Always West and to the Sea

danceIn 2007, the Claremont Review of Books published a short essay by Mark Helprin on the literary tenor of the times. He begins the piece fairly negatively by denouncing current trends in the literary culture, but by the end of the essay he’s ended up outlining his own approach to writing by way of contrast. It’s stuck with me for a decade:

One seldom encounters pure nihilism, for just as anarchists are usually very well-organized, most of what passes for nihilism is a compromise with advocacy. Present literary forms may spurn the individual, emotion, beauty, sacrifice, love, and truth, but they energetically embrace the collective, coldness of feeling, ugliness, self-assertion, contempt, and disbelief. And why? Simply because the acolytes of modernism are terribly and justly afraid. They fear that if they do not display their cynicism they will be taken for fools. They fear that if they commit to and uphold something outside the puppet channels of orthodoxy they will be mocked, that if they are open they will be attacked, that if they appreciate that which is simple and good they will foolishly have overlooked its occult corruptions, that if they stand they will be struck down, that if they love they will lose, and that if they live they will die.

As surely they will. And others of their fears are legitimate as well, so they withdraw from engagement and risk into what they believe is the safety of cynicism and mockery. The sum of their engagement is to show that they are disengaged, and they have built an elaborate edifice, which now casts a shadow over every facet of civilization, for the purpose of representing their cowardice as wisdom. Mainly to protect themselves, they write coldly, cruelly, and as if nothing matters.

But life is short, and things do matter, often more than the human heart can bear. This is an elemental truth that neither temporarily victorious nihilism, nor fashion, nor cowardice can long suppress, which is why the literary tenor of the times cannot and will not last. And which is one reason among many why one must not accept its dictates or write according to its conventions. These must and will fall, for they are subject to constant pressure as generation after generation rises in unprompted affirmation of human nature. And though perhaps none living may see the change, it is an honor to predict and await it.

Helprin’s latest novel came out at the start of October and as the release date was approaching, I went back over some of the pages I’d dog-eared in his other books. Working through those pages I came across this scene from Refiner’s Fire, which functions as a sort of fictional companion to the approach outlined above:

Then they started from fright, for the Captain had arrived with the grace of a ghost, and stood tall in his white uniform amid the reclining men. Seldom did he move among them. Close to seventy, he had been an admiral of the Royal Navy, who, upon retirement, could not stand to part from the sea. When the water was as smooth as a mirror, pastel by day, rich and blue-hearted by night, he grew restless.

“For those of you who would wonder,” he said, largely in pretext, “we are at the center of the sea, off the trade routes, where few have seen fit to travel. To the northwest is North America”–he pivoted and faced the various directions as he spoke, as accurately as a compass–“to the southwest, Brazil with its jutting northern chin, and then the Amazon and the white Andes; to the southeast, Africa, being worth three or four continents; to the northeast, Europe, the clockmade heart of the mechanical world. We are roped between the four, nearest the dry shelf of Spain.

“Half a thousand years ago the Spaniards, as if sprung from seed, burst in virility upon the sea and passed this point in little ships to find and conquer a new world. Since that time we have been retracing and elaborating their routes, but have none of our own. Since that time we have become as immobile as whales upon the beach–fat, shoddy, recreant, dissolving. For there is only one condition in which a man’s soul and flesh become as lean and pure as his armor; in which he finds in the art of his language and the awe of his music, unification with his own mobile limbs; in which he can find entertainment so intense as to draw him without a twitch into complete abandonment of the things of the world; in which he gathers speed and rises to his natural task as if he were an eagle destined for flight or a porpoise propelled in arcs across the water.

“Do you doubt me? Doubt not. I learned in Algeciras what this was, as I looked upon the Spanish walls which are not walls, as the lines of earth and sea were solid in one piece inviting passage, as the poverty appeared infinitely rich. I learned in the blink of an eye. I learned as the thin slapping music beat to ceilings and beams, as the percussion of dancers’ feet seemed to exhort going out beyond the harbor and into the straits–beyond the straits.

