Home > Essays > Shadowboxing: Able Was I Ere I Was Cain
Published: Sun Oct 15 2000
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, El Fracoso de los Texeles / The Failure of the Church Women (detail), 2004, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
Shadowboxing: Able Was I Ere I Was Cain


“Only disconnect” might be Rilke’s motto. Rilke has become iconic for our age partly because his image suits our own perfectly sensible desire for flight and avoidance masked as transcendence: One can, we insist, rise above the social, political, and familial concerns of one’s age to pose in the drawing room over a Tarot deck (or Ouija board) along with the Poet and his Contessas without feeling guilt. Lord knows I wish it were so. Fortunately, our unprecedented affluence briefly supports such alluring sophistries. William Gass, in his masterly meditation Reading Rilke, is softer on them than on Rilke’s anthropomorphism, which inspires him to observe that “it is half-baked ideas of this kind which lead many people to dismiss poetry as merely poetry.”

I don’t mean to suggest that “transcendence” isn’t possible—or that direct relationships between people are all that matter. On the contrary, I believe solitude witnesses miracles, which art and science transcribe. Emily Dickinson is a sublimely gregarious poet, even though she preferred to meet her millions of readers one-on-one after her death. I’d further add that it is precisely miracles that make life interesting, especially the garden-variety sort celebrated by Whitman when he asked, “What is the grass?” That hint of awe in Whitman’s voice—which rises often, with a little more tremolo, in Rilke—is, however, what seems to give Gass ulcers.

Rilke is popular among New Agers because he developed an elaborate personal spiritual mythology not vetted by any hierarchy. Harvesting the invisible was Rilke’s gift: his work continued the Romantic poets’ mapping of interior territories with a passion previously the province of hermits, saints, and mystics. Cold to organized religion, Rilke carried the flag of the secular seeker. “Be dead forever in Eurydice,” he writes, and we fall into a trance-state where clock-time disappears as the resonances of the allusion find their way through our blood.

But Gass won’t let us linger in narcotic wonder long. Baroquely rational and impatient with foggy vistas, Gass explains clearly—too clearly perhaps—the way art works. He quotes from the Fourth Elegy:

Who makes the death of a child
       out of gray bread,
or leaves it there to harden in the
       round mouth
like the ragged core of a sweet

About this remarkable utterance he observes: “The shock of these lines is mock shock. Admiration is genuine….Words like these set the mind free of the world. Free to see and feel afresh the very world it’s been freed from.” While this is true, Gass’s tone undercuts the praise: it’s a bit like responding to Keats’s Odes with a nod: “Nice assonance, John.”

Gass surmises what Rilke gleaned from his masters in Paris, where the 27-year-old arrived in 1902, about the essence of art: “He learned that in one’s art an elbow may flow into a thigh, a chin disappear into a palm, a walker walk more purely without the distraction of arms…that the poet’s eye needs to be so candid that even a decaying vulva, full of flies, must be fearlessly reported…above all, that art is actually the opposite of nature, and that the creation of being—the breathing of statues—is what counts; not the imitation of nature but its transformation . . .”

Similar passages, and better, abound in a book to be shelved alongside such eccentric masterpieces as Nabokov’s Gogol, Ezra Pound’s The ABC of Reading, and Cyril Connolly’s The Unquiet Grave. His brief remarks on Rilke’s biography are witty and more cunning than any full-length chronicle could hope to be. One feels Rilke’s life flickering behind the words—stoked, not extinguished, by an admirer for once a peer.

Little seems to fall beyond Gass’s grasp, and this, paradoxically, is his book’s chief limitation. He clearly admires Rilke, but he proceeds through his vigorous demystification with a confidence and directness which are the opposite of the poet’s tentative lateral forays. What Rilke proposes in ardent whispers to a fellow traveler in the dark of night, Gass disposes in the commanding voice of the podium under the bright lights of the lecture hall. But Rilke’s poetry not only survives, it eludes the analysis. The relationship between the writers suggests a passage in Browning’s poem Andrea Del Sarto where the Renaissance painter del Sarto, seemingly unflappable, ironic, perfectly informed—the more analytic and technically proficient artist—nevertheless recognizes his peer and rival Raphael’s superior powers with a memorable lament: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp / or what’s a heaven for?”

There is at times a sense of summing up. Gass is laying out what he himself has understood from a life’s practice in art: “For what is crucial to creativity is the repeated experience, by our young practitioner, of quality of the highest kind. Really gifted people know that values are as ‘out there’ as cows in a field. And a sense for such significant combinations must be developed. Creativity concerns correct choice. I should say that the whole nature of a culture can be seen in its patterns of selection. The entire history of both art and science supports the view that some choices are better than others.” This insight is rendered the more remarkable by Gass’s inability to grant that metaphors outside those offered by his philosophy might say the same, only more vividly. Yet Unitarian truths will never erase the violent beauty of more primal creeds.


