Following In Their Footsteps
By W.L. Mesusan
Understanding the powerful attraction that brought three of the major literary luminaries of the 20th century to the shores of Lake Chapala, and how they found inspiration here for their creative lives, may provide us with a window into our own 21st century souls, since many of these same elements provide the sparks that draw creative individuals of all kinds to the Lakeside area.
The first wave of outsiders to Chapala and Ajijic--European artists, musicians, writers, and dancers-- arrived during the 1920s and 1930s. This should come as no surprise. Artists and writers are innovators, usually living 50-100 years ahead of their times.
D.H. Lawrence was among these spiritual ancestors, in flight from an already over-industrialized English countryside. By the time Lawrence arrived in the town of Chapala, the decline of western culture had already set in and the 20th century was on its way to becoming the most violent epoch in the history of Man. The visionary Lawrence had already witnessed the homogenization of American society under the twin pres-sures of materialism and massive mechanization.
From May to July, 1923, David Herbert Lawrence set up stop (literarily speaking) in a rented house called Los Cuentales (The Tales). The dwelling still stands at Zaragoza 307, although renovated and modernized with the addition of a second story. This colorful building is now home to the marvelous Quinta Quezalcoatl, Inn of the Plumed Serpent, a Boutique Hotel named after the novel Lawrence published in 1926.
A short stroll brought author Lawrence to the local church, Iglesia San Francisco, which figures prominently in the final pages of his celebrated work, The Plumed Serpent. At the time, this landmark near the pier in Chapala had two bell towers topped with majestic spires of equal height. A later restoration somehow left one of them shorter than its predecessor. It’s been said the builder was run out of town for this oversight. The church’s once humble interior and facade are now covered in a handsome veneer of carved stone.
Lawrence’s thought-provoking novel explores Mexican society in light of the country’s transformative Revolution. It contains critical, unflattering descriptions of the surrounding countryside. Lawrence fictionalized Lake Chapala by calling it Lake Sayula. He probably took this detail from a town sharing the same name, located southwest of the lake just off the toll road to Colima. D.H. is one of the few writers not enamored by the scenic beauty of the mountains surrounding Lake Chapala. This is surprising since he stayed here during part of the annual rainy season. Maybe he was too preoccupied to witness the hills turning a vibrant green.
Lawrence was followed to Lakeside by another English writer, W. Somerset Maugham, who lived in Ajijic for several months in the late 1930s while putting the finishing touches on his passionate novel about spiritual quest, The Razor’s Edge. The story of Larry Darrell, a World War I Vet who needs to find values deeper than social conformity and money, is an inspiring affirmation for all creative individuals.
A decade later, Tennessee Williams hosted nightly poker games at the Ajijic Posada (a.k.a. the Old Posada) long before Elizabeth Taylor, Charles Bronson, Larry Hagman, and scores of other celebrities stayed at the venerable establishment. The Mississippi playwright, whose real name was Thomas Lanier Williams, felt inspired by his experience to pen a short story, “The Poker Game.” It’s believed this story evolved into the ground breaking play and movie A Streetcar Named Desire.
The most remarkable aspect of the creative processes invoked by these three great writers during the brief time they lived at Lake Chapala is the tremendous impact their fictions attained in the world at-large after they left the area.
The Plumed Serpent is still considered one of D.H. Lawrence’s best-written, most engrossing novels although he remains best known for the once-banned Lady Chat-terly’s Lover, which might have faded into obscurity if it hadn’t taken on new life when copies were secretly passed around by high school students, under their teachers’ noses, in the United States, during the 1950s. The most erotic passages, resonating powerfully inside this hormone-driven audience, were carefully underlined to expedite the clandestine distribution process.
Lawrence’s Serpent novel never made it to the silver screen. A 1970 Nigel Kneale screenplay adaptation evolved into a Christopher Miles project. The film was never completed because of unspecified production problems. Reproductive problems might be a more accurate description since Miles’ actress sister, English screen presence Sarah Miles, set to star as protagonist “Kate Leslie,” became pregnant at a rather inopportune time for her director/brother. The only document remaining from the defunct movie project is Kneale’s screenplay.
Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge was, cinematically speaking, a different story altogether. Despite its non-commercial storyline, The Razor’s Edge became a pet project of 20th Century Fox head honcho Darryl F. Zanuck. He cast Tyrone Power in the lead role and then transformed the spiritual adventure of “Larry Darrell” into an adventure movie, an adaptation that miraculously remained faithful to the novel. An all-star cast also included Gene Tierney, John Payne, Anne Baxter, and Clifton Webb. Although the movie didn’t win an Academy Award for Best Picture, it was nominated in this and numerous other categories and garnered a Best-Supporting Actress Oscar for Anne Baxter in 1946.
