Turner, Frederick 1943-
TURNER, Frederick 1943-
Male. Born November 19, 1943, in England; came to the United States, 1967; son of Victor Witter (an anthropologist) and Edith (a writer; maiden name, Davis) Turner; married Mei Lin Chang, June 25, 1966; children: Daniel, Benjamin. Ethnicity: "Mixed." Education: Christ Church, Oxford, B.A., 1965, M.A., 1967, B.Litt., 1967. Hobbies and other interests: Natural science, philosophy, anthropology, brain science, karate.
Office—School of Arts and Humanities, University of Texas at Dallas, Richardson, TX 75083.
University of California, Santa Barbara, assistant professor of English, 1967-72; Kenyon College, Gambier, OH, associate professor of English, 1972-85; University of Texas at Dallas, Richardson, Founders Professor in School of Arts and Humanities, 1985—. Has given poetry readings and has also been interviewed for various radio stations and syndicated programs, including "At the Arabica." Has appeared on two Smithsonian World PBS television documentaries, a Discovery Channel program on beauty, and other television documentaries.
International Society for the Study of Time, PEN International, Association of Literary Scholars and Critics, Society for Literature and Science, Human Behavior and Evolution Society.
Levinson Poetry Prize; Milan Fust Prize (Hungary); Golden Pen Award from PEN Dallas chapter; Missouri Review essay prize; David Robert poetry prize.
Deep Sea Fish (poetry), Unicorn (Santa Barbara, CA), 1968.
Birth of a First Son (poetry), Christopher's Books (Oakland, CA), 1969.
The Water World (poetry), Christopher's Books, 1970.
Between Two Lives (poetry), Wesleyan University Press (Middletown, CT), 1972.
(Translator) Three Poems from the German, Pothanger Press, 1974.
Counter-Terra (poetry), Christopher's Books, 1978.
The Return (poetry), Countryman Press (Woodstock, VT), 1981.
The New World (epic poem), Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 1985.
The Garden (poetry), Ptyx Press (Algonac, MI), 1985.
Natural Classicism: Essays on Literature and Science, Paragon House (New York, NY), 1986.
Genesis: An Epic Poem, Saybrook (Dallas, TX), 1988.
Rebirth of Value: Meditations on Beauty, Ecology, Religion, and Education (essays), State University of New York Press (Albany, NY), 1991.
Tempest, Flute, and Oz: Essays on the Future, Persea Books (New York, NY), 1991.
Beauty: The Value of Values, University Press of Virginia (Charlottesville, VA), 1991.
April Wind (poems), University Press of Virginia (Charlottesville, VA), 1991.
(Translator with Zsuzsanna Ozsváth) Foamy Sky: The Major Poems of Miklós Radnóti, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 1992.
The Culture of Hope: A New Birth of the Classical Spirit (cultural criticism), Free Press (New York, NY), 1995.
Shakespeare's Twenty-first-Century Economics: The Morality of Love and Money, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1999.
Hadean Eclogues: Poems, Story Line Press (Ashland, OR), 1999.
(Co-editor with Brett Cooke) Biopoetics: Evolutionary Explorations in the Arts, ICUS (Lexington, KY), 1999.
(Co-translator with Zsuzsanna Ozsváth) The Iron-Blue Vault: Selected Poems of Attila Jósef, Bloodaxe (Newcastle on Tyne, England), 1999.
On the Battlefield of Truth (long poem), Pivot Press (New York, NY), 2004.
Contributor to Harper's, Smithsonian Wilson Quarterly, Reason, Poetry, National Review, Formalist, Southern Review, Yale Review, Performing Arts Journal, American Theater, Cumberland Poetry Review, and many other magazines and periodicals. Editor, Kenyon Review, 1978-82.
Frederick Turner has produced poetry and science fiction that has advanced the appreciation of the common ground on which both verse and narrative stand, according to Dictionary of Literary Biography contributor Frederick Feirstein. "His poetry integrates his vision as a student of the sciences with his narrative and poetic skills. His book length poem The Return … has helped to bring both fiction and extended narrative back into poetry, and his … book, The New World … has gone a long way toward reviving the epic form in American and British poetry," Feirstein noted. Turner once commented to CA that his commitment is "to the essential unity of nature and history; a belief in creative evolution. I oppose the distinction between science and the humanities."
Turner's works attempt to bridge the sciences and the humanities. They include Genesis: An Epic Poem, a long poem that posits human terraforming of Mars; Rebirth of Value: Meditations on Beauty, Ecology, Religion, and Education, in which Turner discusses ecology as well as other topics; and Shakespeare's Twenty-first-Century Economics: The Morality of Love and Money, a book that combines literary criticism and economic analysis. Working with co-translator Zsuzsanna Ozsváth, Turner has also crossed another "bridge" by bringing the poetry of several Hungarian writers to an English audience. He is also one of the founders of the "Natural Classicism" movement, which states that humans and human creations are not at odds with nature, but a part of it, and he has garnered attention from poets and scientists alike.
Genesis, published in 1988, "is, by any standards, a remarkable poem," according to Judith de Luce in the Humanist. The poem deals with creating habitable ecosystems on Mars and employs a classical structure. It tells the story of Chance Van Riebeck and other scientists sent on a mission called the Ares Project to investigate the possibility of human habitation of Mars. Instead of merely conducting a survey, the scientists begin a project of their own and begin terraforming the red planet. Their actions are opposed by a religious group that claims that humanity imposing itself upon nature in this way is evil, and that there is a strict division between humanity and nature. In de Luce's analysis of the poem, she compared the work to a Greek epic in both its scope and its form. She captured the theme of the book as this: "The choice is not between the dichotomy of conservation and restoration, of preservation and invention, of nature and human kind.… [T]he exercise of freedom on our own planet may move us beyond simple dichotomies to create alternatives."
Hungarian poet Attila József's work was the subject of a collaborative translation by Turner and Ozsváth in The Iron-Blue Vault. Cited as one of Hungary's "finest poets" by Ray Olson in his Booklist review, József lived from 1905 to 1937; he committed suicide when he was only thirty-two years old. His poetry deals with themes such as the nature of consciousness, the frustration of poverty, and a desire for love, which he felt keenly due to being abandoned by his father and to his mother's death when he was only fourteen. Olson continued, "He wrote with an adroitness of rhythm and rhyme that Turner, one of the best U.S. formalist poets … is probably especially responsible for reproducing in English."
Turner's Shakespeare's Twenty-first-Century Economics brings to light theories that many traditional academians have neglected when writing about Shakespeare. Turner posits that Shakespeare was very much an early capitalist, and that this can be seen in the language he uses when discussing economics, in particular in the play The Merchant of Venice. He also notes that the playwright hit on abstract concepts that have only been recently incorporated into modern science, including the idea of Fibonnaci series and the characteristics of matter. "Turner gives us a capitalist Shakespeare, his art an embrace and representation of the vision of investment and risk-taking embodied in his own day," wrote Thomas Moisan in Christianity and Literature. Though Moisan had some hesitation about how few sources Turner cites, he did note that Turner "extracts new significance from some well combed passages and images in the Shakespearean cannon." Lars Engle, writing in Modern Philology, noted that some of Turner's ground has been covered before, but noted that Turner's tangents "are often interesting arguments, but they are really not in the end arguments about Shakespeare so much as arguments about the transactive nature of social and natural being." Paul A. Cantor of Reason called Turner's text "original and provocative" and said that the book is "filled with … sanity and clarity, moments when [Turner] makes us take a fresh look at a scene we may have read or viewed dozens of times without appreciating its significance.… [I]t adds up to a fundamental reconception of Shakespeare."
Frederick Turner contributed the following autobiographical essay to CA:
AN AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL MEDITATION
I was born on November 19, 1943. I have very few memories of the time before I came to full self-awareness, in about 1951 when we were living in what was then Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia in south central Africa. We were driving somewhere along forest roads in my father's truck. This awakening was immediately coupled with the need to communicate to others the astonishing fact of my own inner personal being, and my experience of the world; consciousness, memory, and knowledge that I was a writer all came together and were essentially the same thing.
Inner personal being was an extraordinary phenomenon, but I did not especially love or even like the personality I had discovered; and it is still so. Indeed, now that I know how many writers have so excellently communicated this feeling—Rousseau, Donne, Thoreau, Shakespeare in the sonnets but not often, thank God, in the plays, and so on—it seems to me to be entirely unnecessary to do it again. The commitment I have taken on to write this memoir tells me to examine myself, to embark, as they say, on an inner journey; but the self that I discover is curiously tasteless, that is when it is not rather unpleasantly flavored—a slightly fecal smell, is it not?—with considerations of self-interest. Otherwise my selfhood tastes like clean lukewarm water or perhaps like one's own saliva.
So the exercise of self-exploration seems somewhat pointless. However, at rare intervals I have felt an impulse to examine myself and my memories, and sometimes the attempt to do so led to insight. Perhaps then there is some justification for such a memoir.
So; I was born in East Haddon, Northamptonshire, in England. My father, Victor Turner, was at that time a conscientious objector, and had been set to dig up un-exploded German bombs. My mother, Edie, was in the land army, a British women's organization designed to replace male labor in the fields in order to free up manpower for the military. We lived in a Gipsy caravan, I am told, though I remember nothing of that period except perhaps an advertisement showing a map of Britain drawn as if it were a person driving a car; I still see Scotland as a craggy head looking westward.
I do not believe that there could be better parents than my father and mother. My father was great in his intellectual and imaginative achievements, so I could easily admire him; but he was also a deeply human person, affectionate, funny, and appalled by his own imagined faults. He always had time for me, and managed to convince me that my own calling to poetry was what he would have really wished to follow himself, and that he considered anthropology to be a lesser thing. Thus I was not overwhelmed by him, when in fact his almost superhuman intelligence, erudition, and creative imagination might have been too much for many sons.
