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The Other Shore
Essays on Writers and Writing
By Michael Jackson
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
The Other Shore
WALTER BENJAMIN ONCE OBSERVED THAT our human gift for seeing resemblances "is nothing other than a rudiment of the powerful compulsion ... to become and behave like someone else." But our capacity for recognizing what we have in common with others, let alone connecting with them, appears to be as limited as our capacity for putting experience into words. The blank page confronts the writer like the face of a stranger. Though we cling to the belief that we can read one another's minds or mimic reality in art, the gaps between us, like the gaps between words and the world, can never be closed. "Always it is not what I say but something else." "All is not as it seems." Anyone who lectures for a living will recognize this experience. No matter how painstakingly one prepares a talk, it will draw comments that bear no relationship to what one thought one was saying and attract questions that preclude any response.
But lecture halls and classrooms aren't the only places where we pass each other like ships in the night, and should an alien anthropologist visit earth he or she would undoubtedly be struck by our extraordinary capacity for talking past each other and not catching each other's drift. At the same time, our imaginary anthropologist would surely be baffled by the different meanings that attach to the same gestures in different cultures—a nod signaling negation in Greece but affirmation in England, direct eye contact conveying sincerity of interest in America but antagonism in Polynesia and Africa, touching taken as an unwanted invasion of a person's private space in some societies but in others communicating empathy. Not only would our alien anthropologist wonder at the mutual misunderstanding and downright misery that spring from the inherent ambiguity of everything human beings say and do in the presence of one another, he or she would also be astonished by the energy devoted to reducing this ambiguity and dealing with the fallout from never knowing exactly what others are feeling, thinking, or intending.
If our alien strayed into a university, he or she might be amazed at the industry generated by the passion for rational, systematic, unambiguous knowledge of others and of ourselves, and he or she might wonder how human beings have managed to succeed in the Darwinian struggle for survival, given their Babel of mutually incomprehensible languages, dialectics, and argots, not to mention their capacity for misreading one another's gestures and minds. But our visiting ethnographer might ask a more fundamental question: Why would well-educated earthlings set such store by the idea of knowing the other, or knowing themselves, when social existence is manifestly not predicated upon theoretical understanding, any more than meaningful speech is predicated upon a formal knowledge of grammar. Indeed, theories, like prejudices, would seem to be one of the principal causes of misrecognition, since they tend to make the other an object whose only value is to confirm our suspicions or prove our point of view. As long as mutually congenial outcomes occur, our alien anthropologist might argue, it does not matter whether one begins, or ends, with a clear understanding of what one is doing, an empathic understanding of the other, or even knowledge of oneself.
Is writing also a matter of working in the dark? Of trying to cross the wide Sargasso Sea that separates us from what we call the wider world? One thing is sure: regardless of what we write, the very act of writing signifies a refusal to be bound by the conceptual categories, social norms, political orders, linguistic limits, historical divides, cultural bias, identity thinking, and conventional wisdom that circumscribe our everyday lives. In a Nigerian prison cell, Wole Soyinka scribbles fragments of plays, poems, and a memoir between the lines of books smuggled to him from the outside. "In spite of the most rigorous security measures ever taken against any prisoner in the history of Nigerian prisons, measures taken both to contain and destroy my mind in prison, contact was made." In a novel decreed obscene when first published in 1856, Gustave Flaubert writes Emma Bovary into existence, famously declaring, "Madame Bovary, c'est moi." For thirty-one years, Marcel Proust commutes in his imagination to Illiers-Combray, and the year he dies (1922) James Joyce publishes Ulysses, his epic return through lost time to the Dublin of his youth.
After many years of searching for the opening sentence of the book he wanted to write, Gabriel Garcia Márquez realizes "in a flash" while driving to Acapulco with his wife and children, that he would "tell the story the way [his] grandmother used to tell hers," and so emerged the figure of José Arcadio Buendía, who dreams and then builds a luminous city of mirrors surrounded by water. Coincidentally, the story of Macondo, which is also the story of Columbia, recalls a story by Jorge Luis Borges in which a stranger disembarks one night from a bamboo canoe on an island in a river, wanting "to dream a man with minute integrity and insert him in reality." This "magical project" exhausts his soul, and leaves him wondering whether reality is brought into existence by our dreams or we the dreamers are the dreamt.
