Seven Centuries after Dante’s Death

There is no time like the present to read The Divine Comedy. Dante began writing his long narrative poem in 1308 and completed it in 1320. Dante titled his work simply Commedia, but a publisher in a later century added the adjective divina. Although the subject is serious, the term comedy in the classical world applied to a work which had a happy ending and used the low or vernacular language. Dante wrote in the Italian of his day, and the mystical vision in the third part Paradiso is an uplifting conclusion to his pilgrimage.

Dante lived in a period of political chaos, in which two factions warred for control of his native city Florence. The conflict resulted in Dante’s permanent exile. He died in Ravenna in 1321. To deal with his plight and the tumultuous state of affairs in Italy, he turned to study and contemplation, preparatory to the composition of his great poem. Dante conceives hell, purgatory, and paradise as organized structures of descent and ascent, each level representing a corresponding vice or virtue in his three-part journey through the afterlife. In contrast to the chaos he experienced, he imagines a cosmic order in which a divine purpose exists in the seemingly incomprehensible course of human events. Using Christian iconography and theology, he envisions a system of punishments and rewards. He populates his afterlife with contemporary people he has known and figures from classical literature and the Bible.  He classifies three main categories of sin–incontinence, violence, and fraud–and further subdivides the sinners in each of these categories. In purgatory it is made clear that the vilest sinner can be spared the inferno if he sincerely repents even at the moment of death and is purified for entry into heaven. Even the righteous pagans or those who died before the coming of Christ can attain paradise. It is only the incorrigibly unrepentant who are eternally punished, for they never cease blaming others or situations outside of themselves for their sins.

Similarly, the United States is experiencing a time of political strife and chaos. Corruption and misrule have characterized the last several years, compounded by failure of leadership and a botched response to the coronavirus epidemic. In 1300 Dante attributed the chaos to bad leaders, both secular and religious. His parade of venal politicians and sowers of discord and division can easily be substituted with leaders in our government today. At the beginning of The Divine Comedy, Dante finds himself in midlife, wandering in a dark wood; he has lost the straight path. His exile and the villainy he sees all around him have deeply depressed him. He embarks on a spiritual journey to obtain wisdom. As Dante progresses, he learns that freedom from evil is attainable through the embrace of faith, hope, and love. He learns from the great monastic contemplatives, such as Francis of Assisi and Bernard of Clairvaux. He meets many good and bad examples along the way before he reaches the ineffable vision of God and experiences the unity of all creation.

All forms of art are spiritually liberating in that they imitate the divine act in creation of the universe. Dante accepts his commission to write a poem to relate his mystical experience. The activity of writing will free him from negative emotions and help him achieve peace. He has learned that the striving after worldly fame, power, and wealth is the road to perdition. He has experienced a mystical union powered by faith, hope, and love. The greatest of these is love, symbolized by Beatrice who after guiding him through the last phase of his journey, takes her place in the mystical rose. The all-encompassing divine Light has completely supplanted the darkness that weighed so heavily upon his soul.

The reading of this profound metaphorical and philosophical discourse on the human condition, as true today as it was seven centuries ago,  is a spiritual elixir during this dark and disturbing period in American history.

 

Back to the Future

It is Back to the Future this last week of May 2020. I could be watching the race riots in Detroit and other American cities in the sixties. The issues, the anger, the frustration, and inequalities are the same. What is not the same is a White House occupant and a Republican Party incapable of moral leadership. A severely mentally and emotionally handicapped person was voted into office–astoundingly–because a significant amount of my fellow Americans thought him fit for office, thus enabling an Electoral College win. This is the “Administration of Chaos,” that the capable Jeb Bush forecast. It is an administration marked by resignations and firings–a record turnover that no private business could sustain before going bankrupt–a place where no reasonable person would want to work–a toxic environment.

A leader unites; this man elevated to the top leadership position does nothing but divide and cut deeper into existing divisions. While the country burns and 100,000 Americans die, he golfs and eats himself into a frenzy. He looks every bit an unhappy man with downturned mouth, scowls, and dull eyes. If he had one iota of the self-reflection of a Richard Nixon or of a Lyndon Johnson, he would resign or refuse to accept his party’s nomination; then retire to play golf without interruption. However, inmates of a federal prison probably don’t have access to a golf course, although a portable putting green may be allowed in their cells. I don’t know. In any event, it looks like the nation has almost eight more months of chaos and his omnipresence in the news because there are no competent cabinet members to unite, invoke the 25th Amendment, and intervene on behalf of the common good.

