Songs from baby toys replay in my thoughts as I think about Samuel R. Delany’s character Lo Lobey, the Orphic hero in his novel The Einstein Intersection, who performs songs telepathically overheard from the minds of those around him. Delany’s novel is set in a far future among beings who have replaced humans of ancient times, but who inhabit and perform the roles, live out the narratives and myths, of those past peoples. Delany interrupts this narrative with excerpts from a “Writer’s Journal” kept during a several-month tour of Mediterranean cities in the fall of 1965. Why is the Orpheus character of ancient Greece reinvented, re-imagined, reinterpreted as Delany’s character Lo Lobey? Orpheus is famous for his musicianship and his poetry. He’s one of the Western tradition’s archetypal figures, portrayed and alluded to in countless works of art, music, and literature across the centuries. Why does Delany reactivate this figure on a posthuman Earth of the far future? What might this setting tell us about what we can now recognize in hindsight as Delany’s emerging Afrofuturist sensibility?
At a desk covered in objects — stacks of papers and books; horizontal arrays of napkins, paper clips, highlighters markers and pens — I sit and work: teach, meet, read, write, converse with students. Around and behind me, dense stacks of books and records, artifacts that store and transmit stories and histories, recordings of events, theories, philosophies. From these, I build my teachings, dialogical investigations of life through study of literature. The America revealed in this literature is a place filled with stories of injustice and resistance. Conquest, slavery, wage slavery. And like a thread run through it, the revolution, the ongoing one, the perennial one, the fights for freedom, equality, love among all persons and joy to the world. The works we read and discuss implicate us — as victims, as perpetrators, oftentimes as both — in a violent, fascist, capitalist-imperialist, patriarchal settler-colonialist system of domination — a system radically at odds with the future integrity of Earth as biosphere.
What are we to make of Tommy Orange’s There There, with its story of a Powwow interrupted by violence? Why is that the event where the book’s interlinked narratives connect? Orange is a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, as is his character Dene Oxendene, a young documentary filmmaker collecting stories from Native people in his hometown. Dene is thus a version of Orange himself, allowing the novelist to comment metafictionally about the politics of representing one’s community, particularly when one is a member of an oppressed people. Can the one allow the many to speak? Can the many speak through the one?
Back to Aldous Huxley’s Island, with its Pacific island utopia, the society of Pala, intact despite the “conspiracy” narrative that weaves through it like Muchalinda, the King of Snakes, whose tree the Buddha is said to have sat under. The lesson, we might say, is that “People who aren’t frightened of snakes, people who don’t approach them with the fixed belief that the only good snake is a dead snake, hardly ever get bitten” (239). For Muchalinda cares for the Buddha, shelters the Tathagatha “from the wind and the rain” (238) for the duration of his sitting. Huxley offers the story as a eupsychian alternative to the West’s Eden narrative. Each of us is an island and a world — like Turtle Island — and our time here can be blissful, saved by the Third Noble Truth if we so allow that there is a cure. The prescription for this easing of suffering is laid out in the Buddha’s Eightfold Path. Each of us has within our grasp the power to live as do the Palanese — because each of us is the Shipwrecked Westerner washed up on Pala’s shores like Island‘s protagonist Will Farnaby. If Will can be educated and changed by his encounter with Pala, then so can we. So can all of us. Microcosmic resistance can have observable macrocosmic effects. Millennials outnumber boomers. Go, Bernie, go! Let us put our educations to practice and change the world. “War is over, if you want it,” as John and Yoko sang, with backing vocals by the Harlem Community Choir. No more war on Natives, migrants, women, children, workers, planet. No more war on ourselves.
Huxley is a prophet, and with his final novel Island, he offers us a vision of redemption. Each of us is the island of Pala. Let us work together as allies. Youth for Bernie! There it is: let’s do this! “Uncover honey / where maggots are,” as Charles Olson prompted at the end of his poem “The Kingfishers.” We determine with the genres we teach different kinds of subjects. By assigning utopias rather than dystopias, we arrange for students to confront within themselves stirrings of hope rather than fear.
Literature can be used to educate the whole person. Readings prompt studies of the psyche—studies of authors and characters as well as studies of ourselves. But these studies of selfhood and personhood can lead us—so long as we’re attentive enough, so long as we read carefully enough—from microcosm to macrocosm, from worldview to world. Consciousness of the cosmos and our place in it. They help us build cognitive maps, as Fredric Jameson would say. Intimations of who we are, what we are, when we are, where we are, how we are. Injustices are registered, confronted, acknowledged; we contemplate demands rightly made upon us by the aggrieved across history. Those amid us who are crying, let us comfort them. The maps may have differences, they may emerge for each participant individually, revelation and awakening scaled to each person; yet this awareness is of our commonality, revealed through our interactions as fellow Beings in dialogue over shared texts. As the Western Buddhist Beats who inhabit Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums would say, we recognize operating throughout history a “Brahman”—a common consciousness or common ground of Being manifesting among the particulars of identity and historical circumstance. Taken in aggregate, these manifestations tell a story, however paratactically—a narrative history of which each of us is a part. This recognition of our relationship to history can’t be put into words, exactly, other than by declaring as Charles Olson does in his poem “The Kingfishers,” “This very thing you are” (171).
Resting on a branch in the air above me, a majestic hawk. It flies between trees as if to accompany me as I walk with my daughter. From an awakened sense of Indigenous history let us renew our course. Where are we? What are we doing here, people? Feeling a bit spread out, hardly able to blow words, chowing down on sesame seeds, life multi-tasked into some as yet unrecognizable new genre. Realtime literary beat poetry spontaneous prose free association folk tale jam fest, alongside critiques of Orientalism and a cardinal there on the wire, dropping in for a visit as I write. Sarah walks by, leans the baby in for a kiss. Next stop, Skip Hop Vibrant Village. Kerouac writes in his book The Dharma Bums about his summer in Washington’s Cascade Mountains, serving as a fire lookout, living in a small, wooden, one room cabin atop Desolation Peak. I hold space for a moment like Kerouac, a sitting Buddha atop Desolation Peak, mountainous there beside the Vibrant Village.