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Oranges and Peanuts for Sale
New Directions Paperbook, 2009 272pp./ISBN: 0811218341
You can read Kent Johnson’s ten-page interview with Eliot Weinberger in Jacket 16.
‘I only hope I’m not distracted by my dangerous habit of being all too many-sided, adaptable to all things, forever alien to myself and with no central core.’ – Fernando Pessoa.
Eliot Weinberger’s new collection of essays Oranges and Peanuts for Sale opens, tellingly, with ‘Oppen Then.’ This is a short essay about George Oppen, the Godfather of the 1960s Avant-garde and a poet who offered Weinberger’s generation “a model—an impossible inimitable model—of how to be a poet in shifting, disastrous, and what seemed to be apocalyptic times.” What Oppen was to that vibrant period, so too, Weinberger is to now. Weinberger offers a model of a writer that is politically engaged and always ‘making it new.’ An astonishing model for the 21st century: Weinberger Now.
Creative Writing in the English language has now stagnated. Modernism role as the avant-garde Guard of Literature — its subversiveness, its spit-in-the-eye of preceding forms — is now successfully used to launch a well paid and tenured career as a Creative Writing teacher. Octavio Paz once lamented* that “modernity is no longer a critical attitude but an accepted, codified convention.” The modernist tradition has become paralysed. Paz goes on to say that “never before has there been such frenzied, barefaced imitation masquerading as originality, invention and innovation.” An entire generation’s novelists and poets have merely imitated while claiming originality. Essayists have followed the 18th century model of the Essay and its various genres; Travel Essay, Personal Essay, etcetera, while the Novel — its contemporaneous twin — has undergone revolutionary upheavals. Young writers today try to harness this energy and the results seem pedestrian and infuriatingly familiar. Meanwhile the Essay has remained unchanged except for a few rare examples (Pound, Lawrence and recent examples include Susan Howe and the subject of this review). Over his career Eliot Weinberger has been formulating an avant-garde of the Essay and the results are some of the most innovative work appearing in the English language. His new book Oranges and Peanuts for Sale will be released by New Directions in June.
*Quoted in Nathaniel Tarn: “Fragment of a Talk on Octavio Paz, Anthropology and the Future of Poetry”, in Jacket 9, at http://jacketmagazine.com/09/tarn-on-paz.html
After being born by Montaigne the Essay took a subject, ruminated on it, but ultimately, abandoned the subject when it became time to examine the Self. The things of the world were there to be used to examine the Self. The actual things themselves were held at a discount. The interior was the ultimate conclusion of the exterior. A character from a Paul Auster novel says “[m]y favourite writer was Montaigne. Even when his essays stretched out into abstract and far flung territory, they were ultimately an examination of the Self.” This has been the dominant methodology for essays. However, now we are witnessing something new. Both Montaigne and Weinberger are excited by the energy of the intellect. Montaigne champions the intellect, whereas Weinberger champions the energy, and utilises this energy to create a searing vision that saturates his work.
The keystone of Weinberger’s previous book (An Elemental Thing) is a chapter called ‘The Vortex’. A vortex is an act of creation. The movement of energy. A return to the origin of life. The point of regeneration and perpetual re-birth. All things reduced to a whirlpool. A circling primeval goop. Weinberger’s essays are best understood as poeticisations of the vortex. Nothing of the human or the natural world is unabsorbable. Every essay in An Elemental Thing is “[a] Vortex, from which, and through which, and into which, ideas are constantly rushing” Ezra Pound.
The root of Weinberger’s thinking can be found in Ancient Indian Philosophy. The Sanskrit word for a mind at rest is ‘chitta.’ The Sanskrit word for a mind in action is ‘vritta’ (the combination of mind and energy). The literal translation of ‘vritta’ is a vortex in the mind. Each of these essays, as they are absorbed by the reader, grow as a vortex within that reader’s mind. Nothing is safe from the insatiable appetite of the vortex (remember the reader and the vortex are now one-- the vortex enters the reader and becomes his central core. Now that reader moves through the world as a vortex and, subsequently, ideas rush in).
