2.0131 A spatial object must be situated in infinite space. (A spatial point is an argument-point.) – From the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.
“It is as if everywhere one loses something one had hoped to keep.” “It is awful how things go on when you are not there.” Two sentences, several hundred words apart, on the last two pages of The Lawless Roads by Graham Greene. I read it for the first time 25 years ago. The second reading was a shock, an expansion of my first impression. What I’d read first as an adventurous travel book became a stylistic leap into a more serious immersion in class cruelty and the despair-of-the-world hopelessness that later defined his best novels (Roads was published in 1938). Greene travels through Tabasco and Chiapas, two tropical, backwater Mexican states reeling from a purge of Catholic churches and priests, and he draws on a rich cast of characters that he crosses paths with, many who foreshadow the fictional characters in his best moralistic novels . In those portraits he reveals himself in a way he mostly covers over in his later, more declarative autobiographical books such as A Sort of Life and Reflections. Greene was near the peak of his religious fervour following his conversion to the Catholic Church, and he seems to discover his future moral crossroads and his aesthetic voice in the book. You get Greene as a man in The Lawless Roads – his coldness, distance and cynicism (stoical realism?) encased in a deep religious longing to merge with something that offers salvation – an explanation, a reason – for the moral decay and horrors of humanity found throughout the world. It moves with great force and only in the final few pages did I feel I was, finally, coming up for air at the journey’s end. Greene was a needy young man (see Sherry’s biography), a weak reed who was barely connected to his sense of selfhood. He flirted with the moral and social structure within the Catholic Church, and it captured him in spite of doubts he had from his first encounters. He bought into it with the hope that it would offer him some solid support, but after experiencing the world more broadly and directly (Mexico, Africa) his belief dissolved from a structural/faith connection to a mystical, personal connection. Unlike Greene, I couldn’t accept the story of Christianity as I read and heard it when young, but now, with much deeper reading, I understand the story was crudely simplified to appeal to the broadest numbers of people. The “elect,” as defined by the gnostics, never accepted the New Testament version of Christianity as literal and reinterpreted its dominate themes and symbols. Before and after the New Testament writers, gnostics had their own version of transformative spirituality which followed many Eastern spiritual ideas and techniques. Gnosticism could not survive the rise of the Catholic Church, but many of its texts can be found here. The attraction of Roads is the sustained, long, detailed account of how Greene went through those days that made up the chronology of the trip. It’s a rare, full account of the physicality of travel that couples with a ghastly account of repression and morality turned upside down, a very complicated story when looked at in detail, but one that mirrors the same issues that attracted people to religion and spirituality 2,000 years ago: where is some salvation in this hell on Earth of repression and lack of compassion for the poorest of the poor. Greene found his perfect religon-based story in real life before his eyes, one that might have ensured his own loss of faith eventually. He saw, in real terms, that it is most often the ones with the least who hold most fiercely to faith as a last hope. The whisky priest in his subsequent novel, The Power and The Glory, is about a person much like Greene himself, someone in extremity of belief and faith who wants to be at the center of the religious quest even if he himself doesn’t understand the why or how of it. He was moved by the plight of people who have nothing and yet go on without the benefit of a saving grace. He saw the pattern in many people’s lives everywhere, and he made it one of his great themes. Roads is special because so much converges at this crucial point in Greene’s life.
This essay looks at comedians in China and how the US nurtured Joe Wong, a Chinese comedian who is a big star now in his native land.
Here’s the illustration by artist Hannah K. Lee for The New York Times‘ book review of Harold Bloom’s The Daemon Knows (a link can be found below this…). The book and the illustration are infused with capital A art. Read Lee’s illustration with the writers and poets in mind, and you will see what I mean.
Thomas Merton, during his Asian pilgrimage, waited for days to see and photograph Mount Kanchenjunga, but it was covered by clouds. His visual sense was acute. In Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, he wrote: “Nothing resembles substance less than its shadow [words, drawings…]. To convey the meaning of something substantial you have to use not a shadow but a sign, not the imitation but the image. The image is a new and different reality, and of course it does not convey an impression of some object, but the mind of the subject: and that is something else again.” I discuss his pilgrimage and his photography in an essay under “On the Record,” which is listed in the column on the right. Merton died in Bangkok in December 1968.
Amy Bloom writes: “I scan the latest tower of books in front of me on the dining-room table, not even bothering with the stacks listing toward the far end, where Jeanne’s laptop sits, ready for her correspondence and Harold’s dictation.
