May 11, 2011

Riding the Elevator into the Sky

by Anne Sexton

As the fireman said:
Don't book a room over the fifth floor
in any hotel in New York.
They have ladders that will reach further
but no one will climb them.
As the New York Times said:
The elevator always seeks out
the floor of the fire
and automatically opens
and won't shut.
These are the warnings
that you must forget
if you're climbing out of yourself.
If you're going to smash into the sky.

Many times I've gone past
the fifth floor,
cranking upward,
but only once
have I gone all the way up.
Sixtieth floor:
small plants and swans bending
into their grave.
Floor two hundred:
mountains with the patience of a cat,
silence wearing its sneakers.
Floor five hundred:
messages and letters centuries old,
birds to drink,
a kitchen of clouds.
Floor six thousand:
the stars,
skeletons on fire,
their arms singing.
And a key,
a very large key,
that opens something—
some useful door—
up there.

"Riding the Elevator into the Sky" by Anne Sexton, from The Awful Rowing Toward God. © Houghton Mifflin, 1975. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in the year 868 A.D. that the Diamond Sutra was printed. It is the world’s oldest book bearing a specific date of publication. The Diamond Sutra is a collection of Buddhist teachings — the word sutra comes from Sanskrit and means teachings or scriptures. The Diamond Sutra is set up as a dialogue between the Buddha and Subhuti, one of his elderly disciples. This copy of the Diamond Sutra was printed with wood blocks on seven strips of paper — each page was printed from a single block. These seven sheets were bound together to form a scroll about 16 feet long.

The Diamond Sutra is relatively short — it can be memorized and recited in about 40 minutes, which made it popular with Buddhist practitioners. In the text of the Diamond Sutra, the Buddha declares that the sutra will be called "The Diamond of Transcendent Wisdom" because wisdom can cut like a sharp diamond through illusion.

The Diamond Sutra was discovered near Dunhuang in the Gansu province of China. For about 1,000 years, Dunhuang was a desert outpost along the Silk Road. Early Buddhist monks made their way from northwest India to inhabit the Mogao Caves there, which came to be known as the "Caves of a Thousand Buddhas." Hundreds of temples and grottoes carved out of the cliff face were connected with an intricate series of caves and tunnels. The architecture was beautiful, and the walls were painted with murals in full color, portraits of Buddhas and deities alongside scenes of merchants and peasants. For hundreds of years, with Dunhuang thriving as a Silk Road station and travelers from all different cultures passing through, the monks collected Buddhist scriptures as well as texts of other religions — including scriptures from the Old Testament. The combination of the dry desert air and the dark of the caves kept these paper texts in perfect condition. Around the year 1000, the caves containing the manuscripts were sealed off, for unknown reasons — it might have been because the Islamic Empire was spreading into western China, and Buddhist scriptures were thought to be at risk; or because trade was being conducted by sea routes, decreasing the importance of the Silk Road, and the caves were just abandoned.

The caves faded into obscurity until the year 1900, when an itinerant Taoist monk named Wang Yuan Lu happened upon them and realized he had found something special. He slowly began to restore the caves, uncovering murals and cleaning things up. Eventually, he unsealed the caves, which contained more than 50,000 texts and paintings. He told the local authorities, but they weren’t sure what to do with all the manuscripts and told him to seal the cave back up.

Then the archaeologist Aurel Stein showed up in Dunhuang. Stein was Hungarian, but working for the British, and he convinced Wang Yuan Lu to part with a huge amount of manuscripts for a paltry sum. Stein stressed how tragic it was for these manuscripts to be locked up in the dark, and played up the fact that he and Wang had the same Chinese patron saint. Stein convinced the monk that it was a divine act that he had come to remove the manuscripts, and reassured him that he would give an "ample donation" to his restoration project in return. Stein wrote: "Flushed as I was with delight at these unhoped-for-discoveries, I could not lose sight of the chief practical task, all-important for the time being. It was to keep our priest in a pliable mood, and to prevent his mind being overcome by the trepidations with which the chance of any intrusion and of consequent hostile rumors among his patrons would fill him. With the help of Chiang-ssu-yeh’s genial persuasion, and what reassuring display I could make of my devotion to Buddhist lore in general and the memory of my patron saint in particular, we succeeded better than I had ventured to hope. I could see our honest Tao-shih’s timorous look changing gradually to one of contentment at our appreciation of all this, to him valueless, lore. Though he visibly grew tired climbing over manuscript heaps and dragging out heavy bundles, it seemed as if he were becoming resigned to his fate, at least for a time."

