March 20, 2019KR OnlineNonfiction

God Hunger: The Politics of Nonidentity

History Is No Excuse
I sit in a room full of Tibetan refugees as they pass around a banknote. The paper money is supposed to show a younger generation who never knew a free and independent Tibet, tangible proof that the renminbi was not always their currency. The one-hundred-srang bill has an orange and green border framing a scene showing an old man under a tree surrounded by five symbols of long life. He himself is the sixth. At the front of the room stands a large map of Asia pre-1959. The boundaries of a country called Tibet are clearly marked. The smell of incense and the witnessing gaze of dozens of myriad deities on the tankas—essentially icons depicting various gods, some with hundreds of arms, painted on silk—hanging on the walls of the gompa, contribute to the singular atmosphere.

It’s to the Tibetans I’ve turned to help me make sense of an experience which, years earlier, upended my life, dividing it into a before and after.

In my midtwenties I was confronted with a dilemma: I found myself at a threshold. I had just been offered a dream job in publishing; I was publishing both poems and stories regularly, and I was in a relationship with a woman I loved. Despite all this, I felt profoundly, desperately, restless. Nominal success seemed to obscure rather than clarify the kind of nagging, nasty, existential questions about meaning and purpose to which my friends seemed to have found satisfying answers. I had not. It’s not without cringing that I record these questions now. I wanted to know why I was here; moreover, who was this “I,” beyond the obvious facts?  I should add that every morning for a year prior, I’d begun my day by reading Plato and had by now worked my way through his collected works (except for The Laws, which I still have not read). I suppose it’s possible I’d internalized Socrates’s obsessive why to every statement, every argument. I needed to get beyond questions, needed to hit a bedrock certainty that brooked no further questions, a ground solid enough to build a life on.

For a week, I refused to speak. Not a word. I was thinking. I didn’t leave the apartment, didn’t eat, wouldn’t answer the phone. Wouldn’t even answer direct questions from the woman with whom I was living. It was a terrible period. Sharon’s superhuman patience sprang from her having grown up on the grounds of a psychiatric institution, which her mother directed. I spent my days, and most of my nights, in my study, a small porch overlooking Massachusetts Avenue, reading Plato and meditating. By meditating, I mean I sat in a chair, thinking. I needed to sort things out. I had no idea that traveling inward without a guide was risky—that, at a certain point, one could be pulled in by one’s own mind, by thoughts themselves as they drilled and spiraled, moving at an ever faster speed, like a centrifuge. There were no warning signs, and the speed of light was only a beginning.

The meditation took me places I never expected. Never before, or since, had I pursued the meaning of silence so relentlessly. About five days into this inward push, I felt myself breaking through to what I can only call, feebly, an internal zone of light. I knew then I’d never be able to explain this to anyone, and shouldn’t try.

Instead, for years I looked for someone to explain to me what I’d been through. Though it would take me more than a decade to find it, Buddhism finally offered a way forward. The Tibetans even had a text specifically designed to fulfill the insight at the core of what I’d recently experienced. Written by a fifteenth-century monk, it’s called the “Lamrim Chenmo” or The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment: a step-by-step guide to what we must do to fulfill our evolutionary mission, which is to attain enlightenment. While there are far more poetic and exhilarating texts on the subject, the dry scholasticism of the Lamrim was precisely the antidote my own all-too-flammable temperament required.

Without getting technical, I’d argue that Buddhism offers a singular perspective on the question of individual identity. Identity, Buddhists propose, is fluid: one is always interacting with the world, and everything with which one interacts summons forth a slightly different self. A common way of putting it is that the self does not exist from its own side alone. At the same time, Buddhism acknowledges the existence of what’s sometimes called a “mind stream” that travels from life to life for eternity—even after enlightenment.

