Vatic Writing: Evan Connell’s Notes from a Bottle. . .

Gus Blaisdell and Evan Connell–Trinity SiteWhite Sands National Park ©Nicole Blaisdell Ivey

            Notes from a Bottle Found on the Beach at Carmel stands as an apparent hiatus in Evan Connell’s formal development. But the peculiar nature of the work is only partly structural–the mosaic technique carried a step further–and the themes it develops are consistent with the rest of Connell’s canon. The main interest of the work resides in the voice or tone of the narrator and in the formal assumptions necessary to this kind of writing, a form that appears essentially new.

            A fragment of Notes, more provincial, lumpy, prosy, and less interesting, appeared in 1959 in Contact 3. Connell there remarked that he frankly did not know what the writing amounted to but that it had a curious fascination for him, like doing a complicated, private dance unobserved. Three years later, very much altered and enriched, the work appeared in full in Contact and was brought out the following year in a hardbound edition by Viking.

            Kenneth Lamott, speaking for the editors when Contact devoted the December 1962 issue to Notes, characterized the writing: “It eludes the usual categories of literature, falling somewhere in the dimly defined but extraordinarily fertile area where prose and verse, fiction and nonfiction, metaphysics and science meet.” Connell himself has said of the work: “I think of it as a work of close association rather than free association;” on the form, “. . . ‘cohesion’ is as close to ’structure’ as I’d care to make it.”  At the end of the editors’ introduction in Contact, writing in the style of the work itself, Connell declares his intention: “It is incumbent upon me to establish some / image whereby / all men must judge / future interpretations, believing / in the value of mine.  This I do tenderly, / humbly / and with a knowledge of utter obligation.” For lack of a better term, such writing might be called “vatic.”*

            Works of vatic literature are as unpopular as they are infrequent in contemporary American writing. It is only a bold or foolish writer who would undertake a work that is in direct opposition to the inherent skepticism of the American temper, that empirical or pragmatic attitude that judges all prophets false until proven valid, and then, at best, as highly dubious. Yet far more important than the climate opposed to such writing are the pitfalls within the medium itself, stumbling blocks that would seem to preclude success from the beginning.

            In a sense, vatic writing, like art for art’s sake, is writing for the sake of writing.  Its joys are the density of prose often archaic in syntax and diction; a delight in (and attention to) rhythm and the well-turned phrase; the precise perception; the terse tautness of apothegm and aphorism; the use of myth, esoteric lore, and bizarre fact; and the viable image. Already the writer has assumed a heavy mantle and runs many risks.

            Should the fatidic tone fail, vatic writing results in rhetorical flatulence. The hyperbolic or elliptical style, together with the mythic lore, may prove elusive. If an image or myth fails to properly illuminate a part of the theme, the writing degenerates into inscrutability. In its attempt to partake of the best of prose and verse, vatic writing raises the question of how far the lyric impulse can be stretched. Or, more generally, as John Wisdom once wrote on the nature of early analytic philosophy: “It is not the stuff but the style that stupefies.” For a writer of Connell’s ability the mere stupefaction of style would be a disastrous result.

            Unlike the novel or sonnet, vatic literature is not a literary form as much as it is a style or posture or stance. A prophetic or oracular voice is assumed together with a style appropriate to the fullest possible expression of that voice. Thus it can also suffer from over-richness. There are a number of interesting assumptions that must be made and met: these are the properties of the terrain as illustrated in Notes.

            The medium of the writing is atemporal, allowing the narrator to range at will through time; the stage is epical. Another premise is that there are necessary, causal connections between past events and future ones; that the past, if it does not completely prefigure the future, is at least exemplary or emblematic of events to come. Unlike the Humean universe of discrete, noncausal particulars, the universe assumed here is well-ordered. The task set for the narrator is to illumine the teleology of the world. The point of view is sub specie aeternitate, assuming the unity of human nature and human purpose, and the position of the narrator is that of the mystic who, as Wittgenstein wrote, views “the world as a limited whole.” The world of Notes, similar to Wittgenstein’s world in the Tractatus, “waxes and wanes as a whole,” and the narrator records this. Atrocity and brutality are the dark of the moon; love and beauty, the full moon. There is, in Notes, an element of Yeats’ philosophy based upon the phases of the moon.