My mother is the most loving and best human being I have known: readers can take this statement as they please, judging it by their general estimate of my reliability and objectivity. I do not always agree with her, and she has her annoying habits; but she is wise, generous, unfailingly cheerful, passionate, perceptive, morally noble, and at the same time utterly down-to-earth, without any airs or pomposity whatsoever. She is also courageous as a lion, and something of a desperado: a distinguished anthropologist in her own right, she recently as a widow in her late sixties travelled by sailing-boat with a pair of Eskimo spirit-doctors from Arctic Alaska to Siberia, so that they could compare notes with their cousins across the Bering Sea. The year before that she was living in central Africa with tribal healers. She gave me so much love—which I now recognize in my feeling for my own sons—that I have never really feared anything ultimately, and know that I exist and that I am what I intend to be; and I am in turn—though not as much as she—capable of love and uncalculating generosity.
After the war my father commenced his graduate work in anthropology at the University of London; we lived in Hastings, on the south coast, in a flat belonging to his mother, Violet. Gran-Gran, as we called her, was an ex-actress. She used to take me off conspiratorially, which rather alarmed me, and spoil me with sweets and teach me tricks of the theater; she wanted me to love her, and I liked her very much. Her mother, Ga, a formidable and splendid little Scottish lady whose white hair had been red when she was young, also lived either with us or in the same apartment building. I knew that she was a sounder personality than Violet. Some of her phrases have become part of family folklore—when a sulking child put out its lower lip she would say, "Don't stick your platform out, there's no show tonight," and when someone who was present was referred to in the third person she would ask sarcastically, "Who's 'she'?—the cat's mither?" My father's father, Arthur, whom I never knew, divorced by Violet for his philandering, had been a radio scientist and had worked with Marconi and with Baird on the development of television; he had been a fighter pilot during the Battle of Britain.
My mother's family were somewhat-decayed English gentlefolk, with generations of Anglican clerics, doctors, missionaries, judges, and younger sons of younger brothers in the escutcheon. Her mother, "Granny-in-Cambridge," had had a stroke and could not say any words except "no." She would say "No no no no no no no" with great force and affection when we went to visit her, and take me for rides in her electric wheelchair. My parents were both idealistic young Communists at the time, and there was some strain between my father, Vic, and my mother's family, who believed she had married beneath her. (My father's family felt on the other hand that Vic had been seduced by this wild young Communist rebel, and worried that she would hurt his promising career.) Some maternal great-uncle, to my mother's disgust, once praised my hands as being sturdy engineer's hands. Edie knew I was going to be an artist and felt an aspersion against my father's blood.
Since this time I suppose I have rebelled both against the English class system and against the Communist and left-wing opposition to it. Both seem to be ignobly interested in how people think of one, and to be so self-serving in their arguments and attitudes as to disqualify them from any validity. I have learned to tolerate prejudice of others against me rather cheerfully, and to expect it; it is my job to dispel that prejudice by my acts and my capacities, not theirs to change what is in effect a useful habit to them. Of course I cannot take their minds seriously until they show that flexibility and capacity for epiphanic self-criticism which marks a free human being. I am disturbed and hurt, though, not by their feelings toward me but by their betrayal in themselves of the noble human destiny that we share.
It may seem strange and a little disgusting that I, a "successful" white Anglo-Saxon male, should complain of prejudice against me. But I am not complaining, merely trying to describe my experience. I suspect that we are so made that in the absence of strong and sustained assaults against our self-respect we simply become more sensitive to weak and transient ones, and that the Anglican gentry who made my parents feel defiant had themselves suffered pangs of class discrimination as great as those of Stendhal's Julien Sorel or of some lower-middle-class black youth in high school. I on the other hand very early took prejudice against me as a sign that I was special and marked out for a great destiny, an idea no doubt wisely inculcated in me by my parents: I have taught it to my own sons, who are part Chinese.
What prejudice could I possibly have suffered? Prejudice against strangers everywhere; prejudice by the little Ndembu kids in Africa because I was white (in some villages the smaller children, who had never seen white people before, would burst into tears of terror at seeing me, a real live ghost, and hide behind their mothers); prejudice against me when I lived in the north of England, because of my upper-class accent, inherited from my mother; prejudice against me by my schoolmates and friends in Manchester when I passed the English eleven-plus exam and they didn't (a large group of them, including my two best friends, waited one day on a street corner and beat me up); prejudice against me by the rich because I was poor; prejudice against me at Manchester Grammar School when I became a Catholic; prejudice against me when I came to America because I was English and in the academy because I was a poet and did not have a Ph.D. (my degree, the old Oxford B.Litt., is a Ph.D. in all but name, but many Americans take it to be merely a baccalaureate); prejudice against me now because I am a white male in a position that is imagined to be one of power.
But as I have said, I do not condemn prejudice in others, only in myself. It is impossible to live one's life at all without making generalizations, and all generalizations are prejudices.
Before we went to Hastings my brother Bob was born. I was nearly three at the time but remember nothing of the event at all. I always loved Bob with a tender and slightly envious passion, and we are still very close intellectually, emotionally, and imaginatively. He has become a rather distinguished physicist, working on nuclear magnetic resonance scanning (he also has an advanced degree in anthropology and some expertise in medicine and neuroanatomy; he is working toward the use of NMR scanning to reveal the physiology of cultural learning in the brain). He is a very good man, better than I am because less inclined to put great human achievements above the welfare of ordinary people. I am on a case-by-case basis very compassionate, but I don't have as much generalized social compassion as some. Bob has both. Bob's first marriage, to a very young local girl in the Manchester area, didn't work out, and as Bob was a Catholic at the time, I was grilled by an emissary of the Vatican about their marriage. Apparently I said the right things, because the marriage was annulled. Bob then began an extremely happy marriage with his present wife. They have a boy.
In Hastings my sister Irene (Rene) was born, an event of which I do very dimly remember one or two details. Rene has led a somewhat stormy life. She rebelled against our parents rather more than did Bob and I, though to their great delight she married a black premed student at Cornell University, where she did her undergraduate degree. We were all very fond of him but it turned out later that he would beat Rene up, and though Rene could, we knew, be pretty provoking, we forgave her for getting a divorce. Later we realized how arrogantly silly our attitude had been. Rene then married a very gentle and decent poet, and they have an exquisite clever little girl. The older Rene gets the wiser, funnier, and sweeter she gets.
I do, now I come to think of it, remember some things about Hastings. There was a little girl called Christine at primary school whom I loved, and who showed herself to me under a rhododendron bush, and a bad boy called John Braybrooks whom I feared and admired. My father would take me on weekends to a park where we would feed the black swans and race twigs in the stream under the bridge, and he would by magic extract threepenny bits from my ear, wherewith we purchased a Wall's ice cream.
After Hastings we went to live in Northern Rhodesia. Actually my father went first to prepare the way for his young wife and family. While he was away I had a terrible nightmare about a dragon breaking through the ceiling to get at me and was discovered sleepwalking, given hot cocoa, and sent back to bed without waking up. I have always found hot cocoa very comforting.
More and more memories now begin to come back, but they are surely boring to anyone but myself, or if potentially interesting, so dishearteningly similar to those of other autobiographers as to be not worth the trouble of putting down in an amusing way. The remarkable thing about human beings is that the deeper one gets into their inner personalities the more alike they are. The glories of human individuation come from people's interaction with the world, what they do with their own talents and handicaps, and most important of all the recursive, self-organizing feedback system of soul-making that can spiral amazingly out of the original stereotypical brew. And funnily enough, when one considers this amazing spiral one is really getting quite away from what autobiography is all about, and from what readers want to hear; also from one's motivation for writing a memoir, which is, I assume, not to boast of one's success but to discover something in oneself that naggingly wants to be heard.
I do in fact find in this process of recall—one which is reassuringly unresearchable, for I either remember something or I don't, and if I don't it is by definition not relevant—an insight into myself, into my sexual nature as a matter of fact, which I shall not mention here because of its banality but which is interesting and new to me. What is the use of such insights? By the time one is as old as I am, it's too late, if one has made one's life and made it as voluntarily as I have mine. I do what I do, and my psychology will die with me. The only important thing now is the extent to which my actions affect other people, especially those not yet as fully formed as I; and more deeply still, how morally, esthetically, and philosophically beautiful those actions are.
In Africa, in any case, I came alive as a writer and as a self. It was a kind of paradise for a boy; we lived in a Ndembu village forty miles from the nearest white people, and while my parents conducted ethnological research I played with the Ndembu boys or with my brother or by myself in the savanna (Rene played with a strange tiny deaf girl called Dora and developed with her a total telepathic communication system). We would wake up to the straw smell of the grass huts we slept in, and the smell of woodsmoke from the sleepy cooking-fires, and the sound of human voices and birdsong. We ate smoky porridge with wonderfully various-tasting raw milk (brought in warm by truck in small churns from the Plymouth Brethren missionary farm) and brown sugar. In the cool of the morning my mother, Edie, would teach us out of a correspondence course, which she departed from at frequent intervals to explain things with meticulous and graphic metaphors. I liked drawing best, and did a magnificent rooster with a multicolored tail, and a fine ocean liner from the front, with a great curving bow, and clipper ships with far too many sails.
The ocean liner reminds me of something I missed out, which was the travelling to and from Africa. The delicious strange boredom of an ocean liner! We travelled by the Union-Castle line, whose colors were purple, black, white, and a thin line of red, very handsome. I would find a comfortable place in the sun near the stern where nobody came, and sit holding my knees watching the white wake turn violently over and over and over, hearing the odd shell-sound, the muted blowy hush and rumble and swash of voyaging, smelling the tar of ropes and the diesel odor and the salt clean smell of the sea.
On one of those voyages—four in all, because we broke our stay in Africa with a six-month return to England, when we lived in Manchester—I developed my first theories of epistemology, by noticing how close objects seemed double when I focussed on something distant. I tried pushing an eyeball about and found a second world, at a slant from the other. I also committed my second crime (my first had been biting my nursery-school teacher, Miss Smith, very sharply in the hand as she was taking me to the headmistress on a false accusation). I stole three sixpences from my mother and bought a bar of Cadbury's naval chocolate from the fascinating ship's store. We were very poor in those days—postwar graduate-student poor—and could ill afford the theft. And they never found out until I told them, years later. The crime rode my conscience for weeks, and helped develop a pronounced sense of pathos for other people which still complicates my life if I am called on to be ruthless.
