The System of Dante’s Hell
The Gold Diggers and Other Stories
Thumbing a lift from Dante is evidently getting fashionable. First, there was Robert Rauschenberg; and now LeRoi Jones uses the descending circles of the Inferno as the structure of an autobiographical novel about a Negro childhood and adolescence in Newark, N.J. This scaffolding gives the book an ambitious appearance, but it doesn’t seem to me to serve much organic function, except, possibly, providing guide-lines to the author’s memory and imagination. Certainly, the reader can do without it: the Hell that Mr. Jones writes about is terrible enough without bringing in factitious echoes of Dante. Early on Mr. Jones gives a brutally uncompromising warning: “This thing, if you read it, will jam your face in my shit. Now say something intelligent!” Faced with a challenge like that, the reviewer needs all the help he can get; fortunately, Mr. Jones makes his intentions clear in a short epilogue to the novel called “Sound and Image”:
What is hell? Your definitions.
I am and was and will be a social animal. Hell is definable only in those terms. I can get no place else; it wdn’t exist. Hell in this book which moves from sound and image (“association complexes”) into fast narrative is what vision I had of it around 1960-61 and that fix on my life, and my interpretation of my earlier life.
He goes on to talk of the Negro’s “dichotomy of what is seen and taught and desired opposed to what is felt” in a society “where God is simply a white man, a white ‘idea’…”. and argues:
For instance, if we can bring back on ourselves, the absolute pain our people must have felt when they came onto this shore, we are more ourselves again, and can begin to put history back in our menu, and forget the propaganda of devils that they are not devils.
“Hell,” he concludes, “was the inferno of my frustration. But the world is clearer to me now, and many of its features more easily definable.”
Mr. Jones’s conclusion is almost serene, but the preceding narrative is anything but that. The first part of his book is a rapid, disjunctive series of impressions of the vitality, squalor, violence, and promiscuity of urban slum life, in which any kind of coherence or organization is sacrificed to the demands of immediacy and intensity:
Darkness. Shadows, the brown flags fold. Blue windows. Placards with large-lipped women. Lovers. You have a checkered swag, now cool it. Down the stairs. Pause on the stoop, to look both ways. The King of the Brewery tilted under night. A hill, for air, and my space. To Norfolk Street. The fag’s boundary, they had a limit.
This is probably satisfying to write but soon gets monotonous to read. In spite of the endeavors of some recent writers, language remains a frail instrument that can rarely perform all that is asked of it. And nothing is harder than to convey the sensation of direct, unmediated physical experience; verbalism soon starts intruding. Perhaps Mr. Jones wants to break down what he may regard as “white man’s syntax”: but the larger problem involved in using white man’s language at all is still with him.
The “fast narrative” in the second part of the book is much better; here Mr. Jones’s authentic literary powers are brought into play, notably in the final section about the experiences of a young northern Negro drafted into the Air Force and sent to a base in the South. This is a brutal but superbly written piece of narrative, which reaches its climax when the airman is beaten up by three local Negroes: “I wanna borrow a dollar, Mr. Half-white muthafucka. And that’s that.”
This novel sticks in the mind, vividly if not very pleasantly. But it doesn’t seem to me a success, not, at least, by any of the standards I am used to employing. At the risk of sounding square, one can only reaffirm the weary truism that it is not the business of art to use chaos to express chaos (whether physical or moral), and this, in spite of the achievement of the later sections, is what Mr. Jones’s book, taken as a whole, seems to do. If, as he says, he wants to jam the reader’s face in his shit, then this is ultimately a political act rather than an imaginative or creative one. And not, I think, all that effective. Despite everything, Mr. Jones is a powerful writer; but many works of popular sociology or journalism would contain more immediate directives in the cause of Negro emancipation.
Robert Creeley is one of those writers whom a lot of distinguished people think highly of but who remains for me, if not a blind spot, at least a purblind one. Every so often I take up his collected poems, For Love—which is admired not only in America, but also by British critics like Donald Davie and Charles Tomlinson—and have another go at it. At intervals I catch some note of genuine beauty and feeling in the thin, penny-whistle cheeping of those narrow, stunted-looking poems; but, I must confess, it’s an effortful business. Turning to his book of stories, The Gold Diggers, I find communication even more erratic. It’s rather like trying to tune in a talk on a remote radio station, with interference and static drowning a large part of what is being said.
Mr. Creeley evidently believes that literature, or at least fiction, has gone far enough in the direction of realism, of rendering the visible and tangible world in all its particularity. Instead he presents us with a largely empty stage—apart from an occasional patch of nature-description—bleakly labeled with a tag such as “The House,” “The Room.” “The Road,” on which some equally abstract beings—“The Man” and “The Woman,” or even “He” and “She” perform certain cryptic maneuvers, and then go their ways. The action, such as it is, is not always very intelligible and rarely seems to have much point. But point, undoubtedly, is something one shouldn’t expect from Mr. Creeley’s fiction: as he says in his Preface, “The old assumptions of beginning and end—those very neat assertions—have fallen way completely in a place where the only actuality is life…” Here, at least, on the theoretical plane, we know where we are; Mr. Creeley is a practitioner of what Leonard B. Meyer has called “anti-teleological art,” which doesn’t move in any particular direction or towards any given end, but just is. This means that in fiction one mustn’t look for the tensions, expectations and resolutions of drama, but simply contemplate a little bit of life as it is actually lived; or at least as it might be lived by, say, The Man and The Woman in The House. (I must be fair, though: Some of Mr. Creeley’s characters do have names.)
There is something Zenish about Mr. Creeley’s writing; certain pages do exert a curious hypnotic fascination, inviting one to return and read them again—I am thinking particularly of the piece called “3 Fate Tales”—and I have a feeling that if one could devote much longer to them than the exigencies of reviewing permit—say two months to each story—then various unexpected significancies might seep through into one’s consciousness. But life is short; and the trouble with anti-teleological art is that it’s hard on the consumer, who needs an exceedingly high tolerance of boredom. Mr. Creeley’s prose does not invite me to make a sustained effort: everything moves very slowly, with an appearance of great difficulty, and the convolutions of the syntax are positively strangling in places. Take the opening of “In the Summer,” for instance:
I am not saying that it was ever to the point or that a purpose could be so neatly and unopposedly defined. Or that twenty-one or so years ago, on that day, or on this, he was then, or is now, there or here, that we could know him and see him to be what he is. I don’t much care for that. I had my own time to do, a number of things to do.
The title of William Harrison’s The Theologian aroused expectations in me that were not fulfilled. The idea of a novel about modern theologians is appealing, with scope for plenty of drama: the attack of the Neo-Barthians on the Secular City, for instance; or upholders of the Open Church slugging it out with Roman Integralists behind the scenes at the Vatican Council. But Mr. Harrison’s novel is a Gothicky little tale about a theological student in a fairly fundamentalist Southern seminary, in the early 1930s; he seems to have no particular attachment to Christianity and has a purely intellectual interest in theology. After a torrid affair with the wife of his professor, he has his studies terminated, supposedly because of his increasingly obvious heterodoxy. (All the theological part seemed to me externally rendered and without much real understanding, especially the hero’s increasing preoccupation with a rather stagey concept of Evil.) He marries the crippled daughter of a rich Texan, who helps him to get a teaching job in a small Texas college, The end is sinister and violent, with more than a touch of fin-de-siècle diabolism. This book offers a good read, but not much more; I thought it lacking in conviction, and with an oddly tired air about it, as though it had been written after a long illness or in a state of profound fatigue.