Given Buddhism’s emphasis on the relativity of what we commonly think of as our identity, I was therefore fascinated by the Tibetans’ determination to preserve their culture. If identity was as fluid as Buddhism proposed, why not simply accept Chinese rule and assimilate? Why struggle to preserve something born of singular causes and conditions which once existed on the great Himalayan plains now those conditions had changed? Doesn’t Buddhist philosophy encourage the acceptance of constant change? The Tibetans’ children, after all, were born to an entirely different situation, in a country with its own popular mythology and distinct culture. Why would their elders want to pass their culture on to kids more familiar with Pokemon than Yamantaka?  I was to discover that there were answers to these questions, and more. And, over time, I found that a part of Buddhism’s appeal to the literary mind was its commitment to the vast potential of the imagination.

 

God Hunger
In December 1981, I sat toward the back of an overcrowded auditorium in Harvard’s Science Center, listening to the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz lecture. The moment was charged. A few days earlier, General Woijciech Jaruzelski, Poland’s president, had declared martial law. The general hinted that Soviet troops had massed at the border and were ready to invade. Milosz, meanwhile—compact, dark, dignified, and droll—spoke in a precise, brightly accented and ironically inflected English about “the witness of poetry.” While the rumors of Soviet tanks turned out to be false, the heightened moment underscored in neon one of the essential questions Milosz, who had recently won the Nobel Prize, set out to explore: in the face of raw force, what kind of power does the pen really possess? The question is hardly new. Shakespeare also brooded: “How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea / Whose action is no stronger than a flower?”

Back in the YMCA, where I was living at the time, I could barely contain my excitement. I immediately made some notes. I’d never before heard anyone from the Slavic world address such an august forum. This was what it must have felt like for a young African American writer hearing, for the first time, James Baldwin or Toni Morrison speaking to a largely white audience. Before reading Milosz, I’d persuaded myself my obsessions were so singularly Slavic, so beyond the pale of what obsessed my friends, that I feared I’d never find a common language with my peers. Milosz helped to change that by bringing some of these concerns out into the open. His authority gave currency to what had begun feeling like an eccentric obsession.

Milosz, of course, belonged to an older generation—but he professed a worldview unmistakably familiar, in which I recognized the concerns of my family’s dinner table. In sophisticated literary circles at that time, politics and religion could only be mentioned ironically. Politics and religion had, in the aftermath of the upheavals of the sixties, become mere targets of mockery rather than topics for exploration. To approach them earnestly was very uncool. And cool was how most poets—no doubt reacting to their bow-tied, gray-suited profs—desperately wanted to appear. But cool is not a value. And Milosz wasn’t afraid to underscore how differently Slavs viewed the world.

The Slavic obsession: Milosz called it God Hunger. They all shared it: Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Gogol. Oh, man, that Ukrainian Gogol scared me. In his letters he wrote about his need to perfect himself before he could finish the sequel to his best-selling Dead Souls. The positive vision of the world he wanted to project required that he first become a better man, a changed man, the new man the Gospels summon all to become. Gogol prayed for “sacred terror” to inspire him. He wanted no less an editor than God to help him with his book.

To write as well as he aspired to write, Gogol needed to become a saint. His self-flagellation inverted the destructive utopianism of the revolutionaries. They wanted to change their circumstances; the politically conservative Gogol, whose family owned hundreds of serfs, believed he needed to change himself. Both needed changing.  What the revolutionary and the religious ascetic shared was a willingness to pursue their vision to its extreme.

Becoming a saint, however, turned out to be just as difficult as writing a novel (and how many novels have been written by saints?). Unable to satisfy himself, he burned the manuscript of his sequel and proceeded to starve himself to death under the watchful gaze of his spiritual advisor. He was forty-three years old.

• •

God was a vivid presence in my childhood. My mother’s faith was clear and unwavering.  Whatever doubts she may have had had been dispelled by how protected she’d felt during the Second World War, as she and her family negotiated Nazis while sheltering Jews, communists while espousing nationalist sentiments, and American bombs while gradually making their way to the American sector in Vienna. It appears she even composed her own prayers. One day, looking through a box of letters, I found this scribbled on a sheet of paper, with several phrases crossed out: “Your body, Lord, accepted even the pain of death. Our bodies must die. This doesn’t mean that we need to destroy ourselves. No, we must die in a way that allows us to open our souls to you, as though we were giving you permission to enter us, so you might fill us with your love, patience, courage, hope, understanding, and the tenderness of your spirit. Having done that, Lord, you are reborn and continue to grow in us until you become our entire being” (translation mine). Maybe she copied it from somewhere. I can’t be sure.

