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  • Pär Lagerkvist’s Irrevocable Divide


    Gertrude-Stein-Pablo-Picasso-1906I try to imagine them meeting in Paris: the young Pär Lagerkvist and Gertrude Stein. He, a Swede of peasant stock, shock of blond hair, taciturn not even the word for his humming inwardness. She, agate-eyed, operatic in force and figure, Alice in tow, compelling him to come furrow his Nordic brow at the three Juan Gris paintings she’s just purchased. What an awakening it must have been for him – this woman, this modern art – comparable, perhaps, to his discovery of the work of Charles Darwin while at the gymnasium not so many years earlier. That prior awakening had precipitated, or at least correlated with, a radical turn from the pietistic religion of his parents to an ardent, agnostic socialism. He and a small group of likeminded students would meet on Sunday mornings, as the church bell tolled in the little town of Växjö, in southern Sweden, where he’d grown up, to discuss Thomas Huxley, Flammarion, and Kropotkin. In Paris, he sees, there would have been no need for such statement making. Paris. And this woman! These paintings!

    UnknownHowever I try, I can’t quite imagine this meeting, at least not without it coming off as a kind of mental cartoon in need of a caption. Stein, fundamentally large, the Empress of the avant guard, the quintessential American in Paris, seems formed of such different material from the bony young Scandinavian, practically born with intimations of mortality, looking like the mold from which any number of Bergman characters would later be cast. And yet, however unlikely, this meeting apparently happened, or so I read in the introduction to Evening Land, a volume of Lagerkvist’s late poems. I read that the art to which she exposed him – expressionism, cubism, naivism – influenced his early breakthrough in style far more than anything in literature.


    Pär Lagerkvist’s life seems to have been haunted by two enormities: God and Death. In his autobiographical novel, Guest of Reality, the principal character is a boy named Anders. Anders is born into a fiercely protestant family in which the Bible is one of the few books in the house. He becomes so obsessed with his fear of death that on a rainy day he takes himself to a flat stone in the forest to pray for the life of each member of his family. After a terrifying vision of a ghost locomotive rushing into the night in a spray of sparks, he comes to believe that the world of his father, in which all things were secure and certain under the certainty of God, was not real, and not his. Instead, “It just hurtled, blazing into the darkness that had no end.”

    It would prove to be an irrevocable divide for Pär, this longing for God while watching the very idea of God recede beyond possibility.

    If you believe in god and no god exists
    then your belief is an even greater wonder
    Then it is really something inconceivably great.

    Why should a being lie down there in the darkness crying to
    someone who does not exist?

    Why should that be?
    There is no one who hears when someone cries in the darkness.
    But why does that cry exist?

    Some of his very first writings were explorations of this divide. In 1912, before Paris, Stein, cubism, he wrote a piece for a Socialist magazine in which he envisioned a young hunter who catches sight of a woman by a spring. The hunter’s feelings are divided: He both yearns for her and wants to withdraw from her. He follows her, keeping himself hidden. When she reappears at the spring, he decides to kiss her, only to discover that, like Narcissus, he has kissed nothing but his own image in the water. He is completely alone. Lagerkvist called this Gudstanken: the idea of God.

    The woman, the hunter, and the spring, would reappear four and a half decades later in his novel The Sybil. This time the story is told by the woman. She is the chosen mouthpiece of a mysterious and powerful god. On feast days, pilgrims arrive by the hundreds at the temple with requests for prophecy. She enters a drug-induced trance during which the voice of the god erupts from her in inchoate shrieks and groans, which the priests then interpret. It becomes evident to her that they interpret in such a way as will benefit themselves and the economy of the town. She becomes a prophetess without faith. One day, walking through the woods, she arrives at a spring. She finds there a beautiful young man. Instead of a hunter, he is a one-armed soldier, and this time they meet, and fall in love. Their love becomes a god in which she can believe. When she becomes pregnant, she is expelled from the temple and banished forever from the town. The soldier, who had ceased loving her after witnessing her orgiastic convulsions at the temple, is discovered dead in a nearby stream. The child she bears grows up to be helpless and mute, forever an infant. In the end, he too leaves her, vanishing into the snowy peaks. And so she looses, at the same time, both a god of power and a god of love, and is left with what, at best, could be called a god of absence, and at worst, malevolence. But the god she longs for —that god does not exist.

    skanna00202For Lagerkvist, this divide, this longing for a nonexistent god, would itself become a kind of faith, if one accepts Paul Tillich’s term for faith as ultimate concern. “I am a believer without a faith,” he wrote, “a religious atheist. I understand Gethsemane, but not the jubilation over the victory.” But his work would show that he did have a kind of faith, a faith in the longing itself, as indicated by that subtly ecstatic final question of his poem, “But why, does that cry exist?” The asking belies a love that it does.

