Archive for May, 2011
“You people have a religion of death that fills you with joy and courage to confront it,” he said. ”I do not: I believe the only essential thing is to be alive.”
There is no more private experience than reading a great book in a public place, especially when closing in on the final paragraphs. You begin to hear the low roar of the material world you will soon be rejoining, and for the first time perceive that the narrative fabric you had drawn about you, so close as to nearly mistake it for yourself, is in fact, separate, temporal. Against your impending separation, a sort of preemptive nostalgia sets in.
Such was I at Starbucks, about to be expelled from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s bronze-bright elegy, Of Love and Other Demons, into that uniquely American environment, the corporate comfort spot, a three-dimensional cartoon of a soulful gathering place. The un-named New World port of Garcia Marquez’s 1994 novel, whose harbor democratically floats both moribund slave ships and vessels baring Spanish viceroys, and whose nearby hills yield up rabid monkeys ready, at the sound of the Te Deum, to storm the cathedral, had far more to do with life than the faux-suade bench on which I sat with my “for here” cup of coffee, surrounded by the humorless lap-top crowd (which, as a new blogger, I have recently, ambivalently, joined ). I was about to turn the last page on this story of an ill-fated marquise, a twelve year old girl with stupendous copper-colored hair, and her lover, a bookish priest whose life she had just spent half the book upending, when I came upon the above statement, about a “religion of death,” and how the “essential thing is to be alive”.
As it happened, I was reading, concurrently, Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death. Becker, a cultural anthropologist steeped in post-Freudian theory, argues that denial of death is not only ubiquitous, but necessary. We come apart at our weakly stitched seams at the very idea of oblivion, and so we gird ourselves with other ideas, such as “work”, “family”, “religious belief” “sex”. We construct from them a kind of boundary drawn against the abyss, a world in which we can be our own heroes, giving us the happy illusion of immortality. They become our “immortality projects”. For Becker, the measure of mental health is not how completely one is able to throw over illusions and stare into the dark, but how well one chooses the illusions by which one lives.
With those two sentences, there on the penultimate page of Of Love and Other Demons, the novel introduced itself to the work of psychoanalytic philosophy with which it had been sharing mind space, and it finally occurred to me that Garcia Marquez’s characters are all embroiled in immortality projects. They practically pulse with need – for love, for power, rectitude, freedom, or the production of their own bile, heroic endeavors all, stroked by each to secure a promise of continuance. The statement is delivered to the love-infested Father Cayetano Delaura by Doctor Abrenuncio de Sa Pereira Cao, a Portuguese Jew who had fled to the Caribbean to escape the great “Iberian persecution”. Which is to say, he enters the picture as acquainted with death as any, and better than most. Certainly better than the Spanish colonials with whom he interacts, who tend to be either deliquescent aristocrats, or religious, sequestered behind the walls of their order. The doctor’s irony rings clear: He observes to Delaura that his “religion of death” gives him, and his people, a kind of death-seeking gusto, as if death was a prize. But Abrenuncio understands that a genuine reckoning with death can lead one only to the conclusion that living, when it comes down to it, is what there is to live for. All the rest – love, God, pleasure, revenge, altruism, or even romantic and religious notions of death – are only satellites of meaning circling the living exclusively. The dead need not trouble themselves.
He brings a clear-eyed view of life’s brutishness to the case of the beautiful young Marquise, Sierva Maria, who, weeks after being bitten by a rabid dog, remains free of symptoms, but heavy with projections. Every character she encounters finds her possessed of a formidable, sinister power, and makes her over into the ideal catalyst for his or her immortality project. To Josefa Miranda, Abbess of the convent of Santa Clara, who has been ordered by the Bishop to keep Sierva Maria sequestered while awaiting exorcism, it is the power of Hell itself: She cites as evidence of the precocious twelve year old’s demonic possession her ability to turn invisible, and to sing with inhuman beauty. Her preternatural tresses, jewelry from her father’s slaves, and the inciting fascination she exerts on the sisters don’t help her case. Who better than one demon-possessed to focus the Abbess’s quest for holiness through earthly order? To Sierva Maria’s appointed exorcist, Father Delaura, mild-mannered, living in a scholastic cloud, yet with a high passion for forbidden books, her’s is a power, not to be resisted, but to be conceded to, promising a scarcely imagined fulfillment to all his secret longings – erotic, yes, but more the desire to transcend order altogether.
