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  • From BELOVED to GOD HELP THE CHILD: Toni Morrison’s Busybody Daemon – A Review

    Toni Morrison
    Toni Morrison (b. 1931) was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1993, after the publication of her sixth novel, JAZZ.

    At some point during the writing of Beloved (1987) a daemon gave Toni Morrison the following line: “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.” Only a pedant would see two sentences here. It is one, albeit a rarity, requiring a full stop after the third word to create the frisson after the eighth. “124 was spiteful.” Stop. Your pulse quickens. “Full of a baby’s venom.” Stop. Your stomach drops. A comma simply wouldn’t do. Together, these two phrases comprise a first line equaled for power in American fiction only by “Call me Ishmael.” The book stands solidly behind this opening sally and has been integral to Morrison’s rise to prominence among Melville’s descendants.

    Much of Beloved’s greatness inheres in it’s unabashed embrace of large themes. It’s point of departure is a catastrophe of classical concision: An escaped slave slays her infant to save it from re-capture. The baby refuses to accept this fate. The story, radiating both forward and backward from this event becomes, not an inditement of slavery – too banal a subject for an author of Morrison’s intelligence – but a tally of the awful cost of accepting freedom. No one dodges collection, and in the case of Sethe, the mother in question, the price is very nearly too high. The characters who live in the shadow of her tragedy go at their lives like figures leaping from Shakespeare, the Greek stage, or the Hebrew Scriptures. Denver, Sethe’s surviving daughter, deals by never setting foot outside the home, but in the end, like Miranda moored on Prospero’s island, she must discover a brave new world. Baby Suggs, Sethe’s mother-in-law, is like Moses, whose faith buoys the multitudes but fails her at the border of the Promised Land. Paul D., Sethe’s mid-life lover, shares with Jonah the inability to escape the imperative of redemption. While Sethe is no Medea, it is hard to ignore a family resemblance; both are mothers in extremis who commit infanticide. And what of Beloved, the slain, the ghost at the heart of this ghost story? She is both terrifying and fragile. She knows something of Electra’s furry at a mother’s betrayal, but behaves like a heartsick vampire, feeding desperately, and so sadly, on her mother’s “too thick” love. Ultimately, she is as empty as Narcissus, a shell animated by the only real haunting power in the novel – the past.

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    One of the great first pages in American fiction

    Toni Morrison’s use of language has been called poetic, lyrical, baroque. These descriptors can be misleading as they often bring to mind a torqued, extended, or otherwise heightened syntax which, while not unknown to her, is not a defining trait. I think what readers who invoke these adjectives are responding to is not so much her sentence-by-sentence choices of language as her way of constructing a narrative. At her best, she is wonderfully oblique. Her reader may understand every word but have to ponder just what has been communicated. The result is not confusion, but suspense. Here is Sethe and Denver near the beginning of Beloved after trying, and failing, to reason with the ghost of the infant, as yet only a tantrum-prone shimmer:

    “For a baby she throws a powerful spell,” said Denver.

    “No more powerful than the way I loved her,” Sethe answered and there it was again. The welcoming cool of unchiseled headstones; the one she selected to lean against on tiptoe, her knees wide open as any grave. Pink as a fingernail it was, and sprinkled with glittering chips. Ten minutes, he said. You got ten minutes I’ll do it for free.

    Not to put too fine a point on punctuation, but notice the lack of a comma between “Sethe answered” and “and there it was again.” It is a move as subtle as a film director’s choice in the direction of a pan shot. What follows is a memory. At first we’re not sure of what, but that it doesn’t merit even a comma’s worth of separation from the present tells us that we are mid-stream in a torrent. We try to get our bearings. When we realize that Sethe traded sex with the stonecutter for the carving of the single word, “Beloved”, on the headstone of her infant, the fact that she took time to notice the fingernail pink and glitter of the stone against which she leaned raises our neck hairs. Significantly, the only mention of a grave in this passage is in a stark reversal of the usual implication of parted knees. And the cool of the headstone? It was welcoming? Here we go. For Morrison at her best, style is strategy.

    *

    It is a strategy which has made Toni Morrison, at her best, among the most powerful writers in American literature. When she falls short of her best, she still fascinates, if only for the spotlight her misses shine on their own divergence from her hits. Her latest novel, God Help the Child, published in April this year, contains so many elements of her best work it’s like an account sheet of a legacy: Here is the turbulent past acting on the present; a protagonist at war with herself; sex, both destructive and healing; and, sure to delight, the incursion of the supernatural. Everything is set to become a dazzling Morrisonian feast. And by the time the reader comes to the last page – the ingredients have remained ingredients. The master chef, it seems, has lost the courage to cook.

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    GOD HELP THE CHILD, Toni Morrison’s eleventh novel, was published in April of 2015.

    It is the story of a young woman in distress. Bride, born with skin as dark as genetically possible, finds her way through life by measuring the response her striking appearance elicits in others, much as a bat maneuvers by echolocation. Because the genetics of her dramatic coloring are obscure, her light-skinned father assumes the infidelity of her mother and abandons them. Her mother, in thrall to the insidious color ranking system within the black community, is a “high yellow”, and finds her daughter’s “Sudanese black” skin repellent. So much so that she won’t even allow her to call her “mother”, insisting instead on the sobriquet, “Sweetness”.

