In Alan Rossi’s, Mountain Road, Late at Night, Nathaniel, from whose perspective the first quarter of the novel is told, has just lost his brother, Nicholas, who he remembers as having had “beautiful and ardent thoughts about life,” but who lived in a remote cabin hundreds of miles from the family now descending on it to mourn him and determine the custody of his surviving four-year old son. The dead brother’s place of domicile, thirty miles from the Appalachian town where he taught, suggests a choice, like Thoreau’s, to separate from others, and if not reject them, then reject their way of life. Nicholas’s book, a popular one in town, is about “nature containing a hidden intelligence,” and calls to mind Thoreau’s injunction that “the ears were made, not for such trivial uses as men are wont to suppose, but to hear celestial sounds. The eyes were not made for such groveling uses as they are now put to and worn out by, but to behold beauty now invisible.” While he lived on Walden Pond, Thoreau wrote his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, about a journey he took by boat with his late brother John, a journey he came to see, in its writing, as a spiritual one. Spiritual people, he wrote, were our astronomers. For Nicholas, meaning and truth will begin to emerge while he is dying, looking up at the night sky, at the end of a journey of images.
While the second and third sections of the novel present the perspectives of Nicholas’s mother and mother-in-law, the first and final sections are told from the perspective of the brothers themselves. Nathaniel remembers that Nicholas had believed nature possessed an illuminating power:
[‘]They who doubt that the mountains are walking do not yet understand their own walking.’ Nathaniel had read the passage so many times he had it memorized, and he had asked Nicholas about it several times, only for Nicholas to respond that they’d talk about it in person when Nathaniel visited next, but that visit never occurred. Was it something about knowing nature, being close to nature, Nathaniel thought now? Something about people’s oneness with nature?
Multiple perspectives suggest centrifugal directions but here they are held together around a deeper level of identification. Perhaps this is to be expected with family members, but while each displays filial concern and devotion to four-year old Jack, and mourns his mother April, dead in the same car accident that took Nicholas’s life, what they secretly share is their helpless orbit around their own selfishness, secret not only because inconsistent with their outward displays of empathy, but because they are each unable to come to terms with it, the expanding universe of their concern always extrapolated backwards towards their own self-seeking.
In each of the four sections, each approximately sixty pages, there is a recognition that not only family members, even extended ones, are versions of one another, but that at bottom it is the lack of differentiation that fuels their rivalries and veiled antagonisms, a principle that extends to the citizens of the country itself, each part of a family more alike than different, each sensing a form of their own fate in their purported rival’s, and each attempting to turn that fate into a power. At his brother’s cabin, Nathaniel, who seems to see in Nicholas something of an ideal to which he has fallen short, looks for nature to disclose hidden meaning, including, most importantly, meaning that he may be hiding from himself:
Nathaniel had forgotten how quiet his brother’s place could be, how quiet the nearby town was. Even the rain, the reverberating thunder, felt as though it emphasized the quiet of the mountain rather than negating it…
He could hear, just under the rain, the stream that passed by his brother’s cabin, and as the rain lessened, the two different sounds of water created one sound, both seemingly issuing from the underlying silence and Nathaniel felt he was on the verge of sensing something significant.
Often this identification presents itself in various forms of doubling. The temporary peace of mind Nathaniel achieves falling asleep in the mountains— “when he got into bed he couldn’t remember falling asleep or thinking anything on the way to sleep which was what normally happened at home in their condo”—is mirrored in the long-sought-for transcendence Nicholas finally achieves in the same mountains a few days before, as he lay dying. The brothers bookend another set of doubles, sisters of a kind, who narrate the second and third sections of the novel, titled, respectively and eponymously, Katherine and Tammy (just as the first and fourth sections are titled Nathaniel and Nicholas) and both with boyfriends who think they know them better than themselves, par for the course in a book whose characters search for who they are, and how they fit in, by creating false polarities, and just like their fellow citizens, criticize everybody but themselves. The sets of doubles are versions, in metaphysical terms, of the two faces, one male and one female, Nicholas sees as he lay dying in his car:
His breath still slowly moving out from him and breathing them all out, up the drops of rain, up through the mist, beyond the mist up through the treetops with just sprouting leaves, up beyond the treetops – his body lying on the ground bleeding – up into the raincloud, a grey growth on the sky, up beyond it into the dark blue night and beyond the moon swiftly passing by, planets, beyond the solar system into some darkness and then a galaxy and the faces behind it…
The epigraphs that precede each of the four sections pull from Eastern sources like the Four Great Bodhisattva Vows and Western ones like The Waste Land, suggesting a back and forth between meontic and memetic traditions. As a novel told from four different perspectives, it evokes Faulkner’s The Sound and The Fury, or more recently, Jesmyn Ward’s, Sing, Unburied, Sing, but suggests, in its discourse with Eastern philosophy, a stance athwart that hermeneutical circle, and therefore not completely intelligible in a Western context, at least with respect to the mysteries of consciousness. In its conjoining of Eastern and Western traditions, it is a medley typical of this writer’s work. Mountain Road, Late at Night, published by Picador, is Rossi’s first novel, but his stories often have often had such a commingling:
He connected through Skype with Elise Grantwell. She was fortyish, lived in Washington DC and was – as she had explained to the Buddhist in an earlier email – having some intense episodes of stress, paranoia and self-loathing, which often led to panic attacks, all due to her job as a defense attorney.
