Crystal, one of my students, emailed me an hour ago about this short story by Don DeLillo, in the latest New Yorker.

It’s sweet and rich, and, as we say in the biz, intertexual, its title, Midnight in Dostoevsky, taken from “Meditations in an Emergency,” a poem by Frank O’Hara.

(Odd coincidence: I spent the day before yesterday laboring over a poem by O’Hara…)

DeLillo’s story is told from the point of view of Robby, an undergraduate at a wintry upstate New York campus. He likes to take snowy walks through a nearby town (as I read DeLillo’s descriptions of its faded-grandeur houses and frowsy diners I picture Worcester, a place near UD‘s house in Summit, New York) with his friend Todd. While walking, they have endless quarrels about what they see around them — how many boxcars there were in a passing train; what sort of jacket a man they see on the street is wearing. Their quarrels are as charming and funny as the same sorts of quarrels the Gladney family enjoys in White Noise — an endless amiable nattering among people insistent on the rightness of their own take on things.

White Noise, though, presents a postmodern world in which no one’s right, a world whose every aspect surpasses the ability of even highly-educated people to understand it. The humor in the natterings, in fact, lies in the patent inadequacy of everyone’s descriptions and interpretations of everything. Underneath the confident assertions lies total intellectual futility.

The upstate town the characters in “Midnight in Dostoevsky” walk through is largely deserted; always a little dusky on these short winter days, it seems to them a haunt of what they call “souls” and “spirits” departed. Subdued even more than it ordinarily is by the heavy snow that’s fallen, the town appears to Robby a sort of nothingness, a vagueness onto which he and Todd try to project some clarity, some reality, some meaning.

The only way they can do this is through their quarrels: “Even in matters of pure physical reality, we depended on a friction between our basic faculties of sensation, his and mine…” Dialecticians, they generate a sense of event, a sense of the real and the true, only from the clash of their minds.

**********************

Their Logic professor is a depressive disengaged man who stares into space pronouncing one disconnected phrase after another: the causal nexus; the atomic fact. “He didn’t want to know who we were. We were passersby to him, smeary faces, we were roadkill….He did not bring books to class, never a sign of the textbook or a sheaf of notes, and his shambling discourses made us feel that we were becoming what he saw before him, an amorphous entity. We were basically stateless.”

But Robby and the other students like this. They like sitting in silence (there’s no discussion), pondering the professor’s pronouncements. “He challenged our reason for being, what we thought, how we lived, the truth or falsity of what we believed to be true or false. Isn’t this what great teachers do, the Zen masters and Brahman scholars?” What the Logic professor’s really doing is flattening the students themselves into nothingness, emptying them of their reason for being, etc., so they can enter a sort of radical thought. The students might not know how to do radical thought, but they instinctively understand that they’re being emptied out and prompted toward it.

A fellow student tells Robby about having by chance sat across the aisle from the professor at a local diner.

“He said he was reading Dostoevsky. I’ll tell you exactly what he said. He said, ‘Dostoevsky day and night.’ ”

“Fantastic.”

“And I told him my coincidence, that I’d been reading a lot of poetry and I’d read a poem just a couple of days earlier with a phrase I recalled. ‘Like midnight in Dostoevsky.’ ”

“What did he say?”

“Nothing.”

So here’s the relevant section of the O’Hara poem, the poem with the phrase the student likes in it. The speaker, just dumped by a lover, expresses anger at how badly he’s been wounded by the rejection, and wonders how to live an invulnerable life:

St. Serapion, I wrap myself in the robes of your whiteness which is like midnight in Dostoevsky. How am I to become a legend, my dear? I’ve tried love, but that hides you in the bosom of another and I am always springing forth from it like the lotus—the ecstasy of always bursting forth! (but one must not be distracted by it!) or like a hyacinth, “to keep the filth of life away…”

I checked. There are at least five St. Serapions. I think O’Hara liked the name because serape — a cape — is implied in it. The saint of white robes, the saint of temporary shelter from the storm, from the filth of life — the saint who whites out the world, uncolors it with the pure uncolor of Russia’s white nights — the poet yearns toward that saint’s dissolution because of the intensity of his pain.

***************************

“Imagine a surface of no color whatsoever,” he said.

That’s back in the DeLillo story. That’s one of the Logic professor’s weird isolated statements.

“I’m emptied. Ready to go,” says Charles Wright in Disjecta Membra.

The discipline of self-emptying, the practice of wrapping yourself in robes of white so as to be able to emerge again, ready to go, seems at the center of this story and these poems.

****************************

Todd and Robby become obsessed with an old man who lives in the town and who walks the same route they do. Who is he? What’s his story? Like Quentin and Shreve in Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, they go back and forth in conversation, imagining together, constructing together, a detailed life story for him. They tussle in particular about the sort of jacket he’s wearing. What is his serape? How is he wrapping himself up against the wound of the world?

Walking in the town alone one day, Robby thinks:

In snowfall, the town looked ghosted over, dead still at times. I took walks nearly every afternoon, and the man in the hooded coat was never far from my mind. I walked up and down the street where he lived, and it seemed only fitting that he was not to be seen. This was an essential quality of the place. I began to feel intimate with these streets. I was myself here, able to see things singly and plainly, away from the only life I’d known, the city, stacked and layered, a thousand meanings a minute.

The town is a surface of no color, its absence of feature allowing Robby, whose urban life weighs on him with too many meanings, a new clarity of perception.

He reads Dostoevsky in the library. He listens, as usual, to the Logic professor:

“If we isolate the stray thought, the passing thought,” he said, “the thought whose origin is unfathomable, then we begin to understand that we are routinely deranged, everyday crazy.”

We loved the idea of being everyday crazy. It rang so true, so real.

“In our privatest mind,” he said, “there is only chaos and blur. We invented logic to beat back our creatural selves. We assert or deny…”

The obsessive to and fro, the everlasting assertion and denial, between Todd and Robby, is a kind of living logic, is itself you could say the logic of living. It’s a vibrancy and an ordering teased out of the mental chaos and blur of the singular mind.

The highest order version of this practice, let’s say, is the art of fiction, the making of stories, the generous act of non-creaturing other creatures through the fashioning of clear and ordered narratives for the vague and disordered beings we glimpse along the street.

“I was myself here,” says Robby, praising the empty town which allows him to perceive his own emptiness — the same thing his Logic instructor is trying to make him see. Emptied, he’s ready go, ready to narrate the world more truly.

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7 Responses to “Shelter From the Storm”

  1. James Says:

    Does this mean DeLillo’s a Mad Men fan?

  2. Margaret Soltan Says:

    He’s probably got as much awareness of Mad Men as I do.

  3. RJO Says:

    > laboring over a poem by O’Hara…

    That seems to be how everyone describes their encounters with my poems.

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