Nonfiction at its best is like fashioning a cabinet. It can be elegant and very beautiful but it can never be sculpture. Captive to facts—or predetermined forms—it cannot fly. Excepting those masters who transcend their craft—great medieval and Renaissance artisans, for example, or nameless artisans of traditional cultures as far back as the caves who were also spontaneous unselfconscious artists.As in fiction, the nonfiction writer is telling a story, and when that story is well-made, the placement of details and events is never random. The parts are not strung out in a line but come around full circle, like a necklace, to set off the others. They resonate, rekindle one another, stirring the reader with a cumulative effect. A good essay or article can and should have all the attributes of a good short story, including structure and design, pacing and effective placement of its parts—almost all the attributes of fiction except the creative imagination, which can never be permitted to enliven fact. The writer of nonfiction is stuck with objective reality, or should be; how his facts are arranged and presented is where his craft appears, and it can be dazzling when the writer is a good one. The best nonfiction has many, many virtues, among which simple truthfulness is perhaps foremost, yet its fidelity to the known facts is its fatal constraint.
The progress of the sciences toward theories of fundamental unity, cosmic symmetry (as in the unified field theory)—how do such theories differ, in the end, from that unity which Plato called “unspeakable” and “indiscribable,” the holistic knowledge shared by so many peoples of the earth, Christians included, before the advent of the industrial revolution made new barbarians of the peoples of the West? In the United States, before spiritualist foolishness at the end of the last century confused mysticism with “the occult” and tarnished both, William James wrote a master work of metaphysics; Emerson spoke of “the wise silence, the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related, the eternal One . . .”; Melville referred to “that profound silence, that only voice of God”; Walt Whitman celebrated the most ancient secret, that no God could be found “more divine than yourself.
O, how incomprehensible everything was, and actually sad, although it was also beautiful. One knew nothing. One lived and ran about the earth and rode through forests, and certain things looked so challenging and promising and nostalgic: a star in the evening, a blue harebell, a reed-green pond, the eye of a person or a cow. And sometimes it seemed that something never seen yet long desired was about to happen, that a veil would drop from it all; but then it passed, nothing happened, the riddle remained unsolved, the secret spell unbroken, and in the end one grew old and looked cunning . . . or wise . . . and still one knew nothing perhaps, was still waiting and listening. HERMANN HESSE Narcissus and Goldmund
A far cicada rings high and clear over the river’s heavy wash. Morning glory, a lone dandelion, cassia, orchids. So far from the nearest sea, I am taken aback by the sight of a purple land crab, like a relict of the ancient days when the Indian subcontinent, adrift on the earth’s mantle, moved northward to collide with the Asian landmass, driving these marine rocks, inch by inch, five miles into the skies. The rise of the Himalaya, begun in the Eocene, some fifty million years ago, is still continuing: an earthquake in 1959 caused mountains to fall into the rivers and changed the course of the great Brahmaputra, which comes down out of Tibet through northeastern India to join the Ganges near its delta at the Bay of Bengal.
The light irradiates white peaks of Annapurna marching down the sky, in the great rampart that spreads east and west for eighteen hundred miles, the Himalaya- the alaya (abode, or home) of hima (snow).Hibiscus, frangipani, bougainvillea: seen under snow peaks, these tropical blossoms become the flowers of heroic landscapes. Macaques scamper in green meadow, and a turquoise roller spins in a golden light. Drongos, rollers, barbets, and white Eqyptian vulture are the common birds, and all have close relatives in East Africa.
After midday, the rain eased, and the Land Rover rode into Pokhara on a shaft of storm light. Next day there was humid sun and shifting southern skies, but to the north a deep tumult of swirling grays was all that could be seen of the Himalaya. At dusk, white egrets flapped across the sunken clouds, now black with rain; on earth, the dark had come. Then four miles above these mud streets of the lowlands, at a point so high as to seem overhead, a luminous whiteness shone- the light of snows. Glaciers loomed and vanished in the grays, and the sky parted, and the snow cone of Machhapuchare glistened like a spire of a higher kingdom. In the night, the stars convened, and the vast ghost of Machhapuchare radiated light, although there was no moon.
Long long ago down the browning decades, in the light of the old century in Carolina, walked a toddling child, a wary boy, a strong young male of muscle, blood, and brain who saw, who laughed and listened, smelled and touched, ate, drank, and bred, occupying time and space with his getting and spending in the world. What his biographer will strive to recover is a true sense of this human being, with all his particularity and hope and promise, in the hope that the reader might understand who the grown man might have become had he not known too much of privation, rage, and loss.
This bold energetic man of rare intelligence and enterprise must also be understood as a man undone by his own deep flaws. He was known to drink to grievous excess, for example, which often turned him volatile and violent. On the other hand, his evil repute has been wildly exaggerated by careless journalists and their local informants, who seek to embellish their limited acquaintance with a “desperado”; with the result that the real man has been virtually entombed by tale and legend which since his death has petrified as myth. The most lurid view of Mr. Watson is the one perpetuated by the Islanders themselves, for as Dickens observed after his visit to this country, “These Americans do love a scoundrel.” Because his informants tend to imagine that the darkest interpretation is the one the writer wishes to hear, the popular accounts (until now, there have been no others) are invariably sensational as well as speculative: the hard facts, not to speak of “truth,” are missing. Also, this “Bloody Watson” material relates only to his final years in southwest Florida; one rarely encounters any reference to South Carolina, where Edgar Artemas Watson passed his boyhood, nor to the years in the Indian Country (always excepting his alleged role in the slaying of Belle Starr), nor even to the Fort White district of Columbia County in north Florida where he farmed in early manhood, married all three of his wives, and spent almost half of the fifty-five years of his life.
The Lama of the Crystal Monastery appears to be a very happy man, and yet I wonder how he feels about his isolation in the silences of Tsakang, which he has not left in eight years now and, because of his legs, may never leave again. Since Jang-bu seems uncomfortable with the Lama or with himself or perhaps with us, I tell him not to inquire on this point if it seems to him impertinent, but after a moment Jang-bu does so. And this holy man of great directness and simplicity, big white teeth shining, laughs out loud in an infectious way at Jang-bu’s question. Indicating his twisted legs without a trace of self-pity or bitterness, as if they belonged to all of us, he casts his arms wide to the sky and the snow mountains, the high sun and dancing sheep, and cries, “Of course I am happy here! It’s wonderful! Especially when I have no choice!
By midafternoon soft snow is falling, muffling four voices that rise from the cardinal points around the circle, north, south, east, and west,intoning names from registration lists obtained by Rainer from museum archives in Berlin--long lists that represent but tiny fractions of that fraction of new prisoners who survived, however briefly, the first selections on this platform and were tattooed with small blue numbers. The impeccable lists include city and country of origin, arrival date, and date of death, not infrequently on that same day or the next.Column after column, page after page, of the more common family names ascend softly from the circle of still figures to be borne away on gusts of wind-whirled snow. Schwartz, Herschel; Schwartz, Isaac A.; Schwartz, Isaac D.; Schwartz, Isidor--Who? Isidor? You too? The voices are all but inaudible as befits snuffed-out identities that exist only on lists, with no more reality than forgotten faces in old photo albums--Who's this bald guy in the back? Stray faces of no more significance than wind fragments of these names of long ago, of no more substance than this snowflake poised one moment on his pen before dissolving into voids beyond all Knowing. In Paradise 87-88