As a child I, too, believed wholeheartedly. I believed in the power of prayer. In fact, I was sure I’d once saved my uncle’s life with a prayer. It was a rainy Friday night when the call came. There’d been a car accident. My uncle, whose imprisonment in Siberia was just the start of his ill luck, was badly hurt. Doctors doubted he’d survive the night. My cousins were terrified. While my aunt Sheila raced to the hospital, her three young daughters came upstairs to shelter with my parents. Together, watched over by my godfather’s cheerful paintings, we huddled and wept. Finally, unable to stand it any longer, I dropped to my knees onto the parquet floor my father had recently put down and began praying loudly that my uncle be saved. My tears were profuse and earnest as only a ten-year-old’s tears can be. The next morning we awoke to the news that the operation had been a success. My uncle would live. My cousins gave me full credit.

Such personal experiences have no objective weight in the world, yet they leave an indelible impression on consciousness. A simple synchronicity between what’s hoped for and what happens, like a Christmas wish list satisfied, sketches the (hypothetical) links of causality. Not that I require neuroscientists’ recent validations of prayer’s capacity to mollify. I’ve already been swayed by Shakespeare’s pitch. In his speech at the end of The Tempest, Prospero hails prayer’s power so to “pierce, that it assaults / Mercy itself and frees all faults.” Milosz also writes memorably about prayer:

All I know is that prayer constructs a velvet bridge
And walking it we are aloft, as on a springboard,
Above landscapes the color of ripe gold
Transformed by a magic stopping of the sun.
That bridge leads to the shore of Reversal
Where everything is just the opposite and the word ‘is’
Unveils a meaning we hardly envisioned.

At the same time, the child who fell to his knees begging God to heed him learned a parallel lesson: how easy it was to impress people with theatrics. Everyone in the family was quick—too quick—to give me credit. It was something I was gleaning elsewhere, too. My mother was making me memorize long poems I recited on stage at various émigré gatherings. Every few months, at three on Sunday afternoon, hundreds of men and women would put on their finest threadbare suits. They would drive, walk, or take a bus to Elizabethport to sit in an auditorium above a bar to celebrate a religious festival, listen to a concert by a bandurist or itinerant violinist, or mark an old-world anniversary. By far the most important event of the season, however, occurred in early March when Ukrainians worldwide celebrated the poet Shevchenko’s birthday. At the age of six, I stood in front of people I’d otherwise see only Sundays in church and recited the poet’s seven page Testament. I understood nothing of what I was saying, but I couldn’t miss the effect my mouthing the poet’s words had on the crowd. Surely something of a puzzle. How could manufactured emotions sway people so powerfully?

 

2
The monastery is in a hill town outside Rome, overlooking Lago Albano. Former center of the Latin League, it’s where Romulus and Remus were born. On the other side of the lake is Castel Gandolfo, where the pope has a summer villa. One afternoon, the monks and I pile into their Fiat and maneuver serpentines to hear him deliver a homily from the balcony. As he speaks in Italian, I don’t understand a word.

• •

At twenty-four, I wasn’t ready yet to settle down. I was seized by the notion that I needed to see Europe. Flying into Brussels, I was surprised to find the airport patrolled by soldiers cradling automatic weapons—1979 saw over a thousand terrorist attacks in Europe, with the IRA, the PLO, and ETA leading the pack. After visiting the formidable medieval square known as the Grand Place and a few other sights, I boarded a train for Italy, with an overnight in Munich where I tried sleeping in the English Garden but kept being wakened by barking dogs and unsettling rustlings, which finally drove me to check into a dive near the train station. From there, I headed for Rome, where I’d signed up to take a summer course at Saint Sophia, the Ukrainian Church-cum-seminary on Via Boccea. The church, modeled on its considerably larger ancestor in Kyiv, was in the process of being finished. I remember watching the artist and poet Sviatoslav Hordynsky standing on scaffolding while supervising the inlaying of decorative mosaics.