            A crucial problem in this kind of writing, and one tied intimately to the atemporal structure, is the use of a disembodied voice, a narrator without individual, personal identity who changes masks at will; all the masks of time are available to him–he can be all men at all times, a particular man at a particular time–a device that results in the uneasy fact that he is nobody in particular. Space and time become points of recapitulation, coordinates for heraldic moments in the history of the human spirit. 

            Because individual characterization does not occur in vatic writing, there is little if any distance between author and reader, the only buffer being the elegance of the prose, the odd lore, and the incisiveness of the imagery. There is no possibility of suspending disbelief or of learning through the experiences of a character, as in a novel. Consequently, we are given the author’s truths without first having been seduced into sharing his doubts. The relationship between author and reader is litanical–prayer and response, incantation and reaction. Perhaps the greatest single risk here is that all the rich embroidery of a Penelope may issue in little more that a sampler to be hung on the wall; in this case, should Connell fail totally, instead of “God Bless Our Happy Home” we would be handed “God Damn Our Rotten World.”

            If Connell’s Mrs. Bridge is characterized as a mosaic form, Notes, moving even further into the fragmentary, is kaleidoscopic. Connell seems to have had something like this in mind when the voyager of Notes writes: “The barrel turns, the crystals tumble.” This kaleidoscopic form poses an interesting metaphysical position in the book.

            In a kaleidoscope a pair of plane mirrors provides the viewer with an illusion of symmetry. Each time the tube is turned, the pile of glass changes position and the symmetry reappears under a different guise. In terms of this metaphor, the reader’s task is to unearth the principle of order, thereby arriving at the crucial concerns of the work. Ideally, as in the toy, the symmetry should always be present. It is the cohesive constant.

            Connell has further extended this notion to provide Notes with a cosmological model of reality. The world, like the chips in the kaleidoscope, can only be seen as ordered in a particular way. Unlike the toy, however, in the real world man can never get through the illusionary order to that hypostatized world beyond, which W.V.O. Quine has called “a fancifully fanciless medium of unvarnished news.” Connell in Notes asks us to remove our conventional spectacles, to break down the barriers and masks of our vision, and to return from our lethargic atavism with new eyes. If Notes is to be successful, something like an epiphany must take place.

            The voice of the Voyager-Narrator is basically that of Magus–magician, seer, alchemist, sailor, conquistador, warrior, victim, poet, church father, anchorite, heresiarch, philosopher, executioner, and scientist. The major theme of the voyage is to be found in the recurrence of alchemical imagery. The voyager’s quest is to discover within the soul of man a formula that will transform the gross spirit into something precious. The soul is bipolar, bifurcated, Gnostic and Manichean in Connell’s world, and he continually juxtaposes prayer and creativity with brutality, as in the opening sections where he quotes in Latin the Lord’s Prayer, then delineates the butchering of a saint. The beauties of nature are opposed to the atrocities of Hiroshima and the Nazi extermination camps. Animals throughout become insignias of the beasts with the spirit of man, sometimes beautiful in their symbolic expression of human longing; at others, hideous in their viciousness. During the voyage, prehistoric monsters are found still living off the shores or Madagascar and Australia and these merge with the man-made mutants of Japan and Bikini Atoll. Astronomical theories of the destruction of the solar system are paralleled with thermonuclear annihilation; the ritual of execution, particularly the ghastly ceremonialism of gas chamber and electric chair, coincides with the deus ex machina morality of Dachau and Belsen.  