Rossi is of course not the first American writer to be influenced by Eastern thought. If Thoreau is sometimes thought of as the literary conscience of America, the river at Walden was to him the Ganges. Eliot, too, paid his respects: the last two lines of The Waste Land pull from that tradition, even if only ironically, as some say, and even if only to be added to the anarchy of voices that characterize the poem:
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.
Shantih shantih shantih
There is something yogic about the way Nicholas seems to hold different positions as he attempts to extricate himself from the car in which he is dying while trying, at the same time, to gain spiritual insight. If such is the bricolage out of which this book is built, that each excruciating movement of his body also seems capable of being read as an asana, one attempted, moreover, to achieve spiritual insight by “baking” the body, as the fifteenth century Gheranda Samhita exhorts, “in the fire of yoga,” then Nicholas’s “basic routine” can be seen as beginning with a kind mountain pose, and then moving through thunderbolt and tree poses, his body twisting, and towards the end, inverting, each “pose” an exterior correlate to an interior state, until the corpse pose is achieved, his mind quiet and at peace, his agitation overcome:
He pulled at the belt and felt wrenched back into place, a screaming pain through his body, which was his own scream. Then, the pain pulling back like a wave receding back into the ocean, the voice telling him to stay calm, to breathe.
The epigraph from Eliot that begins the book, “Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison,” pointedly reinforces the Eastern notion that any proposed solution creates, rather than solves, any problem. The self and the universal self must instead merge, requiring a power of attention, a link between the knower and the known that is something Nicholas is able to begin to achieve only while in his impossible prison. The unattended car in the woods is at the same time a crucible and synecdoche for the human in the world—each of us, to one degree or another, in this position and sharing the darkness from which the fourth and final section of the novel takes its epigraph:
Yumen said to the assembly, ‘All people are in the midst of illumination. When you look at it, you don’t see it, everything seems dark and dim. How is it being in the midst of illumination?
—THE TRUE DHARMA EYE, CASE 81
In the Western context, one could also call upon Rilke’s verses about his friend Cezanne’s “holy,” because “possessionless” gaze, as well as Rilke’s idea that all real art is the result of one’s having been in danger. East or West, it is a mistake to see the self as everything:
For a moment, the physical world – rainfall, woods, tree trunks, the slip of dark sky he could see, the rising crescent moon, damp mud and fungus-y earth smell, mist moving between the trees, the spiderweb vibrating in the rain – manifested itself as a stronger reality than his mind, and he tried to let himself go out into it, and he felt something in him pulling outward.
In Journey to the West, Wu Cheng’en’s popular retelling of Xuanzang’s legendary seventh-century quest for Buddhist scriptures, the author gave his beloved Monkey character the Dharma name Sun Wukong, or Monkey Awakened to Emptiness. There are of course many other examples where awakening to emptiness, or nothingness, is depicted as an achievement, a characterization to be contrasted with what might be called the Western, or Faustian view, which encourages the extraction of knowledge in order to control fear of that emptiness, or nothingness, a nothingness sometimes represented in American literature as nature itself. Rabbit, the subject of John Updike’s four-volume survey of American life, views nature as scary, as “junk,” something that must be controlled. In contrast, Nicholas, while dying, and while “feeling an enormous fear that was the fear of itself,” is somehow capable at the same time of “awe” and “gratitude” for the woods that surround him and that cut him off from rescue.
