a holiday alone in bed. “‘Bored,’ Ursula Mater said, because in some sense they were no longer the same bears as before they joined the circus. “‘Joined?’ I asked. “Of course, they had been abducted, kidnapped, hauled off. But they had picked up the expression ‘joined the circus,’ meaning to trade a staid world for an exciting one, and the term seemed to befit the mood they currently were in. “‘How much salmon can we eat until we are gorged and sick of salmon?’ Ursula Mater asked. ‘We hardly have to dip our paws in the stream and there they are, thick, fresh, juicy, ready to slide into the mouth. Ditto with the berries and the honey.’ “‘And then, what?’ Ursula Major added. ‘We lay about, roll about, lounge about all day, then take a dip in the hottest part of the afternoon, and then laze about again in the shade.’ “‘That’s a bear’s life, Papa,’ Ursula Minor said. ‘Except for the endless sleeping in winter.’ “‘A little variety would help,’ Papa said, ‘a little something extra to do.’ “‘Something more imaginative,’ Ursula Mater said wistfully. “‘What,’ I proposed, ‘about a spirited weekly seminar on the history of humankind?’” “And its art, too?” my wife asked, trying to catch the waiter’s good eye, which seemed to be floating about thoughtlessly. “Of course,” I said. “What do you take me for?” “Wouldn’t that have been hard, without the visuals?” “I thought I would make drawings on the cave walls, a history of Western art on stone.” “What a splendid audience for your Eurocentricities,” she said, fetchingly but with a certain languor. “The point is that they liked the idea and we set aside Tuesday afternoons for our little salon.” “Tuesdays are very good for laundering and for seminars,” she said. “To interest them, I started drawing pictures of famous paintings with a cave in them, like Giotto’s Saint Francis de Assisi standing before his.” “Before his what?” she asked. “Before his birds and bears came and stole his acorns, trying his sainthood,” I said. Then I added graciously, “Have you ever seen the bubbles cheese makes under a blowtorch?” She gave out a polite whale’s yawn. “Those lucky bears,” she said, “all that history delivered right to their door.” “And it was free,” I said, “and loads of fun, and they were very grateful. But after two weeks, Ursula Mater took me aside. “‘Look,’ she said, ‘no offense to you, but we’ve made a decision to leave here.’


“I was immediately sad for the loss for my friends, but then I grew frightened of my prospects, myself alone in the cave with no way to feed myself, and without means of finding my way back to—dare I say?—civilization. To wander in the mountains, to starve, to be eaten by dancing, frothing snakes! “‘To go where?’ I asked. ‘Another mountain, another cave?’ “‘Back to the circus,’ she said. “‘To the old slavery and abuse, back to its routine and dreary monotony?’ I asked, without irony, without anything but chagrin and the sense that my world had just darkened, shades darker than our cave at night—because even at night, the moonlight sometimes carpeted our entrance and coated the rough walls a cool silver. “The strange thing, Ursula Mater said, was that they missed dressing up—Ursula Major liked his straw boater and porkpie hat, his green bow tie and seersucker suit with the red sash, she liked her yellow apron and matching bonnet—Ursula Minor missed his baseball cap and catcher’s mitt the size of a cherry pie. They all missed the crowds and the applause, the giant tent and the loud music. They also missed showing up the lions, who had really little to do by way of performance, theirs being the job of self-negation, of cowering and leaping through hoops, of being submissive, of showing how all their power could crumble at the crack of a whip. “They even missed their old acts, she continued—the tight-wire, the piano solos, the teas with the midget and sometimes drunk Goldilocks—not to forget the applause they brought. “‘There’s that, the applause,’ I said. “Not to return to the old routines, not to the old slavery, not entirely: they had a plan.” “Which was?” she asked, her voice and the way she hovered over yet another martini showing no intense interest in getting an answer. The herrings, schools and all, had beaten a retreat, so now there was little of novelty left in the sky for me to bring to her attention—and from that diversion lead her back to my story. What a failure, I thought, with a nonreflecting mirror for a head, with a head filled with odd tales of little compelling power. For all the art history lectures—with visuals—for all my pantomimes and stories and games, for all my telling them of human history, of philosophy from ancient times, when even blind men sat in little shaded groves and discussed their love for beauty, I could not even keep content the bears in their den. “Where have I mislaid my life, dear?” I asked. “I’m sure I don’t know,” she answered, with an olive between her teeth, like a little cannonball ready to be fired. “It seems I have left it behind me somewhere,” I said, looking about the empty garden, as if it had gone to another, less demanding table. “Why don’t you ask around?” she said. “Someone’s bound to have found it.” The waiter appeared in his jodhpurs and rose ballet shoes; he was bent low, looking for wayward ants, his long belt trailing along the gravel. “I think I’ll order a dozen martinis,” I said, “and see how many I can drink before they get warm.” “That’s a wonderful idea,” she said. “We can save the leftovers for breakfast tomorrow. Have them with the sardines.” “Better with salmon,” I said, “raw, cold from the stream, and still quivering.” “You should know,” she said respectfully. And with that settled and my authority restored, I continued my story, disregarding my audience’s indifference for the sake of its completion—for the selfish sake of my hearing again all that had happened.

– Frederic Tuten “Self-Portrait with Cheese’, (selection) from Self Portraits: Fictions. W. W. Norton & Company.


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