Thursday, March 31, 2005

Ralph Ellison and How the Self Floats

Still from the film "Ralph Ellison: An American Journey"
It seems to me that Ralph Ellison may be this country's most important writer. Not so much for his production or even his style, but because of his deep wisdom and his remarkable understanding of the links between literature, politics, and our national struggle with the culture of identity. Every time I read essays like "Indivisible Man," "The Novel as a Function of American Democracy," or "Going to the Territory," I find a new perspective on life and am constantly amazed by the little jewels of truth that sparkle beneath the waters of Ellison's words.

The greatest influence on Ralph as a writer was Fyodor Dostoevsky. Invisible Man was Ellison's "Notes from the Underground." To me, Ralph Ellison did so much more than elevate Dostoevsky to the 20th century. He pointed at the universality of true human experience, that push and pull of soul, identity, culture, politics, and livelihood that goes on always just beyond our ability to understand and verbalize. We are inside ourselves, but we are also out there, floating in the world. This "floating" self is what is invisible. This floating self is where we are all one--connected, pure, blending, formally occurring. And he wasn't alone either. 

At their best, all of this country's great writers provide us with a glimpse of our invisible selves, pointing at what is floating out there just in front of us like little puffs of breath on a winter's morning. Certainly Whitman, Emerson, and Thoreau up through Hemingway, T.S. Elliot, Pound, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and Kerouac and Kesey understood the same thing that Ellison did. What makes Ellison so special, though, besides his extreme intellect and devotion to literature as the highest form of art, is the poignancy of the metaphor of the invisible man delivered through the alienated experience of the cast off intellectual (who just so happened to be black and wandered up from the rural south). But somehow, over the past twenty to thirty years, we have lost track of what Ralph Ellison and his colleagues were pointing at. It's as if there is a competition to do away with individuality. I see fear and hesitancy all around me. The object of life seems to be about being part of things. This is made all that much worse by TV and the media. Conform. Conform. Conform.

But the self is still out there floating, whether you like it or not. The only question is whether you want to take on the challenge of following it, or whether you wish to ignore what and who you are--do what you are told, ask no questions, bury your head in the sand.

I do not know if I have made sense of the experience my family and I went through trying to find my birthmother, Dana. But I do not think I would be able to write all of this down without the understanding of life that Ellison provides. The very notion of race in America is a wound in each individual psyche. No one is immune. Even those proud to be a certain color and physique bleed away a little bit every day. 

However, there is no skin on the self, no body, no milk in the eyes. The self cannot be touched and it cannot be wounded. And yet, all would have it otherwise. It is so easy to slide into the protection of the body and live in the context of the body's particular place in the material world. Yes, it is hard to conceive of oneself as separate from one's body and place in the world--but that doesn't mean it's real.

We are all invisible, floating inside our bodies. When we love, we float into the world. When we read, we float into the world. When we sing and dance; when we laugh; when we walk in the woods; when we pray or meditate. This is our task and our purpose--to be floating in the world--yet so few really know this, so few are aware that they hover out in front of themselves sometimes. If you're invisible, how can you see yourself?

In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man finds it easy to hide.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Citadel on the Mountain

When we set out on our journey to Richmond, it never occurred to me that I would have a story to tell. I took some notes on thoughts I was having at the time. I wrote in my journal some. But I never intended to write out this story. It just came to me over the course of the end of 2003, sort of as an unrelenting need to struggle with what had happened to me--especially the strange sleepy sensations I was having and the vague auditory hallucinations.

I could not even have conceived of writing the story of our quest for Dana without having read Dick Wertime's Citadel on the Mountain several years ago (see "true links" to the right for a sample from the book, or click on the title of this entry to go to Amazon). Citadel is Dick's memoir of growing up with a father who was brilliant, intense, possibly connected to the CIA, and also at times paranoid and delusional. Dick's story is about trying to understand his father (and himself) after his father had died, realizing how much of his own life he did not understand.

