Upon Having Returned from Mexico

One of the great things about going to Monterrey, Mexico is that it is not a tourist destination. It is a growing city in the desert, with what looked to me like good infrastructure and sprouting towers and housing developments all over. One of the most exclusive neighborhoods in all of Latin America is named after the Apostle Peter and is found in Monterrey. The city has quite a few universities and is an industrial center, besides having a medical reputation. The airport, for all that, is not a rambling, bewildering beast. Business travel, private, and chartered flights is probably all. I noticed American businessmen, laborers in the back of the plane, and well-to-do Mexican families mostly, all compliant in masks.

It was a surprise to me how many people comply with the masks in the USA. It is irrational, and yet it is insisted upon. You have to be tested and demonstrate a negative result to get onto a plane coming back. So they test you, they verify, they know you are negative and in the announcement that tells you they still want you to wear the mask they tell you they still don’t care. You can hear them say they don’t care about your test and your vaccine. And they still require you wear the mask because they are required to require it. It is the most irrational thing of the whole irrational business: even if you test negative, even if you have the vaccine, wear a mask.

I realized on the flight out that enforcement still depends on a few certain types specifically, and generally on the public conventions of behavior. And so, the flight back was much more enjoyable and mask free. Most decent people don’t want to be singled out, but most decent people don’t want to enforce it. Which leads me to this conclusion, if you are mentally prepared for the few (in my case, one) who enforce it rudely (there will always be such people in the coming together of crowds), you are prepared to buck the propaganda.

Zooming out from just the face-barrier, it all makes sense. This is the society that can be oppressed by slogans, that is farcically reduced to negotiating with perverts about pronouns and designations, that reminds me of the early days of blogging when tone was all and argument not as highly disputed or valued. It is Hanlon’s razor (so much wiser that Ockham’s): there is no conspiracy, rather there is incompetence behind it: posers and opportunists are being empowered. Decency exists to make it difficult for such to get ahead. It exists to put more barriers and blocks in their way. But at the moment decency is not serving that purpose. It is a means without an end, and it has been coopted to other ends, it seems to me.

Could it be that it is airline travel that has reduced us? In Atlanta, Delta’s hub I understand, we had a close connection. We scrambled to our gate and were in the line to board upon arrival. Everybody was seated, everything was stowed, the security video played, and then the co-pilot told us it would be another while before we left because we were still waiting for our captain who was taking half an hour to traverse an airport we had gotten through in fifteen minutes. It ended up being an hour and a half before a pilot was located on a flight coming from Cancun, landed, got through customs, and boarded the plane where we were all still waiting for him. It is a complex thing to run an airline: so many people, so much luggage, so many airplanes, so much crew, not to mention the regulations under which they groan. No doubt from time to time it happens that a flight is scheduled without the one most crucial person for it all. Nobody complained; we sat meekly in our facemasks waiting, getting all the entertainment out of Delta’s limited, corporate options.

Thus occupied, we were given our customs form to fill out. The thing about the Mexican form we filled is that upon arrival many of us had to be sent to the side to finish filling them in. The Mexican customs form has a top part, and then it tells you the middle is for official use. What is not as obvious is that there is still another section you fill out at the bottom of the form. The layout is that way because the bottom part detaches, and you need to keep it to get back out of the country: it is your visa. (I wish that the officials managing the lines at customs would check on that instead of being there mostly to enforce the ban of cellphone usage; which made me wonder what eventuality has cell-phone usage in the past occasioned). While we were waiting for our designated pilot to straggle over to our fueled-up and packed-up plane, we were also given a health declaration. (When my neighbor asked the flight-attendant for a pen, it appeared that this also was not a service Delta provided.) This piece of paper was later seen waved at officials in Mexico by various passengers at several of the progressive stages of customs, immigration, and baggage claim. It appears the only planned destination this important formulary had was that which mine reached later in the day: the garbage. I think the affinities between the Mexican bureaucracy and the people running Delta are quite striking.

Life can be difficult in the desert, but it can also be pleasant if you can coordinate the necessary power and the water supply. Malls are thriving in Monterrey. They are enormous and growing, every locale filled, every escalator clogged as people are carried to the level of consumption to which they have attained. Because in Monterrey the full range of consumption is available—you can buy a handful of chilies on the street for a dollar or get that expensive pre-digested coffee you hear about all the time at an upscale grocery store. You can ride in a bus with no air-conditioning or in the comfort of a Tesla; from rattletrap to latest tech; Monterrey has gamut, we might say. It is a technological hub.

In the biggest mall a security guard did a double take when we walked by. Perhaps he was checking to see if I had a legitimate reason not to wear the mask: eating, drinking, the below-the-nose alternative, or just being an intimidating person. None of the above fit my description; I just had freedom. He didn’t say anything till we had passed him, so I didn’t have an exchange with him about science or freedom or coherence. But he called out afterward, faintly, so that for a while I complied. Perhaps he was just surprised. They take your temperature when you enter most places (the more informal, the fewer the protocols), they wrap the waiters up in facemasks and shields, and they make you sanitize the soles of your shoes as you go in. At one point in the past year’s coronavirus contortions, they stopped my parents from going to their usual grocery store because of their age. Too old and vulnerable. How are they supposed to get their groceries? They had to switch tactics. They have a place, no kidding, actually called S-Mart there (you would think that alone would be enough to make it a tourist destination but does anybody know that they have such a location?). And so S-Mart for a little while got their business, but not (alas!) their loyalty.

