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gibbon decline and fall horizAs a now former and once long-time member of the Society of Professional Journalists, I was taught — indeed, had it drummed into me — that the best prose style was invisible, that it disappeared like window glass, letting the matter and substance of what was being written be transmitted from one mind to the other effortlessly, almost telepathically, as if it had no need of linguistic intercessor. One should never notice that there were words — black tadpoles — darting across the white expanse of page.

Yet, that was never how I felt in my deep heart’s core. I came to writing through love of reading, and that which I loved to read were words that gave me pleasure in the reading. Certainly, the stories being told carried their own power, and the ideas expressed fertilized and pruned my own ever-growing and expanding sensibility. But for utter pleasure, it was the words. I enjoyed writers who used those words and fashioned elegant sentences with a joyful abandon. I loved those sentences that could fill out a printed page with dependent clauses, semicolons and parenthetical interpolations. Hemingway made a distinction between those writers who were “taker-outers” and those who were “puter-inners.” My heart always went lost to the puter-inners, the piler-on-ers, the expanders and expatiators. I frequently crack a book not for what it has to tell me but for its way of telling it, for its personality, its sparkle.

Until recently, for instance, the New Yorker magazine had two primary and alternating film critics. One — David Denby, who recently retired from the ring — was a sober and thoughtful critic, whose judgment I valued, and whose taste was undeniably similar to my own. I could trust his opinion when I meant to put down my peso for a ticket. But the other — Anthony Lane — gave me joy in the reading. Each week, when the magazine materialized in my mailbox, I opened to the final pages to see who was writing. If Denby, my heart sank a little, not because he was a bad writer, he wasn’t — he was actually a very clear and intelligent crafter of words — but because Lane’s reviews, even when espousing views antithetical to my own, sparkled with wit and inventive phrases; the page bubbled. I looked to Denby for discernment and taste; what I got from Lane was a kind of naughty tickle to my brain, as if he were sharing some ripe piece of villainous gossip. I learned a lot from my schoolmasters, too, but I loved going to the amusement park.

Or, consider author Elmore Leonard’s famous advice to writers, where he warns them away from what Steinbeck called “hooptedoodle:”

“Rule No. 10: Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

“A rule that came to mind in 1983. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the characters head, and the reader either knows what the guys thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.

“My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

This is all well and good for Elmore Leonard, who wants to make the reader turn the page, as if the last one were worthless, but maybe there was gold in the next. And that is fine for a certain kind of book. It reminds me of the advice given by film director Sam Fuller, when asked what makes a good movie.

“A story,” he said, with a cigar in his teeth.

“And what makes a good story?”

“A story.”

But it isn’t the story that gives me the pleasure I seek, it is the hooptedoodle.

Here are a dozen of the books that satisfy my addiction to hooptedoodle, the books I return to over and over just for the sybaritic enjoyment of chewing over their words, gurgling their wine on my palate as I suck in a bit of air to pick up the notes of wood and chocolate, words I can inhale and breathe out like the curl of smoke from a good cigar. I recommend them to you.

Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire


gibbonThis monumental tome, in six volumes, follows its subject with intense scholarship. Gibbon had read all the sources, so that we don’t have to. After all, how much Procopius or Irenaeus have you actually imbibed? But it isn’t the history itself that propels the work, it is Gibbon’s propulsive prose, a piling on of detail and irony that keeps me buried in the pages. I can pick up a volume and dip into it at any point and come away with a full belly. Such wonderful, rich, cream-filled sentences:

“If a man were called to fix the period in history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus.”gibbon decline and fall

It is Gibbon’s theme that the empire fell because it embraced Christianity. He reaches for his highest caliber irony when discussing what he calls its “superstition.” And although he lives in an age of an established church in England, when everyone was nominally pious, he uses his irony to express what he felt he could not say outright. About the claim of miracles, and of resurrection:

“But the miraculous cure of diseases of the most inveterate or even preternatural kind can no longer occasion any surprise, when we recollect that in the days of Irenaeus, about the end of the second century, the resurrection of the dead was very far from being esteemed an uncommon event: that the miracle was frequently performed on necessary occasions, by great fasting and the joint supplication of the church of the place, and that the persons thus restored to their prayers had lived afterward, amongst them many years. At such a period, when faith could boast of so many wonderful victories over death, it seems difficult to account for the scepticism of those philosophers who still rejected and derided the doctrine of the resurrection. A noble Grecian had rested on this important ground the whole controversy and promised Theophilus, bishop of Antioch, that, if he could be gratified with the sight of a single person who had been actually raised from the dead, he would immediately embrace the Christian religion. It is somewhat remarkable that the prelate of the first eastern church, however anxious for the conversion of his friend, thought proper to decline this fair and reasonable challenge.”

As the Duke of Gloucester said when the author presented him with a copy, “Another damned thick book! Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh, Mr. Gibbon?”

Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita

nabokovA wicked and malicious book, all verbal skyrockets and Roman candles, there is no more sustained example of literary pyrotechnics in English in the 20th century (the requirement for English disqualifies Finnegans Wake). It tells the story of the nympholept and child molester Humbert Humbert in his own words, which drip with irony from start to finish, yet with a second layer of irony underneath, provided by Nabokov. Humbert freely admits his crime, with charm and erudition, but Nabokov lets us know that however forthcoming Humbert seems to be, there is an imposture in self-revelation. All in virtuoso prose: “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style,” he says.

There is misogyny and misanthropy in Humbert, which you can read in his description of a dalliance he has with another amour, Rita:nabokov lolita

“She was twice Lolita’s age and three quarters of mine: a very slight, dark-haired, pale-skinned adult, weighing a hundred and five pounds, with charmingly asymmetrical eyes, an angular, rapidly sketched profile, and a most appealing ensellure to her supple back — I think she had some Spanish or Babylonian blood.”

“She was so kind, was Rita, such a good sport, that I daresay she would have given herself to any pathetic creature or fallacy, an old broken tree or a bereaved porcupine, out of sheer chumminess and compassion.” 

“When I first met her she had but recently divorced her third husband — and a little more recently had been abandoned by her seventh cavalier servant — and others, the mutables, were too numerous and mobile to tabulate. Her brother was — and no doubt still is — a prominent, pasty-faced, suspenders-and-painted-tie-wearing politician, mayor and booster of his ball-playing, Bible-reading, grain-handling home town. For the last eight years he had been paying his great little sister several hundred dollars per month under the stringent condition that she would never enter great little Grainball City.”

A little later:

“Then one day she proposed playing Russian roulette with my sacred automatic; I said you couldn’t, it was not a revolver, and we struggled for it, until at last it went off, touching off a very thin and very comical spurt of hot water from the hole it made in the wall of the cabin room; I remember her shrieks of laughter.”

James Joyce, Ulysses

joyceJoyce has a reputation for being difficult, but when he wants to be clear, there is no better stylist in the English language. His prose is clear and direct and redolent of the things of this world. If I were to choose a single sentence (or two) that sums up everything I love most in a book, it would be:

“Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.”

joyce ulyssesBut he can make dire fun of his other protagonist, Stephen Daedalus, and the way the scholar can drown in Aquinian scholasticism. Going down for the third time, Daedalus says:

“Ineluctable modality of the visible: At least that if no more, though through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot. Snotgreen, bluesilver, rust: coloured signs. Limits of the diaphane. But he adds: in bodies. Then he was aware of them bodies before of them coloured. How? By knocking his sconce against them, sure. Go easy. Bald he was and a millionaire, maestro di color che sanno. Limit of the diaphane in. Why in? Diaphane, adiaphane. If you can put your five fingers through it, it is a gate, if not, a door. Shut your eyes and see.”

Herman Melville, Moby Dick

melvilleThere is no more perfect example of the “putter-inner” than Melville. He expands; he exfoliates; he swells with words on words. I love his best work like little else in American literature. I can reread I and my Chimney or Bartleby or The Piazza or Benito Cereno over and over again, sucking up the juices. But it is Moby Dick that is the champ. I had trouble reading it at first, not because I found it hard going — quite the opposite — but because I loved its opening chapter so much that each time I picked it up, I found myself not reading where I had left off, but starting anew each time with “Call me Ishmael.” I must have read the first chapter a hundred times before I managed to break through and get to the end.

“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off — then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. melville moby dickThis is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.”

The pith of the book can be found in Ahab’s description of his hatred of the white whale:

“All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event — in the living act, the undoubted deed—there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.”

Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Esq.

sterneThis must be the funniest book in the English language. Sterne manages to make fun of the human condition without ever seeming mean about it. There is a gentleness to it, even when he is close to obscene, as when he opens the book with the very moment of conception for its hero, and the discomfiting dialog between his mother and father at the moment of ejaculation:

“I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me; had they duly consider’d how much depended upon what they were then doing; — that not only the production of a rational Being was concerned in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind; — and, for aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions which were then uppermost; — Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly, — I am verily persuaded I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that in which the reader is likely to see me. sterne tristram shandy— Believe me, good folks, this is not so inconsiderable a thing as many of you may think it; — you have all, I dare say, heard of the animal spirits, as how they are transfused from father to son, &c. &c. — and a great deal to that purpose: — Well, you may take my word, that nine parts in ten of a man’s sense or his nonsense, his successes and miscarriages in this world depend upon their motions and activity, and the different tracks and trains you put them into, so that when they are once set a-going, whether right or wrong, ’tis not a half-penny matter, — away they go cluttering like hey-go mad; and by treading the same steps over and over again, they presently make a road of it, as plain and as smooth as a garden-walk, which, when they are once used to, the Devil himself sometimes shall not be able to drive them off it.

Pray my Dear, quoth my mother, have you not forgot to wind up the clock?Good G..! cried my father, making an exclamation, but taking care to moderate his voice at the same time, — Did ever woman, since the creation of the world, interrupt a man with such a silly question?”

 James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

ageeWhile ostensibly, this is a book about white tenant farmers in Alabama in the 1930s, it is almost more about Agee’s guilt over the fact that he is using their misery to make a book, and his empathy for their condition, and his righteous insistence on not falling back on stereotypes and formulae, but to get it absolutely right, to be absolutely accurate, which leads him to vast circumlocutions as he tries to find just the right words.

It is a very hard book to describe, so unlike anything else in the literature, and must be taken in long draughts to get the real flavor of it. Short quotes will not do.

A long section describes him late at night in the Gudger cabin, fretting over his relationship with them. He describes the lamplight and the bare wooden walls, all in minute detail, so we don’t too easily generalize, which, he feels would be a lie. All the while, on the other side of that wall the family sleeps, husband, wife, sister-in-law and four children. agee let us now praise

“.. and there lie sleeping, on two iron beds and on pallets on the floor, a man and his wife and her sister and four children, a girl and three harmed boys. Their lamp is out, their light is done this long while, and not in a long while has any one of them made a sound. Not even straining, can I hear their breathing: rather I have a not quite sensuous knowledge of a sort of suspiration, less breathing than that indiscernible drawing-in of heaven by which plants live, and thus I know they rest and the profundity of their tiredness, as if I were in each one of these seven bodies whose sleeping I can almost touch through this wall, and which in the darkness I so clearly see, with the whole touch and weight of my body: George’s red body, already a little squat with the burden of thirty years, knotted like oakwood, in its clean white cotton summer union suit that it sleeps in; and his wife’s beside him, Annie Mae’s, slender, and sharpened through with bone, that ten years past must have had such a beauty, and now is veined at the breast, and the skin of the breast translucent, delicately shriveled, and blue, and she and her sister Emma are in plain cotton shirts; and the body of Emma, her sister, strong, thick and wide, tall, the breasts set wide and high, shallow and round, not yet those of a full woman, the legs long thick and strong; …”

It goes on. Nothing is easily said in this book; it is all tortured and parsed: allie mae for agee

“The Gudgers’ house, being young, only eight years old, smells a little dryer and cleaner, and more distinctly of its wood, than an average white tenant house, and it has also a certain odor I have never found in other such houses: aside from these sharp yet slight subtleties, it has the odor or odors which are classical in every thoroughly poor white southern country house, and by which such a house could be identified blindfold in any part of the world, among no matter what other odors. It is compacted of many odors and made into one, which is very thin and light on the air, and more subtle that it can seem in analysis, yet very sharply and constantly noticeable. These are its ingredients. The odor of pine lumber, wide thin cards of it, heated in the sun, in no way doubled or insulated, in closed and darkened air. The odor of woodsmoke, the fuel being again mainly pine, but in part also, hickory, oak and cedar. The odors of cooking. Among these, most strongly, the odors of fried salt pork and of fried and boiled pork lard, and second the odor of cooked corn. The odors of sweat in many stages of age and freshness, this sweat being a distillation of pork, lard, corn, woodsmoke, pine, and ammonia. The odors of sleep, of bedding and of breathing, for the ventilation is poor. The odors of all the dirt that in the course of time can accumulate in a quilt and mattress. Odors of staleness from clothes hung, or stored away, not washed. I should further describe the odor of corn: in sweat or on the teeth, and breath, when it is eaten as much as they eat it, it is of a particular sweet stuffy fetor, to which the nearest parallel is the odor of the yellow excrement of a baby. All these odors as I have said are so combined into one that they are all and always present in balance, not at all heavy, yet so searching that all fabrics of bedding and clothes are saturated with them and so clinging that they stand softly out of the fibers of newly laundered clothes. Some of their components are extremely ‘pleasant,’ some are ‘unpleasant’; their sum total has great nostalgic power.”

Mickey Spillane, The Big Kill

From the sublime to the ridiculous. Mickey Spillane said he didn’t have readers, he had customers. “The first page sells the book,” he said, “the last page sells the next book.”spillane the big kill

But there is a vigor in his prose, tinged with kitsch, for sure, but still vivid in the extreme. You could find examples in almost any of the books, but this is from The Big Kill:

“It was one of those nights when the sky came down and wrapped itself around the world.
The rain clawed at the windows of the bar like an angry cat and tried to sneak in every time some drunk lurched in the door. The place reeked of stale beer and soggy men with enough cheap perfume thrown in to make you sick.

Two drunks with a nickel between them were arguing over what to play on the juke box until a tomato in a dress that was too tight a year ago pushed the key that started off something noisy and hot. One of the drunks wanted to dance and she gave him a shove. So he danced with the other drunk.

She saw me sitting there with my stool tipped back against the cigarette machine and change of a fin on the bar, decided I could afford a wet evening for two and walked over with her hips waving hello.”

Lawrence Durrell, The Alexandria Quartet

If there were ever an author who required you to have a dictionary beside your reading table, it was Durrell. He would choose “pegamoid” and “objurgation,” as a dare. In his books, language is the readers’ usufruct, somewhere in the banlieus of usage. durrell justine

The Alexandria Quartet are four novels that tell the same story, each from the point of view of a different actor. We find out that no one really understands what is happening, but it is happening in Alexandria, Egypt, and is populated by espionage, love-sickness, sex and camels. Durrell’s prose is as perfumed as it comes, and the books, as a unit, are perhaps best read when the reader is still young; older, you have less patience for the exoticism and the verbal barnacles crusting the pages. I love it.

I’ll give only a short tasting, from the last volume, Clea:

“The whole quarter lay drowsing in the umbrageous violet of approaching nightfall. A sky of palpitating velours which was cut into the stark flare of a thousand electric light bulbs. It lay over Tatwig Street, that night, like a velvet rind. Only the lighted tips of the minarets rose above it in their slender invisible stalks — appeared hanging suspended in the sky; trembling slightly with the haze as if about to expand their hoods like cobras.”

Henry David Thoreau, Walden

thoreauThoreau mixed ancient Greek writers with agronomy; no philosopher had so much to say about beans since Pythagoras. What elevates his style is a mixture of close observation with nature and the ability to fly, like Icarus, up to the heavens in vast sweeps of inspired hooha. Metaphors grow like weeds in his paragraphs, and we are all the richer for it. There is something Shakespearean about his means of expression: A rich overflowing of imagery, mixed, we might say, like a salad, and unpruned like a feral apple tree. He simply can’t stop making new metaphors:

“Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars. I cannot count one. I know not the first letter of the alphabet. I have always been regretting that I was not as wise as the day I was born. The intellect is a cleaver; it discerns and rifts its way into the secret of things. I do not wish to be any more busy with my hands than is necessary. My head is hands and feet. I feel all my best faculties concentrated in it. My instinct tells me that my head is an organ for burrowing, as some creatures use their snout and fore paws, and with it I would mine and burrow my way through these hills. I think that the richest vein is somewhere hereabouts; so by the divining-rod and thin rising vapors I judge; and here I will begin to mine.”