    Recently, I re-read Barabbas, the novel by which, if by any, Lagerkvist is generally known to readers in English. It is his imagining of the life of the world’s most famous bailed criminal. Beginning with his uncomprehending witness of the crucifixion, it traces his journey, not to faith, but near it, and into the ultimate, inscrutable dark. I found myself perplexed by Lagerkvist’s simple, almost naive, approach to the writing of this tale, wondering how he achieved such formidable drama. I think it is because of his love for that cry. It is the cry of one divided. In Lagerkvist’s vision, Barabbas, the man who cannot believe, burns with the greatest passion of all for God, or an idea of God to sustain him. That he never finds it is, paradoxically, his final grace; what would he have become if he had become, at last, peaceful? His eventual death at the hands of the Romans would, in the end, have had no more significance than that of any of the assured believers around him. Instead, he pays, by choice, the ultimate price for a God in whom he longs to believe but doesn’t, with no one to hear his “cries in the darkness.”


    May my heart’s disquiet never vanish.
    May I never be at peace.
    May I never be reconciled to life, nor to death either.
    May my path be unending, with death its unknowable goal.

    standard_lagerkvist_parFascinated, I read in quick succession The Sybil and The Dwarf, and found in each, as in Barabbas, a captivating protagonist, each different from the others in every way, save for an un-ironic seriousness through which they engage their ironic worlds. Each longs for God, or a stand-in for God, and fails to find either.

    I wanted to know more. I had not known that Lagerkvist was a playwright, apparently a great one, considered the successor of Ibsen and Strindberg. Nor that he was one of a small handful of poets to bring Swedish poetry into the modern era. For a little over a week now I’ve had by my side Evening Land (Aftonland), his final collection of poems, published in 1953, and happily translated by W. H. Auden. I find in them a voice so potent I am amazed to have never come across his poetry before. He appears in none of my anthologies. Surely, he is no Tranströmer, lacking the later poet’s power of image and, what? levitation? But I now understand how Tranströmer would not have been Tranströmer without Lagerkvist.

    One poem stopped me cold. It may be among the greatest statements of faith I have read by a modern poet:

    I wanted to know
    but was only allowed to ask,
    I wanted light
    but was only allowed to burn
    I demanded the ineffable
    but was only allowed to live.

    I complained,
    but nobody understood what I meant.

    To ask. To burn. To live. This, in the end is all one is permitted. It is not, as it nearly sounds, an Eastern approach to enlightenment, for the payoff is patently not equanimity. The revelation here is that one must do these things with or without one to accompany.


    I think that for Pär Lagerkvist, turning from God to Darwin, then to Picasso and Braque, was never really a turn from God in the first place, but rather a turning towards his own longing. I have no idea what kind of encounter he had with Gertrude Stein, or if there was any ensuing connection between them. But he must have seen in her another who, though she may never have said so, was, like him, longing for God. For what is the thirst for art and the far reaches of language if not a demand for the ineffable?

    Pär Lagerkvist, winner of the 1951 Nobel Prize for Literature

  • The 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature: My Shortlist

    Bloopers loves books so much!


    A few years ago I mentioned to a good friend of mine who is a writer that I have never read Midnight’s Children. He didn’t say anything, but it was the kind of not-saying-anything with beats to it. I would say a full eight bars. “I’ve been meaning read it,” I assured him, as his silence began a second phrase, “I just haven’t gotten to it yet.”

    Like most readers, I hold in mind a list of books I’ve been meaning to read. It’s a list which includes books I almost certainly will actually read, but also others, many others, which, to the end, I will only ever mean to read. Which is to say, my list is a hedge against mortality. Such lists always are. It is defensive in other ways too: to say I mean to read a certain book – Emma, for instance – salves the moral sting of not having read it. That it is an ever-expanding list paradoxically marks the rise in my sins of omission while shoring up my sense of rectitude; surely knowing what I lack mitigates the lacking.

    Though equally unread, not all books I mean to read are equal; some glower from a higher shelf – it seems correct to say that my not having read Don Quixote is a more serious omission than not having read Midnight’s Children – while others have partisans. For example, I distinctly hear Harold Bloom Jewish mothering me for allowing my Shakespeare read-through to stall after Richard III. (“If you can bear living without the poetry of Romeo and Juliet, well then go right ahead. Who am I to say? Clearly nobody ‘t all.” “But Harold. I read it in high school. And I’ve seen the Zeffirelli, and even Leonardo DiCaprio.” “I’m just saying.”) Susan Sontag has been hectoring me from beyond the grave to read The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas by Machado de Assis. You know, the 19th century Brazilian novelist. My friend Nathan is concerned that I haven’t read more of the daftly brilliant little novels of César Aira. I, absolutely, mean to read them all. Pax, everyone.

