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.

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