Jack Kerouac, On the Road

“That’s not writing, that’s typing,” said Truman Capote. But there is power in it. Kerouac set out across the country in the late 1940s, with peanut butter sandwiches and a part-of-the-way bus ticket. He ended up a sorry, alcoholic travesty, ruined by the popular image of the beatnik. kerouacBut his book is better than that. Even if he sometimes forgets Elmore Leonard’s Fifth Rule of Good Writing: “Keep your exclamation points under control.”

“George Shearing, the great jazz pianist, Dean said, was exactly like Rollo Greb. Dean and I went to see Shearing at Birdland in the midst of the long, mad weekend. The place was deserted, we were the first customers, ten o’clock Shearing came out, blind, led by the hand to his keyboard. He was a distinguished-looking Englishman with a stiff white collar, slightly beefy, blond, with a delicate English-summer-night air about him that came out in the first rippling sweet number he played as the bass-player leaned to him reverently and thrummed the beat. The drummer, Denzil Best, sat motionless except for his wrists snapping the brushes. And Shearing began to rock; a smile broke over his ecstatic face; then the beat went up, and he began rocking fast, his left foot jumped up with every beat, his neck began to rock crookedly, he brought his face down to the keys, he pushed his hair back, his combed hair dissolved, he began to sweat. The music picked up. The bass-player hunched over and socket it in, faster and faster, it seemed faster and faster, that’s all. Shearing began to play is chords; they rolled out of the piano in great rich showers, you’d think the man wouldn’t have time to line them up. They rolled and rolled like the sea. Folks yelled for him to “Go!” Dean was sweating; the sweat poured down his collar. “There he is! That him! Old God! Old God Shearing! Yes! Yes! Yes!” And Shearing was conscious of the madman behind him, he could hear every one of Dean’s gasps and imprecations, he could sense it though he couldn’t see. “That’s right!” Dean said. ‘Yes!’ Shearing smiled; he rocked. Shearing rose from the piano, dripping with sweat. These were his great 1949 days before he became cool and commercial.”

H.L. Mencken, Prejudices, Series I-VI

menckenMy personal hero, Mencken was a sour old pessimist, a journalist through and through, who never let sentiment cloud his prejudice. Almost anything he wrote is worth reading, not so much for the ideas therein, which are sometimes lamentable, but for the vigor and spark of their saying. I can read his work endlessly, like eating popcorn or Fritos, and never get tired of it.

“Of all forms of the uplift, perhaps the most futile is that which addresses itself to educating the proletariat in music. The theory behind it is that a taste for music is an elevating passion, and that if the great masses of the plain people could be inoculated with it they would cease to herd into the moving-picture theaters, or to listen to Socialists, or to beat their wives and children. The defect in this theory lies in the fact that such a taste, granting it to be elevating, simply cannot be implanted. Either it is born in a man or it is not born in him. If it is, then he will get gratification for it at whatever cost — he will hear music if hell freezes over. But if it isn’t, then no amount of education will ever change him — he will remain stone deaf until the last sad scene on the gallows.”

Robert Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy

burton 2Finally, there is Robert Burton (1577-1640), the great magpie of English literature, who put everything he could stuff into his one big book. It purports to be about melancholy — depression, as we know it — but really, it has no boundaries. Burton cannot say something once, but must, like Walt Whitman in his cataloguing mania, say it three, four, five times over, in slightly varying phraseology, just to make his point, to emphasize it, to make it clear, to ram it home, to buttonhole you and make sure you have got it.

This is a particularly juicy section, in which he discusses sex and the contemptus mundi of the sallow-skinned blue-stockings that in our own day, as much as in his, make our lives less gaudy and fleshy.

“Into what subject have I rushed? What have I to do with Nuns, Maids, Virgins, Widows? I am a Bachelor myself, and lead a Monastick life in a College. I am truly a very unfit person to talk about these subjects, I confess ‘tis an indecorum and as Pallas, a Virgin, blushed, when Jupiter by chance spake of Love matters in her presence and turned away her face, I will check myself; though my subject necessarily require it, I will say no more.

burton anatomyAnd yet I must and will say something more, add a word or two on behalf of Maids and Widows, in favour of all such distressed parties, in commiseration of their present estate. And as I cannot choose but condole their mishap that labour of this infirmity, and are destitute of help in this case, so must I needs inveigh against them that are in fault, more than manifest causes, and as bitterly tax those tyrannizing pseudo-politicians’ superstitious orders, rash vows, hard-hearted parents, guardians, unnatural friends, allies, (call them how you will), those careless and stupid overseers, that, out of worldly respects, covetousness, supine negligence, their own private ends, (because, meanwhile, it is well for him), can so severely reject stubbornly neglect and impiously contemn, without all remorse and pity the tears, sighs, groans, and grievous miseries, of such poor souls committed to their charge. How odious and abominable are those superstitious and rash vows of Popish Monasteries, so to bind and enforce men and women to vow virginity, to lead a single life against the laws of nature, opposite to religion, policy and humanity, so to starve, to offer violence to, to suppress the vigour of youth! by rigourous statutes, severe laws, vain persuasions, to debar them of that to which by their innate temperature they are so furiously inclined, urgently carried, and sometimes precipitated, even irresistibly led, to the prejudice of their souls’ health, and good estate of body and mind! and all for base and private respects, to maintain their gross superstition, to enrich themselves and their territories, as they falsely suppose, by hindering some marriages, that the world be not full of beggars, and their parishes pestered with orphans! Stupid politicians!

Stupid politicians, indeed!

 


RW ca 1975Although almost everything I write is in some way about myself — I call it all “Nilsenology,” after all, very little is overtly autobiographical. I am by nature rather private. But there was a moment in my life when I realized I could be private by being completely open: that if I put it all out there, it would be possible for me to be left alone, no one would have to pry.

This came after several personal catastrophes in the 1970s, a year of fleeing to Seattle and then returning, tail between my legs, to North Carolina. I was basically homeless, no job, no ambition, no career, no future. My friends Alexander and Mary Lou had offered me a room in their house in Summerfield, about 10 miles north of Greensboro, N.C., and gave me a year and a half to recover. My life is in debt to their generosity. Aside from cooking and maintenance — part of the agreement — mostly what I did was write letters, rather like Moses Herzog, going through his own crises. In a single month — March of 1980, I wrote 500 pages of letters on my aqua-colored plastic portable typewriter, using a tree stump as a desk by the barn out back of the house. I am including one of those letters here. 

It was during this time I became a writer. Alexander in Summerfield NC

Alexander in Summerfield

In the first year I spent back in North Carolina, I worked for Manpower a total of six days; I substitute taught at a school for juvenile delinquents a total of about 15 days; I worked at The Carolina Peacemaker, the black weekly newspaper in Greensboro, for two stretches of three weeks each; I shot two freelance photo jobs. The money from that, from my income tax refund and $600 I made selling my Hasselblad camera is everything I earned and lived on, November 1979 to November 1980.

Alexander had given me his old Ford Falcon. It was a dark blue bomb, with no heat, no windshield wipers and a hole in the floor under the driver that let you see the road flash by under the chassis. When I had some money, I could fill it with gas and try to find some extra work.

But I really never had any money. I managed to live for a month on $20 and use the change for the following month. There were those few Manpower stints — one working in an electronics hardware factory was as close to Dante’s hell as I ever hope to know: My job for 8-hours a day was to collect the vacuum-molded plastic sprues from the individual machines and carry them back to a jet-engine-noisy room where I dumped them handful by handful into a grinding machine that chewed them back into pellets that could be reused in the molding machines.

I enjoyed my retreat from society; I enjoyed it too much. But I wrote so often for that year and a half that, although almost nothing was published (and what was published was only bits and pieces for the black newspapers), I reckon the beginning of my existence as a writer from that time. 

I took a perverse pleasure in my poverty, I got down to my lowest point: a point that remains one of the cruxes of my life, the node or nodule of meaning around which I build a sense of my selfhood. I had no job, no prospect, old ragged clothes, a jalopy but no money for gasoline. It was icy cold, December, no heat in my room. I had exactly two nickels and three pennies to my name; nothing more was coming. 

A few times, my poverty grinded me into pellets, too. In December, 1980, I wrote this letter:

When I read about the poverty in Dickens or in a monster Russian novel — read about stealing an overcoat or sleeping in an icy room with no heat — I respond out of recognition. C’est moi.