The good news is that however broadly you can enforce irrational conformity, and whatever its damaging results in the long run, you can only enforce it so much. There are natural limits to it all. Delta used to love to fly, it no longer shows. And if you want to see what it will look like if we continue on as we meekly do, you can probably get an idea by going to Monterrey. What I can’t guarantee is that we will have an S-Mart.

Conversations with Philosophical Mexicans: An Essay on Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy in Which Theories of Creativity Are Suggested and I Tread upon the Borders of My Thought, Unfortunately

There are some novels you read with keen interest but also read wondering what is going to bring everything together in the end. It has been too long since I read Light in August to safely comment on it, but I remember the ending of that one was like stepping back and finally seeing that all these interesting colored pieces of glass made up a greater whole. It is a very compelling way to end a novel and probably very difficult unless you are Wm. Faulkner. A novel that tries it and fails leaves the reader feeling the book was an imposition.

The process of clarifying what you want to say is probably different in various types of writers. Some are known to plan almost everything out in great detail. I remember listening to an interview of an author whose work seemed to me rather tedious and predictable. When the author said he worked everything out in detail before writing and also mentioned that he wrote at a rate of four books a year, I realized why his work was tedious and predictable. The problem with organization is that you have to work very carefully to maintain spontaneity that is true to life.

If fiction is to have more than a surface, if it is to be more than just a story, then it has to get its depths from the mysteries of the world, and the mysteries of the world when examined by fiction all find their source in the mysterious well of the human soul. The human soul is not only a well, it is a sea: deep, subject to tides, and never entirely predictable, besides being full of wonders and as transformative of what falls into its power as Ariel makes it out to be.

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that does fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.

Which is why, even though apparently many work by organization, it is not easy to do unless you are a genius and have seen all things (or perhaps clever; P.G.Woodehouse had to have planned out all his plots, or else he was a genius and going in reverse, which is possible). You have to be organized to a certain extent, but what that extent may be is what is interesting. So some writers proceed by exploration. They have an idea, or they have a scene, or they have an atmosphere and they develop it. Some discover what it was they wanted to say only when they revise the original story, or after many revisions if they are more dense. And some, it seems, have the trick of following along with their story for a long time till at last they find where they were going. At least, this is the impression one gets. It can work because the truth is part of an order that is the order of the world. This order will emerge in the work of art if the work of art seeks and finds the truth.

Meditations on a Tangent Not Entirely Disconnected from the Ideas This Introduction Was Developing

Of course, good revision is not apparent in a finished work, or is seldom noticeable, and there is a lot of blood, sweat and tears going on behind the scenes till the novel is published. Even an experienced writer has to labor, and I have read some saying it does not get easier but only harder and the end of it is to hope you can die before you run out of things to write about—not enviable and certainly not easy. But it seems to me that for the work to stand complete and compelling as a work of art, it has to have an organic integrity that comes from taking on of a life of its own. For this to happen, it seems to me there has to be a certain logic, a right coherency that the elements of the work find and toward which they call the writer, as it were, so that writing includes the struggle to find out what it is that is trying to be born.

If fiction were about interesting ideas then it is conceivable it could all be planned out, like the argument of some book by somebody I hope never to have to read, such as, say, Immanuel Kant. But ideas are too pointy, they are easier to manipulate and work with than the insights that fiction aspires to impart. If a book arguing a point or handling an idea aims at achieving a certain mutual understanding between the author and the reader, the work of fiction does too. The difference is that the work of fiction aims at an understanding that cannot be reduced to a proposition. The reason it cannot be reduced is that the understanding is an understanding about the irreducible mysteries of the world, or what have otherwise been called the reasons of the heart. Those reasons that reason cannot know are the reasons that make fiction deep and the communications of which are the business of fiction. It is the sort of understanding between author and reader that is in no small way composed of a deep sort of sympathy, especially since the author is not gazing at the reader, but showing something to the reader in the mirror of the human soul.*

I do not mean to say, by suggesting a mirror, that there is no real communication taking place. I mean the mirror in the sense George McDonald meant when he observed that every mirror is a magic mirror, which I take to mean it transforms the world it reflects, with emphasis on the transformation. I also mean to emphasize the Platonic theory of knowledge as anamnesis, which strikes me also as a form of sympathy, which, in turn, I connect with mirrors (as a symbol perhaps, but not only as a symbol, though I am not sure since now I am at one of the points I am trying to think through).

When the poet says that God has put eternity in the heart of man he must mean, in a sense, that God has put a mystery in the heart of man. A mystery is something beyond comprehension, and whatever eternity is, it is a concept I doubt any human being has quite wrapped his head around. I think time is how we know eternity for it is suggested in the endless supply of the present moment we experience. It is also suggested in our inability to imagine any existence other than in a continual stream of present moments—eternity must be absolute. (What sort of paralysis stops permanently in a past moment? I cannot imagine that paralysis. And we can speculate about future moments, but if you stop and wonder exactly what it would mean to move forward in time all you can imagine—at least all that the glories of Science Fiction has suggested to us—is to switch your present moment [and it feels remarkably the same only there is more past to it and, as Douglas Adam’s pointed out, has problems with the tenses of verbs], not to attain a conscious future, not to be before yourself. Part of the problem with time travel, it seems to me, is that we keep using words that imply space—motion, travel, forward, backward. We do not appear to have a vocabulary of time. Language is all made of metaphors, and richer when metaphorical, but it does seem to me highly suspicious that time is obviously borrowing from space and space is not borrowing language from time.)

