Today is Robert Lax’s 100th Birthday!

I took the picture posted here twenty years ago, in the spring of 1996 when my friend Bob Lax was 80. To mark his 100th birthday today (November 30), here are a few excerpts from journal entries I made during that visit. At the time, I was studying and teaching at Columbia University in New York, Lax’s alma mater, and reading French philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition. These entries give some idea of what my visits with Lax on Patmos were like:

March 10: I arrived at 2:30 this morning, having traveled for almost 30 hours. Bob had arranged for a room for me at the Rex and supplied it with two bottles of water, two candy bars, a package of cookies, some peanuts, plastic cups, and a small bottle of Metaxa. The woman at the Rex had been expecting two people so she had given me a double bed. She had also put a heater and extra blankets in the room. I said a prayer of thanks for my safe arrival, put an extra blanket on the bed and poured out a small amount of the Metaxa.

March 11: I stayed at Bob’s until about 12:45 a.m. last night. One of the things we talked about was the Deleuze book I’m reading. I mentioned Deleuze’s distinction between memory and remembrance, which I find especially interesting. Memory is mere repetition of an initial event, he says, but remembrance conceptualizes it, placing it in perspective and context: historical, emotional, developmental, etc.

Bob started talking about Cézanne. Perhaps he’s been thinking about him, picturing his work as if it were present in the room, because he gestured several times toward the wall where he tapes up pictures. Cézanne, he said, was only trying to paint woods as objectively as he could, as he saw them, but when they appeared in his paintings they appeared unique because Cézanne saw them only as Cézanne. This is why a writer should try to write objectively, to get down exactly what he perceives. What results will not be some non-personal, “objective” piece but one imbued with all that the author is, how he truly perceives the world. This should be the goal of art: to reveal the individual.

Both Sartre, in an excerpt I gave to my students, and Deleuze write about the sign or symbol in writing. A painter or sculptor creates an object; a writer creates only a symbol or manipulates symbols. A piece of writing, then, is only a symbol–or a collection of symbols–of the object, which is the writer himself. If the writer is exacting and faithful, that symbol or collection becomes an accurate projection of the object: more accurate than an encounter with the object–the author–in reality because the author is more focused in the creation of his art than in day-to-day living.

Later, Bob and I were talking about New York and what a wonderful place it is for anyone who likes meeting people. Bob said that each person we meet reveals some new part of ourselves. If we are alert and perceptive, the more people we meet, the more we learn about ourselves.

One of our subjects last night was the question What Is Art? We decided that it involves some combination of absolutely free expression and the constriction of form. It also involves some paradoxical combination of refined ideal and basic, unfiltered instinct. It combines the handful of dirt with the expanse of the universe, the center with the surface of the sphere, the specific with the universal.

This morning I began the day with Deleuze. He has shifted from talking about repetition to talking about difference. He defines the different not as that which is opposed to the original but that which differentiates itself by a determined movement away from the original form. The different defines itself in response to the original form but the original does not define itself in response in return. He gives the example of lightning, which flashes through the night, striking a counterpoint to what was before it but having no effect on what exists after it. It shows itself as different and yet the original remains unchanged.

This picture of difference differs greatly from that which has dominated Christian thought, which has equated difference with opposition. If difference is distinctive but not opposed, then difference becomes not opposition to God (embodied in the Christian mind, since the middle ages, as the social Christian congregation) but determined response to God. It becomes not antithesis (sin), not synthesis (syncretism) but pristine thesis. God created Adam not go be God, nor to be not-God, nor to be half-God, but to be Adam. Eve is not Adam, nor not-Adam, nor half-Adam, but Eve. When a person seeks to resemble (whether through obedience to laws or imitation or conformity) rather than embody, he or she does not bring God into the world but instead becomes a pale reflection–even a distortion–of a remote Idea.

(Although they aren’t about a conversation with Lax, I’ve included these last two paragraphs because they describe [in a Deleuzean way] how I see Lax’s life in relationship to mainstream Christian life.)

Happy 100th, Bob!

Three Short Videos of Michael N. McGregor Talking About Robert Lax

Oxford University Press, which is handling distribution for Michael N. McGregor’s Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax, has produced three videos in which McGregor talks about Lax’s friendships with Thomas Merton and others, his love of solitude, the relationship between his poetry and his simple life, and why he settled on the Greek island of Patmos.

The Presentness and Mindfulness of Robert Lax’s Pure Act (part two)

After traveling with the Cristiani circus family through Western Canada in 1949 and finishing a draft of what would become his first book, The Circus of the Sun, in 1950, Robert Lax felt restless.  His observations of the Cristiani acrobats and reading of St. Thomas Aquinas had given him a clear sense of how he wanted to live in the world and a name for it: pure act.  But he didn’t know where he should be living or what he should be doing other than writing his poetry.

Aquinas had written that only God was pure act, but Lax believed that people could come close to being pure act themselves if they were filled with love.  According to his definition, pure act was a kind of mindfulness–a practiced way of being in the world–and yet it was a presentness too–a spontaneous living-in-the-moment without self-consciousness or hesitation.  Having heard that Catherine de Hueck had started Friendship House in Harlem simply by moving into a tenement and addressing whatever need was right in front of her, Lax decided to do the same thing in  Marseilles, the French city that had scared him the first time he’d seen it.