There are none because he has surrounded himself with an unfit, corrupt, and sycophantic staff. I doubt he is loved, admired, or respected by these sycophants. In Russian terms, the boss is a “useful idiot.” They are leeches sucking as much power and money they can out of the body politic until they scuttle off somewhere else when the host is dead. Tyrants–autocrats–dictators–are not loved. They are users and manipulators. In turn, others use and manipulate them. It is a symbiosis of evil that only lasts for a while. They don’t build anything. They suck everything dry until exhausted themselves. Then the system they fed upon collapses. The sanitation crew enters to clean up the carnage and make way for healthy growth and interdependence. The word carnage, which he used in his execrable January 2017 inauguration speech, struck a perfect keynote; it offered, lamentably, a battle cry instead of a paean to peace and progress for the next four years.

I want to wake up one bright morning and not wonder what horrific thing the current occupant of the White House has said, tweeted, or done in the last twenty-four hours. What is the latest lie, insult, or abomination? I’ve lived through twelve United States’ presidencies, but during the present one, a day has not passed when I did not think about what absurdity had just emanated from the White House. As a child of the sixties, the last four years are worse than that period of unrest in which I came of age and lost my innocence, because moral decay and a vacuum of leadership reside at the top. Wasn’t Lyndon Johnson’s mantra, Come now, let us reason together?

Terra Nostra by Carlos Fuentes

This is not the most widely read or well-known of Carlos Fuentes’s novels, but it is certainly the longest, the most ambitious, and probably the most imaginative. It is baroque in the sheer luxuriousness of its language in which Fuentes piles on description upon description, almost a gaudy cornucopia that conjures up the most ornate cathedral of the sixteenth century, replete with realistic statuary, reliquaries, altars, triptychs, stained glass windows, and painted ceilings.  The funerary aspect and necrophilia that dominated Spain reminded me of the lugubrious paintings of the twentieth century artist Ivan Albright and the chiaroscuro art of the 16th and 17th centuries.  At 778 pages in English translation, the novel is daunting. Understandably, when I googled commentary on Terra Nostra, I discovered less was available on this work than on his other books, although I did find three books, two in Spanish and one in English, that treat exclusively this monumental novel. It is difficult to write about this book because it is so jammed packed with theories about time and eternity, historical figures, and characters drawn from Spanish literature. It is helpful to be familiar with Don Quixote, Don Juan, and Celestina; but it is not essential if the reader interprets everything as a phantasmagoria of Fuentes’s mind; everything is metaphorical, everything is a magnificent myth or legend.

Fuentes revels in counterpoints, counterarguments, and contradictions. Using the image of the mirror, opposites are seen to be in operation at all times. A face grows younger or older. Often sentence structure is reversed to produce these counterpoints such as in “I paint so that I may see, I see so that I may paint.” The idea of multiplicity, multiple versions of the same story, and multiple incarnations of the same or similar characters is confusing and baffling, but that manifestation of re-occurrence of people and events throughout continents and time periods serves to enhance the richness of this novel. In many ways the Aztec civilization depicted in the second part The New World is a mirror of the Spanish culture of the 16th century. Felipe II constructs the Escorial both a religious structure and monument to the dead. The executions of the Spanish Inquisition mirror the human sacrificial killings conducted upon Mexican temples. Fuentes frequently frames opposing views such as: “Did the Aztecs discover the Spanish conquistadors or did the Spanish discover Mexico? Each version is true.

Circularity is another concept developed in Terra Nostra.  Fuentes writes, “Everything that is eternal is circular, and what is circular is eternal.” Time is not linear; in fact, the concepts of past, present, and future are all contained in each other. Fuentes repeats several times, “One lifetime is not sufficient. Many existences are needed to fulfill a personality.” The painter/priest Julian and priest/astrologer Toribio discuss the idea of circularity in the seminal chapter “Aurora.” I would suggest  that anyone attempting this complex novel, start by reading this chapter. It will provide focus for your understanding of the novel’s major motifs. Toribio further explains:

Geometry knows nothing of good or evil, or of supremes or relatives, but it assures us we neither climb nor descend; we spin, we spin, I am convinced that everything is spherical and that everything spins in circles; everything is movement, incessant, circular . . .

Toribio and Julian express their notions about the importance and interconnections of painting, literature, and science. They are confident that the order of art and science is identical to divine order.

