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After the Snowbird, Comes the Whale Pt 4, Sec 3.

The 2018 Fortnightly Serial.



Mrs Charlotte and the Party of Proust

MRS CHARLOTTE LEFT the field as I’m about to enter. An inadequate explorer. Seeking the Great All. In its whale-shaped dimension. The world’s enormous. Its old paths faintly visible. I choose blindly, blunder forward. My surroundings wither. Focus on direction subordinates alternatives.

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The hinterland looks beautiful. I stride forward, in the tutelage of Whitman, to embrace the wholeness. A place in the sunset of two half-defunct traditions. The globe’s circumference girdling my own uncertain stomach.

As for the crossroads where I meet Mrs Charlotte, we acknowledge that our paths are culturally coincident but historically, religiously, divided. She’d been present at an early, raw encounter: between ‘savages and Christians’ as some stories had it, interpreting one tale from the vantage of another. From the depths of shambles, culture-contact, emerged the Christian promise. The transubstantiation, wine and carbohydrate, magically transformed, suited people whose own communion was with large wild species — buffalo in the Dakota and whale meat in the Arctic. The converted knelt to take communion as they had been forced to bow to Reservation Agents and the cavalry.

Both Sioux and Inupiat worshipped and consumed the animals they hunted. To eat Christ was comprehensible, a logical extension.

For meat-eating tribes, the wine and biscuits offered parallels with transubstantiation. Both Sioux and Inupiat worshipped and consumed the animals they hunted. To eat Christ was comprehensible, a logical extension.

‘What, anyway, do you think you’re doing?’ Mrs Charlotte asked sharply. ‘You might be comfortably at home with Proust, Kafka and Heine. You’re of their party. I can tell that. Oracles of self—division, torn between denial and devotion, ecstasy of Heimat, but still scratching at the stuff of exile.

‘I can’t believe they’ll have much truck for you, in Tikigaq, with your wilderness mysticism — a juvenile variety. I’ll bet that while you’re struggling with this old pagan’s stories you’ll be fingering your Virgil. Longing to be back with As You Like It. How long did Duke Whats-his-Face stick it out in Arden?’ She drew breath, sat down, frowned and launched into family history.

We’d been standing in the sunshine. You could hear the clink of cutlery from the upstairs kitchen. Someone nearby with an axe was splitting firewood.

‘You know my father taught at Princeton before lighting out for Niobrara as they called the Dakotas? From Princeton Seminary, knew young Sheldon Jackson who evangelized Alaska. Jackson was a hare-brained, knuckle-headed zealot. Good career move, even while he was at Princeton. But he had no gift for contemplation.

‘Hadn’t got what Keats called negative capability: a mind flexible enough for passive receptivity. Those east coast intellectual Christians were worthy individuals, but they had no vision beyond a right-wrong dialectic. “Pull down and rebuild” was Jackson’s motto. Got it from Duff who invented it in East Bengal. But that’s a digression.

‘Now my father, the professor, taught me to read widely. And there at your peril, in the literary classics, you ignore the inconvenient fact of relativity. Isn’t everything ambiguous? My daughter Libby tells me not to say this. Still, Who was Jesus? What did his words mean when and where he said them in what language? In which connection, Daddy quoted Marvell:

The Pict no shelter now shall find
Within his party—coloured mind.
But from this Valour sad
Shrink underneath the Plad.

‘Whatever Marvell thought of Cromwell, we can’t but associate ourselves with parti-coloured mind’s construction. Whatever that meant. Which might have been my dissertation topic, except that I got married. And since that time, both outside and within the church community, parti-coloured is the universal tartan. Your Asatchaq is Jimmie: shamanist and Christian. ‘Do I contradict myself? Very well I contradict myself,’ said Whitman who embraced America and whose diversity he danced with.’ She fingered the cross that hung parallel to withered dewlaps and a pair of well-developed arteries around her throat, as though to remind me of her main, and yet ambiguous, affiliation.