Something has been put into the heart of man that is too vast to be searched out and for which we yearn. In other words, the whole universe can fit inside the soul of man (see what I mean about vocabulary? it is impossible to avoid mixing the categories of space and time—and even Einstein was confused, you know). And, in fact, the whole universe is inside the soul of man, since man is made in the image and likeness of God who made all the universe, as Moses records. All the depths are in the soul of man; the soul of man can be said to be an undiscovered country. When the writer writes his work, he makes a sort of mirror into which the reader looks and discovers something new in the depths of his soul that is true about the world. This sympathetic insight is what the writer aims to achieve.

A Resumption of the Introduction to the Meditations Originally Meditated

Cormac McCarthy sometimes gives the impression of piling episode upon episode, scene upon scene, fraught situation upon carefully built-up fraught situation for the sake of the episodes, the scenes, and the fraught situations. These are very interesting in and of themselves, but it would be a strange creature (a writer probably, and a bad one at that) who would enjoy reading such things without eventually discerning a coherency delivering said series from being mere aggregations. There is a coherency that emerges at the end of Cormac McCarthy’s border trilogy—though as I went through, and with great enjoyment, the coherency of the whole appeared dubious.

I should add that I have only read through the border trilogy once, that I ought to read through it again before committing myself to publishing anything about it even in this medium some find so conveniently retractable, but that I am afraid I may not have anything to say if I read it again (nothing to do with the work, everything to do with how it is with me). I do intent to collect the hardcover volumes (have The Crossing already, but this border trilogy is proving hard to find) and read through them in ink and paper.

At Last, the Meditations Originally Meditated

The border trilogy consists of a story about the remarkable John Grady Cole, a story about the unfortunate Billy Parham, and then a last story in which they appear together. In the first story John Grady Cole wanders south of the border and returns. In the second story Billy Parham wanders south of the border twice and returns. In the third story the border is crossed routinely until in the end the south of the border comes north at last. As you can perhaps deduce, the border is more than a line on the map.

John Grady Cole is one of the most fascinating characters in fiction that I know, at least right now. Billy Parham is perhaps not fascinating, but he is very interesting and he seems to be the perfect kind of character to involve in lengthy conversations with philosophical Mexicans. John Grady Cole, being more taciturn, does not lend himself, although there are plenty of philosophical Mexicans spoiling for lengthy conversations with him too. (And it helps if you can read Spanish, but you do not have to know Spanish to understand the border trilogy.)

The meeting of different nationalities usually comes with a zone of weirdness to each. This is due to meeting something unfamiliar. I do not think the zone of weirdness really exists for McCarthy for he appears to know both Americans and Mexicans well enough. If he did not know Americans he could not write American novels. And if he did not know Mexicans he could not write about them so well in his novels. I have lived in Mexico and know something of Mexican ways and ways of speaking; all of McCarthy’s types are true types and the Spanish he puts in their mouth is the genuine Spanish of Mexicans. So the zone of weirdness is probably erased for McCarthy, but he knows what it is (it is not hard to remember or to re-encounter). Though the zone of weirdness is not something McCarthy would have to deal with were he to travel in Mexico, yet he exploits it in these novels and this is how he shows us that the border is more than a line on the map—and more than just a zone of weirdness. The border is the border of mystery itself.

The zone of weirdness is what makes Billy Parham the kind of character to involve in lengthy conversations with philosophical Mexicans. That a certain type of Mexican should find another type of American the proper subject for a philosophical harangue is not exceptional. In the case of Billy Parham and the philosophical Mexican, both types are garrulous. But Billy brings a self-consciousness that corresponds to that of the Mexicans. This self-consciousness makes them both seem taciturn which in turn encourages confidence (John Grady Cole not only is taciturn, but he has none of Billy Parham’s self-consciousness which also helps to earn the Mexican’s trust: they find John Grady Cole too alien, Billy Parham is for the Mexicans a fascinating mix of similarity and strangeness and this is the zone of weirdness. The only Mexicans who harangue John Grady Cole are the ones who feel they have a definite advantage over him—i.e. are about to kill him or can get him killed). Billy and the Mexicans first exchange remarks, then discover some sort of sympathetic mysticism in each other, and so the Mexican is compelled to talk aloud and Billy Parham is compelled to encourage it and listen.

A Paragraph of Digression on Some Corresponding Literature Leading Back to Our Theme

If you are interested in reading more about the zone of weirdness, then go to Hemingway who exploited it regularly, though perhaps not to as great effect as McCarthy has in the border trilogy. Hemingway’s foreigners always inhabit a zone of weirdness and it is part of the irony informing the theme of The Old Man and the Sea. Hemingway was also interested in the violence, disorder and resulting mysticism of Spanish and Spanish-speaking culture, and especially the regulated violence, the ritual of the bullfight with all its superstitions and capacity for drawing out of the heart powerful destructive desires. If you are interested or better, fascinated with the mysticism of anarchic places where violence is used to impose order, then The Power and the Glory by Grahame Greene will be interesting, or look to Gabriel Garcia Marquez for whom everything familiar is stuck in a zone of weirdness.

There is something mysterious and more alive than the southwestern USA in the Mexico of McCarthy’s novels. It is something he achieves by art, but not therefore something that is not true to real life. Mexico in the novels becomes a place of insight in which the pilgrim protagonists cannot dwell, cannot prosper but where they can and do learn some of the most important things about life. In Mexico life is more stark because it is more unregulated and people live with a greater superstition than is possible for them in the more orderly lands north of the border. Mexico is mysterious because there mystery holds sway in the living imagination. The presence of real power, the authority of violence imposed without the ordering of law is what makes Mexico a realm of mystery. Both John Grady Cole and Billy Parham come face to face with it as they come of age in the first two novels. But it is not till the last novel that McCarthy brings everything together climactically as he holds up the mirror to his American readers.