    The defining event of Bride’s early life is a court case against a teacher charged with collaborating in child molestation. Bride (né Lula Ann) is brought in as a key witness. She tells the court what she hopes will elicit love from her unloving mother. The consequence of her choice redounds to the fictional present. Against her mother’s expectations, she grows into a stunning beauty. She rises through the ranks of a cosmetics company and is on the verge of launching her own line, which she calls “YOU, GIRL”. Ironically, she sells her image by wearing no makeup at all, nothing to mute her startling blackness, thereby commodifying the genetics her mother so hated. Like most of Morrison’s protagonists, she is not a thinker, existing by and for her passions. When she can no longer live with the damage caused by her court testimony, she thinks in grade-school equations: she did something bad, so she’ll do something good to cancel it out. When her gesture of what she imagines to be reconciliation is not received as such, she is knocked out. Literally. Around this time she falls for Booker, a sexy drifter with violence in his own past, a peculiarly old-school taste for jazz and trumpet playing, and a penchant for the Western literary canon. She shows a nearly pathological lack of curiosity about him until he leaves her with the words, “You not the woman I want.” In a turn for the bizarre, she begins losing body parts, first ear piercings and pubic hair, then breasts and menstrual cycle. Compounding the strangeness, only she seems to notice.

    Physically, Bride, at least when fully assembled, is at home in the company of Morrison’s perennial bombshells. It’s not hard to imagine Sula (Sula), Hagar (Song of Solomon), Jade (Tar Baby) Dorcus (Jazz), Grace (Paradise), Junior (Love), and Bride circling, chewing their cheeks at each other. Spiritually, Bride is not their equal. Even the weakest of these have more pizzaz. Grace, like most of the characters in Paradise, is not memorable, but she inhabits her voluptuousness in a way Bride does not, setting the town of Ruby ablaze with lust and resentment. Junior is almost visionary in her amorality, swinging her hips through the Baby Jane-esque cast of Love, brilliantly self-preserving, seducing even the dead. Bride has no such amplitude.

    Superficially, her closest predecessor is Jade from Morrison’s often neglected Tar Baby. Both use their beauty to get ahead in the image industries, Jade as a model, Bride in cosmetics. Disinclined to be revolutionaries, they each believe that the way to access the privileges on the far side of the color divide is to play the white game and win. Here ends the similarity. Jade is by far the more complex character. Her beauty is paired with a restless intelligence. When the handsome and provocative Son disrupts her white-sponsored life, her conflict is fraught, resisting simplistic resolution. She is beggared by the ferocious sexual charge between them, but counters with an equally fierce independence. Does she come to consciousness? Yes. But also no. Which is to say she does what she can, which is what human beings, and masterly characters in novels, do.

    By comparison, Bride’s journey, from a rather clichéd obsession with image to the equally clichéd realization that she must learn to love herself, feels sophomoric. The moral swells while the elements of story attenuate. Unlike Jade’s passionately engaged ambition, or Milkman’s (Song of Solomon) leaving behind his proud father to discover his father’s mythic past, or the devastation which Sethe must learn to release, Bride’s materialism lacks a lustiness worthy of the drama of forsaking. To what does she cling? What does she even have? Only her career, which she ditches as thoughtlessly as an empty lipstick tube.

    We rarely see her interact with her environment. For that matter, she is barely given an environment to interact with. Morrison moves her characters through a curiously abstracted space. But this is appropriate, given that she is a curiously abstracted character. She seems more to represent than to live. She represents a certain kind of Black response to the American Dream. She represents the plight of children of disturbed and unloving parents. We are told that she is sexual, but the evidence for it within her character is so dilute that it remains a construct, as if Morrison reasoned that this type of character, representing the unexamined American life, often comes with a strong sexual component and so, as a novelist, she should probably refer to it. Even Morrison’s famous language turns leaden here. In a monologue, Morrison has Bride tell us that her own sex life “…became sort of like Diet Coke—deceptively sweet minus nutrition. More like a PlayStation game imitating the safe glee of virtual violence and just as brief.” While it is not a stretch to imagine Bride forgoing an apparently nutritious regular soda in favor of a diet soda, what, really, has she to do with PlayStations? These allusions to niche interests in contemporary American culture fall flat (like an open can of Diet Coke sitting in the sun?) because they have little connection to the character doing the alluding. They have the floundering sound of an author trying to bring her work into an American present with which she is out of touch.

    Morrison may have recognized her character’s hollowness. Bride’s curious physical reversion seems like an attempt to at once drum up some physicality for her while adding to the didacticism of the parable. In the past, Morrison has made masterly use of the “magically real”: the marigolds that refused to grow in The Bluest Eye, Circe’s impossible longevity and Pilot’s lack of a navel in Song of Solomon, Sula’s consciousness of her own death, and, of course, Beloved’s haunting. These touches at once startle and seem fundamentally right, even necessary. They evoke spiritual forces with which the characters contend without ever descending to explanation. By contrast, Bride’s loss of her breasts is not so much startling as jarring, an underlined metaphor for her loss of identity, all but italicized in boldface when she herself comes down with “the scary suspicion that she was changing back into a little black girl.” And when, pedantically, her breasts return, the moment is less revelatory than slapstick. A character’s hair catches fire, so Bride whips off her top to smother the flames and discovers her bosoms are back. She has what is for her a moment of complexity: “But it was hard to suppress her glee, even though she was slightly ashamed at dividing her attention between the sad sight of Queen’s slide into the back of the ambulance and the magical return of her flawless breasts.” The word that rings in this rather forced sentence is “flawless”, making the developing human tragedy here come off as a pretext for the return of the tits. It’s hard to quell the suspicion that Morrison is confessing her own “slight shame” at her divided authorial attention.

