It is more than a year since Stories in an Almost Classical Mode was published, and the various expressions of dissatisfaction, unease, and enthusiasm that greeted it have since abated. Harold Brodkey’s book of short stories, just published in paperback, can now begin to stand apart from the expectations and posturings that have always seemed to accompany the author and word of his work, for in the career he has mapped out for himself, in the discussion his work has inspired, in the gossip that has accompanied the wait for this, his second commercially published book in thirty years, Brodkey’s personality has seemed inextricably linked to the reception of his work.
Brodkey’s reputation was established with First Love and Other Sorrows, a collection of stories that appeared in 1958 when he was twenty-eight. In the decades since, a number of stories appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire, and The New American Review and aroused comment on the “promise” of this American writer. Anticipation also grew with news of a novel begun nearly thirty years ago that has been under contract at three publishing houses. So famous had the prospective novel become that when a draft was delivered to Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 1976, its arrival was announced in The New York Times. After being repeatedly listed in publisher’s catalogs, the novel still did not appear; it was then announced that it would be published not by Farrar, Straus, but by Knopf.
Meanwhile, admiring comments from those who had read parts of the novel have alternated with vituperation against its author (he has called those he thinks oppose him “a cordon of enemies”). Harold Bloom has called him “an American Proust,…unparalleled in American prose fiction since the death of William Faulkner”; and Denis Donoghue, who has read part of the novel, said, “It’s a work of genius. There is no one writing in American literature at all comparable.” Brodkey himself has claimed, “It’s dangerous to be as good a writer as I.” Of long delays in completing his novel he told the Washington Post:
If some of the people who talk to me are right, well, to be possibly not only the best living writer in English, but someone who could be the rough equivalent of a Wordsworth or a Milton, is not a role that a halfway educated Jew from St. Louis with two sets of parents and a junkman father is prepared to play.
The novel has not appeared—although there have been reports that 3,000 to 6,000 pages of text exist, being worked over and over. In its stead we have the volume of stories under review, all of them written since the first collection, and chronologically presented, beginning with a 1963 story from The New Yorker, and ending with a sequence of connected stories, one of which appeared in The New Yorker just over a year ago. Many of the stories come from drafts of the novel; others are said to suggest its as yet unfinished form. The reception that the collection received was about as mixed as can be imagined, with many critics attempting to deflate a reputation that they argued had grown out of proportion.
Stories in an Almost Classical Mode is an unsettling book, far different from Brodkey’s first collection. The stories in First Love and Other Sorrows now seem very much of their era, mannered sketches of adolescence and early maturity, told with occasional winks to the reader and hints of knowing irony, reminiscent of Salinger. They include an account of a quarrel between college buddies on a bicycle trip through Europe; a love affair between another pair of highly self-conscious Harvard students; wordy snapshots of early marriage, a first baby, first quarrels. First Love and Other Sorrows seemed an earnest autobiographical book by a young writer who grew up, as Brodkey did, in a small town in the Midwest, was intensely aware of his own high intelligence, and lived in a troubled household before going off to Harvard to begin the trials of romance and middle-class life.
The stories that begin the new book deliberately leave the world of First Love behind. The first five are self-consciously “literary” in ambition, created as if according to instructions by a creative-writing teacher who has urged the student to move away from autobiographical subjects by inventing entirely different perspectives. Brodkey puts aside the persona of the gangly Midwestern prodigy and writes instead about a “serious” film director who discovers something about himself and about acting when his grandmother dies while he is making a movie (“The Abundant Dreamer”). He writes about a seven-year-old girl learning about decadent Venice when she visits her divorced father there (“On the Waves”). He attempts to chronicle the changes in a woman’s mind and character as she passes from youth to late middle age (“The Shooting Range”).
These stories have traditional narratives: the filmmaker is described by a narrator whose account is punctuated by flashbacks; the story of the aging woman unfolds in a flat, wry voice that suggests the author’s detachment, as well as affection; the irony never turns to scorn. But the stories leave us in uncertainty if not confusion. What, for example, are we to make of the cynical film director who is making a stylized film while recollecting his first love affair and thinking of his doting grandmother? The story is full of manipulations, delusions, dreams, and mannered prose, but its elaborate maneuverings leave us with a clearer impression of the author than of his subject.