“Doubt me not. A pair of dancers was dancing twenty years ago when I thought that I had settled in. We touched at Algeciras for only a day. The secret was that they moved when they did not, and did not move when they did. They wore black, and were as concentrated as birds startled upon alarm. Their dance was like that of the bees, for God in heaven they retracted and they turned and they jugged and they jiggled, and her back was as smooth as the gust from a fan, a sweep of vanilla, and in their movements unknown to them they pointed always west and to the sea. Though they moved up and down and to right and left, the lay of their furious dance pointed west and to the sea.

“It was that way too, five hundred years ago, when from Spain’s jutting shelf they moved to fulfill the neglected task, their dancers doubtless pointing them. They found a new world with twenty-thousand miles of pine, peaks we have yet to climb, plains like seas, plants and animals humorous, terrifying, and new. Like bees, their passionate dancers pointed them. I fear that I will die before I see such dancing anew, directing us after half a thousand years outward and to the heavens, where we must go if we are to be men.

“For we are on the brink of new worlds, of infinite space curtains drawn and colored like silks, luminous and silent, moving slowly and with grace. We have come to the edge. Our children will view a terrible openness, and the vastness will change us forever and for good. I will never see it. I am seventy and I wish only to see dancers who will arise to set the right course.

“In my heart of hearts at seventy on this ship stalled in the middle of the sea and stars, I wish for the dancers who will arise as did their predecessors in one wave linked with the past, moving when they do not move, not moving when they move. When I had passed half a century, I was awakened in the fury of a dance in Algeciras. Though a captain for many years, it was that day by the curve of her back that I became a Captain and a man–when I watched history artfully running its gates with iron grasp and steel-clad direction.” (367-369)

To further fill out what Helprin’s project looks like (and to end for now), take this excerpt from In Sunlight and in Shadow. Here the same ideas are at play, but the scope is no longer the global dance of mankind throughout the centuries. Instead Harry, a soldier recently returned home after the Second World War, and Catherine are mid-conversation in a diner at four-thirty in the morning in Commack, New York, 1946:

“We were told,” she began, “that courtly love…”

“Told by whom?”

“By our professors…that courtly love is twisted.”

“How so?”

“Demeaning. Controlling.”

He straightened in his seat, lifting himself until he seemed taller, unconsciously positioning his upper body as if for a fight–not with Catherine, but with an idea. His eyes narrowed a bit as they seemed to flood with energy. “I don’t know who told you, but I do know that whoever said this was a fucking idiot who must never have seen anything, or risked anything, who thinks too much about what other people think, so much so that he’ll exterminate his real emotions and live in a world so safe it’s dead. People like that always want to show you that they’re wise and worldly, having been disillusioned, and they mock things that humanity has come to love, things that people like me–who have spent years watching soldiers blown apart and incinerated, cities razed, and women and children wailing–have learned to love like nothing else: tenderness, ceremony, courtesy, sacrifice, love, form, regard…The deeper I fell, the more I suffered, and the more I saw…the more I knew that women are the embodiment of love and the hope of all time. And to say that they neither need nor deserve protection, and that it is merely a strategy of domination, would be to misjudge the highest qualities of man while at the same time misreading the savage qualities of the world. This is what I learned and what I managed to bring out with me from hell. How shall I treat it? Love of God, love of a woman, love of a child–what else is there? Everything pales, and I’ll stake what I know against what your professors imagine, to the death, as I have. They don’t have the courage to embrace or even to recognize the real, the consequential, the beautiful, because in the end those are the things that lacerate and wound, and make you suffer incomparably, because, in the end, you lose them. (125-126)


“But the moon, what a lovely thing.”