    Much of the second half of the book follows Bride’s search for Booker. His trail leads her from the city to the country. In a monologue, her co-worker and pseudo-friend, Brooklyn, chastises Bride’s cowardice:  “But for you it’s ‘Wah, wah, I had to run…’ Where to? In some place where there is no real stationary or even a postcard? Bride, please.” Setting aside the reference to anachronistic writing material by a woman supposedly of the Instagram generation, I found a sympathetic sentiment rising to my own lips, though directed more at the author than the character: The city verses the country? Please. I might have felt differently if the city stood for something less prosaic than the wealth and image Bride had been chasing, or the country the simplicity her life needs to recover balance. But Morrison allows these locales, and their inhabitants, to become, not archetypes, like the neighborhood of “the Bottom” in the wondrous Sula, but stereotypes, right down to the aging Simon-and-Garfunkel-singing off-the-grid hippie couple who take Bride in when she breaks her ankle by crashing her Jaguar into a tree. Is this tongue and cheek? It doesn’t seem so.

    A lot has been made of the book’s focus on the sexual abuse of children. But it can’t really be said that the book is about this. Not in the sense that Beloved is about the manifold iterations of slavery and the difficulty of freedom. Child molestation, while heinous beyond words, lacks, as a theme, the philosophical weight of the slavery/freedom dialectic. It resists abstraction, quite rightly, and is therefore ill-suited to metaphor. Despite it’s prominent place in God Help the Child, it lacks urgency, coming across, instead, as bombast. If I didn’t have such respect for Morrison, I would say that she walks a fine moral line in her use of it in this book, for that is what it seems she has done: use it, rather than explore it. Without the weight the subject carries, her characters would float off the page. The shape of their lives is explained solely in terms of the lurid, headline grabbing experiences of their childhoods. Because the line of causation is so clear, so relevant, so unarguable, and because there is so little else to them, they often seem reduced to case studies. And since nearly every character has an occurrence to relate the charge of any single case peters out. This tempts the reader towards detachment, a feeling we are never permitted in The Bluest Eye, Morrison’s overwhelming first novel and first treatment of sexual predation against children. In that book, every breath we take we take with Pecola Breedlove and the pain of it shoots through us.

    Let it not be said that God Help the Child is without a sense of outrage. It’s here in spades, to be shared with any reader whose moral compass is in working order. But outrage is not thought, and as an emotion it lacks depth. As in life, feeling outraged by what one reads in a work of fiction can be a distraction, or, worse, a trick: one must think well, mustn’t one, of an opportunity to look squarely and righteously at a hard reality? Therefore this book must surely be a good one.

    A technique found throughout the Morrison oeuvre is the monologue. She used it to greatest symphonic effect in Jazz, where the opening voice – is it the author? is it God? is it the pages of the book itself? – both generates and is engendered by all that transpires in the novel. In God Help the Child, the monologue has become an expedience. Why shoulder the burden of furthering the story through telling incident, character interaction and dialogue? Far easier to simply have the characters tell the reader what’s going on with them. Towards the end of the novel, Booker tells us in a monologue:

    Bride probably knows more about love than I do. At least she’s willing to figure it out, do something, risk something and take its measure. I risk nothing. I sit on a throne and identify signs of imperfection in others. I’ve been charmed by my own intelligence and the moral positions I’ve taken, along with the insolence that accompanies them. But where is the brilliant research, the enlightening books, the masterpieces I used to dream of producing? Nowhere. Instead I write notes about the shortcomings of others. Easy. So easy.

    Except that Morrison has indeed produced masterpieces, Booker here presents the most cogent and concise critique of her as the author of this book.

    *

    toni-morrisonWhen Toni Morrison began publishing novels in 1970, she did something few American writers have ever done, either before or since, not even William Faulkner: she produced, out of the gate and in succession, three masterpieces, The Bluest Eye (1970), Sula (1973), and Song of Solomon (1977). The third belongs to the heritage of world literature. Her forth, Tar Baby (1981) lacks the mythic power of the first three, but is still a fiercely intelligent work with passages of stunning beauty. Then, in 1987, she published a second Everest, Beloved. After this came Jazz (1992), a perplexing, often gorgeous experiment, less approachable than its predecessors, but with sufficient brilliance to make it recognizably from the same original mind. In 1993 she was awarded the Nobel Prize. All that she had produced up to then made this a ringer for Stockholm.

    Of the five novels she has written since, only one, A Mercy (2008) approaches some of the beauty of those first six. Paradise (1998) is tedious. Love (2003), for all it’s good writing, is airless, humorless, lacking scope. Her two latest novels, Home (2012) and God Help the Child (2015) are thin books in every sense. Both scream their hot but circumscribed issues over the weak voices of their characters, more ideograms than personalities. As literary constructions they feel thrown together, as if Morrison filled a file with a certain amount of sketch work then got tired and convinced herself she’d written enough.

    What has happened here? How did a great writer become a writer of decidedly minor books? Some critics feel the shift happened as early as Beloved, when she began viewing herself as a spokeswoman more than an author, when addressing issues became more important than writing literature. It is often noted that she has become grand where once she had been brave. Still, what happened? I expose myself as hopelessly outré, I know, by positing the daemon theory. I think she has one, and that it helped her produce an early run of stunning books. It gave her that opening line, “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.” It made her one of the most revered American authors of the century. But it has now revealed itself as one of those nasty sorts who holds to the busybody notion that all good things must exist in balance. And so this latest book weighs in, and all I can say is God help God Help the Child.