The motif of threes forms an important nexus of meaning. Three youths appear, each bearing a cross on their shoulder and six toes on each foot. There are three worlds marking three sections of the book: The Old World, The New World, and the Next World. Three objects–a mirror, scissors, and a feathered mask–are central to one of the youth’s account of his experiences in The New World.  Celestina has three manifestations.  Characters constantly merge and transform. There is no one single identity across time and place. One of the youths manifests as Don Juan. In his effort to create one truth, one national identity, Felipe II attempts to eradicate all heresy. Spanish culture was  nourished by three religions: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Fuentes considers the expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Spain as a contributing factor to its decline. In the last part of the novel, The Next World, he suggests that a melding of all worlds is necessary to bring about a rebirth. In the chapter  “Number 3” in part III, The Next World, Fuentes writes:

One is the root of all. Two is the negation of one. Three is the synthesis of one and two. Three contains both. It balances them. It announces the plurality that follows. Three is the complete number. The diadem of the beginning and the middle. The reunion of the three times. Present, past, and future. Everything ends. Everything begins again.

The passage brings me back to the theme of circularity. Terra Nostra ends where it began–in Paris the last day of 1999, at the dawn of the millennium with an apocalyptic vision of an old woman giving birth, of the streets filled with women delivering babies evocative of Yeats poem “Easter, 1916.” In the last pages the scene returns to Paris, the City of Lights, where the Enlightenment movement flourished, to see a “terrible beauty” born.

For Fuentes, imagination and language blend to create a gorgeous piece of writing. He is master of both. This novel does not provide a simple, straightforward narrative or even one main character or viewpoint to follow. He contends that art “presents an enigma, whose solution is another enigma. This is the function of art–to ask questions, not to answer them.”

Don’t expect to read this book just once and comprehend it completely. After three readings, I can only describe the experience as looking through a kaleidoscope.

 

 

The Mysterious Yeast in Writing

When I begin a prose piece or a poem, I have a teaspoon of an idea. The process of fingers striking the keyboard or a pen forming cursive letters on paper seem to awaken dormant images and relationships among ideas that I am incapable of imagining before I actually start the physical activity of writing. One idea sparks another, igniting another, until there is a conflagration of thought.

This is the magic of writing, the phenomena that other authors have noted in statements like: I didn’t know what I knew before I wrote it  or I write to find out what I know. They learn what they want to convey after the short story, novel, essay, or poem are written. The piece matured into adulthood as they wrote.  As if by spontaneous generation one idea awoke another and so on until a fully realized work of art emerged assuming depth and proportions that had not been preconceived. They muse that the work took on a life of its own.  I share that same feeling of discovery as I write and sense of that teaspoon of an idea expanding the flour into a warm loaf of bread fresh from the oven.

Expansion, elucidation, dramatization, and utilization of all the resources of language are enlisted in the writing process. At times the writer may feel the writing is being channeled and that some type of automatic writing is occurring. Other times, the process is not that effortless and certainly not magical. It may become labored, stalled, a bit constipated; then the writer pauses, takes stock, and takes a walk. In the out-of-doors, breathing fresh air, the senses awakened to nature; the yeast begins to work its magic again because the writer has paused to knead the dough longer in his mind. The ingredients run amuck in the creative hemisphere of the brain begin to interact spontaneously. Renewed, back from the walk, the writer resumes his work, and the creative juices flow once more.

This is the mysterious yeast of the writing process, in which the indispensable ingredients, imagination and language, coalesce, acting upon each other.

In the Time of Pandemic

As pandemic rages and governors issue stay-at-home orders, watching telenovelas on Netflix is one of my pastimes. The 62-episode La Esclava Blanca produced in Colombia absorbed my attention. The white slave is a baby girl, the daughter of rich landowner, who is rescued from a fire set by his avaricious neighbor, intent on acquiring Domingo Quintero’s hacienda. Rescued by slaves, the infant Victoria is raised until she is ten years old in an isolated fort in the jungle, a sanctuary for escaped slaves. The priest saves her from being killed by sending her to a convent in Spain. Impersonating a Spanish noblewoman, she returns to Colombia as an adult to reunite with her Negro family that she has never ceased to love.

Historians have criticized the series as being inaccurate, misrepresenting the horror of slavery, and offering a sugar-coated picture of white benevolence. Any artistic endeavor must be evaluated on its intentions. This is historical fantasy, not an attempt to portray historical events as they actually happened. It is fiction not fact. What fiction seeks to do is to tell a story dramatically. Historical fantasy uses elements that are true to life, but otherwise goes its own way to develop its themes. The backdrop to La Esclava Blanca is the historical fact of the African-slave trade. In Colombia, slavery was not completely abolished until 1851. The series begins in 1821 as Colombia adopts a gradual approach to abolition.