One afternoon I found myself playing chess with a monk associated with the church who looked remarkably like Cardinal Richelieu. After beating me soundly, he invited me to visit his monastery. Located in a villa next to one owned by Vincent Minelli, the place defied my expectations and preconceptions. I liked it so much I asked if I might stay a while.

The villa housed half a dozen monks, one of whom was the older brother of a kid I’d known in Boy Scouts. Another, Brother Josaphat, was a sturdy Serb who patrolled the roof with a rifle he fired above the heads of local Communist youths who regularly tried setting fire to the building. Brother Josaphat also served as bodyguard to the cardinal and unofficial patriarch of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, who lived down the hall from me.

Cardinal Slipyj was one of the people on whose behalf I’d written letters and signed petitions, demanding his release from prison. From the same part of Ukraine as my mother, he spent seventeen years doing hard labor in Siberia. He’d been freed in part thanks to the intervention of both the pope and President Kennedy. His story even inspired a best-selling novel, The Shoes of the Fisherman, which imagined him one day becoming pope. Years later, my mother would read us his autobiography.

Today I wonder if the cardinal had known my grandfather. They were contemporaries, working in the same neighborhood. But I refused to speak to the cardinal. Though he himself had suffered greatly for his faith, in my eyes he represented one of the most powerful and corrupt institutions on the planet. The church not only repressed women and those whose sexuality flourished outside their norms, it had a long record of colluding with military institutions and dictatorships. The “epiphany” which sent me hurtling away from my secure life in Boston had made me arrogant. About God and the spirit there was no one who could tell you anything meaningful. All the important things you had to find out for yourself. Superbia, or pride, is rightly considered one of the seven deadly sins.

I occasionally joined the monks at matins and vespers. The lure of such a life of rules and routines was more than an anagram: it presented a possible path I examined closely. I earned my keep by helping an old communist bricklayer build a brick retaining wall under the kennel where the monks housed half a dozen semiferal, and unabashedly homosexual, dogs who howled and snarled at passersby. Mannagia, Antonio cursed when the bricks didn’t settle right. Buh, he sighed.

The monks made no attempt to proselytize. Open and kind, they adhered to their rituals. One middle-aged monk who’d been an actor back in Argentina managed a small flock of sheep while softly singing arias from Italian operas. Brother Euthemius, whose long face and patchy beard were straight out of an El Greco painting, told me about the letters he sent regularly to both Golda Maier and Yassar Arafat, propounding his own Middle East peace plan. During lunch and dinner, the monks took turns reading aloud from the lives of the Desert Fathers. Pass the dessert, Father, was an oft-repeated joke. I felt oddly at home.

For a month or so I drank in the meditative life. While in residence I found and read several volumes by the American Trappist poet Thomas Merton. I hated his self-righteousness in Seven Story Mountain but loved the clarity of his exposition of mysticism and Zen. I tried imagining myself remaining in the monastery.

My roommate at the monastery was a reformed drug dealer from Canada who wasn’t in the least interested in the monks. For him the monastery offered a cheap place to crash. In the evenings he drank and told stories about his escapades selling marijuana and LSD in the wilds of Alberta.

One afternoon, the monks invited my roommate and me to accompany them on a visit to a celebrated Camaldolese monastery nearby. There, monks in flowing white robes, against which tumbled their flowing white beards, dwelt in tiny hermitages built of white stone. Napoleon had coveted the mosaic floor outside the chapel and had had it transported to Paris. While the floor had been returned and reinstalled over a century ago, the monks spoke of Napoleon’s crime as vehemently as if it had been committed last week. Time, for eternity’s wayfarers, moves at a different pace than it does for the rest of us.

Suddenly, our guide, who was also the monastery’s abbot, noticed a monk on a tractor straining up hill. “Put the pedal to the metal,” cried the abbot, in English. Later, Brother Euthemius explained that the abbot was once head of the Narcotics Division of the NYPD.