I run the risk of giving the impression that the first two novels are incoherent on their own. They are coherent, especially the first. But in the second something has escaped, perhaps because he knew he was writing at trilogy by then, which may not have been apparent from the beginning—I speculate at this point. The second novel in some way needs the third more than the first, and the third brings all three together. That is why I began where I did: talking about novels that make sense only with the help of a sort of epilogue.

And one of the things that goes wrong in the second novel, The Crossing, is that McCarthy fails to put what he is saying into the poetry of his narrative. He is able to do this elsewhere very well, to use an action to communicate what he needs, but at one point he either doubts his ability to do it or wants to be more pointed than he should, which is to say: he does not trust his reader, and this is a failure. How does he fail? He subjects Billy Parham to a long conversation with a philosophical Mexican. It is very boring. I think it is boring because it is an attempt to tell the reader what the reader who is enjoying the story would rather see dramatized in the narration, made alive in action rather than relegated to the lips of a character. It fails because it defrauds the thing McCarthy is trying to communicate.

If you write a story that is the occasion for an argument you want to put in somebody’s mouth you should be careful the argument does not overwhelm the action of the story. Now a conversation can be an action, but when the substance of the speaking of one character carries an argument so that all the rest is decoration, you have failed to tell a story. Plato did it all the time (well, ok, it was more than a decorated argument since the surroundings of the dialogues are important to the meaning of the dialogue, but they elucidate an argument discernible without them), but we do not pick up Plato thinking here is a work of fiction. That is not the joy of Plato. Plato wrote ingeniously interesting philosophy and he certainly seems to have done it better than Immanuel Kant is reputed to have done, but Plato did not write any novels. And if you write a good story but in the midst thereof have a philosophical Mexican saying things longer than is interesting and with no discernible action but a lot of argument, you are going to make your reader suspicious.

But in the third novel, Cities of the Plain, McCarthy does better than in the second when the philosophical Mexican begins to speak to Billy Parham. The philosophical Mexican intersperses his philosophical conjecture as commentary on a mythic dream whose purpose appears to be to wrestle with the notion of human consciousness. The objections to the failure in The Crossing are even suggested by Billy Parham himself, in his interlocutions which are more frequent in the third novel than in the second. Still, McCarthy’s excuse for doing it, for putting within his work of art the thing the art is mean to suggest, is perilous. The depths of a mirror are not achieved by giving it thicker glass. The depths of a mirror are achieved by holding it in such a way that it reflects to the looker a deep place previously unnoticed. The ingenious mirrors of fiction are able both to focus the gaze and to keep from distorting the thing gazed at, which is a feat and why they are so valuable.

John Grady Cole, a man peculiar mostly because he is un-self-conscious, while being a particular and well-developed character still manages to take on an allegorical significance. He is Everyman, in a way. He is admirable because of his persistence, and his persistence fascinates because it is the persistence of a heart that desires what it desires absolutely. The gaze of John Grady Cole’s heart is a gaze so focused on the object that it is completely unaware of the perceiving subject. John Grady Cole is un-self-conscious. Billy Parham is anything but un-self-conscious. I do not mean he is self-conscious in the sense that he is timid, for he is not timid. But he is aware of how he appears; he becomes aware of the gaze of the other and it is always with him as it is with the Mexicans, and this is the basis for the sympathy that exists between them. And in this lies the superiority of John Grady Cole: he is unaware of the gaze of the other but he is always himself gazing on that which is other with an undiminished intensity that makes his character relentless.

This makes John Grady Cole something of a mythic hero—something more than modern, for what is more modern than the sense of being trapped by one’s own consciousness—and it is he that must meet with the most absolute instance of evil, for only he has the power of an undistracted gaze with which to look on the awful face, and listen to its terrible speech, and who has the power to overcome and to shut the mouth of evil. And only after that can McCarthy step back from all the episodes, and scenes and fraught, symbolic situations and show us the greater whole: that is when Billy Parham is strangely accosted north of the border by another philosophical Mexican.

Mortality comes with the intimations of immortality just as surely as time suggests eternity to us. And McCarthy is concerned with nothing, he has said, that is not concerned with life and death. The border trilogy is concerned with the significance of immortality, and is fascinated by violence, order, and mortality. In the end order wins because it is able to focus its violence by the power of an undistracted gaze. But the distraction of self-consciousness still remains at the end of the trilogy, and has entered the world of order ominously. What McCarthy does is pose the problem of modern man: how to live with historical consciousness, which is a form of self-consciousness, which eludes without confronting a growing chaos and violence. It is a predicament of paralysis. It is a predicament ominously unresolved which may suggest to the reader there is only despair to follow.

Despair, however, is not the end of all things. For just as time suggests eternity, and mortality suggests immortality, so the opposite of despair suggests despair’s antithesis: hope. How? Mysteriously, the way that through all the border trilogy the worst always suggests the better. And in a trilogy in which the mystery is shown to spread, that seems to me a complex ending, and a good one.

*I suspect this is not limited to fiction, but is true of all true art; but I am not prepared or qualified to make statements about other arts—and whether I am qualified or prepared to make them about fiction is perhaps too much of an assumption. Besides, you have my previous statements in which I made some assertions about the mysteries of the world, and wells, and all that; it is a hedging of my bets that conveniently curtails my scope.

