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Monthly Archives: May 2008

The song of cicadas thickens the air
between the rhododendrons like a fog
on the mountainside when trees gravely wade
into the whiteness like a hallowed stream,
but now the soft, pale, sacred shore recedes
to the reservoir’s bright blue suddenness,
and the trees, with nothing to hold them, rush
in vastness to a shore they dare not cross,
for the blue is too holy or too profane,
and they stand before it in endless rows
climbing into mountains, through the thick song
of cicadas mingling the scent of vined
white roses, like a vast host in worship
before a too sacred altar, their prayers
whispered to the drone of cicada song,
the incense of small white roses on vines
that strive to sanctify the tree-lined slopes,
climbing by the count of years to the peaks,
and collecting trilliums in their wake,
and giving home to the discarded husks
of those who would mingle songs with white rose
to thicken air among rhododendrons
as trees worship a bright and sudden blue.

I am constantly living in the shadow of the desire to write, the desire for writing. Whatever else I do, I do it under the influence of this desire. It is not necessarily a desire to write well, though I desire this too. It is not necessarily a desire for writing in a certain medium, though I have my preferences in this regard. It is a desire simply to write myself as such, on the page, on the conversation, on the landscape, on the palate.

The desire for writing is not simply the desire to preserve a trace of myself through the things that I mark. If this were the whole of it, I would not choose to write so often in ways that are so ephemeral, in planting, in cooking, in speaking.  The desire for writing is less a desire to preserve myself into the future than it is a desire to realize myself more fully in the present.  It is the desire to be more fully.

As I mentioned in my post on Malcom Lowry’s Under the Volcano, one of the things that I like most about this book is a single sentence, which I think may be the most exceptional sentence ever written in the English language. I did not have the space to quote it in that post, but I feel so strongly about it that I will quote it here, where it can stand apart in its own right:

“It is a light blue moonless summer evening, but late, perhaps ten o’clock, with Venus burning hard in daylight, so we are certainly somewhere far north, and standing on this balcony, when from beyond along the coast comes the gathering thunder of a long many-engineered freight train, thunder because though we are separated by this wide strip of water from it, the train is rolling eastward and the changing wind veers for a moment from an easterly quarter, and we face east, like Swedenborg’s angels, under a sky clear save where far to the northeast over distant mountains whose purple has faded lies a mass of almost pure white clouds, suddenly, as by a light in an alabaster lamp, illumined from within by gold lightening, yet you can hear no thunder, only the roar of the great train with its engines and its wide shunting echoes as it advances from the hills into the mountains: and then all at once a fishing boat with tall gear comes running round the point like a white giraffe, very swift and stately, leaving directly behind it a long silver scalloped rim of wake, not visibly moving inshore, but now stealing ponderously beachward toward us, this scrolled silver rim of wash striking the shore first in the distance, then spreading all along the curve of the beach, while the floats, for these are timber driving floats, are swayed together, everything jostled and beautifully ruffled and stirred and tormented in this rolling sleeked silver, then little by little calm again, and you see the reflection of the remote white thunderclouds in the water, and now the lightening within the white clouds in deep water, as the fishing boat itself with a golden scroll of travelling light in its silver wake beside it reflected from the cabin vanishes round the headland, silence, and then again, within the white white distant alabaster thunderclouds beyond the mountains, the thunderless gold lightening in the blue evening, unearthly.”

This needs to be read several times, aloud, slowly, accounting for the punctuation, like poetry.

This will be one of those stories that begins too long ago, meanders in too many directions, and entertains no one but me. It does entertain me though, so am going to tell it, even if it ends in tragedy.

Last year, at about this time, I was preparing for the Survey of Literature II course that I was to teach in the fall. I was frustrated because my course on the novel had been cancelled, and I was bored with the format of the Survey of Literature II course, and I was thinking about both these things together when it occurred to me that the two courses cover almost exactly the same time period. So, I decided to teach the survey course as if it were the novel course and to introduce some new methods of evaluation, including a wiki of several hundred important novels from which the students had to select five texts and in which they had to post assignments on their selections.

Of course, once I had assembled this list of novels, I was acutely aware that I had read only a very few of them, so I set myself the task of reading as many as I could before the fall, a task that I am still completing in a desultory sort of way. Among the many novels I read that summer, I particularly enjoyed Malcom Lowry’s Under the Volcano. The energy, the intensity, the near-poetry of the prose sets it apart from all but a few of the novels I have read (Dow Mossman’s The Stones of Summer and Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers have something of this quality also), and the layers of internal and external allusion gives it a gratifying fullness of weight and depth (the kind of effect I find in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick or almost anything by Salman Rushdie). Lowry’s novel also contains one of the most extraordinary sentences in the English language, one I am tempted to quote in its entirety, but it is so long that it would make a post in itself, so I will show some restraint.

