W. B. Yeats during the mid-Thirties remarked that the spiritual forces dominating humanity could be divided into three ages: first, the religious-ritualistic age of Greek antiquity; second, the modern political age through which we are now passing. He said the third and last age would be that of communication with the past in which the world would be directed by the dead. “And that,” he added gloatingly, “will be the worst age of all.”
Works of imagination which have been published since the Thirties (notably Wyndham Lewis’s trilogy The Human Age) lend uncanny force to Yeats’s (serious? not serious?) prophecy. James Merrill’s long poem of which the first section, The Book of Ephraim, was published in 1976 in the volume Divine Comedies (brilliantly discussed in The New York Review by Helen Vendler* ) and which is now continued in Mirabell: Books of Number, takes a further step in the same direction. Books of Number in fact consists largely of pronouncements made by powers who, although described as “the bad angels” of the Fall, are also extremely vocal translators of the symbolism of the Book of Genesis into the terminology of popularized nuclear physics. They have their vision of the evolutionary future of the human race in the nuclear age.
If we were to believe both in the complete authenticity of the messages transcribed from the Ouija board by James Merrill and his friend David Jackson and also in the posthumous immortality of the spirits with whom they communicate, then the future of history will consist of the setting up on earth of communication centers with the dead and the carrying out by a political bureaucracy of instructions from a bureaucracy in the Beyond. It is relevant here to point out that such an idea does correspond to some wish we harbor in our hearts, some Science Fiction One World fantasy that humanity, so hopelessly at odds with itself, could be directed by some judging, objective, scientific will.
Yet nothing could be further from James Merrill’s intent than that his poem should be taken literally as religious revelation of this kind. All here is in question. At one point the Powers who are his instructors say (they always speak in capital letters):
WE ARE U YOU ARE WE EACH OTHERS DREAM
Literal truth to which we can cling as historic fact is that James Merrill and David Jackson, living in their house in Stonington, Connecticut, did get the Ouija board apparatus and spent many months transcribing its communications:
Properties: A milk glass tabletop.
A blue-and-white cup from the Five & Ten.
Pencil, paper. Heavy cardboard sheet
Over which the letters A to Z
Spread in an arc, our covenant
With whom it would concern; also
The Arabic numerals, and YES and NO.
They get in touch with—or are got in touch with by—a Greek Jew called Ephraim who was born AD 8 at Xanthos. He informs them that those on earth are “representatives” of patrons in heaven. Ephraim is their Instructor (corresponding to Yeats’s Instructor, Leo Africanus, in A Vision).
Yeats’s wife Georgie performed the function of the Ouija board by scrawling great quantities of automatic writing which confirmed and systematized Yeats’s visionary ideas previous to his marriage. He drew on this material in order to write poetry which was quite independent of it. He did not simply transpose the material dictated by spirits into formal verse as Merrill appears to do in long stretches of this poem. The difference is important, because Yeats, drawing on the spiritualist material, made generalizations and prophetic statements in independent poems which expressed his own beliefs, whether or not he believed in the communications of Leo Africanus.
Merrill, as I observed above, transcribes the communications he has received. All that the reader has to accept is that he has received them: though, even here, the question of whether they actually come from the other world or are projected from his and his friend David Jackson’s unconscious is left in the air. The whole otherworld material of his poem could be hallucination. If we accept it as such, then the ideas we derive from the poem stand or fall on their own merits, as good or not so good, true or untrue (like an article one might read in some spiritualist journal). The ideas are offshoots of a complex and elaborate fantasy which yields beautiful insights, wonderful lines of poetry, sustained flights of lyricism, shining witticisms, examples of great technical virtuosity, but not a unifying vision, the result of some obsessive act of the imagination.
I would say that the very uncertainty whether the Ouija board is revelation of truth or whether it is a game which “JM” and “DJ” are playing means that what we are confronted with here is not a vision like that of Dante, Wordsworth, Yeats, or Proust, but, rather, a poetic journal, containing day-to-day events in the lives of these very intelligent friends whose minds are filled with memories of the recently dead. They are also acutely conscious of the contradiction between the despairing state of the world and the potentialities of science. One of them is an immensely gifted poet. They have projected the most intense of these preoccupations and talents onto the game at the Ouija board.
