The heartbreaking season of job applications is now fading gracelessly from the sharpness of ignominy to mere disappointment. The season of breaking the soul in love with a word down to a fine, bitter dust. Of scholarship and bureaucracy. Of hope and the grind of midwinter, as Lowell says in one of his more maudlin poems. Or as Beckett writes, “Throes are the only trouble, I must be on my guard against throes.”
Somehow it puts me in mind of the legendary rock critic Paul Nelson who, after his prescient early success, became even more notable for his failure. Reading the reviews of the new book on his sad career, Everything is an Afterthought, I was reminded that I met him once, in 1991. I’d flown to New York to see Jay Cocks, who I was working with on his script for Kathryn Bigelow about Joan of Arc. Paul and Jay were in the middle of watching Robert Siodmak’s classic early noir, The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (a film I still haven’t seen – but I highly recommend Siodmak’s The Killers and Criss-Cross, both with a young, wire-coiled intense Burt Lancaster).
In a hired town car, the three of us set off for a destination that turned out to be The Bronx of all places. As we passed through the Burnt Over district and turned down an improbably well-lit, nicely kept boulevard, Jay reassured me that, “for certain reasons, this is a very safe neighborhood.” It soon became apparent what those were. We disgorged at a pavilion of late modernist neon called Mario’s where we were greeted by a very wide man in a pink dinner jacket whose neck, I swear, was larger in circumference than my thigh. I’m not even sure he had a neck. He extended a huge pink paw which was surprisingly gentle as he ushered us in.
I don’t remember anything about the conversation that night. What Jay said. What Paul said. All I remember was being made to eat a lot of Italian food. I mean a lot a lot. More than anyone should be made to eat. And thinking that if I didn’t the sinister guy named Nick who had an evil grin would shove my lifeless body into a back alley dumpster. That was my evening with Paul Nelson.
I recall it now because in this season of my own defeat it’s instructive to contemplate his odd, willful withdrawal into a self-imposed exile from writing. After creating a name for himself with groundbreaking pieces for Rolling Stone and Crawdaddy he ended up clerking at a video store and died a pauper, having subsisted, apparently, on little more than cokes and cigarettes in his final years. It’s a sad story of self-destruction, though I can’t help but feel that David Hadju’s review in the Times is more than a bit smug even it as struggles to assert the value of Nelson’s work.
Nelson idolized some of my own pantheon figures: Peckinpah. Chandler. Ross MacDonald. But his life stands as a cautionary tale for writers who embrace a certain kind of fatalism. Perhaps Hadju has a point, after all. Who of us doesn’t recoil from the logic of extremity, no matter how weirdly it may beckon? In that most magical and haunted of books, Berlin Childhood around 1900, Walter Benjamin recalls how his childhood wish to get his fill of sleep was ironically granted as an adult. “I must have made that wish a thousand times, and later it actually came true. But it was a long time before I recognized its fulfillment in the fact that all my cherished hopes for a position and proper livelihood had been in vain.”
I sometimes think these are the saddest lines I’ve ever read. For if hope cannot set us free, what can?
Which leads me, roundabout, to the detective fiction of Ross MacDonald. A couple of summers ago, Jay Cocks urged me to read The Doomsters. I found it gripping, but also overly plotted to the point of garishness. Nevertheless, I was hooked by MacDonald’s dark way with a sentence. I’ve since read The Underground Man, The Goodbye Look and The Barbarous Coast. What at first I resisted in his byzantine contrivances I’ve now come to see as the singular mark of his spiritual critique.
MacDonald’s baroque plot structures are not simply elaborate arabesques spun out for the purposes of prolonging the reader’s pleasure. Their intricacy – the way they unfold, double-back, and loop around – maps out the floor plan for the haunted house of history. The mind’s cunning labyrinth of justifications and self-deceptions – among the innocent and the guilty alike (the distinction is slowly obliterated in each novel) – mirrors a larger pattern: the way all social networks – family, friends, business, the law – are implicated in each other’s traumas, as Cathy Caruth puts it. History is indeed what hurts, and while Archer may set right some small wrongs, in the end he has always arrived too late to do anything but bear tortured witness, offering hope, as Benjamin writes, only for those who have gone past it, the hopeless.
For if history is to be more than an unbroken pageant of triumphalism then it must, as both Benjamin and MacDonald knew, attest to the failures – to those who were crushed beneath the wheel, cast aside; spurned, neglected, forgotten, and abused. I once thought of writing my dissertation about the poetics of failure, taking up the examples of Oppen, Niedecker, Bunting, and John Wieners, with Beckett as a kind of happy Charon (though I could have drawn just as easily from the life of Delmore Schwartz – who reads him anymore, that burned out glory boy?). It seemed too depressing.
But now, in midwinter’s solar hiatus, when the sun is a brief blinding flare above the horizon, I’m haunted by Paul Nelson’s legacy of abandonment. I think of MacDonald’s grim, doom-chased characters and of Lew Archer stumbling doggedly after them, as if he could catch and break their fall. I think of Bunting’s “Briggflatts” and the ejection of Alexander by the Angel of Judgment from the peak of a mountain into the Northumbrian grass and the song of the slowworm. Failure re-configured as the occasion for coming into the riches of humility.
Somewhere Terry Eagelton writes: “the mortified landscape of history is redeemed. Not by being recuperated into spirit, but by being raised, so to speak, to the second power – converted into a formal repertoire, fashioned into certain enigmatic emblems which then hold the promise of knowledge and possession.”
Just as in Benjamin, where “the concept of progress must be grounded in the idea of catastrophe,” so the work of failure, like the work of mourning, is predicated on how traumatic loss is metabolized. Downfall produces rescue. And failure re-inscribes loss into the hermeneutical circle of self-possession: a re-reading that turns depletion into plenitude.
In “Briggflatts,” the poetics of failure transforms a fall from grace into a fall into grace. The expulsion from the violence of ambition leads to the welcome of Gelassenheit.
"But who will entune a bogged orchard,
its blossom gone,
fruit unformed, where hunger and
damp hush the hive?"
In other words, midwinter's counsel is to be secret, and exult.