While the word monk comes from the Latin monos, meaning alone, life in a monastery is all about community. The rules laid down are intended to assure a harmonious coexistence between the voluntary cellmates. Monastic life didn’t really become an organized option in the Christian tradition until early in the fourth century. Saint Anthony’s seclusion in the desert, where he’s assaulted by temptations arising from his own deep-seated desires, inspired others who felt the need for formalizing their interactions with an unpredictable world. The monastic path, writes Venetian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, involves a tension in which life is made synonymous with rules: every act becomes part of an elaborate yet simple prayer, every moment clothed in holiness.  As, of course, they already are.

The flip side of this restraint is the possibility of fucking your brains out at every opportunity.

I weighed my options carefully.

Only two months into my stay, the lure of the world became irresistible. I couldn’t deny the desires that rattled my dreams. I saw the beauty of restraint, but I wasn’t born for the cloister. I thanked the monks sincerely for their hospitality. I even kissed the cardinal’s ring in parting. He was not the enemy. My nemesis was—is—my own mind. It’s a battle I’ll keep waging. More than once I’ve looked over my shoulder, wondering if I should have stayed.

• •

Like others of my generation, when I left my parents’ home at twenty-one, I also put behind me their church, Catholicism, and God—or so I thought. That life-altering meditation in 1979 reintroduced the idea of God into my vocabulary. Nearly four decades later I found myself driving my nonagenarian parents to church every Sunday, yet I remained unable to say much about the experience that forever altered my life. The problem is primarily a linguistic one. The word “God” has been so richly abused that my first reaction on hearing it is to wonder just how the speaker plans to manipulate me.

Were I inclined toward theological speculation—and I’m not—I’d feel most comfortable with what’s called “apophatic” theology, which tries to describe God by saying what God is not. The ninth-century philosopher Scotus Eriugena put it this way “We do not know what God is. God himself does not know what God is because he is not anything. Literally, God is not because he transcends being.”

Reflecting on faith and art, I can’t but recognize how many of the things that most people draw from their religious beliefs I’ve gotten from poetry: from William Blake’s declaration that everything that lives is holy to Wordsworth’s divinations amid the natural world to Donne’s syntactic evocation of metaphysical states in “The Ecstasy,” which gave me language for some otherwise elusive sensations. My soul was birthed by English verse.

Wislawa Szymborska has a poem which begins “We have a soul at times. / No one’s got it non-stop, / For keeps.” Poetry and fiction offer a vernacular and personal statement of many of the articles of faith promoted as doctrine by the world’s religions. What has allowed me to respond more fully to literature than to the oracular pronouncements of religious texts is that art never insists. Like a tree, it just is. Take it, leave it: poetry has no security forces or dogmatists on its payroll. It embodies spirit, whereas traditional religion is, by definition, the elaboration of law.

Thinking about faith naturally leads one to consider its opposite: faithlessness. Who wants to be faithless? But faithlessness is not synonymous with doubt. Doubt is an animating agent, a natural corrective to pride and the kind of overconfidence leading us to steamroll others and grow dull in our art. Self-doubt drives me daily to the desk. But I wouldn’t make that journey without a certain amount of faith: “We have a soul at times. / No one’s got it non-stop, / For keeps.” We earn it daily.

My parents’ Greek Catholic church is as smoky with incense as any Tibetan temple. Both are soul-shelters crowded with images of saints, whose lives are meant not to shame but to inspire us to bolder living. Catholics believe in God. Buddhists do not. What does that mean? I ask you.

• •

Right about now I imagine some readers growing anxious. Is this to be another redemption narrative? It’s true that I’d likely have died long ago had I not quit drinking after some two decades of total immersion. Also true that, along the way, I had an experience during a self-directed meditation which left me confident that our world is everywhere interpenetrated by a reality we can never name or explain. It would be dishonest not to cop to this.

The one time I had tea with Saul Bellow, we spoke about his interest in the early twentieth-century mystic Rudolf Steiner, for which many critics had attacked him. When I asked if he believed in life after death, Bellow paused. We were sitting in his dark-paneled office at Boston University. The room, which felt like the lair of a very important bear, grew still.  He’d nearly died himself recently—of food poisoning. Speaking softly while cutting little circles in the air with both hands palms up, he whispered: “We are given signs. We are given signs.”

