Thursday, February 14, 2008

`The Senses Bathed in Revelation'

In A Door Ajar: Contemporary Writers and Emily Dickinson, Thomas Gardner devotes chapters to Marilynne Robinson, Charles Wright, Susan Howe and Jorie Graham, and includes interviews with each. The latter three don’t interest me but Robinson is a rare contemporary writer who identifies herself with the great foundational American tradition of the 19th century – Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, Dickinson, Whitman. In part because of this self-conscious linkage, her fiction and essays are deeper and more metaphorically rich than virtually anything else written today. Her books are serious (not humorless) at a time when most are trivial, vulgar or trendy. Her prose is graceful and indelibly American. In his essay on Robinson, Gardner quotes a brief essay, “Hum Inside the Skull,” the author of Housekeeping, Mother Country, The Death of Adam and Gilead published in 1984 in the New York Times Book Review:

“Nothing in literature appeals to me more than the rigor with which [the 19th-century writers cited above] fasten on problems of language, or consciousness -- bending form to their purposes, ransacking ordinary speech and common experience . . . always, to borrow a phrase from Wallace Stevens, in the act of finding what will suffice. I think they must have believed everything can be apprehended truly when seen in the light of an esthetic understanding appropriate to itself, whence their passion for making novel orders of disparate things. I believe they wished to declare the intrinsic dignity of all experience and to declare the senses bathed in revelation -- true, serious revelation, the kind that terrifies.”

The question of the break in American culture after the anni mirabiles of the 1840s and the 1850s nags me. In Gardner’s interview with Robinson, she speaks of “a rupture in the conversation of this culture.” She says, “All sorts of things that were brought up in the early conversation were dropped without being resolved.” When Gardner asks her to elaborate she says, “Well, for me the germinal issue is the issue of perception and metaphor,” and continues:

“In a certain way I’ve spent a lot of years trying to figure out what it was – trying to restore the larger context that made them turn to metaphor so consistently with the assumption that they would be able to make meaning of the highest order from the lyrical. It’s not ornamental. Their metaphorical writing is never ornamental. In fact, it draws attention to itself in order either to rupture the illusion that it has created because of the intrinsic beauty of making a good metaphor, or it draws attention to itself by awkwardness or improbability, as Emily Dickinson does so often. There was something in the intellectual culture that was yielding use of language and use of perception at very high levels of sophistication. It had to do with what, I suppose, one has to describe as the individualism of the culture, in the sense that the individual sensorium was assumed to be a sort of sacred place and to be a sufficient revelation of whatever there was to be understood. At a certain point, the culture turned to talking in terms that were much closer to sociology than to metaphysics.”

Then Gardner asks, “And so metaphor dropped out?” and Robinson answers, “It ceased to be exploratory.”

This is intriguing and oddly hopeful, ripe for rediscovery. What Robinson describes is the internalization of Protestantism by a generation of American writers, all of whom took for granted the confident autonomy of their individual voices. They were strong, self-trusting witnesses. Robinson cites a later, lesser American writer, Frank Norris, whose use of metaphor is a form of allegory. “There’s an element of didacticism,” she says. Why did the conversation stop? Secularization. The growing influence of science and technology. The waning of confident individualism with the rise of cities, corporations and big government. The decline in reverence for language with the growing availability of literacy, education and books. In American Procession, Alfred Kazin writes of Dickinson:

“Least of all did she believe that the human soul was needed to complete the universe. Saturated in a theological tradition that still provided the language for everyday experience, she made this tradition her daily resource. Religion was the background of her life, but her quest for a living God was often humorous. She must have recognized herself (in addition to her other troubles) as a reluctant skeptic ahead of her time. She was the first modern writer to come out of New England.”

Few poets are so surprising, even after long acquaintance, as Dickinson. She uses unexpected words in unexpected ways. Her poems are strange, fierce and direct. With her eccentric dashes and without histrionics, she hurls words at readers:

“Dare you see a Soul at the White Heat?
Then crouch within the door –
Red – is the Fire’s common tint –
But when the vivid Ore
Has vanquished Flame’s conditions,
It quivers from the Forge
Without a color, but the light
Of unanointed Blaze.”

Robinson says of Dickinson: “She is always talking about change in states of consciousness,” and cites this poem:

“I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading – treading – till it seemed
Than Sense was breaking through –

“And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum –
Kept beating – beating – till I thought
My Mind was going numb –

“And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space – began to toll,

“As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race
Wrecked, solitary, here –

“And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down –
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing – then –"

Robinson, clearly floored by the poem, says:

“One of the things that I think is so wonderful about this kind of consciousness I’ve been talking about is that it values everything … She talks about things that are conventional in the sense that they are emblematic also – they are deeply significant human behaviors.”

Noting Dickinson implies that “all the Heavens” are directed at one ear – one person, you or me – Robinson says, “She’s very Melvillean, only more so perhaps, in the sense that she’s perfectly willing to embrace the implications of this vision of reality, in terms of the fact that it exposes human solitude to the vastest available order of being. And that’s the thrill of it in a way, the beauty of it, and the terror of it also.”

Robinson always brings it back to language, the gift these writers had for turning metaphor into a mode of knowledge – a lesson for all of us, I think, in an age of timid minimalism and fire-both-barrels maximalism. “She’s not writing about herself in any sense. She’s writing about the universal mystery of metaphor and perception,” Robinson says, and Kazin writes:

“Emily Dickinson, no romantic about an existence that was as endlessly various as it was difficult, was fascinated by words as starting points. Words were not transcriptions of experience; they often invented it. Words were roles.”

1 comment:

Dawn said...

Do you know where the phrase “hum inside the skull” originates? Is it an allusion to Stevens' line "the hum of thoughts evaded in the mind?"