Imaginary homelands essa.., p.35

Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991, page 35

 

Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991
 



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  In the Art Foods Deli frequented by Grace Paley’s character Faith, the sandwiches are named after local residents. ‘Selena and Max are just divorced, but their sandwich will probably go on for another few years.’ From another story, we learn that at the old people’s home where Faith’s redoubtable father Mr Darwin lives (the Children of Judea, Home for the Golden Ages, Coney Island Branch), the benches around the trees have been similarly named. ‘That bench there, my favorite, is named Jerome (Jerry) Katzoff, six years old,’ Mr Darwin says. ‘It’s a terrible thing to die young. Still, it saves a lot of time.’

  The passing away of things is very much the theme of Grace Paley’s collection Later the Same Day. Marriages like that of Selena and Max Retelof; old loves; the dream of Vicente who wanted to be a doctor and was persuaded to be an engineer; parents; old hopes. It is a book full of endings, endings faced with the firm, mild, rueful honesty that makes Grace Paley special. She writes as well of the death of a friend, Selena Retelof, whose ending is treated with a sort of passionate scrupulousness, as she does about the ridiculous immortality of Selena’s sandwich. It is good to hear again the voice of this most sparing of writers (just three volumes of stories in a quarter-century), a voice as determined as ever to call things by their true names.

  In Later the Same Day, Grace Paley has become, if anything, even more sparing, her stories more concentrated, purer. (She has described her working method as being one of continual revising and ‘taking out the lies’.) There are a number of examples of the most technically demanding of all short fictions, the Very Very Short Story. The title pages of these stories consume as much paper as the texts. And yet these brief, eyeblink tales reveal fully formed worlds, full-blown tragedies of love, waste and death.

  There is a fine, small parable of America in the story of George, the man who thought he could improve the design of the pinball machine. And another, female immigrant (something very Russian hovers behind much of this work) is portrayed in all the unspoken anguish of one whose lover died young, in the VVSS with the roguishly Very Long Title, ‘In This Country, But in Another Language, My Aunt Refuses to Marry the Men Everyone Wants Her To’.

  Grace Paley has always been good at one-liners. There’s a fine joke in the wonderful ‘Dreamer in a Dead Language’ about an old Jew trying to flee Germany in 1939. He points to country after country on the travel agent’s globe and is told they’re all full up. ‘He pushes the globe away, disgusted. But he got hope. He says, So this one is used up, Herr Agent. Listen—you got another one?’ But she is not to be put down as a merely wry, shoulder-shrugging, worldly-wise and world-weary lady. These stories, brief and extended, burn with a high-energy commitment to the great work of being alive.

  They are stories full of the stories we all tell and live by, tall stories as well as short. They are stories whose characters can enter into dispute with the author, or at least her alter ego, most notably at the very end of the book, when the lesbian Cassie (in ‘Listening’) points out that Faith never tells her story. ‘It’s been women and men, women and men, fucking, fucking. Goddamnit, where is my woman and woman, woman-loving life in all this?’ Faith, admitting her fault, asks for forgiveness, and receives a sharp answer. ‘“You are my friend, I know that, Faith, but I promise you, I won’t forgive you,” she said. “From now on, I’ll watch you like a hawk. I do not forgive you.”’

  And they are stories in which the whole of a world, its children, its dead, its furniture, its snacks, is lovingly and unsentimentally named. Named, and not forgiven.

  1985

  TRAVELS WITH A GOLDEN ASS

  There’s a supernova exploding on the cover of Time. NASA wants to put a man on Mars (no, don’t mention the ‘Challenger’ shuttle). The President is on TV, apologizing, forgetting, having to correct himself the next day. Polyps for Reagan, the graffiti say.

  Representative Mario Biaggi of the Bronx and Meade H. Esposito, once leader of Brooklyn’s Democrats, are being indicted for bribery, fraud and conspiracy. Bess Myerson, 1946’s Miss America and New York’s cultural affairs commissioner, resigns after reports of serious misconduct. The CIA has given the Contras ground plans, blueprints and maps of key Nicaraguan installations, to help them with their terrorist programme.

