How The Divine Manifests: A Discussion of The Levitationist by Brandon Hobson and the Music of A.A. Bondy
Surrealism is the ‘invisible ray’ which will one day enable us to win out over our opponents. “You are no longer trembling, carcass.” This summer, the roses are blue; the wood is of glass. The earth, draped in its verdant cloak, makes as little impression upon me as a ghost. It is living and ceasing to live which are imaginary solutions. Existence is elsewhere.
Breton, from The Manifesto of Surrealism
Irony, when not purposefully wielded for the sake of a magazine article, can be a naturally occuring, fascinating thing. A self correcting force of nature, even. And so it is my understanding of Hobson’s use of surrealism, a style of art, and moreso, a general movement, that was originally invented to differentiate, deny, push away all that is ordinary and realistic. Here is another quote from Breton’s The Manifesto of Surrealism:
SURREALISM, n. Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express — verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner — the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by the thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.
Hobson’s book, The Levitationist, published by Ravenna Press, contains images associated with Surrealism and could be said to exemplify “the absence of any control exersized by reason”, but his moral concern is one of the Divine, specifally the mystery of the Divine’s presence in our earthly world. Hobson has taken the destructive desire of Surrealism’s goals and twisted them around gently to serve his purpose. His choice of style, of a movement, is a perfect example of substance dictating style.
My reading of this wonderful, slim book is greatly colored by an illuminating interview he gave at Jennifer Prado’s blog Emerge, where he says this in regard to the book’s subtitle, “The Manifestation Hypothesis” :
What’s important to me is that our culture, for the most part, seems to dismiss the idea of any possible, literal spiritual or angelic manifestation, and this worries me because without even recognizing the possibility that angels will reveal themselves by manifesting into human form, then how can really know if we see one or not? I’m not trying to sound like a Pentecostal or a prig, but once you’ve seen or heard one, whether during prayer or not, it’s like your life from that point on is spent searching for more to see what God is showing or revealing to you. The book’s subtitle’s addition was last minute.
But this is a book that offers more than just his vision of God. It is a book that celebrates the gorgeousness of language, the strength and flexibility of language. It is not purely abstract, although it may be purely spiritual in regard to the ever-present, inescapable hand of God in the life of his characters. A boy, who has the gift of levitation from birth, lives with his mother and father. The mother sits blindfolded, saying “the devil is near.” He walks with his father to see “several large holes in the ground…When they knelt down to the holes and listened, they could hear the horrible sound of people moaning in pain.” Suffering is a theme throughout; infidelity, physical and mental anguish. And yet the rythmn of suffering is washed with moments of grace, joy and beauty. The least surreal, and in some ways, pivotal moment, examines the boy’s near death experience:
At age six, the boy had nearly drowned while swimming at the local pool, having hit his head underwater against the pool’s side. When the lifeguard performed CPR, his body shook in a hypoxic convulsion while his skin turned blue. The family’s physician informed his parents that water had caused the boy’s epiglottis to close any airway, and the lack of oxygen to his brain was what had rendered him unconscious.
This is not typical of the language of the story and so it seems very important to me. The general language and energy of the story is more fantastical, more mysterious:
The boy…turned himself into a braid of smoke and lifted, floating ever so slightly from his bed…Soon he was able to walk and move about freely, so she took him outside to the backyard, where several birds suddenly gathered around him, making noises. She later described the sound they made as ‘God’s song of praise’.
I understand the end of that paragraph as a straighforward example of the manifestation of the Divine and it reminds me very much of the poet Anne Babson, who wrote to me in the comments section here at htmlgiant:
To hear from God is like that — it is not that we are crazy, said the Baal Shem Tov, it is that the others are deaf to the music that makes us dance.
And yet, like the world of Flannery O’Connor, the haunting of our visible universe by the Divine can be awe-inspiring in a pain-driven way. Hobson’s world is drenched by miracles of God, which cannot be seen by everyone, and yet life flows in and out of suffering. His characters struggle with mental illness, the father cheats on his wife, lonliness and guilt take hold of these vulnerable humans. The boy and his gifts are felt and portrayed as a mixed blessing, in that the hand of God causes fear and trembling as well as profound comfort:
He watched the house disappear, though now in the dream he was an angel, floating, swimminng in sky. The people were falling out of the house, but their faces were beastly. An eagle spread its giant wings. This eagle had several eyes, eyes even on its wings.
The Levitationist is a beautiful, eerie depiction of the fight between God and Satan for our souls. Free will is evident, but only in regard to a preordained destiny. His humans blunder along, reaching, trying, faltering, and standing up again. They are given their chances; can they take them? Perhaps they must. Hobson has created the same world that Flannery O’Connor created–a world where God is reality, regardless of what we care to believe. He uses surrealism, the lyric beauty of fantastical imagery, to highlight an emotional intensity that exists outside of reason, that honors the mystery of the Divine. Breton would have loved him.
In conclusion, the gentle twist that Hobson gives Surrealism to serve his purposes, on close examination, is a fitting thing, a twisting back, rather than away. I think it could be argued that the book of Revelations is the original Surreal text, not in terms of the later “movement”, but in terms of language and vision. A.A. Bondy uses such language in his album, American Hearts. The music came as a gift to him; quickly, clearly, mysteriously. He says:
“Most of [Hearts] was written in about a week. It fell out pretty formed. It was kind of like having water running down your back. I felt pretty alive during it.”
Bondy’s album, given to him like water, embraces the strange to illuminate that, as Breton says, “Existence is elsewhere.” I’ll end this with some of the lyrics to one of the songs from American Hearts, entitled “There’s a Reason”, a song that haunted me while I contemplated The Levitationist these past few weeks:
And I gave my hands to the Fates
And they took me around
They showed me the Seven Wonders
The sights and the sounds
There was a man with cinders for eyes
There was a girl with a dress made of flies
And there’s a reason,
There’s a reason….
When the moon follows you where you go
And you cannot hide
When voices of doom ring your ears
And horsemen do ride
May tomorrow the land be anew
May every bird sing unto you
That’s the reason
That’s the reason