In the Dust of Southern Latitudes

Life is different there, just as their cities are different. They build with more permanent material, and I am sure their houses are worth more and not so easy to keep warm. Because they have little need for the warmth of wood and insulation they can build of concrete, cinderblock and brick. And everywhere they have been building. They have recently built a long riverwalk. They made the river itself, a long tank of several kilometers with fountains, bridges and other attractions along the side. They are building a massive hospital on one of the hill—not of iron like a building here, but a huge building of reinforced concrete towering over the mountain and with a commanding view. With regard to construction there, my mother observed that the materials they use are good, but that the quality of the work is not usually the same.

My mother is not a fan of the drier either; she likes to hang wet clothes out to dry. As a result the clothes she washes have a certain stiffness to them, a certain lack of soft, tossed fluffiness that driers usually impart. This little thing you notice if you wear clothes not designed for ironing more than in clothes designed for ironing. You notice the feel when you put them on because you have the wear the softness back into them like wrinkles into perfectly flattened clothes. And why o why are we so stuck on flattening out or clothes anyway?

I went to my parents house looking for comfort. I went to read, to write, to pass the time examining. But I was not satisfied in what I read and I observed more than I was able to examine—not for surfeit of observation but for lack of examination. It is the sort of living into which I would have to wear the comfort, as it were, gradually.

My parents way of living has not changed for a great while. But my way of living has changed, and this is what I learned on this trip. I traveled home and found I was no longer home. The leaving of my parents, the influence of my wife, our growing and changing has made us different; and we have made our own home. Traveling makes you eager for home; you understand it better when you miss it, or when parts you miss you recognize as absent. My places to read, my library, my periodicals, my Bach and Shostakovich, my wall of authors, my lava lamp, my accordion all are here. I have grown used to the clothes that come out of a drier, and by doing so have been surprised when I had to wear the comfort back into the ones that had been hung.

The Heat or the Frost

It never really got cool there. One time it was cool but so humid one was still left sweating. For all that, you do not have to use air conditioning so much as long as you have ceiling fans. My parents have a sort of air conditioner but they do not use it. And I suppose when I am getting near three score and ten I will probably feel more comfortable in that sort of weather. The effect of all this heat is somehow to generate surplus time. It takes away the will for anything but ambling; it strangely fills one with a tepid impulse to prepare extensively for the next minor event. One watches time creep by with none of its usual alacrity. Those who crave labor saving devices to give them time for other things ought to shut off the air conditioning. This discovery that turning off the air conditioning creates surplus time is among the more amazing discoveries I made on this trip.

Among our other debaucheries we went over to eat at a neighbor’s house. They had us over for hamburgers with the option to include, along with the tomatoes, the ketchup, the mayonnaise, the mustard, the lettuce, the onions, the ham, and the chilies never to be forgotten . . . with all these there was the option of adding a slice of grilled pineapple. Apparently the pineapple on the hamburger is catching on down there.

The neighbors had a square table designed to seat eight comfortably and capable of seating twelve adequately. We would stand to reach some of the food in the middle. There we had the hamburgers with said options, barbeque chips and Dr. Pepper. It was a good meal and everybody else enjoyed the desert. We talked of hard wood floors, of life in Sweden, of life in Durango—whence our hosts, and perhaps of other things. I wish I had eaten more but I am glad I did not. I wish we had talked more but I am glad we did not. I enjoyed the time even though I describe it this way. It was the sort of event that stands on the edge of a knife; fortunately the knife is not sharp on whose edge the event stands; there is a little latitude. Perhaps my trouble is that I have been reading Robert Lee Frost and mixing up his ways with my experiences. Or maybe no enough.

Reading between the Mountains

I took three books for reading with me. I thought I ought to take things about which I was not entirely enthusiastic since I would be limited and have more incentive to keep at them. I have wanted for a long while to make it through Don Quixote. I wavered, however, and at the last moment I left Cervantes behind.

I took with me Robert Frost. I have never though a great deal of him but have read more about him recently: his stature in American letters, his understanding of things. I read a few of his essays on poetry, some fiction, some of his poems there. He strikes me much like Yeats only a little worse. Frost has these rambly addresses in the back of this Library of America collection and some of them are really good. His meditative monologue on ‘Education by Poetry’ is full of considerations a metaphysical realist is likely to consider with profit and joy .

I also took Christopher Dawson. I found a collection of his essays on Christianity and European Culture. In one he makes remarks about Eliot’s work which so depends on his, interacting with his ideas. This is a set of essays worth going over carefully. All are short, very lucid, all measured and modest; it is a collection of unglittering treasure. I hope to get up some kind of a review eventually because they are thought provoking.

And I took with me the copious and charming Santayana; his fictional memoir, The Last Puritan. I am afraid many things are taking place over my head in that work, and that makes it loose some of its hold on the reader. It is quite interesting as a piece of fiction, as an observation on humanity, the times and mores. But the though of something going on out of my reach persists, and I keep thinking I ought to have a better education before I can appreciate the work. Besides, it is really copious. Now I have it hanging over me, unfinished, copious, at 50% of 600 pages.

Part of the trouble is that there is only one comfortable reading place in my parents house. There was no question of walking and reading; the traffic and the sidewalks there do no lend themselves; besides, one already sticks out. One wants, in a home, many worthwhile places to read: well lit, but not too saturated with light—I dislike overhead lighting; give me focused lighting and general dimness of atmosphere—and comfortable. Comfort was forfeit upstairs where it was too warm. Downstairs, as upstairs, the lighting situation was bad. There is no joy in turning on an overhead light to read, especially when the light is on a ceiling designed to accommodate Goliath of Gath. What was left was one lamp and one place on the couch—a pretty good place too, but only one. I would have stayed up every night reading, and wanted to, but never did. Perhaps it was the book, perhaps it was the convalescence, but I wonder if the trouble was that I had not worn the life enough.

