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Remembering the Alchemists & Other Essays
By Richard Hoffman
THE Press (January, 2023)
$19.00 (paper) $7.99 (ebook)
Richard Hoffman, essayist, memoirist, and poet came of age during the war in Vietnam. This meant that as a young man he was faced with the blunt reality of going to war, an undeclared war but a war nonetheless and part of the USA’s Cold War, life-and-death struggle with the global forces of communism. This meant that he also was faced with a sense that the war was not winnable in any meaningful sense. Like other young men (and women) of his generation he listened to many who insisted there was light at the end of the tunnel and that the dominoes that might fall in Southeast Asia were much more than metaphors. For those people, sometimes fathers who had gone to war in WWII, the very notion of the USA losing a war was unimaginable and unbearable. The dubious circumstances that surrounded the USA’s involvement in the war—picking up where the colonialist French left off, ignoring the geo-political history of the region, backing various cliques that had little popular support, trusting that air power could make the crucial difference, believing that an occupying force would be accepted without reservation—were there for those who cared to look. Hoffman has been, over the course of his life and to his great credit, one of those who cared to look.
The title essay of the collection (the title derives from a poem by Charles Simic) is a powerful example of his looking. He begins with a shooting-death of a ten-year-old child, an event that has become commonplace, and proceeds through a number of aspects of the culture of violence that the USA embodies. One sentence speaks for all his direct, well-wrought sentences: “We are inside the largest militarist society the world has ever known, and we are at war always.” There you have it, an enormous truth that is rarely brought forward because it has become second-nature. Of course the so-called defense budget needs to increase each year. Of course we must protect our right to own as many weapons as we see fit. Of course our incursions in other nations are justified. Of course people who set policy are welcome to then take jobs in the weapons industry. Of course the media can display unlimited amounts of murderous behavior. Hoffman lays this all out but makes a point of noting the human toll this almost casual acceptance of violence takes. As he puts it, “The best people I know are trying, steadfastly, not to succumb to nihilism. With great difficulty they hold fast to an ethical system that poses restraints, that shapes their behavior, that values sacrifice. The great mass of people, by contrast, appear to have defined virtue as obedience to a set of conventions. I used to believe that very nearly everyone possessed at least a modicum of empathy; now most days I feel foolish and wonder where the hell I got that notion.”
We are in the territory here of moral imagination, most notably represented for Americans by Ralph Waldo Emerson and James Baldwin. Hoffman uses a sentence of Baldwin’s as an epigraph for his essay. It bears repeating: “The children are always ours, every single one of them, all over the globe; and I am beginning to suspect that whoever is incapable of recognizing this may be incapable of morality.” The situation Baldwin and Hoffman face is harrowing: How much can one say “great difficulty” and “beginning to suspect” before one simply gives up? The tenacity and courage such writing takes are not on the syllabus of the average “creative writing” class. The tenacity and courage are not saluted in the publishing industry’s desire to be profitable and morally astute at the same time nor in the regulated showers of prizes and awards that do nothing so much as offer tokenism as a way of life.
The slick, mendacious optimism that so much pop culture (which very much includes political culture) offers that would push all suffering away with a flurry of clichés, the most prominent being that Americans are inherently good and innocent people who have no bad intentions, is very much on Hoffman’s mind. His neighbor who works for General Electric feeds the birds and plays with his grandchildren. He’s “one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met.” The lives of those who work with the machines in the vast corporations, the lives that directly and indirectly involve the weapons industry, cannot be written off as aberrations. As Hoffman notes, “We are all warriors for the empire.” The first step in any journey to truth is the admission of complicity. It’s a hard step to take—we prefer to be both exceptional and blameless—but one Hoffman accepts with humility and candor.
One challenge the moral essayist faces is to get beyond indignation and the self-congratulation that often accompanies indignation, to dig deeply and look at the roots of dilemmas that never go away, the terrible human dramas. The initial essay in Hoffman’s collection, “Like Never Before,” is a superb example of this. It literally involves looking, since the essay centers on Hoffman’s viewing some of William Blake’s watercolors and etchings that are part of the holdings of the Harvard University Museums. The painting that riveted his attention was “Cain Fleeing from the Wrath of God” or “The Body of Abel Found by Adam and Eve, a painting in Hoffman’s words that “compressed not only a tremendous understanding of the human tragedy, but also the essence of his artistic ambitions.” To Hoffman what the painting depicted, what it was visually saying, was that “there can be no harmony after the crime depicted here.”
