Among the varieties of homo scribus there is a kind of author who employs exceptional language to explore subject matter which is, at least on its surface, fairly unexceptional. Examples abound and I’ll let you think of your own. In any case it’s the author’s prose and the peculiar quality of his or her reflections on familiar things that give readers their pleasure.
However, there’s another kind of author who explores exceptional themes through language which is, on its surface, unexceptional (or at least undistracting). The fireworks here are more in the subject matter and not so much in the language. In fact, the author may use an intentionally understated style to accent, by contrast, the exotic quality of his subject.
Eliot Weinberger – new to me – seems to be an author of the second sort. I almost passed over his essay collection, An Elemental Thing, despite the lovely cover. The canned praise on the back of it scared me. To believe it, Weinberger’s work is totally without precedent, the accomplishment of things yet unattempted in prose and rhyme, the sole flaw in the rule about there being nothing new under the sun.
Weinberger’s book isn’t really so unprecedented. You could point to whole armies of anthropologists and historians, among others, and maybe to Borges too. God spare us such monsters of spontaneous generation anyway. If it had been truly unprecendented I’m sure I would have hated it. (And here’s a lesson for overpraising reviewers: islands are places we like to imagine ourselves bringing a few favorite books, but a book itself makes a poor island.)
An Elemental Thing is a well-curated little museum, worth the price of admission, and Weinberger is a gifted collector. Page after page he holds up curious objects for our consideration without getting himself too much in the way: the recurring Aztec apocalypse, the tiger as symbol and victim, the mysticism of the Taoists, the levitating saints of Italy, the Mandaeans of Iraq, the heathenish folklore of the wren, the ritual life of a Chinese emperor, the Empedoclean follies.
There’s such a thing as too much exoticism, however, and Weinberger pushes a bit beyond my limit. Reflecting on it, I can’t help wondering where this immemorial western obsession with the misty, musty East comes from. Weinberger does occasionally sample from nearer to home but he spends more than half the book stepping over the fewmets of other latter-day Orientalists: Pound perhaps, and the dime-a-dozen Zen-pushers of the twentieth century.
If the West discovered the East in Alexander’s time, the East seems only to have discovered the West in the last century or so – or am I wrong? Was there ever such a thing, I wonder, as an Egyptian Herodotus? Or a Mongol Polo that sojourned among the Venetians and famously wrote it all down? Montesquieu in the Persian Letters had to invent his own Usbek.