    In the wake of Nadine Gordimer’s death, my failure to have read Midnight’s Children began to afflict me, like a cramp, or hunger. As I sifted through material about her, Rushdie’s name kept popping up. As would be expected, she had been among his defenders during the years of the fatwa. In her Nobel lecture, she asserted that “he has done for the postcolonial consciousness in Europe what Günter Grass did for the post-Nazi one with The Tin Drum and Dog Years, perhaps even has tried to approach what Beckett did for our existential anguish in Waiting For Godot[.]” (Who doesn’t love a healthy flirtation with hyperbole, especially when it may prove to be (a) not a flirtation, or (b) not hyperbole.) In 2005, novels by both Gordimer and Rushdie were among the six nominees for the “Best of the Booker”, a one-time award given for the single best novel to have been awarded a Booker Prize in the award’s forty-year history. Gordimer was represented by The Conservationist, Rushdie by Midnight’s Children. Rushdie won.

    Enough. It was time to leave off meaning to read Midnight’s Children and actually crack the cover. At the time of this writing, I’m about a third of the way through, and can say, unequivocally, it is one of the best thirds of a novel I’ve ever read. I recognize this species of delight; it attended my reading of One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera. The Adventures of Augie March also, and, oh yes, A House for Mr. Biswas. The sheer vigor and complexity of this third-of-a-novel disposes me to make a chain of assumptions: 1. that the second two thirds will match the first, 2. that, as expert testimony has it, The Satanic Verses at the very least equals it, and, 3. that the rest of Rushdie’s oeuvre, if not, perhaps, on the same Parnassian level, bears similar markings of genius. All of which leads me to wonder about the hold-up in Stockholm.

    There is, to be sure, a logjam of great writers waiting to be laureled. But, as time slips by and Rushdie remains uninvited to Stockholm’s annual highbrow powwow, the Swedish Academy comes ever closer to committing another of its stinkers. There will be much to answer for if they allow him to go the way of Carlos Fuentes, W. G. Sebald, Vladimir Nabokov and Virginia Woolf. Perhaps he is on their own list –of writers they are meaning to honor.



    In addition to Salman Rushdie, my 2014 shortlist of Nobelable writers includes three other novelists and a poet. A more stunning group of writers you will never find. Read these experts. Listen, as you read, to how the grief and splendor of living rushes from their words in a spiritual torrent which would wash most of us away if channeled through our own faculties. Listen to how Algerian novelist Assia Djebar evokes the inner life of a “woman of the veil” who has just learned that her husband, a rebel in the Algerian War for Independence, is in grave danger, and chooses to surmount all the prohibitions of her society in order to find and warn him. Australian poet Les Murray is famously querulous, but listen to how in “A Dog’s Elegy” he grows tender, wittily mystical, disarming with image and verbal delight his reader’s defenses against the enormity of death. Listen carefully to Péter Nádas‘s narrator – young, bisexual, Hungarian, hyper-aware – and you’ll hear, in his account of learning to communicate with a young German poet with whom he is in love, the catastrophe of modern Hungary. Listen to Philip Roth, the American perennial, in one of his sublime rants which, as always with him, transcends that descriptor by saying something so heartbreakingly true about human nature that, for all it’s clattering expansiveness, it comes off like Shakespeare. And Salman Rushdie. Listen to him. Am I wrong?


    “Small things come in big packages.” —Assia Djebar (b. 1936)

    1. Assia Djebar (Algeria)

    She’d forgotten the danger itself. In truth, it’s perhaps not that which drove her, but rather a gnawing desire to suddenly know whether she could really spend her life waiting in her room, in patience and love. That’s why she crossed the entire town, bared her presence to so many hostile eyes, and at the end of her trek discovered that she was not only a prey for the curiosity of men — a passing shape, the mystery of the veil accosted by the first glance, a fascinating weakness that ends up being hated and spat upon — no, she now knows that she existed. She’s been inhabited by one inflexible thought that has made her untouchable. “Get to Youssef! He’s in danger,” she had repeated. “But is he, really?” she ended up wondering when she found herself alone on the curb surrendering to, or even beyond, the same fruitless waiting. “Won’t he first of all be shocked to see me here, out in the street?” No, the danger is real.