There were visions, sailing down to Africa, that were so masterful and so unearthly that they have become archetypal in my memory and have lost almost all of their actual detail—morning landfall on Ascension Island, the ship quartering across a lapping sea of rose and salmon pink and pure oil blue toward the great towering volcanic stump of the island rock. And our destination, Capetown: Table Mountain climbing over the horizon, the city opening up and opening up into a gold and blue afternoon, the mountain crags as clear as crystal, the great kloofs (ravines) in shadow, full of eucalyptus trees, the city white and pretty as a story-book republic. We lived in Capetown for six months, and I got into a fight with an Afrikaans boy at school, and had a strange Cathy-and-Heathcliff friendship with a little girl called Lynn Carneson. She was the daughter of a heroic protester against apartheid who was imprisoned later in the treason trials. (Vic nearly got arrested for the same sort of thing.) Lynn had the remarkable ability, which I had thought unique to myself, of being able to close her eyes and teleport herself to different parts of the universe.
But I had begun to tell about my days in Kajima, our village in Zambia. After lessons we would be free, and as gradually the heat of the day came up a group of small boys, led by the lean and charismatic Sakeru, would form up and go down to the Luakera river to swim. The banks of the river would sometimes be so thick with yellow and blue butterflies that you could not see the ground. The first time I left the streambed and genuinely paddled along in the current was immensely exhilarating. Also very interesting were the village girls, and their remarkable differences when they swam, a little further down the river.
Sometimes we—the village boys—would beg the head or testicles of a goat that was being slaughtered by the village elders, and take it down to the river, and build a fire and cook it, tearing off delicious charred pieces and scooping out hot brain. We fed the scraps to Mistake, one of the village dogs who followed us about. At times we would conduct war with other groups of boys, and would make weapons which, now I think about it, make my blood run cold: bows and arrows, catapults made with strips of rubber from truck inner tubes with which we fired heavy round nodules of iron ore, and makeshift spears. But a salutary cowardice and good luck seemed to stave off serious injury. I am glad my mother did not know about this.
Sometimes we would watch and help out with the spring burning, when the village would burn off the old elephant grass for miles around, and great wedges and scuds of terrified duiker and gemsbok would leap wild-eyed through the flames. Among the burnt roots you could find, after the fire had passed, delicious red fruits—nshindwa—warmed with the flames, very sour and sweet and of a flavor that if I were to taste it again, would surely bring tears to my eyes. The African wild fruits! The mild gold moocha, my father's favorite; the tart wild plum, mfungu; the loquat and the fresh-carved guava; the heavy dented mango, blushing yellow, with its rigid cuttlefish-like kernel; the pawpaw as lukewarm as heaven. And then the flowers: whole valleys in spring, crimson with moist cannas; dells among the Zambesi rapids carpeted with leopard-skin orchids; a single exquisite white wild iris; a yellow and brown vine flower of astonishing scent that grew in the riverside jungles or "eetus"; and hundreds of species of dry-season flowers, very scrawny in the stem, with tiny frills of scarlet or puff-balls of blue that Bob, my scientist brother, carefully drew, recorded, and classified.
Sometimes we would watch or take part, if it was appropriate to our status, in the Ndembu rituals: the hunters' dance, with its imagery of blood and smoke and iron and its wonderful mimicry of the hunter's stalk and the characteristic gait of the animal prey; the women's puberty ritual, from which we were jeeringly driven away by the elder women; and the curing rituals, which involved fascinating and gut-wrenching practices, like placing cupping horns by suction all over the patient's back. The men's circumcision rituals took place secretly away from the village, but I, like all the boys, was so imbued with the knowledge and anticipation of the ordeal that I never felt myself to be a real man until, in the late 1960s, I was circumcised in Santa Barbara, California, for medical reasons.
The village boys were by custom permitted every sort of sexual experimentation, and there were beautiful copper-colored or ebon little girls who were equally interested. It was a delightful initiation, fraught with heart-stopping strangeness and metamorphosis, and I am sure it contributed to my very idealistic attitude toward sex and my lifelong love of women in general.
In the evening Musona, our cook, would prepare dinner: fresh or cured wild venison (there was a soup made of biltong—dried antelope meat—that was especially good), sweet potatoes, peas that we had grown ourselves, and afterward the Victorian steamed syrup puddings that Musona loved to make but would not dream of eating; and lovely sweet cape gooseberries or wild fruits.
Then, best of all, my father would read to us: Rider Haggard (Nada the Lily, Montezuma's Daughter, She, King Solomon's Mines), Kipling (the Jungle Books,Kim), Selma Lagerlöf, the Moomin books, The Swiss Family Robinson (which I then reread about eight or nine times, lying in the sun in my favorite spot where I could lean against our stores tent), Rob Roy, Charles Kingsley (Hereward the Wake, Westward Ho!), R. L. Stevenson (Kidnapped, Treasure Island, The Black Arrow), Black Cock's Feather, Coral Island, much of Shakespeare, Arthur Ransome, Edgar Rice Burroughs (whose Barsoom is still central to my imagination, though his Venusian adventures did it for me too), Arthur Conan Doyle (especially The Lost World and the other Professor Challenger stories, and the adventures of Brigadier Gerard and Sir Nigel), Hornblower, Doctor Dolittle, the Greek, Norse, and Irish myths, King Arthur, almost all of John Buchan, P. G. Wodehouse's Jeeves books, Jack London, Evelyn Waugh (very funny but a bit advanced for us), the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, James Thurber, H. G. Wells (almost all he wrote), and of course when they came out after our return to England, The Lord of the Rings, complete, twice through.
It is dangerous to fill the head of a boy with such stuff; it unfits him for the twentieth century, and I have always felt myself to be really a nineteenth-century, or possibly sixteenth-century, man stranded in the wrong time and wanting to get back. This, combined with my long exile in England—for so, after my life in Africa, it seemed to me—formed in me the peculiar desire to transform the coming twenty-first century into one of hope, exploration, aspiration, adventure, and wild poetry; perhaps this is why my favorite genre is poetic science fiction.
The books I list here are only a selection from the fifteen or so years of reading I got from Vic. He was a marvellous reader: each character had his or her own voice, accent, rhythm, and consciousness. We would implore him to go on reading, sometimes all evening, and developed a strange imploring ritual, like Egyptians worshipping their god with salaams, to get him to go on when the chapter ending left us in unbearable suspense. After the story the whole family would have a big collective hug. It was like when the family would sing in the truck while we were driving across the continent. As I write this it seems suddenly and bewitchingly bizarre, and I am moved to the heart by the memory. It seemed quite normal to me at the time, but perhaps it was an anomaly, a little island of privileged blessedness in a bitter, terrified, and preoccupied world. I don't think I have given as much to my own children, though in an intermittent way I have tried. They did not seem to want it as much as we wanted what Vic and Edie had to give. It would be too easy to blame television.
It was the reading at night, I realize now, that kept me going once we returned to England. At first we lived in a grey working-class area north of Manchester; then we moved to a suburb south of the city which was pleasant enough but in which I felt like a wolfman in exile. I got very pudgy, passed my exams with Edie's coaching—the eleven-plus, for which my little companions exacted their class revenge—and got into Manchester Grammar School.
Manchester Grammar was a boys' day school, a private foundation supported by State money, which admitted on full scholarship large numbers of poor working-class and lower-middle-class boys as well as those who could pay. It was at that time of a Bertrand Russell progressive scientific socialist agnostic bent. Its academic reputation was excellent, but I was a very poor scholar. I was lazy, contemptibly weak-willed when it came to homework, unathletic, dreamy, and always ridiculed by my schoolmates for my "la de da" (highfalutin) language. Luckily for me I was quite large and able to defend myself when my tormentor was within range, though I was not very mobile. Also there was in my class an even more vulnerable boy who took some of the heat off me, a soft bespectacled Jewish kid called Goda, who was regularly tormented. I would sometimes protest at their treatment of him and once stood between him and harm, but was too afraid of reprisals against myself to be his reliable defender, a dereliction for which I still feel guilty. Part of the problem was that though I sympathized with Goda, I did not like him much myself: I felt he was rather self-centered and sometimes hostile.
At Manchester Grammar I developed a lifelong dislike for reductive logical positivist ways of thinking, as well as internalizing the rather rigorous logical critiques and correctives against wishful thinking which it embodied. I also acquired a deep respect and liking for Jews, of whom there were many at the school—an attraction mingled, I suspect, with a certain envy. They had a group with whom they could identify, which valued art and philosophy and science and morality, whereas I was beginning to feel that with the exception of my family there seemed to be no group to which I could comfortably belong. I disliked the shallow and philistine rich kids I knew, with their televisions and their Ford Zephyrs and their plush furniture. I hated even more the hypocrisy of the resentful and cynical socialists, who simply wanted the same cheap things for themselves, and would be prepared to loot them if they got a chance, and wanted to experience the cracking bash of bourgeois heads against the pavement, while mouthing impressive-sounding rhetoric about the proletariat. The upper classes ignored culture, or sought it as a status symbol; the lower classes loathed it because it was beautiful and noble and called unbearably for virtues and sacrifices that made them feel small.
The only subjects I was good at were art and English composition. I won a couple of art prizes and regularly published poetic essays and poems in Ulula, the school magazine, writings which also won prizes. I was very bad at languages, though my patient teachers managed to force enough French, German, and Latin into me to pass my "O" Levels. I started out well in mathematics, and loved geometry, but algebra was never explained to me properly to make me understand its real meaning, and so I fell behind. I refused to just follow a formula; I wanted to know why. By the time we reached trigonometry and what would now be called precalculus I was going through the motions. In the years since school I have been recurrently fascinated with mathematics, however, and from time to time I have made more progress, teaching myself out of books and getting my distinguished mathematical friends to teach me, in algebra, the theory of calculus, topology, number theory, set theory, mathematical logic, and the philosophy of mathematics. The same pattern applies to my science schooling; the moment I ceased to get clear explanations of why some formula should be applied in a given case, I lost interest; but even at that time I devoured popular-science books out of the library, and have since greatly enlarged my knowledge of biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, and cosmology. I also designed and built model aircraft of various types, and learned how to use algebraic formulae in aerodynamic design. I always did very well in school geography, and in fact attained a better percentage in that subject than in English in the highest national examination, "Schol" Level, when I was seventeen. History was for me a mixed subject; I did well when I had the right teacher. But I so disliked the deterministic and reductionistic left-wing account of history, while suspecting the "Whig" notion of progress toward a rational liberal State, that I never felt fully at home in historiography. Now with the courage of my adult convictions, having read Hegel, Nietzsche, and Collingwood, and having more recently realized how devastating the new theories of chaos are to any linear causal account of history, the subject has begun to interest me again.
