OtherwhereA Field Guide to
Nonphysical Reality for the
(Hampton Roads)Kurt Leland says that out-of-
body travel must begin with dreams. He identifies eleven stages of dreaming, the very first being no recollection whatsoever of dreaming, the second of mere dream fragments, the third of watching oneself in a dream, full participation for the fourth --- all the way up to level Ten, whereyour usual waking consciousness becomes fully present within the dream state --- upon recognizing that you are, in fact, dreaming. At this point it becomes possible to enter Otherwhere.We can travel to what he has named "Otherwhere" in the aetheric body, the spiritual part of us vaguely connected to what we choose to call the "real" body. Otherwhere is defined by Leland as "distant locales on Earth" and, as well, "a reality completely different from the one we're familiar with, a nonphysical reality..."With the assistance of various guides of this other world, he attempts to define the experiences that will come to all of us when we become what he refers to as a "Shade." The most typical reaction to death is disbelief, Shades wandering around, assuming this or that shape, fully believing that they are still among the living. When they realize the truth, the reaction is marked:
When the Shade finally accepts the fact that the body is dead, it enters a state like depression, in which thought and motion slow down and eventually cease. It becomes self-absorbed, unresponsive to anything happening outside itself.
The shade then draws into itself, loses its human (imagined) shape, until it resembles nothing more than an overgrown mollusk:
The Shade's final form is completely inert: a compact ovoid, as tightly sealed as a clam. Harvesters periodically sweep through the areas in which the recently dead congregate, collect these ovoids, and transport them to another region of the Afterdeath Zone.
§ § §
This book may just have well been called Afterdeath, for it is that world that Leland dwells on most of all. It is, however, no simple Paradise, Purgatory or Hell. Although the author often cites Dante --- indeed, claims that his visions of the other world are not that dissimilar from Dante's --- his dream-like picture of where we will go after dying is in marked contrast to that of standard Christianity. Indeed, his view of Christian morality, symbols, and death could be said to be more or less antichristian. This is one of Lelands's afterdeath guides speaking of the Church:
Terms such as grace, sin, forgiveness, redemption were coined and left intentionally vague. A priesthood sprang up as the official interpreters of Christ's message. Before long, the magnified and distorted primate instincts --- in the form of spiritual survival fears, sexual guilt, and mind control --- had infiltrated the new religion. Fear was invoked by telling people that they might lose their souls if they didn't manage their sexuality properly. Impossibly stringent limitations were established for sexual behavior, so that people were in constant fear of losing their souls. The beliefs of the Church were touted as the only way of guaranteeing salvation of the soul...Thus did the Church become an administrative structure primarily concerned with controlling large numbers of people through fear, and only indirectly with the promulgation of Christ's views.
In effect, under the rubric of reporting his own out-of-
body experiences, Leland has set up an alternative religious system. In his Otherwhere, the prophets are not Jesus, nor Dante, but rather, Hieronymous Bosch, Jean Cocteau, Emily Dickinson, and Robert Monroe --- the last being the author of Journeys Out of the Body (one of the bibles for OOB practitioners).
The great sins in Leland's afterlife are regret, self-pity, frustration, anger, bitterness, and cynicism. And rather than the twenty-five circles of Dante, his afterworld contains dozens of areas that would be familiar to any of us who live with 20th Century media: huge halls, towering buildings, caves, murky, fog-filled rivulets, giant abandoned airports, places where huge, noisy machines smash down, pits where monsters with fiery eyes rise up to blast hapless Shades into a cinder (or into a small gold bar --- their revamped souls).
§ § §
Leland's Otherwhere is moderately interesting. With his dim view of the Christian Church, his alternative picture of the places you and I will go to after we pop off can be stimulating. Unfortunately, his style of writing is somewhat lunky. The various guides give intolerably long (and improbable) speeches to explain their world and it's mission to the author, and sometimes the phrasing sounds like something that could be cooked up in a Writing II seminar:
"Just as bitterness and cynicism are the common denominators of those who travel into the Alternate Was worlds, so frustration and anger are the common denominators of those who travel into the Alternate Is worlds."
"Why, then, was the driver of the B & C bus so sweet and kind, while you seem somewhat put out?" I asked. "If what you're saying is true, I would have expected her to be as bitter and cynical as her passengers."
