Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Masters of Atlantis

Masters of Atlantis was the fourth novel by Charles Portis, who is customarily identified as the author of True Grit. Familiar to American readers from the two movie versions of it (1969, 2010), True Grit is perfect of its kind, and its kind is not very hard to name. It is a first-person “adventure” novel, like Huckleberry Finn or Lolita, in which stop-and-go travel through an American landscape along with the narrator’s voice and moral intelligence—what is commonly and mistakenly called an unreliable narrator—are at least as significant as the “adventures.” Portis’s other four novels (Masters of Atlantis was followed six years later by Gringos, his last novel so far) are more resistant to classification.

None more so than Masters of Atlantis (1985). I was drawn to it for the same reason I suspect Portis might have been drawn to the subject—he has been called a “cult novelist” so often, with such mind-numbing banality, that an inside look at a real cult was badly needed to break the habit (not that it has). The 24-chapter novel recounts the history of the Gnomon Society, a cross between a secret order and a New Age religion based on “the secret wisdom of Atlantis,” from its first appearance in France in 1917 until its investigation by the Texas state senate and final consolidation some five decades later in the south Texas town of La Coma, “a town notable for its blowing paper.” The best reaction I’ve had so far was from my physical therapist, who asked excitedly what I was reading. I showed her the cover of the Overlook Press reprint edition, and her smile froze on her face as she assumed I was reading a credulous zealot’s account, an esoteric book full of esoteric knowledge, like Ignatius Donnelly’s Atlantis, which would have numbered me among the “Odd Birds,” a list of whom Lamar Jimmerson, the Master of the Society, culls for men who might be interested in Gnomonism, men

who ordered strange merchandise through the mail, went to court often, wrote letters to the editor, wore unusual headgear, kept rooms that were filled with rocks or old newspapers. In short, independent thinkers, who might be more receptive to the Atlantean lore than the general run of men.Much of what Portis is trying to do in his fiction is contained in this short passage. The difference between “independent thinkers” and full-out crackpots is thin, not always easy to see, possibly as much an accident of history as anything else.

Portis has succeeded Wright Morris as the American novelist who is known for being unknown. There are some suggestive parallels between him and Roger Miller, the singer-songwriter whose name keeps coming up in Portis’s wonderful Saturday Evening Post report on “The New Sound from Nashville,” reprinted in Jay Jennings’s indispensable new “Portis miscellany” Escape Velocity. “He’s a genius,” the songwriter Jan Crutchfield said of Miller. “[H]e was knocking around here for years and couldn’t get anywhere. They didn’t even know what he was trying to do.” Portis advances Miller’s career asa good measure of what the Grand Ole Opry is all about. In the bad old rock-’n’-roll days, the Opry stood firm when other hillbilly shows around the South were giving way. The Opry came through it and the others only managed to lose both audiences. But this same conservatism led it to overlook Miller.Almost exactly the same can be said about the literary establishment and Portis’s literary career. Perhaps the most famous critical remark about him is what gave Ed Park the title for his 2003 article in the Believer: “Charles Portis could be Cormac McCarthy if he wanted to,” the humorist Roy Blount Jr. once said, “but he’d rather be funny.” Except that Portis has nothing in common with McCarthy, not even geography. It would be more accurate to say that Portis could have been the second coming of Flannery O’Connor (“Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one”), except that he is not Catholic, his corner of Arkansas appears to be the one part of the South that is not particularly Christ-haunted, his conception of man is not theological, and his freaks are not freaks but ordinary men and women.

With all that, Masters of Atlantis reads like Wise Blood in ecstatic and sinful union with The Blithedale Romance. Gnomonism has its popularizer and traveling salesman in the figure of Austin Popper, who has “the vulgar inclination to make everything clear” and reduces the demands of becoming an Adept in the Society:The two nights of initiation were reduced to a token twenty minutes, with no insistence on figs, and the Pledge was no longer eight densely printed pages of Hermetical mystery lore and bloody vows of faith to the Ten Pillars of Atlantis—all to be recited without stumbling once—but rather one short paragraph that was little more than a bland affirmation of humility before the unseen powers of the universe.But the mystery lore and the Ten Pillars also have their credulous zealots who, just like Hollingsworth and Coverdale on their utopian farm, believe with utter sincerity that it is “wiser, if not more sagacious, to follow out one’s daydream to its natural consummation, although, if the vision have been worth the having, it is certain never to be consummated otherwise than by a failure.”