Take for instance, last Wednesday. I got up early, watching my breath condense before me and feeling my lungs disabused by the frigid air. I planned to drive downtown on the last gallon of gas in the car. It would not be enough gas to get me back from downtown. I was going to stop at the Plasma Center and donate — sell — my blood. My conscience bothered me terribly, but I could see no other way out. I had borrowed money from friends and I never liked the feeling, and my friends, Alexander and Mary Lou — my “family” — were so short of money themselves that they were borrowing off their credit card.

So I got in my car and headed for town. The car has no heater, so the half-hour’s drive to Greensboro was as bad as trying to get out of bed in the morning into air cold enough to preserve a mastodon. In town, I kept trying to put off going to the Plasma Center, first by going up to my old office at the Peacemaker, and then by seeing my old boss at the camera store, where I had worked in the early ’70s.Peacemaker

At the newspaper, I found them late for press because the typesetting machine was busted. I fixed it for them, saving them a $75 IBM service call, but when Rosie, the editor, asked me to stay and help proofread, I said I had another appointment.

So I went to see Bill Stanley at the photo shop. His face lit up when he saw me. “Well, look what the shit drugged in,” he said. “So, how’s it going Richie? You still living out in Summerstone? Didja have a good vacation?” A wry smile tortured his face as he explained to his current helper, “Richie here has been on vacation for … How many years is it now?”

The helper  sat passively, probably thinking if I was any friend of Stanley’s, he’d better stay out of it.

“Hey, you want some lunch?”, asked Stanley.

“I’m afraid I don’t have any money.”

“Shit, I didn’t ask you if you had any money. Listen to what I say, willya. I asked if you wanted lunch.”

“I’d love some.”

“That’s more like it.”

I was hungry as a dung beetle. I hadn’t eaten any breakfast since there was nothing in the house, and I couldn’t afford to stop at Dunkin’ Donuts for coffee and a cruller. So we left the kid in charge and went across the road to Matthews Bar and Grill, the regular lunch spot.

Mat’s is another story. It is run by a Greek, Mihaious Daskilakis, and his wife. Everyone calls him Mat and calls her Mrs. D. When I first worked at the camera store about 10 years ago, she was a knockout, looking dark and earthy like Irene Papas. And even now, she is good looking, though the years have filled out her rump and her hair is mostly grey. And she can still barely speak English.

She is pleasant to the customers, but a termigant to Mat. He is a thinner version of Mel from Mel’s Diner, with black hair. He speaks a broken English and types amusing menus because of it. Mrs. D is unspeakably jealous and the waitress, though it is a new one every few months is invariably over 300 pounds. Mrs. D has last word in hiring waitresses. Once, when she was back in Greece for a family visit, Mat hired a good-looking, friendly, intelligent woman. She lasted until Mrs. D got back and was gone the next day.

The food at Matthews is slophouse diner food, drooling with grease. And the coffee, which I grew to love, is officially classed as a carcinogen by the FDA. The waitress has to pour it from a reagent bottle. The daily lunch special is something like meatloaf with a choice of two vegetables — from a list of peas, corn, okra, cottage cheese, french fries and “You wanta da gravies?”

“I’ll have the meatloaf,” says Stanley, “and okra. Just okra. Hold the other vegetable. And I want only one piece of bread.”

“Coffee?”

“I guess so.”

“And you?” She turned to me.

“A cheeseburger, with lettuce and tomato. And coffee.”

“Izatall?” butts in Stanley. “Have what you want. Shit, man, don’t be bashful.”

“A burger is all I need, but thanks, Willie.” I always called him Willie or William; everyone else called him Stanley.

As the waitress sets down the coffee, its surface swirled with grease or detergent, I thought, cripes, just like Henry Miller, bumming meals off the old buddies. And it was true that the burger was all I needed. Probably all I could have stood. My stomach had shrunk out of disuse. (Oh, I eat well enough at dinner, which I cooked, but breakfasts and lunches are often meager or non-existent.)

“Do you think the Old Man might need some Christmas help?”, I asked.

“Yeah, it could be. But you’d better ask him. I’m too close to retirement.”

I didn’t ask what that might mean.

“Has he been around yet today?”

“No. He’s out on his rounds now. I dunno if he’s coming downtown.” Willie slurped his coffee like an air raid siren and began sopping up the last of the gravy with the half-piece of bread he had left.

I knew I couldn’t put off my errand any more, so I thanked Willie for the meal and walked out into the cold and up the street to the seedy storefront that served for the Plasma Center.

I have given blood many times, but it has always been a free donation at a Red Cross bloodmobile. I strongly believe that is as it should be. I am appalled by the idea of selling part of me to make a buck. It is almost like “percentage slavery:” If I can’t sell whole human beings, at least I can sell of parts of them — or parts of myself, anyway.

It’s all too mercenary. But I was desperate.

What a marvelous word: “Desperate.” I had not a dollar to my name and no hopes of getting any. My clothes were wearing out and I was skimping on food. I was hitting on old friends for a meal. I was wearing summer sandals because they were all I owned and my feet were stiff with cold. Without the money from selling my blood, I doubted I could even drive home, let alone look for a job.

Behind the reception counter was a fine-looking woman of maybe 18 or 19. She looked surprised to see me: I was dressed in my Sunday best — my good pair of trousers and my last clean sports jacket. Even so, I must have looked a class apart from the derelicts who habituate the joint. Puzzled, she asked, “Can I help you?”

“Yes. I’ve given blood before …”

“So, we draw out a pint and then extract the red blood corpuscles and shoot them back into you. Then we have to do it all again to make a whole pint of plasma. If you have ever felt faint after giving blood, you won’t feel that, since we give you back all your red blood. The whole process, the first time, takes at least a hour and a half. We pay seven dollars the first visit, because of the physical, and eight dollars each time after that.

“But the doctor’s already gone for the day, so we can see you whenever you can come back.”

A real disappointment. I was hoping for at least $10. And now I was in town with no way to get out. So I drove out to Guilford College, where I had been doing some work in a professor’s darkroom. I thought I might as well get some production out of the day.

But when I reached into my coat pocket to get the car key, I found $4. A drop of luck hits the day! And as I drove towards Guilford, I tried to remember where the money came from, why I should have $4 I hadn’t known about. Then I remembered: I had picked up a few groceries for Mary Lou and she had given me a tenspot to cover them. This was her change that I had forgotten in my pocket. After a short moral argument with myself, I pulled into a self-serve gas station and bought $4 worth of gas.

The darkroom I use at Guilford is built in a short corridor running from the drama department’s studio/stage to the outside of the building. The corridor is unheated and unfortunately very public. The enlarger and supplies have to be locked up in a giant metal cabinet in a corner of the room. I had brought a portable electric heater to warm up the air and I plugged it in and started setting up my chemicals.

Just then, Matthew’s coffee reached overflow in my bladder, so I walked across the stage and into the dressing room, where the nearest mens’ room was. The dressing room was filled with costumes and makeup. Old bobbies’ uniforms and patched cutaways. I relieved myself and as I was leaving, I noticed a line-up of shoes under the clothing rack. I looked at them and they all seemed to be normal size — much too small for my feet. But one pair was larger than the rest. I picked them up and looked them over.

They were a very plain pair of oxfords, a little worn, with tilted heels, but not badly scuffed. On the sole was a Salvation Army pricetag for $2.25 I sat down on the linoleum and tried them on and, though they dug into my heel a bit, they fit. Another short moral argument and I wore them out of the dressing room. Providence and a lax conscience had provided me with the pair of shoes I needed.

I have always thought of myself as honest. It it true that I stole a few paperbacks from the drugstore in New Jersey when I was in high school — mostly for the illegal thrill of it. But since then, I have been basically honest. Not that I ever felt particularly proud of it. I feel strongly in my bones that we are all capable of enormous crimes. The human heart is foul and devious. I don’t abide with those happy-face people that feel humankind is basically “good” and has only been driven to crimes for socio-pathological reasons. We are all potential murderers. That we don’t kill, for the most part is incidental. We all could.