In the sixth form, at last, I encountered a truly marvelous teacher, John Armstrong, who taught me English literature. His spirit, his complex thought, his strange metaphors, and his utterly personal and immediate response to literature are the inspiration for whatever is good in my own teaching. Armstrong was a great eccentric: in the middle of the class he would go and look out of the window for two electrifying minutes at a time. We could all imitate his loony upper-class fruity drawl. He had been a commando, I think, and walked with a limp. He tutored me at home, where I met his wife, with whom he had been in love for twenty years. From him I learned wonderful things about T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets, Shakespeare's Henry the Fourth and Antony and Cleopatra, Paradise Lost, and Tess of the D'Urbervilles.
When I was about fifteen the whole family was converted to Catholicism. My father and mother had realized, both because of Hungary and because of the spiritual poverty of Marxism, that they were no longer communists. My mother had been active in the Ban the Bomb movement in Manchester, and I had helped decorate floats for the demonstrations. But it became clear to Edie, to her horror, how closely the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the trades unions were controlled by the Communist party, and how in turn the Communist party was under the direct discipline of the Moscow Party Line.
We became very devout mystical esthetic Catholics. I went to mass every morning before school with my father, practiced various mortifications of the flesh, and had visions. These resembled my own personal visions, which usually involved an ecstatic transcendence of the world together with a joyful awareness of the whole universe in all its detail; but there was a more terrifying and numinous—and at the same time strangely sweet and gentle—tone about the religious visions. Once I saw the rose window of the old church in Stockport, in midwinter, covered with green climbing vines. Another time I sensed God on all fours in the nave of the church, like a huge beast, almost too big for the building. But visions is as visions does, it seems to me. If one is a better and kinder person for them, or if they result in great insight or art, they can be given some credit. Otherwise someone who has them is experiencing nothing really more amazing than daily existence itself. Just to be alive and aware is a miracle that dwarfs all other miracles to insignificance. Likewise the astonishing logic and beauty of the universe as revealed by science—what could be more interesting than that? But perhaps the function of visions is to arouse in us just such a sense of the miracle of everyday reality.
During the years in Manchester I visited Scotland in the vacations, and developed an enduring passion for my father's homeland. One of my recurrent dreams is of a wild and dreadful coast under an apocalyptic sky, and a shining sea torn by fierce currents, bearing upon it a multitude of dazzling, dangerous, and barren islands—the whole place drenched with an almost radioactive feeling of danger, but also of unbearable joy and ecstasy. I saw that vision come true years later in Santa Barbara, when on a stormy day after the birth of my first son, Daniel, I saw the islands of Anacapa and Santa Rosa blazing upon a silver and incandescent ocean.
John Armstrong's coaching got me into Oxford University by the skin of my teeth. I was accepted at Christ Church, which had the reputation of being the college of Evelyn Waugh's Sebastian Flyte—a college of aristocrats, esthetes, degenerates, eccentrics, homosexuals, and mindless "bloodies" (upperclass jocks), a reputation well deserved in my subsequent experience. My tutor was J. I. M. Stewart, better known as Michael Innes, creator of Inspector Appleby, the detective.
But before I went to Oxford I spent about nine months with the family in California, where my father had been invited to spend a year in the Palo Alto Center for the Study of the Behavioral Sciences. This was 1961-1962. Being in California was like being in Africa again. I had the same feeling of freedom and of high adventure there that I had had in Africa; particularly when with a contingent of Catholic students from Stanford University I went down to Mexico on a sort of amateur Peace Corps expedition. We lived in the mountains and built for a poverty-stricken village a schoolhouse, a basketball court, and a dispensary. We had begged medical supplies for the dispensary and arranged for a medical student from Mexico University to come out from time to time and prescribe. I got Montezuma's Revenge and spent a week in bed, in a high fever, reading Kazantzakis's Last Temptation of Christ and the Book of Revelation, and having visions. My weight went down by thirty pounds. I suspect there was something strange in the curative potion that a kind old Mexican crone would make me drink and which the locals swore by. Later I discovered the joys of hitchhiking in America, and read The Dharma Bums. During the time in California I also read books two, four, and six of the Aeneid in the original Latin; this experience, and Paradise Lost, made me decide to be an epic poet. It was twenty years later that I achieved this ambition. California seemed paradise to me, and I hated to go back to England. I had fallen in love with America, and resolved to return the moment my formal education was over.
Nevertheless my undergraduate years at Oxford (1962-1965) were a deeply poetic experience, the more so because in the light of my resolve to leave England it was all oddly retrospective. I wrote my first long narrative poem, about America of course, an apocalypse concerning an atomic war and its mystical resurrected aftermath. All this time I had been writing poetry off and on, about Africa, Scotland, and America, and also more introspectively about my own reflexive consciousness.
There were some poems, not many, about the girls I clumsily and very prudishly courted; I was extremely unattractive and horrified at the idea of committing a mortal sin, so I could not have been a very interesting date. I have always loved women, of all kinds and all ages; it seems to me to be an amazing thing to be a woman, and I tend to put them on pedestals. At Oxford I met Mei Lin, who was reading French and German literature at St. Anne's College. She was a close friend of my then girlfriend, who was in the process of dropping me because she thought I was crazy: I clearly wanted sex but would not do it because of my religion. Sensible Jean realized that this was bad news.
But Mei Lin was in her own utterly different way just as strange as I. The daughter of Chinese immigrants who had run a laundry and a restaurant, she had by sheer willpower and intelligence worked her way up the English class and education system and become on the surface a quintessential Oxford student. Deeply religious in her values, she was also deeply skeptical. At the time we met she herself was moving toward Catholicism. She was and is very beautiful—and more than beautiful, supremely graceful in voice and movement—and I fell slowly in love with her. But Mei Lin did not make things easy, because she is especially skeptical about romance, and is a lifelong pessimist. I am an optimist. Eventually she married me in 1966 with the air of having nothing better to do. We have been happily and faithfully married ever since, our temperaments profoundly incompatible, our opinions quite different, and our interests at odds. She dislikes poetry readings and most poets, and never goes to any of my lectures or readings if she can possibly avoid it. She refuses to read my writings until they are published. Politically she is a bleeding heart, personally a stony conservative; I tend toward the opposite. Mei Lin is the biggest and most interesting intellectual challenge I have ever known—I swear at her behind her back for her unremitting negativeness—and I fall in love with her all over again every few months.
We have had two sons, both of them of entirely unexpected personality, both with all the independence and orneriness of their most eccentric relatives on both sides, fine boys actually who have resisted my attempts to educate them at every turn. But Daniel is turning into a serious philosopher, as well as an ice-blooded rock climber and white-water kayaker, and Benjamin too is going to be some kind of intellectual, I think, despite his obsessive interest in baseball.
I stayed on at Oxford (1965-1967) to do a dissertation on Shakespeare's philosophy of time, a project on which I had begun to work at Manchester Grammar School, had not relinquished through my undergraduate years, and in which I persisted against the advice of all the authorities including my supervisor, Helen Gardner. Dame Helen was finally won over by my evident intensity and enthusiasm, and the result won the approval of my examiners, Lord David Cecil and John Bayley. It was published later by Oxford University Press as Shakespeare and the Nature of Time, and still has a small but substantial reputation among Shakespeareans. Dame Helen wanted me to apply for a lectureship at Leeds University, but I took one look at the place and the faculty committee, disliked them, and sabotaged the interview. Dame Helen was furious but found me a job as an assistant professor of English at the University of California, which was where I really wanted to go. So began a five-year period in Santa Barbara, from 1967 to 1972.
In taking this position I unwittingly deprived Mei Lin of the fruits of her long effort to master the English class and education system, which might eventually have amounted to a headmistress-ship in a good English school, and plunged her once more into the marginal position of the immigrant. This is but one of the crimes of a lifetime, whose guilt cannot ever be expunged but whose structure helps to shape and organize the story of people's lives—a story which can have the greater elegance for the greater pain. It is quite remarkable to me that she did not leave me and return to England to pursue a career. She is very loyal, but perhaps also she felt it was too late by the time she realized what had happened.
During our first year of marriage we had lived in a tumbledown sixteenth-century cottage belonging to an archaeologist friend of ours who used to practice archaeology on the walls of the house, and had uncovered a seventeenth-century bread oven and some shards of pottery. It was at the edge of a village green in Marsh Baldon, outside Oxford. In Santa Barbara we lived in a cedar shack overgrown with pepper trees and acacias and aloes and eucalyptuses and loquats. We had magnificent windows that looked out over the Pacific. For the first few years I taught happily and successfully at the fairly new state university, as the English department gradually descended into a state of insane and paranoid civil war. But as time went on things darkened for us too. Daniel was born, and we felt a delirious but terrified joy. I was too young and inexperienced—and too self-centered—to be much help to Mei Lin, and now she discovered the horrors of American suburban isolation. Our marriage was tested then more severely than at any other time. It seemed to me that I had utterly failed in my life and that I had taken another person, and possibly a third, with me in the process. The upshot was that we stuck together but lost our religious faith.
Meanwhile my poetry was rapidly mutating towards its early maturity. I began to question the prevalent short free verse existentialist imagist lyric. I discovered the wonderful economy and suggestiveness of poetic narrative, and then more gradually refined my early formal experiments into a full-blooded return to meter. I met some of the California poets, and although we did not really have much in common, and I learned nothing from them, they were tolerant of me. 1 published three small chapbooks with Unicorn Press and its successor, Christopher's Books; then Wesleyan University Press took my first full-size collection of poems, Between Two Lives. Much later Christopher's Books, under the redoubtable editorship of Missy Mytinger, published another major collection, Counter-Terra.
