September 4th is a good day for 20th Century literature. Three of my favorite writers – Richard Wright, Antonin Artaud, and Mary Renault – were all born on this day. Below are a few of my favorite passages from their beautiful writings. May their works continue to be read, and may their names be remembered!
Excerpt from Chapter 1 of Black Boy
by Richard Wright (September 4, 1908 – November 28, 1960)
Each event spoke with a cryptic tongue. And the moments of living slowly revealed their coded meanings. There was the wonder I felt when I first saw a brace of mountainlike, spotted, black-and-white horses clopping down a dusty road through clouds of powdered clay.
There was the delight I caught in seeing long straight rows of red and green vegetables stretching away in the sun to the bright horizon.
There was the faint, cool kiss of sensuality when dew came on to my cheeks and shins as I ran down the wet green garden paths in the early morning.
There was the vague sense of the infinite as I looked down upon the yellow, dreaming waters of the Mississippi River from the verdant bluffs of Natchez.
There were the echoes of nostalgia I heard in the crying strings of wild geese winging south against a bleak, autumn sky.
There was the tantalizing melancholy in the tingling scent of burning hickory wood.
There was the teasing and impossible desire to imitate the petty pride of sparrows wallowing and flouncing in the red dust of country roads.
There was the yearning for identification loosed in me by the sight of a solitary ant carrying a burden upon a mysterious journey.
There was the disdain that filled me as I tortured a delicate, blue-pink crawfish that huddled fearfully in the mudsill of a rusty tin can.
There was the aching glory in masses of clouds burning gold and purple from an invisible sun.
There was the liquid alarm I saw in the blood-red glare of the sun’s afterglow mirrored in the squared panes of a whitewashed frame house.
There was the languor I felt when I heard green leaves rustling with a rainlike sound.
There was the incomprehensible secret embodied in a whitish toadstool hiding in the dark shade of a rotting log.
There was the experience of feeling death without dying that came from watching a chicken leap about blindly after its neck had been snapped by a quick twist of my father’s wrist.
There was the great joke that I felt God had played on cats and dogs by making them lap their milk and water with their tongues.
There was the thirst I had when I watched clear, sweet juice trickle from sugar cane being crushed.
There was the hot panic that welled up in my throat and swept through my blood when I first saw the lazy, limp coils of a blue-skinned snake sleeping in the sun.
There was the speechless astonishment of seeing a hog stabbed through the heart, dipped into boiling water, scraped, split open, gutted, and strung up gaping and bloody.
There was the love I had for the mute regality of tall, moss-clad oaks.
There was the hint of cosmic cruelty that I felt when I saw the curved timbers of a wooden shack that had been warped in the summer sun.
There was the saliva that formed in my mouth whenever I smelt clay dust potted with fresh rain.
There was the cloudy notion of hunger when I breathed the odor of new-cut, bleeding grass.
And there was the quiet terror that suffused my senses when vast hazes of gold washed earthward from star-heavy skies on silent nights . . .
Excerpt from “The Alchemical Theater” (From The Theater and Its Double)
by Antonin Artaud (September 4, 1896 – March 4, 1948)
translated by Mary Caroline Richards
If in fact we raise the question of the origins and raison d’etre (or primordial necessity) of the theater, we find, metaphysically, the materialization or rather the exteriorization of a kind of essential drama which would contain, in a manner at once manifold and unique, the essential principles of all drama, already disposed and divided, not so much as to lose their character as principles, but enough to comprise, in a substantial and active fashion (i.e., resonantly), an infinite perspective of conflicts. To analyze such a drama philosophically is impossible; only poetically and by seizing upon what is communicative and magnetic in the principles of all the arts can we, by shapes, sounds, music, and volumes, evoke, passing by way of all natural resemblances of images and affinities to each other not the primordial directions of the mind, which our excessive logical intellectualism would reduce to merely useless schemata, but states of an acuteness so intense and so absolute that we sense, beyond the tremors of all music and form, the underlying menace of a chaos as decisive as it is dangerous.
And this essential drama, we come to realize, exists, and in the image of something subtler than Creation itself, something which must be represented as the result of one Will alone—and without conflict.
We must believe that the essential drama, the one at the root of all the Great Mysteries, is associated with the second phase of Creation, that of difficulty and of the Double, that of matter and the materialization of the idea.
It seems indeed that where simplicity and order reign, there can be no theater nor drama, and the true theater, like poetry as well, though by other means, is born out of a kind of organized anarchy after philosophical battles which are the passionate aspect of these primitive unifications.
Now these conflicts which the Cosmos in turmoil offers us in a philosophically distorted and impure manner, alchemy offers us in all their rigorous intellectuality, since it permits us to attain once more to the sublime, but with drama, after a meticulous and unremitting pulverization of every insufficiently fine, insufficiently matured form, since it follows from the very principle of alchemy not to let the spirit take its leap until it has passed through all the filters and foundations of existing matter, and to redouble this labor at the incandescent edges of the future. For it might be said that in order to merit material gold, the mind must first prove that it was capable of the other kind, that it would have earned it, would have attained to it, only by assenting to it, by seeing it as a secondary symbol of the fall it must experience in order to rediscover in solid and opaque form the expression of light itself, of rarity, and of irreducibility.
