Whatever we inherit from the fortunate
We have taken from the defeated
What they had to leave us—a symbol:
A symbol perfected in death.
From T.S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding,” fourth of Four Quartets
Ten years ago, wandering the fields of this same valley, but then in the Sangres, rather than looking at them from the other side, as I do now – a crucial distinction – I read, listened to, memorized, and studied Eliot’s Four Quartets, seeking within the long poem a kind of answer. That fall, overseas, I had suffered a crisis of meaning, and the way out of crisis – either suicide or its alternative, to go on living – needed explication. For a solid month, I contemplated the former with certainty, but despite a kind of clarity that recommended death, I opted for the latter.
Once again home in the mountains, I began to read, unable to create anything new, able only to record the words of others in my notebook, needing to find meaning in literature, in something, anything. At 36, I realized I had to part with the atheism that had directed me thus far because it served no longer. Eliot’s poem became my prayer, not because it gave me hope – though parts of it did – but because it described the complexity of my particular hopelessness, and proposed a resolution: not a solution, not an exit, but a restoration of the entire picture, of which I was seeing only part. The above stanza continues:
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
By the purification of the motive
In the ground of our beseeching.
What does it mean? And how, you are probably wondering, can I possibly find beauty in a poem written by a misogynist, racist, anti-Semitic imperialist (pig)? I asked myself these questions too. And yet. Four Quartets, Eliot’s last poem, talks back to the early poems: some of them hate-filled, some cruel, many – especially The Wasteland (obvious by its title) – full of despair. Can a human re-invent himself? Is redemption possible?
In 2006, beginning the third year on my Jonestown novel, I am closer to seeing the entire picture, not just its most despairing facets – though I see those too – and the personal issues of the self – my self – have been subsumed by the grander issues of the world.
When people ask why I am writing about Jonestown, I am tempted to respond that a better question would be, “Why not Jonestown?” Every subject worth writing about, worthy of strenuous effort to understand, finds a home in Jonestown. Love, for instance. Justice. History. Equality. Kindness. Humanity. Violence. Cruelty. Despair. Death. All the “isms” are there: racism, sexism, capitalism, Socialism, post-colonialism, among others. Power hunger. Resistance to power. Solidarity and cliquishness. Greed and selflessness. Altruism and selfishness. Murder and heroism. The love of parents for children and the killing of children by parents. The healing of the sick and a homicidal “elixir,” mixed by a doctor and dispensed by nurses.
Last year I wrote about my reading list, playing with the names of titles that showcased Jonestown in all possible variations. As the third autumn begins, I find my reading list contains fewer and fewer titles featuring “Jones.”
Darkness at Noon; Destroying the World to Save it: Aum Shinrikyo, Apocalyptic Violence, and the New Global Terrorism; Existentialism from Dostoyevsky to Sartre; The Collected Wisdom of Heraclitus; The Gift; Gilead; The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism and the Problem of Domination; Strategies for Survival: The Psychology of Cultural Resilience in Ethnic Minorities; Cities on a Hill; American Utopias; This Far By Faith: Stories from the African American Religious Experience; Guyanese Boy; The Kaywana Trilogy; Brave New World; We; The Possessed.
And, over and over, as I climb up and down these hills, The Myth of Sisyphus.
Ten years ago, during my emergence from a self-imposed cocoon of muteness, my alpine valley experienced a windstorm of hurricane proportions. Cowering in the cabin’s loft, hanging onto the dog in desperation, hearing the 100+ mph gusts tearing around the house, smashing branches and downing trees, I wanted to live. Huge aspens abutted the building, and I feared they would smash into me. The phone was dead. The electricity out. I was alone on a mountain with my dog and fearing the very thing – annihilation – I had so desired only months before.
When others ask how I can stand to re-live such a horrendous moment in American history, I say that I can stand it because I am here, in this valley, where I was spared, in the “ground of my beseeching.” The morning after that storm a decade ago, the road was littered with telephone poles, whole groves had toppled, cars and homes caved in by the wind’s fury; I was alive. At last I understood there was something more powerful than human will and was glad of it.
Arthur Koestler’s hero Nicholas Rubashov of Darkness at Noon, a Cold War classic, says that suicide is a kind of inverted vanity. While I respect those who died in Guyana on November 18, 1978, I find Koestler’s notion applicable to the Jonestown dead. Rubashov’s opposite number, in the next cell, declares, “Honor is to live and die for one’s belief.” But Rubashov, who will shortly be executed for “counterrevolutionary acts” by the state he helped to create replies, “Honor is to be useful without vanity.”
Are my motives “pure” as in Eliot’s phrase? I don’t know what purity means. Every day, I read and write, harvesting moments of clarity regarding those who left us in the Guyanese jungle in Jonestown, the ground of their beseeching.
(Annie Dawid’s story, “Knowing What I Know,” the first chapter of her Jonestown novel, was published in Driftwood: A Literary Journal of Voices from Afar in June 2006. After winning a partial scholarship to a workshop for that story, Dawid presented it to the Abroad Writers Conference in Eygalieres, France. She will be a “Colorado Voice” for The Denver Post starting February, 2007. Her novel, Resurrection City, is under consideration at a N.Y. agent and enters the public realm with readings scheduled at colleges and universities in Colorado Springs, Eastern Kentucky, Indianapolis, Portland, OR, Denver, Amherst, MA, a high school in Erie, PA and elsewhere in 2006-7. She may be reached at email@example.com.)