Transcendentalists like Thoreau and Emerson and Fuller called for “periods of withdrawal” from society, not only to commune with nature but because of the “imbecility of society” that they feared might draw them in—returning only when “the renovating fountains” of individuality had had time to bubble up. Even while the “dead brother and his dead wife had chosen this town, and this place in particular, for its remoteness,” it is a Walden, even in the wilderness, more of the mind than of anything else:
Standing on the porch, Nathanial could see the town in his mind: the old buildings set in the Blue Ridge Mountains, a part of Appalachia that was just slightly distanced from authentic Appalachia, a place mainly for middle- and upper class white people, a destination for travelers who wanted sweeping vistas of blue mountains in the summer, achingly beautiful trees shifting shade in the fall, snow-capped peaks in the winter, and relatively few foreigners, brown people, Nathaniel thought.
Or as Nicholas’s mother, Katherine, who publicly refuses to speak to honor her dead son, but who is at the same time Skyping with her lover while her husband is out getting groceries, sees it:
She didn’t dislike the town in its entirety, but the sort of detached, hippie view of things, the hip-Appalachia façade, coupled with the Cracker Barrel aesthetic of the surrounding rural areas, was more annoying to her than anything she encountered in the medium-sized city she lived in. Everyone here was so ‘authentic’: musicians, artists, outdoorsmen, hunters, academics. A weird little mix of a community.
As the professoriates (of which Katherine, her lover, and her husband also count themselves) might say, the original has disappeared and, since authenticity is now a brand, what takes place is not a town but a simulacrum of a town. To complete the equation, however, they would have to add that the town they despise is also a sign of its subordination to a global, professional elite, forever radiant, as Baudrillard says, with their own fascination. The repetitive circling around the self that is the undercurrent of the four-part structure of the novel is, in Katherine’s section, demonstrated by just such self-fascination, making it impossible for her to come close to achieving the kind of self-reflective distance exhorted in its epigraph:
Thought after thought, do not become attached. […] Whether it’s a past thought, a present thought, or a future thought, let one thought follow another without becoming attached. […] Once you become attached to one thought, you become attached to every thought, which is what we call bondage. But when you go from one thought to another without becoming attached, there is no bondage.
Katherine’s husband David, who teaches law, comes closer, perhaps because he is a “remote man,” who lives at a “distance from the world, as though he were an alien sent to observe and watch.” Thoreau approved of men “who preserve an appropriate sense of distance,” but David’s distance is from the truth. Missing what his wife is hiding from him, he misses that her bondage is not only to the fact of their son’s death but to her affair with a younger colleague and which, seemingly against her own wishes, she continues to pursue even as she mourns her son:
She rubbed her cheeks for a moment, reddening them, then looked at herself in the Skype window again. She was wearing her Professor Sweater….Professor Sweater with jeans, David liked to say. Very professorial of you. Immediate profundity. A presence of ever-refining knowledge. Cute, too. The thought of David out in the world, her in here talking with Louis Walters, made her wince, close her eyes. When she opened them again she couldn’t understand why she was talking to Louis Walters when she didn’t want to be talking to him, didn’t want to be hurting David, didn’t want to be doing any of this. Yet she was.
Except for Nathaniel, Nicholas’s is a family of professors. Tammy, April’s mother, driving in from Idaho, is referenced by them as “this Tammy woman,” and serves as a kind of stand-in for the part of the country that this professorial elite doesn’t think very much of, and vice versa. But Tammy’s quest, too, is soteriological, and just like them, she is going about it in all the wrong ways, seeing the surviving child as the way to save her own life. Just as the professors are cultural pimps, interested in art and ideas only to service their careers, and love lives, Tammy, too, has turned her deepest commitments into business models. They are appalling mirrors of one another:
She knew that nothing she did could undo what she’d done. Her life was saturated with what she’d done. Jack was the only way to correct any of it. She saw images of him in bed, reading or singing him to sleep, images of him at the dinner table with Steve, Steve cutting his food into small bites, images of the boy on a rope swing once they found a little house, some place with a yard for the boy, images of him when she had to discipline him, but not in the way she did with April, not the shouting and arguing she did with April, a more controlled, motherly version of herself, and then, when the boy got older, images of him looking through her records, listening to old music, classic rock and Motown and jazz and her telling him the meaning of these songs to her…
Tammy isn’t told about the accident until four days after her daughter’s death, making her argument that one side in our polarized country has gone forward without caring about the other: “The other side of the family was already there. They were already making plans. Without her. So, she had no choice. She was going.” She was leaving Boise, and her boyfriend, Steve, who works “on the road” for UPS, behind, thinking that “[t]hey’re probably debating how much money to give her that would equate to a grandmother’s relationship to a four-year-old boy.”