‘You’ll wonder hearing all this in the High Priest’s garden. I’m a strange old bird my daughter tells me. And I don’t talk like this to everybody. You’ll please forget it.’ Which of course I couldn’t.

‘The world is such a pigsty and you, as I have been, will always be angry. How come I lived so many years out on a mission, you’ll be asking? Ich grolle nicht. Je ne regret rien, as that bright little sparrow sang in Paris. No, my husband was a true believer and I submitted to his loyalty. But yes, I too, believe. But I’m also a skeptic. Like your old pagan. And no doubt you, too, if you’re honest. Doesn’t make sense, eh? Nothing much does.

‘Whatever you think of the missionary business — and you’ll have noticed that my mind, like yours, no doubt, is parti-coloured — I think you’ll concede the story is remarkable.

‘You seen that photograph of Holy Cross Mission on the Pine Ridge Reservation? After that unnecessary fight, those murders by the Seventh Army? The local mission improvised a hospital inside their chapel. Mostly for the wounded Indians. And a few US soldiers. They’re moaning on the floor they’ve spread with straw and grasses. There’s snow out doors. It’s late December. There are Christmas decorations on the chapel walls, Indians and white men stand round in blankets. You’ll find this hard to credit. I was a child. And I was right there with my future husband.

‘Don’t ask me his story — he’d been a junior officer in Forsyth’s Cavalry. Somehow escaped court marshall for a near desertion. Refused to raise his weapon against desperate Lakota warriors. He was twenty. Me, I was eleven. Waited a decade to marry. Hard to believe these stories, ain’t it?

‘You know I was there with my Mammy and Pater. They tore up Union flags to bandage those heathens. The cavalry turned a blind eye to that sacrilege. And you know what I used to bandage one old feller? A Ghost Dance shirt. It was blood soaked muslin. Those shifts that Kicking Bear had claimed would make the Miniconjou impervious to bullets. A sad magic.

‘Yes, there I was cleaning a leg wound and then binding it up with this object of delusion. It breaks your heart. But that’s what happened. Died of gangrene, the old heathen.’

She was almost a hundred, Mrs Charlotte. What if this had never happened and she was just projecting moral salve to mollify her recollections? No matter. I believed her.

We ate lunch and Asatchaq dropped off while Elizabeth washed dishes. I was left with Mrs Charlotte.

You don’t need to read much to get some comprehension. I mean real understanding. Books are a blessing. But they’re also just compendiums of what’s out there already: transcribed, sewn together, dressed politely in civilian garments. It’s the same with us Christians. Too much church. Too little loving.

‘Your missionary Driggs in Tikigaq, he had it right. When he got to the village he just went on living as he wanted, maybe as he always had done. Yes, he opened a school. But otherwise he did what Tikigaq men had never stopped doing. Hunted, socialized. And he learned the language. So they loved him. The next lot of preachers were over churchy. Edson in his cassock and his moralizing sermons. Obsessed with dirt and promiscuity. Hoare, boring, priggish, bureaucratic. Missed the point of Christianity. All wrong. Just go and live there and show people what a Christian life is: loving. Love. Not dogma. Bad as the old shamans’ hocus-pocus.’

From the garden Elizabeth was visible still working in the kitchen. Asatchaq was sleeping in his wheelchair, an angle of his glasses glinting intermittently above the window sash.

‘So what are you up to here in Fairbanks mixing with the Eskimos and Christians? Jewish ain’t you?’

‘Yes,’ I said, anticipating something evangelical.

I like you Jews,’ Mrs Charlotte went on, without expressing the embarrassed hurried, tucking-things-away that one anticipates.

‘They’re our brethren and fathers,’ said Mrs Charlotte. Then, ‘You’ll say Kaddish for the old man when he leaves us?’1

It was hard to believe I’d heard this. Stiff mannered from a nineteenth century mission in Dakota, she, High Toned and Christian, moralizing and yet open minded, waspish, old world, hovering between the orthodox and the agnostic, not entirely non-judgmental.

