June 27, 2010
CONVERSATIONS WITH GUSTAF SOBIN
To Gustaf Sobin, I wonder what initially drove you to live the way you lived, in a small, isolated house atop a hillside, with a single church, the only sign of civilization, about one kilometer away. I suppose you had your books, your small cabanon two hundred meters from your front door, your wife and family, too. I suppose you had your long walks after lunch, and the telephone in the dining room should anyone from the outside wish to call. But for over thirty-five years you woke in the dark, ate breakfast, then walked to your cabanon where you wrote until noon. You wrote first in pencil, transcribing the best parts with your fountain pen. Later, after lunch, you typed the morning drafts on a portable Olivetti. In the evenings you read, gradually shifting from fiction and poetry to the historical and archeological studies written about your surrounding landscape.
I think of you—although only knowing you through your books—as I once did Thoreau, that isolated figure, who removed himself from present, societal company, with its overwhelming noise and bustle, in search of a quieter existence, the less intrusive company of nature. You, Sobin, chose also to leave your American homeland and settled on the hills of Provence, France. You, too, chose the quieter company of history: history as it is found underground. For—how did you put it?—“The present, the cultural and ultimately spiritual present, has failed to generate generative image: the kind in which societies might come to recognize their veritable identity.” And so we cannot recognize ourselves. One must, as I believe you are saying, seek this image—this identity—by turning backwards, into the realm of history. For history we must dig. We must go under.
Yes, the past does draw. It draws in a way that invites us underground; beckons us below the surface to encounter an image of ourselves. On the surface, I lack clarity. I lack clarity when looking at the radish’s leaves, which blend in with the wild growth around the garden’s stone wall. I want to tell myself in these moments to be patient, to practice careful observation: to wait and see. But unlike the string bean or tomato plant, no amount of time or attention will render a more complete image of these plants we call root vegetables. For such renderings one must go under.
Perhaps this is what you meant, Sobin, when you walked the passageways in the caves of Apt and considered the dark hallways and chambers underground as metaphor for civilization itself: ancient cities as palimpsests, as if with each strata a glimpse of what had been written before could somehow be brought into light.
And I want to say, want to make this connection, that the root vegetables in my backyard offer ways of knowing similar to your passageways. If your strata and underground tunnels provide a metaphor for civilizations, then I will pronounce the plant’s layers as metaphor for the plight of a human being: how we grow, how we expand and spread our roots outward, groping in the darkness for any drop of water or extra nourishment we may pull from our surroundings, carving our own passageways through the earth. I confess that I have never physically dug a tunnel underground; I have never taken shovel or pickax and carved out the side of a cave to begin a deeper passage. But I imagine the people who carved out these ancient tunnels, and I imagine their progress to be slow and frustrating: how tiresome, to come up against a boulder and have to go around; how frightening to dig and have the ground above give way and topple down upon them. But how exhilarating to come, years later as you did, and travel through these passageways, knowing that the farther back you went, it was as though you were going back in time. The same for me: if I were able to look and see the root system of my garden’s vegetables from behind a glass pane, I would trace the roots’ extensions and know that I was looking back in time. For by going underground, by starting at the source and working our way backward, toward the end of the network of roots or farther back into the network of passageways, we begin to trace the patterns of a life: through our childhood; veering off, then shooting up into youth; tangled mix-ups and road blocks and dead ends leading into adulthood; pathways that lead around or under or through obstacles. Do you see how we can entwine our vocabularies for both?
Sobin, I believe that what you will find in the underground passageways and vaulted cellars of an antique city is indeed comparable to what is buried within some deep, richly endowed level of human consciousness. And I want to tell you that the roots I observe in my garden and the passageways you explore along the hillside of your home both provide us with the notion that such an underworld still does exist. That there is hope for us still. To find ourselves.
To borrow a phrase from one of your poems, words through, we may interpret its meaning either positively or negatively. Like so much offered in life, choices remain. We could say, that the word through denotes direction—that words move through a person’s or word’s identity, and disappear—go underground—only to reemerge as a new identity. You, for one, came late to writing. Did not write your first poem until you were 37 years old. So many years your writing impulse lay underground, spreading your roots, drawing out every bit of nourishment you could muster. When you did write, that poem emerged from a single word, crystal. As in a fracturing of image, a brilliant splintering of what we thought we knew and understood. Suddenly, you saw yourself not as one, but as many. Growth. The word launched an idea, and the idea marked your emergence, your identity as a writer.
But what about after this initial growth? What about after this existential becoming, as you call it? I must go back to the garden, and say that the identity of a root vegetable becomes known only after I have plucked the plant from the earth. The carrot or radish top may show just a tiny bit through the soil’s surface, but timing is tricky: I may pull too soon. And so I’m left with a darker implication of your phrase: take through as an adjective, and we’d get something like this: words are through. Finished.
(We are at the end of something—how do we start over?)
(We’ve emerged, but have been uprooted too soon.)
Sobin, perhaps I find you continually pushing me to look backward—more specifically, underneath—in order to more fully pay attention to what has become pushed aside, what remains under human (or society’s) consciousness. Perhaps this is what I finally see in your writings. I begin to note the challenge that you must have felt: the reflection of eternity seen in a crumbling vessel. The sense of self reflected—and refracted, as with the crystal’s edges—in symbols of the past. See ourselves. In the disfigured statue of Venus. In Dardanus’ vanished Theopolis, City of God. In the pagan pools of the River Sorgue.