    (Children of the New World)


    ”Some people are born to fatness. Others have to get there.” —Les Murray (b. 1938)

    2. Les Murray (Australia)

    A Dog’s Elegy

    The civil white-pawed dog who’d strain
    to make speech-like sounds to his humans
    lies buried in the soil of a slope
    that he’d tear down on his barking runs.

    He hated thunder and gunshot
    and would charge off to restrain them.
    A city dog too alive for backyards,
    we took him from the pound’s Green Dream

    but now his human name melts off him;
    he’ll rise to chase fruit bats and bees;
    the coral tree and the African tulip
    will take him up, and the prickly tea trees.

    Our longhaired cat who mistook him
    for an Alsatian flew up there full tilt
    and teetered in top twigs for eight days
    as a cloud, distilling water with its pelt.

    The cattle suspect the Dog lives
    but three kangaroos stood in our pasture
    this daybreak, for the first time in memory,
    eared gazing wigwams of fur.

    (Conscious and Verbal)


    “By fantasizing one builds a more predictable world, and then one has no time to notice what is really happening, because of the din made by one’s expectations crashing down.” — Péter Nádas (b. 1942)

    3. Péter Nádas (Hungary)

    But as he listened to me, a radically different process was also taking place in him: as usual, he kept correcting my grammatically faulty sentences, he did this almost unawares, it had become an unconscious habit between us; in fact, he was the one who shaped my sentences, gave them the proper structure, incorporated them into the neat order of his native language, I had to rely on his expropriated sentences to work my way through my linguistic rubble, had to use his sentences to tell my story, and didn’t even notice that some of these jointly produced sentences were repeated two or three times, their place and value reshuffled, before reaching intelligible form.

    It was as if I had to use my own past to coax the story of his past out of him. I didn’t think of it then, but now I believe we needed these evening walks not just for the exercise but to relate to the world around us — which we both felt, though for different reasons, to be cheerless and alien — and to do it in a way that this same world would not be aware of what we were doing.

    (A Book of Memories)


    “I write fiction and I’m told it’s autobiography, I write autobiography and I’m told it’s fiction, so since I’m so dim and they’re so smart, let them decide what it is or it isn’t.” —Philip Roth (b. 1933)

    4. Philip Roth (United States)

    You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to come at people without unreal expectations, without an overload of bias or hope or arrogance, as untanklike as you can be, sans cannon and machine guns and steel plating half a foot thick; you come at them unmenacingly on your own ten toes instead of tearing up the turf with your caterpillar treads, take them on with an open mind, as equals, man to man, as we used to say, and yet you never fail to get them wrong. You might as well have the brain of a tank. You get them wrong before you meet them, while you’re anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re with them; and then you go home and tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, an astonishing farce of misperception. And yet what are we to do about this terribly significant business of other people, which gets bled of the significance we think it has and takes on instead a significance that is ludicrous, so ill-equipped are we all to envision one another’s interior workings and invisible aims? Is everyone to go off and lock the door and sit secluded like the lonely writers do, in a soundproof cell, summoning people out of words and then proposing that these word people are closer to the real thing than the real people we mangle with our ignorance every day? The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that — well, lucky you.

    (American Pastoral)


    salman rushdie
    “What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.” —Salman Rushdie (b. 1947)

    5. Salman Rushdie (Great Britain)

    Why had she married him?—For solace, for children, But at first the insomnia coating her brain got in the way of her first aim; and children don’t always come at once. So Amina had found herself dreaming about an undreamable poet’s face and waking with an unspeakable name on her lips. You ask: what did she do about it? I answer: she gritted her teeth and set about putting herself straight. This is what she told herself: “You big ungrateful goof, can’t you see who is your husband now? Don’t you know what a husband deserves?” To avoid fruitless controversy about the answers to these questions, let me say that, in my mother’s opinion, a husband deserved unquestioning loyalty, and unreserved, full-hearted love. But there was a difficulty: Amina, her mind clogged up with Nadir Khan and his insomnia, found she couldn’t naturally provide Ahmed Sinai with these things. And so, bringing her gift of assiduity to bear, she began to train herself to love him. To do this she divided him, mentally, into every single one of his component parts, physical as well as behavioral, compartmentalizing him into lips and verbal tics and prejudices and likes…in short, she fell under the spell of the perforated sheet of her own parents, because she resolved to fall in love with her husband bit by bit.

    (Midnight’s Children)


    The 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature will be awarded soon. Share with us, here at The Shelf: Who do you think will win? (My bets are on Assia Djebar this year.) Who do you think should win?

  • The Solitude of Octavio Paz: Centenary of a Mexican Giant



    A house, a garden,
    are not places:
    they spin, they come and go.
    Their apparitions open
    another space
    in space,
    another time in time.