In the act of writing, as in spirit possession, sexual ecstasy, or spiritual bliss, we are momentarily out of our minds. We shape-shift. We transgress the constancies of space, time, and personhood. We stretch the limits of what is humanly possible. And we overcome the loneliness of being separated from the other, the stranger in whose shadowy presence we dwell. "Again and again, writes Octavio Paz, "we try to lay hold upon him. Again and again he eludes us. He has no face or name, but he is always there, hiding. Each night for a few hours he fuses with us again. Each morning he breaks away. Are we his hollow, the trace of his absence?"
These boundless waters into which writers, like fishermen, cast their lines or, like shipwrecked mariners, consign their bottled messages, are the haunts of lost soul mates, remote societies, other epochs, myriad divinities, half-forgotten events, and unconscious processes. But in every case, what moves us to write (and read what others have written) is an impulse to broaden our horizons, to reincarnate ourselves, and "satisfy our perpetual longing to be another."
Although Maurice Blanchot wrote of the impossibility of literature and Walter Ong dismissed the writer's audience as "always a fiction," the passion and paradox of writing lies in its attempt to achieve the impossible—a leap of faith that bears comparison with the mystic's dark night of the soul, unrequited love, nostalgic or utopian longing, or an ethnographer's attempt to know the world from the standpoint of others, to put himself or herself in their place. For every writer—whether of ethnography or fiction—presumes that his or her own experiences echo the experiences of others, and that despite the need for isolation and silence his or her work consummates a relationship with them.
For Orhan Pamuk, a writer "is a person who shuts himself up in a room, sits down at a table and alone turns inward; amid its shadows, he builds a new world with words." But no sooner have we shut ourselves away, Pamuk says, than we "discover that we are not as alone as we thought." We are in the company of others who have shared our experiences. "My confidence comes from the belief that all human beings resemble each other, that others carry wounds like mine—that they will therefore understand. All true literature rises from this childish, hopeful certainty that all people resemble each other. When a writer shuts himself up in a room for years on end, with this gesture he suggests a single humanity, a world without a centre." Asked whether solitude was essential to a writer, Paul Auster answered in a similar vein. "What is so startling to me, finally, is that you don't begin to understand your connection to others until you are alone. And the more intensely you are alone, the more deeply you plunge into a state of solitude, the more deeply you feel that connection."
D. H. Lawrence pursues a similar train of thought in a letter to his friend the barrister Gordon Campbell in March 1915.
I wish I could express myself—this feeling that one is not only a little individual living a little individual life, but that one is in oneself the whole of mankind, and one's fate is the fate of the whole of mankind, and one's charge is the charge of the whole of mankind. Not me—the little, vain, personal D. H. Lawrence—but that unnameable me which is not vain nor personal.
In the same letter, Lawrence says, "each of us is in himself humanity," an opinion shared by some anthropologists, myself among them.
But the gap between particularizing and universalizing perspectives is notoriously difficult to close. How can we be sure that the connections and continuities we posit between ourselves and others are not projections of our own limited view of the world? And how can we overcome the suspicion that often stays a writer's hand, that the words and ideas he or she deploys with such artistry constitute a sleight of hand that creates the appearance of connectedness where there is none?
The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies,
For the pattern is new in every moment
And every moment is a new and shocking
Valuation of all we have been.
The Red Road
I WAS NOT THE FIRST ADOLESCENT POET, nor will I be the last, to adopt Arthur Rimbaud as an alter ego. In Rimbaud's resolve to be other than he was, I found legitimacy for my own revolt against bourgeois values. Often drunk and confrontational, and possessed by a perverse desire to be different, I cultivated an uncouth and anarchic persona, yet all the while unclear as to what kind of metamorphosis I wished for myself.
It is not possible, of course, to simply walk out on yourself, discarding your first identity as a snake sloughs off its skin. You do not know the secrets for changing your life; all you can do is search for them. What governs you is a craving for "new affections, new noises", and you are aware that this work you do on yourself is more fundamental than any work of art. Indeed, Rimbaud's writing may be read as a commentary on this oeuvre vie, in which poetry will be written only for as long as it takes for the personal change to be effected, whereupon the work of language will come to an end.
