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Exquisite Corpse - A Journal of Letters and Life
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A First Take on Eliot Weinberger's Karmic Traces
by Nathaniel Tarn
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Karmic Traces, by Eliot Weinberger
New Directions, NY.
Eliot Weinberger's splendid fourth book of essays is a rich and most engaging read.
      I always find most valuable his distillation of essences in his accounts of other writers: here McDiarmid first and foremost; but also Laughlin and Ackerley. If McD. had never lived he would have had to invent him, for he is probably Weinberger's dopellganger writer? McDiarmid has always been a mountain on which so many little English sheep graze unaware. I could wish that there were more of these introductions to authors - but it may be that Weinberger is wary of being classified as a "critic" since the latter nowadays seem to do do little more than classify and grade "creative" authors.
      There is no confessionalism in the book at all, even when autobiography intrudes, or seems to, and this is a great strength in our time. Weinberger's erudition is of a kind - rare - which does not ennervate the unknower. The reader still has to work, though: there is no over-explanation "à l'americaine" where, so often when the general reader is addressed, every single word has to be explained; every thought "clarified" (i.e., neutralized) to the limit.
      Weinberger may be close to "magic realism" himself - he mentions it in at least two pieces - i.e. in the way he glories in the curiousness of the real and extracts every ounce of that in his juxtapositions, in themselves not unrelated to found poetry; the surrealist "objet trouve"? One example of this, extraordinarily refined, I sense in the pleasure taken when one recognizes exotic but genuine places under the Icelandic sheen of "Jon Olaf's Son," as one does in so much of medieval travel lore.
      Beyond this, by way of maturity in the art, it occurs to me that there is a kind of occulted mysticism here at times when emerging into the wide delta of what I have called for myself "the isness of is." A very abrupt "mysticism" if that is at all what it is, characterized by the recognition of the absolute inutility of anything that is not manifestly the case in this, and no other, world. The pivotal centre, the silence, the opportunity for meditation in the Zocalo piece. The forger as the ideal artist because of his/her purity; lack of personal style; far from the pobiz game. The purity sought in the Laughing Fish item. The temptation, very manifest it seems to me, of the Taoist Hidden Span in "Renga." The profound concern with what has happened to our sense of time in "Karmic Traces:" no ultimates; no syntheses; no idea of the future, a terrible flattening which might be mistaken - and sometimes is (ignorance is bliss in my own Fanta Se) for the isness of is, except that, being now without depth instead of depthless, it is a sham and a menace - the most fearsome denial of the immediateness found in the Zocalo.
      I experience Weinberger on this reading, and, of course, there are so many possible others, as to some extent menaced by the avalanche of the oncoming life of culture - which he then mimics to defend himself and, more to the point, forces us to experience its terror. For what is consumerism (marvelously and savagely disembowelled in "Vomit") if not the desperate attempt, by ingesting some, to hold at bay the ten thousand things? If there is a danger for this author in this work, I sense it in that mimicry. So many times, the reader is nearly engulphed in a cataract of fact (the blurb uses the word "cascade"); the telling juxtapositions receding to infinity, experienced perhaps as uncontrollable. For some reason, this seems to me particularly marked in the Icelandic pieces and in the final long piece "The Falls," an extraordinary tour de force attempting to record virtually the whole of human history in a search for the roots of ethnocentrism and racism. So many of the pieces in the book terminate in these cascades: the vast majority work; there is always the danger that they may not. But here, my own fear of the arbitrary and the deluge of number may be intruding. Contra my fear, in the end everything is in the selection, there is no other Archimedean point. As in poetry, to which so many of these pieces are kin, writing breaks out as a rare freedom in a world totally constrained and the essay, itself constrained more than most writings by its mandatory allegiance to fact, may be the most challenging field in which to exercise that freedom. It is not for nothing that we have, in our time, the essays of Pound, Olson, Duncan, Howe, Hejinian and their peers: wonderful formal experiments in the marriage of poetry and scholarship.
      I continue to be fascinated by my own attempt to define what it is Weinberger does and how he does it, a fascination with the hoary question of "genre" here if you will. What, at the entrance to the mystery, is the relation between, say, "Jon Olaf's Son" and Bertha Philpott's translation cited at the end? (There is a very long list of "sources" from which the author claims to have had most of his information). What is the relation of Weinberger's choice or selection (objet trouve) to that vast array of information that he commands? What, in effect, for him is the "Essay"? Perhaps it would be good for him one day to write "An Essay on the Essay" - but let the day be far off for, as Stendhal says, "one must protect one's triggers." It might be a good thing at some point, in our ignorant age, for an author of this intelligence to lay the ghost of "criticism" so much disliked by him, to pin down its deletoriousness in the academy; to enumerate, a la Matthew Arnold perhaps, the reasons why it should take its place again among the serious pursuits outside of that wretched miniverse. Unless, of course, Weinberger believes that this cannot come about - that it will always, however apparently high-minded, lead to the criminality of "canon formation" and other such assassins of the dream. Certainly that seems most times to be the case. Perhaps the "case" is hopeless.
      This is a vastly enjoyable book. It is embellished by a sumptuous cover photograph of Iceland by Nina Subin whose first book of photographs, very much overdue, came out recently in Mexico City with, as text, the Spanish version of the title essay "Karmic Traces."

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