Rossi’s novel is not plot driven, unless the episodic drive towards and away from enlightenment might be described as such. In a spiritual sense, the four main characters are also their own doubles. Tammy, on the road to North Carolina, wants “to shout at this other Tammy, this annoying double of her: shut the fuck up.” The narcissism that is the psychological origin of such doubling is portrayed in Rossi’s characters as an inability to escape one’s prejudices— or as Faulkner wrote in Absalom, Absalom!, “You cannot know yet whether what you see is what you are looking at or what you are believing.” Rossi’s novel also casts implicit judgment on the country, a fifth character, so to speak, enveloped in its own darkness and civil crisis, the search for common ground made impossible by its own self-division, each side of its own divided self projecting its unacceptable urges on the other.
Some form of struggle with the will seems to be taking place in each of Rossi’s characters. It is the will itself that is standing in the way of the peace they seek, and the measure of their enlightenment seems based on the extent to which they come to realize this adversarial relationship. While classical Western conceptions of free will assume many wills in conflict within one person, and the will divided against itself is a classic feature of Western literature, the incompatibility between its Eastern and Western understandings, implied in the novel’s epigraphs, foreshadows that only Nicholas will be able to rise above the confusion, achieve peace, though do so only in death.
The novel’s title suggests a place but, without an article in the title, not necessarily a particular one. Tucked within the larger Appalachian Mountain range, the Blue Ridge, running through the Mid-Atlantic, is also a kind of mountain road, and the description of Nicholas’s death suggests the interpenetration of physical and spiritual worlds on that road, and that those energies, though sacred and separate chambers each, can and do accommodate one another. In the final section, Rossi’s four-to-five-page paragraphs move from an emphasis on trying to capture what each character thinks about their own thinking as they try to understand, and then reframe that thinking, to attempting to capture, in Nicholas’s struggle, what such animism might look like, as the flashing appearances of mountains and rain and owl suggest that that it is the blurring of boundaries between self and other that is linked to self-knowledge.
In comments attached to his 2015 Pushcart Prize-winning story, “Unmoving Like a Mighty River Stilled,” Rossi said his goal was to “create a consciousness more than a story.” The story, published in the Fall 2013 edition of The Missouri Review, seems central in the author’s development: “…I was really tired of writing stories where ‘things happened.’ I wanted to write a story where nothing, absolutely nothing happened for as long as possible. Something more like my own experience of being alive and having a day happen.” In the story, Kiernan is ruminating in the backseat on his way to a rock climb, but “sick” of his fellow rock climbers, and most of all himself, as they drive through the Sierras, planning to add video to their website and a possible documentary:
…he wanted to get back to thinking about what he was thinking about, which, even while conversing, he had been thinking about: the spiritual nature of the climb and the memory that that had caused to surface about his wife. The notion of climbing as a spiritual act, of losing self…
The remote cabin in Rossi’s novel is also suggestive of his notion of what must be done with desire and attachment. Cabin is also a verb:
He had wanted to be in magazines and have his name printed and for people to recognize him, glossed out and his name there in black, and himself hopping into a canyon or hanging from a headwall, certainly, yes, he had maybe even dreamed of these things, desiring it maybe too much, wanting it all too much. Now, now, though, now he hated it, hated looking at himself. He did not want to see what putting up the photos and videos did for anyone, especially himself. Everyone else had done everything anyway; every spot they had been to had been recorded before; every recording was really a re-recording. Nothing original.
In another Fall 2013 publication, “No Try, Only Do,” in New Ohio Review, a rare Rossi story with a form of punctuation in the title, the narrator has just given her ex a place to stay:
Two years prior, he had left me for Utah. He left me for the wild, backcountry slopes. He wanted to be in glossy magazines and have his ponytail flowing out behind him in pictures, carving some mountain, dropping through powder. He spoke like this, dropping through powder. I tried to tell myself I couldn’t be too mad: he paid more attention to skis and skiing forums than he did to me. In Utah, he grew his hair long and beautiful and got in some of those magazines, though mainly he just put up pictures of himself on the Internet.
