Many wise and moving eulogies for Denis Johnson have been published in the past two weeks, some by critics who knew his work well, others by friends and students, many by fans. I am a fan. I wish I had known him, even a little bit, and as long as we’re making wishes here I wish he was still alive and that he’d won Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize. Anyway, those eulogies. They all praise his singular voice, his vast and restive talent—poems, novels, stories, plays, journalism—all of which is right, though it hardly goes far enough. He was the kind of writer who comes along once in a generation, if that often: a true original, in the same league as Melville and Whitman. But I have yet to see anyone speak at length about what I regard as the most important part of Johnson’s work, namely his profound spiritual and moral vision.
For all of its glorious derangement—hallucinatory tales of druggies and low-lives and murderers and fuck-ups, including a guy so far gone his friends all call him “Fuckhead”—Johnson’s writing is always rooted in the conviction that life is sacred, that evil is a symptom of suffering, which is to say of estrangement from the sacred. Johnson’s characters are people who do not know they are already in Hell, or purgatory, but for all his unsparing grimness in depicting those dark realms, Johnson does not damn his lost souls to stay lost. He believes in the possibility, perhaps the promise, of their redemption. All his characters are asking versions of Augustine’s question from Book 1 of the Confessions: “But who calls upon you when he does not know you?”
All throughout Jesus’ Son (1992), Fuckhead is plagued by visions of rebirth and salvation. Here is one of the most famous scenes from “Emergency,” a story (and a book) so deeply beloved it may not have any un-famous scenes left in it, but anyway here we go:
We bumped softly down a hill toward an open field that seemed to be a military graveyard, filled with rows and rows of austere, identical markers over soldiers’ graves. I’d never before come across this cemetery. On the farther side of the field, just beyond the curtains of snow, the sky was torn away and the angels were descending out of a brilliant blue summer, their huge faces streaked with light and full of pity. The sight of them cut through my heart and down the knuckles of my spine, and if there’d been anything in my bowels I would have messed my pants from fear.
Georgie opened his arms and cried out, “It’s the drive-in, man!”
There’s a lot to say about this scene. Much of it has been said: the prose is brilliant, the comic pacing perfect. Fuckhead’s revelation is gifted to him and then ripped away in the span of a breath, as Johnson reveals something like loving condescension toward the paper-thin profundities of his alter ego’s high. Yet to revel in the absurdity of the scenario, or the comedy of Fuckhead’s error, is to risk minimizing (or missing) the telling nature of the mistake. Mistakes, like fears, are the cousins of wishes. When you misapprehend the nature of the world as it actually is, you reveal your secret belief about the way it ought to be.
One Johnson character who knows she is in Hell is the narrator of The Stars at Noon (1986). An American woman living in civil war-torn Nicaragua in 1984, she speaks about Hell openly, incessantly. She came to the country as a journalist (or, maybe, as she sometimes claims, a peace activist) but quickly gave herself over to alcoholism, prostitution, and recitations of the poetry of “William Something Merwin”, who she considers “one of the great poets of the Inferno.” Merwin’s The Moving Target is one of three books she keeps with her. The other two are James L. White’s collection The Salt Ecstasies and an English-language Bible.
The narrator describes herself as “an observer-tormentee,” her punishment to bear witness but to have her testimony go unheard. “There’s a war on. And war is Hell,” she tells her doomed lover, an Englishman working for an oil company. “That’s not a metaphor. That’s what war is. That’s what Hell is.” He stays silent in that scene, but in another he argues the point. “It isn’t Hell,” he tells her. “This is all quite real.” She replies, “If it wasn’t real, it wouldn’t be Hell.” Neither narrator nor lover is ever named. In fact nobody in the novel has names, and most don’t have faces either. “We can’t remember our sins here,” she says. “We don’t know who we used to be.”
Her damnation is all the more tragic for having been freely chosen. She chose to travel to the country, under few illusions about what awaited her, and she chooses to stay there, despite—or perhaps because of—the degradation to which she must subject herself in order to survive.
Re-reading Stars this past weekend for the first time in many years, I was shocked and delighted (you couldn’t say surprised) to find that the narrator’s descriptions of squalor and deprivation in Managua anticipate the descriptions of Fuckhead (whose real name is also never given) hitting rock bottom in Jesus’ Son. Here, for example, is the low-level Sandinista who forces her to trade sex for signatures on official paperwork, which he then revokes anyway: “he affected the goat-like Lenin look, but in truth his features were unshaped, they seemed to be materializing out of a bright fog, nothing more than a shining blank with shadows floating on it . . .” The Inter-Continental Hotel “goes up like a pyramid, somehow more white and pure with every floor, narrowing toward nothing, fewer rooms on each ascending storey . . . And in the top penthouse, I suppose, is the Devil himself, inhaling the groans of the damned . . .”
Compare this to the moment in “Dirty Wedding” where, after making ugly comments that get him thrown out of an abortion clinic, Fuckhead ends up at the Savoy Hotel, a place that is neither wholly real nor wholly metaphorical:
I know there are people who believe that wherever you look, all you see is yourself. Episodes like this make me wonder if they aren’t right.
