Friday, May 07, 2010

Ensouling Language, by Stephen Harrod Buhner

Among Gandhi’s thousands of articles and pamphlets, written in English and Gujurati, are several on sanitation. “A small spade is the means of salvation from a great nuisance,” Gandhi writes in one article. “In his book on rural hygiene, Dr. Poore says that excreta should be buried in earth no deeper than nine to twelve inches. The author contends that the superficial earth is charged with minute life, which, together with light and air which easily penetrate it, turn the excreta into good soft sweet-smelling soil within a week. Any villager can test this for himself.”

I felt a strange charge when reading these passages. This is how to write, I thought - this is how to approach life. Gandhi doesn’t bully people with rhetoric or his own authority. He does his research, he checks everything for himself. I would bet my life he dug his own nine-to-twelve inch latrines. Notice the use of “good” and “sweet-smelling,” too, which no scientist would write. There is always an emotional and moral element to Gandhi’s writing, and an underlying vision of a society where people respect each other and live responsibly on the earth.

To leave your waste is “a sin against God and humanity,” he writes. Even in this tiny pamphlet, he is trying to bring about “the restoration of the holy to everyday life,” using a subject that most of us have no inclination to think about.

The last quote – “the restoration of the holy” – is from Stephen Harrod Buhner’s wonderful book on writing, which arrived unsolicited on my doorstep a few months ago. When I started reading it, I remembered Gandhi’s piece, and my old thought that no good piece of writing is ever just about its nominal topic. Buhner’s book argues that any subject can be a doorway to the larger truths of existence, as long as the writer has developed a real emotional connection with his material - although some subjects, of course, are more likely to produce such a connection than others.

Buhner begins with the observation that the majority of books sold today are non-fiction, and not memoirs and histories and other such “serious” books, but genre nonfiction: books on gardening, trail guides, identifying birds, losing weight, etc. To a large extent, this is what people actually read. “There is no reason,” Buhner says, “that the art of writing should neglect the largest segment of the nonfiction field. Well, no reputable reason.”

He then quotes from how-to books like James Krenov’s The Fine Art of Cabinetmaking, and shows how the writer is creating “something that is more than the sum of the parts, something that touches on the depths of the human and the human relationship to the universe around her” – the same thing that I felt in those lines from Gandhi. This is an experience traditionally only associated with belletristic writing – poetry, novels, plays – and not even seen as a goal in more information-oriented work.

Buhner’s book describes how any writer, even one writing about, say, adobe walls, can achieve the sense of expansion - of traveling into larger worlds - that has always marked the best art. And although the subject is nonfiction, what Buhner has to say applies to serious writing of any kind.

Buhner, who is an herbalist as well as a writer, expressed his guiding principle in an earlier book, The Lost Language of Plants: “I do not believe we can solve the environmental problems facing us,” he wrote, “unless we develop our capacity for feeling and our empathy for other life-forms to the same degree that we have developed our facility for thought.”

Although it never struck me as important before, I noticed once that many of my favorite writers had a sense that consciousness was not limited to human beings. Reading their books, you felt life coming from everywhere. Edward Thomas’s winds whistle their joy or pain through cracks in the wall. Transtromer never doubts that plants have thoughts, and the oak tree that speaks to Prince Andrei in War and Peace is as important as any human character. Nicholson Baker, one of the few modern writers I follow with interest, can feel life coming up through old paper straws and other products of industrial civilization.

This experience is commonly known as the pathetic fallacy. Although ordinary people continue, stubbornly, to experience the world in this way, our culture’s intellectual and artistic leaders often see it, at best, as a useful delusion for poets. To argue that we can experience genuine communication with the non-human world without generating the message ourselves, one has to go against the entire current of our society and, by extension, our language. Modern artists who have felt the reality of such messages have often had to invent or procure their own words for it. Hopkins talked about inscape and instress, Lorca about duende. Buhner has to go back to the Greeks.
It is this exact exchange [between the human and non-human] they called aisthesis. For the ancient Greeks, the organ of aisthesis, that is, the part of us that is capable of accessing this experience, is the human heart — aisthesis comes directly out of our capacity to feel. The ancient Greeks insisted this experience could be shared with any part of the world, even the world itself, insisted there could be an invisible, sensorial touching between the human and nonhuman in such moments. And during those moments, understandings, perceptions, and insights that can be obtained no other way flow into us.
Buhner has several writing exercises – some of the very few I have ever found useful – to help get into a state of mind where such a stream of understanding might pass between you and some part of the world. The first step is getting a sense of what might have deep resonance for you: locating your loves and hates, your heroes, and the words and books that have already put down roots in your spirit.