The unifying narrative tone of the poem could be described as conversation of the kind called “high camp” between characters, this side and the far side of death. Communication is mostly between Merrill, David Jackson, and occasional visitors to them, on this side; on the other side they hear from Auden, Chester Kallman, a great friend of Merrill’s and Jackson’s called Maria Demertzi Mitsotaki, Maya Deren, “doyenne of our/American experimental film,” a Dutch poet, etc. The “camp” idiom has strategic advantages. It is nonserious, witty, and can shift almost imperceptibly into double entendre, often of an obscene kind, and very irreverent. Used with much elegance by Merrill, it has a rococo quality, seeming frivolous to the shallow, but capable of becoming poignant to those who understand it. It has the great disadvantage though of being exclusive and cliquish. This reader sometimes feels that Merrill’s heaven is a tea party to which he is not likely to be invited, because he will not understand the “in” jokes.
The essential of camp as used in this work is its Firbank-like flippancy about God: a gaiety or “gayness” which has an underlying touching and childlike seriousness. It emerges from the narrative that Merrill and Jackson are the most affectionate and charitable friends and neighbors, forever visiting their sick friends, attending their deathbeds, burying them, and then getting in touch with them on the Ouija board. That they do all this with such lightness of touch and lucidity of purpose provides the underlying gravity of the surface conversation.
Their dead friends tend to speak in this idiom, providing instructive information about themselves. Heaven is a place where it is possible to choose, or be chosen, either to progress through its eight (or is it nine?) stages, or to return to earth, be reincarnated. Chester Kallman has been reborn as a black baby in South Africa. (This is the kind of thing I read not altogether incredulously. It might so easily happen.)
The main purpose of Mirabell: Books of Number is to transmit the doctrine of the Powers, the Fallen Angels. These, like most phenomena here, are ambiguous. DJ, when the Powers first communicate, takes them for devils and exclaims:
DJ: Let’s stop right now. JM: Relax.
Something tells me all this Flame and Fall
Has to be largely metaphorical.
“Take it or leave it” is indeed the label attached to Merrill’s mixture and we can take the angels as good or bad, if, indeed they exist. They do not have the passionate existence of Rilke’s angels. Yet they do have a powerful and impressive pedigree and mythology. They are energizing, creative powers like Milton’s Satan in the mind of Blake. (One should perhaps also remember that in the Book of Job, Satan is the messenger of God who performs his errands.) The angels represent knowledge, precisely what caused the Fall of Man, but knowledge is now to be redeemed, and to redeem the world, in the name of GOD B (B for BIOLOGY).
BEZELBOB SYLLABLES THAT TO A CHILD SPELL WICKED- NESS
BUT WE LEFT THE WORK OF CHAOS WHEN WE SHED OUR FEELINGS Have you some chronology for this?
PREHISTORY WE MADE PAR- ABLE & MYTH IN HARD
BIOLOGICAL TERMS ADAM & EVE ARE IMAGES
FOR DEVELOPMENTS IN THE VERY NATURE OF MATTER
A WORLD NEGATIVE & POSITIVE DWELLS IN THE ATOM
EDEN A STAGE THE EXPUL- SION THE DRAMA THE MISTAKE
TO BELIEVE THAT KNOWLEDGE IS EVIL THAT MISTAKE PER- SISTS
This of course is very different from the tone of camp. Written in syllabics of fourteen syllables, the oracular tone in which the Powers make their pronouncements is similar to that which Robert Bridges employs in The Testament of Beauty—though without Bridges’s archaisms—a point which can be demonstrated I think by printing some lines of Bridges in caps and leaving spaces where Bridges puts commas:
THIS AUTARCHY OF SELF- HOOD WHICH WE BLAME NOT AT ALL
IN PLANTS AND SCARCELY IN BRUTES IS BY REASON DENOUNCED
HEARTLESS AND OUTLAWED FROM THE NOBLE TEMPER OF MAN
THE ORIGINAL SIN AND CAUSE OF HALF HIS WOES AND SHAMES.
In Mirabell the Powers set forth a secular religion whose theology is science under the aegis of GOD B. The Powers demand of JM poems of science, and in accordance with this behest, he spends months reading scientific works (he does not say which ones). This program of reading and writing is presented to the reader with the characteristic strategy of undercutting the reader’s possible boredom at the idea of poems of science by the poet himself anticipating this objection:
And think a minute what was being asked:
POEMS OF SCIENCE. Poems of
The very thought. To squint through those steel-rimmed
Glasses of the congenitally slug-
Pale boy at school….
There is a very amusing passage beginning “Open a biophysichemical / Textbook.” Science also appears to include books about flying saucers and other unidentified phenomena. There is a lot about black holes. The Atom is the central mystery of the universe and history.
A large part of Mirabell consists of a lecture delivered by the Powers to a seminar attended by JM and DJ on this side of death, and their dead friends on the further side. (At this point I am irresistibly haunted by the spirit of Artur Schnabel, who loved to recount the following absurdity: A bus filled with a crowd of international just-dead souls arrives at the pearly gates, which are boldly inscribed HEAVEN. All the passengers get out and enter these, except for the Americans, who having observed a small signpost by the side of the gates, marked To A Lecture on Heaven, troop in there.) Anyway this is an American lecture on heaven. Its purpose seems to be to substitute a secular religious view for that of the Churches.