It is a tribute to Portis’s genius to have understood that, while only the popularly successful versions of esoteric spirituality—Edgar Cayce, James Redfield’s Celestine Prophecy, the Church of Scientology, the Kabbalah Center—ever win much attention in America, there are failures in esoteric spirituality too. And failure gives the lie to the American skepticism that all of these storefront churches and secret orders dedicated to the rediscovery of ancient wisdom are rackets—that they are, in Mr. Jimmerson’s own words, “running a stupendous bluff.” Americans have just as strong a talent for credulity as skepticism.

During the ’thirties, the Gnomon Society enjoys a brief period of success. The Depression leaves some men “so desperate as to seek answers in books.” The Codex Pappus, the Society’s sacred text, which Mr. Jimmerson received from the hands of Pletho Pappus himself in Europe after World War I, goes into a second printing of 5,000 copies. Mr. Jimmerson writes 101 Gnomon Facts, Why I Am a Gnomon, and Tracking the Telluric Currents. The Gnomon Temple is opened in Burnette, Indiana, “the most fashionable suburb of Gary.” But then comes the inevitable schism with the English branch of Gnomonism, and the Society enters into a long period of decline. Mr. Jimmerson is undisturbed. He prefers to think of it as “the right pitch, this drowsy afternoon air of not much going on, a state very close to that of sleep.” At the age of forty-six, he looks forward to his senescence.

Reviewing the novel for the Chicago Tribune, L. J. Davis was irked by Portis’s vagueness about the conceptual content of Gnomonism. “When Kurt Vonnegut set out to invent a religion, bokononism, in his novel Cat’s Cradle, we soon learned exactly what it was, how it worked and what its doctrines were,” Davis said; “Portis vouchsafes us no such insight.” But that was the point. At the height of its popularity, Portis writes (in a passage Davis must have overlooked), Gnomonism was attacked by bishops, “academic rationalists,” Masons, “political engineers,” and newspaper writers:None of these gentlemen could say just what Gnomonism was—the Archbishop of Chicago had it confused with Gnosticism—but they all agreed it was something to stay clear of. Why the secrecy? Who are these people? Whatever it is they are concealing must be evil. What are their long-range plans? Do they claim magical powers? What are they up to with their triangles? [Italics in original]“That fog,” as Portis says elsewhere in the book, “was there for a purpose.” New Age spirituality, of which Gnomonism is an example avant la lettre, places less emphasis on exactly what it is, on doctrines and how the new thinking works, than on its source. As a scholar of New Age religion explains, “[T]he idea is that an inner core of true spirituality lies hidden behind the outer surface of all religious traditions, and the knowledge of it has been kept alive by secret traditions throughout the ages.”[1] Even toward the end of the novel, as the Gnomon Society has dwindled to a single chapter in Texas, as the Gnomon Temple is stranded between “two parts of a divided highway” with a “maintenance yard for the city’s dump trucks and garbage trucks” in its backyard, new seekers after wisdom find their way to Gnomonism. A court stenographer from Chicago, a man in his fifties named Maurice Babcock, stumbles upon a copy of 101 Gnomon Facts, takes it home and reads it throughwith wonder, lost in triangles for the weekend. This is the stuff for me. He knew it at once. This is what I’ve been looking for. My search for certitudes is over. He hastened to Burnette and called on Mr. Jimmerson, hopeful of getting an autograph, a word or two from the Master’s lips, more and thicker books, with footnotes longer than the text proper, perhaps even a signed photograph.These secret orders and born-in-the-U.S.A. religions are real institutions of American life, perhaps even important institutions of American life, almost entirely dismissed by the literary intelligentsia. For Portis, the Gnomon Society (like any New Age religion) is only partly cause for satire, although it is most definitely cause for satire. But it is also a distinct and autonomous culture, with its central figures and hangers-on and sworn enemies, its manners and special language and idiosyncrasies of mind, which shape the lives of some people as much as love and work and politics. Without exactly taking it seriously, Portis finds it remarkable—remarkable perhaps that anyone at all finds it believable—but not grotesque or freakish so much as distinctively American, a home-made institution of independence and self-reliance.

