Living on the edge of a volcano, Leonard Michaels catches a glimpse of the sublime.
Sometime in the early eighties, I spent a few weeks in Hawaii, living in a cabin near the crater of the volcano called Kiluaea. Trees, flowers, and birds were all about. The daylight had a kind of spiritual purity. Nights had a softness that was not pure, but sensuously heartbreaking. Best of all, where I lived, high up near the crater, the nights were too cool for mosquitoes, so I slept deeply, undisturbed. I’d never lived in a lovelier or more potentially violent place. The cabin was close to the rim of the crater, which was still active, seething wisps of steam. I looked into the crater every day on my walks. Rock walls dropped steeply for hundreds of feet, forming a wide and awesome hole. The effect was magnificent, terrifying, too tremendous for the mind to assimilate. It was what people once called the “sublime.” We don’t use the word that way any longer, but in general, we also don’t respond to natural phenomena in a quasi-religious, romantic, visionary manner.
I loved the place and even thought about living there permanently, but my happiness was spoiled by a number of anxieties I’d brought with me from the mainland. The worst was a book review that I had agreed to write for a political magazine. It was a review of a book of letters by two modern writers, and it was edited by a colleague of mine at Berkeley. The letters were witty and learned, a pleasure to read. My colleague’s editing job was first rate, but he admitted that he failed to understand a certain phrase in one of the letters. I understood the phrase, a charming and funny play on words. It was not an important phrase, but because I understood it and my colleague didn’t, I pounced on it, I relished it.
I wanted to quote the phrase in my review and explain it to the world, but I would make myself look clever, and my colleague, who was also a friend, would look dull. He wasn’t dull and he was much superior to me as a scholar. But I felt competitive desire. Like an eager academic jackass, I wanted to seem more clever than my colleague and friend; however, I couldn’t do it, and I began to feel ashamed for having thought to do it, and also for not doing it. It occurred to me, in my shame, to throw myself into the volcano. A fleeting, silly thought. I would have forgotten it except that a tourist from Australia, that very day, threw himself into the volcano. Perhaps he slipped and fell, but I doubt it. I didn’t know him, but his death was extremely upsetting. It seemed, because of my violent suicidal thoughts, I had sacrificed him to the volcano. Every anxiety I felt was intensified, and I lost all heart for the book review.
One evening at a dinner party, a man mentioned a Buddhist monk who had built a temple nearby. It stood at the edge of a sugarcane field. In praise of the monk, the man told us about a mad girl who lived on the grounds of the temple with him and his adepts. The mad girl was incapable of living in ordinary society, but when near the monk she was peaceful and performed practical daily tasks. Everyone at the table except me knew the monk. They talked about the monk’s beneficent charisma and urged me to have an interview with him. I didn’t know what I would say. They said it didn’t matter.
It was raining the day I went, a noisy, thick, silvery rain. I had trouble seeing through the glistening, streaky blur as I ran, bent forward, sloshing across wet ground from my car to the temple. Inside, I was struck by silence and shining, freshly painted red walls. The monk appeared a moment later. He was average height and bald, with strikingly white perfect teeth. We sat crosslegged facing each other on the floor. A Japanese girl sat to one side of us. She served tea. I’d heard that the Japanese girl had learned Tibetan under his instruction at amazing speed.