‘You can put this in a novel.’ Mrs Charlotte’s voice grew sharper. ‘I met an old Jew at the market in Rapid City. Summer before 1900. My mother brought him home in our dog cart. He stayed through Jew’s Sabbath and on Sunday sold my parents knives and skillets.’ I watched this scene as though in newsreel. Ancient, scratchy. It was hard to imagine Mrs Charlotte as a bare-legged adolescent.

‘He was peddler? German Jewish?’

‘Something like it. His name was Isaac. Any rate, my father knew a bit of Hebrew and together they read aloud from Torah. Sounded mighty
strange to my ears. That was the day my puppy got its head bit half off by coyotes. Came howling in till Daddy shot him…’

‘The peddler said Kaddish?’

‘Yes. Taught me a few Hebrew words. Or Aramaic. That Isaac…was an unbeliever. A good man who’d say Kaddish for a little Christian’s puppy…’
She spoke some words of Kaddish and we lapsed into silence, broken by the ring of hatchets.

‘What sort of logic brings all that together?’ she went on, musing. ‘An atheist. A man of learning. Homeless traveller. A Jew-man on the Christianising prairie. That, I never put together till I read Whitman. Take a look at his poems and then get into the fields and logging camps. Leave history in the school room. The present, it’s chaotic. It’s multiplicity is us. And it’s multiply confusing.

‘That incontinent old Whitman. “His turbulent embrace,” my Grandaddy called it. “As though America is hugging you.“ And in return you get to be the continent that he’s embracing.” So said Grandad. Back in 1900.

‘But now, young man, your opinion of the Ten Lost Tribes? Are you a Levi or a Cohen?’

‘Those things are actually quite vague,’ I mumbled. ‘And folklore, maybe. Some people claim belonging to a tribe of priests, but not my family. My grandparents were agnostics, non-believers.’

‘Turned off by images by Blake of caterpillar priests as parasites, perhaps?’ she asked me shrewdly.

Her questions were uncomfortable but salutary. We had Levi relatives but that by marriage. And my surname, as she no doubt guessed, was ambiguous. Its first syllable, with umlaut, almost sounded ‘levi’. While on the other hand, by contrast, the German ‘lion rock’, derived originally from non-Hebraic aristocracy, though this was resonant of Judah and that tribe’s lion symbol. None of which was relevant to personal identity or tribal membership.

‘My friend Polly,’ Mrs C went on, ‘was daughter in another Mission. This was 1892. And she told me that the Natives were descendents of the scattered remnant.’

‘”People are saying,’” she said, quoting Polly, “‘that the Sioux are JEWS?”’ I asked her.

‘But Polly, Goody Two Shoes, changed the subject. She was parroting some local gossip.’ Mrs Charlotte took up Polly’s history.

Yes, maybe. And I just now got a sudden hit of Polly. Though she’s long dead now, I reckon. She had a kind of indoors piety. The church she made into her bedroom. Quaint, nice, pious, powder-featured Polly. Still, just like me I guess, she hauled in a preacher. Bedded down in chapel. Clean, decent couple. Not like us eccentrics who struck out for the wild as missionaries, strangers.

‘The missionary will be always be a stranger. Removed from the centre and sent out to the sticks, the boondogs, as kids call it, to tell the unwashed, unloved and the marginal to take their lives into the centre. There’s a paradox.

‘But Polly, bless her, settled with her holy man in West Virginia. That was 1920. Bill and me were up Dakota way already. But we kept in touch at Christmas. And this bit, you’ll appreciate. Polly sent me books to keep me current. Stop me going altogether wild, she called it.

‘Then in 1934 she sent me a last parcel. That still rankles. Hurts because the wrong we did was mutual. She did wrong, and me responded, likewise.

