June 2013

Christopher Merkel

Unamerican

Sibyl Disobedience

Summertime. And the living is... attenuated. By the beginning of June, the fish hadn't really been biting, and I was already behind on my summer reading list. But if nothing came to anything else, I figured I could write about Violette LeDuc. The mistress of the house I'd been sitting had all of LeDuc's books in multiple editions, and although I'd willfully allowed myself to put aside the small stack of books I'd brought with me, I'd taken up The Taxi and In the Prison of Her Skin as lonely insomniac, self-indulgently light reading on various early mornings spent in the bath. So I'd have a fallback. And I let myself rest -- in the bathtub, comfortably -- on the futures of those laurels until the mistress had returned.

But then she'd returned, and I decided to stay on for a few more days. And although that stack of books I'd brought was still at the house and I might still have returned myself to it then, I decided to address the stack of crossword puzzles that I'd been saving to do until after my reading was done instead. That way we could talk... about LeDuc or whatever. Which we did, and, fatefully, which we did as I was finishing a particularly punny Sunday puzzle from two weeks before. I was reasonably sure that "sibyl rights" was the answer to one of the themed clues, but I asked just to be sure: was "sibyl" an all right word for "fortune teller"? It was, she said. And it was also the name of a book. Did I want to borrow it? But I couldn't. For the time being I should focus on that stack. Plus, I expected to be at the beach the next week. Summertime... and better not to take someone else's book to weather the sea and the sand. Los Angeles, I reasoned, had always had its own inspirations for me anyway.

The next week, I'd left the sunny Midwest behind me and was walking down an overcast Vine Street toward Santa Monica Boulevard where I could catch the 704. I hadn't wanted to travel with any excess weight, so I'd left that stack of books behind as well. I could still feasibly write something on LeDuc. But my good fortune there on Vine St. was better. Amid a picked-over pile of ankle boots and other apparel, I found a plastic trash bag full of books. Next thing, the cops who had pulled up behind me were asking if the things strewn over the bench of the nearby bus stop were mine, and a sheepishly assertive young man in a too big black suit was answering that he was going to have to "confiscate" it all. It was only then that I noticed that the concrete building inside of the fence five feet from the pile was a Goodwill. Fortunately, I already had my yellowed Vintage edition of The Sibyl by Pär Lagerkvist (translated from the Norwegian by Naomi Walford) in hand, for which I bartered a look back at the young man meant to resign my arguable (if mercenary) right to the rest of the contents of the plastic bag. The other books went with him to the donation center evidence room, and I kept walking toward my bus.

The beach was overcast too. But after so many months without even seeing it I was determined to get in the ocean at some point that day, so I decided to wait for the sky to change at a place on the Venice boardwalk. And over a pitcher of whatever was on special I read the first part of my new book. In it, a man has come to Delphi to consult the oracle about something of great importance. But he's turned away without even being shown to the room where the other seekers were assembling. Later, however, in conversation with a blind beggar in the poorest part of town, he's told about someone who might help him, "an old priestess of the oracle, an ancient pythia, cursed and hated by all because she had committed a crime against god... said to be living still, in the mountains whither she was driven." And so the man goes up into the mountains to seek his answers from this sibyl.

The story that the man tells the pythia in her little mountain house is something like a biblical parable as if fashioned by the Brothers Grimm. Once upon a time, the man had a wife and a child and a house in the place where he was from. One day, a man who was to be crucified was being marched with his cross down the man's street. When the man with the cross stopped to lean his head against the first man's house, the first man told him to move on, to which the man with the cross responded with a curse: "Because I may not lean my head against your house your soul shall be unblessed forever,' he said... 'you shall never die. You shall wander through this world to all eternity, and find no rest.'" There were people where the cursed man lived who whispered that the man with the cross was the son of God, begotten of a virgin, and that he had performed miracles. The cursed man wasn't a believer ("Of his doctrine of love I know little -- only enough to be sure that it's not for me"), but he has nonetheless borne the effects of his curse throughout his wanderings of the ages.

The sky hadn't cleared even after I'd finished my pitcher, but I decided to buy a towel and go for a swim anyway. So I put away that parable for a couple of hours and went to face the lonely immensity of a gray ocean seen from an almost unpeopled beach.

Once I'd started to feel the prickle of clandestine ultraviolet on my shins I packed up and walked back to the pier. And on the three hour rush hour bus ride from Santa Monica back to Hollywood I was able to read most of the second part of The Sibyl. After the old cursed young man has told her his, the pythia tells him about her own experience encountering the divine. She had been a virgin, and poor, and those two things had been enough for her to be recruited for a position that no woman in Delphi wanted. Serving the holy of holies, the god of radiance and light -- from within a dark, volcanic pit below the temple of the oracle.

The ancient pythia had been the greatest the oracle had known. "No one had been able to endure the sight of her when she was filled with her god. His own breath had issued from her mouth and her speech had been as wild as fiery flames... for thus did he love her. He refused to speak through anyone but her, and did so for many years." But when she was away from the pit she was alone. Her life as the perfect vessel for the holy of holies was a vacillation between indifference or desperate lethargy and an inscrutable tumult of excitement and rapture that bordered perpetually on anguish and terror. Put simply -- and in the terms of contemporary metaphysics -- her experience of her god was undiagnosed bipolar. And her experience of the people of Delphi was marked by a not-uncomparable stigma. "It arose from timidity, a dread of someone who had been in such close touch with the divine, which as everyone knows is a dangerous matter." Even the priests of the oracle "felt nothing but a sort of pitying contempt for this poor, raving, half-conscious woman whom they set upon the tripod in the god's stifling pit." "The oracle was said to command veneration throughout the world; yet the one into whom god injected his spirit, in whom he took up his abode, was an outcast."