The subtitle of the series is: Porque la sangre tiene la misma color – because blood has the same color. Love knows no color barriers.  Many interracial love relationships develop, which in the time period 1821-1843, would have been improbable outside of a master’s sexual exploitation of his female slaves. The fantasy resides in a world where former slaves intermarry with white people. The series thus creates an imaginary world–an alternative history–in which the ideal of racial harmony is eventually attained on the fictional Santa Marta plantation.

Interlaced in the story is the clear parallel drawn between the white woman’s unliberated position in marriage and her awful subjugation to male domination, so that the white slave of the title refers both to Victoria as the adopted daughter of Negro slaves but also to her and the other white women in the story being enslaved as wives, mothers, and daughters to the men in their lives.

For unadulterated history, watch documentaries that purport to present the historical record. For a gripping, intricately-constructed plot with lots of twists and turns, and multi-dimensional characters; I recommend Spanish telenovelas. Another excellent one I watched is Love in Times of War, produced in Spain, about nurses dispatched to staff a Moroccan hospital during Spain’s war in North Africa in the 1920s. The French also produced a fascinating series, The Bonfire of Destiny, about the 1897 fire in a Paris charity bazaar that killed over 100 people. From that actual disaster, a wonderful tale of how the fire affected the lives of several women unfolds. Two German mini-series worth watching are Charité at War about a Berlin hospital in World War II and Babylon Berlin about Berlin detectives caught up in crime and intrigue during the rise of Nazism in the interwar period.

These telenovelas and miniseries, while providing a form of escape at home in time of pandemic, also show that during other times and places, people experienced horrors and emerged from devastation and destruction although at great cost to lives and fortunes. They underscore that this is not the first or the last time, we must come together to share a cause and to combat a common enemy. Generally, in these times of pandemic, turning to foreign films, whether a series or a full-length movie, is a good choice.  In the past, I’ve found that the dialogue, character development, plotting, and portrayal of the truth of the human condition are deeper and more satisfying in foreign films than the usual Hollywood-produced affair.

Olga Tokarczuk: Novel Novelist

I haven’t read such a refreshing novel in a long time. Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights is a new breed of novel. Strict realism and straightforward chronological narrative are no longer adequate to tell stories. Often the adjective surrealistic is used in describing contemporary events, because they defy preconceptions of normality. Technology has produced dramatic cultural and sociological changes, effecting our concepts of time and space.  Tokarczuk believes realism is outmoded because it cannot analyze the way high-speed travel has changed ways of thinking and living. For instance, anyone can find anyone on the internet. One can disappear in space and not return. In a few hours one can be across the ocean and be in another time zone.

Flight is the motif–both in a literal and a metaphorical sense.  In a vein similar to The Canterbury Tales or The Arabian Nights, stories from different times and places are interspersed with the narrative voice’s commentary on air travel, airports, and people met with in her travels. Chapters of one or two paragraphs fall between odd stories of characters going off course, disappearing, or getting lost. Tokarczuk mixes genres in a delightful way. Philosophical observations blend with her quirky sense of humor. Frequently, an aphorism is thrown in that stops the reader in his tracks, such as “The strongest muscle in the human body is the tongue.”

The narrator does not fly a straight course in her peregrinations which she begins out of the belief that “a thing in motion will always be better than a thing at rest.” To be static is to be dead. She propounds a new field of study–travel psychotheology. In the story “Godzone” a woman returns to Poland and euthanizes an old lover. She plays God. Other stories are equally bizarre: Dr. Blau travels collecting medical specimens; Philip Verheyen in 1689 Holland experiences fathom pain from a lost limb; on vacation Kunicki loses his wife and child on a Croatian island. The narrator rejects linearity for the circularity of the constellations.

This novel really isn’t magical realism. It is something else–something different; something distinct–a mosaic of times and places, of cross-cultural experiences. In Tokarczuk’s own words it is a panopticon and a museum of curiosities.

The English translation of Flights was published in 2017. Only a few of her books have been translated from Polish into English, but more will appear since she won the 2018 Nobel Prize for Literature. After my delightful excursion into this genre-bending novel, I wanted to read more by Tokarczuk. Her 2009 novel Drive your Plow over the Bones of the Dead follows a more traditional narrative line, illustrates the same quirky sense of humor, and tells Janina’s  bizarre story. It could be sub-titled: The Revenge of the Animals. The eccentric old woman Janina, caretaker of resort homes in southwestern Poland and amateur astrologist, harbors interesting theories about a series of murders in her mountain community and ostensibly is helping the local police solve the mysteries of their deaths, raising the questions: Who’s healthy? Who’s sane? Janina dubs her neighbors with names she considers more identifiable like “Oddball” and “Big Foot.” The title is a line from William Blake’s poetry, and significantly she is helping her former pupil Dizzy translate Blake’s poetry into Polish. She makes philosophical observations like “Sometimes I think that only the sick are truly healthy.” She goes on later to wryly remark, “Being healthy is an insecure state and does not bode well. It’s better to be ill in a quiet way, then at least we know what we’re going to die of.”

