Wednesday, June 27, 2007

`Worth Noticing'

I have a weakness for artfully stuffed grab bags of learning. Consider Montaigne’s Essays, The Anatomy of Melancholy, Tristram Shandy, Biographia Literaria, Moby-Dick and Ulysses. Joyce’s novel is composed with the precision of a geometry text but the others are sumptuous miscellanies. What they have in common is an easy-going capaciousness. All are bottomless enough to accommodate anything their authors wish to place inside them. They also encourage readers, especially rereaders, to dip in at any point and enjoy a few pages or the entire volume.

Evan S. Connell is a prolific and mysteriously under-read writer, now almost 83 years old. He made a splash in 1984 when North Point Press published Son of the Morning Star, his book about Custer and the Little Big Horn. Even that book skirts the category I’m describing, but I’m thinking principally of White Lantern (1980) and A Long Desire (1988), with their unclassifiable essays devoted to explorers, visionaries and other obsessives, and his two volumes of “poetry,” Notes from a Bottle Found on the Beach at Carmel (1962) and Points for a Compass Rose (1973). Though the latter two are published in discrete “stanzas” of prose with ragged-right margins, Connell has always insisted they are not poetry. Despite his demurral, Compass Rose was nominated for the 1974 National Book Award in the poetry category. Written during the final years of the Vietnam War, parts of it remain his most politically strident work. Here’s a passage from late in the book that illustrates Connell’s principle of juxtaposition:

“Tell me frankly: do you think the Universe
is unfolding as it should?
Or perhaps in your opinion
everything works out for the best.

“The Commandant of the United States Forces in Vietnam
despatched a congratulatory message to the company
responsible for My Lai. How much he knew about it
he alone knows. The official brigade accounts mentions
14 enemy troops killed, 3 rifles captured. Nothing else.
Consequently, address him as General William Blameless
if you like. I choose not to.

“General Order No. 10620, issued October 28, 1970,
by the United States Army cites 21 soldiers
for meritorious service in connection with military
operations against a hostile force from January
to November. Among those receiving the Bronze Star
was a dog: Griffin M. Canine, 096-31-3225, SSG HB,
3rd Bn, 13th Fld Arty, 25th Infantry Division.
Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst Vergebens.
Are we expected to know everything?”

One source translates the line from Schiller as “Against stupidity the very gods Themselves contend in vain.” The method here, probably deriving distantly from Pound, is typical of Connell, not the sentiment or the didacticism. Here’s a more typical passage:

“Here’s a demonstrable fact. The capacity
of the Circus Maximus was 385,000.
More instructive is this: Roman amphitheaters
during the Middle Ages were often used as barns,
and crops were planted in the ancient arenas,
and farmers were astounded by the prodigious growth
--unaware that the earth had been steeped in blood.
Now tell me, what changes? Anything?

“At a time when Rome was collapsing
Beneath the assaults of barbaric tribes
Christians objected to service in the Legions.
Would you say that sounds familiar?

“Well, these have been a few grains
From my warehouse. Devour them, disseminate them,
Do as you please. Wenige wissen, wieviel
man wissen muss, um zu wissen,
wie wenig man weiss.

“5:30 p.m. Legends grow mixed
and distorted. All I know with certainty
is that the hour of apprehension opens with the advent
of darkness. Videmus nunc per specul[um] . . .”

The Latin is the truncated beginning of I Corinthians, 13:12: “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.” Or “For now we see in a mirror, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then I shall know even as also I have been known.” In a fine example of literary resonance, of kindred spirits unknowingly echoing each other, another lover of learning, Jorge Luis Borges, devoted a brief essay to the same line from St. Paul. In “The Mirrors of Enigma,” writing of Léon Bloy, Borges concludes:

“It is doubtful that the world has a meaning; it is even more doubtful that it has a double or triple meaning, the unbeliever will observe. I understand that the hieroglyphic world postulated by Léon Bloy is the one which best befits the dignity of the theologian's intellectual God.
“No man knows who he is, affirmed Léon Bloy. No one could illustrate that intimate ignorance better than he. He believed himself a rigorous Catholic and he was a continuer of the Cabalists, a secret brother of Swedenborg and Blake: heresiarchs.”

In fact, that’s not an inappropriate category in which to place Evan Connell. His heresy is to be learned, to write well, to remain independent and not to fit complacently into anyone’s category. In “Various Tourists,” the first essay in A Long Desire, Connell might be writing of himself:

“It is the singular person, inexplicably drawn from familiar comforts toward a nebulous goal, lured often enough to death – it is he, or she, whose peregrinations can never be thoroughly understood, who is worth noticing.”

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