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Karmic Traces: 1993-1999. (Essays).

Eliot Weinberger Karmic Traces: 1993-1999 New York. New Directions. 2000 200 pages. $15.95. ISBN 0-8112-1456-7

THE TITLE DERIVES from the penultimate essay, which gives Eliot Weinberger's collection its thematic unity: the past as revealed by ancient sources that provide insights into what individuals, cultures, and civilizations once were. The same phenomenon, often simplified as "deja vu," is applicable to history as well. Events, major and minor, form repetitive patterns, so that the biblical curse of Ham (itself imperfectly understood) wends its way through history's "cunning corridors," as T. S. Eliot describes them in "Gerontion," and descends tragically upon blacks, thus becoming the slaveholding South's justification for the "peculiar institution" of slavery. To his credit, Weinberger does not censure, but merely offers enough historical evidence to make his point. He is an expert guide through history's labyrinth, where we meet the ghosts of times past and eventually ourselves.

The reader's initial response to Karmic Traces may be one of awe and annoyance: awe at the writer's knowledge of arcana that makes him a true polymath; annoyance at being confronted with a work of antiquarian lore that initially seems to have no other purpose than to afford the author an excuse to work a series of essays written between 1993 and 1999 into a book. But bear with Weinberger: he is leading you on an odyssey, or rather a descent into the underworld, where the spirit world and the real world, folklore and ritual, provide an entree into a universe antipodal to our own, existing out of time and accessible to those who are willing to see it from a different perspective -- the karmic, the many selves of the self.

To achieve this perspective, Weinberger is not advocating Eliot's sense of tradition in the sense of a historical continuum; rather, he is endorsing Pound's view of tradition as the old made new, which is exactly what Weinberger does. Anyone who has agonized over Hugh MacDiarmid's Scots-dialect poems, wishing the poet were more like Robert Burns, will feel differently after reading Weinberger's appreciation of MacDiarmid, whom he rightly calls a "Nietzschean Marxist," meaning someone who believed in a sort of Ubermensch in the sense of a proletarian philosopher king, the epitome of that anomaly sometimes called the "common man." "Utopian socialist" might have been a better designation; regardless, Weinberger understands a poet who is often misunderstood.

For those who revel in readable erudition, Karmic Traces will not disappoint. It is a descent worth taking.
Bernard F. Dick
Fairleigh Dickinson University
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Author:Dick, Bernard F.
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2001
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