“Some of today’s stack: Dialogue on Poetry and Literary Aphorisms, by Friedrich Schlegel (“Very important to me”); Elizabeth Bishop, by Colm Tóibín (“That very well-done novel on Henry James, very good”); The Poetry of Kabbalah, by Peter Cole; Jewish Cryptotheologies of Late Modernity, by Agata Bielik-Robson (“Splendid lady”); Nothing to Declare, by Henri Cole (“Very good. The best poet of his generation”); Shakespeare’s Horses, by Joseph Harrison (“My pupil. Next to Henri Cole.”), and multiple books by authors I expect to see: Hans Jonas, Gershom Scholem, Friedrich Hölderlin.
“Then there is a pile of stuffed animals on the living-room couch that belong not to their grown sons but to Jeanne and Harold. I ask, and he tells me, happily. “Well, there’s Valentina, the ostrich, named after Valentinus, second-century author of The Gospel of Truth; she presides…” For the article, click here.
The writer M. John Harrison’s blog,The Ambient Hotel, which I found late on the night of April 9, 2010, inspired me to start this journal. His blog’s name is the conceit of a writer, suggesting a secret place meant to be the terrain of a circle of real, or imaginary, friends, all content to be off to the side in their own private, fulfilling worlds. Harrison is a writer who has carved out a personal world of characters and landscapes. He’s called a science fiction writer, but that description isn’t enough. His worlds are of the present and the past, and of the future.He is also a gifted photographer and his pictures regularly grace his website, along with news of his writing, his books, and his acclaim. In Climbers, he wrote well about one of his youthful passions, mountain climbing. A Facebook video of him reading his short story, Entertaining Angels Unawares, is here. He reads beautifully.
Here’s my first post on the journal: “In the beginning was the word. Someone actually wrote that down or said it for the first time somewhere sometime, and it’s a powerful perception still defying understanding, expressed most rigorously by Wittgenstein when he said something to the effect, ‘Language confuses meaning,’ as if, on the other hand, meaning doesn’t confuse language. At any rate, we’re here as we are, no doubt, partly as a result of words, spoken, written and unsaid, and we’re now forever awash, swamped, drowned, awed by them all, but still dry inside where from it all arises and passes away. This will do fine as my first post. But for this…I want to say that M. John Harrison is responsible, unknowingly, for me starting this internet journal. I saw a review he published, I think, in The Guardian, or somewhere like that. Its urgency rattled me so I looked him up, found his brilliant blog, and henceforth birthed this journal. Thanks, Mike.”
Bob Dylan gave a revealing speech in February when he accepted the MusicCares award, discussing how he approached songwriting, how songs might come to him, authenticity, influences, and his original journey into greatness. The transcribed speech is here:
“I’m glad for my songs to be honored like this. But you know, they didn’t get here by themselves. It’s been a long road and it’s taken a lot of doing. These songs of mine, they’re like mystery stories, the kind that Shakespeare saw when he was growing up. I think you could trace what I do back that far. They were on the fringes then, and I think they’re on the fringes now. And they sound like they’ve been on the hard ground.
“I should mention a few people along the way who brought this about. I know I should mention John Hammond, great talent scout for Columbia Records. He signed me to that label when I was nobody. It took a lot of faith to do that, and he took a lot of ridicule, but he was his own man and he was courageous. And for that, I’m eternally grateful. The last person he discovered before me was Aretha Franklin, and before that Count Basie, Billie Holiday and a whole lot of other artists. All noncommercial artists.
“Trends did not interest John, and I was very noncommercial but he stayed with me. He believed in my talent and that’s all that mattered. I can’t thank him enough for that. Lou Levy runs Leeds Music, and they published my earliest songs, but I didn’t stay there too long.
“Levy himself, he went back a long ways. He signed me to that company and recorded my songs and I sang them into a tape recorder. He told me outright, there was no precedent for what I was doing, that I was either before my time or behind it. And if I brought him a song like “Stardust,” he’d turn it down because it would be too late.
“He told me that if I was before my time — and he didn’t really know that for sure — but if it was happening and if it was true, the public would usually take three to five years to catch up — so be prepared. And that did happen. The trouble was, when the public did catch up I was already three to five years beyond that, so it kind of complicated it. But he was encouraging, and he didn’t judge me, and I’ll always remember him for that.
“Artie Mogull at Witmark Music signed me next to his company, and he told me to just keep writing songs no matter what, that I might be on to something. Well, he too stood behind me, and he could never wait to see what I’d give him next. I didn’t even think of myself as a songwriter before then. I’ll always be grateful for him also for that attitude.
“I also have to mention some of the early artists who recorded my songs very, very early, without having to be asked. Just something they felt about them that was right for them. I’ve got to say thank you to Peter, Paul and Mary, who I knew all separately before they ever became a group. I didn’t even think of myself as writing songs for others to sing but it was starting to happen and it couldn’t have happened to, or with, a better group.