The stories, too, have an indefinite, melancholy haze about them that seems deliberately created. The author is indeed an unavoidable player in these tales; we can’t help seeing him gesturing above his characters’ heads with startling images, but, as Ann in “The Shooting Range” says of her husband, “It was never clear how much or how little irony he intended.” The stories hint at some feeling or sense that might be far more important than the events they are recounting: now and then airy images, which seem to inebriate even the most sober characters, suggest another, fuzzier world that the author hints has special importance for him.
In “Bookkeeping,” for example, Avram, a literary man who is referred to as “calculating”—he is always weighing choices and their possible effects on his life—meets a woman, a refugee from Germany, who is now suffering the effects of an LSD trip. He takes her to meet another woman friend, who is scornful of anyone who uses drugs; the two discuss not only drugs but also Germany, the Nazis, and the war. The hardheadedness of the second woman turns into easygoing tolerance when she dismisses the evil of the Nazis, while the easygoing woman on LSD is resolutely unforgiving of those who did her and her family so much harm. The conversation is barbed and sometimes witty, but we are never sure what the encounter might signify or suggest, other than the author’s cleverness.
Avram himself has a peculiar way of seeing things, to judge by his extravagant language. He refers to the “touching quality of emotional elegance” in the drugged woman’s husband: “He loved and suffered with a singleness of purpose that reminded Avram of the curved, thin legs of French antiques.” Avram describes the two women he had brought together still more elaborately:
For them, each living moment was muddied by rain from dead landscapes. They received spectral instruction from cemeteries. But no rain fell for him from his well-audited sky.
We might accept Avram’s allusion to thin furniture legs as suggesting singleness of purpose, and we might even be willing to think of these dead landscapes as representing things long past. But the attitudes of Brodkey’s characters toward drugs and Nazism are hardly “spectral.” The mixed metaphors of rain falling with muddied spectral instructions are puzzling: Why did no rain fall for Avram? How “well-audited” could his sky be—if, indeed, skies could be audited at all? The display of imagery seems unsuited to Avram’s character, or his actions, serving only to draw attention to the authorial hand behind him.
Though the title suggests that these stories are, in their clarity and detachment, intended to be classical, the effect thus becomes inescapably “unclassical,” and bewildering. As if aware of these confusions and contradictions, beginning with “Innocence” (1973) Brodkey shifts his approach. “Innocence” is a detailed, first-person account of a protracted session of lovemaking by a young Harvard undergraduate whose goal is to bring Orra, a beautiful Radcliffe student, to her first orgasm. The man tells us that the woman must never know that this is the aim of his psychic and physical exertions; she must have the climax she has steadfastly refused to believe was possible for her. The mixture of secrecy, strategy, manipulation, and male egotism create an eerie world of licks and pokes and guesses and risks, minutely described.
The story can be read as Brodkey’s version of a literary orgasm: an eruption of the concerns that his earlier stories raised in distracting ways. It seemed to have the sort of liberating effect for Brodkey that Portnoy’s Complaint had for Philip Roth. But “Innocence” is devoutly self-conscious in its solemn aesthetic declarations, and entirely humorless. When the narrator announces, “I distrust summaries, any gliding through time, any too great a claim that one is in control of what one recounts,” he is saying that he distrusts precisely the sort of stories he had been writing until now. “Someone who claims to write with emotion recollected in tranquility,” he continues, “is a fool and a liar. I am bored with that and with where that has brought us.”
This is, of course, a familiar call for an art that is submerged in experience: no more all-knowing narrators, no more classically detached authorial reflection and cool recounting of events, no more surveys of lives interspersed with sophisticated asides by the author or images of curved French antiques. Now, as the narrator of “Innocence” writes, in a less than subtle double-entendre, he will admire “the authority of being on one’s knees in front of the event”—absorbed, nearly worshipful before the project at hand, dissecting the psychic nuances of each moment.
