Saturday, May 8, 2010

Exit From Exurbia

I, Benjamin
A Quasi-Autobiographical Novella, by Theodore Enslin
McPherson & Company, 2010

We live in two worlds. The world of needs and hunger, sex and real estate, routine and servitude, and the more transcendent world of art and culture, mysticism and ritual.

The sacred and the profane.

Holy and hollow.

Trance and transom.

Extraordinary and ordinary.

There is no border between the two worlds, no doors, no roads, no tunnels or turnstiles. One is as literal and explicit as brick, the other as elusive and immaterial as steam. Access to one is automatic. Access to the other is a matter of perception and imagination. We are born into one, born out of the other.

And the two can reverse: there are times when sex is sacred and religion is profane. When ritual is empty and routine is fulfilling. When servitude is liberating and freedom is a burden.

Who is to know which is which?

The artist - musician, composer, poet, sculptor, painter - provides us with a medium by which we may exchange the currency of our attention with the treasures of the unseen. Enslin’s I, Benjamin, is such a work: its language dilates with labial suppleness into a realm of music and inspiration. Our eyes open to domain of the creative; to what speaks in art.

The “I” that speaks in the prose is a pilgrim in an allegory of consciousness, a mental entity required by the artwork for its crystallization.

“I” is a pivot upon which turns the parables and dreams of an awakening intellect.

The empirical “I” is a placenta for the transcendental “I.” The transcendental “I” is latent in the empirical “I.” And it is by virtue of the transcendental “I” leading toward universal values that the “I” becomes a “We.”

The primary medium in which this allegory transpires in I, Benjamin, is music. Enslin at one time aspired to be a composer, and it is this musical impulse that so imbues his poetry, and informs his prose. “In Western music,” observes Theodore Adorno, “it would be possible to demonstrate how much its most important discovery, the harmonic depth dimension, as well as all counterpoint and polyphony, is the We of the choric ritual that has penetrated into the material.”

I, Benjamin begins, as do many allegories, in a forest. He goes on a journey into the back country “which lies just off my left wrist, through the lake and marsh lands, past the blind set up by my friend, Roy Basileus, the painter turned duck hunter, up a gentle incline into hill country, past windmills and small houses where the maintenance crews stayed during their repair sessions.”

Everything sounds familiar enough, rustic as oak, empirical as clay, until a young man contracted to stay six months in the maintenance hut collecting accurate weather data introduces Benjamin to a young woman who “had lost her way some time back.” The young man had taken her in and “now she still needed someone to look after her, until her companions arrived, and could take her back to her own country.”

Benjamin agrees. The young man leaves, and Benjamin is left alone with the young woman, who is cold and distant. Forbidding. She warms to him just a little when she discovers that a book he is reading concerns Minoan Culture, “and the ill-defined cult of matriarchy.” He discovers that not only was she in attendance at his father’s lectures on Minoan Culture, but that she must have been the offstage soprano at his father’s dinners, attended by a singing waiter named Mathias, who sang Mozart arias, while his father enjoyed his dinner. She sings a few bars from Zerlina’s response to Don Giovanni, and he comes to realize that he is linked to this person by the genius of music.

The days pass. She continues to be cold, even though they have sex one night. “We made love,” Benjamin narrates, but “it was not wholly successful. It seemed as if there was a great deal of anger and restraint still between us. After it was over, she indicated that I was to go to my own corner.”

One cannot help but sense a contact with the marvelous here, despite the awkwardness and undercurrents of hostility. The crude, empirical self that is Benjamin’s inchoate identity is being initiated into the higher calling of music, the transcendent realm of unification. The incommunicability and inwardness of consciousness finds expression in the unifying spirit of music, but it is a slow and painful process. Antagonisms that are unsolved in reality remain unsolved in the imagination. That inner chafing generated out of frustration and irresolvable conflict is not only what separates us from a finalizing synthesis but is the furnace of our creativity. The universe calls to our higher instincts, our feeling for beauty, our receptivity to the sublime, our appetite for knowledge, but the world calls us back to the inanities of daily life, chopping wood, looking for work, killing game for our food, killing time for the sake of sheer forgetfulness. The world of television versus the world of telesthesia.

Totem versus trademark.

Magic versus market.

This is evident in Enslin’s allegory: there is always a threat, a feeling of menace, beneath the most benign gestures. One can perform preternatural feats, but only if one obeys certain laws, instructions given to us by beings whose wisdom comes from supernal realms. Our divine guides stay with us so long as we obey their peculiar set of obligations, rituals, paths, and sacrifices.

Eat a forbidden fruit, and we fall from Eden.

Leave the sanctity of Shangri-la, and our lover crumbles into dust.

Defy a warning, pluck a rose, drink from a forbidden well, and you become pregnant with the progeny of an elf, or forfeit to some dark power demanding appeasement and sacrifice.