Henry David ThoreauI believe most great writers — probably most great people — have understood this. Gentle soul Henry Thoreau says of himself, in Walden, “I never knew, and never shall know, a worse man than myself.” If my crimes are paltry — a stolen pair of worn-out shoes or a pocket of unreturned change — then it is only, I think, that I have not had the opportunities that others have had. I was not born to the Third Reich or to the Inquisition. It is easy for me to abhor the enormities of Auschwitz from my distance. It is easy to feel that I could never allow it to happen here. But I am fooling myself, as others do themselves continuously. Evil is, as they say, banal and everyday. My conscience will bother me little about the shoes: I needed them. What glib rationalization is harder to come by to steal someone’s silverware? To murder the pissant who robbed me of my redhead? To rape and pillage a whole country?

I know of few people more gentle than myself; slower to wrath, slower to find fault. I live much of my life according to “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” But when I found out how my redhead’s new husband had forbidden her to communicate with me, I felt such a welling of bile that I know I could have murdered him. I saw red. Reason drained from me. For those few hours, as I wrote the first and only vicious hate letter of my life, I was a murderer. I know in my heart that though I would likely never actually kill anyone, I was nevertheless capable of hating with a passion that rationally allowed murder. Nothing is more false than the myth propounded by the NRA that “the criminal element” is responsible for murders and rapes. Murders are committed by fathers, rapes by uncles. The Mafia really touches few of us in any direct way. If there is a criminal element, it is in each of us — a Caliban in our hearts.

And I believe that if we are to live morally — to refrain from blowing the face off our brother-in-law — we must acknowledge this beast in our bosom. If we behave morally because we believe ourselves moral and good, then what is to stop us from punishing those who are not, in our eye, also moral and good? But as I know I am capable of crime, I do my best to control myself and will spend little effort controlling others. The Inquisition was run by men who knew they were moral. They had their God on their side. They were certain; they harbored no doubts. Be we smaller people, admitting the rancor in our breasts, how can we condemn that rancor in others? If there is any Satan, surely his name is Certainty. If there is an angel who can save us, that angel is Doubt. Hitler was Certain. Anita Bryant is Certain. Jerry Falwell is Certain. The Ayatollah is Certain. Let us not be so sure. Let us not send Jews to the showers.

So, when I finished in the darkroom, I drove home on the gas I bought with Mary Lou’s money and wearing stolen shoes and not feeling too badly about myself. I could have been Raskolnikov.

 
 
 

old manse with wallThe Old Manse is one of the most extraordinary houses in America. It saw the birth of two revolutions and was lived in by a string of some of the most exceptional Americans every to grace a town noted for exceptional people.
rw emerson

Concord is that town, a small, suburban Massachussets community, only 15 miles west of Boston. There is a grassy town square with its monument, a hillside cemetery, a single street lined with shops and several venerable old churches with  white, pointy steeples.

Concord was also, for a time in the center of the last century, the intellectual center of the young nation. Among its residents were writers, preachers, lecturers, editors and abolitionists. Some of their names are still current: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott, Daniel Chester French — sometimes it seems you have to have three names to live in Concord — and Nathaniel Hawthorne, who broke the three-name rule. Others were once as eminent, but are now remembered mostly by scholars and readers of history books: Amos Bronson Alcott, William Ellery Channing the younger, and Ezra Ripley among them.old manse 1930s

The Manse sits on a wooded rise on Monument Street north of the town center. It is a two story wood frame, gambrel center-entrance twin chimney Colonial house, now with gable windows in the roof and most of its paint gone, leaving a gray, old weathered building in the arbor of trees and vines. It is notable for its many tiny rooms, unusual for an eminent house of that time.old north bridge from manse

Its back yard slopes off toward the Concord River and the Old North Bridge, where American Minutemen fought British regulars on April 19, 1775 and “fired the shot heard round the world.”

That was the first revolution the house presided over.

Mary Moody Emerson, who was an infant at the time, used to say that she, too was “in arms” that day, because she was held up by her mother to the second-floor window of the Old Manse to witness the battle.

Her father, Reverend William Emerson, built the Manse in 1770.

“It was all mother’s fault that the Manse was cut up into so many small rooms,” she later wrote. “My father built it just according to her ideas and she used to say, ‘she was tired of great barns of rooms’ so he had all the rooms little boxes to please her.”ezra ripley silhouette

When William Emerson died in 1776, from disease contracted at Fort Ticonderoga, his widow tried to carry on by herself, but then, in 1780, she married the formidable Reverend Ezra Ripley. He preached up a thunder for 63 years as minister of Concord.

Ripley’s step-grandson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, remembered him this way: “Dr. Ripley prays for rain with great explicitness on Sunday, and on Monday the showers fell. When I spoke of the speed with which his prayers were answered, the good man looked modest.”

And when he died, he was laid out “Majestic and noble,” recalled Ralph’s older sister, Ellen.

“Waldo, taken to see him, walked round and round the couch and at last asked, ‘Why don’t they keep him for a statue?’ ”

Mary Moody Emerson became an eccentric, herself. She was witty, bright and well-read and was Ralph Waldo’s favorite aunt. “For years,” he wrote, “she had her bed made in the form of a coffin. … She made up her shroud, and death still refusing to come, and she thinking it a pity to let it die idle, wore it as a night-gown, or a day-gown, nay, went out to ride in it, on horseback, in her mountain roads, until it was worn out. Then she had another made up. …. I believe she wore out a great many.”old manse dining room

Ralph Waldo only lived at the Manse for a single year, but it was for him and important year. It was at the Manse that he wrote his first, and most influential essay, “Nature,” which spelled out the tenets of Transcendentalism.

That was the second revolution. It altered the intellectual direction of the country and was the first genuinely American philosophical venture. Its effects can still be seen in American culture, from the photographs of Ansel Adams to the American national park system.sophia peabody 2

In July 1842, Nathaniel Hawthorne and his bride, Sophia Peabody (that’s “So-FYE-uh PEEB-iddy”), became tenants at the Old Manse. They stayed three years “in Eden,” he wrote.

He wrote many of his best known short stories in the Old Manse and also the introductory essay for the volume of stories known as Mosses from an Old Manse.

Ralph Waldo, recently married and removed to his own house, had suggested the Old Manse to Hawthorne. Henry Thoreau became Hawthorne’s gardener. The couple was transcendently happy.nathaniel hawthorne

“We seem to have been translated to the other state of being, without having passed through death,” he wrote.

The house had always before reflected the dour Puritan esthetic of its builder, but the young couple redecorated it, brightening it up and modernizing.

“It required some energy of imagination to conceive the idea of transforming this musty edifice, where the good old minister had been writing sleepy sermons for more than a half-century, into a comfortable modern residence,” he wrote. By the aid of cheerful paint and (wall)paper, a gladsome carpet, pictures and engravings, new furniture, bijouterie and a daily supply of flowers, it has become one of the prettiest and pleasantest rooms in the whole world.”

In the north window of the upstairs study, Hawthorne and his wife scribed sweet nothings into the glass.old manse window

“Man’s accidents are God’s purposes. Sophia A. Hawthorne, 1843.”

“Nathaniel Hawthorne. This is his study, 1843.”

“The smallest twig leans clear against the sky.”

“Composed by my wife and written with her diamond.”

“Inscribed by my husband at sunset, April 3, 1843. On the gold light. S.A.H.”

The scratchings are still there to be seen. We think them immeasurably romantic. Their landlord looked at it something more like vandalism and they were asked to move out.sarah ripley

Samuel Ripley and his wife, Sarah, then moved in.

Sarah was perhaps the brightest light ever to live in the Old Manse. She was exceptional in any age, and a miracle in her own.

With only a year and a half of formal schooling, Sarah went on to teach herself botony, calculus, Greek, Latin, and most modern European languages. When she was in her 60s, she took up Sanskrit.

She apologized to one visitor that she still needed a Sanskrit dictionary to help her, implying that she could read the Odyssey or the Aeneid the way some people read the daily newspaper.

She sighed, “I cannot think in Sanskrit,” recalls her grandson, Edward Simmons.

Another visitor records a trip to the Old Manse and seeing Sarah rock the cradle with one leg while cooking dinner with her hands and tutoring one student in German and another in geometry.

Ralph Waldo wrote of her, “Mrs. Ripley is superior to all she knows. She reminds one of a steam-mill of great activity and power which must be fed, and she grinds German, Italian, Greek, Chemistry, Metaphysics, Theology, with utter indifference which, — something she must have to keep the machine from tearing itself.”old manse kitchen

The Manse remained in the Emerson-Ripley-Ames family until 1939, when the family transferred the property to the Trustees of Reservations, a non-profit organization that maintains historic properties in Massachussets.