I read Whitehead, Bergson, Polanyi, Koestler, Heisenberg, and a great deal of science, and began to work my way toward the metaphysics which I am still exploring today: one in which the universe is a radically creative evolutionary process, essentially divine, governed by laws of science that it evolved for itself, a process which generated us as its nervous system and growing point. The hierarchical structure of the universe and of our bodies was a living fossil of the stages of their own development. Especially important was the realization that matter was not basic but only one of the early forms taken by the autopoesis of the world, and that therefore the deterministic properties of matter did not apply either to more primitive entities such as subatomic particles or to more advanced ones such as life.
During this time I read Nabokov's Ada, Borges's Ficciones, and Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain and Doctor Faustus. These works turned me into a post-modernist, and I learned from them (in what I believe to be a deeper and more positive way) what many of my contemporaries were later to learn from Barthes, Derrida, Deleuze and Guattari, Lyotard, and Baudrillard. Out of this experience was to come my strange postmodern science-fiction novel A Double Shadow, which gained for me a brief reputation as an avant-garde novelist in France when it appeared in the French translation. So for me this was a fertile if unhappy period.
But somehow we could do nothing with California; though we had formed a few real friendships, most of our relationships were of the California mellow variety, without richness or depth, and we were lonely and disappointed. Meanwhile the counterculture, which had seemed so attractive from England, became more and more violent, drugged, ideological, and cynical. I had during the weeks of sometimes bloody demonstrations against the draft taken a position against the Vietnam War but also against the paranoia and vicious prejudice of those who opposed the war: it seemed to me that people of good will could support the war and offer good reason to do so, though I did not. My class, like everybody else's, was disrupted quite at random by the Black Students' Union, when in fact we were in large agreement with their grievances. I and some other members of the faculty would stand with arms linked between the violent riot police and the violent demonstrators in an attempt to prevent bloodshed. I was disgusted when people on the other side were shouted down and their motives questioned. My lifelong hatred of political ideology deepened further; paradoxically, in fact, it is political ideology which is about the only thing that arouses in me the true automatism of hatred which characterizes prejudice. I have lived in so many places and with so many different kinds of people that I don't find any human being alien by virtue of his or her race or religion or sex or background; but alas, I have to correct an ugly tendency to find political ideologues quite subhuman!
Finally I took a job as an associate professor at Kenyon College; and so began the longest period I ever stayed in one place, from 1972 to 1984. I was and still am very fond of Kenyon. A small liberal-arts college in the low hills and farmland of Ohio, it was the final resting place of the Kenyon Review, the Fugitives, and the literary Agrarian Movement, with which I had great sympathy when I found out what it was. We got to know Helen Forman, the delightful daughter of John Crowe Ransom, and her no-less-delightful daughter Liz: two of the wittiest people I have ever known. After a slow start Mei Lin found a true community there, and rose from drama secretary to associate director of the Kenyon Festival Theater, which she helped to found. We got to know a motley and delightful crew of actors and theater people. Mei Lin took several courses in Greek, which has since become one of the great passions of her life.
It was a time which, in memory, has the sweet richness and arcadian remoteness of Tess's summer sojourn as a dairymaid in Hardy's novel. One year in particular can stand for the others, 1976-1977. In that year I was awarded tenure, began work with my friend and colleague Ronald Sharp on the revival of the Kenyon Review, became a U.S. citizen, participated in the founding of a radically interdisciplinary educational program in the humanities, designed and helped to build a solar-heated house on a beautiful acre of forest, planted a garden, and wrote The Return, a long narrative poem, and The Garden, a collection of mystical poems, love poems, and metaphysical aphorisms in which I outlined a new religion. Most wonderful of all, our second son, Benjamin, was conceived; he was born early in 1978, and we baptized him ourselves on a dazzling snowy day surrounded by a lovely company of our best friends. In that same period I read the poems of Boris Pasternak, and his Doctor Zhivago; Saint John of the Cross, Rilke, Blake, Melville, Plato, Kant, Homer, Darwin; Anna Karenina and War and Peace; the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita; and discovered the wonderful blunt common sense of the English philosophers Hobbes, Locke, and Hume.
About that time, too, I was discovered by J. T. Fraser, the founder of the International Society for the Study of Time, and attended my first conference of that organization in Alpbach, in the Tyrol. Fraser's book Of Time, Passion, and Knowledge seemed to me to sum up all I had intuited about the nature of time, in a language and system that made it usable and scientifically fertile. Time, he said, was not a mere dimension of extension, but a nested evolutionary hierarchy of temporalities generated by the effectors and receptors of the increasingly complex organisms of nature, from subatomic particles to ourselves. My contributions to the society led to my later involvement with the Werner Reimers Stiftung research project on the biological foundations of esthetics, a German-flavored international group that met for five years in Bad Homburg, near Frankfurt. Out of these two groups has come a worldview which I believe will play a part in twenty-first-century philosophy and esthetics.
But these are the external events of that, for me, extraordinary year. As Ohio passed through its noble deciduous liturgy of seasons, I passed deeper and deeper into a calm blue and gold joy, a privateness and wholeness of being—or rather, of emptiness of being—that was warmed through with an unremitting fire of love. The beatific vision was the everyday condition of existence. During that time my poetry was largely ignored and unpublished, and I was happy that this was so. Since then I have always felt that paradise is in fact right here, just around the corner, that I have never left it, and that however terrible and desperate my work sometimes makes me feel, I have the power anytime to return to that white and gold light. I am indeed out of duty or karma bound to the great game of life, and there are many things I still have to do within it; but I shall when the time comes happily relinquish it.
I still feel that I could have prolonged that blessed time perhaps to the length of my life. But I also felt that I had had this experience for a purpose, and that I ought to communicate what I had learned to other people. And in order for that to be possible, it seemed to me, the whole culture must change in certain ways. For instance, people must learn again to hear poetry as song rather than just statement. And they must hear stories that sing, that do not just drag themselves along in prose; and the stories themselves would have to link up with our ancient human store of stories, so that we would be reunited with our own nature and with nature in general. The culture must come to see once again the deep unity of all knowledge. Value was real, but must be created and maintained. If it were continually mocked and undermined, it would disappear, leaving us with only drugs to fill the void. The arts of the person—especially poetry—must be reinfused with the great art of natural knowledge that is science; and science and technology must begin to take on the sensitivity, generativeness, and creative interconnection of the esthetic instinct that is still preserved in the classical arts. The wisdom of the great religions would have to be fully integrated with the new wisdom of the modern world, and with the perennial wisdom of tribal and peasant societies. It became my duty to help bring about these changes, to discover a constructive and divinely affirmative postmodernism, a natural classicism in which the human race might, after the horrors of this century, relearn the art of hope.
Out of this resolve came the work on the Kenyon Review and on the integrated program in humane studies, and my first epic-length poem, The New World. With the Review, especially, I plunged into a world of administrative detail, fund-raising, speed-reading, literary politics, bookkeeping, and power which was the utter inverse of that golden year of the garden. Luckily I was not very good at any of these, and hated them, and yearned for the spiritual homeland I had given up.
But some important things came out of the work: for instance, a meeting at the Minetta Tavern in the Village in Manhattan with Frederick Feirstein and Dick Allen, which eventually resulted in the new movement in American poetry which has been variously called the New Narrative, the New Formalism, the Expansive Movement, and Natural Classicism, and is the only movement in contemporary poetry which can reasonably be called postmodern. For a while the Kenyon Review was one of the most interesting literary journals in the country. We helped to discover two very important poets, Dana Gioia (who was another key figure in the movement) and Amy Clampitt, among others. We broke new ground in the essay form, especially by expanding it to cover subjects beyond the merely literary and political. Our science essays were sometimes philosophically on the cutting edge. We also discovered the very important short-story writer Lynda Sexson, who was to become a close friend, the epic poet Julia Budenz, and many others I do not have space to name.
My circle of acquaintance widened enormously, and I realized that especially in America there were several really brilliant undamaged people around my age who were ready to accomplish a great change in consciousness. But this change was fraught with dangers, especially from philistine antiscience, from the residual hatreds of the political left, and from the fundamentalisms of the right which were awaiting their chance, given any apparent crack in the facade of modernism. The task I had set myself could not be abandoned midway; I would have to throw every ounce of my talent, however small it was, into the cooperative effort to keep the new movement positive, creative, inclusive, and pure of nasty old scores.
I took up karate, because I felt I needed some discipline that would calm the body and unite it with the spirit; and also because I did not know how to fight either literally or metaphorically. I could not write epic—and nothing less than epic would meet, it seemed to me, the requirements of the time—unless I knew the freedom of having transformed myself into another being, and unless I knew the full danger and commitment of personal combat. But this was combat in which one loved one's adversary, and in which the danger was really of pain rather than permanent physical injury or death (though there is enough danger of these latter, especially in tournament competition, to make one aware of the cost and the stakes of life). I have continued this discipline, and at the time of writing am preparing myself for my black-belt test under the great martial-arts master Nishiyamasensei.
In 1983 my father died. He and the rest of the family had moved to America permanently while I was at Oxford; since my parents' conversion to Catholicism they had had two more sons, Alex and Rory (preceded by a dear little mongoloid girl, Lucy, who died at the age of five months). I had left my parents' home by the time they were growing up. Vic had positions first at Cornell, then the University of Chicago on the Committee on Social Thought, and finally at the University of Virginia. He had become the world's leading expert on ritual, and had made major contributions in anthropology, comparative religion, performance studies, and literary criticism. His death was a central event in my life; but although the grief was as fresh and agonizing as a wound, there was a kind of exaltation or even joy in it too: this great, good, human man had lived his life through in full observance of the Dionysian principles of his nature; his pen had gleaned his teeming brain. But the soft parts—the mannerisms, the comic boyish sense of the ridiculous, the clowning—are gone forever except in the hearts of those who loved him; so when they die he will die again. We—Vic's family and friends who flew in from all sides, his anthropological and performance-studies colleagues and students, including Barbara Myerhoff, Richard Schechner, John Macaloon, Roy Wagner, and many others—put on for him at the family home a full-scale Ndembu funeral for a chief, with drum music, masked dancers, and singing and drinking until late at night.