But, while I’ve taken Buddhist vows along the way, it’s equally important for me to say: so what? The problem with “redemption” is not simply that it’s a moment by moment affair. The very word suggests we can know when we’ve been condemned or redeemed. And I’m not so sure of that. So many selves—so many impulses and conflicting imperatives—inhabit us. Consciousness is a country whose contours some have studied as comprehensively as Google Earth has mapped our cities. Buddhists happened to be the best cartographers I’d encountered. In the end, what’s important is how we respond to what actually happens, no matter what we may wish had happened instead. Such a little thing—and yet, of course, it’s everything.

• •

For months after leaving the monastery, I tore through Europe. In Vienna I visited my father’s aunt, who fed me cognac and herring for breakfast. In Rome I faced down the evil eye from an Ethiopian I’d met at a juice bar near my pensione. I smoked a cigarette gazing into the fjords above the Arctic Circle and walked through Oslo in search of landmarks familiar to me from Hamsun’s Hunger. Later, I stalked Rue de Vaugirard in Paris searching for my godfather’s place, unable to remember the street number. In Athens, I struck up a conversation with a lovely girl from South Africa, and for the next two weeks we traveled together. On Aegina we unfurled our sleeping bags at the foot of a vineyard, below the oldest temple in Greece. We wakened at dawn to the sight of a man rising out of the foaming sea. Dark and muscled, the apparition turned out to be a diver using illegal depth charges to stun fish he then scooped into a large mesh bag. Displaying his catch, he grabbed a couple and handed them to us before heading off. We built a fire and fried them, then washed them down with Retsina.

The two parts of my journey, the stretch in the monastery, followed by the spasm of gallivanting, comprise a complete gesture, I see now. At the time my sensual side sneered at the ascetic, despite the underlying drive toward integration. Holy holy holy, cried the sensualist, mocking the robed men. Holy holy holy, replied the ascetic, meaning something rather different.

But, if I was not in control, it was because I had decided, quite deliberately, to let go.

 

3
“No,” said my father. For once, his voice wasn’t angry—merely firm.

“Why not?” I persisted.

“No way. You didn’t go to college to become a Teamster.” He was sitting at his desk with his back to me, having converted my old bedroom into his study. I was back in New Jersey, living in my parents’ apartment. It appeared that discovering the kingdom of God within, plus $1.25, would cover bus fare but not rent.

We were arguing about my newborn wish to work at the Anheuser-Busch plant alongside him. I’d decided my education had alienated me from myself, as well as from my family. My pursuit of poetry and literature had turned me into a snob. My academic studies had estranged me from the “real” world. And what could be more real than the Teamsters? I remember going to meetings with my father when the Teamsters went on strike back in the midsixties. After staying out for several months, the membership was restless and, above all, broke. Those were days of belt-tightening for everyone. Hundreds of grumbling men gathered in a stuffy auditorium in Irvington, New Jersey, to listen to their leadership try to boost their morale with speeches. The speakers at the podium were guarded by bruisers wielding baseball bats. The atmosphere was tense and alive. It was around this time my parents’ fighting escalated.

I had lately come to believe that there was more truth in blue-collar work than among the propagandists of privilege working the culture industry. I explained this to my father.

To my surprise, he refused to endorse my revelation. It was as foolish and quixotic as my plan to make a living as a writer. There was nothing fun about his job. After all, my father had a bachelor’s degree in engineering. Under other circumstances, without a family to support, he’d have studied economics, or computer science, or maybe medicine. His mind was, and remains, restless and busy. His job wasn’t exactly soul-stirring. He spent his days inside a steel shell monitoring the temperature on giant vats of beer. His colleagues ran book and compared centerfolds in skin mags. A number of them had recently been fired for stealing cases of beer. My father believed that, given my background, and with the Cold War in full bloom, the CIA was my best option. Our fights were as savage as ever. Only the object of disagreement had changed.

My mother and I also argued all the time.

I was lost, and I knew it. What I didn’t know was what my next step should be.