"The B & C driver deals mainly with Shades," the fat woman replied. "She's the heart and soul of their nostalgia and wistfulness for the life that could have been..."
Leland may or may not have made these improbable journeys. Like our respective worlds which we choose to call "reality," his may just be a product of a rich, fertile imagination. Despite that, we have no trouble with his belief system: it's a refreshing world that he pictures, one in which the main purpose is to burn off the impedimenta that has crusted us in our contemporary world, with our religions, our cultural institutions, and our profit-and-
pleasure oriented society. (Like the Buddhists, he claims that you and I will have to be reborn again and again... until we get it right.)
However, the style he has chosen to use to convey this philosophy is, as we have suggested, klunky. Worse, his apparent comparison of his own vision to that of the subtle, wonderfully emblematic soul-word poetry of Medieval Christianity --- Dante's Divine Comedy --- strikes us as overreaching. Leland tells us he is a poet, but his expository style is less that of a student of Dante and seems more a product of the USA Today Stylebook. Prose written by the true poets --- Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, William Carlos Williams, Beckett --- always contains its own poetry, and this ain't it.
Having said that, we can recommend Otherwhere for being an interesting trip to another world, even stranger than our own. After all, what writer would dare to round out his history by offering a special exit for those who are ready for another stint in the most dark and painful of all places in the universe:
When the Shade feels ready to sign up for a new life on Earth, it progresses to a region of the Afterdeath Zone in which it will find a rounded air-lock chamber. This chamber is the Reentry Gate that...opens into the womb of every pregnant woman.--- A. W. Allworthy
(Fithian)Many years ago I went to one of those diligent, small schools on the East Coast, ones that were known as "liberal arts" colleges. I fell into a couple of classes in English Literature which, sad to say, wrote "finis" to my plans to be a doctor.I remember them well, to this day, with affection: the affection of, for the first time, having those pure moments of wondrous insights. Rather than DNA and H2SO4 and dissection of the common dogfish, I fell in love with Chaucer and Marvell and Keats and the Existentialists. To this day, I curse those four teachers who inspired that affection --- Ralph Sargent, Max Bluestone, Marcel Gutwirth, Francis Quinn. They were my corrupters. They led me away from my rightful place in society, forcing me to give up medical school for this peripatetic, life-long affliction for literature.Instead of being a kindly, patient white-haired M.D., specializing, perhaps, in the heart, I ended up trying to parse the heart of man. Instead of moving into a dignified (and rich) practice in, say, Marin County, I spent the next years trying to practice what they (Eliot, Keats, Dylan Thomas, et al) preached --- both as a writer, living in sordid tenements here and there, and, later, as a graduate student at the University of California, finally plunged into a course they called Reality.On my lovely campus to the East, the professors were avuncular, in love with books and teaching. Their affection for the material infected the students like a plague. We were swept up by the sly cynical loves of John Donne, the fractious anarchy of Gully Jimson, the careful godless non-involvement of the Stranger, the rotund discursiveness of Henry James. I was smitten --- in love with the word on the page, and in love with those who knew how to move those words (and me): the professors, in combination with Dostoyevsky and Diderot and Defoe and De la Mare and De Quincey.
However, when I tried to import these passionate insights into the austere classes at Berkeley, the response was always the same: a dignified sneer; then a continuation of a disquisition on the printing history of "Hamlet," the variorum editions of "The Knight's Tale," a recent study of Marvell --- counting the relative number of adjectives to adverbs.There was something even more ominous. We got the decided feeling of being unwelcome in the school that had accepted us as a student. I found out later, too much later, that the school rewarded only those who persisted against all odds: indifferent professors, overlarge classes, and a system designed to force out the excessive number of students (they always admitted far more than they would permit to graduate.)
These all came to foment a professorial distaste for the lowly student. We got in the way of their scholarly pursuits. Ten years before the eruptions took place at Berkeley, we were living (alas, all to complacently) what it was that ignited the student uprisings. As a later generation was to phrase it, crudely, we were learning, for the first time, the truth of "the student as nigger." Even later, I found myself (me!) agreeing with the likes of S. I. Hayakawa and Reagan --- that professors should be forced to teach instead of hiding from students behind their professional journals.