            “Perhaps it is true, / we are like those doves that stand / between cathedral bells / until they have lost all sense of hearing,” notes the voyager, a man who has despaired of Western tradition because of the crimes perpetuated in its name–“We live in the final tepid rays of Christianity”–and who has turned to the Black Arts, Finnish magic, shamanism, and lycanthropy. “Mankind yearns for annihilation. / The earth shall revert to worms and the rolling sea / to plankton.” Reflecting on the great New World civilizations of the Maya, Inca, and Aztec, the voyager expresses his fear of a world reduced to dolmens and stelae. “One heart, one way,” he admonishes: “Pass by that which you cannot love.”

            Man’s fall, like that of the Wandering Jew, is into consciousness–to suffer in anticipation, actuality, and recollection. “Natural things look upon us / and our wonders with repugnance.” The voyager asks, “What is the color of wisdom?” and announces that it must have the color of snow.

            In Connell’s view, man is caught halfway between the beast and the angel, both locked in moral combat for the possession of the soul of which they are essential complements. We may take the beast to our graves, but during our lifetimes it is capable of atrocities outstripping the imagination. The plea of the voyager asks of our humanity that it be gentle and tender, that it relinquish the ways of terror and look lovingly upon the wonders of the world. The anguish of the voice is familiar in Connell’s fiction: it is Damaso, the fisherman from Chihuahua, at the height of his song; the voice of the young Augustine in the throes of doubt and longing. Magus himself, “poised between the dream and the act,” informs us that “credulity is greatest in times of calamity,” and that the millennium shall arrive when mankind has become unbelievably atrocious.

            Taking a point from an entry in Wittgenstein’s Notebooks–“To pray is to think on the meaning of life.”–Connell’s Notes may best be regarded as a psalter for post-thermonuclear man, the palimpsest of hibakusha.**

Notes:

*Oracular or prophetic, from the Latin vates, meaning seer or prophet. A footnote in the original text reads: “I owe a great debt for the sharpening of my ideas on vatic writing to correspondence with Luis Harss.” [Gus’s original footnote.]

**The Japanese term hibakusha means “those who experienced the bomb” and refers to a psychological disease akin to post-traumatic stress syndrome, which occurred among the survivors at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (Gus’s original text footnote credits Robert J. Lifton, “Psychological Effects of the Atomic Bomb in Hiroshima,” Daedelus, Summer, 1963.) A theme woven throughout the “After Ground Zero” essay is how Cold War anxieties can be seen as a backdrop to Connell’s writing in general. However, Gus writes, “The fear of thermonuclear destruction does not obsess Connell. But what does anger him is the way in which the unimaginable power of today’s weapons has reduced man to a cipher.” Among the works discussed in “After Ground Zero,” only Notes from a Bottle . . .  utilizes the stylistically experimental “vatic” approach.  [Editor’s note.]

1966

Excerpt from “After Ground Zero: The Writings of Evan Connell, Jr.” in New Mexico Quarterly, Summer 1966.

SLIPPING ACROSS

Slipping Across

            The visionary poet Ronald Johnson reading from his manuscript  “The Imaginary Menagerie” reached a short passage so arresting in its lapidary compression that it deserves to be cut in stone:

who once have sung

snug in the oblong

oblivion

Inscriptions are meant to pull you up short. “Stop, Traveler” is the most common beginning on the inscribed gravestones that bordered ancient Roman highways. Inscriptions in this elegiac genre give speech back to the dead. In Basil Bunting’s poem Briggflatts, a stonemason extols his craft:

Words!

Pens are too light.

Take a chisel to write.

            Words, however weighty, bear a curiously unstable relation to stone. In Notre Dame de Paris Victor Hugo has Claude Frollo point at a book as he gestures from his cell window toward the sphinx-like shape of Notre Dame cathedral and utters the phrase: ceci tuera celá: This will kill that.

            The chapter that follows this moment is called  “Ceci tuera celá” and details the great dialectic of books undoing the Church, a story of freedom increasing through dissemination of the press, of a journey from dark to light, of the spreading literacy producing enlightenment, the testament of stone replaced by the testaments of the printing press.