  Up in his Prayer Tower in Tulsa, the evangelist Oral Roberts threatens that God will ‘recall’ him unless his fans cough up $8 million. (The fans come up with the cash.) In New York, it’s St Patrick’s Day, so the entire city is dressed in green and can be found throwing up all over Fifth Avenue. California, of course, has its own religions. The Committee for Self-Esteem has just held its first meeting. I thought Garry Trudeau had made it up, but there it actually is, publicly funded and everything, seeking to cure drug addiction, sex-crimes and so forth by making people feel better about themselves.

  This is Rome near the end of its power, a famous New York magazine editor tells me. Western civilization hasn’t long to go. Islam is coming, the Chinese, the darkness. We may as well celebrate the brightness that we were. Improbable as this sounds to an outsider, for whom the power of the United States is the most glaring aspect of the place, many Americans imagine themselves to be living in their twilight’s last gleaming.

  It makes them act strangely. ‘Now that I like you,’ I am informed by one Manhattan intellectual, ‘I can tell you I thought I wouldn’t. I didn’t think I could like a Muslim.’ And it makes them touchy. ‘Salman, as I grow older, I love this country more and more, and I don’t like to hear it criticized.’

  During my fortnight in the US (Pittsburgh, New York, San Francisco), I pass much time in the excellent company of a Moroccan writer of the second century AD, Lucius Apuleius, a colonial of the old Roman Empire, and I find that his portrait of that Roman world does indeed begin to look rather like contemporary America, but not quite in the way the editor meant.

  The narrator of The Golden Ass*, also named Lucius, is transformed by witchcraft into the tale’s eponymous donkey, and his ass’s-eye view of his age reveals a world of ubiquitous cynicism, great brutality, fearsome sorcery, religious cultism, banditry, murder. Friends betray friends, sisters betray sisters; corpses rise up and accuse their wives of poisoning them. There are omens and curses.

  Eighteen centuries later, with a portentous supernova in the sky, cynicism seeps all the way down from the White House to a Chinese cabbie, who tells me of his hatred for communism and for poor countries, which adds up to Nicaragua. ‘Always the same. Poor countries make trouble for the rest of us.’ Three years out of Hong Kong, he’s taken to abusing Manhattan’s Puerto Ricans. Doesn’t he feel that such bigotry sits uneasily in the mouth of a fellow-immigrant? ‘Excuse me, but these people like to steal.’ The morning paper carries a story about Chinese involvement in heroin smuggling, but he’s unimpressed. ‘Have a nice day.’

  There have been several race killings of late, blacks murdered by whites sparking revenge-murders by blacks. Meanwhile, at the UN building, there’s a demonstration protesting police violence against blacks in New York City. All this is familiar to the Ass.

  For sorcery, one need look no further than the mumbo-jumbo of the Star Wars schemes; cultism and Jerry Falwell are everywhere; and as for banditry, Calero and his FDN, let’s call them the ‘Contrabandits’, are more dangerous than anything in Apuleius’s book. Now that the so-called ‘moderates’, Cruz and Robelo, have left the Contra leadership, certain revisionist processes have begun. Conservative columnist William Safire demands that America support Calero; while, on radio, I hear Arturo Cruz described as the ‘leftist wing’ of the Contra. So we can do without him, the pinko.

  Pittsburgh reveals a different American malaise. It’s pleasant, spacious, ‘America’s most livable city’, a place where the main university building is actually named the Cathedral of Learning. (Inside you find representative classrooms from around the world. The English Classroom boasts desks like church pews and stained-glass windows bearing coats of arms: City of Liverpool. Jane Austen. Charles Dick
ens. City of Bootle. That sort of thing.)

  But there’s another Pittsburgh, too. Mile upon mile of defunct steelworks bear witness to the collapse of a once-great industry. Unemployment is high. Pittsburgh’s superrich, the Carnegies and Mellons, long ago ceased to depend on steel; their fortunes float, now, on the oceans of pure finance. The poor weren’t so lucky, and many, I hear, now earn a crust by servicing the mansions of the rich.

  In San Francisco, twenty years after flower-power, the feeling of being in a plague city is difficult to avoid. The worst thing about AIDS, I’m told, is the speed at which it mutates. The most common symptoms used to be those of pneumonia, but already that’s changing. New symptoms, new strains of the plague.

