The Last First People
I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy… Some men ride on such space, others have to fasten themselves like a tent stake to survive. As I see it Poe dug in and Melville mounted. They are the alternatives.-- Call Me Ishmael by Charles Olson
Poet Charles Olson’s book Call Me Ishmael (1947) is a rare thing: a great book about a great book. An electric prose poem that makes the case for Melville’s prophetic, “long-eyed” greatness in Moby-Dick. But Olson, like Melville himself, casts back so that we can see forward. Space -- whether it’s the Great Plains or the oceans on each side of the continent -- is the subject here. The story of how we both love and despise it. How we seek to name and subdue it, unaware of its hold on us (Ahab: that whale is out there). While thinking we’ll make of space an image of ourselves, we lose ourselves in it. Are lost. Cut adrift. As Olson says, “We are the last ‘first’ people. We forget that. We act big, misuse our land, ourselves. We lose our own primary. Melville went back, to discover us, to come forward. He got as far as Moby-Dick.”
The ship? Great, God, where is the ship?
What does it mean to lose ourselves? How would we know the signs? Is it when our stock market plunges 800 points in a day because we no longer have reason to trust one another? Is it when we torture others as a means to secure our own safety? When we spy on one another? When we conjure an “other” out of the neighbor who once buzzed us into the apartment building when we were locked out?
Like Olson, cultural critic Greil Marcus says that the signs of our lostness have been there all along. In his meandering but powerful Shape of Things to Come: Prophesy and the American Voice he lays America bare: We are and have always been lost, especially to ourselves. That, he says, is the other half of the great and terrible promise hidden within the Declaration of Independence: There’s no one there to name names, hold our feet to the fire. Except us. But we can’t always be counted on. We’re an exceedingly practical nation: when things don’t work out, we blame circumstance or political parties or personal betrayals. When an unnecessary war turns sour, we say, well, it wouldn’t have if we’d fought it the right way to begin with. When our marriages collapse, we swap one spouse for another; our bloated home loans go into default, we scour the market for another, full of optimism that this time, this time we’ll get it right. This, too, is primary for us: betraying ourselves and starting anew.
The Ship? Great, God, where is the ship?
But as the poet says, we have to go back…
Lincoln. He’s frozen there in our grainy, sepia-colored minds, his long fingers clutching the back of a desk chair. The ubiquitous stovepipe hat. Beard. Unflinching gaze. An ache is visible there, we think. Awkward even in his greatness, Lincoln. He’s stooped with it. The prophetic voice seems a terrible burden. In The Shape of Things to Come, Greil Marcus gives us a Lincoln who has seen a monstrous space, a whole country, compressed into a single abiding question. And Lincoln doesn’t yet know the answer, may never know the answer. But he’s formed the question into the shape of our lack. As Marcus points out, when Lincoln is inaugurated for the second time in 1865 he gives an astonishing address, but not for the reasons we’ve come to believe. For most of us, the remembered line from history class is “with malice toward none and charity for all.” But Marcus points out that if you go back to it now, it’s not this line but the one before it that leaps off the page. Because rather than offering comfort, it questions whether we, as Americans, deserve mercy:
If God wills that [this war] continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."
Imagine it. The country before him, one great open wound. A president saying we might not have sacrificed enough yet, suffered enough, for an idea, a fiction of greatness. That’s the burden being heaved up the mountain: the question of imaginative will. Can we live up to our powerful but fragile fiction of all men created equal? And the unspoken answer: only if we each retell the primary story to ourselves. Only if we see ourselves and our country as inventions, as fictions that have to be retold again and again, taking into account all our inherent charity and malice. To tell or acknowledge only one half of the story is to live by delusion. Fictions necessarily promise something bound to be betrayed, just as the “chosen people” betrayed their covenant. Lincoln draws God into the story as an accomplice, a sort of double agent who drives us to betrayal and redemption simultaneously. And for Marcus, this is the driving engine behind American history, and those that turn back to name it -- Melville, Lincoln, King, and, yes, Philip Roth -- are its prophets.
To come forward…
Like Philip Roth’s recent work, Alexandar Hemon’s novel, The Lazarus Project, evokes an America not so much transfigured by September 11, 2001 as revealed by it. Though the novel is set alternately in 1909 Chicago, contemporary Chicago, and Eastern Europe, it’s really America that’s under the klieg lights. In Hemon’s America, we have forgotten -- or are too afraid -- to tell the country’s primary story (self-invention) and have fallen into its vastness. We see ourselves everywhere we look. In one telling scene, Hemon’s protagonist, Brik, remembers a conversation with his wife, a neurosurgeon, about Abu Ghraib. Where she sees the soldiers as well-intentioned, “decent American kids” who go about protecting freedom the wrong way, Brik sees “young Americans expressing their unlimited joy of the unlimited power over someone else's life and death.” Brik, though, also recognizes something enticing in his wife’s view of the world -- like an Ahab turned on his head, Brik becomes obsessed with the surfaces of things. Sometimes a mask, the evolving Brik might say, is just a mask and there’s nothing behind it to punch through to. Further into the novel, Brik and his photographer friend Rora are sitting in an Eastern European McDonald’s: “What I like about America,” Brik says, “is that there is no space left for useless metaphysical questions. There are not parallel universes there. Everything is what it is, it’s easy to see and understand everything.” But as he slips into a reverie of sorts on the blessings of America’s apparent lack of epistemological problems, he remembers his blind uncle Mikhal, whom he’d spent time with as a kid in Sarajevo. Here the novel seems to leap into a strange prophetic dream, where monstrous, impersonal space is given, finally, a personal voice. It begins to form a question to fit the shape of our lack and touches on a kind of greatness:
When we passed those [family] photos around, he would say, Let me see. He would flip through those photos, while someone described them to him: And here is Aunt Olga, smiling… and that’s you… and that’s me. He always looked at the photos, nobody ever found it strange. Once I abruptly realized that we could give him any batch of photos and describe whatever it was he was willing to see…
Sometimes I read to Uncle Mikhal; he enjoyed stories about explorers and great scientific discoveries, about naval battles, and failed invasions. I would occasionally… simply add things: there would be a fourth explorer… or there would be a newly discovered subatomic particle that changed our thinking about the universe… I would experience a beautiful high because I was constructing a particular, custom-made world for him, because he was in my power for as long as he listened to me. I thought I could always claim misunderstanding if he busted me changing history or dissembling scientific facts… I dreaded that possibility… I understood that had I been caught in a single lie -- if he discovered that there was no subatomic particle named pronek or that the 375 sailors aboard the U.S.S. Chicago had never died -- the whole edifice of reality I had built would have crumbled and nothing I had ever read to him would have been true. It had never crossed my mind that my uncle… might have been aware of my deception… complicit in my edifice building… Had I been able to imagine Uncle Mikhal as complicit in my fabrications, we would have arranged more gigantic battles, explored more nonexistent continents, and built stranger universes from the strangest particles…
For Hemon, this story offers an alternative to the “incestuous twins of belief and delusion” that haunt America’s vastness. It’s a story that imagines others as complicit in the world that’s created; and the story, like our own, is one of betrayal and a means to redemption.