An Elemental Thing comes with a black and white cover photograph showing the ocean floor as it looked several millions of years ago. [See photo, below.] It is a strange world of polyps, corals, cephalopods, and trilobites consuming each other. The water is so clear as to be virtually absent, allowing viewers to perceive every detail without distortion, as if they had been specially arranged for our eyes. At the same time, the idea that human observers could be really present to this scene is absurd.
In a sense, it is the same with Eliot Weinberger’s latest book: Weinberger manages to draw crystal-clear ‘pictures’ of the past, which seem both strangely realistic and at the same time distant and enigmatic. Although it does not move as far backwards in time as the jacket photograph, An Elemental Thing is a book containing marvelous things, scenes and people as unfamiliar to us as the ocean of the Devonian period.
Of course, Eliot Weinberger is not a photographer but an essayist, and the essay as a genre is not famous for imaginations of pre-historical landscapes without human beings. Quite to the contrary, it has often been conceived as one of the major ways of expressing human subjectivity. Although it is difficult to say what actually ‘defines’ an essay, the subjective, individual ‘I’, with its personal voice and its unique style, is perhaps the one feature we expect to find in every essay. In his latest collection of essays, however, Weinberger seems to directly oppose this notion of the ‘personal’ essay. There is virtually no autobiographical content, no private reflection, no personal experience. In An Elemental Thing, the ‘I’ seems to be absent.
Additionally, and in contrast to many of his earlier essays (most obviously the ‘political’ ones in the recent What Happened Here), we do not get any polemical comments on the latest obscenity of the Bush administration, nor furious anti-war prose poems like ‘What I Heard About Iraq’, nor comments on recent developments in the poetry scene. Instead of scrutinizing his immediate surroundings, the author of An Elemental Thing finds his subjects in regions historically, or culturally, far away from the here and now.
In ‘The Tree of Flowers’, for example, the story of a 16th century Portuguese explorer hearing the story of an Indian girl who can be turned into a blooming tree by pouring water over her is told. In ‘Abu al-Anbas’ Donkey’, a dead donkey appears in the dreams of his former keeper, ‘a man named Abu al-Anbas’, who lives in Baghdad ‘during the reign of Mutawakkil’, and recites ‘donkey poetry’. In ‘Empedocles’ we learn that this man, who was ‘a student of Parmenides or of Xenophanes or of Anaxagoras or of Pythagoras or of Pythagoras’ son, Telauges’, believed that ‘a skull consists of four parts fire, two parts water, and two parts earth’, and that ‘in the time of unity there is no difference between the sexes’.
What matters most in these pieces is the sheer abundance of exotic detail, as well as the simple beauty of the stories. Often, they contain wonderful mysteries, which, however, they do not explain but only circumscribe, so that they remain enigmatic at heart. For example, there is perhaps some deeper meaning in the story of ‘Guiseppe’, a 17th century boy ‘who would sit for hours with his eyes rolled upward, gaping’, who could ‘stop a furious storm by shouting ‘Dragon! Dragon!’, who ‘loved everything about the Church’, and who ‘could fly’. Rather than being an edifying biography of a saint we might want to imitate, this story conveys a sense of awe at the incomprehensibility of the life described.
The impression of this essay, as well as many other examples, as describing a life somewhat outside the norm is to a great extent due to the special combination of ordinary and extraordinary, natural and supernatural elements. Weinberger has said elsewhere that everything he writes is ‘verifiable’, and the list of sources supplied at the end of the book underlines this basically ‘non-fictional’ nature of his essays. It would certainly be rewarding to compare Weinberger’s essays with his sources in detail, to see which parts of the texts that he has read he actually selects and how he combines the selected elements.
But we might as well believe without examination that Weinberger’s essays are ‘factual’ in the sense that their content has not been invented by the author, but is based on other writings. Still, fact and fiction are continually blended, or juxtaposed, or both. For example, to the narrator/essayist of ‘Guiseppe’, the idea that a boy can fly because ‘devotion has reduced his body and his mind to a state of physical zero’, seems perfectly credible, and on the same level as the fact that ‘Guiseppe’s father was a carpenter’. There is no comment on the credibility of either information. If readers find something hard to believe, they will have to acknowledge that their judgment will be based exclusively on their own assumptions.
