“Postscript” (Seamus Heaney)

Dipping into Seamus Heaney today, I discovered the poem “Postscript,” from The Spirit Level (1996). Entirely perfect I think, a jewel.

And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.

a passage from “Another Country,” by James Baldwin

This is the end of Chapter 1. Rufus Scott, a young black jazz musician, is meandering through Manhattan – from Times Square down to the Village, then by subway up to 125th Street. Revisiting scenes from his life, meeting with some of his friends for the last time. He has given up. Despair has finally beaten him.

…Suddenly he knew that he was never going home anymore.

The train began to move, half-empty now; and with each stop it became lighter; soon the white people who were left looked at him oddly. He felt their stares but he felt far away from them. You took the best. So why not take the rest? He got off at the station named for the bridge built to honor the father of his country.

And walked up the steps, into the streets, which were empty. Tall apartment buildings, lightless, loomed against the dark sky and seemed to be watching him, seemed to be pressing down on him. The bridge was nearly over his head, intolerably high; but he did not yet see the water. He felt it, he smelled it. He thought how he had never before understood how an animal could smell water. But it was over there, past the highway, where he could see the speeding cars.

Then he stood on the bridge, looking over, looking down. Now the lights of the cars on the highway seemed to be writing an endless message, writing with awful speed in a fine, unreadable script. There were muted lights on the Jersey shore and here and there a neon flame advertising something somebody had for sale. He began to walk slowly to the center of the bridge, observing that, from this height, the city which had been so dark as he walked through it seemed to be on fire.

He stood at the center of the bridge and it was freezing cold. He raised his eyes to heaven. He thought, You bastard, you motherfucking bastard. Ain’t I your baby, too? He began to cry. Something in Rufus which could not break shook him like a rag doll and splashed salt water all over his face and filled his throat and his nostrils with anguish. He knew the pain would never stop. He could never go down into the city again. He dropped his head as though someone had struck him and looked down at the water. It was cold and the water would be cold.

He was black and the water was black.

He lifted himself by his hands on the rail, lifted himself as high as he could, and leaned far out. The wind tore at him, at his head and shoulders, while something in him screamed, Why? Why? He thought of Eric. His straining arms threatened to break. I can’t make it this way. He thought of Ida. He whispered, I’m sorry, Leona, and then the wind took him, he felt himself going over, head down, the wind, the stars, the lights, the water, all rolled together, all right. He felt a shoe fly off behind him, there was nothing around him, only the wind, all right, you motherfucking Godalmighty bastard, I’m coming to you.

thinking of James Baldwin tonight

Baldwin17©2012 Mark B. Anstendig

Growing up, I read his book of two longer pieces on race in America, The Fire Next Time, and then the novel Another Country. I was seized by his intelligence, integrity, and passion. The essays sizzled and sparked with the energy of prophetic rage; the novel was unlike anything I’d ever read. I went on to appreciate other essays and other novels – Another Country remains my favorite of the latter.

He will pop into my head when I find myself contemplating the display of moral courage in tumultuous times. No one in the ’60s was more eloquent on the subject of racialism in the US, yet his open bisexuality also exposed him to attack by black political allies – the Panthers of course being famously as unsupportive of alternative masculinities as of feminism.

Searching for photos of him to add to this post I came across an interesting interview with the photographer Sedat Pakay who was a close friend of Baldwin’s in the ’60s. Pakay had met him in Turkey just out of high school (Baldwin spent a lot of time abroad, especially in Istanbul and France). There are a few of Pakay’s photos of Baldwin in Turkey there, and a lot more here.

Having begun publishing in the mid-’50s, by the mid-’60s Baldwin had become a famous public literary and activist figure, in constant demand as speaker and debater – one of the reasons for his frequent sojourns in Europe was simply to enable him to write sustainedly. It’s still startling to realize that Another Country, with its panoply of biracial and bisexual relationships, was published in 1962.

Today his reputation remains strong and there are continual appreciations of him, for example a lovely recent one in the New York Review of Books by Darryl Pinckney (whose partner is the English poet James Fenton, great friend of the late Christopher Hitchens). At the same time he seems rather less well-known today than ten or fifteen years ago – hence this modest mini-appreciation of my own.



1964PortraitOfBaldwinThese three photos copyright Sedat Pakay.


