Tag: Melville

A Terrible Beauty: The Wilderness of American Literature

When I was reading Jonah Raskin’s book A Terrible Beauty: The Wilderness of American Literature, I began to have wilderness dreams, as I have always had them, about undiscovered landscapes just beyond the daily familiar. If you’re an American and if you believe you have grown up with anything close to a spiritual relationship with Nature, then you owe it to yourself to read this beautifully written book, for the depth of Raskin’s knowledge, his generosity in sharing it, his wit and gentle irony, for his voice of a storyteller.

Perhaps you are like me. All my life, American literature has been the neglected cousin. But here, Raskin brings him tapping at my door, and right away it turns out he’s not my cousin at all but more the intellectual father I’ve pretended not to know.

Because of his book, I began to remember other relatives—books I had been a little ashamed of (a message from a distant Puritan ancestor?), some I had forgotten entirely. Like William Henry Hudson’s 1904 novel Green Mansions, set in 1840, with its Argentine and Guyanan forests and Rima, the bird girl, the perfect embodiment of my wilderness spirituality, my romanticism and a fifteen-year-old’s sexual yearnings. The same English teacher plopped Hillaire Belloc’s essay “The Mowing of a Field” down in front of me, adding rhythmic, sweaty scythe-swinging work to my trinity of yearnings. Both books included the act of cutting, or taking from the paradise, the destruction theme—genocide, tree felling, buffalo slaughter—that Raskin follows throughout the book. Belloc’s wilderness was a domestic one in the South of England, but a world “remote from ambition and fear, where the passage of strangers is rare and unperceived, and where the scent of grass in the summer is breathed only by those who are native to that unvisited land.” A kind of Brigadoon, and dream-like, with mowing as metaphor, an activity Thoreau would have approved of— the honest work of harvest. And of taking.

Cotton Mather (the worst of me), Cooper, Hawthorn, Melville—it turns out I was baptized in their words hundreds if years before my birth. A Terrible Beauty reminds me that I am only one of a long line of travelers through woods and forests. Raskin opens a door to something that has been slumbering for a lifetime in me, in this boy of the forest, this young Transcendentalist, who thought no one else knew about these things. This little Lewis or Clark who also carried a rifle, but without a Sacagawea to guide him, the boy who saw meaning in dark New England ponds and in turtles that passed through the plane of what can be seen and what can not. This boy writer, me, is now old and trying to understand his long connection to Nature, his need for Wilderness, his need to explore and colonize, construct the hidden nest or hut—the little murderer still wanted as killer of innocent rabbits and other living things.

Raskin is a master of exploratory prose, like a weaver who advances, then circles back to pick up a color or texture, who threads in a streak of irony or wit. On Mark Twain he writes: “(He)…had wrestled with a definition (of civilization) for years, he confessed, until, knowing he was near the end of his life, he realized he had to nail the word down or die trying.”

Cooper, Melville, Thoreau, Twain, Dickinson, Cather, Fitzgerald—I carried all of them into the forest with me—along with Hudson and Belloc, along with Kenneth Roberts’ Northwest Passage (1937) on the French and Indian War, handed to me by my father.

My forests were filled with light and dark, with enchanted clearings and the shadows of German soldiers and some Japanese. As far as Indians went, I was the Indian and not the enemy. At sixteen, my father showed me a mailing from the Exeter or Harvard Alumni Association. It was a story about one or the other of those two schools sending a letter to a New England Indian chief, inviting him to send some of his young men to learn Latin, poetics and English. The chief politely wrote back, thanking the school and saying that they had found such education had not benefited their young men the way they had hoped it would. But on the other hand, if those schools would send a few of their young men to him, they would learn to run fifty miles, argue persuasively in councils, shoot arrows with accuracy and be leaders of men.

And so, some of my admiration for Native Americans must have come from him—my quiet father. In my later years, I wrote a story (“It is Wrong to Steal,” www.sterlingbennett.com) about my grandparents giving up their own food to feed hungry Apaches in Arizona, then being nursed and fed by the same Apaches when it was my grandparents’ turn to fall sick. The Indians did this by stealing a white rancher’s calf. When the sheriff and his posse arrived on horseback, my grandfather, still sick, led the troop in the opposite direction, far to the north, away from his Apache friends. With all that said, I never had an Indian friend. Which speaks to the cultural contradiction that I live. Like others of European descent, I romanticized the people who were here before, but do not have one as my friend, did not count their culture as equal. In that way, I follow my literary ancestors and participate in the destruction of the very Wilderness I worship, accept the displacement and liquidation of the American Indian (as well as the what is wild and independent), make him a foreigner in his own land, put him on a reservation in my mind.

While I was at Berkeley in graduate school, the most important person in my life was already dead almost twenty years before I was born, the Yahi Indian Ishi, whom Theodore Kroeber immortalized in her books, Ishi in Two Worlds and Ishi, The Last of his Tribe. I even instructed that my ashes were to be placed at the top of a certain cliff overlooking Deer Creek, Ishi’s home canyon until he was driven out and became the “Last Wild Indian.” If I had known him, would I have allowed him to be my friend? Or would I have participated in an attitude of colonization and exploitation? This is a question I would never be asking had I not read Raskin’s extraordinary book. Devouring every single page of it.

