Friday, July 16, 2010

Some Notes on James Merrill's The Changing Light at Sandover

The Changing Light at Sandover is a 560-page occult epic/apocalypse published between 1976 and 1982, composed from the transcripts of about 25 years worth of Ouija séances that James Merrill and his partner David Jackson held to communicate with a variety of spirits, including their parents, W. H. Auden, a first century Jew named Ephraim, and various supernatural beings, including the archangel Michael. (A few more details here.)

It's difficult to say what Sandover's standing is today; Harold Bloom put it in his Western Canon in 1994 (gosh, so long ago!) and in the past six years three monographs have come out using Sandover as one of their core texts (if the Library of Congress subject headings are any indication—the actual LOC catalog shows two, but my university's library adds a third: Brian McHale's Obligation Toward the Difficult Whole: Postmodern Long Poems). It is often difficult to tell if academic attention is a sign of health or of recent demise, though.*

If Sandover is now a dead letter, its fate is at least a little peculiar given the extreme praise it received when it was being published and then again when Merrill died in 1995; people even seemed to mean it when they said that it merited comparisons to "Yeats and Blake, if not Milton and Dante" (that link provides a number of similarly exuberant assessments). While highly-touted "masterpieces" sinking into obscurity are a regular, even anticipated, occurrence in literary history, usually those disappearing acts are either because a different work with similar qualities or attributes soaks up the retrospective attention and memory of later readers, or because the tradition it was read into at its debut has re-shaped itself in a way that now excludes it. There aren't too many occult epics published in the last quarter of the 20th century, so I don't really think Sandover suffers from the success of a competitor. Is it, then, that the tradition it supposedly fell into—Yeats, Blake, Milton, Dante, perhaps T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens—no longer seems to extend to meet Sandover? I think this is largely the case—to a large extent, the shadow of these poets has only lengthened as we have moved further away from modernism, and the inclusion of a contemporary or postmodern poet among their number begins to seem preposterous—more preposterous, at any rate, than it may have in 1982, when Eliot was fewer than twenty years in the grave and Auden fewer than ten.

Of course there may be other reasons why an occult epic would produce less heat today: the tide of New Age spirituality in which Merrill's poem was awash has largely receded, I think. But I would say that the problem is largely the "major poet/major poem" dinner jacket which was provided to Sandover at its initial reception, an outfit which now seems either too roomy or too constricting. That is not to say that it is not a great poem—parts of it, especially the first section, "The Book of Ephraim," genuinely are some of the best poetry of the past half-century that I have read and do, I feel, measure up to Eliot, Stevens, and Yeats. But saying so and throwing in Milton and Dante isn't going to get you taken very seriously these days, I'm afraid: no one expects to find a postmodern poem that deserves such company.

And I don't think it really needs it, and a change in what it is compared to might do it some good. Sandover is a very interesting poem on its own terms, but it also would become a much livelier one if we were to compare it to some more contemporary occultists or world-builders—to works like Lovecraft or Tolkien or Le Guin or Ishmael Reed, even to Neil Gaiman or Philip Pullman or Grant Morrison. (In fact, although I've only read one volume of Morrison's The Invisibles, it above all things was what has kept popping up as I read Sandover.) The point being not to knock Merrill down a few pegs to a more appropriate cultural location, but to get more out of the poem, which I think comparing it to these less lofty figures enables.

Merrill himself actually makes an explicit reference to Tolkien in the work, an allusion which can take one aback if one has strait-jacketed Merrill into the "major poet" tradition—what is this throwaway reference to a teenager's book doing in here? Yet it is anything but a throwaway reference. Here are the lines:
Remember Sam and Frodo in their hot
Waterless desolation overshot
By evil zombies. They of course come through
—It's what, in any Quest, the heroes do—
But at the cost of being set apart,
Emptied, diminished. Tolkien knew this. Art—
The tale that all but shapes itself—survives
By feeding on its personages' lives.
The stripping process, sort of. What to say?
Our lives led to this. It's the price we pay. (218)
These are in fact very significant lines, expressing a crucial reflection on the larger nature of Merrill's project in particular and, more generally, the demands and runaway nature of any large project upon the artist. Throughout Sandover, as Helen Vendler has said, "for rationalists reading the poem, Merrill includes a good deal of self-protective irony, even incorporating in the tale a visit to his ex-shrink, who proclaims the evocation of Ephraim and the other Ouija 'guests' from the other world a folie à deux [mutual madness] between Merrill and his friend David Jackson." But what comes through here quite clearly which I think is elsewhere obscured (especially when Merrill dabs on these strokes of "self-protective irony") is that the project of Sandover affects Merrill and Jackson not primarily by implanting a system of beliefs in their minds but by absorbing them into a process or a practice. The "Quest" and "the tale that all but shapes itself" are identically indifferent to questions of belief, in the sense of articles of faith which one positively affirms; Frodo loses his faith and Sam's wavers, but that is of no matter—what counts is that they are swept up in the process of the Quest, just as Jackson and Merrill are swept up in the process or practice of Ouija board consultation.

