Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Kurt Vonnegut

Etc Etc Amen. Part Two of a review of a novel by Howard Male

This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday May 3 2015.

Part One can be found here:

https://pcolman.wordpress.com/2015/04/20/etc-etc-amen-part-one-of-a-review/

 

 

male plus cat

 

Howard Male has written on music for the Independent, Songlines, The Word and other publications and on the arts in general for theartsdesk.com. He is also a musician. Etc Etc Amen is his first novel.

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Part Two

“Let go of your belief – it’s more trouble than it’s worth! Many have  died fighting over the small print from the undeniably ambiguous texts of their holy books. Belief is an End not a Beginning. Making a choice with regards to a theological position is patently absurd. Because…We. Know. Nothing.”

 

Male’s novel deals with rock god Zachary Bekele who founds a non-religion called KUU (The Knowing Unknowable Universe). The bible of this non-faith is The KUU Hypothesis.

KUU Theology

KUU stands for the Knowing Unknowing Universe. Male says: “I wanted to see if it was possible to devise a theology which went completely against the troubling grain of all that had gone before it, yet made perfect if eccentric sense as an alternative.” “Knowing” suggests something that demonstrates intelligence as well as something beyond our comprehension. “Unknowable” means we have to be content with unresolved guesses because all religion is guesswork. “Universe” symbolises what we find impossible to understand. The more knowledge we acquire the more fragile and contingent we feel. “The Gratuitous just keeps on raining down”.

KUU-ism is a middle way between theism and atheism; an escape from the “tribal binary prison”. Even our greatest thinkers only seem to pose either/or questions or definitive statements. Everything is reduced to the taking of sides while the truths remain ambivalent and overlooked. “Sitting on the fence might actually give us the best view”.

The Tripod built in Marrakech symbolises this third way. It is a middle way between the belief in an interventionist or non-interventionist deity. The KUU is semi-interventionist, and recognises `Cosmic Nudges’ – KUU-incidences (what Carl Jung called Synchronicities). KUU offers a welcome to refugees from any faith or even “agonised agnostics” and atheists. Bekele describes himself as “part evangelical agnostic and part woolly-minded fantasist”. He also says he is, “just a born-again questioner with a novel interpretation of the facts”.

KUU asserts that science is just as likely to be made up of bizarre hypotheses as ancient religion was made of bizarre gods. Scientists have not “made a dent on some of the central mysteries of mind, soul or creation”. KUU is not a personifying name of an entity that explains everything. “Why should we suddenly have all the answers now any more than we did two hundred or even two thousand years ago?”

Religions have dumb rules. The bible gives equal weight to sartorial and dietary advice and serious misdemeanours.  KUU Ground Rules are not Commandments. There are Eleven KUU Non-Commandments (or Gentle Suggestions), concerned with the individual’s well-being, sense of self and relationship with the possibility of a spiritual realm. Here are a few from the eleven: “You can laugh. You can doubt. Meditate on the Mystery of Music. Embrace and delight in the hello of the Cosmic Nudge. Forget about love, Empathy and respect are the real deal. Respect is rarely blind, stupid, jealous or crazy because it requires prior thought and has to be earned.

The central idea is that a connection can be cultivated between The Knowing Unknowable Universe and the receptive “entertainer of the possibility on Earth”. You may be enlightened if you entertain the possibility that unexplainable events such as coincidences are Cosmic Nudges. “It is part of our hardwiring that the unexplained is not worthy of our attention…the fact that you have never witnessed a serious car crash does not mean that car crashes don’t exist…the one form of unusual occurrence that we don’t feel self-conscious about discussing is coincidence…what if coincidences are the subtlest form of supernatural  phenomena?” “The Cosmic Nudge is the light of infinity glimpsed through a tiny rent in the opaque curtain of everydayness”. We are neither favoured nor persecuted by a higher being. Cosmic Nudges do not reward or punish, they just gently tease, they are playful not frightening.

“Here are some suggestions on how to live a more fulfilling life while also getting the occasional glimpse that there could be to that life than meets the eye. Let those glimpses enrich your daily existence but don’t let them go to your head. Be aware and creative, pursue wisdom knowing it can’t be attained, and find someone to love and have a good time with”.

“Get up off your knees! Don’t pray. Dance!” When you lose yourself in dance you lose your ego.

Optimistic doubt: “instead of living in constant disappointment at not receiving what you think is rightfully yours , you live for the moment and so experience pleasant surprise when good fortune comes your way. Life is the now. “

In spite of this sensible approach, the KUU’s followers decide to interpret KUU doctrine in a way that redefines the KUU as a supernatural entity.