One begins to imagine the scope of this challenge of looking underneath in order to see oneself by visiting the local mortuary and cemetery, topside rendering of histories buried underground. Looking across this vast landscape, the stretch of gravesites continuing across more than one-hundred acres, I begin to wonder if it is possible anymore to consider a reemergence of anything. You must have seen this same challenge when looking at fourth-century sarcophagi: “the carved panels…had grown markedly rigid, architectonic, hierarchical. Within a brief period of time, they expressed themselves in terms no longer narrative but symbolic.”
I want to tell you that very little has changed today. I want to say that the changes you observed take place with sarcophagi between the first and second half of the fourth century still hold meaning. For as I walk the rows of thousands of granite gravestones, I find it surprisingly difficult to see anything of eternal promise reflected in their tabletop surfaces. Here lies the challenge: how can we begin to envision a life by looking at a single block of granite? Yet, if we were to go underground here…well, what histories would we encounter? Again, I lack clarity above ground. What meaning I do find speaks of a staunch finality: Here lies so-and-so. Born. Died. Finished. Words through. History through.
To Sobin again, I want to know what can be recovered after being buried in the earth. I want to understand and appreciate the effort needed in such retrieval. I suspect that the task would be similar to picking up and piecing together every bone fragment I find within the grave until a recognizable shape emerges from the ruin.
I confess I have found comfort in going underground; I am content, most of the time, to observe life from below, hesitant to break the surface and take in the sunlight and the air. Yes, the past does draw. It draws in a way that leads me under, to discover what is buried below the surface. But, and I think you know this, oftentimes what we find buried is altogether mysterious and frightening.
I know of many passageways or tendrils down which I would rather not venture. I once dug up a clump of beets, mistaking them for weeds, only to find, in the hole’s wake, bits of snail shell and, because I had used compost to fertilize the soil, my own fingernail clippings and snippets of hair. The shell, white and translucent in the sun; paper thin, chipped in places, hollow. Turn over the shell, fill it with fingernail clippings and strands of hair and call it ritual, call it a portrait of the past self.
But we must be cautious: in your essay on martyr’s relics, you warn against our impulse to take ordinary objects and esteem them as something more. You note how “the memoria of the earliest martyrs took on ever-increasing significance in the popular imagination.” As Saint Basil wrote: “Anyone who touches the bones of martyrs is partaking in the holiness and grace that resides in them.” Back then, relics thus provided access to that which was considered sacred; and, as you observe, after Constantine, raiders ransacked the tombs of martyrs and sold their bones to the highest bidders. And you observe: “It was the femurs, shoulder blades, phalanges that the faithful addressed now, praying not to God directly but to His blessed intercessors.”
Sobin, I too, have made this exchange: in moments of grief, I dig underground with the false notion that I what I find will somehow replace that which I have lost. I arrive at the cemetery, trace my fingers across a particular gravestone, and my imagination collects the fragments it finds underneath. I dig; I assemble the pieces—only to find that the constructed shape serves only as a symbol for that which was lost.
I want to ask you about those desolate treasures you found buried; bronze coins, were they? With the etchings of some ancient monarch or emperor no doubt, now forgotten. Forgotten, until of course, they are found. Some come easily, as did these coins, dug up a few feet from the entrance. Others, I imagine you’d have to go way back into the darkness and pry them from the surrounding stone.
The farther back I go along my roots and passageways, the more evidence I see of Aline Rousselle’s words: treasure hoards serve as an index to the violence of human history. Treasure not easily gotten rid of, not easily let go; treasure that remains in the belly of the earth, in the belly of human consciousness. The coins, for instance: a remnant of both a city’s rise and its destruction, but for one shining moment in time, an symbol of its prosperity. I like your observation: that the most recent date found among these coins in the Rhône Valley can be matched within a few years’ time to an impending invasion. And I want to tell you that what you said is true: it is the small things—the seemingly insignificant events or circumstances or mishaps—that make up the overwhelming majority of our histories.
These ancient invasions, for instance: what we now know through study is that they were due to some small change in weather or climate: a slight drop in temperature, a lack of rainfall, a late overnight frost, which stunted pasturelands and crops, which drove invaders to the west and south in search of food and land. The crops and plants, for their part, like the coins, contextualize these ensuing changes.
The length of my radish’s root system measures an inch-and-a-quarter, a single shoot just beginning to produce offshoots. Near the base of the radish bulb, lasting for the first quarter-inch, the root stem is red, maintaining the color of the radish. Trace the root beyond this first quarter-inch, however, and history begins to fade. Hidden underground, kept in the dark, except by slight differences in color: toward the tip of the root, I can detect what is best described as shadow markings: brownish splotches of color that chronicles the plant’s initial struggle. Here denotes lack of nutrients, lack of water, an obstacle which now leaves traces for me to document, as one would go beneath the skin to inspect the inside of the body—around muscles and ligaments and tendons—looking for scar tissue.
Whether such treasure hoards serve as an index to the violence of an entire civilization’s history: to blights, to invasions, to wars, to death; or whether these treasures serve a more intimate index of violence toward an individual: to love and loss, to pain, to sadness, to stress; regardless it occurs to me, as it did to you, that such markings—where before we said treasures—represent a genuine threat and potential castastrophe (to use your own word) to their owner’s life, to his or her very survival. I suspect that in the case of the buried coins, dating just a year or so before invasion, the owner did not survive the impact. The person who placed the coins into their shallow tomb no doubt knew death was fast approaching from the east or north. Still, the shadow marking on the radish bears witness itself, and seems to wonder, what if the owner survives? I believe what your work says best is that what narrative exists—narrative of both the self and collective consciousness—exists only as a tale of fragments.
Julie has an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Arizona. She works as a freelance editor and, for the first time in ten years, is enjoying not having a required reading list. She lives in Tucson, Arizona.