In Praise of Darkness
Lost Chance in China: The World War II Despatches of John S. Service
The Fearful Void
Bright Eyes: The Story of Susette La Flesche, an Omaha Indian
Confessions of a Bird Watcher
Borges is the modern poet who best expresses not the power of the imagination but the seductiveness of the imaginative intellect, not one who evokes emotion raw or lyrical on the page but one who offers a highly idiosyncratic consciousness just prior to the awakening of an emotion or just after the emotion has passed. Immediacy has always been lacking in his works. And yet the world of Borges has its own majesty, its own penetrating cadences and charm, full of spheres within spheres, thought about thought, a parabolic shadow play continually unfolding, doubling back, and then returning (to use one of Borges’s persistent motifs) like a river to its unimaginable source.
In Borges, of course, there can be no release from these cyclic modes of consciousness: “I think (what I have thought before) / that this winter holds in it all winters past, / back to those of the elders who wrote / that our way is marked out, / that we already belong to Love or to Fire.” So when he tells us that “perhaps universal history is the history of a few metaphors,” he is really describing his own sparse particular art, his meditative way of eliciting the illusion of freedom or chance from among the iron-bound laws of time, his lonely eloquent way of celebrating the labyrinth that is man’s fate.
If these new poems have a certain twilit convalescent air, recording Borges’s familiar fascination with mirrors and mazes, to which have been added two new themes, “old age and ethics,” they nevertheless have the beauty of faded cameos, of museums of shifting forms, as well as Borges’s poignant, stoical apprehension of his approaching death: “I reach my center, / my algebra and my key…. Soon I shall know who I am.”
A collection of communiqués by the Chinese-born, US Foreign Service officer who was arrested under the Espionage Act for delivering ten memoranda to the controversial magazine Amerasia (he was later exonerated by the Supreme Court). During the McCarthy era, Service was accused of wanton pro-communism in his State Department reports; but his position is surely vindicated now.
The despatches reveal remarkable lucidity in a labyrinthine imbroglio of political and military turmoil. Service scrutinizes Kuomintang mismanagement (the Honan famine) and its astonishing aloofness from the Chinese people. In 1944 Service wrote, “China is a mess…. For the sorry situation as a whole, Chiang and only Chiang is responsible.” Of the Communists, Service said, “This is obviously a people’s movement. It is clearly gaining strength and solidarity.” Should a civil war occur, “a Communist victory will be inevitable” (1944). It was this position that brought him into conflict with Ambassador Hurley, a dispute which eventually resulted in his dismissal from the State Department.
His study of wall slogans—such communications had enormous significance for a “semifeudal” culture lacking other media—is particularly incisive. The despatches reveal a penetrating political mind. They are interesting not only as personal exculpation but as history: the crosscurrents of Chinese politics during World War II are brilliantly analyzed.
In 1973, Geoffrey Moorhouse, following the break-up of his marriage, decided to cross the great Sahara desert alone, by camel. Not merely “because it was there,” but partly “to explore an extremity of human experience” and even more to overcome the “fearful void”—the universal fear of loss or annihilation. While the circumstances of the journey were to change considerably (he had native companions of sorts along the way) and it ended in a partial defeat, he prepared himself well, or so it seemed, learning to speak Arabic, to read the stars, and to ride a camel.
The first phase to Tombouctou took ten exhausting weeks through a wilderness of sand with its glaring heat and nighttime cold. Lice and grit were everywhere. Rations consisted of wheat, rice, and fat (and worse) and unpotable water—dung floating on a well. After a six-day stopover in Tombouctou he proceeded to the next stop with the old, incontinent Mohammed who became increasingly debilitated by his “woman sickness”; on the last stage of the attempted crossing, he not only got lost but ran out of water. Throughout Moorhouse describes himself as having gotten strength from a recently acquired religion, from distracting images and memories of the past. He is an experienced, precise observer, and draws on his sound sense of history as he looks for unrecorded dusty answers.
The straightforward and moving biography of an unusual Indian woman (both her parents were half-white, but both chose to live as Indians) who was born in 1854, at the beginning of that tragic quarter century that saw the buffalo wiped out and the Plains Indians slaughtered, pauperized, and removed; who lived her whole life caught between two cultures—one inexorably advancing, the other beautiful but doomed—and absorbed some of the best of both; and who fought with the weapons of both cultures (East Coast education, Indian eloquence) against the destruction by government policy of her Omaha people and their brother tribe, the Poncas.
Dorothy Clarke Wilson’s life of “Bright Eyes” is written in the form of a historical romance, but it is also responsible, researched history. It is an unscholarly yet informative account of the rich world of symbols and rituals that wove Omaha society into nature; of the atrocities committed against yet another Indian tribe by the white government’s land hunger, racism, and indifference; and of the legalities of a crucial court decision (1879) that an Indian was, after all, a “person”—a decision brought about by the lecture tours and writing of “Bright Eyes,” a Ponca Chief, and white advocates. There are unanalyzed but interesting glimpses of the conflict between Indians who preferred to adapt and survive and those who clung to the old, dying ways; and of a nineteenth-century “movement”—a Boston foaming with indignant liberals and fashionable causes. The author writes with clarity and sympathy, and generally succeeds with her tricky mixture of history and romance, advocacy and entertainment.
Mr. Barton has been active in conservation in New Jersey, and perhaps because of his long career as a nature columnist, he writes agreeably. He does not chitter on about the pleasures of bird watching, but concentrates on the birds—sightings he has made from the Atlantic, “Middle,” and Pacific flyways. There is a section on insects and plants, and throughout pleasant digressions for the sojourning bird watcher: a brief and interesting visit to the old Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, a discussion of “life zones” at Yosemite, and observations on the declining bluebird population. Barton closes with a chapter on environmental protection, which offers some firm advice and information for those prepared for “personal participation, with daily work and boring chores.” In spite of Mrs. Barton’s tendency to exclaim “By gravy!” when spotting a boreal chickadee, the Bartons are models of twentieth-century bird watchers.
(Notice in this section does not preclude review of these books in later issues.)
Copyright © 1974 by Kirkus Service, Inc., a subsidiary of The New York Review of Books.