            Hugo’s main source about the history of architecture was the young Neo-Grec architect Henri Labrouste. Later, as if inspired to counter Hugo’s and Frollo’s prophecy, Labrouste built the Bibliothèque Ste-Geneviève. Free at last of the long-standing French obsession with the classical architectural orders, it is a library that reads like a book. Neil Levine, in a magisterial essay on Ste-Geneviève, Labrouste, and Hugo, reads the architectural details in an extended metaphor not only of the book but of the whole process of printing from movable type–from the names on the façade (which may be seen as type locked into chases) to the books of these authors that sit on the shelves directly behind the places where their names appear on the wall. Labrouste built a book of iron and stone that was functional and free, a building dedicated to contemplation and reading, absorption and study. It became a secular version of Hugo’s description of the Temple of Solomon. “It was not merely the binding of it, it was the sacred book itself. From each of its concentric ring-walls, the priests could read the word translated and made manifest to the eye, and could thus follow its transformations from sanctuary to sanctuary until, in its ultimate tabernacle, they could grasp in its most concrete yet still architectural form: the ark. Thus the word was enclosed in the building, but its image was on the envelope like the human figure on the coffin of a mummy.” Labrouste made his library perfectly reflexive and transparent, no difference between the inside and outside.

            Hugo set his novel in 1482. Sixty-one years earlier, 12 March 1421, a congregation of Jews burned themselves alive in a synagogue on Judenplatz in Vienna rather than renounce their faith or be murdered by Christians. A plaque in Latin from 1497 commemorates the immolation by referring to the Jews as dogs or curs. Mozart wrote Cosi fan tutte in house 244 overlooking Judenplatz in 1783. On 12 March 1938, Nazi troops entered Vienna, 517 years to the day that the Jews burned themselves. Rachel Whiteread, a young British sculptor, unveiled her remarkable Holocaust memorial on Judenplatz on 25 October 2000, much delayed by politics from its originally scheduled completion date of 9 November 1996, the fifty-eighth anniversary of Kristallnacht.

            Before the memorial could be built excavations began on Judenplatz to unearth the original synagogue. The first area dug down to was the bimah, the area where the ark is kept and the desk from which the Torah is read. Whiteread’s memorial measures 12′ x 24′ x 33′ and is a library turned inside out: the spines of the books face into the building. It is a cast made in white cement of the library’s interior. The doors, without hinges or handles, cannot be opened. The library cannot be entered because the imaginary interior, far from being empty, is solid: the presence of absence. “Casting the internal–If Rachel could drink a couple of quarts of plaster or pour resin down her throat, wait until it sets and then peel herself away, I feel she would. She shows us the unseen, the inside out, the parts that go unrecognized,” observed A. M. Homes.

            John Baldessari, the California conceptual artist, still has nine and a half boxes of the ashes of his paintings. In 1969, when he realized that he would stop painting, he found a crematorium that would burn his paintings. His motive was to complete the cycle of the chemicals that made up his oil paints by returning them to earth. The original installation at the Jewish Museum in New York was to be an urn containing some of the ashes placed in one wall with a plaque beside it. A major funder of the show said she would withdraw funding if this was done. So Baldessari placed the urn on a pedestal. The urn he chose among the many on offer was in the shape of a book. This was the beginning of conceptual art, the ashes of paintings interred in an urn shaped like a book.

            Horace (Odes 3.30.1) claimed he had written poems more enduring (perennior) than bronze and outlasting the pyramids. In “Lector Aere Perennior”–the reader more enduring than bronze–J. V. Cunningham disagrees with Horace. Every poet depends not just on paper or stone or bronze but on readers for his relative immortality. Yet the reader is a problem. What must the reader do if the poet is to have lasting fame? For Cunningham the reader must be:

Some man so deftly mad

His metamorphosed shade,

Leaving the flesh it had,

Breathes on the words they made.

