Like an opera singer who can also belt the blues, Weinberger the polemicist has cultivated another, more enigmatic side, best illustrated by the prose poems of An Elemental Thing, which take folklore, cultural history and the anthropology of religion into the realm of magical realism. A short list of the subjects addressed in An Elemental Thing might include the four seasons, the wind, ice and the stars; animals from wrens and lizards to tigers and rhinos; the singing of New Zealand's Kaluli tribe and the dream language of a people indigenous to Chiapas; holy people from the prophet Muhammad to a seventeenth-century Catholic saint; and a woman who turns into a tree of flowers so that she might furtively make love to her husband. Weinberger considers An Elemental Thing a "serial essay," and there are motifs--the quest for spiritual purity, the fragility of the natural world, the cruelty of the powerful--that loosely link its individual essays to one another.
Still, it's the narrative point of view, rather than the subjects themselves, that lends An Elemental Thing its powerfully double sense of coherence and elusiveness. While the American essay, as a genre, is dominated by the "personal investigative essay"--the story of how the narrator came to learn something about himself, or his mother, or the giant squid--Weinberger is experimenting here with the "impersonal investigative essay" in which there is no "I" to frame the knowledge revealed and relate it to our time. His narrative voice is always felt but never easy to pin down.
Take, for instance, Weinberger's essay on Muhammad, which begins as a creation myth ("Four hundred and twenty-four thousand years before the creation of the heavens...God created the Light of Muhammad"), then recounts, in short and disconnected paragraphs, the incidents of the prophet's life. In Weinberger's telling, the Koran opens onto a magical, animistic world, both sublime and matter-of-fact:
[Muhammad] split the moon in two and put it back together again. He made the sun rise just after it had set. He put a small stone in the middle of the road that no person or animal ever accidentally kicked.
Another stone, lying on the mouth of a well in a garden, saluted him, and asked that it not become a stone in hell, and Muhammad prayed on its behalf.
A camel complained to the prophet that he worked hard but was given little to eat. Muhammad summoned the camel's owner, who admitted it was true.
By withholding his own judgment in his poetic biography, Weinberger forces his readers to weigh for themselves the charisma of this Muhammad, who is part cosmic god, part St. Francis--and not so much a psychological person in his own right or a moral guidepost for the faithful. (Weinberger, one notes, has stripped out any commentary on the meaning of Muhammad's actions.) Rather, he makes Muhammad the occasion for a beguiling set of stories; he has largely taken Muhammad out of the realms of history, ethics and psychology and placed him in the world of literature. Muhammad's life becomes--to use one of Weinberger's favored tropes--a vortex, made up of fragments that converge and whirl without ever settling into a single pattern.
It may seem odd that a politically engaged critic like Weinberger is also a defender of the literary as a space of disjunction and ambiguity. But he advertises as much, in Oranges and Peanuts for Sale, when he offers the figure of Peruvian poet César Vallejo, who wrote both "propaganda prose" and avant-garde verse, as a model for his own career. Weinberger's political essays are exposés of fraudulent worlds; his prose poems are explorations of alternative ones, rich in their capacity to inspire wonder and complicated in their struggles with such "elemental things" as pain, death and the limits of an individual life. A song from Greenland voices a barren sense of the self:
What lives within me?
The great ice.
I wish it would split in two.
What lives within me?
What lives within me?
I wish it would go away.
In recovering Arctic poetry from another era, Weinberger has uncovered a sort of surrealist lyric, plangent in our own.
Yet Weinberger often makes these alternative worlds as violence-soaked as they are spellbinding. An Elemental Thing begins by throwing the reader into the Aztec time of the apocalypse--a year, repeated every fifty-two years, when the world threatened to end if the correct rituals were not observed. Everyone climbed onto rooftops and terraces so that no feet would touch the ground, and all eyes fixed on a hilltop temple, where priests sacrificed a prisoner, an individual free of blemishes, by slitting open his chest, pulling out his heart and setting it in a pyre. Afterward, people lunged at their own fires so that they might "be blessed with blisters."
The next day, the renewal of the world was welcomed with a confounding mixture of civility and brutality: "new mats were spread out, new hearthstones placed, incense lit, and honey-dipped amaranth seed cakes eaten by all. Quails were decapitated." It's hard to know what to make of this ritual, which is both successful on its face and disturbing in its reliance on innocent scapegoats, like those poor decapitated quails. Could it be that this Aztec world, rather than being an alternative to our world, simply cuts a surprising window onto it? That the victims sacrificed at the Aztec altar are not that far from the innocent civilians killed by white phosphorus rounds in Iraq? One thing is certain: no matter how many times you read An Elemental Thing, Eliot Weinberger won't be telling.