What was at stake included the risk that I would look foolish in my own eyes—and might then attack her for failing to come—and then she would be unable to resist the inward conviction that I was a fool. Any attempted act confers vulnerability on you, but an act devoted to her pleasure represented doubled vulnerability since only she could judge it; and I was safe only if I was immune or insensitive to her; but if I was myself immune or insensitive I could not hope to help her come; by making myself vulnerable to her, I was in a way being a sissy or a creep because Orra wasn’t organized or trained or prepared to accept responsibility for how I felt about myself: she was a woman who wanted to be left alone.
The ego here is as enormous as the obsession, the effort as evident as the perception. There is something awkward about the narrative even when it seems to work: we are never permitted to forget the fictional energy being expended, and are meant to admire it as much as we are to be drawn to its object. The erotic event becomes an expression of ego and industry even in the prose used to describe it; its intricate machinery is made more artificial by the self-conscious mixture of conversational and high-flown prose.
But the story is also meant, as it proclaims, to define something new in Brodkey’s fiction. It is something to be found in the contrast between the illuminated apparition of Orra as people see her—her beauty is legendary, we are told, her very name a Hebraic allusion to light—and the darker world of consciousness behind that light; the contrast, that is, between the face she presents to her lover, and the hidden face he is pridefully obsessed with bringing to light through the “vast spreading darkness and silence of sea”—his portentous metaphor for Orra’s inner physical and mental world.
The preoccupation with bringing the hidden internal life of the mind to light haunts every story Brodkey has written since “Innocence.” All are connected in one way or another to the same central characters, and are mostly told in the voice of Wiley Silenowicz—a man of many wiles, a sort of Ulysses of inner space, as one story suggests. Wiley is the narrator who brings Orra to orgasm, a climactic event, which, other stories suggest, is part of a longer biographical odyssey that takes its traveler through the torturous lives of a grotesque family.
We piece together a history, which varies from tale to tale only in small details. Wiley’s mother dies before he is two, bringing to an end a fragile, almost Edenic life. His father, a nearly illiterate junkman, a “squirrel-faced clown” who once committed murder, beats the infant into a sickly silence until the child is literally sold into adoption. Wiley nearly dies; he refuses to eat, vomiting everything fed him. A nurse gives him her unqualified love, and saves his life, and then she is dismissed, partly out of jealousy, by the adoptive mother. The adoptive parents have their own sordid past—including the mysterious deaths of two infants, at least one left in the care of an older daughter, Nona, whose greatest pleasure in life seems to be to inflict pain. Wiley’s stepmother, Lila, is a self-confessed failure as a mother but demonically proud; his father, S.L., is a buffoonish businessman who feels threatened by the preternatural intelligence of his adopted son. By the time Wiley has survived his early years and has, by growing up in this household, come to his peculiar understanding of the ways of the world, Lila and S.L. also die in great pain, the mother after extended suffering. Wiley goes on to Harvard, we surmise from these tales, where he tries to bring Orra to orgasm, and where he also bears the indelible marks of his past.
These accounts seem close to autobiographical truth—Brodkey, in interviews, has suggested as much—and in one story, “A Story in An Almost Classical Mode,” Wiley is put aside and a very similar child named Harold Brodkey takes over. We are, I think, to take these stories less as fictional constructions than as attempts to discover some personal truth. They do not present themselves as fiction; and the facts presented are disturbing: Nona physically tortures her infant brother, bloodying his skull; the mother wrestles mentally with her growing son, demanding his sacrificial homage; the nurse sings to the infant Wiley, coaxing applesauce into his bile-filled mouth. We often read not out of novelistic curiosity but out of some other urge, more troubled and troubling, which approaches voyeurism.
Presenting themselves as versions of the horrific truth, as reconstructions of times past, these later stories are hardly “classical” in narrative or shape. Most do not have plots with conflicts or problems to be resolved. More often they are overflowing records of experience—not just the experience of the characters, but the experience of the narrator in attempting to reconstruct their experience. Wiley spins out five pages on a fight he had with his mother when he was five, twenty pages on Orra’s orgasm, twenty-five on the sensations of riding a bicycle with a friend. The storytelling is obsessed, contorted, tireless; images and clauses accumulate. Being on one’s knees before an event means one has less peripheral vision. These tales can make the reader feel like a prisoner in an airless cave, forced to watch the shadows on the wall, trying—with Brodkey—to imagine the source of the light.