… He felt changed, growing; he felt new tensions and new harmonies between himself and the world. There were times, now, in music, Latin, and mathematics, when he could master tasks that were still beyond his age and the scope of his schoolmates. Sometimes he felt capable of any achievements. At other times he might forget everything and daydream with a new softness and surrender, listen to the wind or the rain, gaze into the chalice of a flower or the moving waters of the river, understanding nothing, divining everything, lost in sympathy, curiosity, the craving to comprehend, carried away from his own self toward another, toward the world, toward the mystery and sacrament, the at once painful and lovely disporting of the world of appearances.

from Hermann Hesse, The Glass Bead Game, translated by Richard and Clara Winston

Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet

The New Republic has a wonderful appreciation, by Peter Green, of Paul Scott and his Raj Quartet (available in two handsome volumes in the Everyman’s Library here and here).

Green met and became friends with Scott during the war, in Calcutta, then later, back in London and interviewing for a literary agent in the ’50s, he found himself, purely coincidentally, seated across a desk from him. Scott served him as agent for six years, at which point – in 1960 – he became a full-time novelist. Several years later Green moved with his family to Greece for eight years, and then took up an academic post in the US (he is an esteemed classical scholar). So for the most part their contact during the last 15 years of Scott’s life was limited to letters.

The essay well captures what is so monumental an achievement in the novels:

What has always astonished me about The Raj Quartet is its sense of sophisticated and total control of its gigantic scenario and highly varied characters. The four volumes constitute perfectly interlocking movements of a grand overall design. The politics are handled with an expertise that intrigues and never bores, and are always seen in terms of individuals. Though Paul always saw the inevitability, and the necessity, of an end to the British occupation, and exploitation, of India, he still could see, and sympathize with, the odd virtues that the Raj bred in its officers. No one—certainly not E. M. Forster—has ever produced a subtler, more nuanced, picture of the Raj in action during its last fraught years, or of the seething, complex, and wildly disparate nationalist forces arrayed against it.

Evidently the ten-year process of completing the book took a shattering toll on Scott’s health; terribly sadly he didn’t live long enough to receive the full appreciation that would eventually come his way. Green’s essay spends some time pondering the mystery of the Quartet’s origins. In particular, he wonders how so great an achievement suddenly appeared, fully formed, out of the author’s previous corpus of work, which he describes as “good, but not in any way really exceptional.”

The Quartet remains a tour de force virtually without rivals. The question is, how? How did this middle-class suburbanite—who left school at fourteen, had no experience of diplomacy or the civil service, in India or anywhere else, and never set foot inside a British university in his life—suddenly, after a solid but hitherto no more than middling literary career, acquire the vision that brought the world of the fading Raj to unforgettable life, in a quartet of novels that for range and power have been compared to Tolstoy? Suggestions have not been wanting, most notably that his experience on the wrong side of the rigid social divisions operating in pre-war London suburbia gave him a sharpened insight into both native caste distinctions and the even more absolute British color-bar that he found in India. Others have pointed to his sexual ambiguity… There may be some truth in both of these theories, but since both stem from Paul’s early life, why did they not have the same transforming effect on his early fiction as they are alleged to have done on The Raj Quartet? The difference is as total, and as extraordinary, as the still not fully understood process by which a chrysalis becomes a butterfly.

“Futility” – Wilfred Owen

Move him into the sun –
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields unsown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.

Think how it wakes the seeds, –
Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides,
Full-nerved – still warm – too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
– O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth’s sleep at all?

more on James Purdy and the “via negativa”

In the previous post I had recommended a fine piece on James Purdy’s short novel In a Shallow Grave. It is by Don Adams and can be found here, in the online journal Hyperion.

I’d tried to read some of Purdy’s work awhile back and was unable to finish. There is certainly no one quite like him, and he is not for everyone. His fictions continually push various kinds of stylistic, narrative, and thematic boundaries. The worlds he creates are never comfortable – or predictable. They contain much loneliness and repression, grotesqueries and obsessions, strange sudden violence.

I just made another (successful, this time) attempt however, with a different book – the aforesaid In a Shallow Grave – and after a day or two of absorbing it a bit further, letting it settle, have realized there is much I appreciate in it. Don Adams’s essay has helped further my understanding, making a strong and well-rounded case for the novel as spiritual allegory.

