The dog-rose, that pretty libertine of the hedges . . . is unlucky. Never form any plan while sitting near one, for it will never answer.
Rachel, my sister-in-law, was moving from Portland, Oregon, to Los Angeles, California. All her worldly possessions were packed into a sixteen-foot Budget rental truck. I had volunteered to join her on the drive.
We lit out on a Thursday morning, following a route I first mapped five years ago for a short story I was working on about a man who leaves his girlfriend soon after they move to Portland. That story was written by revisiting the most minor character from an even older story, one which eventually became the title story of my collection Flings. For a long time during its development, the story “Flings” bore an epigraph from St. Augustine’s Confessions: “Some memories pour out to crowd the mind and, when one is searching and asking for something quite different, leap forward into the center as if saying ‘Surely we are what you want?'” In “After Ellen,” the story in which the man takes the drive, his destination is the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles, where his sister and her husband live — where my sister-in-law would now be living. I wasn’t thinking about any of this when I went to look up the driving directions, but Google Maps remembered that I had plotted this route before.
“Memory,” says Plotinus, “is for those who have forgotten.” The gods have no memory because they know no time, have no need to fight against time, have no fragments of what has been lost to recollect, to re-collect. In India, with its vast stretches of time, with its same lives appearing and appearing again, there is no distinction between learning and remembering. You knew it in your past lives, you have always known it, to learn is to re-mind yourself, bring yourself back into the mind of universal knowledge. Says the Jaiminiya Upanishad: “It is the unknown that you should remember.” And more: It is the unknown that makes you remember, and its trigger is smell, the vasana.
The above is the first paragraph of the title essay of Eliot Weinberger’s Karmic Traces, notably not one of the two books whose publication has occasioned this essay. But Weinberger’s style is roundabout. It is sidelong and associative, and in that spirit I don’t mind sharing that it was my own concerns about memory — amplified by my late experience of having been reminded of something I did not know I already knew — that made me think of “Karmic Traces,” an exploration of the ways in which sense, memory, and spirit are interdependent. The essay doubles handily as an introduction to the concept of vasana, and trebly as an ode to the vagaries of New York City traffic. It is peppered throughout with unattributed but easily identifiable borrowings from Proust.
Twilight and night-flying white moths are the souls of the dead, who in this form are allowed to take farewell of this earth.
The route from Portland to Los Angeles could not be simpler. You take I-5 all the way. We had good weather, light traffic, and Dadrock on the radio. We did not plug in an iPhone until we lost FM signal in the mountains, those long sweet rolling passages of green and brown between the blink-you-missed-it towns of southern Oregon: Canyonville, Three Pines, Rogue River, Starvation Heights.
Rachel played mixtapes our friend Tess had curated, which got me thinking about anthologies, about curation as a discipline and craft and creative act. Tess, the author of the mixtapes (though not the music on them) has heard first about more musicians who have gone on to justified acclaim than any other person I’ve ever known. She always seems to have heard everything that could possibly have been heard in a given time period, gathered up the best of it, and arranged it in such a way that a bunch of songs that do not belong together suddenly belong together. My wife, similarly, curates a book festival, and so every year I watch her bring together 100 or so authors from all over the country, who come to Portland to promote their own latest work in their own particular genre, and the net result is not cacophony, but something that feels panoramic and coherent: uniquely Portland’s, but also uniquely my wife’s. A good curator, like a good artist, is someone who sees more, hears more, notices more — is more generous in the attention she pays, and more greedy in the return she collects on that investment — than other people.
Who looks into the nest of an owl will become morose and melancholy for the rest of life. The hooting of a churchyard owl is a positive sign that an unmarried girl of the town has surrendered her chastity.