  Susan Sontag recently published, in the New Yorker, a brilliant, moving short story, ‘The Way We Live Now’, about living with the illness. Neither the sick man, nor the illness, is named; the story is told by a crowd of voices, the voices of the patient’s friends, of his entire world, voices taking on the story from one another, often in mid-sentence, creating an unforgettable vision of the disease as a crisis in all our lives. I have read nothing about AIDS that strikes deeper than Sontag’s fiction. Perhaps, then, there is still a place, even in America, for art.

  The picture of America emerging from these notes is, of course, in some sense ‘unfair’. What you see depends on where you look. But the Apuleian America does exist, and I make no apology for looking at it.

  The trouble is, what can a poor ass do? He observes, but cannot act. When donkey-Lucius sees a band of eunuch-priests assaulting a young labourer (and I can’t resist drawing a parallel here with the US aggression against Nicaragua) he tries to shout, ‘Help, help! Rape, rape! Arrest these he-whores!’

  ‘But,’ writes Apuleius, ‘all that came out was “He-whore”, “He-whore”, in fine ringing tones that would have done credit to any ass alive.’

  1985

  * * *

  *The Golden Ass by Apuleius, translated by Robert Graves, Penguin, 1950.

  THE DIVINE SUPERMARKET

  Some years ago in South India I encountered the curious and unforgettable figure of Duane Gish, an American creationist scientist whose lectures were accompanied by a jolly slide show: when a slide of a chimpanzee came up, he’d say, ‘Oops, that’s my grandfather.’ Gish gave me the model for the character of Eugene Dumsday in The Satanic Verses, and also got me interested in American fundamentalism, so when he cropped up on page 198 of The Divine Supermarket, it was like meeting an old friend. ‘If you teach young people that everything started out as hydrogen gas, they will soon conclude that their ultimate destiny is a pile of dust,’ burbled Duane. Malise Ruthven heard him out, came to a fastidiously disapproving conclusion (‘The trouble with Dr. Gish and his kind was not just that they didn’t understand science: they appeared not to understand Christianity either’), climbed into his camper and drove away.

  The Gish encounter exemplifies what’s best and worst about this account of a voyage across religious America, a journey to all the New Zions and Rajneeshpurams and Appalachian snake churches that make up the metaphorical shopping mall in which the American soul, like the American body (Ruthven has quite a thing going against fat people), finds itself spoiled for choice. Ruthven has certainly covered a lot of ground, and unearthed all manner of bizarre creatures in the process. Apart from Gish, there are neo-Nazis at the Church of Jesus Christ-Aryan Nations, and a Christian counsellor on a radio phone-in show who is ‘stumped for advice’ when a caller complains that his wife is in fact his long lost sister, and the leftover sixties figure of Love Israel who first saw Jesus on an acid trip (‘the God I saw was really nice’). But inclusiveness all too often results in superficiality. We never find out what makes Duane Gish tick; there’s just time for him to make his pitch, be judged by Ruthven, and then it’s off to the next place. Ruthven can be breathtakingly perfunctory: half a page on Malcolm X? At such times, The Divine Supermarket reads more like a tourist guide than a travel book: a kind of Fodor’s Guide to God.

  Readers new to the subject will surely be impressed by the inexhaustible vitality of religion in America: 68 new sects founded in the 1950s, and no less than 184 in the 1960s. And Ruthven is a pleasantly jaunty travelling companion, erudite enough to inform us that ‘we owe the word fundamentalism indirectly to two Los Angeles businessmen, Lyman and Milton Stewart,’ who financed the distribution of three million copies of the twelve volumes of religious discussion known as The Fundamentals. ‘The word “fundamentalist” first appeared in 1919.’ He also possesses the fine, sceptical intelligence of the scholar he is: ‘Any form of learning is, at heart, inimical to fundamentalist certitudes,’ he writes, while, at a Baptist rally, a preacher rails against the ‘higher criticism’ that is growing ‘like a parasite in our universities’. And he’s clear about how, for the majority of believers, a religious book (in this case, the Bible) means ‘not a record of spiritual truth, or even of God’s revelation to mankind, but a totem or shibboleth, a flag to be waved at the forces of modernity, hated because deeply feared.’

  Such clarity is to be welcomed; and yet the disappointments mount and in the end outnumber the pleasures. The book doesn’t seem to know what it is. In spite of its subtitle, there isn’t much of a quest for the soul here. Saul Bellow once suggested that the very success of American materialism destroyed the possibility of a genuine spiritual life for the American people; no such meditations are to be found in Ruthven’s book. Nor is he, as a travel writer, in the class of Chatwin or Theroux.