    ( from “A Tale of Two Gardens”)

    An early indication of Octavio Paz’s affinity for surrealism came when, as a boy, he saw a painting depicting vines winding through the walls of a house, and took it for realism. He would have seen nothing out of the ordinary in such an image. Gardens, he knew, grew junglelike, and walls collapse; he was used to the strangeness of sunlight streaming through collapsed roofs into rooms only recently occupied. Such was part of the regular progression of days living in his grandfather’s house. The old world was passing, taking the house with it.

    Such passings had happened before in Mixoac; the village, on the outskirts of Mexico City, had a small Aztec pyramid, a reminder of what was lost when Quetzalcoatl took on the form of Hernán Cortés and returned to Tenochtitlan. The parish church dated from the sixteenth century, a visible reminder of Mexico’s three-centuries as a Spanish colony. Many houses in Mixoac had been standing long before the French invaded, mid-nineteenth century, and set their Austrian rag doll, Maximilian, on the stage-set throne of the Second Mexican Empire. The Paz house, with its crumbling rooms and library of more than six thousand volumes, had been a summer residence purchased by Grandfather Ireneo, trophy of his success as a novelist and journalist loyal to Porfirio Diaz. Diaz, three decades a dictator, progressive to the idea of Mexico, oppressive to Mexicans, his time too had passed. Only late in life, and very late in Diaz’s reign, did Ireneo renounce him for the democratic, but weak, Francisco Madero. By the time Octavio was born, it was Pancho Villa’s time, and Emiliano Zapata’s, the radical revolutionaries.

    As one after another of the abandoned rooms turned to rubble, presenting the puzzle of an ever shifting perimeter, he learned what changes, what remains. The arguments, for example, remained. It was The Revolution. Grandfather Ireneo, would go round and round with his son, Octavio Paz Solorzano, who in 1914, the year of his only son’s birth, had become a Zapatista. Battles over the fate of the country, echoing across the Valley of Mexico and beyond, echoed, too, through the ever diminishing rooms of that house in Mixoac. The boy – what could he do then with the dialectic of reform and revolution, of history and myth? – witnessed all in silence. There was, in any case, that library.


    there’s nothing in front of me, only a moment
    salvaged from a dream tonight of coupled
    images dreamed, a moment chiseled
    from the dream, torn from the nothing
    of this night, lifted by hand, letter
    by letter, while time, outside, gallops
    away, and pounding at the doors of my soul
    is the world with its blood thirsty schedules,

    (from “Sunstone”)

    imagePaz’s career-long study of the Mexican character included regular digressions on the character of the United States. In The Labyrinth of Solitude, his masterpiece, he writes, “North Americans want to understand and we want to contemplate. They are activists and we are quietists; we enjoy our wounds and they enjoy their inventions.” On one level, he is addressing the perennial question of the Latin American intellectual, the problem of the necessarily fraught relationship with the United States. But Paz is a supreme virtuoso of levels, and on another, deeper one, he is talking about two radically different approaches to time: historical time verses mythic time. Chronological verses cyclical, or – a favorite spacial metaphor of his – time as a spiral. It’s a preoccupation so deep with him that, whatever else he may be writing about, he’s probably writing about this. In Labyrinth, he returns frequently to the fiesta as the emblematic cultural gesture of the Mexican people, in which “time is transformed to a mythical past or a total present.” This concept of time is associated with societies of the past, and so called “traditional” societies. It is also associated with childhood. He is often at pains to counter the hegemony of cultures which privilege historical time, with its concomitant notion of “progress”, over mythic time, as in a passage quoted (but unfortunately un-cited) by Nadine Gordimer in her wonderful meditation, “Octavio Paz: Poet-Archer”:

    Every time the Europeans and their North American descendants have encountered other cultures and civilizations, they have called them backward. This is not the first time a race or a civilization has imposed its forms on others, but it is certainly the first time one has set up as a universal ideal, not a changeless principle, but change itself. The Muslim or Christian based the alien’s inferiority on a difference of faith: for the Greeks or Toltecs, he was inferior because he was a barbarian, a Chichemecan. Since the eighteenth century, Africans or Asiatics have been inferior because they were not modern. The Western world has identified itself with change and time, and there is no modernity other than that of the West…the new Heathen Dogs can be counted in the millions…they are called ‘underdeveloped peoples’.

    imageThis ambiguous notion of modernity needled him early on. As a young man he was determined to become a “modern” poet. But no sooner was the thought formed than the questions arose. What, exactly, is modernity? “There are as many types of modernity as there are societies,” he writes in his Nobel Lecture. “Each society has its own. The word’s meaning is as uncertain and arbitrary as the period that precedes it, the Middle Ages. If we are modern when compared to medieval times, are we perhaps the Middle Ages of a future modernity? Is a name that changes with time a real name?” Modernity was, for him, inextricably tied to the present. But, as awareness of the wider world grew in him – of great events in Europe, of the progress of the United States – he began to feel that Mexico had been separated from the present, that “the present” was “the time lived by others, the English, the French, the Germans. It was the time of New York, Paris, London.” It was to this feeling of expulsion from the present that he attributed his drive to write poetry, for poetry is in love with the instant, dislodges it from sequential time, and fixes it in an eternal present. Poetry lives in mythic time.


