Issue 122, Spring 1992
The idea for the feature evolved from an interview in which David Jackson reported that, using a Ouija board, he and the poet James Merrill had contacted Truman Capote in the afterlife, a place called the Hedge. The Hedge would seem to be a kind of semipermeable screen through which the dead can peer at human life as well as eavesdrop upon the affairs of higher heaven that only indirectly concern them. Presiding, as hostess and chief of protocol, is Alice B. Toklas. Since everyone wants to talk all at once, she decides—as she did in Gertrude Stein’s Parisian salon—who should approach the tea table and in what order. Capote had little to say about his “life” in the other world; heaven was too “black” for him. But he was proud to belong to the Plato Club (founded by its namesake, who periodically looks in) where he and other writers of quality could gossip and worry about their ever-fluctuating reputations on earth. His comments, however few, inspired an editor at the Review, Antonio Weiss, to write Jackson and Merrill a note suggesting a Paris Review-type interview at the Hedge with various writers who had slipped through our fingers over the years—a proposal viewed by some here as too frivolous an exercise for so old and respectable a journal.
To the editors’ surprise and delight, Merrill and Jackson agreed. Last summer, for nine afternoons in a row, they sat down at their Ouija board and with Miss Toklas’s flawless instinct to guide them succeeded in capturing quite a pride of literary lions for our pages.
The Ouija board, of course, has been used by Merrill (with Jackson’s help) off and on since 1953 when Frederick Buechner gave him one for his birthday. Its most noted manifestation is the book-length trilogy The Changing Light at Sandover, individual volumes of which won Merrill the Pulitzer Prize (1976), his second National Book Award (1979), and—this time for the completed poem—the National Book Critics’ Circle Award in 1983.
Merrill, in his 1983 Paris Review interview, described how he and Jackson use their homemade Ouija board (the commercial ones are “too cramped”): “[David] puts his right hand lightly on the cup, I my left, leaving the right to transcribe, and away we go. We get, oh, five hundred to six hundred words an hour. Better than gasoline ... David is the subconscious shaper of the message itself, the ‘Hand,’ as they call him. Of the two of us, he’s the spokesman for human nature, while I’m the ‘Scribe,’ the one in whose words and images the message gets expressed.” The resulting transcripts look like “first-grade compositions. Drunken lines of capitals lurching across the page, gibberish until they’re divided into words and sentences.” The point of all this apparatus was to tap the collective unconscious (thus “multiplying by five,” as Victor Hugo said of his seances, the mediums’ natural powers) or simply to be caught up in a process of “thinking, puzzling, resisting, testing the messages against everything we knew or thought possible.” For this interview, the all-capital-letters style of the seance transcripts has been replaced with more conventional capitalization, but some other traces of the shades’ Ouija-board abbreviations—such as the use of ampersands, initials and numerals—have been retained. Some identifications and editorial comments by Merrill appear in brackets.
Readers of Sandover will remember—along with such non-human interlocutors as the didactic, easily ruffled peacock Mirabell and Unice the pure-hearted unicorn from Atlantis—a host of distinguished shades: W. H. Auden, Maria Callas, Richard Wagner, Wallace Stevens, not to mention Nefertiti, Homer and many others. In the present interview Miss Toklas has but to say the word and to the Ouija board on a round white table in Connecticut flock Gertrude Stein, Colette, Jean Genet, William Carlos Williams, Elizabeth Bowen and Henry James. Live guests in the Jackson-Merrill household at the time—Skip, an artist, and Harry, a professor of Classics at Washington & Lee—also take a hand in the proceedings. Unice and Mirabell keep an eye on things.
It should be mentioned that in a letter accompanying the interview Merrill included a mild caveat: “A lot of their talk gave us pause—so much militant sexuality. I suppose I took comfort recalling that in the Tibetan Book of the Dead souls who haven’t attained Nirvana may be beset by visions of copulating figures; these are thought to attend the soul’s next incarnation ici-bas.”