Father Delaura comes on the scene a third of the way through the novel, and only meets Sierva Maria slightly past the half-way mark. Up to this point, Garcia Marquez presents the titular demon as an artifact of the neurotic colonial and religious world view, the chimeric spawn of imperial anxiety and Catholic repression. But as the priest and the alleged possessed begin their labors together, the demon becomes something more palpable, not so tidily managed by our righteous enlightenment. It emerges that Love is the demon who beleaguers every character in the book, with the possible exception of the Doctor, and even he does not escape its galvantic weather system.
So, how does love, what the song rightly says the world needs now, turn demonic? For all its gifts, we have each, at some point, experienced it as such. For one thing, Love is the ultimate immortality project. This is not in itself a negative, and Love is, of course, many other things as well, but one need only watch The Umbrellas of Cherburg, and hear Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuova sing to each other, ad nauseum, “Pour un millier d’étés, je vais attendre pour vous/ Si ça prend une éternité, je vais attendre pour vous” (“For a thousand summers, I will wait for you/If it takes forever, I will wait for you”) to be reminded of the authority Love has, in fantasy, to bestow immortality on those who give themselves over to it. Love, in all its guises, is one of the human race’s most ubiquitous heroic endeavors, and as we battle out our lives, the more prominently we bear cupid’s wounds, the more assured we feel of our immortality. All of us, however expensively bought our cynicism, however sound our repudiations, all of us cleave to the belief that the Beloved can be our salvation, that death will not part us, but be our gateway to eternity. Each of us is a little Isolde, singing our liebestod at the top of our collapsing lungs.
Well. I could go on about the treasures in this novel. Perhaps I’ve written enough here to account for my reluctance to re-enter the Starbucks present. I hope to pick up here in a future post and explore further Love’s impact on these souls. For now, I’ll leave you with with a short passage from the book, an exchange between the Bishop and his much loved assistant, the ill-fated Father Delaura. As a violent storm rages outside, the Bishop expresses his homesickness for Spain:
“How far we are!”
“From ourselves,” said the Bishop. “Does it seem reasonable to you that a man should need up to a year to learn he is an orphan?” And since there was no answer, he confessed to his homesickness: “The very idea that they have already slept tonight in Spain fills me with terror.”
“We cannot intervene in the rotation of the earth,” said Delaura.
“But we could be unaware of it so that it does not cause us grief,” said the Bishop. “More than faith, what Galileo lacked was heart.”
Delaura was familiar with these crises that tormented the Bishop on nights of melancholy rain ever since old age had assailed him. All he could do was distract him from the attack of black bile until sleep overcame him.
A certain fatigue can set in when reading too much Derek Walcott at a go, like contending with a twice-too-large serving of boeuf bourguignon. The impression I sometimes get of him is that of a 19th century novelist who, do to a fluke paper shortage, decided to funnel his torrential sensibilities into poetry. Middlemarch filed into iambic pentameter. Or Moby Dick. Here are the opening lines of chapter 22 of his 1974 autobiographical poem, Another Life.
Miasma, acedia, the enervations of damp,
as the teeth of the mould gnaw, greening the carious stump
of the beaten, corrugated silver of the marsh light,
where the red heron hides, without a secret,
as the cordage of mangrove tightens
bland water to bland sky
heavy and sodden as canvas,
where the pirogue foundered with its caved-in stomach
(a hulk, trying hard to look like
a paleolithic, half-gnawed memory of pre-history)
as the too green acid grasses set the salt teeth on edge,
acids and russets and water-colored water,
let the historian go mad there
from thirst. Slowly the water rat takes up its reed pen
and scribbles. Leasurely, the egret
on the mud tablet stamps its hieroglyph.
