No Margin

DEAR SIR, Dear Paul Godetsky: —
No doubt you will have guessed by now why I failed to keep my appointment this morning. With our arrangement of monthly settlements you have been aware through just such happenings as this that the few days before the end of the month have sometimes proved disastrous for me.

Yesterday I spent the morning and afternoon walking, walking — on the sides of my feet because of the holes in my shoes; this thin mud sticks like glue — with the last of the small legacy of musical instruments left me by my father under my arm.

Is it not curious that to-day so many of the wood-winds should be made not of wood but of steel or silver? Everywhere I walked, from one dealer to the next-best one, each lifting the black flute out of the case with a certain respect, half-appreciative, half-resentful, for something which however out of style was still unquestionably good — as if it placed the feeble resistance of its own old worth like a momentary obstruction against the cruel shove of changing fashion. Everywhere the same. ‘A good flute. But we sell no more wooden flutes. There is a crack in it as well. And the pitch is high.’ I could n’t help the crack, any more than I could help the pitch, which I suppose was exactly as it was made to be.

A fine rain was falling, cold and very searching. It is a long time, dear sir, dear Paul Godetsky, since you yourself have been without any margin in the world. Perhaps you have lost all recollection of how it is to walk from one place to another with nothing but one shabby object between you and the utter collapse of your body — some old coat, a watch with a broken crystal, or a wood-wind made of wood — always something a little the matter with what you have to sell, so that you can never sell it.

It is not the hunger so much, the animal misery, as the far more lacerating misery of wondering why food should seem important to continue an existence with no margin at all, to take you from one empty despair to another. No reality, no connection, no continuity of meaning.

You may say, dear sir, that I was not without hope and that it is something to be the accompanist of so fine, I mean so well-known, a singer and teacher as yourself — that I can always count on living on a margin of your margin. You have said as much to me, and I should be ungrateful, considering the destitution from which you rescued me last year, not to acknowledge this.

You deserve your margin, dear Paul Godetsky. You have an excellent mind, which you enjoy in secret like a voluptuary, and you were once an artist. You keep your mind clear and do not mix your planes. You have your private thoughts where your mind thinks freely, at the expense of everyone and with no cost to yourself, and you have a separate working shrewdness — an intelligence just a little larger than the average, by which you can mystify and keep just out of reach of your followers, just a little way beyond them yet within sight of their own capabilities.

That is the great secret, a secret which you have perfectly mastered — not to plunge the whole of yourself, never to stake the whole of life, all that you are, in everything you think and do. To do that is to be guilty of a naivete, an innocence of passion that keeps one a child, out of touch with society, with no margin. Do you think that I am blaming you? My God, I should do the same! Do you think that I should not draw the same margin from the foolish Mrs. Y—, with her infantile ambitions, her piping voice, and her small fat feet; or from a foreign name like yours, using it as a magic sign of escape from the wistful ness and longing lying below the surface of American life?

And no doubt Mrs. Y—does not seem so ridiculous — nor, I am sure, so pathetic — to you as once she did, since now you are more able to sec good qualities in her, being less unlike her than formerly you were. Like my old flute, you once had a high pitch — too high for usual necessities — and you were once able to endure the terrors and depressions which — raising up defenses of comprehension and beauty against themselves—translate themselves at last in art. But now, if your tension is a little less exact — a little easier, I should say — and your pitch a little lower, it is nothing to your discredit. My dear Paul Godetsky, are you not a flute of steel, a metal wood-wind, with a market anywhere?

Well, perhaps all this does not explain to you the mechanics of my situation any more than it does my exact locality.

Can you remember that when one is bewildered with the anguish of a disjointed life, — it does not matter that one is probably to blame for it one’s self, — a life which seems to have no thread to bind its holes and incidents together, that it is not food after a while one craves, but drink? On your margin, dear sir, dear Paul Godetsky, you no longer drink for the sake of illusion but the more luminously to enjoy the sense of what you actually have, or it may be, at the most, to bring the illusion of a little more ardor and distinction into your relations with your wife — God forgive me, I should not blame you for the latter. There, above all, one needs a margin. You, to your wife with all the margin of illusion you can get, or better, being a realist, all the secret margin of your separate, deeper and deeper nerves; I, to some middle-aged woman on the street corner, thinking that if she is old enough there may be some kindness and humanity from her own lack of certainty.