    My personal ranking of Toni Morrison's uneven oeuvre
    My personal ranking of Toni Morrison’s uneven oeuvre

     


  • In Memoriam: Nadine Gordimer — who subversively wrote as well as she could

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    Nadine Gordimer 1923 – 2014

    In repressive regimes everywhere – whether in what was the Soviet block, Latin America, Africa, China – most imprisoned writers have been shut away for their activities as citizens striving for liberation against the oppression of the general society to which they belong. Others have been condemned by repressive regimes for serving society by writing as well as they can; for this aesthetic venture of ours becomes subversive when the shameful secrets of our times are explored deeply, with the artist’s rebellious integrity to the state of being manifest in life around her or him; then the writer’s themes and characters inevitably are formed by the pressures and distortions of that society as the life of the fisherman is determined by the power of the sea.

    – from the Nobel Lecture: “Writing and Being”

    In an autobiographical essay published in the New Yorker in 1954, Nadine Gordimer described a hill rising from the veld on the outskirts of her home town near Johannesburg, barren save for patches of sparse grass through which showed a blackness “even a little blueness, the way black hair shines”. The hill was a coal dump, so old as to be covered by a layer of blown earth. “Diabolical”, she called it, “forsaken”, and – her best word – “inert”, for at some point, no one knew when, this remnant of a long abandoned coal mine had caught fire, and the slow, low burning had continued, hidden beneath its top layers, day and night, for many years. She recalled the surrounding earth feeling warm beneath her feet. She remembered seeing the glow at dusk in the bald patches where grass would not grow. She knew a girl who had been horribly disfigured from burns sustained while playing on the hill. Her mother remembered a boy who had been buried in a landslide and not even his bones had been found. On one side of the coal dump was the outer edge of town, the “location”, where the blacks lived. Further from the dump, in the direction of the town center, were the neighborhoods of what she described as “our sedate little colonial tribe, with its ritual tea parties and tennis parties.” On the other side was the local nursing home which served also as a hospital and clinic, where her mother spent many long days.

    It’s a striking image, this smoldering hill, though susceptible to portentousness. Even a very good writer of lesser gifts might have worried it toward the gothic. Gordimer doesn’t interfere with it, pretending there is nothing deliberate about it’s inclusion in her narrative, calling it no more than a memory, one among many which occurred to her in the course of writing. Attuned, as she writes in her Nobel lecture, “to the state of being manifest in life around her”, she knows this Hades-like image is organic to her theme and will pay its own way. The title of the essay is “A South African Childhood: Allusions in a Landscape”. A reader with even cursory awareness knows full well what that mountain of hidden burning alludes to —in South Africa.

    When she wrote this, the great novels, The Conservationist, Burger’s Daughter, July’s People, A Sport of Nature, were still to come.

    imageWhile the tributes which have flooded the internet and news publications in the past two weeks all get around to acknowledging what a towering writer she was, it was her activism that tends to make the headlines and to frame whatever else is said of her. The value claimed for her novels and stories, as good as they are, is largely extra-literary. She is routinely revered as a kind of warrior writer who courageously laid bare the viciousness of apartheid. Arguably the highest compliment she was ever paid came from the South African government, years before the Nobel, when it banned three of her books. It is put forth as as a testament to her greatness that she was one of the first people Nelson Mandela wanted to see upon release from prison. “But she was a writer first,” the articles protest, then back up what should be self-evident with examples of her post-apartheid subject matter and her vigorous contribution to the fight against HIV/AIDS in Africa. With intentions to the contrary, her life often comes off sounding like a kind of bourgeois parable illustrating that one can still find fulfillment in life’s third act, even after everything has changed. Imagine Samuel Beckett requiring such a defense.

    imageSusan Sontag issued a corrective to this view of her in 2004 in the inaugural Nadine Gordimer Lecture, the last speech she ever gave: “But of course, the primary task of a writer is to write well (And to go on writing well. Neither to burn out nor to sell out.) In the end — that is to say, from the point of view of literature — Nadine Gordimer is not representative of anybody or anything but herself. That, and the noble cause of literature. Let the dedicated activist never overshadow the dedicated servant of literature — the matchless storyteller.” In a kind of relay race among literary insiders, Sontag took her declaration that a writer’s primary task is to write well from Gordimer’s Nobel lecture in which she, in turn attributed to Gabriel Garcia Marquez the belief that “The best way a writer can serve a revolution is to write as well as he can.” (His actual words, spoken to a journalist friend, were “In reality the duty of a writer — the revolutionary duty, if you like — is that of writing well.” The implication of each is slightly different, but holds to the idea that writing is a moral act.)

    A great writer is like a thief, stealing from the treasury of the world’s wordless and recondite state of being more meaning for her words than is their legal due. Among living writers, Alice Munro is one of the most light-fingered, stashing more significance into the hidden pockets of her pokerfaced sentences than most writers acquire by honest means in the space of a paragraph. Gordimer was like this. She was more cerebral by half than Munro. She was more at home with artifice – Toni Morrison is a closer relative in this regard – taking occasional well-judged flights from realism. For example, Munro would never write a story in the form of an answer to Franz Kafka’s famous “Letter to His Father” from the father himself, one deceased to another. Nor would she gather Susan Sontag, Edward Said, and Anthony Sampson, all of them dead, for colloquy at a Chinese restaurant. But like Munro she could smuggle a mother lode of emotional impact and intellectual weight right under her readers’ noses and deposit her hoard on the page. Listen to how she packs away a startling wealth into this unassuming description of a two-room township house in her story “A City of the Dead, A City of the Living”:

    The front door of the house itself opens into a room that has been subdivided by greenish brocade curtains whose colour had faded and embossed pattern worn off before they were discarded in another kind of house.

