Posted by: Peadar Ban | August 28, 2019

I AM READING A BOOK

“The heart most open is the most alone.” The Hundredfold

“(W)hat is not generally recognized is that the launch of the self into the orbit of transcendence is necessarily attended by problems of reentry.” Lost In the Cosmos

As it says above, I am reading a book.  Well, I must clarify that.  Rarely do I read just one book nowadays. By that I mean one book that I start and finish without any other book interrupting my progress through the one I may be holding in my hands at any moment.  A long time ago that was the way I read a book, beginning at the beginning and going on until the end before I stopped.

Now, no matter how interested I may be in the adventure going on between myself, the book in my hands, before my eyes, the mind of whomever thought it up, and the characters and/or ideas within, I will put it aside; leave it alone for a little or longer while and find something else in the long line (more a jumble) of others waiting. For my eyes, mind, imagination and wonder, like little children, will no longer submit to the discipline of “Doing This”. (There is a story behind that phrase.)

Among the several I am wandering through these days are two which both please and puzzle me.  Perhaps wonder and astound may be a better way of putting the matter.  One of them is like a walk in a tangle of vines and busy buzzing things large and small, an entirely unexpected journey in an entirely different place I expected to visit when I opened the “cover’.  This book is on my Kindle, and really has no cover. (I both like and dislike my Kindle. The reasons for and against it/them should be obvious to anyone who likes to read.)

The other book, present in my hands as a real book in the classical sense is like any number of things at once and in a series.  It’s a kind of slow-moving kaleidoscope, filled with colors shapes, and oddly enough music, lessons and kind people (so far) talking to me.

I will talk about them in reverse order in this little essay written mostly for myself, an exercise I think necessary in order to understand, particularly and together, each book and its charm, beauty (as much of it as I can understand, or pick out), meaning, message and what else I might think was worth my buying it.  And, possibly worth your doing so, too.

I will begin with the latest of the two to become mine, “The Hundredfold”, written by Anthony Esolen.

It is honestly a strange book.  The “book” part is a long poem, something that might be called an epic though nowhere as long as some other epics the reader might be acquainted with; things like The Iliad, or the Aeneid.  I haven’t read enough of it to say that it’s anything like those two, but it is long, quite a bit longer than a Hallmark card, where much of what passes for poetry, and people’s exposure to it, finds it’s start and finish these days.

I am familiar with some others of the author’s books, and this one follows along.

For instance, I have a three-volume copy of his translation of Dante’s “Divine Comedy”, written a good while ago and brought “up to date” if allowances may be made for that, by the extensive notes after each Canto throughout the book.  I loved the poetry itself, and the imagination that went into the original work, and Dr. Esolen’s translation.  But most of that would have been wasted on someone like me without the “notes”, at least as valuable to such a stranger as I was, perhaps more so, who knew only that at some time hundreds of years ago “some people did something”.  Dr. Esolen’s notes put flesh on the poem, and seemed to this reader, as important and worthwhile as the work itself.  There is no shame in that, I think.  Think “Road Map”.  He tells the reader what is in the wood, and who.

While the notes to Divine Comedy come after every Canto, his latest book begins with the notes which are really two long essays; two little chapters amounting to 45 pages in the edition I have.  You will skip them at your hazard, your loss, if you insist on plunging straight ahead into the poem itself.  Because, I really think, that entered without the introduction, you may wander around for days, a stranger in a strange land with no map, no guide and considering the place you are in nice, but not at all worth the hype.  You miss, among other things, the reason, the purpose and the worth of it.  And all of these are great.

You may want to stop and think before you are ten pages into the introductory note, because, Dr. Esolen is going around re-arranging the furniture for you, in a place you may have thought you knew.  And, he is doing it in a way, you will come to understand, it has been meant to be for quite a long time.  The previous tenants had very bad ideas about a lot of things.  Believe me.

In the second part of the introduction, you will be educated about poetry, it’s forms and uses.  Honestly, I was so glad to read the author’s little introductory essay. I look at so many things from the outside and wonder.  Will I know where I am and why?  It’s a question I often ask.  And that, sometimes, in certain churches, truth be told.  If you have ever been inside MOMA, and don’t stay too long, you will understand what I mean.  Overstay your time and you may never be able to leave.