The young woman, who insists on remaining anonymous, even though they continue to sleep together, is finally visited by her six companions, six men and women who also have that “indefinable ‘dark’ quality, which seemed to hang like fog around them.” The time is come for her to leave. Early in the morning, she extends her hand to Benjamin, still in bed. Her other hand holds a candle. Benjamin rises to shake her extended hand and upsets the candle. Hot wax spills on the back of his left hand. The scars it leaves become significant, a source of power.

Benjamin returns to his village. He becomes a pariah. People avoid him because he is odd, avoids their celebrations, and has no visible means of support.

He leaves. He travels, once again, far into the back country. He encounters his old friend Roy Basileus (Roy, from the French roi, means king; Basileus, from the Greek, means “super king”), who sets him on a journey even deeper into unknown terrain. He also discovers the identity of the woman in the maintenance hut: Zerlina.

Benjamin encounters a house whose construction and items within are identical to the ones of his own home. The pump has been primed. Freshly cut wood is stacked by the stove. A fresh cup of coffee, the same one that he had left, was still warm. “Was I still in my former house in the other dimension,” he wonders.

He is not rattled by any of this. Quite the contrary. “It seemed that I had made this journey, and that it was mine in ways that might not have been the same for others who had suddenly found the circumstances of their lives changed.”

Enslin, who once aspired to be a musical composer, constructs his sentences with the finesse and tuning of a born musician. Which is to say, they are fundamentally simple and plain, free of embellishment. The have the burnished quality of a cello, the lightness of a violin. The sentences yield their information with lambent grace. You can see the grain. You can smell the wood of their construction. They have the charm of a lute, the brilliance of a piano. A refined simplicity that feels confident and unhurried in the resolution of its conflicts. A meticulous plainness that savors the music of aplomb.

Dissonance, consonance, cadence.

Patience, skill, and measure.

A carpenter, a really good carpenter, is a musician of angles and grain. The intent is to make seams invisible, rabbets strong. The house Benjamin describes exceeds its dimensions. It becomes a carapace of protecting amenities. “The sagging floors were straight. The front door had been rehung, and opened and closed easily. The broken window panes had been replaced. So this was how it was to be. The door opened and Lark reappeared.”

Lark is a shapeshifter. Sometimes she is a young girl, sometimes a middle-aged grand dame, sometimes in the “guise of a young diva,“ sometimes an old dowager. She is the tutelary spirit of the house, making Benjamin his meals, doing the housekeeping and dishes. But she is not a maid. Their relationship assumes an uncanny naturalness. Benjamin feels at ease with this woman, despite her many guises. She attends to his needs with remarkable felicity, without a trace of self-serving humility or theatrical abnegation. She performs tasks in a sprightly manner akin to Prospero’s Ariel. But even Ariel was hungry for reward. For release. And for love. Lark calls such little attention to herself in the performance of her tasks she is virtually invisible. One intuits her motivations as having a source in something divine and supernatural. Perhaps this is why Benjamin’s loneliness continues to be a problem. Lark belongs to the world of spirit, not the world of bone and blood and warm consoling skin.

Lark advises Benjamin to follow his left wrist. He discovers a woods with a small stream, “which was extremely clear, with occasional deep pools.” He goes into the water. “It is refreshingly cool, but not frigid.” When he emerges from the stream, he discovers “a tray with various picnic foods.”

He is given but one warning in this Eden: he must not enter the ravine. “That is forbidden,” Lark tells him, shaking her finger. “If you insist, I cannot prevent you, but you will have lost the use of your wrist, and you will not be able to return here.”

Benjamin begins composing music. This, it is evident, is his true destiny, his raison d’ĂȘtre. Lark busies herself with all the household chores while he is free to compose his music. Aside from the ravine, there are no restrictions. He is allowed, even, to attend a stage performance of Don Giovanni, where he sees his old companion from the maintenance shack, Zerlina. He begins, using his friend Roy as conduit, a musical collaboration with her in which both remain anonymous. Roy is happy to convey his compositions into the “other world.” Benjamin, hungry for companionship, wishes Roy would visit with more frequency. Bringing ducks and brandy. And then,

one night Roy did appear with ducks and brandy. He said very little until we had enjoyed our usual feast. Then he settled back and told me a little of his adventures. He said that the other world had become much worse than in the days in which we both had lived there. The lives of most people were senseless in our terms. There was little good to say of such a civilization with its consumerism, waste, and fatuous self congratulation that could recommend it. There were lacunae of more pleasant things, however, and he had been able to distribute copies of my work to a number of prominent musicians, some of whom I had known. The pieces were eventually discovered in files and folios. No one had a clue as to who the composer might be, whether he was living or dead, or as to the actual period when the pieces had been composed. There had been a number of performances. Critics and musicologists were at odds with one another. None of them seemed to know what to say about the work, except that most of them, as well as a growing audience, felt that there was something pleasurable, even important in a kind of music not usual.