The following year, A Streetcar Named Desire opened on Broadway for a two-year run. The play won a Pulitzer Prize, but it was the movie version’s twelve Academy Award nominations, in the early 1950s, that cemented Streetcar’s place in history. Directed by Elia Kazan, the film earned four Oscars including Best Actress (Vivian Leigh), Best Supporting Actress (Kim Hunter), Best Supporting Actor (Karl Malden), and best Art Direction. Young Marlon Brando (nominated for Best Actor), a tour-de-force with his brooding sexuality and raw primal energy, enabled both stage and screen versions of this story to break down existing societal taboos.
Tennessee Williams later wrote The Night of the Iguana, another story set in Mexico. Director John Huston’s 1963 movie inadvertently led to the worldwide discovery of Puerto Vallarta when a fixated media descended upon this small fishing village to report on the torrid love affair between Welsh actor Richard Burton and American actress Elizabeth Taylor (who played no part in the movie).
Lesser lights than the immortal three,luminous in their own way, followed in
the footsteps of these major authors.
Like Williams, fellow Mississippian Neill James lived and wrote in Ajijic during the 1940s. Scarred and battered from a previous adventure in which she fell down the slopes of Popocatepetl volcano, the intrepid James hiked up the slopes of the volcano Paricutin in June, 1943, 101 days after the advent of its eruption. She was brought to Lake Chapala to recuperate from serious injuries she suffered on the still potent volcano. Here, Neill’s indomitable spirit found inspiration as she turned her earlier travel and cultural adventures into a series of books collectively known as the Petticoat Vagabond stories. James’ Dust on My Heart remains a local favorite.
The American philanthropist/writer’s legacy wasn’t limited to the printed page. Thousands of paintings were produced in the Children’s Art Program she initiated in 1956. Her efforts to encourage young artists to develop their creative talents eventually led to Ajijic’s recognition as an international art mecca when many of these same students became professional artists, art teachers, and gallery owners.
The 1940s may have been the heyday for writers at Lake Chapala as this decade also saw the publication of Village in the Sun and House in the Sun. These books offer a nostalgic, bittersweet look at Ajijic life seventy years ago. With an eccentric cast of lovable characters, and colorful stories of village life, it’s not hard to imagine the two books as a BBC mini-series.
The “Sun” books were the product of dynamic duo writing under the pseudonym “Dane Chandos.” One half of the team was Englishman Peter Lilley who lived along the shores of Lake Chapala, in a house he built in San Antonio Tlayacapan, until his death in 1979. The other member was either Nigel Millet or Anthony Stansfield.
Englishman Millet established the Ajijic Posada in the 1930s while Stansfield, an Oxford University graduate, taught art history at Macon University, in Atlanta, Georgia. Some references indicate that Lilley remained a part of the combo throughout while working with two different partners on these two books as well as six more popular books in the 1940s and 50s.
The migration of writers and artists didn’t stop with the 40s. During the 1950s and 60s, the spiritual heirs of these earlier talents began to take up permanent residence at Lake Chapala. They came from the United States, Canada, the Caribbean, Europe, Japan, Central America, and South America; artists like Hector Buigues, Georg Rauch, Masaharu Shimada, Ute Hagen, the late lithographer William Gentes, and scores of others too numerous to mention, but accomplished nonetheless.
Down through the decades, Lakeside remained a place where it was easy to cultivate what Swiss Psychologist C.G. Jung believed is an essential element of human nature, “an instinct for creativity.” Dancers, painters, musicians, film and theater people, and creative individuals of all kinds continued to arrive, discovering a place where their souls can take shape, an environment conducive to a peaceful tranquility punctuated only by religious and seasonal festivals.
Author Thomas Moore (Care of the Soul, Soul Mates and Dark Nights of the Soul) champions creative tranquility and sees it as “a condition in which you are free from pressing practical concerns to consider the bigger questions.” His words are echoed by local artist/architect Jose Duran whose favorite aspect of Lake Chapala is a tranquility he manages to bring to life in endearing vignettes of the local people and their intimate, vernacular world.