“The Concord literati are gone,” wrote Simmons, “the town has completely changed, but the Old Manse is still there, holding many secrets.”

blake dante

I love language; I hate language. It is how I made my living, but it always feels like cheating. It feels heartfelt, but dishonest. Odi et amo.

Do you remember the first time you were in love, or thought you were, as a teenager? The longing, the rapture. There is an almost universal response that “Love” is not an adequate word to describe the emotion. You feel as if your love is special, better, more aware, alert and awake than everybody else’s, especially  your parents’. And you say, “I wish there were another word to describe how I feel.”

That is the first awareness most of us have of the difference between authentic and inauthentic existence. It is the first, and most universal — at least in our culture — awareness that our lives are divided into separate portions, one of them alive and burning and dangerous, and the other ordinary, safe and comforting.

Heidegger

Heidegger

German philosopher and godawful writer Martin Heidegger gave us the verbal formulation for this distinction when he named the “authentic” and “inauthentic” existence.

Authentic existence: An individual’s conscious response to his existence; i.e., his “being-in-the-world,” which inescapably associates life with death. Authentic existence is thus opposed to everyday (inauthentic) existence.

Heidegger is nearly impossible to read, in part because he invents words to express his ideas rather than relying on the old, well-understood words. He has more than 200 words alone created with the suffix that means “being.”

But it couldn’t have been any other way. Heidegger felt toward the ordinary vocabulary just as the teenager does toward the word “love,” that it is worn out and sounds trite and phony on the tongue that doesn’t truly understand, or rather live through, the experience — and specifically MY experience.

That is because language is by its essence inauthentic.

Language always takes us a step away from our “being-in-the-world.” It is a way of softening the experience, a way of taming it.

In this sense, I take as a central dichotomy the opposition of language and love.

An awareness of death, says Heidegger, is what wakes us up to the here-and-now, keeps us focused on the experience of being alive. And a desire to transcend death is the ultimate goal of both language and love.

The analogy of love and language is nothing new.

When Shakespeare wrote his sonnet, “Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day,” he ends it with the telling couplet, “So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.’’

In that, he is mixing the two: the words are immortal, and therefore, so is his love.

But the actual love is an experience and at its fullest transcends words more certainly than it transcends death. We love, have children and HOPE that the love will live past death. But there is no question that the experience of love can never be adequately expressed in words: They are too small, too conventional, too ordinary.

Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing with his wife, Marie Luise

Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing with his wife, Marie Luise

The sliver of experience in the condition of love IS the authenticity. It is the experience of life. The words are only ABOUT the experience of life. After all, would you rather make love or read Krafft-Ebing?

Now, certainly Heidegger wasn’t the first to recognize the distinction. He is merely the philosopher who fixes the meaning of the distinction like an entomologist pinning a butterfly. Heidegger gives us the vocabulary — now necessarily inauthentic — to describe the reality. We use his words, and as a consequence, fall (another of his words) into inauthencity.

The writer Henry Miller expresses it another way in his book Black Spring:

“What is not in the open street is false, derived, that is to say literature.”

Henry Thoreau’s whole book, Walden, is essentially about living an authentic life.

“To him whose elastic and vigorous thought keeps pace with the sun, the day is a perpetual morning. It matters not what the clocks say or the attitudes and labors of men. Morning is when I am awake and there is a dawn in me. Moral reform is the effort to throw off sleep. Why is it that men give so poor an account of their day if they have not been slumbering? They are not such poor calculators. If they had not been overcome with drowsiness they would have performed something. The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred millions to a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?”

“As if you could kill time without injuring eternity,” he writes in another place.

Yeats called inauthentic living “automatonism.”

For William Blake, what made Christ different from the rest of us was his ability to live authentically at every moment.

“Now hear how he has given his sanction to the law of ten commandments: Did he not mock at the sabbath, and so mock the sabbath’s God? Murder those who were murder’d because of him? Turn away the law from the woman taken in adultery? Steal the labor of others to support him? Bear false witness when he omitted making a defence before Pilate? Covet when he pray’d for his disciples, and when he bid them shake off the dust of their feet against such as refused to lodge them? I tell you, no virtue can exist without breaking these ten commandments. Jesus was all virtue, and acted from impulse, not from rules.”

And in another place: “Know that after Christ’s death, he became Jehovah.” Know that for Blake, Jehovah wasn’t a good thing. Jehovah is all rules: “One God, One Law, One King.”

Or perhaps we could go all the way back to Lao-Tse, who wrote the Tao-Te-Ching and said, “The way that can be named is not the constant way, the name that can be given is not the constant name.”

The best popular discussion of authenticity comes in Robert Pirsig’s book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which has absolutely nothing to do with zen, even in its pop forms, and only a little to do with motorcycle maintenance.

The book is an investigation of what Pirsig calls “quality,” which, it turns out, is much the same as Heidegger calls “authenticity.”

Pirsig writes:

“You can’t be aware that you’ve seen a tree until after  you’ve seen the tree, and between the instant of vision and instant of awareness, there must be a time lag.”

Any intellectually conceived object is always in the past and therefore, unreal. Reality is always the moment of vision before the intellectualization takes place. There is no other reality. This pre-intellectual reality is what [I] felt [I] had properly identified as Quality. Since all intellectually identifiable things must emerge from this pre-intellectual reality, Quality is the parent, the source of all subjects and objects.”

And authenticity, rather than being a result, is likewise a source. Authenticity is a relation you have with being alive that allows you to see, feel, and experience without the intervention of word or symbol.

All art, or all worthwhile art, exists to reawaken in us this often closed-off authenticity.

Art cannot itself embody authenticity: It is, after all, words or symbols — even music is an analog of the experience.

But the best art gives us an experience in itself and demonstrates, or forces us to become aware, of how to experience the rest of our lives — that portion we live with our mates, children, parents, that portion that is our careers, that portion that gives rise to spiritual awareness.

Of course, all art is, in this sense, inauthentic.

But just as a metaphor is never the thing, but points the way to the thing, so art points the way to the authentic.

Part 4: In which we enter the landscape of the mind

Sorrento dock

Each of the United States has its own flavor, its own existence as myth. It is the sense one has, if one does not live in that state, but imagines what it would be like to visit.

One imagines what Arizona must be like, with its cowboys and cactus, but the reality of Phoenix — “Cleveland in the Desert” — negates that myth. That is the nature of myth.

Some states have bigger personae. California, for instance, which existed as myth both for “Forty-Niners” and for Okies. Montana offers big skies and clean air. Oregon had its trail and Mississippi has its Yoknapatawpha County.

Texas claims for itself the largest myth, although it is hard to warrant such big ideas if you have actually been to Midland or Odessa. Texas is only big in hectares. Otherwise, it is the state of large hats as substitutes for small manhood.

Each state has its mythic presence, although it is hard to make the case for Delaware as anything but the “gateway to New Jersey,” and the Garden State gains any resonance it has only from Tony Soprano and Bruce Springsteen.

But one state led all the rest historically in this landscape of the mind, as a special place in the American imagination, a place you dream about when you think your daily life is too mundane.

Lubec

Lubec

Historically, the state that has had the longest claim on the American spirit is Maine, with its deep woods and rocky coast, its taciturn, independent people and its echoing loons. Maine is the original great escape, the place to go to return to nature and feel what it is like canoeing across a backwoods lake with a mist rising from the water.

Maine is the place Henry David Thoreau went when his Walden Pond seemed too citified. Maine is the place that dozens of American artists went to find some glimmer of inspiring wilderness.

It’s also the place the 19th-century robber barons went for summer vacations.

As America has expanded westward, Maine has lost some of its magic, but it is still a mythical place, drawing millions of visitors every year.

But there isn’t a single Maine. Regionally, there are at least four Maines.

The first is the southern coast, which first attracted a wealthy clientele a hundred years ago. This is where old money came for the summer. It is where former President George H.W. Bush had his place in Kennebunkport. It is also home to the new Yuppie tourism centers on Penobscot Bay, where you can always get a good brioche: Camden and Rockport. They are not much different, in their way, from Carmel, Calif., or Sedona, Ariz. — all trendy shops and new museums. You visit L.L. Bean in Freeport, and see a hundred other factory outlet stores.