The story concerns – and is written in the rough narrative voice of – a man called Garnet Montrose, a war veteran so horribly disfigured by injuries that his appearance resembles someone turned inside out, his vein-exposing face (the color of “mulberry wine”) instantly emetic in effect to those who catch sight of him. He spends his days on the property he has inherited – near the Virginia coast – reading (or rather being read to) completely randomly from the miscellany of books in his grandfather’s collection, most of which he barely comprehends, having only received an eighth-grade education.

Into his life appear two “applicants,” helpers, somewhat younger men – one black, one white – one of whom reads to him and massages circulation back into his feet, the other of whom takes down dictated letters to Garnet’s old sweetheart, “the Widow Rance,” and delivers them, and who also, well … this is the mystery of the book, because this second “applicant,” one Potter Daventry, emerges as a strange kind of Christ-figure, though not quite like any I’ve come across before. There’s also an old deserted dance-hall – Garnet’s great “secret” – and a hurricane finale.

It’s a strange ride, but not without its own mysterious touches of tenderness and beauty. Garnet at the start of the novel is a man more than half-dead, a man whom almost no one can set eyes upon without uncontrollably retching. But the experience of love comes to him in unexpected and inexplicable ways, from Daventry, and from Garnet’s other companion, Quintus Perch.

I like this summation from the Adams essay:

[Purdy] … flies in the face of our intellectual culture’s predilection to believe that human nature and experience may be accounted for rationally in terms of the behavioral sciences. According to such theories, human nature is a series of hard-wired drives and impulses, genetic encodings and cultural adaptations, that may be thoroughly explored and explained, given a limited social and cultural context… Purdy’s entire effort as a fictive creator is to counter such assumptions regarding our ability to account rationally and exhaustively for human nature and experience as a whole. In his interview with Christopher Lane, Purdy bemoaned the failure of critics to comprehend his counter-conventional fiction, noting that, “intellectuals are the worst sinners because they want everything clear and life is not clear.”

Purdy’s fictive contrariness and negations, his creation of characters and worlds that are inexplicable in and through the behavioralist thought systems by which we typically account for our realities, is that against which readers habituated to mimetic realism often instinctively rebel when first encountering his fiction, as my experience with my students demonstrated. But readers who are willing to engage the text’s alternative realism on its symbolic and archetypal terms eventually come to understand that Purdy’s multiple-ramifying allegorized world, which refuses the consolations of the conventional in affirming the unfathomable mysteries of being, is paradoxically more true to life and more respecting of the real than the fictive mimicries of actuality we are more accustomed to encountering and consuming. For these willing initiates, Purdy’s unconscious allegories … serve as fictive revelations, prompting them to discover the affirming power and purpose of negation for their own lives and worlds.

Pseudo-Dionysius and the Heart Sutra

In an insightful reading by Don Adams (in Hyperion) of the James Purdy novel In a Shallow Grave, discussing the book as an allegory of the via negativa, I discovered this quotation from “Pseudo-Dionysius,” a theologian who wrote most likely around 500 CE:

The “Divine Cause of all,” says Dionysius:

…is not immovable, moving, or at rest. It has no power, it is not power, nor is it light. It does not live nor is it life. It is not a substance, nor is it eternity or time. It cannot be grasped by the understanding since it is neither knowledge nor truth. It is not kingship. It is not wisdom. It is neither one nor oneness, divinity nor goodness…. It falls neither within the predicate of nonbeing nor of being. There is no speaking of it, nor name nor knowledge of it.

This cannot help but remind me of the famous language of the buddhist Heart Sutra:

Form is emptiness; emptiness also is form. Emptiness is no other than form; form is no other than emptiness. In the same way, feeling, perception, formation, and consciousness are emptiness…. There are no characteristics. There is no birth and no cessation. There is no purity and no impurity. There is no decrease and no increase. Therefore, Shāriputra, in emptiness, there is no form, no feeling, no perception, no formation, no consciousness; no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind; no appearance, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch, no dharmas; no eye dhātu up to no mind dhātu, no dhātu of dharmas, no mind consciousness dhātu; no ignorance, no end of ignorance up to no old age and death, no end of old age and death; no suffering, no origin of suffering, no cessation of suffering; no path, no wisdom, no attainment, and no nonattainment. [translation by the Nalanda Translation Committee]

It has long struck me that genuine wisdom traditions tend to have – and need, in order to be in a healthy state – both a “positive” and “negative” View, in balance with one another. By these terms are meant, respectively, a View which aims through language to reach – as near as possible – to a description of the nature of reality itself, and one which frustrates, which leads the inquirer explicitly away from, such an attempt.