From Mark Helprin’s A Soldier of the Great War (pp. 55-57):

Alessandro turned to the east. His cane clattered down upon the rock as he caught sight of a tiny orange dome, rising coolly, unlike the molten sunrise, from behind the farthest line of hills.

The arc rapidly turned into a silent half circle, spying upon them with its old and tired face. It had about it the air of being intensely busy, as if its occupation with the task of floating in perfect orbits had made it justly self-absorbed.

“The whole world stops as this stunning dancer rises,” Alessandro said, “and its beauty puts to shame all our doubts.”

It is like a dancer, Nicolò thought, as the perfectly round moon began to float airily above the silhouetted hills it had begun to illumine. “So smooth,” he said.

“Without saying anything, it says so much,” Alessandro continued. “In that sense, it’s better than the sun, which is always holding forth, and butting at you like a ram.”

Because of Alessandro’s spectacles, Nicolò was able to see that the moon had mountains and seas. His sudden apprehension of the moon, so close and full, riding over them like a huge airship, endeared it to him forever. For perhaps the first time in his life he was lifted entirely outside himself and separated from his wants. As he contemplated the huge smoldering disc he was easily able to suspend time and the sensation of gravity, and a sort of internal electricity overflowed within him. It came in waves, and grew stronger and stronger as the moon glided from orange and amber to pearl and white. And then, after only a few minutes, the soul that had taken flight returned to a body in which the heart was pounding like the heart of a bird that has just alighted from a long fast flight.

“What happened to me?” he asked, with a convulsive shudder.

“When I was your age,” Alessandro said, “I had already learned to compress what you just experienced into bolts of pure lightning.”

Nicolò didn’t know what to think, so he stared ahead.

“When a great sight comes to sweep you down, fight it. It will take you, for sure, but keep your eyes open, and you can beat it, like molten steel, into beams of light.

“I used to take long walks in the city, and when I was able to immerse myself in a cross-fire of beautiful images I would ignite just as you did. It has many names, and is one of the prime forces of history, and yet it keeps itself hidden, as if it were shy.

“A favorite trick of mine, that I have since abandoned, was to concentrate the overflow upon the horses of the carabinieri to make them rear up on their hind legs and whinny. They’re very sensitive to human feelings, and when they know that you are greatly moved they will often react in sympathetic fashion.”

“How did you do that?”

“It wasn’t hard. I had to be all worked up, but when I was young I was like a perpetual lightning storm. I would concentrate upon the horse as if he were the emblem and paradigm of every horse that ever was or ever will be, and then throw the current across the gap.

“The horse would turn his head to me and draw it back, widening his eyes. Then he’d shudder as if a sudden chill had come over him. At that point I’d open the gates to let the power sweep out all at once, and he’d rear and cry out the way horses do, with a sound that seems able to pierce through all things.

“I’ll never forget the surprise of the carbinieri, the fall of their coats, and the banging of their swords as they stood rigidly in the stirrups so as not to be thrown. They were never angry. After the horses had expressed themselves so completely, they and their riders always seemed to regard each other with awe. More often than not, as I passed I would hear the rider saying to his agitated mount, ‘What got into you? What has moved you?’ You could see them patting the horses’ necks to calm them down.

“I don’t do it anymore. I’m not sure I could.

“But the moon, what a lovely thing. To see it makes me very happy. My wife’s face, especially when she was young, would have been perfect–in the sense that she could have been a star in films–had her eyes not been so full of love. When she smiled,” he said, indicating the cool glow that had begun to climb steeply into the sky, “it was as lovely as that.”

“This is how you’ve never left her,” Nicolò said.

Alessandro made a curt bow, closing his eyes for an instant. “In this and in many other ways, but they are not enough. My symbols, my parallels, my discoveries, cannot even begin to do her justice and cannot bring her back. The most I can do is to make the memory of her shine. So I touch lightly, ever so lightly, seeking after gentle things, for she was gentle.”

Caspar David Friedrich, Two Men Contemplating the Moon