‘You’ve read the great panjandrum, the Rev. T.S. Eliot? My older brother was his Harvard classmate. They studied with Lanman, first steps in Sanskrit,
round 1911. Great Tom! Pure Tom! I liked his early, weird, satirical, bad-tempered poems. Should have stopped with Shantih

‘But landsakes, in those lectures in Virginia, the Reverend Tom got Christianity muddled up with high and mighty culture. Oh Lordy, what a muddle. He never liked the Jews, my brother told me. Maybe that inspired his very cultivated Christianity. Belonged better to the seventeenth century. Cotton Mather and divine New England. Lancelot Andrewes: scourge of pamphleteers, antinomians and low church cobblers.

‘So Polly sent me old Tom’s lectures (he was always old Tom even as a freshman). She’d gone to hear him at the U. round 1934 and she bought the published version.

‘It was After Strange Gods. Mine-a-geedy, what a farrago! What posturing and pietistic nonsense! Pious Anglo-Christians of his stripe versus the free-thinkers, cosmopolitans, and bless me, stiff-necked Jews, who don’t subscribe to wine and biscuits.

‘These were the Jews — he can’t personally have known ‘em — were struggling to leave Europe, the successful ones, before the holocaust. I use that word in its widest meaning. I know you kids have learned to call it Shoah.

‘You can guess what I did. We read it out one evening in the prairie thunder, my husband red-faced, stamping, outshouting the Great Father. He took it worse than I did. I thought he’d bust with indignation.

“Impious!” he hollered. “Not in this house. Give me a Ghost Dance over that benighted, anti-Christian, misconstruction!”

‘So I packed the book back in Polly’s own wrapping, drove to town and slipped it through the post box. I did write Thank You. Said,“Thanks for ye book, Poll. But we don’t need it out here in the Badlands. Not a syllable on Christian love there. Theologically irrelevant. And what’s more, dangerous.”’

Mrs C and I were both exhausted and sat down at the table. Bees on the rudbekia. There were pumpkins, ripe tomatoes and some green ones. I was transported to an English garden. But the white sharp pointed fence posts spoke of America. I thought of Tom Sawyer and Aunt Polly.

I’ll soon be done. But I might as well continue. It’s to do with being strangers. Strangerhood. We laboured out there, all the way from “civilized” America. From Princeton and Barnard with our boxes packed with everything from prayerbooks to Goethe. From Europeanised America to an alien, heathen landscape, less American, it seemed, than France and Germany. And the Dakotas? Looked like nothing most have seen outside a photo. Boundariless space with unchurched heathens, some still nomadic, scattered on infinity, others scattered in unhappy cabins.

‘They have, the Sioux, their local ways, but are corrupted by the roustabouts that overran their hunting grounds and holy places. The Black Hills, sacred to them, that the miners have been excavating. It’s Miltonic hell.  By Mammon first,’ she raised her voice to round the cadence with its ponderous caesuras:

‘Ransack’d the center, and with impious hands
Rifled the bowels of their mother earth
For treasures better hid.

‘What does this imply for missionary enterprise? That we two little people, go in, uninvited, and tell the Natives that we’re different from the drunken, cussin’ element that’s swarming on their mother earth — that’s Milton’s phrase which corresponds precisely to the local metaphysic?

‘Those miners and rascals, they’re the wrong sort of white man. That’s what we tell the local Natives of the fifteen hundred scallywags rampaging through their territory. We two small Christians are proper, decent representatives of white society. Look, we’re helpful Americans. Like my irony? We’re not there to ransack the Black Hills. We’re not here with gold pans. Like you, we’re poor folk. I suppress the inconvenient fact the church does hold a property portfolio.

‘So by force of persistence and frugality we convene a Christian caucus. There are Sioux heads don’t dislike us. Wise heads, equally, suspect the game that we’re pursuing. We’ve intervened in history. And the history is a complicated run of interventions. A river run of trials, conflicts and migrations. Tried in our small way to divert its current. Leave smiling reflections on its surface. I’ll grant our contribution might be cosy. We had our small successes. And because we took on board their version, the Sioux version, of Great Fatherhood, homologized his lore with gospel exposition, learned their language, prayed in Lakota, there were folks saw the point of our endeavour.