Christianity seems to me largely to have lost the latter, leading to certain long-standing imbalances. Without a via negativa, the basic View of a spiritual tradition has a tendency towards reification and indeed, potentially, ossification. The approach of negation continually opens perception up and out, aerates it, maintains freshness and clarity. It reminds the practitioner of the fundamental ungraspability of truth. Indeed the negative way might, it seems to me, even be thought of as the approach of spaciousness.

Interestingly, buddhism more often suffers from the opposite problem to Christianity…

In the buddhist tradition, broadly speaking two ancient philosophical approaches predominate, again one “positive,” the other “negative.” The positive approach can be seen in the Cittamatra or “mind-only” school, the latter in the Madhyamaka. Madhyamaka – “deconstruction” some 2000 years avant la lettre – makes no positive assertions whatsoever about the nature of reality. Rather, it is purely a technique for revealing the inescapably relative nature of all such statements – both positive and negative! We seem to need both perspectives. A purely “positive” philosophy has a tendency towards “eternalism,” the denial of thoroughgoing interdependence, while a purely “negative” approach might lead to nihilism, its counterpart. Or – as sometimes happens within buddhist communities – to a certain coldness or harshness, or worse.

More generally, in the ravings of fundamentalism we see most clearly what happens when (in the old Zen parable) the pointing finger is mistaken for the moon, when the inherent relativity of all language, all concept, is forgotten.

A bit more on James Purdy in the next post.

George Saunders walks us through his desktop

Just back from a Q-and-A with Junot Díaz, about which hopefully more later. Looking something up about him, I was led just now via the ultimately unfathomable logic of hypertextuality here, to a Guardian series on writers’ desktops, wherein, it seems, they basically sit in front of their computers and comment on the icons, folders, photos etc they see… This one, published today, features George Saunders, and I liked this bit:

I’m not easily distracted, as a rule. Especially where writing is concerned. But I have noticed, over the last few years, the very real (what feels like) neurological effect of the computer and the iPhone and texting and so on – it feels like I’ve re-programmed myself to become discontent with whatever I’m doing faster. So I’m trying to work against this by checking emails less often, etc etc. It’s a little scary, actually, to observe oneself getting more and more skittish, attention-wise….

I do know that I started noticing a change in my own reading habits – I’d get online and look up and 40 minutes would have gone by, and my reading time for the night would have been pissed away, and all I would have learned was that, you know, a certain celebrity had lived in her car awhile, or that a cat had dialled 911. So I had to start watching that more carefully. But it’s interesting because (1) this tendency does seem to alter brain function and (2) through some demonic cause-and-effect, our technology is exactly situated to exploit the crappier angles of our nature: gossip, self-promotion, snarky curiosity. It’s almost as if totalitarianism thought better of the jackboots and decided to go another way: smoother, more flattering – and impossible to resist.

And this:

“InfanView” is an app that produces a list of all babies born in your area, ranks them for cuteness, and auto-sends each one a Facebook Friend request on your behalf. It’s good for building up one’s “fan base.” Ha. No – I think it’s “IrfanView“, and I honestly have no idea what the hell it is. I just went in and opened it and still have no idea. It’s a relic of something, but I don’t know what.

Michael Chabon nails it

From an interview published yesterday (my emphases).:

“The men in Chabon’s books all come in pairs … in every possible permutation: fathers and sons, business partners, collaborators, lovers…. These permutations interest him mostly because, in real life, men have so few options for how to relate to one another. ‘It’s your buddy or your business partner or your romantic partner,’ Chabon says. ‘Or your enemy. That’s it. That’s all we’ve got.’

“Chabon envies women’s relatively greater emotional freedom, he says. And he believes that ‘a lot of the things men feel in terms of confusion and frustration and lack of emotional connection and fulfillment is because the accepted possibilities are so paltry.’ With his books, he says, ‘ultimately the question I’m asking is: What does it mean for two men to love each other? Do male friends love each other? And if they do love each other, what kind of love is it? Do they say they love each other? Do they even know they love each other?’

“Chabon does love men. He has written, in his nonfiction, about sleeping with one man and falling in love with another, and although he’s close to many women, he says his mental category of ‘best friend’ is, by default, male. (‘If I were casting the part, I’d call in men.’) But he is profoundly frustrated by how men behave, or rather by how they misbehave, a problem he sums up as ‘dickishness.'”