Compare his treatment of the Gnomon Society to another literary account of uneducated white truth-seekers (because it is they who populate New Age cults). In Scott Spencer’s Men in Black (1995), a serious writer, a writer of autobiographical fiction (the only kind of writing that passes as serious in some quarters), gives up on literary failure and strikes it rich with Visitors from Above, a book about UFO’s. Sam Holland wrote the book to strike it rich, and he is contemptuous of the men and women who have made him successful:My readers had casts on their feet, Ace bandages on their ankles, patches on their eyes; they received radio signals through the fillings in their teeth; they needed to lose weight, gargle; they had lost their meager inheritances in pyramid schemes; they wouldn't mind selling you mail-order shoes or Amway kitchen cleansers; they rattled around the country on secondary roads where the gas and food were cheaper; they tested their cellars for radon; they called the Culligan Man; they watched the Christian Broadcasting System; they looked for stores that still sold eight-track tapes; they lived near electric-power-line towers the size of the Washington Monument; they had guns.Portis does not share this sense of superiority. His inside account of the Gnomon Society is hysterical, but not because it is an invitation to condescension. Portis’s many admirers like to describe his comic delivery as “deadpan,” but even this expression implies an attitude that is being suppressed, although winked at. And that’s not quite right, doesn’t quite capture Portis’s tone or stance. A clue appears when the Gnomon Society hires a journalist named Huggins to serve as editorial advisor. Huggins doesn’t last very long. He refuses to become a Gnomon, perhaps out of “a newspaperman’s terror of being duped.”

Portis himself was a newspaperman of the old style. Although he worked at the New York Herald Tribune during its glory days—he had the desk behind Tom Wolfe with a full view of the birth of the New Journalism, or at least its backside—Portis recalled that he did “more or less straight newspaper reporting,” the “old, dreary journalism.”

Along with a terror of being duped, the old dreary journalist had a terror of being wrong. In an interview, he told about being on the same story, once, with Jimmy Breslin:I had to cover a story opposite him one time in Haneyville, Alabama, one of those Ku Klux trials down there, and Claude Sitton, my national editor, was on me because Breslin, you know, was a colorful writer, and Sitton wanted more of that in my copy. I treasure the day when I was able to call Sitton and say, “Did you see that long quote in Breslin’s column today? Leroy Motten saying so and so?” I said, “It’s all made up.” Son of a bitch didn’t say it. Even had it wrong. [Ed.: See correction in comments section below.]Portis’s secret in Masters of Atlantis is to tell the story of an obscure luckless religious cult, a den of nutcases, as if it were straight reporting, factually correct, without exaggeration for comic effect. The result is so funny you can’t read it safely in a public place. Masters of Atlantis is a great joy to read—it is the very novel for which the phrase “curl up with” seems to have been invented—but it leaves a curious aftertaste. You begin to worry if the intellectual independence of which you are so proud, the principled shunning of America’s consumer culture, the patient acquisition of rare and unpopular knowledge over the course of a lifetime, doesn’t make you just as nutty as the Gnomons. Who knows but that the literary life is nothing more than another esoteric New Age religious cult?

[1] Wouter J. Hanegraaff, “New Age Religion and Secularization,” Numen 47, Fasc. 3, Religions in the Disenchanted World (2000): 292.


Andrew Fox said...

David, thank you so much for placing another book on my "must be read" list! I'm really looking forward to delving into this one.

D. G. Myers said...

Jay Jennings, the editor of Escape Velocity and a good writer in his own right, sends along a note of correction:

“One note/correction on the passage you quote from the interview: the Breslin anecdote was actually from Portis’s interviewer, the former New York Times journalist Roy Reed, who also covered the civil rights movement (later, when Portis was already writing novels). Portis had that same journalist's skepticism, but that story came from Reed.”

