9.30.2012

Black Light: A Novel by Galway Kinnell



Like the mythological Persian king he's named after, Jamshid, the carpet repairer, restoring the burned rug fibers of the head of a bird of paradise when we meet him on his knees working, thinks he's better and more brilliant than everybody else.  It's not pure diabolical arrogance per se, but pride the murky result of his unprocessed pain (his wife is recently deceased and his daughter, Leyla — unmarried and without a single suitor at the age of sixteen! — might as well be deceased) has made him bitter to the point of apostasy.  As his faith fades, he comes dangerously close to losing everything, not unlike his unfaithful namesake from the Persian epic, Shahnameh:

Jamshid surveyed the world, and saw none there
Whose greatness or whose splendor could compare
With his: and he who had known God became
Ungrateful, proud, forgetful of God's name

Even before we meet Jamshid in Galway Kinnell's novella, we know from the opening line — "Jamshid kept sliding forward as he worked, so that the patch of sunlight would remain just ahead of him, lighting up the motion of his hands" — that light and what light signifies in Kinnell's context — heaven's wisdom, favor, and rewards — will probably elude Jamshid, yet remain close, all too visible, on the edge of his grasp, as if he were in Hell gazing at Paradise, imploring Abraham with outstretched arm for a drop of water.  Black Light's opening serves as fitting foreshadowing for this fable riffing off the downslide of Persia's once omnipotent king, Jamshid.  Jamshid, the poor but not so humble man of Meshen, Iran, only feels "a little ashamed that he had never made a pilgrimage to Mecca or for that matter to the Shrine of Fatima at Qum." On the precipice of his spiritual abyss, so far gone in his rage over his life that didn't turn out right, Jamshid internally snubs those journeying to Mecca, the Hajis, and can barely stomach their contemptuous, Afghani glances cast his way.  As if they're so self-controlled, so holy, "getting married for the few weeks of their sojourn," in order to make easier the supposed "spiritual rigors" required in their once-in-a-lifetime quest.  Their false piety makes Jamshid laugh.  Maybe his last.  For in an impulsive instant, in a furious fit of pent up pique upon hearing the news that his daughter's rumoured "indiscretions" have made her unfit for marriage — unfit unless Jamshid agrees to the local mullah's assistance in the delicate matter (a bribe veiled in the white robes of religious duty), Jamshid lashes out with all the force in him at Mullah Torbati.  Suddenly, inexplicably, Jamshid's carpet shears that just moments before moved in mindless attendance upon a charred rug, trimming the kaleidoscopic plumage of a bird of paradise, now lie next to a sacred corpse, bloodied.

And so begins Jamshid's anti-pilgrimage whose terminus is destitution, whose life sentence might be despair. Roaming a hard desert road as far removed from Mecca as the crescent from the cross, haunts the frail figure of Jamshid through his nomad existence.  His destination is nowhere.  Transformed into a tramp like so many infidels before him, he seeks he knows not what, maybe an oasis, anyplace he can create some purpose out of killing more time.  He meets Ali out in the endless sands somewhere, a grizzled old man who's traveled back and forth himself for decades on the run, or in circles, from one fringe settlement to another, selling trinkets from whatever weathered sacks his decrepit camel still manages to haul, in exchange for bare necessities.  But the supplies and the shelter and the sex never last.  Nor do Ali's and Jamshid's doomed partnership.

What is Jamshid to do with the constant eclipse that's become of his tortured past, his very life?  How can he forget when his past bleeds darkness out of deep wounds into every successive step, and the steps he'll trudge tomorrow? How can he see where he's heading, or from what or whom he must flee; how will he ever chance upon potential refuge with his eyes smothered by black light?  Is redemption even possible for a man as accursed as Jamshid, who "could always sense the blackness of vultures in the sky.  Never visible ... a constant presence."?  One may wonder, too, whatever became of Persia's ancient king, their legendary Jamshid?


Galway Kinnell spent a year in Iran during 1959 and 1960, half the time as a lecturer at the University of Tehran, the other as a journalist for an English language newspaper, exploring as much as he could every corner of the country he'd come to love.  In Black Light's mid-section, with its vast outdoor scenery set under stars, "an ultimate landscape of desolation," we get a glimpse of how the ruggedness and isolation of Iran's arid geography impacted Kinnell's imagination.  We get a sense too that maybe Kinnell got lost in the mountains and deserts of Iran often, as in his narrative there's an unspoken feeling in Jamshid that he likes being lost, enjoys the spontaneity of adventure and perceived freedom his "lostness" inspires, the adrenaline rush he gets never knowing one night to the next what cave or ancient ruin he'll lay his weary head in.  If Jamshid embraces though never accepts being lost, his process of self-discovery makes the bleak existentialism of Black Light all the more fascinating.

Escape with Jamshid from the many consequences of his crime like some vicarious Persian Raskolnikov along for the camel ride, outpost to outpost, palm grove to palm grove, swathed in the paradox that is Black Light's luminescence.  It's a reading experience at times reminiscent of what The Sheltering Sky invoked. Mystery.  Meaning.  Wondering.  Why?

While Kinnell is better known as a poet (The Book of Nightmares) and translator (The Poems of François Villon), his rare digression into prose in Black Light is certainly one to savor and reflect upon repeatedly, like enjoying time and again the myriad gradations of illumination in a radiant poem.