The Savoy Hotel was a bad place. The reality of it gave out as it rose higher above First Avenue, so that the upper floors dribbled away into space. Monsters were dragging themselves up the stairs. . . . Winter outside. Dark by afternoon. Darkly, darkly the Happy Hour. I didn’t know the rules. I didn’t know what to do.
The last time I had been in the Savoy, it had been in Omaha. I hadn’t been anywhere near it in over a year, but I was just getting sicker. When I coughed I saw fireflies.
Everything down there but the curtain was red. It was like a movie of something that was actually happening. Black pimps in fur coats. The women were blank, shining areas with photographs of sad girls floating in them. “I’ll just take your money and go upstairs,” somebody said to me.
I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that the epigraph to Jesus’ Son is from the Velvet Underground song “Heroin”: “When I’m rushing on my run / and I feel just like Jesus’ son . . .” The refrain of that song, which Johnson does not quote, seems no less crucial to me: “Well I guess, but I just don’t know.” Lou Reed croons it over and over—lamentation? bewilderment? indifference? All of the above.
The epigraph to The Stars at Noon, from Merwin’s poem “The Present”, goes like this: “. . . what we are looking for / In each other / Is each other, // The stars at noon, // While the light worships its blind god.” This is Augustine all over again: the desire for connection is the path to love, and love (between individuals, between humanity and God) is that which must be believed in all the more fiercely when its likelihood is hardest to credit: the stars at noon are invisible, but they are there.
In his study of the Old Testament prophets the great Jewish theologian and philosopher Abraham Heschel argues that to connect prophecy to futurity is to fundamentally misunderstand it. Prophecy isn’t prediction; it’s diagnosis. The message is not that the Apocalypse is coming but rather that it is here already, we are living it, and the only question of merit, therefore, is whether and how the world can be made whole again. The questions of individual and universal redemption are not merely linked or related; they’re identical. In fact they aren’t even two questions. It’s one question, asked over and over and over forever, because there is no person out there on whose behalf it is not worth asking.
Johnson is a prophet in precisely Heschel’s sense. He is always asking this question, and is deeply invested in its answer, which he knows is urgent and in no way guaranteed. Despair, desperation, violence, and self-destruction are to be understood as the effects rather than the causes of spiritual atrophy. No wonder then that Johnson saved his deepest empathy for those whose Hells were wholly self-made. He knew that to be both the perpetrator and the victim was to suffer twice.
And yet Johnson’s work is never evangelical. He was a Christian, and from those who knew him I understand he was fairly devout, but I have no idea whether he belonged to a particular sect and you won’t be able to suss out any doctrine from his body of work. I suspect that Michael Reed, the chastened widower who narrates The Name of the World (2000), is speaking for his author when he says that “what I first require of a work of art is that its agenda—is that the word I want?—not include me. I don’t want its aims put in doubt by an attempt to appeal to me, by any awareness of me at all.”
My guess is that Johnson’s Christianity took him out past the precincts of sects and doctrines, and perhaps of churches too. His politics, from what I can glean from his nonfiction, seem to have been libertarian, even anarchist. If not for his fundamental kindness and a love of Jimi Hendrix, he almost surely would have been a right-wing crank. One thinks of the Kierkegaard of Training In Christianity: “I supposed that the very beginning of the test of becoming and being a Christian was for one to be so introverted that it is as if all the others do not exist for one, so introverted that one is quite literally alone in the whole world, alone before God, alone with the Holy Scripture as guide, alone with the Pattern before one’s eyes.”
Johnson knew his Kierkegaard, and dealt with him at length in Resuscitation of a Hanged Man (1991), a novel I unfortunately won’t get around to praising today. “The Pattern” is Christ himself—not the legacy or the idea or the institution(s), but the man, the life He lived, and that alone. This reminds me of another passage from The Name of the World—the one I’m going to end with—in which Michael Reed describes a piece of folk art with which he has become obsessed:
The picture was an anonymous work that almost anybody on earth could have made, but as it happened, a Georgia slave had produced it. The work’s owners, the Stone family of Camden County, had found the work in the attic of the family’s old mansion. It was drawn with ink on a large white linen bedsheet and consisted of a tiny perfect square at the center of the canvas, surrounded by concentric freehand outlines. A draftsman using the right tools would have made thousands of concentric squares with the outlines just four or five millimeters apart. But, as I’ve said, the drawing, except for the central square, had been accomplished freehand: Each unintended imperfection in an outline had been scrupulously reproduced in the next, and since each square was larger, each imperfection grew larger too, until at the outermost edges the shapes were no longer squares, but vast chaotic wanderings.
To my way of thinking, this secret project of the nameless slave, whether man or woman we’ll never know, implicated all of us. There it was, all mapped out: the way of our greatness. Though simple and obvious as an act of art, the drawing portrayed the silly, helpless tendency of fundamental things to get way off course and turn into nonsense, illustrated the church’s grotesque pearling around its traditional heart, explained the pernicious extrapolating rules and observances of governments—implicated all of us in a gradual apostasy from every perfect thing we find or make.