  He often seems dominated by a timetable; because he has friends to meet in San Francisco, or because he wants to be home for Christmas, he hurries onward. He listens to innumerable official guides at various shrines, but there are few real characters in his book: when he spends an evening with a polygamist Mormon and his three wives, he tells us nothing at all about any of them. He misses out, too, on all the big names. At Rajneeshpuram he is too late for Ma Sheela and Rajneesh. At Jerry Falwell’s headquarters he fails to meet Falwell, and in Bakker territory he meets neither Jim nor Tammy. Jimmy Swaggart is seen only on TV. There’s no encounter with Billy Graham, and scarcely a mention of Louis Farrakhan.

  Ruthven is well aware of the linear connections between religion and totalitarianism, but The Divine Supermarket doesn’t really get to grips with the issue of power. No mention here of book burnings (Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5 is one of the titles to be incinerated in recent years) or of the close connections between religion and the political power centres. Ruthven concludes that the proliferation of religious sects in America is the ‘price of peace’. But when an American President believes (as Ronald Reagan claimed to believe) that Armageddon will take place in his lifetime, then religiosity in America begins to look more warlike than peaceful.

  If all nations possess a National Delusion (the French have la gloire, Britain has its Greatness), then the great American delusion is that the New World is Utopia, what Melville called a nation ‘predestinated at creation’, a land in which New Jerusalems can and should be created. The most vivid and penetrating book yet written about this is Frances Fitzgerald’s brilliant Cities on a Hill. Fitzgerald’s portraits of the empires of Rajneesh and Falwell are everything that Ruthven’s are not; they have depth, detail, characterization, time for reflection and a keen political edge. By comparison, Ruthven looks naïve. Describing the neo-Nazi Christians, he announces: ‘In Britain … these people would have been silenced by the civil law, and rightly so. Freedom of speech stops short of incitement to murder.’ Which makes one wonder where he’s been for the last six months. One can only hope that his next book, A Satanic Affair, is more carefully considered. As it’s being rushed out, however, one can’t help fearing that Mr Ruthven may, once again, be travelling too fast.

  1989

  12

  NAIPAUL AMONG THE BELIEVERS

  ‘IN GOD WE TRUST’

  IN GOOD FAITH

  IS NOTHING SACRED?

  ONE TH
OUSAND DAYS IN A BALLOON

  NAIPAUL AMONG THE BELIEVERS

  While watching the Iranian revolution on TV in Connecticut V. S. Naipaul had the idea of journeying to four Muslim countries—Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia—to write about the new Islam being born there with varying intensities of labour pain.

  Among the Believers is the result. And, because Naipaul’s is a formidable talent, the book is studded with good things: the surrealist humour (wholly unintentional) with which a young Malaysian fundamentalist explains to Naipaul the solemn differences, in Islam, between mandatory, encourageable, non-encourageable, forbidden and discretionary coughing; the delicately drawn portraits of Behzad, the young communist adrift in the Iran of the mullahs, and of Shafi, who dreams of a Malaysia restored, through Islam, to the waste-free simplicities of village life—but a village life purged of its ‘pagan’, pre-Islamic aspects; the hypocrisy of Pakistan’s arch-fundamentalist Maulana Maudoodi, lifelong opponent of Western materialism, who died in a Boston hospital to which he had gone ‘to look for health … to reap where he had not wanted his people to sow’; and above all, a devastating portrait of Khomeini’s hanging judge, Ayatollah Khalkhali, joking and boasting about the killing of the Shah’s prime minister, Hoveyda.

  But this is no ordinary travel book: it has theses to expound. The Islamic revival, Naipaul says, is a throwback to medieval times which seeks to create ‘abstract men of the faith, men who would be nothing more than the rules.’ Its ‘act of renunciation’ of the West is a fatal flaw, because it depends on ‘the alien, necessary civilization going on’—Shafi’s ideal village still needs a bus, a road, machinery; and in Indonesia, Naipaul is astonished to find a photocopier in a rural Islamic school. Finally, Naipaul sees communism and Islam as ‘interchangeable revolutions’, both springing from hate and rage: ‘Behzad the communist spoke like Khomeini’, and both wished to kill people. These are powerful indictments, and there is much truth in them.

 

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