on Robert Stone’s Prime Green, Carolyn Forche, The Writer and the World

Dwight Garner reminded us recently that August 21 was Robert Stone’s 70th birthday and that September marks the fortieth anniversary of the publication of Stone’s first novel, A Hall of Mirrors.

primegreen.jpgThis year also brought Stone’s memoir, Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties (Ecco). The narrative begins in 1958 when Stone served in the Navy aboard a transport ship in the Indian Ocean. The tone of most memoirs and poems of reminiscence gives readers a sense of the narrator’s present moment. Inside it, one may discern the motivation for speaking. Prime Green comes off as disinterested in this regard, though no less entertaining because of it. The swift, episodic narrative is terse in its commentary on the times. Stone seems both unwilling and ill-equipped to draw conclusions about the Sixties, as if one man’s memory isn’t a sufficiently reliable platform on which to build analysis. Or perhaps he found nothing new to say about the era’s trends. Stone himself is proof that those who drank a long draught of Sixties culture are far from a monolithic group. Drawn in by his shrewdly detached voice, one starts reacting to certain quick spikes of attitude and occasional gusts of revelation. These scattered remarks represent all that Stone is willing to offer by way of evaluating his experiences in that decade. But the consistent tone of those remarks leads us to a sense of this writer’s temperament – and his notion of the writer’s position in the world. Sober disenchantment is the main ingredient of his tone. Disavowal of prescriptions is his stance.

Prime Green may begin with his naval experience, but it omits a story about his service that he told at the now famous 1984 literary symposium at Northwestern University sponsored by Triquarterly magazine, held just three days after the re-election of Ronald Reagan. The story concerns what he witnessed during the 1956 Suez conflict when French Mystère jets attacked the undermatched Egyptian defenses at Ismailia and harassed the American ships; the US was a neutral party, safekeeping its people and materiel in the region. He said, “I stood there in the middle of the hatch looking at this water which was customarily more or less aqua, and sometimes coral was visible through the bottom of it, and it was red. And not only was it red, it was swarming with people. It was swarming with Egyptians.”

stone4.jpgThe proceedings, edited by Reginald Gibbons, were published in 1986 under the title The Writer in Our World (Atlantic Monthly). I happened to find an audio cassette of selected presentations at a local library. Only while listening to the speeches did I begin to surmise the reason for the rising anger in Stone’s voice as his talk continued. The tape opens with Carolyn Forché detailing how she became involved with revolutionaries in El Salvador. Forche had published The Country Between Us in 1981, noted for its politically-inflected poems. It is perhaps her best book (over 75,000 copies sold), but also the one for which she received the most heated criticism. “It’s hard to imagine that Forche’s book was attacked the way it was,” wrote Meghan O'Rourke in 2003 in The Nation, a balanced assessment of Forché’s work through Blue Hour. But it isn’t hard to imagine if you listen to the tape. Here is Forché, some three years after the publication of The Country Between Us, speaking in the fey voice of an ingénue about being shown around Salvador with guerillas as if her presence there were critically important. “Even at her most pedantic, she sounds less like a left-wing groupie or budding Adrienne Rich than any young person who has undergone an agonizing firsthand experience for which she was wholly unprepared,” wrote O’Rourke, quite aptly, about The Country Between Us. Unprepared, but avid to be agonized, said her detractors, who regarded Forché’s public presence as faux-naïve and calculated for effect among the converted. This past April, Forché said to the Desert Morning News in Utah, “To be political, to me, is to go to a lot of meetings, and I had never done that, and I still don’t. I don’t lobby … If anyone is called a political poet in America, it is usually an insult. I wasn’t writing for or against a cause, but the poems didn’t make the government of El Salvador look very good.” This statement may sound meretricious, obtuse, or a combination of both. She knows one needn’t carry a placard in the town square to be “political.”

