The Mirror and the Maze
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The Mirror and the Maze

For some years, this has been the title of a week-long writing workshop I teach each summer at Naropa University's Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. It comes from my sense of what the walls of the Prison House of Language look like and within which Nietzsche so wryly and accurately noted we dwell. Between those annual four sessions, for over half a dozen years now, the students and I read and reread works by two or three writers from a list including Heraclitus, Friedrich Hölderlin, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, G. E. Lessing, Novalis, Gérard de Nerval, Sigmund Freud, Willa Cather, Robert Hayden, Robert Duncan, Theodore Sturgeon, Lorine Niedecker, Joanna Russ, John Keene, Jr., and Robin Blaser. I mention this because at least three of these names have already surfaced in the papers prior to my comments here.

The attempt to grasp the workings of the physical universe, how the world functions, is, if we follow Baruch Spinoza, an attempt to grasp the God presumed to stand just outside those walls. As Professor Scott writes in his paper, in the poem "Patmos," one that I return to regularly over the summers, Hölderlin notes that it is hard—if not impossible—to do. While none of the readers here have attempted to wrestle directly with the seven-year project that is my most recent novel, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders (2012), those who have read it will have recognized that my sympathies—as much as those of a committed atheist can (the grandson of a born slave, a slave who had gone on to become one of the first two black suffrage Episcopalian bishops in the United States)—lean in that direction.

I don't remember exactly when I first decided that someday I would use that title for something. But it was before I had any specific idea of what to fix it to—or had any encounter with Nietzsche other than the obligatory 17-year-old's tussle with the [End Page 768] Apollonian and Dionysian reductions of The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music, and while I was still happy enough to categorize myself to my professional acquaintances as "young."

When Robert Reid-Pharr proposed a selection of academic papers to celebrate my 50 years of published writing, I was minded (as, with his combined accuracy and eccentricity, Dr. Thomas Browne might have written) of an anecdote that, for the first 10 years of my career, formed part of my general self- presentation.

My seventh novel, The Einstein Intersection, appeared in March of 1967. The biographical squib inside the front cover mentioned I had been born in New York City in 1942. When the novel had been out six weeks, a writer in his late 30s or early 40s visited our fourth-floor East Sixth Street flat and, among a group of friends, picked up the published volume from the wing of the typing table in the kitchen corner and opened it. A moment later, he was frowning. "1942 . . . ," he said, loudly. "1942 . . . ? No one was born in 1942!"

In 1967, that was funny. Everyone in the room laughed.

In 1986, when I was a few years older than the "older writer" had been, now as an anecdote, it only evoked a moderate smile from any collection of new or old acquaintances, and I realized that it could not even be trotted out any more as a historical curiosity. Today, it is all but opaque and mysterious when recounted by someone who is clearly the eldest in the gathering. I do much better explaining directly: "For so many years, I was always the youngest writer present—now, on the far side of 70, often I'm the oldest."

What had once been a mirror of recounting had turned, with time, into a maze that had become too tangled for anecdotal negotiation. A lesson had gone along with this: At the risk, first, of bemusement and, finally, obscurity, age simplifies one's style. This is a good thing.

It also highlights a certain bravery on the part of the writers who...