Neill James believed the heart of an artist appreciates tranquility, beauty, and is “the heart of a friend of nature.” The natural beauty of the Lake Chapala region continues to delight. A wide array of subtropical birds, plants, trees, butterflies, insects, and wildlife, provides unique opportunities for individuals to reconnect to the natural world.
The grandeur of the lake and mountains, a source of joy and inspiration, provides a balm for the eyes and soul. A Buddhist monk, living on the island of Sri Lanka (formally Ceylon), shares his perspective: “Connecting to nature is a spiritual blessing.” Ancient wisdom, the perennial philosophy of all indigenous peoples, holds that our connection to nature nourishes our souls.
A scenic lake, surrounded by majestic mountains, is paradise for pleinaire painters. The unique colors and light--along with opportunities to observe nature first hand, especially Lake Chapala’s awesome sunrises and sunsets--may be unsurpassed. The sky alone is worth the price of admission. Sometimes the cloud formations are reminiscent of the canyons of the American Southwest. Other days, they evoke a Maxfield Parrish painting. Photographers share in this unending visual bounty of nature’s awe-inspiring revelations.
Perhaps the most underestimated aspect of nature attracting creative individuals to Lake Chapala is the subliminal desire of our bodies for Sol, not the popular Mexican cerveza so easy to find in these parts, but the life-giving, energizing star at the center of our universe. Recent scientific studies indicate that vitamin D, “the sunshine vitamin,” may actually protect against lymphoma, and cancers of the prostate, lung, and (ironically) skin. The vitamin prevents thirty deaths for each one caused by skin cancer. The results of recent studies challenge modern medicine’s fundamental belief that people need to coat themselves with sunscreen whenever they’re out in the sun. This may con-tribute to far more cancer deaths than it prevents. The role of the sun on imagination, its healing physical warmth and the corresponding power to promote a sensuous life with countless subliminal satisfactions, still remains a mystery.
The Mexican people themselves, and a friendly family atmosphere that’s more reminiscent of life north of the border in the 1950s, attracts both the creative and non-creative among us. The Mexicans seem to not only tolerate, but whole-heartedly accept newcomers from all over the globe. These indigenous peoples, generous and good-natured, seem to have a unique understanding of what’s truly important in daily life. The Dane Chandos duo perhaps expressed it best when they wrote:“And the people, earth-colored and close to the earth, springing from it and returning to it as adobes do, will not change but will remain kind and generous and good-tempered, quick to laughter, quick to quarrel and quick to forget the quarrel, in some things utterly careless, but not easy to deceive in things that lie nearest to here-now, that moving point which, although it is allwhere and anywhen, comprehends the whole real world.”
We find ourselves in an artistic climate where art, dance, and music are integrated into daily life. There’s a sense of things magical and potent in the inspired murals of the local artists. It’s a quality hard to define yet easy to appreciate, a tantalizing mix of pre-Columbian Spanish, and modern sensibilities. There’s a deep mystery in the lake’s in-spiration, its undeniable impact on local artists for whom the lake is Mythic Woman, a creative and life-nourishing force of nature.
Many elements are at work here: the land and its people which are experienced as nature, history, culture, economics, art, and music. Somehow, inexplicably, the whole of Lake Chapala is more than the sum of its parts. Local painter Enrique Velasquez expresses this thought more poetically, “We like to say Ajijic has magic.”
Those three amigos of 20th century literature (Lawrence, Maugham, and Williams) certainly discovered a powerful magic in the creative forces at work within themselves and in the surrounding pre-Columbian fishing villages, encircled by an ancient ring of volcanic mountains on Mexico’s high central plateau. It almost seems like the dormant volcanoes came alive for a time--bringing a fiery magma to spark the souls of these authors--enabling them to bring to completion important works of art.
The mystery of this landscape, both within and without, calls our modern creative souls to adventure as well. Beyond the myriad elements at work attracting us to Lake Chapala, beyond the explainable and the irrational, lays an opportunity for each individual to recover from an atrophied sense of awe and wonder. Following in the footsteps of our creative ancestors, we may just discover that this world is more mysterious and marvelous than we had ever imagined.
(Ed. Note: Bill has written many fine articles for the Ojo, among the best his fascinating account of the encounter between the legendary film director John Huston, and the pathologically shy B. Traven, who had written the novel The Treasure of the Sierra Madre which Huston was in Mexico to film. At present, Bill is busy re-writing The Galician Woman, a novel set in mid-10th century Muslim Spain during a time when Christians, Jews, and Muslims lived in a state of peaceful co-existence (Convivencia) based upon enlightened self-interest. What a concept!)