Bertram Dobell, in his introduction to Thomas Traherne’s Centuries, wrote that “utter sincerity of thought, though it is not indeed the only requisite for a great writer, is yet, I think, the one indispensable quality without which all others are useless.” Buhner’s book, as well as being a clear example of this sincerity, is a forceful reminder that anything we produce without this core of conviction is probably going to be worthless. After all, most pieces of writing today – all the millions of articles and blog posts and novels – are not failed shots at greatness but successful attempts to achieve petty objectives.

But surely, one might say, not every piece of writing needs to be so important. Sometimes you need your guilty pleasures, your brainless time; there has to be something that fulfills that function. I don’t think Buhner would agree, and I don’t either. If you can find beauty anywhere, you also can’t forgive ugliness and thoughtlessness in any form. I am simply never in the mood to be lied to. From bad movies to the design of office buildings, the belief that large areas of our culture are inconsequential will, I'm convinced, eventually degrade our ability to find the truth even in the things that we do value.

Beyond the obvious crap, of course, there are the well-intentioned attempts to communicate information and ideas, provide intelligent diversion. Buhner has little tolerance for writing of this sort, motivated by no emotional charge. There is an obvious objection to this, but I will let it be made by a smarter man. Here is James Agee in his review of Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard:
On the charge of lifelessness [he writes] I can only say that in my opinion there are two main kinds of life in art, not just one. The warmer, richer kind comes, invariably, from the kind of artist who works from far inside himself and his creatures. For the other kind, we can thank the good observer. Brackett and Wilder apparently have little if any gift from working from inside, but they are first rate observers, and their films are full of that kind of life. It is true, I think, that they fail to make much of the powerful tragic possibilities which are inherent in their story; they don’t even explore much of the deep anguish and pathos which are still more richly inherent, though they often reveal it, quickly and brilliantly. But this does not seem to me a shameful kind of failure, if indeed it is proper to call it a failure at all: they are simply not the men for such a job, nor was this the kind of job they were trying to do. But they are beautifully equipped to do the cold, exact, adroit, sardonic job they have done; and artists who, consciously or unconsciously, learn to be true to their limitations as well as to their gifts, deserve a kind of gratitude and respect they much too seldom get.
There is a whole world of Wilder’s kind of art that Buhner has no time for, and would probably not consider art at all (Roth, for example, whom I respect, is dismissed with a line). But I think this book is a necessary corrective, because today the kind of observational art that Agee describes gets far too much rather than too little respect. It is what goes into most television, even the best stuff, where wit and ingenuity are pretty much the entirety of what’s on display. It is also the same kind of “intelligence” that goes into our value-free mainstream political analysis.

So if Buhner dismisses too much – and takes too many potshots at MFA programs and the NY literary scene – I forgive him. Many of his concepts are taken, openly, from other thinkers – Stafford, Bly, and Gardner, mostly – but the synthesis is impressive, the writing is consistently excellent, and the depth and variety and seriousness of his reading are an inspiration (the book would be worth reading for the quotes alone). Buhner's book also meets its own criterion; by going deep enough into its subject, it gives us glimpses of the whole world and man's relationship to it, and a measure of greatness is achieved simply by telling our society what it most urgently needs to hear right now.

You might raise an eyebrow at the title (the publisher’s decision – Buhner’s preferred title is Inhabiting the Word) and by the author’s involvement with something called the Institute of Gaian Studies. I had those reactions at first, and they are entirely to my discredit. Remember that only time has given people like Blake and Tolstoy their veneer of respectability, and that kneejerk skepticism often keeps us from precisely the people who have something new to teach us. Renewal, if it comes for our society, is going to come from the margins. We just need to go seek it out.


Nicolás Díaz said...
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scott and leigh said...

that was a great review on a book I really loved reading. There was so much in it of value, I can see reading it many times, easily.