This movement–this energy–is so much more than an intellectual exercise. It is praxis and so the entire book is, itself, an Elemental Thing. (Previous reviews of Weinberger’s work have missed this point.) An Elemental Thing is an elemental thing as it examines the constitution of the world while at the same time resembling a great force (in this situation, the vortex) in nature.
By contrasting Montaigne with Weinberger we can see how the form of the essay has changed. Montaigne in his famous essay ‘On Cannibals’ fastens his gaze on the exotic being that was filtering back along the communication lines of Empire in the 17th century; the black skinned cannibal. Cataloguing its form then retracting away from a fixed gaze upon the object into the inner prism of the Self, Montaigne sees the cannibal as an Other that he then uses to refract the viewer’s own Self and culture. Weinberger’s methodology achieves something different in his essay ‘In blue.’ He launches into a cataloguing and a poeticisation of the roots of the word blue. The essay progresses to a point where, if it were Montaignian, it would retract away from ‘blue’ and reflect on the Self of the writer. Weinberger, refreshingly, sticks to the blue. He always sticks to the things of the world and rubs his prose against these things to illuminate the essay. It is telling that the title of the essay is not ‘On Blue’, but ‘In’, the essay enters the very concept of blue and follows the trail to its roots.
In other pieces of Oranges & Peanuts for Sale Weinberger offers us a much needed reassessment of E. B. White’s Here is New York (for Weinberger White’s nostalgia infused picture of New York incarnates that city out of its context (that is out of what it is that defines New York). New York defines itself by focusing its desire on the the here and now); the current literary scene; two speeches/manifestos to inspire rudderless poets and one on the texture of Barack Obama and his election campaign; translation as the life-blood of poetry; ethnopoetics and photography; critics; James Laughlin (the most influential publisher of 20th century American poetry) and more. Weinberger’s work can be effectively used as a gateway into the wonders of Literature from around the world.
The final piece in Oranges & Peanuts for Sale belongs in the territory that he explored in An Elemental Thing. Called ‘A Journey on the Yangtze River’ it stretches into prose poetry with a distinctive narrative, no ideas but in things and a myriad of wondrous details (each one independently verifiable). What does reading this final piece, where Weinberger uses the tools of Modernist poetry to disassemble and revamp the Essay? Well, he performs a sea-change within the reader’s consciousness, taking both the essay form and that essay’s reader to somewhere completely new. It is a long piece and extracting a small piece is, really, an act of violence (a little like chipping off a piece of a temple and later – back at home and performing for friends – trying to demonstrate the sacredness of the site you saw on your recent holiday). Yet, I will share some of it all the same:
Miserable at a miserable inn, lying in bed.
Water drips through the ceiling and extinguishes dreams.
Little mosquitoes, you and I have the same problem:
hunger keeps us flying around.
If Weinberger’s poetics filter out then Literature in this century could be less a mediation on the ‘interior’, ‘I” or ‘Self’ and more an examination of the ‘exterior’ (other cultures and the things of the world). This may go some of the way to explain why essays seem to resonate so strongly today. Weinberger’s essays focus less on the Self (and healing/helping/finding the Self) and more on the world/others (helping/healing/finding others).
Oranges & Peanuts for Sale reads like a state of the Union address (undertaken by an angry and roving Confucian sage, rectifying language and chastising prevailing norms, as opposed to the Head of State’s progress report.) Read, absorbed, discussed and adopted it could change our literary landscape. Here’s hoping to that.
Auster, Paul, Moon Palace, Penguin Books, New York, 1989.
Jeffrey Errington was born in Sydney and studied at Sydney University and Cornell University. He has worked for Giramondo Press and Heat Magazine as a submissions officer. He is currently living in South Korea where he works as an English teacher.