Here we see the divisions between the sacred and the profane. Divisions which have become far more pronounced of late.

Imagine, for instance, our current nightmare, the barrels of oil bubbling up from the fissure in the ocean floor in the gulf of Mexico, killing dolphins, plankton, algae, mollusks, thousands of species of marine organism, destroying the lives of the people who live on the coasts of Florida and Alabama who make a living fishing and shrimping or servicing the needs of the tourists.

Big stinking toxic blobs of black BP oil on the sugar-white powder-fine beaches of eastern Florida.

Or how about the still unregulated capitalist plunder of our economy by the banksters of Goldman Sachs and their ilk. I consider it deeply ironic that the perpetrators of these crimes are very ones who most despise, who most spurn, who most fear the creative work of painters and poets. The ones they call idle dreamers.


This disparagement is a defense, primarily against their own emptiness. Their obsession with wealth, especially when it assumes the vertiginous abstractions of financial instruments so baroque and exotic they seem more like the drug-induced hallucinations of a blindfolded baboon than rational investment schemes, has severed them from the human universe of mustard and myth and music.

The world Benjamin has left behind for the charmed realm in which he composes his music is dying. Dying of greed and oil. War and famine. Arrogance and brutality.

Indifference. Willful ignorance. Lack of imagination.

How might we imagine the music Benjamin produces? “I soon abandoned neo-mediaevalism,” Benjamin confesses. “This was not the music which I wanted to compose -- mine would have to be, in some sense, equally austere, but of another time.”

I have no idea or understanding of how long it took me to compose things that seemed to me worth keeping. I do know that I was immersed in something that took away the sense of loneliness which had made my life less than what I had hoped for. Many times I woke with the nucleus of something I wanted to develop. As music is a supreme saying, I tried to speak. Eventually it seemed easy -- as breathing or a conversation with those who can answer. At times I could pick up bits of sound from birdsongs, or the wind. I spent much time walking in the forest. I had small pads of paper ruled for score, and often completed sketches on such walks. It became more and more evident that my prime concern was melodic, and I composed many songs, not exactly art songs, but things that somehow demanded performance. My soprano passages were often prompted by remembrance of Zerlina’s voice -- the particular timbre which had been her supreme gift. I listened to many of her actual performances. There was something special -- wholly her own -- beyond her superb musicianship. My attempt was to make something worthy, not acrobatic attempts at mere technique.

Enslin’s allegory of creative inspiration, which also happens to be semi-autobiographical, and arises from lived experience as much as it echoes correspondences among the pneuma and eidolons of the spirit-world, is particular in its names. Each bears the imprint of a legacy that is both personal and mythic. The name Benjamin, for instance, houses a frieze of association.

The biblical Benjamin was the last-born of Jacob’s twelve sons, and the second, and last, son of Rachel in the Book of Genesis. In the ancient Hebrew, Benjamin is described as the son of the left hand, before the biblical aphetic change to the “son of the right hand.” Also, left is matriarchal, and right is patriarchal. The role of women in I, Benjamin are pivotal. Zerlina is his muse. Lark is his guardian spirit.

According to W.W. Skeat, author of A Concise Etymological Dictionary Of The English Language, the word ‘lark’ comes from Anglo-Saxon lawerce, which may be compared with the Icelandic laevirki, which means “worker of craft.” Lorraine Byrne, author of Schubert’s Goethe Settings, the image of the lark in Schubert’s song of romantic yearning, An die Entfernte, was drawn from Goethe’s Faust and becomes a motif of separation, signifying the loss of what is loved. The lark is also popularly seen as a symbol of domestic affection, boundless energy, merriment, hope, happiness, and creativity. It is said that the lark sings at the gates of heaven. It is also, as we remember from Shakespeare’s Romeo And Juliet, a harbinger of morning that is not always entirely welcome: “Wilt thou be gone? It is not yet near day:/ It was the nightingale, and not the lark,/ That pierced the fearful hollow of thine ear.”

I, Benjamin, bore special personal significance for me. Anyone (and I suspect that number is many) who has had to suffer the boredom and indignities of a day-job while trying to keep their artistic genius alive can certainly appreciate the allegory of Benjamin’s “exit from exurbia.”

Books such as this are rare and valuable items, availing our eyes with arias of wood, healing our injuries with scars of wonder.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

John, bravo on this excellent treatment of Enslin's "autobiography." I just had a letter from him in which he says someone referred to the book as a "fairy tale." That person's review is short, not sweet, and perfectly wrong. I didn't know you were running a blog, but am so glad to have found it, thanks to seeing notice of this review on Silliman's blog. — Lee Chapman