One can’t help seeing Rossi’s emerging style—as well as his themes—as an attempt to unlearn, or escape a curriculum based on getting published and finding an agent, a sterile atmosphere reflected in the family of professors in his novel, who mistake academic with moral excellence. In Mountain Road Late at Night, the action has taken place before the book begins, so the plot is not so much about what happens, or what its characters need to know, but about how they should feel about what they already know. To quote the title of another Rossi story, another way the universe communicates its presence to itself is by pointing out what everyone is hiding from themselves:
They walked farther into the woods, and what had seemed to be a slightly windy day out on the expanse of the field felt different in the forest, which was incredibly still and quiet, and despite being focused on their discussion, they both separately noticed this sudden change in environment, the stark quiet, and then after a moment, in that quiet, noises of birds and insects and the stream seemed to emerge as if from a void, as though the quiet were constructing noise for play, and then the whine of cicadas, high in the tops of trees, as though summer were communicating its presence to itself, simply another way the universe communicated its presence to itself.
—”Another Way the Universe Communicates its Presence to Itself”
As a cook, Nathaniel has a kind of ars poetica, which seems also a stand-in for Rossi’s, who shares with him an obvious devotion to craft, whatever the personal cost:
He was selfish and idealistic about his job, which was a thing he didn’t think he should have to fight for, the fighting ruined some part of it, and he knew that she knew this made him, often, like now, feel shitty. Like maybe he wasn’t actually good at what he did – maybe he was just lucky even to work for the Camerons. And because of all this, he thought, maybe the clear answer here was to just let Tammy have Jack because he already had to go back home in a few days and deal with the fallout from a mediocre review of his spring menu at the country club, a review which had called the menu theoretically interesting, but almost too interested in the small things, in pure tastes, so that everything was a little bland. As though Nathaniel had any real choice in that menu. He had to go back home and deal with that on top of the ever-pervasive stigma about vegetarian food in the first place, as though good vegetarian food can’t be rustic and elegant, can’t be simple and complex, can’t taste great and be affordable, that it’s either plates of mush or salads.
Rossi’s sentences mirror patterns of thinking, the kind of thinking that all of us do when alone, and the only reality we can be sure exists. The sentences are meditative, offer a way to gather the reader into the present moment, and even if a present the character cannot achieve, the reader can. Near the end of one four-page paragraph in which Katherine is thinking about her affair, she examines her own thinking, its repeated self-serving application of certain formulae:
She was free to be desired again. So maybe that was why Louis Walters. It wasn’t that David made her feel alone, it was that he made her feel ignored. Though when she thought this, which she had thought before in the same way she was thinking of it now, as though it was the narrative of her life, the recursive theme of her thinking, which she constantly ignored and then re-approached: did it actually matter what the motivation was if the act itself was a hurtful one? Was she simply distracting herself from what she was actually doing by thinking that there was some way that what she was doing could be justified?
While there is a repetitive structure to our thinking, it is also a receding landscape, hard to grasp. And while there is doubling throughout the novel, it is always a double with a difference, and so one that can disguise itself as other. Rossi’s sentences mirror and at the same time evoke that double, but then turn back on themselves, ouroboros-like, hinting at a hidden substrate that underlays all, perhaps the invisible source of life and death itself. As Tammy is driving to the house she thinks about and sees images of nighttime cars crashes:
Ahead on the sloping road, Tammy saw the old city growing larger, with more and more distinct buildings and lights. It was far down the mountain and appeared to be spread across both sides of the highway. She could see a car, flipped on the other side of the highway, two police cars surrounding it, and a long line of headlights stretching down the mountain road. On her side of the highway, two cars cutting off two lanes, police cars and an ambulance near them. Who were these people? Sitting in traffic, she began crying, thinking of people down there driving somewhere. Thinking of herself driving somewhere. Thinking of April alone on the road at night. She’d be thrown from the car. Her body in the woods. She thought of April and Nicholas and Jack, and she thought of her thinking of them, which equaled her treatment of them, and felt like wanting to admit something to someone, though she didn’t know what. The cars in front of her advanced against the rainy night. The black of the pavement ahead of her was mirror-like and shining in the rain. The headlights of the on-coming cars were reflected right below those same cars, as though there was another world just below and opposite this one.