9.09.2012

Recrossing The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder



Thornton Wilder successfully fictionalized some ages-old core existential questions that have haunted humanity since its inception in his short novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey.  Why do bad things happen to good people indiscriminately, while bad people prosper?  Is there a plan or purpose behind the bad happenings?  A reason?  Are seemingly senseless accidents such as the one depicted in the novel -- the collapse of a bridge, a "ladder of thin slats swung out over a gorge, with handrails of dried vine" -- or other bad happenings such as natural disasters, poverty or war, "acts of God" or acts of fate?  Or neither or something else?  Are they meaningful or meaningless?  If those who fell to their deaths in Wilder's novel died because God willed them to die, as Brother Juniper's order believes, is it then a capital offense to seek proof to that effect through non-Catholic means? Complicated, convoluted questions, even for skeptics, raised by this slim, but intense, and beautifully written novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey.

First Printing
Wilder, of course, doesn't explicitly answer these universal questions, though by novel's end, our narrator, Brother Juniper, eyewitness to the collapse: "He saw the bridge divide and fling five gesticulating ants into the valley below..." certainly, in part, has answered some of them.   In some socks-you-in-the-gut, brutal irony, Brother Juniper, after he's dared ask why -- why did these people die?, why did the bridge collapse for them instead of others? -- and then travelled by foot great distances to probe the lives and personal histories of those who fell for possible clues to answer these deeper questions that are only natural for an inquisitive mind's pursuit, ultimately becomes the sixth and final victim of the bridge of San Luis Rey's collapse.

Brother Juniper lacked the foresight in recognizing how dangerous his questions were in a culture whose pious insularity accepted nothing less than rote avowals of faith in God's sovereign will.  Moreover, and to the practical point, Brother Juniper was stealing time from his ascetic duties to solitude and prayer in order to play detective.  In the least he was egregiously undisciplined; at worst, a heretic.  But his fellow monks had it wrong. Brother Juniper wasn't looking to discredit God, but rather sought in his investigations a way to prove God's sovereignty, to affirm his faith in God not just by faith but facts.


Brother Juniper's decision to mix his intellect with his faith, instead of abiding strictly by faith alone; which he denied the second he began his investigation into why those five unfortunate travelers may have perished when, where, and how they perished, was not surprisingly condemned on the spot as insubordination and blatant blasphemy, an unforgivable rejection of faith in God and the most holy and sacred tenets of Catholicism.  How dare a middling monk not take God automatically on faith! Who did this insignificant little man, Brother Juniper, think he was, embarrassing the Church like that with his foolish questions?  And so for the supposed unpardonable sin of suggesting God's will -- God's very mind -- could be accessed through an investigation, through the woefully finite human insight of what amounted to empiricism, Brother Juniper, a devout Catholic, became essentially a martyr for science.

If there are any answers in this indifferent universe that can even partially explain how Evil and Human Suffering can comfortably coexist alongside a purported All-good and Omnipotent God, an All-wise Deity to be trusted and praised by His adherents even when disasters on a scale more monstrous than the collapse of a flimsy, make-believe bridge in Peru occur ... say the collapse of the Twin Towers, the collapse of the cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, or the unending collapse that has been Genocide throughout the godless ages, continuing still today in Syria ... then it's clear to me that Brother Juniper (one of my favorite catholics real or fictitious ever!) was at least partly successful in his heroic -- and in my opinion faithful -- quest for truth.

9.01.2012

Rock: Practical Help for Those who Listen to the Words and don't Like what They Hear by Bob Larson



Bob Larson asserts in Rock: Practical Help for Those who Listen to the Words and don't Like what They Hear that Satan created rock 'n' roll music and wrote its shadier lyrics, using rock stars as his mouthpiece, in order to exploit the innocence of unsuspecting youths, and lead them toward those sex-and-drug-dead-ends down literal "highways to Hell".  Larson earnestly warns his readers that if they think they're one of the lucky ones who've listened to rock music for years and have successfully evaded its evil influence, then they better think again!  For if that raunchy rock music isn't glorifying God, goes Larson's inflexible rationale, freed as it is of those pesky complications that can arise with more nuanced hues of meaning not strictly demarcated by black or white, then exactly who is it glorifying? Uh huh, nobody else but that tireless tempter, Satan.  And those who listen to rock music might as well be Satan's supper.  Burp.

The Humorous Gospel Songs of Bob Larson
Larson, with all the misguided sensationalistic melodrama his puny and puerile reasoning can muster, unmasks (or so he presumes) the purported demonic disguises of more than just the usual backward-masking-suspects like Black Sabbath or Led Zeppelin, who are typically attacked in vindictive tripe-tirades like Larson's, and takes maladroit aim at bands whose alleged subversive lyrics combined are about as benign as Mister Rogers, these proverbial wolves in sheep's spandex: Journey, REO Speedwagon, Styx.

Styx!

Larson ain't kidding.  He's not kidding because can't anybody else besides him see how brazenly Styx christened themselves after the very name of the mythological river that flows through the fiery bowels of Hell!  Shouldn't the band's name alone prove once and for all the satanic source of their music's inspiration?

That Bob Larson, itinerant evangelist, possessed enough faith in his ability to deliver that promised "practical help" for supposed victims of rock music, speaks more to his own astounding impracticality believing such a book as his was ever necessary in the first place -- so "those who listen don't like what they hear" do they? then stop listening to the music, Morons! end of story! no lame or condescending book by Bob Larson with its dumb and clunky title needed! -- than it does to his imagined powers of writerly persuasion.  Larson spewed nonstop 200 pages of laughable illogic and called it "practical help" when in fact it's just another of his conspiracy-fueled delusions.  Consider too how dated, how embarrassingly out of touch with rock's contemporary zeitgeist the book was by the time of its regrettable publication.  Could Larson have honestly expected that any educated audience, religious or not, any sixth-grader with half a brain, would consider the book's absurd premise and ridiculous paranoia anything but the hack work of the pompous propagandist that it is?  That they would consider its borderline libeling of rock icons too numerous to list with anything other than profound incredulity and profounder disdain?