Classes & Eating

We went to three kinds of neighborhood. Should you go to Mexico your host might not think of it, so ask him to take you through a rich neighborhood, a middle class one, and a poorer one. All of them will be clogged with cars. The rich and the middle will have more plants about. You will see more of the houses of the middle and of the poor, and more of the walls and gates of the rich. You will not see many of the wealthy walking unless you go to a parking lot. You will see the middle and the poor walking, waiting for the bus or a taxi. Above all you will notice the kind of houses and the neighborhoods each lives in and see the difference very clearly. I am all for classes; you may think of me as an elitist if you like for I am no egalitarian. It is interesting to observe and to note the differences, but perhaps what makes it more interesting to me is that I am closer to having access to all three, being from Minnesota and all.

One is closer because the dollar will buy you more there and because you can, as an outsider, move among them, in some ways, more easily. Besides, our middle classes have a higher standard of living than theirs do: we can get into their higher classes. A lot of this is carried out in the mind, the division of classes is as much a spiritual thing, as much a matter of conventions as it is a matter of money.

We penetrated into each of these classes by going to eat where they do.

We went to Saltillo (an older city, founded c 1580) and ate at a respectable establishment where the wealthy are fond of eating. The service was good, as everywhere, but a bit more solicitous. As in every other place, everything came served with refried beans and tortillas on the side. Nobody is so enthusiastic about Mexican food as the Mexicans, for they are incorrigible. At a restaurant such as this, however, you have no reason to wonder about the food; it is all of the best quality, which is what sets it apart. And the appointments are of the best: the table cloths are not only present, as opposed to mere place mats, they are usually interesting and of pretty heavy material, the silverware is of a heavier and less perishable variety, the crockery is more pleasing, and so on in every respect. It is the sort of place where one is not loath to discover what the bathrooms are like. In this one they had a glass jug full of mouthwash and disposable little plastic cups stacked beside it, besides ample space and marble, etc. So much, then, for the upper classes.

Of the middle class we had our greatest taste. The most characteristically Mexican place was a buffet which was across from the Sheraton. Some convention or something was streaming people across the street to Los Generales. It was interesting for having the sort of food about which the locals were enthusiastic. Not that the rich are so enthusiastic, or that the poor can afford it, but those there were lined up. One had to wait in line every time one wanted to get some food. The waiters got drinks and brought salsa and tortillas; they also removed used plates and bowls. This place had table cloths and it was in an old building, but it was more crowded and less fine. Besides, the idea of serving oneself is not very aristocratic. The appointments were not so good; the prices were more reasonable.

We also went to a more modest buffet, a cafeteria to be exact. There I had the best deep fried chicken cordon bleu I have ever had. It was here I ordered the corn which was excellent if oily. One cannot avoid oil there, if one is so unnatural as to want to. Have you ever tried deep fried chicken cordon bleu?

Three other places I will mention in connection with the middle class. They have large restaurant chains of course. Of these, Sanborns is the greatest and in my opinion the very best in all the world. Sanborns has the restaurant behind a shop full of gifts, books, and magazines. In the shop they usually have a counter, like a diner or a soda fountain (which it was originally, the first in Mexico), although I do not remember that this is the case in the newer places. Sanborns has the virtue of picking old buildings and restoring them, giving to the restaurant the atmosphere of the place, and so there are many different Sanborns. If you go to the flagship Sanborns in downtown Mexico City you will find yourself in the house of tiles, eating in a covered courtyard of a mansion built in the 16th century. The restaurant is almost 100 years old. I would consider a trip to Mexico City just to visit a bunch of Sanborns worthwhile. What I like more than anything is how they seem to preserve an old urban culture; they suggest to me the times in which they began during the early decades of the twentieth century. Perhaps it is the old booths, perhaps the chairs, perhaps it is the cloth napkin flat for a placemat and the second one folded up between the silverware, perhaps it is the outlandishly dowdy uniforms they make the waitresses wear (designed in the 19th century, no doubt), perhaps it is the feeble attempt at a buffet nobody ever seems to make use of, perhaps it is the coffee. Somebody hit pause, and the places I have been to are far older seeming than one would think marketable; and they are usually crowded although I can not remember ever having to wait for a table. (I am not making it up. I do not understand how it works.) Sanborns is owned by the very richest man in all the world, Carlos Slim. I reckon his smartest move was made on the day he decided to buy Sanborns.

(One of the great things about Mexico is that they have not joined the modern, paternalistic, puritan and reprehensible practice of banning smoking in restaurants. To me a restaurant does not smell right if there is none of the cigarette lingering about it. The restaurants on the chain are the ones most glorious for this.)

Of the other restaurants on the chain, Vips has good locations, but they are modernizing their great, round, orange booths for stuff more cramped and beggarly. This is the place with paper mats and napkins, unfortunately, but the coffee is stronger. Still, they make the waitresses were pretty formal uniforms. They try to ape Sanborns by having the gift shop in some of them, but it is not de rigor. We went to another such place on the chain but it is not worth mentioning. What is great about them is that they still preserve a distance between the waiters and the clients which is better than the informality the casual uniforms correspond to, something Mexican that makes me want to write about it with a fountain pen, slick back my hair and grow a little mustache like Igor.