America, a Rashomon
Mourning death by terrible surprise, people are captured as they are, not as they hope to be seen. For Nicholas’s mother, Katherine, insights fall within a very narrow range, and tend, in mourning, to focus on condemnation of the townspeople for their “superficial sympathy.” Skyping with her lover, she admits that her vow of silence comes not so much from her grief over her son’s death, or her desire to emulate her son’s once-a-year week of silence, but because of the way her server, who knew Nathaniel and April, expressed her sympathy at a local diner:
I’m so sorry for your loss, she said to us. Nicholas and April and Jack sometimes came in here. We all loved them so much. It’s such a tragedy. Poor Jack. Poor little thing, I can’t imagine. I have a boy who’s four and a little girl, just one a few weeks ago. I can’t imagine it at all. They’re my heart. Katherine wrote to Louis Walters that she remembered the way the waitress had stood there holding their plates of food, an early bird special and a vegetable omelet. I decided right then I wasn’t doing this, she wrote. I wouldn’t suffer the inanities of an entire town’s superficial sympathy. I looked coldly at the girl, feeling my anger like a kind of force field around me. I wanted to project it out, to touch this Amanda woman with it. David saw this I think and to interrupt me he said, Thank you for that, Amanda. Now, I think our breakfast is getting cold. And the woman, startled, had said, Oh my god, I’m so sorry, and set our plates down. Whenever she returned, to fill up water, or coffee, she did the same sort of sad, pursed lip understanding face the manager at the restaurant had made the night before, the same one that all people had been making in order to convey their sadness and understanding. Eventually I stopped drinking the coffee and water, stopped eating. I just wanted to leave. When we finished the breakfast and went to our hotel, David asked why I hadn’t said a word through breakfast. He asked if I was all right. I pulled a pad of paper from the desk, wrote on it that I was now in a period of silence. I didn’t know for how long. That’s what started it. Even writing this now feels like a cop out.
Her various dissections of the town and its citizens is analytic, reductionist, presumed right and, as such, self-justifying. Part of Rossi’s brilliance is that it is through her that the Western perspective is best presented as limited, most in need of transcendence. Making finer and finer distinctions is also a form of parochialism.
While the worst about our elite is confirmed, Tammy, driving in from Idaho, and who seems to stand in for another part of the country, fares no better. Her daughter April now dead, Tammy is driving out of the West to her extended family in the Blue Ridge, a place leveled, like every other place where the two Americas come head-to-head, by the terrible truth that we are in it all together, not only because part of a democracy, but because suffering from the same disease:
Driving alone in a car through the night to a place full of people who were going to be against you, going to fight you, who didn’t know you and didn’t to know you and never would know you, and whose lives were, in all their stupidity and selfishness and privilege, completely separate and unknowable to you, too, and which you didn’t want to know, and yet you kept driving through the night toward these people who didn’t want anything to do with you all.
As Rossi has written in, “Notes on Craft,” an essay published in Granta, “what’s even more subtle and difficult here is that we convince ourselves that we aren’t selfish, that this is just the way the world is, that we’re enlightened, honest people, with maybe some parts to improve, but generally speaking, Woke.” Rossi is interested in what it “would it be to finally begin to see the nature of one’s self-concern.” In their insistence on themselves, both sides of a polarized country mirror one another, but unbeknownst to themselves their sameness, the fact that their salvation is more likely communal than individual, elevates their blind spots into national tragedy.
A Merciful Darkness
To both sides, gentleness and peacefulness is the real enemy, the unacceptable goad. While dying in his car, truth will reveal itself to Nicholas as “expressionless and calm.” He will find, if not where it comes from, then how it is achieved. East and West alike attend to the symbolic importance of breath. The Bible begins with breath upon the waters. In yoga and meditation practice, breath helps in realizing the ultimate spiritual reality of the universe. For Rossi, mastery and mystery come together in the creative act.
If we merely extract the parts of Eastern philosophy that “work,” breathing calms the mind, but its practice is not merely meant to be “therapeutic.” As Ezra Pound said, technique is the test of sincerity. Its practice teaches the ability to be still, but it can also teach absorption in the infinite even while dying in a car, absorption in a life force permeating person and world, driving a oneness that removes obstructions, not only to help face stressful situations, but transform hearts:
He heard himself sort of whimpering and sobbing, breathing quickly, and saying, Okay, okay, I won’t, I won’t move, as though he was talking to his own body from outside it. He tried to make himself very still and breathed and breathed and tried to slow himself down, just like he’d been practicing on the mountain. He suddenly understood that this was an opportunity to view things as he’d been trying to view things, without any positives or negatives, but just to constantly be learning from his existence, and to be able to calmly approach all situations, and yet, despite this understanding, he felt himself trying to not think that he was stuck here, trying to not think that he was not only stuck but trapped and could die here, trying instead to allow the part of himself that believed that he could get out to take over his thinking.
