Sunday, October 02, 2011


KEC at the Haunted House
by J J Cohen

Perceptive readers will have figured out that the only person I'm really attempting to fool with that palm tree in my office is myself. Admittedly, I am quite gullible. Yet there I was yesterday, up before 6 AM on the weekend, editing the final essay for AVMEO and finishing some letters of recommendation and a fellowship endorsement and completing an essay of my own for publication. This isn't the life of unhurried contemplation that fellowship leave is supposed to yield. Yet if I don't clear out some of my commitments soon I will never free up the time I need to write my book.

Within this whirl of activity I have been thinking about moments of pause. My family built such a lull into today, since our weekends have lately been full of either travel or soccer games and fencing matches and other ways of ensuring constant dispersive motion. This morning the four of us did tashlich together, a minor Jewish ritual that consists of nothing more than casting bread on moving water, a sign that you are starting the new year fresh. We carried some stale slices of cinnamon raisin (not so stale that Katherine and Alex didn't nibble along the way) to a stream that burbles not far from our house. We thought about what in the past year could have been better, about how we ourselves could be better, then tossed the bread into the water and watched the pieces float away. We are not a religious family, not a family of believers. We don't fool ourselves into thinking that bread conveyed by water carries with it the failings of the year. We don't want ducks to eat our sins. Yet these small customs mean something nearing profundity all the same. We then took a long, brisk walk together to eat felafel at a farmers' market. Later in the day we visited a haunted house at the garden center down the street and brought back gourds and pumpkins. Perfect.

What unfolds during pauses remains in my memory more vividly than occurrences within whirls. "Speculative Medievalisms" in New York was a maelstrom of heady events and late nights. After the Friday talks Eileen and I and a few brave souls stayed up all night. At six, as the sun was just starting to break the cloud cover, plans for pancakes were suddenly derailed by someone's urgent need for sleep, so I said good-bye to all and walked back alone to my hotel. The exquisite quiet of the city was almost worth the loss of breakfast. As I neared Murray Hill my family called my cell phone: their day was just beginning as mine was coming to its end. After a few hours of sleep I lingered at the hotel, composed a blog post, practiced some guitar (oddly, the hotel had one available to borrow). Late in the day I met a friend at the Strand. He'd been browsing for a while and found an inexpensive book in their basement that I'll share with you in a moment. We looked at books together for a bit, then went to a nearby hummus bar for a bite. We sat by the window, watched the city pass, talked. Suddenly Myra Seaman was banging on that window as she hurried to meet Allan Mitchell. They, like us, were headed to Brooklyn for Karl's book launch party. The four of us together on the subway watched the city in its nighttime splendor as we crossed the bridge. I very much enjoyed Speculative Medievalisms, but Saturday's pauses stay with me more.

Back to that book from The Strand. I was skeptical of the volume that Lowell had found because the last stone book he brought to my attention strangely conflated rocks in Arizona with those in Gaza, American Indians with Palestinians, and the white settlers of the West with contemporary Jews. I'm not saying there is nothing to be made of such an analogy, but the emotional way it asserted itself throughout the book was startling. I've come to realize that there is a whole subgenre of biography that is written through meditation upon stone and -- despite the invitation to Zen that you'd think rock offers -- these autobiolithicographies churn with despair, regret, loss. They are also at times harrowing. Barbara Hurd's Entering Stone: On Caves and Feeling Through the Dark is such a book. It opens with the author's first attempt to explore a cave. About to wriggle on her stomach through a small underground passageway, she is overcome by the sensation that she is with her cousin at the moment of his death, crushed by a truck that roared into his car. The book becomes a meditation on mortality, depletion, darkness, the subterranean, the stony. It could have been melodramatic and overdone; instead Entering Stone is poetic and subtle. Exploring various caves is interspersed with meditations on death. Hurd's friend dies slowly of cancer, giving up on the world before departing. Her father dies without imparting a wartime secret that she knows haunts him. Underground spaces offer a weird intimacy with and distance from the emotions that these mounting losses bring. Yet Hurd doesn't seek from stone a permanence she cannot otherwise find. She loves it blankness, its constant coldness, as much as she love the fact that it sheds light on nothing. In its cold enclosure she paradoxically receives the affective and intellectual gifts it isn't supposed to yield.

My favorite passage occurs towards the end of the book. Hurd has been thinking about how romantics are ill suited to ecological adventures: they always end up dead. Caves are for the pragmatic. She thinks about Orpheus, and wonders if his fatal mistake was to believe that caves are metaphors, songs. I've been working with a rewrite of the Orpheus myth, so I enjoyed this subterranean meditation (it takes place inside a cave):
I've always loved Orpheus, the way his life is such a testament to the power of music. But I wouldn't want him in a cave with me, wouldn't want a romantic who can't be practical, who can't separate the literal from the metaphorical. A romantic might charm the bats into a deeper torpor, turn flashlights into candles he sets on a boulder with crackers and cheese, spread his overalls across underground streams so that you can keep your feet dry. For the romantic, the cave becomes scenery, the set designed for the play of imagination. He won't realize he's wasting light or risking hypothermia. Or maybe he'll think it was worth it. I've done a little of both myself, sat enchanted against a cave wall, letting my light play over the boulders until conduction chilled my backside and the beam began to flicker. The trouble with a romantic is that he can get you killed -- gloriously, perhaps, but killed nevertheless. Or if you manage to escape then after that initial enchantment he'll be disappointed in everything else. Maybe Orpheus' mistake, in fact, was not just the result of confusing the literal and the metaphorical. Maybe Orpheus deliberately turned around. Maybe he knew no long-term marriage could live up to its early romance. Maybe he decided against a life with Eurydice, the tedium of the morning tea and milking goats, and chose, instead, a life of lament and then high-drama death at the hands of the limb-rending Maenads.
Romantics, I think, do not know the beauty that inheres in pause.

1 comment:

Eileen Joy said...

Thanks for sharing Hurd's book, Jeffrey: if the passage you quote here is any indication, it sounds very much worth reading, and beautifully written.