By about 1982-1983 it became clear to both Mei Lin and me that Kenyon could no longer support the work we wanted to do. The college's financial support for the Kenyon Review and the Kenyon Festival Theater dwindled away; Ronald Sharp and I increasingly disagreed on the direction of the Review; and the English department, which had become more and more disgruntled with my excursions outside its decent New Critical/Christian Humanist/Modernist ethos, began to close in on me. I resigned from the editorship, and a year later the theater folded. Mei Lin and I went to England for a year (1984-1985) to direct a Kenyon foreign-study seminar at the University of Exeter, and thought things over.
This return to England was both sweet and painful for both of us. The landscape of England was like a gentle seductive witch, with its green coombs and misty beaches; we visited old Devon churches in the still snow of midwinter, and lay in the heather of the moors in the mild summer sun. And yet the place seemed terribly small and trapped and safe; and like Odysseus on the island of Calypso, I yearned for America. Mei Lin, too, realized that her own loyalties had changed and that she was no longer an Englishwoman. Now I began my most important book, the epic poem Genesis, which in many ways summarized all I knew. The voice of the poem, whose speaker is trapped upon an Earth that has chosen ecological safety and theological subjection over the glory road of human partnership in the divine evolutionary enterprise, comes directly out of this year in England.
While we were in England I received an extraordinary letter from Robert Corrigan, the dean of the School of Arts and Humanities at the University of Texas at Dallas. This was an interdisciplinary, largely graduate research school with no departments. I had met Corrigan through Ihab Hassan, a good friend, and had been deeply impressed with him. Here was somebody I could work for. I flew from Crete, where we had gone for a vacation, and in the most extreme version of culture shock I have known, passed from the neolithic Minoan villages of Mount Dikte to the glass towers of Dallas. After an interview with the search committee in which I was sure I had totally ruined my chances—I have never been good at sitting before committees, which always seem to me to be collectively much less intelligent than their least intelligent member—I was offered the job. Mei Lin urged me to take it, and I did. We moved to Dallas in 1985.
The years since then have been ones in which some of the things I hoped for in the culture have begun to happen. American poetry is going through a radical change; the philosophical notions about nature, science, technology, human evolution, the arts, and the world of the spirit which I espouse are getting a hearing in essays, books, documentaries, and poems by various hands, including my own book of essays Natural Classicism, my pieces for Harper's Magazine, and the Smithsonian World TV documentaries in which I have taken part. I am presently working as a cowriter on a new TV documentary series on post-modernism. My two epic poems were published; two new collections of essays are being readied for the press; I am at work on a new collection of shorter poems. I have developed a remarkable dialogue in philosophy, literary theory, and critical theory with my friend and colleague Alex Argyros, a leading thinker in these fields; we are especially interested in chaos theory and its implications for esthetics and the history of thought. The hierarchy of the universe gives way in its higher reaches to self-generating autonomous feedback systems or heterarchies, which have increasingly the full characteristics of divine freedom.
In partnership with another colleague, the great-hearted Zsuzsanna Ozsváth, I have been translating the poems of the Hungarian poet Miklós Radnóti into English. Radnóti, who was murdered as a Jew by the Nazis in 1944, never lost faith in the rise of a new world after his death. His prophetic vision, courage, and philosophical instinct about nature and history offer, we believe, a convincing answer to those who believe the enterprise of human civilization to be so compromised with evil as to be not worth going on with. I have made many wonderful friends in Hungary, including Fanni Radnóti, the poet's widow, and have come to love Budapest.
As a teacher I have been able to use the freedom at Dallas to explore the use of performance in teaching, inspired by my father's work in ethnodrama with Richard Schechner, and my own participation in a Folger Library research group on Shakespeare in performance. I have also been developing a series of radically interdisciplinary courses, which use the evolutionary paradigm to pull together the sciences, the arts, and the humanities. My theoretical essay on education, "Design for a New Academy," played a small part in the recent American reevaluation of its educational system, though its message was less clear and thus less liable to partisan notoriety than that of such writers as E. D. Hirsch and Allan Bloom.
But as I have watched the ideas I wished to be aired find a place in the public debate, I have felt a corresponding relaxation of the sense of duty to them which inspired my voluntary self-expulsion from the garden. The time is approaching for another descent into the cold waters of spiritual transformation. I find myself becoming a stuffed shirt, a talking public man, a respected figure. This will not do. The world is an absurd, delightful, comical, and unfinished place—as well as being one of terror, death, and change—and it does not grow only from the measured statements of its cultural mouthpieces. And the self that writes these memoirs begins to look forward to its own dissolution; that self was a concatenation put together for good purposes, some of which have already been achieved, but it is not very valuable outside its usefulness to others. In any case I believe we are more important as husbands and fathers—or wives and mothers—than we are as public figures, however distinguished. I do not know what is going to happen next; but my life has been so full of undeserved gifts that it has made me almost expect wonderful things.
REFLECTIONS: AN AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL UPDATE
Frederick Turner contributed the following update to CA in 2004:
Fifteen years have passed since my last entry here, and it seems as if I have lived many lives in the interval. Glancing at the record of my publications I find essays on the neurophysiology of poetic meter; proposals for the reform of education according to a tree-shaped interdisciplinary map of the world; poems about the human-made landscape of North Texas; a piece on angels as visitors from the future; a memoir of my father, Victor Turner, who died in 1983; a series of essays and a book on beauty, shame, performance, and the biology of aesthetics; polemics on the new worldview—"natural classicism"—that will succeed modernism and its postmodern postscript; many writings on an environmentalism that includes, rather than excludes, human beings; discussions of the sexual revolution; academic papers on the human brain and the physics of computation; a revaluation of the paintings of Mark Rothko; many writings on artistic patronage and the gift economy; essays on the nature of time; more on the future of the space program and on extraterrestrial biology; a lecture on Biosphere II given to the Federated Farmers of New Zealand; an economic theory based on the idea that the fundamental concepts of the market are no less than the roots of human practical morality itself, and money is negative obligation; an introduction to a volume of essays on chaos, complexity and the social sciences; about four essays a year for American Arts Quarterly; a couple of short stories; pieces on the poetics of the Internet; a book and several essays on Shakespeare, with special reference to his economic ideas; several essays and lectures on landscape design; much on the virtue of hope; discussions of the relationships between scientific cosmologies and religion; translations of about three hundred Hungarian poems, and critical evaluations of Hungarian poetry; essays on art photography; meditations on theodicy and the Book of Job; proposals for the reform of the humanities; a satirical play about political correctness; psychological hypotheses; investigations of the problem of intellectual property; prolegomena to a theology that can accommodate all religious beliefs; a small torrent of writings about 9/11 and its political aftermath, including an architectural design for the rebuilding of the World Trade Center; poetry about the underworld, about paradise, about death, and about Dallas; a poetic science-fiction autobiography of Christ; comic and satirical poetry about the contemporary scene; and a somber autobiographical narrative poem about my own recovery from a life-threatening illness.
This is a long sentence and a rather inelegant list. The problem is that my life has branched into many concurrent threads and is not a single line but something more like a braid, or even a braid of braids. There is not one story but several, thematically linked with one another, and it is here that I must try to tease out those themes.
One story is that of a professor who moved to the University of Texas at Dallas in 1985 and ended up making Dallas, of all places, his home. UTD is an interdisciplinary university with no academic departments, a bright student body, a very interesting maverick faculty, close ties with the telecommunications, nanotech, biotech and software communities of North Texas, no football team, and the best chess team in the Americas. I live in the same house in the same pleasant garden suburb I lived in when I last contributed to this memoir; I am married to the same brilliant, ironical, beautiful, and difficult copy-editor wife, and I have the same pursuits of gardening, hiking, and karate. Some things matured: in karate I attained the rank of second degree black belt in the Shotokan school, and was a judge in the 2001 traditional karate national championships. My two fine sons grew up, went to college, and started careers in software engineering and military intelligence respectively. But it is as if I need to live a personal life that would be the despair of a biographer because of its boring uneventfulness, in order to live imaginative lives that wander through strange lands and have adventures.
Another story is that of a poet whose work caught the attention of two very remarkable movers and shakers in the area of environmental design and ecological restoration: William R. Jordan, III and Carl Hodges. Bill Jordan made me focus my own philosophical objection to the distinction between the human and the natural, the natural and the artificial—a distinction that was assumed as given by all writers about the environment at that time. I argued that humans are a natural species, and that what they do is as natural as anything else in the universe. The true "opposite" of nature is not humanity or culture or artifice or even technology. Since the deep meaning of "nature" is "the process of giving birth," nature's true opposite is anything—created as all things must be by the birth-giving process of nature—that stops or frustrates or sabotages the process of birth-giving. And since nature gives birth to good things and bad things, we need other criteria than "natural versus unnatural" to make value distinctions that can guide our actions. I proposed aesthetic beauty as that guide—a good landscape is a beautiful landscape. This controversial position landed me in a formal debate with Dave Forman of Earth First! in the pages of Harper's magazine, and in a restored prairie in front of a TV camera for a Smithsonian World documentary on prairie burning. It also got me involved with Carl Hodges, an ecological genius and planetary engineer, who has been pioneering seawater agriculture and has turned vast tracts of desert seacoasts in Gujarat, Saudi Arabia, the Mexican Sonora desert, and Eritrea on the Red Sea into productive farmland and biodiverse mangrove forests. My long journal-poem about the shrimp-, tilapia-, salicornia-, and mangrove-farms in Eritrea, and my meeting with the heroic Eritrean general who defeated the invading armies of the dictator Haile Mengistu of Ethiopia, was one result. Through Carl, I got to know some of the Biospherians, and spoke with Jane Poynter through the plate-glass visitor barrier at that surreal giant greenhouse in the Arizona desert.
A third story is that of my part in the literary movement, based on the ideas about meter, form, and poetic storytelling that had already caused me to break with the mainstream poetic tradition. Since the Minetta Tavern meeting various groups have emerged, whose memberships largely overlap but whose emphases are not the same. All were New Formalist in terms of technical principles. One group, led by poets like Gioia and Tim Steele, is exemplified in Mark Jarman and David Mason's anthology Rebel Angels, in which some of my own poems appeared. This group concentrated on the recovery of form but did not emphasize the expansion and transformation of content. This approach has been very successful and has for some time been celebrated in an annual meeting at West Chester, one of which I attended. The West Chester annual conference also hosts the second line of development: the New Narrative, led mainly by Robert McDowell and his publishing house, Story Line Press, which published my Hadean Eclogues. Though form is important for this group, the main interest is in narrative. The New Formalism and the New Narrative have now coalesced into a single school, which takes its place in the American scene beside the feminists, the remaining Beats, the language poets, and so on. One could call it the West Chester School. Hundreds of creative writing teachers have had their first taste there of what a formal-verse and verse-narrative curriculum might look like. The West Chester group sought, after the initial break with the modernist free verse tradition, to be reconciled with the existing literary establishment in the academy and in the world of publishing, and to join the line of modernist and post-modernist cultural development as a respectable enhancement of it.