I was not alone in this. It seemed my friend Marianne, a friend from high school who’d once been my roommate in Boston, had had a breakdown and was now in a psychiatric facility nearby.  A fiery idealist who’d been arrested at antinuclear protests in the company of her hero, the Jesuit Father Daniel Berrigan, Marianne had until recently been pursuing an academic career that appeared to be leading her straight to Washington, DC. Suddenly neither Brown, nor Yale, nor her time working with Governor Clinton in Arkansas, nor her PhD work at Cornell, mattered anymore.

Her collapse had been preceded by a vision. She told me she’d seen the Virgin Mary hovering in the sky, “and she wasn’t wearing designer jeans,” Marianne added with characteristically undercutting humor. The vision seemed to put her on the same moral plane as her heroes, who included Joan of Arc, Maud Gonne, and Father Berrigan.

Outwardly, Marianne looked very much like her old self, only paler and a little ravaged. Her eyes burned with fervor. Only her freckles seemed to have multiplied. Her insistence on the singularity of her insight troubled me. She was using it to set herself on a collision course with most of the world. Which, of course, is what saints had always done. But there seemed a lot of ego lacing her lacerating indictment of our hypercommercialized culture. Dressed all in black, she spoke with her usual breathless intensity. She handed me her notebook so that I could read some of her poems. She told me she was channeling the spirit of Sylvia Plath. Nothing she said surprised me. All of it made a heartless kind of sense. Why shouldn’t the Virgin Mary appear to her, as she had to so many others over the millennia? Why shouldn’t the spirit of Plath tap Marianne for a vessel? Did it sound crazy? Only if you dwelled on it.

Back home, I brooded over my friend’s collapse. I shared much of her disgust with our violent, militaristic, materialistic culture. Clearly, I wasn’t the only one with “God Hunger.” Spiritual quests of all kinds were, after all, a hallmark of our generation. But was this were they led? Were they, too, dead ends? The thought was disheartening.

I visited Marianne several times. Some evenings, she was her old self, full of bluster, sounding buoyant and eager for more adventures.  On another visit, murmured: “This is one American dream machine that broke down.”

I resolved not to give up, not to break down. I would write my way back into the world for which I’d set out. While most of the town slept, I sat at my desk and wrote till dawn. In the morning, I shredded the results and started over.

• •

I took a job as an assistant in the mail room at Merck Pharmaceuticals in a neighboring town. My colleague was an art school dropout who now practiced his craft by drawing flyers for a strip club in Rahway, which we visited at lunch. Next door stood a state prison notorious for its 1971 riot in which five hundred men held five guards and the warden hostage. My boss hoped to make me his understudy, drilling me in the fine art of shooting mail up pneumatic tubes. I did my best.

At night, I reread the texts that, a few years earlier, had urged me on to bolder living: Saul Bellow’s novel Humboldt’s Gift, about his friendship with the manic depressive poet Delmore Schwartz; Nikos Kazantsakis’s Spiritual Exercises, in which the creator of Zorba insisted that, in our age, it was necessary to surrender to the impulses of the flesh, to immerse in the material world, with all its pettiness and strife, and then find a way to celebrate it; Rilke’s Notebooks of Malte Brigge, in which an indigent young poet in Paris finds his sympathies quickened by the plight of the lost souls around him, spurring him to soaring, lyrical flights in which he fills their blankness with his words.

One night I sat down at my desk and didn’t get up for the next eighteen hours as sixty pages of what would become my first novel arrived in a burst from who knows where. For the first time I felt I’d found my material. I sent the pages to a magazine edited by the novelist John Gardner. He returned them with an encouraging note. I revised, and resubmitted. We had a deal. My confidence rose. I prepared to leave home once more. A dozen years would pass before I finished what I had begun. The way forward was hardly straight, and the view was not always pretty, even if, at all times, it was miraculous.

Askold Melnyczuk
Askold Melnyczuk’s novels include What Is Told (New York Times Notable Book), Ambassador of the Dead (Los Angeles Times Best Books of the Year), The House of Widows (Booklist Editor’s Choice), and Smedley’s Secret Guide to World Literature (PFP, 2017). He has received a Lila Wallace Readers’ Digest Award in Fiction, the McGinnis Award in Fiction, and the George Garret Award from AWP for his contributions to the literary community. He is founding editor of Agni and Arrowsmith Press.