Influences and comparisons

While I was reading the book, a number of possible influences came to my mind. I was not suggesting plagiarism but was intrigued enough to ask the author. I was reminded of Vonnegut’s Church Of God The Utterly Indifferent, and of Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood in which Hazel Motes grows up struggling with doubts regarding salvation and original sin. Hazel’s war experience turns him into an atheist and he preaches a gospel of antireligion through his Church of No Christ. I wondered if there might be echoes of The Dice Man by Luke Rinehart.

 

The film Privilege starring Paul Jones (a rock star playing a rock star) directed by Peter Watkins and written by Johnny Speight dealt with a music idol who develops messianic powers.

 

 

Male has not seen the film. He admits to being influenced  by “in some sense every decent writer who has ever made me forget I was reading a work of fiction while I’ve been reading their work” However, he has not read Wise Blood and only vaguely recalls The Dice Man.

KUU seemed to have a bit of Buddhism in it, with the absence of a supreme being and prescriptive commandments and the notion of a “middle” way. All faiths except KUU are focused on blinkered certainty. “All moral codes stem from a paradoxical blend of selfishness and altruism…KUUism is about responsibility, rather than the handing over of that responsibility to a higher order, be it human or supernatural”.  I noted that Zachary’s band was called The Now. Male told me: “Buddhism, oddly enough, I only began investigating with any genuine curiosity after I’d finished writing the novel, as my sister – who has been a halfway house Buddhist for about eight years – saw a lot of Buddhism in KUUism.  The new novel Serious Fun explicitly shows this influence in that it centres on a character who has recently taken up mindful meditation.”

Male told me: “KUUism had – as its two starting points – the number of unlikely remarkable coincidences that were happening to me as I considered the idea of the cosmic nudge, and the self-appointed task of devising a religion (non-religion) that was the opposite of the existing religions yet morally and (to a degree) rationally sound.”

 

Reception

Male has written much rock journalism and continues to write expertly on what has come to be known as “World Music”. He brings his own personal inside knowledge of the rock world to the writing of this novel.  He was encouraged by supportive comments from respected music journalists like Charlie Gillett, Robin Denselow, Mick Brown, David Quantick  and Nick Coleman. Coleman described the novel as “an art-school rock-theological satirical thriller.” The book  received glowing praise from Tony Visconti, an American record producer  who has had a long association with David Bowie. Visconti said: “It’s a wonderful book! I am even more awestruck the second time around. Very few novelists get it right when they use Rock as the context for a novel. Howard Male got it right. One of the best novels I’ve read in the last decade’. Whitbread prize-winning novelist Patrick Neate thought it was “something really special”.

Howard Male tells me that he has completed a sequel called Serious Fun  and has started work on the third novel of the trilogy. He is now working on a screenplay of Etc Etc Amen. Etc Etc Amen is available on Kindle.

 

 

 http://www.nation.lk/edition/insight/item/40333-howard-male%E2%80%99s-novel-etc-etc-amen.html

Theodore Roethke Part 3

This article appeared in The Nation newspaper on Sunday December 28 2014.

 

His voice rang out with such an overwhelming roll of noble anguish that many in the audience wept.

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Roethke always maintained that poems were better heard than silently read on the page. He himself was a rambunctious performer of his own work on the stage. Fellow poet Stanley Kunitz described one such performance. “He had a high fever, and backstage he was jittery, sweating copiously from every pore as he guzzled champagne by the bottle. On stage, for the first portion of his program he clowned and hammed incorrigibly, weaving, gyrating, dancing, shrugging his shoulders, muttering to himself intermittently, and now and then making curiously flipper-like or foetal gestures with his hands. But gradually, as the evening wore on, he settled into a straight dramatic style that was enormously effective and moving. When he came to the new ‘mad’ sequence, particularly the poem that begins, ‘In a dark time the eye begins to see,’ his voice rang out with such an overwhelming roll of noble anguish that many in the audience wept.”

The Waking

Another performer, jazz singer Kurt Elling, has set Roethke’s poem “The Waking “ to music and has often included it in his live performances. Another performing Kurt, Kurt Vonnegut Jr, quotes from the poem in his novel Slaughterhouse 5.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NcuUAxinEUs

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.   

I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.   

I learn by going where I have to go.

 

We think by feeling. What is there to know?   

I hear my being dance from ear to ear.   

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

 

Of those so close beside me, which are you?   

God bless the Ground!   I shall walk softly there,   

And learn by going where I have to go.