One line of post-Minetta poetics was, in a sense, a pure gift: the recovery of the comic tradition of poetry. Light: A Quarterly of Light Verse publishes contemporary poetry that is witty, unpretentious, and often laugh-out-loud funny. Here many of the most interesting contemporary poets engage in rhymed epigram, satire, and delightful nonsense. I had the honor of being its "featured poet" in one issue, for which R. S. Gwynn, who is actually a funnier poet than I am, wrote a piece on my work. Another line of development grew out of the original core of all three movements, the Expansive Poets. We insist, like the others, on the importance of the formal and narrative elements in poetry, and love the new opportunities for wit and humor that they offer. But we remain adamant that a major cultural transformation is underway, which will transcend the conventional subjects of late modernist and postmodernist lyric poetry and narrative.
Another life was that of a dramaturg and playwright. I was for many years involved with the Dallas theater scene, especially the Shakespeare Festival and the Undermain Theater, with Raphael Parry and Katherine Owens. I visited Macedonia with the distinguished Macedonian director Naum Panofsky, whose dissertation in the history of the theater director I had helped supervise (it was later published). In Macedonia I met many poets and dramatists; out of those contacts came Naum's tragic and beautiful performance of Sarajevo. Later Naum directed my satirical play Height in Virginia, where his radical expressionist interpretation got critical acclaim.
Another parallel life that I have led has been that of a translator. The collection of Miklós Radnóti's poems that Zsuzsanna Ozsváth and I translated won for us the Milan Fust Prize, Hungary's highest literary honor. I visited Hungary again, and extended my acquaintance with the Hungarian literary and intellectual scene as it liberated itself from the Soviet Union, became a successful capitalist democracy, and joined NATO and the European Community. I wrote essays about the nature of this transformation and about the history of Hungarian poetry in this context. Contemporary Hungarian poets, I argued, were burdened by the sad fact that this last revolution of the Hungarians against their oppressors was both the only one not led by poets (but by bourgeois citizens) and the only successful one.
Hungary gave me several moments that I will never forget. One was meeting Fanni Radnóti, Miklós' widow, and standing in Miklós' study, unchanged since he died in 1944, as Fanni placed in my hand the Serbian address-book containing Miklós last poems. The book had been recovered from his bullet-holed corpse after his exhumation from the mass grave into which he had been thrown by Hungarian Nazis. Out of that terrible place came these last magnificent poems, still in perfect meter, still expressing tender longing for his wife and concern for her safety. Another moment was receiving the Milan Fust Prize with Zsuzsanna at the Hungarian Academy, and realizing that fifty years earlier, and about two city blocks away on the bank of the Danube, Zsuzsi as a young girl was cowering in an abandoned apartment building while Russian machine gun fire came across the river, and the Nazis were rounding up all the Jews they could find in order to kill them before the Russians got over to the Pest side. Zsuzsi had been saved by her Christian babysitter, who is now memorialized at Yad Veshem. The Danube was melting, Zsuzsi told me, but the ice-floes that drifted down were not white but red. The Germans had been shooting Jews upriver and tossing their bodies into the water.
Zsuzsi and I went on to translate the poems of Attila József, a friend of Radnóti's, and in the opinion of many Hungary's greatest poet. For this translation we won the Hungarian Culture Ministry's Frankfurt Book Fair award. We have just completed an anthology of Hungarian poetry from the fourteenth century to the end of World War II. Our translations, we believe, helped to turn the tide in translation theory: whereas before our work most translations of metered originals had been into English free verse, since then most have attempted to reproduce, as we did, the meter of the original.
Recently I have become more and more interested in Chinese poetry, and I have begun work on an anthology of Tang dynasty poetry translations with the assistance of Chinese scholar Yongzhao Deng. I was on Yongzhao's Ph.D. committee for his book comparing the epistemologies of Chinese and Western medicine. At the time of writing this, I have just returned from a trip around China with him, visiting the places celebrated by the poets in Xian, Guilin, Suzhou, Wuxi, and elsewhere. I believe I have found a metrical system in English that fairly represents the intricately formal poetics of classical Chinese verse. For me the mystery is how greater formal complexity, as long as it is keyed to human inherited systems of pattern-recognition, enhances rather than restricts the expressive freedom of the artist. Both in landscape painting and in poetry the Chinese masters—for over five hundred years!—used the same conventions but never ran out of new ideas and moods, each successive artist revealing a unique and original personality.
Another life I have led has been that of a theorist in the burgeoning field of nonlinear dynamical studies as they apply to the humanities and social sciences. I had followed eagerly the work of René Thom and Benoit Mandelbrot on the catastrophic and fractal geometry of nature. Later I met Ilya Prigogine in the University of Texas at Austin, at a meeting on the economics of value organized by Michael Benedikt, a friend who had organized the first academic study of cyberspace. The old continuous and analog model of the world could no longer hold up. The world is much more like a game—played among competing and cooperating agents, each trying to out-predict the others, taking discrete temporal "turns" and using discrete quantized "counters"—than like a machine set in motion along a predetermined track, as the old cosmology asserted. The universe is free and evolving, and new forms of order can emerge through spontaneous symmetry-breaking and self-organization. The increase of entropy is but the fuel used by such processes. Our own history and individual development are part of that same process. This is for me an immensely hopeful idea, and it is reflected in the title of my book discussing its cultural implications: The Culture of Hope: A New Birth of the Classical Spirit. Adam Bellow, the son of my father's old friend Saul, was my editor for that book and persuaded me to enter the world of the culture wars, representing a third "side" in the conflict. But this is part of another story.
The pursuit of a nonlinear dynamical vocabulary for human studies led me into some very strange places. I was invited by Vladimir Gontar, who had run the Soviet Tokamak fusion reactor program, but who had emigrated to Israel to lead a group of physicists at the University of the Negev, to present a paper there at the world's first discrete dynamical systems conference in 1998. While in Israel I walked through the old city of Jerusalem and then met a friend, a very remarkable Orthodox Jew, for tea. I told him that I was writing a lighthearted speculative book on what the physical universe would have to be like if all the religions were true—it would have to be the very odd Rube Goldberg contraption it apparently is. My friend told me an odd parable (I can't reveal his name, because he might not be safe if I did). He said that according to the exegetes of the Torah, the Messiah would come when three conditions existed: the Jews had returned to Israel (and so they already had), the Temple had been rebuilt (it was as the Golden Mosque), and sacrifices were once more being offered to the Lord (all over Jerusalem Christians were offering to God the body of his son). So the Millennium had already begun, he concluded, and if it was messy, maybe that was the way God intended it to be.
Again, this is part of another story; but its mood seeped into my presentation in Beersheba among the physicists about "Self-organization, Evolution, and the Caduceus." In this paper I argued that the ancients had already intuited the self-organizing feedback mechanism of living systems, and expressed it in the symbolism of the Greek caduceus and the Hebrew metatron (the snake-staff of Moses and the wand of Jacob, both, according to the Zohar, manifestations of the Edenic tree of life). It was no coincidence that the double helix geometry of the caduceus was identical to that of DNA, the canonical form of a discrete dynamical self-organizing system. I had originally intended to give a more orthodox paper, in which I summarized the ways in which nonlinear dynamics was impacting the social sciences and outlined the new kinds of research that could now be done in those areas, but I felt the circumstances called for something more exciting. The summary did not go to waste, however: it became the foreword to the first major collection of essays, edited by my friend the sociologist Raymond Eve and others, on chaos and complexity in the social sciences. Oddly enough, the caduceus essay has never been published; it is part of an unpublished collection of essays on biopoetics, edited by Brett Cooke and myself, based on a conference we organized in Seoul, Korea—but this is yet another story.
The publication of my epic poem Genesis in 1988—about the terraforming of Mars—launched yet another parallel life. I became an unlikely poster child for the space program, and gave presentations at the NASA Ames Space Research Center, the National Space Society, and the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR), the professional association of space science. I met Carl Sagan shortly before he died and we had a memorable lunch together; I corresponded with Arthur C. Clarke, and was anthologized by Kim Stanley Robinson. It turned out that my analysis of the history and potential of the Martian atmosphere chimed nicely with the emerging research, and that my proposals to transform the atmosphere of Mars into one habitable by humans and other Earthly fauna and flora were interesting to NASA scientists. A "gang of four" was formed—Martyn Fogg, chair of the British Interplanetary Society; Robert Zubrin, America's leading space engineer; Robert Haynes, president of the Canadian Royal Academy of Science; and myself. We called ourselves the Martians, and advocated a vigorous and economically stimulative program of space research and exploration.
Another seeming lifetime was devoted to the renewal and reform of the arts. My books Natural Classicism, The Culture of Hope, and Beauty spelled out a critique of modernism and its postscript, postmodernism—of meterless poetry, plotless novels, tuneless music, subjectless visual art, heroless drama, and inhuman architecture. I attacked the deconstructionist and social-constructionist theory of the contemporary humanities and social sciences, and took on the ideology of gender, race, postcolonial, and environmental studies. I argued for a recovery of the ideal of beauty and for the superiority and relevance of renaissance and classical models for the arts, while pointing out the deep pan-human roots of classicism in all the great human cultures. Far from being Eurocentric, I pointed out that much of the destruction of "natural classical" artistic genres had come out of Europe, in keeping with its two inhuman monster-ideologies, international socialism (Communism) and national socialism (Nazism). James Cooper, the editor of the American Arts Quarterly, who shared many of my concerns, asked the sculptor Frederick Hart (maker of the Creation Sculptures on the façade of the National Cathedral) to interview me in the pages of the American Arts Quarterly. The discussion led to a continuing connection with AAQ, for which I write a quarterly essay, and to a long friendship with Rick Hart, terminated only by his tragic death. Rick and I brought together a community of like-minded artists in many forms at his beautiful house on the Blue Ridge in Virginia. There we hammered out a manifesto for the new movement of Natural Classicism (my favorite name for it).