The question of credibility also arises in the biographical narrative of ‘Muhammad’ (see also Cliff Fell’s review of the chapbook edition in Jacket 33). Although one of the longest pieces, it is even more condensed than the other stories, even more stuffed with supernatural events, and even more enigmatic. Its protagonist is the ‘founder’ of Islam, of whom everyone in the world has heard of — but probably not in this way:
As a boy, he slept in a room with his uncle, but changed his clothes in secret. At night he could be heard uttering prayers. Often, a beautiful man would appear by his bed, stroke his head, and disappear. He was usually alone, with a light beaming from his head to heaven.
Rather than being comprehensively informed about the life of an extraordinary individual, we are confronted with numerous collisions between fact and fiction, history and myth. The most ordinary thing, being alone, is put next to the most extraordinary, a light beaming from one’s head. If, however, we want to make a difference between the two levels, we must make it for ourselves. The narrator seems completely unimpressed by this obvious clash of different conceptual spheres.
But questions also arise concerning the nature of storytelling itself: Who, for example, is this ‘beautiful man’ appearing at Muhammad’s bed? What is his function, or why is he mentioned at all? It seems that something crucial is missing: Muhammad’s life story is told, it would seem, without an underlying plot, without causal connections between events, without suspense or insights into the characters’ psychology. ‘Muhammad’ remains incomprehensively strange to us, as if it would just not fit into a conventional narrative structure, or as if the narrative just fails to cover the really important aspects. Consider the following passage:
On the night Muhammad was born, every idol toppled over. The palaces of Kesry, emperor of Persia, trembled, its dome split in two, and fourteen towers collapsed. Lake Sawwa, which had been worshipped as a god, disappeared, and became a salt plain.
The events, or rather, elements, of its protagonist’s life are simply presented one after another, connected, so to speak, by way of sequence, but not consequence. It seems that instead of telling a proper story, Weinberger is more interested in making a list of events. The connections between these events, however, are left out, so to speak. Instead of a tight narrative web, there is a loose compilation of elements, the spaces between which are more or less empty.
This phenomenon of list-making can also be found in many other of the 34 essays in An Elemental Thing. Although at first glance many appear as ‘normal’ prose essays describing, exposing, or reflecting on some interesting subject matter or point, they quickly turn into strange cascades of information, for example ‘Winter’:
The flavor of winter is salty; its smell is putrid. The Emperor lives on the Dark Hall side of the Hall of Light. He wears black robes and black jade ornaments, rides in a black chariot pulled by black horses with black manes, trailing black streamers. He eats millet and pork; his vessels are wide and deep. The imperial ladies move to the Northern Palace, wear black clothes trimmed with black, and play musical stones.
We recognize the mode of writing, we know the words and understand the syntax — but still, there is something peculiar going on. Similar to making a list of events rather than telling a story, Weinberger here takes information and puts it together, without, however, building an ordinary text. The elements, it seems, are simply stacked up, but without an underlying argument. Remembering that Weinberger generally uses information found in other books, it becomes clear that he does not intend to ‘summarize’ their content in a usual way. There
is no real adaptation to our expectations of a ‘proper’ historical account of ancient China, no real cultural translation between the ‘exotic’ subject matter used and the ‘ordinary’ readers. The effect is the same as in ‘Muhammad’. Instead of getting neat information, we are confronted with questions: Who is this ‘Emperor’? What is the ‘Hall of Light’, and why is the color black so important? Who, after all, is speaking, and why does he think readers will need this information?
The risk of readers getting a little exhausted with so much strangeness and so many questions is avoided by adding more ordinary essays in between, which work with more familiar techniques, as argument, exposition, and comment, like ‘The Desert Music’, ‘Wind and Bone’, and ‘The Vortex’. Readers can take a rest here and entrust themselves to this ‘expert guide through history’s labyrinth’, as B. F. Dick has called Weinberger in an earlier review. Although linguistically and structurally more typically essay, these too are brilliant explorations into miracles, other cultures, and myth.