In her writing Tokarczuk draws upon her background in psychology. She worked as a clinical psychologist before abandoning that career to become a full-time writer, claiming that after interviewing her patients, she discovered that she had the same problems that they did. In her writing, she exhibits an insatiable curiosity for curiosities, for the odd, for the ostensibly different; yet paradoxically, she concludes in “Boarding” the last chapter of Flights: He looks like a guy who discovered not too long ago that he’s not really so different from everybody else–thus attaining, in other words, his own enlightenment. The narrator in Flights has told the reader early in the book: But if there’s one thing I know now, it’s that anyone looking for order ought to steer clear of psychology altogether. Go for physiology or theology instead, where at least you’ll have solid backing–either in matter or in spirit–instead of psychology’s slippery terrain. The psyche is quite a tenuous object of study.

Readers ought to be grateful that Olga Tokarzcuk is enlightened. I look forward to reading the English translation of her novel Book of Jacob scheduled to appear next year.

 

A Bookworm’s Book

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin is a novel about bookish characters for bookish people, which makes it an ideal selection for book clubs. Clearly, Zevin believes mastery of the short story is the consummate artistic achievement surpassing that of the prolixity of the novel. The short story requires simplicity encapsulating complexity. She would contend that in the novel the writer can do all the telling he feels like doing and that it is no violation of a writing commandment. In contrast, the essence of short story writer is to show not to tell. For verbosity, choose the novel; for concision, choose the short story.

Fikry’s life is “storied” because the bookseller reads his life like a book, continually seeing that events that happen to him are reflected in the the books he has read. Commentary on a relevant and notable short story introduces each of the thirteen chapters of Zevin’s novel. Familiarity with the short stories illuminates the themes, characters, and scenes developed in that chapter. They also provide Fikry’s thoughts on writing and literature. Fikry, a specialist in Edgar Allan Poe, abandoned work on his doctoral dissertation to open a bookstore on Alice Island with his wife. He’s left widowed when she’s killed in an auto accident. The tragedy sets off the train of interconnected events of Fikry’s story within the frame of fictional stories. In this way, fiction mirrors life.

When Fikry states, “I do not like anything over four hundred pages or under one hundred fifty pages,” he also may be expressing Zevin’s reading preferences. I suspect Zevin does not like big, sprawling, monolithic novels. Her novel is a paean to the short story and reaches a moderate length of 260 pages of medium font. The book is funny, succinct, and rife with surprising plot twists. Zevin has mastered the narrative line. She implores several literary tropes from her own bookish background, among them a child left on someone’s doorstep, a lost item later found, and a Jane Austen kind of trip into the vagaries of finding the right mate. “What is your favorite book?” is offered as the formula for finding a compatible marriage match.

I realized from reading this book that I am a literary snob. Unlike Amelia Loman and A.J. Fikry I read Moby Dick with gusto for the first time at age thirteen and several times since–the ultimate reading nerd. Both characters would affirm Melville’s novel has caused more students to stop reading than any other book in American literature. I appreciate the skill required to write a great short story, but I still love jumbo literary sagas. If I can use a book as a doorstop, it just might be a good book to read.

Rediscovering Gore Vidal

Gore Vidal stands out as an intellectual who in his novels, plays, screenplays, and essays commented on American history and the politics of his time. He received the National Book Award for Non-Fiction in 1993 for United States: Essays 1952-1992. It is a fascinating compendium of commentary on the American political scene in the second-half of the twentieth century because so much of what he writes then can be said of politics and of our leaders in 2019.  He exhibits a prescience of where the nation is headed in his witty, often caustic descriptions of presidents since Franklin Roosevelt. He gained notoriety in 1968 with his co-coverage with William Buckley, Jr. of both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. His glib tongue was welcome on talk shows even though many critics considered him pessimistic and too radical in his views. He advocated for drug legalization, a national health-care system, and elimination of the national defense system that would bankrupt the country eventually. He opposed the Vietnam War and argued for expenditure of tax dollars for social justice. He espoused, like Thomas Jefferson, that a constitutional convention  should be held every generation to allow for new realities and changes in society and culture. Increasingly, he is not alone in advocating these positions.