The theatrical operation of making gold, by the immensity of the conflicts it provokes, by the prodigious number of forces it throws one against the other and rouses, by this appeal to a sort of essential redistillation brimming with consequences and surcharged with spirituality, ultimately evokes in the spirit an absolute and abstract purity, beyond which there can be nothing, and which can be conceived as a unique sound, defining note, caught on the wing, the organic part of an indescribable vibration.
The Orphic Mysteries which subjugated Plato must have possessed on the moral and psychological level something of this definitive and transcendent aspect of the alchemical theater, with elements of an extraordinary psychological density, and conversely must have evoked the symbols of alchemy, which provide the spiritual means of decanting and transfusing matter, must have evoked the passionate and decisive transfusion of matter by mind.
We are told that the Mysteries of Eleusis confined themselves to the mise en scene of a certain number of moral truths. I believe instead that they must have consisted of projections and precipitations of conflicts, indescribable battles of principles joined from that dizzying and slippery perspective in which every truth is lost in the realization of the inextricable and unique fusion of the abstract and the concrete, and I think that by the music of instruments, the combinations of colors and shapes, of which we have lost every notion, they must have brought to a climax that nostalgia for pure beauty of which Plato, at least once in this world, must have found the complete, sonorous, streaming naked realization: to resolve by conjunctions unimaginably strange to our waking minds, to resolve or even annihilate every conflict produced by the antagonism of matter and mind, idea and form, concrete and abstract, and to dissolve all appearances into one unique expression which must have been the equivalent of spiritualized gold.
Excerpts from The Last of the Wine
by Mary Renault (September 4, 1905 – December 13, 1983)
[from Chapter 10]
I felt Lysis look at me, and turned towards him. Understanding each other, we got up and walked out through the gardens into the streets. We did not speak, having no need of it, but made for the High City, and climbed the stairway side by side. Leaning on the northern wall we looked out to the mountains. On the tops of Parnes the first snow had fallen; the day was bright and blue, with a few small clouds, white and violet-dark. The wind from the north blew our hair from our brows, and streamed our garments behind us. The air was clear, keen, and filled with light. It seemed to us that at our command the wind would have lifted us like eagles, that our home was the sky. We joined our hands; they were cold, so that in clasping them we felt the bone within the flesh. Still we had not spoken; or not with words. Turning from the wall we saw people offering at the altars or going in and out of the temples; it had seemed to us that the place was empty, but for ourselves. When we came to the great altar of Athene I stopped and said, “Shall we swear it?” He thought for a moment and answered, “No. When a man needs an oath, he has repented that he swore it, and is compelled by fear. This must come from our own souls, and from love.”
[from Chapter 12]
Lysis and I rode off together along the coast, the blue sea beside us and the red rocky shore all broken into little bays. At one of these, after a long gallop, we drew rein; and looking at the clear blue water, threw our clothes off with one accord. The water was brisk at first and warm after, and we swam far out to sea, till we could see Poseidon’s temple at Sounion standing against the sky. Lysis was the faster, his wrestling having strengthened his shoulders and arms; but he waited for me, as I did in running for him. We rested on the water, then swam shoreward, and in shallow rock-pools tried laughing to catch fish in our hands. But as we walked out of the water afterwards, I felt a sharp pain in the side of my foot, and found it bleeding. I must have trodden on a broken shell or a potsherd, for the cut was deep. Lysis knelt and looked at it while I leaned on his shoulder. “This will give you trouble,” he said, “if you fill it with grit as you cross the beach. It might cost you a crown. Wash it well in the sea, and I will carry you over to a place where a horse can go.” For the beach was stony.
I sat on a flat-topped rock, and trailed my foot in the sea. The water was clear, and the blood unrolled in it like smoke in a blue sky. I sat watching it till Lysis touched me on the shoulder and said, “Come.” I leaned back for him to take hold of me, and fastened my arms round his neck. But he did not carry me; nor did I let him go. We spoke without sound each other’s names. A gull screamed over us, an empty sound, to tell us we two were alone upon the shore.
I said to my heart, “What mighty power hast thou been defying?” Truly love may be likened to the Sphinx of the Egyptians, with the face of a smiling god and a lion’s claws. When he had wounded me, all my longing was to leap into his darkness, and be consumed. I called on my soul, but it bled away from me like salt washed back into the ocean. My soul melted and fled; the wound in my foot, which the water had opened, streamed out scarlet over the wet rock.
I lay between sea and sky, stricken by the Hunter; the fiery immortal hounds of Eros, slipped from the leash, dragged at my throat and at my vitals, to bring the quarry in. It seemed to me now that my soul was here, if it was anywhere; nothing remained to me of what I was, save this, that I remembered I had promised Sokrates a gift. He whom I loved knew my mind; perhaps it was his own. We were still, understanding each other.
He let me go, and, kneeling beside the rock, covered the wound with his mouth till the bleeding stopped. We were silent, he kneeling in the water, and I lying like the sacrifice on the altar-stone, the blue sky burning my eyes. After a while he bent and rinsed his face and got up smiling. “The Thracians when they swear friendship mingle their blood, or drink it, I forget. Now we are really one.”