Equally heady and possessed by a passionate perception of the sensual impact of ideas—one thinks of Nadine Gordimer’s complaint in a Paris Review interview that we have lost much of our capacity for really feeling the weight of ideas, the way the Greeks palpably felt them—is Nicholas Mosey’s Hopeful Monsters, just reissued in paperback by Dalkey Archive.

Mosley’s novel is on the one hand a love story about Eleanor and Max, who meet as college kids in Berlin in the twenties and who finally reunite and marry at the outbreak of the Second War. Eleanor is German: her mother was a Jewish anarchist, a follower of Emma Goldman’s, who makes a memorable cameo (along with Einstein, Wittgenstein, and other stock twentieth-century egg-heads); her father is Aryan, deeply divided in his loyalties. Max’s parents are academic bohemians of the Cambridge-Bloomsbury axis: his mother is a psychologist who seems to favor Lamarck, his father a scientist firmly rooted in Darwin.

But the book is more than a love story: it is a kind of hitchhiker’s guide to Western Civ. The different ancestral spirits Eleanor and Max inherit partly determine their destinies; their feeling for each other—indeed, their enthusiasm and capacity for discovering and loving someone truly other—enlarge their fortunes and help them steer honorably through decades where every stream seemed to throw most human hopes to its own Scylla or Charybdis. Between them the two encounter and negotiate many of the major political and scientific currents of their day, from relativity to uncertainty to their practical implications realized in the creation of the Bomb. Eleanor and Max witness the unfolding of Anarchy, Fascism, and Communism and manage to have a hand in everything from the General Strike of ‘26 in England to anthropological work in Africa to the Spanish Civil War.

The story of their communion across continents is told in dueling narratives that become something more than a duet. Mosley’s facility with ideas, as well as his own sharp sense of the paradoxes and ironies arising from the gap between belief and practice, leads to exhilarating passages and insights. His eerily lit scenes compress epochs into paragraphs.

One haunting episode takes place during the Depression, not long after the General Strike of ‘26—one might say that was the moment when Marxism discovered the natural limits of its destiny in the “developed” West, as Labor tried, and failed, to intimidate Capital through a display of solidarity which proved somewhat more porous than gauze. Max, a student at Cambridge, decides to leave his haven and put his shoulder to the wheel on behalf of the wretched of the over-industrialized north. He joins a project run by a world-weary Anglican clergyman building a recreation hall for the poor (Habitat for Humanity?), but as he enters into the work he observes various disjunctive elements in the enterprise. Instead of helping out the inexperienced volunteers, the intended recipients of the clergyman’s good works stare sullenly from a distance, leaving Max to wonder just who the real beneficiaries of the enterprise might be and causing him to speculate on the passivity of the suffering, on the besieged and their relationship to the besiegers: “But now, what are the besiegers? They are more to do with states of mind.” States of mind are partly the products of education, one goal of which is to teach people to manipulate their own mental states that they may act more successfully on their own behalf.

The novel closes a sequence of nine belonging to something Mosley calls the Catastrophe Series, which, as I understand it, presents an original view of our dilemma in the West at millennium’s end, along with some hints about a way out of it. As Mosley’s characters struggle to understand—and learn from—their experience, they more than once persuade the reader that Mosley is on to something big, something which can’t be translated or summarized in a review.


While Gass and Mosley enlarge our horizons and persuade us that contemporary writers are doing every bit as much as physicists to show that we’ve hardly begun to grasp our place in nature (because, fabulous as the latest adventures of the photon are—and anything which leaves before it has arrived surely merits our wonder—they are, to my mind, still far short of William Blake’s portrait of the soul of a flea, to say nothing of the poet’s more radical inventions), the very shape of that horizon is called into question by Chinua Achebe’s imaginative and morally rigorous new collection of essays, Home and Exile.

Achebe, in refusing to subscribe to the universality of Western civilization, sounds like Gandhi, who, asked what he thought about it, replied famously, “It would be a good idea.” Certainly no one today would deny the horrors the West has inflicted on those outside the franchise, as well as on countless insiders. For centuries, religion wielded its scythe; today it is the market and applied science, so optimistic on the face of it—because there are many new products to sell, some pretty neat—creating devices and opportunities whose meaning for the race and the planet will be judged only by future historians.

Delivered first as the McMillan-Steward Lectures at Harvard in the fall of 1998, the talks reveal again Achebe’s profoundly original mind and a point of view that is fearless and generous. In a time when a tacit triumphalism dominates the tone of our intellectual life, his essays continue to question our grander claims to uniqueness, not the least of which is the West’s insistence that it was the Renaissance which spawned the individual as we know her.