There are times when we wonder if there is any light at all. “Largely an Oral History of My Mother” begins:
There is something odd about voices in memory—thinking of memory as a chamber, a state or condition of mind, and the mind’s running like a machine or a track star, that sort of state: the voice in there, the remembered voice is strange—in my memory anyway.
The prose is oddly informal, as if spoken; it makes a stuttering attempt to clarify an inner landscape, through accumulation of details and examples. The mind is a machine or a track star, memory is a chamber, a state or a condition of mind—different things indeed, so different as to be enlightening only about the author’s attempt to name something he cannot name. And then come the memories themselves, accumulations of perceptions and anecdotes and conversations. The result is a catalog of mental states and memories, reconstructions of sensation, and commentary on the sensation that may or may not be clear.
The result can be an inexactitude that is infectious, a breathless piling on of image and phrase, in an attempt to scare out of memory some sense of what Brodkey calls “the enormous emotions of actuality.” Instead of a prose laced with hypertrophic images, as in the early stories, these stories are written in a gauzy prose—intended, to be sure, to pin down what is intrinsically gauze. The result can be remarkably obscure. What is one to make, for example, of this sentence?
…a whiteness spread, and everything and everyone is chalk and blackboard, and is will and grammar like dried and leafless branches of the trees in the dire light of a December, but at the same time it was a scouring bliss.
It is suggestive of autumn schooldays, but what connection does “will and grammar” have to blackboards and branches?
At other times, the ambitions to mirror sensation in prose are almost silly, as when a baby’s sensations are imagined while he listens to his father talking: “The speeches were like boxes with toys and shadows in them, or like a shelf with toys on it, or a window with toys on the windowsill.” The effort is to show the child experiencing something new to his experience, something verbal and immaterial, by referring to the toys he knows and has already understood—but the effect is more confusion than evocation: the image keeps trying without becoming more illuminating. This approach can even, when it alludes to unexpressed sentiments, be accompanied by a purple prose that can resemble romance fiction. (Wiley speaks of “the extraordinary truth; so anguishing to me, of the reality of life as fires of passion.”) But as one character proclaims in one of these stories, “I’ve proved I know what I’m talking about sometimes. I can afford to be unclear.”
Brodkey seems to be settling here for an evocation of his own mind’s imaging rather than anything that could be clearly communicated to anyone else. Perhaps Brodkey is obsessed with critical assessments of his work because his fictional technique is so dependent on his autobiographical consciousness. And the reader tends to ascribe to him what he finds in Wiley: an obsession with events that loom large in adolescence, when the mind is drunk with self-centered confusion about place and purpose, and drunk as well with directionless stirrings of sexual energy, with dreams of power and manipulation, and fears of weakness. These are tales about the boy’s first orgasm, his girlfriend’s first orgasm, fights with his mother and father and sister, his first experience of continuing physical pain, the banter and sexual competition when he plays with other boys. This universe is that of the reflective adolescent attempting to make sense of things as they change for him, bewildered and cut off from the larger social world, the world of common understandings, the demands of adult life. And that is the sense that one has of the mental life imagined in these stories as well: it is private, obsessed, finally precious. The loose pilings on of imagery and lyrical passages are not just problems in these stories; they define them. They can give these tales the thick, humid air of a hothouse through whose glass the world can barely be glimpsed.
Yet these problems—as obvious as they are—seem less damaging when combined with Brodkey’s achievements. We might be reading one of these later stories with their oral histories of infancy and family life when the annoying details give way to something else, and we are almost physically pushed back and inward, forced into our own introspection and reflection.
When Harold Bloom in discussing Brodkey mentioned Wordsworth and Milton, the references may have much less to do with Brodkey’s style and control than with his ambition. He wants, he has suggested, to write nothing less than a poetic autobiography—a Prelude, so to speak—that will be combined with a metaphysical tale of origins and fate—like Milton’s. Like Wordsworth, too, he means to describe the workings of a child-mind by being in touch with the child’s own world. If Nature was Wordsworth’s teacher of consciousness, Brodkey’s teachers are also the mythic figures of childhood—the step-parents and the nurse—whose voices are dissected and recreated, and whose presences are a source of mystery and illumination. Brodkey often falters in his evocation of this consciousness—the comparisons with English poets should not be taken any further—but his goal is unmistakable.