            The reader dies (the orgasmic “little death” of the text) that the poet may live again. Transported by the words of the poet, the reader transmigrates his soul and “breathes on the words they make.” His and mine become ours, a more amazing dialectic than turning the book of stone into the book of print.

            An epigram by Plato had been a favorite of mine long before Ronald Johnson read to me from his inscription-like “Imaginary Menagerie.” Plato writes that it is said by Socrates to Agathon:

Kissing Agathon, I found

My soul at my lips.

Poor thing!

–It went there, hoping

To slip across.

It is one of the epigrams from The Greek Anthology. Is it somewhere carved in stone? Did each passing Greek read it aloud? Were the lines alternately painted black and red? As the Greek read the epigram aloud his soul too was at his lips, trying to slip across. From his lips to the stone, in a direction opposite that of Socrates whose lips were meeting those welcoming closed lips of Agathon. It is the soul that remembers and speaks in the poem, from within Socrates’ silence.

            But though the soul rises to slip across it is a poor thing because it falls back–desire wants to slip across, believes in its heart that metempsychosis is possible, in its delusion a poor thing. This is the giving soul, the one that acknowledges and welcomes the other, not the Freudian narcissists whose lips kiss only images of themselves. And this happens every time we read.

            When we read we slip across; we do not fall back. The words they made are like the love we had: the poem read through is like the exhausted beloved, over there, on the other side where we just were. The reader succeeds precisely where Orpheus fails Eurydice. We look back fondly. We behold the lineaments of gratified desire, what men and women in each other do require.

            Chris Marker’s film La Jetée (The Jetty, France, 1962) runs 28 minutes and is constructed entirely of stills, except for a single moment of movement.

            A brief synopsis of La Jetée will put the complexity of this moment in perspective. The Third World War has taken place; the earth is radioactive, uninhabitable; the victors rule underground over a kingdom of rats; concentration camps flourish one again. The story is of a veteran who survived the war and who carries within him a single image of peacetime: a woman’s face he had seen as a child on the jetty at Orly Airport. Because his imagery is so vivid the camp commandants subject him to experiments: he is injected, travels to the past and eventually to the future. He finds the woman he saw as a child; they fall in love. The moment of movement occurs after they consummate their love.

            The woman opens her eyes and blinks three times, looking directly out of the screen. She wakes to look at her lover looking at her. He is not seen by us, but his presence is established by a series of overlapping dissolves in which the sleeping woman changes positions as she sleeps and he watches. The sound over these shots is of bird cries reaching a crescendo–so intense the cries sound like squeals of pain, a mysterious jouissance. (Could this be a Blakean moment? “How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way / Is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five?”)

            One of the abiding mysteries of film is that it is a medium of visible absence. In a notebook poem William Blake asked and answered several specific questions, among them the following:

What is it men do in women require?

The lineaments of Gratified Desire.

What is it women do in men require?

The lineaments of Gratified Desire.

            To my knowledge, even using what he called his “infernal methods,” Blake never engraved these lapidary lines.

            What happens when we read a story, a poem, a book, a building? Are we deftly mad enough to slip over? We love what looks back at us, studying to know everything, knowing the knowledge of love is inexhaustible, and knowing also that such work of the imagination is beyond the reach of even our best words. After having slipped across we return to ourselves, our experience enriched. The reader is like Jacob, blessed by the angel he wrestled. Touched on the thigh before he was released, Jacob was left with a limp. The angel touches us before we are released. If there is a new limp once we return from our struggle, our abandon, our transport, it is the happy fault–the felix culpa–that touches another soul, and both are the better for it. The poet gains his brief immortality; and we return to our mortality exhausted and renewed. Within those moments of movement while we read, and remembering what we read, acknowledging the autonomy and mystery of it, we briefly become the kind of person Henry James wished us to become: one on whom nothing is lost.

