As I sat by my window finishing the last essays in An Elemental Thing tonight, a severe storm was raging outside. Dark gray clouds descending, heavy rain pouring down, wild winds driving the water against my windows. During the worst of the storm, it felt like glass and bricks were only a very thin barrier between me and the furies of nature.
The storm transported me into the world of the many Eastern and Western civilizations that Eliot Weinberger explores with elegance, sensitivity, and lyricism in this collection of creative non-fiction essays. Wenberger's title immediately conveys the themes at the heart of this beautifully written collection. Elements in the sense of the main components of nature, earth, air, fire, and water, all serve as the focal point of many of these essays. Throughout the collection, Weinberger explores the meaning that humans have attached to these elemental forces through a dizzying array of myths, folktales, historical chronicles, and other writings. Wu-t'ai Shan Mountain in China
Many essays are very short, from one page to four pages, and focus on a specific element (such as wind or ice), season, historical figure (including Muhammad), or animal (wrens, tigers, rhinos). Weinberger uses a collaging technique throughout the 35 essays. Key elements and figures appear and reappear throughout the collection, so the careful reader can, for example, compare different cultures' understanding of the wren within the context of their cosmologies. However, Weinberger's method is more subtle than a straightforward essay in comparative religion. As I read deeper into this collection, I sensed profound resonances across centuries and geographical regions. Weinberger anchors these sections a few longer essays, including "The Vortex", which bring together different cultures' understandings of these features, arranged side by side in subsections within the essays. I emerged from this reading with a profund sense of human beings' desperate, and often beautiful, attempts to craft meaning to help them understand, and sometimes control, these forces.
Weinberger's prose is beautiful - sparse, clean, with a timelessness reminiscent of the folktales and myths that served as his sources. For example, consider this passage from "Muhammad": "Light beamed from his forehead, and at night it looked like moonlight. He used amber, musk and civet as perfumes, and spent more money on perfume than on food; days later, people would know from the lingering fragrance that he had passed by. He cast no shadow while standing in the sun. No matter how tall a man was, when he stood beside Muhammad he appeared an arrow's length shorter. No bird ever flew over his head. He could see behind without turning around. He could hear everything while he was sleeping. Water flowed from between his fingers and nine pebbles in his hand sang praises" (158).
Some essays reminded me of Borges in their evocation of a distant world, which is especially fitting as Weinberger has translated him. For example, he writes in this passage from "Spring": "Day and night are equal in length, Weights and measures, balances and instruments are calibrated and standardized. Streams, ponds, and swamps may not be drained; forests may not be burnt. Insignias, skins, and silks substitute for animals in the sacrifices. Gates and doors and temple furnishings are repaired. Three days before the storms begin, messengers are sent out with wooden clappers to inform the people that no one may couple when the thunder roars, for their children will be imperfect, and suffer calamities and evil" (29).
Perhaps my favorite piece is "The Stars," which reads as a prose poem, made up completely of short statements depicting different beliefs about the stars across many different cultures and time periods. Weinberger does not identify the sources of these beliefs. Instead, he strings them together, creating a tapestry of human belief, an attempt to understand the most prominent and basic features in their lives: "The stars: what are they? They are chunks of ice reflecting the sun; they are lights afloat on the waters beyond the transparent dome; they are nails nailed to the sky; they are holes in the great curtain between us and the sea of light...." (171).
This is the other meaning of "elemental" that resonated with me - Weinberger's drawing our attention to the most basic features that form the bedrock of our existence on this planet. Meanings change, idols fall, religions are born and die, scientists, anthropologists, philosophers, mystics and poets posit theories that will be forgotten tomorrow, but the stars, the wind, the mountains, the deserts, all remain, constant and distant and mysterious.Milky Way Galaxy