Friday, September 03, 2010

Arguing for Words, Arguing Against Words

Another day's find of several great books at the local thrift store, among them Doris Grumbach's meditation and memoir surrounding her 80th birthday party, The Pleasure of Their Company. An episodic book, moving smoothly back and forth between daily life and her meditations on what she is reading at the moment, what she is thinking about. She also writes of her many literary friendships and memories, and of the books other writers have written about aging, such as Malcolm Cowley's The View from Eighty.

A book that probably ought to be read in linear order, but which I find I can dip into in any order, divided as it is into small segments separated by (typographic) bullets. Thus:

But then, by accident, I found in an old notebook a reference to what Nigel Nicholson reported of Virginia Woolf's reasons for keeping a diary and writing letters. "Nothing really happens until you have described it," she said. Nicholson believed Woolf had committed suicide because "she thought she had lost the gift of writing, and what was the purpose of life if she could not describe it?"

Woolf was in agreement with John Ruskin, who wrote: "The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and to tell what it saw in a plain way. . . . To see clearly is poetry, philosophy and religion all in one." And I suppose, if I were presumptuous, i would add: "to tell it plainly in good writing." . . .

But . . . I remembered something contrary to Woolf's and Ruskin's view. Thomas Merton wrote in his fifth journal: "What matters most is secret, not said. This begins to be the most real and most certain dimension."

What now?

—Doris Grumbach, p. 16, The Pleasure of Their Company

Woolf: Nothing really happens until you have described it. That is the ultimate writer's creed. Until you put it into words, it hasn't even happened. Until life is recorded in words, it never happened, it didn't even exist. Everything that matters must be converted into words. That is what Writers do. With Woolf, at least, if indeed the end of words led directly to her death (a rather Romanticized notion on Nicholson's part, to be blunt), this was how she lived and breathed: which truly made her a Writer. Fortunately, Woolf's writing was brilliant, lucid and poetic, even when "difficult" (as people still seem to believe about The Waves). Woolf's To the Lighthouse remains one of the great masterpieces of stream-of-consciousness, multiple internal-monologue writing, emotionally powerful and brilliantly evocative. I never tire of it.

Merton: What matter most is secret, not said. The anti-writer's viewpoint, but expressed by the born writer who no longer trusts words, the man of words who has found the end of words. It's true that he found it in his monastery, but even with his vows of silence, and even with the censorship of Church authorities sometimes weighing heavily on him, he never ceased writing. Like Woolf, in this respect, even though so much of his life was a paradox of contradictions, Merton lived to write, he was a Writer.

Merton struggled mightily with being a writer: He was a born writer whose chosen monastic life of silence and hermitage often put him in direct conflict with his own most powerful needs. In the fifth published book of Merton's journals, Learning to Love, which Grumbach responds to deeply in her own book, there is the story of his late-life love affair with a nurse he met when in the hospital for back surgery. He refers to her only as M. They met only a few times, and never consummated their love, but this was an intense and questioning experience for Merton. Naturally he wrote about it, in journals, in letters. But as Grumbach points out:

While this was going on, he recorded in his journal all the details of his complicated life as a writer. He recognized the falsity of the portrait the world had of him through his writings. The reality of his life was bitter: he drank beer to dull his desire for M. His health was very bad, causing him to leave Gethsemani often for medical treatments for his bursitis, his painful back, his numerous allergies, his stomach troubles. On these trips he met friends at bars and restaurants, went home with them to listen to new recordings by Joan Baez, the Beatles, and Bob Dylan ("Should a hermit like Bob Dylan?" he asked plaintively), his favorite musicians, and, sometimes, philosophers.

More, he rebelled against the monastery with which the world unquestioningly associated him. It was the abbot, Dom James, who occasioned his greatest animus: "He is a depressing and deadening force in my life, sickening, negative, sterile." Dom James censored his letters to M., and kept her letters from him. He prevented him from going to international conferences, meetings, lectures he was invited to give, thus reducing his worldly life to nothing. While Merton says this was probably good for him, his resentment creeps in: he cannot help recording every instance of this deprivation.

—Grumbach, p. 59

Perhaps it takes one writer to recognize this tension in another. Grumbach, for her own part, is a writer's writer: better known to writers than to the general reader. This is a small if honorable place to be niched as a writer. The only groups of people I've encountered who know Grumbach's name are writers, and/or women readers, and/or lesbian-feminist writers. I am constantly introducing May Sarton to new readers; and so it is for Grumbach. A writer's writer who isn't that well known out of literary circles, or the circles of women readers.

