Elsewhere Communities

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.

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17 comments
  1. Matthew Harrison said:

    Luke,
    I just picked up a copy of ‘The Rivers North of the Future’ for an ungodly price at a book store that will also be left unnamed. I would feel left off, if I had not spend more than an hour and a half concentrating simply on the introduction. I was not reading, no, I was walking through a fine vineyard, and I was sampling the fruit as I walked.

    I only now understand that when you get together with Tom Abel, you both read a book together and discuss it. That is such a fantastic idea that I am going to see about doing that. I especially would enjoy seeing if I can mix romance with spending time reviewing literature.

    Finally, if you go see Cayley I would like to accompany and observe if I might.

  2. Matthew,

    Literature and romance mix rather well in my experience, though romance is not usually conducive to doing any actual study of what you are reading. In fact, this makes it almost the perfect example of what I am describing. The text is not so much important in itself as it is in opening space in which you can encounter the other person and form a kind of relation or community. The point is not to read the book. The point is to read what the other is reading.

  3. TC said:

    I would like to chip in towards yr trip but its probably impractical and I’m broke! But the thought is there!
    My problem is working out who’s alive and who’s not, and thinking of people I know who i would love to see again.
    Good question

  4. TC,

    Thanks for the thought, though my biggest challenge will probably be more in finding someone to look after my kids while I am gone than in scraping gas money together to make the trip. It will require some serious negotiation on my part.

  5. I’m amazed you haven’t read his criticism of Pound and Eliot–it remains some of my favourite on their work. I can remember listening to this entire set of lectures each night on Ideas that they originally aired. You really need his voice in addition to his words, it was fascinating to listen to. The memory is punctuated by the fact that it was Clementine orange season, and I ate a crate of them over the 5 nights. Now I know what we’ll be talking about next Wednesday. Until then!

  6. Dave,

    You forget that I took English Literature in name only. I was made to read far more theory than literature, and I was never asked to read a single volume of traditional criticism in my entire university career. The only true literary criticism that I have ever read is by C. S. Lewis and T. S. Eliot, both of whom I read on my own initiative. You have much to teach me.

  7. Matthew Harrison said:

    Luke,
    What if the other person is ignorant? i.e. they do not seem to be reading anything at all.

  8. Matthew,

    I am not restricting the idea of reading to books or even to texts. I am using it more broadly to describe the reading of film, art, nature, dance, architecture, or whatever else is worth reading together. I would say that there are few people who read nothing at all worth reading and that there are fewer still who would be entirely unwilling to read something that you suggested. Just keep looking. There is almost always something.

  9. Curtis said:

    Luke, your fourth and fifth chapters seem to me to be describing the essential existential dilemma that we experience when encountering things like geography we leave and literature- or the most strangest of absentee experience, recorded music and visual media- which is not actually happening to us- in the same sense of motion sickness. We are moving whilst sitting still.

    However- I can understand from this perspective why your author may not comment on the distinction- if they are percieveing existentially- then the relational quality of what is told by Pound is self evidentally more important and does not have to be addressed- from the existential is is obviously better to meet a person than read from them- observe their mystery secrets nuance forthwith et al, than it is to simply go by the implied abscent of inflection and activity of ‘that moving expression’ that comes with the presence of animation. And the greatest ability of all- the active question. In that way a direct letter is also evidently more important than a fixed body of work. It is that expression of the backward soup and awkward wine of history- that in the fresh and flesh contemporary experience has its great potency; the distillery of time destroying definition and ultimately full discernment.

    As for my five people- I would have to go with Chuck Pahlaniuk, Fight Club Author. Alan Moore, the graphic novel writer. Edward Zwick to my mind the best Directorial story teller I know of- he has this ability to let a narrative tell itself that is still fresh original, unencumbered by an agenda etc. Joss Whedon, simply for his range of genious in many mediums, having written screen, tv, novels, sit com, and graphic novels. All well written all well executed and all to prime calibur of human examination.He is also an excellent director and producer as well. And not particularly for his genious but to understand his perspective and position I would have to pick the current pope. Failing any of these I am not sure- Maybe Marolyn Manson because he gives me the creeps. Alice Cooper perhaps. Tim Burton perhaps. Almost everyone else I connect to on a creative level excluding manson because I don’t at all, is quite dead or while inspiring not lastingly compelling. Maybe John Eldridge, that’s more than five.

  10. Curtis,

    Considering your list, I can hardly believe Neil Gaiman is not on your list. He would seem just your kind of artist.

  11. Curtis said:

    Neil Gaiman?

  12. Curtis,

    Begin with The Sandman graphic novels. Then read his kids books: Coraline, which has just been made into a film, and The Wolves in the Walls. Then read his adult novels, American Gods and Anansi Boys. Then watch his films: Neverwhere, which was a BBC mini-series, and Mirrormask, which was made in association with Jim Henson Company. He has written other material in each of these genres, but that should give you a start.

  13. Curtis said:

    I did wiki him last night. I have seen startdust, and will begin there I think, as soon as I get the chance.

  14. Curtis,

    The graphic novel of Stardust is better than the movie, and it is good in its way, but I would not say it is Gamain’s best work, so be sure to go on and read The Sandman books before you form an opinion.

  15. Curtis said:

    I shall do that. As of late though, I havr about sixteen fresh books and four unfinished ones to go.

  16. Curtis,

    It sounds like you have achieved the ideal state of being.

  17. Curtis said:

    Oh God I hope not I am miserable twelve out of every fourteen days.

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