But to put it briefly, the last things I remember were those curious metallic notes — all is of metal — of the Salvation Army singers in the alley; and I remember that the curbstone under my cheek as I fell had a gray warty surface as if it had been pitted by the rain ten thousand years; and that in the gutter rushing with the rain an orange skin, soaked to a pale yellow, and the bright yellow leg of a fowl washed from the swill-pail of some restaurant, swirled by me. Yellow and gray. Yellow and gray. ‘Precious jewels, precious jewels —’ the Salvation Army kept on singing, and I still kept wondering what those jewels were for — for His crown, I imagine.

The thin voices, the metal clank of the tambourine, made my thoughts seem the weaker and darker and more suffering, until I was glad to hear the metal clanging of the wagon. I was glad to take the arm of the officer and get in out of that cold searching air. It was the only time I can remember that I was ever glad to see the police. I remember a friend of mine, an oboeplayer, saying that when his house burned down it was the first time the police had ever been on his premises to help him.

It is a curious thing, Paul Godetsky, that the people whom the police help most are the people who most rarely see them. To you, for instance, in a remote but still definite sense, the police are a real help; you could not do without them though you never see them, whereas, though I get little from them, I am thrown with them from time to time in a way which teaches me a great deal, gives me an absolute knowledge. It is they who keep the margin between such as you and such as I, even though for certain hours in our lives you and I are associated together; which proves that it is very hard to keep things separate and clear as one would like to do. Certain things for certain times are known together, at other times, apart.

It is like art, dear sir, dear Paul Godetsky: you cannot have the exaltation without participation. You cannot sit with the stream of life flowing past you, with a rake in your hand, pulling out for a moment one object or another, then throwing it back again without participation. You cannot sit and wait to see what life will give you; you must take the side of life, join life with all your forces, and though you roll in the gutter you will yet keep a kind of innocence, a wholeness, that is better than any margin. I spoke slightingly a while ago of this innocence of passion, but it was a damned indirection — I meant that I believed in it, and in just the same proportion that I disbelieve in you, which is saying a great deal.

After being helped out of the wagon and passing under the blue lamp with the white letters, I listened all night to the clock striking the hours in the cupola above the roof, a great clock which, if you are outside, has four faces. I have often, passing through the streets of this neighborhood, looked up at this clock, since it is only once in a while I have a watch, and have usually found that it was slow, slower than the clock on the church, much slower than the clock on the railroad station. Now I know why. It is the heavy, terrible consciousness of time inside these walls—time not a fugitive, a flying dream. Time is a block of granite built into the walls with other solid blocks of granite, part of the structure, part of the stone, on your lungs, on your life, the one continuity in your disjointedness — that solid block of un moving time, part of the dark, part of the air, part of the stench.

The striking of the clock, Paul Godetsky, is not to mark the passing of time but to cut and fit and mortar into its place, forever, another solid block of granite time, always enlarging the black caverns where the hours are packed away for good, with no recovery, no receipt, no sound, no motion — not a sign. Gone.

All night the silence swam and roared and sank into the past, drowning out after a while even the roar of the rain.

You may remember how I used to try to detect and record the varying rhythms of the rain, that long ago I tried to transpose them into music: not the delicate fingering quality it has, but the onslaught, the passion, the saturation of the rain — of rain with leaves beaten down in it, boughs bent motionless in arcs, bent downward by the pouring rain, the trees holding themselves in a steady pressure upward, the rain pushing them back, down, holding them to their connection with the earth, rooting them in their own element, making them grow, but pushing them for the moment out of the sky.

The silence, the darkness, the striking of the clock cutting another stone, the avalanche of the rain.