That may sound like I'm letting Merrill off rather lightly; certainly, it is quite difficult to set aside the question of belief and ask whether or not, final answer, Merrill thought he was receiving messages from beings independent of himself and his partner. Yet the more important question is in fact whether the work would be substantially different depending on what the answer to that belief question would be. I think that here Merrill is indicating that it wouldn't be. What I believe Merrill to be saying here is that, like Tolkien's saga, the Sandover project, because of its size and density (a key word in Sandover), absorbs and in effect dissolves its subjects not primarily in questions of belief, but through the slow corrosion of the process it requires—in his case, the addictive process of consulting the Ouija board with his partner, in Sam and Frodo's case the un-refusable task of delivering the ring to Mount Doom, and in Tolkien's own case, the process of meeting the undeniable demands already in place in the Quest narrative, the foreordained structures of myth.

Of course, questions of artists' beliefs will never entirely go away—it seems too important to ask whether Merrill thought Ephraim was a real being or whether Grant Morrison really believes in his sigil stuff. But these questions seem to have a greater force if we insist upon reading Merrill into the company of Blake, Milton, Dante, et al. For whatever we actually believe about the origins or inspirations of those poets and their poems, we tend to treat their works like revelations to us—monumental, indivisible, eternal. What is impeded by the "major poets" business but gained by putting Sandover instead in the company of Tolkien, Lovecraft, Reed, and Gaiman is not just the easier recognition that the poem looks ridiculous coming down from a mountainside on tablets but quite intriguing as a mass market paperback, but also that it belongs to a time when much of the world, and even much of the elite to whom Merrill was still addressing his poem, seems to have accepted wholeheartedly the idea that myths no longer come on tablets but are very glad to get them in pulp. That may be merely yet another way of saying Welcome to Postmodernism, but wasn't the insistence on reading Merrill into the "major poet" tradition—or any attempt to categorize a contemporary writer as "the last modernist" or any reactionary Bloom-like attempt to acknowledge that the "Western Canon" is still open to new members—actually a refusal of postmodernism, of the fragmentation of grand narratives?

Changing what company Sandover fits into isn't just an argument about periodization but also a way of giving substance to what postmodernism was/is supposed to be about. By reading it out of the "major poets" tradition and into a loose confederation (not a tradition) of occultists or world-builders like those mentioned above, we not only free the text of Sandover up to be used and interpreted in new and original ways, but we also place it within a context within which we can more easily and perhaps more casually talk about the relation between belief and practice without the pressure of the work's canonicity or "greatness." That should be what postmodernism can do for texts—allow a greater field for comparison, evaluation, and connection. And it is precisely what, I think, needs to be done to Sandover.

* There is also a memoir of sorts which the novelist Alison Lurie published about the Sandover project; Lurie was a friend of Merrill's and Jackson's for many decades, and her book, Familiar Spirits, is an account of the personal consequences of their occult dabbling on their lives. Lurie believes that the Ouija sessions both kept them together and eventually altered them to such a profound extent that they were driven into either self-destructive behavior (Jackson) or a sort of terminal narcissism (Merrill). I suppose that is the other option for what will become of Sandover: that it will exist as a very curious episode in the biography of a great lyric poet.

1 comment:

Emil Lime said...

This is a great insight into Sandover. I will be reading your blog extensively. The axis of belief and practice is something I have tried to convince others to invert to no avail.