CONJUNCTIONS:41, Fall 2003
Guest Editor's Note
“WHAT IS GOOD INTELLIGENCE,” said Ryonosuke Akutagawa, “if you can’t discover a useful melancholy?” One afternoon on Prince Edward Island, the province of Nova Scotia, I stood with an ornithologist friend exactly where the rain ended. It has to end somewhere, of course, but there we were, looking into the rain, from a dry place a few yards away. It is difficult to articulate, but, just then, I felt for a the first time the actual physical sensation, rather eerie, of being situated on a planet, a strange place where the inchoate “beginnings” of things such as weather, all the first experiments of the gods, were reenacted, constantly, somewhere, at any given moment. Surely this feeling was childlike. I was giddy and terrified in equal measure. I simply shook my head back and forth and uttered, “Imagine that.” However, I didn’t have to imagine it, because it-this exact circumstance-was right in front of me. But already it was past being just the thing itself; it had become the construction of memory in sentences. My companion took in our situation somewhat matter-of-factly, reserving awe for things other than happenstance. I, on the other hand, wished I could stand at this borderline for a long time. One end of the beach was draped in gray filaments, the other end bright pale white-brown. Sandpipers or some other shore birds were stitching along the froth, the border between land and sea.
What good intelligence if you can’t discover a useful melancholy? Melancholy, at times, seems the absolute perfect response to the human condition. This issue of Conjunctions is called “Two Kingdoms,” a title derived from a wistful passage in a letter by Edward Lear: “The misalignment of emotions before sailing to Corfu. The eternal battle of two kingdoms: staying, departing; home, casting memory back to home.” Lear also said of himself, “I am fixed in my melancholy, yet I am restless within it.” One of the most peripatetic of men on record, Lear was also a wonderful painter of birds and landscapes. He once referred to homesickness as a “possibly fatal malady.”
In my cover letter to potential contributors to this issue of Conjunctions, I suggested the subject of “duality,” or “dualism” in our lives. Based on some of my own favorite works of literature, I could imagine all sorts of scenarios, all sorts of dualistic structures, all sorts of bifurcations. A fictional account of someone who, like the narrator in Thomas Bernhard’s Wittgenstein’s Nephew, is only at home when in transit; Aharon Appelfeld’s The Iron Tracks, whose narrator basically seesaws between his past in concentration camp and his present, which is spent largely on trains; Martella Fizzi’s novella “By and Large,” in which a schizophrenic young woman communicates with her lover only via Morse code; Junichiro Tanizaki’s novel The Key, which is composed of competing diaries of husband and wife, which is also an epistolary novel, because each purposely leaves his or her diary of the other to read. As is the case with such broad themes, in conversations with and letters between writers I soon became inundated with examples. Until, finally, Michael Palmer aptly wrote on a postcard, “Of course, duality is what all writing’s about. It’s the inevitable subject.” I suspect it is more often than not an annoyance for a writer to have a subject “suggested,” when subjects naturally insist on themselves day and night and won’t leave us alone. The idea with “Two Kingdoms” was to see if writers might attend to a particular idea, and if not, send good work anyway. Both things happened. I cannot pretend to ever fully comprehend the duet of the conscious and unconscious minds as they work in a poem-or prose-but I can say each and every one of the splendid contributions to this hodgepodge anthology contains the resonate duality of (as Lear said of a Greek landscape) “the blessedly clear light-and the blessedly mysterious darkness.”
My own writing is largely set in the Canadian Maritimes and the Arctic, and no matter where I live, those landscapes and histories are right in front of me. For nearly a decade, I worked and traveled in the Arctic reaches of Canada and Greenland. In a remote-remote for even the Arctic-village, one evening an elderly woman, suffering the last throes of cancer, gathered all twenty-seven Inuit citizens of that village, plus myself and another visitor, a Norwegian linguist, into a small, cluttered house of the makeshift sort you find in such villages. She was seventy-three. She proceeded to distribute small gifts and say goodbye. Her nephew handed her a bottle of whiskey. It was between minus forth and minus forty-five degrees Fahrenheit. Then she “walked out,” as they said in those parts. I looked through the door’s window until she disappeared. It was snowing heavily. I was told that she would simply walk as far as she could, sit or lie down, remove her clothes, drink as much whiskey as possible, and wait. And that she would not have to wait long before (rough translation) “she would travel to the land of the dead.” At the time, I was bewildered at how she could be allowed to do such a thing. Years hence, I am fairly amazed at how she comported herself-as did her family and friends-with the utmost dignity. I don’t mean to traffic in anthropological sentimentality; I only mean to report that after we observed her walk through blowing snow out of this kingdom, later that night a dozen or so stories about the land of the dead and what goes on there were told. If stories are a kind of eternity, then in those northern villages, eternity surely resides in the past. While this issue of Conjunctions was being completed, one of the contributors, Reetika Vazirani, took the life of her two-and-a-half-year-old son and then her own life. Whatever exhaustions, diminishments plagues her, whatever dark cloud choked her mind, I wish she had had enough remaining clarity to have left her son in this kingdom. Convenient psychological theory dealing with the relationship between depression and creativity suggest that writers embrace, in their craft, the “melancholy dilemma” (to quote Julia Kristeva). That is, given the “melancholy dilemma,” writers resort to language, to the symbolic order. From this it would follow that people who are depressed no longer have this recourse. For the seriously depressed person, language is dead-the symbolic order fails him or her. Whichever demon she succumbed to, this notion could not have been entirely true for Reetika Vazirani, at least not up until the final shattering of her mind, the dark night of the soul, or however one attempts to describe some unfathomable, desperate rage and excruciating narrowness of purpose. Because she was writing fine poetry merely weeks before the end. For all anyone knows, language-poetry-may have been the last thing she held on to. The deepest horror: one can imagine the twisted logic of a mother doing such a thing to not leave a child motherless; one cannot fathom a mother doing such a thing. She should have plummeted alone; yet she did not. Two kingdoms: hope and hopelessness; nightmares; nightmares you can’t wake from. Ad infinitum.
The prose and poetry in this issue of Conjunctions dignify language, and each piece is and of itself a bold act of the imagination, “not allowing convenient notions of existence” (Lear), painstakingly shaping experience for posterity, even if posterity takes the form of someone years hence just rummaging through a bin in a used bookstore, who happens upon this bound gathering or work. I am grateful to the writers who allowed me to be associated with their work as guest editor, to Brad Morrow for suggesting our collaboration. I am grateful to Jerome Rothenberg, friend and mentor for thirty years, for being the first to contribute. I’d like to acknowledge my admiration for Rick Moody’s Gaddis portfolio and for those writers who contributed to it. I especially wish to thank Jake Berthot for his trees because-again I quote from Lear-“the mind’s eye is sometimes least patronized by a picture dedicated to the more haunting configurations.” That is what I feel about so many of the pieces in this issue of Conjunctions: haunting configurations. And there’s precise joy-and useful melancholy-throughout these pages as well.
East Calais, Vermont
Howard Norman's Trees of the Epistolary Life
with art by Jake Berthot can be found in the
print issue of Conjunctions:41.