‘Still, the less we talked up Christianity, the better we got on with people. But don’t get me wrong. I was always a Christian. Always will be. Still don’t presume exclusive right to metaphysical superiority. Who am I to tell ‘em that I’ve brought the True Word out here and that everything they’ve thought so far is lies, heathen and just plum misguided?’ Mrs Charlotte went on:

‘“You’re telling us what’s in your book,” one woman challenged me.

“I got a book too”, she continued. It’s not on paper. It’s sky, earth, animals and rivers.” She came up to my shoulder at the Mission picket and we gazed out on her Bible. Sun vertical above us. Grass without horizon. Buttes, gulleys, mountains. The odd prairie chicken. It was Monday on the Badlands. Sunday evening we’d near bust the windows with a lamp-lit psaltry. But what’s Sunday in the Badlands? It was very recently some
Christian gentleman had come out with the European calendar and chopped the days up into rows of sevens. I remember the first book of Genesis. When Elohim divided everything. Put some order to creation. That put an end to tohu va bohu, mish-mash, chaos.

‘So one lives in strangerhood, in separation. Alienation you might call it in the current lingo. Strangers to a place and people, necessarily because we go where none of us belonging to the parent group that’s bursting to spread itself, has been before and placed its life there. And you separate from home community. The likes of Polly and her husband in a comfortable parish repudiate the challenge. I don’t blame or criticize. God gives you one life. You must deploy it somewhere. And for your life to work out, you must trust the choice you’ve made and love yourself and be prepared to love the people you are moving in on.

‘Mostly one suffers. You don’t talk about it. But it hurt my husband. I could live with the wreckage of my education. I might have liked to sit with New York students contemplating ambiguity. I’d watched beautiful absurdities and contradictions played out in the books I’d read at Barnard. Montaigne, Flaubert, Goethe, Kafka. But the loneliness my husband suffered. And the shame of failure — Mission life implies complexity of failure. You don’t create an undivided Christian parish on the prairie. You develop a relationship with God that’s lopsided and unrealized. And with yourself construe a sacrificial dedication that you give to God which outwardly returns you nothing. Maybe somewhere in the process you bring at least some happiness and comfort to the folks you’ve come to serve and learn from. Both those are few in my experience.

‘But in what must be solitary meditation, you realize you’re enclosed and in impenetrable company. Everyone that’s like you and unlike you is suffering some kind of estrangement. Not your kind maybe. And that your parish is a wilderness bespeaks, necessitates, a solitude that’s squalid as it’s holy. The purity, the worthiness, you represent, is shaming equally to both yourself and to the Natives. Some want to be like you. While others turn away contemptuous and in revulsion. Pursue the path of contradiction. I don’t blame them. Bless them in their determination.

‘Thus you’re branded. You are white folk which at Barnard and at Princeton had never occurred to you. And from this category flow the mutually abrasive and abusive classes. We create communities of castes, or varnas as the Hindus call their social palette… Full blood, half breed, white…etc. As if these categories summed up identities to live by.2

‘I mentioned Kafka. Not so far fetched as you might imagine. Less Trial and Castle. More Amerika — which is your kind of story. Franz Kafka, the Czech surname means crow. Quite apposite as prairie resident. Master of selfhood as outsider. Separation as a sense of being that defines existence. One little text I turned up in the Badlands haunts me. Not many have read K’s early Meditations. I didn’t know those little texts till one night at the Mission I’d put aside the dishes and stumbled on this title:

Wuensch, Indianer zu werden — ‘Wish: to be an Indian’

This is its entirety:

Wenn man doch ein Indianer waere, gleich bereit, und auf dem rennenden Pferde, schief in der Luft, immer wieder kurz erzitterte, ueber dem zitternden
Boden, bis man die Sporen liess, denn es gab keine Sporen, bis man die Zuegel wegwarf, denn es gab keine Zuegel, und kaum das Land vor sich als glatt gemaehte Heide sah, schon ohne Pferdhals und Pferdekopf.