Aurel Stein left the Caves of a Thousand Buddhas with 24 cases of manuscripts and five cases of paintings and relics, and in return, gave Wang just £130 and the promise that he wouldn’t tell anyone what Wang had done. The Diamond Sutra was among these 7,000 manuscripts. Stein was knighted in England for his efforts, but he is still reviled in China for stealing national treasures. And his discovery opened the doorway for other international scholars to come in and take their own share of the bounty, even chipping murals off the walls.

According to the translation by Red Pine, toward the end of the Diamond Sutra the Buddha tells his followers: "As a lamp, a cataract, a star in space / an illusion, a dewdrop, a bubble / a dream, a cloud, a flash of lightning / view all created things like this."

It was on this day in 1942 that Go Down, Moses by William Faulkner (books by this author) was published. It was a group of interrelated stories that made up a novel: "Was," "The Fire and the Hearth," "Pantaloon in Black," "The Old People," "The Bear," "Delta Autumn," and "Go Down, Moses." Like much of Faulkner’s fiction, Go Down, Moses was set in Yoknapatawpha County, and the stories trace members of the McCaslin family from pre-Civil War slavery days until the 1940s. The central character, Isaac McCaslin, rejects his family’s estate, which has been passed down for generations. He is disgusted at his family’s arrogance in thinking that they could truly own the land or own other people as slaves. In the novel, this greed is depicted in fading yellow family ledgers that list the slaves and parcels of land that generations have bought and sold.

Faulkner considered the book a novel, and was shocked when it came out on this day under the title Go Down, Moses and Other Stories. In 1949, Random House decided to reissue Go Down, Moses and asked Faulkner if he wanted to make any changes. He sent back a letter to his editor: "Moses is indeed a novel. ... Indeed, if you will permit me to say so at this late date, nobody but Random House seemed to labor under the impression that Go Down, Moses should be titled ‘and other stories.’ I remember the shock (mild) I got when I saw the printed title page. I say, reprint it, call it simply Go Down, Moses, which was the way I sent it in to you eight years ago."

A couple of years ago, a Faulkner professor from Emory University met with a 79-year-old man named Edgar Wiggin Francisco III, whose father had been close friends with Faulkner. Francisco showed the professor a family ledger that seemed to have a direct connection to many of the details in Faulkner’s fiction, especially in Go Down, Moses. The ledger belonged to Francisco’s great-great grandfather, a rich plantation owner named Francis Terry Leak. The ledger detailed the day-to-day of his slavery operations, as well as his strong pro-slavery views. Francisco remembered that when he was a boy, Faulkner would come to his house often to spend time with his father, and that he sometimes looked through Leak’s ledger. Francisco said: "Faulkner became very angry. He would curse the man and take notes and curse the man and take more notes." The ledger mentions slaves named Caruthers, Moses, Isaac, Sam, Toney, Mollie, Edmund, and Worsham, all names that appear in Go Down, Moses, and a list of money paid for individual slaves that Faulkner imitated in the novel.

In Go Down, Moses, Faulkner described Isaac McCaslin looking at the farm ledgers that contained the history of his family’s slaveholding past: "It was neither the first time he had been alone in the commissary nor the first time he had taken down the old ledgers familiar on their shelf above the desk ever since he could remember. As a child and even after nine and ten and eleven, when he had learned to read, he would look up at the scarred and cracked backs and ends but with no particular desire to open them, and though he intended to examine them someday because he realized that they probably contained a chronological and much more comprehensive though doubtless tedious record than he would ever get from any other source, not alone of his own flesh and blood but of all his people, not only the whites but the black one too, who were as much a part of his ancestry as his white progenitors, and of the land which they had all held and used in common and fed from and on and would continue to use in common without regard to color or titular ownership."

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