Apparently, Stone was scandalized by the mode of her story-telling, and also by other speakers who claimed a primary role for the writer as political scourge. After speaking for some minutes about the slaughter he had seen in Suez, he more sternly described his response to that bloody scene:

stone2.jpg“But the overwhelming response that I had was ‘I always knew this was the way things were.’ I always thought that the world was filled with evil spirits, that people’s minds teemed with depravity and craziness and weirdness and murderousness, that that basically was an implicit condition of mankind … I thought, ‘This is the way it is. There is no cure for this. There is only one thing you can do with this. You can transcend it. You can take it and you make it art … But we cannot make it [war] stop by saying, ‘This is not us. This is them …’ No, this is me, this is me. This is my head that’s filled with murderousness … If we took the composite mentality within this room, if we took the fantasies, the perversities, the madnesses, the weirdness, the strangeness, the odd directions, own our crippled making-it-through-life psyches – because we’re only people, we are only this imperfect play which is only so much – if we took our mentalities, or even mine, and projected it on a wall, we’d drive each other mad.”

One of the previous speakers had criticized writers for placing too much emphasis on self-concern and its centrality in the universe. Now turning to address this point, Stone’s wrath reached its height: “If I am not concerned with me and the universe, what am I concerned with? If I don’t honor myself within the universe, whom do I honor? If I’m not concerned with myself in the universe first, why am I concerned with what’s happening in Central America? Am I in favor of the cause of small, brown people because they are groovy? Because as an American, I like to see the little guy beat the big guy? Because some kind of received, pseudo-moral wisdom has rubbed off on me from some institutional walls? Because I’m some kind of sentimental asshole?”

The conference director told me recently in an email that Stone’s “speech on writing and war was delivered while drunk, without notes, and perhaps extemporaneously, and it is the only speech I have ever heard that did not require a trace of later editing for publication, whether for the sentences or the structure. A thoroughly brilliant and disconcerting performance.”

By depriving his times of its exceptionalism, Stone tried to deflate the role of writers who believe their sensibilities are correspondingly exceptional and essential to understanding our age. Prime Green, a memoir mainly about his schooling and various jobs, includes one brief episode about his workmates at a tabloid called Inside Scoop. He wrote, “One melancholy example of misunderstanding involved three friends of mine and brought to bear all the increasingly unstable elements of the era: racial tension, the sexual revolution, and feminist autonomy. Reduced to its common denominators, however, it was no more than the eternal down-low shit, timeless at its core.”

stone1.jpgThe vehemence of Stone’s rejection of lofty writerly stances suggests to what extent they have posed a threat to his notion of good writing. “The more interested in politics I became, the further I moved from accepting any kind of transforming ideology as an answer to my fundamental questions. I was never able to advance (if that’s the word) beyond the old boring liberalism of the two-cheers-for-democracy sort. Like most people, I never trusted anyone who offered a formula that transcended the instincts of ordinary decency. Ordinary decency, I thought, was about the best of which I, and again most people, were capable … Since people who believe they have encountered Truth, no less, call failure to recognize their salvific doctrines ‘cynicism,’ I became sensitive to the charge. I insisted during that time that it wasn’t true of me. Nor is it now.”

However, when Stone comments more generally on the value of literature, his ideas may pertain equally to Carolyn Forché’s work as to his own: “So much can be said about the intersections of life and language, the degree to which language can be made to serve the truth. By the truth I mean unresisted insight, which is what gets us by, which makes one person’s life and sufferings comprehensible to another.”

In 1971, Stone was in London working for a news tabloid called INK, writing articles on the Viet Nam war. “Eventually the incessant talk, the examinations of consciousness, the doubts about where truth lay became more than I could bear as a distant witness … It seemed to me that if I was going to continue doing my job, I had to go over to the country and the struggle that was the center of so much of life’s passion.” Stone’s use of the word “witness” qualifies a comparison to Forché’s wartime excursion.

