Madison Morrison's Web / Literary Correspondence / Alexandra: Memory, etc.

Memory, the autobiographical and the in situ method

Dear Alexandra,

I used to think it was narcissistic constantly to be reading my own work (perhaps because, as a professor, one’s supposed to be reading someone else’s work). Recently I’ve begun to think that it’s not only natural, but essential always to be reading my work. If one had been Homer, one would have recited one’s work nearly every day (and through its reception before an informed audience received criticism that enabled, even required, one to improve the work). As I said earlier, Milton could probably have recited Paradise Lost (and, I suspect that Vergil could have recited the Aeneid). Among the modern prose writers of epic, only Roussel could recite his own work (he knew Locus Solus and Impressions d’Afrique by heart). Curiously, Roussel was regarded as slightly mad for being able to do so. This tells us a lot about the difference between the modern view and the ancient view of the writer (or poet). If one had encountered Homer, one would have met, not a boozy, loquacious (but fundamentally reasonable) professor; one would have met an extremely eccentric, extravagantly gifted genius, who knew all there was to know about the universe, and whose cosmos flowed from his lips like honey.

I’ve always thought, without particular evidence, that Vergil is the most learned man who ever lived. As we approach the present, we know of Milton’s and Goethe’s erudition, of Michelangelo’s and Picasso’s, but we tend to forget that erudition depends upon prodigious memory, verbal, visual or musical. Memorizing one’s own work, or before it the work of one’s mighty predecessors, is a natural starting point. So it’s not surprising to find that Apollonius was a great scholar of Homer as was Vergil; that Picasso knew the Louvre cold; that Pierre Boulez mastered the canon throughout a lifetime of studying scores and culminated this process through rehearsing it (by conducting a major orchestra). Literary work—to return to an earlier point that I’d made—is easier to memorize if it’s formal, cast in verse (or in such highly elaborate prose as Roussel’s); likewise music, if it’s composed in the form of a sonata; or painting, if it’s highly organized. Recently The New Yorker ran a cartoon of a young painter in a museum absurdly copying a Jackson Pollock by placing a canvas on the floor in front of the original and dripping paint onto it: this neatly makes the point that I’ve been dully belaboring.

Now you ask: Why do you think it is important that you have written your autobiography and why did you do this and what importance has it concerning the Sentence and how would you regard the relation of the autobiography and the words “Magic Every Second”? (For instance: Could there have been another “title” for the autobiography?) It seems to me that you are really asking, Why should there be an autobiography within this epic? (And how does it relate to the adjacent books? And what is the relationship among all three titles?)

I’m very interested at the moment in what can be put inside an epic. Richard Beck was once puzzled by my calling Her a collection of “epic sonnets.” “What are ‘epic sonnets’?” he asked. “They are sonnets that occur within an epic,” I replied. By putting an autobiography into an epic does one render it autobiographical? In other words, in a relatively “objective” epic such as mine, how can one challenge Proust or Whitman or Byron, who are all so charmingly and poignantly autobiographical? For half a dozen years I taught a course in various kinds of poetry, in which we read the texts that I was using in the HERMES sequence: Iliad and Odyssey; Bible; Egyptian Book of the Dead and Corpus Hermeticum; Upanishads, Dhammapada, and Gita; Lun Yu and Dao De Jing. The course ended with Shakespeare’s Sonnets, a mysteriously powerful and personal book, which for some reason seemed to me to belong with the others. So, when I came to do the sixth book of HERMES, I decided to write a sequence of 69 sonnets. I’ve preserved the first 34, descriptions of Oklahoma City, but have thrown out the last 34, descriptions of Taipei, and I’m still puzzling over what to replace them with (the 34 things that I end up doing will probably be in prose, will have octaves and sestets, and will “epitomize” the Sentence: by redoing Homer’s Shield of Achilles and Vergil’s Shield of Aeneas, then by recapping the ten most representative of the 26 books in my sequence. But to return to Shakespeare: perhaps I’ve tried to transfer out of my sonnets, which are very “objective,” and into the trilogy at the other end of HERMES, the personal element that we all recognize in his sonnets. At any rate, in the Preface to Every Second I’ve already said pretty much what I wanted to say about the relationship between the personal and the objective in Magic, Every and Second.

To address your question about the trilogy’s titles: (1) the Self, it seems to me, is magical (hence the title Magic, a title which also has to do with Egypt); (2) the Self rendered more generally (hence the title Every) occurs in such representations as Moses’ portrait of himself, or in the composite portrait of Christ by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and these I obliquely imitate; (3) historically, everything that one does is secondary (hence the title Second): as Vergil himself imitates Homer, so does any epic writer imitate Vergil, or Homer, or both. (To answer yet another question of yours: I never contemplated another title for the autobiography.)

Did you change things in your past life for the autobiography (for instance, was “Joanne Sweet” really her name (if so, a nice coincidence) or did you call her that because it was so nice to kiss her? And when you changed things, why did you do so?

Except for Each, which you’ve written so brilliantly about, and Revolution, much of which Dan Boord and I invented (though my parts of the book tentatively initiated the in situ method), and except for the narrative poems U and Need, most of Sentence of the Gods is concerned with actuality (elsewhere I’ve distinguished my epic from those that emphasize Aristotle’s three other categories: mythos, istoria and plasma: see the “Note on Genre”). To the extent that any autobiography tells the truth about its author, Magic at least intends to tell the truth, and I haven’t consciously changed any facts. One of the first girlfriends that I had was named Joanne Sweet; the events that I recount actually occurred.

How come you invented this writing style (and when and why and in which of your books does it first occur): a. sentence by MM; b. sentence by Homer or Vergil, in italics; c. sentence by MM not in italics; d. sentence by Homer in italics; then e. underlined sentence, perhaps in italics, from, for instance, The New York Times . . .)?

Here you are describing the first of four modes of writing that I’ve employed in my work: (1) intertext, (2) hypertext, (3) pretext and (4) subtext. Three dynastic models of Chinese landscape painting serve as the “subtexts” for All, Regarding and Exists. Roussel's Nouvelles impressions d'Afrique and The Norton Anthology of English Verse serve as the “pretexts,” respectively for Each and Need. Cervantes’ Don Quijote will serve as the “hypertext” for Possibly, as Dante’s Divine Comedy served as the “hypertext” for Divine (by “hypertext” I really mean little more than a book to be imitated). The books of HERMES all have “intertexts,” drawn from those religious classics that I had mentioned earlier. Chronologically, Realization was the first book in which I developed this method. Subsequently, as you’ve noticed, I’ve tended to use two or three or even four intertexts, in addition to the primary text such as Homer’s Iliad or Odyssey.

What is in situ writing? Is it what I have described above or is it something else, and if it is something else then what is it?

The concept and basic practice of in situ writing are very simple. Just as the Impressionists took their easels and set them up outdoors that they might paint directly from nature (instead of from sketches and studies assembled in the studio), so I opened a notebook and began describing what was happening before my eyes—now I use a tape recorder instead of a notebook, which enables me to “write” while I’m walking or riding, say, in a bumpy bus. (My descriptions, of course, include sounds as well as objects in motion, both subjects that were unavailable to the Impressionist painter.) I regard the form of my writing as a substitute for drama (which I find rather artificial) and for predetermined narrative (which I find rather limiting). I’m especially interested in the visual and audible drama that unfolds before our eyes and ears, within actual time and space. As I’ve continued to practice this kind of writing, combining the in situ record that I gather with other texts, I’ve become more knowledgeable about the process of selecting what to observe and how later to combine it with other texts. Sometimes what I’ve described illustrates a text; sometimes the text illustrates what I’ve seen.

All best,