Aciman, Our Apophatic Mystic
Over the past few weeks I’ve been catching up on the work of André Aciman. The great memoir and three of the novels. Started a fourth, Eight White Nights, earlier this week.
Felt like I should take a break, though, and cast about for what to read. Could go back to Patrick Modiano, but even though I like his work as much, the most recent book I had stopped after one-third, Missing Person, has themes a bit too similar to those of Aciman. A blurb from the back cover says the book “portrays a man in pursuit of the identity he lost in the murky days of the Paris Occupation, the black hole of French memory.” Not too unlike Aciman’s searches for himself after his exile from Alexandria.
I googled Aciman some more, hoping to find he had written an essay on Pessoa. Nothing promising but did read a few interviews that are online.
After sleeping on it for a day or so and trying not to ponder too hard, I thought I would take a look at something on apophatic theology. Real change of pace. I found the new copy of Michael Sells book, Mystical Languages of Unsaying. I had read some of the authors under discussion. I had not realized that “The 150-year period from the mid-twelfth to the beginning of the fourteenth century constitutes the flowering of apophatic mysticism. Almost simultaneously, the apophatic masterpieces of the Islamic, Jewish, and Christian traditions appeared . . . .” Such a short, intense cross cultural or intercultural period. It made me wonder about apophatic forms of expression in our time. I googled “apophatic novel” and up came, of course, the books by Charles Williams. The Greater Trumps, Shadows of Ecstasy, War in Heaven, The Descent of the Dove. I had read those years ago but had forgotten them. I have long privately thought of Beckett’s works as explorations in negative theology. I suppose there are many dissertations on the topic by now. I would read Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet this way.
Day or so later I picked up a book of Aciman’s prose pieces. A different voice in these than in the novels and it is the voice in the fictions that I love best. But in the first few essays in False Papers I began to see how clearly Aciman is an apophatic writer. “Exile” and “Memory” are in the subtitle and these words Aciman repeats endlessly in marvelously woven intricacies. But it is desire, longing, that everything he talks about serves. And look at these passages:
“It was my way of preempting tomorrow’s worries by making tomorrow seem yesterday, of warding off adversity by warding off happiness as well. In the end, I learned not to enjoy going to Paris, or even to enjoy being there--because I enjoyed it too much.”
“The Paris I cultivated was a Paris one need not stay too long in. It was a Paris made to be yearned for and remembered, a Paris of the mind, a Paris which stood for the true life, the life done over, the better life, the one flooded in limelight, with tinsel, soundtrack, and costume.”
“I had long ago learned to prefer the imagined encounter, or the memory of the imagined encounter, to the thing itself.”
This is the basic pattern of all of Aciman’s writing---a saying and then an unsaying. In Sell’s words “apophsis cannot help but posit . . . a ‘thing’ or ‘being,’ a being it must then unsay, while positing yet more entities that must be unsaid in turn.” Aciman’s characters love and then lose and learn to unlove, whether a place like Alexandria or Paris, or a person, like Oliver who his love, Elio, asks to call him by his name. Eight White Nights would be a great title for a mystical work, like The Cloud of Unknowing. “what I was feeling was not just admiration . . . . The word worship---as in ‘I could worship people like her’--hadn’t crossed my mind yet, though later that evening which I stood with her watching a glowing moonlight barge moored across the white Hudson I did turn to worship. Because placid winterscapes lift up the soul and bring down our guard. Because part of me was already venturing into an amorphous terrain in which a word here, a word there--any word, really---is all we have to hold on to before surrendering to a will far mightier than our own.” (my emphasis)
I suppose there are already many dissertations in a university libraries on the apophatic tradition in Modernist and Post-Modernist literature. Aciman is certainly our principal practitioner at this moment. Yearning oscillates between the poles of every bridge, every love, every utterance, every saying and unsaying. Memory, exile, love and loss sustain this longing, as with every mystic.