Summer is here and it’s time to take a break from my usual column and stretch the form a little with some chronicles. As I explained when I started this summer series a couple of years ago, the chronicle is a literary genre born in Brazil:
In the summer of 1967, the great Brazilian writer, Clarice Lispector, began a seven-year stint as a writer for Jornal de Brasil [The Brazilian News] not as a reporter but as a writer of “chronicles,” a genre peculiar to Brazil. As Giovanni Pontiero puts it in the preface to Selected Chrônicas, a chronicle, “allows poets and writers to address a wider readership on a vast range of topics and themes. The general tone is one of greater freedom and intimacy than one finds in comparable articles or columns in the European or U.S. Press.”
What Lispector left us with is an eccentric collection of “aphorisms, diary entries, reminiscences, travel notes, interviews, serialized stories, essays, loosely defined as chronicles.” As a novelist, Pontiero tells us, Lispector was anxious about her relationship with the genre, apprehensive of writing too much and too often, of, as she put it, “contaminating the word.” It was a genre alien to her introspective nature and one that challenged her to adapt.
More than forty years later, in Southern California—in San Diego no less–I look to Lispector with sufficient humility and irony from my place on the far margins of literary history with two novels and a few other books largely set in our minor league corner of the universe. Along with this weekly column, it’s not much compared to the gravitas of someone like Lispector. So, as Allen Ginsberg once said of Whitman, “I touch your book and feel absurd.”
Nonetheless, the urge to narrate persists . . .
Things fall apart. The center did not hold. At least you could be forgiven for paraphrasing Yeats’s “The Second Coming” as we slide into the heart of summer at a moment when the best really do seem to lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.
Of course, people have been feeling like it’s the end of the world since the beginning of written human history–there are some nice end of times poems penned by Romans presaging the fall of the Empire and Anglo-Saxon warriors wandering the stark icy waters of their own perceived last days.
But the Moderns’ melancholic musings seem particularly resonant of late. One of my favorite apocalyptic howls comes on the first page of Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer“ where the narrator starts by telling the reader, “We are all alone here and we are dead.” His friend Boris, the weather prophet, lets us know that:
The weather will continue to be bad … There will be more calamities, more death, more despair. Not the slightest indication of a change anywhere. The cancer of time is eating us away. Our heroes have killed themselves, or are killing themselves. The hero, then, is not Time but Timelessness. We must get in step, a lock step, toward the prison of death. There is no escape. The weather will not change.
Our narrator, we learn, has “no money, no resources, no hopes,” yet is, he tells us, “the happiest man alive.”
Perhaps because he is about to deliver “a gob of spit in the face of Art, a kick in the pants to God, Man, Destiny, Time, Love, Beauty . . . what you will.”
There is something deeply satisfying about being liberated to finally tell the truth, however grim.
And the Modernist search was for meaning in a seemingly meaningless world, a place where all the old truths appeared to be based on dead idols, discredited creeds from a simpler time that believed in an easy version of God, Country, and Progress. Like the hollow men in T.S. Eliot’s barren desert landscape, we seemed to be praying to “broken stone.”
Now after decades of backlash and thoroughgoing anti-Modernism, we are living under the pure product of that rejection of uncertainty and searching, no less the contemplation of uncomfortable truths. Of course, this time, history is repeating itself as farce in many ways but it is a farce that is more unnerving than funny, like watching a stupid drunk about to walk into oncoming traffic.
Amidst it all, the wiser amongst us still know that the world is in danger from a multitude of threats, some like the slow march of extinction that we’ll never be able to walk back. We are fiddling while the world burns, and we know that Boris is right–that the weather will not change.
Hence the overt banality and underlying dread of our age.
But, going back to Tropic of Cancer, the narrator might also be happy because he knows that, “The essential thing is to want to sing. This then is a song. I am singing.”
Out of the midst of despair we can pull something beautiful, paradoxically, because we have let go of all pretenses, any sense of how important we might have thought we were or, if we didn’t ever think much of ourselves, how important other people tried to convince us they were. And when we say fuck all that we come to see the space around us that was filled up by the illusion that we were the measure of all things.
Sometimes, it is liberating to see yourself from the angle of totality, as an insignificant speck on the larger Chinese landscape painting of all that is. It’s both leveling and grounding. It can teach you how to see something bigger.
You discover how to simply look and listen to everything.
There, along with the dread, is the wonder. And that makes us want to sing and hold tightly to every beautiful second that we have on this blighted but exquisite planet.
This is a song.
I am singing.