I did not think again about the book for some time. I still had others from the list that I wanted to read, and none of my students chose to read Under The Volcano that fall, so it merely drifted with so much else in the soup of my literary unconscious. Then, this past Christmas, Dave Humphrey gave me a little book called The Film Club, written by journalist and film critic David Gilmour. The book is an autobiographical account of the unique film club for two that formed when Gilmour allowed his son to drop out of school on the condition that he would watch three films a week with his father. It is interesting to me mostly for what it implies about the nature of learning, but it also made one of those literary connections that I sometimes feel as an almost physical pleasure. During a list of films that he and his son were watching during a particular stretch, Gilmour mentions a documentary called Volcano: An Inquiry into the Life and Death of Malcom Lowry, directed by Donald Brittain. He went so far as to say that it was perhaps the best documentary ever made.

Since I teach a course on documentary, and since Under the Volcano had impressed me so much, I could hardly leave this claim untested. I immediately began looking for Brittain’s film, but I could not find a copy anywhere. None of the video stores, not even my local and favourite purveyor of oddities, was able to find it for me. A search of the internet revealed that it was no longer available. I was almost in despair until one of the search results lead me to the bonus features of the Criterion Collection edition of John Huston’s film adaptation of Under the Volcano. Apparently, although Brittian’s documentary was no longer available in its own right, it was readily available on the disc of bonus features that accompanies Huston’s film. More importantly, the edition was available for free from my local library, less than five minutes walk from my front door. I was jubilant.

When I returned with my prize, I only intended to watch the documentary, for at least two reasons. First, I usually find only melodrama in dramatic films, which is why I prefer films that are intentionally unreal and ironic. Second, film adaptations of novels, in my experience, while sometimes good in their own right, most often fail to capture the mood and sensibility of their literary ancestors. Despite the force of these reasons, I had heard that Huston’s film was supposed to be classic, and I had it in my hand already in any case, so I watched it.

I have rarely, if ever, found a film adaptation that is so respectful of its source novel, not necessarily of the novel’s exact narrative events, which are largely reduced in the film, but of the novel’s spirit and temper. I felt as though the film and the novel had been made with the same fabric, the same materials, that their difference of genre was a distinction less important than their unities of tone and disposition. They seemed to be different iterations of the same artistic act, extensions of one another. I have seen better films, but I do not think I have seen a better adaptation of a novel to film.

Brittian’s documentary was also very good. While I would not perhaps agree with Gilmour that it is among the best ever made, it has an easiness of narrative tone and pace that makes it a pleasure to watch. There is a strong sense of affection for Lowry, but it never becomes idolatry. It is an affection that is always well aware of Lowry’s many frailties, an affection that remains despite these frailties, and perhaps also because of them. After all, the novel is so much a product of Lowry’s personal tragedies that it is difficult to feel its emotional force without also feeling the emotional force of the life it reflects. In this sense, Brittian’s documentary makes a very good companion to the novel, and to Huston’s film as well, and I am currently formulating some possibilities about a course format that would allow me to use the three of them together.

Anyway, I did not have occasion to think about the novel or its accompanying films again until I noticed that my wife had brought Gilmour’s The Film Club on our recent trip south. As soon as I saw it, however, I recalled again how much I wanted to teach the three Volcano texts together, and I decided to buy the Criterion Collection edition when I next had a few dollars to spend. Then, the very next day, while browsing a DVD store in a Georgia suburb, I saw a used copy of the very thing: John Huston’s Under the Volcano, with all the extras that I wanted and more. I believe that I might actually have exclaimed audibly at the coincidence.

The price was $36.00. I checked my wallet, though I knew before I opened it that I had less than $20 left to spend. I contemplated using the credit card, but I knew that my wife would not approve of such a flagrant disregard for our budget, so I walked resignedly past the cash register, empty handed. Suddenly, a thought occurred to me, a consolation of sorts, however inadequate. It is only appropriate, I reflected, where Malcom Lowry and Under the Volcano are concerned, that I should know exactly what it is I want and still be unable to obtain it. Of course, none of this will prevent me from ordering the thing when the budget next allows.

One of the few benefits of driving long distances with small children is that it is often necessary to distract yourself, whether from their continual screaming or from the fifth consecutive viewing of whatever cartoon movie is currently obsessing them. I usually accomplish this by reading.  Most of our recent drive to Savannah, Georgia was at night, when it is  impossible for me to read, and I did much of the driving myself, when my wife inexplicably claims it is unsafe for me to read, but I did have the chance to read Ford Maddox Ford’s The Good Soldier, Leonard Cohen’s The Favourite Game, and Samuel Butler’s Erewhon. Hence the title of this post, which is probably also the name of a law firm somewhere or other.