Just before the car crash, Nicholas and April had been fighting about his seeming flirtation with a colleague at the party they had been attending to celebrate his tenure award. Nicholas replays the conservation, regretting it is the last one he will ever have with his wife, his mind a secret enemy and treacherous friend as he seeks a way of liberation, and attempts to transform darkness into light:
He remembered being in the kitchen, and in remembering it, he recreated it, being in the kitchen, whose faucet was dripping slowly, enjoying this other woman talking to him and possibly flirting with him and him possibly flirting with her, her being impressed by something he’d written in one of his books, which April maybe hadn’t been eavesdropping on yet, her looking different from April, her face different from April’s… the rest of her body different, slightly younger, maybe more in shape, maybe her breasts a little bit smaller than April’s…the recognition of her different body instantly manifesting as sexual attraction, him briefly wanting her (and, secondarily, annoyed that he was wanting her, annoyed that something in him was attracted to her, and annoyed that, once again, his biology was taking over, compelling him, this other side of him he associated as being the negative, selfish, probably more primitive side), her voice different, her opinions different, her thoughts and feelings different from April’s, her interest in him newer and different and in all likelihood caused because she didn’t actually know him. At the same time that he felt and sensed all of this and both enjoyed it and wanted her with some part observing that he didn’t want her, and feeling a little repulsed by his own wanting, he also was listening to the dripping faucet. The drops of water spaced perfectly, like the metronome of his thoughts. Something about the slow drops slowed his mind, slowed Nora Evans speaking, slowed his occasional look past Nora Evans to the party in the other room, everything moving slower, even his sudden wanting of her moving slower, so that he could see it. Suddenly a drop of water in the sink seemed to reverberate like a bell through the mind, rippling out and settling the surface of the water of his mind into a glassy stillness so that the kitchen and Nora Evans and the party and everything almost rippled to a stop, and while waiting for the next drop, the moment in the kitchen slowed so much that he suddenly saw, and saw again, his wanting this person as purposeless and selfish and completely biological and as only leading to dissatisfaction – which, in some way, was exactly what it led to: the fight in the car – and saw Nora as somehow being the same as April.
As Simone Weil said, we are saved by attention, not by will:
Out the passenger-side window where April’s profile should’ve been, shifting his head ever so slightly, he saw, on the road, directly in the middle of the road, what appeared to be a hawk. He closed his eyes and opened them and looked and saw the bird was not a hawk, but an owl. He saw the animal in profile, its round head, wings like hunched shoulders, claws on the ground, all visible in the moonlight. The owl stood and slowly rotated its head with its hooked beak and large eyes like a cat’s. It looked into the car at him. The owl’s entire body turned, though its head stayed facing him, and it seemed to lean over and stretch forward, to see him. He didn’t know if this was real, or if he was dreaming, and the owl’s head seemed to move in response, as though it was confused by his thoughts, and then his eyes and the owl’s aligned and he felt a rushing toward the animal and it moving toward him, though the same space separated them, as though the animal’s eyes were pulling him out of the car and himself, and for a moment he seemed to see his own face, the eyes with which he watched the owl the same eyes with which the owl watched him.
In the end, differences are seen for what they are—extensions of selfishness, that make even a custody battle look ridiculous. And Nicholas was just as selfish as everybody else, as we finally get April’s side of the argument. She wasn’t jealous of his colleague, but the fact that once again he was taking credit for something he didn’t do:
Then he remembered, at the sort of climax of the fight, that she’d said that she was upset not because of the flirting and not only because Nora Evans was using April as part of her flirtation method, but because Nora Evans had said something about Nicholas bringing the family off the grid, and he hadn’t corrected her. In fact, he’d gone along with it. When the whole thing was my idea, she had said. It was my suggestion to get you out of that job you hated. My suggestion to move to some place quieter, slower. My suggestion to get out of the city. I know you remember that I told you that maybe you needed a place where you could see what you were doing again, I know you remember that, but what I remember thinking was that I was getting sick of you bitching about how everything was wrong, the fast pace was wrong, driving in cars was wrong, TV, social media, publishing, your job, and I framed it like that, move to some place quieter because I was sick of hearing you complain.
Even Nicholas’s devotion to family, she says, was a kind of pose, an extension of his essential selfishness:
You always eliminate Jack and me. You always say, I live in the mountains of North Carolina. I live off the grid. I took my family off the grid. But you wouldn’t have done any of that had I not shown you the books and the websites and introduced you to some people to help us do it. It was my idea and you make it seem like you grew a beard, put on a flannel, grabbed an axe, and created the entirety of our life by hewing thatch huts for us to live in.
