St. Francis at Prayer, by Caravaggio. 1602-06
From where I sit. From where you sit. It’s all relative. You’re deluded. No, you are. I think you both are. In The Great Weaver of Kashmir, the young Halldór Laxness, a future Nobel Prize winner, gives us ample opportunity as readers to judge much concerning delusions and illusions. The novel is ambiguous enough to provide plenty of room, and our weighing and balancing of the various options will have much to do with our own predilections.
Picking up where I left off a few days ago, our hero (or anti-hero), Steinn Elliði, was searching for a way to attain perfection. Thinking he found it in a monastery, he started the process of becoming a monk. The last 130 odd pages take him in a few more directions before he apparently decides his course. Violent, obsessive, bizarre directions that befuddle family and friends. But I won’t spoil the ending by revealing that course …
Laxness is excellent in creating parallel stories that appear to go on while we see nothing of them. They have a life of their own. We feel their continuity, even though they are off stage. The most important ongoing story is back in Iceland, with Diljá, who has loved Steinn since childhood. There is a powerful dénouement between the childhood friends that surprised this reader and helped make the novel. It also made this reader think a great deal about protestations of faith, of truth, of the relativity of misunderstandings. Sometimes, it may well be that others know us better — at least in certain areas — than we know ourselves. And when we protest that others are under this or that illusion about who we really are, perhaps we are under an illusion they see through.
When it comes to “higher truths”, the chances that we delude ourselves often increase. The higher we fly, the further we can sometimes separate ourselves from reality. Not just the reality outside of ourselves, on the ground, among friends, work, family, country, home. But the reality of our own unique temperament, personality, and genuine desires. What fits. What is right for us in reality. What is real.
The person doing the flying will often see those who question that flight as lost and deluded. Clueless. Unable to see the higher realities and real person who soars. He or she may or may not be correct. Assumptions work both ways, many ways, in many directions. But in the world of this novel, while ambiguous, I could not help but think that Diljá was on to something, and Steinn refused to listen. The results were tragic.
Sometimes, the person soaring soars for great reasons, and should never let anyone talk them down. “Reality” in that case can be the real illusion. We want our artists to fly and ignore the suburban rantings trying to drag them back into the pen of the everyday. We want them to be visionary, to flow with their visions beyond the last step created, and create more, on and on and on. Creation being the key. But if their trip is one of self-denial, massive, crippling self-denial, then all too often that is not creative, but destructive.
Admittedly, my relative perspective comes into play here. As I see it. As I analyze the scenario. There are thousands of Steinns who may see their self-denial, their self-abnegation, their negation of their worldly self as the ultimate creative act. Something, in fact, quite holy. Or, they may be running from something, seeking escape, seeking a shield between who they really are and what they can become through the process of burning away the self.
Steinn Elliði seems to be one of the least “monkish” characters in modern literature. His volcanic personna, his caustic wit, his towering belief in his own superiority, and his surrealist poetic inventions, all point to someone who is at odds with the very idea of quiet contemplation and the world of the monastery. Yes, stranger things have happened. Augustine was a wild, rebellious youth before becoming a devoutly pious man. But the 20th century was not the same as the 4th. Steinn had more choices. And more temptations.
The illusion and illusions of youth. Choices made. Consequences. Regrets. Some might say, it was fate. Relativity crushes fate with mad laughter …