Then silence like a clap of thunder — the rain stopped, with a violence as great as that of its descent.

I was very lame by now, having struck my left knee and shoulder as I fell along the curbstone; but the silence was so absolute I soon began to feel some muffling crushing object must have choked the air and killed it.

So I got myself on my feet and tried to look out into the yard. Standing on my cot I could see nothing, not even the bars themselves, only feel them on each side of my cheek. Then the sky began to clear and tear apart. Magnificent clouds broke up and moved in superb disarray across the heavens.

The stone rectangles, the trodden ground — there was no motion but the distant cold soaring of the clouds in the galvanic brightness of the sky. It seemed that the moon poured down into a world devoid of life. No sign of livingness, no relation of man to the earth on which he moves.

If only I could have seen something, Paul Godetsky: a rat moving across the yard in that strong stealthy way they have, a tree, anything that held its own, that lived on in the face of a power impassable yet essentially paltry.

And then — standing up out of that ground trodden hard and fiat as iron — I did see something. A tree. Before long, in the pallor of daybreak, I began to see the pattern of its branches against that queer whiteness which, although it seemed to be without life, was nevertheless increasing. And I felt a sensation of hope at this sign of some livingness, at the sign of something that had grown steadily from a seed, without a break, into something according to its nature, not stopping or breaking off, but having a thread, a continuity.

Do you remember that summer we spent together many years ago when we were very young, before existence had become so different between us, before I got into the habit of calling you ‘sir’? Those dismal lodgings in New York — the vestibule had black and yellow diamond-shaped tiles; three of them were cracked, and half of one was gone. The smell of sheets soaked in kerosene to keep away the bugs, the decrepit iron balcony outside the window, and going through the floor of it, twisting the rods out of shape, an old ailanthus tree all on one side — do you remember those things?

This is an ailanthus in the prison yard — you find them always in the old broken parts of cities — and as I watched it I remembered everything; how we read and did and studied everything with the proud fury of possession. Ideas, Paul Godetsky, were not only ideas — they were our bones and our blood; the passion of our recognition of them was the measure of their validity. We knew by our own pulse as well as by our minds when they were true.

The hours I sat there by that balcony, looking with ecstasy through that forlorn tree, which I believe held in those days some awareness of all the things I stared into its boughs, held what a savage would call his External Soul, placing it for safety in the tree of his superstition or election, increasing or diminishing in vigor as the tree prospered or declined.

And I fell so elaborately in love with that split and aged tree, and with the whole race of them, living in the sidewalks and back yards of cities, always leaning away from the wall which imprisons or — if you prefer, being the owner—shelters them, that I tried to discover their origin and found out through books on trees and botany how the ailanthus wandered originally from the Molucca Islands where some of the plants were supposed to be indigenous. ‘Aylanto’ was the native name, so called in Amboina, chief of those coral islands.

And I used to think it was not strange that the ailanthus, remembering the Moluccas, whose soft name suggested a languorous antiquity of days little disturbed by Drake or Middleton, the wars of Portugal and Holland, or the voyage of the Beagle — that it was not strange if the ailanthus, remembering a proud autochthonous origin, should possess a wistful shabbiness like that of the old cab-horse who used to doze all summer by the curbstone under the meagre shade of our tree. We used to take that cab and go to visit Violet Archer — she had long corners to her eyes and a tag of hair in front of her ears. What has become of her now? Not that I care, but now is the moment to say, ‘What has become of her?’

And now, Paul Godetsky, as I watched that ailanthus in the prison yard, coming up out of the iron ground, I began to think again how trees wander, like races, being bound to human lives and beliefs with a tenacity not to be reckoned. And I thought how we read about those shallow seas of the Malay Archipelago, full of floating plants and fruits undulating round these islands, drifting in the pattern of the currents, the monsoons, and the trade winds to other islands and to mainlands thousands of miles distant, where they strike their roots and live, and wander on by wind and water, with birds and animals and men.

