(Host) Commentator Caleb Daniloff is fascinated by the notion of books choosing people. Recently, he found himself at the center of an elaborate literary conspiracy.
(Daniloff) The conspiracy started with Robert Frost. I had raked up 22 bags of leaves from my lawn. The next day, scanning the radio, I came upon Garrison Keillor reading the Frost poem Gathering Leaves. The third verse was especially resonant:
But the mountains I raise
Elude my embrace,
Flowing over my arms
And into my face.
I suddenly had the curious feeling I had been watched. While I didn’t realize it then, Frost had been dispatched to soften the target. Somewhere, a blueprint was being unrolled across a table.
Then came phase two. I checked out Jack Kerouac’s On The Road from the library, the audio version read by actor Matt Dillon. On The Road, of course, occupies a special place in American literature. The 1959 novel touched something in the post-war psyche. By separating from the status quo and lighting for parts unknown, Kerouac suggested, spirit can be found.
Dillon’s narration is surprisingly impressive, but Kerouac I found to be, well, god-awful. His prose is flat, the characters shallow, and the plot thin. I wanted to like On The Road the way I had wanted to in college. Back then, I blamed myself for not getting it, and blindly accepted the book as cultural idol. Now, having suffered through it again, I can only say that at best, On The Road is a period piece, at worst, a hack job. After ejecting the last disc, I felt strangely free.
The stage was now set, a void had been created. Enter Joseph Campbell and The Power of Myth. In it, Campbell discusses male initiation rituals, the painful and necessary passages from childhood into the adult tribe. A boy is taken from his mother’s side and his body actually altered scarified, tattooed, broken. He returns a man, a servant to the needs and values of the tribe, someone of significance. But in today’s so-called advanced societies, ritual has all but disappeared, and the male self often left unrealized.
“If you want to know what it means to have a society without rituals, read the New York Times,” Campbell says. “You have people acting like barbarians.”
Or you could read Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk. The final part of the literary conspiracy put me in the path of this unsettling 1996 novel. Within 24 hours, I had twice heard the book referenced, both in the context of the bitterly fought presidential election.
Fight Club is a dark, violent tale about men alienated and numbed by modern society. An underground culture emerges where brutal bare-fisted battles take place, where pain can be felt and life accessed. Through self-destruction, one is reborn. Life rises from death, like dead leaves nourishing the soil.
Fight Club struck a nerve, the yearning for self-actualization in a TV-driven, consumer culture. It spawned countless Web sites. Real fight clubs sprang up, even among women. Men changed their names to Tyler Durden, the book s spiritual leader. Palahniuk had shown not only the need for ritual but what happens when it’s neglected. His vision of society’s spirit eroded by earning and shopping is impossible to ignore. I watched Palahniuk step into the spot once occupied by Kerouac. Long held truths about America had
fallen away, and the quest for spirit suddenly had a new face. And to think it all started with a bunch of dead maple leaves.
This is Caleb Daniloff of Middlebury.
Caleb Daniloff is a copywriter, book reviewer and freelance journalist. The poem “Gathering Leaves” was published in 1923 in the volume New Hampshire.