§ § §
I bring this all up because Hart's novel tells me that this professorial distaste for students is alive and well in the California University System. Something I thought was peculiar to those times before the uprisings of the 60s still blunders on, bludgeoning those who care, rewarding the drones.
His hero, one John Goddard, teaches English as a Second Language to a motley collection of Mexican-Americans, Blacks and second generation refugees from Southeast Asia. Here is a man who enjoys teaching, who cares for his students, who sees it not as a career but as a life. One of his students, Tina Le, from Vietnam, shows especial promise, and the novel is structured on face-en-face journals of the two...his because he is a writer, hers because she is required to do so as part of her class assignment.
We are thus drawn into a dialect: the world of California college life though the eyes of one who served in Vietnam (and was damaged by the experience) and another who fled Vietnam (and was damaged by the experience: a case of rape when their boat was overtaken by pirates.) It is an interesting technique, alternating journal entries --- Goddard's filled with nightmares and doubts and a growing confidence in Tina Le; hers filled with self-doubt, the mystery of America, and a growing confidence in him, in herself, and in her new language.
The language is, however, nicely bent. Her journal is written in a way to suggest the awkwardness of one learning English, with mangled sentences, misunderstood words, funny constructions: but it manages, miraculously, to ring true. For instance, when she says, referring to his journal assignment,
He say we can write about pet peeps too, but what it is I wander. I suppose he mean we can write about our animals we keep in the house, which is popular American custom.
Or, when assigned to write about Swift's "A Modest Proposal,"
I start it, but I only read three page because what John write in there is so disgusting. He say we should cook and eat Irish babies, and how they taste so good, and how we will save money by treat them like little animals we raise for food....I don't know why somebody would write such awful, sick ideas.
§ § §
The crux of the novel is Goddard passing two students (one of them Le) when the department head says he should not do so. There is a big blow-up, Goddard gets sacked, he takes it to a faculty grievance committee, there is a hearing, and he loses.
The message is simple. The system is designed to force out as many good students --- and teachers --- as possible. Goddard (and his lawyer, and, presumably the reader) may well see this as not only anti-teaching, but as racist, because the tight WASP structure of the classes and assignments makes it so that Blacks and Asians to have the highest drop-out rate.
Never Fade Away works as a protest novel, but at times, especially in Goddard's journal, the rhetoric gets a bit heavy,
Easter Sunday is the living dream of kiddie heaven-on-
earth, with frolics in Elysian fields courtesy of Walt Disney and his corporate dwarves. It's the holiday simply too precious for words, with happy hopping bunnies, cute candy critters, and nuggets of pastel cholesterol lurking in the bluegrass.
In addition, there are too many English major intellectual exercises, for example, a disquisition on Ambrose Bierce's journals and letters, or a brief summary of Odysseus battling with the Cyclops. "Eurylochus is right when he calls Odysseus a daredevil willing to sacrifice the lives of his men in pursuit of personal glory," may be self-referent (Goddard loses his job and Tina Le is forced out) but it seems a heavy way to make a literary point.
The conclusion is commendable, however. A lesser author would have Le and Goddard, both bruised but unbowed, fall in each other's arms. However, after the battle before the faculty committee, she draws back, seems to becomes even more reserved, while he has a nervous breakdown. She, possibly, will go to Chicago to be with an aunt; he will apply to teach ESL in the public schools. They agree to meet and go to a wedding (not their own). Perhaps it will happen; perhaps it won't.--- L. J. Bennett
Of the Dead
(Counterpoint)Soon her dress was off and I was staring at the freckled, doe-colored skin of a forty-year old woman. Maybe the flesh sagged and folded over itself, but it was no less than a sighting of Atlantis, a place out of time. The rest of our clothes dissolved as though they were spun of sugar. She was a garden enclosed: an orchard of pomegranates, with pleasant fruits; camphire, with spikenard. Spikenard and saffron: calamus and cinnamon, with trees of frankincense; myrrh and aloes, with all the chief spices: a well of living waters, and streams from Lebanon. Awake, north wind: watch the garden, our of which spices flow. So I gathered the myrrh and ate the honeycomb with my milk.It starts as a tale of misery, told through the eyes of Nicholas, the only son of a poor Ukrainian couple. He has ended up in Boston as an MD. One day, he receives a call from Adriana Kruk, old friend of the family. Ada and her husband Lev had come to America from the Ukraine. Theirs had been an idyllic childhood (her father was the local doctor) until Stalin's collectivization of the kulaks destroyed their lives and their livelihood.She and Lev escaped to the United States, where they ended up in New Jersey, with two sons. Paul grows up, is sent to Vietnam (he ultimately kills himself when he returns). Alex turns into a druggie. Lev leaves Ada for another woman, and she turns lusty, taking up with all sorts --- including the sixteen year old Nicholas, as described above.Melnyczuk is no slouch in the narrative department. The seduction scene above --- Biblical in tone, "The Song of Solomon" comes to mind ---- is not without merit. His description of the decay that sets in for Ada after her children are gone --- along with the limning of her dark character --- is robust. She may be decaying, but she is still all woman, with all the contradictions built in. Her dialogues --- like this with son Alex, are sad, nagging, eternal mother against eternal son:
"Why do you listen?" she asked.