There is an over-stuffedness about this, like the house of a lottery millionaire crazed for magnificence. The gift is formidable. I particularly love lines five through seven, “as the cordage of mangrove tightens/bland water to bland sky/ heavy and sodden as canvas,”. But by the time I reach line fourteen, with the historian gone mad from thirst, and realize I have been reading an actual sentence, I am quite out of breath.
V. S. Naipaul famously wrote, “History is built around achievement and creation; and nothing was created in the West Indies.” Walcott writes as if his life depended on proving this statement false. He has made it his ultimate concern to carry The Caribbean before the world, as if shouldering its golden palanquin alone, saying “Here. Here is our indispensable presence.” But, like a skilled diplomat, he is as involved with the culture he is addressing as with the culture he is presenting. And so, a dynamic tension advances on his nerves, directing his pen (one almost imagines it a quill): On the one hand he has insisted that a life in St. Lucia is all his poetry requires. The narrator of his his 2004 book, The Prodigal, is told that Paris will change his life. His response:
I like my life.
You think here is enough?
For me it is.
Anyway I can see Martinique from here.
On the other hand, he has repudiated the “Black Word” movement, a stance towards writing espoused by the literary descendants of Langston Hughes, who believed it was critical for black writers to eschew the European tradition at every turn and blaze their own formal and linguistic trail. Walcott cites his own melting pot ancestry – Dutch and British as well as African – as evidence that Tennyson and Yeats are his inheritance as much as the African jungle. A lover of The Islands, it is Europe’s ear he cherishes.
Walcott’s childhood home on Chausse Road, Castries, St. Lucia
Sam’s question, “Why is Derek Walcott considered so great?” is now, I believe, stalking its answer: I would propose that this ambivalence – his home, a twenty-seven mile by fourteen mile reprieve from Caribbean waters, held up against the legacy of Auden – is at the core of his strength as a poet. Far from dividing his art, making him half-hearted in either direction, it has given him a singleness of purpose. His outsized ambition could perhaps best be described as a West Indian iteration of Stephen Dedelus’s famous battle cry near the end of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, “to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” Such rhetoric is naturally vulnerable to grandiloquence, but if his poems occasionally succumb, it is the error of a gifted boy from the provinces singing too loudly in the King’s church. In this, it participates in a universal drama. It is one of the central tasks of our lives to press for certain reconciliations: between who we are and who we wish we were, what we are and what we could be, where we are, where we imagine it is better to be, and where, at last, we are most ourselves. And, in the course of these spiritual negotiations, can it be said we are, any of us, really alive if we don’t sing sometimes too loudly?
Here, from the thirteenth chapter of The Prodigal, is Walcott at his most moving . This passage comes after the narrator has journeyed to Europe, fast on the heals of self-understanding, and has returned at last to his island home.
So has it come to this, to have to choose?
The chafe of the breakers’ moving marbles,
their lucent and commodious statuary
of turbulent stasis, changing repetition
of drizzling spray that glazes your eyes
like the marble miracles of the Villa Borghese?
Do not diminish in my memory
villages of absolutely no importance,
the rattleing bridge over the stone-bright river,
un-ornate churches, chapels in the provinces
of light-exhausted Europe. Hoard, cherish
your negligible existence, your unrecorded history
of unambitious syntax, your clean pools
of unpolluted light over close stones.
Taking my cue from Mark Strand, I decided I would read through Walcott’s Selected Poems, a volume I had been picking at for some time. For a while, it went everywhere with me. I remember – it was sometime during the summer of 2008 – sweating by the window of one of the coffee shops I sometimes frequent. Management at this particular spot kept the temperature in the room roughly equivalent to the inside of the dessert case, so it was either freeze or sweat. A friend stopped in and sat with me for a few minutes. He picked up my Walcott and said, “Ah. Derek Walcott. I suppose all dutiful poetry readers have an obligation to read him at some point.” This is how he talks.
“He’s fantastic.” I said, more out of defense than conviction.