Nut Cake

We sat in the Café Zopilote Mojado. How shall I translate it? The Café Wet Buzzard? The four of us, his wife and mine, sipping cappuccinos and nibbling at a rich, perfect flan. I had also ordered pastel de nuez. Nut cake. My friend, an esteemed veterinarian, said, “You ordered nut cake?” He frowned in bewilderment. “But you don’t even know what kind of nuts.” My friend is cursed with a literal mind, and by a need for certainty.

“No, I don’t know what kind of nuts they are,” I admitted, inviting his skepticism. I know my friend, and I was glad to diddle with his need for verifiable information. I watched him, and took the measure of his doubt.

“Aren’t you going to ask them?” he smiled. He was referring to the two young women who were waiting on us and preparing the food.

“I doubt they know what kind of nuts they are,” I said. His look of bewilderment grew. There was a short pause, while he shook his head.

“You don’t care what kind of nuts they are?” he asked, as if we were getting to something about my character. Like a missing gene. I said I didn’t care, I would accept whatever they brought me.

Eventually, the cake came. Along with my second cappuccino – a luxury I seldom allow myself. I spread out the accompanying whipped cream with my fork, then cut into the cake. There were no discernible nuts. There were many very small dark flakes of something slightly larger than the flour. The cake went down easily. I was quite happy.

“You didn’t get any nuts,” my friend observed.

I nodded, and added that I also didn’t know what kind of nuts I didn’t get. His wife and mine, meanwhile, were having a different kind of conversation. They were talking about how they had met us, the men. He had been studying at the University of California, Davis. They had found each other in a sociology class. Their conversation caught my friend’s attention, and he joined in. He had done post-doctoral studies in literature and sociology in order, he said, to make himself more attractive to women. At that point, our wives smiled, erected a gentle invisible wall, and resumed their own conversation.

He turned back to me. “To snare more beauties,” he said, with a wink and an understood jab-jab in the ribs. His wife clearly had been a beauty and still was in her sixties.

“I had trouble in the literature class,” he said. “But I loved literary criticism.” I had helped him read some Spanish headlines in the Mexican political weekly Proceso earlier in the afternoon. He had thrown up his hands at the first unfamiliar word he came across.

“It’s the same problem I had with poetry, only worse,” he said, referring to the Spanish. “But I loved symbolism,” he said.

I thought about that now. He loved symbolism, but not vagueness, and not any kind of delay in understanding, not puzzling out meaning, whether in poems, or articles in Proceso. I could not resist my lower nature. I said, when I had his attention, “According to the great German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a symbol changes a phenomenon (Erscheinung) into an idea (Idee), the idea into an image (Bild), so that the idea in the image remains always active and unapproachable, and, though expressed in all languages, including art, can not be put into words. Erscheinung, Idee, Bild.” This was something I had learned in graduate school, and I wasn’t sure I understood it any better now, as I said it, than I had then.

My friend looked at me as if I had just denied the existence of gravity.

“A symbol stands for something else,” he said.

“That’s allegory – the direct knowledge of what is meant. But what we have here – the nuts – is nothing more than simulation.”

He looked at me, uncomprehending, resisting what I had said, but also with sympathy – for a deficiency in me only a veterinarian could sense.

I continued. “If there had been nuts, instead of merely dark flakes, they could have stood for something, like for the essential nature of this cake. That would have been allegory. Nuts stand for essence.”

I was fairly impressed by my discourse, so I continued. “You know, like when Melville refers to the wild watery loneliness of Starbuck’s life. Wild watery loneliness stands for ocean stands for Starbuck’s life. Double allegory,” I observed matter-of-factly.”

At that point, not quite sure about what I had just said, I took a little more whipped cream on my fork, cut down on the cake, lifted the morsel, popped it into my mouth, and slowly chewed. I took a sip of cappuccino.

“They’re symbolic!” my friend said, with a fierce smirk of certainty. “The flakes are symbolic.”

I smiled at him indulgently and did not pursue the matter. He was a man cursed with a literal mind, and nothing Goethe, Melville, or I could say was going to change anything. He had snared his beauty, he was still with her, he had a successful veterinary practice – and he knew a symbol when he saw one.

When he died suddenly a year later, from an unexplained and permanent drop in blood pressure, three unaccounted for older women showed up at his graveside memorial. They were dressed in fashionable black and, like his wife, were enduring beauties. All three stayed in the background, but mixed graciously, when the occasion arose.

My friend’s college roommate, a man of many chins, bathed in a pallbearer’s sweat, explained in muttered confidentiality who the women were. I watched them as the minister spoke inaccuracies and other well-deserved praise about my friend. I could not take my eyes off the women. How had he done it? What explained this cadre of attractive women that had come to mourn him? There was some explanation, some cohesion of significance that hung just at the edge of my grasp. For some reason, I recalled the conversation mentioned earlier. Us sipping cappuccinos in the Zopilote Mojado, The Wet Buzzard. And now I did not know whether I stood before symbol, or an allegory. All I could think, as I watched his casket sink down out of sight, and what I heard now in my mind, was that he had been right about the nut cake, and that it had represented something more than just nut cake. But beyond that, I could take it no farther, other than to say that he was a man who, in the end, had been blessed with a literal mind, and had represented something I understood but could not express. Least of all in words.