Achebe’s brief description of Igbo tribal structures again gives the lie (as it must be given over and again, until the idea sinks in) to our sense that both a layered interiority and an elaborate system of social organization were our contribution, first to ourselves, and later to the colonies. Moreover, he persuades us that it was a wise respect for the autonomy of the individual which kept the Igbo from developing the kind of unwieldy, overcentralized institutions that today threaten to erode individuality while promoting consumerist consensus inside a culture of supranational corporations yielding inequalities hardly imaginable fifty years ago.

Achebe notes the cost in human sympathy to those artists whose imaginations fail to embrace the deeper dimensions of the world they take for a subject. Citing passages from Joyce Cary and Elspeth Huxley, Achebe shows how certain observations sound once the ideologies they were serving have been discredited, thereby awakening us to an acuter responsiveness, a brighter wakefulness to the likelihood of our own limited perspectives. Reading Cary and Huxley, one feels the work would be at ease amid selections from Boorman, Chamberlain, and The Turner Diaries.

While he sympathizes with the ways in which art is diminished by dimmer imaginations, his deeper concern is for the objects of such tenuous affections: “What is both unfortunate and unjust is the pain the person dispossessed is forced to bear in the act of dispossession itself and subsequently in the trauma of a diminished existence.”

Achebe’s accounts of Igbo cosmologies are richly suggestive. In a provocative reversal, Achebe tells us that the Igbo regarded the social organizations imposed on them by their colonizers as portents of anarchy. Like our myths about the West (wild or civilized, golden or Spenglerian), Achebe’s stories prove that another point of view is not merely possible, but well established.

What once was lost—largely through the madness of white people’s warped hunches and enervated imaginings about what constituted the good life (a lunacy that continues into our day, as a hunger for diamonds fuels both the obvious misery of the exploited workers who dig them and the subtler gnawing confusions of consumers who strain to grasp the half-life of eye-candy)—what once was lost will not readily be re-gained. In Achebe we hear a hope that the world may yet come to its senses and recognize that civilization is a common project for humanity, not another export item for West & Co. I wonder when that epiphany will occur—unless of course our technology turns on us, as we until recently feared it might. So long as we thrive inside our elaborate hall of mirrors, I fear Achebe’s insights will seem more like wishes than wisdom.

And yet, when Achebe turns his stern gaze on Naipaul, I find myself taking issue—not so much with his take on the limits of Naipual’s vision as with his approach to reading fiction.

Hardy once wrote that each book is secretly judged with an eye to its political and religious agendas. Yet while Achebe’s dismay at Naipaul arises from what appear to be political differences —he mentions an article about Naipaul in Forbes, where a photograph of the writer appeared across from a picture of a Rolls, implying that Sir Vidia, like Sir Malcolm, is also a capitalist tool—these differences are secondary to the temperamental variances: Naipaul is a pessimistic realist while Achebe is, by his own profession, an optimist.

Personally, I prefer to put images of Naipaul the capitalist tool (if he is that) out of mind as I read A Bend In the River—just as I forget Neruda’s Stalin Prize while reading the Elemental Odes, Rilke’s silences about every social trauma of the opening years of the century, or W. E. B. Dubois’s articulate faith in the Soviet experiment during the years of the Russian-made famine in Ukraine. Ford Madox Ford remarked that a writer must have political opinions, but he should mistrust them since the only special knowledge a novelist lays claim to concerns his art. About everything else he is apt to sound as silly as when the former-Governor-of-Massachusetts-turned-novelist compares his own aspirations to Solzhenitsyn’s.

A Bend in the River is unforgettable for its opening: “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.” A potent line, more resonant even than Ford’s “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” Naipaul’s is, no doubt, a cruel sentence; it stinks of Darwin; it is pompous; and, finally, it is, to my mind, sub specie aeternitatis, false. The world is not what it appears to be; no man is nothing; and all that lives has a place here. The sentence reveals much about the character of Salim, who is a shopkeeper, not a philosopher. But one knows what Salim means—one recognizes that frame of mind—and as the opening of a novel, it’s extraordinary because it wrenches us from our habitual world and spins us into the orbit of Naipaul’s artifice. It resembles those lines by Rilke that Gass praised for freeing the mind of the world in order that it might “see and feel afresh the very world it’s been freed from.” Whether Naipaul agrees with it or not is as irrelevant as Rodin’s biography is to an appreciation of The Burghers of Calais.

Achebe might balk at my over-aestheticized response. Postmodernists, he suggests, will not do much to “advance the universal conversation.” That will only be done by “those able to bring hitherto untold stories, along with new ways of telling.” He is right, of course—though postmodernists may well be among those with fresh tales to unfold.