Portis’s comment was a snide “Not well fabricated?” As if to say: if you are going to make things up, you should at least do them well.

I too was an old, dreary journalist—a beat reporter for the Corona (Calif.) Daily Independent. Ed Ritter, my laconic and exacting editor, infected me with the terror of getting things wrong. I see that I have wandered too far from Ritter’s influence. Can I beg forgiveness from the editorial shades?

marly said...

Very interesting post. I really must read more Portis after I read the five stacks in the corner of my bedroom.

R.T. said...

Here is a question that has nothing to do with Portis. Do you detect a loss of interest and activities in the world of blogging? Among the blogs that I regularly visit--yours included--I notice that fewer visitors are making fewer comments, and bloggers are making fewer postings. This coincides with my less frequently visits to blogs and the demise of my own. What gives? Has Twitter--for one--become the new medium? Does this mean the short-attention span folks have replaced blogging and bloggers? Where will critics and readers go for the more substantial outlet provided in blogging? Hey, I'm just wondering.

D. G. Myers said...

Well, Tim, my blog has never attracted an overabundance of comments. And except for my first year on the scene, when I was quarrying my files and notebooks, I have always been a relatively infrequent blogger.

My relative infrequency has become an absolute infrequency in recent months as my health has taken a turn for the worse.

R.T. said...

I shudder at such news. In response, with all my heart, I wish you better health.

Unknown said...

I shudder, too, and fervently second that wish. In truth, I've long been amazed at how productive you are, and sure hope you stick around to give us more delightful, wise, and just plain informative posts like the above.

Unknown said...

P.S. TRUE GRIT had me at its opening lines:

People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day. I was just fourteen years of age when a coward going by the name of Tom Chaney shot my father down in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and robbed him of his
life and his horse and $150 in cash money plus two California gold pieces that he carried in his trouser band.

And I particularly love the following passage:

I went to the sheriff’s office. The sheriff was friendly and he gave me the full particulars on the shooting, but I was disappointed to learn how little had been done toward the apprehension of Tom Chaney. They had not even got his name right. The sheriff said, “We do know this much. He was a short
man but well set up. He had a black mark on his cheek. His name is Chambers. He is now over in the Territory and we think he was in the party with Lucky Ned Pepper that robbed a mail hack Tuesday down on the Poteau River.”

I said, “That is the description of Tom Chaney. There is no Chambers to it. He got that black mark in Louisiana when a man shot a pistol in his face and the powder got under the skin. I know him and can identify him. Why are you not out looking for him?”

The sheriff said, “I have no authority in the Indian Nation. He is now the business of the U.S. marshals.”

I said, “When will they arrest him?”

He said, “It is hard to say. They will have to catch him first.”

I said, “Do you know if they are even after him?”

He said, “Yes, I have asked for a fugitive warrant and I expect there is a Federal John Doe warrant on him now for the mail robbery. I will inform the marshals as to the correct name.”

“I will inform them myself,” said I. “Who is the best marshal they have?”

The sheriff thought on it for a minute. He said, “I would have to weigh that proposition. There is near about two hundred of them. I reckon William Waters is the best tracker. He is a half-breed
Comanche and it is something to see, watching him look for signs. The meanest one is Rooster Cogburn. He is a pitiless man, double-tough, and fear don’t enter into his thinking. He loves to pull a cork. Now L. T. Quinn, he brings his prisoners in alive. He may let one get by now and then but he believes even the worst of men is entitled to a fair shake. Also the court does not pay any fees for dead men. Quinn is a good peace officer and a lay preacher to boot. He will not plant evidence or abuse a prisoner. He is straight as a string. Yes, I will say Quinn is about the best they have.”

I said, “Where can I find this Rooster?”

Unknown said...

Sent for "Masters of Atlantis" after reading this column and enjoyed it in its entirety over this weekend. It's everything you say, including the unexpected touches that make one laugh out loud. Wonderful comic prose that at times reminded me of Vonnegut (or yes, Twain), more often of Bruce Jay Friedman, but whose tone is otherwise unlike anything I've read before. My only problem now is deciding which of several friends I should pass the book on to first.