The infant Wiley, for example, makes sense of his sensations through the experiences he already knows: grass feels to a child’s body like a “rug of ghost-tongues”—a misty accumulation of the grass’s tips and moisture rubbing against his body; the misty wind is felt as “a bunch of black dogs that push at me, they’re drooling on my eyes”—a suggestion of the horrific and familiar felt in the strangeness of a new sensation.
Here Brodkey attempts to suggest what happens after a small, ill child, barely aware of the world and having suffered untold batterings by chance and fist, is taken out for a walk with his prospective new stepfather:
A white house rises in front of me above its own gray and black reflection in a puddle, a sheet of dark water. It makes me tremble, the phenomenon, the dreamlike screen, the flattened and foreshortened mimicry and then the true and shadowed, to me somewhat tilted, wood loomer. I tremble in my ignorance.
The very appearance of a new sensation can overturn perspective; the real house tilts, perhaps less threatening, while the house reflected in the puddle is, in its foreshortened way, more accessible. “It is easier,” Wiley explains,
to see the house and its windows and chimneys and part of a tree and its branches and its leaves in the puddle where they are flattened and stilled and close to one another than in the trembling air in which, when I look up, all the mysterious separations into distances and directions and densities and differences dismay my shy, and maybe fragile, mind.
But, he continues:
I cannot tell you how much I loved the actual house and how much I feared and even loathed its reflection. I kicked at the puddle, or stepped on it, to break it, or squash it. The reflection in its ideal nature shows a house in which I cannot live—one I cannot enter…. I see in its smoothness, in its slick, enshrined prettiness, a rebuke of my grossness of dimension, and the related fleshy flaws of my existence. This bursts, in a kind of emotional budding, into my yearning to have things be different for me—such things as that.
The recollection is not that of a two or three year old; no young child could articulate anything even remotely similar to this. But Wiley, imagining the childmind, recalls, from a suggestive distance, the sensations of loss and loathing he felt at the moment when his home was being destroyed and another remade. The child may indeed compare the actual world with its fragile image in rain water, the real with the ideal. The kick in the puddle brings something to the child’s awareness, a budding, as Brodkey suggests, of yearning. The act and the image transform the mind—or, as Brodkey says, habitually hedging—“such things as that.”
Yet this simple passage is extraordinarily suggestive. What does a child see when looking at great distances, attempting to get some sense of organization into the physical and emotional sensations bombarding him? What does a child whose world is already fragile sense in the simple appearance of things and their images? For Brodkey our casual understanding of mental experience can sometimes resemble the world in the puddle, so much more capable of being grasped than the mysterious separations into distances and directions and densities of real thought. He is after the world whose reflection appears in that puddle; his writing kicks the image without caring about the resulting confusion if something real can be revealed.
Something else of Brodkey’s ambitions can be sensed from these paragraphs in which Wiley, perhaps five years old, runs to greet his mother who has just come home, exhausted:
As I run toward her, I can feel the darkness break from, pour out of, tumble out of her until we are in an excavation as I run, she and I—it is like being in a pit of earth, with the smell of earth, and all things hidden behind walls of earth, so complete it is…suddenly grayey, like a misty light on the ridge, where we are: the air is thickly feathered, puffy, padded, soft; something invisible, unnameable pulls at…my nerves—it is my sense of her, of what is happening; something pummels me—my own heart? Around us spreads the obscure, mist-riddled grayness, the obscure aura of our privacy, of the secrecy that is her special quality: we are mother and son: so far as I know.
Brodkey’s prose stutters, repeats, accumulates; some words are admissions of defeat at expression (“grayey” is meant to suggest lack of clarity); others simply miss their mark (the sense of running in an earthy pit to his mother should not be explained by being called “complete”: the image suggests something not “complete” but buried, secret, and frightening).