Eliot Weinberger — in his original essays no less than in his work as a translator, editor, and critic — is a masterful curator. He is a restorer, an arranger, a presenter. There does not seem to be any bright line between his practices in the several disciplines and I believe that this is by design. He deals in esoteric marvels such as “Surviving Fragments from Lost Zoroastrian Books,” “Mexican Indigenous Poetry,” or the historical evolution of the theory that the Buddha was an impostor, but his work is hardly limited to fragments. His excavations extend to whole systems of knowledge and modes of knowing. Consider this paragraph from “The City [A few blocks]” from his new collection, The Ghosts of Birds:
Cities were never new. Whether in Mesopotamia or Egypt or China, the ruler justified the construction of the city by stating that the design copied one handed down from the ancestors. In the 5th century BCE, a poem in the first Chinese anthology, the Shi Ching, the Book of Odes or Songs, sings the praises of King Wen, who had built the city of Feng, six hundred years before: “He made Feng according to the ancient plan. / He did not fulfill his own desires, / But worked in pious obedience to the dead.” Creation in cyclical time, is always re-creation. The city — our model of novelty and modernity — was their model of antiquity. The city — our model of unfettered life — was ruled by the dead. In the 1930s, Thomas Wolfe wrote a short story with the matchless title, “Only the Dead Know Brooklyn.”
Impossibly erudite and improbably accessible, Weinberger is the genial docent guiding the grand tour of a Library of Alexandria that he happens to have personally built by hand and stocked with titles. (He has also written the card catalog and funded the endowment.) His voracious range is tempered by a crisp, even epigrammatic style. The books he writes, no less than those he edits, are mixtapes, some organized by their theme and others by their moment; in the latter case the time period appears on the book’s title page, not as a subtitle, exactly, but in the spot where a subtitle would go. Works on Paper: 1980−1986. Outside Stories: 1987−1991. Karmic Traces: 1993−1999.
Chronology becomes a measure of the development of Weinberger’s thinking over time, as well as his thinking about time: What do we come back to? What do we leave behind? Chronology asserts continuity, linking each book to the others of its suit, while in the thematic books there is a whole different gestalt.
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19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, for example, is a book of translation that is also a book about translation: theory and poetics, trends and blunders in the checkered history of the literary attention that the West has paid the East. Weinberger believes, “Great poetry lives in a state of perpetual transformation, perpetual translation: the poem dies when it has no place to go.” Each short section of 19 Ways considers a different translation of the same four-line poem from the Tang dynasty: Wang Wei’s “Deer Park” (or “Deer Fence” or “Deer Enclosure” or “Deep in the Mountain Wilderness,” etc.). 19 Ways was first published in 1979 and reissued in 1986 with an afterword by Octavio Paz and a postscript from Weinberger. These pieces now appear toward the middle of the still-pocket-sized volume, which has just been reissued again by New Directions, now “with more ways” of looking (ten of them) and a second postscript, in which it is argued, “A translation of, say, a poem into English is a kind of palimpsest. It is not a poem in English, as it will always be read as a translation: a text written on top of another text. Yet it is appreciated (or not appreciated) in the same ways we respond to an original poem: in awe at the delicacy and intricacy of its manipulation of the language, or disappointed by its clunkiness.”
To heal a cut or a wound made by an instrument, clean and polish the instrument, and the wound will heal cleanly.
Every year Tess makes a summer mix and a winter mix, but Rachel passed these over for a pair of themed mixes Tess made on the occasion of her own cross-country move. Rachel played the “Breaking Up with New York” mix and then the “Falling in Love with California” mix. When it was my turn to pick the music I chose the Grateful Dead live at the Cow Palace, 12/31/76, and in exchange for this indulgence took an extra shift behind the wheel of the truck.
My favorite thing about the Grateful Dead — in addition to but not separate from my love of their music — is that they themselves are anthologists. They like playing covers at least as much as originals. Some of the covers are played faithfully while others are translated into the Dead’s own language, reimagined as vehicles for vast improvisations that the original songs were never meant to accommodate, that the original authors could have scarcely imagined. From the show I happened to choose: Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land”; Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried”; The Young Rascals’ “Good Lovin’ “; an original arrangement of the traditional “Samson and Delilah”; Chuck Berry’s “Around and Around”; Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away”; Bonnie Dobson’s “(Walk Me Out in the) Morning Dew”; and to close the show, another traditional, one of the world’s great gospel songs, “We Bid You Goodnight.”
Holding a dying creature during childhood will leave the offender with trembling hands for life.