    First off, a subdivided room was, by definition, once whole. That someone decided on this make-do solution makes the brocade curtains a comedown even before we learn they are faded and worn. They’re not green, mind you, but “greenish”. Of course they are second hand, who would do this with something nice? But it’s that ending, “discarded in another kind of house”, that makes you realize what she’s pulled on you after its far too late to man your defenses. What kind of house? The least that can be said is that it was one in which brocade curtains could be discarded. Like the smoldering coal dump haunting the edges of her childhood, the almost off-handed pitting of a township house with its second-hand dividing curtains against “another kind of house”, without ever mentioning the dynamics between blacks and whites in a society hideously deformed by apartheid, lends an emotional impact anything more explicit would subvert. In the span of a phrase, it becomes that kind of story.

    A sentence like this functions as a hologram, not only of the story itself, but, of the mind of it’s writer. Gordimer thought more, and more complexly, about the world she observed than most of us could ever hope to. But, as can happen with genius, the complexity of her mind occasionally ran away with her capacity to make it’s products syntactically approachable. In this passage from her meditation on the craft of writing, “The Dwelling Place of Words” (2001), we hear her thoughts chasing each other into a logjam of a sentence:

    And in the increasing interconsciousness, the realization that what happens somewhere in the world is just one manifestation of what is happening subliminally or going to happen in one way or another, affect in one way or another, everywhere – the epic of emigration, immigration, the world-wandering of new refugees and exiles, political and economic, for example – is a fatal linkage, not ‘fatal’ in the deathly sense, but in that of inescapable awareness in the writer.

    It all makes perfect sense on about the third pass. All clauses are resolved, all modifiers firmly attached, indeed all the requirements of an English sentence are fulfilled, but the reader has nonetheless endured a moment of terror, sure he’s made a fatal turn in the labyrinth and will not escape. But what the reader gets, even on a first pass, is a kind of urgency, an imperative  that he be given a full account of what is important. We hear the shameful secrets of the times, the pressures and distortions of society weighing on her moral sensibility, and there is so much to say about it. If she could stack the words on top of each other she would.

    imageIn 2006 a biography came out which purported to tell the truth about Nadine Gordimer. It was a biography she had authorized. And then rescinded, going so far as to block its US release. The hypocrisy of a white liberal woman, her unconscious racism, an affair – these were some of its haul, confiscated, supposedly, from the iconic status of its subject. Among the biographer’s claims was that certain elements of the essay “A South African Childhood” had been fabricated. And so a seed of doubt is planted: is the subterranean smolder of the coal dump in a land on the edge of igniting factual, or a storyteller’s invention? And, more at issue, is this important? It seems to me that serious readers, by this late date, are grown up enough to know better than to troll autobiography for facts. What kind of reader would turn to, say, Garcia Marquez, for a balanced reckoning? This does not evade the question. Only, how one feels about the answer, disillusioned, vindicated, or more or less unaffected, will depend on what one is reading for, news about the horse from the horse’s mouth, or a brilliant and complex woman’s passionate engagement with her subject and it’s telling.


  • Doris Lessing (1919 – 2013): A Tribute…of Sorts

    image“These women are insufferable!” Every day for about two weeks, the same refrain.

    Before October of 2007 neither Sam nor I had read a word of Doris Lessing. We knew her by reputation only: a minor colossus, not in the Proust-Joyce-Mann-Woolf-Faulkner range, but prominent in the Naipaul-Grass-Morrison-Gordimer range, whose work had, by some arguments, wider social impact than any in either range. For years a copy of The Golden Notebook had taken up its blocky space on our shelf, occasionally shifting position one way or another as new books squeezed in around it. Whatever might have seemed forbidding about it – its specs, its status as icon – had long since been mitigated by familiarity, like with the bulky house a few blocks from the street on which I grew up which my childhood cohorts and I delighted in taking for haunted, the possibility of which, somewhere along the line, we lost interest in verifying. But on that October morning, when reporters met her outside her London home as she returned from shopping to inform her she’d won the Nobel Prize and she uttered her now famous “Oh Christ! I couldn’t care less”, Sam decided it was time. He decided to crack The Golden Notebook first.

    And quickly decided to make it his last. “These women are insufferable,” he’d moan every twenty pages or so. “Cold. Heartless. Narrow!” Not having read it myself, I nonetheless felt compelled to come to the famous book’s defense. I put it to him that she was breaking new ground. “Maybe she’s showing what can happen to women’s psyches when they decide to not to capitulate to the society that holds them down. In other words, maybe she deliberately drew them to be as you are finding them.”

    “But it’s about choices, isn’t it,” he would counter. “These women never really grow or change. Toni Morrison’s characters face profound oppression. But there’s real drama in their choices, with real consequences, and they don’t become narcissistic bitches.”

    “A character doesn’t have to be likable for a book to be good.”

    “But there has to be something about a character that gives the reader a stake in her fate. These women are just bores.”

    “The writing itself?”

    “Graceless!”

    And so it would go.

    My late partner Sam was one of the two or three most serious readers I have ever known. Books were an indelible part of our life as a couple. And yet we read very differently. He entered into a book far more completely from an emotional standpoint than I do. If he was moved, it was a physical experience for him. If he loved a character, it was almost as a lover. He thought about them outside the context of the printed page. I’ll never forget how riled our friend Nathan got when Sam, who was reading Ulysses, said he wondered if Stephen Dedalus brushed his teeth and whether or not he thought about girls. “It’s not in the text!”, Nathan protested. Because his relationship with a book was so intimate, so totally personal, if a writer, such as Doris Lessing, struck him poorly, his refusal to forgive was absolute.