I had the pleasure of meeting with Dick in his office at Arcadia University here in the Philadelphia area several years ago. He is a professor of English and writing there. We spent maybe a half hour talking about writing and his book. The intent of the meeting was for him to give me advice on my first novel, Beyond the Will of God (sadly, unpublished). In ten minutes he illustrated five key points of fiction writing that I have taken to heart over the years. We also talked about non-fiction and the memoir as a form. Until that conversation, I had resisted the hype surrounding "creative non-fiction" and New Journalism. I have always admired Mailer, Wolfe, Matthiessen and others capable of exploring real-life in essays and books, but I never saw their "journalism" as art. To me, even serious photography was not art. It approached art, but it was still simply getting lucky by catching a piece o someone's or something's moment.

But Dick turned me around. We discussed the whole idea of what Citadel was about: a sort of detective story, a refitting of the
puzzle pieces of his life after discovering new shapes and new dimensions.

I came away from Dick's office with a greater appreciation then, for the literary quality of non-fiction. (Please understand that I have been a cretin all my adult life and I apologize for this. Although I have been writing since I was eight, I never took an English class or a fiction workshop of any kind after high school).

I'm still not sure where creative non-fiction and memoir fit in the taxonomy of the field of "Litchertchure." I do know, however, that without reading The Citadel on the Mountain, and having the opportunity to listen to Dick's wise counsel, I never would have figured out that I could write this story.

Dr. Wertime will be releasing a new novel soon called San Giovanni.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Once and Future Worlds

The Acadians of the Maritime Coast in Canada were a fully integrated culture mixing Native and French cultures over the course of several centuries prior to the Revolutionary War. They were a culture of some 18,000 people wiped out in a few years by the British, utterly eliminated through forced removal or simply driven into the wilderness to fend for themselves. Some of these displaced Acadians eventually straggled down to Louisiana. Over the next century (mostly the 19th), French/Creole language shifts eventually came up with the name Cajuns for them.

An article in contains an extended interview with John Mack Faragher, a Yale professor of history, who wrote the book entitled, "A Great and Noble Scheme." The article can be found at Salon's website in the books section, "America's Forgotten Atrocity."

Here's an interesting clip from the article:

"To what extent should the Acadians be viewed as a mixed-race or an ethnically mixed people? And how much did that perception contribute to their downfall?

There was an early period in their history, mostly in the 17th century, where there was considerable intermarriage. It really characterized the first and maybe the second generation, when the community was in formation. Once they had established their community the rate of intermarriage fell off, but the important point was that they recognized kinship across community lines. The Acadians looked at the Míkmaq and didn't just see "others" there. They saw cousins, distant cousins perhaps, but cousins nonetheless. They often went to the same missionaries, their names were placed in the same baptismal records, the same marriage records. Because of the early pattern of intermarriage, they came to recognize a cultural and Christian kinship across ethnic lines.

In fact, this also characterizes a lot of American history. I don't like the word, but we're a miscegenated culture. There is nothing really pure about Americans. You scratch us, and we bleed many colors and many ethnicities. Our culture is about hybridity, bringing formerly separate things together. The Acadians are perhaps a more dramatic example.

Now it must be said that the French had a tendency, in part because they emphasized commerce rather than agriculture, to create the kinds of ties with the Indians that made commerce possible. They also practiced an ecumenical Catholicism and were genuinely interested in converting the Indians, where the English really were not.

Yes, you write that the Puritans made no attempts to do that.

Well, there were some attempts, John Eliot and the Mayhews -- these were missionaries in 17th century New England. But the Indians that Eliot converted, who lived in the "praying towns" in Massachusetts, those Indians were attacked during King Philip's War, and subjected to the same hatred and violence as non-Christian Indians. This remains one of the fundamental problems in understanding North American history: the English way of dealing with the Indians vs. the French way."