His maternal grandfather served as a senator from Oklahoma. Thomas Pryor Gore was blind, so the young Gore was enlisted to read aloud to him and serve as a congressional aide of sorts . From his boyhood mixing in Washington circles, Gore observed the operation of politics. From his high-toned speech characteristic of the Eastern elite, it was easy to assume that, like Buckley, he had graduated from Harvard or Yale. On the contrary, he enlisted in the Army at age seventeen during World War II and never attended college. His erudition and deep knowledge were all obtained through reading, experience, travel, and association with contemporary writers and intellectuals. He is probably best known for his plot-driven historical novels: Burr, 1776, Lincoln, Empire, The Golden Age, Julian, and others.

In reading his collection of essays, I was struck by his perception that the United States was capable of devolving into a dictatorship and that the country contained fascistic tendencies. In the essay “The State of the Union: 1975,” he writes:

From studying the polls, I would guess that about a third of the American people at any given moment would welcome a fascist state. This is because we have never been able to get across in our schools what the country was all about. I suspect that the reason for this failure is the discrepancy between what we’re were meant to be–a republic–and what we are–a predatory empire–is so plain to children that they regard a study of Constitution as just another form of television commercial and just as phony.

He claims there is actually only one political party in the United States–the Property Party. To maintain its grip on power, it must avoid debate of actual issues. Deflection, obfuscation, concentration on irrelevancies take center stage. Politicians perpetuate the illusion of upper mobility, but in 1972, Gore Vidal contended that about one percent of the population, representatives of a privileged class, who are born into social and economic advantage really controls the nation. This privileged class persuades the lower classes to consistently vote against their best interests, convincing them that any program to improve their educational, economic, or social station is socialism. This argument is also a familiar one today and is credible to many Americans across the spectrum. Vidal writes in 1975:

The myth of upward mobility dies hard; but it dies. Working-class parents produce children who will be working-class while professional people produce more professionals. Merit has little to do with one’s eventual place in the hierarchy. We are now locked into a class system nearly as rigid as the one that the Emperor Diocletian impressed upon the Roman Empire.

The fact that Betsy DeVos with no background in education is Secretary of the Department of Education adds cogency to this argument. Other incompetents who hold important positions today only by virtue of their privileged status in society could be cited. There is no doubt that wealth since 1975 is more heavily concentrated in the hands of a small minority.

Because of my interest in language and its relationship with quality of thought, I found Vidal’s observations on language particularly pertinent to political discourse today. In his 1986 essay “The Day the American Empire Ran out of Gas,” he writes further:

As societies grow decadent, the language grows decadent, too. Words are used to disguise, not to illuminate, action: You liberate a city by destroying it. Words are used to confuse, so that at election time people will solemnly vote against their own interest. Finally words must be so twisted as to justify an empire that has now ceased to exist, must less make sense.

In 2019 on television politicians twist themselves into pretzels day after day defending the indefensible and attempting to claim lawlessness, abuse of power, and obstruction of justice do not exist.

In 1983 Vidal was lamenting that: “today public figures can no longer write their own speeches or books, and there is some evidence that they can’t read them either.” Vidal died in 2012. What would he say about the the literacy level of the man at the top in 2019?

Vidal observed some disturbing trends in his comments about Ronald Reagan that are exacerbated in the current non-administration in Washington D.C. His description is biting, but if the reader did not know who was being described, he might think it is the current occupant of the White House:

. . . is a well-preserved not young man. Close-to, the painted face is webbed with delicate lines while the dyed hair, eyebrows, and eyelashes contrast oddly with the sagging muscle beneath the as yet uplifted chin, soft earnest of wattle-to-be. The effect, in repose, suggests the work of a skillful embalmer.” (from the essay “The Twenty-Ninth Republican Convention”)

Nixon’s problem with mendacity, Vidal notes, continued with Reagan’s looseness with the facts.  Reagan added showmanship to the act, which upstages the daily, less glamorous grind of being the chief executor buried in studying briefs and weighing intelligence reports. When Hollywood came to Washington, it marked an uptick in the preference for entertainment and image over substance, discipline, and concentration on facts that the job requires. Vidal points out Reagan’s lack of attention span:

What was so extraordinary was Ronnie’s apparent psychic distance from the burden of the presidency. He sat in cabinet meetings doodling. Unless held to a rigid agenda, he would start telling Hollywood stories or talk about football in Dixon.

It’s easier for the idol to appear for fans at rallies than to tend to the business of government. It’s easier to award medals to golf champions. It’s easier to ride a cart around the course than to walk.

I read Burr and other Vidal novels long ago. This may be a good time to revisit one of Vidal’s historical novels. He is a writer who has every right and duty to comment on political events, for he has the knowledge of American history and a depth of understanding of the Constitution. There is more than a little truth in his vision of the devolution of the United States from republic, to empire, and to dictatorship. Although his voice is stilled, other intellectuals are sounding the alarm that fascism is a real and present danger.

