Sunday, October 25, 2015

Uknowing Fiction

I will die.  But not yet.  Fiction usually follows such a claim. This fear of death took breaks during the day but then kicked into full gear right after twilight.  I couldn’t drive, couldn’t do anything, certainly couldn’t sleep.  Drinking made it worse.  Exercise gave a temporary chill.  You think you can adjust to most things, even insomnia over a long stretch.  But this isn’t so.  After Claudia left, disappeared, whatever it really was, sleeplessness never adjusted itself to my way of life.  But since I found the boxes and built a special bookshelf to hold only memory fiction, not sleeping and I reached an uneasy, deeply felt truce that allowed of no compromises.  Not sleeping was better than dying.  Anyone would make that choice, were it a choice. 
         Then waiting and not waiting to go to take a piss would pass the time, or pass me rather than time.  Brush teeth, floss, check the iphone, check the weather, scan some news sites, sleep would tip-toe into the darkened room and my lower abdomen would wake further up and ask, now? or if not now, how soon?  When can we get up?  How soon should we get up?  Should we wait some more?  The terrors of dying wrestled with the terrors of the night and the terrors of the bladder staged the events.  One person could get suicidal, another homicidal, mass rioting looked good, finally some semblance of sleep quieted everyone but by then it was too late.  Dawn lightened us all up and we rose into the inevitable exhaustion of dutiful daytime.
         I would wander through the day with scratchy eyelids, acutely jumpy at every noise, clumsy with every task.  I could look back over three years, weary and depleted, enervation dragging my bones through the motions. 

I had moved from New England to Madrid in January 2004 to see if my sunless fears and sleepless dramas could be translated into  more comfortable foreign variations.  On return to Boston that May to sort papers, discard books, clear out my old office, a strange thing happened. 
         Behind some piles books, I came across an unfamiliar stack of small, brown cardboard boxes.  After talking to Carolyn, the department chair, it became clear that they were the unpublished papers, notes and remains of a close friend and former literature teacher of mine in England, Malcolm Lord.  They had been sent without forewarning by his sister from the retirement home in which Malcolm died from a heart attack a year or two before.  Stricken with Parkinsons Disease and attendant and mysterious complications before his time, Malcolm had retired early from his professorship at the University of Newcastle Upon Tyne.  More students than not had noticed a death wish in Malcolm.  They asked each other about it?  Is he manic? Is he serious?  He would talk about Hemingway’s suicide, Mishima’s suicide, Woolf’s suicide, Plath’s, Berryman’s, as if he had known them, as if, somehow, they had recognized him as one of their own.  Malcolm could be cold and offish, but with death you got the sense it was personal. 
         Later on I tried to contact Malcolm’s sister, Rebecca.  We had met once for a beer at trendy pub in London when I had gone over for a conference.  (“Rhino” or some such name.  Malcolm fancied himself keyed in to the best of what was new).  I had his phone number in Norwich but it no longer worked.  I sent a letter that Royal Mail later returned unopened.  Malcolm was divorced and estranged from his wife, Barbara, after refusing to have children.  Egoist to a fault.  I knew of no other family members.  I was left to figure out why these boxes had been sent to me and what I was supposed to do with them.  Malcolm had a few devoted students who knew him much better than I did.  I always wondered if he had any friends. 
         I went through the boxes, finding in each a jumbled assortment of things.  Each box had a number on the outside, nine in all but then I noticed number 4 was missing.  Malcolm had become devoted to things Jungian and then to the much older typology of personalities known as the Enneagram. 
         In the box marked 5 I found some intriguing notes and journals.  Lectures by Eliade and Eliot, notes from Burgo’s seminars on ethics and theology, a volume of the Philokalia owned by Kathleen Raine, Beckett’s novels in original editions, reading notes on Blanchot, Bataille and Deleuze.  Poetry volumes by Ashbery and Muir.