    My own relationship to books is, I believe, hardly less personal. But even the books that affect me the most tend to retain about them something of the artifact, an object that can be turned over, sniffed, tasted, examined and wondered about as part of the large world outside my body. This does not make me a better reader than Sam, and it certainly doesn’t mean I’m an “objective” reader, because I don’t believe there is such a person. I might even consider that the bit of distance I keep from the printed page in some ways limits me; Sam’s openness to his own passionate response was part and parcel with the fullness with which he engaged with life. But it does mean that a writer such as Lessing, for whom I, too, will never have much fondness, can remain at least interesting to me.

    I’ve now read five of Lessing’s novels (though, strangely, not yet The Golden Notebook), and, have noted that a hard, rather self-involved female protagonist, much as Sam described Anna Wulf, seems to make the rounds to each of them. I was struck by an observation Michiko Kakutani made in her review of Under My Skin (1994), the first installment of Lessing’s autobiography. Responding to a passage in which Lessing discusses her decision to leave her husband and two small children, Kakutani writes:

    This matter-of-fact tone informs much of this volume, leaving us with a vivid, if somewhat chilling picture of the author as a self-absorbed and heedless young woman. Ms. Lessing tells us that she was not in love with her first husband, or her second, and that her maternal instincts temporarily “switched off” after the birth of her second child. Again and again, she describes her actions as a mere reflection of the Zeitgeist, a point of view that may illuminate the social dynamic animating so many of her novels, but that also suggests a certain reluctance to assume responsibility for personal choices.

    A chilling picture indeed. Lessing’s use of the equivocal virtue of candor to convey what should be a monumentally difficult piece of personal information is fraught. There can be humility in candor, and there can be arrogance. When humility is up, we feel invited to take a look around the subject itself and see complexity. Forgiveness becomes moot because we see ourselves and feel braced by an honoring of our fragile humanity. When it is arrogance, we can feel under assault, and may experience the need to forgive without being sure we have the reserves for it. To say “matter-of-factly” that one walked out of the life of one’s young children, and to style this as zeitgeist-driven, is really no different than self-absolution via “the Devil made me do it.” We sense an attempt to warp the moral universe to one’s own needs. Our response becomes truncated; it’s either “you monster” or “you trailblazer”, and our sense of human possibility becomes thin fare indeed.

    imageI, like Sam, and apparently many others, both among her admirers and her detractors, have noted her rather pedestrian and occasionally leaden prose. “Indigestible,” in the words of one critic. After her Nobel win, American critic Harold Bloom (himself a marvelous windbag of genius) said he found her novels of the last fifteen years to be “unreadable”. I was interested to read in the New York Times tribute that no less a writer than J. M. Coetzee weighed in on this, saying, “Lessing has never been a great stylist — she writes too fast and prunes too lightly for that.”

    And yet there remains something about Lessing. Her standing as a major writer seems to transcend the writing itself. When she turned her own problematic choices into materials and brought them to bare on her novels the result was nothing less than the clarion call of a new epoch, especially for educated women, and by extension, everyone else. She was, indeed, a zeitgeist prophet. Margaret Atwood put it this way in her tribute in The Guardian:

    If there were a Mount Rushmore of 20th-century authors, Doris Lessing would most certainly be carved upon it. Like Adrienne Rich, she was pivotal, situated at the moment when the gates of the gender disparity castle were giving way, and women were faced with increased freedoms and choices, as well as increased challenges.

    It is perhaps a touch whimsical to illustrate Lessing’s greatness by invoking that famous piece of gigantic kitsch in the hills of South Dakota. But Atwood’s meaning is clear; in a very real way, at least in the land of literature, there was a “before Lessing” and an “after Lessing”. Virginia Woolf was, by orders of magnitude, the greater writer, but she didn’t write about women’s orgasms. More importantly, she didn’t level her sights directly on a society which, by precluding such discussion, showed its true, imperialistic colors, its dependence for continuance on the enslavement, either emotional or actual, of huge segments of the Earth’s people. Whatever else may be said of the work of Doris Lessing, her vision was necessary and transformative. For this, Sam’s opinion notwithstanding, her honors are merited.

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  • In Memoriam: Seamus Heaney — Ally of Our Sympathetic Natures

    I first heard Seamus Heaney’s name as an undergraduate in a seminar on Norse Mythology. The class had nothing to do with him, but the visiting professor, a rosy-cheeked, crinkly-eyed British poet and translator named Kevin Crossley-Holland, clearly wanted it to have something to do with him, if only for a moment. I have no memory of what he said about him, except that he was one of the foremost poets writing in English, what poem he referenced, except that he intoned its lines with an artful facsimile of naturalness, or in what context he mentioned him, except that it had nothing to do with Heaney’s and Ireland’s importance to one another.

    imageA few years later, when I saw Heaney’s name and picture towards the bottom of the front page of the paper and read that he’d won the Nobel Prize, I remembered again that seminar. I remembered that for my final presentation I managed, much to the puzzlement of my classmates and the evident bemusement of Crossley-Holland, to work in a bit of the fourth movement of Sibelius’s Second Symphony because for me it evoked something of Wotan, but really because, like Crossley-Holland’s bringing Heaney to bare on that class, I wanted the music to be there, and niceties such as Sibelius’s own affinity for Finnish mythology as opposed to Norse counted for nothing.

