Tom Abel and I took a break from I and Thou this week. We have not abandoned Buber altogether, just deferred him a little, until a friend of Tom’s can join us and contribute his more experienced voice to the discussion.
In Buber’s place, we read Hugh Kenner’s The Elsewhere Community, which was originally delivered as the 1997 CBC Massey Lectures. We chose it for the very simple reason that Tom found copies for two dollars each in the discount rack at a local mega-bookstore that I will leave nameless. Neither of us had ever heard of Kenner before, but the title and the summary on the back seemed interesting, so we read it.
It is a meandering, anecdotal book, circling around its argument rather than stating it outright, providing examples rather than definitions. Its thesis, far from explicit, is something like, “Going elsewhere, experiencing other places and people, becomes the basis of a kind of community between those who have had similar experiences.” Most of the book is not concerned with elsewhere communities generally, however, but with a literary elsewhere community, one that he describes mostly through his own experience of the community that he found among the modernist poets, particularly Ezra Pound. In this way, the book is also autobiographical to a degree, relating the history of Kenner’s introduction into the elsewhere community that defined his own work.
Kenner’s idea of the elsewhere community is an interesting one, and there is much in it that I recognize from my own attempts to foster community. For example, my first instinct in meeting someone for the first time is to discover the books and the films that we might have in common, and my first instinct to develop these relationships further is to suggest a book or a film that we might approach together. It is not necessary that this text be the subject of any sustained study or reflection, only that we begin to create the shared experience of these texts as a place through which our community might develop. In this sense, these texts function as an elsewhere, as Kenner himself argues, that can serve as the basis for community.
I do have several reservations about Kenner’s idea, however. The most significant of them is that he fails to distinguish between two different experiences that I would regard as being fundamentally different. On the one hand, he describes that places and the books and the people that one experiences and though which one forms community with others. On the other, he describes the people who are met themselves, the people with whom a community might be formed. Whereas I would mark these as very different things, even recognizing how they might interrelate, Kenner never really distinguishes between them. He speaks of going to Rome to see the ruins that Cicero saw in much the same way as he speaks of going to meet Ezra Pound, as though these two journeys were essentially the same, despite the fact that the latter resulted in a long lasting and significant relationship with Pound. I do not think that Kenner would actually understand these two kinds of journey to be the same, but he never marks them as being different, never suggests that they might be functioning in very different ways.
I find this especially interesting because Pound’s instruction to Kenner, the instruction that Kenner says is “the single most pregnant sentence” that he has ever heard uttered, does recognize this difference that I have been describing. “You have an ob-li-ga-tion,” Pound says to Kenner, “to visit the great men of your own time.” This is no injunction to merely read what these people have written or to go and see what they have seen. It is a demand that these people be met face to face, that they be encountered in themselves.
It was this demand that I found more compelling than Kenner’s own wandering narrative, and I found myself posing the question of who I would meet if I had the opportunity. Which writers and thinkers would be among the great for me? With which would I most like to form some sort of community?
After eliminating those who were already dead, I was surprised at how easily I arrived at a short list. I would meet David Cayley, because he is the one who introduced me to Ivan Illich and Rene Girard, and he stands as a sort of link for me to these deceased authors. I would meet Annie Dillard, because she writes the things that should be written. I would meet Walter Wangerin Jr., because he is the only living representative of a certain tradition of fantastical and allegorical writing that has influenced me tremendously over the years. I would meet Jean-Luc Marion, because he has had so profound an influence on my understanding of how theology and philosophy should be thought. These four would be the ones whom I would meet.
Interestingly, most of them are relatively accessible to me. Cayley lives in Toronto, a mere hour up the highway from me. Wangerin lives in Valparaiso, Indiana, which would be a fair drive but would be very close to Marion’s residence in Chicago, Illinois. To see the two of them on the same trip would neither be overly expensive nor exceptionally time consuming, and I am now seriously considering the possibility of making such a journey.
I am also interested to see how Pound’s demand might appear for others, so I am now referring the question to you. Who are the great writers and thinkers of our era, not speaking generally, but speaking according to their influence in you? Who would you go see? My only criterion is that they must be living, that you must be able to meet them face to face. The rest I leave to you.