Posted by: Harold Knight | 08/31/2010

Martin Luther King, Sr.–– Hélène Cixous –– “a stream of immense and humble questions”

Summer, 1972. In the rose garden at the American Baptist Assembly (conference center) at Green Lake, Wisconsin, I came upon an elderly (at twenty-seven, I thought he was elderly) gentleman sitting on one of the benches scattered throughout the garden for rest and contemplation. The weather was hot and the bench was in full sun. The man, however, wore a suit, white shirt, and tie, but he seemed comfortable. He was an imposing figure. He sat erect, his “body language” (a term not in common use then) was open and confident. Gracious in his dignity and self-confident. He patted the bench beside himself, without a word unmistakably inviting me to sit.

He asked me what conference I was attending, and I told him I was the summer staff organist. He complimented me on my playing at a church service he had attended. I asked him what conference he was attending. I wasn’t quite sure why he had invited me to sit with him. He told me he was in the garden because he was weary of the speeches and talking at his conference. He was matter-of-fact, not critical. We were both looking for a little quiet. The rose garden was the place to find it.

He offered me his hand. “My name is King.” I shook his hand and told him my name. He told me he was from Atlanta. I told him I was from California as I realized I was talking with Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr. I asked, and he confirmed it.

Our conversation was not remarkable. Two strangers talking about the beauty of a rose garden and the lake below and gratitude for escaping busy-ness. We sat quietly, chatting now and then about this and that. Simple words. I had a sense that I should be asking him important questions, questions about big events so I could say later on, Martin Luther King, Sr., told me. . . .

But I didn’t ask those questions. He offered no analysis of important subjects. We didn’t speak of politics or civil rights. It had been four years since his son was assassinated. I had just finished my Masters degree and knew that when I got back to California, I’d be virtually unemployed. We had almost nothing in common. We had few words that made sense there and then. But it felt as if we were old friends. Neither of us had wandered into the garden to talk about important events.  We sat together for perhaps fifteen minutes, and then we each had responsibilities to attend to. We shook hands again, wished each other well, and parted. I never saw him again.


I often think about that encounter. Two men whose lives could hardly have been more different sitting in a garden enjoying each other’s company.  Sometimes I think I missed a great opportunity. I could have been friends with an important personage. I had bragging rights. But over the years I’ve told almost no one about those fifteen minutes. They are too precious. When Rev. King died twelve years later, I wept. I lost a friend.

That afternoon is etched in my memory partly because of who he was. But we all have countless similar, seemingly meaningless encounters. They’re the stuff of daily life. My fifteen minutes with Rev. King is a treasure because he simply wanted me to sit with him. He was not secretive, but he did not introduce himself in a way to make any barrier between us. He was “King,” and I was me. And we sat quietly. Together. Enjoying a moment of flowers and peace together. A few words between friends.

James Dunbar, one of the earliest important African American poets, wrote

Out in the sky the great dark clouds are massing;
I look far out into the pregnant night,
Where I can hear a solemn booming gun

And catch the gleaming of a random light,
That tells me that the ship I seek is passing, passing.

My tearful eyes my soul’s deep hurt are glassing;
For I would hail and check that ship of ships.
I stretch my hands imploring, cry aloud,
My voice falls dead a foot from mine own lips,
And but its ghost doth reach that vessel, passing, passing.

O Earth, O Sky, O Ocean, both surpassing,
O heart of mine, O soul that dreads the dark!
Is there no hope for me? Is there no way
That I may sight and check that speeding bark
Which out of sight and sound is passing, passing?
(1)

Longing. Hoping to “check that speeding bark.” Life? Opportunity? Equality? Words. Whatever is passing, passing.

In her essay, “The Author in Truth,” Hélène Cixous contemplates a phrase Franz Kafka wrote minutes before he died.  Limonade es war alles so grenzenlos. “Lemonade everything was so infinite” (2).  Of the phrase, as a last “poem,” Cixous says,

The ultimate works are brief and burning, like the fire that reaches toward the stars. Sometimes they are only one line. They are works written with extraordinary tenderness. Works of gratitude: for life, for death. For it is also as a result of death and thanks to death that we discover the splendor of life. It is death that makes us remember the treasures life contains, with all its living misfortunes and its pleasures. (3)

In another essay, Cixous says Kafka’s phrase was

the beginning and the end, the whole of life, enjoyment, nostalgia, desire, hope. . . a phrase that fell from his hand, from his man’s hand at the moment he was not striving to be a writer, the moment he was Franz Kafka himself, beyond books. (4)

My father, one week after his 96th birthday is struggling. He is in the hospital with an as-yet-undiagnosed (perhaps) heart problem. He has been in a dangerously weak condition before and survived. My sister sent an email yesterday saying that she had asked him if he was at peace. He said, “When my words are done that’s it.” I know exactly what he meant. He has lived always by words. When he can no longer use words, “that’s it.”

My ramblings may seem to be a contemplation of death. Even immanent death. They are not. I am contemplating (as I have begun to do more and more) the “splendor of life.” I am trying to give myself over to “remember[ing] the treasures life contains, with all its living misfortunes and its pleasures.”  I remembered my few minutes with Rev. King as I was thinking about Marian Anderson yesterday, and her importance to the Civil Rights movement. I’m not sure why the memory of my few minutes with Rev. King puts me in mind of the poetry of Paul Dunbar. Even less do I understand why my mind went from there to Hélène Cixous and Kafka. In the midst of this thinking about the father and son, my father came into my consciousness even more plainly than he always is. I’m not sure where my father’s condition fits into any of this train of thinking.

Cixous’ contemplation of Kafka leads to her discussion of another literary work. Of the novel she says, “It is also a stream of immense and humble questions which do not even ask for answers: they ask for life” (5).

My questions, my musings, my ramblings, my words do not even ask for answers.
__________
(1) Dunbar, Paul Laurence. “Ships that Pass in the Night.” The Book of American Negro Poetry. Ed. James Weldon Johnson. Bartleby.com. Web. 29 Aug 2010.
(2) Cixous, Hélène. “The Author in Truth.” “Coming to Writing” and Other Essays. Ed. Deborah Jenson. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991 (136).
(3) idem. 137.
(4) Cixous, Hélène. “The Last Painting or the Portrait of God.” The Continental Aesthetics Reader. Ed. Clive Cazeaus. London: Routledge, 2000 (589).
(5) Cixous. “Author.” 138.

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  1. This brought me to tears.

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