         To my absolute astonishment, I found the original copies of a triangular correspondence between Ricardo Sanchez, Julian Vicente and Francisco Ayala, which concerned the latter’s visit to El Moral near Salamanca in 1975 to deliver a lecture on “Que es literatura?,” the title of which had always made me laugh.  Never knew why.  Sanchez and Vicente discuss at length what Ayala and his wife might like for breakfast.  She was a younger American, much younger, famously long, dark red hair, a former student (perhaps?) and he loved the traditions of Castille.  They wondered if jamon iberico might satisfy with bread and coffee for a small first breakfast.  Or if good butter and jam would be enough. 
Sanchez, gay but tortured and still closeted, had always wanted Vicente to acknowledge his writing as worthy of attention, so he seemed, in the letters, to be soliciting much more than information about foods and habits.  Vicente gave nothing, could barely come up with any information about Señora Ayala’s domestic tastes and less about Sanchez’s unsubtle mentions of his own work. 
         In the first box I found conventional academic papers, manuscripts of projects, many of which seemed drafts, unfinished .  works, works in progress.  Malcolm had long been obsessed with questions of craft and meaning in the writing of fiction.  His papers circled around these topics, especially the relations of novels to other arts such as music, painting, philosophy, sociology, the whole gamut of the university curriculum.  He admired many books on craft, from James down to Lodge, and the art or arts of fiction writing occupied his thoughts as much as the larger issues of meaning.  He admired Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction, but he was determined to work out a Poetics of Fiction or desperate to have someone do it.  He had heard of Burke’s failure to complete his Symbolic of Motives and for a while studied his work, hoping to find a model in it for writing a Symbolic of Fiction.  But Burke, and so many others who wrote on these topics, got too far into sociology or cultural history or poetry proper,  or even, as with Bernhard, into the musicality of the voice telling the tale. 
         Malcolm’s papers kept coming back, text after text, to the poetics of fiction.  He had found Lispector and Pessoa, Valle-Inclán and of course Borges.  With each something was found to be not quite what he was looking for.  Fiction could never be poetry and yet his notes dealt again and again with Eliot, Saint-John Perse, Francis Ponge, he had introduced me to Everson’s “syzergy” River-Root, and, of course, to Lax, who had not yet then been much published.  He had discovered Stevens through Anne (the late poems from “The Rock”) and Rilke’s  “Ninth Duino Elegy” (a commentary on “the angel, not the unsayable”).  Beckett, all of Beckett, The Unnameable, even as he always noted his disappointment and dismay that Beckett had turned from fiction to drama.  These were Malcolm’s fears, essentially, that his inner dissatisfaction with his own writing of fiction would or could dissolve into the mere focus on words of poets or philosophers.  Poetry he knew, with exquisite delicacy, became at once, in an instant, too fragile to deal with reality, and philosophy he showed time and again walked into the house of fiction with juat as inevitable a flat-footed thud on the floorboards. 
         Poetry sees where we are, what things are here.  Particulars being variable.  But---Malcolm--insisted---poetry shows us what is anew.  Under new aspects, each time.  Transmuted.  The variations felt.  Poets sing songs beyond us and yet they show us it is we who are singing.  Things change in the poet’s song, but they are still our ordinary things, things we know.  We hear the poet sing and feel the pressure and the release of reality.  I thought at once that many of these notes could have been published if I could make the effort.  But soon such notions seemed beside the point. 
         Malcolm had followers and devoted readers but lacked the drive for shameless self-promotion that characterizes what writers call fame.  He read every evening until 10 p.m and slept without chemical aides or aides of any other sort through the night.  The sleep of the peripheral man.  When he gave talks he hit upon stretches of brilliance without warning and so often without follow through and they seemed rambling and unfocused.  He even seemed often to lose interest in talking at all. 
         In the box marked “Observer” I found many maps.  Malcolm had somehow obtained an annotated cloth reproduction of the Mappa Mundi from Hereford Cathedral.  This extraordinary object from around 1300 shows the world divided into three continents (Europe, Asia, Africa), with its center in Jerusalem, fashioned as a little keyhole.  Another reproduction featured the Tapestry of Creation from the Cathedral of Girona, Spain.  The needlework panel dates from the 11the century.   The tapestry, of which only the upper part remains, is divided into three cycles:  the Genesis, presided over by the Christ Pantocrator; the cosmic elements; and the Stories of the Holy Cross.  Christ Pantocrator, depicted as a beardless young man, occupies a circle in the center of the tapestry. He is surrounded by a circle whose sectors, aside from the upper one with a dove, symbol of God, show the seven days of the creation, until the creation of Adam and Eve. The two circles include quotes from the Genesis.