 

Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?   

The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;   

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

 

Great Nature has another thing to do   

To you and me; so take the lively air,   

And, lovely, learn by going where to go.

 

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.   

What falls away is always. And is near.   

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.   

I learn by going where I have to go.

 

This poem lends itself to music because it is a villanelle, a fixed form of five tercets and a quatrain. There is a blending of sound, tone, movement, and recurring motifs. Use of the villanelle heightens the overall impression of confusion as the speaker wavers, drowsily disorientated, between night and day. Key phrases are repeated in a circular motion and the echoing rhyme scheme lends itself to song.

 

Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim is a time traveller. In this poem, Roethke shuffles through layers of experience and consciousness, through hyper-alert sleep to musing on the nature of awareness and being. The poet recognises the limits of human logic. We think by feeling. What role does fate play in what you feel and where you will go? Are you awake or sleeping? It is an in-between world where opposites meet and merge to create new entities.

 

A Muse Called Beatrice.

bea

The collection named The Waking was published in 1953 and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1954.In 1953, Roethke married one of his former Bennington students, Beatrice O’Connell, and he wrote many love poems to her. “I knew a woman, lovely in her bones.” As I wrote last week, these love poems are not just evocations of feelings about his wife. The loved one is at the centre of the physical universe and the poet communes with the elements and the natural universe through her. Through her, his vision is transformed. Like Dante’s Beatrice, her guidance brings the poet to a revelation of the Divine. He never denies the physical nature of the love relationship but sees it also as the occasion for a breakthrough in the spiritual order. His love for her sharpens his sense of participation in the life of all creation as she merges with all natural things.

 

“Words for the Wind” was written during their honeymoon at WH Auden’s villa in Ischia.

 

Love, love, a lily’s my care,

She’s sweeter than a tree.

Loving, I use the air

Most lovingly: I breathe;

Mad in the wind I wear

Myself as I should be,

All’s even with the odd,

My brother the vine is glad.

 

There is an echo of St Francis of Assisi in that “brother”. His love for Beatrice brings him in harmony with the cosmos and also establishes an internal equilibrium. His previously divided self is made whole through a woman who is a creature of spiritual and mythological significance as well as being physical and sexual.

 

Being myself, I sing

The soul’s immediate joy.

Light, light, where’s my repose?

A wind wreathes round a tree.

A thing is done: a thing

Body and spirit know

When I do what she does:

Creaturely creature, she!—

I kiss her moving mouth,

Her swart hilarious skin;

She breaks my breath in half;

She frolicks like a beast;

And I dance round and round,

A fond and foolish man,

And see and suffer myself

In another being, at last.

 

A Fond and Foolish Man

 

Unfortunately, Beatrice could not completely make Roethke whole or exorcise his demons. It is not easy to make a living as a poet and Roethke had to depend on teaching jobs to make ends meet. His students testified that he was a brilliant teacher of poetry but he did not get any assurance of academic tenure until he took up a post at the University of Washington in 1947. It would be wise to keep his mental problems quiet but he was a loud gregarious bear of a man.

 

My working title for this series of articles on a generation of American poets was “Mad Poets Society”. Delmore Schwartz, John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell and Roethke knew each other well and had similar problems. Jarrell to a lesser extent perhaps, but they all had problems with mental health and alcohol. They all knew Dylan Thomas also who succumbed at an early age.

 

In his biography of Berryman, Paul Mariani paints a harrowing picture of his subject’s abuse of alcohol and his mental breakdowns. Mariani is perhaps a little partisan when he states: “if Berryman’s behaviour was unsteady, it was stolid compared Roethke’s”. He does describe a Christmas party held by Edmund Wilson. Roethke arrive “aggressively sober” with several friends. When Wilson introduced him to Berryman, he pretended he had never heard of him. Roethke flirted with the female guests and then insisted that Wilson leave the party and come and read his poems. When Wilson demurred, Roethke grabbed Wilson’s jowls and said he was all “blubber”. Wilson called Roethke a half-baked Bacchus and asked him to leave. As he was being propelled to the door someone tried to introduce him to a psychiatrist who was just arriving. The man reached out to shake his hand. Roethke thought he was about to be restrained and committed and punched the man.

 

As a young man, he was humiliated by breakdowns that continued to afflict him throughout his life. It might have been some consolation to him that he was a member of fellowship of mad poets and lost children that included Kit Smart, John Clare and William Blake, with each of whom he was able to identify and echo.

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More about Roethke’s health, death and posthumous reputation next week

 

 

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