A Journey into
The Essence of
(Lindisfarne Books)When he was living in England, Feild got it into his head that he would like to study Sufi, so, conveniently, he ran into a man in an antique store who invited him to Turkey to learn the mystical side of Islam. The teacher's name was Hamid.
Once they arrived and settled in, Feild began his lessons. The first exercises had to do with meditation, Zikr chanting, and breathing in colors. But then things got a bit strange.On one occasion, Hamid said to him: "Today we are going to drive across the mountains to the northwest. I wish to visit the ruins of a temple dedicated to Apollo." It turned out to be a nightmare journey, as the road was a tiny, up-and-
down donkey path, running alongside great canyons.
The hand brake was a wire, and as night came on, the dim lights didn't illuminate even to the edge of the road. Feild, who was driving, became more and more nervous. At one point, a camel tried to run them down (only in Turkey!) Too, Hamid constantly complained about the slow driving, "Drive on. It's getting late, and the lights of the car are very dim." Finally, the donkey path came to a reasonable road, but at that very moment, Feild ran over a rock which destroyed the underpinnings of the car, and they were forced to stop in the middle of nowhere for the night.What would have been one of those nightmare trips abroad that you and I could use to regale others years later turned into a spiritual lesson from Hamid. For one thing, he pointed out to Feild that there was no camel: "You saw a camel but it was a pretty strange camel to behave in the way it did, don't you think?...I mean that was a camel, and it was not a camel." The rock? "There was no rock. You have failed totally and now we are stuck out here. Can you remember nothing?"
§ § §
Obviously, if we are going to hang out with masters, seeking the truth, we're going to get a fair amount of abuse, along with psychosis-inducing contradictions. It's the path of learning. Whenever we think we are meditating nicely, a Zen master will come along and bop us on the head. Don Juan constantly played tricks on Carlos Castañeda, and made him feel the fool. Hamid tells Feild that there was no camel, nor rock. What these guys are doing, supposedly, is getting us to give up our version of reality.
Still, it's stuff that might drive the rest of us crackers. We think we are doing right and it turns out it's all wrong. At one point, in disgust, Hamid sends Feild out of his house and off to a tiny hotel to wait. To wait for what? No one knows. When finally they meet again after a few weeks, he points out that Hamid had told him there was "no more point in going on." The master responds,
Now you are using your own will again! How do you know what the test was? If you knew patience, you would understand. Can't you see that nothing can happen until the time is right? ... But you have free choice. Go back to England if you like. I personally do not care one way or the other."
If you are interested in Sufi teachings, and want to know about one man's journey with an irascible, impossible master --- this is it. It's packed with dervishes, strange chance meetings, visits to Rumi's tomb, and a garish series of trials. If it had been me, I would, early on, have told Hamid to stuff it. But then again perhaps that's why Feild now goes about the world giving workshops on Sufism, "helping people on the path to transformation," while I lie about and read books on mysticism (and bitch about them) for a minuscule living.--- I. Schwartz
A Thread Across
The Heroic Story of
The Transatlantic Cable
John Steele Gordon
(Walker)The first transatlantic cable was to be laid between Ireland and Newfoundland in 1857, but half-way across the Atlantic, a storm blew up, the cable broke --- and disappeared off the stern of the Niagara, damn near pulling the boat down with it. It was two-
and-a- half miles above the bottom at that point, and thus the vastly expensive cable was impossible to retrieve.Another attempt was made the following year, but the cable again parted --- disappearing again into the deep. The third attempt was successful --- and the public went wild. The participants were knighted, Queen Victoria sent a message, via the cable, to President Franklin Pierce, in her usual third-person austerity ("The Queen desires to congratulate the President on completion of this great international work, in which the Queen has taken the deepest interest"). He replied in kind.The sponsor, Cyrus Field was given a "hero's welcome" in New York City. And, after a couple of weeks of fireworks, festivities, speeches, and poems, the cable went dead. Why? It simply hadn't been tested enough to withstand the strain of transmission.
It wasn't until 1866 that a thicker and more resilient cable was set in place going from Foilhummerum Bay in Ireland to Heart's Content (!) Newfoundland. This time, it was a carefully tested cable that could deal with the rigors of living undersea for decades. With its completion, all the messages that heretofore had taken at least two weeks to pass could be transmitted instantaneously.
Gordon's story is filled with ancient and contemporary detail (international cables still carry over 70% of world communications; the first ones, like early golf balls, were wrapped in the sap from the gutta-percha tree; a second cable, one that had previously parted, was put into service a week after the first).The best passages have to do with disasters, the storms, the times of defeat, the mind-boggling resources necessary to come up with over 2,000 miles of cable --- and investors sometimes watching, helpless, as their fortunes literally flopped over the side.
However, the most poetic moment flowed from the oratory of one Edward Everett, governor of New York, who declaimed,
Does it seem all but incredible to you that intelligence should travel for two thousand miles, along these slender copper wires, far down in the all-but-
fathomless Atlantic, never before penetrated by aught pertaining to humanity, save when some foundering vessel had plunged with her helpless company to the eternal silence and darkness of the abyss? Does it seem, I say, all but a miracle of art, that the thoughts of living men --- the thoughts that we think up here on the earth's surface, in the cheerful light of day --- about the markets and the exchanges, and the seasons, and the elections, and the treaties, and the wars, and all the fond nothings of daily life, should clothe themselves with elemental sparks, and shoot with fiery speed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, from hemisphere to hemisphere, far down among the uncouth monsters that wallow in the nether seas, along the wreck-paved floor, through the oozy dungeons of the rayless deep?