    As I stood at the kitchen counter reading the column announcing Heaney’s win, I remember feeling keen that he was a poet. As much as I loved poetry, I loved loving poetry even more. I always wanted to be a poet. By that I mean that in high school I wanted to be Percy Bysshe Shelley, a desire which, with adolescent urgency, I soon transferred onto T. S. Eliot. The thought of writing something as happily sonorous as “In the room the women come and go/ Talking of Michelangelo”, was a reason to pull myself out of bed in the morning. Who cared what it meant. In college I fell head over heals for Auden –his poetry, certainly, but more Auden himself, or rather the Auden I constructed out of bits of myself, my insecurities, my fantasies of meriting a face like that (without, let it be understood, having to bare the face itself); I fetishized what I imagined to be his urbane relationship with his world, his sexuality, his fellows, his apparent capacity to hold in balance being at once supremely disabused and wide open, someone capable of a quatrain like “How should we like it were stars to burn/ With a passion for us we could not return?/ If equal affection cannot be,/ Let the more loving one be me.” Neruda, too, I used to gild my mirror on the wall. What better than to be a person who loved Pablo Neruda? How different, I imagined, my life would be had I the internal reserves to say “I want/ To do with you what spring does with the cherry trees.” Heaney, at the time of his Nobel, I had not yet read, so I had no idea how he would fit into my accrual of sensibility. But I remembered Crossley-Holland’s reverence and thought him a good bet.

    imageWhen I finally began to read him, I quickly realized he would not yield so easily to any narcissistic projects. I came across stanzas like this one:

    Tonight, a first movement, a pulse,
    As if the rain in a bogland gathered head
    To slip and flood: a bog-burst,
    A gash breaking open the ferny bed.
    Your back is a firm line of Eastern coast
    And arms and legs are thrown
    Beyond your gradual hills. I caress
    The heaving province where our past has grown.
    I am the tall kingdom over your shoulder
    That you would neither cajole nor ignore.
    Conquest is a lie. I grow older
    Conceding your half-independent shore
    Within whose borders now my legacy
    Culminates inexorably.

    (from “Act of Union”)

    None of my previous poetic loves could give me a leg up on this. Its not a “difficult” poem per se. That Britain and Ireland are two land masses interfering erotically with one another is not hard to deduce. And with words like “pulse”, “flood”, “gash”, “ferny bed”, “hills”, “caress”, “culminates”, you would think, wouldn’t you, that some erogenous brain center would get at least a synaptic tweak. But the sex here is cold, Neruda on ice. In any case, it wasn’t really the means of his poetry that eluded me. It was the ends. What was Heaney saying by saying what he was saying?

    In retrospect, the reason for my block was twofold: First, unlike the poetry I had typically found simpatico, which tended to be romantic, even in Auden at his crustiest, Heaney made no appealing, romantic gestures like “His soul stretched tight across the skies/That fade behind a city block”. No self-involved gasps like “Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:/ What if my leaves are falling like its own?” Instead we get “Conquest is a lie. I grow older/ Conceding your half-independent shore/ Within whose borders now my legacy/ Culminates inexorably”. Whatever it means, it’s not very nice.

    My second block stemmed from a loose and grossly under-informed grasp of modern Irish history. I knew that Ireland was one of the geopolitical Earth’s hot spots, a place where Catholics and Protestants vigorously eschewed Christian behavior with one another, and that the strife was between the North and South. But this is all I could have said. I didn’t actually know which faction was in the North and which South. I didn’t get it that for some the fight was about religious hatred and others political justice, or that masked members of the IRA pulled people from buses for massacre, or that Protestant loyalists blew up civilians in Belfast pubs, or that Britain had responded with violence to the nationalist’s demands for basic civil rights. I had no head for the why of the conflict or its duration. Finally, and most compromisingly, I did not even know to entertain the question, let alone approach comprehension, what it really meant to an Irishman, of whatever religious stripe, to be Irish.

    imageToday I know a little more about the tragedy of modern Ireland, and I am aware of the indelible thumbprint left by the Irish on Western culture. This makes me a better reader of Heaney’s poetry, but it’s not why I now love him. I love him because he invites me to adopt a more vulnerable way of meeting the world. I have always been hungry to know what, on Earth, is going on, only in those flushed post grad years I conceived this as a largely self-referential task, realizing my “gifts”, deepening my skills, learning the star chart of my sensuality. Heaney’s poetry invites me to use all that as a starting point from which to move into a much broader landscape, wilder, often hostile, always awash in grandeur. When he writes “Tonight, a first movement, a pulse,” I need no context, I know what that is, and not only through concupiscence. It’s that thing we all feel in our bodies when we find ourselves alone in our rooms at night and realize the world has waxed strange. By the time I arrive at “A gash breaking open the ferny bed” he’s tumbled me into a new and violent place, a place where I, terrifyingly, may not signify at all, like when, as a child, I first became aware of the erotic life of my parents. In the very next lines, “Your back is a firm line of Eastern coast/ And arms and legs are thrown/ Beyond your gradual hills,” I’ve been brought to crouch behind a wall, or a shrub, from where I am to witness something grave and large and against which all my supposed gifts and skills will count for nought. What, after all, is possible where implacable kingdoms loom tall over shoulders? That this is England and Ireland is only intellectually significant as the emotion has made a “bog-burst” through cartographic constraints. By the last two words of the stanza, “Culminates inexorably,” all my narcissistic projects have splintered and fallen in the face of what, on Earth, is really going on.

    Heaney is a great poet because he invites his readers into this, at best, difficult world, but doesn’t abandon them to it. However fraught the place to which he carries us, we are carried still, held in the arms of his artifice. The language of a Heaney poem is clear and high and beautiful and deeply moral, even when speaking of the slashed throat of a third century man discovered preserved in a peat bog:

    imageThe head lifts,
    the chin a visor
    raised above the vent
    of his slashed throat

    that has tanned and toughened.
    The cured wound
    opens inwards to a dark
    elderberry place.