The trouble with the places where the poor eat is that you could die of eating there if you are not inured, if you do not build up an immunity. There is nothing in the flavor and nothing in the price to stop you, quite the contrary. You might, if you had an imagination, start to wonder about the provenance of this or that, but usually the flavors are strong enough to concentrate your attention and keep the imagination from wandering. It is the ambiance that leaves a lot to be desired in the eating of the poor. The owners of these minute establishments are resourceful and ingenious about arranging a counter and a kitchen on a cart with four wheels. I remember walking past a narrow hallway in Saltillo. I looked in and saw people sitting at narrow counters against both walls and in the dingy depths a window behind which was the kitchen from which the food was being sold. There are some foreigners who live in Mexico who become enthusiasts of the taco stands and the crowded counters. We were never very much so with one exception. Prudence and culinary temperance (a general gastronomic inadventurousness and a certain love of comfort, it may be more accurate to say) has generally kept my family from frequenting or much patronizing the lower end of Mexican cuisine.

However, the neighbors decided to block off the street and have a celebration of independence on our last night there. They called in the caterers; these turned out to be two round women who in a garage set up the equivalent of a roadside stand. We had fried everything with cheese and salsa. These neighbors of my parents are of a curious emerging lower upper class. In this neighborhood they were almost all young, one or both of them work and commonly in IT, have a few small children, and are aiming to move ahead, to move out of the neighborhood. But their tastes are not that different from the next Mexican when it comes to food. When the steamed corn vendor pedals his contraption through the neighborhood he gets business.

So we had deep fried potatoes, deep fried flautas, deep fried enchiladas, deep fried sopes. A great deal of oil, everything with cheese, some refried beans, lettuce, green sauce all provided, but no place to eat. They probably stood leaning against cars or with their plates on the hoods of trucks. We went back home and ate with the assistance of many napkins. Mexicans are wonderfully neat at eating.

As you may surmise, we did a lot of eating there, beginning gradually and culminating with the feast of independence.

Enterprise

The Mexicans are very enterprising. Everybody has a little business, everybody is working at something no matter how implausible. There are little stores squeezed into the most unusual places. They will sell anything from lottery tickets to fruit juice walking between the cars at traffic lights. It is true that many of them are limited in the options they have, but for all that they try their hand at whatever they can, and they have multiplied the options they have despite the limitations. All of them do it because they want to get ahead and they have not despaired of doing so. Private enterprise is pretty rampant down in Mexico. I had to be a stranger again in Mexico to notice it; perhaps it was because I had been reading large tracts of Lukacs.

Being Somewhere Else

When we came back after two weeks in Ireland we went to the post office to pick up our mail. Nothing brought home to me how much we were in our own place than hearing a person in a public place address us with an appreciable Minnesota accent and help us with a matter of more than citizenship. The matter of ones own mail is a matter of residency. It was a matter keenly absent after two weeks in Ireland.

I have seldom encountered people more friendly than the Irish. There is, however, in the accent which I realized with a sense of loss in Chicago I would no longer hear regularly, there was in that accent something different, behind the friendly eye the distinction, the distant closed door of meeting a stranger. After two weeks of European ways, of Irish ways, of being a foreigner although anglophone, the sense of belonging that I experienced at the post office in Minnesota came as a strong emotion. One of the best things about traveling, my wife observed on that occasion, is that it makes you glad to be home.

It is a curious sense of belonging—or of not belonging—one gets; it depends on so many things. Primarily it depends on language since ways of saying are ways of thinking. Having the same habits, knowing the tacit agreements, the conventions, an unconcern about procedures and approaches play into it too. But I think ways of speaking are the most obvious ways of knowing you belong.

When you go to Mexico you are no longer among anglophone strangers. It is interesting to see one of those shut doors behind the eyes open when you speak Spanish to them in a pretty mild American accent and with bits of expression not based on alien constructions. I do not know what does it more: the ability to know which consonants must not be overpronounced and which ought to sound forth or the prolongation of vowels. (For example, most Americans will turn the first syllable of soldado into a sound something like the English word soul. They will make the second D as prominent as the first one. In some places, you can get away without even pronouncing that second D, especially in the Colombian highlands. The consonants in Spanish are always playing tricks like that. Unless you know it naturally, it requires too much thinking to make scrupulous pronunciation and conversation simultaneously feasible. Of course, not many care all that much. Nor is this trick of writing and speaking limited to Spanish; this also happens in English. It happens because writing is a limitation of speaking; we do not really have as many letters and combinations of letters as we have sounds, and we do not want as many complications in our writing. I was listening today and noticed how little the T in think is pronounced—“I ’hink so,” or “I ’ink so” being a pretty common way of pronouncing the word; the T is overpowered by the consecutive Is. Nor is it lazy as some who are wont to overpronounce things giving a sort of priority to the written over the spoken word might be inclined to believe. Kinglsey Amis has some interesting words for such people.)

The great difference between Spanish and English is in the pronunciation of the vowels. I have a mild accent because my vowels get a little rounded, like milk that is not entirely sweet, giving me a vague accent. Fortunately this is not so noticeable in short pronouncements. When I said: “Quiero un poquito del elote aqui,” the woman thought I spoke Spanish well enough to remark about it. Had I said: “Quiero un poquito del elote aquel,” she might have asked me if I were a Mexican.

If you put an idiomatic expression in without any self-consciousness—most foreigners using an idiomatic expression, it seems to my observation, manage to broadcast that what they are saying carries some mental peculiarity by the way they say it—you might fool a native speaker. I did not say “un poco” which would have done and might have been taken literally. “Un poquito,” you see, with the diminutive, gives your request a polite modesty; it is a certain colloquial deference that is calculated to fill your plate. Had I thrown in the remote demonstrative, rather than pointing and using the adverb which combination is only semi-verbal, depending as it does on the gesture, I would have shows greater linguistic ability, the powers of one proficient. While these things I explain seem elaborate when they are articulated, I do not think they are ever entirely lost; they are a tacit part of everyday speaking.