Say on, good Everett!--- Lolita Lark
(New Press)He grew up in a village at the edge of the sea in the south of France. The characters include his aunt, his cousins, the maid, and the various citizens of the village, and the time is (mostly) between the wars. However, should I try to give the plot line of this or any other Claude Simon novel, I'd feel pretty dumb.
For, you see, this guy is all style: he can unfurl a run-on sentence that will knock your socks off. He out-Prousts Proust, out-Joyces Joyce. I counted one dangling humdinger starting on page 100 that went for four pages, accumulated 1000 words or so going from the smell of the grape pickers while they are sitting in the dark hall waiting for their money and the melancholy of late summer when everyone is packing up to leave and the memories of playing tennis with a guy called Gaguy who the narrator sees, later, when he's setting off to war in the north of France, presumably in 1940 and who he sees again when he comes back from a rout at the front as a prisoner, seeing the cloth that Gaguy is wearing around his neck, waving to him as they pass, and then back again to where they are playing tennis although Gaguy kicks them off the tennis court because he wants to play, tells them to go hit their balls off the side of a barn.
Now one can't just roll out such a spaghetti sentence and make us want to hang on (for dear life) unless one is a master of style and Simon is just that --- whether he is talking about the trolley, what it looks like, the colors, what it smells like, the advertising signs along the outside, the sparks when it goes by, and the passengers, some of whom choose to ride up front with the "Wattman;" or when he's off on the bathhouses on the beach, the color of the canvas, the specific fade of the color, the construction, the wood used, the size, the feel, and always the smells; or the girls' skirts when they are coming back riding on the wagon used to carry the last of the grapes,
Inhaling the mingled odors of the pines and the fig trees combined during the grape harvest with the thick, rather sticky smell of the fermenting must which permeated the motionless warm air of the moribund summer where, at twilight, the carts filled with the last tubs passed, the bare legs of the little girls who had been picking the grapes hanging over the side, gilded by the setting sun and speckled mauve by the grapes, swaying with the movement of the cart like a colorful laughing fringe.
"The moribund summer." The legs "gilded by the setting sun and speckled mauve by the grapes." And, tiens! --- swaying "like a colorful laughing fringe."
Get it? I hope you do, because it is worth it. It's not only a master writer jumbling things together as they should be jumbled, but, too, a trip into southern France from eighty years ago and you are there where they dressed up in fancy duds to go to the beach and when the trolleys ran out to the shore to the last of the tracks covered in sand and the men of "Le Cercle" --- those who ran the village --- got together at their club, surrounded by their mistresses, the "poules."
Or maybe it's the family maid with her "narrow desiccated face framed by two locks of hair escaping from her bun, her rheumy eyes, her gaping fish-mouth, her slight limp, her eternal black clothes" who used to get rid of the rats that she burnt alive, o god! burnt alive in their cage over the high flames of the stove
the rats caught in her traps, indifferent to (or pleased with?) their horrible writhing, actually inviting us children to observe this dreadful spectacle, as if it were an act of both disinfection and justice, when it was over dropping into the garbage the charred remains of these wretched creatures in the same way she threw out potato peels or chicken heads.
§ § §
Detail detail detail. We don't read this one for the story, lord knows, but for the fretwork, the narrator telling of his time in the hospital, presumably not too long ago, with all the medical gee-gaws that they stick in him, the nurse telling him that they don't have bidets in the rooms because some of the patients "made caca in them" and he meditates on why she uses baby talk with him and in fact...
...maybe all of The Trolley is but a meditation on the simple revealing stories out of our lives: his aunt at the beach not consorting with the low-life summer renters and him going sadly off to school in the early fall and then briefly at the front as WWII commences and then as a prisoner of the Germans being marched away and chancing to spy Gaguy and then memories of the left-overs of the previous war the veterans his aunt called "the stump men" and then, suddenly, we're watching the burning ghats of India, in Benares, reminding us of the cooking rats but somehow less horrific, more humane, almost jolly as (as often happens in India) the events collide with one another, that of cooking up the dead and a nearby festive party:
While we were watching from a terrace, there was one of those stakes on which we could still make out the mostly charred shape of a body which with the help of long rods two men were busily turning as if on a grill, and you could hear in the darkness, from another terrace gaily decorated with lanterns, other chants rising, harmonizing, accompanied by stringed instruments, and our guide explained that a wedding was being celebrated over there.
§ § §
There were some of us who never won the war with Proust, never got beyond page 78 in Swann's Way even though it's the selfsame discursive style. If you have problems with run-ons, The Trolley meandering down the streets of this southern French village might drive you off the track. But then again it's only 109 pages long, one of a dozen or so books by the same author, and we are thinking that one year maybe he wrote a fat Proustian book and then chopped it into bitty pieces, to send out to the world, McNuggets of a contemporary Remembrance of Things Past if you will, stuffed into smaller containers so we can take it like we couldn't those fat volumes of the master. It's god-like, it is, this chopping apart of reality --- like the god-feet we find on the deck behind us the day Simon sets us in the boat, feet
that might have belonged to some marine divinity not so much muscular as gnarled corroded by salt edged by bright-pink calluses and ending in ridged yellowish toenails roughly squared off both feet somehow animated with a life of their own beneath the body of some invisible giant.--- V. W. Wentworth