The Ghost of Birds by Eliot Weinberger
Review by Daniel LoPilato
Half a dozen stories from the Arabian Nights open with an enigmatic, perhaps untranslatable metaphor. In “The Tale of the Enchanted King,” the first sentence describes a story “which, if it could be engraved with needles at the corner of the eye, would be a lesson to those who would consider.” A tale engraved on the human eye represents an all-seeing and unseeable text. It renders narrative, central to consciousness, as simple passive sight: a text impossible to read and impossible not to read. Perhaps if we lived in a world where books were inscribed on our vision, then every book would be perfectly transmitted and absorbed. Nothing would be fragmentary or corrupted. Everything would be whole.
“[I]f a master calligrapher could by a miracle of his art write the entire story at the corner of an eye,” reads my edition’s note, “it would then be read as a double miracle, one for the extraordinary events, one for the extraordinary art.” This annotation treats the author as a magician of content and form, someone whose gift for radical thought is matched by her mastery of radical transmission. Not only is she capable of transforming perception into a writing instrument, she is capable, too, of indispensable writing.
I find traces of the scheherazadian in American essayist Eliot Weinberger, whose commitment to the possibilities of language and its imperfect transmission remains absolute and unwavering. He is the only writer I know of whose work offers as much insight into 21st-century US culture as it does Chinese culture of the 8th century, for example. His experimental essays test hybridity, stretching content and form to their limits. They are poems composed in both prose and verse, brief histories that span millennia, and meditations on nature and the universe.
In The Ghosts of Birds, his new collection, Weinberger covers subjects as diverse and interrelated as the dreams of individuals named Chang reported between the 3rd century BCE and the 12th century CE, an 1869 Colorado River expedition, the account of a Yorkshire man who spent 49 years in bed, a Foucauldian reading of George W. Bush’s “autobiography,” a history of the Buddha in the West, and the work of Hungarian critic Béla Balász, who fled his motherland after World War I alongside the actor Bela Lugosi. The latter achieved considerably more fame.
With an archivist’s zeal and a lyricist’s attention, Weinberger yokes together sources with bewildering breadth of origin and depth of research. The bibliography, titled “The Cloud Bookcase,” nods to the scope and volume of Weinberger’s reading as well as to the Internet storage infrastructure it mimics. This reservoir of the esoteric and the immaterial—a recording of things one might, without fault, believe to be unrecordable—includes The Book of Azure Emptiness, The Book of Efficacious Seals for Penetrating Mystery, and Comprehensive Collection of True Facts Concerning the Land of Bliss. Most of them were written in antiquity by anonymous authors. An entry containing the Final Chapter of the Continued Explanations of the True Origin, the Great Cave, and the Highest Direction is followed by a playful note that states “there are no previous chapters to which this text corresponds.” One of my favorite essays in The Ghosts of Birds, “The Lushei,” is two sentences long.
The Lushei, neighbors of the Mara, believe that earthquakes are caused by the people who live in the lower world shaking the ground to see if anyone is still alive up there. When an earthquake occurs, the Lushei run out of their houses and shout “Alive! Alive!” so that those below will know, and stop the shaking.
In less than sixty words, Weinberger summons modernity and its hysterical sense of mortality as effortlessly as Don DeLillo’s White Noise.
The book’s jacket copy states that these essays represent “factually verifiable discoveries.” This claim proposes a slippery relationship between what is written and what is real. How could we verify, for example, a dream one individual experienced in the 7th century? To what extent do we consider dreams factual or verifiable? Weinberger’s work resides beyond fiction but not beyond imagination. Indeed, much of the Chinese history here, and in his related collection An Elemental Thing, comes from the official records kept by dynastic bureaucrats. Open any volume of Chinese historiography—I promise close readers will want to do so after reading this book—and you’ll discover what passes for official history is just as often prophecy or fabrication. This is not to discount the historicity of the events in Weinberger’s essays but to illustrate the liminal spaces they occupy. If one hesitates to call these essays “history,” in every fraught sense of the term, then they at least qualify as psychological portraits of how individuals, societies, and governments viewed themselves. In fewer words, Weinberger knows how to give his reader the important stuff: the psychic architecture that undergirds humanity’s past.
Reading The Ghosts of Birds, one is constantly aware of its bibliophilic nature. It shares in a collector’s fetish, being meticulous in arrangement and tuned to just the right pitch. Weinberger does not, it seems, privilege a historical play-by-play; he reminds the reader that a book can be luminous and magnificent and friendly, capable of holding totalities without cracking. The collection is a testament to the technologies we’ve devised to capture and relay dreams, apparitions, and fleeting astronomical phenomena—from the pens of scriveners to the machinery of printing presses, corrupted and preserved. Like a story from the Arabian Nights, The Ghosts of Birds is strange and amazing, a language-thread braided with the fibers of perception. We can only hope that, in two thousand years, Weinberger’s work is preserved not as fragmented and unattributed text but as the miracles of a known calligrapher, something engraved at the corner of the eye, seen, unseen, and all-seeing.
Daniel LoPilato is a fiction writer from Atlanta. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Indiana Review, American Short Fiction, and the Tusk. He currently lives in Tallahassee, Florida, where he is pursuing an MFA in the Creative Writing Program at Florida State University.