…a further listening in this dialog with Matthew
Bear with me, here: I haven’t discovered much about Isaac Babel except a few largely superficial facts. He was born in Odessa in 1894, he wrote some fiction and commentary, had an affair with the wife of a powerful man, got arrested in a purge and was executed at Butyrka prison in 1940. I’ve found almost no documents outside of a few photographs, which may have been altered. Everything else comes from digital archives, which are spotty.
While there isn’t much here about Babel, I did find a few references to him that strike me as even more evocative and compelling, when deeply listened, than the biographical facts. This material comes from several writers active about 50 years ago. It’s clear they experienced their world as if on the brink of dramatic transformation: social institutions were failing to respond to conditions ‘on the ground;’ trust in them was eroding by the day; the political discourse was exhausted by polarization; although truly charismatic leadership had appeared, powerful systemic homeostasis had effectively neutralized it; many despaired, some became violent, others deadened themselves or turned to spiritual materialism.
Yet a remarkable group also emerged within this same context. Though they believed in and were shaken by what they knew was coming—and, of course, they couldn’t know what was truly coming—they didn’t turn away. Over and over they made the choice to love despite the pain, and this was their strength. They also shared what must have seemed—in those days—a radical worldview. It wasn’t simply the integration of a rich intellectual, psychological and spiritual legacy. With the advantage of our hindsight we can see that it also involved the practice of simultaneously holding the apparent opposites of enduring identity and continual change. We can also say this now, looking back: from that place of tension, that deep intentional listening, the future, that always and already was, emerged. I like to imagine that their courage, grace and playfulness propagated our own time.
Since there’s so much truth to the cliché about repeating a past not metabolized, and since much of what they evoked remains beyond my own understanding—even all these years later—have a look at the archive of their conversations:
The Death of Isaac Babel
Only after they charged him with the crime of silence did Babel discover how many kinds of silences existed. When he heard music he no longer listened to the notes, but the silences in between. When he read a book he gave himself over entirely to commas and semicolons, to the space after the period and before the capital letter of the next sentence. He discovered the places in a room where silence gathered; the folds of curtain drapes, the deep bowls of the family silver. When people spoke to him, he heard less and less of what they were saying and more and more of what they were not. He learned to decipher the meaning of certain silences, which is like solving a tough case without any clues, with only intuition. And no one could accuse him of not being prolific in his chosen métier. Daily, he turned out whole epics of silence. In the beginning it had been difficult. Imagine the burden of keeping silent when your child asks you whether God exists, or the woman you love asks if you love her back. At first Babel longed for the use of just two words: Yes and No. But he knew that just to utter a single word would be to destroy the delicate fluency of silence.
Even after they arrested him and burned all of his manuscripts, which were all blank pages, he refused to speak. Not even a groan when they gave him a blow to the head, a boot tip in the groin. Only at the last possible moment, as he faced the firing squad, did the writer Babel suddenly sense the possibility of his error. As the rifles were pointed at his chest he wondered if what he had taken for the richness of silence was really the poverty of never being heard. He had thought the possibilities of human silence were endless. But as the bullets tore from the rifles, his body was riddled with the truth. And a small part of him laughed bitterly because, anyway, how could he have forgotten what he had always known: There’s no match for the silence of God.
from The History of Love by Nicole Krauss
On the 5/21 Harkening Con-Call, I was asked to re-post this excerpt here:
The Age of Silence
The first language humans had was gestures. There was nothing primitive about this language that flowed from people’s hands, nothing we say now that could not be said in the endless array of movements possible with the fine bones of the fingers and wrists. The gestures were complex and subtle, involving a delicacy of motion that has since been lost completely.
During the Age of Silence, people communicated more, not less. Basic survival demanded that the hands were almost never still, and so it was only during sleep (and sometimes not even then) that people were not saying something or other. No distinction was made between the gestures of language and the gestures of life. The labor of building a house, say, or preparing a meal was no less an expression than making the sign for ‘I love you’ or ‘I feel serious.’ When a hand was used to shield one’s face when frightened by a loud noise something was being said, and when fingers were used to pick up what someone else had dropped something was being said; and even when the hands were at rest, that, too, was saying something. Naturally there were misunderstandings. There were times when a finger might have been lifted to scratch a nose, and if casual eye contact was made with one’s lover just then, the lover might accidentally take it to be the gesture, not at all dissimilar, for ‘Now I realize I was wrong to love you.’ These mistakes were heartbreaking. And yet, because people knew how easily they could happen, because they didn’t go around with the illusion that they understood perfectly the things other people said, they were used to interrupting each other to ask if they’d understood correctly. Sometimes these misunderstandings were even desirable, since they gave people a reason to say, ‘Forgive me, I was only scratching my nose. Of course I know I’ve always been right to love you.’ Because of the frequency of these mistakes, over time the gesture for asking forgiveness evolved into the simplest form. Just to open your palm was to say: Forgive me.
Aside from one exception, almost no record exists of this first language. The exception, on which all knowledge of the subject is based, is a collection of seventy-nine fossil gestures, prints of human hands frozen in midsentence and housed in a small museum in Buenos Aires. One holds the gesture for ‘Sometime when the rain,’ another for ‘After all these years.’ another for ‘Was I wrong to love you?’ They were found in Morocco in 1903 by an Argentine doctor named Antonio Alberto de Biedma. He was hiking in the High Atlas Mountains when he discovered the cave where the seventy-nine gestures were pressed into the shale. He studied them for years without getting any closer to understanding, until one day, already suffering from the fever of the dysentery that would kill him, he suddenly found himself able to decipher the meanings of the delicate motions of fists and fingers trapped in stone. Soon afterwards he was taken to a hospital in Fez, and as he lay dying his hands moved like birds forming a thousand gestures, dormant all those years.