I quickly assessed that it would not be worth the effort to speak as a grown-up would and ask him why he felt so archly dismissive of Walcott. So, the conversation shifted to other, transient subjects, quickly assuming the cadences of our familiar banter. As amusing as this can sometimes be, I often find it wearing. In such irony-burdened badinage, in which words are ramped up to mean more than they say, one usually ends up saying so much less than on one means. On this particular afternoon, stewing by the window past which joggers paraded, watching the breath of the other patrons condense in the artificially frigid air, feeling slightly resentful at my friend’s infringement on my limited time, I found myself growing less and less inclined to continue what was passing for a conversation. When at last he left, I again opened my book and read the following:
I sang of quiet Achille, Afolabe’s son,
who never ascended in an elevator,
who had no passport, since the horizon needs none,
never begged nor borrowed, was nobody’s waiter,
whose end, when it comes, will be a death by water
(which is not for this book, which will remain unknown
and unread by him). I sang the only slaughter
that brought him delight, and that from necessity -
of fish, sang the channels of his back in the sun.
Emily Dickinson wrote, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” But some poetry has more the effect of a masterfully placed acupuncture needle, causing a gentle but decisive release in the flow of one’s energy. Often, in the moment, there is not much more to say about it than this. One can return to it, examine how such an effect was arranged for by the poet. How such an effect is actually achieved, if it is, may be an even more interesting question, though ultimately less literary, for it pertains to how a reader receives the text. What, as it were, he does with the poem after he’s eaten it. The power of poetry – when it has power – has more to do with one’s digestion than one’s frontal lobes.
Reading this, the opening lines of the final chapter of Omeros, I felt just such a release, hardly noticable, though noticable still, a slackening, if for only that moment, of all that was forced and artificial and taxing in life. Here was language that was direct, rippling with meaning, meaning, but no doubleness, almost without irony.
Almost. It isn’t apparent at first. Then one hears the summoning bell of the sixth and seventh lines. The poet asks his reader to come to for a moment. We’ll return forthwith to the list, the elegiac enumeration of the elements of this “song”. But here, he nudges the reader out of the poetic dream, briefly, and just enough to become aware of reading a book. This one, without Achille’s drowning in it. Achille – You weren’t thinking he isn’t real, were you? Time enough to fall back on that position after putting it down and returning to your coffeehouse window, your companions, unknown and freezing, and whatever upcoming tasks you believe are limiting your time. – Achille never will. And you may infer from this that he will never read any book. Partly because he is the poet’s creation, that about which he “sang”. But also because he created him as a contrast to the reader, whose circumstances as a reader, especially a reader of poetry, would be unimaginable to him.
Derek Walcott is, perhaps more than any other major living poet, obsessed with how place impacts identity. His poetic voice is endlessly questioning a certain concept of self (and self-worth) by drawing the subject’s surroundings, often sun-shot and Caribbean, but sometimes alien (read “European”), close about him, carefully examining what he’s been left with, what he’s been left without, and how this positions him in the world. It could be partly this about Walcott that bothers my dismissive friend, as he has little patience for people who didn’t somehow spring from Zeus’s head “knowing who they are.” To allow such uncertainty to remain a poetic goad across a lifetime he would, I suspect, see as pure silliness. Add to this the distant thunder of Walcott’s anger, the condensation of moral reckoning that forms around the edges of his rhetoric, and you’ll see my friend hightailing it out of there. Even in this fragment, every word is Janus faced, pointing at the subject, inviting the reader’s love, and pointing back at the reader, subtly requiring something in return: Name everyone you know who hasn’t ridden an elevator. Don’t leave anyone out. In Achille’s world there is no need of a passport, unlike in the divided and anxious world you likely inhabit. If you are reading this poem you are well educated, and therefore almost certainly wealthy enough to have been served by wait staff, possibly even by waiters with Achille’s skin color and social standing. He will not have been among them. And now, let’s talk about slaughter. By the end of the poem, we stand, not accused, but confronted. The affection we have for this character – he repudiates our ready admiration – does not come free. It asks a price not so glibly obviated by liberalism or “social responsibility”. Rather, like all great poetry, it asks that we take our own measure. “Quiet Achille,” he calls him. How quiet, I wonder, are you? How quiet I?
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