Mooselookmeguntic Lake

Mooselookmeguntic Lake

Then, there is the mountainous Maine of the western part of the state with its thousand lakes, from Rangeley Lake to Mooselookmegunticook. This is the part of Maine famous for its out-of-place town names: Mexico, Norway, Paris. It is a place to go for fishing and camping or renting a cabin for a week.

The large northern part of the state is especially impressive. Vast tracts of woodland crisscrossed by narrow logging roads down which rumble the most frightening, earthshaking pulpwood trucks, piled high and tenuously with rattling bundles of spruce trunks. It is the north of Baxter State Park and Mount Katahdin. This is the Maine that Thoreau wrote about in his book, The Maine Woods. It is also the part of the state, on its eastern side, where they grow potatoes.Maine tree

But it is the fourth Maine that I love the most: the upper coast, from Mount Desert Island to the Canadian border.

This is Down East. It is the least touched by commercialism. It is still composed of blue-collar working towns where men go out to fish or pull lobsters from the rocky-bottomed sea. It is old wooden houses on granite foundations and cars rusted out from wet, salty winters.

Otter Cove, Acadia NP

Otter Cove, Acadia NP

It is called Down East because when 19th-century sailing packets traveled up the coast from Boston, they sailed downwind, with the prevailing breezes abaft. Back then, Maine was still part of Massachusetts. Maine owes its statehood to slavery: The Missouri Compromise of 1820 let the slave state Missouri enter the union, but separated Maine from Massachusetts and entered it as a state at the same time to keep a balance of free and slave states in Congress.

The coast of Maine is about 250 miles long, as the crow flies, but it must have been a very drunken crow that first flew the distance. With all the bays and headlands, the actual distance of that zig-zag coastline is closer to 3,000 miles. And that’s not counting the islands, thousands of them.

Mount Desert Island is the largest of them. It is properly pronounced Mount “Dessert,” as if it were filled with chocolate moose, but most people just call it MDI and be done with it. MDI is the home of Acadia National Park, one of the most beautiful in America.

Monument Cove, Acadia NP

Monument Cove, Acadia NP

It is also the home of Bar Harbor, one of the most congested towns. In the summer, Bar Harbor is a vacation nightmare, with no parking, crowded restaurants and no room at the inn.

Acadia National Park covers about half the island and includes Cadillac Mountain, the tallest mountain on the East Coast north of Rio de Janeiro. At 1,530 feet, it catches the first rays of sunlight to hit the U.S. each day.

A road to the top provides splendid views.

But it is the view of Cadillac Mountain, rather than the view from it that is best. And the best views are from the coast roads that continue farther down east.

The real Down East begins beyond MDI. From Ellsworth — which may look like one unending K mart and KFC — you drive east and north on U.S. 1 and you leave all the tourists and development behind.

Fox Lake

Fox Lake

The towns you pass are small and picturesque: Sullivan, Gouldsboro, Sorrento, Winter Harbor, Jonesport. You see tall church steeples and town squares with bronze statues of World War I soldiers.

This is Maine for the traveler rather than the tourist. You won’t find many fancy restaurants, and the motels are all low-dollar. Look instead for breakfast in the local lunch counter with the lobstermen. There are no “destination locations.” You have to be interested in the place for itself, and not for an amusement park.

If you are looking to get away from it all, Down East is the definition of the phrase.

Machias

Machias

There are mountains to be climbed, woods to be hiked, lakes to be canoed. There are heaths to be gleaned of their blueberries and birds to scout out and listen to.

Blueberry heath

Blueberry heath

If you hike in the woods behind Sullivan, off Taunton Bay, you will find the abandoned granite quarries that used to provide curbstones for the cities of the East Coast.

Climb 1,069-foot Schoodic Mountain for the panoramic view. Or if that is too high, try 397-foot Tucker Mountain. A walk through the birches and alders will bring you to a splendid view of Frenchman Bay and Cadillac Mountain.

Schoodic Point, Acadia NP

Schoodic Point, Acadia NP

From Gouldsboro, head south to Schoodic Point, which is part of Acadia, but without the crowds. The waves boom on the rocks and a cold ocean separates you from Cadillac in the west. If there is one perfect place to visit Down East, Schoodic Point is it.

Quoddy Head Lighthouse

Quoddy Head Lighthouse

Or take the narrow road south of Lubec and you will come to the West Quoddy Head lighthouse, the easternmost point in the U.S. Out on the horizon you will see Canada’s Grand Manan Island. It might as well be China.

Take a look at any map of the eastern bump of Maine and see how the web of roads thin out. Hancock and Washington counties are nearly unpaved. It is empty. It is beautiful. It is the real Maine.

NEXT: Maine redux

Books

I love travel, and next to that, reading about it. But most of what I read leaves me flat; most travel writers upholster their pages with supposedly useful bits of information meant to lead me to a favorite hotel or a great nude beach where I can buy the killer margarita.

Most travel writing is in essence consumer news, and consumerism is both shallow and boring. That is not what I seek when I open up a book. I want to be transported to the place the author writes about; if I cannot afford the airfare, I want the words on the page to vanish, leaving me underneath the palm trees or on the mountain crest. I want to feel the moist tropical breeze on my cheek.

The best writing is not about four-star restaurants, but about the experience of the place, whether hotel or Irish bog. I have found that happens most often not in the works of so-called travel writers, but in the works of those who are writers first, travelers only by happenstance.

Lawrence

Lawrence

That is because, ultimately, the travel experience happens not on the ground, but in the head. It is the digestive sensibility of a great writer that can suck the marrow out of an experience and present it to us for our own understanding and enjoyment.

”One says Mexico: One means, after all, one little town away south in the Republic,” wrote D.H. Lawrence in Corasmin and the Parrots. ”And in this little town, one rather crumbly adobe house built round two sides of a garden patio; and of this house, one spot on the deep shady veranda facing inwards to the trees, where there are an onyx table and three rocking-chairs and one little wooden chair, a pot with carnations, and a person with a pen.”

Now that puts you in a place. And a very particular place, seen through very particular eyes.

Miller

Miller

Henry Miller opens up his wonderful travel book, The Colossus of Maroussi, saying, ”I would never have gone to Greece had it not been for a girl named Betty Ryan who lived in the same house with me in Paris. One evening, over a glass of white wine, she began to talk of her experiences in roaming about the world. I always listened to her with great attention, not only because her experiences were strange, but because when she talked about her wanderings, she seemed to paint them: Everything she described remained in my head like finished canvases by a master. It was a peculiar conversation that evening: We began by talking about China and the Chinese language, which she had begun to study. Soon we were in North Africa, in the desert among people I had never heard of before. And then suddenly she was all alone, walking beside a river, and the light was intense and I was following her as best I could in the blinding sun, but she got lost and I found myself wandering about in a strange land listening to a language I had never heard before. She is not exactly a story teller, this girl, but she is an artist of some sort, because nobody has ever given me the ambience of a place so thoroughly as she did that of Greece.”

Miller then turns that favor over to us in his book. It is not just about a place, but about how a particular and intelligent sensibility interacts with a place.

Sometimes that happens in a novel, such as Jack Kerouac’s On the Road or Herman Melville’s Typee. These give us such a strong sense of being there that the plot sometimes seems little more than an excuse to travel to a new place to feel unfamiliar weather and sunlight.

But it is on their books specifically about travel that I mean to write. I’m sure you have your favorites, just as I have mine. Try some of these out next time you can’t afford two weeks in Tahiti:

1. Sea and Sardinia, by D.H. Lawrence. ”Comes over one an absolute necessity to move. And what is more, to move in some particular direction.” His other travel books are just as direct, just as full of the feeling of life and energy, populated with odd and compelling personalities. Mornings in Mexico, Twilight in Italy, Etruscan Places — if I were to name the single best travel writer, it would be Lawrence. colossus cover

2. The Colossus of Maroussi, by Henry Miller. Forget the four-letter Miller of the Paris gutter. His vision of Greece, uncorrupted by pious Classicism, is all about location, location, location. His American travel books, The Air-Conditioned Nightmare and Remember to Remember, are more episodic, but still among his best work.

3. The Encantadas, by Herman Melville. ”Take five-and-twenty heaps of cinders dumped here and there in an outside city lot; imagine some of them magnified into mountains, and the vacant lot the sea; and you will have a fit idea of the general aspect of the Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles.” Melville takes us to the Galapagos Islands and gives us all we know of them outside of Darwin.

