Thursday, September 3, 2015

On Detachment and Vision

Yesterday, when I opened the latest issue of the New Yorker, I immediately noticed an article about the New England witch hunts and dropped everything to read it. Over the years, I've read a great deal about this era, including Cotton Mather's 1693 apologia The Wonders of the Invisible World, essentially a practical handbook on how to use mesmerizing, eloquent prose to mislead your reader. I even wrote a poem about Wonders, "National Emergency," which appears in my second collection, How the Crimes Happened, and is a satirical demonstration of how to misread Mather's assertions.

Lately I've been working my way through Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750. Though Ulrich does occasionally mention both witchcraft and Mather, she doesn't focus on them as a linked pair or even as a major issue. She's far more interested in Mather's writings on Hannah Duston, the "Viragoe" and "Indian fighter," than in his witchcraft speculations. Nonetheless, her book has primed my mind for Puritan weirdness, so I was excited about the synchronicity of the New Yorker article.

The author, Stacy Schiff, has clearly also been infected by Puritan weirdness, and in many places her prose draws me beautifully into that dark, illogical, frightened world:
In isolated settlements, in smoky, fire-lit homes, New Englanders lived very much in the dark, where one listens more acutely, feels most passionately, and imagines most vividly, where the sacred and the occult thrive. The seventeenth-century sky was crow black, pitch-black, Bible black, so black that it could be difficult at night to keep to the path, so black that a line of trees might freely migrate to another location, or that you might find yourself pursued by a rabid black hog, leaving you to crawl home on all fours, bloody and disoriented. A tempest blew the roof off one of the finest homes in Salem as its ten occupants slept. A church went flying with its congregation inside.
But drawing me into that world doesn't seem to be her primary goal. She wants to maintain a modern distance--an impulse that I understand, and one that I followed in "National Emergency." In my case, I used Mather's own words as the basis for a satirical political poem. In her case, she borrows the words and imagery of historicized racism and cultural definition--"oppressed" peoples (the Puritans), "swarthy terrorist[s]" (the native tribes)--in the service of historical journalism. This, too, she might have handled deftly: she might have forced me exist inside these skewed perceptions . . . a dangerous and brilliant feat for any writer. Yet there is a disconnect, an awkwardness, at times even a flippancy, and I can't quite figure out what's gone wrong.

I'm not going to launch into any kind of reviser's critique, nor am I going to denounce her word choice and racial insensitivities. I daresay other readers will undertake both of those tasks. What intrigues me here is the way in which so many writers, in every genre, are unable to stay inside their own imagination. They surface into detachment, or aphorism, or pedantry, or polemic, or ecstasy. They turn away from the particulate glory of their own concentrated vision.

I know poets who do this--who sweep their bright images into a heap of garbled metaphor and enthusiastic punctuation. I know academics who do this--who box up their research and observations in mystical jargon. I know journalists who do this--who recognize ambiguity but reduce it to irony. It's hard, so hard, to stay inside a vision. It's just as hard to marry language to vision. And as I wonder why Schiff's editor was unable to guide her into a closer examination of such issues, I find myself worrying about how a tendency toward detachment is infecting writers, mentors of writers, editors, and everyone else involved in the production of finished work. Great writing requires rigor and asceticism and risk and humility. What are we teaching ourselves when we ignore that necessary work?

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