    The vegetation of disaster
    ripens beneath the ground
    They are burning
    millions of bank notes
    in the Bank of Mexico
    On corners and in plazas
    on the wide pedestals of the public squares
    the Fathers of the Civic Church
    a silent conclave of puppet buffoons
    neither eagles nor jaguars
    * * *
    We are surrounded
    I have gone back to where I began
    Did I win or lose?
    You ask
    what laws rule “success” and “failure”?
    The songs of the fishermen float up
    from the unmoving riverbank
                                                         Wang Wei to the Prefect Chang
    from his cabin on the lake
                                                   But I don’t want
    an intellectual hermitage
    in San Angel or Coyoacán)
                                                     All is gain
    if all is lost

    (from “Return”)

    From his position as Mexico’s foremost intellectual, Octavio Paz appraised the hobbled post-Revolution Mexican intelligentsia. The government, eager to legitimize itself, in the eyes of the world and, most especially, its own, enlisted the nation’s poets, novelists, sociologists and philosophers to be aides and advisors to the generals and political bosses. They were assigned to fortify the diplomatic service and the various facets of public administration. Their roll was not, as in Europe or the United States, to discuss public affairs from outside the halls of power where their greatest strength was their critical freedom, but to fulfill their civic duty. In The Labyrinth of Solitude he enumerates the difficulties of their situation:

    Many aspects of their work have been admirable, but they have lost their independence and their criticism has become excessively diluted, out of prudence or Machiavellism. The Mexican intelligentsia as a whole has not been able to use the weapons of the intellectual – criticism, examination, judgement – or has not learned how to wield them effectively. As a result, the spirit of accommodation – a natural product, it would appear, of all revolutions that turn into governments – has invaded almost every area of public activity.

    This passage (indeed the whole book) is a remarkable achievement. Ilan Stavans has pointed out that he was able to fashion in this book a highly elusive voice, at once an insider’s voice and an outsider’s. He was, himself, enlisted into diplomatic service, first in France, then India, thereby numbering among the very intelligentsia he criticized. Paz, it seems, understood that writing as an outsider made possible the critical distance, but that the discernment this allows has value only in as much as one uses it to scrutinize oneself as an insider. Eighteen years after The Labyrinth of Solitude was published, Tlateloco gave him a chance to embody this voice and give Mexico a new kind of intellectual.

    image1968 was to be the year of the Mexico City Olympic Games. Around the world, it was also the year of student protests. Prague, Berkeley, Paris. Then, in July, because of a vicious police action against a student disturbance which, until that moment, hadn’t even been political, Mexico City. A protest against the police action was put down by an even more virulent action ordered by President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz. At the end of July, a small group of leftists met to celebrate the anniversary of the Cuban Revolution. Díaz Ordaz ordered them similarly suppressed. His fear was that such groups were poisoning the minds of the students, threatening the peace which must reign for the Olympic Games that Fall. The situation escalated. Soon all the schools went on strike. The government responded by sending the army to attack them. The problem Díaz Ordaz had, himself, created rocked the nation. On October 2nd over ten thousand college and high school students gathered in Tlateloco’s Plaza de las Tres Culturas to peacefully protest the PRI government’s actions. The army arrived and fired on the crowd, initiating a massacre which continued into the night. The next day, Octavio Paz resigned his post as ambassador to India, a measure of dissent unheard of for a Mexican intellectual. His resignation was applauded worldwide.


    Enormous desert and secret fountain
    scale of silence and tree of screams
    body that unfolds like a sail
    body that enfolds like an ember
    heart I tear out from the night
    scorpion fixed to my chest
    seal of blood on my years as a man

    (from “Sway”)

    imageMy friend Nathan, who translates Spanish literature, texted me recently as part of an ongoing exchange we’ve been having about Paz: “I watched a television debate between Paz and Vargas Llosa the other night,” he wrote. “I don’t know that I’d like to be friends with either. Vargas Llosa seems like that popular kid at school whose overbite is even perfect. They both seemed used to being taken very, very seriously. Or, to put it another way: Paz looked unused to being disagreed with, and Vargas Llosa looked like he’d never agreed with anyone in his life.”

