Monday, October 09, 2006

Thirteen Moons: Charles Frazier’s Exile

by Bernie Quigley for The Free Market News Network, 10/9/06

In the late 1990s, a host of editors and scholars gathered to reflect on what was good and what should be remembered of the waning century. In one of the most erudite lists, the best non-fiction book of the century was declared to be The Education of Henry Adams, published in 1907 and written by the grandson of John Adams.

At the same time, Charles Frazier was writing Cold Mountain, which seemed strangely out of place when it first appeared in 1997. It was a story of loss and breakage - a Civil War tale in a time of peace and burgeoning prosperity. It was a land journey epic in an age of space travel. It was a Taoist vision of awakening when political and literary nihilism was at its fullest flower. It was a great novel. North Carolina poet Fred Chappell called it “a masterpiece.” The venerable Alfred Kazin called it “astonishing.”

Here in 2006, Frazier has written another great novel, Thirteen Moons, and 100 years hence, when they gather again to determine which were the awakening influences of the new century, they will first turn to Frazier.

Thirteen Moons is written with a flow and subtly of expression which we haven’t seen since Willa Cather and Tolstoy. Indeed, in a century which seemed to take its influence from an American interpretation of Trotsky’s famous maxim – “every man an Oprah, every man a Bart Simpson, every man a Bush,” writing of this depth, ability, subtlety and intuition has been exiled from the Academy.

Frazier comes not from the Academy but from the western hills of North Carolina, the Cherokee region, where the mountain tops flow in the light blue mist like a sea, sweeping the imagination and forming the character of the people. Indians consider it to be a sacred place with magical properties – a place where dreams are full and rich and draw serpent-handling holiness preachers, hippies and Tibetan monks alike to its essence.

Cold Mountain, where Frazier’s ancestors settled, is one of these peaks, and it is the scene of his first novel. It is serendipitous that there are actually two Cold Mountains in the world, one in North Carolina and one in China. Frazier, in a masterful display of literary craftsmanship, combines the two and brings the reader to the essence of an awakening American journey and the new century, via Cold Mountain in China, the home of Taoist shamans and mystics for millennia. China’s Cold Mountain is a mountain of the mind as well as nature, and in the introduction to the book, Frazier quotes Han-shan, the most famous of its inhabitants from the 8th century: “Men ask the way to Cold Mountain. Cold Mountain: there’s no through trail.”

Cold Mountain is a journey home. And if the country was not ready to go there when the novel first appeared, it is surely ready now. For it is a novel which is part of an endless cycle of human experience – a novel which finds the protagonist and his world exhausted from war, going from the edge of an outward push with feverish enthusiasm and esprit d’corp, then turning about and yielding to the heart, and trying to find the trail back. Trying to remember what home was, or might have been, had he still his arms and legs and eyes and head working in full and in harmony one to the other; trying to recall a life without the daily onslaught of wholesale slaughter.

A blind man who sells food to the troops outside a soldier’s hospital says to Frazier’s character: “It might have been worse had I ever been given a glimpse of the world and then lost it.” Therein is the tragedy of all who try and fail in war, and sometimes those who succeed. The journey home is slow and arduous, often impossible.

Yet this is a tale of faith and good hope. For when the illusion of politics and war fall from the eyes or make them blind, the essence of life can be grasped and perhaps it is only then that it can be grasped.

Cold Mountain is a timeless tale. Reviewers compare it to The Odyssey, but it was told long before and since. The Crusades engendered the telling of this kind of story time and again, for it was a war which was perennially lost, which makes it appropriate for today as we are in perhaps the final chapter of that 900-year-long conflict. In Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, the Templar finds no home to return to from the Crusades, only the Plague. The Robin Hood story comes from the Crusades as well, and in this telling, the warriors turn from the endless outward adventure to find again their essence; the Green Man, the Earth Mother and the tribal Albion, the White Goddess, and the woods. Frazier’s telling is related to this as it is an American telling, and the returning warrior seeks the oldest of truths and truest of guides for the white man come uninvited to a new home on a new continent – the Native American as spirit guide and guide through the psychological wilderness.

At journey’s end – the end of a short and perfect life for the protagonist - Cold Mountain’s soldier finds his heart in a Cherokee village in an Indian hut. Frazier’s journey owes to Homer, but owes more to Black Elk, who most succinctly described the journey home. This is Black Elk: “I was standing on the highest mountain of them all . . . And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being. And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all children of one mother and one father. And I saw that it was holy ... but anywhere is the center of the world.” And this is Frazier’s journey, a journey to the center of human experience.

Frazier’s two novels form a unified vision which - like the life of the white buffalo in Wisconsin; a harbinger of enlightenment and spiritual awakening to Native Americans - traverses two millennia and awakens in the second.

Thirteen Moons is again auspicious. The protagonist is named Cooper, perhaps in homage to James Fenimore Cooper, who first and foremost saw the white man and the Indian inextricably linked on this continent, and saw in the essence of the American experience the white man from Europe put aside his matrix of big ideas and city shoes and marry instead to the spirit of nature. That is Natty Bumpo, half white and half Indian, but given the Indian name, Hawkeye or Deerslayer, as the Indian nature would ascend. It is that which would allow us to turn inward. Our natures were to be one, guided by the Indian, and if we didn’t find that, we would eventually default to Europe – if only in heart and head - or die in the wilderness.

It was Chief Joseph who said, “Our spirit will walk among you,” and in Frazier’s cosmology it does.

In Thirteen Moons, Will Cooper, at the age of 12, is given a horse, a key and a map and sent alone on a journey through the wilderness to the edge of the Cherokee Nation. The map he carries brings him to the edge of Indian Territory. He stops, afraid, at entering the world which in uncharted. Like Inman, Frazier’s character in Cold Mountain, he has totem animals and spirit guides, animal and Native American.

Frazier’s mastery goes almost unnoticed, as it should with great writers, and his subtlety sometimes matches that of the Taoist monk, Han shan. At the edge of the forest, here is Cooper looking west: “ . . . the map turned abruptly white and all the geographic opinion it ventured further was the words INDIAN TERRITORY, lettered rather big. No fading or tapering off. Everything halted all at once. So the lesson the map was taught was that knowledge has strict limits, and beyond that verge the world itself might become equally unspecified and provisional. In my mind, the place thus rendered could be contained within no state and could contain within it no counties or towns . . . “

Han shan would have understood that the white space on the map was wu-chi. It is the imagination and the American journey of the mind which has not yet hatched and does not yet exist, the benign state from which tai-chi, the countervailing forces of life and the ten thousand things erupt and create the flow of history.

And this is the most auspicious vision for our country and for our new century. For here we are a people not yet born, but soon to be, and soon to find the life of the heart and the mind as we’ve not known or experienced it before - in richness, subtlety, pain and slaughter, love and yearning, peace and prosperity and all that is to come.