 

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

When Toni Morrison died this August, she left a rich literary legacy. Her novel Song of Solomon is my favorite. Although all her novels leave indelible impressions, this one comes to my mind first. All of her works require a mind that likes to piece together images, metaphors, symbols, and repeated refrains woven into a highly poetic prose style. She is concise; she doesn’t waste words. A fan of crossword or jigsaw puzzles would find a comfortable home in any of her novels. Naming of places and of people carries great significance. The reader must pay close attention to the names of characters and how those characters get their names. Pilate says she doesn’t know her mother’s name, because after her mother died before her birth, her father didn’t let anyone say her name. Macon Dead received his name through a misunderstanding. Guitar tells Milkman, “Niggers get their names the way they get everything else–the best way they can. The best way they can.”When the reader connects all the threads, a beautiful tapestry is visible.

In its specificity the black American family is seen as part of the national fabric. Mythic patterns abound as Milkman comes to grip with the mysteries surrounding his origins. Is he like his father Macon Dead, grandson of a freed slave, a man black on the outside and white on the inside in his desire to acquire money and property? Can his son Milkman free himself from white society’s values, assert his identity, and claim his roots? His mentor in his quest is Pilate, his eccentric aunt, who lives on the fringes of both white and black society as some kind of sorceress.

Part One of the novel occurs in an unnamed Michigan city. Macon Dead Jr. has accumulated wealth in real estate, owning rental property in the poor black neighborhood. His wife Ruth is in a loveless marriage, seeking solace in nursing her son until he is several years old–the reason for his nickname. Milkman is selfish, sucking the love from everyone but giving none. He is dead inside. Hagar, his cousin who is dying for her love to be reciprocated, wishes him dead, and is driven insane by his indifference. Part Two of the novel follows Milkman’s journey south to Virginia to uncover the multiple mysteries about his great-grandfather Solomon, the first Macon Dead, and Pilate. He discovers many things including that all dead men’s bones are the same color and that song makes burdens bearable; song records the history of a family, and in song he can also recover love, evoking the Biblical Song of Solomon, which actually is a canticle of love. In the mythical hunt scene his black brothers initiate him into a genuine manhood and a restorative communion with the natural world that was lost when African-Americans migrated to the industrial north.

The relationship of fathers and daughters also plays an important part in the plot. Ruth’s intense love of her father, who is the only black doctor in the town, borders on the incestuous, and that is exactly how her husband perceives it. The three-generational household composed of Pilate, her daughter Reba, and her granddaughter Hagar is without a father. Absent a father, Hagar is lost like her Biblical namesake. Pilate, whose father was shot by a white man, communicates with the spirit of her murdered father. Three times characters cry for mercy–the focal point of the novel and another manifestation of love. First is when Freddie sees Ruth nursing her son; second is when the midwife delivers Pilate and is astounded the baby has no navel; third is when Porter is going to shoot himself with a shotgun unless he can have a woman. The idea that so many characters are lovesick is apparent from the opening scene in which the insurance agent wearing blue wings jumps to his death from the roof of Mercy Hospital in 1931. On the next day the first black baby, Macon Dead III, is allowed to be born in the hospital that before had only admitted whites. The baby’s grandfather, Dr. Foster, the only black doctor in the town was not allowed to practice there. The presence of a hospital and a doctor implies that there is sickness calling for healing.

Coming full circle at the end of his quest, Milkman now fully initiated, connected with his roots, stands on a cliff in Shalimar, Virginia, confident he can fly like his great-grandfather Solomon who was said to have flown back to Africa.

I have hardly scratched the surface of the symbolism and intricacies in this novel. I have said nothing of Guitar, Corinthians, Lena, Circe, Reba, or Sing–the first Macon Dead’s Indian wife. In Morrison’s depiction of the complexities of one black family in mid-twentieth century America, she dramatizes the universal cry for mercy–inseparable from love–on the part of all races, times, and places. Significantly, she titles a later novel Mercy.

This is not an easy read, but Toni Morrison gives the reader a guidepost with this inscription at the beginning of the book: The fathers may soar and the children may know their names.  Beyond fathers and knowing names, this book is important in knowing how the legacy of slavery continues to affect the black family and race relations in America. Moreover, Toni Morrison suggests that mercy is the way to heal the wounds.