I will not say much about any of these books individually, though I enjoyed each of them in its own way. Instead, I want to describe, if I can, how they came to inform each other for me, not because of any intrinsic connection between them, but simply because I chanced to read them together, because they became unified in my imagination by their association with the same journey.  I want to describe what is, for me, the essential experience of reading.

Except that they are all novels, the three books are really unlike. Erewhon, written in 1872, is a utopian fantasy about a young explorer who discovers an entirely different civilization in an unnamed country. The Good Soldier, written in 1915, relates the complex and tragic relationship of two couples as the convalesce in Europe. The Favourite Game, written in 1963, is an experimental narrative of a young Canadian Jew coming of age in Montreal. Each is from a distinctly different time and place, real or imagined, with a distinctly different subject, written in a distinctly different style. They are not even joined by any conscious choice of my own, since The Good Soldier was the last of the novels I had assigned myself to read for a course, The Favourite Game was taken from my shelf on a whim, and Erewhon was found in a thrift store while on the trip.

Even so, because I happened to read them all together, all within the confines of a single trip, these three dissimilar novels began to inform each other for me. I began to see in them thematic unities that I would probably not have seen had I read them separately. All three, for example, are in their different ways concerned with exposing the superficiality of social conventions. Erewhon pointedly satirizes the social, economic, religious, and legal conventions of pre-Victorian England; The Good Soldier exposes, not without a certain sympathy, the facade of the culture of the English gentleman just prior to World War I; and The Favourite Game depicts a young man’s struggles with the facile social conventions of upper class Canadian Jews in the time preceding the volatility of the 1960’s.

There are many dissimilarities here as well, and it would take a good deal more time than I am willing to give in order to establish between these novels the kinds of connections that would be acceptable to an academic standard, but this is not the point for me. The point is that these connections always appear when I read books, listen to music, or watch films in proximity, and that the appearance of these connections cannot be solely attributed either to the texts themselves or the imposition of my own imagination. The novels, as I have already argued, are not themselves alike, so they clearly do require me to impose upon them the thematic unities that I see in them. Yet, each of these novels, as a singular and irreplaceable text, is capable of supporting only a limited set of readings. There are limits to the unities that I can legitimately impose upon them.

The result, then, is an experience that will always be unique in the world. These singular texts produce singularity. They are read in conjunction with each other, perhaps for the first time; read in the context of a road trip from Ontario to Georgia, perhaps for the first time; read simultaneously with Noam Chomsky’s Miseducation, perhaps for the first time; read by this singular reader, certainly and always again for the first time. This singular experience produces what can only be a singular reading that cannot now or ever be reduced to its component parts. I will never again be able to think of one of these novels apart from the others, or to think of Black Mountain, North Carolina apart from the three of them together, or to think of that experience apart from what I am writing now.

These kinds of experience are what reading is for me.  They are, in themselves, essentially, what reading is.  They are why I read.

I appreciate TC’s comments on Walking Suburbia and On Being at Home. I hope to address some of these comments more generally in later posts, but I thought that I would at least do TC the immediate courtesy of responding to the question of what exactly I mean by a social holocaust.

The phrase does not only serve my penchant for rhetorical excess, though it certainly does this too. It names accurately, at least in my opinion, what is happening to social relations in the cultures I inhabit; that is, it describes the systematic and systemic elimination of relational encounter in favour of technical connectivity. The symptoms of this displacement are everywhere. They can be seen in the replacement of cooking and eating together with the consumption of fastfood and preprocessed dinners, often in isolation; the replacement of walkable neighbourhoods with suburbs that can only be driven, usually in isolation; the replacement of mixed housing with mass produced developments that reinforce class distinction, sometimes gated for protection, and for isolation. This list could be made almost endless, and it would include everything from how we are employed, educated, entertained, medicated, and buried.

The impetus for this annihilation of encounter with the other is a fear of the other as such, a fear of anything that I cannot reduce to my self, a suspicion of anything that is not in my own image. It is not the logic of a genocide, which would eliminate only others of a particular race or culture. It is not the logic of a crusade, which would eliminate only others of a particular religion. It is not the logic of a political pogrom, which would eliminate only others of a particular politics. It is the logic of a holocaust, which eliminates anyone who is other to my idealized self, on whatever basis whatsoever.