    It is well known that later in his life, Paz engaged in quarrels with other writers, especially those ranking alongside him in stature, Mario Vargas Llosa, for example, and the poet José Emilio Pacheco, and, most famously, Carlos Fuentes. Nathan’s observation is astute; in spite of his strongly democratic ideals, his ultimately dictatorial constitution did not easily suffer dissent. Any writer wishing to be published in his highly influential literary magazine, Vuelta, had to, as they say, shine his shoes. Since the 1960s he had been a ruling member of what novelist José Agustín called the Mexican “literary mafia”, and as the years went by the shadow he cast continued to grow. Between 1977 and 1990 he cleaned up on the literary prize circuit, winning the Jerusalem Prize, the Cervantes Prize, the Neustadt Prize, and the Nobel Prize, along with a host of others. He was, incontestably, a national treasure. For this very reason, many felt he had lost touch with the vibrant new antiestablishment artistic trends and saw him as a friend of the status quo. There were even rumors that the Nobel had been a gift from President Salinas, leader of the very PRI party he had condemned with such bitter eloquence after Tlateloco. Ilan Stavans, in his short, brilliant book, Octavio Paz: A Meditation, writes,

    Paz’s standing as Mexico’s foremost intellectual was in jeopardy: he was a poet manqué, no longer a valiant Ulysses. For doesn’t the intellectual need autonomy to function? In 1984, on his seventieth birthday, Televisa devoted a series of programs to his work. From that moment on his face appeared regularly on state and private television, and diplomats and academics sought his advice and favor. His home was a required stop for overseas celebrities visiting the country. Yet, in becoming the government’s favorite denizen, he also, in the eyes of many, lost his freedom.

    Then, without excusing Paz, Stavans writes, with a levelness and wisdom worthy of Paz at his best, “But aren’t we all blinded by the urgencies of the day? Isn’t the road he followed, from rebellion to consent, a road much traveled?” Gardens grow junglelike, walls collapse. Paz was an indisputable giant. He was also a man.

    Octavio Paz, 1914 – 1998

  • 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.”

    Seamus Heaney (1939 – 2013)

  • From Powell’s, Back Into the World


    Portland from the Burnside BridgePortland. Walking west across the Burnside Bridge at dusk can bring you to your senses. Your legs tighten against the wind of passing cars and the lewd buzz of a motorbike fleet. Your vision grows fat on the baroque skyline glowing before you. Unlike other cities whose profiles front the sky, Portland’s is cradled by wooded hills to the southwest, rendering it, against its own extroversion, intimate, offered. You can’t refuse. Momentarily glutted, you look to your right for relief from the Willamette, and see in the waning light the illuminated windows of the light rail rolling through the trusses of the North Steel Bridge, and your memory skirts the peripheries of Bladerunner, Metropolis, Miyazaki. On the descent, you look over the guard into a waterside park deep in the city’s shadow, where youth trade joints and important thoughts. As you leave the bridge, you meet a contingent of the homeless gathered about the walls of the Portland Rescue Mission. A drunk man in pajama bottoms wends between parked cars, barking. At the base of a sidewalk tree you catch a whiff, not of urine, of life for once not your own.

    The North Steele BridgeIf you read books and know Portland, you know where this is heading. Ten blocks up from the bridge a large unprepossessing sign presides over the intersection –“Powell’s”. Because you are, at base, a romantic, you were half expecting this famous million-volume bookstore to be housed in something a bit lovelier than this particular building, this industrial rectangle with less architectural romance than a laundromat. Yet as you approach, as you take in the glass storefront, you feel expanded, as at that first sight of the ocean which had countered and held your sense of loss.


    I went to the Oregon Coast to see wave-bashed basalt, miles of sand, lighthouses, and to feel my tiny life threaded back into the large and varied world. Now I was in Portland, at Powell’s, looking for books, those cultural artifacts which more than any others address that very threading.

    Of the hundreds of books that beguiled from the kilometers of shelves, I came away with just six, an act of will helped along by the knowledge that whatever I bought had to fit in my carry on. Looking at this little pile now, I’m bemused. If not entirely arcane, its certainly idiosyncratic:

    Powell's BooksOMEROS (Derek Walcott)     Once again I was holding this book and looking at Walcott’s cover art, that yellow skiff scudding green surf, carrying four figures under a stormy sky. The skiff rides from right to left. In film theory, when a camera pans from right to left, the effect is of moving back in time, towards memory. I’ve always felt Walcott’s skiff is carrying its people home rather than to unknown shores. This is the aim of the epic as a form, to carry a culture across its own history back to itself. I have a recording of Walcott reciting a passage near its end: “I sang of quiet Achilles, Afolabe’s son,/ who never ascended in an elevator,/ who had no passport, since the horizon needs none…” Time to finally own a copy. A first edition, no less.