“They took a song of mine that had been recorded before that was buried on one of my records and turned it into a hit song. Not the way I would have done it — they straightened it out. But since then hundreds of people have recorded it and I don’t think that would have happened if it wasn’t for them. They definitely started something for me.
“The Byrds, the Turtles, Sonny & Cher — they made some of my songs Top 10 hits but I wasn’t a pop songwriter and I really didn’t want to be that, but it was good that it happened. Their versions of songs were like commercials, but I didn’t really mind that because 50 years later my songs were being used in the commercials. So that was good too. I was glad it happened, and I was glad they’d done it.
“Purvis Staples and the Staple Singers — long before they were on Stax they were on Epic and they were one of my favorite groups of all time. I met them all in ’62 or ’63. They heard my songs live and Purvis wanted to record three or four of them and he did with the Staples Singers. They were the type of artists that I wanted recording my songs.
“Nina Simone. I used to cross paths with her in New York City in the Village Gate nightclub. These were the artists I looked up to. She recorded some of my songs that she [inaudible] to me. She was an overwhelming artist, piano player and singer. Very strong woman, very outspoken. That she was recording my songs validated everything that I was about.
“Oh, and can’t forget Jimi Hendrix. I actually saw Jimi Hendrix perform when he was in a band called Jimmy James and the Blue Flames — something like that. And Jimi didn’t even sing. He was just the guitar player. He took some small songs of mine that nobody paid any attention to and pumped them up into the outer limits of the stratosphere and turned them all into classics. I have to thank Jimi, too. I wish he was here.
“Johnny Cash recorded some of my songs early on, too, up in about ’63, when he was all skin and bones. He traveled long, he traveled hard, but he was a hero of mine. I heard many of his songs growing up. I knew them better than I knew my own. “Big River,” “I Walk the Line.” “How high’s the water, Mama?”
I wrote “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” with that song reverberating inside my head. I still ask, “How high is the water, mama?”
“Johnny was an intense character. And he saw that people were putting me down playing electric music, and he posted letters to magazines scolding people, telling them to shut up and let him sing. In Johnny Cash’s world — hardcore Southern drama — that kind of thing didn’t exist. Nobody told anybody what to sing or what not to sing. They just didn’t do that kind of thing. I’m always going to thank him for that. Johnny Cash was a giant of a man, the man in black. And I’ll always cherish the friendship we had until the day there is no more days.
“Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Joan Baez. She was the queen of folk music then and now. She took a liking to my songs and brought me with her to play concerts, where she had crowds of thousands of people enthralled with her beauty and voice.
“People would say, “What are you doing with that ragtag scrubby little waif?” And she’d tell everybody in no uncertain terms, “Now you better be quiet and listen to the songs.” We even played a few of them together. Joan Baez is as tough-minded as they come. Love. And she’s a free, independent spirit. Nobody can tell her what to do if she doesn’t want to do it. I learned a lot of things from her. A woman with devastating honesty. And for her kind of love and devotion, I could never pay that back.
“These songs didn’t come out of thin air. I didn’t just make them up out of whole cloth. Contrary to what Lou Levy said, there was a precedent. It all came out of traditional music: traditional folk music, traditional rock ‘n’ roll and traditional big-band swing orchestra music.
“I learned lyrics and how to write them from listening to folk songs. And I played them, and I met other people that played them back when nobody was doing it. Sang nothing but these folk songs, and they gave me the code for everything that’s fair game, that everything belongs to everyone.
“For three or four years all I listened to were folk standards. I went to sleep singing folk songs. I sang them everywhere, clubs, parties, bars, coffeehouses, fields, festivals. And I met other singers along the way who did the same thing and we just learned songs from each other. I could learn one song and sing it next in an hour if I’d heard it just once.
“If you sang “John Henry” as many times as me — “John Henry was a steel-driving man / Died with a hammer in his hand / John Henry said a man ain’t nothin’ but a man / Before I let that steam drill drive me down / I’ll die with that hammer in my hand.”
“If you had sung that song as many times as I did, you’d have written “How many roads must a man walk down?” too.
To continue, click here.
The sunlight on the garden
Hardens and grows cold.
We cannot catch the minutes
Within its nets of gold.
When all is told
We cannot ask for pardon.
– The opening stanza of “The Sunlight On The Garden,” a poem by Louis MacNeice, used as the epigraph on Chapter I of A Woman of Bangkok by Jack Reynolds.
Upon Robert Stone’s recent passing, Madison Smartt Bell wrote at The New Yorker’s Page Turner blog that Stone “was one of the most widely read people [he had] ever met. . . . All his knowledge never settled into wisdom’s contentment—his streak of anger was too broad for that, and he learned all he knew in order to make art out of it, art with a furious energy.”
See Stone’s penetrating essay on Stephen Crane in Brick Magazine here.