The Nazi atrocities were a holocaust for precisely this reason. The final solution was not just a genocide directed at the Jews. It was several genocides, directed at Jews, and Slavs, and Gypsies. It was also a moral pogrom, directed at the mentally disabled, the physically disabled, homosexuals, and others deemed socially unacceptable. It was also a religious crusade, directed at Judaism and Islam. It was, in short, the means by which Nazi Germany defined and eliminated what was other to its ideal self: a final solution: a holocaust. This is precisely the logic of our culture’s elimination of relational encounter, only we have taken it much nearer to its limits, where anyone who is other, for any reason, is to be feared, where the other as such is to be feared, and where encounter with the other is always to be avoided.

Our holocaust is social rather than physical, obviously. We understand ourselves to be too civilized for the physical extinction of others. We are, in fact, quite proud of the tolerance that we show to others in the ideal, regardless of their race or gender or sexuality or whatever. What we fail to realize, however, is that our increasing tolerance for others in the abstract is being accompanied by a decreasing openness to encounter with the particular persons around us. We refuse to discriminate on the basis of age or religion, but we also refuse to actually know anyone, whatever their age and religion. The fabric of social relation, and therefore of ethics also, which is based upon encounter with the other, is annihilated. We kill no one, but treat everyone as if they are dead. This is our holocaust. This is our final solution.

Now, it could be objected that I go too far here, that we do still encounter others, sharing our homes with family, our cubicles with coworkers, our pubs with friends. This is undoubtedly true. It is never possible entirely to eliminate encounter with others, not on this side of death and sanity. Even so, long work hours, full schedules, job turnover, cubicle farms, technical gadgetry, frequent moves, all produce estrangement among families, coworkers, and friends, all permit us to be among each other without really encountering each other. This is partly why, in an era where connectivity is easier than ever before, counsellors and psychologists are treating ever growing numbers of patients who describe themselves as lonely, depressed, and disconnected. They have become isolated by a fear of encountering the other, by a refusal to be open to the possibility of encountering the other, by a rejection of the intimacy that is only possible through encounter with the other. This is our social holocaust.

The reasons for this fear of the other in our culture are complex, and I do not have the space here to discuss them adequately. I would suggest, however, that they have to do with a certain political expediency and with a certain economic efficiency, not to mention the various individualisms, religious, political, philosophical, economic, and otherwise, that have characterized modernism and those of us who are its heirs. There is much that could be said in this direction, but it must wait for another occasion.

We arrived in Durham, North Carolina early yesterday morning, after fourteen odd hours of driving through the night, and spent the rest of the day napping or otherwise recuperating. At some point in the afternoon, we took the kids and went for a short walk to the local shopping centre, a matter of five or ten minutes each way. The neighbourhood looked like an average suburban neighbourhood, very like some of the neighbourhoods in my own town, immaculately manicured and perhaps more than normally treed. Despite the familiar landscape, however, I felt oddly uneasy, as if there was something unnatural about the whole scene.

We reached the shopping centre, picking up the few things that we needed, and the feeling of strangeness passed, but it returned the moment that we began to walk back to the place where we were staying. I found myself watching a group of four maintanence workers trimming and edging the lawns, blowing the cuttings from the sidewalks and the roads, when I suddenly realized the source of my unease: except for those workers, we were the only people actually occupying the landscape. We had seen not a single pedestrian during the ten minutes to the store and only paid workers during the ten minutes back.

I actually shivered. The very things that I had been talking about in more abstract terms a few days earlier had suddenly become enacted for me, and the effect was unnerving. There was literally no neighbourhood, no welcome, no hospitality, no encounter. It was not that the people were unfriendly or unwelcoming. In fact, my experience of North Carolina is quite the opposite, that the people are most often very hospitable. It was just that there was no opportunity for hospitality, because there was no opportunity for encounter.  We were literally alone in the landscape, removed from the hundreds of people around us by the walls of houses and cars and social roles.

The rest of the day proceeded in much the same way. I spent several hours reading a book on the front step, from which I could see forty or fifty townhomes, and saw only three other people, all leaving their houses just long enough to enter their cars. I spent part of the evening talking with my family in the backyard, which is open to all the other backyards in the same row, and saw not another soul. I felt, for the first time in reality, the same feeling of emptiness that I have often felt in artistic expressions of emptiness as diverse as Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog and Stephen King’s The Stand.

Perhaps it seems extreme to compare the emptiness of a suburban neighbourhood to an emptiness that is the result of a holocaust or an apocalypse, whether real or imagined, but to me the comparison is not entirely unjustified. There was a sense in that depopulated suburban landscape, at least to me, that something catastrophic and unnatural had occurred, that an unprecedented disaster had overtaken the relations that should form a community. What was must disturbing, however, was the realization that this disaster is not localized, that it has overtaken communal relations on so general a scale that it now appears as the normal social mode to many people. In my mind this is in fact a communal apocalypse. It is a social holocaust.