If at large gatherings or parties, or around people with whom you feel distant, your hands sometimes hang awkwardly at the ends of your arms—if you find yourself at a loss for what to do with them, overcome with sadness that comes when you recognize the foreignness of your own body—it’s because your hands remember a time when the division between mind and body, brain and heart, what’s inside and what’s outside, was so much less. It’s not that we’ve forgotten the language of gestures entirely. The habit of moving our hands while we speak is left over from it. Clapping, pointing, giving the fist bump: all artifacts of ancient gestures. Holding hands, for example, is a way to remember how it feels to say nothing together. And at night, when it’s too dark to see, we find it necessary to gesture on each other’s bodies to make ourselves understood.
from The History of Loveby Nicole Krauss
From The Solace of Fierce Landscapes by Belden Lane:
Telling Stories by Firelight
I spent the rest of the day doing nothing—appraising ironwood trees, surveying the shape of passing clouds, taking time to renew my acquaintance with sunlight and running water. Later that evening, after the sun had set and I’d eaten supper, I sat beside a small campfire, noticing a pine tree—about two and a half feet tall-across the fire from me. I hadn’t seen it before.
Not usually accustomed to talking to trees, I said hello, feeling a sense of commonality around the fire together. As we sat there, the young tree, almost like a child, seemed to be asking for a story. Fires have a way of suggesting such things. So I told it one. It was a long story, and at times I had to stop to explain things in a way that trees would understand. Storytellers, after all, must adjust their tales to their listeners.
With night coming on, I added another stick to the fire. The wood blazed up, and I suddenly noticed three or four other small pines gathered around us. I could have sworn they hadn’t been there earlier when I’d set up camp. I suspect they had moved in closer to be able to hear better. So I continued telling all of them this tale of transformation, a sacred story from the Lakota Sioux about dying and returning to the earth. I told it patiently to these young trees, not realizing at the time the mystery into which I myself was being drawn.
As a storyteller, I don’t ever remember listeners as attentive as the ones I had that night. The trees were mesmerized by the tale; I could tell. This was the first time they’d ever heard a story. Few people, if any, venture very far into that wilderness; and the ones that do aren’t likely to tell stories to trees. Besides, the truth of the story was something they already knew. These trees understood intimately the reality of death and transformation. They’d just survived a flash flood of raging water. They were growing out of the rotted logs of old pines along the creek bank. Yet even this didn’t explain the intensity with which they seemed to be listening to the tale. Something deeper still was drawing them into its mystery as we sat together around the fire.
I suddenly realized what it was—these young trees growing in a remote wilderness area had never before seen flames leaping in the air like fireflies in liquid motion. Over the three or four years of their lives, they’d never witnessed a forest fire. Nor was it likely anyone had ever built a campfire nearby. They were listening to a story of death, with both fascination and terror, as they watched wood burn.
They had never imagined the stuff-of-their-own-being turned into the light and beauty they saw before them, never dreamed of wood disappearing so quickly into a light gray ash. Hearing the story as they heard it, I found a whole new way of looking at my mother’s dying, as well as my own way of living. The common fear of death that I’d shared with these trees in the back country of Missouri was absorbed into their own wonder at the mystery of transformation. I knew then why I’d been brought there.
Buddhist teachers say that to discover God as “child,” recognizing the deep vulnerability and wonder that lies at the heart of the Holy, is one of the highest levels of spiritual encounter. I grasped something of this truth as the coals burned low and the small trees receded back into the shadows that night on Upper Moss Creek.
I don’t ever remember sleeping any better or feeling any safer than I did that night alone in the woods. I’d been welcomed. I’d become family. The young trees and I, along with their elders, more distant and still, had been gathered in community around a small fire, sharing a truth that somehow touched us all. The next morning I took a few hours to walk farther down the creek, stopping often, being content to sit for long spells in silence. The thought occurred to me that all the place really needed (if it needed anything at all) was an old man, low in impact on the land and high in the capacity to take delight.
I walked that morning like God in the Garden of Eden, knowing I’d been able to give something back to the place in the process of “telling” the night before. The act of speaking by the fire had been a powerful one. I’d spoken to and for the trees. They’d listened in wonder, hearing a story for the first time in their lives. And I, too, by entering into their hearing of it, had heard its truth more deeply than ever before. That morning I walked as an honored being, welcomed, taking joy in every velvety cluster of green moss, every patch of white lichens tipped in red. The trees might have marveled at my ability to move so easily among them. Maybe they also pitied me for my lack of rootedness. But I walked in their midst with a respect and love I’d never before known in the wilds.
There’s a time in every storyteller’s life when a threshold is crossed—when he receives a sense of calling, a quiet certainty about one’s vocation. Prior to this time he may have called himself a story-collector, a great lover of tales, a person even addicted to narrative, but he’d always shrunk from calling himself a Storyteller. This was because he’d recognized the gift of telling as ultimately the gift of the shaman, the magician and healer, a gift that’s never claimed, but only and always “conferred.” For years I’ve told stories in teaching and, from time to time, at storytelling festivals and conferences. But this experience of being heard by a handful of pine trees in an Ozark wilderness finally pushed me over the edge, requiring that I acknowledge—humbly, and with amazement—that I, too, am storyteller. A storyteller is one who watches the stuff-of-his-own-being transformed into wonder through a shared process of listening and dying.