Impressions of the Unexamined Life in Mexico

I saw a man with a bucket scrubbing his white car with a brush. He was at it for an hour and a half. After the brush, he went over it with a wet cloth, renewing the water in his bucket two or three times.

I saw in the backyard a papaya flourishing, with abundant fruit hanging down from it.

I felt a cool breeze on me as I looked out from the wrought iron gate and my folded arms grew slimy with sweat because of the humidity hurricane season brings to Monterrey.

I saw the low clouds torn on the last perpendicular upthrust of the abruptly-rising spines of rock, so near, so sheer, so rugged, so tall.

I saw the lights in the darkness, the people still driving by, still coming out of the corner store at 3AM in the warm night.

I was in a rather ostentatious and overelaborate little restaurant, still smelling of the cigarette which, coming from a world in which it has been banned, is good to smell.

I saw palm fronds dry and brown hang down over the edge of the roof. The breeze was cool. Beyond was an empty monument, a more than semicircle of pillars holding up a roof. It was a broad, cool circular walk overlooking the lake and the treeless park. The permanence of the materials, the lavish construction are things to amaze. Everywhere they are building and working in permanent structures; in concrete, brick, marble and rock. On the shores of a man-made lake, on a hill, they erected a light house for decoration.

I saw many well-fed Mexicans among their conglomerate signs, in the midst of all their agglomerate structures.

I saw the remnant of burgeois urban culture at Sanborn’s, that old establishment. There waiters and chairs and room all come together to signal the Mexican city.

I saw a dingy post office in a middle class neighborhood, and at noon I saw the people walking past the little stores, over the streets—some wet with the washing of garages and courtyards, the ambling driver of a soda truck, the motorcycles still in use after four decades.

I heard the rain, loud as it is when it splashes on the courtyard from a spout. I saw the bubbles forming in the stream along the edge of the road.

I saw the Mexicans sitting on low seats, sitting in odd places, finding shade wherever possible.

The Mexicans have only an urban culture there in the city: they know nothing of suburbs. They look and enjoy what has passed out with our suburbs. Their cities are so conglomerated they have to be affected by the conglomeration, and I wonder if I do not see it in their styles.

I heard Jose Carlos Moncayo’s Huapango and the sweet, sweet sounds of Mozart’s Magic Flute.

I have listened to the rapid pattering of Mexicans speaking, their accents so brisk—how shall I describe the sounds of their voices? Were I able to do that, I would have something rich.

Here the urban culture of the last century of the modern age lives on. They live city lives with nothing suburban anywhere about. They build with concrete, they pave and take up as much room as they can, leaving little to the plain earth. No islands in a sea of grass here, no vinyl siding, no shingled roofs, no long driveways, none of the lawnmowers roar or the liturgical monotony of genuflecting sprinklers.

I saw the hanging white sheets of uncooked pork rind.

I have lingered among all the worthless wares they pawn to tourists, rummaging through the trash with a curiosity unconscionable in sentient beings. It is a curiously incurious curiosity. Even the local middle classes come here and gawk at the worthless wares, worthless crafts of worthless craftsmen; all worthless. Here the air is cool, however, and the tradesmen and women and girls, for there are no younger men here, invite the customer into their shop.

We have seen the old men sitting on the public benches in the park. The parks are full, always full of lingering people, loitering people pooling in all the shady places.

I have smelled the market: the smell of raw meat, dried chilies, spices, soap and the simmering broth, leather and wool.

I have seen women in the corners of the market sitting at desks with typewriters, waiting to type something up, to make a document official and important by passing it through a machine . . . as I will do. I saw a woman come up with a handwritten page to show the typist.

I saw some of the literate culture that might be theirs in a bookstore, but not much. They do not read. I do not see any pride in letters. I did not see much of Mexican writers, but of translations, of classics, of textbooks. The life of leisure remains the unexamined life, it seems. Perhaps I am mistaken but I do not see much of reading; much of sitting, much of staring, much of watching and gazing and waiting.

I was in a good restaurant, dim and cool, waiters as unctuous as Jeeves. The air stirs about; service is solicitous and very slow. They have a machine to dispense the liquors to the barman. Here a large party might come with comfort. I am sure it is a better place in the evening. It makes me wonder how much business here can thrive in the evening, the evening meal being minor compared to the afternoon meal.

I had much of lingering, much of living the life of retired people. And I cannot, or at least it is very difficult not to see it as a life of indolence. Have I so much become a puritan? I want to have no love for the unexamined life, but I want something of humanity.

I saw the rain, the clouds beneath the peaks of the great dorsal mountains of Monterrey, the clouds above the peaks, the rain on the concrete, on the glass, on the conglomeration of the city, blown away behind the jets of airplanes.

No Mas de la Vida Sobre el Comal

Ladies and gentlemen I have gotten off of the griddle on which I climbed when I descended—with a great and painful discomfort to the ears, I might add—to that land that lies all around the massive, dorsal mountains: Monterrey.

Convalescing requires time, and time is a commodity they seem to have more of in warm, lethargic regions. I have put in my time, and now I hope for some reflections. I intend to indulge this power of recollection and reflection to a great extent, so much so I am creating a new category for it.

Be warned. If you are intelligent, you might want to find another blog to read. I intend to write without any mitigations.