4. The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Matsuo Basho. The greatest writer of Japanese Haiku takes us on a walking tour of the northern portions of Edo-period Japan. ”Days and months are travelers of eternity. So are the years that pass by. Those who steer a boat across the sea, or drive a horse over the earth till they succumb to the weight of years, spend every minute of their lives traveling.”

5. The Desert, by John C. Van Dyke. One of the most peculiar books ever written, it is the love letter of an obsessed stalker to his beloved Southwest deserts. Written in 1901, it is full of the most effulgent language ever put to paper. And it would be pure breathless kitsch if every word weren’t the most truthful and accurate observation of the land.

”The reds are always salmon-colored, terra-cotta or Indian red; the greens are olive-hued, plum-colored, sage-green; the yellows are as pallid as the leaves of yellow roses. Fresh breaks in the wall of rock may show brighter colors that have not yet been weather-worn, or they may reveal the oxidation of various minerals. Often long strata and beds, and even whole mountain tops show blue and green with copper, or orange with iron, or purple with slates, or white with quartz. But the tones soon become subdued. A mountain wall may be dark red within, but it is weather-stained and lichen-covered without; long-reaching shafts of granite that loom upward from a peak may be yellow at heart but they are silver-gray on the surface. The colors have undergone years of ‘toning down’ until they blend and run together like the faded tints of an Eastern rug.”

Bartram

Bartram

6. Travels, by William Bartram. The full title gives us the wonderful 18th-century flavor of the book: Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida, the Cherokee Country, the Extensive Territories of the Muscogulges, or the Creek Confederacy, and the Country of the Chactaws; Containing An Account of the Soil and Natural Productions of Those Regions, Together With Observations on the Manners of the Indians, Published in Philadelphia, 1791.

It is my favorite of any number of similar books that follow the author through what was at the time unknown and miraculous new territories. Jonathan Carver’s Travels through North America, from 1778, or William Dampier’s A New Voyage Around the World, from 1697, are full of ”travelers’ tales.”

Later, the journals of Lewis and Clark and of John James Audubon are full of the same sense of being there.

7. Life on the Mississippi, by Mark Twain. Such a classic, it hardly needs touting, but there is no more completely compelling vision of a river and the life that survives because of it.

8. California and the West, by Charis Wilson Weston. The reason most people pick up this book is for the historic photographs by Edward Weston. But the stories his wife, Charis, tells about their travels while making the photographs are a complete delight and present a picture of America between the wars with dusty roads, bad food and cheesy tourist traps.

9. Italian Journey, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The great German writer and natural philosopher managed to get into the spirit of Europe’s sunny south by meeting a bunch of Germans in Rome and rhapsodizing about Classical civilization. It is a funny, moving and infectious memoir, and I can’t put it down.

Thoreau

Thoreau

 

10. A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, by Henry David Thoreau. This is only one of several quirky and idiosyncratic travel books by the Transcendentalist author. You could as well choose The Maine Woods, Cape Cod or A Yankee in Canada. How idiosyncratic? ”I fear I have not got much to say about Canada, not having seen much; what I got by going to Canada was a cold,” he writes. He also lies. He has got much to write about Canada.

Fall color reflected in surface of Walden Pond, Concord, Mass.

Fall color reflected in surface of Walden Pond, Concord, Mass.

Four seasons may seem like enough. Maybe for a resort hotel. It is the conventional way to divvy  up the annual circumambulation of the sun. But four is an arbitrary number. In some places, two seasons are all there is, rainy season and dry season, or in Arizona: unbearable heat, and respite from unbearable heat.

And even in those climes where the traditional four account for our calendar, there are really any number of discernible seasons: Indian summer, midwinter spring, mud season. In Maine, there’s black fly season; there’s tourist season at the Jersey shore. Many places have their annual infestations.

Some of the most interesting moments of the annual cycle are those that fall between the seasons, those moments that are neither quite winter nor quite spring, or neither summer nor fall.

Of these, my favorite has always been that slip in time between autumn and the harder breath of winter — when the color has passed from the cheeks of the trees but not all the leaves have dropped to gather in soft, brittle piles on the ground.

It was like that near the end of October at Walden Pond in Massachusetts, about 30 miles west of Boston. The Canada geese were flying south in droves across the crisp sky, the alders at water’s edge were naked except for the tiny seed cone at the tip of each branch. The pond water was beginning to chill, but not so much that the fish lost their will to bite the hook.

Walden Pond is a small kettle pond, left in place just south of Concord by the glaciers that covered the land 10,000 years ago. It is essentially a dimple left in the ground by the weight of the ice. When the ice melted, the water remained in the depression.

Around the pond, the land rises up in places something like 20 feet above the water level in formations the geologists call ”eskers,” which are the loose junk left behind by the ice. The twin tracks of the railroad run along the back side of the pond.

On the October morning, before the sun arises, the temperature is in the low 40s and desert-dry. You can see the light catch in the tops of the trees along the heights of the eskers and slowly descend into the water as the morning progresses. walden pond aerial view

Walden is an oblong stretch of lake, with one shallow bubble along its northeastern side. A bit of the lake is cordoned off by a footpath causeway, leaving a shallow lagoon trapped in the backwater.

Most of the trees’ leaves have dropped, leaving only the maroon of the red maple and the bright tan of the beech tree still hanging. A huge number of the leaves have collected on the surface of the lagoon, making it look as if it were paved in tree droppings.

On the water, about 50 yards out, I can see four ducks buzzing along, with their necks held flat on the water and their faces half-submerged as they wiggled their heads back and forth, gleaning a meal from the detritus of the pond. As they swam this way and that, moving like feathered zambonis, each left a wake behind it cleared of leaves.

Immediately, what had seemed a randomly mottled pond surface of tree-junk took on order and meaning as the old ”contrails” remained, leaving the water scratched with a history of duck dinners. Their names may have been ”writ in water,” as Keats had it, but those signatures had persistence.

I crouched down at the mucky edge of the water and waited. Patience pays off. The ducks slowly swam my way. Twenty minutes later, they were so close I could have stroked their slick, waterproof feathers. One started and flew off, leaving two females and a single male mallard. They scooted in circles, clapping their bills through the jetsam. One of the females came up to the water’s edge where I knelt down and began poking her beak into the mud. She found something to eat and continued.

A small boy approached on the path, calling back to his mother. I looked at him, put my finger to my lips to hush him and pointed at the birds. He looked briefly and walked right past. I wondered what he could have been racing to find that wasn’t right here: three ducks in arm’s reach.

It was early on a Sunday morning and the path around Walden Pond had perhaps 10 hikers on it. It is about a mile and a half to circumambulate the pond, so it never seemed crowded.

In addition, there were a dozen or so fishermen standing at the western and southern ends of the pond with their poles anchored in the sand and bobbing weights hanging like goiters from the poles.

”What do you catch?” I asked one.

”Trout. Rainbows and brookies,” he said in that dodgy Boston accent. ”This is our second time out this year” — said as “yee-ah” — “and we haven’t caught anything yet. There’s a fellow down the way there who pulled in a couple of them this morning.”

When I got to him, he had them strung on a line and submerged back in the water about three feet out. Each was about a foot long, one was speckled.

”Mighty good eating,” was all he said.

By the time I made it all the way around the pond, the sun was up and the temperature had climbed into the upper 50s. The light gleamed on the bark of the tree trunks and glared on the remaining leaves.

A century and a half ago, when Walden Pond first became known to a wider public, it was a quiet place, a few miles outside of town, where only the muskrats and crows came for recreation.

The silence was shattered only momentarily when the train to Fitchburg came through. Nowadays, a road passes right by the pond, and a divided highway sits only a quarter-mile away.

The sound as you walk across the far shore of the pond is a constant but subdued roar of whizzing cars, mixed with an occasional jet airplane and the same railroad commotion.

Oddly, though, as you walk around to the edge of the pond nearest the highway, its noise becomes blocked by the esker and the pond seems quiet once more.

Journalism is a funny profession, because its readers read about what happened yesterday and its reporters are writing what will be published tomorrow. It has little use for today.

But a day as distinct as this one on Walden Pond, in the cusp between the seasons, speaks only of the deliberate now, the specific and incandescent moment, as thin and sensuous as the membrane of the water’s surface as you stick your arm through it to pick a pebble from the pond’s bottom.