Trees wander in exile, Paul, and you will remember how the Aylanto of Amboina, as we called that tutelary tree, used to pass and repass our window with a faint shine in the spasmodic gusts of a city thunderstorm, or go reaching up in the mystically forlorn light of a spring evening, and how we said that there was a soul out of place, a fluctuating wistfulness. We said that it remembered birds of paradise, also native in those oceanic islands, who used to sweep across it; that it had known among its boughs the white flight of the orchis; and that its own flowers, rank and green, smelling like sweat, were reminiscent of the jungle.

I remember how on an August night it made a mild episodic marriage with the moon, and how, after the moon had set, a fierce meteor traversed the rich blue of midnight. And it seemed to us that the old tree looked up at this brief curve of wasteful fire falling past the turning world, aware of that wild throe of extinction.

In this place they are building an addition, to accommodate more persons like myself, and the scantlings are still up, looking fragile and light and wooden against the granite wall that they surround to build.

And as the light grew clearer I saw, high up on the scantling, a small tree, withered and wry, bound there with a rope, as you will often see them if you look, on some unfinished skyscraper: a lateral descendant of the great cosmic trees which formed the axis of the earth — you remember them —Yggdrasill, the Great Ash, with the Norns sitting under it, and Irminsul of the Saxons, the Pillar of the World; lateral descendant of the Golden Bough, of all those sacred racial tutelary trees; a connection, even though the trunk was sawed off short, with some taproot of energy beyond our consciousness; a sign, which workmen carry obscurely in their minds, of some root of livingness, some good luck, some integrity.

And as I watched the dry withered sign of an integrity bound there on the scantling of the prison, and the ailanthus rooted in the iron ground, leaning over as if listening, trying to catch an echo of its own old thoughts— remembering possibly the terrible dance of Shiva, dancing in the burning-ghats of the East, with the skull of Brahma and the Ganges in his hair, dancing with a shaking that would have shaken this granite place to pieces — I became conscious of sounds, coördinate and separate, stirring in my mind.

Now listen to me, Paul Godetsky, I have something to ask of you. Aou may say that it is mysticism — offensive to your realistic mind. But even science now is becoming guilty of a tentative new mysticism, drawn from its own endlessness. Why should we not indulge ourselves again in a symbolism of natural objects?

Whether or not you will believe it, I became aware, I felt the thick slow roots of those great sacred trees, I felt the topless tree of man’s thought and longing growing like actual sound, like composed music, in my mind—in my ears, I should say.

And it seemed to me that I was young again, that I saw everything clearly with the clear instinct of youth unmuddied by experience, unintimidated by the brain.

I say that I heard the actual music of that great tree—the actual sound, terrible and august — of its growing. I felt the twisted roots groping first in the dark ground of fear, then I heard the trunk stretching up into the religions, and the boughs going out on every side, and the opening of the blossoms of the arts, and the leaves of knowledge and philosophy murmuring against the unknowable sky.

If I could have transposed that music from my bewildered soul, Paul Godetsky, to paper— if I could have got first the sound of the roots, then the fragmentary music of those early gods as dependent upon men as men were upon them, waxing and waning through mutual exchange of vigors; then the next music, music of the change from magic to religion, from sorcerer to priest; then the next music still, savage or compassionate, of the gods raised higher than men by men themselves and sustained by the cruel instinct in men for worship; and then this music ceding in turn to the next music of the spiritual gods — images and absolutes of man’s desire, shadowy, anguished, or serene, for perfection —

Paul Godetsky, I heard it all, the actual, composed, translated sound — I kept watching the poor ailanthus and remembering my youth, and in my ears it towered and towered and towered — that tree of spiritual desire; and with the rustling and turning over and murmuring of those leaves I thought for a while that I was going frantic with the music that came rushing to my mind.

I could have written it down, then, but I had nothing, not a pencil or a paper — I am writing this, you will see, on the back of something the chaplain handed me this morning, on the edge, so to speak, of some idea or purpose of his own — but I felt that the music, as the sun got higher, was drifting away from me into those caverns from which I shall never get anything back again.