The remaining space in the rectangle including the central disk, houses at the corner four representation of Winds, depicted by four young winged men in Roman-like dresses, driving vessels and blowing air into horns. The central upper square is an old man representing the Year, with the Wheel of Time, while at the upper corners are the personifications of the Rivers of Paradise. The other six upper squares depict the Four Seasons, as well as Samson and Abel (or Cain).  I found a series of almost imaginary maps of Australia drawn by French explorers in the mid 1700s.

The two lower corners show the personifications of the Sun (left, symbolizing Sunday) and the Moon (right, much deteriorated, symbolizing Monday), while the side outer squares represent the months (only eight of which survive). At the bottom are incomplete scenes of the discovery of Holy Cross.  There were hand-drawn maps of the estuarial coasts of North Carolina and Virginia, complete with meticulous descriptions of flora and fauna.  Most impressive of all was Malcolm’s own nine by seven map of natural catastrophe, with exhaustive detail on hurricanes in the Gulf, the tornadoes in Texas, Missouri and Indiana, maps of volcanic eruptions from Vesuvius to Kiluea, Copahue and beyond.  There was also a detailed description of the meteorite that fell on the Yucatán Peninsula fifteen million years ago, wiping out all the dinosaurs. 
         In the Peacemaker box, I discovered heavily annotated copies of “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” by Borges, Lispector’s novels and stories, and Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet.  (Malcolm was obsessed with a solar cult said to have its roots in the pre-Inca Andean civilization of Tiwanaku.)  Borges, he once told me, as director of the national library in Buenos Aires, had a secret vault of ancient texts, even a lost text from Tiwanaku, showing the cosmology of their mythology and religious practices.  Historians will say they did not develop written culture.  Malcolm knew, he said, this to be false.  He had talked with Borges about these things for hours one strange April day in Orono, Maine.  He avoided direct sun, I noticed, when we traveled in Bolivia and Chile. 
         In “Tamas, inertia,” box 1, I found a short, odd text---handwritten--called “A Sartorial Spirituality.”  It was not signed, but I suspect it was written by Malcolm’s British wife, Vi, who worked for many years in London’s garment world, a job she had trouble combining with her passion for the art of the Pre-Raphaelites.  The result of this ongoing friction was satire and her model was Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus, “The Stitcher Re-Stitched.”  She begins:
         What is the human being but a work of raiment and what is             the world but the living robe of God?  If language is the             expressive vestment of thought, then clothes are the                          expressive vestment of the body.  Nature and life itself
         is but one garment woven and ever-weaving from the loom
         of time.  As Carlyle writes, “The whole external universe
         and what holds it together is but clothing and the essence
         of all science lies in the PHILOSOPY OF CLOTHES.
                  The philosophy of clothes is not some specialized
         sub-study taught in design schools.  It is the key to                            understanding everything.  It is the seed and jewel of all
         spiritual knowing.  The human being is the fabricated                        animal and fashion is the key to understanding the human                 being.  Let me put this in a simple terministic formula:                       Mankind = manikin = mannequin.  Like Plato’s demiurge
         in the Timaeus, the couture designer takes the old rags of                  matter and forms them into something sublime.  God is the                  great fashionist and designers on earth are his prophets, his             priests:  mortal portals to his immortal power. 
Pretty good.  I thought of Adam and Eve discovering their desire for clothing to cover their nakedness.  Before the Fall they were nude, wearing the garment of God’s grace.  After their exit from Paradise, to clothe our shame, we wear harsh skins of animals or the marvelous colors of vain pride.  These are but funereal robes until we put on the white robes of baptism.  I looked at my feet.  Did they go barefoot in Paradise?
         My first job was working as a research assistant to a Hungarian cultural historian, John Lukacs, at La Salle University in Philadelphia.  Lukacs had no relation to the Marxist writer with whom he was often confused.  In addition to many books on Hitler and 20th century Europe, he had also become obsessed with the history of secret societies and needed someone to dig through archives.  It was pretty dull, but I got paid and it led me to theories about the Knights Templars, Schneebaum’s researches in New Guinea and Alain Fournier’s The Lost Estate.  Inspired linkages followed, in hindsight.