If one were only an Indian. Alert. Ready. And on a running horse, leaning into wind and quivering across shaking earth. Till one let the spurs go. For there were no spurs. Till one threw aside the reins. For there were no reins. And one scarcely saw the plain in front of him. Without horse neck, without horse’s head.

‘Imagine my surprise in the Dakotas, living near enough among Sioux horsemen, to light on this. A magical coincidence. Or was it, mystically, a given? How could someone like myself not have this text engraved on consciousness? How Kafka understood and suffered a belonging to his separation! I knew this too and felt it with him. K an Indian! Big joke. Took him six months to decide to book a ticket to Berlin from Prague to see his sweetheart.

‘Yes, I felt separate. Still I was connected by those Sioux wounds back in 1890 that fed my heart’s blood. That day in December marked a nation’s dispossession. When you look at the present, I mean now on the eve of white America’s two hundred-year-old birthday, you understand a little all the teenage suicides and alcohol, despair and violence that have flowed from that occasion, Christmas 1890. That’s how Wounded Knee continues bleeding.3

‘Reverting to Kafka. Poor K imagined that the Indians were still as German comics showed them: unharnessed spirits, alive and freely travelling, at one with earth and animals that all belonged together in spontaneous reciprocity. That mutuality was reciprocal was K’s ideal projection from the urbane suffocation choking him: his asphyxiated whimsy weirdly consonant with trammels that, unknown to him, were newly paralleled on a Dakota plain that he could not imagine. Yes, late 1890 was the moment when the Sioux that Kafka had imagined were cut down by the US Army and their liberated riding, reined and hobbled.4

‘You’ve seen, perhaps, some photos of that period. They’re in the Library of Congress. Two images have stayed with me. In the first, the caption identifies ‘hostile Indians’. You see tipis, looking fragile, out of date within an era cameras that portray them signify. You see the people, women mostly, clustered inside tipi tent-props, hunched under blankets. The plains expand round them. People and their places naked of each other, mutually alien. That’s a strange thing, speaking of estrangement. These people have been herded into inactivity. They’ve become redundant. Their land’s transformed into America and they’re displaced within it. Now there’s a transition.

‘And the other photo is of General Miles on horseback in his uniform. He’s with Buffalo Bill and a small group of Bluecoats in their riding outfits. The plains stretch round them. There they sit on horseback. Miles is pointing. They’re surveying the land they’ve galloped to appropriate and make Amerika. As Kafka’s German spelled it.

‘And these same grasslands are now the possession of a uniformed authority. Those men themselves might well have been good fellows. They’re caught up in events. Complexities beyond contemporary comprehension. It’s history, unexplained and uninterpretable we’re staring at. Momentous changes. Those acres will be parceled out and mapped and then ploughed, fenced, grazed and then some of it donated back to reservation Indians.

‘Of course, the European cliché of the Indian derived from images of ‘noble’ horsemen: Plains Dakota, ‘Red Indians’ on horses (they’d learned, by the way, to ride from Spanish and French colonists who sold them horses). Who in the year that Kafka wrote his meditation — published, Berlin, 1913 — in Europe could have understood the ironies within the cliché whose metaphysic Kafka crucified himself with.’

I thought of that person or that type that Kafka had imagined: tough, masculine, mature in power and self-determination. Singular and yet a brother, husband, son and father: the convergence rendering him an individual. Free and yet inalienally belonging the group he represented. Representative of what the tribe, the man was as a person. Kafka’s sketch of a body on the prairie a projection of his own half-seen-by-self and uncoordinated sketch of body: how it felt to be a disaffiliated urban half-man, Czech, German-speaking Jew, failed lover, always ailing, tolerantly loved, misunderstood, reclusive, self-mocking, as against this heedless and self-integrated horseman who could ride without purpose, without tackle, without horse, in wind, at one with earth which shakes with the percussion of his travel.