Nothing to make a single record with — and behind me another tree, the tall hollow core of emptiness going up through the centre of this octagonal jail and those cells like leaves on that deadly tree, each holding a man who had lost something in the cavern of time behind him.

And I thought I should have gone mad, because I could not hold any memory of the actual notes of that music in my mind. I had nothing to hold it with. It came over me, it drifted away. And I said, perhaps if I spent my life in prison, like Bunyan — who were some of the others who enriched the earth by their own deprivation? — I said, what might I not accomplish?

Yet, undoubtedly, I should not do so, even in a prison. I don’t stay here long enough; only long enough for the illusion of a little bad whiskey to wear away, an illusion not even happy while it lasts — because I have not staked enough, I suppose, some principle, some passion, only my body. But I have no passion except music, and who is going to keep me in jail because of a passion for music? Yet how dangerous the music I could —

However, as the sun got higher I became calm and listless, and I was thankful to be torn no longer by the sounds that were too much for me to hold or keep.

I saw that the old ailanthus was reaching up into a lucid spring day, a gentle-looking day, but bound to the earth with veils of terrible violet fire, which seemed to be waiting and listening — above all to be listening — for some ecstasy which it appeared to know would surely come.

Possibly because I am faint and still hungry, my ears remain full of the slow convolutions and heavings of those roots — but it may be only the transposition of a physical nausea. Yet I do continue to feel something, perhaps my own External Soul creeping through the ground, branching, rustling. And although my head is not entirely clear, it seems to me that I might still write down a part, take one leaf for myself, that I might perhaps, as they say, begin again.

Yet I know, dear sir, dear Paul Godetsky, that I shall not do so. But you, could you not pull your old strength and your old pitch and your old insight together — you had much greater talent than I, even though now you might as well have less — and write down a fraction of that music? For you might still do something, on the power of recrudescence your margin should have given you.

And in the meantime, dear Paul — all bitterness vanishes when I think that you might still save for me some echoes of what I heard last night, save it from waste and from defeat — in the meantime, if you want me to play your accompaniment as you sing that duet with Mrs. Y — to-morrow — clearly I see her with her great bosom tightly bound and her small fat feet, and you beside her singing with her for the margin — if you want me to accompany you, will you find time to come here and pay my fine? You can take it out of my salary, which will be due to-morrow, and which you will pay me after Mrs. Y — has paid her bill — so that I also am living on her infantile ambitions. Yet I shall not mind Mrs. Y — so much hereafter or allow the picture of her to cloud my eyes, for she will soon pass away, but the tree will soon begin to grow.

You will do so, will you not, soon, dear Paul Godetsky? For although my mind is free, listening forever to a spreading murmur, happy in the thought of payment of an old debt to that obscure and effaced symbol of our youth, that old Aylanto, my body still remains subjugated by the vulgarity of these iron bars. And I shall have to stay here until a man unlocks a door and my body passes obediently through, and I pause under the blue lamp with the white letters — turned out now and dull but none the less ghastly — and wonder what I shall do next.

Ah, that tree, that great axis, and the music of the earth turning and turning on it!

My God, Paul Godetsky, — if I had any margin I should not be saying ‘My God’ so many times,— that ardor, that firm searching melancholy, which we have known, can we not get a fragment of it down? Not one jot? Not one? All those things that poured over us and sank down in us to our quick — have they all run like water into the ground and come up in nothing but a mould of dissatisfaction — not a root, not a thread of livingness? Ever?

You will come soon, for my head is cracking, and the suffocation of the leaves, rustling, rustling, tortures me with the echo drifting every moment farther and farther down those caverns — the clock has just struck something. My throat is stiff. I cannot swallow, and I keep trying to see whether I still can.

Come quickly. I will keep my eyes fastened on that spindling tree down in the iron earth, continuing from its root without a break, and hang on to the echoes that are still sounding in me, hang on to them until you come and I can repeat them to you. And you will save them from defeat. And all my bitterness will vanish. . . .