I have now finished reading Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke. In my October 13th post, in musing about where the novel was headed, two-thirds of the way through the plot, with particular reference to the character, Skip Sands, I wrote:
What does Johnson have in mind for Skip? As a symbol of patriotic, casually Christian America, will Skip become even more the fascist than he already de facto is? Or will he veer off in the direction of sainthood, persevering, but suffering, in his new-found acknowledgement of the agony of existence in a fallen world? As a symbol of America, where will Skip find his will-to-power?
Well, I now know the answer to that question—kind of. But, as part of my purpose here is to promote the reading of books that I have found worthy, I’m not going to announce a spoiler alert and then disclose what becomes of Skip Sands in the end. Tree of Smoke is rife with mysteries, the significance of which is best left to the individual reader.
What I think that I’ll do instead is present a kind of impressionistic mashup of some of the thematic threads at which I’ve been pulling in my last several posts.
In the post previous to this one, I wrote:
A fundamental characteristic of atheism is its banality. Compared to the intellectual and spiritual richness of myth, religion and theology, it is simply boring. The last really interesting atheist may well have been Nietzsche.
That said, I had also noted in my October 13th post that Tree of Smoke had interested me in the writings of E. M. Cioran—along with Nietzsche, an interesting atheist, imho. Having now read a bit of Cioran, if I understand him correctly, one of his themes is that words intervene between human perception and reality. It does seem to be the case that only mathematics can express reality purely objectively. But math can only prove that a thing is there; it can't put us in contact with it, or allow us to see it as it is. Using words we can attempt to give an impression of things as they are, but words alone cannot prove that there is really any there there. A unicorn built of words is as real as a donkey described on the same page. This use of words to separate human perception from reality relates to the project of Skip’s uncle and mentor, the legendary and Kurtz-like, Colonel of Tree of Smoke, and thus, to Skip’s fate.
One of the Cioran texts I am reading is The Fall into Time, translated from the French by Richard Howard; Introduction by Charles Newman; Quadrangle Press, Chicago, 1970 (it seems to be out of print in English, so no amazon.com link provided). The following is a quote from Newman’s Introduction:
"[For] Cioran, language is a sticky symbolic net, an infinite regression from things cutting men off from the world, as they once cut themselves off from God; and so, to scramble the metaphor, humans are no more than shadows who project their images upon the mirror of infinity." (p. 12)
Consider, too, these quotes from Cioran’s essay “Civilized Man, a Portrait” from that same book:
“If you try to convert someone, it will never be to effect his salvation but to make him suffer like yourself, to be sure he is exposed to the same ordeals and endures them with the same impatience.” (p. 57)
“Once someone is shackled by a certainty, he envies your vague opinions, your resistance to dogmas or slogans, your blissful incapacity to commit yourself. Blushing in secret for belonging to a sect or a party, ashamed of possessing a truth and of being enslaved by it, it is not his acknowledged enemies he resents, those who profess another, but you, the Indifferent, guilty of pursuing none.” (pp.57-58)
I see this as having relevance to both the American project as exemplified by Vietnam, and to the resistance of Simone Weil to enter the Catholic Church (to pull in another thread).
I have been struck by the similarities between some of the thought of Cioran, an atheist, and Simone Weil, a freelance Christian. Both of them express the opinion that the way to salvation is to strip the Self, through suffering, down nearly to the vegetative level. For Cioran, this would eliminate all that is false in human existence, providing the salvation of utter authenticity. For Weil, the effect would be to remove the “I” from one’s existence, leaving room for God to move in and take over. The main difference between the atheist and the theist here seems to be that Weil, as opposed to Cioran, had a personal experience of Christ—a special revelation—that converted her from a secular leftist into something resembling a saint.
Compare, for instance, these two excerpts:
“Once man, separated from Creator and creation alike, became individual—in other words, fracture and fissure in Being—and once he learned, assuming his name to the point of provocation, that he was mortal, his pride was thereby magnified, no less than he confusion. At last he was dying in his own way—he was proud of that; but he was dying, dying altogether—and that was humiliating. No longer reconciled to a denouement once fiercely desired, he turns at last, and longingly, to the animals, his former companions: all, vile and noble alike, accept their fate, enjoy it or resign themselves to it; none has followed his example or imitated his rebellion. The plants, more than the beasts, rejoice to have been created: the very nettle still flourishes within God; only man suffocates there, and is it not this choking sensation which led him to stand apart from the rest of creation, a consenting outcast, a voluntary reject? All other living beings, by the very fact that they are identical with their condition, have a certain superiority to him. And it is when he envies them, when he longs for their impersonal glory, that man understands the gravity of his case.”
~ E. M. Cioran, The Fall into Time, “The Tree of Life” (pp.37-38)
“The vegetative energy alone has the right to remain attached to those things that are necessary to the vegetative life. One must not appropriate anything to oneself, whether it be an object or a being, through the exercise of the supplementary energy. Poverty.”
~ Simone Weil, Notebooks, Vol. 2
And, finally, this, (quoted in the Introduction p.26):
“The self, triumphing over its functions, shrinks to a point of consciousness projected into the infinite, outside of time.”
~ E. M. Cioran
I leave to you the choice: connect the dots, or not.