The following day I went to visit a cousin of my father's, a man about whom I'd heard an occasional story but with whom I'd never had any contact myself -- a man who'd been estranged from most of his family for decades since he'd undertaken the unimaginable and come out of the closet in Appalachian eastern Ohio in the 1960s. I found him in a ramshackle "board and care" (as he called it) for early old agers in West Hollywood, a rundown, private community living property set back from the street amid the impeccable facades of everything else between Santa Monica Boulevard and Melrose west of LaBrea.

We talked for most of an afternoon on the front patio of the property in the shade of a California bay laurel. (The sun that day was out in force.) He'd been an architect in Pittsburgh before visiting Los Angeles on vacation and falling in love with the ocean, which still held him, although he'd stopped going to see it. I'd come in part for the ocean too, but also to talk with this relative, not exactly in consultation, but still, in a way, as if to commune with what I considered to be a fantastic lala oracle... and not to pose any questions about my personal fate, but to divine something, as it were, about an occulted family and social history. ("Tear down the veil and let me see, however terrible it may be!") I did put some questions, though mostly I let him just talk, and he told me a patchwork of stories; and we meanwhile conferred on the transgressive counter-moralities of the likes of Violette LeDuc. Through the glory days of the boulevard -- and through the ensuing crises -- the reformed architect had worked as a colorist.

I'd brought The Sibyl in case I'd found time to read in transit, and I'd had it sitting on top of my notebook on top of the cement railing that enclosed the patio. He asked me about it, and I opined. It was, I said, a book about morality and the natures of devotion turned on their heads. The (probable) Christ's promise of everlasting life is foisted as a curse on a nonbeliever. And a priestess of the goat god Apollo struggles with having been called to holy service, constantly questioning whether her god has forsaken her -- or if she can know happiness unforsaken. That god was a variety of composites born out of different situations' specific (if nonetheless desultory) selections from a salad bar of syncretic pluralism. That's what I'd thought so far, anyway. I wasn't quite finished. My father's cousin acknowledged me with an eye smile, then grimaced and responded that he'd never forgive my father for raising his children within an organized religion. But he was in awe of the conversation in general: he had never once thought that he would be sitting in West Hollywood conversation with his uncle Bill's grandson.

I finished The Sibyl that evening, and in the part that I had left to finish the pythia finishes her story, describing how she came to sin against God and how God took his revenge against her. She describes her self-possession in the face of the angry mob that confronted her outside the temple before she left the city of Delphi for good. Then she describes the birth of her son. And in the end, her story, which comprises most of the book, is the non-answer that she gives to the cursed man who has come to her for answers. Or, if she can be said to give one, her answer is simply to describe her experience of the alienating and annihilating immensity of the question of the divine. "God," she says in beautifully refined tautology, "is the most inhuman thing there is." You're blessed and you're not. Humans are, as a rule, miserably forsaken, but when they're not they're miserable in their distance from the happiness of common human experience. To be or to not be forsaken! In all of The Sibyl, that seems to be the question. Unfortunately, says the fortune teller, it's a question raised by divine inspiration itself, and so not one that it can answer. A little light food for summer thought.

Before I left Los Angeles I visited my father's cousin two more times. And I decided to eschew reading anything more oracular into our conversations. Not that I might not have, but I'd gotten used to the languid pace of my summer. I won't be so mawkishly patrician as to say that I thought the answers were already in the questions I might have posed, it's just that I wasn't trying to steer anything in any particular direction anymore -- and the attenuated sunlight that made its way around the edge of the bay laurel didn't help to invigorate any incipient resolve that I might have had. That too was probably just meaninglessness imbued with too much meaning. Just give me the sun and the experience. I could put questions another time. And I needn't go searching for some tie-in if it wasn't forthcoming. I could still fall back on LeDuc (at the thought of whom I wondered for a moment if I shouldn't send the Goodwill on Vine a paperback of one of her books).

My father's cousin didn't tell me the story about why he didn't go to the ocean anymore, but I went back there myself after I left him on the afternoon of our last visit. It was sunny, and the beach was more peopled than it had been the time before, although it wasn't crowded. (With L.A. transit being as it is, I didn't arrive until almost five.) I changed and put down my towel. Then I worked at another crossword puzzle, which was also decidedly unprophetic. I drank my sparkling water and got a silly-looking burn on my torso from a misapplication of sunscreen and the way that I was holding the puzzle over my face and upper chest. Summertime! Although come to think of it now, I suppose that it was still technically spring….How insipidly divine!

"The most incomprehensible thing about him," the sibyl says to the man with the curse in the course of their conference, "is that he can also be a little turf altar where he may lay a few ears of corn and so be at ease and at peace. He may be a spring where we can mirror our faces...he can be that, too." And the ocean of course. Of course the ocean, too! Or, "A son who must have come into the world just to show us that meaninglessness, too, is divine." And that probably goes for all of us. And for all of the daughters too. When it suits. One way or another. Blessed and unblessed for eternity.