Power of Place

If setting were not important in fiction, then place would have no power in any of our lives. In fact, setting is so important that oftentimes it assumes the power of another character in the plot, as forceful and as determinative as the humans who populate the scene. Think of that gloomy, forbidding house in Edgar Allan Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher,” or that misty moor in Wuthering Heights, or the fantastical town Macondo in One Hundred Years of Solitude, or the shire in The Hobbit.

The search for roots entails the discovery of the place of ancestral origins. In today’s mobile America, tracing that place is not simple. It is rare to find the person who is born, raised, and lived his entire life in one place, much less in one house. More than one place can affect one’s consciousness in both obvious and subtle ways. Of course, the ambience, the environment of a particular area–its natural and man-made details–affect mood and tone. Long, overcast winters produce seasonal affective disorder. It’s that “drizzly November” in the soul that Ishmael remarks as he joins the crew of the “Pequod.” When one is raised smelling the salty breeze near the sea, the draw to water is irresistible.

I have now lived in one place for twenty years–the longest I have lived anywhere in my life–longer than the place where I spent my childhood. I harbor no nostalgia for my childhood home, for it fills me with sadness to return to where I was raised. It is unrecognizable. For the first six years of my life, I lived in the upstairs apartment of my grandmother’s brick bungalow on the far northwest side of Chicago. After one-year in an inner-city tenement, my family bought a tract home in one of the first subdivisions in a semi-rural village where there were still truck farms.  Roadside vegetable stands selling the local produce were still to be seen. There were no big box stores or shopping malls yet. I ran through cornfield rows, explored the creek, investigated abandoned barns, climbed trees, and rode my bike on country roads, passing pig pens and pastures of dairy cows. As I grew from eight to eighteen, so did the community with more housing developments, gas stations, and supermarkets. When I entered my teens, the community still did not have its own public high school, so I had to be bused to a neighboring town. When I went away to college, I returned for only brief visits. As the years sped, the rest of my family also migrated to different places. None of my family remains there.

I recognize I was part of the urban flight that created the asphalt sprawl and buried the open fields of my youth. No farm land separates this village that at the beginning of the twentieth century had been measured to be about a half-day’s carriage ride beyond Chicago. This is the tale of every city in America.

How did living neither entirely in the country or entirely in the city shape my consciousness? Something in me was repulsed by the rapid expansion and the rampant materialism of post-World War II America. Something jangled. The environment became increasingly noisy, strident, disconnected from Mother Earth. I disliked existence in an inbetween land, neither this nor that. It seemed preferable to either live in the inner city or solidly in the country without another house in sight.

America is a vast land of astounding contrasts affording a multitude of landscapes, climates, and socio-economic environments for a writer to choose a fictional setting. That particular place will powerfully shape the character and fortunes of the characters who inhabit it. The writer’s task is to skillfully integrate those two elements.  On a macrocosmic level, the very success of the United States as an imperial power was determined by its land mass, its seemingly unlimited natural resources, and the very bounty the land bestowed. The United States on the macrocosmic level epitomizes the power of place, positioned as it is between two oceans.

Another aspect of American culture that should not be overlooked is the sense of uprootedness or rootlessness attendant on a people that has constantly moved from coast to coast, across mountains, deserts, and plains in search of that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow–a nation of fortune-seekers. Some hit a gusher in the oil fields or struck it rich on a silver lode. Others who fell by the wayside in shanty towns or eked out a living as a sodbuster. Oil field, silver lode, shanty town, prairie farm–all these are powerful places in American fiction.

On the microcosmic or personal level, I turn to poetry to reflect upon how place affected my perceptions of self, family, and the nation:

Suburb

Surprised by stars that city lights obscured
Eight-year old eyes first met the mystic sky
Where silent sounds somehow are secured.

The vault overhead was studded with holes
From which pinpricks of light stippled the sky,
Slim flickerings like resurrected souls.

In the dark, the crickets scraped their wings
Striking a new sound upon her childish ears
While in bed, she mulled over new things:

The new prefab tract ranch home she slept in,
The subdivision with scads of new friends,
The yard seeded with new grass to play in.

As the sameness of it grew upon her like a mold
And barns and meadows disappeared like dew
She longed deeply for the gracefully old:

Victorian houses with widow walks,
Ancient mariners mending fishing nets,
Western redwood forests with circling hawks.

She fled the suburbs like a horse set loose
From strip malls and pavement to run wild
In fields where gizmos were of little use.

Boundaries between city and suburb vanish
In continuous signs and new car dealerships–
Thus evolved her parents’ pastoral wish.

The seedbed perhaps of what all went wrong
In ascent to world dominance and might
Families rushed to the suburbs headlong.

Something was amiss in the cookie-cutter clique
A taste of the bland her palate disliked;
She craved the unique, tilted toward the antique.