    FREDDY NEPTUNE (Les Murray)     A few years back, Dan Chiasson, writing for the New Yorker, described Australian poet Les Murray as “routinely mentioned among the three or four leading English-language poets.” In whose routine? Apparently Walcott and Heaney had company about whom I knew nothing. I found and read a couple of volumes and discovered a cranky, captivating voice, brilliantly subversive, even of its own heartbreak. Chiasson wrote that Murray’s 1998 verse novel, Fredy Neptune, about a German-Australian sailor who, during the First World War, witnesses something so horrific it causes him to lose all sense of feeling in his body, has “little competition…for the claim to being the best verse novel of our time.” I have never seen it in a bookstore, so when I saw it at Powell’s my impulse was to honor it for being there by buying it.

    THE END OF THE AFFAIR (Graham Greene)     When I asked my friend Anna Pendleton what her favorite book was, without a moment’s hesitation she said The End of the Affair, by Graham Greene. “I love that book!” were she a gusher, she would have gushed. Anna is young, fiercely bright, lovely in all ways, a middle school English teacher, and a self-proclaimed introvert who nevertheless projects terrific energy. She will, I suspect, be single for a much shorter time than she imagines, though she will probably always be mildly chagrined by whomever she finds sitting intimately across from her. When I saw her literary love at Powell’s I opened it and began to read:

    A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead. I say ‘one chooses’ with the inaccurate pride of a professional writer who – when he has been seriously noted at all – has been praised for his technical ability, but do I in fact own my will to choose that black wet January night on the Common, in 1946, the sight of Henry Miles slanting across the wide river of rain, or did these images choose me?

    Oh Anna, I thought, you like this? Are there no men like you?

    THE LOVED AND THE UNLOVED (Francois Mauriac)     After Patrick White, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and William Faulkner, François Mauriac may be my favorite novelist on the Nobel roster. I say “may be” because on any given day he would be elbowing in somewhere between Saul Bellow, Thomas Mann, and José Saramago. Like Patrick White, Mauriac is not talked about much these days. I suspect it is because, as a flinty and ardent Catholic, the existentialists sautéed his reputation and ate it with a glass of Pinot. Too bad for those who read only for confirmation of the rightness of twentieth century malaise. Mauriac’s Catholic malaise, démodé though it is, can attain gruesome heights which leave even malaisophiles gasping for air. I had not heard of this book, a late one in his oeuvre.

    THE TROLLEY (Claude Simon)     I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of novels I’ve begun and failed to finish. Conducting Bodies, by Claude Simon is one. It was the spoils of one of my undergrad expeditions into the library stacks. Willing I was, but simply not prepared for the nouveau roman’s daunting repudiations. Of plot, for example, and a meaningful sense of time. I’m a different reader now, and with Simon’s centenary coming up in October, it seems time give him another go. This book was his last, written at the age of 88.

    TWO LEGENDS: OEDIPUS AND THESEUS (André Gide)     I love modern versions of classic literature. Milosz’s “Orpheus and Eurydice”, for example, is one of my favorite poems. A few years back I wrote what I believed to be a brilliant poem on the subject of Theseus. I imagined him in old age, living in a ratty urban apartment, and returning to Hades to liberate Persephone who he and his friend Pirithous had once tried, and catastrophically failed, to abduct. The pathos I evoked, the intellectual rigor and linguistic flights, the adroit iambic pentameter – move over Derek! When I re-read it last year I was appalled by its pompous rigidity. The language certainly took flight –from clarity at every opportunity. I had come across this late work by André Gide in Santa Fe awhile back, and failed to buy it. I wanted to learn; no author’s pen runs more fleetly over maters of greater moral import.


    Like a one-night stand who in the morning you realize you’d actually like to get to know, I brought my purchases from the night before to a coffee shop south of the Burnside Bridge on the east side of the river to have a look at them in sober daylight. The Frenchies had won, I saw, and a point each for the Brits, the Aussies, and the Caribbean expats. Two were poets, four novelists. One had lived openly gay. Four had won a Nobel Prize, one probably should have, one still might. I felt happy. I knew that Sam, whom I had loved and lost, and whom I was missing terribly, would never have let me leave Portland without a stack of books just like this one.

    Powell's purchases