The Monk who Only Glosses His Sources Says
There isn’t much religious in me — I confess upon long self-examination that I am atheist at heart and can only point out to myself the uncomfortable inconsistencies in the materialist world-picture
such as how the creation of the world
the complexity of life
and the unreasonable success of mathematical physics
argue the existence of a Law-giving Creator,
and the apparent evidence of the Shroud of Turin
for a physical Resurrection.
It’s a Philosopher’s God which I believe
Who cannot help my visceral unbelief.
Whatever religion I do practice involves copying down, student-like, longish passages
Which resonate in my consciousness.
Peter Conrad, in his literary study of English writers responding to America, Imagining America (borrowed in paperback [A Discus Book published by Avon Books Aug. 1982] from the Center City Kiosk) describes the poet W.H. Auden returning to Oxford after forty years:
On his first return visit to England in 1945, he had made himself offensively alien . . . he contended that London hadn’t been seriously damaged by bombing. Auden’s rebarbativeness, which became progressively fouler and nastier over the years,
[just like my — alas — masturbatory fantasies: downright dehumanized . . .]
was the sign of his refusal to allow himself to feel at home anywhere. Prizing his own precious freedom as an alien, he set about systematically alienating other people. Hence the tediously scatological conversation of his later years. When he returned to live in Oxford in 1972 he scandalized the sanctimonious diners at High Table in Christ Church by asking when they started masturbating or whether they peed in their bathroom sinks. He objected to the wash-basin in his college rooms because it was inconveniently high to double as a urinal, just as he declined to visit Japan because he was convinced the toilet seats would be too small for his sagging rump. Why was he so insistently obscene [– and why am I?] ? One of the reasons is jocularly theological. By talking dirty he was acquiescing in his own foul fallen nature, collaborating in that process whereby, in the individual life as well as in the American history of [Auden’s opera] Paul Bunyan, we lose paradise in order to regain it. . . . Another reason for his scabrous manner was psychological: he embarrassed people in order to make them resent and disown him, provoking them to confirm his sorry alienation.
It is a personal religion, I suppose, to integrate the thoughts I encounter by transferring them in good clear penmanship to a notebook page — whether the thoughts so compiled, with minimal exercise of the rational faculty and maximal engagement of the kinesthetic, are persuasive to their reader. This particular copying of the words of others is personal, because it explains to me why I cherish my own “scabrous personality” and delight in the encounter of something similar in others, such as Nix, who hardly has a good word for anyone.
This week, the week of the stock market crash of October 1987, I have finished reading Sartre’s novel [translated by L. Alexander, New Directions Paperback No. 82, 1959] Nausea, the narrator of which is an independently wealthy would-be historian. Ahem. Near the end of the journal — for it is in the form of journal entries by its pseudonymous author, Antoine Roquentin — there are three pages of sustained effort to describe the absurdity of existence as this man, sitting in a park in coastal provincial capital (and this too describes my situation) perceives it:
I kept myself from making the slightest movement, but I didn’t need to move in order to see, behind the trees, the blue columns and the lamp-posts of the bandstand and the Velleda,
[There are several words that are prima facie opaque in this text (which circumstance may arise either from an error of translation or from the intention of the author to insert obscure references which your transcriber cannot elucidate)]
in the midst of a mountain of laurel. All these objects . . . how can I explain? They inconvenienced me; I would have liked them to exist less strongly, more drily, in a more abstract way, with more reserve.The chestnut tree pressed itself
[This was the main pre-modern theory of vision: images push against the eye.]
against my eyes. Green rust covered it half-way up; the bark, black and swollen, looked like boiled leather.
[The pre-modern method of tanning was to boil rawhide with the bark of oak trees.]
The sound of the water in the Masqueret Fountain sounded in my ears, made a nest there, filled them with signs; my nostrils overflowed with a green, putrid odour.
[My second wife found the odor of a night blooming tree, one which D. H. Lawrence in an autobiographical novel described lyrically as the epitome of sexuality, hateful. On another level the woman found me hateful, as well.]
All things, gently, tenderly, were letting themselves drift into existence like those relaxed women who burst out laughing and say:”It’s good to laugh,” in a wet voice; they were parading, one in front of the other, exchanging secrets about their existence . . .
[There is a world out there, unapologetic — unlike me — of its existence.]
We are a heap of creatures, irritated, embarrassed at ourselves, we hadn’t the slightest reason to be there, none of us, each one, confused, vaguely alarmed, felt in the way in relation to the others. In the way: it was the only relationship I could establish between these trees, these gates, these stones. In vain I tried to count the chestnut trees, to locate them by their relationship to the Velleda . . . each of them escaped the relationship in which I tried to enclose it, isolated itself, and overflowed. These relations (which I insisted on maintaining in order to delay the crumbling of the human world) I myself felt to be arbitrary; they no longer had their teeth into things. In the way, the chestnut tree there, opposite me, a little to the left. In the way, the Velleda . . . . And I — soft, weak, obscene, digesting, juggling with dismal thoughts — I too was in the way. Fortunately, I didn’t feel it, although I realized it, but I was uncomfortable because I was afraid of feeling it.