2003

Published 2012 in Gus Blaisdell Collected. This essay was originally intended for Inscriptions, a deluxe-edition book that was produced by Jack W. Stauffacher in 2003 to commemorate the lapidary inscriptions on the Old Public Library of San Francisco on the occasion of the building’s conversion into a new museum of Asian art. In the end, however, the essay was not used.

Gus Blaisdell’s Writing Studio ©Nicole Blaisdell Ivey

Letters from Ernest J. Gaines to Gus Blaisdell, editor New Mexico Quarterly-

Follow the link below to a Library Exhibit at Roger Williams University

Read letters to, from, and about Ernest J. Gaines, including several to Gus Blaisdell, editor of the New Mexico Quarterly.

https://libraryexhibits.rwu.edu/birss/2021/?page_id=27

2021 United States Inaugural Poem “The Hill We Climb” by Amanda Gorman

Dr. Biden, Madam Vice President, Mr. Emhoff, Americans, and the world.

When day comes, we ask ourselves, where can we find light in this never ending shade?
The loss we carry, a sea. We must wade.
We’ve graved the belly of the beast.
We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace.
In the norms and notions of what just is, isn’t always justice.
And yet the dawn is ours before we knew it. Somehow we do it.
Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed a nation that it isn’t broken, but simply unfinished.
We, the successors of a country and the time where a skinny Black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother can dream of becoming president only to find herself reciting for one.
And yes, we are far from polished, far from pristine, but that doesn’t mean we are striving to form a union that is perfect.
We are striving to forge our union with purpose.

To compose a country, committed to all cultures, colors, characters, and conditions of man.
And so we lift our gaze, not to what stands between us, but what stands before us
We close the divide because we know to put our future first, we must first put our differences aside.
We lay down our arms so we can reach out our arms to one another. We seek harm to none and harmony for all.
Let the globe, if nothing else say, this is true.
That even as we grieved, we grew.
That even as we hurt, we hoped.
That even as we tired, we tried that will forever be tied together victorious.
Not because we will never again know defeat, but because we will never again sow division.
Scripture tells us to envision that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree and no one shall make them afraid
If we’re to live up to our own time, then victory won’t lie in the blade, but in all the bridges we’ve made.
That is the promise to glade the hill we climb.
If only we dare it’s because being American is more than a pride we inherit.
It’s the past we step into and how we repair it.

We’ve seen a force that would shatter or nation, rather than share it.
Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy.
And this effort very nearly succeeded, but while democracy can be periodically delayed, it can never be permanently defeated in this truth.
In this faith we trust for while we have our eyes on the future, history has its eyes on us. This is the era of just redemption.
We feared it in its susception.
We did not feel prepared to be the heirs of of such a terrifying hour, but within it, we found the power to author a new chapter.
To offer hope and laughter to ourselves.

So while once we asked, how could we possibly prevail over catastrophe?
Now we assert how could catastrophe possibly prevail over us?
We will not march back to what was, but move to what shall be a country that is bruised.
But whole benevolence, but bold, fierce, and free.

We will not be turned around or interrupted by intimidation because we know our inaction and an Ursa will be the inheritance of the next generation.
Our blenders become their burdens, but one thing is certain.
If we merged mercy with the mights into might with right, a night then love becomes our legacy, and change our children’s birthright.
So let us leave behind a country better than one.

We were left with every breath, my bronze pounded chest.
We will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one.
We will rise from the gold limbed hills of the West.
We will rise from the wind swept to Northeast where our forefathers first realized the revolution.
We will rise from the lake when cities of the middle Western States.
We will arise from the sun baked South.
We will rebuild, reconciled and recover and every known nook over a nation.

And every corner called our country.
Our people diverse and beautiful will emerge, battered and beautiful.
When day comes, we step out of the shade of flame and unafraid, the new dawn balloons, as we free it.
For there was always light.
If only we’re brave enough to see it.
If only we’re brave enough to be it.

Amanda Gorman