Yet it is also clear that what is being attempted here is to get at strong sensations a child might have. The smell of earth and the obscure light and the sound of a pummeling heart are suggestions of the child’s universe rather than precise descriptions of actions or of words said. The prose takes the risk of being, like Wiley, leaping and stumbling. It recognizes its tentativeness, continually using such phrases as “so far as I know,” “maybe,” “such things like that.” It succeeds when it suggests a moment seldom described; it rarely succeeds without also risking preciousness, obscurity, or a willed exoticism.
The exoticism is pervasive. Wiley describes his first sexual excitement in early adolescence: “It was an almost triangular sensation, mostly blue and white, and very small but sort of hot, almost like a flame, and around it the mind darkened.” In other stories we read about “puffs of feeling,” about a voice “like a flock of crows,” or about spoken syllables “like hollow tubes.” Brodkey characterizes the elements of our nonmaterial, emotional, and sentient life as concrete objects—triangles, crows, tubes—creating a partly pictorial but also, in such cases, a surreal, mechanical sense of consciousness.
When he uses such images, Brodkey’s intention is familiar. “Language was never a matter of God to me,” says Wiley. That is, it is not something immutably connected to the world or to character; nor for Brodkey is it adequate to describe either one. Language does not have its classical function as a window for the soul; it is often, instead, the soul’s mask. It must be struggled against, with all its familiar forms. “She spoke like popular fiction when she told a story,” Wiley says of his mother. Even when trying to bring Orra to orgasm, Wiley says, “the important thing was to prevent her from responding falsely…in some imitation of the movies she’d seen and the books she’d read.”
Brodkey is intent on breaking through ordinary language—the surface of the puddle—to reach the looming, tilted world of consciousness. Memory, Wiley says in “The Nurse’s Music,” is no more than a summary, a deceptive snapshot of a moment (or, we might add, the flat surface of a puddle); it gives access only to “things that are like mottoes or aphorisms or apothegms rather than like real moments.” The real moment is messier, Brodkey would argue, more vague than memory suggests, beyond ordinary speech.
This familiar modernist complaint about worn language and forms has been familiarly answered by linguistic experiments in tortured prose; for many writers it has been an alibi as well as an explanation. For Brodkey, it is both. He attempts to imagine states of mind, in many cases those of a child, or even infant, therefore tentative states, prior to the formed manners and social language of maturity. In order to avoid worn descriptions and recollections, he risks making his prose obsessed, indulgent, mannered, and falls prey to those risks, sometimes at the very moment he succeeds.
In one of Brodkey’s earliest stories from the 1950s, a young man, feeling “irrevocably deprived of childhood and love,” has a dream and, he says, “if dreams came true, then I would have my childhood in one form or another, someday.” These stories attempt to provide that childhood, recreating the mess of a consciousness being changed by the world.
“We are so much more than our means to know give us to know,” Brodkey writes. The truth of things, this can mean, lies beyond our ability to clearly state it: this is Brodkey’s Unclarity Principle. But it also suggests that there is something transcendental about experience, something about us that lies beyond the reach of ordinary knowledge. This may be why Brodkey turns, again and again, in his recreation of childhood, to the language of religion. When the father in “His Son, in His Arms, in Light, Aloft” lifts the infant Wiley, the child proclaims:
My God, I feel it up and down my spine, the thumping on the turf, the approach of his hands, his giant hands, the huge ramming increment of his breath as he draws near…. Daddy is so swift; who ever heard of such swiftness?
The vision is of a fairy-tale figure of superhuman power, but the father is also, as the invocation hints, the Father, a deity bearing a “factually incredible face”:
He kneeled—a mountain of shirtfront and trousers; a mountain that poured, clambered down, folded itself, re-formed itself: a disorderly massiveness, near to me, fabric-hung-and-draped: Sinai.
He may be humanly weak, but he is mythically grand, a man from whom a child might expect revelation, the tablets of the law. In another tale about the father, “S.L.,” the father’s breath is “geological (and geographical) noise, and in it are veinings and plates”; but when his father speaks, the language also has a “Christ-in-the-world quality.” Wiley seems to mean that S.L. was vivid to his child-senses as part of the world, but also that what he says comes as a visitation, something beyond-the-human, suffused in mystery.