In passing, O’Rourke stated, “After September 11 and fifteen years of reading Eastern European poets like Czeslaw Milosz and Adam Zagajewski, Americans are more comfortable with poets shifting between the personal and the political in their work.” This may be true. But perhaps we should think about this less in terms of “shifting between” than in “integrating.” The Eastern Europeans don’t shift. Here is Milan Kundera in The Art of the Novel: “The character of modern society … reduces man’s life to its social function; the history of a people to a small set of events that are themselves reduced to a tendentious interpretation; social life is reduced to political struggle.” Here in the US, there is much literature, showing off its political stripes in one way or another, in the foreground or background, that is written out of the reduced situation Kundera describes, but simply doesn't see itself that way. The political is something to resist, or at a minimum, to be extremely skeptical of. The reduction of the human for the Eastern Europeans is not so much a topic to be addressed as a native condition out of which they must write. One needn’t rush out to “witness” anything. In any event, if the art is satisfied merely to reflect what is witnessed, it is unnecessary. O’Rourke quotes something Forché contended in Granta: “‘What matters is not whether a poem is political, but the quality of its engagement.’ By engagement, she meant ethics.” But “engagement” is a word we very often use to describe (and perhaps some of us almost exclusively associate with) a person’s high level of political awareness and behavior, as in She is politically engaged. What can “quality of engagement” indicate as a critical term except some vague and contentious measure of sincerity?

Robert Stone employed memories of his Viet Nam experience in Dog Soldiers, his 1974 novel about John Converse, returned stateside to complete a drug deal. Converse has no clear motivation for anything he’s doing. His war buddy Hicks, who makes off with Converse’s wife, has a tougher, defined perspective: “In the end there were not many things worth wanting – for the serious man, the samurai. But there were some. In the end, if the serious man is still bound to illusion, he selects the worthiest illusion and takes a stand. The illusion might be of waiting for one woman to come under his hands. Of being with her and shivering in the same moment.” This is pure Stone, writing in and about a world of illusions. He went to Viet Nam to “witness” as a journalist. Later, as a novelist, his art rejected the didactic. My own assessment of Dog Soldiers is: failure. The grim remarks and thoughts of its main characters are the best parts. But the novel feels impelled, especially in the second half, by a desire to make a better movie than was produced from his first novel. I’m not sure what the overall effect of the novel is supposed to be, just as I’m uncertain why he wrote Prime Green.

stone3.jpgThe Stone/Forché stand-off is largely an issue of taste and public behavior, and doesn’t have much to do directly with the experience of and value of their works. Yet it does reflect how American writers struggle to find what sounds like an authentic address of the world. The Angel of History (1994) was a notable step from but not beyond The Country Between Us, though I've wondered about its tone, the implied relationship between speaker and reader. “The Garden Shukkei-en” is one of the most artful and moving poems she has written. Once frantic to find an authentic political stance, she now strives nervously for an authentic technique. The results lately have been punitive to the reader.

To ground myself, I turn to George Seferis, who wrote the following when reflecting on Cavafy: “The job of the poet is not to solve philosophical or social problems; it is to offer us poetic catharsis by means of his passions and his thoughts, which are concerned both with his inner self and with the world outside him, as is becoming to a living man with his share in this world.” And then, in an essay called “Art in Our Times”: “The more an artist is ‘true to himself’ – and here I am thinking not so much of his superficial consciousness as of that knowledge that goes deep down to what is least known in human existence – the more completely will he instill his own time into his work. The bond between the artist and his time is not an intellectual one, not even the sentimental tie that may bring together two people in a political demonstration. It is rather the umbilical cord that connects mother and child, a purely biological attachment. ‘For we are conscripts to our age,’ said the poet whom I quoted previously [Auden]. How else could it be? We all feed from the same mess-tin.”

Forché said in Granta, “I’ve been told that a poet should be of his or her time. It is my feeling that the twentieth-century human condition demands a poetry of witness.” So we know it wasn’t Seferis who gave her this advice. All of her best work represents a fortunate conversion of the “should be” to a simple “is.”