Nothing lasting came from Lax’s months in Marseilles other than a strong belief that simply being a loving presence could be as much of a vocation as anything else.  That was enough.  Although he continued to roam restlessly in future years–traveling with another circus in Italy, editing a literary journal in Paris, and working for Jubilee magazine in New York–he had narrowed his true desires to three: living a simple contemplative life, writing the kind of poetry he wanted to write, and being a loving presence wherever he was.

It wasn’t until Lax left America’s commercialism and relentless ambition behind and moved to the Greek islands, however, that he found a place he could feel at peace.  On the island of Kalymnos he discovered a whole community of fishermen and sponge divers who seemed to live lives of pure act, singly and together.  The smallest gesture was both practiced and spontaneous, ancient and new.  Everyone seemed fully present and alive.  He settled among them to learn from them while writing his poetry the same way.

When politics forced Lax to move to the nearby island of Patmos, he was momentarily dismayed.  But he soon realized that a life of pure act could be lived anywhere: circumstances didn’t matter.  In time he drew people from the around the world to the island of St. John, where they experienced and learned from his loving presence.  His pure act.

 

 

 

The Presentness and Mindfulness of Robert Lax’s Pure Act (part one)

When Robert Lax was a student at Columbia University in the late ‘30s, he and Thomas Merton liked to go to jazz clubs late at night to watch jazz musicians jam. These jam sessions were more spontaneous than a regular performance, but they weren’t entirely freewheeling and they certainly weren’t chaotic. What gave them form and flow was a combination of the musicians’ training, whatever tune they were using as a base, and their presentness and mindfulness. The musicians were fully in the moment, listening and responding to each other.

When the time came for one of them to solo, he knew it, not because a leader gave a nod but because the music shifted his direction, an opening invited him to shine. In that moment, as he blew his horn or strummed his bass, he did it more intensely and more soulfully than he had before, playing, as George Clinton once said, like his mamma just died. He didn’t do it to outplay the others but because playing his best, expressing what he could best express, was the best way of both respecting and encouraging his fellow musicians. Each one playing his best brought out the best in the others.

A worrier by nature, Lax longed to be as present and as mindful, as disciplined and yet insouciant and spontaneous as those musicians were. His relationship with Merton and their other college friends gave him a taste of how a constant jam might feel: the free exchange of new ideas and views, the playing off of one another, the applauding of creative accomplishments. But college ended and his friends scattered. Merton entered a monastery. Jazz musicians were still playing, of course, but the world offered few other models of the concept Lax would come to call pure act, and his understanding of it remained more theoretical than actual.

Until, that is, he met the Crisitani family. Performers since they were young, the family’s eleven brothers and sisters were the world’s leading equestrian acrobats. Catholics all, they shared a faith and an understanding of each other built from countless hours of practicing and performing together. Each had his individual talents and personality but all were serious and sober, happy and playful, graceful and skillful, as Lax would describe them in his poem cycle Mogador’s Book.

About the skill of Mogador, the brother Lax felt closest to, he wrote:

Like the highest art,
it is a kind of play
which involves
responsibility
and control;
An activity which involves
awareness and appreciation;
Its own symbolic value.
Like the prayers
of the old in wisdom,
it has the joy
and the solemnity of love.

Lax’s first book, The Circus of the Sun, was an attempt to show the relationship in spirit between the performers in the Cristianis circus and the Creation story:

“We have seen all the days of creation in one day: this is
the day of the waking dawn and all over the field the
people are moving, they are coming to praise the Lord:
and it is now the first day of creation…

He succeeded wonderfully in portraying the grace and beauty of both circus and creation, but the writing of the book did not come easily. And after writing it, he still felt far more anxious than he wanted to. To live and make his art as freely as the Cristianis did, he’d need a deeper understanding of himself and what he meant by pure act, a phrase he’d borrowed from St. Thomas Aquinas. He’d need to make a move, too: from overly commercial and distracted America to a tiny room beside the waterfront in dangerous Marseilles, and then an island far from anyone or anything he knew, in the middle of the vast Aegean.

(part two to come…)

A Gyroscope on the Island of Love

by Michael N. McGregor—originally published in Image, no. 70, Summer 2011

I’d been meaning to call him for days and hadn’t, but that afternoon something made me search for a phone. The same something, maybe, that had led me to Robert Lax in the first place fifteen years before. My wife and I were walking through a small Turkish town where all I could find was a cheap payphone halfway up a dirt alley. Connections between Turkey and Greece were bad in those days and this phone looked especially dubious, but I pushed my coins into the slot and dialed his number. The usual clicks and beeps filled my ear, then the low, drawn-out brrrrrs as his line rang. Continue reading A Gyroscope on the Island of Love

Turning the Jungle Into a Garden

by Michael N. McGregor—originally published in Poets & Writers, March/April 1997

There is no easy, efficient way to reach the Greek island poet Robert Lax calls home. A nine-hour flight from New York leaves you less than halfway there, subject first to an adrenaline-draining, needle-threading, joint-jangling taxi ride from the Athens airport to the harbor at Piraeus, then a nine- or twelve-hour (depending on the seas – everything in Greece depends upon the seas) passage on an aging, noisy, smoke-filled ferry that might not even make its scheduled stop.

That is, of course, if the ferry is running that day at all – and if you haven ‘t had the misfortune to arrive on a day when the ferry is traveling to Piraeus instead of away from it, or when the engines have gone out, or when the ferry workers are on strike.

By the time you arrive on Patmos, usually at 1:00 or 2:00 A.M., the New York world of instant gratification, instant communication, instant everything seems strangely, almost painfully, remote. Continue reading Turning the Jungle Into a Garden