Thursday, March 30, 2006

`I Saw Eternity the Other Night'

The most detailed and rhapsodic account I know of a young person discovering the vocation of reading, of books opening worlds with a fierceness comparable to some religious experiences, is found in the first of three loosely linked memoirs by the late Alfred Kazin, A Walker in the City, published in 1951. When I first read it, about 20 years later, I had already undergone my own conversion but I felt a sense of kinship with Kazin, one of the great critics of American literature, that shook me like the aftershocks of an earthquake, like Melville’s “shock of recognition.”

Kazin was a teenager in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, in the early, deep years of the Depression. He had his first job, collecting specimens from drugstores and delivering them to a urinalysis lab. He had already been reading Dickens, Gogol, even T.S. Eliot. On the steps of the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue, he accepted a "New Testament" from a man who spoke Yiddish to him, and the young Kazin, a partially secularized Jew, found he admired and even loved his fellow Jew, Jesus or Yeshua. But it was the language that seized him:

“It was like heaping my own arms with gifts. There were images I did not understand, but which fell on my mind with such slow opening grandeur that once I distinctly heard the clean and fundamental cracking of trees. First the image, then the thing; first the word in its taste and smell and touch, then the thing it meant, when you were calm enough to look. Images were instantaneous; the meaning alone could be like the unyielding metal taste when you bite on an empty spoon. The initial shock of that language left no room in my head for anything else.”

Passages in the "New Testament" give him the “same sense of instant connectedness” as the "O altitudo!" he found in a quotation from Sir Thomas Browne, the cathedral chapter in D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow, the opening line of Henry Vaughn’s “The World” (“I saw eternity the other night”), and these lines from Blake:

“When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?”

Kazin goes on to cite the opening sentences of A Farewell to Arms, “indescribably dry and beautiful with the light on those pebbles in the plain,” and Whitman’s lines from “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”:

“Passing the yellow-spear’d wheat, every grain
from its shroud in the dark brown fields uprisen.”

I sought out all of these lines on the strength of Kazin’s witness, and tested them against my own experience and tastes. The Browne, Vaughn, Blake and Whitman I still love; the Lawrence and Hemingway leave me cold. But it’s not important whether we approve of Kazin’s examples. He writes here not as a critic but as a man, naked before life and literature. As he says of the lines from Whitman’s great elegy for Lincoln, “I had found another writer I could instinctively trust.”

Later in the same book, Kazin writes a paean to public libraries and the life-changing impact they have on some young people:

“On those early summer evenings, the library was usually empty, and there was such ease at the long tables under the plants lining the windowsills, the same books of American history lay so undisturbed on the shelves, the wizened, faintly smiling little old lady who accepted my presence without questions or suggestions or reproach was so delightful as she quietly, smilingly stamped my card and took back a batch of new books every evening, that whenever I entered the library I would walk up and down trembling in front of the shelves. For each new book I took away, there seemed to be ten more of which I was depriving myself.”

2 comments:

Michael Darley said...

I recently had the good fortune to come across your “paean to public libraries” in the Houston Chronicle and was motivated by the excellent writing to access this site. I have already begun to seek out lines “….on the strength of [your] witness….,” beginning with re-reading Waiting for Godot, which I would have done years ago, but I was waiting for Godot and that sucker never showed up.

If I were to make an anthology of criticism, I would unhesitatingly include your name, though I confess I’d toss Harold Bloom in there, too, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he were a bit too gloomy for your taste.

I thought I would share one with you, which you are no doubt familiar with, but perhaps not in this context. Reading Blake’s “When the stars threw down their spears….” (and wondering what threw the stars) put me in mind of Loren Eiseley’s The Star Thrower, a tale of throwing beached starfish back into the sea, an “Out of the Cradle, Endlessly Rocking” rhapsody of life, death, and rebirth:

“I picked and flung another star. Perhaps far outward on the rim of space a genuine star was similarly seized and flung. I could feel the movement in my body. It was like a sowing—the sowing of life on an infinitely gigantic scale. I looked back across my shoulder. Small and dark against the receding rainbow, the star thrower stooped and flung once more. I never looked again. The task we had assumed was too immense for gazing. I flung and flung again while all about us roared the insatiable waters of death.”

On a lighter note, if you are in possession of this information there is something I’d like to know. You refer to Alfred Kazin as a “partially secularized Jew.”

Dare we guess which part?

Roy Foster said...

Does it matter whether or not he was a partially secularised Jew?
While he lived he had his own particular genius.