But some pieces seem even less suited for the label ‘essay’, as they appear in the form of collages rather than prose texts. The visual structure of such essays is a marker of their rather fragmentary nature. ‘Changs’, for example, lists thirty-four men named ‘Chang’, picked from all over Chinese history, separated by blank spaces:
Chang Chu, a poet in the 13th century, wrote a line, ‘The cataclysm of red sheep,’ that no one has ever been able to explain.
Chang Hsu-ching, a Taoist, no one remembers exactly when, obtained the elixir of life and discovered that tigers would do his bidding.
Chang Jen-hsi, in the 18th century, wrote a treatise on ink.
‘The Stars’ is another a brilliant assemblage of religious and profane notions, separated by tab spaces: ‘they are the lights of the palaces where the spirits live’ is followed by ‘they are of different sizes’, which is followed by ‘they are funeral candles, and to dream of them is to dream of death’. In such collages, there is no overall argument to be found, just elements following each other, the sequence of which does not seem to be in any way compulsive.
Weinbergers essays have been labeled the results of ‘condensations’ of information. If we would want to find a more precise term that grasps the special literary technique employed for this effect, and which goes for most essays in An Elemental Thing, whether narrative or collage-like, we might well call it ‘enumeration’: a kind of lining things up, of constructing a text without any structure but the simplest. In fact, the ‘collage’ or the ‘list-making’ of essays like ‘Changs’ seems to be very close to the ‘hyper-description’ of ‘Winter’, as well as to the uneasy biography of ‘Muhammad’. In a sense, they can all be conceived as ‘word-piles’, which leave out many things we feel are important for understanding a ‘text’. However, the result, as I have tried to show, is the creation of numerous rich layers of possible meaning and mystery. Enumeration seems the ideal way to say very little and very much at the same time.
The overall effect is a maximum reader stimulation. Weinberger’s essays create countless empty spaces by presenting elements in a kind of free movement, leaving enough room for the audience to continually wonder, to continually experience amazement. (Mark Hutchinson has described the effect of the earlier Karmic Traces as ‘it makes you sit up in your seat.’) It is almost impossible not to want to find out more about all the strange beings and occurrences shown — but not exhausted — in this book. (Another reason for consulting the ‘sources’ oneself.) Sieglinde Geisel has said elsewhere that Weinberger ‘gives the world back its secrets’, and he has obviously understood that in order to do that, they must also be given to us.
With enumeration in mind, something more can be said about the obvious absence of the ‘I’: Weinberger’s essays often seem so unearthly because he relies on enumeration — a technique which to a great extent leaves out argument, exposition, or explanation. In other words, he dispenses with the usual textual strategies of producing meaning. It is little wonder that there seems to be no ‘I’ in many of these texts, no human observer, just ‘neutral’, ‘objective’ lists containing one thing after another, without, it seems, any consciousness in control. Our usual ways of meaning-making seem as misplaced in the worlds of ‘Muhammad’, ‘Guiseppe’, and ‘Empedocles’, as they would be in the Devonian ocean displayed on the cover.
Looking again at the photograph, we know of course that what it shows is a fully artificial scenery, and that the landscape we see is completely human. The spikes we discern on the back of the monstrous trilobite crawling, as well as the little spots on a squid’s tentacles might seem ‘realistic’ to us, but they do no more belong to the ‘real’ Devonian period than to the artist’s head. (The artist, incidentally, is the photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto, who took the picture in New York City’s Natural History Museum. The background, more closely examined, reveals itself as a painted wall, while the animals and plants in front of it are made of plastic.)
In a sense, it is the same with Weinberger’s essays: They are, of course, no more ‘objective’ or ‘impersonal’ than any text by any writer. To the contrary, we become aware that all the narrative gaps and questions that pop up after every sentence are fully intended, and that the seemingly unorganized word-piles are in fact masterfully organized texts. The subject, although structurally absent, is at the same time very much present: It is ‘there’ in every selection and every combination of elements, invisible but indispensable, as the results are unthinkable without an ordering instance. But by placing the subject in the background, by reducing its existence to an implicit presence, rather than saying ‘I’ all the time, Weinberger manages to create a new and unique perspective on the world. By appearing in a very simple but at the same time very open form, it can be seen in a different, beautiful light, untainted, as it were, by traditional ways of seeing.
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