After twelve hours on the road we stopped in Stockton, California, the setting for Leonard Gardner’s Fat City — a perfect novel, the only one he ever wrote. First published in 1969, Fat City is the story of two amateur boxers and the trainer who works with both of them. Sometimes, to get by, the men do day labor as vegetable pickers in the Central Valley. Their lives are rooming houses and rotgut, swimming vision and aching bones. Denis Johnson called Fat City “a book so precisely written and giving such value to its words that I felt I could almost read it with my fingers, like Braille.”
Rachel and I checked into a Hilton and set off on foot to find something to eat. We ended up at a Mexican place that was clearly about to close as we walked in but seemed glad for the business and let us sit. We ordered dinner, drank margaritas, debated what time to leave town in the morning. A man at the bar — the only other customer left in the place — declared loudly and to no one in particular, “Whatever it costs you, don’t let your daughters grow up.”
The next day we drove through the Central Valley, where some fields were flourishing with tomatoes, pistachios, almonds, corn, and cattle, while others sat dry and abandoned and there were roadside signs in the dead fields that said STOP BOXER’S CONGRESS-CREATED DUSTBOWL and IS GROWING FOOD WASTING WATER? and MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN.
Like most of Denis Johnson’s novels, Fat City might be said to be a book about people who do not know they are already in Hell.
Shrikes and plovers are known to contain the souls of those who assisted at the crucifixion; persons who hear the cries of these “Wandering Souls” are sure to meet mischance.
The first section of The Ghosts of Birds is described as “a continuation” of Weinberger’s “serial essay” An Elemental Thing, a collection published in 2007 and described as “open-ended” even in its original jacket copy. At first I thought this was an odd choice, this patch update. Why not revise and reissue, as with the 19 Ways? But then I saw that there had been an earlier “continuation” of the essay in his 2009 collection, Oranges & Peanuts for Sale, which also contains a continuation of What Happened Here: Bush Chronicles, accounting for the time from that book’s 2005 publication to the end of the second Bush presidency and on into the Obama years.
Weinberger loves a good literary life project, a work so grand in its ambition that it would probably go on forever if death and publishing did not intervene. Pound’s Cantos, Zukofsky’s “A,” Olson‘s Maximus Poems, Reznikoff’s Testimony. But this is not about mere Modernist (male) monumentalism (though it’s certainly not not about that either). Weinberger loves the Icelandic sagas, the Upanishads, the Yogavasistha — a Kashmiri poem “composed sometime between the sixth and twelfth centuries, consisting of things left out of the Ramayana.” He loves the Ramayana.
In an encomium for the contemporary poet Jeffrey Yang (first published as an introduction to the German edition of Yang’s collection An Aquarium), Weinberger delineates the epic and lyric functions of poetry. The epic is “a storehouse of information, of what a culture knows about itself and the natural world, about the gods and about other humans.” The lyric is “both celebration and excoriation, wonder at the world and rage at how it often is.”
Weinberger prefers creation stories to apocalypses. He takes apocrypha and heresy seriously, viewing them as way stations through which ideas and beliefs pass on their journey from myth into truth — and perhaps back again. From the essay (nominally, in its original form, a book review) “That Imposter Known as the Buddha”: “It’s a Modernist tale: A true (or presumably true) story turns into fiction, travels through many centuries and many languages and ends up almost where it began, still more or less the same while simultaneously having turned into its opposite. And even stranger, the fiction has become real.”
This reprises a theme from “Genuine Fakes,” an essay from Karmic Traces about Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird and the art forger Hans van Meegeren: “A forgery is an object without a creator, and human nature cannot bear anything without a narrative of its origin . . . Forgery is based on authenticity, and both of them are jokes. But it is authenticity, not forgery, that is the cruelest joke of all.” Surely Weinberger is such an able translator and explicator of Borges because he is himself so thoroughly Borgesian.
Neither the Buddha essay nor the Yang essay nor “Genuine Fakes” is designated part of An Elemental Thing, but one gets the sense they could be, or may eventually be understood to have been. Weinberger’s “continuations,” then, are gestures meant to remind his readers that all boundaries are porous, all limits arbitrary and — just maybe — illusory. Each book makes its reader aware (and itself self-aware) of its simultaneous completeness and incompleteness. The book is ambivalent toward its status as a book. At the same time, the declaration of a definitive incompleteness is only provisionally definitive. The book was written. It was begun and revised and completed, submitted and sold. It has covers, a barcode. At the store they won’t give you the next one gratis just because you tell them that as far as the author is concerned it’s all one big book, and you’ve already paid for it. These are the realities of death and publishing. Eventually the project, however potentially limitless, will actually end, and this end will be ordained by its author — by his fate, if not his will.