The divisions in the country, too, are artificial. Nicholas and April escaped to the cabin only to create their own island of selfishness. To quote another line from The Waste Land, the last line of Part I, The Burial of the Dead, which is itself taken from Baudelaire: “You! hypocrite lecteur!—mon semblable,—mon frère!” Or put another way, the community of believers is God. In both Eastern and Western traditions, piety is of the highest order of importance: pious Confucius, pious Aeneus.
Taking the appointment that all of us must take, asking the questions all of us must ask during the union of the individual with whatever forces await, Nicholas seems to come to the realization that the life force that permeates him is shared by everyone else, even Tammy. It is that realization, and that realization alone that makes death bearable. The corpse pose is also an asana, and like the others, meant to bring enlightenment, bringing the spiritual cosmic breath into contact with individuals. Arjuna going to war, Thoreau building his house, Eliot writing his Wasteland, all realize the ultimate spiritual reality of the universe. The Waste Land ends with what the thunder said and, in a manner of speaking, so does Mountain Road, Late at Night:
The sound of thunder reverberated through the car. He felt it in the ground, and heard the rain increase, and then felt rainwater running under him, as though the thunder had loosened some pocket of water somewhere. The little stream went right by his face and he moved his neck to lap at it, his mouth so dry, and what he tasted was water mixed with his own blood, and he momentarily became lightheaded again and nauseated.
The last four-page paragraph of the book begins with a single sentence almost three pages long, perhaps because the final enlightenment cannot allow for separability, nor manipulability. There is a describable infinite, along with the ways of access into that infinite. What Nicholas sees is the future, but through an infinite lens now, his vision the product of what the Christian Mystics would have called his lifelong heat of desire for growth in his spiritual life, a holy desire running counterpoint to his earthly life, one that finally allows him to see contingency disappear, permitting a speaking voice to be heard:
…the flashing image of the body on the ground – a gaseous cloud that was passing through faster into the blackness toward the two faces which slowly merged into one expressionless and calm face which at the same moment dispersed into being the web of the universe which was a mind and every mind and yet also there was the body on the ground trying to hold a hand though there was no hand to hold…
Nicholas’s death may also be read as a model and a template for overcoming modernity. For Rossi, the twin contexts of East and West finally come together in their soteriology. To get beyond the self we must go into and through our selfishness. It is the blight man was born for. Nicholas’s body’s series of poses is also, in a sense, stations of the cross. The Four Great Bodhisattva Vows, which begin the book, are not inconsistent with a Western, Christian-like sacrifice, in which a being, finally enlightened, refuses release and vows to stay behind for the sake of others. According to Aristotle, the best plots involve reversals and recognitions:
…Jack sitting between Nicholas’s father and mother and watching a movie, Jack playing with Tammy, who’d moved across the country, Jack doing flashcards with her, Jack showing her videos of Nathaniel cooking online, Jack growing taller, Jack with his friends, Jack moving to a new house in the suburbs, Jack with new friends and girlfriends, Jack through his life thinking of Nicholas and April, Jack missing them, Jack wanting them back, Jack seeing his father in Nathaniel, his mother in Tammy, Jack missing his mom and dad, Jack wondering who they were, where they were, if they could hear him, if they couldn’t, Jack talking to them, Jack no longer talking to them, Jack forgetting them, Jack becoming Jack, Jack’s life moving in a slow bloom outward like a flower opening and all the people around him doing exactly as he and April had done, trying, despite their selfishness, to be there for him, to be there for him in his sadness at losing his parents, to be there for him at his first soccer game, to be there for him when he hated them, when he loved them, when he felt cared for, when he didn’t, when he wanted them, when he didn’t, when they thought he was being difficult, when he was, when he wasn’t, when they were too busy to be there for him, when they weren’t, when they held him, punished him, thought they knew how to raise him, didn’t know, when they judged, blamed, accused each other, when they didn’t, when they needed each other, when they each wanted to do it alone, when they were right, wrong, open, closed, considering Jack, considering themselves, when they gossiped behind each other’s backs and Jack heard and felt alone amid the fighting and arguing, when he felt the family members, on a car drive, on a walk, while eating pizza, subtly suggesting that this person was not good enough, that this other person was, when they relented to each other, when they all saw beyond themselves, when they failed to, when they remembered that they had all agreed to do it together, when they all did it together, for Jack they all did it together, whether they wanted to or not, when Jack felt it, when he didn’t, all their concern and neglect and selfishness and judgment and greed and delusion and kindness and care, all exactly as it was, his face and all of their faces merging into the two faces in his mind and Jack’s face merging there, too, all held by each other.