"You're here for the stories. Don't you have any of your own?"
"I do," he defended himself. "Plenty. I can't tell you."
"They're not son to mother stories..."
"I know why. Because they're better. My stories are better than yours."
She reached into her sweater and pulled out a cigarette which she lit with a heavy silver lighter picked up from the table.
He let the insult settle before lashing back:
"Won't anything get through? We go over the same shit every time! I'm sick of it. I hate the old world."
"I know," she replied, smoke curling from her mouth. "And since you do, mind turning out the light when you go?"
"I hate the old world." That's a key motif of Ambassador of the Dead. Children are exposed to the tales of those who have come from some other land, another harsher world, but they don't want to hear it. They want to watch television and play basketball and go swimming and get laid and be Americans.
Their parents' tragedies of forty years ago mean little; they are past, they are history --- the kids now live in the new world. Melnyczuk brings this home by contrasting Ada --- who refuses to forget the famine, the Ukraine, the Nazis --- and the parents of Nicholas. As he is growing up, they never mention it. Her own son, Alex, goes under (drugs, rehabilitation, drugs, rehabilitation, overdose). Nicholas becomes a respected professional. The old world and all its ghastly miseries are better off forgotten, right?
§ § §
Yet, towards the end, Nicholas decides to return to find out about himself and his own parents. Ada calls; that is a convenient time to begin. She tells him,
"Your parents had gone through the same things we did. In some ways worse. Your poor mother."
Pause. She looked at me --- slyly, I thought.
"They say she actually ate her sister."
Turns out that during the famine, after the villagers had eaten "the horses, the dogs, the cats, they had nothing left. So they turned on each other..." And his father? She says,
"Even as a young man, he worked. For the Germans, when he had to. I saw him in his uniform. The brown shirt."
And what had Ada told me, exactly? That my mother was a cannibal and my father a Nazi? Absurd even to utter such words, which sound unreal and oddly comic. I found myself yanked into the bloody whirlpool of mid-century battles. And where was the antidote to that?
The answer, of course, is that there is no antidote --- except forgetting. Unless you are Paul or Alex, and kill yourself.
Nicholas looks up another woman who grew up with him, who knew everyone involved. She denies the whole Nazi-cannibal schmeer, says that Ada made it up. The message is clear: those who went through such poisonous times are forever poisoned. Some will try to envenom their children (and will succeed). They will even try to do the same to others, even the children of their fellow survivors. That kind of a past never leaves one, never leaves one alone --- at least, until one is in the grave.
§ § §
Melnyczuk is a fine story-teller, but he also has an unfortunate touch of the Baroque. The start of Ambassador of the Dead is rocky --- too many confusing characters. The story of Ada's life comes to us not directly, but second-hand, through the manuscript of an old lover. The ending gets splayed, goes on extra unneeded pages because the author seems to be fumbling with the shut-off switch.
He has a worthy story, though --- not without some wit. Such as Nicholas learning as a young man, from his friend Alex, the niceties of the rites of Onan:
Over the next days I found the time and the place for a more private and prolonged exploration of cause and effect and before long I too had mastered this singular masculine art about which so many had for centuries raised such a fuss and which our age finally turned into a project for health class.--- Ignacio Schwartz