Maybe,’ she continued, ‘after all, you or folks like us, just belonged on the margin. So we stayed three decades as lookers on and when my husband understood we wanted an assimilation there, like Driggs in Tikigaq, he reckoned we had best retreat and not deceive our masters. He was, like Driggs in Tikigaq, a ‘failure’. Loved the Indianer more than he loved Jesus. Half-compromised, half-scalped, half-disinherited… we high-tailed it, drove our wagon back to Princeton. I mean this, dearie. Just imagine rumbling our dusty little Ford T back to campus. Had the urge to give it oats and water.

‘Hard to comprehend this social isolation business. Though we’re talking about everyone, world history. Home and prairie — which was home we understood far better than the university we rattled back to and sat round in for the next five years, dreaming of ravines and grasslands. That’s where Libby started reading Proust and Kafka. Whose writings spurred her, paradoxically, to travel back to the Dakotas. Can’t remember if we’d read K’s Wuensch together. She did however read me Rilke:

‘and the clever animals have already observed that we don’t feel very at home in the interpreted world. There remains for us perhaps some tree on the slope that we see daily and yesterday’s path also remains…’ First Duino Elegy.

What her parents had loved but which stayed foreign and extrinsic, she’d assimilated and she never left it. A simpler girl than I was: but self-integrated, whole, spontaneous, natural.’ Mrs Charlotte gestured to her-daughter, now aged sixty, in the upstairs kitchen.

‘No one’s none the less alone in these estrangements. Though everyone imagines they’re uniquely isolated. All solitude’s a shared thing, generally or ultimately. You can invite another isolate to share your isolation — that is, if you have the generosity to make it happen. I flatter myself that that’s what I am doing now with you, young Jew and you, perhaps, with me, a half-dead, high toned Christian lady, teetering across the threshold of what H. James muttered at his dying moment. I like the nod of recognition that he paid the void before he entered what he called the final and distinguished moment.

‘But going back to separation. In the end it’s one thing which is always part of two things. We become what Andrew Marvell casually described as parti-coloured. Self-contradictory, as Whitman boasted of his thinking. You, course, are one of the new pagans who’ll ally themselves to any contradiction. Dabbling in every kind of half-baked spirituality. We know you of old. You’re the jesters of the kingdom, clowning with the changing shapes of paradox. You think you’ve seen the two but fall between them.’

I suspected Mrs Charlotte and her tendency towards inclusivity would, with the smallest movement, find herself among agnostic cosmopolitans — the rootless freethinkers from whom Eliot estranged himself. She had set herself against the exclusivity of culture and ‘tradition’ that Eliot identified with Christianity. It was as though I’d sprung her on this. Because perhaps my cosmopolitan free-thinking had survived Old Possum’s posture.

Tom Lowenstein was born near London in 1941 and educated at Cambridge. He has worked since the mid-1960s as a teacher. Between 1973 and 1989 he recorded materials deriving from intermittent residence in an Inupiaq (north Alaskan Eskimo) village. Previous publications include three books of poetry: Filibustering in Samsara (The Many Press), Ancestors and Species: New and Selected Ethnographic Poetry (Shearsman Books), and Conversation with Murasaki (Shearsman Books). His three studies of Point Hope are The Things that Were Said of Them (University of California Press 1990), Ancient Land: Sacred Whale (Bloomsbury, Farrar Strauss and Harvill, 1993-2001) and Ultimate Americans: Point Hope, Alaska 1826-1909 (University of Alaska Press, 2009).


  1. Kaddish, or Mourner’s kaddish is a magnification of God in the presence of death. Part Hebrew, part Aramaic, it is spoken by the bereaved in memory of lost relatives and friends.
  2. varna, Sanskrit for ‘caste’, literally means ‘colour’.
  3. The next year, 1976, would be the US Bicentenery.
  4. A romantic view of the American West was projected by the German novelist Karl May (died 1912). Kafka, like many Europeans, absorbed May’s version of Western history and folklore. See also Brennendes Geheimnis, 1911, in which Stefan Zweig satirizes a thirteen year old boy’s addiction to ‘Indian’ stories.

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