         When I was in Philadelphia, I received a handwritten letter from Malcolm telling me that his wife had left him for a Slovenian poet.  She was living somewhere in the Philly area and was having a tough time.  It seems she had fallen in love with the poet at a writing conference in Boulder.  Susan and I had met a few times and had some memorable long walks through Elkins Park, where she lived, usually in a carriage house near one of the mansions.  She could find no one to talk to in the area even if Tyler Art was there and other out-lying posts of other universities in the city.  No cafes to speak of, no one who had even heard of Mrs Dalloway or The Waves.   During the last of these walks, she was clearly pregnant.  I left Philadelphia soon afterwards for my first teaching job and we lost touch.  I think she changed her name.  I often wonder about the child. 
         Nothing could have prepared me for what I found in box 7 marked “Third Eye Chakra.”  Malcolm had written a long work, written near the end of the 60s, on the spiritual abstract in contemporary fiction.  He started with Kandinsky’s famous 1910 treatise on The Spiritual in Art and argued that we could see Kandinsky’s insights being developed in mid-century fiction if we but had the eyes to comprehend it.  He noted that Kenneth Burke’s novel, published in 1932, was a signal event in this development and one that influenced Samuel Beckett’s work in as yet unrealized ways.  He was desperate to do more research into the archives of each writer.  He had discovered that when Burke’s novel was published, one of his friends, Katherine Anne Porter, took five copies with her to Paris to have Sylvia Beach sell them in her Shakespeare & Company bookshop.  Beckett bought one of those copies four or five years later, he was convinced.  And in Burke’s strange and prophetic novel Beckett found further encouragement to strip fiction of the remainder of its traditional markers and renew it spiritually with a voice and manner that culminates in the final work of his trilogy The Unnameable.  In a manner reminiscent of the advice given in the medieval classic, The Cloud of Unknowing, writers eliminated as many of the practices of writing known in the tradition to find an abstract or formal or minimalist voice and telling and in this way, Malcolm argued, real spiritual meaning and illumination shone forth.  Where Modernism at the beginning of the century settled for shock and breaking apart of all the previous cultural norms, for the next generation, the search for the true spiritual depths within art became the goal and practice. 
         Malcolm worked out these ideas in the early 80s.   I first met him then in Cambridge and I was also most interested in how Kandinsky’s ideas had found depth of influence in writing as well as in the visual arts.  We both attended a conference in England at Dartington Hall on spirituality in literature and the arts organized by Kathleen Raine and her Temenos group.  The possibilities and powers for unknowing fiction seemed promising to us.  Of course, given what happened, it is easy to say that now.
         There were notes of various forms of occultism at the Temenos Conference, hints and references in many of the papers to Blavatsky, Theosophy, Hermeticism, ancient wisdom practices such as the construction of memory theaters, and studies of secret patterns of meaning in architecture, temple designs, arts and crafts from many traditions which embody such practices.  I was fascinated by these ideas as had Malcolm been when he had encountered them years earlier in the 60s.  We talked about the importance of the great Renaissance magician, Giordano Bruno, whose theories of an infinite universe and a multiplicity of worlds, combined with his fascination with the Hermetic tradition of magic, memory, symbol and language led to repeated charges of heresy.  Many have speculated on possible connections between the “Giordanisiti” (the followers of Bruno) and the Rosicrucians, the mysterious brotherhood of the Rosy Cross first come to light in Germany in the early 1600s, and with the Freemasons, who first surface in 1646 in England.  The conference we were attending was but a continuation, really, of that ultimate desire for universal language, universal symbolic communion, that becomes convergent in these occult humanist movements in European thought.  The hunger for an ethic and aesthetic of universal love, charity and beauty that would overcome all the differences that tend to war and intolerance and which lead instead to a kind of Rosicrucian effort at a total reformation of man, as in the recurring dream of the imagination, the human become divine, or the human and divine united through imagination.