This is also how Wiley describes Orra’s ineffable moment of ecstasy:
The huge bird of God’s body in us hovered, the great miracle pounded on her back, pounded around us…. It was as if something unbelievably strange and fierce—like the holy temper—lifted her.
She was “an angel howling in the Godly sphere.” This vision of holy temper and angelic howling does not merely suggest the feelings of orgasm; it is also an example of Brodkey’s preoccupation with what could be called the loss of “epistemological virginity”—the simultaneous deflowering and illumination that comes with experience. This may be one reason why adolescence looms so large for him. Loss of innocence is not gradual: it has the impact of revelation. The event that transforms and teaches has a religious aura; it is a miracle.
This further helps to explain why some critics have referred to Wordsworth in discussing Brodkey, who also cultivates the comparison—he alludes to the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, for example, in “Innocence,” and even the puddle image I described echoes a passage in the Prelude in which the child gazes at his reflection in the water. Like Wordsworth, Brodkey believes that ordinary life is suffused with inklings of the divine. For Wordsworth, the religious aura, the “celestial light,” is found in innocence; for Brodkey, it comes with innocence lost.
It is hard to tell sometimes whether Brodkey uses religious imagery as a metaphor to describe familiar sensations or as more literal allusions. Brodkey hovers, too easily, in a sort of poetic ether in which he can claim either. “Angel,” the last story in the book, is thoroughly literal, leaving childhood and divine imagery behind, and evoking divinity with the images of childhood. It is a religious version of “Innocence” in which the vision is not of a howling angel, but of a silent one.
In this story, an Angel, not a metaphoric angel, or an imagined angel, but a literal angel, one of God’s Seraphs—appears to a “random Cambridge mélange of men and women” who are walking in Harvard Yard on a cool afternoon, October 25, 1951. Wiley is one of the witnesses who attempts to describe this visitation in the temple of secular American culture, but the Angel resists description:
It was like the shifting sense of things in dreams, seen and known in varied ways; and what was paramount was an observing—and kind but not forward—facedness, a prow of knowing making Itself known—a Countenance, not human, not exactly—or entirely—inhuman, conceivably human in relation, but one that did not suggest It ever knew unconsciousness or error—or slyness—and I was startled but not made insane but was studentlike….
This is only the third paragraph of the account, but already the words are breathless, hesitant, and incapable of suggesting precisely what was being seen. It had a face, but it wasn’t really a face; it was human but hardly vulnerable. The Angel seemed a physical presence—being “somewhat taller than Harvard Hall”—but it did not have a body or anything truly physical about it. It did not speak; it did not do anything about the world; yet its presence changed the world for those who witnessed it.
But this revelation also had no uniform meaning. “A great variety of doctrines and secret beliefs was present” in those watching this sight, Wiley writes. “Many people thought It spoke, but no two agreed about the speech they claimed for It.” The interpretations differed according “to different bodies of symbols derived from their lives and dreams.”
This confusion is not inconsistent with the traditional accounts of religious experience that mix the literal with the figurative, the indefinite with the precise, differing from teller to teller depending upon the bodies of symbols into which they have been inducted. Gershom Scholem, the historian of Jewish mysticism, argued that revelation has no clear content but is given shape by the tradition into which it entered. The Jewish mystic might have visions of divine emanations and allusions to exile; the Christian mystic might sense the presence of the holy spirit and have visions of Mary or Christ. Similarly, in Wiley’s telling there were, among those who were speaking of Hell and Heaven, some who went into states of sexual rapture; a few who just looked on intently. A graduate student in English threw a rock at it; an Oriental physicist tried to sketch it.
Wiley tries to say something about his own reactions, but he was plainly overwhelmed:
It had only to exist in my sight and as the major sweetness and crisply, almost burning center of the field of my attention, It had only to be There in Its Very Real Presence in front of me…a changeable and varying conviction about many things and a Great Love for It, and This Conviction and This Love, this immense burden of meaning and awe, loosened my self-control violently every few seconds, so that my inner state was one of varied heats and pieties, madnesses, catatonias, bits of peace, of grace, the varying conviction of Final or Real Meaning.