In no small way entering “The Hundredfold”, after I had carefully read the 45 pages, was like entering a church, a cathedral, The Sistine; something both useful and beautiful.  I don’t think I go too far saying it is on the way to heaven.  And I haven’t gotten nearly half of the way through the poem.

I have stopped, for a couple of reasons, and all because of that brief quote at the top. “The heart most open is the most alone.”  I have opened the book any number of times since I started reading the poem, reached that line, one line, and stopped.  I have a feeling that, for me at least, the line is very, very meaning full.  And, strangely enough, it seems to me to be tied up in a way I cannot yet understand with the Walker Percy book, Lost In the Cosmos.

One seems to me to be the key and the other is then the door…on alternating days.  Percy is dead, so I cannot ask him.  Dare I ask Esolen.

Anyway, in “Hundredfold” Mary, at this point, is telling the reader about her Son, noticing him among the other men in Nazareth, fellows we might have called “working stiffs”, tradesmen and handymen.  There were no 9 to 5 guys back then.  It is very interesting reading as she remarks on the effect her Son has on these rough and tumble men; how they change in His presence.

I have memories of fellows like that, guys who make you wonder, and whose presence you miss years later.  They’re the fellows who bring something along, the ones you want to ask questions of, but you never can figure out how to do it.  So you sit and listen.

When I finish this, I’ll go ahead and finish the book. Maybe my questions will be answered, and I can tell you how an open heart can ever be alone.

When I picked up my first Walker Percy book I knew I was in for a tough ride. He’s a Southern writer, and the only other book of his I have read was full of strange things and people, Southern things.  I sometimes think they write about another species, those southern writers.  But, then, I have lived in the South, and worked with them, and, well, you know.

It was “Love In The Ruins” that I read, a long time ago; by myself with no help from another soul.  My first wife, may she rest in peace, was dying of cancer and I needed a place to hide.  Well, I couldn’t hide there, and don’t think I ever finished it.  But, it was Southern, for sure.

Sometimes I feel guilty about these things, like someone owing a debt and avoiding the fellow for a long time, even though the thing must be paid.  So, at the beginning of the year I tried to give Percy another chance and ordered “Lost in The Cosmos”.

It was like going back to the gym after ten years of being a couch potato.  Honest.  But, I held out, and finally learned this was no novel.  It was a ramble inside the man’s head, the subject of which is something I didn’t really know how to spell…Semiotics…

I’ll not really try to define the word, the concept, the “discipline”.  I can only think of it, after reading several definitions, including the ones Percy mentions a few dozen pages into the book when I finally figure out this won’t be a dark southern thing full of Spanish moss and languid girls and beetle browed southerners.  No, this seems to be a kind of test, a take home exam with no real answers.

I have owned the book for a little more than twenty years now, and I really must finish it.  But, I hope that some day I will understand it.

That quote above: “(W)hat is not generally recognized is that the launch of the self into the orbit of transcendence is necessarily attended by problems of reentry.”  Is very puzzling.  I sat wondering just what does it mean?  As something that caught my eye not long after I read the line from The Hundredfold I quote at the beginning, I had that in my mind.  Here is Transcendence itself described as being “most alone”.  Or am I missing something.  I sat wondering who was right and who was wrong,  and put the book down.  Well, not the book, but the “device”; I put that down.

Read further, and Percy is writing about all sorts of folks who have gone off into the world of their mind, their imagination to do one thing or another: paint a picture, write a book, invent something that never was before.

And whether or not he’s just fooling around, he seems, to me at least, to be arguing that something strange happens in that process.  Most, many, or just a lot of the boys and girls who do that come back, or maybe never come back, with a kind of PTSD.  At least that’s the way I’m thinking of it now.

And, there’s my problem. How do I square the two quotes?

How would you?

I have a feeling about both of those sentences.  Some day I’ll turn the feeling into another looong piece of writing.


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