“My words echo / Thus, in your mind.” –Eliot
One of the pleasures of reading, the kind of pleasure that comes only with the accumulation of decades spent among books, is recognition. When a writer reflects the words of an earlier writer, either playfully or seriously, he or she is complimenting the reader by assuming recognition, the perception not only of the source but the richness that comes with the superimposition of the original and its re-echoed version.
I was reading about a dust storm in China in Peter Hessler’s Oracle Bones. The book is a fascinating nonfictional account of modern China and its current complex interactions with the West. Hessler, a Westerner, has spent most of his adult life in China as a teach and a journalist. he writes at one point of taking a camping trip near Xituogu, a village among mountains northeast of Beijing in the shadow of the Great Wall. One night he takes refuge in a tower of the Great Wall when a dust storm blows up, bringing with it loess, the windblown sediment that has buried many of the archaeological remains of China’s past over the centuries.
Loess was general all over China. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the fields of Anyang and the city of Bejing. Around two o’clock in the morning, I tied a shirt over my face, zipped up the bag, and finally slept for a couple of hours. Jagged dreams. The loess made a clipped sound as it struck the tower and all night it fell, upon all the living and the dead. (p. 276)
Any English literature student knows that Hessler, lying in his sleeping bag, is thinking of James Joyce. At the end of his story “The Dead,” the last and longest of the series that constitutes Dubliners, Gabriel Conroy has a dark epiphany of his love life and his empty soul. The last, most eloquent, paragraph concludes:
[S]now was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
Hessler is not having an epiphany, nor is this his “last end,” but the sense of being buried alive, at least symbolically, comes out.
Such recognitions are fun for this reader. Surely, as in all good journalistic prose, loess is more. Or at the very least Hessler’s loess is everybody’s gain.
©Arnold J. Bradford, 2013.