The author of course leaves us free to interpret his text as diabolic, but one can’t help feeling his heart is on the side of what he regards as the scientific attitude. This involves rationalizing a good deal of mythology: substituting in poetry a scientific mythology for a religio-poetic one. Some of this is very successful, fascinating, and memorable: notably the description of the part played by the black angels (sometimes compared to bats or vampires) in the creation of Eden-Atlantis—
WE SAW THE POWER & WITH IT BUILT A GREAT GREAT GLORY
A WORLD YOU CD NOT IMAGINE GOD WAS PLEASED IT WAS A
SHINING CRUST OVER THE LAND & SEA WE SUSPENDED ALL
LIFE IN AN OZONE LAYER WEIGHT- LESS & SELFSUSTAINING
CHEMICAL GLITTERING & ROOT- LESS WHICH THE ATOM BUILT
THAT WE FUSED GOD B TURND AGAINST HIS ARCHAN- GELS THEY HAD
SEEN THAT WE WERE ANTI- MATTER
About the names of the archangels Michael and Gabriel we are told the following, in answer to the cutely phrased question “Where is the science underneath this fiction?”
THESE NAMES YOU UNDERSTAND
ARE CHILDRENS NAMES FOR THE WHITE FORCES & OUR NAMES BEZ WE
HAD NO NAMES THEY ARE THE INVENTION OF THE SCRIBE & SO
THE STORY TAKES FORM
All this is beautiful, but I leave it to the reader to answer the question—is it scientific? Perhaps the role of the Scribe (the poet, in this nomenclature) is to update old religious myth in terms of science fiction. All the more honor to him, that he does it so successfully.
Hatred of institutionalized religion is very strong here, and, rather astonishingly, Auden (I am delighted to say) repents of his Anglicanism. Asked whether “these talks repel him?” he replies:
MY DEARS WITH ENVY I COULD CURSE MY HIGH
ANGLICAN PRINCIPLES IN OXFORD DAYS
THE TABLES TAPPED OUT MANY A SMART OR EERIE
RHYTHM UNTIL OUR POLITICS TOOK OVER
THEN THE ABSORBING LOVES & THEN THE DREARY
WASH CONFESSION DONT U SEE THE CHURCH
MY DEARS THE DREARY DREARY DEAD BANG WRONG
CHURCH & ALL THOSE YEARS I COULD HAVE HELD
HANDS ON TEACUPS
If one asks “What am I to make of this?” the question, one supposes, is echoed by James Merrill. The answer is that he is simply reproducing what was lettered out on the Ouija board. That is the strategy of the poem. I confess to being puzzled and to having the feeling that somehow responsibility is being shelved. Nevertheless, and especially toward the end, there are passages of visionary power in this very long poem. It is impossible, I think, to attempt to make any final critical judgment on it now (unless, of course, Harold Bloom has already made his pronouncement).
I have read Mirabell Books of Number at least six times, and many passages of it much more than that. I am conscious of having omitted many things in this review, and of not having conveyed adequately the philosophy or science-based religion communicated by the Powers—their message to the world. Nor have I made enough of the interesting and touching narrative of the personal life of JM and DJ at Stonington which forms connecting passages between those of the cup rotating on the board. And finally it should be said that the poem frequently breaks into lyric passages in various forms—terza rima, sonnets, and seventeenth-century Metaphysical poem stanzas—of great beauty.
There is nothing here perhaps that quite equals the elation and buoyancy of a passage of terza rima in The Book of Ephraim, in which the poet describes a conversation in Venice with a transitory young hippie called Wendell. This explores possibilities of terza rima, as an exuberant narrative form, which are unprecedented. My reservation about Mirabell is that the form or casualness imposed by the Ouija board seems too dependent on the whims of the spirits; and the beliefs expressed in the poem have too much the air of a kind of postponed responsibility, a passing of the buck from the unconscious mind of JM and DJ in this world to a possibly conscious mind of history in the next.
The apparatus of reincarnation, hierarchies of spiritual orders, etc., becomes a tour of evasions as if nothing except the art that results from these complexities is really being believed in. There are wonderful visions here, but the unifying central vision is shrugged away as being quite possibly a delusion. As Chester Kallman might easily have said at some point in this inter-temporal-inter-spatial dialogue:
YES YES MY DEARS BUT ISNT IT ALL A BIT TOO COCK-TEASING?
December 21, 1978