One of these may be Milan Kundera, whose passionate Testaments Betrayed is a crucial brief on behalf of fiction delivered before a court which sometimes appears to have gone on semi-permanent recess. Kundera argues that the clearest sign of the West’s decline is its betrayal of its most singular art form, the novel, which from Cervantes through Diderot to Kafka has been a laboratory where we map the recesses of consciousness free from responsibility for the consequences of our utterances.

Unlike memoir, polemic, history—or any other forms of non-fiction—where different rules apply, in fiction anything goes, so long as it works. Go wild. Silliness and whimsy are as important to life as gravity and soberness of mind. Cover the sheet with asterisks, if you like—as Sterne did in Tristram Shandy in 1790. When a writer is called to account for the views expressed inside his fictions, then the accountants have forgotten the commission he bears. Kundera declares the West’s failure to argue on behalf of Salman Rushdie qua fiction writer was a sign it had misplaced the purposes of art, and was bowing instead to a stiflingly politicized vision of life as an endless series of power struggles.

One last element in Achebe’s third essay invites response. He counsels against exploiting the romance of exile and points out the potential for deracination and evasiveness that often accompany the experience. Passports are not—and will not be for a long while, we may be sure of it—without meaning. What they mean is that in the eyes of the world one part of our home is a political entity with certain contours and specific features, and by convention we are partly responsible for the character of the place. This can seem like rather a heavy burden, especially if one’s particular “old country” happens to be (as is that of my parents) in semi-permanent crisis. But the unbearable lightness we feel when we reject our identity as citizens has its own unique hazards.

In a whimsical moment Achebe addresses anyone who may be “contemplating giving up his room and packing his baggage for London or New York.” To such an aspirant he would say: “Don’t trouble to bring your message in person. Write it where you are, take it down that little dusty road to the village post office and send it.”

There is much wisdom in echoing Voltaire; and there is always honor in remembering that the home one left continues to thrive even without us. Yet the authority in Achebe’s voice surely springs from his own decades of travel and exile. Once we have seen the world, we may urge our grandnephews to stay on the farm, but we mustn’t be surprised if they do as we did and not as we said.

Mosley’s Europeans were wanderers—as of course was Rilke, whose visions were partly compensations for the more conventional sights of a rooted life, full of fond attachments to places and people. Having left all behind, Rilke had to shatter the door of silence just so he could find somebody to talk to. Yet he needn’t have hounded the rails from Prague to St. Petersburg to find that maybe we really are here only to say house, bridge, fountain, gate. Who knows if at the end of his travels Rilke might not have seconded Achebe?

See what's inside AGNI 52

Askold Melnyczuk is the founding editor of AGNI and contributes a series of essays called “Shadowboxing.” He is professor of creative writing at UMass Boston. Excerpts from his anti-memoir in progress have appeared recently in The Threepenny Review and Epiphany. The Epiphany excerpt, “Turbulence, Love,” was cited as Notable in The Best American Essays 2010. His third novel, The House of Widows (Graywolf Press), won the Editor’s Choice Award from the American Library Association as one of the outstanding books of 2008. His second novel, Ambassador of the Dead (Counterpoint, 2001) was called “exquisite, original” by The Washington Post, and his first, What Is Told (Faber and Faber), was a New York Times Notable Book for 1994.

In 1997 Melnyczuk received a Lila Wallace-Readers’ Digest Award in Fiction. Winner of the McGinnis Award in Fiction, he has also been awarded grants from the Massachusetts Cultural Council in fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. He has published stories, poems, translations, and reviews in The New York TimesThe NationThe Partisan ReviewGrand StreetPloughsharesAGNIPoetry, and The Boston Globe. His poems have been included in various anthologies, including The McGraw-Hill Book of PoetryLiterature: The Evolving Canon, and Under 35: The New Generation of American Poets. He has edited three volumes in the Graywolf Take Three Poetry Series, as well as a volume of tributes to Father Daniel Berrigan and a livre d’artiste on painter Gerry Bergstein. He also coedited From Three Worlds: New Writing from Ukraine.

He previously taught at Harvard University, the graduate Bennington Writing Seminars, and Boston University, where he edited AGNI until its thirtieth anniversary year in 2002. A research associate of the Ukrainian Institute at Harvard, he has served on the boards of the New England Poetry Club and PEN New England and has been a fellow of the Boston Foundation. In 2001 he received PEN American Center’s biennial Nora Magid Award for Magazine Editing as well as PEN New England’s “Friend to Writers” Award.

Melnyczuk founded AGNI in 1972 as an undergraduate at Antioch College and Arrowsmith Press in 2006. (updated 10/2022)

See him interviewed on New England Authors.

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