But one problem of his “frail and as if whispered” attempt to account for the experience is that he—or rather, Brodkey—has no intelligible tradition into which anything resembling this religious experience can be fitted. Wiley’s comprehension of religion is oddly shallow, as if religious traditions merely involved simple character traits:
The men were more overcome with Christian dread in one form or another and with Jewish exaltation and pride and readiness to celebrate or with Jewish fear and resignation.
So when Wiley himself attempts to describe the visitation, he moves between restatements of its ineffability—its being beyond all language—and a set of comparisons that almost recalls Orra’s sexual discovery: “Revelation in this form is a tremendous thing and unmanning, much as when a woman says, All right, I will tell you a truth or two.”
Brodkey apparently wants to make revelation concrete and humbling; instead it becomes merely personal shock, a matter of love affairs; comparison diminishes it. “It interrupted everything by its presence, but only in the way you don’t escape from someone you’re infatuated with.”
But thoughts of childhood are even more frequent: the Angel transforms witnesses the same way ordinary experience transforms the child. Seeing the Angel, Wiley says, makes one “like a child, immortally, irrevocably vulnerable.” The power of “The Seraph” reminds Wiley of the ways in which his father or mother or nurse inducted him into different worlds of vision and voice as a small child. The witness to such a vision could only act like a child, to imitate without understanding. “We could mirror It as children do adults at times,” Wiley writes, “and that was to show madness, lunatic attempts at private meaning, silliness, to a grownup immersed in a silent passion and meaning.” The Angel hovered over Wiley the way his father did: it just didn’t lift him aloft.
Thus religious experience is another experience in one’s development, another loss of virginity, more powerful, perhaps, but not really different in kind from the experiences of childhood and adolescence. But instead of making religious power more palpable, such comparisons make it more ordinary. If revelation can be understood only when a part of a tradition, for Brodkey the tradition is narrowly defined, hermetic and obsessive—that of the ego and the child. The Angel represents some sort of metaphysical Adulthood. Brodkey’s imperious self-reflection incorporates even the territory of the Divine.
Brodkey asserts, in “Angel,” that no account can fully circumscribe the Seraph. Everyone is limited. Wiley asks us to read his own account with some indulgence: “a sense of Failure must accompany any attempt at Truth.” This, again, is Brodkey’s recurrent alibi. But it can also be his accomplishment.
It becomes accomplishment when we accept the alibi as valid: experience is beyond all telling. It is no accident that Brodkey’s tales of childhood and adolescence are replete with images of Sinai, Grace, visitations by seraphs: ordinary-life versions of revelation, which bring light if not clarity to experience. When the only love available to the infant Wiley comes from the nurse who sings as she attempts to feed him a spoonful of applesauce without his vomiting, the sounds surrounding him become a form of Grace:
I am swimming in the world—a poet said that about a church once—a rope, a chain, has lowered hope and this architectural display to us from Heaven.
Brodkey tries to get hold of this lowered rope, just a moment away from the illness his nurse is battling. When he grasps that rope, there is something uncanny about his achievement—“uncanny” in the Freudian sense, suggesting something barely remembered or understood, something disturbing or bizarre when measured by ordinary experience, that lies deep within our memories. When he holds onto that rope through entire stories—as in the memories of Wiley’s mother and father and nurse—the uncanniness can intoxicate.
Brodkey’s work possesses the characteristics he claimed for the child mirroring the adult and man mirroring the Angel—madness, lunatic attempts at private meaning, and, indeed, silliness. He professes to be haunted by a continuing dream:
Just as being a man had been hidden from me on the other side of the sharp ridge of puberty when I was still ten years old, so The Angel existed on the far side of a metamorphosis involving Beauty and Goodness, strength and knowledge, that would never happen, but that I would dream about or edge close to in moments of grace now.
In the midst of the overwritten and overdrawn, the repetitions and adolescent preoccupations, a dream and desire are also present in Brodkey’s stories; a dream that just on the other side—after this transformation, after another passage, another revelation—there will lie some light and goodness, some sense of home, once lost and now restored.
February 15, 1990