         Malcolm’s essay was amazing, probably the best thing he had ever written, and I wondered by he had not published it.  It might have been part of a larger work.  Maybe he moved on, lost interest, something pushed him away from it.  Typical of him.  I wondered too if I would find in other boxes that he had written fiction as well.  I never heard him talk about this but it would not have surprised me.  He once told he wanted to transform the meaning of the word “dilettante,” to raise it up from its negative meaning and restore it to a being a term of honor and value.  “One should be a true amateur, a true dilettante,” he liked to say, “ we should want to embrace the whole of life, everything, preferably all at once.” 
         I had never heard him say, however, that he might try his hand at fiction to see how that might help him find how to live the wholeness of vision. 
         Ray Philips, one of the university security guards whom I’d known since I was an undergraduate at Maryland, woke me.  It was getting really late and I had a longish drive back to the village I used to stay at on the Pennsylvania line.  I decided to leave the last box, marked Gemini, for tomorrow.  My astrological sign.
         I got back to the little house I rented, Mason Cottage, next to a civil war graveyard that surrounded a plain white 19th century wooden Methodist church.  The nearest grave belonged to one Dolphus Brown, died in 1863.   Who remembers thee?  I took a hot shower and lay on the bed, turning things over in my mind and listening to world forecasts faint on the tv turned down low. 
Thunder showers, fog, reduced vision, westerlies, low 40s, rain over the next two days, polar vortex, clear, sunny skies over the plains, chance of a typhoon in the Philippines. 
         I went to bed.  With the sound of recorded bells from the church tower and the hum of the highway distant, I fell into a profound sleep.  I began to dream, bright colors, vast motions and shapes.  I felt I was a moth in a huge sacred interior like the Byzantine National Shrine in Washington or the gothic cathedral there on the other side of the city.  A gigantic nave, a mashup of every cathedral I had ever visited, including somehow St Peter’s basilica and the cathedral at Atun.    I flew up to the ceiling, hovering among the roof bosses, decorated knobs at the intersections of the arches.  I looked from one end of the cathedral to the other.  Each roof boss depicted an event in the history of the world, from creation through the Fall and expulsion from Eden, the figural precursors of Christ in the Kings of Israel, on through the Nativity, Jesus’s lectures and miracles, crucifixion, death, resurrection, ascension and, finally, Christ triumphant, in majesty framed by a radiant vagina-like mandala.  His beginning is his end. 
         I looked a long time at the rose window, soaking in the ruby-red and lapis lazuli glass hues.  Then I flew abruptly down into the choir, now transformed into an eagle, and circled the lectern and under the stalls.  Each seat featured elaborate carvings symbolizing moments of mercy.    There was an elephant with horse’s feet, a gaping fool with his tongue stuck out, a bear being hanged by geese, a series of Green Men peering out all phallic and menacing, a fox lecturing an audience of ducks, a blacksmith trying to put horseshoes on a dog, endless images of wrestlers, a devil conducting dentistry on a poor open-mouthed soul, birds, a dragon, a pelican feeding its young and finally the image of a lovely mother and child dancing together. 
         Out I floated into the chapter house with stone carvings of three-headed kings, veiled women, fighting lions, and tumblers, directly over the dean’s throne.  There were many, many monkeys and the carving of an enormous serpent eating a rather charming cat.  One vault entered the head of a Green Man and went out through his mouth.  There were mouths everywhere.  Architectural orality.  Fierce eucharistic gluttony.  Eat the bread-body of God and wash it down with his sweet blood--like Leopold Bloom with a gorgonzola sandwich and a glass of Burgundy.  Transubstantiation.  I thought of seedcake. Back I flew into the body of the cathedral and floated there gazing at its cruciform shape, the simple vaulted ceiling and the light pouring in through the clerestory, down into the chapels beneath.  I felt majestic.  Then I was suddenly sucked up into an octagonal wooden lantern where my head burst through the glass into the air faster and faster.  I could see the cathedral’s twin towers receding below me and the vivid green flatness of Pennsylvania around it.  The sky was getting deeper and deeper blue and I couldn’t breathe.  My face smoldered in the intense heat.  I could smell myself burning.  Father can’t you see? 

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