Sentences — January 16, 2009, 3:42 pm

The Gates of Forgetfulness

eecummingsselfportrait

“Just what I tasted, did, smelled, saw, and heard, not to mention touched, between ten thirty and the completion of the evening meal,” writes E.E. Cummings in The Enormous Room, “I am quite at a loss to say.” Cummings, exhausted by his journey–if not to the end of the earth then to the bottom of one very unusual barrel–is of course not entirely at a loss. “Whether it was that glass of pinard (plus, or rather times, the astonishing exhaustion bequeathed me by my journey of the day before) which caused me to enter temporarily the gates of forgetfulness, or whether the sheer excitement attendant upon my ultra-novel surroundings proved too much for an indispensable part of my so-called mind–I do not in the least know.”

What we know is that Cummings’s four months spent in the French prison of La Ferté make for one of the most memorable purgatorios in 20th century letters. Cummings’s high style is profitably set against the low theater of his surroundings–a productive tension. Cummings’s attitude, the high-table posture of his prose, could come across as stiff, like some humorless forebear of “Girl With Curious Hair”. Instead, a tireless parade of looking yields this great crowd-scene-of-a-book.

A text impossible to vet for factuality, The Enormous Room manages to moot the question of whether what is described ‘actually happened’. I will not go so far as to say that an artful lie licenses deceit, but I couldn’t care less, in this instance, what the facts are, given the larger truth that is the art of this artful book. Recent instances of memoirs that have proven to be chock-a-block with deceit mislead us as to their real failings: their lack of honesty was the least of their shortcomings.

Whereas, for this weekend’s read (and, incidentally, my 100th post), I propose Cummings. Download a copy of The Enormous Room to your computer or your e-reader, here. If you do, you’ll come upon, among other things, this:

He cannot understand the submarine. He does now know that there is a war. On being informed upon these subjects he is unutterably surprised, he is inexpressibly astonished. He derives huge pleasure from this astonishment. His filthy rather proudly noble face radiates the pleasure he receives upon being informed that people are killing people for nobody knows what reason, that boats go under water and fire six-foot long bullets at ships, that America is not really outside this window close to which we are talking, that America is, in fact, over the sea. The sea: is that water?–”c’est de l’eau, monsieur?” Ah: a great quantity of water; enormous amounts of water, water and then water; water and water and water and water and water. “Ah! You cannot see the other side of this water, monsieur? Wonderful, monsieur!”–He meditates it, smiling quietly; its wonder, how wonderful it is, no other side, and yet–the sea. In which fish swim. Wonderful.

Share
Single Page

More from Wyatt Mason:

From the October 2014 issue

You Are Not Alone Across Time

Using Sophocles to treat PTSD

From the February 2010 issue

The untamed

Joshua Ferris’s restless-novel syndrome

Sentences May 1, 2009, 2:41 pm

Weekend Read: The Last Post

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

May 2015

Black Hat, White Hat

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Beyond the Broken Window

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In Search of a Stolen Fiddle

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Displaced in the D.R.

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Quietest Place in the Universe

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Last month, the PEN America Center announced its intention to honor Charlie Hebdo with its Freedom of Expression Courage Award at a gala on May 5. Six members of the organization have withdrawn from the gala in protest. In "The Joke," Justin E. H. Smith addressed the Anglo-American left's response to the killings.
Photo of a Charlie Hebdo editorial meeting in 2006 by Jean-Francois/DEROUBAIX
Article
In Search of a Stolen Fiddle·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“To lose an instrument is to lose an essential piece of one’s identity. It brings its own solitary form of grief.”
Violin © Serge Picard/Agence VU
Post
Driving the San Joaquin Valley·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Don sucked the last of his drink through his straw and licked his lips. 'The coast, to me, is more interesting than the valley.'”
Photograph by the author
Article
Othello’s Son·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Fred Morton, who died this week in Vienna, at the age of 90, was a longtime contributor to Harper's Magazine and a good friend. "Othello's Son," which was listed as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2013, appeared in our September 2013 issue.
Photograph © Alex Gotfryd/CORBIS
Article
Beyond the Broken Window·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“By the time Bratton left the department, in 2009, Los Angeles had quietly become the most spied-on city in America.”
Illustration by Taylor Callery

Weeks after the peso collapsed that former Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari joined the board of Dow Jones:

4

A Disney behavioral ecologist announced that elephants’ long-range low-frequency vocal rumblings draw elephant friends together and drive elephant enemies apart.

A robot known as Random Darknet Shopper that was confiscated by Swiss police for purchasing ten ecstasy pills online was cleared of charges.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Subways Are for Sleeping

By

“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today