To say we want, as human beings, to push away the story of Cain and Abel would be an understatement. Greek tragedy is one thing, but the Biblical story, since it presents the origins of the sad, violent tale of human behavior, the definitive end of Edenic innocence, is something like unbearable. It says a great deal about Blake that he was willing to take on this terrifying scene. It says a great deal about Hoffman that he engaged the painting so fully in his essay. In Blake’s painting no way out is presented from this agony. Cain can flee but where can he go? How can he elude the Lord? How he can elude his own guilt? How can he grasp the degree of exile he must now experience? The human world is broken. Our eyes are held by Cain’s terror (the book’s cover reproduces the painting) yet others are there: Eve grieving, Abel dead on the stony ground and Adam. I will quote the whole of Hoffman’s sentence about Adam to show, among other reasons, how vividly he writes: “Adam is stunned, astonished, a rictus of terror, stuck in a moment that will never end, ineffectual, wronged and wrong, paralytic, twisted, broken.” All these words are applicable—more grief than a mind can hold.
For me, the most moving moment in the essay is where Hoffman puts himself on the line. He isn’t writing, as is too often common these days, to display his virtuousness for predictable approbation. He is writing from his own complicity. As he puts it, “I have fled my own actions in horror. I have feared my own mind. I have cried out in my sudden understanding of my nature. I know.” This admission seems part of the reason to write essays in the first place—to put one’s self on the line. Often the essay is simply a vantage point to observe human behavior. That’s understandable but Hoffman, certainly a keen observer, is interested in something more than that. He wants to get at his own embroilment in the mystery, the confusion, and what he straightforwardly calls “the nightmare.” Whatever clarity he reaches has to come from that personal engagement. Blake’s painting is not a memento of a great artist, a famous voice from the distant past. Rather, “The painting remains an illustration of present reality.” It is a reality that underlies all of Hoffman’s writing in its many circumstances.
To give a full accounting of those circumstances is beyond the scope of this review but two pieces can stand in. One, entitled “Neighbors,” is about taking Boston’s MBTA Red Line from Porter Square to downtown Boston on “one particular rainy day.” In the course of the train ride, Hoffman notices a man lying across several seats, passed out. He goes up to the man, realizes the man is in trouble and contacts the authorities on the train. Another person in the train car comes to help Hoffman. First one official person comes to help and then medical help is summoned. They determine the man is diabetic. What has occurred is possibly a diabetic coma. At the essay’s end, Hoffman leaves the train in the course of which “A man behind me bumped me, hard, as he went past, in a way that may well have been deliberate.”
This is what occurs in the essay as far as actions are concerned but a personal essay is an opportunity to reflect and notice, to look outside and inside. Hoffman does this and beautifully weaves many threads: the music of Thelonious Monk, a mother dealing with a recalcitrant child, self-evaluation, people in public spaces, art in public spaces, advertisements, Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, his experience as an ambulance attendant, homelessness, and the fact of him having a crooked nose. This is not by any means a complete catalog of what “occurs” in the essay. It does give a sense, however, of how Hoffman is a classical personal essayist in that he is able to deftly move from moment to moment, thought to thought, and perception to perception gathering meaning along the way. He does this in a low-key way: No need to indict his fellow travelers, his ostensible neighbors, for their lack of involvement in the scene before them. He knows that score. He also acts on his own—in life. He is not looking for a gold star for stellar conduct. He is looking at how people act and how people are—all kinds of people. He is one among many.
Home is where the writer starts and Hoffman has written about his home in his memoirs. Two of his brothers died from Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Also, he was sexually abused by a Little League coach. The toll this took on him and his family is, at once, incalculable and calculable. That, after all, is what true writers do—calculate the incalculable. They don’t back down. In Hoffman’s case that means trying to come to terms with the fact that such experiences are not stored in a safe deposit box called “The Past.” On the contrary, the shadows are there each day. What he writes in an essay called “Wheels” bears quoting fully: “In a way, Bobby has remained with me through the decades since his death, most often as a vague pull, a necessity to describe or explain things, a habit I developed as I rode my bicycle farther and farther from home, returning to him in his wheelchair with whatever stories, observations, experiences I’d gathered. Still, there are certain times when he feels present to me, when he is even after all these years right here with me, as if I am once again pushing his chair, and I almost want to bend forward to hear him.”
These sentences illustrate, for me, the great gist of the essay as a form, how we can write about being human, which means what haunts us. The haunting varies—Cain’s killing his brother, the man passed out on the subway car, the two dead brothers, the endless shootings—but the haunting, as Shakespeare suggested in more than one play, is what defines us. If we are willing to admit it. One can make a fair case that the techno-addled world we inhabit is all about not admitting how we are human in that regard, that we are here simply to consume one sensation after another and then evaporate into the increasingly distressed ether. Reading this book is not something Alexa can do for us. The writing—and Hoffman shows what good things happen when poets write prose—invites us to partake. Amid all the babble, it’s heartening to read such a deeply felt and deeply thoughtful book.
Copyright 2023 Baron Wormser
Baron Wormser’s many books include the novel Some Months in 1968 (Woodhall, 2022). He lives in Montpelier, Vermont.
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