    Who will say ‘corpse’
    to his vivid cast?
    Who will say ‘body’
    to his opaque repose?

    (from “Grauballe Man”)

     

    In his remarkable Nobel lecture, he speaks to this very quality of vulnerability chaperoned by beauty in all “necessary poetry”, poetry whose raison d’être is “to touch the base of our sympathetic nature while taking in at the same time the unsympathetic reality of the world to which that nature is constantly exposed”. By these lights, necessary poetry allies itself with that in me which once longed to take on the guise of Auden, and which needed the Sibelius Second to be about Woton because it needed Sibelius, period. These are signal flares from my sympathetic nature. Poetry is the large, warm hand that guides this nature into the great and difficult world from which it must, at last, draw sustenance.

    As I write this, I can’t shake the feeling that Shelly, Eliot, Auden and Neruda are staring at me from whatever heaven they have found, and biting their tongues. “Is that not what we all were about?” they say. Seamus Heaney, newest among them, says gently, “Let him rant.”

    image
    Seamus Heaney (1939 – 2013)

  • A Parting Gift: Derek Walcott’s “THE SEASON OF PHANTASMAL PEACE”

    I.

    A peculiar feeling, I wonder if you’ve had it: I stop at a stoplight not far from our house. I know this light well; ten thousand times it’s turned red on me and always stays red at least three beats too long. On the southeast corner, to my left as I wait, is a homegrown karate studio called Progressive Martial Arts. It’s cracked and fallen whitewash gives the small concrete building all the charm of an oft-washed and tumbled dollar bill. A large single pane of glass frames the gi-clad students who chop, kick and roll through their katas. I watch them. My blue Toyota, which needs hubcaps, idles. I watch, and as I watch it all seems altered, made strange, like a photographic negative of this mundane occurrence of which I and my idling car have ten thousand times been a part. Sam has died.

    II.

    The genius of Cezanne was the flattened canvas. Perspective, he saw, was the great illusion. Mt. St. Victoire becomes a blue density as near as the greens, roses and ochers of the abutting valley forest and towns. Everything in a pervasive visual present tense. Beautiful, but imagine living in such a world.

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    III.

    What settles over me, as surely as the damp florescent light settles over the sweating students inside the studio, is that I will never again stop at this traffic light, watch the karate dance, then continue on the one and a half minutes to my house where Sam waits, where Sam plants the leeks he’s sprouted, where Sam practices Beethoven’s Op. 111., where Sam composes, or arranges American carols for the Symphony’s Christmas concert, where he revolves in the kitchen preparing his special Moroccan lentil soup, where he helps the dog say her prayers over her food bowl, where he will hug me, where we will, all too frequently, fail each others’ tests of patience.

    IV.

    I’m not, in common parlance, a believer. And yet my love for God, or the idea of God, has so far proved intransigent against all my well-founded protestations. I lay them like dynamite against the stone face of faith and all that blasts forth are chalices and wafers. I’ve learned to accept this. But here’s one thing I cannot accept, that God would pull a stunt like giving someone a long-term, complex, finally terminal illness because it expedites some “divine plan”. Nor do I believe God would do this for some blithe moral imperative, either “for the good” of the sufferer, or, worse, those around him. I could never worship such a self-important busybody. What I believe is that, if there is a God, God inheres somehow in Enormity itself. Death is an enormity. I crumple before it in rage, grief, and terror as before a flaming bush. I want no part of it. But that, to the bush, is neither here nor there. And along with God, or the idea of God, along with the furnace blast, the Holy Danger the meeting of God can sometimes entail, there comes, too, so I am told, the idea of a promised land.

    V.

    The light changes. I leave the martial dance to the dancers. I drive across flattened space the no distance at all to my front door. The bush breaks into flame. Can’t very well stay out on the front porch.

    VI.

    Sam. For you, my love:

    THE SEASON OF PHANTASMAL PEACE

    Then all the nations of birds lifted together
    the huge net of the shadows of this earth
    in multitudinous dialects, twittering tongues,
    stitching and crossing it. They lifted up
    the shadows of long pines down trackless slopes,
    the shadows of glass-faced towers down evening streets,
    the shadow of a frail plant on a city sill—
    the net rising soundless as night, the birds’ cries soundless, until
    there was no longer dusk, or season, decline, or weather,
    only this passage of phantasmal light,
    that not the narrowest shadow dared to sever.

    And men could not see, looking up, what the wild geese drew,
    what the ospreys trailed behind them in silvery ropes
    that flashed in the icy sunlight; they could not hear
    battalions of starlings waging peaceful cries,
    bearing the net higher, covering this world
    like the vines of an orchard, or a mother drawing
    the trembling gauze over the trembling eyes
    of a child fluttering to sleep;
    it was the light
    that you will see at evening on the side of a hill
    in yellow October, and no one hearing knew
    what change had brought into the raven’s cawing,
    the killdeer’s screech, the ember-circling chough
    such an immense, soundless, and high concern
    for the fields and cities where birds belong,
    except it was their seasonal passing, Love,
    made seasonless, or, from the high privilege of their birth,
    something brighter than pity for the wingless ones
    below them who shared dark holes in windows and in houses,
    and higher they lifted the net with soundless voices
    above all change, betrayals of falling suns,
    and this season lasted one moment, like the pause
    between dusk and darkness, between fury and peace,
    but, for such as our earth is now, it lasted long.

    — Derek Walcott

     Sam and the little girl

     SAMUEL B. LANCASTER, July 9, 1944 – May 11, 2013