Plato’s doctrine of the transmigration of souls holds that the souls of sober quiet people, untinctured by philosophy, come to life as bees. Later than Plato comes Mahomet, who admitted bees, as souls, to paradise and Porphyry said of fountains, “They are adapted to the nymphs, or those souls which the Ancients call bees.”
Rachel drove us over “The Grapevine,” a forty-mile span of highway dreaded for its steepness and curves, as well as for the way it leaves motorists exposed to the Santa Ana winds. Signs warn drivers to shut their air conditioners to reduce the risk of overheated engines. Trucks are subject to a reduced speed limit and at times consigned to the right lane, while most big rigs choose to go slower yet and take the breakdown lane as their dedicated space in which to do so, only to have to maneuver back into traffic to pass those rigs that have broken down. Our friend Caroline, via Twitter, said she was worried about us. She lives in Minnesota now but had been a Californian for a time, and she shared vivid, miserable memories of trips she’d taken on the Grapevine in “a Jeep with a lawn mower engine.” She promised to “press a phantom gas pedal” for us for our inclines. I played Dolly Parton, Rilo Kiley, Gram Parsons. We were fine.
The truck was parked in front of Rachel’s place by two o’clock. We got lunch around the corner, cleaned up and changed our clothing, went downtown to surprise our friend Regina at her art opening. Regina works in many media but is, to me anyway, primarily a photographer. Her show depicted landscapes, many of them fogbound, taken at the sites of former utopian communities. The show was called “Unfortunately, It Was Paradise.” You should have seen the look on her face when we walked in.
The next day we went to In ‘N’ Out Burger, a chain that prints Bible citations on all its disposable food wrappers. My double cheeseburger said Nahum 1:7, which baffled me. I’ve read the Bible, as well as Abraham Heschel’s The Prophets, but it took Google to remind me that Nahum is in the Old Testament, right there in the Book of the Twelve, tucked between Micah and Habakkuk. In the King James translation: “The LORD is good, a strong hold in the day of trouble; and he knoweth them that trust in him.”
There was just enough time left before my flight back to Portland for Rachel to show me her favorite place in Los Angeles: the Museum of Jurassic Technology, conveniently located two doors down from the In ‘N’ Out.
I don’t know how to describe this place other than to say it feels like something Eliot Weinberger might have dreamed up. (Possibly an alternate-universe Eliot Weinberger with an enhanced tolerance for hokum and kitsch, but never mind that now.) We walked through the low-lit warren of rooms, browsing displays, dioramas, reproductions, diagrams, taxidermies, filmstrips, artworks, artifacts, explanatory wall text. There are two rooms dedicated to the life and work of the seventeenth-century German Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher. There is a cutaway model of Noah’s Ark. There are depictions of folk remedies for various ailments, a history of the mobile home, oil portraits of the dogs sent by the USSR into outer space. The roof is a dove aviary; the tea and cookies served there are included in the price of admission.
At the gift shop, on our way out, I bought a chapbook called “Tell the Bees . . . Belief, Knowledge, and Symbolic Hypercognition.” It is from this volume, published by the museum itself, that all unattributed text in my essay has been drawn.
The Museum of Jurassic Technology’s motto comes from Charles Willson Peale, who lived from 1741 to 1827 and was one of those guys who did a bit of everything: scientist, inventor, naturalist, etc., though he’s best remembered now as a major portrait painter of the Revolutionary War era. He said, “The Learner must be led always from familiar objects toward the unfamiliar, guided along, as it were, a chain of flowers into the mysteries of life.”
I hope Eliot Weinberger will visit this place the next time he is in Los Angeles. If he wants company, maybe Rachel can take him. During the hour we spent there she was as happy as I’ve ever seen her. Her joy was so palpable, so infectious, that as we left I did not so much decide as realize — or, better still, remember — that my wife and I were going to get her a membership for a housewarming gift.