Perhaps thus her deep understanding of Merton's dilemma: the need for silence, the need to write. Grumbach's own body of work contains books such as Fifty Days of Solitude, a straightforward title for a very remarkable book, and The Presence of Absence: On Prayers and an Epiphany. Grumbach was drawn, as am I, to the via negativa, the way of unknowing, of kenosis, of emptiness, of letting go. In The Pleasure of Their Company, she circles around this topic, discussing Samuel Beckett's use of the word "lessness," of Primo Levi's writing about distillation as both a chemistry and literary practice. She writes of her own tendency to reduce and distill what she is writing each time she rewrites it. And she discusses Merton again in this context:

Every morning I had been using Thomas Merton's prayer from Thoughts in Solitude to start my hour of meditation. It begins: "My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. . . ."

I liked this prayer, I trusted it, because it is full of my own doubts and uncertainty. The force of its negatives is better than the bland assurances, the mindless certainties of most prayers. As for Merton, for me the future always seems full of fog and peril, and the promises of resurrection somewhat difficult to accept. Preachers always seem to be so sure of what God wants of us, what His will is, whereas I am uncertain about those matters because I do not know the source of their authority. How do they know, how do I, or Merton, know, what God wants?

—Grumbach, p. 41

The force of its negatives. . . . The via negativa is often the root of mysticism within organized religion, and is thus often suspect, even rejected and condemned. Most priestly authorities would rather be certain, and so it seems would most worshippers. They seek it out: it is most common for religious conversion stories to include variations on the sentiment that all one's questions were answered. One of the aspects of fundamentalist religions that is most dangerous is their utter certainty, their willingness to kill themselves, and you, in their certain knowledge of Heaven's will. The greatest mystics and saints have always experienced the dark night of the soul, the cloud of unknowing, the mists of uncertainty, the via negativa, before they have been illuminated with knowing. Unknowing and knowing are the two complementary sides of any mystic's life. As words and the end of words are probably both necessary to the writer's life.

Grumbach pursues this issue of uncertainty, again in the company of Beckett, later in her memoir:

Samuel Beckett called upon writers to violate all the strenuous efforts I made every day for exactness of word, phrase, sentence, meaning. "The most real element in the fiction you write will be the uncertainty." I thought perhaps his secret to accomplish this by strict limitation upon the prose, thus allowing for doubt while certainty was somehow an underlying suggestion. Did this duality satisfy the reader?

The ending of mystery stories, with every situation firmly resolved, is always very satisfying and probably (I do not know for certain for I never wrote one) not too difficult to bring off. But serious fiction often ends in ambiguity, leaving the reader feeling uneasy, even angry. Why not resolve everything? Doesn't the writer know how it ends? Ah, but life is full of vagueness, unsolved puzzles and situations, and eventually, and uncertain conclusion.

—Grumbach, p. 77

Near the end of Thomas Merton's fifth journal, as Grumbach relates, there is reprinted a heartrending letter from him to M., in which he makes his choice to continue his life of vows: I know I am where I belong. . . . In a postscript to this letter, which Grumbach quotes, and which is worth re-quoting here, Merton defines his other, probably dominant vocation:

The work of writing can be for me. . . the simple job of being: by creative reflection and awareness to help life itself live in me. . . . For to write is to love: it is to inquire and to praise, or to confess, or to appeal. This testimony of love remains necessary. Not to reassure myself that I am ("I write therefore I am"), but simply to pay my debt to life, to the world, to other men. . . . The bad writing I have done has all been authoritarian. . . .
—Merton, quoted in Grumbach, pp. 60-61

Merton: For to write is to love: it is to inquire and to praise, or to confess, or to appeal. This is a definition of writing that I can fully embrace, non-Writer that I am. It gets at the real urges and reasons and motivations for why I do anything, really, from writing to cooking, from making art to fixing a bicycle. To inquire. To praise. To confess, to appeal. To reveal.

Merton: This testimony of love remains necessary. What could be more necessary, still, than a continuous testimony of love? Love of life, of the other, of oneself, of everything that is alive, which is everything that is. Everything I do creatively, everything I make or play, is a testimony of love. I have no doubt of it. That such testimony often takes me beyond the end of words is not a dilemma, though, nor need it be; it can be a solace.

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Blogger Mary Scriver said...

Thank you, Art.

Prairie Mary

11:03 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

My pleasure!

I dug out my copy of Grumbach's "Fifty Days of Solitude" today, and started reading that again, too. She suits my mood this weekend.

1:17 AM  

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