[The contemplation & dismissal of suicide, on the grounds the act fails to resolve alienation.]
I dreamed vaguely of killing myself to wipe out at least one of these superfluous lives. But even my death would have been in the way. In the way, my corpse, my blood on these stones, between these plants, at the back of this smiling garden. And the decomposed flesh would would have been in the way in the earth which would receive my bones; at last cleaned, stripped, peeled, proper and clean as teeth, it would have been in the way: I was [better, am] in the way for eternity . . . .
There follows an examination of the blackness of the root near the writer’s foot, the multifaceted quality of which leads him to scrape his shoe against the root “for no reason at all, out of defiance, to make the bare pink appear absurd [it being the fact that trees have no pink flesh, of course] on the tanned leather,” his image for the black bark; but the bark remained black.
That black against my foot, it didn’t look like black, but rather the confused effort to imagine black by someone who had never seen black
[but as it is the viewer who makes the effort to imagine black, and not the viewed object, it is therefore the viewer who is confused here.]
and who wouldn’t know how to stop, who would have imagined an ambiguous being beyond colors.
We human beings, we perceivers, are ambiguous and beyond color.
It looked like a color, but also . . . like a bruise or a secretion, like an oozing — and something else, an odor, for example it melted into the odor of wet earth, warm, moist wood, into a black odor that spread like varnish over this sensitive wood, in a flavor of chewed, sweet fiber. I did not simply see this black: sight is an abstract invention, a simplified idea, one of man’s ideas. That black, amorphous, weakly presence, far surpassed sight, smell, and taste.
I note that the first example given by Martin Buber of an “I and Thou” relation in the book of the name is that of a human being contemplating a tree. Insofar as the given experience, being conscious of the existence, all in all, of the root of a tree, is common to all us human beings, and insofar as we have stood in awe, not so much of the root itself as of our relationship to the root, to that extent we become aware of the absurdity of the universe.
I will rephrase this idea in terms of my own experience.
Last Friday I worked unloading trucks at a produce wholesaler’s from 4:30 in the morning until a few minutes after nine. I was happy to get the work, since for reasons that are no doubt primarily my own fault (and yet I maintain I try my best and the fault is not mine: — as with Dostoevsky’s stone wall) I am not employed at any steady work these days, come to think of it since June of 1986. So the All But Dissertation loads trucks with melons and potatoes and is grateful for the opportunity.
The boss of this little outfit, Demos Karas, was born in Greece and he works hard during the time of loading and unloading. He concentrates beautifully on the assembling of orders, on the customers’ requests, the quality of fruits and vegetables we are sending, the packing of the cartons; everything is supervised, corrected, hurried along at top speed. He is the very model of an efficient merchant at work. He also insults his workers.
Not me. Demos was the soul of politeness toward me, giving me elaborate directions where he gave one word to his permanent employees, giving me encouragement where he gave them low insults.
The harder they worked the worse the insult. To his foreman, in charge in his absence, he condescended to plant a kick in the behind, “for not hurrying,” when Keith hurried more than any of us. Of the four of us workers the oldest, Eugene, somewhere in his fifties, got the most cries of “Idiot!” in his direction, and he appeared to like it the most.
If this were simply the exercise of dominance by the boss, why was it explained beforehand that I shouldn’t take it seriously? Why wasn’t I on the bottom of the shit list instead of ol’ Eugene? What happened to the natural preference for democracy of the American worker?
But the proof of the absurdity of the world has got to do with Theo, Demos’s son. He was a part of this strange work force, and more hospitable than his fellows to the new temporary, if that’s possible. He brought me coffee at the start of the day, he gave me a T-shirt when I didn’t work, he answered Eugene’s wave as he drove into the parking lot with “I wasn’t saying hello to you, Nella [– Eugene’s last name], but to Meo.”
Theo announced after work that he was on his way to see his psychiatrist, who had prescribed lithium for him. I replied that in my own past psychiatrists had diagnosed me as manic-depressive and told me to take lithium. He said he was loath to take this unknown chemical, and I explained that it didn’t do any harm, just (in my case, anyway) no good.
The bewildering part of the whole experience came after Theo had left for his appointment. Demos had already gone, and Mrs. Karas appeared. Quite glamorously dressed and coiffed, the mother of the patient asked Eugene of his whereabouts and discussed with a total stranger — me — her son’s ailment. She seemed to say that he felt ill at ease with his father’s insults toward his workers.
I am but a pale shadow, dear reader, who has no explanation for this tableau of life spread before me. Why the good treatment from a man who abuses his friends? Why the confession from a mother that she’s afraid of her son, where my own mother denies, I believe falsely, that I ever threatened her? It is an effulgent reality, my participation in which marks me as a failure to experience my own existence, puzzled as I am by my relationship to those around me.