Later I met the brilliant and wildly gifted composer Stefania de Kenessey, who was organizing her own group of dissident artists, the Derriere Guard. We collaborated on a number of song cycles, including The Daughters of Odessa, presented with Rick Hart's sculpture of the same title to the Prince of Wales for his sculpture garden at Highgrove, and two pieces commemorating the lives lost at the World Trade Center. When Rick died I took part in his memorial service at the National Cathedral, and I have stayed in contact with his work and family since. I am now part of the American Arts Quarterly's advisory board, and a growing number of people, such as the painters Jacob Collins, Steven Assael, and David Ligare, the sculptor Audrey Flack, the architect Richard Sammons, the composer René Gruss, and others have joined the movement, as well as the Expansive Poets.
My interest in feedback and nonlinearity led me eventually into economics and game theory, and yet another life. Encouraged by my participation in the Liberty Fund's extraordinary program of small intense conferences, I read the Austrian economists and the political theorists of the Scottish enlightenment, and became interested in Michael Polanyi's idea of polycentricity. If the barriers to feedback among its members were removed by free-market institutions and democratic government, a political economy could generate its own self-policing civil society, rendering unnecessary much of the government bureaucracy that had, in Europe, replaced the old monarchies. I began to write on these subjects, culminating with a book that combined my enduring love of Shakespeare with my new interests: Shakespeare's Twenty-First-Century Economics: The Morality of Love and Money. In a quiet way I began to become a political pundit, arguing for a moderate libertarian policy; I was taken up by Reason magazine and the Tech Central Station Web site and linked to by bloggers. I studied the game theory of Von Neumann, Morgenstern, and Nash, and Brian Skyrms' brilliant applications of game-theory computer modeling to the Darwinian evolution of morality. Some of these ideas, together with more religious and theological speculations, led to my poem-sequence The Prayers of Dallas.
One last narrative remains: the story of a soul encountering the extremes of paradise and death. The death of my father in 1983, though it was overwhelming in its emotional impact, did not immediately touch my own sense of mortality. But in 1990 it finally had its effect, triggered by the deaths of the composers Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland, and of a favorite cat I was very fond of. The death of my friend Robert Corrigan ten years after my father's (Corrigan was my dean at UTD and a great entrepreneur in performance studies and drama) also helped to "concentrate the mind," as Dr. Johnson put it. At about the same time I began taking tropical vacations with Mei Lin, was reaching the apex of my physical capacities in karate practice, and was rediscovering my old pleasure in watercolor painting. My many lives, though hard to juggle, were a continuing and delightful adventure. There were times when the earthly paradise seemed just around the corner, and at the same time death seemed to ride more and more closely at my elbow. Out of this period came a series of poems, beginning with "Death Mass," that asked the question whether immortality was possible or if so, desirable at all. (Mightn't our remote descendants, with their unimaginable technical expertise, be able to reassemble all the physical information that makes us what we are, and resurrect us in the flesh? How might this, subjectively, differ from religious accounts of the afterlife? But wouldn't entropy act as a one-way temporal valve to make this impossible? But hasn't entropy been finessed before, by life itself and by the miracle of human recording technology and art? But how could we bear the boredom of mere continuity? Just keep having divorces? Live like Oberon and Titania?—and so on.)
I have always been a religious person. As an atheist in my childhood I had already developed an instinctive sense of worship about the miracles of nature and human consciousness. As a Catholic in my early manhood I had been devout, almost a mystic. As a devotee of all the world's religions in my maturity I had generated my own theology, expressed in The Garden and The New World. But the individual devotion to the divine that I have always experienced in the beauty of the world was beginning to feel incomplete without a ritual, a practice, a sociality that my father's work had taught me was essential to the fullest religious insight. In a way, religion was the only hope of rescue from paradise—from its terrifying boredom, its indistinguishability, after the first thousand years or so, from Hell. Religion was also what made death meaningful if it really was absolute and final. I have never really minded the idea that death would be the total end of me—after all, as Woody Allen says, I wouldn't be around to see it. Of course I felt the immense wastefulness of death, all that fabulous expensive neural machinery and rich cultural memory just melting into mulch. But I didn't fear it. Religion in the sense of "what ought to be true, even if it isn't," what it is better for us to believe than not, regardless of the state of the case, makes death without an afterlife heroically meaningful, if tragic.
So I went back to being a Catholic in the late nineties. One can't exactly practice an entirely eclectic religion, and Catholicism, with its marvelous cultural heritage drawn from all parts of the planet, its ancient roots, its sacraments, its profoundly symbolic and incarnational system of spiritual reasoning, and its glorious heritage of religious art, seemed to me to come as close to being truly catholic as one might practically get. Catholicism is perhaps the most poetic of all religions, with its insistence on the body and the world as the only vehicle of spirit and salvation; it is also, for the same reason, the religion most friendly in its fundamental principles to the grand theory of evolution. Teilhard de Chardin was right. Both Darwinism and Catholicism agree that mind is radically incarnate in matter and that the history of the matter of the world is also the history of mind. Still, I have never entirely gotten over a certain hankering for Hinduism and for Judaism, but one can't have everything at once in this life (though I admit I have been greedy and tried).
9/11 presented all these thoughts to me again in a darker, more universal, and more political key. My younger son joined the U.S. Army. I recognized our collective antagonist, a perverted religious consciousness whose avowed goal and desire was death. At the same time the pace and stress of my many lives was beginning to tell on me, and shortly after 9/11, in the fall of 2002, my health collapsed. Acute diverticulis, whose imminent symptoms I had denied, putting the time of reckoning off until after the next assignment, became a burst colon and peritonitis. I nearly died, and I found myself in great pain after an emergency operation, with many tubes going in and out of me, half-stupid with morphine, and in the desperate loneliness of the terminally ill. There was a time when the nurses could not come, the morphine drip did not work fast enough, Mei Lin was feeding the pets at home, and a nurses' aide, a poor girl called Maria who could not even speak English, came and stroked my hair and said a prayer for me to the Virgin. I recovered with surprising swiftness, but had to live with a colostomy bag for three months until they sewed up my (now much shorter) colon again. I found the colostomy bag quite funny, cutting down the cycle time of digestion considerably, but it was a nuisance when I tried to go back to karate practice.
Then my arthritic hip, which I had inherited from my father, and which had also been getting gradually worse, became impossible, and more months were taken up getting a hip replacement. Through this whole process I only missed about four or five weeks of teaching—still in denial, I'd drag my body, thirty pounds lighter, to give a three-hour lecture on Shakespeare, stagger out into the sleet of a cold February, and try to scrape the ice off my windshield. Now most of my strength has returned, and karate practice has become quite comfortable again. But my world is changed. Little Maria, like Poor Tom in King Lear, made me acutely aware of the ordinary people of the world. I wrote two major poems: one titled from the Bhagavadgita—On the Field of Life, On the Battlefield of Truth, about my illness; and the other, The Prayers of Dallas, that imagined the inner worlds of fifty Dallas people of all walks of life and backgrounds, including Maria herself.
How do all these lives connect? I suppose there is a deep theme, which is still evolving—the idea that the world is a work of tragicomic art so astonishingly perfect that it runs all by itself and can never enforce the faith of anyone in a transcendent creator. The theme of the world is freedom, and its only worthwhile order is its own self-ordering. The spirit triumphantly exists, but it exists entirely immanent in physicality and the flesh—or conversely, information in the physical sense is what the universe is made of, is spirit in its crudest form, and its more material concatenations in stones and trees and animals and humans are stages in the gestation of the divine mind. We are neurons in that vast fetal brain.
Thus time is my philosophical theme, as always. Nature cannot be thought of without its immanent intelligences, humankind especially, and thus we need an environmentalism that sees the world as a garden. Poetry has to be reformed as the ordered incarnation of meaning and reconnected with its ancient biological and historical roots. Translating the dead poets becomes a sacrament of transubstantiation, embodying spirit in another language. Nonlinear dynamics—feedback—is the mechanism of evolutionary self-organization. Human and terrestrial life have a further evolutionary destiny, to be seeded elsewhere in the cosmos. The arts as a whole needed to be rescued from both the modernist linearity and the postmodernist absence of all coherent temporality; the arts need to be restored to their true narrative. To understand and to be able to promote fertile self-organization in human practical affairs demands close study of the economics of free markets and gifts, and the mechanism of that economics is revealed in game theory. Political implications follow. If the world and human life can be increasingly perfected, can there also be some kind of victory over death? But such a victory can only be through death itself, through brokenness and submission.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
American Arts Quarterly, winter, 1993, pp. 8-15, 32-36.
AWP Chronicle, October-November, 1994.
Booklist, April 1, 2000, Ray Olson, review of The Iron-Blue Vault: Selected Poems of Attila József, p. 1426; March 15, 2001, Ray Olson, review of The Iron-Blue Vault, p. 1349.
Christianity and Literature, winter, 2003, Thomas Moisan, review of Shakespeare's Twenty-first-Century Economics: The Morality of Love and Money, pp. 265-269.
Daily Texan: Images, October 4, 1990, pp. 14-15.
Dallas Morning News Magazine, September 2, 1990, pp. 10-21.
Ellipsis, number 18, 1990, pp. 60-64.
Epiphany, Volume 3, number 2, 1992, pp. 133-156.
Hellas, spring, 1993, pp. 95-104.
Humanist, November-December, 1993, Judith de Luce, review of Genesis: An Epic Poem, pp. 9-18.
Library Journal, September 1, 1999, Karen E. Sadowsky, review of Shakespeare's Twenty-first-Century Economics, p. 192.
Missouri Review, winter, 1981-82.
Modern Philology, November, 2002, Lars Engle, review of Shakespeare's Twenty-first-Century Economics, pp. 275-279.
New York Times Book Review, October 27, 1985.
Reason, March, 2000, Paul A. Cantor, "Capitalism's Poet Laureate," p. 62.
Southwest Review, Volume 71, number 3, 1986, pp. 337-356.