For several years you are in limbo. Breaking free, hitting the road, living rough, only to return to the place you set out from to lick your wounds and prepare for another journey into the unknown. But you are stricken by the realization that no matter how far you travel from home, the old self goes with you, refusing to be shaken off by the trick of changing your environs. As Horace put it, 'Those who chase across the sea change their skies but not their souls.' And so you resemble one of Joseph Conrad's restive characters, drifting from one remote island or port to another, no sooner arrived than departed—whether in flight from or in search of something, no one knows.
At twenty-four, Rimbaud is working as an overseer in a quarry on Cyprus. "The heat is oppressive," he writes in a letter to his family, and the work is hard—dynamiting rocks, loading stones onto barges, living miles away from the nearest village, tormented by mosquitoes, sleeping in the open by the sea. His life is like a rehearsal for Africa.
At twenty-four, and without the benefit of any rehearsal, I went to Africa as a volunteer with the United Nations Operation in the Congo. I had expected some kind of conversion. Watching the lurid sunsets from the Stanley Memorial high above the Congo River or hearing alarmist reports of insurgencies in the interior, my imagination took fire. But my thoughts turned constantly to home. When the rains came, I retreated to the Palace Hotel overlooking the Congo River and wrote a novel as much to prove myself capable of the sustained and lonely labor demanded of any writer as to unburden myself of recurring dreams of my grandparents' early married life after their migration from England to New Zealand in 1906. I imagined that in abandoning what they called "the old country," they were oppressed by nostalgia as well as unsettled by the backwater town in which they now had to make their home. In their separation trauma I wrote about my own, for was I not both enthralled and intimidated by the vast hinterland out of which the great river flowed? And were not my dreams of New Zealand daily reminders of how deeply I resisted the ordeal of passing from the life I had known into this new but unknown life that I associated with Africa? Day after day I wrote in my hotel room as islands of hyacinth slipped past in the swift-flowing river and refugees gathered at a landing stage shaded by mango trees, waiting for the rusty ferry that would return them, by order of the Congolese government, to Brazzaville, whose white colonial buildings were barely discernible through the haze.
When you are starting out as a writer, you tend to write about the inner turmoil and difficulty of expressing yourself, even when appearing to be writing on some entirely objective topic. This was certainly true of my early piece called The Livingstone Falls that conjures the thunderous and unnavigable stretch of water between the Stanley Pool and the lower reaches of the Congo.
I cross a fragile and swaying bridge between two islands, buffeted by spray. I greet two women who are gathering driftwood, their babies asleep on their backs, their voices drowned by the noise of the river. I find myself in a disused quarry and wonder if I have stumbled on that "vast artificial hole" that Conrad describes in Heart of Darkness, whose purpose was "impossible to divine," but whose remorseless excavation had cost the lives of countless Congolese, chained together in forced labor and in death. A dead Mamba lies on the trail, an embodiment of that old injustice. I drive back to the city and a café on the Boulevard du Trente Juin. Peddlers show me ivory ornaments, carved tusks from elephants slaughtered near Lac Leopold II, bone ornaments blackened with shoe polish, hand-painted postcards, black market cheese, canned fruit, and cigarettes.
One weekend, a Dutch friend and amateur lepidopterist asked me to accompany him to Pic Mensi, a forested uplands in the Bas-Congo. Hank laid out his baits in a forest clearing—fermented mangoes mixed with his own feces. We watched and waited as rare blues, every bit as brilliant as the ultramarine windows in Chartres Cathedral, fluttered and drifted through shafts of sunlight before settling nervously to feed.
Hank netted several, and showed me how to handle them, gently squeezing the life out of their bodies before transferring them to a collection box. Each one, he explained, was worth a small fortune on the European market. But this was not why he collected them. He was enthralled by their beauty and fascinated that such beauty had evolved simply to attract a mate, so that in a lifetime of no more than a few days, these creatures were driven by little else than the exigencies of reproduction. Their own life had no other meaning than to create another life, to perpetuate their kind.
We camped that evening on a grassy plain. As night fell, a young man passed up the track, holding a mbira on his head and playing a melody that seemed to mingle with the stars. A warm wind murmured in the long grass.
Excerpted from The Other Shore by Michael Jackson. Copyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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